Sophie. The script called her Sophie; and Sam the optimist, Sam traveler-without-cares, loved her since creation. Azure-eyed Sophie, orphaned country maid, as new in Vienna as the century was young; Sophie in chiffon frock of cobalt blue; her brown hair unadorned with silk ribbon, tied in plain linen.
Tonight, upon hearing him speak say, Pardon me, Fraulein, do you believe in fate? brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie would surely fall into his arms, her cheek upon his breast. His body, breath, and kisses would let her know that fears could no longer trouble love. For this alone had he been written: to rescue Sophie from Maximilian, and sweep her away forever. The invisible hand had scripted it and tonight he’d win her, though she did not even know his name.
The script actually named Sam “Handsome Stranger with Newspaper at Next Table.” Sam didn’t know, nor think it important, if anyone found him handsome. Still, he needed to call himself something, so he called himself Sam. Plain old Sam, and decided he ought to be from somewhere doing something so he became a Chicagoan wandering the capitols of Europe. He chose the name and place before the first evening, while tumbling in dreams of fabric and light: white and gold, cobalt blue, and azure.
The velvet curtain rose; applause broke the fourth wall and the mist, from the audience in the house invisible. Sam pushed a hand though his thick forelock, then brushed his worn but serviceable suit jacket. He drank cool air from a empty eggshell cup, then replaced it on its mark. He drummed fingers on yesterday’s Herald Tribune, then brought its double-fold to the iron table’s rim. He scuffled the sole of one loafer quietly over the warped boards. Footlights and spots imbued the darkness with midday sunbeam. He crossed his legs, refolded the newspaper, as again life began, the stage set for Vienna.
A happy half-dozen Viennese filled the outdoor cafe, sipping from eggshell cups, moving their lips, living the background of a June morning in 1901, in the city on the Danube.
A mustachioed waiter stood immobile. The moustache looked a real soup-strainer, and the waiter wore it with marked pride.
On cue, the waiter marched, making circles around the tables and serving. With an arm raised to balance a silver tray of cups and saucers, his red vest strained against gold buttons and barely contained his girth, exposing the white shirt underneath.
The waiter approached Sam’s table. “Peas and carrots?” he asked, and twirled the end of his moustache.
“Peas and carrots,” replied Sam. The scene required him, as the well as the waiter and the various Viennese, to move their lips, simulating small talk. Peas and carrots were lip-moving words, mouthed to be unheard in the house invisible. The waiter took Sam’s cup, lifting it to the tray with flourish, then spun away to serve another.
Upstage, a girl engaged a court of three devoted boys crowding one tiny table. The girl giggled through a story and the smitten boys clung to every syllable. “Peas and carrots. Peas and carrots!” she said. In another corner, a small old couple looked into each other’s eyes as if for the first time, aquiline noses almost touching, whispering soft peas and carrots to one another.
Sam turned over the newspaper, then folded it another way. He scanned the columns of solid black bars, thinking of his big moment. He’d speak to Sophie at the right time; not only with voice, but with eyes, and his blood’s longing.
Near Sam, a spot opened, bathing the unoccupied table center-stage in light.
Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered left and crossed right. She gripped a small cloth handbag in white-knuckled hands. Eyes darting, she stepped further left, then right, searching the imaginary street.
Sophie rested on a chair’s edge at the table under the spot. She held the handbag in her lap, and kept looking each way, over one shoulder, then the other.
Sam turned the newspaper again, playing his part. He would have something to say soon. Beloved Sophie.
Maximilian entered, wearing white spats on shoes polished to a dazzle. He wore a felt hat cocked over his ear; and rested one hand in a coat pocket. His black eyes found Sophie while her search led her to look the other way. He reslanted his hat, dusted his lapels, then took a seat at the table.
Sophie turned. Seeing her lover and benefactor Maximilian suddenly there, she jumped, gripping the handbag tighter.
“Am I behind my time, button?” said Maximilian with a lopsided smile. “What’s time to us, anyhow? We’re free and in love, and in Vienna.”
She shook her head. “You gave me a start, is all.”
“Such a start that you cannot give me a kiss?”
“Nonsense,” she said.
He leaned, presenting a cheek, which she pecked.
“I would not have kept you waiting; I had to set a fellow straight in the street!” Maximilian’s head rocked with a liar’s fidget, even as he boomed words with a coward’s bravado.
“I think I shall leave you,” she said suddenly, trembling.
Maximilian made a frown, eyes still smiling. “You still haven’t forgiven me then, button. You will never leave me. We’re bound together. It’s destiny. Don’t fight it.”
“You’ve hurt me.”
“Without intent. I am only a man. Have you the book?”
Sophie hesitate before unsnapping the handbag. She finally reached in, removing a small notebook, bound in moleskin. “These are the words of my heart,” she told him. “I’ve shown them to no one, ever. I once believed I could show them to some man. A true and faithful man.”
Maximilian extended a hand, palm upturned. “Let’s see.”
“Are you a faithful man?”
The waiter spun to their table. Maximilian dismissed him, swiping air with a hand. Maximilian leaned toward Sophie.
“I have not been perfect. I have not claimed to be anything but flesh and blood. May not a man of mere flesh and blood see your untouched book?”
He reached and Sophie pulled the notebook to her bosom.
Sam, at his table, listening, clutched his newspaper tighter. Not yet he told himself. Be patient, be magnificent, bold, and prevail.
Maximilian slumped back, as if punched. “I see, then. You don’t love me. I expected as much.”
“Must you be cruel?” begged Sophie.
“I? You are the cruel one. My affection means so little to you, you will not even show me your occasional scribblings. Put the thing away, then.” He snapped his fingers to summon the waiter. He took a few coins and tossed them on the table. “I leave you to your romantic fantasies. And your chastity.” He stood, turned heel, then stormed away.
Sophie leaped up, called after him, drawing the attention of other tables.
“Peasandcarrots,” murmured the girl and three boys. “Peasandcarrots,” whispered the small, old couple to each other.
Sophie dropped the book, which slipped under Sam’s chair, and she spilled the handbag. She knelt to retrieve her things, crying, “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!”
Now, thought Sam, discarding the newspaper. He fell to one knee, retrieving the treasured notebook.
Sophie reached in the same beat, so that they touched it together. He met her dewed eyes, as he had met them many times in the dream-mist between existences.
“Pardon me, Fraulein. Do you believe in fate?” He caught her with words and eyes; Sophie his alone for one moment.
Maximilian, who had not left, but waited expectantly for Sophie to come running after him, now spoke to her from near stage left. “Come now, button,” and he held his arm out, crooked.
Sam and Sophie still gripped the notebook between them. Sam pleaded with his eyes — don’t go! Come away with me.
She pulled to notebook from him. “Thank you, Mein Herr.”
The blood rushed from his face in shame at the cloying, cliched inflection he’d given the line.
She crossed to Maximilian, taking his arm with hesitation. She always crossed to Maximilian, no matter what.
“There, button,” said Maximilian. “Am I so frightening?”
Light diffused in Sam’s tears. Sophie, head bowed, allowed Maximilian to lead her off right. The unhappy half-dozen Viennese left their background tables to their own exits. Sam again took his seat. He refolded the newspaper and scanned the black print bars. Taking the beat, he looked toward Sophie’s exit, then to a vacant chair, then back again. The waiter passed through the empty cafe, silver tray pinned under an arm.
Darkness enveloped the stage, and the waiter stopped on his final mark to stand immobile. In the mist beyond the fourth wall, in the house invisible, applause smattered thinly.
Silence followed; the velvet curtain descended. Time ceased and Sam slept again, dreaming fabric and light: gold and white, vermilion, and azure.
Sam awoke, feeling an invisible hand close his throat, an invisible foot press his chest. In the absences between performances, while he dreamed of Sophie, a change had come. The script rewrote, or unwrote, at will, with no concern for characters. Now the script had cut his line.
No matter. He would speak to Sophie with eyes and body, he still had those. He didn’t need words.
The velvet curtain rose; through the mist, from the house invisible, applause broke the fourth wall.
Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock. He sipped air and dust, then replaced the coffee cup on its mark. He drummed fingers over the newspaper, then brought it to table’s edge. Viennese filled the cafe. The mustachioed waiter spun through the tables.
“Peas and carrots,” said he when coming to Sam’s table.
“Peas and carrots,” Sam stammered, thinking, I must be ready, my eyes will speak for me now. I don’t need lines.
The waiter took the cup.Brown-haired, azure eyed Sophie entered, looked furtively around, sat on a chair’s edge. Soon, Maximilian sauntered in.
“Am I behind my time, button?”
In time she produced the moleskin notebook, saying, “These are the words of my heart.”
They argued over it, Sophie begged Maximilian not to be cruel. Maximilian snapped for the waiter, threw a few coins on the table, stormed off.
Sophie leaped up, called him, drawing attention.
“Peasandcarrots,” murmured the girl and three boys. “Peasandcarrots,” whispered the small, old couple to each other.
Sophie dropped the notebook, which slipped under Sam’s chair, and she spilled the handbag. She knelt to retrieve her things, crying, “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!”
Sam tossed away the newspaper and fell to one knee, retrieving the treasured notebook.
Sophie found it in the same beat. Sam met her dewed eyes. He took a breath where he would have once had words to speak: Pardon me, Fraulein. Do you believe in fate?
They held the notebook between them. He pleaded with
his eyes. Don’t go. Come with me. My eyes tell you I’m true.
She took the notebook back. “Thank you, Mein Herr.”
Again. The blood rushed from his face. He understood: it isn’t the line; it’s me. I’m meant to fail.
The lights diffused. Sophie, head bowed, let Maximilian lead her off to her end. The unhappy half-dozen Viennese found their separate exits. Sam took his seat. He ignored the newspaper, and forgot, until too late, to follow Sophie’s exit, then look to a vacant chair. The waiter passed through the empty cafe to his mark, tray pinned under an arm.
Darkness took the stage, and the waiter stood immobile. From the invisible, applause trickled through the fourth wall.
The velvet curtain descended. Time ceased and Sam slept, dreaming rope and cloth and heat: gold and white, vermilion, azure, and the indifference of the script.
The velvet curtain rose in silence before the mist-shrouded house invisible. Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock. He lifted the coffee cup and replaced it on its mark, then fingered the newspaper. Viennese filled the tables and the mustachioed waiter spun through the cafe, coming to Sam.
“Peas and carrots?” He waited for Sam’s reply.
Sam held his tongue.
Perturbed, yet undaunted, the waiter reached for the cup.
A delicate nudge with the newspaper, and Sam moved the cup off its mark. The waiter’s hand grasped at empty air in the place the cup should have been. His jaw hardened.
You can’t see, can you, poor fool? We don’t matter, Sam tried to say. The words came out: “Peas and carrots.”
The waiter glared cross-eyed, turning purple. “Peas!” he hissed. He made a second pass, and Sam pushed the cup farther.
The waiter stamped a foot. Sam poked his tongue at the man, and winked.
The waiter circled to the other side of the table. At his third try for the cup, Sam seized it, dropping it into the newspaper, which he promptly rolled up. Then he clamped the newspaper to his chest, folding his arms across it.
“Peas! And! Carrots!” said the waiter in disgust. He stiffened. Marching back around, he bent formally, then pantomimed lifting a cup. He lowered the nonexistent cup to the tray with special flourish.
Gratified, he twisted a moustache corner. “Peas and carrots!” Tray aloft, he twirled away.
Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered, furtive, sat at a chair’s edge. Maximilian sauntered in.
“Am I behind my time, button?”
They spoke their lines. She showed the moleskin notebook. “These are the words of my heart.”
He demanded it, she demurred to his disdain; she begged him not to be cruel. Maximilian snapped for the waiter, threw a few coins on the table, stormed off.
Sophie jumped up. “Wait Maximilian! Forgive me!” “Peasandcarrots,” murmured the people in the background. Sophie dropped the book and the handbag, spilling the latter’s contents. She knelt to retrieve them.
Sam let fall the rolled newspaper. The hidden cup shattered. He dropped to a knee, retrieving her notebook.
Sophie reached out in the same beat and together they touched it. He met her dewed eyes.
Maximilian called and she thanked Sam, intending he release the notebook as usual.
He didn’t release it. He held it fast. Sophie gave a start. She tugged at the book, panic in her eyes.
“Peas and carrots,” he said. Don’t go. Sophie wrenched and twisted the notebook. He let go.
She stumbled, but rose on cue. Inching away, hand to mouth, stunned, she didn’t notice she’d crossed to Maximilian until she trod his spats.
“There, button.” said Maximilian, “Am I so frightening?”
She took his arm, as always; he lead her away.
Sam sank into the chair. The paper had unrolled between his feet; the cup had broken in shards.
The waiter took a final turn through the cafe, stopping at Sam’s table. With extravagant movement, he bent down, gathering the cup shards onto the silver tray. When he had them all, he righted himself, becoming immobile on his mark when darkness took the stage and the curtain fell. Sam lay his head in weary arms.
Fabric and light, gold and white. Azure.
The velvet curtain rose; a few sprinkled coughs and then silence followed from the mist. Sam pushed a hand through his thick forelock for the last time. For during the hours between existences a decision had come, greater than the script. Beyond tonight, no more performances.
Sam slumped in his chair, everything lost at last. His hand weighed upon the newspaper. The lights rose.
The waiter made turns between the tables, twirling the end of his moustache.
“Peas and carrots,” he said to Sam in a tone warning there’d be no nonsense with displaced coffee cups this night! He did not wait for Sam to mumble his final peas and carrots, but seized the replacement cup, clanking it smartly down on the tray. He twirled off. Sam grimaced to himself, thinking he might even miss the fellow.
The others, at the other tables, in the background, murmured. “Peas and carrots.”
Brown-haired, azure-eyed Sophie entered in her frock, searched furtively, finally sat, handbag in both hands. No matter how faint, until tonight, he had still had hope.
No longer, Sam thought. Never again, to see her face, to hear her voice, to breath the same air as she.
Maximilian entered.”Am I behind my time, button?”
One always thinks there’ll be time enough.
“I think I shall leave you,” Sophie said in her turn.
“You never will,” Maximilian said rightly.
Maximilian demanded the moleskin notebook. Sophie refused. He threw a few coins on the table and stood. “I leave you to your romantic fantasies. And your chastity.” He turned heel.
Don’t follow, Sam pleaded, twisting the newspaper. Don’t.
Sophie jumped up, spilling the handbag’s contents. The moleskin notebook fell to the boards. She kneeled to gather her things. Sam dropped to a knee.
Sophie reached out in the same beat and together they touched the notebook. She avoided his eyes. His heart pounded. His heart. He tore the notebook from her hands.
Sophie fell back, dumbfounded. She reached for it, and he shoved it under his jacket.
“Mein Herr, I beg you … ”
He shook his head rapidly, and flushed. Viennese stirred from their background tables, whispering, “Peasandcarrots?”
Sam fumbled and bit his lip, tasting copper. “S … Sophie …” he said.
Sophie’s eyes grew large as a trapped doe’s.
The Viennese gawked and gasped. Maximilian waited for Sophie to take his arm, blinking in confusion. The waiter rushed in, tray tucked under an arm, and stood center stage, glowering.
“I must speak,” said Sam, expecting to be crushed. Expecting … not knowing what to expect.
No hand gripped his throat. The lights didn’t fail, and the curtain didn’t fall.
Sophie waited. “Then speak.”
He scarcely knew how to start, and feared he might revert to stammering out peas and carrots.
He tried to swallow, dry throat cracking. “Fraulein, I’m a small character, you’ve no reason to listen to me, but I’ve watched you night after night. Don’t go away with him, into misery, because the script says. He won’t make you happy.”
She smiled slightly. “Am I meant to be happy, then?”
“Yes!” He took the moleskin notebook from his coat, holding it forth. “You have this! This is your happiness! Keep it, don’t give it to him, or to anyone. Keep it. That’s all I want to tell you; and that I love you. You should be free.”
She held out a hand. “You have my property, Mein Herr.”
He hesitated. Maybe she’d take it, and run to Maximilian, keeping as best she could to the mangled plot. The notebook did belong to her, to do with as she wanted. “Reconsider,” he asked; but she said nothing, and so he gave it back.
Sophie opened it to the middle, then turned it around for Sam to see.
She turned a leaf. Blank. Another, also blank. She turned leaf after leaf for him. All blank.
“See, Mein Herr? There’s nothing here. Only here … ” She gestured about the stage. “I have only my lines to mouth, my marks to hit. It’s a surface with nothing beneath. I must go with Maximilian. I will go with Maximilian. It’s in the script.”
She closed the book.
Sam lowered his head. She held a hand against his cheek, cool, against his overheated skin.
“Don’t think you’ve failed. You played a small part in a silly melodrama well, Handsome Stranger with Newspaper at Next Table. I’m written to see you once, wonder what might have been, and never forget you.”
Maximilian stood frozen, black eyes small and fixed. His chin trembled. He couldn’t move, he didn’t know how to behave without the script. None of them did.
“I’m going with him now, Handsome Stranger. As scripted.”
“Sam,” he whispered. “My name is Sam.”
“No, Mein Herr. You’re mistaken.”
“Call me Sam.”
“I cannot. You haven’t a name.”
“Indulge me; what harm will it do?”
“No harm. No good either. The play is over.”
“Call me Sam.”
She laughed at him, but kindly.
“You know you don’t have to follow the script, but it scares you.” said Sam. ” I want to tell you that’s all right.”
The smiled faded. “Without the script … What’ll happen?”
“Something will happen. Something unimagined.”
She looked at the notebook. “Something unwritten.” “To fill your notebook with. Listen! We’re speaking our own words; not lines in a script. I’m not supposed to have a name; but I do. I’m Sam. I come from Chicago. I’m — ”
“Sam,” she said. “From Chicago.”
“Peasandcarrots!” shouted the waiter.
The Viennese erupted. “Peasandcarrots! peasandcarrots!” they cried, flinging their hands in the air. Nothing could save the scene now. Chairs were knocked over, tables upturned. The waiter rushed about gathering cup shards, righting upended tables to no avail.
Maximilian projected, desperately trying to be heard over the din. “There, button. Am I so frightening?” Arm still extended, he cocked his head toward an imaginary, invisible Sophie of his own illusion, and exited.
The terrified peasandcarrots-ing Viennese ran off disappearing into the wings before anything could be done. The waiter, face purple, kept spinning through the wreckage. He glared at Sam as he turned.
“Have something to say to me?” said Sam.
“Peas and carrots!” shouted the waiter, and kept spinning.
Sophie and Sam let him go on, and stood toe to toe together. They clasp hands over the moleskin notebook, and looked into each other’s eyes.
“What next?” she asked.
“I kiss you, I think.”
He embraced her and they did kiss, pressing their whole lengths together. From the mist, in the house invisible, beyond the fourth wall, came some applause. Not much; very little in fact, but what of it? They were no longer a play. Only two people.
“Aren’t you frightened?”
“Terrified,” said Sam. “Come on.”
He led her to the the proscenium, to the precipice of the house invisible and the now silent mist.
“We can’t go there!”
“Who says we can’t? Him?” Sam pointed to the spinning waiter. “And we can’t stay here.” He took a breath. “Ready?”
“No!” she laughed. “Heavens no! Who are we anyway? Did a handsome man and a country maid ever do such things?”
“That’s not who we are. We’re Sophie and Sam. We’re … Hell, who knows!”
Still hand in hand, they took a long stride over the footlights, toward the house invisible. Sam steeled himself to jump. Just before his feet left the boards, he thought he might turn chicken and jump back for the safe stage; but Sophie didn’t, so he didn’t. He’d gotten her into this, he had to be at least as brave as she.
As one, Sophie and Sam leaped into the mist.
The waiter kept spinning. He spun alone on the stage through upended tables that no longer evoked a particular spring day in the city on the Danube in 1901, but that were just a rough pile of gypsum wood props again.
When he could spin no longer, he fell exhausted to one knee, holding his tray perpendicular to the floor, as a crutch. He stayed immobile, panting, watching the infinite, the mist-shrouded house invisible, where the errant pair had run to. When he regained his wind, he climbed to his feet, straightened his jacket, and crept near the proscenium.
He peered over, but saw little to interest him — though he thought he imagined children playing somewhere. It might have been that, but it might just as well have been rats scurrying in the aisles, or wind knocking around in the flyspaces. He looked left and right, then held the tin silver-plated tray out over the edge. Nothing happened to it, so twisting his torso, he flung the prop toward the invisible with all his might.
The tray, spinning like a new planet around its own center, disappeared in the enveloping mist. The waiter cupped an ear, expecting to discover a doomed clang as the tray succumbed to gravity. He waited a long time but heard nothing, nothing at all.