Please join Britbear’s Book Reviews in welcoming author Ed Levesko with an excerpt from his novel At The End of the Day.
At The End of The Day is set mostly in Paris, a magical city that has always been a great magnet for expatriate Americans. An intense, funny, rich and unique emotional story that deals not only with the events of 1968, but also with the search by our main characters—Alex, a Vietnam veteran, turned freelance journalist; Lisa, from a set of twins, innocent but not naïve and as American as apple pie—for love, hope, self-identity, and for the place they will occupy in life. The first novel that uses the events of May ’68, in Paris, as a canvas to tell a great love story that captures, in dramatic and vivid details what happened when the City of Love is bent on crushing youth and freedom.
Excerpt from At The End of The Day
Suddenly, Lisa pervaded my whole life. Her energy and openness were contagious. She made me laugh and made me realize happiness is possible; one does not have to sacrifice something else, just be true to oneself. Man, why is it so damn hard to be oneself? Lisa was so incredibly without hang ups it was next to impossible to get her upset or to be upset with her. One evening, I woke up and she was bending over me, observing me. I was startled.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m watching you sleep.”
“Because you’re beautiful when you sleep.”
How could I not fall in love with her?
Others fell in love with her, too. It was not that she was trying to make people notice her. She was just a vibrant young woman filled with desire for life, spirited, natural, with lots of fantasy, always looking for the best and never settling for the false or the mediocre, believing it was better and more practical to think of the glass as half-full than half-empty. I had so much to learn from her. I wanted to learn from her.
We spent lots of time just walking around Paris visiting museums, and art galleries, discovering restaurants, little bistros, special places that always seemed like havens for lovers. It was how we discovered Chez Berthillon, on I’Île Saint Louis, the best place for ice cream and marron glacés, the delicious, glazed chestnuts. And La Rhumerie, on Boulevard St-Germain-des-Prés, where they served wonderful, exotic, and delicious rum-based drinks both hot and cold—so many unforgettable and rich experiences.
Part of falling in love in Paris is exploring the city together, making it yours, letting the city encircle you with this wonderful sentiment of happiness and joy reserved only for people who are in love. The city of lovers made for lovers. I always think Paris was invented to protect lovers. Lisa wanted to see Place de la Contrescarpe, a place Hemingway had made famous in his writings about Paris, so we spent one entire evening there talking to a couple of clochards—tramps. They were touched we wanted to talk to them. We sat at a sidewalk table and shared a bottle of wonderful wine and some ham sandwiches with them.
We talked about nothing and about everything. Afterward, Lisa and I walked by the Parthenon and marveled at that magnificent monument dedicated to honor and safeguard very famous French citizens’ remains. There are some wonderful apartments around the area, and we wondered about the people who lived in them, whether they were as happy as we were. We decided nobody could be happier than we.
“I’m sure they have more money than we do,” she said. “But we have the whole city of Paris and our love for each other, and if they knew about it they would be jealous of us.”
“Do you think so?”
“I know so,” she said, and kissed me. Late one evening, we stopped by Shakespeare & Company, the bookstore in the Latin Quarter also made famous by Hemingway in his writings about Paris. He used to borrow books form Sylvia Beach, the woman who ran the store. There had been other writers, during the twenties that Sylvia helped. One that comes to mind is James Joyce, the author of Ulysses. She became his publisher. After browsing a bit, we left the bookstore. As we came out there was a guy selling paintings of Shakespeare & Company, so Lisa bought a small one and gave it to me.
“There’s a lot of history in that place,” she said. “We should have asked the man inside if one can still borrow books.”
“Do you want to go back?”
“No, we’ll come back some other time.”
“Yes, we must.”
On another occasion, we went to the Latin Quarter to see Kubrick’s latest film: 2001. The film was so overwhelming we spent half of the night talking about it. Then we had dinner at a small Tunisian restaurant. We were the only clients there. Afterward, she wanted to find a small hotel and stay there for the night and not go home. Unbeknownst to me she had made a reservation at a quaint Parisian hotel, and we pretended we were star-crossed lovers and this would be our only night together in Paris. In the morning, we would say goodbye and go back to our dreary lives.
“It will be like in Crete,” I said. “This time we’ll never see each other again.”
“Oh, no, that’s too sad.”
“Well, maybe we would run into each other around noontime,” she said, laughing.
“OK, that’s much better.”
The night clerk at the hotel gave us a pretty room on the top floor overlooking the Parisian rooftops. We slept with the curtains open so we could see the rooftops first thing in the morning. But the weather in Paris was now turning into its usual damp, wet, cold, and along with the weather I was also turning damp, wet, and cold.
I found myself looking forward to Christmas, hoping it would help me through the days, even though Christmas is not my favorite time of the year. There were moments when I woke up filled with morbid thoughts about everything; even Lisa’s presence was not enough to lift my spirits. I had asked myself so many times why I was this way. The answer always eludes me and seems to exist in another time, another dimension, out of my reach and understanding.
Lisa, in her artful way, knew better than to question, though I soon learned that for her the things I brooded about were just as important for her as they were for me. She argued the difference was she did not take them to mean they were there to make her life miserable. One dealt with those imponderables within one’s own capabilities. Rome had not been built in one day. People would always be people.
Life, more often than not, was not going to change overnight. One did what one had to do and went on with the things that mattered. As for the rest, one gave it one’s own best and that was all that was required. To be brooding about it was not only unhealthy, but also made it worse. The larger picture was what one had to keep in mind.
One evening, toward the end of the year, we were invited to have dinner with José and Ulla. José, born in Puerto Rico, grew up in New York City. He was a flamenco guitar player who had come to Paris and had been living the bohemian life. He had survived by playing his guitar in the Métro, collecting a few bucks here and there until one day some guy heard him play and asked him to come to this nightclub for an audition. He was hired on the spot.
Ulla, who came from Sweden, had gone to the club one evening and met him. Since Ulla was also in the same class at the Sorbonne with Lisa, the two had become fast friends. José and Ulla came to Lisa’s birthday party. I liked him right off the bat because he was smart, fearless, and a very talented musician. The nightclub where José performed was owned by a group of musicians from Spain. José thought they were gypsies.
They were surprised by the way he played and could not believe he was self-taught. He had never taken a guitar lesson in his life. When José played, the guitar became an extension of him and after a while it was hard to tell where one ended and other began. He had arranged, as a complete guitar solo, a well- known concerto by the Spanish composer Joaquin Rodrigo—“Concierto de Aranjuez”— and he played it magnificently. The musicians were blown away.
“I wanted to do it like Miles Davis did with his trumpet in his “Sketches of Spain” recording and not like this French guy who had put lyrics to the music, which I hated,” José said.
“Oh, it’s not so bad,” Ulla said.
“It’s terrible. Anyway, the guys at the club hired me, though what I was trying to do was no great shakes. The fools.”
We all knew better. The people who hired José were no “fools.” Some years earlier, Joaquin Rodrigo had been a visiting professor at the University of Rio Piedras, in Puerto Rico. José read about this and convinced his parents to let him go by himself from New York and attend a couple of Rodrigo’s lectures. That was the easy part. The hardest part was convincing the university to let a non-student— a sixteen year old kid still wet behind the ears—attend any of the lectures. Nothing doing, they said.
José went anyway. And one early morning he stood by the front door of the building where the lectures were held. When he saw the composer, he introduced himself without preamble and told him why he was there. Rodrigo was surprised and impressed by the kid’s brashness, plus the fact that José spoke Spanish. So Rodrigo agreed to let the kid attend a couple of his lectures. The powers that be did not like it one bit, but they were not about to argue with Rodrigo.
When José came to Europe, he had hitchhiked to Spain to pay a visit to the composer. Rodrigo remembered him and had been surprised and delighted when José had suddenly shown up at the door. He was invited by Rodrigo and his wife to have dinner with them. They told him they admired his courage and his commitment to the guitar, to the music. He could visit them anytime. For José, this was one of his proudest moments—one of the highlights of his young life.
“Did you play for him?” Lisa asked José.
“No. He didn’t ask me. I was ready. But with someone like Rodrigo you wait to be asked. I’m sure I would have been scared, but I would have given it my best shot. Can you imagine having an open invitation to Rodrigo’s home?”
“Will you go?” I asked him. “You bet. And maybe next time I won’t be so scared about asking if I can play for him.”
He had a photo of him and “Don Joaquin” as José called the composer. Rodrigo’s wife had taken the photo and sent it to José. Rodrigo had written: “Suerte matador.” José believed that since that day his luck had indeed improved. The words were a blessing of sorts from the world famous blind composer.
The people at the nightclub kept telling José that his kind of playing only happens on rare occasions. They kidded him that it was probably one of their gypsy ancestors who went to the New World and carried the seed from which José sprang. The only problem with that theory was that his father was black and his mother was a Russian Jew who had named him in honor of the doctor who had saved his life in a complicated delivery. The group did not believe José. They preferred their own version.
He was asked to join the ensemble. So José found himself gainfully employed and part of a newly acquired and extended family made up of a wild, lovable, and talented bunch of musicians. Lisa and I had gone to listen to the group, and it was fantastic. It was hard to imagine the four guys had been playing together for just a few weeks. They had the place jumping, and Ulla told us that every night they played it was the same story.
The dinner that evening was special because José and Ulla were going to Stockholm to visit her parents. Afterward, they would travel to Spain, where he and the group had been invited to play in a flamenco music festival. It was a great honor to be invited, and even more so for a guy like José who was not Spanish. It was just the kind of wonderful news that makes everyone happy. We could not believe it. José could not believe it.
“One day, this guy showed up at the club and told us we had to be at the festival. It was actually more of an order than an invitation. The other guys told me that even if I were dying, I still had to go. This is the ultimate. Manitas de Plata was once honored by them,” José said, beaming.
Manitas de Plata was a Spanish flamenco guitar player, one of the best, which is why they called him “Silver Hands.” He had a huge following in Paris. It was said, that whenever Picasso wanted to hear flamenco music he would ask Manitas to come and play—two old Spanish masters listening and learning from each other.
“How do they select you?” Lisa asked José about being invited to the festival.
“They won’t tell you. You know how gypsies are: very secretive.”
“Are they really gypsies?” Lisa was curious.
“Of course not,” Ulla said.
“Of course they are,” José said.
“He’s just saying that because now he’s a member of the group,” Ulla said. “I know they are gypsies or Roma as they call themselves. Or Gitanos as they are called in Spain. Just look at the way they live.”
“How do they live that makes them gypsies? Lisa asked.
“They’ve got this big apartment, and there are all kinds of people walking in and out day and night. I don’t know how anybody gets any sleep there. The whole building is like that—a big and happy family. All they do is talk, play their guitars, make up these beautiful, haunting songs about lost love and home in the old country. It’s in their blood. When you ask them where this old country is, they get a misty and faraway look in their eyes, and let me tell you for them it’s this mythical, magical land filled with music, love and happiness.”
“That doesn’t make them gypsies,” I said.
“Alex, if that doesn’t I don’t know what does,” José said.
“The only thing I know is that I wish I could play the guitar the way you do,” Ulla said wistfully, and I knew just how she felt.
“Only if you are a gypsy,” he said.
“You’re not a gypsy,” Ulla said.
“Yes, I am.”
“I’ve heard of Russian madmen named Boris, Ivan, Sasha, but José for a Black-Russian-Jewish-Puerto Rican gypsy?” Ulla said, shaking her head.
“That’s the ticket,” José said.
About the Author:
Ed Levesko Served in far-east while in the army during the Vietnam War. Went to the Sorbonne, in Paris. Was a freelance journalist while living in Europe. Has traveled around the world. Speaks several languages. He’s working on another book. Lives in Los Angeles.
Learn more about Ed Levesko and his work at http://edlevesko.com/.