Lucky I got my ticket just before the departure. On the same day when it hit me all of a sudden - now or never! It was Wednesday, July 16, the perfect day, the peak of summer vacations. All popular destinations had been hopelessly sold out, but, well, things happen. The instant someone was canceling a reservation, Angela, my travel agent, with her enigmatic Maori smile and lilac-colored fingernails quivering lightly over the keyboard, had intercepted the refusal in flight. That's how I got the last available seat with the great international carrier. The catch, however, was something else - not the incredible window seat, not the confirmation of my personal luck, not even the destination - arguably the best in the world. The jack pot was the purpose of my journey. Everything was going my way that Wednesday. Since the moment I woke up in the morning, everything as if had conspired to amaze me. That's why I decided to amaze myself even more. What am I waiting for? - I said to myself. Now or never, today is my fateful day, the time to put the whole thing behind me and bring home to New York my Lulu, my green-eyed sweet morsel of France.
I said good-bye to Max who dropped me at the TWA terminal, to spare him waiting for the departure and the usual parking hassles. I had registered my ticket, attached labels to my suitcase, only to the heaviest one which I'd checked in with the luggage clerk, slipped my passport together with the boarding pass into my breast pocket and - bingo! Finally I realized that I am the happiest man on the planet. Wandering carefree and happy under the huge resonant shell of Saarinen's air terminal, I felt like I had already arrived. Look, nothing but routine technicalities separated me from my Parisian sweetheart. The beautiful peaceful twilight was floating outside the windows. The vanishing bright blue day was gradually becoming dark lilac, the color of Angela's fingernails or closer to the occasion that of the Paris sky. With just several hours of flight between me and my girl, it seemed, I vaguely could distinguish in the air that Lulu's favorite Lancome perfume, also the sweetish gasoline stink of the Champs-Elysees, and that indispensable fidgety Bal-Musette beginning to throb in my ears - `one-two-three, one-two-three...', turning my head around the waltzing tune properly accentuated with sneezes and sobs of the accordion.
The Belle France washed with waters of the same Atlantic, felt right around the corner. My Boeing-747 had already arrived from Athens this afternoon, and I could see it from afar among the intercontinental liners under maintenance on tarmac of the airfield.
Near the registration desk, I found myself a comfortable chair, lit a cigarette, nonchalantly snapping a magazine from the vacant seat nearby, and, oops! - Right on the cover there's story of the ValuJet. The magazine was full of the troublesome photos of the airplane debris, with the text too much revolting to my taste, describing how in the muddy Floridian swamps, alligators were feeding on passengers - the recent visitors of the Disney World. This rotten curiosity instinct making us so obsessed with troubles of others, made me to read the article to the end. My strangely stinking cigarette was getting me nauseous. I looked around me at my fellow-travelers standing in the registration line; with the article fresh on my mind I couldn't help seeing them turned bloodless, stripped naked like logs of wood, shredded violently in a pulp mill and scattered all over in the common mix with the ridiculous goodies from their own suitcases. Adrenaline rush ejected me from my chair. I started running aimlessly, trying to shake the witchcraft off, reproaching myself - Why should I care about it, this rarest, incredible tragedy? I'm not going to any Florida swamps, anyway not on the what-the-name... must be some new, inexperienced airline? Running in circles I had my point - I was looking for some irrefutable reason to logically eliminate the impact of the unsettling story. I came back, found the ill-fated magazine and trashed it deeply in the waste basket; as deep as I could. I became really angry, you know, sort of delirious even. It happens to me when I blow my fuse all of a sudden; when I'm having these 'episodes' of excessive pathological sensitivity and have the dark clouds of premonitions nearly suffocating me. Sometimes, among the absolute wellness I can find myself sweating profusely, anticipating an actual fever waiting for me in the wings for tomorrow. Or, I can drive people crazy with no apparent rationale, refusing, say, to cross an empty quiet highway - the site of a multiple car collision going to happen in a short while. Or else, I'd refuse to take part in an attractive business proposition which is doomed to flop of course very soon, to sheer amazement of its overconfident participants. Am I a hypochondriac, or perhaps a psycho? Or rather I have been born like that, endowed genetically with the extrasensory features?
Take the airplanes for example; not exactly an aficionado of air travel, I fly as everybody else does. As a teenager, remember, I had been toying for a while with idea of becoming a fearless jet pilot "striking the clouds through like a bolt of lightning". In retrospective, I guess, I could have simply tried to win at the time over a babe from my school who appreciated anything reckless. And nowadays, though boarding a plane is not exactly on my dream list, I'm still way behind of the fantastic record of the renowned fantast Sir Isaac Asimov who had never-ever agreed to fly in his life. Gosh, I'm not crazy like that, not at all! If necessary I always find a way to mobilize my discipline and common sense. Say, I'd remind myself of the proverbial wisdom that statistically the highway death rate is much higher then that of air travel; that the airplanes, as a joke goes, do occasionally nosedive but always hitting passenger trains on the ground below (ha-ha). Of course I dread this famous feeling of a chicken egg rolling loose in a carton, handled by somebody whom I don't know and have no way to control. Fear of flying that's right. Whenever possible I'd rather prefer boredom you know - counting all these electric poles, pump-houses, station cabins flashing by in my train window - I'd be rather glad for hours stay watching the same boring landscape or napping absolutely happily lulled with the rickety-rock of a passenger train. When there's a choice I mean.
This time I had no room for the hesitation like this. This time was to choose between the long overdue marriage and my ridiculous anxiety complex.
There's a trick for boosting my moral that I have developed - the facial so-to-say self-hypnotic routine. Usually it works wonders for me. That time I had been watching people around me, checking peculiarities of their moods and behavior, analyzing expressions of their eyes. Then, having been satisfied with the way they look, as a Supreme Being I decided that no evil is allowed near such a lovely crowd. So, I took a deep breath and decreed that everything is going to be okay.
In the JFK, among the people on the registration line I singled out one well-built strong macho guy with the pepper-n-salt beard. Flashing his toothy lupine grin, he was flirting with a tall and slim partner - a sophisticated lady type. Behind them in line, there were also some nice elderly couples, studying the long booklets of Michelin guide, a slender teenager girl trying to balance on her toes like a ballerina, and a beautiful young woman having the posture of a real dancer, who while pretending to support the girl, tickled her instead. They were knocking each others foreheads hysterically laughing, having good time. The way the young woman looked, she could make a veritable twin sister to my Lulu. I remember wished to join the girls in their game to finally purge the Florida horror stories from my system.
...And then, a surreal thing had happened. I stepped outside just for a smoke, as I thought, to the outer driveway area where yellow-checkered taxis were incessantly circulating to and from. All my senses were tight and sharp with the exciting journey ahead of me; as I mentioned, I was capable smell in the Queens air the special Parisian breeze; I was a medium who had reached the super heightened level of awareness in the search for signs and predictions. So, from the corner of my eye I had been following a colorful spot somewhere far away at the driveway. The spot happened to be a city bus ready to start moving... And I did it... I mean - I hopped on that bus and went back home. The idea of `hopping' was probably nothing but just a vague reflective notion in my mind at the moment. Subconsciously I could be attracted somehow, say, to a sympathetic young couple who was meddling in the bus open doors which were about to close. My powerful empathy made me feel that I was doing the same. My head was encumbered with so many things at the time - Paris, Lulu, the marriage... Yes, that's me; I could have just easily jumped like that, absent-mindedly, you know, anticipating something wrong waiting for me in the dark.
Strange, but, at the same time, I remember and quite vividly another course of events as well. When, after more than an hourly delay, the plane boarding had been announced at long last. Happy that the waiting is over, all of us we rushed through a connecting tunnel into the Boeing's entrails. As it goes, the people were hastily finding their seats, jokingly elbowing each other, picking up magazines and newspapers. Lucky again, I happen to get a seat right across the aisle from that pretty girl reminding my Lulu. I even volunteered to help putting her bags into the overhead luggage compartment. In the comfortable interior, surrounded with the nice people, everybody felt completely at home. Never mind what is going on behind the thin aluminum cabin walls, here inside, there is the human territory, relaxing and cozy. Due to the usual distractions keeping me busy I didn't even notice how the plane had maneuvered toward a take-off runway, accelerated and weightlessly left the ground. "Lulu" glanced once and again in my direction, and when by chance our eyes met, she would give me a certain look as if being perfectly aware of my whimsical fantasies on her account. Under the wings of our plane, the jagged Long Island coastline kept stretching and swaying in the darkening evening of mid-July...
Could it have really happened? I mean, could have I really left the airport even before the plane boarding started? Quite possible that I had actually hopped on the departing bus, following my animal survival instincts, or did it pursuing another idea bothering me very much at the time - wishing to check on my mother who was seriously ill in hospital then. Above all, I could have been also preoccupied and with my professional obsession - with a pretty strange painting which I tried to complete prior to my departure. The latter, this ambiguous pictorial etude of mine, I will better describe in more detail because that's where, I suspect, an explanation is hidden, sort of a clue to a weird and incredible story I'm about to tell you now.
On the top of it, there is an inscription in French "Cite de Paris" with a little bird-like accent mark above the first 'e', like a bird in the bucolic cumulus clouds of Ile-de-France. Produced in three basic colors of the French national flag, the canvas represents sort of a map of Paris with its humpy yoke of the Seine River in the middle, with all necessary mapping delineations, and with the usual cartographic markings given in French.
Here I must emphasize one linguistic phenomenon which is both pretty curious and common at the same time. Sure you know the typical aberration when for some or another reason a menu written in French makes food taste better because of the language used. Now, coming back to my painting I dare to suggest that for a gourmand and Francophile type the map of Paris can be equated not just to a menu (i.e. "minimum") but rather to the "maximum" - to the experience of double richness. Here, mes cher ami, we are dealing with a variety of taste familiar especially to connoisseurs of the verbal medium; in particular to the individuals for whom even a map can represent a sensual kind of object. I mean these people can experience certain pleasure `tasting' geographical names, they can delectate the Parisian map like an exquisite dish, or something akin to a feminine body landscape, tracing scrupulously through its veins and curvatures - through its famous avenues and boulevards. A Francophile likes in his most intimate manner reach deep into the very essence, into some hidden convolute of his targeted picture. He will rake slowly though the capillary system of the by-streets and passages, tasting dreamily some Rue de Latran or Rue des Vin-Aigriers in the vicinity of the canal Saint-Martin, or some absolute nowhere place - Rue Rotrou by Odeon. Once in a while with my neighbor Max we used to play this name-collector's game - Who will recall more of the Parisian monuments? In what district (arrondissement) such-and-such tiny street is located? Once again, I want it to be perfectly clear now - a dedicated Francophile treats even the Parisian map as an exotic sensual object. Possessing it, he needs neither the fleshy females of Rubens, nor those simplistic pin-up Playboy pictures so widely adored by the intellectual adolescents. In brief, that's about the subtext of my painting obsession I had at the time. The voluptuous curvature of my Parisian bride, I guess, had also contributed to my pictorial idea.
Standing near the painting one can clearly see the particular streets and squares; while observing the same from a distance, you will gradually distinguish a reclining nude, a big green-eyed odalisque with nothing on except an exquisite wide-brimmed bonnet. The lady is depicted across a tri-colored pictorial field. Above her, there is the glorious ultramarine of the Parisian summer with the afore-mentioned cumulus clouds, of course; beneath her - crumpled scarlet bed covers. The blue, white and red represent, obviously, the national palette of the French Republic. Coming closer again, the observer notices that all body lines, folds and creases are nothing but actually the essential links of the complex municipal structure. The lady is nothing but the virtual city map; that's how it is. The painting having being basically done, still needed, I felt, more final decisive brush strokes or something. In any case, I couldn't get the etude completely out of my mind. Who knows when an artistic conception is entirely realized? Whether it is when an initial idea had been totally transferred to the canvas, or has it more to do with a special moment in the painter's personal life? Who or what on earth tells us when to start, when to stop, when to live and when to die? Could it be a sign from above or merely a blind chance?
My studio, the same as my apartment, is on the top of the Washington Heights, allowing for a beautiful view of the Upper Broadway, of the Tryon Park and the G.W.B. with the river and the Henry Hudson Parkway running alongside. Early bird, I usually open my eyes when, on a cloudless night, the darkness just begins dissolving around the moon. At the moment, the night is still dark; it seems even darker far away, on the highway where the tail-lights and traffic signals are mysteriously flashing following a smartly preset nightly traffic routine. I watch how the Superintendent of Heavens is turning off - first the moon, then - the stars and other illumination not useful anymore; how the ghostly automobiles, still colorless like a deepwater fish in a stormy weather or like amoebas under the electronic microscope, start moving along the sleeping buildings also still colorless and pale. All this - until the daybreak is suddenly slashing across the horizon, revealing the basic American colors - the green of the baseball field, the red of the brick walls, and the kaleidoscopes mixture of mundane commercial signs. Sometimes, an old fashioned artistry intervenes in the picture, adding a fancy baroque effect with the smoky bunch of sunrays piercing the morning fog a-la Claude Lorraine. That's exactly the time when I tune into the Radio France International to get reports on weather or on a worker's strike, pretending to be in Paris; or, even better, I'd listen to Yves Montand crooning my favorite giddy tune by Francis Lemark:
A Paris! /Quand un amour fleurit, ca fait pendant des semaines / Deux coeurs qui se sourirent tout ca parce qu'ils s'aiment a Paris...
Max, my neighbor, is from a family of Hungarian leftists who had fallen victims of the Red Terror back in the fifties. As a child, he lived in Moscow for awhile, and he still is capable on occasion to say something po-russ-ku, to say `hello' and even more sophisticated stuff. It seems, he is never tired of making our Russian immigrants sick with his impossible ways - predatory shouting at them from behind Drass-vui-te! And, then, he always happily smiles expecting... God knows what is that he really is waiting for. I'm used to his bursts of wild joy. On the whole, Max isn't much of a joker; not at all. He is rather a secret melancholic and a moody philosopher type. In America, he had tried everything - selling glasses, insurance, and real estate. Eventually, he went broke in everything he'd tried, still never forfeiting his ultimate American dream - to become rich overnight by pulling off a victorious ingenious trick. What is strange, however, that in twenty years in this country, he has managed to avoid Americanization (he likes to think so), watching the American life as an impartial observer. He observes and judges, feeling, in his words, 'sorry for not so cultured, - confused locals'. With his unbeatable hubris he'd never miss an occasion to enlighten me about his views - about the idiotic daytime TV designed to brainwash the American housewives, or about the cheap-chat of self-appointed mass media gurus filling the air with their usual nonsense.
Listening to him, I've readily recognized that critical attitude quite popular among the immigrants of our European extraction. The same platitudes, perhaps, the same grand theories which, I confess, I've also practiced for a while, every time pondering - could it be that this psychological ambivalence with respect to the country adopting us, was kind of a necessity for us, supplying us, say, with a moral vitamin we somehow urgently needed? The critical views are eventually coming to our secret moral superiority, of course, on the very basis of our outsider's position. Whatever is subject in question, anything goes. "Hey, Yankees", a newcomer says, for example, "How come are you so smart but only in your movies?" The apparent dichotomy is always the main object. One has to know that idealistic image of America as seen from afar, to understand fully how it's hard to be reconciled with not so glorious actuality, with its confused populace which is routinely victimized by the smart ass media, with the notorious ads and commercials pushing sales down your throat... It's practically impossible for a person who's not been born in this country to connect all the dots. That's why together with Max I personally don't believe in suddenly becoming an American, just by virtue of getting naturalized and by converting your name. In Russian I am Oleg - the name unusually proof to conversions, is like that of a Russian medieval prince. In the States they call me sometimes Ollie but I'm not Oliver. Sounds close, but I just don't feel like one.
From the very start, I and Max, we became the fast friends, not the least, I believe, because of our Francomania. For hours, he with the Hungarian accent, and I with the Russian (Jewish, both of us), we were recalling to each other the charms of Old Europe - the real and the imagined ones colored always the rosiest in our time-softened recollections. As opposite, you can guess, to the vapid sterility of our present life we were exaggerating a great deal; but we loved it that way, drooling about the classy, high-cultured Europe and Paris - its undisputable sensual locus. We were of the same opinion that after any international trip, say, to Australia, Brazil or Canada, one always won't be totally satisfied, not having visited Paris as well.
"France has given so much to the humankind that the French is synonymic with Culture itself. Anything, you just name it, even an ordinary term - citizen," - Max would say during our debates, is a product of the "Great French Revolution Which Changed the World." Since it was Max who had mentioned this first, I had nothing but to expand on the idea, saying that the Russians, as nobody else cherish the same exact word. In any Russian bread line one can hear the casual shrieks, "Hey you, freaking citizen slob, easy with your filthy handbag. Stop kicking your fellow-citizens around!"
With the mindset like this, one could appropriately ask, didn't we feel sorry for not leaving to Paris for good? Rhetorically, yes. But always with a reservation that sooner or later (say, for retirement), we'll move over there anyway. Not now, of course, hell no. There's a rule, in case you don't know, - better stay away from your secret dream if you like it to survive for the long time. The word `dream' is routinely going together with the definition - `impossible'. That's precisely why we couldn't appreciate our proper residence place, our Washington Heights. Big deal - any moment we can look out of window - to see our hectic Heights buzzing, clattering, and dancing their Macarena - after work, at work, instead of work by all means.
If, as I said, Max is not exactly a success story, neither am I. For one, my mother, it seems, will never be well again. She can hardly walk. From her bedroom to mine, smells flow of her medicine mixing with the sharp odor of my turpentine and paints. Whenever I ask her if she needs anything, my mother invariably answers - "Thank you, Oleg, I'm OK. I need nothing." And after a pause, she always adds: "All I secretly wish for you is to find a good-hearted girl. I don't want you to be alone, especially with your condition, these episodes of yours". That's how she calls my super sensitivity spells I've told you about. Once, still a toddler, in the dark of a movie theater in Moscow, I pulled myself down from her knees, and, with my hands outstretched, went to the huge screen stand, wishing to penetrate the projection. It had been Chartreuse de Parma, I believe, when I wished to crawl under the puffy crinoline skirts of Madam Danielle Darrieux. I could have actually done it if not the guards intercepting me on my way. Later, in my adolescence, the condition worsened, I had been turning sometimes into a human tree; suddenly my legs and hands mysteriously were growing longer and longer... In the process, vertiginous and delirious, I had been emitting incomprehensible animal sounds. I hate being reminded of that stuff! But you can't tell it to Ma; she must always sound so clinical mentioning my 'episodes' as well as my being single for too long. Well, now the latter is going to change. I have already promised mother to marry and not just anybody but a veritable Parisian.
While I'm painting my hopelessly unmarketable chef-d-oeuvres, Max is usually standing behind me, having a beer, smoking and watching for the doors, his and mine, to stay open all the time to the corridor in between. If there's a telephone call or a buzz from the downstairs, he would disappear and stay in his room with his one-night stand 'client', a Rumanian girl, a Korean, a Senegalese... My Max is a devoted sexual internationalist, an equal opportunity employer. I'd say in all fairness that he is an equal-opportunity lover boy, genuinely color-blind to the subtleties of the feminine charms. Blondes, brunettes, tall, short, pretty or not, he never cares much about those minor details; he loves them all. He loves the feminine idea in itself, whatever it means.
When I mentioned my idea to fly on TWA-800 to get married, Max, I remember, attempted protesting instantly, preaching to me: "One should never tie knot in rush. What do you think your Lulu is the last girl in the world! For one, she's not a baby; she can come to New York on her own, and, besides... what's the matter with you, Oleg, - every time you have a romance, you have to marry?" I liked especially his 'every time' remark. Contrary to him, my Casanova buddy, I've never needed a calculator to keep track of my so-called romantic 'times'.
III. LAST VOYAGE
Two years ago, we saved enough money, and left for Europe on the Air France. Max fetched an address of his old classmate - Andrei or Andres from Hungary, who had managed to succeed greatly in France, and who would be just happy to accommodate us anytime. Max called his busybody millionaire, never reaching him, giving me the receiver to listen to a recorded tongue-twister message from which I could understand practically nothing except the standard s'il vous plait coming at the end. I saw pictures of a guy outfitted in his colorful car-racing suit, straddling proudly a shiny designer motorbike of his.
"Just one from his huge collection", Max reminded me. "Enough calling-shmolling, it's much easier to find him right on the spot." And off we go.
Max's fear of flying happen to be even worse than mine, putting me in the role of his mentor. At the take-off, in the wild hubbub and rumble of the jet engines, Max grabbed strongly my hand with his sweating fingers, not weakening his deadly grip till the much later moment when we were having trays of the French snacks with complementary mini bottles of the Reims Champagne.
"Am I flying correct?" Max whispered into my ear. "You're doing all right."
Relax, buddy, look around".
Flight attendants, the smart Parisian chicks, have immediately figured him out, the natural womanizer type- the tall, hairy, long-necked Max. They showered us with free drinks above all allowable limits. We have graciously accepted it. Soon, forgetting for now the air pits and vibration, I was falling in the heavenly drunken vertigo, my head carelessly swaying and drifting away. I guess Max was feeling just the same. As a precaution still, I have lowered my window shutter because I dreaded to see an awful black snag dangling behind our double-concave window lens. Something looking like a huge dead tree was dragging along by our plane over the endless nightly snow fields. Hopelessly trying to have a nap, with my inner vision, I couldn't let go to the terrifying image of the snag tracking the unreal icy landscape. I couldn't help staying suspicious all the time, checking the steadiness of our engines' rumble; the rumble which I noticed first at the moment of taking-off, when the terrible noise had suddenly ruptured the initial silence, causing immediately the utter terror in my mind. The rumble had been shattering our walls, souls and chairs, threatening to explode any instant, while our plane was gaining speed, then became safely airborne and only after that the noise got somewhat attuned and weakened, almost died off into a long gentle hiss.
It's always a miracle to me, I have to confess, how a plane as huge as our Washington Heights apartment house, filled with hundreds of us - the naОve, trusting souls, how it gets up in the air, stays suspended in the virtually empty space, in nowhere, with nothing but these snow fields around. Sorry, but usual scientific explanations known to every school boy are not enough for me, not much of help in accepting such a presumably simple fact.
Time went by, but the winter scenery was hardly changing behind the windows until the moment when the early dawn had reddened the unchangeable snowy clouds. Suddenly, the unusually dazzling sun had rolled out, and in the bright morning light, the snag had turned into an innocent looking riveted aluminum wing structure. An hour or two later a bluish patch could be seen at the distance; the patch was widening slowly like an icy pond melting under the sun, it was growing bigger and bigger, developing within itself a venous capillary system, branches, roadways, and soon enough all the scenery becoming a brightly colorful geographic map.
Passengers around us immediately went out of stupor and became exited; rummaging now, shutting up their folding tables and readying themselves for exit, following the housecleaning reflex pretty strange here, still thousands of miles above the earth. That's when I noticed in our male passengers' eyes that certain French cancan and the suspicious symptoms of inveterate sex offenders. My Max was also affected big time. He got completely accustomed to the environment and practiced now a pip-show - by dangerously twisting his neck to the floor he followed through the aisle our mini-skirted flight attendants.
At times, he could regain his initial worrisome state; he could, for instance, start massaging his temples pensively, whispering to me, "Feel it here, Oleg. Feel it for yourself. You know what I got there under my skin? The skull!! Horrible isn't? - The bony skull, the part of my dead skeleton. O, my God!"
Other time, he would be fondling his big ears, concluding in a tragic voice, "That's it. I'm definitely getting old. Check it out; my old man's ears are terribly bushy and full of hairs."
Meanwhile, the blurry highways on the ground have gradually turned into the vivid dotted lines swarming alive with the tiny colored automobiles moving back and forth. Our airplane went into roller coasting, tilting up and down. Now and then my window was all covered by the land scrolling upward, while the opposite view, across the aisle, had nothing in it but the clear sky, and vice versa. Our Caravel was carefully maneuvering for the landing. Max had decided to help. With every turn, he tried to throw himself on me, in the direction opposite to the machine tilt, explaining, -"You see, this way we'll manage to better counterweigh our plane". Annoyed, I hit him hard to stop the madness. It worked. At the monitor screen, the cursor representing our flight has already crossed the destination point.
Once and again we called Andres from the airport, with no apparent luck. Full of energy, happy be back on the firm ground, breathing at last the Parisian air, we ventured to the Latin Quarter on our own. When we reached that certain place on the Boul-Mich, we had discovered there not a private apartment we expected, not even any residence at all but, who'd imagine, an all-American franchise - the standard glass covered MacDonald's joint with its standard kindergarten-style furniture. We felt really upset by the discovery not only on the account of the lodging problem becoming critical for us now, but also we felt offended by the fact that in the heart of the gourmands' country, the Frenchmen have surrendered to such primitive fast food idea. Devoted Francophiles, we tried to avoid MacDonald's even in New-York. Who'd believe that we'd step in the place and where - on the glorious Boulevard Saint-Michel! For an hour, we just stayed there waiting for some waitress who supposedly had known Andres's whereabouts. With our bags under the table, we were just sitting there by the window, sipping decaf and watching women-pedestrians who were looking at us back with the exceptional love and interest, I should say. They couldn't see us, of course, not through the mirror glass. Some of them would stop, fidget checking their face and profile, performing dozens of secret manipulations - body twisting, caressing their thighs, pumping up their breasts with the bucketed palms, licking lips sensually, or pulling out an occasional eyelash. Others would just send us (to their own reflections, of course) a passionate kiss, with their eyes closed and lips protruding, with the gestures full of intimacy and adoration. Well, I have to confess that when an ugly lady was taking her spot at the window, we were paying for the bird watching in full.
At last, the phantom waitress was back, a bony teenager with her hair oily and sticky, I gather from the unavoidable hamburger's fat. She sized us with her non-blinking eyes, not the way the passers-by were doing it through the glass, but now in real. For minutes she kept staring at us with inimitable awe. Les Americains! She went on repeating. Then, regaining composure, she informed us that Andres is not anywhere around; that "the city of Paris, especially in summer, is merely a dusty junkyard. In summer you better look for good time somewhere down south, in particular, in the place around Marseille where exactly your Andres can be found now."
Tired, with our luggage getting heavier by the hour, we faced the real challenge to find just any place for the night, preferably a hotel rated with a couple stars; we could not afford any better. The beautiful Paris twilight, those colorful poster kiosks, the festive crowds strolling under the chestnut trees, all that Moveable Feast felt unreal to us. Feeling like a loser I pictured myself as a heavily sweating pater de familia looking in vain for a pauper bed on a fashionable sea resort; a loner among laughing suntanned beachgoers - the creatures of another, happier world. Max went searching for a lodgment in the street on the left, I - on the right. I had assumed them be parallel ones. That was a mistake. Paris is not subdivided in the rectangular clusters like Manhattan; it is rather a mish-mash of geometrical forms with its whimsically arranged segments and sectors. Starting on the adjacent streets, we, Max and I, were wandering further and further apart, in the different directions. Going in circles, as lost people do, I was hitting once and again the same by-street, ruelle, where two elderly ladies were chatting nose to nose like mirror reflections of each other, each looking identical to the other and both reminding me the famous sculpture of Voltaire by Houdon. Each lady was dressed in the same type of baggy hand-knitted cardigan, each holding a silky black dachshund dog on the leash. Only in the dense dusk (lilac colored, but of course), under the drizzling skies, I and Max had managed to meet each other in the same MacDonald's. The business was booming. The cafe was still full of the simpletons capable day and night to chew on their Mac and fries, pommes-frites as they call it there, in France. The Mac lovers had proven to be useful for us this time. One of them gave us an address of a budget hotel in the neighborhood, on Rue Cujas . God is merciful. Minutes later, breathing heavily we were climbing narrow squeaky stairs of a cheap old hotel sans ascenseur, where we fell dead asleep, practically at once.
Next morning, I woke up in pain, feeling every spring of my knobby deformed mattress and smelling funny stale odor of the bed sheets. Somewhere inside the walls, just by my bed, the poor plumbing was producing its terrible twangs, knocking and groaning like wild animals in a Zoo. Different, gritting noises were also rising from a garbage truck working just downstairs, near the hotel door. The cacophony of noises penetrated easily our broken window kept semi-opened on a piece of the hunger wire.
Max has already being awake and silently moving his lips. "Listen, dude, to the chat of these fucking pigeons, how lustful it is", he pronounced slowly and with a deep sigh. "It smells the great history, dude. Imagine, Oleg, all the debauchery that had been happening on these very beds, for centuries before us." Out of the bed he dashed to a rusty sink, the only 'convenience' in our room. Humming La Cucaracha, with strong smashes of the twisted towel, he killed two cockroaches on his way. (In the accurate correspondence with the two-star rating of our not so fancy hotel.) "No water," Max concluded, "Stinks of urine, that's all". And, he yelled a complex, multistory, hardly translatable Hungarian curse, approximately meaning: "the-mother-fucker-hotel's-tap-water-cock-at-the-high-fourth-floor-without-the-elevator..." Then, Max has parted aside the moth-eaten red velvet curtains covering the narrow tall window doors, and naked, as he was, ventured to our rudimentary, two-feet wide, balcony. The bright warm sunshine stripped by the blinds, flashed into the darkness of our room. In the open doorway, behind the wrought-iron balcony fender, the trees and Parisian rooftops appeared in all their glory. Everything was surrounded with the tender morning light aureole one can see nowhere but in Paris. Framed by all this beauty, the pinky buttocks of Max were protruding from out of the curtains.
"Stop this instant!" - I exclaimed. "I see Matisse".
"See what? What do you see? I'm sorry", Max jerked back into the room and under his blanket.
On our first walk to the city, at the nearest street corner, we bumped into the stocky classical Pantheon. We turned back. On the other corner, there was the Sorbonne University, then - La Seine, Ile de la Cite... Wherever we went, we saw these historic landmarks standing conspicuously in our way, routinely covered with the antic cracks and ivy, with the commendation boards and memorial plaques. We reached the Chatelet square where the morning crowds had already assumed their elegant poses displaying a joie de vivre pantomime as if composed especially by movie set extras - strategically positioned at the coffee tables with the golden brioches and croissants, with green bulbs of Perrier and other quelque chose. On the roof terrace of the Samaritaine department store, where we were having our first breakfast, I suggested various tours for the day, but Max stayed adamant, "All the cultural shit for later. At the nice day as today I go hunting. I have to get myself a leggy chick for the clean start! Have you seen by the Sorbonne this morning - the snotty teenagers fondling, kissing each other with no shame whatsoever? What a city!"
The July sun has been already rising, causing no stifling heat whatsoever, as it happens in our blessed tri-state area. Cool tender winds were waltzing from the glistening Seine, when I ventured by myself for the best possible tour through Paris - turning corners at random as if in a dream - first alongside the river, then, over the Carrousel Bridge, by the Louvre, around the ponds and flower beds of the Tuileries gardens... Here and there, grey-winged wild pigeons fluttered in the air filled with aroma of flowers, gasoline, tobacco, fruits and wine. Gravel of medieval backyards was crunching tastily under my foot; the metal garden chairs were scattered across the green, inviting for siesta... What can I say? Descriptions are powerless and even futile. Everything what can be said about this city had already been said long ago. The famous quotes and metaphors are preserved in libraries, claimed by the world renowned names; parroting all this is but ridiculous enterprise. Nevertheless, you know, there is always a chance for a sensitive soul to get initiated in order to re-enact in some ingenuous personal way the experience of people who had been here before you. That's precisely what happened to me at the moment when leaving the garden bushes I stepped out in the vast open spaces of the Place de la Concord. I got my first vertigo right there at the colorful street carnival with the endless merry-go-round of cars encircling the Luxor Obelisk Island sided by the shooting fountains. The pompous Alexander-III Bridge glittered on my left with the Empire gold of its winged statues, at distance to the right; the Madeleine temple boasted its roman portico with the dark rainy stains looking so perfect that no artist could ever have done it better. Straight on my course, there were the rampant Marly's horses unveiling the entrance to the great marches of the Champs-Elysees... All the landmarks were obediently appearing one after another; everything from a textbook, everything comme il faut. But when you see it in vivo, for the first time in your life casually strolling by, it can sweep you by a flood of sudden emotions which you've never suspected to exist. I'm not sure how to properly explain the feeling in plain English which is my second language. I must be simply a sucker for such particular sort of things, an unbalanced personality prone to the 'episodes' and all such sort of things including the sudden emotional avalanches. A proverbial spark can easily put me at fire, catching me by surprise. Is it what they call being sentimental? Well, then I am. The only thing I can assure you that when it happens, beware - Paris ambushes you, teasing, playing havoc with your senses; your heart skips a beat or two, and, then, starts racing uncontrollably, madly. Ah, Paris!
The same day in the afternoon, I was at our tiny balcony sketching with my pastel crayons a view - the rooftops, the beveled mansards with their dormer-windows, the wedge-nosed buildings looking like ships moored to a square at the street corner. Suddenly, from inside the room behind me I heard steps and then - a conversation. Max was talking in an unusually exalted voice. Peeping through the draperies I could see him sitting between the side table and the sink; from a shopping bag he was producing bottles of wine, fruits and pastries. A miniature green-eyed brunette was standing in the center of our tiny bedroom, standing in a Napoleonic pose, her arms being crossed at her full-size bosom. She sported a white Angora blouse looking so soft and fluffy that I felt an immediate urge to caress it. As I saw it there was something wrong in the picture. Good as I knew my friend Max, I was surprised to see any eligible chick still fully dressed after being more than five minutes tete-a-tete with him. Max, the deadliest lady-killer I've seen in my life, had probably something else on his mind? What could it be this time?
Max told me later, he had given the young lady the classy Parisian treat - riding her in taxi to a certain Fontainebleau restaurant, the one which serves the freshest trout, having promenades and cocktails in the famous Brasserie Lipp bistro. In short, he had honestly worked out his part - the whole unwritten courting routine.
...As for now, Max was talking in a weird ventriloquist voice which was his specialty - the hypnotic treat that he explained to me once was his biggest secret weapon. In his own words, the manipulation could cost him a lot of vital energy, that's why he used it as an emergency tool only when his amorous plans were in trouble. Luckily, that hasn't happened to him very often.
The girl was speaking fair English. "Thus, Mister Wonderful, you believe that I'm well done? The cooking is over? Where do you suggest me to lay down for you, this bed or another?"
"C'mon, I didn't mean that," Max mumbled. "You got me all wrong. Have a bite now. If you don't, I will." He grabbed a pastry.
I pulled the curtains down to hide myself better, wondering for how long should I stay here balancing on one foot, when suddenly the balcony doors swung wide open. Max produced a long surprising whistle, while the girl, it seemed, took my presence for granted. Cheerfully clapping her hands, she came to me and asked permission to see my sketches. "Tien, tien, we got something interesting, here," she said mocking a professorial critic's tone. "The view is not bad. Like that of 'Boulevard de Capucines' by Pissaro, n'est-pas? Or, you'd rather say - the one by Marquet?"
As if reading my mind, she also made a couple of appropriate remarks about the unfortunate role of being a copyist under the circumstances, about the hopelessly exhausted pictorial subject, and in conclusion gave me her business card - of an antique shop, located somewhere in the vicinity of the Place des Vosges. Embossed on the card, was just her first name - Lucille. "Lulu" - she introduced herself, strongly shaking my hand.
Meanwhile, Max, having probably wasted his special energy sources, his cheeks white in the sugar powder, was busy devouring the rest of the pastries, sponge cakes and napoleons, all by himself. When Lulu saying good-bye, thanked him for the beautiful day, and invited for reciprocation, Max continued chewing on. He just nodded vaguely, looking askance and, mouthful, said something like 'merci' in response.
Next day, I planned to visit the Marais Quarter and the Lulu's shop in the same neighborhood. Max refused point blank, saying: "Oleg, count me out, please. I can be fooled but only once. Is she an artist? Take your chances, go and have a good time."
I reached Marais by the twilight time when the last rays of sun were as if melting and peeling golden flakes off the walls at one side of the street. The opposite side had been already cobalt dark. The sunlight was flashing for the last time at some top floor windows, enveloping trees and pedestrians in the rainbow halos, flooding the pavements with the glowing lava - in a word, practicing the same French Impressionists' imitations that yesterday I had tried myself while sketching the city landscape a facon Parisienne.
I strolled through a long arched passage guarded by figures of the medieval knights in their shiny armors. Every other door in the passage was either an antique shop or a gallery, or a boutique. The businesses had been already closing; the shopkeepers were coming out to the street, carrying with them bottles of wine, shopping bags, chairs and boxes. Then, I saw Lulu who appeared from the colorful darkness of some curiosity shop boasting the Chinese vases, porcelain sculptures, bronzes and gleaming frames. She greeted me by gently nodding her head. In her hands she had two pretzel-woven Viennese stools one of which she offered to me.
In the beginning, there were some formal toasts, respectful clinking of glasses and silverware. Soon everything changed. Soon people started drinking right from the bottles, passing them around, tearing the baguettes, still warm from the bakery, apart, covering the bread with the melting chunks of pate or slices of goat cheese. Under the moonlight, everybody in the circle of friends has been already talking all at once loud and exited like kids at their playground. The more time passed, the funnier every their remark seemed to me. Crowned with an antique knight's helmet which Lulu put at my head, I was also declaiming something crazy to my neighbors, right in French. And they listened! For the first time I could fancy myself an old-timer as opposite to the regular passer-by tourists, mostly German students yelling approvingly their 'yah-yah', taking snapshots of me in my helmet as their exotic background. I was stoned quite a bit. But my intuition sharpened by alcohol, gave me an idea that Lulu had been secretly sneaking glances in my direction, when she believed I couldn't notice her. She did it in a very quick way with the facial expression of a short-sighted person pondering on something utterly strange. Sure, I felt those glances very well and liked them too. I have to confess that in America I failed miserably trying to understand what exactly was going on in the pretty heads of our local, all-American girls. My personal trepidations, I'm afraid, were totally Greek to them. They hardy cared. And now, at this picnic, for a change, look, I needed no translations. The bits of communication speeded smoothly back and forth as if they were in my mother tongue, the only one you need no effort to pick up right away.
Late in the night, we jammed in a tin can of Citroen - the car of Lulu's. I was sitting on somebody's laps and had somebody else sitting on mine. At street corners, the friends were leaving the car, one by one, saying a bien tot the French way - with the quick triple peck-like kiss on both cheeks. Getting out at the very last stop, I bluntly violated the ritual - turning the formal pecking in quite a passionate kiss which I planted right on the Lulu's lips. Her lips softly yielding to mine; Lulu had embraced my neck, pulling me closer to her, not letting go for a long time.
She brought me to her place, located a switch in the dark vestibule; a weak lamp flashed for a short, economically preset interval, illuminating a shabby interior with a blue painted door of the concierge. The elevator cage was shaking wildly while taking us to Lulu's tiny apartment. In a self-confident gesture, Lulu took away my wine canister, almost empty now, that I had carried stubbornly all the way. "You first," she said, directing me toward a narrow corner which represented a typical Parisian 'confort' - a 'restroom', or, if you like, a 'convenience' with a much stretched interpretation of the word. In there, you were supposed to manually stretch and pull everything in sight to make it work - chains for the toilet and for the shower, and one for the oilcloth curtains sliding on the rope... But what a charming place it was otherwise! All elements of the interior with no exception were executed in the same exquisite floral pattern - a suite in Rose and Blue.
In the living room corner there were some art supplies, frames and paint. A tall canvas roll had immediately attracted my attention. Unrolling it slowly, I had discovered a beautiful lithographic map of the XVII century Paris. I liked it right away and had studied for some time while Lulu was changing. And then something crazy had happened.
Later, Lulu tried to convince me that I had developed a virtual tantrum; my eyes ablaze, I insisted on lighting all lamps around the bedroom. I announced my burning desire to paint a masterpiece. To paint nowhere else but right on the Lulu's body. I was not taking no for the answer. Reluctant in the beginning, Lulu got obediently undressed, giggling and shivering while I was marking a wide blue-grey yoke of the Seine River, applying paint gently across my model's torso, from her right clavicle to her distant thigh to be exact. She fidgeted first, still patiently enduring all the tickling of the brush and of the gouache dripping down her glistening skin. Tipsy quite a bit, I was absolutely determined and punctual, tattooing on the Lulu's skin one after another - Montparnasse, Port-Royal, Saint-Marcel - all those glorious names staining Lulu's naked skin like an outrageous graffiti. The streets as above had encircled Lulu from her fleshy beneath in a soft curvature stroke, while the Rue Turbigo passed over the edge of her right leg which she had conveniently bent at the knee. In the sweaty hollow right between her trembling breasts, very gently, I had marked the parallel strips of Rivoli and Clichy. On the left, under her shoulders, I had placed Bois de Boulogne sparkling green; the other woods - Bois de Vincennes, I depicted as curly bushes on the right, in the crotch department...
"Oh, the butterfly brushes, oh, the flying brush... and these masterstrokes... ", Lulu whispered in her weakening voice, with her eyes closed, until she suddenly started yelling at me as though in trance: "Oleg, can you hit harder! Please do!" About that moment, both of us had been already in free fall, losing the last sense of reality. As to Lulu, she had initiated some kind of a strange levitation routine. I swear - the whole body of hers was rising up in the air above the couchette towards me. On my part, as if replaying the episodes of my adolescent years, I was turning into a tree, a huge knotty oak tree branching and drowning somewhere in the Vincennes messy thicket. The oak branches were shaking, eventually having being pulled and ripped apart by levitation currents; a tempest was approaching; the electricity charges were building up and throbbing all over until a thunderstorm and lightning had struck us right at the spot.
And the heaviest downpour had started...
We had survived, of course. Waiting through the rain, our bodies were feverishly trembling in unison. I cannot recall all the details, but Lulu told me later that I refused to calm down until the entire Parisian map had been finally transferred onto her in the exact correspondence with the lithographic original. And I've done it, yes sir! Incidentally, who can tell me - was it a miracle or what? Why it is that all the major backbones of the city of Paris can so naturally find their places on the Lulu's bones? Wherever I needed to outline an avenue or boulevard from the map, right there an appropriate tender bodily curve could be instantly found. How come? I wonder that perhaps, when an idea is destined to be right, all the technical details are automatically falling in place. Does it sound sufficiently crazy? Then it must be correct.
Close to the river bend, just under the ample Lulu's bust, I had been inscribing the name 'La Seine', when suddenly the double-meaning of the word struck me as a revelation. In French the same name stands for the famous river name and for the feminine bust (except 'e' on the end). Is it a coincidence, or what do you say! As to the other historical points of interest, all of them had also been finding their proper positions. Say, if one nipple of Lulu's had represented the Sacre Coeur Basilica on the Montmartre Hill, the other - stood conveniently erect for the Eiffel Tower. In the center of the breast bone, I made the Arch of Triumph looking like a precious stone necklace radiating its rays-avenues from the Etoile Square. In the end, I spent the entire roll of film immortalizing my completed chef-d'oeuvre in the Kodak pictures.
In the morning, the Rose and Blue gamma is all over us again. Both, in the room itself and behind the arched window in front of which I am sitting leafing through Lulu's family albums full of the daguerreotypes and sketches. Lulu, chirping like a bird, is giving me her comments from behind a Japanese folding screen. Her late granny Mado, she says, was very popular among the young artists. They painted her a lot. "Yes, all those names, grand maestros, everybody is crazy about now, they were just scandalous barbarians a l'epoque. You could have certainly seen my granny in many museums. Have a look at these photos"...
I'm trying to decipher the calligraphy of faded ink on the back of a glossy postcard showing a famous seaside resort. The cardboard is all rusty with pigmentation like that of the elderly peoples' skin. Many photos like these I've found in a collector's box made of the mother-of-pearl sea shells, together with the granny's thimbles, laces, embroidery, buttons, clips, straps and whatnots of feminine handcrafting. The whole tiny apartment of Lulu looks to me like such a collector's box, or, rather, a curiosity shop full of the impossible bric-a-brac. Here, on an exquisitely incrusted tea table, a ceramic camel under the Foreign Legion saddle, towers between the pyramids made of blue Meissen china. There, another, bigger table carries a painted chest filled with a soft mess of wool rolls, shreds of the medieval tapestry. On a top of it - a fancy Jumaux doll sits, having her only hand wrapped in an elbow-long red silk glove.
I'm bringing the shell box closer to my nose, sniffing the air of the bygone times still preserved inside. It makes me light-headed and dizzy, shivering either from the morning chill or because of a mystery spell. Lulu steps from behind the screen. She is fresh and fragrant, dressed now in a blue bathrobe with a rosy shower bonnet on her head. She carries a porcelain tray with coffee - exactly a-la Chocolatier by Charles Lebrun. Resolutely, she moves the granny's box and the albums aside, and stares at me as if seeing me for the first time. "Oleg", she says narrowing her eyes funny way as I've noticed she likes to do, "You actually live in this surreal gratte-ciel forest of a city with nothing but the stony peaks around, don't you? I've seen only pictures of it. That's just another planet to me. O, cette geniale - everything American, even your awful bed manners (she hinted on the last night), is charged with virility and power."
I try to protest, to explain, but she wouldn't let me. "Oh, these skyscraping groves of Manhattan... you won't understand what I mean, but, well, all the same..." Her eyes shine dreamily. She's chirping on and on in her sweetest voice, but I can barely follow her. I'm confused, resisting the image of the ugly duck waitress from the MacDonald's, which is creeping back to my memory now; so damn inappropriate thing considering all the romantic circumstances. Fortunately, at the moment, Lulu doesn't see me point blank. Somebody else is taking my place - a virtual American hero under his Stetson hat, a ten feet tall Marlboro poster cowboy cut from plywood, or a John Wayne ghost riding his ghostly mustang. That's exactly the reason, I figure, why the Parisians frequent the MacDonald's in the first place. Not for the food, by all means, just for the image.
Rising to the moment, I hastily swear to bring Lulu to the New York City someday soon, to be together with her 'til death will us part'. Frankly, I'm not totally certain about that, but the promise is leaving my lips all by itself too easily. In addition, an idiotic smile, I'm afraid, sticks to my face all because I cannot help melting completely in the benevolent atmosphere of Lulu's place. Nothing, but the irresistible Rose and Blue splendor is blooming presently in my head.
When at noon I rejoined Max, we were really short of time, short of money and of all the rest. After his big spender day, Max could even hardly afford to buy us the tickets to Marseille. All we needed - just to hold on a little bit longer, to survive at least till tomorrow. Tomorrow, we're going to make a splash, to surprise our filthy rich Andres, appearing in person right at his Riviera estate.
But for now, on a tight budget, we were saddling a weather-beaten street bench on the Boulevard Saint-Germaine, munching on the submarine-sandwiches. I've made them myself on the recipe learned from Lulu's friends - stuffing insides of a crusty baguette with the slices of fresh tomatoes, green onion stems, goose pate, spicy crumbs of the Roquefort, and with the melting paste of Brie cheese - whatever we could get. And what a delicious mixture it was! Mother was right. She has always taught me that the secret of all cuisine is mixing ingredients.
So, we're having our submarines, while across a narrow passage from us, a group of hungry-eyed tourists, the worshipers of Hemingway, are having their petit dejeune in the celebrated cafe Aux Deux Magots. They're looking at us, we're looking at them. Whose position is more prestigious, you'd say, in this re-enacting the Moveable Feast? I bet there's no competition, considering that our food is much tastier than their meager diet - just coffee and water. Besides, a real pro player has just joined our team. Unshaven, red-mugged, in a winter coat, his bare feet shaking loosely in his untied military boots, he is chain smoking his Gitanes and gulping his Vin Rouge Ordinaire straight from a plastic canister. A broken pince-nez sits on his nose, while he is perusing the glossy travel booklets, throwing them one after another in a trash basket standing nearby.
Lulu came to the Gare de Lyon to see us off, but we could hardly speak to her at the time. Shamelessly drunk, we'd managed just to find our sleeping compartment, and immediately climbed our upper berths. The fast TGV train was racing through the night to Cote d'Azure, with its metronomic rattling, sweet and nostalgic, reminding me the faraway days of my childhood. In the weak light of the emergency lamp, I could barely see my neighbors at seats beneath me. A burly grand mother under her heavy woolen shawl, stood there, bent over a little girl, whispering to her:
" Dors bien ma petite...dors bien..".
"Yes, I will. G'night, granny Mado," I said to myself, closing my eyes.
V. TOWN "N" BY THE SEA
From the railway station Saint-Charles in Marseille, staircases sided by the sculptured lions, run downhill in different directions. We've descended to the left, and have found ourselves in the middle of a colonial war; something of the kind. Policemen in the dark blue uniform, carrying their 'Uzi' machine-guns, were patrolling the street crossings. That seemed weird to us in the quiet and sleepy place looking not much different from, say, a poor Algerian village. The rare villagers could be seen in the doorways, smoking their hookahs, chewing on tobacco leaves and spitting conspicuously in the direction of the guards. In the shimmering clouds of insects, shelves of an open air Moroccan market were displaying mostly piles of the canned sardines, glowing with the tin gold. There were also all sorts of peppers, the Diablo, sweet, cayenne... and hundreds of spicy powders which made Columbus to discover America for us. Shabby dwellings were huddling side by side at the street which displayed the door-signs exclusively in Arabic with occasional 'Hotel' word in it. We entered one, which seemed a little cleaner than the others, with two elderly Arabs at the doorsteps, playing backgammon. They waved their hands in the air, showing us a way upstairs or rather struggling with the clouds of importunate blood-sucking mosquitoes buzzing around. Coming up, we found an empty room with the peeling dirty wallpaper hanging over the low beds; the walls were inscribed with words again in Arabic, of course, in red as if written in blood by a just recently murdered tenant. In the center of the room, there were the same armadas of flies circling a lamp bulb dangling on a naked wire. It was certainly a perfect place to commit suicide by hanging on the electric wire. Scared to death, we retreated and run back to the station. The players downstairs paid no attention to us whatsoever - still waving their hands the same as before. In the dry whisper they kept counting their backgammon chips "Shish-besh, shish-shish..."
Re-starting from the station hilltop again, from the same lions, we came down in the opposite direction now, and, luckily this time, we'd found the gate to the Golden Rivera paradise, the entrance to the real city of Marseille, with its crowded, brightly illuminated cafes, restaurants, boutiques, and all that jazz. After we'd located a reasonable bed-n-breakfast place to stay, Max informed me in a confident voice: "Andres will appear the earliest tomorrow morning, so, let's go somewhere, why not us going straight to the beach."
Local electric train leaves the same Saint-Charles station every twenty minutes or so, following its shoreline route. With all cars being climatise et tout confort, the speedy train ride is perfectly silent. You can hear the ventilation whistle coming from under the window sills. For the first miles there was the usual razzle-dazzle alongside the tracks - the metallic hangars, a rusty skeleton of 'Renault' in the juniper bushes, the clay cabins, or the garbage hills with the crows carousing around. Such a mess, also some junkyards lasted not farther than the military naval base of Toulon. After that, the picture had improved a lot - presenting now the neat graphics of vineyards, the fountains of palm trees, the cedars, the green lawns sprinkled artistically with the red poppies, the towers crowned with fluttering heraldic flags... Grained walls of the old castles looked to me as if built from the pinky blocks of my favorite pate de village. In the distance, we could see the blue outline of the Provencal Alps waving and dancing as our train rushed on. Somewhere among the hills there was the most famous of them all - the Sainte-Victoire Mountain engraved in history by great Cezanne. With a sudden flash of azure, the Mediterranean Sea had appeared, stretching throughout the entire horizon. Along one side of the tracks, on the pebble beaches, vacationers were enjoying the sun, lazily greeting our train as it was passing by. On the opposite, hilly side, I could spot once and again - a white washed chateaux, or the villas under the terracotta tile roofs, popping up one by one as if especially for our admiration, when our train was making the U-turns. We could see emerging in succession - the red patch of a tennis court, the green of a swimming pool, and later - gorgeous palm groves. "Andres is obviously in a pretty good shape," Max admitted with not much of enthusiasm in his voice. "I wonder what we, the pathetic losers, are doing in our Washington Heights!"
While in Nice, we stopped first at a farmer's market. There we were watching for some time a vagabond guy whose body was spotted all over with the sun burns like a Dalmatian dog. At the moment, the guy was busy stealing a melon by a series of calculated stealth soccer kicks. Nobody cared about him. The incredible cornucopia of fruits was everywhere - these melons glowing with the Mediterranean gold, the overripe pomegranates and peaches dripping their fragrant juices, the sugary substance, it seemed, was coming out of every pore. The stray Mediterranean dogs were either chasing each other, or lazily flouncing on their backs, shrieking in heat. The people and the animals alike, nobody could stay cool here amidst the fiesta of plentiful life. The atmosphere was inspiring me for a poetic mood. Oh, those sun-tanned ladies who ascended right from the beach, to buy baskets of grapes and fruits! Oh, their delicious, sun-roasted shoulders, their avidly chewing mouths, widened nostrils and shining eyes! It was certainly too much of excitement to have. Ashamed and confused, I gazed for consolation upward, to the divine virgin sky where a circus biplane was dragging among the clouds a strip with the ad announcing - "Alex and Yakov Zalkinds in their new movie production..." The spring-time International Cinema Festival had been just opened in neighboring Cannes.
When we stepped down on the beach, we had become completely stunned - there we could see nothing but the cruelest sensual provocation of sorts. Imagine something like a monstrous melon field - the grand exposition of the mammary glands. The shamelessly naked tits of all shapes and sizes known to nature - the budding young or heavy and juicy, the timid or aggressive; the ones sized like melons, the others like avocados or bananas; some hard and solid resembling pots and pans, the others - semi-liquid bags... The topless girls were jumping, playing the beach volleyball. Their ripe breasts were flying crisscrossed in the air; flying literally up in your face - the girls could occasionally peck their nipples right in your eye when they wished to light a cigarette from you. On the boardwalk, the pocket-size Japanese onlookers, fidgety and sweaty, had been hiding behind the magnolia bushes; their camera lenses sticking out on targets.
Right on the hot pebbles in front of me, a tall skinny man in his oversized shorts, was prostrated; his arms and legs being thrown apart as if he was killed dead by all this impossible bacchanalia of the beach. Man's private parts, bluish and hairy, were showing shamelessly from his loosened shorts.
"Here, here, Ivan Ivanovitch!" somebody called in Russian. The man had risen from the dead, he stood up, protesting and grumbling; he went to join a circle of the card players indifferent, it seemed, to their dangerously burnt flesh. That's how for the first time at Riviera, I met my compatriots. Soon, I saw them practically everywhere. Skillful 'savage' beachgoers, they learned the art of survival at the Black Sea shores, they had their self-made improvised tents out of the wooden sticks holding the bed sheets upon them; they had managed somehow to maintain fires strictly forbidden on the public beaches, they were secretly barbecuing the frankfurters or fish. I was especially curious to hear them talk my tongue. Near a huge pot of boiling pilaf, surrounded by the campers, I stopped, all ears, waiting. For a long time, they had not started a conversation. I mean, they didn't express any general human thought or reflection, whether serious or funny, not related to cooking. "Add salt, add veggies..." - the only things I could hear. Eventually I had approached them myself. Sovkis ('Soviet' means in Russian 'Advice') were full of useful advices - how to rent beds from the Polish, tents - from the Rumanians. How cheaper to get to the market? Ask for the local authority (avtoritet) - Sachka-the-thief (voriuga). He'll drive you anywhere for mere peanuts.
At the foamy sea surf line, there was the grey haired Russian intelligentsia grouped together, opening widely their legs towards the oncoming waves for the prostate therapy. In a way of saying 'hello', they explained to us, the new arrivals, that Nice is the essentially Russian town, with the Russian church and congregation, with the Czarevitch (the Prince) street. "While Menton is traditionally occupied by the Brits, Nice is basically our sovereign territory! That was French Nice, not Yalta, that Chekhov described as a seaside town 'N' in his famous 'Lady and the Lap Dog' story. Don't you know that? Make a note now." They were ready to give us even more of the crucial information, but we couldn't wait - being exhausted we ran to the refreshing waves to cool ourselves down and to play volleyball with the jumping suntanned beauties. Suddenly, on the run, Max turned back, yelling: "Hey, Servus! Istvan khazot - Look, who God gracious has sent me at last!" In a beach side cafe our dear Andres, in person was sitting, looking exactly as we had imagined him from the photos - the fancy helmet, the black leather racing jumpsuit sparkling with the numerous buttons and snaps. Even while drinking his coffee, Andres hadn't left his unbelievable motorbike boasting all its mysteriously interwoven pipes shining in nickel under the sun.
After their first embraces, Max and Andres started clapping each others backs, kicking shoulders, bragging on and on. "Well, the big shot, you don't want to recognize your poor American buddy?" Andres flushed, looking guilty, couldn't say a word while Max went on: "Yo-napot, Poitash, Khodi-van", tell me the truth, how's everything? First of all - can you quickly find a good place for me, for your less fortunate brother, in the fat business of yours I mean?"
"Well... The business is no good. The red-hot competitions abound... These Russians, you see, they're breaking my spine. Tell them, Julienne..." The barmen nodded approvingly, "C'est-ca, nothing but losses. Terrible people, they don't want to buy anything from us. Freeloaders, they want 'to borrow' salt, matches and pepper - the stuff, which they say, they forgot at home. 'At home' where, in Moscow? Cavemen, they are sleeping and cooking - living right on the beach, in the awful anti-sanitary conditions. But they don't really care. Our Andres is getting just extra troubles because of them, with no pay."
"Andres? What do you have to do with them?"
"With them - nothing, but after them..." Andres had one of the flexible tubes unbuckled, started the bike, pointed one of his pipe to an unrecognizable slimy garbage on the ground, and - presto! The junk got sucked miraculously up, disappearing in an instant. Max watched the demonstration, with his face frozen. "That's your business? But, what's about your great motorbike collection?
"Well, those are not actually mine. I'm a temporary employee, you know, Maxi. True, I had driven many makes and models. Once in a while they allow me to ride a real auto. Our central office is here, in Marseille, I'll show you on our way. Or, better forget it. The greatest thing in the world let me tell you, is friendship! I'm so glad seeing you again. You know, Maxi, if not today I'd have uncovered you from under the earth... Wait, don't interrupt me now... That's America which is my real dreamland, if you want to know the truth. How is business in New York?"
"The shitty business you mean?" Max frowned. "The red-hot competition: too many Russians." And Max pointed at me.
No way could I have missed that flight - I was too anxious to see my Lulu. Still, why so vividly, in every detail, I can remember what happened otherwise as well? The night of July 17, when all TV channels were showing water fires glowing in the dark, and an anchorman was saying: "After a message from your local station, we'll continue to cover the TWA Flight-800 story. Don't touch that switch; only with us you'll get the latest and the most fascinating details."
Realizing that nobody out of 230 people had survived, Max was in shock. First, he asked everybody to tell my mother, still in hospital, nothing but a quite plausible version that at the very last moment I had changed my plans, swapping Paris for the neighboring Quebec. She knew that it was my customary destination at the time. Next day, following instructions, Max delivered my photos and personal items to the Ramada Plaza, at the JFK. He called persistently the emergency information desk, trying to stay atop of the news. The TV set in his room was never off. For days Max was watching over and over the same TV clips - the Boeing's debris sparkling in the morning sun on the peaceful blue of the Atlantic. Press reports were full with the frightening facts. Eyewitnesses testified that in the beginning they expected to find survivors among the people spotted in water. Some of them looked okay, strapped securely to their seats, with just their clothes sometimes disheveled or blown away. But on an attempt to lift a passenger up, his head would suddenly fall off in the water, sinking deeper, popping back up like a ball and floating on with the surf to the area where other human parts had already been amassed. A little kid's shoe could be found together with the foot still inside. "You don't really want to see this," - the rescuers were saying to the victims' relatives.
In several days, one could notice in the photos some bodies not only mutilated but now also terribly swollen. Even more swollen had become the mass media seizing the day - there had been no accidents that big recently for the long time. Justly or not, all his despair Max turned against the media itself. The media, he believed, is not only the bearer of news, but in fact the virtual reality creator penetrating everything in the modern life. All of us, in Max's strong opinion, like some drug addicts, we've sold short our actual life for the mass media presentation; we're completely dependent on the manufactured twist. When the ratings are down, the starving media can make news out of weather, but in case of a spectacular catastrophe like this - hold on! The excitement is ready to explode.
Press-conferences had been repeatedly televised, promising to quickly unveil the mystery and to tell the final truth. There was kind of a perverse competition in those pathetic breaking news sessions, just aggravating, in Max's opinion, the general mood. The hoopla was growing by the hour. Brand new stars and celebrities had been mushrooming on the media Olympus. Max felt sick watching their self-absorbed faces. One could tell that they tried hard to look grieving, but instead it was obvious how they enjoyed the time of their life in the limelight. Max couldn't help seeing them as some alien's creatures making the somber grimaces in public and laughing behind the back. Scrupulous scores had been kept, of course, of various statistical data - the percentage of previous malfunctions of the machines similar to the N93119 (153 cases since 1971). The 'percentage' was the major key word used in all the chats of the talking heads - percentage of this, percentage of that - of safety breaches, of pilot mistakes, of the plane body recovery... These numbers supposedly were intended to render objectivity to the reports, but in the long run, they had done nothing more but selling the precious air time. According to forensic experts, the majority of victims had been classified as dead by drowning. The hasty reports competing with each other for the most intriguing pictures and revelations, were all the same clones, they could hardly reveal anything new at all. What was the big deal to specify that "one victim was an exemplary family man"; that the others "were all the classmates from the same school French club"? Day after day, the only inconclusive message had been: "Nothing is known for sure. The thorough investigation must go on".
Oh, people! Can we ever change; can we really wake up someday? Our brain, it seems, is programmed for being manipulated. Anybody, please, lie to us, promise us anything but do it quickly; better still switch our attention away by the hypnotic words - Thorough Investigation, Percentage. Expert's Opinion... We ourselves wish to be blissfully deceived, we dread looking down into the abyss, we hate be reminded how hopeless and helpless we actually are, marooned into this world but just for an instant. And don't tell us please that our fearless leaders, our celebrities are just the figments of our own imagination; don't disturb our infantile optimistic outlook, nightly sleep and digestion. What the use! All worries will eventually fade away; they will be replaced with others. A thorough investigation of some another, even greater disaster will follow soon. It won't produce any conclusive result as well, but what is the point in crying over spilt milk - tomorrow is always another day!
Oh, people! Wait and think for a moment - I, Oleg, a young artist, full of life and aspirations, the same as you are, I perished forever, till the end of time, died prematurely and unfairly. My body could have been mutilated, torn apart in the bloody pieces, swollen up, and intermixed with metal and glass... And you...you have forgotten me, haven't you? Look, nothing special had happened in the world except for the usual formal rituals and empty words. The black hole of statistics is swallowing all of us in the end. Well, it must be ridiculous to complain - all these lamentations and stuff, what actually one would expect should happen? What would I like to have been changed after my dying like that? Life goes on. Life is, of course, for living.
...When the Boeing had left the ground, our pilot greeted us on the board, apologizing for the delay, cheerfully promising to catch up and deliver us to the City of Lights right on schedule. He wished all the passengers to have a pleasant flight, also reminding us to sit back for awhile, not to leave our seats before we reach a certain established altitude. Listening to the captain's greetings, my pretty neighbor, the twin of Lulu, silently applauded with her fingertips. She made also a deep sigh of relief, since we were now safely airborne, with the trickiest part of the take-off routine behind us. Relaxed, she flashed at me one of her sweetest smile over my copy of Le Mond which I just started to unfold. I offered her a bunch of glossy magazines to choose from, and she selected one, thanking me kindly, and almost immediately there was a boom! Like a thunder - right in my ears. Could it be only a sound barrier, an aberration? That was my first instinctive reaction. Black smoke was puffing in my face. For an instant it seemed like the whole airplane structure in front of us had totally disappeared in smoke. Naked we were rushing into the open sky, and the sky was rushing at us. Lulu grabbed my arm, as the floor had suddenly sunk under my feet. And, then, there was this second terrible thunder...
What had happened to me, paralyzed but still fully conscious, still trying to get hold of my stupid newspaper, sheets being rustled away to the blood-colored clouds? What had I exactly felt, I, a patented panic monger - a denial, hopefulness, disbelief? Would I prefer to die in an instant, having a convenient heart attack? Not so soon. Time can become an endless substance. Forget about the whole life scrolling duly in your mind at the moment of truth, forget all those nonsensical stories, there had been nothing in me but the terror and shock at seeing fireballs in the yawning embrasure of the decapitated fuselage. Lulu gripped me hard, her nails painfully cutting deep in my arm. I was even glad to have that physical pain, the last pain of my life. I also wished to hold Lulu tight, wished for us to get dissolved in each other. Oh, my Lulu-girl dressed that day in her sweet flowery sun-frock, I was praying for the love magic to save us. Miracles happen. They must be. I was also hoping against hope for sudden awakening from the bad dream. Strange, I thought, I could think but I couldn't move even a finger, or see, the eyeballs were squeezing deep into my skull. Wind pressure kept choking me. Suitcases and people were flying around smashing everything on the way. Soon I felt nothing, nothing but registering pictures; slow motion. The pain in my arm disappeared. I couldn't see Lulu. Where is she, my pride, my love? She had been already catapulted from me, falling now somewhere upside down with her chair and a strip of my shirt. My mind worked feverishly, trying to rationalize the chaos, trying to catch one last very simple thought, a sigh or rather a sacred word well known to all of us; we had already pronounced it at least once, at the moment of our birth, forgetting it later, trying desperately to recall it in our dreams - an ultrasonic inarticulate cry-word known also to creatures like dolphins, even mosquitoes - `hummyach-hummwaaa---.' And the word came to me in the whistle of wind, making me unspeakably happy. I was about to emit this soul-twisting redeeming shriek, the only thing I wished now for my whole dear life. I was ready to yell the sound straight into the black sun falling at me. But I was not anymore.
Time came when from the total darkness, a weak illumination had slowly become oozing all over. In addition, a strange taste I could now be feeling in my mouth, taste of a lukewarm pap, of primary sour saliva, the terribly gloomy matter, sweetened with my own blood. Dampness felt throughout the place. A high voltage buzz was splitting my head. Once and again I was falling in a numb stupor, every time coming back with an electric shock shattering through the whole of my body. I moved a little. Sharp feats of pain had flashed through my mind every time I touched anything with my arm like my seat or the window beside me. I screamed and pressed my forehead to the cold window glass where my bald skull was vaguely reflected. I looked around. I wrapped carefully my wounded arm with a towel which I had found in a swollen travel bag sitting beside me. Water was dripping on my face from the semi-folded umbrellas above me resembling the bats hanging upside down. It sure rained heavily outside, in whatever the place I'd been. It felt like a moving machine or something. When the movement halted, there was a squeak somewhere at the distance of the swiveled doors, producing a double clap; a weak light emerged for an instant; somebody was getting in or out. A voice cursed loudly in an unknown language, cackled short. A baby was whining. Stifling air reeked of the canine hair, of sweet perfume, of burnt meat and garlic. Because of the pouring rain, I couldn't see what's going on over there, behind the window panes covered with the dense smoky mist.
Where am I - on some local bus having frequent stops on the way? Since the people with their umbrellas are standing around me, I guess I'm in fact on a charter bus making stops on request. The engine rambles, toiling hard; the machine is surely strange - an antediluvian, obsolete model. There's a strong stench of coal and of the stale human breath in the air. The shabby passengers remind me sleeping compartments - platzcart on some Old Russian train. Well, I have to restart my memory from a point; I should let myself go. Suppose, that was on a train where I got damaged my right arm so bad. Let's imagine, for the argument sake, the train ride - the cars rolling one after another, rushing through endless dark spaces, rickety-tapping on the rail joints until coming to a sudden halt, in the midnight. The boiler is breathing heavily, hissing with vapors - sleep-sleep-sleep... That's how I like to remember these things. ...Say, I'm drowsy in a sleeping car, when some shunting engine shrieks painfully nearby like a wounded bird; a grid of light stretches slowly across my compartment, its ceiling and wall. Silently, like under the water, another night train is passing by from the opposite direction, shuffles and disappears, opening a frozen nightly landscape with the endless blue snow drifts and with something that especially scares me - a black hook of a pump house dangling behind the window. There is a yawning voice from the upper bunk bed: "Hey, milok, look out - what's the station, must be Beltz?"
What Beltz, what the pump house? Those are crazy dreams from Leo Tolstoy times. The XXI century comes in four years, I live in America now. Forget the pump house. If I travel I'd rather use a comfortable liner. The up-to-date jumbo jet, nothing less! Let's recycle my story differently. Since I'm frozen numb, with my ears deafened like after a flight, I must have been traveling on a airplane. Sure, that's where I have seen the black snug dangling in the illuminator window. Perhaps during the landing, they were telling the usual - 'lock your belts' (neither milok, nor stupid Beltz!). This version is quite plausible to me; sounds familiar. Naturally, I'm on a commuting bus from the airport. The bus, I now recall it much better, which I had boarded at the very last moment, its doors were closing. Here we go; I believe I got it right this time! Now, I have to stay put; I shouldn't miss my stop now. Which one is mine?
While I was reflecting on my whereabouts, the bus went empty. With my heavy luggage I moved, as I always do, to the front seat, closer to the driver. I asked him - where are we going, and what's the bus number? I could hardly hear my own voice. The driver, in his smart air pilot uniform, turned slowly to me, and started to neigh right in my face, showing his big yellow teeth. With his open palm in a theatrical gesture he pointed forward where there was now a stop circle with a terminal hangar. Then, he had zipped himself up in a deepwater diving suit, rolling at me his fishy eyeballs from inside of his helmet, and went outside, in the virtual downpour.
Alone on the bus, for a while I meddled observing a gloomy cross roads landscape hatched by the slanting rain. The mercury bright rivulets of rainwater were snaking quickly down the window glass, breaking the view; not a single straight line being left in the picture. Everything in it - the trees, the houses, and the street crossing itself - all had been distorted, floating askance. A telegraph pole was funny zigzagging till it had become broken in pieces. A black-eared stray street dog trotting by, had been awfully stretched, first, into an exaggerated dachshund which soon started lose, in turns, his head, paws, ears, and, after that, without slowing down its dribbling pace, he had recovered all his members back for the complete resurrection. An automobile passed, leaving behind the long red wavy traces. Seen through a colony of the rain bubbles on a side window, the landscape was present in each of its multiple bright copies as if been observed through the cellular eye of a dragonfly. One could see the grassy lawns sparkled with the electrical green of some tropical seaweed. Everything was ablaze with a magical glow. Door handles and window knobs sparkled like the gemstones. Abruptly, I forced myself up, and immediately, the fragile window view got shattered in the murky pieces. Black tree branches started to fly around like a flock of crows, slowly settling down and composing a broken figure shaped familiar - like a tripled flight stabilization tail. The manta-rays were filing by graciously in the oblique rays of light, resembling some black raincoats soaking in the water. Behind them, the coats' belts followed, in manner of the grass-snakes with their bulging fishy eyes and their sharp teeth on the buckle-heads. The coral bushes looked like the Christmas trees decorated all over with the sea-horses sticking upward on their ribbed spiral tails.
Pain and anguish had been spreading through my body when I forced myself to the exit. I pulled the handle. The bus doors clicked open, and I stepped out. At the distant end of the vast square, a tall gentleman in a top hat with a folded paper under his arm, strolled by till disappeared. I wasn't sure where to go. I've decided to take a wider prospect, and started to walk ahead, crossing empty street corners on my way. Walking a haphazard way, at least I tried to keep sight of a church steeple showing above the rest of the rooftops. As I walked, the street buildings were becoming taller and richer, decorated on their facades with some mythological bas-reliefs composed of theatrical masks, animals and griffons. The closer I was getting to what seemed like a downtown district, the more of sky was reflected in the display windows of fashionable shops, of boutiques, and of business offices in the ground floor. Eventually, I reached a square with the big gothic cathedral whose steeple I had previously seen from afar. Its old stony entrance had been severely eroded and polished by many footsteps and times. The tall heavy doors of the cathedral were framed in cast iron, and guarded by the greenish bronze figures of the saints and warriors. All over the cathedral square there was, as it happens, the chain of the thrifty shops catering to tourists. From afar, it seemed, I could spot the tourists themselves who looked to me strangely like some colorful gingerbread people. The tall billboards stood alongside the route, covered with posters. On one of them, I was surprised to find Lulu's figure shown almost the same way as on my painting. Only this time she had been given a phony sugary smile advertising some chocolate production. Other posters carried displays of happy fat children, a sexy vacation couple in the hammock under the palm trees, and life insurance logos. There was no text, not any proper name given; all the legends had been censored out; nothing but the arrows and road signs left with the iconic symbols directing: "to city center", "to cathedral", "to public beaches".
The wind smelling of sea, salted my lips when I stepped out of the street maze and into a wide open space. Two-stack steamships painted red, white and blue, huddled at the mooring. Their tar-covered mooring ropes were squeaking rhythmically on the cast iron posts. There were also a couple of noisy splashes at the bank - somebody had thrown the bucketfuls of steamy water out of the caboose window. Suddenly my name was called in a falsetto voice. I looked around, when the voice came again, realizing that I'd been mistaken. There was no Oleg mentioned. "Allez, allez! Viens ici vite!" A man sporting a cocky beret, with a checkered cloak on his shoulders, stood behind me in the tall grass. His short fatty legs were in the high laced boots rather feminine in style. Not far from the fatso, a bearded artist in the overalls was at work in front of his easel. Several onlookers were sitting on a wooden fence behind him. Only here, it came to me to sit down and rest a little. I took off my boater hat, soaking wet, which, frankly, I hadn't recalled wearing anytime in my life. At last I could also unload my heavy luggage, putting down on the grass a suitcase in which, to my sheer amazement, I recognized my artistic plywood box filled with my own paint tubes distorted by usage, nice and heavy to touch. In the same box, there were also my brushes and other tools of trade carefully wrapped in the oily rags smelling pleasantly of turpentine.
VIII. ATLANTIC BEACHES
In front of me, as far as I could see, the wide bay was shimmering under the sun. The long flat sandy shore was outlined with the endless rolls of slime entangling in it the dead crabs, mussel shells, and sea weeds stinking of the stale fishy brine. The hedges of the wooden sticks fastened together on the rusty wires, were stretching from the foreshore to the very boardwalk which was white sanded and washed by the eternal tides. Here and there, near the hedges, there was also growing the dog rose bush swaying wildly by the blows of the sea wind.
What is it? I tried to understand - is it Long Island, Hampton with the ships on the horizon, coming from our New York piers, or, rather, those strangely looking steam boats are proceeding from some Le Havre to Deauville, Etretat, or Dieppe? What kind of a dome is seen over there at the left, is it a Borough Hall's rooftop, or a Casino, or some tent of a Cirque de Soleil? And what about those funny pavilions that can be seen behind the terrace, where the whole vacation society on their beach restaurant stools, is so beautifully arranged with the view of the sailing yachts? The great windy day for the regatta! Look, one of the stools is being tumbled down and dragged away by the wind. On the high poles, the tri-color flags flutter and rumble. The ladies' hat bands are flying in unison, as well as their veils. An unleashed canvas door of a changing pavilion, is clapping noisily, exposing somebody's hairy leg resembling that of an ostrich. A miniature Pekinese dog is desperately trying to find cover between the legs of her mistress. The dames' umbrellas are being twisted from inside out; some of them are freely flying away with the wind, to the surf line where the long waves are lazily rolling over the ranks of bathers holding their hands for the mutual safety. The bathers - mostly the mustached men, all dressed in the weird jumpsuits. The damsels are prudently covered in their full size dresses reaching up to the neck.
What a picture! What times I have found myself in? Barefoot, I'm walking slowly through the sandy dunes; the crystals of sand are cutting in the tender insides of my toes. Then, I'm stepping on the shoreline, squeezing out, as I go, the pale halos from the dark wet sand; my footprints behind me, are immediately filled with water and disappear like they never existed.
From afar, a plump little girl is running in my direction. She is dressed in a sailor costume, with her laced pantaloons rolled up her bare legs. The girl holds in her hands bunches of the colored ribbons and a soft rag doll with red gloved hands. Because of the gusting wind I'm not sure what she's yelling to me. Is she smiling or crying? Vous, vous, vous... The sounds could be nothing but the windy wails. Somehow I know the girl. I just have to remember her name. Which is...?
She rushed through me, like I were a ghost, and hit the puffy skirts of a portly matron reclined in the easy chair. The lady puts her embroidery aside, stands, not without an effort, up from her chair. She places a pet dog in her basket. With a parasol on her shoulder, she leads the whole family away from the beach in a single file. Following her, there is a servant woman, two somber boys in their blue berets with the red pompons, and my runner-girl. She holds hands with a slender gentleman in his conservative frock-coat, a derby on his head. The girl's herself, is sporting now a straw hat decorated with the anemone flowers, rose and blue, her braids are jumping lively on her shoulders as she walks. On a wooden bridge, by a flower bed, the girl turns around and shows her little pinky tongue to me. Of course I remember her name - "Mado". The name has just popped up in my memory. I can see perfectly clear in my mind those pale round letters written on the old pigmented Parisian postcard. Leaving the beach, in the sand, I've found the rag doll, the one-handed poor thing, discarded or lost by Mado. I decide to keep the doll to myself.
After the beautiful day, the nightly sky is ablaze, illuminated as though with the festive fireworks. The flashes of orange fire reveal the long clouds lurking in the dark, where also there is a moving bright silver spot reminding somewhat a flying machine. All of a sudden, the spot is - boom! - bursting in flames into small shiny pieces like a huge exploded PiЯata. The debris and bright sparks are all scattering around, falling down on the bay waters where the fire is expiring slowly. The view is now shrouded in darkness. The majestic performance resembles the City of Lights which is going to sleep. At the end, strange shrills are coming from under the clouds, gathering in a huge roaring thunder. In the dark, all living creatures, from dolphins to mosquitoes are going crazy, racing straight into this mortifying storm made as if of thousands voices - 'hummyah -hum-my-waaa...'.
Once a week, Max visited a morgue designated by the Safety Board for the identification routine. My body had never been found as well as of dozens of other passengers. All the same, the families were given the death certificates by default. My mother had never left the hospital. She believed to Max that I was somewhere in Canada, with an expedition. Well, Max himself, sometimes, had his doubts, because every morning, same time at dawn, he could hear the distinct vivacious voice coming from my closed room:
A Paris / Quand un amour fleurit, ca fait pendant de semaines / Deux coeurs qui se sourirent tout ca parce qu'ils s'aiment / A Paris...
And, perhaps, no one else but I did the singing, standing there by the window, watching the sunrise, as always dreaming on my favorite dreams, having probably dreamed up this very story, after having traveled actually nowhere, neither to France, nor to Canada. All the same, on the window sill, there was an old Jaumeux rag doll lying on her woolen back. One of her red-gloved hands was missing; her beautiful porcelain eyes were widely open as though she was listening to the waltzing chanson glorifying the heavenly places filled with the juvenile fantasies and dreams:
Au printemps / Sur les toits les girouettes / Tornent et font les coquettes / Avec le premier vent que passe indifferent / Nonchalent...
T h e E n d
X. EPILOGUE BY THE PUBLISHER OF THE STORY
I'd been given the text as above, in order to translate it from Russian. It was a commission requested by my very good friend Mr. Gideon Aaltunen who is the senior partner and buyer of the respectable auction company APA - "Aaltunen, Paltunen & Altschuller". Gideons's eyes as always were hidden behind his dark glasses, when he suggested the assignment to me at out last meeting. With his typical Mephistophelian bravado, heavily roaring, he pronounced my name: "Borrris, you know, I'm gambling with life and death. This glamorous business of ours resides on four sacramental 'D's which are - Death, Divorce, Debts, and Depression."
When I came to pick up an original text for translation, he boasted to me that they had got the whole stuff - oils, watercolors, lithographs - all together for just a million dollars or so." The majority of it had already been auctioned out with a decent commission markup", he added. Lowering his voice, he whispered in my ear: "Unknown but exceptionally gifted master might have perished on TWA-800... Well, Borris, I told you nothing, forget it."
And Mr. Aaltunen produced a blind Xerox copy of death certificate together with the original Russian manuscript - a pack of loose-leafed note-books wrapped in cellophane. The front page was presenting in a zigzagged pen stroke the famous industrial silhouette of the Eiffel Tower, the title "Ah, PARIS...", and, on the margin, lightly, in pencil, an inscription - 'a p o e m'.
The moment I started to read, I was frightened by a loud Russian Hello - "Zdrass-twuyi-te!" Smiling from ear to ear, a tall stranger was about to join me at my table, introducing himself as Max, a representative of the seller. He was telling me, I believe, very vaguely that the artist of the auctioned paintings will (or - would?) be very happy to have his story published. That he (the artist) had never in his entire life had succeeded in selling his works on the big scale ("a sad tradition in art history. Isn't it?"). He noticed that the story of the artist and of his mother, dark and mysterious, had tragically entailed an expensive funeral (unclear - of the artist or of his mother). So far as I could understand, this gentleman, grossly exaggerating my executive power, tried his best to convince me to publish the 'novel' right away "in order to stir the promotional hullabaloo around the artist's name".
While I was reading what looked to me like a fairy-tale, the seller's representative, who had already received quite a nice check from Mr. Aaltunen, didn't leave me alone. Reading, I saw his name frequently mentioned in the text. All this time, Max had been standing behind me, talking non-stop, explaining that with his parents, the Superior Communist Party Academy students, he lived in Russia and attended an elementary school at the Moscow 'Kol'zo' - The Garden Ring Boulevard. Because of the foreign aura about him, in his words, he had managed to become a kind of celebrity among his schoolmates. Everybody was crazy about him. At the Prospect of Karl Marx in Moscow, there was a monument renamed jokingly "MAX pulling himself out of a chimney" (a laugh!). His class used to visit the Moscow Planetarium where in the complete darkness, with celestial objects projected at the ceiling, an instructor was saying "In such-and-such hours, within such-and-such inclination one can see the planet Mars..." The whole class would explode, yelling - "Hey, MAA-AA-X!" (Two laughs). As soon as I couldn't take it any longer, I protested. I said to the gentleman that because of him nobody in the office could concentrate. After that, with his foot on the hard-wood floor, Max started to roll a faceted pencil, back and forth, back and forth, producing an incredibly nasty racket. Happily laughing, he informed me that the pencil trick he had learned in the same Moscow school. Being terribly distracted, I could not understand a word of the text I was reading. Still, having managed to advance through a dozen of pages, I was pretty confused with the story. Now I was ready to talk. I had serious questions for the troublemaker, but Max had already disappeared.
I had read the notes several times. If the artist had died, who could have written all this, and why? Max? No, as I saw him, he wasn't capable of the task. A detective-volunteer had been awakening in me. Having the artist's address from the auction files, by the twilight I came to the Washington Heights. From a glass covered vestibule of the building, I called the apartment. Nobody responded. I tried all the buttons in succession until the door latch buzzed at last, and got unlocked. The elevator took me to the tenth floor. I felt like a thief, my heart was thumping loudly while I looked for the apartment number in the crooked corridor. Five minutes after I had slammed the elevator behind me, a neighboring door moved, opening slowly on a chain. An elderly lady watched me from the dark. Then, she came out and inquired suspiciously: "Where's your luggage, ah?"
"I'm from the 'APA' agency," I said the phrase I'd prepared well in advance.
"Yeah, yeah, apartment is vacant. You can rent it." She nodded. "Wait now, till I open." She was playing with the keys opening a door for me at the very end of the corridor.
"Why they always send us boychiks like you?"
She murmured in Russian using the singing vowels of a Ukrainian dialect.
"Are you also making... these crazy devils and stuff?"
I said that I'm not an artist, and added as if by chance:" What had happened to the previous tenant?" But the woman had already returned back to her place, taking care of her numerous door latches. "The super will come tomorrow; he'll tell you all your questions.
...To get married," she said hoarsely, now through the door, still having trouble with locking her latches. "They left all together, the whole Mishpoche."
"Yeah, right to these Bahamas..." She had finally bolted the door behind her.
I entered the apartment. It was almost empty, except in a bigger room there was a bare mattress right on the floor. It was getting darker. Without turning the light, I stood by a window, recognizing the Hudson view exactly as it was described in the story. On the window sill, I have found that damaged one-handed rag doll. Encouraged, I went about my scouting. I hoped that I wasn't doing anything wrong. First, I looked in each and every corner, checking even under the rug where its edges were loosened. In a smaller room, I could detect a weak medicinal smell. The floor of the smaller room was spotted with paint. I opened the wall closet doors, one after another. On a top shelf by the entrance, I've discovered a bunch of entangled wire hangers, a roll of old newspapers, and a box from the table fan. Inside it, there was a travel blanket wrapped around a plastic bag full of artistic paraphernalia. I decided to cover the mattress with the blanket and my raincoat, and to lie down, using my handbag as a pillow. Everything that I have found so far, I placed on the floor around me, as the components of a jigsaw puzzle to be solved - the pages cut from press, many photos greased with paint. All the pieces were about the TWA-800 crash. The magazine articles had some lines highlighted with color markers. In between the pages, there was a hard rolled pellet which, when I've unrolled it on my palm, turned out to be a page from a notebook of the same kind I was given to translate. There was a pen drawing on the page, of a man with his hands wide apart, nose-diving to water depicted in the wavy lines. There was also handwriting with words: 'My Episodes, My Episodes..., and a phrase underneath - "Max, you're the greatest crook in the world!" More importantly, there was a fragment of a Kodak picture showing a full-bosomed girl painted with the zebra-like stripes all over her body. Reading the highlighted words in the papers, I tried to get the idea behind the particular selection. Like a real scout, I used now my flashlight. There was almost the dead silence in the room, except for some distant TV voices and music coming from behind the walls. Sometimes, an occasional airplane would be roaring by in the dark. Soon I fell asleep under my raincoat.
Next morning I was awakened by the sun light, or rather by the music, loud and energetic. Yves Montand had been blasting his famous Paris song. Deep under a dusty wall radiator, I found an alarm clock with the radio-cassette player. The red digits were showing 5:30. I felt strangely sad, my body was stiff and pained after that mattress. I stayed by the window, not knowing what else to do. There was a blurry white strip through the morning sky, coming down from under the clouds, like a trace from a plane. It was right time for me to go, before the superintendent comes. Think of the devil - the door latch clicked shortly. Somebody came in, and started rummaging by the doorway. The man looked very familiar to me, his height and complexion was about the same as mine. He brought the cardboard box into the room, while humming a tune and - guess what? All the same romantic French stuff - about the wind and the sun that like two class-mates buddies are running crazy, hand in hand, down the Paris streets...
Singing, he turned around and saw me. "Oh, sorry!" he said, putting the box down. "I'm just for a sec. I didn't expect they would rent it out right away."
The man wasn't the superintendent, that's for sure. I told him that I wasn't going to live here, and, just in case, casually asked in Russian: " Whi zdes' zhili, whi - Oleg?"
It seemed, he nodded slightly, I wasn't mistaken. He kept staring at me, frozen and silent. Meanwhile, encouraged, I went on, telling quickly, straight in Russian, that I've seen his painting and his 'posthumous' confession story.
"Well, frankly, I'm from the "APA" agency, if you know what's about."
Color came to his face; he giggled, bringing his hands together as for handcuffing and said:
"Officer, I'm guilty as charged".
Now, I felt confused, rushing to explain that I was absolutely nobody, a curious bystander with no official power whatsoever, just a translator. I also added that I've met Max, and, if I may, I would like to ask him some questions: "Is Lulu from the story, a real figure?"
"Yes, very much so; she has a great figure, in fact". He giggled again responding in plain Russian. "I'm going to marry her, this time for real. Everything in the story is basically true as written and planned..."
"Planned, you mean your death?"
"No, not that. Absolutely not. In the beginning it was just my usual psychosis; though later it got much worse. Max had certainly saved my life. He had pestered me asking to cancel the flight but I wouldn't listen, I'd decided to go. I had changed my mind just minutes before the departure. The next day, my mother died. I was in shock, overwhelmed and deadly sick. It was a terrifying feeling totally unknown to me - to lose my mother, my last and only bastion. I was becoming the next in line, with nobody in front of me, if you know what I mean. I used to think of myself as a happy son, just a kid, you know? And, yes, I had jumped on that bus, believe it or not. I was sick. Max made me to stay with his Hungarian friends in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Delirious, I had been in bed for a long time. After the funeral, I got my tantrum attack, the worst I'd known. I was insisting that my Mother was alive and well, still in hospital, while that's I who had really died in the catastrophe. I saw it clearly as I'd seen in my mind my name listed among the killed. I forced Max to go check for himself. He went. Astonished, he brought to Lancaster my dearth certificate. And then, Max had convinced me to write down the story. Under that condition, he promised speedy recovery to me, and, besides, his long overdue dream be realized - the one which would make us rich overnight.
First, I started to write reluctantly, but my enthusiasm was growing by the hour. Somehow I had been convinced that I was writing the truth, if not about the plane, then - about a crash of illusions. Ah, Paris! Ah, the greatness of Art! Look, today critics value my paintings pretty high, isn't a paradox? As though my artistry would be any better if I have really perished. Well, the bottom line is - I'm famous now. The son of a gun, Max did his part; he had really sold pretty much of my stuff under the veil of the common confusion. After that, he had confessed, of course, to the gallery about the clerical mistake and all the rest, the inadvertent mistake, not of his own making. The dealers decided to play it fair - they had never openly stated my death as the only reason of the business decision. No legal troubles ensued. All the rest you probably know. I'm a celebrity and a dead man walking. To be resurrected completely I have to disappear for a while now."
"To your Paris?"
"No way. I'm reborn. I've changed. Funny, I've learned to realize my rather simplistic delusion - that chic Parisien, one of the modish clichИs luring the public for centuries. Let's leave the Parisian dream to the housewives with the obligatory Renoir prints in their kitchens. The real life is something else; the schemes and fashions, no matter how appealing, eventually outgrow themselves and die. For now, I'd like to improve on my painting skills, and to try something totally new. Max is my manager and agent. He must be going berserk now waiting for me downstairs. Sorry, I have to run if you don't mind..."
He grabbed the box with his left hand, stretching his right hand to me. In seconds, I followed him to the stairs, to have one more, final look at my hero. But the heavy elevator door lined with stainless steel was tightly closed. The elevator made no sound at all. There was a strange dead silence in the building, not a step, not a door, not a voice. There was nothing but my own mirror reflection shimmering vaguely in the closed elevator door.
Originally in Russian - 1996
Связаться с программистом сайта.