"We use a private security firm and they don't much like to be called out. Once we had to wait two days."
Leonardo looked at his own hands pressing on the desk: they were long, thin, and emaciated. The man continued to stare at him.
"Maybe you only had three cans and are making a mistake," he said.
Looking up, Leonardo saw the boy's back disappearing through the door he had come in by.
"I'm glad we were able to sort out this misunderstanding," the man said, lowering his bald head over the counter. "You'll find breakfast in the dining room."
The room Leonardo entered had been divided by a plasterboard partition, from the far side of which kitchen and laundry noises could be heard.
The old lady Leonardo had met on the stairs was sitting at the table nearest to the door, while a fat man of about forty breakfasted by the window. He was apparently a commercial traveler, with two black cases leaning against either side of his chair. On a round table in the middle of the room were a pot, two Thermoses, some bread, a few cups, a rectangular block of margarine, and a bowl of jam of unappetizing color. A clock on the wall showed ten past eight. No staff could be seen.
Leonardo poured himself a cup of coffee and took it to one of the three free tables. He put his bag down and took a sip: real coffee diluted with carob.
It reminded him of a conference on the circularity of Tolstoy's writing many years before in Madrid, and the dinner that had followed at a restaurant whose unmarked entrance had seemed like the way in to an ordinary block of flats. The chairman had been forced to spend the whole evening dealing with invective hurled by his wife against enemies of bullfighting. Most of those present must have been used to the woman's heavy drinking and aggressive defense of this spectacle outlawed only a few months earlier by the government, and they seemed not to be bothered by it. Then, at the end of the evening, with the restaurant nearly empty, a young woman probably a student in the company of some lecturer whose more or less official mistress she was had sung a song she had written in which she maintained that love was nothing more than a means to an end. None of those present had either the strength or enough reverse experience to contradict her. The coffee they had then drunk, each imprisoned in his or her own guilty silence, had been like the coffee he had before him now, except that at that time you could still find decent coffee everywhere.
As he lifted the cup to his lips again Leonardo became aware that the old lady was looking at him. He nodded to her, but she continued to stare without responding. Her sparse hair had been built up into a gauze-like structure through which light weakly filtered from the skylight. Her fingers were covered with jewels and everything in her appearance seemed calculated and tense in some way about which it might almost have been blasphemous to speculate. Leonardo took a book from one of the side pockets of his duffel bag and leafed through it until he found the story he was looking for. It was a story he had read many times since the age of twenty-two, and for which he had always felt unconditional love. Both in moments of utter despair or fierce hope the story had always adapted itself to his mood, revealing itself for what it was: a perfect piece of design. He had always advised his students to read it, both those with literary ambitions and those who imagined that a man in his position must be able to offer them useful pearls of practical wisdom.
Many years had passed since the last time anyone had expected any such thing from him, but if it ever happened again, now or in years to come, he was certain that his answer would have been the same: A Simple Heart, he would have said.
When he had finished reading Flaubert's description of Madame Aubain, for whom Felicité was so ably performing her duty, he took another mouthful of coffee and it tasted better. The sun had come out in the courtyard and through the window he could see it reflected from the car windscreens. The incident of the oil can seemed remote and thus of little significance.
Excerpted from The Last Man Standing by Davide Longo. Copyright © 2013 by Davide Longo. Excerpted by permission of Quercus. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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