I do not own "Casablanca."
Chapter 6: Opals and Absinth at the Blue Parrot
I witnessed my first dramatic arrest at Rick's just a few weeks into my relationship with Signor Ugarte.
No, it was not his arrest. That was months away yet. This victim was a woman.
I'd often seen Captain Renault and his policemen approach a person in the saloon, usually a man, but sometimes a couple or a group of people. They would walk out of the bar, the ones in custody showing anything from disappointed to grim terror. I would try hard not to think about where those people had come from, or where they were now going.
It was mid-afternoon and I was sitting at the bar next to Ugarte, when the short shriek echoed throughout the café. It was a dark woman, possibly a Gypsy, or some other "lower race" Hitler had sworn to annihilate. One of Renault's policemen was pulling her along by the arm, while she rambled something in French, tears and mucus running down her face. As they passed a couple eating, she suddenly grabbed a fork off their table and stabbed the policeman in the face with it, then ran from the café. She tripped over her long skirt on the way out, and fell flat to the ground. She was pulled to her feet by Captain Renault and another policeman, who then dragged her outside. The entire café watched her leave, some whispering in confusing, others watching in silence.
Rick Blaine stood by the opened doorway with his hand over his face. He straightened himself, and addressed his guests somberly. "Apologies for the disturbance folks. Try not ta let it spoil your evening. Just relax and have a good time." He gave Sam a pat on the shoulder, and said something to him. Sam started up a popular favorite, "Knock on Wood," and by the second verse everyone was singing along. Rick walked on through the cafe, making short conversations and patting people on the back or shoulder.
I sat there at the bar, staring at the small drink in my hand. I looked over at Ugarte. He was staring at the doorway where the arrested woman had gone out, with an impassive expression. He finally raised his glass to his lips and, with that fast blink of his, seemed to purge the scene from his mind. He smiled up at Rick when the saloon keeper came by.
"The, the way you calmed this crowd so smoothly Rick, one would think you and Renault just rehearsed it all!" he laughed, almost nervously.
"What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?" Rick said dryly.
"Rick sometimes I think you treat me too harshly. I at least help these poor bast—" Rick gave Ugarte a warning look. "—devils to find ways out of this city."
Rick grinned at Ugarte. "You'd have no place help those 'poor devils' if I wasn't providing the café, Ugarte. Don't bite the hand that feeds you." He rested an arm on the bar, actually speaking to Ugarte in a sincerely friendly way. "So how're your relocation plans coming along?"
"I think I'm close to having enough saved for an apartment, but I want to be sure I have enough to pay the rent for a while."
"New York apartments are expensive, Ugarte. Take your time."
"You, you think I'd fit in, in America?"
Rick stared at his friend, his toothy smile frozen on his face. Finally he said, "I don't think you'll stand out in New York."
Rick and Ugarte joked and conversed for a while, while I downed my drink, trying to forget what we'd all witnessed just minutes ago. I tried to focus on the sound of Rick and Ugaret's voices. I tried to distract myself, by focusing on Rick's interesting American accent, or the soothing voice of Ugarte, but listening to those two chatter as if nothing wrong had happened only made it worse. I shook where I sat, as my throat swelled and my eyes began to water. I lifted a napkin to my running nose. At a nearby table, Carmen and Pepe took notice of me.
"Ugarte," Carmen called over, in a worried tone.
Without turning around Ugarte lifted a hand, asking that she wait. He continued talking to Rick.
"…But you see Rick, your customers come here to exchange visas with parasites like me!" Ugarte gestured to himself with his drink. "So our relationship is eh, what is the word,"
"Symbiotic?" Professor Karl, the stout waiter, suggested, walking by with a tray.
Pepe said more loudly, "Ugarte! Your lady friend!"
Ugarte spun around to face Pepe, then me. Rick looked at me, his face showing just the smallest trace of sympathy.
"Are you all right Miss?" Rick stood away from the counter. "Can I get you a glass of water or something?"
"I'll take her outside Rick," Ugarte smiled and nodded to him, then took my by the arm and lead me out of the building.
"You don't care," I whispered, wiping a tear away. "People are being taken away all left and right, and none of you son-of-a-bitches—"
"Shhh!" Ugarte hissed, then shushed me again more gently. He added a peck on the cheek, but all this only made me more upset.
"You b-bastard!" I hissed in his ear, the tears still coming. "You, you rat!"
He sat me down at one of the outside tables. By now I was crying out loud. Of course, the heat of the Moroccan sun wasn't helping. Ugarte finally gave up trying to calm me, and plopped into a seat next to me. "One moment love," he said, rummaging through his pinstriped suit jacket. "I have I think, something to help calm you…"
Carmen and Pepe caught up to us, and stood over our table.
"Ah, Ugarte," Pepe said, "Why don't we bring Miss Sofie to the Blue Parrot for that, if you're doing what I think you're doing. I doubt Signor Rick would appreciate it if, if…."
Ignoring him, Ugarte fished a pack of cigarettes from his suit. They looked homemade. He stuck one in my mouth, and took his own cigarette out of his mouth to light mine with it. This was no ordinary cigarette he'd given me. The smoke was earthy, and oddly calming. I'd had this before, back when I'd socialized with the artists of Paris. Reefers. I inhaled deeply, and leaned back in my chair.
"There, now." Ugarte leaned back in his own chair, and said softly in my ear, "You still think I'm such a rat?"
I looked at him. In fact, his face did have a rather rodent-like quality.
"A cute rat," I mumbled.
I took another long drag of the marijuana, rolling my head back in my chair, closing my eyes. I opened them slowly a moment later, and found Rick standing there, staring down at me. His eyes shifted to Ugarte. Without moving, he said, "Ugarte, you have exactly one minute to get out of my café."
Ugarte sat up, looking affronted. "Me? But she is the one who—"
"Now!" the American barked.
Ugarte quickly picked his brown hat off the table and stood up. I followed him out of the café, along with Carmen and Pepe. Carmen giggled behind her hand at Ugarte, and waved goodbye to Rick. Rick just stood there with his hand in his pocket, watching us with a hard stare.
"The Blue Parrot it is, then." Ugarte said, as we made our way down the street. "Sofie, you say you have been among uh…decadents…before?"
"The worst of the worst!" I said, which was a gross exaggeration.
In truth, the worst people I'd socialized with before coming to Casablanca were opium addicted artists and their prostitute models.
"She is lying." Carmen said flatly, glancing at me over her long cigarette.
"So what." Pepe replied. "With what Ugarte will give to her at the Parrot, she probably won't remember anything she sees tonight anyway."
I made a mental note to try as hard as I could to remember everything, even take down some notes or sketches if I had to.
Signor Ferrari tolerated far more in his café than Rick did. Couples sat or lay in each other's laps, while smoking all manner of drugs. Two Moroccan girls, much younger than me, danced in costumes that left little to the imagination. I heard curse words in Italian, English, Arab, and a few other languages. My vocabulary grew significantly that night. I got a better look around the café, here in the late afternoon, than I had that night Ugarte had taken me to speak with Signor Ferrari after he'd been pick-pocketed. A long shelf of drinks lined the back wall behind the counter. Walls of crooked logs separated different parts of the café. Here and there were large plants and exotic decorations. It had an otherworldly feel to it (though I'll admit that the chemicals in the air may have helped with that). I fancied myself walking through the jungles of India, thinking on the Kipling stories I'd read as a child.
The four of us sat around a round table of gamblers, playing a card game. I sat in Ugarte's lap, smoking my reefers, while he gambled with Carmen, Pepe, and two other men they were friends with. All visa-brokers.
"In cash," said one of their friends—a frazzle-haired man in a wrinkled suit, who reminded me of one of the Three Stooges. "I always remind my customers, 'In cash.' Make sure every transaction you make is crystal clear to the customer."
"Talking about cash Bernardo," Pepe said, "why don't you place your bet on the table already."
"All right, all right." Bernardo reached into his wrinkled suit pocket and pulled out a ring. It was a smooth gold ring, set with a black oval-shaped stone. "Some little rat on the streets traded me this, just this morning, in exchange for some money and food. Little tykes don't know how to barter."
"Where did a child get a ring like that?" I said, sitting up in Ugarte's lap.
"That could belong to his mother!" Carmen added, gesturing to the ring with her cigarette.
Bernardo shook his head. "He told me that he pulled it off the hand of some French officer's wife."
"Well," Ugarte said, "In that case, let's have it!"
Ugarte won that round of the game, and he won the ring. He picked up my hand, and slid it onto my middle finger. "That's an opal. Good luck, so I'm told."
"You made that up." I said, admiring the stone on my finger.
"No, he's right," Pepe said, looking at the ring. "That is an opal."
We chain-smoked and chain-drank for hours, conversing and laughing and gambling. We had a puff from an opium pipe that some Arab was passing around the café. Signor Ferrari meanwhile supervised the going-ons in his café from a dark corner, occasionally taking business with a crook here and there. The fat man sat enthroned in an armchair, puffing a hookah. He reminded me of a sultan. It might have been my imagination, but he seemed to watch Ugarte giving me drinks and cigarettes with the admiration of a father watching his son's wedding.
As the café darkened with the sunset, and my eyesight became hazed from all I was putting into my body, the Blue Parrot came to feel more and more like a jungle. I was silent for what felt like a long time, just watching the different people weaving their ways around the potted plants and exotic decorations. I wondered what my sister, niece and nephew were doing now. Maybe Rachel was reading the children a story, in the cellar where they were hiding. Something relaxing and magical, probably, like Alice in Wonderland.
Just after sunset, Ugarte began to mix himself a very peculiar drink. He placed a large slotted spoon over a small cup, containing a bright green spirit, and on top of that spoon, a sugar cube. Then he poured some of the alcohol from his glass onto that sugar cube, melting it into the drink. I watched, my tired mind mesmerized, as the sugar clouded up the drink, like a magical little storm.
"What's that there, now?" I asked quietly.
Ugarte blinked up at me, as if he'd forgotten I was there. "Oh. Eh…nothing. Uh, here I'll let you try a sip. Just a small sip. This is strong."
He let me take the tiniest of sips. I tell you, it was vile! It left a bitter taste in my mouth. At first. But a second later, I realized it was the most wonderful thing I ever had tasted. It had an earthy, herbal aftertaste that left me wanting for more.
"You like it?" Ugarte smiled at me.
A man in a suit suddenly tapped Ugarte's shoulder, and muttered something to him in Italian. Ugarte excused himself, and left to go talk business with Ferrari. Foolishly, he left his strange drink on the table in front of me.
I didn't even think the decision over. I just looked to make sure Ugarte wasn't watching, and then picked up his drink. I lifted it to my lips, intending to take just another little sip. But once it hit my tongue, I couldn't remove it, it was so delightful. I took the whole thing down in one gulp. Then I leaned back, melting into the chair, cradling the empty cup. My brain felt so warm inside my skull, so very warm. My problems were gone. I forgot the Nazis even existed. I thought of my sister Rachel, of Anchel and Sarah, how safe and cozy they were with their Christian friends, in that little cellar. Rachel reading them Alice in Wonderland….
"…Oh, we're all mad here!" I heard Rachel say in the purring voice she always used, when reading the Cheshire Cat's lines. "I'm mad! You're mad!"
Cozy little cellar. Looked like the bedroom Rachel and I had shared as children, in fact…
"Is she asleep?"
My eyes peeked opened a bit, and I saw Carmen and Pepe staring at me. Pepe lay across two chairs, with his head in Carmen's lap. Carmen turned away from me, as she rummaged for something in her purse. I became fascinated by the large white carnation in her hair. Its petals rippled, as if blowing in the wind. Then they slowly began to spin, like the spokes of a pinwheel. It was so soothing to watch.
When she turned back around I slurred, "No, no, look that way again Carmen. I want to watch your flower spin. It's so much prettier, than when it's still."
Carmen burst into an uncontrollable fit of giggles. Then she said something I didn't hear, and pointed off to something behind me. I stared curiously at her hand, in that pose, noticing how her fingers curved around each other. I thought hard about how I'd draw that.
"The beads!" Carmen repeated, loudly.
She leaned over and took my head gently in her hands, and turned it so I was looking at the curtain of beads on the door of the café. "Look at the beads, Sofie! They're dancing!"
And she was right! I watched the colors and shapes of the beads, raining down in a water fall. They moved like the patterns in a kaleidoscope. Ferrari's parrot squawked and chirped from its perch near the doorway (the bird was kept inside tonight). Whenever the parrot made a noise, the beads suddenly moved into a new pattern. I laughed, feeling the joy ripple through my body. I felt like I was five-years-old, and anything could amuse me. I looked closer and closer at the beads, trying to see how they managed to move around so quickly, and yet so smoothly.
Signor Ferrari was suddenly towering over me. He was gigantic, a massive white-suited mountain, topped with that little red fez, so high up I could barely see it. Had he grown even bigger since I'd last seen him? Or had I somehow shrunk? Good god, the drugs! Was this a side effect? Did they shrink your body? What had I done, taking all of those drugs in one night!
"I said, you are blocking the entrance to my café. It is late yes, but I still have customers coming and going. And besides, I don't think you want such a pretty dress on this dirty floor, do you now?"
Indeed, I was laying on the floor, the dancing beads tickling my face. Ferrari took my arm and hauled me to my feet.
"Can you stand, miss?"
"Of course I can stand it!" I surprised myself by sounding angry. "I'm an artist you know! I've befriended scoundrels in Parrí! And we smoked all sorts of hoozits and whatzits!"
Ferrari eyed me carefully, as I walked slowly away from him. I returned to my seat on at the card table. Ferrari began to turn away. The red coloring of his fez was intense, a much brighter red than I had ever noticed before.
And then it flew right at me.
One moment, the fez was on Ferrari's head; the next, it was shooting forward at me, right into my face, until I could see nothing but the color red. Next thing I knew I was leaning back against my chair, either laughing or screaming or both.
Ferrari stomped towards me and took hold of my shoulders. He stared intently into my eyes with that intense, serious stare of his, which made me laugh even harder. He pulled me up from the chair and took me across the room, to where Ugarte stood, laughing with friends.
"Ugarte, you degenerate pimp!" the fat man bellowed.
Ugarte spun on his heel to face Ferrari, his eyes bulging with honest confusion.
"What have you done to this girl?" Ferrari demanded, and thrust me forward into Ugarte.
Ugarte caught me as I slammed into his chest, stuck in a silent fit of giggles. He took my head and tilted it, to look into my eyes. He looked upset.
"You think I did this to her?" Ugarte pouted.
"Don't be a goose Signor Ferrari," Pepe called from the card table, sitting up from his wife's lap. "Ugarte would never share his absinth with anyone. Sofie probably had to steal it!"
"Get her out of here, Ugarte." Ferrari made a swooping motion with his arm. "Before she dies of an overdose. A dead girl in my café will not be good for business for either of us."
Ugarte practically had to drag me out the door, not because I was stubborn, but because I didn't know up from down. I clung tightly to his arm, as he hauled me outside. The silver pinstripes on suit were streaming down in a waterfall, just like the beads. As we passed a French policeman, I gripped Ugarte's arm more tightly, and leaned against him.
"Would I really have died from overdose?" I whispered.
Ugarte flicked his dead cigarette onto the street. "No." When we were out of earshot from the policeman, he added crossly, "But you embarrassed me tonight. You should have taken small sips like I advised you. I think perhaps you are too delicate for this level of decadence."
"You drag me to this godforsaken pub to show me off to your crooked friends, and then complain when I do what their girls do?" the words just tumbled out of my mouth, with no particular emotion fixed to them.
"Their ladies can handle this, and are wise enough to do as they're told. I've enough embarrassments on my own without you adding to them," he snapped, and stuck a new cigarette in his mouth.
"Who do you think you are, to talk to me like I'm a child?" I hissed at him. "If it weren't for me you'd be absent one hand by now! If someone should do the thinking for the two of us, it…it shouldn't be you!"
That raspy chuckle. "'For the two of us'?"
His mouth snapped shut as we passed Rick's café. Captain Renault was sitting at a small table, discussing some serious business with a woman young enough to be his daughter. Renault looked up at Ugarte, with one eyebrow arched high.
Ugarte nodded to them. "Good evening Louie."
"Evening Ugarte," Renault said, not moving.
For one tense moment, I wondered—as did Captain Renault, no doubt—whether Ugarte would offer to sell the young woman a visa for a lower price than Renault had offered her. But Ugarte said nothing, and we moved on. I saw Renault give Ugarte a long, satisfied look as we left, and turned back to his lady friend. As far as I could tell, Ugarte and Renault weren't close, but he and the French captain had something of a loose friendship. In any case, they were friendly enough not to get involved with each others' business engagements.
By the time Ugarte was walking me up the stairs to my apartment, he was in the middle of another one of his stories. He told these stories all the time, especially when he wanted to stop an uncomfortable silence. They were stories about his misadventures working with the Italian Mafia, stories about exotic places he'd seen and gritty fights he'd won. Stories that any moron could see were complete hogwash. I'd usually let him talk on, because it amused me to see what he would come up with. And half the time, I wasn't even listening to his words; I just enjoyed his silken voice, with those hoarse little chuckles here and there.
Ugarte's story was cut short once we reached the apartment. Rick and Yvonne were standing in the opened doorway, hissing at each other.
"…It's as if you're flirting with her on purpose, to drive me away from you Rick!"
"I'm not flirting with anyone, that's your imagination." Rick spoke in a bored drawling voice, like he wasn't even trying to convince her.
"You were playing with that China doll's hair in front of everyone! You called her 'gorgeous,' do you think I'm stupid Rick?" Yvonne was blinking furiously.
"Excuse us," Ugarte said without looking at Yvonne (he knew how the Frenchwoman disliked him). "Hello Rick."
Rick looked at Ugarte and started a courteous nod, but stopped when he saw me with him, then just shook his head.
Ugarte walked me through the kitchen and into the bedroom (the only two rooms in the apartment), without turning any of the lights on.
"Where was I…ah! I was the only one left standing," he said, his ridiculous story coming to a climax. "It was so dark I could scarcely see a thing."
His story had been taking place in the mid-afternoon up until this sentence. I groaned with impatience, my head hurting from the drinks and drugs.
"The beach, Guillermo." I slurred.
I slithered out of his arms and flopped down onto my bed. "Tell me about the beach."
Outside the apartment, Rick and Yvonne were raising their voices. When Yvonne began to swear, Ugarte closed the bedroom door.
He took a seat next to me, and handed me his cigarette to puff. "I've told you, a thousand times and again, about that facking beach." The way he pronounced his curse words always made me smile.
"I've forgot." I said, taking a smoke. "Tell me again."
He delved into memories of the Italian beach his father had lived on. How he and his three older brothers would go there every summer, to stay with him. Ugarte talked about the beach in an entirely different tone than when he was telling one of his adventure stories. His voice was low and quiet, emotion creeping in just here and there.
"I was so happy to be free of Mama and her temper. But then I missed her so, especially when Papa was angry."
He'd told me already many times, about his mother's severe changes in mood. He never outright said it, but it was clear to me that his mother had been ill—in the head ill. His father, meanwhile, had run his house consistently, but brutally, beating Guillermo and his brothers even for things that were honest mistakes. It was clear to me, by now, how he'd become so accustomed to flattering others, trying desperately to keep up with their changing moods.
He spoke of both his parents in past-tense. His father, he'd told me, had been killed in a fight with other criminals. What had happened to his mother, however, he never said, and I'd never yet brought myself to ask.
"…Mama would walk us out of the car to meet up with Papa. They'd look at each other, but they'd never say a word, most times." He took the cigarette from me, and had a puff. "And then she would leave."
We were lying together on top of the bed now.
"He wasn't married to her, was he," I said, staring at the ceiling.
"No." He rolled over, closer to me. "But he was no adulator. He took care of all his women and his children. That's just how it's done, you know—"
I groaned again, and rolled away from him. It irritated me, how he would talk as if his twisted culture of organized crime was just the natural order of the world.
"It's what's done in your lovely Mafia, perhaps. But if you ever finish with 'the business' like you talk about Guillermo, that won't be 'how it's done' in the rest of the world. I doubt that's how it's done in America."
After a silence he kissed me on the lips. Then he asked, "Will you come to America with me Tova?"
I was silent, as my chest grew warm with the idea. Finally I said, "I go to America as soon as my sister and her children arrive here."
"Well then, we both go to America on our own accord. Then we meet up in New York, and I get us a fine apartment. I finish with all of this," he waved his hand, sending a stream of cigarette smoke swirling above us, "and I get an honest job." He handed me the cigarette, which was almost finished.
"Doing what." I finished up the cigarette, and tossed it into a trash bin.
"Eh. Some dull paperwork job or another. I can fill out false visas, I'm sure I could work with real ones." He put an arm around me, pulling me close. I rested my head on his chest. "Before any of this of course, I still need to kill someone."
Outside we heard Yvonne's muffled shriek, "You son of a bitch!" with Rick arguing over her ("If I'm such a sorry sonofabitch then what'cha stick around for?!"). Against my better judgment, I chose to ignore them.
"A Nazi." I said softly, fiddling with Ugarte bowtie
"A Nazi, yes." He was stroking my hair now. "I'll kill you a Nazi. I'll kill you two Nazis. Five Nazis."
"Don't get carried away." I said leaning back, allowing him to roll on top of me.
"Fine, two Nazis."
I kissed him once more, on the lips. "Three Nazis."
"Three Nazis," he said, already beginning to unbutton my blouse. "All right."
This was the first time it didn't hurt at all. Such a shame I didn't get to enjoy it for long.
The door banged opened and Yvonne came bursting into the room, sobbing. Ugarte and I froze exactly where we were. She collapsed onto her bed, sobbing into her hands. Ugrate pulled one of my sheets over us for privacy, and quickly finished his business. Once done, he stole a glance at Yvonne, whose face was still in her arms. Slowly and cautiously, he stepped out of the bed and began to pick up his clothes. He wasn't quiet enough, it seems. Yvonne pushed herself up and threw her head over her shoulder, glaring at Ugarte. Ugarte held his clothes in a bunch, covering himself.
He tried that bashful, innocent smile. "I'll just be leaving then,"
Without a word, Yvonne grabbed her hairbrush off her nightstand and chucked it at him.
"Right!" Ugarte hurried out of the bedroom and pulled the door closed behind him. "Not one minute and I'll be on my way…"
I figured I should say something to Yvonne, to get Ugarte a moment or two to throw some clothes on before leaving. "I could…I'll make breakfast tomorrow," I said to Yvonne, "for both of us,"
Yvonne just sat there, wiping her eyes.
"I uh, know how to make pancakes."
Yvonne grumbled something in French. I knew a bit of French from my time in Paris, but not enough to understand all that she said. But I knew she'd said something related to men, and me being naive.
"I'm not naïve Yvonne, I know exactly what scum men can be." I pulled on my nightdress and went ot het door. I opened it a crack, to see Ugarte fully dressed from the waist down, hastily buttoning up his shirt.
"Ja," Yvonne sniffled. "You know, you just don't care."
Determined to change the subject, I continued looking through the door at Ugarte. "Good god, how could someone so tiny have so much hair!"
"Rick's chest has more." Yvonne insisted, as if I'd just attacked her pride. "He still wants me, of course he does. He's only pretending he doesn't, just to make me angry. Well it's working!" She pounded her fist against the bed.
"Yvonne," I said flatly.
"Yes Sofie?" She sniffled again.
I was going to say something about how immature I thought she was acting. But seeing how helpless and broken she looked threw into shock how immature I had been, making love in our room without her permission, while her own relationship fell apart just a room away.
"Yvonne I'm, I'm sorry. About," I glanced back at my bed.
I should be feeling guilty right now, I knew. Was knowing you should feel guilty the same as feeling guilty? I didn't think I was feeling anything at the moment except exhaustion.
"Ja well," Yvonne shrugged. "I'm sorry you had to hear all of that out there." She began taking off her jewelry and putting it away. "So pancakes, you said?" she asked in a light voice.
"Yah…" I peeked again through the door. Ugarte was gone. I moved into the kitchen to lock and bolt the door. "Yah, pancakes." With effort, I managed to keep my voice light, keep it from cracking. "My little sister taught me how."
A/N: Drabble, my apologies. Next chapter will have more action. (Insomuch as a noir/drama can have "action.")
Ugarte is also getting a disproportionate amount of attention in this story. Don't worry; in another couple of chapters he'll be dead, and out of the way.