excerpt > David Winner > Tyler's Last
He limps over a plastic bag overflowing with garbage and a dead seagull, also odorous with decomposition. The uneven stones make him stumble into the bushes where that heady eucalyptus smell has been replaced by a long history of middle-class Spanish urine.
Jangled from the long walk back from his poste restante and disappointed that there hasn’t been even one postcard from Ornella, he stares blankly at the shrubbery before willing himself forward.
The path, which starts a few feet up the hill from the last restaurant on the beach, pains his knees and strains his lungs. If someone were to crop up, he doesn’t have to explain why he’s here, in this dreary Spanish beach town, when he’s generally summered—falled, wintered, and springed at Bel Vento, just below Naples on the craggy Amalfi coast. No one has to know that he’d had to sell it in order for him and Delauney to return money to their investors before their long-running scheme was publically exposed. Tyler can just smile tranquilly, wave his cane, and continue up the hill.
He builds momentum, despite his ailments, a faint breeze caressing his cheeks. But relief from the boiling heat just makes him fret about the cooler Italian summers and the obsessive financial cops who’d stolen them away.
Blood pounds so dangerously through his veins that he has to stop to catch his breath. He calms himself in the usual way, by remembering his arrival on the continent, after ditching those dreary digs back in Queens, back in the early days of the Kennedy administration. Cal in Sicily flits through his mind, of course, a business that had ended badly. But the sun had shone so brightly, the water so blue, the martinis so cool in the winsome way of one’s first time abroad. America and its bedevilments had been banished from his life.
A loud mechanical rumbling interrupts Tyler’s reverie. The speeding Alfa Romeo would have knocked the remaining life out of him if he hadn’t slipped off into the bushes. Which is all pretty offensive, and now one of his favorite Italian shirts is entangled in vines. It rips slightly when he gets himself back on the road, and his underarms are soaked in sweat. When Ornella had been so desperate to marry him in the 70’s, only months into their leisurely liaison, he had driven his own Alfa and had no stains under his arms.
He lowers his head and stares at the ground as he approaches what passes for home, but those hooligans are still out guzzling lager on the veranda next door.
“Cheers, mate,” slurs the louder, fatter one, wearing ridiculous American-style long short pants and a painful-looking sunburn.
Tyler hardly feels cheerful and is certainly not their mate. How they so effectively ruled the world, he can hardly imagine, as their loutish lower orders have no notion how to hold their drink.
He raises his head and looks murderously back at them. When he was younger, the flat-edge razor he kept in his breast pocket would scare off any miscreant. But he’s now too old to risk unnecessary tussles.
“Fucking poof,” says the fatty, “haven’t seen your old lady lately, have we, who she banging now?”
A moment later, feeling notably worse for wear, Tyler enters one of Delauney’s spare villas, into which he’d moved with Ornella after losing Bel Vento, enjoying its cool, dark (if gloomy) refuge from the blazing heat. A martini with a twist would hit the spot but a quick tug on the vodka is more convenient on such a lonely nervewrack of a day.
He grabs the bottle, but tipping it into his mouth feels crass and alcoholic, so he pours it into a jigger and from the jigger into a highball before tossing it down.
The slight elation from his first drink of the day is enhanced by the happy sound of the telephone, La Moglie, his wife, Ornella.
He rushes across the room but slows down about halfway in order to enjoy the anticipation. As he reaches for the receiver, a pleasant image of Marrakesh fills his mind, the first stop on the Tour Nostalgique de L’Afrique Colonial his wife has taken with her little French lover. La Moglie drinks mint tea on the balcony of the Hotel Foucault, gazes at the snake charmers, beggars, and tourist item vendors of the djemaa el fna and suddenly misses him. Dominique, the girlfriend, is pretty in her small-faced way, but Ornella must finally have tired of her frilly conversation.
“Ornella, mia cara!” he booms ridiculously on the phone, sounding like the vulgar American he might have remained had he stayed in the United States.
The silence on the other line alarms him. Is there something wrong with the connection or with Ornella herself, he wonders, the thought of having to go after her making his knees ache.
There are plenty of people with perfectly terrible feelings about him, the Delauney investors to whom he still owes money, for one. Many would harm La Moglie if they could locate her in Africa, but why would they have waited until now? Her romantic idyll has been going on for weeks.
“Ornella,” he asks warily, “sei tu?”
“Nope,” goes an American voice, middle-aged and patrician. “Non sono, Ornella."
Something insidiously familiar, a tad sarcastic in the tone, slips through Tyler’s skin into his innards, making him burp and fart.
“Who the hell are you?” Tyler demands. If it isn’t La Moglie, he really can’t be bothered. A jigger or two more and a nap now are in order.
“Un bruciato,” goes the voice, sounding suddenly weary.
“A burned one,” it repeats in case he hasn’t understood.
Tyler can’t quite make sense of it, and an unpleasant sensation in the back of his throat is starting just where he can’t scratch it.
“I was on fire when you left me,” the gruesome voice goes on, “but you couldn’t burn me away.”
Minutes have slipped by, nearly a quarter of an hour, but Tyler still clings to the phone, frantically reassuring himself that he can’t really be talking to Cal Thornton.
“Are you still there?” he finally asks. “Are you there?” he demands, more edge to his voice. He wants to explain to the false Cal Thornton that the real Cal Thornton had absolutely been burned away—blazing petrol from their motorboat plus several bottles of burning booze.
A scratching sound on the phone, then a dial tone. The caller has hung up.
Tyler slams it down and storms over to the bar to pour himself a stiffer drink than he usually allows himself this early in the day. As he sits on the scraggly armchair that Delauney got from God knows where and stares at the bushes out the window (the only sea view being from the bathroom upstairs), he breathes in long yogic breaths and exhales them out again, trying to empty his mind of distraction.
“Ohm…” he says, his voice deep and superficially calm, “ohm.”
But the memory of the real Cal gets caught in his throat. Cal hasn’t smiled his pretty smile for many decades, but Tyler still sometimes aches for it.
He’d met Cal at the bar of the Taormina Hotel not long after first arriving on the continent. The man had been skipping out on his girl for the evening, and, soused and joyous, the two of them were soon punching each other’s shoulders and dreaming up whispery conspiracies against the sour-faced Italian waiters, Cal’s father back in stuffy old Greenwich, Connecticut, and most of all the heavy, literal-minded American he was mercy-fucking.
They left her behind to take the Milazzo ferry to Stromboli, inspired by Bergman and Rosselini’s recent exploits, and took a small villa on the remote far end of the island.
It wasn’t that Tyler was homosexual. Young men had all sorts of feelings. It’s just that Cal had tricked him so brazenly, after the pitchers of martinis and the dark red wine. Lounging languorously back on the divan right below the open ocean window, his tousled hair splayed out against the pillow, he had looked straight into Tyler’s eyes like he suddenly had something serious to say.
Then he patted the area of the divan right next to him like he was summoning a domestic animal.
“Vieni qui,” he drawled seductively, “come over here.”
No fool, Tyler refreshed his drink and kept his distance, figuring the old fellow was too pickled to know what he was doing.
But Cal banged his hand on the divan again and gazed into Tyler’s eyes, determined and insistent.
Tyler can still hear the distant waves, smell the dank, salty air, and feel his body lumbering hesitantly across the room.
And what he feared did not come to pass. It was not like the nasty girl removing the football just as the foolish boy was about to kick it in the American comic strip. Cal didn’t jump to his feet, or wave his hands in front of his face, pushing him off at the last minute. Instead, he grabbed Tyler’s head and welcomed Tyler’s tongue with his warm, sour lips.
They slurped and clawed at each other, ripping off each other’s polo shirts and squeezing each other’s erections. After knocking an old lamp off the coffee table, they landed on the floor themselves, fondling more and more greedily.
They had to pause and pull themselves up from the ground in order to catch their breath and gulp down more wine, but then they solemnly twisted back together again as clouds covered the sun and cool air punctured the room.
Until Tyler suddenly found himself spinning awkwardly away from the divan.
He caught the angry glint in Cal’s eyes and saw that the man had shoved him away. And was slapping him fiercely across the face.
A “finnochio,” Cal was calling him, the Italian word for fag, “a fucking finnochio.”
Seeing only loathing on Cal’s snarling face, Tyler replayed the last several moments, then replayed them again. Then he felt his cheek, still stinging from Cal’s hand.
The negro fleet-week sailor with whom Tyler had spent a night the year before had given him a case of crippling regret. But Tyler hadn’t hit the man or pretended the thing hadn’t happened. And no one could slap Tyler like a girl no matter how drunk they got. They’d get punished like a man when the moment was right.
Pouring more scotch now, Tyler limps up the stairs, through the hallway and into the bathroom. Sitting on the toilet, he stares out the window as the sun slips down the horizon line. Across it somewhere lies Ornella in Morocco, much farther and in a westerly direction is the rugged coast of Stromboli.
Tyler’s left hook sent Cal careening, the splintery edge of the tile coffee table denting his forehead.
His heart still racing, Tyler paced to the window, then guzzled the last of the wine. He wouldn’t have minded winding things back just a bit, but that wasn’t in the cards, and when Tyler finally turned around, he found that Cal was only shallowly breathing.
Tyler kneeled and peered into Cal’s unconscious face. Then he placed his mouth back on Cal’s mouth, blew boozy breath into his lungs, and pumped his soft chest with his muscular hands. And kept on going until color returned and his breathing no longer sounded so labored.
Climbing back to his feet, Tyler looked around him at the empty bottles lying on their backs in the vestibule, the cigarette butts and ashes on the table. He had to consider more seriously what Cal would do when he opened his eyes and shot back into the world. He needed to soberly assess his options.
Cal would hardly admit to having amused himself by tricking Tyler into his arms.
There was really no chance that he would tell anything other than a fairy tale to the fat girl in Taormina and anyone else who might care to listen, molested by a homosexual, and a low-class one at that.
Tyler imagined rumors spreading like a medieval contagion, from the fat girl to the bellhops at the Hotel Taormina to the boys shining shoes across from the Roman temple. It was true he’d left America in a cloud, but that involved only two-bit fraud, not an accusation of homosexual assault. He preferred to imagine his cold-hearted mother envying his brave new European life (to which his parting postcard had alluded) rather than eventually catching wind, as the Nosy Parker was bound to, of the awful rumors rushing across the Atlantic.
Tyler hated nothing more than the thought of people whispering about him, but there were other, even more serious considerations. Cal would cut him off the moment he came to his senses, and the money Tyler had brought with him to Europe had run out in Taormina.
Together, they’d gone to the Western Union in Milazzo on their way to the Aeolian ferry station, and Cal had cashed over a million lire wired to him by his buffoonish father in America. It was still in his valise in the other room.
Tyler heard a faint groan coming from the body on the floor, but Cal just arched his back and slipped back into sleep. He’d be conscious soon enough, and Tyler needed to take care of business.
Less than a decade had passed since those masses with mother at Saint Peter’s on 159th Avenue, so he mumbled a “Hail Mary” to calm himself. Then he ran into their bedroom, found the valise under the bed, and easily located Cal’s money and passport. He also changed into one of Cal’s white suits, in order to look less recognizable when he returned to civilization.
Next, he dashed out the front door and spun around the villa to make sure no one was walking by, unlikely as they’d seen nobody during their several-day sojourn.
Then he ran down the tricky stone steps to the landing and found the two-gallon can of petrol just where they’d left it across from the motorboat.
It took him several minutes to drag it up to the villa, but Cal was still knocked out by the time he returned.
He poured it carefully over the divan and the floor, and he was lugging it towards Cal, but had to stop short. He couldn’t bring himself to pour gas on the lovely young man lying wounded in the late afternoon light.
After emptying liquor in the same places, he grabbed his satchel, which now included both of their passports and Cal’s cash.
After taking one last look at Cal’s surprisingly peaceful face, Tyler had reached towards him, a farewell kiss in mind, but he stopped short again, his lips only inches away. It was too gruesome a gesture, unnecessarily grand guignol.
When he located Cal’s gold lighter, a dull ache started in his stomach, and he knew he’d gone too far to turn back then.
So he lit a Corriere della sera, and lit the fuel and booze with the Corriere della sera.
He did not stay to watch the blue flames spread through the cottage as he was no pyromaniac, and there seemed little chance that the unconscious young man would get out alive.
He arrived on foot several hours later on the other side of the island just in time for the evening ferry back to Milazzo. Then he caught a train to Catania.
There he stayed for several days in a grubby out-of-the-way pensione, spending his mornings drinking coffee, his nights drinking whiskey, and all other times translating the local papers word-for-word in search of a story about a burned cottage at Stromboli, which never appeared.
His last act before leaving Sicily was to wire Cal’s father in Connecticut, in Cal’s name, claiming to be in trouble and in need of more funds.
That absurdly rich (and usually knackered) old man sent over another million lire, which Tyler had no trouble picking up with Cal’s passport at the Banco di Sicilia.
Soon he would meet Delauney, a master of creating new identities and making money by marginally illegal means. After that, he would be set up in Rome running numbers and slitting the occasional throat. Several years later, now named Tyler Wilson (after two American presidents), he would meet Ornella. A few years after that, now Direttore Responsabile of one of Delauney’s best Ponzi schemes, he would save enough to purchase the Amalfi villa just outside of Sant’Agata, Bel Vento.
But it was on Stromboli that he had first taken somebody’s life, and there may have been psychic repercussions of which he has not been aware, repercussions that still blur his memory. In these magical days, information can be so much more easily had. At the poste restante, they have computers with the Internet, the World Wide Web they call it now. Tomorrow, he can look up some of the papers from that time to see if anything had happened after he’d left Sicily. He can search for any evidence to suggest that Cal Thornton might somehow still be alive.
September 6, 2001
The morning light blares in through the inefficient blinds, Tyler’s heart pounds arrhythmically, and a peculiar taste fills his mouth. Has he vomited again? He’d rather not look at the dent he made in the Johnny Walker bottle while attempting to calm himself the night before.
But while closing the old European window slats, he sees the old Fiat he’d purchased in Sant’Agata after having to sell his beloved Alfa.
His watch, which he’d failed to remove the night before, tells him it’s ten a.m. The garage has fixed the transmission and dropped it off with him as promised. He’s also braced by the fact that the phone hasn’t rung since yesterday afternoon. Cal, or his impersonator, appears to be leaving him alone.
After showering in cold water and forcing down some toast and coffee, he dons a recently pressed shirt and slightly frayed Chinos and jumps into the car. A few easy minutes later, he’s rolling down La Porqueria’s main drag.
There was no reason not to stop at his regular chiringuito for an order of grilled sardines and a half bottle of cool white Rioja.
A few sips later, he realizes how unnecessarily anxious he’s been. He’s grown jittery late in middle age. His preoccupation with the false Calvin Thornton has been typically alarmist. Tyler’s barely functioning mobile had been forwarded to the landline at Delauney’s Spanish villa, so anyone who called that number wouldn’t necessarily know where he actually was. And it’s hard to imagine the bourgeois Spanish families would be setting themselves up for a another beach day, the sun flirting with the clouds, if they inhabited the sort of world in which people survived blazing fires and came back decades later.
If the man were somehow still alive, he would hardly show his face in dreary La Porqueria. He would have confronted him decades earlier in Rome or at least gone to Bel Vento and made a nuisance of himself in that more attractive environment.
La Porqueria has its pleasures, even if they are déclassé, thinks Tyler while gulping the last of his wine. Ornella really should have given it more than a few days before telephoning her little French girlfriend and taking off to North Africa. Tyler and she could have lunched and dined companionably on paellas and grilled fish. She could have read her Italian-translated British murder mysteries under a shared beach umbrella and occasionally tugged his hand. They’ve never been much in the bed department but have been plenty fond of each other, still are as far as Tyler is concerned. Perhaps “in sickness and in health” is too much to ask of someone, but one shouldn’t disappear at the slightest sign of trouble.
Several unnerving missives greet Tyler at the Internet Café where he has his poste restante. The brief postcard from Ornella is written in halting English.
Caro Tyler (He can hear her musical voice. “Teelor” is how she pronounces it.)
Dominique and I go to Casablanca after now, and, perhaps we fly more into the beautiful Africa to Senegal. Having a marvelous time.
Hope this finds you well.
The “Caro” is the only thing resembling affection, and she seems to be going farther away rather than returning to him. She sounds more like a casual acquaintance than a wife of many years. Though she surely won’t pass the rest of her days in Africa, so chaotic since the Europeans left, she might well return to her aging mother in Sant’Agata without giving further thought to Tyler sweltering in Spain.
Suddenly, he’s hacking painfully, an allergic reaction to some vile Spanish flower, which is the real explanation for the tears creeping down his face.
At the bottom of the pile are two more postcards. The first, from Delauney, makes him sigh in exasperation: no doubt another favor, another ridiculous errand—removing microfilm or a diskette from someone’s toiletry case and sending it parcel post, taking a mobile phone from a train locker in some inconveniently located city, dialing a number and leaving a coded message. At least Delauney hasn’t asked him to rough anybody up since Tyler has entered late middle-age. He owes the man more than ever for the use of the villa, but at some point enough was enough.
I must ask for a New York errand, dropping something off and coming right back. Ticket departing Malaga in two days, papers, money, and mobile phone arriving in tomorrow’s post. Just dial its voicemail for further instructions once you’ve landed at JFK. I’ll come over to LP (La Porqueria, Delauney was a compulsive acronymist) myself upon your return and pick up the phone.
Thanks in advance,
Despite all these years and all these favors, Tyler doesn’t entirely trust the man. He’s also bone tired of being Delauney’s errand boy, but it wouldn’t be a bad time to catch a plane out of town.
New York, he thinks to himself. He hasn’t been in decades. Cal passed his youth in nearby Connecticut at Thornton Hall. Tyler can’t help but remember that.
Tyler, old chum, goes the last of the postcards, just met up with Samuels, who sends his regards. Will catch you soon.
His heart racing, Tyler jumps to his feet and looks through the window, immediately plotting how far away he can get without stopping for gas. He throws down a few coins and dashes towards his Fiat. Cal and Samuels can have La Porqueria to themselves.
But in the humid air, painting for breath, it occurs to him that the real Cal Thornton couldn’t possibly know about Samuels, the big black American who’d refused to keep his nose out of the Delauney fund and had to be smothered with one of La Moglie’s mother’s pillows when he’d visited Bel Vento in the middle of the eighties. If Tyler keeps hitting the panic button like this, he’ll give himself angina and never learn who’s been harassing him.
Back inside the café, it takes quite a bit of help from the long-faced Spanish girl but soon Tyler finds himself on the World Wide Web, delving into the distant past.
He puts quotes around “Calvin Thornton,” as she has suggested, enters it into the computer, and finds several stories dating from after he’d left Sicily: a small villa on Stromboli, two missing Americans. No article refers to the closing of the case, but he supposes the police don’t like to advertise their failures.
He’s about to close out when he decides to try Cal instead of Calvin and notices something more recent, only a few months before. “Clicking” on it, as the Spanish girl had suggested in her perfectly idiomatic English, Tyler sees it comes from an American cable television network called Court TV. The program is entitled Unsolved Mysteries.
In 1962, says the come-on, two Americans take a villa on the far side of the famous island of Stromboli and are never heard from again. The villa was burned in a fire, but no bodies were identified inside. Did John Burnette (Tyler’s alias at the time) really murder Cal Thornton and take his money? Did Cal Thornton escape the fire, as some have suggested, and change his identity?
Then it lists several times when the show will be aired. Maybe Tyler can find it on his hotel television in New York.
Back at the villa, Tyler flips a cheap cut of beef onto a rusty frying pan and realizes it would be perfectly perilous to show up in New York using any of his usual identities. He needs to find a fresh one and promptly communicate it to Delauney or risk scrutiny at emigration. Delauney may have forgotten the minor crimes Tyler committed in America decades ago, the consequences of which may have ballooned during his absence.
It was that quaint little mortgage refinancing scheme, a folie de la jeunesse, that earned him enough cash to make it to Europe. Rather than leave Jackson’s crummy apartment in Woodside, where he’d been staying, he’d gotten on the horn the minute he was alone in the house and called people at random in the phonebook, offering them a better rate if they financed their mortgage through American Mortgage Values.
They were encouraged to send their checks, at the new reduced rate, to the particular P.O. box that he’d taken out in his name. Most callers either didn’t pick up or hung up on him or told him to mind his own business, but on about every fortieth call he’d reach someone excited about saving cash.
What happened to abandoned P.O. boxes and their fraudulent contents? It must have filled with checks soon after his departure for Europe. They had been so difficult to cash anyway, even with the slick-looking American Mortgage Values ID card made for him by a dubious Italian type in a copy shop around Times Square. He had been running out of check-cashing places in negro neighborhoods as it seemed risky to go to the same one twice.
It was soon after plain clothes detectives had shown up at Jackson’s place when he was off cashing checks that Tyler left for the continent. One could well assume, therefore, that Terence Richards (his identity at the time) and Johnny Conlon (his actual name) might be in hot water in America, depending on how much the police bothered with petty crimes. They may even have tied Richards and Conlon to Tyler Wilson, his primary identity since then, but couldn’t be bothered to extradite him. Traveling to New York was beyond risky even if he comes up with a new identity. Was there really no one in Delauney’s entire staff of operatives without an American criminal record?
But it was no good grumbling. Tyler can fret all he wants, but Delauney will take the villa away if he refuses to go, and if Ornella returns to La Porqueria and finds him living in a flea-bitten hovel on the outskirts of town, she will turn right back to Africa or Italy, any place he was not.
Tyler pours lots of salt on the pathetic excuse for a steak and carries it over to the tiny dining alcove. It looks entirely unappetizing, and the frying smell now permeates the house.
While dumping the plate (the miserable meal on it barely touched) into the sink, he hears the phone ringing again.
He’s gulping down scotch when it finally stops.
Only to start back up again after a minute of reprieve.
What’s most galling is that it’s certainly not even Cal: just some low-life, scumbag, bottom-feeding imposter. He’s searching for more old American insults when the phone finally ceases for a tender moment. But then it starts again, louder and more obnoxious than before.
That smarmy little voice comes back into his head, its dreadful drawled syllables. Cal had a bit of a society accent but never sounded quite that much like a grande dame. Of course, the pompous “bruciato” reference had to be considered uncanny, but he could have learned the damn story from the web of the world.
And the nerve to call himself Cal, like he had some sort of right to it, when it’s Tyler who had shared his last moments on earth and understood, more than the fat American girl or anyone else, what the poor chap had been through in stuffy old Greenwich with that awful drunk for a dad. Men didn’t reveal much to each other in those days, but Cal had spilled it all out in the wee hours of their first evening on Stromboli, his mood turning inward and angry, his lovely face shaking voluminously from side to side.
When the ringing stops and starts yet again, Tyler pulls himself to his feet, grabs the receiver so hard that the phone almost comes out of the wall, and claims Cal for himself.
“Cal Thornton here.”
Silence on the other end as Tyler’s words sink in.
“No,” that same aggrieved-sounding voice childishly insists, “I am Cal Thornton, and Samuels and I will teach you a lesson you won’t soon forget.”
“You can’t be Cal Thornton, and you can’t be with Samuels,” Tyler growls, though he’d just claimed to be Thornton himself and the caller has obviously hung up. “They’re both stone cold dead.”
Tyler’s heart pounds, the room spins around him, but he feels the first modicum of self-satisfaction in months, confusing the hell out of that cocky asshole, the False Calvin Thornton, from whose name he’s just created an acronym a la Delauney, the FCT. He doesn’t know who the FCT is or where he’s calling from, nor does he have any real sense of what he might want (though money in some form or other was never a bad guess), but he can safely assume he’s been thrown off his game.
Since the collapse of the fund, he’s sounded deflated when answering as “Tyler Wilson.” “Cal Thornton,” on the other hand, had popped resoundingly off his tongue like a bottle of decent champagne.
He’d only used it as an identity for a few brief weeks right after returning from Stromboli. Nearly four decades later, it’s the perfect alias for his New York errand. He would have no trouble remembering it, and it would be good fun to steal it away from that terrible telephoner.
He stands immobile with the phone in his hand, wondering if the impossible were true, if the man with whom he’d been speaking had escaped the blaze on Stromboli. It couldn’t be ruled out. Martini had survived that lethal blow in the men’s room of the Regency and had to be dispatched later on a train. One had to remember that.
His trusty intuition may no longer be reliable, but these phone calls confirm his hunch. He had heard neither the roaring traffic of the Autovia del Sol nor the high-pitched screeching of the Malaga Train. And he catches only eucalyptus and fried steak when he sniffs the air. FCT nor his real dead friend were likely in Spain.
Tyler thinks of Thornton Hall, Cal’s grandiose Connecticut birthplace, and wonders if Cal might be calling from the place where the whole bloody business got started.
In Bel Vento, his mobile phone would tell him who was calling and from where, and if he could get just a little more life out of the broken old thing, it might contain a clue.
He finds it under some magazines and an undershirt along with the charger. The screen had busted when he’d tossed it at the wall the night before he left Italy, but he might be able to make out a few numbers if he can bring it back to life.
A few moments of charging later, a little bit of light returns to its dusty screen. The next time the FCT calls, it should ring once before forwarding itself to the Spanish landline.
Within moments, it’s ringing, but he can see on its screen it’s just one of his contacts, his Italian tailor demanding to be paid.
The next call, only seconds later, doesn’t turn out to be one of his creditors. He can barely see the screen but the preponderance of numbers confirms that his gut hadn’t been lying to him: it is an international call.
Picking up the house phone on the next ring, he hears the sound of the FCT and knows he was right about the man not being in Spain, and Thornton Hall was as good a guess as any.
Cal had described it so vividly that night on Stromboli: wing after rambling wing, ballrooms and gardens.
Acquired by Cal’s great-grandfather around the turn of the last century, the web of the world at the poste restante claimed the remaining Thorntons still live there, Cal’s nephew Christopher having inherited the place.
Back when La Moglie’s tedious conversation had tried his nerves, Tyler had imagined moving there himself. Cal had invited him before things went off-kilter.
Tyler can still hear Cal’s diatribe when he closes his eyes and concentrates hard enough. Cal’s “pompous and hateful” old man would eventually get his way and drag Cal home, but he, Tyler, could come back with him.
“If you came with me, it wouldn’t be as frightfully dull.”
Not dropping by, passing the night, or even spending the season, but actually staying, moving in.
A policeman’s son from Howard Beach.
It had made Thornton Hall seem like Tyler’s birthright.
After taking care of Delauney’s business, he can go there and see it for himself. He’ll tell Christopher and his family that he’s Cal’s long-lost friend. No, he’ll tell them he’s Cal, like he’d told the FCT on the phone. He’ll have the passport to prove it, and to hell with them if they don’t believe him.
And if they bring out the real Cal from some hidden wing of Thornton Hall, so much the better. It was a confrontation several decades in the making.
Tyler closes his eyes and pictures it once again: the blue flames creeping through the villa, himself dashing off into the distance down the hilly path towards the ferry to Milazzo.
It’s not difficult to imagine Cal waking from his slumber and gasping for breath, not yet dead from the head wounds, the burns, the smoke inhalation.
Then running out of the beach villa just before it collapses and searching uselessly around the place until he’s figured out that Tyler had fled the scene.
But what would he have done next? He hadn’t come after Tyler seeking immediate revenge and would hardly have returned home with his awful father still in residence. Tyler imagines him spending his father’s last years wandering the earth like a mad Dutchman, then landing back at Thornton Hall after his awful old man gave up the ghost.
Tyler’s heart palpitates as he thinks about going there, blood coursing through his body. His fingers tingle. His privates harden.
Rather than waiting around for him in Spain, he’ll show up at their doorstep, getting under Thornton skin, jangling Thornton nerves. The thought of entering his personal hornet’s nest, the place that spawned Cal, gives him a devilish thrill. He slaps his cheeks to stop himself from giggling.
And the place will be chock full of answers if he figures out where to look. He’ll stomp through hallways of gilded-age furniture until he reaches the children’s wing, unchanged since Cal left for the continent. Gently, he’ll rock on his old friend’s rocking horse, maybe turn on the Lionel train set if it’s still set up on the floor. He’ll tear through the period pornography hidden in one set of dresser drawers and find the mediocre grades Cal received in school in another, sniffing the sweet residue of the boy’s tender scent.
A bit calmer now that he has a plan, a gleefully incoherent one, he shakes out the leg which had gone stiff from standing, tosses the broken phone down to the ground, and limps up the stairs to the walk-in closet where much of what they’d taken with them from Italy had been stored. Naturally, he’d rather sit on the veranda with a cocktail, waiting for the evening to cool, but now that he’s decided to enter America as Cal Thornton, he’d better find his impersonation gear.
The first few boxes are removed easily enough before the dull pains begin in his back, and his breathing becomes labored. Thank God he had been stronger in his youth or he would never have been able to bury dead old Samuels in Bel Vento’s dirt cellar, back in the hectic period when the Delauney fund first almost unraveled.
A box or two comes open when he removes them, and he’s surprised not to find the winter clothes of La Moglie, which should make up the majority of their storage. Now curious, he opens several more to find some dress shirts and trousers of his own but mostly the sheets and blankets from Bel Vento, which he thought had been given to the local convent to be distributed to the poor.
Ornella’s winter clothes are nowhere to be found. He must have been too preoccupied with the whole moving business to notice that she’d managed to store them someplace, perhaps her mother’s house. Another box contains more useless sheets, the next old newspapers reeking of mold and deception. The absence of her clothes revealed her plans for the future, her stay in La Porqueria always intended to be brief.
Well, he can’t think about that now. After he’s returned from America, recharged his back account and his confidence, he can go to Africa and collect her.
Once he’s caught his breath again, he manages to make his way through several old suitcases and boxes of newspapers until he gets to the metal tin with the combination lock and the words “inessentials” scrawled in black magic marker. The combination is his birthday, a date no one other than him can be counted on to remember.
The top layer is full of documents from the seventies when he worked on Delauney’s early schemes: a British passport under the name John Woods with an image of himself wearing the excessive sideburns of those times, a Canadian one with a handlebar mustache and curled hair. He digs through the eighties, past the nineties into the new millennium. Underneath everything is the instamatic that makes passport-size pictures, and the machine that laminates it and stamps the USA motto, its three telltale stars. As forging only part of a document was in theory less illegal, Delauney has been sending Tyler passports without photos and letting him finish the job.
But if he’s going to enter America as Cal Thornton, he’d better get to Delauney quickly to tell him which name to forge.
Their primitive communication system has worked well over the years. Delauney has two voicemails. You call the first number and leave a message with the first of every third word. Then you call the second number and leave a message with the second, then the first number again with the third.
Bearing the disguise box, Tyler walks downstairs to the kitchen phone.
“Make the passport in the name of Calvin Thornton.”
“Make in of,” Tyler leaves on Delauney’s first machine.
“The the Calvin,” Tyler leaves on Delauney’s second machine.
“Passport name Thornton,” he leaves on the first again, which actually seems rather incriminating.
But how he can transform himself into Cal, he wonders, without knowing how the man has aged, what he looks like now? Or would have looked if he’d survived, he half-heartedly corrects himself. The magical Internet may offer some answer. The Spanish girl at his poste restante would most certainly help.
It may be pointless and daft, not up to the standards of the schemes of the past, but at least he has some idea how to respond to the madness into which he has fallen.
Done in by the long and complicated day, he gulps down the rest of his drink and walks upstairs to the couch in Delauney’s old study where he usually passes the nights.
Sleep descends rapidly but soon tires of him. Wide awake at one in the morning, he closes his eyes only to find them opening again of their own accord. The smell of rancid olive oil occupies his nose from the dreadful meal he’d cooked himself, and disgust wracks his body from his recent series of terrible life choices.
Stretching his arthritic joints, he rises to his feet, and wonders what he can do to tire himself out. His eyes skim quickly past the Graham Greene paperbacks on the bookshelf and the cheap radio on the coffee table to settle upon the photographs filling the walls, which he hasn’t yet properly scrutinized.
Delauney kept framed snapshots of all of his operatives in each of his houses, some obscure protection against the double-cross, but Tyler sees only family images in the room where he had been failing to sleep. Just one glance at the enlarged portrait of Delauney’s great uncle, the baron, smiling sardonically at him from the wall, has Tyler fleeing the room.
On the way down to the ground floor, Tyler finds several images from Delauney’s mother’s more criminal side of the family—pieds noirs, Algerian Jews, they’d been up to mischief for several generations. In a neat row right below them were the photos of the operatives, including himself looking dapper with the rather homosexual mustache he favored during the seventies.
Downstairs in the tiny living room/dining room, he finds several more formal portraits of not necessarily family members, a bulky society matron wearing an enormous pearl necklace, a skinny negro in a top hat. The only photo that looks at all recent is of a ridiculous-looking fellow about Tyler’s age with dyed blond hair, a white summer suit, and a face he can’t quite place but which looks eerily familiar.
September 7, 2001
The long-faced Spanish girl at the internet café blinks her bright brown, slightly triangulated eyes the following morning, takes the photo of the young Cal Thornton that Tyler has just printed from the Court TV pages of the World Wide Web, and puts it back on the screen of the printer. Money is tight these days, but Tyler has plenty of room on the debit card just sent to him by Delauney to pay the 75-dollar fee required by the What They Look Like Now webpage, which is supposed to allow a glimpse of the son who died young or the lover who left long ago, but can also reveal what people passed out in burning Sicilian villas might look like decades later.
“Now, we must scan, Mister Tyler.”
“How long should this take?” he asks the Spanish girl.
“Very fast and then we will see.”
The printer beeps jarringly to indicate that the scan has been successful, and the Spanish girl goes back to her computer. She has a few questions for Tyler before they can continue.
“How many years we add to the photo?”
The picture of Cal he’d found on Court TV must have been from his undergraduate days, a few years before Tyler ran into him.
“Forty,” he replies, horrifically long ago.
“Okay,” she confirms without commenting on what must be twice her lifetime.
“Does he smoke and drink the alcohol?”
It takes Tyler a moment to consider the question. Cal hadn’t been much of a smoker but could keep up well enough in the drinking department. No reason to think he’s given that up.
Apparently, that’s all the information the computer requires. It plays a cloying electronic version of the William Tell overture over and over again, trying to build suspense. Three or four minutes later, the overture stops, and they hear a shrill bing.
“Is complete,” says the Spanish girl.
According to the computer sketch, the Cal Thornton of today is nearly bald, just quaint fluffs of down around the crown. His nose is a little red, and his cheeks are pudgy and indistinct, the computer adopting the modern, more puritan view of the deleterious effects of drink.
Grabbing the computer sketch from the girl, Tyler traces Cal’s nose with his index finger, then his cheekbones, his sardonic face. Closing his eyes, Tyler conjures the awful voice he’s been hearing on the phone. The same man? He just can’t say.
Tipping the Spanish girl over-generously and grabbing the plane ticket, partially completed passport, mobile phone, and debit card that had arrived in his poste restante, Tyler jumps back into the Fiat and heads towards home.
Back at the villa, he heads straight upstairs, where he’s stacked the dusty boxes. As luck would have it, the first one he chooses contains his metal disguise kit.
He takes it into the bathroom and is about to open it when he realizes that he must first rid himself of his hair. Unlike Cal’s, it is quite resilient though he’s had to dye it black. Finding a pair of trusty scissors that used to reside at Bel Vento, he goes in front of the bathroom mirror and clips away, then he shaves it with an electric razor until the floor is covered in hair and only a dim circle remains on the crown of his head. Checking the computerized image of the contemporary Cal, he sees that he’s pretty much gotten it right.
He comes across a minor problem when he discovers that his dye collection lacks peroxide or anything else that might turn his remaining hair white. Of course, he could take the Fiat back down into La Porqueria and poke around the farmacias, but he already feels depleted.
Next he must apply the nose putty. He stares at the computer print-out and then his own face in the mirror and back and forth again to isolate the exact difference in their noses. He determines that Cal’s is broader and a bit thicker. The carefully applied putty on the sides and the top disappears into his nose without appearing so noticeable and changes the shape in just the right way. Does the world really have room for two Cal Thorntons? he wonders as he appraises himself in the mirror.
When he takes a final glance at the computer image of Cal, he sees that they’re not actually so similar. But he’s achieved what should be his main priority, making himself less recognizable. No one in America has likely seen Cal in decades, so resembling him is hardly crucial.
Before he allows himself a drink, he’d better take care of the passport. Tyler sets up the instamatic on timer mode, shuffles his face close to it, flicks it on, and waits for the flash.
The picture that develops a few minutes later looks reasonable enough, so he fits it into the appropriate area in front of the passport, and stamps it together with the embossing machine.
Presumably, Delauney has remembered to contact that brainy tech specialist in Bangalore and gotten him to hack into the US government passport system to make the magnetic strip read Calvin Thornton when they run it through the machine at immigration.
He has not eaten since the awful meal he’d made for himself the evening before. He also remembers the debit card that Delauney had loaded with expense money.
Tyler sips more white Rioja and chews spicy grilled squid at his favorite chiringuito a half an hour later, watching the Mediterranean waves dance in the lights, a sense of contentment washing over him. Why was he against this town, anyway? To hell with La Moglie and her nattering opinions. Thank God she’s not there to ruin the evening he’s enjoying with himself.
But just as the wine is magically mixing with squid tentacles, the brakes of an automobile slam down on the street, followed by the piercing sound of skidding. Metal doesn’t smash into metal, but Tyler’s heart has already jammed up into his throat, the FCT springing back into his mind.
Just because the man wasn’t calling from Spain doesn’t mean Tyler can waltz blithely around town. The next gulp of Rioja only helps a little, and the next bite of squid tastes so bitter that he spits it out—and suddenly his stomach rebels. Limping on his bothersome knees across the restaurant, he makes it just in time to the fetid baño, where he feels dangerously exposed. La Moglie would never show up for the funeral of a husband who died so disgracefully.
Back up the hill at Delauney’s villa, the moment he turns the key into the lock, the phone starts to ring, twelve times before stopping. He’s managed only one swallow of the scotch when it starts again.
Then again and again until he takes it off the hook at midnight.
Whoever the man is, he won’t leave Tyler alone. He reaches instinctively into his breast pocket for the blade he no longer keeps there, then roots around for a rusty steak knife instead. He feels a bit better with it clutched in his fists and positively exultant once he’s started to stab the air around him, imagining what it would be like to knife the torso of the man whose picture was spit out by the What They Look Like Now computer program, his bright summer whites turning vividly red.
Once Tyler has exhausted himself, he lies down on the couch. His bags are packed and his documents prepared, but sleep steers carefully clear of him. The photograph of Delauney’s great uncle, the baron, stares down on Tyler while he tosses and turns until he surrenders the room to him.
On the stairs, he catches a glimpse of himself, a confident smile under that handlebar mustache, and he wonders how he’s managed to lose touch with himself so entirely.
While appraising the photo of the odd-looking fellow with dyed-blond hair again downstairs and wracking his brain to figure out where he’s seen him before, he loses his remaining patience with Delauney’s dark, cramped villa that Ornella had been right to complain about.
His flight doesn’t leave until noon, and Malaga is only two hours away, but he’s out the door and on the road by three in the morning. . .
David Winner’s first novel, The Cannibal of Guadalajara, won the 2009 Gival Press Novel Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. A film based on a story of Winner's played at Cannes in 2007. His writing has won a Ledge Magazine fiction contest and been nominated for two Pushcarts and an AWP Intro Contest. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, Fiction, The Iowa Review (upcoming), Chicago Quarterly Review (upcoming), Confrontation, Joyland, Dream Catcher, and several other publications in the U.S. and the U.K. as well as being included in Novel Strategies, a Pearson/Prentice Hall anthology for college students. He is the fiction editor of The American (www.theamericanmag.com), a monthly magazine based in Rome. Learn more Tyler's Last here.
$16 paperback. $9 ebook.
Distributed by Ingram Publisher Services. Available at local bookstores and online sellers.
Or buy it here:Tyler's Last | paperback | $16