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Name of fiction work? And were there other names you considered that you would like to share with us? Winter Kept Us Warm. I tried to find other names because I was worried that there is an obscure Canadian film with this title also, but, in the end, I decided that this was the best title to convey the mood and themes of the book.
Has this been published? And it is totally fine if the answer is no. If yes, what publisher and what publication date? Yes, Counterpoint Press, 2018: It's out in hardcover and paperback.
Where did you do most of your writing for this fiction work? And please describe in detail. And can you please include a photo? I wrote mostly in my study and at the dining room table. I also did a major revision at the residency, Fundación Valparaíso, in Spain.
Please include just one excerpt and include page numbers as reference. This one excerpt can be as short or as long as you prefer. I don't know how long the excerpt should be, but I think I would like the excerpt to be the first pages. I figure that if an author doesn't want to lead with the first pages, something is wrong with the beginning. Here's the first chapter, pages 3 -10.
The journey from Rabat was not easy. On the long train ride Isaac stood in the crowded aisle outside the compartments, leaning his head out the window to save himself from the cigarette smoke. After the first stop, about thirty minutes in, a young man forcibly dragged him to a nearby compartment. “A_s_s_e_y_e_z_-_v_o_u_s_,_ m_o_n_s_i_e_u_r,” the young man screamed, as if he were telling him to go to hell rather than trying to help him. Isaac explained about his asthma. He would die if he inhaled so much smoke in a closed-in compartment. He phrased it that way so his meaning would not be mistaken for politeness, but the young man had ignored him, pulling him into the compartment as he spoke, yelling at the other passengers to move over. M_a_k_e_ r_o_o_m f_o_r t_h_e o_l_d m_a_n, Isaac imagined he was saying, and he laughed as he fell into the seat they had cleared for him.
As soon as he was seated, Isaac could feel his throat and lungs clamping up. His laughter turned into coughing. The man sitting next to him offered him water, but it was air he needed, so he gathered his strength, pulled himself up, and ran back to the corridor, to his space at the window. He reached for his inhaler, but he didn’t need it. The sea air was enough.
After that, they left him alone.
The train stopped frequently and lingered at each station. He did not allow himself to look at his watch, knowing that would only make the journey seem longer. And then, finally, they were in Meknes. One minute longer, he told himself as he stepped off the train, and he would have slumped to the floor right there in the aisle.
At the station in Meknes, he engaged a taxi. The driver asked him whether he had a reservation.
“There will be room,” Isaac assured him.
“But you do not have a reservation,” the driver insisted.
Why, Isaac thought, had he not simply said that he had a reservation? Why had he never learned to lie even when it made things easier?
The taxi smelled of smoke, though the driver wasn’t smoking. Still, Isaac rolled the window down just in case. This upset the driver, who explained that the air-conditioning was on, despite the fact that it was hotter in the cab than outside, where, Isaac was sure, it was already near one hundred degrees.
“Ah,” Isaac said, making sure there was not even a hint of sarcasm in his tone. The last thing he wanted was an argument with a taxi driver.
His parents had been in a taxi accident in New York shortly after arriving in the United States from France in 1942, where they had been living in exile. His parents and the driver had been arguing, the driver insisting that the West Side Highway was faster, but his parents wanted him to take Amsterdam Avenue.
“I know, I know. Do you think I’m some kind of idiot?” the taxi driver said, turning around to face Isaac’s parents and losing control, driving into the divider. Somehow none of them had been seriously injured, but after that, Isaac’s parents lost their interest in the outside world. They retreated to the Russian classics and the safety of their dark apartment. Sometimes Isaac caught them speaking Yiddish, which he had never heard them speak before, though as soon as he walked into the room, they reverted quickly to Russian.
After the accident, Isaac’s parents rarely went out, and they never got into a car again or left the city, not even to visit their oldest friends in Connecticut. His parents, who had not allowed themselves to be vanquished by Stalin or Hitler, had, in the end, been defeated by an ornery taxi driver. It was as if their brush with death had given them the license to admit defeat, to accept that their exile was now permanent.
But Isaac had been happy to be in New York, far from the old battles of Europe. Still, he had planned to enlist in the army as soon as his parents were settled. He wanted to be part of the fight against fascism. Though he was not particularly optimistic about the world’s future, or even sure that war was the best solution, now that it was on, he wanted to do something. But then his parents had been so shaken by the accident, so derailed, that he did not feel he could leave them. He knew it was just a matter of time until he was drafted, so he relaxed for the first time since the war began. He got a job at Florsheim’s, fetching shoes from the storeroom for the salesmen, and when he was not working, he explored the city.
His favorite activity was walking from their apartment on 106th Street to Brooklyn, across the Brooklyn Bridge. Once, before he gave up on trying to get his parents to embrace their new home, he took them to see the bridge. His father was an engineer, a builder of bridges. Perhaps, Isaac thought, standing in the wind, looking up at the sky, they would be comforted. They went to see the bridge on a Sunday in spring. His mother had thought there was something not quite right about walking on a bridge just for the sake of walking. “It is not a park,” she said.
“No, it is not a park,” Isaac had agreed. “But that is what is so wonderful. Only in America would people take a leisurely Sunday walk on a bridge.”
“And why is that wonderful?” his mother asked.
But Isaac could not explain. His father walked slowly, his hands deep in his pockets. They walked from the Manhattan end to the Brooklyn end, and then they turned around and walked back. Isaac pointed out the elaborate spiderweb mesh of the cables and various buildings of the Manhattan skyline. Then the three of them took the subway back to their dark apartment on 106th Street.
“What did you think?” Isaac asked his father on their way home.
His father had shrugged. “It’s just a bridge,” he said.
But it was not just a bridge, Isaac thought. It was a bridge about which poems had been written, a bridge that made history. Perhaps he had never dreamed of changing the course of history, but he still wanted to be part of it, to see what would happen, to live. He opened the window wide, breathed in the dry, hot air of Meknes. The driver accelerated and turned on the radio, loud. “C_’e_s_t_ m_e_r_v_e_i_l_l_e_u_x,_ c_e_t_t_e m_u_s_i_q_u_e,” Isaac said, but the driver did not respond.
When they arrived at the Hotel Atlas, the driver wanted to go in himself to make sure there was a room available.
“There will be a room,” Isaac said again.
“But you don’t have a reservation.”
“How much do I owe you?” Isaac asked, opening the door as he spoke.
“Calm down, monsieur. There is no rush.”
“I will pay you now or not at all,” Isaac said, getting out of the car with his bag. He walked around to the driver’s side, and the driver rolled the window down halfway.
“Here,” Isaac said, holding out the money.
“As you like,” the driver said, grabbing the money and speeding off.
Isaac approached the hotel. He took several deep puffs from the inhaler and concentrated on breathing, making sure that the air was flowing smoothly to his lungs so that he would not be gasping for breath as he stepped inside. That was not the entrance he had imagined.
She was at the reception desk. “Ulli,” he said, and when he reached the desk, he was out of breath.
“Isaac,” Ulli said. “Come, sit down.” She led him to a sofa in the lobby. His breathing was deep and phlegmy.
“I’m fine,” he insisted. “It sounds worse than it is. Asthma.”
“Yes, for about twelve years. It happened right after I retired, but the medications are much better now. I hardly notice it, really.”
“It’s good to see you, Isaac,” she said, sitting down beside him and putting her hand on his shoulder, letting it rest there, asserting the gravity of the moment. “Welcome to the Hotel Atlas.”
He smiled, remained very still. Her hand felt as if it were touching his skin directly. He wanted to reach up and take her hand, but that would have been too much. After all, he had just shown up, and she had had no time to prepare for his arrival. Yet she seemed calm. He realized then that he had hoped she would not be. Had he expected her to cry, to embrace him—not just lay her hand on his shoulder as if she were comforting him, though he had not asked her for comfort? But he had not come all this way to be angry. He smiled, and she smiled back.
“The girls?” Ulli asked.
“Simone and Juliet are well,” he said without further elaboration.
“They are well,” Ulli repeated. She took a deep breath and let go of Isaac’s shoulder. “And to what, then, do I owe this honor?” she asked. He could still feel her hand on his shoulder, though he knew she had removed it. Like a phantom limb, he thought.
“It’s been almost forty years. It’s just too long,” Isaac said, turning toward Ulli. “You look the same,” he said, though this was neither true nor what he had wanted to say. She looked like Ulli, but she was old now. Her eyes were still that same husky blue, but they seemed as if they were covered with gauze. He wondered whether that was how the world looked to her now, as if she were seeing it through a fine curtain.
“Yes,” she agreed. “It’s been too long. Did you fly into Rabat?” she continued.
“Yes, and I took the train.”
“I could have sent a car, you know,” she said.
“But then it would not have been a surprise,” Isaac said.
“The first few months after the attacks, people just stopped coming to Morocco. I thought I might have to close the hotel, but I guess people can’t live in fear forever, so now things are finally getting back to normal. Before the attacks, at this time of year I wouldn’t have had a room for you.”
“I’m sorry. I should have called, let you know I was coming. It was presumptuous of me to think there would be a room,” Isaac said.
“Nonsense. We would have figured something out. But you must be tired, exhausted.” She was in hospitality mode now, the hotelier, the keeper of clean rooms and comfortable beds.
“It would be nice to wash up.”
“Let me take you to your room, then. You can shower, rest. Would you prefer a room facing the courtyard or the street?” Ulli said this all in one breath, as if she were afraid he would disappear, walk out, find another hotel before she could finish.
He wanted a room looking out onto the street, facing the morning sun. He wanted to watch people come and go. He wanted the sun to burst in through the window in the morning.
“In the morning the sun is encouraging. By the afternoon we wish we could shoot it out of the sky,” Ulli said.
She showed Isaac to his quarters.
“I could never have imagined a more perfect room,” he said, pulling the curtains aside.
“All the rooms are painted a different color—tangerine, light blue, ochre, watermelon, avocado, terra-cotta,” she explained. “When you open the curtains and the sun floods in, it’s quite impressive.”
“The tile work is magnificent.” He pointed at the rug.
“It’s a Berber rug. I don’t know why they’re not more appreciated in the rest of the world. Do you know that some of the fancy hotels here have wall-to-wall carpeting in the rooms? Anyone who prefers that to tiles and rugs shouldn’t bother coming to Morocco.”
“I’ve never liked fancy hotels—all those columns and fountains and obsequious staff. This is so much better.”
“Thank you, Isaac,” Ulli said.
“It must be a lot of work, running such an establishment,” Isaac said.
“Yes, but it keeps me active. I have found in my dotage that I am not good at relaxing. Even when I first started the hotel, I pictured myself dozing off in my chair in the afternoon sun, but there is really no time for dozing here. There’s always something to be done: windows to wash, floors to scrub, carrots to peel, figures to add. So I work just as hard as my employees. I know they find me a little odd. In Morocco, the boss doesn’t clean toilets and iron. But I would rather make beds or scrub bathtubs than sip sugary tea and stare out at the street.”
“I would make a good bellhop, you know. I could wear a fez. I always wanted to wear a fez.”
Ulli laughed. “I thought you don’t approve of obsequiousness.”
“Does wearing a fez make one obsequious?” Isaac asked.
Ulli laughed again. “Come to think of it, you wouldn’t look bad in a fez.” She went to the window and pulled it wide open. “Come,” she said. “If you lean way out, you can see a patch of the medieval wall.”
“I see it,” Isaac said. “Remember that time we ate snow from the windowsill?”
“With spoons,” Ulli said.
“That was Leo’s idea,” Isaac said, regretting it immediately. He had not wanted to bring Leo up so soon, before she even had a chance to get used to his presence.
“Yes,” Ulli said, pulling her head back into the room, but he kept his out for a few more moments, letting the hot, dry air fill his lungs.
Other works you have published? I have another novel, Clara Mondschein's Melancholia and a book of short stories titled The Jungle Around Us.