I was lying on a bed under the shade of a canopy tent that had been set up on the desert plain. I was recuperating after a traveling caravan had found me wandering in the desert, lost and nearly dead from thirst. Every time I awoke there was a fresh glass of cool water perspiring on the table beside the bed next to a paperback book someone had left for me to occupy my mind with. I took slow, drowsy sips of the water, and then I usually drifted back off before I was able to take much interest in the book. Little by little, I took stock of my accommodations. The bed had a thick frame with gold spires for posts. It seemed a bit too permanent and cumbersome for the makeshift shelter of the canopy tent. There was a large area rug spread out on the ground beneath the bed. There was a long oval dressing mirror nearby, and a number of steamer trunks had been stacked up behind the bed to form a barricade against the sand and the southern wind.
Beyond the foot of the bed, there was an old weathered piano that was only partially under the cover of the canopy. Once, I woke up to find three young men at the piano, one of them seated on the bench and the other two hovering over his shoulders. They all wore white shirts and brown suspenders. The young man at the piano played a short lullaby. The keys fell with a dull thump as dry and dusty as the desert itself, but the sweet and soothing melody was still faintly discernible. The young man to left of the piano player remarked, as a matter of passing trivia, that the song was famous for having no meaning. The young man on the right said that the song had meaning just by virtue of being a song, and he insisted that all songs had meaning. The piano player thunked a few random keys, and then he settled the debate by saying that the song had no need for meaning. It had a feeling, and that was enough. I was content to leave the argument to them. I just lay there listening to their chatter and the flapping of the canopy in the wind. I was weak and tired and down to simple things.
When the time came for the caravan to move on, I was deep into the paperback novel that I had been given. My strength and energy were coming back to me. Everything was being packed up all around me, but I hardly paid any attention. I only noticed that the canopy had been taken down due to the new light that fell across the pages of the book, simmering gold against the black ink. The bed was disassembled, the frame stacked in three separate pieces and the mattresses loaded onto a truck bed along with all of the steamer trunks, except for the one I’d taken for a seat as I huddled over reading. I lay in the back seat of one of the cars as we pulled away leaving no traces in the barren plain behind us, and I turned another page. The book was a classic comedy of manners, playing out in drawing rooms and on verandas over endless rounds of tea. I was engrossed in the subtlety of it, the sly hints, the covert gestures, the spare glances. I felt like I was going to meet these very people somewhere on the road ahead, and I had a sense that I had been given the book to prepare me for this meeting. I had to study. I had to get all the moves down, all the right words. I had to be ready.