A Novel Excerptby Robert Olen Butler
I caught a fiacre at the Opéra and paid the driver to wait for me in front of my hotel.
I went up and paused briefly, shirtless, my razor stropped and laid out on the basin, my shaving brush lathered up and poised in my hand, my face floating in the mirror, dappled in light and shadow from the incandescent bulb above me. I’d done this before, just a few months before, shaved my close-cropped beard to add a touch of credibility to my invented self. That was the first time. This would be the second. Beneath the beard, on my left cheek, was a scar. A long curve of a scar that a German eye would recognize as a sword wound and the eye of the sort of German whose acceptance I needed would further recognize as a Schmiss, the sword wound of a German university duelist, a badge of honor. The Americanized Joseph Hunter got his Schmiss when his American-immigrant father sent him as a young man back to the home country to matriculate at Heidelberg. Christopher Marlowe Cobb got his faux Schmiss last year in Mexico, in a sword fight that was a link in the chain of events that attached him to his country’s secret service. For the men tonight at the Red and the Black, the scar would do far more than a password to open the door to their company.
Still, my hand paused.
Faux identification papers were stage props. The Schmiss was part of me. Whenever I carried it openly I was this other guy. He was the scar. The scar was him. I couldn’t step offstage each night and dip my fingers in cocoa butter and wipe him away.
But so it had to be.
I rinsed and dried my face.
I looked at my scar.
A German would assume he knew what this was. A Frenchman would assume it had been a tumble of shrapnel.
So be it.