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Small Worlds of Black and White

James Van Pelt is a retired high school English teacher now writing full time in western Colorado. His stories have appeared in Asimov's, Analog, Interzone, and other venues. His latest collection, The Best of James Van Pelt, contains sixty-two stories from his three-decades long publishing career (so far). The signed and numbered, limited edition hardback is available from fairwoodpress.com. When he's not writing... well, he's hardly ever not writing.

The women I've loved are all decades dead. Myrna Loy in The Thin Man movies, of course, wise cracking and elegant, and Katherine Hepburn in Stage Door with her unforgettable voice, and the sad and cynical Bette Davis in All About Eve. Everyone moving through their stories with sculpted elegance, shifting the world around them. Strong-flavored women: Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday. Her hand brushed mine as she swept through the newsroom, Cary Grant hot on her heels. Oh, yes, I've been there, not the stage sets, not the flickering presentations from a movie screen, but actually there in black and white reality--never a color one for reasons I don't comprehend--standing on the sidewalk as Maureen O'Hara replaced a drunk Santa in the Thanksgiving parade in The Miracle on 34th Street. The city smelled of candy canes and hot chocolate, and people bumped against me in eagerness to catch a closer look at the giant balloon figures. Oh, and Greta Garbo in Queen Christina?. Joan Crawford said, "The beauty you see in other women while you are drunk you'll see in Garbo sober." Wearing sailor's clothes, a woman in disguise, I stood on the shifting deck behind Garbo as she wept for a dying Don Antonio. How could I not love her, a sea breeze shifting her hair as she stood on the prow, looking for Antonio's house on a cliff that presided over the wrinkled Atlantic?
But most importantly, vitally even, the reason I started, was Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca, where Ugarte always dies. I built the time machine in my shop with the single goal of reaching May, 1942, Burbank, California where Warner Brothers shot the film. To watch a classic being made, to be in the presence of the incomparable Ingrid Bergman in what was arguably her greatest film, to meet with her perhaps and express admiration. When I was eleven and saw the movie for the first time, sitting in our tiny apartment, where I shared a bed with my big sister whose hand-me-downs I wore to school, where I couldn't join the girls' soccer team because mother couldn't pay the athletic fees, I watched Bergman walk into Rick's Cafe Americain, and like Sam, my heart stuttered.
But the universe is more perverse than love, and time travel troubles mess with math, so on my maiden trip when I pressed the button that was supposed to deliver me to Warner Brothers, I stood instead on a crowded Moroccan street where everyone looked up as a plane passed over, the one that would take them to America and away from the Nazis. No voiceover telling me about the refugees' route to Lisbon through Oran or the rim of Africa, but sidewalk vendors hawking their wares, and monkeys and parrots and sizzling sweet meats in broad-bottomed bowls. I knew the place, a patio restaurant, where a pickpocket lifted an Englishman's wallet. "We hear very little, and we understand even less," said the Englishman. But this wasn't a Hollywood set with false fronts and extras milling about, and cameras and boom mics. I now wore a long-sleeved dress and a pillbox hat with a veil that fell over my ears and down my arms. A purse lay on the little round table before me, a tiny cup of steaming coffee beside it, in a black and white world. I arrived in Casablanca, not the real one in Morocco, not the Hollywood set in Burbank, but the movie representation of it. I joined the movie, so I made my way to Rick's Cafe, wondering how extensive this world was. If I walked too far, would it fade into cloud-like wastelands that were never portrayed, or had the entire Earth been recreated with Casablanca at its center?
I went many times, finding ways to overhear Ingrid Bergman bargaining with her soul for honor, but a woman was brave much earlier in the story, the Bulgarian girl, a newlywed at sixteen who could save herself and her husband if she surrendered her affection to Captain Renault, a terrible price. I made sure to never miss her ask Rick if she did a bad thing for the man she loved would that be forgivable? She said, "And he never knew, and the girl kept this bad thing locked in her heart, that would be all right, wouldn't it?"
By this time Ugarte could have already been dead, either by suicide or "Died trying to escape," as Renault told Bergman the next morning. Poor Ugarte who in his own cut-rate way fought the good fight. "Rick!" he cries when the police take him. "Do something. You must help me, Rick!"
But Rick doesn't. Still, after a while, over Sam playing "As Time Goes By," as the ex-patriots sing "La Marseillaise," all I hear is Ugarte's plea, "Do something."
The Bulgarian girl was a hero because she was willing to act, to pay a price, as was Bergman when she agreed to stay in Casablanca with Rick, as was Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, standing against her corrupt husband, and Dana Wynter in Invasion of the Body Snatchers who says to Dr. Bennell, "You forgetting something, darling--me. It isn't three against one. It's three against two. Give me a knife!" and Greer Garson who slaps a German soldier across the face in Mrs. Miniver.
I watched Ugarte hauled from Rick's cafe dozens of times, a casualty in a story where he wasn't the focus. What could I do? When I was a little girl at home, I wanted to step in, to warn the characters, to help them. Poor Ugarte, seeking Rick's approval. "You despise me, don't you?" Ugarte said. Rick didn't even look up from the chess board. "If I gave you any thought, I probably would."
What could I do?
I press the button and I'm in Bergman's Morocco again. The streets rattle with market chatter, but I must do what Bogart couldn't. I must do something, so instead of walking through the crowds to Rick's Cafe, I go to the Blue Parrot. "Do you know Berger, the Norwegian?" I ask a dozen times until I'm steered in the right direction.
We talk over coffee. He's suspicious, a narrow-faced man with a receding hairline and heavy accent. "Who are you?" he says.
"A freedom fighter, too."
"I don't know the resistance."
"Your ring says otherwise."
He places his hand over his ring. If he flipped it open it would reveal a tiny Cross of Lorraine, a symbol of French resistance.
"You can't... how do you ..." he stutters.
"There's no time," and I outline my proposal.
"But how do you know the police will arrest him at Rick's?"
"You have nothing to lose if they don't," I say. "You can only benefit, France can only benefit if you act. You must wait for him to be arrested. You must save him in transport. He will have hidden the letters of transit he took from the murdered German couriers. They will be safe. He knows people and the secret routes from Casablanca. He can still arrange exit visas for you, for the resistance, but only if he escapes, only if he owes you."
I don't know if he believes me, but instead of going into Rick's as I always had in the past to await Bergman's entrance, I find a spot on the street outside. The sun sets before the police pull up in a van and a car. Minutes later, there are gunshots inside. Most of the police climb into the van and drive toward their station. Two officers exit last, Ugarte firmly held between them. They dump him in the backseat, but when they drive away, it's not in the same direction as the van.
The resistance must have members within the police force!
So Ugarte survived. You know how I know? Because the Nazis surely would have tortured the location of the letters of transit from him. Ugarte was not strong. Renault lied when he said Ugarte was dead, a lie to protect himself from Nazi repercussions for losing a valuable prisoner.
But that lie was always in the story. My actions were always there. When I changed the movie, I changed it forever.
This time when the restaurant erupts into "La Marseillaise," I don't hear that nagging plea. Ugarte's "Help me" doesn't ring in my head. Instead I only see Bergman, filled with love and conviction, gazing at her patriot husband. She's strong as Garbo, witty as Russell, intelligent as Hepburn.
A portrait in black and white bravery painted in shades of silver, lead, tin and shadows, wreathed by the swirling cigarette smoke in the busy cafe.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, August 20th, 2021

Author Comments

"Small Worlds in Black and White" came out of a love of old films, strong heroines, and a recognition that time travel is a borderline fantasy trope rather than a science fiction one. Or, if the idea of parallel dimensions is science fictional, the possibility that every possible world that can exist does exist means that the inexplicably magical ones must be out there too.

- James Van Pelt
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