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Sam in Casablanca

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Sam, who had gone to bed at three, woke up at half past ten, washed his face, hands, and underarms in the basin, dressed, and went down to Francois's barbershop for a shave. He breakfasted at a small cafe, exchanged pleasantries with a few acquaintances, and then, humming to himself, made his way through the streets of Casablanca to Rick's Cafe Americain.

The club was still closed, by Captain Renault's order -- Sam had seen Renault loudly denouncing Rick for hosting games of chance, Renault all the while stuffing his own gambling winnings into his coat pocket -- but the authorities had closed Rick's before, on one pretext or another, and they had always permitted Rick to open again in anywhere from a week to a month, depending on the reason for closing and the size of Rick's bribe. Sam wasn't much worried about the prospect of a couple weeks off. He could work on some new arrangements, try some new songs on for size. Andrea had been lobbying him for a duet. And somewhere in there Sam had to make sure that Rick wasn't going crazy, so his time was sure to be full.

The cafe door was unlocked when Sam reached it, and he was halfway to the piano when he saw that Ferrari, the owner of the Blue Parrot, was seated at the bar.

Sam braced himself for the spiel: the club is closed, come work for me, just till it opens again, I'll pay you double. To Sam's way of thinking, you needed a man you could trust. Double the pay for a man you couldn't trust was no pay at all. That was why he stuck with Rick now; why he'd stuck with him since Paris, and before.

"Morning, Sam," said Ferrari.

"Good morning, Mr. Ferrari," said Sam politely.

"You're working early today."

"Oh, I have some new arrangements I want to work on. Once I get the ideas cracked, I'll run them by the band."

"Commendable, Sam. Very commendable. Do you mind if I listen?"

Sam did, but said, "Oh, no, sir, not at all."

He took his time shuffling the music and scribbling meaningless notes in the margins, but Ferrari didn't say anything else. Sam said, eventually, "Are you waiting for Mr. Richard, Mr. Ferrari?"

Ferrari blinked. His eyes had always made Sam uncomfortable; they were the dull grey eyes of a lizard sunning itself on a wall. Ferrari said, "You mean he didn't tell you?"

Sam said, "Tell me what, Mr. Ferrari?"

The door burst open. Herr Heinz -- Captain Heinz, really, if you went by his insignia -- of the Third Reich, strode angrily into the room. Following him, behind a number of angry Germans, was Captain Renault's assistant Lieutenant Casselle. Heinz's eyes blazed with fury; Casselle looked shockingly pale, and Sam had never seen him silent before.

Heinz's gaze passed over Sam, dismissed him, settled on Ferrari. "Where is he?!" Heinz barked.

"I regret to inform you gentlemen," said Ferrari smoothly, "that Rick sold me his cafe. I have not seen him, nor do I expect to. It was my understanding that he has left Casablanca, to return to America."

Sam said, "What?"

The clientele adjusted to the new ownership more readily than the staff. Karl and Sascha were efficient, unfailingly polite, and privately skeptical. Emil had no such concerns, perhaps because Ferrari insisted on running more crooked games than Rick had ever countenanced, and permitted Emil to skim a greater percentage off the top. Because Captain Renault was no longer present to win at roulette on a nightly basis, this had effectively doubled Emil's salary.

Sam led the band and played the piano.

"This is not as things should be," Karl said to Sam one night.

Sam glanced up, then returned his focus to the piano and his instrumental of "The Sunny Side of the Street." He said, "You don't like the music, Mr. Karl?"

Karl waved a hand. "Sam, you were closer to the boss than anyone. How can you sit there and play for Ferrari?"

"He's the boss," Sam said. He met Karl's eyes, then glanced over Karl's shoulder, where Ferrari was approaching.

Ferrari raised his eyebrows as Karl scurried off. Then he shrugged, and leaned over, bracing his elbows on the piano. "I'm thinking about having Rick's name taken off the front," said Ferrari.

"It's your place, boss."

"On the other hand, the name does carry a certain advertising value. What is your opinion?"

"You know what's best, Mr. Ferrari."

Ferrari smiled. It was a thin, nasty smile, the kind that befitted a man who ran guns and narcotics and people, mostly people. "You don't like me very much," he said softly. "Do you, Sam?"

"Oh, I like everybody, sir."

"Does that extend to your former employer? Oh, of course it does; you don't have any hard feelings toward Rick, do you?"

"Oh, no, sir," said Sam. "I ain't got nothing against getting sweated by the Gestapo."

"How long did they keep you?"

"Not long. Less'n an hour." Sam had spent a couple of weeks nursing a painful bruise below one eye. For the most part, the interrogation had been remarkably professional, but Sam's experience at police interrogations had taught him there was usually at least one hothead in the crowd who liked to thump people, and did it every so often to remind himself that he could. The boy who'd given Sam the bruise had been young.

"They don't think a Negro can know anything important, do they, Sam?"

"Well, sir, I 'spect they're right about that," Sam said, flashing his carefully calibrated third-most-cheerful grin. It had proved very useful in allaying the suspicions of white men in Texas, years ago.

"Yes," said Ferrari dubiously. "Perhaps they are." He turned away, then shifted back. "You don't have any complaints, Sam?"

"No, sir," said Sam. "You're a right fine boss."

"And I gave you a raise. To fifteen percent of the profits."

"Yes, sir. Very generous."

"You're the draw, Sam."

Sam nodded in acknowledgment. Ferrari stepped away and made his slow way up the steps to what had once been Rick's office. Karl was watching him from the vicinity of Table 30. He poured the wine for the customers, then turned an enquiring glance to Sam. Sam shrugged and effortlessly transitioned into "The Pig Got Up and Slowly Walked Away."

Karl looked blank, of course. Rick would have gotten it.

But then, Sam thought, if Ferrari's the pig, what does that make this place, and me?

He went back to the romantic songs after that.

Andrea had stepped away from the piano earlier, leaving her guitar. When she came back, she was holding an envelope in her hand. "You didn't ask what I was doing in Signor Ferrari's office, earlier."

Sam had had suspicions. "Ain't none of my concern."

"It could be."

"It could be, but it ain't. You and me both got enough to worry about."

Sam saw the emotions play across her face: humor, regret, and something else a little wicked. "There's a letter for you," she said. "Emil took the whole packet up to Signor Ferrari. I wanted to make sure you didn't miss out on anything." Sam glanced up sharply. A sad little smile curled on Andrea's lips, and as quickly vanished. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's not from him."

"I don't know who you're talking about," Sam said.

"You're playing 'I Get Along Without You Very Well,'" she said.

Sam, startled, glanced down at his betraying fingers before shifting into an up-tempo arrangement of "Nagasaki."

Andrea said, "It's from her."

Dear Sam,

I hope this letter finds you well.

Victor and I have reached the United States and have settled in New York City. It is strange to me, and yet very wonderful. The New Yorkers will think this unappreciative of me, but the greatest wonder is the lifting of the ever-present sense of fear. You will, I think, know what I mean. You told me once of the sense of relief you felt in Paris. I do not know if you remember. I did, because you speak of yourself so seldom.

It is a strange thing to feel such relief in a place that you know is not home.

I am writing to you because I do not think it safe to write to Rick. For all I know, he may be in a concentration camp, or worse. I have imagined a thousand terrible fates for him, and have been much troubled in my sleep. In my wildest hopes he is still running his cafe, and you are still playing the piano, but I know this is only a dream born of my heart, and of my irrational notion that you two should never be parted. I only hope that he is still alive.

Please write to me, if you can. I hope that you are well, and that someday I may hear you play again. Should you one day return to America, please do not hesitate to call upon us.

With warm regards,

Ilsa Laszlo

Dear Mrs. Ilsa,

Mr. Richard sold his cafe to Signor Ferrari and left. Captain Renault went with him. I don't know where they are.

I am still here playing the piano. I am glad you and Mr. Laszlo are well.



Dear Sam,

If you ever return to America -- if you do, if you can -- if you wish to ---

Please come.


Victor Laszlo had a suntan.

He was wearing a white polo shirt, open at the collar, and shorts. A tennis racket was leaning against his wicker chair. The handle was well-worn, and spoke of hours playing and practicing. The suntan made the scar over his eye stand out more than ever.

Sam stood with his suitcase in one hand, awkwardly waiting.

Laszlo opened his eyes and blinked. His gaze settled on Sam with puzzlement at first, and then his eyes widened and he rose from his chair. "Sam!" he said. "Hello. I was just resting. I had a match at the tennis club earlier today."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Laszlo. I'm real sorry to get you up, I was just going to knock on the door -- "

"And you saw me here. Very good, very good." Laszlo stepped closer. He held out a hand, and at the invitation Sam shifted his suitcase to his left hand, and shook. "I'm sorry we missed you in New York," Laszlo said. "We had to come out here for the film, you understand."

"Yes, sir."

"The War Department thinks a motion picture of my story will inspire people more than the actual work they're taking me away from will. Fools, the lot of them."

"Then why are you doing it, Mr. Laszlo?"

Laszlo seemed surprised by the question, but made no sign that he objected to it. He picked up a glass on the wicker table, and the bottle next to it, and poured a small amount of amber liquid. He looked into the glass, cupping in in his hand, holding it low by his side. A rueful little smile played about his lips. "For money," he said. "An inspiration to the oppressed everywhere, and I'm making a film for money." His voice carried a trace of bitterness at the end. "Because I know this war will end, and then I must do my part to restore my home. If the Fascists leave me one. If the Communists don't swallow what the Nazis leave behind." He shrugged and waved his arm. "Perhaps I can do little, but being a refugee taught me one can only do less when one has no money."

Lazlo raised the glass to his lips. He gazed over it at Sam as he drank. "Do you think that's unworthy of me?" Laszlo said.

"I've been poor, Mr. Laszlo," said Sam. "I don't do nothing no more but for money."

"You didn't come to New York for money."

"No, sir."

"Why did you come?"

"Oh," said Sam. "I did that for Karl."


"Yes, sir. Karl was our waiter at the cafe. You and Mrs. Ilsa wouldn't know him. He got real sick. Couldn't get to Paris or Berlin, of course, and they got their own problems in London, but there was a doctor in New York -- they used to know each other in Berlin, and Karl thought the doctor could help him."

Lazlo's fingertips brushed over the surface of his glass. "Did he?"

"Karl's buried in New York."

Laszlo was silent for some time. "I'm sorry," he said, quietly. He gazed into the distance, then raised the glass again and drained it. "That trip's a bit expensive for a waiter," Laszlo said. "Not as unbearable for a man taking -- ten percent? twenty? as the club's chief draw. Even so, a drain on your resources, I'm certain."

Sam said nothing.

"You're loyal to your friends," said Laszlo. "I knew loyal men in the concentration camp." He lifted the glass again. "It's a fine quality, but I wonder -- who is loyal to you, Sam?"

Sam didn't have an answer for that.

"Hello, Sam," said a warm, familiar voice. Sam turned and saw her, there, just down the steps from the veranda -- Ilsa, her face turned so he saw her left side, the way she always preferred to be seen, to be photographed, the way she'd posed in the pictures he'd taken of her and Rick, years ago, and Sam remembered her letter, her invitation, and realized all at once that the answer to Laszlo's question was one he could never give, because the answer was your wife.

He thought Laszlo knew it, anyway.

"Did you tell him the news, Victor?" said Ilsa.

"Ah," said Laszlo. "I was just coming to that."

"Victor's found you a job! If you want it, Sam."

"I was wondering why you sent the train ticket to me in New York, Mrs. Ilsa."

Laszlo waved a hand. "It's some work on the film. It's not very much. They need someone for the scenes in Casablanca. Someone to play piano in the nightclub, and sing. They asked me if I knew someone who was qualified."

Sam blinked. He looked up at Laszlo, who shrugged, and then over at Ilsa. Her eyes were shining. She wasn't seeing Sam standing there, he knew, but seeing her own reflected memories and feelings, not of Sam but of what he'd been part of, and what those old days in Paris had made her feel.

It wasn't loyalty to him, Sam realized. Ilsa was loyal to a memory, the way the white children Sam's mother had raised were loyal to their memory of her, in their way. They had wept when she died, and had sent flowers to the funeral, but when one of them met Sam in the days afterward he regarded him with embarrassed puzzlement, as if Sam were not a son and mourner but mere disconcerting proof that Sam's mother had had a life outside of a white family's nursery.

Laszlo had been right. But then, Sam thought, Laszlo knew all too well, and lived with, the places Ilsa's loyalties lay.

Ilsa pulled a glass from the tray next to the bottle and poured Sam a drink. A distressed expression crossed Laszlo's face. "I'm sorry," said Laszlo. "I didn't think to offer."

"That's all right, Mr. Laszlo," said Sam.

Laszlo, he noted, beat Ilsa to Sam's refill.

There was money in the movie business. Sam was making three hundred and fifty dollars a week; the well-known actor playing a character who, if you squinted, vaguely resembled Ferrari, made ten times as much. Sam had no idea what Victor Laszlo was making out of it.

The studio looked like nothing, just a series of warehouses, but every so often as Sam walked to the stage on the first morning a face he recognized would pass, and then be gone again. One of these he walked by without recognizing, and then did a double-take and glanced over his shoulder at a face, now gone to ruin with drink, that he'd seen glittering once upon a movie screen. You didn't have to travel around the world to wind up in your own private Casablanca.

Sam found the stage door and stepped inside to find a company already assembled and in rehearsal. They had been working together for weeks already, and ran like the band back at Rick's.

The director glanced up at Sam's entrance, and frowned, then returned his attention to the actors. After they had run through the scene several times, he turned back to speak to the cameraman, and then saw Sam, who had fitted himself unobtrusively into the corner to watch.

"I remember you," the director said. "You were recommended by Laszlo. You're the piano player."

"Yes, sir."

"He said you actually were there in Casablanca?"

Sam nodded.

"C'mere for a minute," said the director. "I'll show you something."

The director beckoned him to a set still under construction. The paint was still wet, and would be when filming began. There was a sheet draped across one of the entranceways, and the director pulled it aside and gestured proudly. The set looked nothing like the old cafe. It looked like someone's idea of what a cafe in Casablanca would look like, if that someone had never been to Casablanca; it was exotic and glamorous and nothing like Rick's in the slightest. "We're just here for a few scenes," the director said. "But this is where Laszlo has the big confrontation with the SS officer who's been trailing him since he escaped the concentration camp, so we wanted to make it feel authentic. And it does, doesn't it?"

It didn't, but Sam politely said, "It's right wonderful, sir. The spitting image."

"I knew it," the director said proudly.

He let the sheet fall back into and led Sam to the veranda where the piano scenes would be. Here, at least, Sam was on familiar ground. He played the piano between takes, and kept up the spirits of cast and crew, and exchanged a few polite jokes with the man playing Laszlo about who was handsomer, the actor or the genuine article. Sam's own scenes would amount to him playing and singing; if he worked out, the director said, they might give him a couple of lines. "And we might," the director said. "You're good; I can see why they didn't want to leave you in Casablanca."

Sam's fingers stilled on the piano keys.

"Who knows?" the director said. "This film gets around, our boy here gets seen all over the world." He stepped behind the camera. He said "Action," soon enough, but Sam barely heard him.

All over the world.

Sam thought of Rick, who'd burned his every photo of Ilsa in a drunken fit on the boat to Oran, who'd gone between numb silence and an almost childish rage, who'd sat up one night, until Sam stopped him, silently spinning the cylinder of a loaded revolver. Sam thought of Rick maybe seeing the movie poster in some godforsaken place and going to the theater in the hope, not of glimpsing Sam -- for how would he know? -- but the hope that he'd see an actress who might bring to life for him a shadow of the woman he'd so obsessed over.

Rick had left Sam in Casablanca without a word.

Maliciously, Sam bent over the keys and sang his sweetest, loveliest performance of "As Time Goes By."

After the premiere, he saw Ilsa's white, tear-streaked face, and felt ashamed.

Dear Sam,

I hope this letter finds you well. Or, indeed, at all, as I am sending it care of the film studio.

I wish to congratulate you on your appearance in the film of Mr. Laszlo's story. Lacking any forewarning, your cameo, and song, made for a wholly unexpected surprise. For my part, it was a pleasant one, but when I suggested to Rick that he might consider writing to you, he cursed at me and threw a bottle of whiskey at my head. I take it from this that your performance had the desired effect.

With my very best wishes, I remain

Captain Louis Renault (ret.)

Sam trudged up the steps of the Laszlo house and rang the bell.

The thought of seeing Ilsa was like a knot in his stomach, and so it was almost a relief when the door opened to reveal Victor Laszlo. Laszlo looked thinner than Sam had seen him before, thinner and older. It was strange to see a man so strong in war fading now that the war was over, at least in Europe. Maybe it was the things around him; the floor around Laszlo abounded with suitcases, overstuffed, opened, half-filled, trunks packed to the brim, books in crates, so that Laszlo himself seemed less substantial in comparison.

Laszlo followed Sam's gaze, and laughed. "I'm returning to Czechoslovakia with more than I ever possessed when I left it," he said. "Others will be jealous that their exiles were not nearly so profitable."

"So why go?"

"Because it's home. Because if I don't fight for it, someone else will. If it's not the Fascists, it's the Communists, if it's not the Communists, it's the parasites -- always someone." He picked up a book, looked at it, and then put it back two inches to the left of where he had picked it up. "Did you ever have a place like that, Sam?"

"No, sir," said Sam. "Only people."

Laszlo said, "My wife has Paris."

Sam didn't have anything to say to that.

"You came to see her, I imagine," said Laszlo. "She's at the room at the top of the stairs."

Sam climbed the stairs slowly. He was past fifty, and he was starting to feel it, please God, let the fingers be the last to go. He puffed as he climbed, and thought about the trip back down, which seemed longer than it should have to a man who had been half around the world.

Ilsa said, "Hello, Sam."

Sam said, "Hello, Mrs. Ilsa."

"I'm going away. WIth Victor. So we can help rebuild Czechoslovakia."

"Yes, Mrs. Ilsa," said Sam. He glanced at the boxes that littered the house, even here. "I kind of knew that."

"Will you be here, if I come back, Sam?"

Sam said, "No."

Ilsa tried to keep expression from her face, but her mouth moved like Sam's had once, when a train had broken down and left him, and his fellow passengers, thirsty in the desert. She took a breath in, and tried a smile that fluttered nervously.

"Having you around was like having some of the old days with me," she said. "Didn't you feel that? Rick said that, you know. He said we'll always have Paris."

"Yes, ma'am," Sam said. "He sure did say that, and we will. We'll always have it. But we won't be in it. Not ever again."

Ilsa said, "Says the man in Casablanca."

Sam said, "Maybe I am." He frowned and shook his head. "Maybe. But I went to Casablanca for Rick, I came to New York for Karl, I came to Los Angeles for you, Mrs. Ilsa. I got to go somewhere for my own self now. I don't want what happened to Mr. Rick happen to me."

"What happened to him?"

"I think Mr. Richard had a story in his head of who he was. And one day when he looked in the mirror, the story wasn't what he saw, and he didn't know what to do. I think he wanted to be Mr. Laszlo for a whole bunch of reasons, not just cause Mr. Laszlo had you."

"You think he left you in Casablanca because he was playing at being Victor Laszlo?"

"I think he left me in Casablanca because he knew if he wanted to be that kind of Mr. Richard, he couldn't be my friend any more, Mrs. Ilsa. And maybe he was brave enough to know that, and too much of a coward to say goodbye."

"You're not a coward. Are you, Sam?"

"No. I'm not. Goodbye, Mrs. Ilsa."

Ilsa's eyes were bright. "Goodbye, Sam."

Sam turned away and reached out a hand for the banister.

"I do love you, Sam," Ilsa said. "Do you know that?"

"Yes, ma'am, Mrs. Ilsa," said Sam. "I think they call that 'friends.'"

He went down the stairs, knowing he would never see her again.

Victor Laszlo was still in the living room, surrounded by the life he was leaving. He looked small and lost in the middle of it, as he'd never looked when facing down the Gestapo. Sam thought, for a moment, of going to him, but there wasn't anything to say. Not until Sam held the doorknob in his hand. Then there was.

Sam opened the door, and turned back to Laszlo. "Mr. Laszlo?" he said. "You asked me one time, who was loyal to Sam."

Laszlo met his gaze. It was hard to see, now, the man Sam had known him as, the man who'd defied the Nazis, the man who'd nearly gotten Sam's whole band run in because he felt like singing "La Marseillaise."

Sam said, "I think I'm going to try to be."

Sam shut the door behind him, not waiting for an answer, and took his leave with a slow, unhurried stride. He absently whistled a tune as he walked down the street, it took him until the corner to pay enough attention to realize that it was "As Time Goes By," and it seemed rather pretty, when no one was using it as a weapon.

So Sam carried it with him, like he carried like Paris, and Marseilles, and New York, and Los Angeles and Casablanca and all the towns before, and he walked down the street, and the sun was shining, and he carried no suitcase at all.