The Venice of the West
 About the Author/Artist
 Alternative History Timeline  
 Double Fiction Issue

Part I: Alta California
 I Meet Mark Twain
 I Meet John Sargent
 A Humorist, Not a Politician
 The Venice of the West
 The Fair Marina
 A Candide Character
A Swan Among Geese
 So Much?
 Gibralter the Egg Mule
 An American Vandal Abroad
 Daisy and Oscar
 A Chance Encounter
 Goya’s Studio
 Holy Relics

Part II: Sakrametska in Rossland
 Boundary Values
 The Unholy Family
 Boom Town
 New Dog, Old Tricks
 Commission of a Lifetime
 Minor Moon of a Minor Planet

  NOVEL EXCERPTS by Patrick Fanning


A Swan Among Geese

Our host for Mr. Twain’s welcoming dinner was Alejandro Natalio Vargas i Diamante, the Alcalde of Petalumo. In Spain, alcalde means “mayor,” but in California it seems to have acquired overtones of “innkeeper” and “procurer.” Mayor Diamante was a short, rotund, overly jolly man, all convex greasy curves, with large drooping mustachios and well-oiled hair. He held one’s hand too long and stood an inch too close, so you could smell his eau de cologne and the garlic he had for breakfast.

In painfully broken English he welcomed Mr. Twain, Miss Miranova, and I to the banquet and seated us at a long table on a modest dais at the head of the room. He would have made a good waiter, but as a mayor he was a disappointment. He did, however, make an interesting subject for a caricature, which I sketched in my book surreptitiously during the speeches.

Already seated at our table were various city council members and civic functionaries, with names like Vega and Santiago indicating their blood ties to Old Spain. But one man and one woman had guttural native names and earthy complexions that marked them as Indians. I tried to follow the introductions and remember the names and stations of my tablemates, but they were mostly lost in the tumult. Everyone was talking at once, in Spanish and Esperanto and various debased versions of English, with the result that nobody listened to anybody. I felt like a swan in a flock of honking geese.

The hall was decorated with atrocious murals of an historical nature. There were wooded landscapes with helmeted figures on poorly drawn horses, jabbing crosses and Spanish flags into an unconvincing riverbank. Dredges scooped up river muck, with adobe churches under construction in the background. Indians were baptized while doves and putti fluttered above their heads. A few painted medallions in the corners held murky portraits of bearded gentlemen who all looked alike, undoubtedly Petalumo’s founding fathers. If this was the best the local painters could offer, I felt confident I might arranged a portrait commission or two.

The food was common and over-spiced, but no one cared. They shoveled it into their mouths like coal into a boiler, damping the fires with schooners of ale and raw red wine. The faces around me took on an overstoked glow, and I amused myself imagining how many tubes of burnt umber and crimson lake it would take to paint all the flushed complexions.

The manners of the Dons were boorish. They ate everything with their knives and sopped up sauce with wads of tortilla. They brayed and cackled at each other, screaming idiomatic and ungrammatical Spanish with their mouths full of half-chewed food, spraying beans and flecks of rice all about.Five musicians added to the din, strumming guitars, sawing violins, and tooting on trumpets. It was not subtle or even musical, but it was loud and lively and made primary colors explode in my mind’s eye.

Every few minutes one of the dignitaries in attendance would be overcome with emotion and stand up, signaling the trumpet player for a shrill fanfare that mostly silenced the room. He would make a little speech about Señor Twain and propose a toast. The speeches were drunken and wandering, without flair or style. Miss Miranova translated the speeches for Mr. Twain and myself into better English than they deserved. She would occasionally mistranslate a word for comic effect, which mostly went right over the heads of the audience, although I saw Mr. Twain catch her eye a time or two and grin.

Mark Twain was amazing in his ability to communicate, considering his lack of facility for any language other than English. He could construct whole speeches out of the ten words of Spanish and twelve of Esperanto that he had by heart. He held his audience’s attention with his magnetic glare, a comic smirk, or imperious gesture—while he dived into his right coat pocket for his Esperanto dictionary, or the left for his Spanish one. He pushed his chair quite close to Mirss Miranova’s and frequently turned to whisper in her ear, using her as his third dictionary.

sketch of the Alcalde of PetalumoNear the end of the dinner, the alcalde caught sight of me drawing under the edge of the table. He came around to my place and looked at the caricature of himself in my sketchbook. Fortunately for me, he did not recognize himself or the satirical nature of caricature. “Señor Sargent,” He said, leaning over me, “Please, you must to make a picture of my daughter Constanza. In fall she will have ten and five years and we make a grand party for her.”

The prospect of a portrait commission immediately raised the mayor in my estimation, and I forgave him the wine fumes he breathed in my face.

“Of course, your honor,” I replied, “I am at your service.”

On the way back to our hotel, I told Mr. Twain about the possibility of a portrait commission from the alcalde, hoping to plant the idea of portraiture in his mind. But he seemed tired and uninterested. We walked the rest of the way in silence, and parted to go to our separate rooms without another word.


  © Patrick Fanning, 2012


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