CIRCUMFLEX pg2

Lisa Maguire

 

Dane poked his merguez sausage with a fork, uncertain whether to try it. He would be a good portrait subject, thought Fred. He should take some shots of his nephew before he left. Dane was a handsome boy, with Marisa’s olive skin and fine eyes. He did have the short jaw and the snub nose of his father, but not his father’s face, the small features bunched up like a fist.

“How is your dad?”

“I haven’t seen him in a while. He went back to New York.”

Fred had lost track of his brother-in-law. He had recently heard from a cousin passing through Paris that Marisa had divorced about five years earlier. He did not know what Kevin did for a living, or what he now looked like; Fred had a counterpart image to Marisa on the motorcycle for Kevin; it was from the summer Fred spent with them on the Lower East Side. Kevin was working as a salesman at a PC Richards. Fred walked into the store one day and saw Kevin in his uniform: short-sleeved buttoned-down shirt, black polyester pants, and a clip-on tie. His face was small and pimply, and his expression sour. It was over ninety degrees, but Fred would not have wanted to buy an air-conditioner from this man. Kevin’s hair looked stiff, as if he’d rubbed it with glue the night before, which he had.

Kevin and Marisa were the only non-Puerto Rican residents on their block of Avenue C who were not in a band. Fred, a freshman at Pratt, wanted to be an artist, but loathed the lifestyle-- the cheap beer, the roaches, the ring of brown crud around the bathtub faucet, the small objects (items of clothing borrowed and not returned, dime bags scored and not shared) around which rotated a hundred petty squabbles. Kevin and Marisa embraced tenement life with no interest in being artists, unless one counted Kevin’s brief membership in a graffiti gang. He dyed and glued his hair and went to bars to hear his friends’ bands. Around the time Fred lived with them, Kevin was digging up cobblestones on Avenue C to sell them for money to buy speed. Fred could not imagine what a fifty-year-old Kevin could possibly be like, and could not think of a single memory of the younger Kevin that might be fit to share with his son.

“So, like, what do you do? For a job?”

“At the moment, I am doing dog portraits. I take pictures of people’s dogs.”

“Really? Just dogs?”

“Usually dogs belonging to curators or collectors. I already had a show. It was last winter. Very well received, at least by the dog owners.”

“Do you take pictures of any other animals? I mean, you have cats. You like them, don’t you?”

“Dogs really lend themselves to portraits. People see them more as individuals than other animals. Even people who prefer cats. Cats generally don’t like having their pictures taken anyway. Dogs will pose.”

“Wow. Dog photographer. I didn’t know.”

“I also design websites for extra cash. I learned Java and a few other packages back when it paid better hourly. For a while, about 12 years ago, I did it full time and made a lot of money. Bottom fell out of it that work a while back. I don’t do much any more.”

Fred took Dane on a walk through the neighborhood, pointing out the medieval timbered houses and translating his favorite archaic street names: the Street of the Fishing Cat; the Street Where Nests the Heart. Fred was enjoying himself, although he did not know what Dane was thinking, until later, on the Métro heading back to Fred’s apartment, when Dane started asking the meanings of names of random stops on the map. Some of them were at the furthest reaches of Fred’s knowledge of Parisian history. The Golden Gate. Telegraph. Kremlin-Bedlam. The Abbesses…which abbesses? When he first came to Paris he savored their mystery until finally they became place names like any other. When did this happen? Slowly, and then all of a sudden.

“What’s an abbess?” the boy asked. Before Fred could explain, Dane pointed to another dot on the map, Châtelet. “Why do they have decorations on words in French?”

“Decorations?”

Dane pointed to the circumflex over the a in Châtelet. “That.”

Fred said: “That’s part of the spelling. Indicates the difference between the regular a and the longer a.” Fred demonstrated: “Ah, aaah. Hear the difference? Ah, Aaaaah.”

Dane, confused, was hugging the Métro pole and staring into the cavern of Fred’s open mouth.

Fred dropped his demonstration. “Used to be, in old French, there was an s after the a wherever you see that circumflex. All those accents--what you call decorations-- are there to indicate there is something missing.”

Dane was no longer listening. Now he was swinging around the pole, holding on with one hand, the other hand waving through open air as if it were a carnival ride. For just a moment Fred saw the six-year-old Dane, and he suddenly wished English was as canny as French, with its blameless shorthand to denote absence.

 

It started to drizzle as they emerged from the Métro. The little shops along the Rue d’Alésia were closed; gates over storefronts were shut and awnings over the fruit stands and café-tabacs were furled. Fred loved the soft rain, and the way it made the buildings look in the lamplight. Fred’s most enduring relationship had been with Paris. The city did not change: the same apartment blocks with their iron-worked balconies, the same restaurants with their fussy curtains and the day’s specials written on the mirrors in white wax crayon, the same chestnut trees and iron chairs in the public gardens. The years had slipped by unnoticed.

Fred showed Dane his studio, which was where he decided the boy should sleep. Not his apartment. The studio was one of a row of lofts on an alley behind his apartment building. For many years, this had been Fred’s home, until he’d saved enough money to acquire his current apartment. It had two rooms: a dark room and a sitting area containing a sagging futon. The ceiling was slanted and the wall facing the alley was made entirely of dirty glass panes held together with lumps of tar. There was a street light in the alley that shined greasily through the glass wall and into the room all night long. Fred knew that Dane would be too tired to be kept awake by it tonight. There was no bathroom, only a toilet and a darkroom sink, so Fred invited Dane to take a shower in his apartment, and gave him the spare key so he did not have to knock on the door.

The wall opposite the windows had some recent dog portraits on them. Dane looked at them thoughtfully. “I like this one,” he said at last, pointing to a fox terrier cocking his head at the camera.

“That dog is named Jimmy. He belongs to the owner of the Galerie Neue Idee in Kassel. ”

“A castle? Where’s that?”

“ Kassel. It’s a city in Germany.”

“What’s it like?” asked the boy.

“What’s what like? Germany?”

“Yeah. I haven’t been anywhere.”

“Didn’t you go to Canada?”

Dane rolled his eyes “Yeah. With my class. And my gym teacher.”

“The gym teacher took your class on a trip to Toronto?”

“Yeah.”

“Did he blow his whistle every time he wanted you all back on the bus?”

Dane didn’t laugh, but smiled appreciatively. He said: “I hated it. I wanted to go off on my own.” He was still holding onto his coat, swaying slightly, as if looking for a better place in the room to stand.

“I feel that way, too,” said Fred. He managed to stop himself from saying I used to feel that way, too. Dane looked at his uncle with an expression that made Fred know he was being reassessed.

There was more to say to Dane, but it was late, and they could talk tomorrow. Fred was eager to get away from the boy, to be able to think about him in the peace of his own apartment. He wanted to smoke a cigarette out the window and reflect on the day.

“What would you like to see tomorrow?” he asked. “Is there anything in Paris you know you want to see?”

Dane looked at him helplessly without replying.

Fred thought of the usual tourist spots. The Eiffel Tower. He supposed that Dane would want to go there. But what else? Fred tried to think of his favorite places, but his mind was too full. There was too much he could give this boy. If he, Fred, left Paris tomorrow, never to return, what would he miss? If there was one memory of Paris that he would most want to take with him into eternity, what would it be? He could remember wandering the steep, decaying streets of Belleville with his camera. For Fred, Paris was like a lover’s body, with all its well-known secret corners, its small, endearing imperfections, its cherished landmarks. None of these places would mean anything to Dane. He tried in vain to think of what his sixteen-year-old self would have wanted to see, other than the naked girls at the Crazy Horse.

“Would you like to take a map and your new mobile phone and go off on your own?” Dane did not look disappointed.

“If you’re busy, I could do that.”

“Tell you what. I’ll get you a Métro map and a street map and give you a few ideas. Come back around dinner time and I’ll cook.”

The next day, when Fred went down to the studio, Dane was already gone. There was a tangle of sheets and blankets on the futon, and a toothbrush next to the darkroom sink. He was strangely disappointed that he did not see Dane in the morning before he left, and started immediately on preparations for dinner that night. He bought some lamb chops from the butcher and then walked to the open market near the Plaisance Métro to buy some of the first asparagus of the season. He bought some wine and thought of buying cheese, but opted for some pastries instead, which he figured Dane would like better.

Fred had tried Dane twice in the afternoon to find out the likely hour of his arrival. Fred got no answer at seven. He tried again at eight o’clock. He had opened the bottle of wine, and had finished it by nine thirty, when the sweat on his silk shirt was starting to bloom.

At quarter to ten, Fred called Cooperman.

“Dane’s not back,” said Fred.

“From where?” Cooperman sounded as though he’d just woken up.

“I don’t know. I don’t know where he went. Were you sleeping?” asked Fred.

“Resting my eyes. Why are you so panicked?”

“Why didn’t he call me?”

“Maybe he’s having a good time.”

“I can’t believe this. You told me that he’d be all right.”

Cooperman hung up. About ten minutes later he appeared at Fred’s door. “Have you got anything to drink?”

“He hasn’t called. I can’t get him on the phone.”
“I am sure he’s okay. He probably doesn’t even notice the time.”

Fred walked to his window, then to the kitchen, then to the sofa he was sharing with Cooperman. He stood up and made the circuit again.

“You know, this is very entertaining,” said Cooperman. You were always Mister Cool Balls. For me, this is quite a show.”

“He’s sixteen. He just turned sixteen. He got the money for the plane ticket for his birthday.”

“At sixteen, I don’t think we had the imagination to get in the kind of trouble you’re probably thinking of. None of my kids, anyway.”

“Do you worry about them? I mean, you’re here, so far away from them.”

“Wow, Fred, what a question! It’s like you’re coming out of a coma.”

“Really, don’t you?”

“Those kids hate me. Their mother hates me. And they hate me. Maybe not Samantha, but the boys do.”

“No matter what happens, even if nothing happens and he comes home in the next five minutes, his mother is going to kill me,” said Fred. “He’ll describe to her in detail what a great time he is having in Paris, and she will get on the next plane and attack me like some sort of deranged animal. That’s the best case scenario.”

Cooperman watched Fred smoke cigarette after cigarette and demanded that he open a window. He also kept asking for alcohol. Fred had finished all the wine, but shortly after eleven o’clock Fred remembered a gift from his dealer Sylvie on the night of the dog portrait show. He assumed she’d given him the gift because his dogs had made her a great deal of money that night. It was a bottle of some sort of liquor, still in its wooden gift box, and sitting in the back of a closet.

“Here,” said Fred, returning to Cooperman with the box, “It’s all I have.” They wedged the box open with a kitchen knife. Inside was a dark green bottle of vintage port. It had no label; the numerals ‘1875’ were stenciled in white.

Cooperman said: “Aw, I can’t drink your fancy port. Shouldn’t you be saving it for something?”

“It’s from 1875. How much longer could I possibly save it?”

“Someone had the self control not to drink it until now. Seems a shame.”

“Let’s open it, since you’re so thirsty. A condemned man’s last drink. Marisa is going to murder me.”

“Open it then.”

Fred uncorked the bottle, and the perfume of the port filled the room. The two men forgot about Dane for a moment and looked at each other. Fred decanted it into a glass flower vase and fetched some glasses. They looked at the label again. “Shit, man,” said Cooperman, “this is older than…”

Fred took a sip. It was like a gong that, once struck, kept ringing and ringing.

Cooperman proposed a toast. “To the health of Queen Victoria!”

Fred cried: “To Benjamin Disraeli!”

“Him too!”

“To Ulysses S. Grant!” Fred refilled his glass and held it aloft, admiring its burnished caramel color. He knew he’d had enough by now, and needed to stay sober to call the flics later tonight if Dane did not turn up.

“I wanted to name Noah ‘Ulysses,’ even just a middle name, but Sandy said no,” said Cooperman. “Did you know that?” Fred had not.

Cooperman took another sip and refilled his glass. “When was the Commune? Was it that year, or later?”

“Earlier. 1871.”

“Well some of those poor Communard bastards must have still been around.”

“I don’t think so. I think they shot them all.”

“Let’s drink to them anyway. To the Communards!”

“To the Communards!” Fred drained his glass.

“You know,” said Cooperman, “I was amused, but I was also very touched just now.”

“That I opened my best bottle for you?”

“No, when I saw how worried you were.”

“I’m still worried, but I’m much drunker than before, so it’s taken the edge off.”

“I know I don’t belong here in Paris, not like you. But tonight, it’s like you’re a tourist in my country.”

“If you think you don’t belong, it’s because you don’t really want to be here. If you’d wanted to belong here, you’d have just stayed and stayed until you couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. And then you couldn’t live anywhere else, because of all the years that have gone by here, not there.”

“I’m going to keep drinking until I understand that.”

The phone rang, and it was Dane. “Why didn’t you call?” It came out as a squawk. Cooperman was at Fred’s side, clutching his head and making deranged faces. Fred tried to steady his voice.

Fred hung up the phone. “He says he’s at a pub that has 300 kinds of beer. He met some Americans who took him there. He is with some other people now, not the same people who brought him. Australians. He wanted to know when the Métro closed down and if he could crash at their dorm at the Cité Universitaire.”

“Sounds like he is having a great time,” said Cooperman.

“I am in loco parentis. With the emphasis on loco. What was I thinking, sending him off on his own?”

“He’ll be hammered tomorrow. Or maybe not, if he’s been drinking beer all night. He’ll be feeling better than me, though, that much I know.”

 

When Fred woke up the next morning, he emptied the ashtray and put the glasses and dishes in the sink. The bottle of 1875 port was empty and Cooperman was snoring on the sofa. His mouth was open, his soft jowls lightly covered with silver stubble.

Fred thought about the rest of this visit, and whether he would see Dane at all. Dane would pass through Fred’s apartment and he would not lock the door. He hoped Dane would stay, maybe even for a long time; maybe he would find a way to encrust himself.

He noticed that there was a message on his answering machine. Clearly he and Cooperman slept off the port so soundly that neither of them heard the phone ring. He pushed the button marked ‘lecture’ and, for the first time in sixteen years, heard Marisa’s smoky voice. Her message was brief. She did not sound anxious, but wanted to know if Dane was enjoying himself. She apologized for the late hour. The voice was deeper, wearier, than he remembered. He was glad he was not awake to pick up. If he had answered, he would have been unable to put Dane on the phone with his mother. And when he and Cooperman had fallen asleep, it was already after midnight. He played the message again, to hear if it revealed anything more.

“Is that your sister?” Cooperman grimaced and pushed himself into a sitting position on the sofa.

“Yes. So relieved we didn’t hear the phone ring.”

“Ah, that sounds like the Fred I know. I am happy to hear you’re feeling yourself again. I, however, feel like shit. Like if I step outside your house, those guys in the city jumpsuits will sweep me right into their truck. Got any juice?”

 

That first day, Fred picked up the phone many times to call Marisa back, always hanging up. But he would have liked to have told her about Dane’s second night in Paris, when he and Cooperman drank to the health of the Communards. He wanted to tell her that the picture of her on the back of Kevin Mulroney’s motorcycle was the memory he would want to carry into eternity. He wanted to tell Marisa that he had been a tourist in her country. But as the days went on, the impulse would strike him less and less.


Lisa Maguire is a graduate of Smith College and received her doctorate in European History from New York University. She currently works in investment banking. Her story The Girl from Good Mood appeared in the Summer 2008 issue of Podium. She would like to thank Chris Sorrentino and her classmates in the fiction workshop at 92Y for their helpful criticisms and suggestions for improving this story.

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