Friday
Aug092013

Paris

Amanda Goldblatt


 

She was in Paris as a child. She cannot say anymore where in it she was, only that she was escorted by an old woman who met them outside the hostel on the sidewalk. Her father seemed to know the woman. The escort seemed to have been prearranged. Wearing embarrassing pink culottes she held the woman's hand tightly as they moved to somewhere she remembered to have had a lot of flowers maybe. There were wide grand paths and the dirt kicked up as they walked covered her shins. It was warm and her cheeks seemed to stick to the air. It is not that she remembers the city or the visit so much but she begins as she grows to understand the value of having seen a place, of having put one's body there.

Now she knows that people do not usually go to Paris for two days and one night, the way she and her father did, not like it is Old Orchard Beach where you take one day off at work on each side and make a little vacation of it. The trip was for the occasion of her father's mother dying. She was an overly-romantic woman with no imagination, her father might have said later upon finding himself in a wave of sharp bitterness. As she got older, he would say more. "The woman was unable to truly care about anyone but herself," he said, chewing roast potatoes at a holiday table for two. And while he got his haircut: "I never met a woman who claimed she was allergic to her fetus. She would tell me that. Like I wasn't the fetus." Stacy trimmed his moustache and kept moving. She cut his hair in the kitchen once a month. Despite this Stacy thought her father had loved his mother. He moved himself according to sets of opposing forces and always had. Later at his own funeral, in a square church near some useless pretty land someone in the family owned out past 90, the preacher who did not know him called him a dutiful son and father and Stacy had looked up at the hollow dome and remembered somewhere in Paris also with a dome, and though the memory was bleary, bled, moreless, she let herself thank her father, now, for taking her body there.

At the grave his brothers shoveled the dirt themselves. She did not really know these men. She was old enough now that this circumstance seemed intractable. It was a bus you could catch if you ran quickly, only you weren't sure you it would be a good idea to catch it. It was better sometimes, she felt, to feel prudent about where you went, where you were leaving. It was cold at the grave and not everyone wore black. The brothers' wives, soft and bright women all, circled around her after the service. Your father, Lord bless, not an easy life, at peace now anyway…She appreciated that their aphorisms were comforting at this time in her life, in this place. The plot was on the hill of a cemetery with plenty of room to put more in. She could decide to be there with him, later; there was room enough. The door was always open. There was always a seat at the table. Keep in touch dear, the aunts said. We're here, we're here. She got in her car and headed back into their city.

At the hostel in Paris there were all around them teenagers with backpacks as big as their own bodies. She can remember this. She can remember the wide public bathroom down the hall from the room where they wouldn't be able to sleep, how there she had used the mirror to check on a new tooth that was working its way through her gums. Behind another door there had been a tub with a showerhead on a long cord but nowhere to hang it on the wall. All night they played hangman and he chose words, she remembered, like orange and monkey. She was certain hers had been more ambitious, approximating sounds like trapeze or helicopter or appetizer. Spelling quiz words, designed to sound out and sometimes with a trick. Maybe she had slept. Maybe she had slept for a moment. She hadn't wanted to in the new place. Her father had said fine, she could sleep on the plane on the way home. She was making this up now. She was improvising. As she turned the steering wheel to rush the car onto the exit ramp home she began to cry in an ugly, barking way.

As a means to shut her ugly crying mouth she thought of people worse off. The neighbors stuck in a car on the railroad track. The wife had died but the husband had not. The woman who worked at the grocery store, whose fiancé had exploded over Lockerby. There was the family her father used to know, whose boiler leaked carbon monoxide but the son, still up on the computer, had got them out in time. Or how someone else in town's toaster had caught on fire. They had lost everything and yes it had been more than a headache. Or the young couple, from up past the lake, that came in from vacation to find a dead man in their refurbished basement. The deceased had apparently broken in but it was unclear why or whether he meant to die there. It was suspicious and afterwards the husband had left the wife and moved to his mother's in Chicopee, offering vague accusations of unfaithfulness and hauntings. That was how tragedy moved through the town, modest and driven deep. After parking the car she checked her mail. The box was empty. Inside she drank some orange juice from a jug. From the couch she watched a television show about addicts.

 

The idea of France hadn't carried much weight for her until it was heard gossiped that her mother had been living just outside of it, for most of the last decade. The gossip had come from Maryssa Steiger in the corner store across from school. She had been buying chips for lunch. Maryssa had asked her did she hear from her mom now that her dad had a better job. She had responded that she had not ever heard from her mother, and that 'mom' was something dumbshit, abandoning bitches did not get to be. "But my mom said your mom was in France somewhere. Did you not know that?" And Stacy thought to complete her purchase, and ate the chips walking slowly to her father's office building, letting the salt pucker the force of the planned confrontation. He would not tell her much, actually anything, she discovered. She ran home three miles after conceding to this silence. Had her mother felt some cross-sea matriarchal pull? Was there now some wild European precedent set for the women of the family? Would desertion and insanity come for her too? Stacy reasoned it would. Once at home she ate popcorn from a bowl in her lap and watched game shows until America seemed like the only thing there was.

Paris became, for a time, after Maryssa Steiger's hail, an abstract concept that meant unnatural remoteness, a dislocation, an unwelcome break from the familiar tone of the everyday. It was where her grandmother had died, where her mother lived. The symmetry made an unexamined sense. Stacy found herself trying to use it as a slang adjective and failing. "That's very Paris," she said to her father once, who had come out of the bedroom with a beige suit on. He did not look like himself and also when she said this he looked lost in the eyes. When a car beeped he went on along with his buddies to the Knights because it was Fish Friday. She sat on the couch for a long time, tucking and un-tucking her knees, looking for a thing in the room at which to be angry, wondering who was at the Knights he wanted to impress.

In Stacy's mind, the suburban roads of Paris were belched-out gray tongues, sour-smelling nothing towns leeched of the romance sent to the tourist center. She was never accused, as a teenager, to be without angst. But she believed then that it was not angst but the experience of an obsessively grinding asymmetry between what the people of the world believed they had earned and what they had got. In sum it was not solipsism but a manifest sadness over everyone being bilked. It was hard not to notice everyone getting disappointed, and at that age it was even harder to stop talking about it. Her friends told her to shut up already; she was in some circles regarded to be a bummer. "Just be happy now," her father said, with his hand on hers, in the seafood restaurant where they went for her fifteenth. "You are a young and smart girl and you are a good person." The way he parsed this out made it feel to her like these were separate qualities, rarely comorbid.

 

A few weeks after the funeral one of her uncles showed up. His name was Pat, Uncle Pat, and he was squinting into air when she opened the door up on him. He was startled and when he got over the shock of it, he introduced himself. A man who got surprised when someone answered the door on which he had just knocked, that is a man who is related to me, she thought. She glad-handed him into the lonely apartment. She thought: our family is a family of sleepers alarmed easily. His gait across the front room was stout and engrossing. It was a Saturday and he had not called ahead.

Pat was her father's oldest brother, and sat in the blue velvet family chair, rubbing at the wood duck heads on its arms. "This chair was in our house when I was boy," he said, with a savory pleasure about his mouth. The bottom of the cushion could be seen rounded out beneath him, covered in some brown upholstery under thing. She sat opposite, on a kitchen chair, and nodded. "What do you do with yourself these days now?" he asked, and tilted his chin up as if to catch her answer beneath it. On his cheek he had a large raised mole the size of a dime.

She told him about her work at the adult's home, but she did not like to talk about that and so she attempted to make it sound administrative and beige. "Mostly it's a matter of forms," she said.

"Most things are now," Pat mirrored in a comfortable way. "I just came round to check on you, all the wives were hustle-butting and I told them I'd be the one." Stacy thought to see if this touched her. She found that it did, in a glancing way. "You should come by for Thanksgiving, the kids will be back. Randy's in Los Angeles and Charlotte's out on the Cape. We don't usually get the both of them home at once."

"That sounds perfectly nice," she said. It sounded strangled, strangely pleading, a little traitor of a sentence. Pat had heard it, and hunched toward her, his chest pressing against his stomach. The chair made a little noise. There was, at the pit of her loss, an unpredictable and shifting center: untrustworthy, unhurried, desert-like. A little mound of sand that shifted in the wind. A sad little mound of sand in which neighborhood cats sometimes shat.

"We know it's been a bad season," Pat said.

"Oh, it's been fine, just long and quiet," she said. "For years it was going to happen," she said. Her father's death had been sudden, one attack one day, a near miss, and then another two days later, the real end. He had not gotten out of the hospital between the two, out from under the thin robe, the gray stubble no one had thought to shave away. She had been expecting his death for most of her life. When it happened it was just a drinking glass that had been sitting on the edge of a table, finally knocked over.

"Well we all die," Pat said, and moved his hand across his knee. "That is the thing we must do for this life we all have." It was shocking to look at this man, who had been, Stacy didn't know, an errander for the city government or a bailiff maybe or some such thing, and understand the things he was saying to have a direct and encompassing wisdom. She felt warm though the apartment was gone unheated. She wondered whether it was wisdom at all or just some artfully sparse parroting. "I expect you'll go see your mother now, if you can see to have the time?" he asked. There was a lightly accusatory tone in the question and this shocked her into a sudden fevered logorrhea. The moment, she allowed herself to think, was very Paris. She said she hadn't thought of it, over-airily said she hadn't thought of it, effervescently said she wouldn't know where to find her, that her father never liked to say much, avoided answering direct questions even, even over dinner when he would not get up if there was still food on the plate, that she gathered from various non-credible sources she was in France, somewhere outside Paris, but what she was doing there and how she had gotten there and whether she had any interest in knowing the daughter she had, Stacy could not say. Stacy could not take a breath in all of this; she deflated her lungs, she felt, completely, she wished, to be finally airless, yet instead found herself taking another breath just a moment later.

After, she was silent and Pat was also silent and they went on like this with Pat scratching his shoulder where his shirt seamed, her tucking her hair behind her ears on one side and then the other. In the outdoors there were sounds like cars and a heavy wind and it all seemed oceanic to the little apartment where no one was talking. She got him a plate of dusty crackers and some slices of orange cheese and a glass of beer because she did not know what to do. "Not the beer, a little early for me, but thank you," he said. She drank it herself and watched him eat the crackers in one bite each.

Then Pat drew up. "My mother went to Paris because my father died and your father had moved out. He was the last one. There was no one who needed to call her Mother on a daily basis. It didn't fit her anyway." Stacy knew this, she said. He went on. "After she left your father had a kind of wild life. He had always been the very good boy and it was nice for him I think to be in some ways without that pressure. Our mother was a difficult woman."

"I've heard stories," she offered, because she did not want it to seem to Pat like she did not know anything about her own family. In fact it felt like there was nothing around her at all, no room or circumstance, no atmosphere, no ambiance but that which her uncle offered. Life was not really this sharp. There were friends and parties and birthday cards. But there was still angst left and it was monolithic and boring.

"Our mother had no business being in Paris, really, but she knew enough of the language to get a job and then get another job. She was only in her forties then. There were postcards, never letters." Pat pitched his girth a bit as if to get up but then did not. "I was angry at her but then she was gone long enough that I didn't care anymore. Your father was angrier longer, I think. He was younger. When he went off a bit after she left, you know, he met your mother somewhere or other and no one seemed to know who she was or who her people were. I'm sure your father knew. We didn't go to the wedding because I don't think there was one, but maybe. She came over once to the house with your father and hardly said anything. I remember that she ate a lot of ambrosia salad and seemed normal enough. Some people aren't talkers like I am. Your father seemed careful around her, getting her drinks the whole time and asking was she okay. She might have been pregnant with you by then, I don't know. But honey, when she left after you were born she didn't go to France. I'm not sure where you heard that."

He stopped then as if he didn't know Stacy was waiting on him. She felt weighted and mute. She had not felt so out of control of her own life since she was a child. "I'm sorry I can't tell where she went but I think I know she's still in the state somewhere, maybe north a little. I can ask around if you'd like?" Stacy did not say yes and she did not say no she would not like that. Pat said, "Once I saw her I thought at the post office, this was years ago, I thought it was her at least but she was gone by the time I'd finished at the counter. This was years ago but I bet someone around here knows."

Stacy let herself out of the moment and with a light little sigh asked about Charlotte and Randy, how big was Charlotte's baby now, and how did Randy like Los Angeles? And Pat, in a kindness, said that the baby was fourteen months and that Randy liked Los Angeles fine and that every year he and Aunt Mary visited in January when Aunt Mary began to feel a little sad about the long winters up here. Randy had a pool in his complex, Pat said, and was liking his work, which had something to do with real estate but not buying or selling it.

After Stacy said goodbye to Pat she realized that she had been biting her lip so hard that now it was bleeding. She took a piece of toilet paper and staunched it like her father had his shaving cuts. She felt big inside with the family narrative. She had another beer. It was pale, just an off-color soda. The next day she went back to work and let herself be lost in its human damp mess. Mostly everyone behaved but no one was normal.

 

At Thanksgiving Charlotte had her hold the baby, whose upper lip was covered with its own snot. "We have a little cold," Charlotte explained, and wiped. The baby had Charlotte's eyes, who in turn had Pat's eyes, which were not dissimilar from her father's own. They were small and widely spaced. Stacy did not generally like or understand children. She wondered if she had the same family eyes but didn't know it. She felt perhaps she did not. The air in the small house smelled like cinnamon and meat fat rendering, a smell that reminded her of some Renaissance painting she saw once somewhere: red robes, pink cheeks, some trees beyond, a fire. The kid in her arms starfished out. "Get his bottom," Charlotte instructed, and Stacy gave him back instead.

At supper they said grace, which was not anything Stacy was accustomed to. They thanked in unison Jesus for bread while others were hungry, for filling their lives with love, for Stacy and her new and welcome presence at the family table. Mary sat at the end nearest the kitchen, and Pat sat beside her, and beside him was Stacy's own seat. Opposite her was Randy in his fleece zip-up and tan and between him and their mother was Charlotte and the baby, who was crying his face off. Two cats sat on the sideboard and slept soundly, casting off fur wafts. Mary was as quiet and even as the cats, getting up sometimes to refill one dish or another, potatoes or beans. Charlotte left soon after grace because the baby would not stop. It was a sound other than the sound of pain, but not quite indulgence, which the baby made.

Pat seemed present enough and joyful even. Randy was starting to get on a long drag about how the women in Los Angeles were like children, not like grown women at all. "You get one alone, like at dinner and she's got nothing to say, absolutely nothing to say."

"Maybe," Pat said, "she has nothing to say to you. Maybe you're meeting the wrong women."

"Maybe," Randy said, "but, look, you get a girl alone after the chase and you expect her to cut the game a little bit. Like, don't try to talk to me about sports because you think I must like them. Don't order a steak and whiskey because you think you're bucking stereotypes."

Stacy realized Randy was a little smart. "What if she likes steak and whiskey?" she asked, though she herself was not so fond of red meat. Whiskey burned her nostrils in a pushy way.

"Then let her eat steak!  But don't make a show of it."

"What does it matter what women order?" Mary said quietly at the far end of the table. "You should just want to know what kind of person she is."

"Ma," Randy said. "Ma, that's what I'm saying. In L.A. it is impossible to get a girl to calm down and really talk to you."

To Stacy this argument sounded conspicuously old and overly handled. Randy was handsome enough but by the size of his hand gestures, she felt him to be unserious and a little unaware. Instead of cutting his string beans, he speared one at a time and ate bites from his fork. "Do you think maybe it's the women you're choosing?" Stacy asked. She accepted more turkey from Pat, but didn't expect to eat it.

"I'm telling you, it's not just the ones I meet at clubs, though. It's all of them, the friends of friends, even my old female friends, that's what they're like now." He stood up with an empty glass in his hand and swept it outwards towards land and sea. "When, I just want to know, did all the women get lobotomies?"

From the doorway Charlotte laughed heavily like a fat man. "I don't think that's any kind of a thing to say," Mary said. She was smirking and this made Stacy like her.

"You don't have a lobotomy, Stacy, do you?" Randy asked her.

"I don't think I have," she said. "But if I had, would I know?"

Randy sat down, the empty glass still in hand. "Do you find the men in these parts to be satisfactory?"

"I don't find them to be anything, I don't think."

Charlotte, having served herself from the many dishes, reached out, touched her brother's shoulder. "Stop," she said. "Stop whatever you are doing."

"What?" he asked. "Hitting on our cousin. It's grotesque."

Mary asked Pat to help with dessert in the kitchen. They left like clouds blown by on sour wind.

 

After pie the three young people had wine and at one point Stacy asked where the baby had gone. They were in the living room, which was dusty and brown and wood and warm and full of snapshots and figurines. "Gone?" Charlotte asked. "He hasn't gone anywhere. He's asleep in Mom and Dad's room." Stacy felt folded down at the edges and it was pleasant. It had been dark so early and now it was still dark but not any darker or lighter it seemed.

Charlotte looked out of the window where there was not any snow. Most years there's snow, she said. "Down on the Cape there's snow but it doesn't last for but half a second."

"Is it pretty out there?" Stacy asked.

"What, you've never been?" She shook her head. "Where did you go summers?"

"Sometimes we went out to a place with my father's buddies up in Maine."

"God, didn't you have any fun, ever?" Randy was flat on the nubby couch. A bottle of beer monumented his navel.

"I've heard it can get dreary out there in the winter," Stacy said to Charlotte.

"Tom is good about getting me out of the house, getting the neighbor girls to watch the kid and taking me out. We have a thirteen year old who watches him until nine and on school breaks an eighteen year old who doesn't mind staying until the bars close." Charlotte let the blinds go. "So it's okay."

"Where's Tom?" Stacy asked, even though it felt like she was trespassing. There was a way in which she had no right to membership in this kind of home, where people constantly interrogated each other but it was treated as good manners and sensible conversation.

"Oh, we do alternating holidays alone, at our folks' houses. He'll come over tomorrow and we'll all do brunch together with turkey omelets and that. You should stay over. You'd like him, he's clever."

"I've got the couch," Randy said from below.

"Why don't you stay in your own room?" Charlotte asked.

"It's too short for me anymore."

"Fine, Stacy, you can have his bed," she said, and then told Stacy that she was staying, and in a bed at that. They all finished their beers, and then there was another round, and another, clinking and meeting eyes each time. Outside the night stayed the same dark.

 

During one seemingly strobe-lit moment Charlotte went to pee and Randy got up from the couch and sat with Stacy on the floor. They faced each other, legs folded. "Can I get you anything?" he asked.

"Just my mother," Stacy said without any catch between brain and mouth. A chute had opened up. She had been thinking of that night's dinner table, coveting its easy choreography, they way they were all so warm and profane to one another. "Kidding," she said, and began to show Randy the trick she could do where she folded her tongue twice in a W shape because she could not think of anything else to do.

When Charlotte came back to the room they both looked up a little guilty-looking but Charlotte could not know, Stacy thought, what real mistake had happened. Stacy put her tongue back in her mouth. Charlotte sat down, and gave them a bottle of vodka to pass. It was cold from the freezer. "This," Charlotte proclaimed, "is the color of the air." And Randy said yes, you're right, and then they drank that.

Around eleven when it was still not so late and the early bristles of drunkenness had tamed themselves into soft little tongues, Stacy tried to tell a story someone else had once told her because it was the most interesting story she could think to tell: "A Dutch family had a pig as a pet but it was one of those pets that would eventually be butchered. It hadn't been planned like that at first but times were not good and soon they would need the meat. Neither the mother or the father wanted to say anything to their son, who could be quite sensitive about these kinds of things, so they decided they wouldn't. Some day in the future, they decided, there would simply be bacon for breakfast. They hoped that the little boy was still young enough that he might not put two and two together.

"As anyone could predict, the little boy dearly loved the pig and went out each morning to feed it and pet its piggy head. The parents saw this. Feeling awful, the father suffered from terrible heartburn and the mother became distracted, bumping into things and coming out with big purple bruises all over her body. But they could not change the times and so they could not keep from doing what they would have to do.

"One day the boy was at school and the father, whose company was not doing so well, was on a furlough from work. He and the mother decided it was probably time. The pig was fat and meat prices at the butcher's had gotten too high for the family budget. They touched their heads together, forehead to forehead, and said a small prayer.

"The father left the kitchen with a knife and because the pig was calm and tame got a good stick in before the animal could tell what was going on. But when it realized the pain the animal pig began to canter wildly around the pen, bleeding out and squealing until at last the mother, who had heard the noises from where she stood in the kitchen, came out with a rifle. She was a good shot and shot the pig in the head on the first try.

"As the mother and father stood over the pig's body they realized that the meat of the pig would taste bitter for their betrayal of their sweet son's love. Their son was a quiet boy and it had been hard to conceive him. They had wanted him so much, and this dead pig was a burden they would not further take. So together they buried the pig in the side yard under some bushes and turned the soil of the pen where the blood had spilled.

"At supper the mother and father told the boy that the pig had decided to spend time with his pig family at a farm far outside of the town where they lived. The boy asked whether they could go visit the pig, but the father said, 'Oh, he's much too busy nowadays.' And the boy was sad but he seemed satisfied enough until as they ate their puddings there was a knock at the door.

"At the door was a policeman. He said that he had been sent to look into a possible murder. A neighbor had heard screaming, and a gunshot, and seen with her own eyes, she said, the mother and father digging a grave in the side yard. The father knew that there was an explanation for all of this and said so, but when the policeman asked what it was he said he could not explain in front of his son. The policeman said if that was the case, they would have to come down to police station. But the father was worried that if he was seen at the police station that his boss might fire him; it was a public position he held and it would not do to be brought in for questioning about a murder. His boss was looking for excuses to thin the herd. So the father explained, and the mother helped, holding her boy as they spoke, about the pig and the knife and the gun and the grave. And the policeman was satisfied and the neighbor was satisfied but they were given a small fine for making trouble. All night the little boy cried, but in the morning he stopped." When she finished the story Stacy found herself to be exhausted. It was late or early.

"Did that really happen?" Randy asked.

"I don't know," she said.

"Did you get to have pets as a kid?" Charlotte asked.

"No," Stacy said. "My dad always said that they were too dirty."

"How come you like that story so much?" Randy asked.

Stacy was beginning to feel like a part of the world she was in; she could tell because she did not want to answer any more questions and said so. "I'm so drunk," she said. "It has a happy ending." And she thought about how drunk she was and how much fun she was having.

"Should we tell her?" Charlotte asked Randy, putting her head on her brother's shoulder.

"It's got to be time some time, doesn't it?" he said, and put the bottle on the table. "Stacy," he said. Already she felt as if she were being made to feel like the brave little boy with the buried pet pig. "We have something to tell you." The room was rubber banding. "We know where your mother is. We can go there now. It's close."

Stacy saw that Charlotte was turned away from the exchange, toward the window, looking at the window again. We can go there now. "There" was Paris or Los Angeles or the Cape, Chicopee or even Boston. Stacy said she didn't think she wanted to if that was okay with them. Charlotte began to cry a little, and then said good night.

Together Randy and Stacy gathered the bottles and their tops. He showed her where his room was. Inside there were some stacks of magazines, a toy dinosaur, a glamour poster of a model not wearing a bra. The wallpaper was a flocked cream stripe. "We didn't mean to surprise you like that," he said. He stood close to her and put his hand on her shoulder, to steady himself or reassure her. He brought his face close to hers, as if he was about to kiss her mouth. Stacy did not move or stay. She was present, fixed, her muscles conferencing on whether they would give up for the evening. His arms came around her body, one arm across her shoulder blades and another at her waist. He nuzzled her softly and spoke into her ear. She felt bound, pressed. "It's just," he said with some hoarse alcohol stranger voice. "We're so happy. We have so much. And you're so sad."