Saturday evening. May 27, 2000. A French restaurant on Smith Street in Brooklyn. Three men are sitting at a round table in the rear left corner of the room: Harry Brightman (formerly known as Dunkel), Tom Wood, and Nathan Glass. They have just finished giving their orders to the waiter (three different appetizers, three different main courses, two bottles of wine — one red, one white) and have resumed drinking the aperitifs that were brought to the table not long after they entered the restaurant. Tom's glass is filled with bourbon (Wild Turkey), Harry is sipping a vodka martini, and as Nathan downs another mouthful of his neat, single-malt Scotch (twelve-year-old Macallan), he wonders if he isn't in the mood for a second drink before the meal is served. So much for the setting. Once the conversation begins, further stage directions will be kept to a minimum. It is the author's opinion that only the words spoken by the above-mentioned characters are of any importance to the narrative. For that reason, there will be no descriptions of the clothes they are wearing, no comments on the food they eat, no pauses when one of them stands up to visit the men's room, no interruptions from the waiter, and not one word about the glass of red wine that Nathan spills on his pants.
TOM: I'm not talking about saving the world. At this point, I just want to save myself. And some of the people I care about. Like you, Nathan. And you, too, Harry.
HARRY: Why so glum, boy? You're about to eat the best dinner you've had in years, you're the youngest person sitting at this table, and as far as I know, you still haven't contracted a major disease. Look at Nathan over there. He's had lung cancer, and he never even smoked. And I've had two heart attacks. Do you see us grumbling? We're the happiest men in the world.
TOM: No, you're not. You're just as miserable as I am.
NATHAN: Harry's right, Tom. It's not as bad as all that.
TOM: Yes it is. If anything, it's even worse.
HARRY: Please define "it." I don't even know what we're talking about anymore.
TOM: The world. The big black hole we call the world.
HARRY: Ah, the world. Well of course. That goes without saying. The world stinks. Everyone knows that. But we do our best to avoid it, don't we?
TOM: No, we don't. We're right in the thick of it, whether we like it or not. It's all around us, and every time I lift my head and take a good look at it, I'm filled with disgust. Sadness and disgust. You'd think World War Two would have settled things, at least for a couple of hundred years. But we're still hacking each other to pieces, aren't we? We still hate each other as much as we ever did.
NATHAN: So that's what we're talking about. Politics.
TOM: Among other things, yes. And economics. And greed. And the horrible place this country has turned into. The maniacs on the Christian Right. The twenty-year-old dot-com millionaires. The Golf Channel. The F*** Channel. The Vomit Channel. Capitalism triumphant, with nothing to oppose it anymore. And all of us so smug, so pleased with ourselves, while half the world is starving to death and we don't lift a finger to help. I can't take it anymore, gentlemen, I want out.
HARRY: Out? And where are you going to go? Jupiter? Pluto? Some asteroid in the next galaxy? Poor Tom-All-Alone, like the Little Prince marooned on his rock in the middle of space.
TOM: You tell me where to go, Harry. I'm open to any and all suggestions.
NATHAN: A place to live life on your own terms. That's what we're talking about, isn't it? "Imaginary Edens" revisited. But in order to that, you have to be willing to reject society. That's what you told me. It was a long time ago, but I think you used the word courage. Do you have the courage, Tom? Does any one of us have the courage to do that?
TOM: You still remember the old paper, huh?
NATHAN: It made a big impression on me.
TOM: I was just a wee undergraduate back then. I didn't know much, but I was probably smarter than I am now.
HARRY: We're referring to what?
NATHAN: The inner refuge, Harry. The place a man goes to when life in the real world is no longer possible.
HARRY: Oh. I used to have one of those. I thought everyone did.
TOM: Not necessarily. It takes a good imagination, and how many people have that?
HARRY: (closing his eyes; pressing his forefingers against his temples): It's all coming back to me now. The Hotel Existence. I was just ten years old, but I can still remember the exact moment when the idea occurred to me, the exact moment when I found the name. It was a Sunday afternoon during the war. The radio was on, and I was sitting in the living room of our house in Buffalo with a copy of Life magazine, looking at pictures of the American troops in France. I had never been inside a hotel, but I had walked past enough of them on my trips downtown with my mother to know that they were special places, fortresses that protected you from the squalor and meanness of everyday life. I loved the men in the blue uniforms who stood in front of the Remington Arms. I loved the sheen of the brass fittings on the revolving doors at the Excelsior. I loved the immense chandelier that hung in the lobby of the Ritz. The sole purpose of a hotel was to make you happy and comfortable, and once you signed the register and went upstairs to your room, all you had to do was ask for something and it was yours. A hotel represented the promise of a better world, a place that was more than just a place, but an opportunity, a chance to live inside your dreams.
From The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster. Excerpted with permission from the publisher.