Ringo poured himself another glass of whiskey, then downed it in one swallow. He turned his head towards the mantle shelf on the side of his upstairs office and watched the clock ticking. He saw the timepiece's hands moving. But he was by himself.
Just like that last night in Paris, he thought, a wave of bitterness coursing through him. She passed me by, again.
He listened for her footsteps. But they didn't arrive. He waited for her knock on his old front door. But he didn't hear it.
He reached for his bottle and was just about to pour himself another drink when the front door to his office opened.
Ilsa stood in the doorframe, back lit by a mysterious light that Ringo had never noticed before in the staircase leading up to his room. She looked like an angel.
He fought back a powerful urge to run to her side and take her in his arms, and settled back in his stiff wooden chair instead.
She pulled up a chair beside him and sat down. "Richard, dear," she began. "I have to talk to you."
Ringo looked away from her and finished pouring his drink. "Funny about your voice. It sounds the same. I can still hear it – 'Richard, dear, I'll go with you any place. We'll get on a train together and never stop…"
"Don't, Richard!" she said, cutting him off. She sat up a little straighter and tried to compose herself. "I can understand how you feel."
"You can understand how I feel," Ringo scoffed. "How long was it we had, honey?"
She lowered her gaze. "I didn't count the days."
"Well I did," Ringo replied. "Every one of them. Mostly I remember the last one. The wild finish. A guy standing on a station platform in the rain, with a comical look on his face because his insides had been kicked out." He lifted his drink and took a large gulp of whiskey.
"Can I tell you a story?" Ilsa asked.
Ringo put down his glass. "Has it got a wild finish?"
"I don't know the finish yet," Ilsa said.
Ringo looked away. "Well go on, tell it. Maybe something will come to you as you go along."
Ilsa drew in a deep breath. "It's about a girl who had just come to Paris, from her home in Oslo, to work as a hotel maid for the summer. She knew no one. She couldn't speak French. But then she ran into her old boyfriend from Norway. He'd been living in France for a year, and spoke the language beautifully. And he had connections. Before she knew what she was doing, she married him. He protected her. But then he got caught up in the resistance effort, and started traveling away from Paris on…on…business trips. And then one day she received word that he had been captured by the Nazis, and was presumed dead. She moped around for weeks. Months. Cleaning hotel rooms. Changing sheets. Scrubbing toilets. Washing sinks. Sweeping floors. Dusting cobwebs out of the corners of the ceilings. Replacing the occasional broken lightbulb. Putting fresh packs of soap in the hotel bathrooms after the last guests had checked out. Carrying bags of rubbish to the bin behind the…"
"Yes, yes, I get it," Ringo said impatiently. "You kept on working as a hotel maid and you were sad. I've heard stories like this before, Ilsa. They usually go along with the sound of a tinny piano playing in the parlor. 'Mister, I met a man once, when I was a kid,' they always begin."
Ilsa looked up at Ringo, her eyes welling with tears, and cleared her throat. "And then one day…this girl met a man named Richard, who was kind and funny and made her feel alive again. She wanted to tell him about her missing husband, but he insisted that they shouldn't talk about our pasts. He only wanted to live for the moment, and enjoy however many days they had together before the war encroached upon their lives."
Ringo looked down into his half-empty glass. "So you're saying this was my fault, are you?"
"No, Richard," Ilsa insisted. She reached across the table and grabbed his hands. "The day the Nazis entered Paris, I was planning to run away with you. I'd packed my bags and climbed in a taxi and was driving to the train station. But then another car hit my cab. It was driven by a friend of my husband, who had come to tell me that Paul had escaped from prison, and was waiting for me in a secret hiding place. I was so upset and confused! I started pulling my hair out, trying to decide what to do! Who should I go with – him or you?"
"Right," Ringo said brusquely. "You were in a car crash, and you lost your hair."
A tear trickled down Ilsa's cheek. "I couldn't think straight. I loved you. But I loved him too. And he was my husband. He'd given me a ring."
"Which you never wore," Ringo pointed out.
"It was dangerous for me to reveal my marriage to Paul," she insisted. "He's a…" Her voice trailed off.
"Spy?" Ringo guessed.
Ilsa shook her head.
"A Lieutenant in the French Foreign Legion?" Ringo suggested.
"Oh, no, not that!" Ilsa exclaimed. "He's a … performance artist!"
Ringo furrowed his brow. "He's a what?"
"He's a singer," Ilsa said. "An entertainer. He has an extraordinary ability to touch people's hearts with his musical talents. So he goes into very dangerous places and stages 'flash mobs' to lead large groups of pedestrians in singing songs of rebellion. Sometimes his motives are expressly political, like when he led your customers in drowning out the German anthem with 'La Marseillaise.' Other times he just leads crowds in singing popular tunes, or nonsense songs. He aims to spark joy and confound the Nazis, who hate any shows of non-conformity. It's a very sophisticated method of sowing dissent – he reminds people of the happiness that the Nazis are trying to suppress."
Ringo stared at her bleary eyed. "That's the daftest thing I've ever heard."
Ilsa lowered her head. "Yes, yes, I know. It's hard to understand. But Paul has developed such a high public profile that the Nazis consider him a threat. So he must escape the ever-spreading reach of the Third Reich. He wants to go to America. And he wants me to go there with him."
Ringo laughed bitterly. "Well, then, what's stopping you?"
"The Nazis won't let him leave," she said, another tear dripping down her cheek. "They want to throw him back in prison. But he heard…we heard…at the political meeting we attended last night…the French singer from your club, Yvonne, she was at the meeting, and she believes you have the letters of transit in your possession, Richard. She saw Ugarte slip them in your jacket pocket before he was arrested, and she saw you slip them inside John's piano."
"Sam's piano," Ringo corrected her. "John was just filling in for him that night."
Ilsa's face flushed red. "That's not important, Richard. What's important is that you have those letters of transit in your possession, and Paul needs them. It's the only way he can flee Nazi-occupied Casablanca."
Ringo scowled at her. "Even if I did have them, what makes you think I would give them to you?"
Ilsa pulled a gun from her coat pocket and aimed it at Ringo's chest. "This does. I want those papers, Richard. And I'm aiming this gun at your heart."
Ringo laughed sardonically once more. "Sorry, Ilsa, but my heart is my least vulnerable place. You already broke it into a thousand pieces, remember?"
Ilsa held his gaze for several seconds, then dropped the gun on the table and collapsed in tears. "What am I going to do?" she sobbed. "I love you both! I can't think straight anymore!"
Ringo's anger started to melt. He reached out his hand and rested it gently on her shoulder. "Then let me do the thinking for both of us, love. Meet me at the airport tomorrow night. You bring Paul. I'll bring the letters of transit. Two of us will get on a plane and escape this goddamned war! I'll decide which two tomorrow night."
Ringo stood in the small concourse of the Casablanca airport and watched Ilsa and Paul walk towards him, carrying one suitcase apiece. His heart pounded in his chest.
This may be the last time I ever see her, he thought. He choked back a sob.
"Hey there!" Paul exclaimed in a jovial voice as he approached Ringo. "Fancy meeting you here! Hah! No, don't worry! I was just having you on. Ilsa told me you'd be here, and that you had a special surprise for us."
"Yes, I do," Ringo said. He patted the top pocket of his overcoat, then blanched. He started frantically patting each of his other pockets, turning them inside out when possible. He found the keys to his nightclub, a pen, a dirty handkerchief and a half-empty packet of cigarettes.
"Fuck me," he mumbled under his breath. "Where'd I put those goddamned letters of…"
Just then, John and Yvonne ran into the airport towards them.
John lifted his right hand and waved a large envelope back and forth in the air as he approached Ringo. "Hey, boss! You left this on the table in the cloakroom when you were putting on your fedora! Yvonne thought you might need it. It's the letters of transit that creepy little bastard Ugarte stole from those Nazis and…"
"Sshhh!" Yvonne hissed. She grabbed the envelope out of John's hand. "These are top secret documents, you moron," she chided John as she handed the package to Ringo. "Don't go blabbering about them in a public place where everyone can hear you!"
Ringo accepted the letters from her and sighed in relief. "Thanks, Yvonne. You're a real doll. Remind me to give you a raise." Then he turned towards Paul and Ilsa and cleared his throat. "I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world."
Paul frowned at Ringo, then turned towards his wife. "What's he going on about then? Who said anything about beans? I thought we were talking about letters of transit!"
John offered Paul an apologetic smile. "Beans mean a lot to our Ritchie. He's got a delicate constitution, you see, so he always keeps a regular hill of tinned beans in his pantry so he can…"
"Will you shut the fuck up?" Ringo cursed at John. "I'm trying to play the part of the romantic hero here!"
Police Captain George Harrison ran into the airport and approached the small gathering. "Thank Krishna! I got here just in time!"
"Oh, bloody hell," Paul mumbled. "Have you come to arrest me?"
"No, no," George panted. He put his hands on his knees and took a few deep breaths to calm himself, then looked up at Ringo. "The Nazis are heading towards your nightclub right now as we speak. They're sure you've got those letters of transit hidden in there somewhere. They're going to tear your place apart until they find them."
"Not to worry, he's got them right here," said John, pointing to the envelope in Ringo's hand.
Yvonne elbowed him in the ribs. "I thought I told you to shut up about these letters! Can't you see there's a bloody cop standing right in front of you?"
John rubbed his side, then frowned at George. "You won't snitch on our Ritchie, will you? You're one of us, I thought."
"No, I'll look the other way, just like I always do," George insisted. "But he'd better get rid of those fuckin' letters before a less open-minded member of the Vichy government sees them!"
"That's what I was planning to do!" Ringo groused. "If the rest of you lot would just shut up for a bloody second!" He took a short moment to compose himself, then looked back at Ilsa with his sad, blue eyes. "Last night we said a great many things. You said I was to do the thinking for both of us. Well, I've done a lot of thinking since then, and it all adds up to one thing: you're getting on that plane with Paul, where you belong."
Paul wrapped his arms tightly around Ilsa. "Of course she will. Where else would she go? Every night she walks right in my dreams, since I met her from the start. I'm so proud I am the only one who is special in her heart. The girl is mine. The doggone girl is mine!"
Ringo grimaced, then turned his attention towards Paul. "I don't understand the way you think, saying that she's yours, not mine. She might walk in your silly dreams, but it's just a waste of time, because she's mine! The doggone girl is mine!"
Paul pulled Ilsa closer to him. "Don't waste your time! Because the doggone girl is mine!"
Ringo grabbed Ilsa's hand. "I love you more than he!"
Paul slapped Ringo's hand away, then gazed lovingly at Ilsa. "Well, I love you endlessly! So come and go with me, two on the town."
Ilsa stepped away from Paul and glared at her two suitors.
"Well, we both cannot have her," said Ringo.
"So it's one of the other," agreed Paul. He turned towards his rival. "And one day you'll discover that she's my girl, forever and ever!"
Ringo glowered at Paul. "Don't build your hopes to be let down, cause I really feel it's time."
Paul glowered back at him. "I know she'll tell you I'm the one, cause she said I blow her mind!" Then he crossed his arms over his chest in a defiant gesture and stated bluntly, "Ritchie, we're not going to fight about this, okay?"
"Ha, ha, Paul!" Ringo replied with a threatening laugh. "I think I told you, I'm a lover, not a fighter."
"I've heard it all before," Paul boasted. "She told me that I'm her forever lover, you know, don't you remember?"
"Well, after loving me, she said she couldn't love another!" Ringo retorted.
"Is that what she said?" challenged Paul.
"Yeah, she said it," Ringo insisted. "You keep dreaming!"
"I don't believe it!" shouted Ilsa. "Both of you! You're acting like children, fighting over a toy!"
Paul turned towards Ilsa and grabbed her right hand. "You're not a toy," he protested. "You're my wife!"
Ilsa lowered her gaze. "I was so young when I married you."
"She was just seventeen," Ringo agreed. He took Ilsa's left hand in his.
"You know what I mean," Ilsa replied, looking up at Ringo with longing in her eyes.
"Well, I don't," Paul countered. "Ilsa was legally old enough to marry me. She knew what she was doing!"
"And she thought you were dead when she took up with me," Ringo said. He squeezed Ilsa's left hand. "I'm sorry that I doubted you. I was so unfair."
"The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated," Paul insisted. He started pulling Ilsa closer to him once more.
"Will you two chauvanistes both just stop it?!" shouted Yvonne. She pushed Paul and Ringo away from Ilsa, and left her standing on her own. "Ilsa is a grown woman, and she has the right to make her own decisions! Now listen up, everyone. The last plane of the night is leaving the airport in five minutes, and if two of you don't use those letters of transit right now, the Nazis are going to come and arrest all of us!"
George nodded in agreement. "She's right. Major Strasse is fuckin' pissed at the whole lot of us." He focused his gaze on Ilsa. "Damn, if you didn't do it again, Ritchie. Somehow, you managed to bathe Ilsa in a soft glow of perfect illumination once more, even though we're in a goddamned airplane hangar!"
Ringo locked eyes with Ilsa. "If that plane leaves the ground and you're not with Paul, you'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon, and for the rest of your life."
"But what about us?" Ilsa protested.
"We'll always have Paris," Ringo replied. "We didn't have it. We lost it, until you came to Casablanca. We got it back last night."
Ilsa nodded and wiped a tear from her eyes. "You're right, Richard. But right now, my heart is filled with equal amounts of love for both you and Paul. So I can't pick between you."
She drew in a deep breath to steady her nerves, then grabbed the letters of transit from Ringo and handed them to Yvonne. Then she picked up her suitcase and grabbed Yvonne's free hand. "Ladies' road trip! C'mon, girl, let's blow this joint!"
The two women exchanged impish smiles, then ran towards the tarmac, away from the quartet of men, giggling like two schoolgirls on the last day of the semester.
Ringo and Paul frowned at each other.
"Well, that didn't go the way I planned it," Ringo admitted.
"No, I certainly didn't see this plot twist coming," Paul agreed.
John looked at his watch. "Do you suppose the Nazis have finished ransacking your club yet, boss? Maybe we could go back into town if they're done and raid the stash of liquor behind the bar."
"I think we should all lay low for a while," George countered. "When the Vichy government finds out what happened tonight, we're all going to be held accountable."
"So what should we do then?" asked John.
"Well, I know this guru who's setting up an ashram on the edge of town," George said. He took off his police cap and badge and tossed them into a nearby rubbish bin. "The four of us could probably hide there for a few months, until the heat blows off us."
John and Paul exchanged resigned shrugs, then nodded at George.
Ringo watched the plane take off in the distance, then offered his three companions a bittersweet smile. "Gentlemen," he said, "I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Inspired by the film "Casablanca," screenplay by Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch (1942), which was based on the stage play "Everybody Comes to Rick's" by Murray Burnette and Joan Alison (1940).