My sister lies next to me on a blanket at China Beach. I ask her how she is and she cries but she doesn’t turn away. What is a flower turned down? The large and drooping nightblooms outside my house called angels trumpets. The stretch marks on our thighs gleaming like creases in a shallow river. Our bodies marked with hunger and change. The neighbor’s cat comes to the door most nights. I let her in when I know I have cream in the fridge. She curls around my legs in hunger as I pour it onto a plate. It is hard to remember that growth happens in the dark. That nightshades require shade like animals kept in the sun. It will take time. It will take your whole life.
At the start of December, when the village smelled of sausages, a washerwoman scrubbed out her underthings on the bank of the canal. The starlings in the poplars said at noon there might be bread. But the noon sun saw only the washerwomen, who stayed busy praying that God might turn them into sparrows, birds who wash only their own embroidered jackets, and they do so in the dust, in carriage wheels ruts or the rocky yard off the side porch where little boys play at construction, with tarnished spoons and snifters of dirt.
Plant a carp, and you’ll harvest a fountain. Plant a cardinal and you can bring home a fire. Plant a lion’s paw, and one day it will grow to a cathedral. With good soil, luck, and a month of tending, we can plant this heel of bread and finally have a nursemaid. Call her Nanny Constance. Call her your first love and your best. Show her to her closet at the back of midnight’s stairs.
He likes to think of himself as an experimental character; he mentioned this often in his letters. Research has revealed that he was not from this country, but when pressed he says only he was born “west of the moon.” In point of fact we have strong indications he is related to the moon. With his prominent nose and moustache, and his janky goatee, the man in the moon might well be his father, although some might argue that the red beret speaks of a previous unknown relation to the sun. And his mother? Remember the old woman who sold paper sacks of birdseed in front of the cathedral?
Out in the desert at Vidal Junction, lonely Highway 62 meets lonely Highway 93; briefly and for life. Signs mark the spot. Destinations are paint on the signs: Parker, Needles, 29 Palms, Blythe.
The names are cunning fictions. We cannot acknowledge this. We need to believe in signs and destinations. We need to believe that Vidal Junction is more than a story we tell ourselves.
Maybe a truck is approaching. At first no more than a rumour, then a range of possibilities wriggling in the heat; finally, it’s Lancelot, armour blinding, drums and trumpets, far too grand for scrabbly Vidal Junction.
It’s Sunday. Just gone noon. Vidal Junction is sleeping. The truck is a wonderful dream within that sleep. Or maybe it’s a nightmare, psycho-killer, psycho-howling across the land and letting that howl embed itself in the silence left behind.
Stepping out of the car. Clunk of the door unexpectedly loud. Walking towards a mini-mart, one of the sheds that appear to be the sum of Vidal Junction. Several sheds are abandoned; all are stranded pioneers a long way from home.
Down an aisle of the min-mart, a woman is approaching. She’s young and black and tall and erect and moving with grace and purpose. She delivers a prophecy, curse or benediction.
The kid in the Carl Sagan t-shirt claims this strain of weed makes people think they’ve been kidnapped by space critters. It’s got a righteous buzz, as well as a Why is my head so heavy? kind of “body high.” Thus, I am talked into purchasing a joint for my wife. After we leave the dispensary, she insists I smoke it with her in our Murphy room at the Golden Nugget. I haven’t been high in forty years, but it’s Vegas, its legal, and she wants to cut loose. So I’m smoking pot, sipping Jack and pondering the obscenely large porterhouse I’ll be ordering in about an hour at Redwood’s Steak and Chops when I start to feel a little hemmed in, like an elephant on an island, which—I tell my wife—is why I will never do a pleasure cruise. I feel claustrophobic on boats, though I do like the pleasure part. I think it’s good for people to debauch themselves from time to time. I consider it “moral resetting,” like the Amish custom of Rumspringa where youth engage in rebellious behavior in defiance of church norms. Honey, my wife says, maybe you should take it easy. This isn’t the same shit you smoked back in the day. How the hell does she know what “shit” I smoked “back in the day?” Truth be told, I never had the wallet for it, but one time, I clearly recall puffing a doobie before a high school dance—“Big Wheelie and the Hubcaps”—during which I drank a bottle of Cherry Mist and threw up on Alice Del Prince. I felt genuinely bad I’d ruined her black chiffon and offered to pay the dry-cleaning bill, but she just screamed at me. We never dated again. I vaguely remember something about a nervous breakdown years later. I hope my vomiting had nothing to do with it. Let that thought just be my overextended sense of guilt kicking in. I’m sweating. I feel like someone’s attached a very thick forehead to my pre-existing forehead. One theory of life suggests we’re human only when we have a functioning brain, a conductor without whom our symphony of organs would merely be a disjointed group of instruments. What is situated behind my thickening forehead is actually the seat of a singularly cerebral human being. There’s a butcher shop near me that sells beef bones, three for $5. Years ago, these were given away, because the needs of the poor were once considered. Now there are folks double-parking their Subarus to run inside and buy $5 fucking beef bones. From now on, I will demonstrate my solidarity with the poor by going without beef bones. “Pre-existing” seems an odd word. Shouldn’t something just exist or not. How does it pre-exist? Can it post-exist? Is that called afterlife? Another strange word—the next world, the hereafter. Most theists believe there is an afterlife. I believe I lived a previous life, and I hope my obituary reflects that. It should begin with He rode a black Friesian, his armor clattering in the heat.
Zeus wears pin-striped togas and storms around his boardroom inside the Empire State Building. He’s married but still has an eye for the ladies. At the office, we all call him Dad, because there’s a pretty good chance he is. He’s a huge Eagles fan. The high-strung woman he’s sometimes with?—that’s his wife, Hera. She turns herself into a bird to spy on her husband. I envision her cramming her famous jealousy into the bloated body of a black-billed magpie then skulking on some suddenly sinking branch outside a shuttered window. Her son, Ares, is a badass. He could pick a fight in an empty room. His stepbrother, Hermes, got arrested last year lifting vintage Air Jordans from Foot Locker at the Parkway Mall and still kept his job at FTD. Poseidon lives on Daytona Beach. Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, flip flops—a real Jimmy Buffett type—schmoozing fishermen, posing for tourists. But don’t catch him in one of his moods. He could whip up a hurricane toot sweet—massing thunderheads, waves crashing against waves, the whole nine fathoms. And what about other members of the Olympus Rod and Gun Club?—Casio, god of bad timing, posing as a sheep to court the nubile Coincidus then discovering she’d posed as a wolf at roughly the same moment. Or Amnesia who wooed a meadow by posing as an adjacent meadow then couldn’t remember her original form and was later sold for development. Nothing changes with our bunch. It’s the same buffet of idiocy, betrayal, rivalry, murder . . . Small wonder mortals dwell on our follies while we recline on couches in the stars, the earth spins merrily beneath, grieving Demeter waves her wand, and voilà! It starts to snow.
285. There: Chewing a sandwich on the steps outside of Notre Dame, is Jean Reno.
286. The actor is on set for something, given the crew and cables running everywhere around.
287. Looking at him, I think: He is the perfect image of himself.
288. He could be a sculpture if it weren’t for the chewing.
289. A sculpture of the idea of beauty embodied by an actor posing as a shamus whose face has once or twice been battered into something like a pile of spoiled apricots.
290. He chews and looks out at the seemingly self-regenerating line of tourists on their way into the cathedral, each vaguely recalling his face, whispering some variation of it’s him, from the movies, and taking his photo before they continue on to consume the cathedral, snapping photos of its arches and stained glass.
291. Or maybe they mean the man beside him, equally familiar from the movies.
292. Though his name my wife and I do not recall.
293. He (Reno) appears unaware of all the activity around him.
294. Or, it’s not that he’s unaware of it; it’s that he looks resigned to its inexhaustibility.
295. Which almost seems to make of it for him a nothing.
296. Still, I’d say it’s safe to call something in the manner of his chewing angry.
297. An action that proceeds with the blunt exactitude with which the lion in another painting in the Musée du Louvre, having ripped a baby from its mother’s breast, stands there to let us get a good look at the dangling.
298. (I confess: At the point of noticing that work I was so overwhelmed by looking I failed to copy down the artist’s name.)
299. Like Jean Reno could do the same to one of the smaller children whining through the queue with no change at all in the way he looks.
300. (What would he make of my pusillanimity?)
301. In fairness to him, I should say that Jean Reno doesn’t threaten to do this.
302. Not in the least.
303. He does nothing that might dis- (or en-) courage the people snapping photos of him.
304. He just lets the photos happen.
305. Much the way a sculpture would.
306. Making for a marvelous diversion.
307. Needless to say, we snap a photo of him, too.
308. (To make it last longer.)
309. We snap photos of everything.
310. Or almost everything.
311. Photos of the art we see.
312. Photos of ourselves looking at said art.
313. (These might be our favorites, standing there within the frame of the subject of our regard.)
314. Photos of the shadows of the bridges and the people on them crossed atop the Seine.
315. Photos of ourselves vamping in the pleasant amber darkness of the boulevards at night.
316. Photos that fail to capture the look—something brown and pink but also weirdly blue, the way cured pork might look in the work of Rembrandt—of the wooden window sills in our flat when the sunlight strikes them at almost any time of day.
317. There are some things, though, that we do not snap photos of.
318. Like when, exhausted by being for days so deeply embedded in the unfamiliar, we decide to stay in for the evening.
319. Somehow finding on the TV in our flat a channel showing old untranslated episodes of NYPD: Blue.
320. Feeling, god, so grateful to have such a simple thing to consume.
321. There being nothing to interpret except the vulgar brusqueness of its tone.
322. Well, and, of course, the commercials.
323. None of which do we take photos of.
324. We’ve taken no photos tonight, either, while we sit, each now on our third glass of Côtes du Rhône, submitting nothing but silence to the world and its smatterings of walkers gesticulating at the dog shit they tromp through in what, to our American eyes, are rather aristocratic-seeming tennis shoes.
325. Or now, back in our flat, where we submit to the canon of art this city holds how David Byrne makes for five minutes and seven seconds a cathedral of the word “Home.”
326. And then we listen to him do it again.
327. And then we are at the end of it.
328. (Where it is what’s made ragged by the present.)
329. We are at the end of this.
330. We are going home.
331. It has sneaked up on us so quickly.
332. It has made an unnavigable distance between my wife and me and where in time we want to linger.
333. (What we want to have last longer.)
334. What we try to stave off by listening a third time to Byrne do “Home.”
335. Though there are only so many times you can count on art to save you.
336. But this is (oh, let it be) one of those times.
337. “Home” cutting through the small knot of gloom that the prospect of our future outside of Paris has turned our present still here into.
338. The two of us looking at each other, smiling again in the accumulating privacy of our pleasure.
340. The whole is for beauty.
342. How I adore the beauty of my wife’s endlessly splendid bright composure.
343. How it stuns me.
344. Thinking that part of the pleasure of our looking at each other is the cathedral of devotion that it builds.
345. The pleasure of the moment, moment to moment.
346. Thinking that the pleasure of the sadness of the end of something is often what becomes most memorable.
347. What fills the fleetingness.
349. Leaving Paris, predawn, back of the cab; briefly, between us and the cosmos a set of blue lights shine: AUBADE. ♦