The story begins as Caroline, Aaron Shapiro’s live-in girlfriend of six years, is leaving him for another man (identified only as “Jim”). She leaves him with both a broken heart and her cat, ironically named Lady Chatterley (“Jim, evidently, was allergic”). As she walks out the door, she tells Aaron, “I’ll always care about you, you know.” In the next scene, Aaron wakes up in a shabby hotel somewhere in Latin America, and as he reminisces about his relationship with Caroline, the reader learns that Aaron is a concert pianist who was once hailed as a star on the rise, but lately he has been forced to make ends meet by giving piano lessons to “startlingly untalented children.” Shapiro’s growing depression over his failing career (and the related financial difficulties) gradually eroded his relationship with Caroline, whose privileged background made it difficult for her to understand Shapiro’s anxieties about money.
Ironically, it was when the relationship was already damaged beyond repair that Shapiro received an invitation to play his first big concert in years in Latin America. (The country is not specified but bears a strong resemblance to Guatemala.) Still reeling from Caroline’s departure, Aaron leaves his tiny hotel room and heads to the hotel restaurant to meet with Richard Penwad, a representative of the group staging the concert. Pompous and elitist, Penwad is clearly uncomfortable in Shapiro’s presence, as though he considers him one of the lower classes, like the ragged, emaciated native Indians who wait on them in the restaurant. During his conversation with Penwad, Aaron learns that the group sponsoring the concert is affiliated with the military government in power, the same government that has brutally oppressed and persecuted these native people.
Uncomfortable with this knowledge, Shapiro reminds himself of his money woes: “Fee plus lessons, minus rent, minus utilities.” After breakfast, Penwad drives Aaron to the Arts Center for rehearsal. As the orchestra begins to play, Shapiro is horrified; “the sound was so peculiar that he feared he was suffering from some neurological damage.” However, once Aaron himself begins to play, he realizes the problem is the acoustics of the concert hall. He struggles with the concerto, a piece written by a Latin American composer; Shapiro had premiered the concerto himself seventeen years earlier at the height of his career. After the discomfiting rehearsal, Shapiro proceeds to an interview (arranged by Penwad) with an English journalist named Beale. He meets Beale at a large, ostentatious hotel where, Shapiro realizes, “they’d put an important musician.”
Beale is an odd-looking character, described as having a spaceship-shaped head, wearing a stain-spattered suit and a tie made of rope. Though he is supposed to be interviewing Shapiro, he does most of the talking himself, espousing his personal theories on a variety of topics, most notably the beauty of the country and the tragedy of what has happened to the native Indians. He gets increasingly drunk throughout the “interview”; at one point, he implies that Shapiro is gay, and at another, he takes him to task for being American: “Dare I mention whose country it was that killed their Indians?” Beale is so insufferable that Shapiro excuses himself to use the phone, just to get away from him. When he returns to the table, he finds Beale speaking urgently into his tape recorder; when Shapiro arrives, he turns it off “with a bright smile, as though he’d been apprehended in some mild debauchery.” With Aaron back at the table, Beale continues his monologue, this time waxing rhapsodic over the wonders of radio: “You haven’t a friend in the world, then you turn on the radio, and someone’s talking to
Though the pompous Penwad and his wife are scheduled to pick him up and show him around the next morning, Shapiro slips out early to avoid them and see the city himself. He wanders through the grand neighborhoods of the wealthy and then through poor parts of the city where the starving and destitute live on the streets. He is reminded of the homeless in the city where he lives, who terrify him. The more he struggles to pay his bills, the less unimaginable their plight appears. He searches their faces “for proof that each was in some reliable way different from him.” As he continues his walk, he thinks of Caroline, who would choose to simply ignore the existence of such people. Finally, he stops at a small restaurant for a bowl of soup. At the next table are three large men all carrying pistols. When they see Shapiro staring at them, one of the men reaches up and unscrews the light bulb from the lamp over their table.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Deborah Eisenberg, Published by Gale Group, 2006