by Robert Gibbons
The Labor Day throng in Boston's North Station lined up, congesting the rush-hour commute. Among the faceless mass, one fourteen year old, just under my youngest daughter's age, strolled through the terminal accompanied by her peers. Regal, ethnic, Latin, Greek, dark, pure, sensual, all eyes upon her. She didn't turn her head to acknowledge the gaze, but stored it internally where it glowed, a nuclear core. I turned into an ancient pillar without salt, enlarging the foyer's space. Her friends, maids, inferiors, bought trinkets at every storefront as if on a spree of freedom for the first time. She had everything she needed. Her skirt more than her parents could afford. Breasts hiked up & pushed a few years ahead. Her lack of modesty, the exact opposite of the Indian girl in the crowded Oaxacan market, almost invisible under the awning just down from one of the chocolate stalls, who turned my head so quickly Manuel Avila Camacho whispered, "Virgin!" which warned, "Do not touch, even with your eyes!"
Moments later I saw her heading in the opposite direction, not a care in the world, just one friend by her side. Then, she & her entourage returned just in time to miss the Lowell train pull out on track 10. Again, nonchalant, she plunked herself down on the floor. The others followed suit, nudging against her, & the near wall. It wasn't long before an old man barged his way on stage where the curtain of her short skirt had just risen even higher along her thighs. He was the first person she responded to, the only one of the four to get out of the way of the white cane searching a 90 degree truth, its familiar tapping of floor to wall, wall to floor, finding only the confusion of human flesh. Not hers. While the others, oblivious, stayed put, she skittered her behind a little out of reach, & peered hard into the blind man's glasses, checking for any chance of fraud. I felt more sorry for him than any challenged against the world -- for what he'd just missed! He made it through the last gate, which opened automatically. She left immediately with her knapsack, & came back changed into casual shorts & nondescript top, blending in among her friends.
I saw the old man's celestial train ascend. Wondered how, amid this large crowd, we, she & I, were the only ones to witness the ancient drama unfold?
The snow here drives me toward Mexico, there, 24 years ago. The slender path separating a four-story white hotel behind us, & our clay-roof shack on the cliff, led to town in one direction, the ocean the other. After all this time it feels like a dream pool where not all images are equal. I stood eye to eye with the barracuda in the wave. Stood up to Bernardo, the landlady's henchman brought along to intimidate us. Hung out with T. J. Rockford, then so old, yet younger than I am now, & his Lady Ann, who made it through Bangkok customs with a half pound of Thai weed for personal use. There was the son of a sports equipment magnate, & another guy who sold his inherited factory, & left the big party with the young singer, Red Wing, her stage name. Neighbor couple on the other side of the shack, a strange combination of Australian surfer & midwest doll, had a falling out after she couldn't come up with the rent, & spent days bleeding in the sand rather than spring for napkins. He stole her jewelry, for compensation, he said, forcing my wife & I to wrangle over telling her. We never let on, thinking it would make matters worse.
Then Adriana, cross of American Indian & X-Black Slave, invited us up to the hotel at the far end of the beach to watch Manuel Avila Camacho make a film. Known as the enfant terrible of Mexico, nephew of the former president of Mexico during World War II, he spent the previous summer with Orson Welles in Paris. When we arrived on the set, cast resting in full-dress attire, Adriana's right breast curved out like early evening for all to see. I had a feeling she didn't realize it, & refused a second glance, thanking my lucky stars when she found out. Heart of a panther, I escaped her momentarily, haughty glare. The film, some Bunuelian-L' Age d' Or-thirties Surrealism, in the long run closer to art than most of Hollywood's. The next day the director visited our shack, mentioned van Gogh's room, & told us to call when we got back to Mexico City.
I found a red stone on the beach with two drilled eyes, no mouth, tossed up by the waves. Slept on burlap cots. Rain came in under the orange clay roof. Watched the rats make moves on our bananas strung from the ceiling. Bought her a new blue toilet seat in response to tears of poverty she filled the Pacific with. Figured hibiscus bloomed at night, so many left open in the morning after foraging iguanas.
Then one day on our way back from town, the sky darkened by millions of flying insects, we were taken aback, & stood a long while on the path wondering if they were locusts, what they meant. Waited for the cloud to pass. Black-winged ants (all males, it turns out), fleeing like a funnel out of the foundation of our temporary abode. We ran breathless to town to tell the landlady. She came back with us & chanted, "No problem, no problem," whacking the exit hole with a broom. Up at the white hotel across the slender path, the owner out on the veranda stroked her long hair with a brush. Those bugs erasing the sky are flying out of our place, I communicated to her with some amount of terror in my voice, as she moved, dispassionately, down the length of hair.
Negotiating a room for the night, she cut the price in half. That night, real light to read by. Lone lizard transfixed upon the wall. We stayed for another week, & all our friends came by. The big party included Quaaludes & Cinzano, paregoric & weed, paranoia & betrayal. By the next day, obvious to my friends I was one of them, & they resented it. When it came time to pay the bill, we knocked on the landlady's fifth-floor penthouse door. Still stroking her long, somewhat greyer hair, she greeted us with aplomb. From behind a dividing screen her husband appeared, a tall, balding man, an abrupt German accent, I imagine to this day, Nazi on the lam.
She wanted to go to Pere Lachaise. Promised a friend. A daughter in Paris has just so many demands, other than to be set free, so I agreed to accompany her. Right from the get-go the excursion boded potentially dire circumstances: taxi driver pissed as only a French cabby can be at two Americans for not walking there. "You see, you see, you go to the end of this street, you take a right, at Place de Republique you take another rightÖ" Etcetera: all in the French cur-slur of contempt. But hey, it was December. In fact, the last day of the year, my virus hanging on, high temps, sweating, so another Frenchman with a problem with what he viewed as typical Americans was no problem for me, ignoring his insulting tone, & tipping him hugely when he dropped us off just to embarrass him. He was, & apologized profusely, which we accepted, after all, we were going to visit the dead, great reminders of forgiveness.
Merde, maybe we were typical, what with my daughter wanting to take a picture for her friend back at school of Jim Morrison, of all people, the crotch-grabbing drunk non-poet. But, Proust is here, too. Rimbaud walked here. Surely he didnít take a cab. Baudelaireís up in Montparanasse, the only dead personage Iíd seek out, if I were to give up a moment of life in Paris for death. But my daughter made a promise. We read the map at the entrance. Proust is at the opposite end. The young rock star somewhere on the edge, we write down the plot number. Iím cold. Itís cold. Believe me, Iíd rather be back in the hotel room getting her mother in a good mood with champagne, more champagne, & in good position, the Paris lovemaking intense, ritual & new at the same time, but hey, the promise & the picture.
Itís not that she had to be escorted. She & her sister caught a cab together from the Eiffel Tower to a gym to work out near Place de Bastille the day we all decided that standing under the Tower (we climbed Arc de Triomphe stairs the day before), was as good as standing on the highest platform. But hey, my daughterís a beautiful black girl, & a cemetery in the middle of any city, however famous, is a cemetery in the middle of any city. Her mother & I, after getting them in the cab, went straight to, walked to, that incredible Trocadero with the exact same collection of African Art, the Dogon masks that inspired Picasso & Ernst & shook Breton to his frayed psychological balls.
The mud in Pere-Lachaise cemetery is not hazardous to your death. Listen, thereís a tune that should be imagined playing in the background while reading this, the crypts, the engraved names, the fact that no one else is around on a grey day in a cemetery in Paris, Miles Davisís Filles de Kilimanjaro, is cleansing the lens of this picture. My daughter black & beautiful & I tramp through rows upon rows of cold & broken stones. Together weíre happy. Can you believe it? Iím cold. Itís cold. Weíre alone, happy. Jim Morrison hides. The monument for Morrison hides from our eyes. Weíre happy. Iím particularly happy not to find his remains. Sheís fine with making the attempt for her friend back home, the one with the Seventies fetish, ech! The undeclared war lasted five years longer because Americans voted Republican! (I canít mention the presidentís name!) The Vietnam Memorial is way too long! We see no one famous here. Ordinary men & very few women. Belt one out, dear Edith Piaf, a lament, in between bars of Filles de Kilimanjaro!
Iím more reluctant than she is, though, to give up, turn around, admit we canít. Find the body. Iím cold, & the death drive is pushing me on as a reminder of how grand life is compared to the engraved name, however famous. Happy with her. Rarely so, otherwise. Paris grey. Itís getting late early. Merde, at least we can find our way back, right? Wrong. But we do find another exit. We decide to walk. & walk. Iím old, & cold. She forgives me for not finding the rock starís body. I forgive me. She. Desolate part of town. Shops are shutting down. Itís New Year! The Eve. Did you just see that guy spring ahead of us, look back, the one quick as a rat? No, she didnít. There he is again, heís sizing us up. Merde! You think so? Know so. I stare. He mutters. To himself. The world. Rethinks. Disappears down the Metro stairs. Doubly glad I accompanied her. Infinitely.
She heads back to her courtyard room to meet up with her sister to party all night long on rue Oberkampf. As I head back to our hotel room I'm flashing on Brando in the apartment in Last Tango in Paris, when Maria Schneider crawls on the bed like a cat onto his lap, & asks, "What is this?" "Thatís my penis, & your happiness," he ad-libs. Before I even knock, her mother welcomes me at the door. "Champagne, mon cher?" "Mais oui, Madame!"
©2001 by Robert Gibbons
Robert Gibbons currently has
online work in Stirring, Exquisite
Corpse, pith, Slow Trains #1 and The
Fox in the Snow. Recently, Gargoyle
Daily featured a 101 word story as part of its Literary Lights
series. His prose poems appeared in the Winter and Spring issues
of The Drunken
Boat. More of his work is forthcoming from
from the online magazine published by the Dublin Writers' Workshop, and from
Acorn. A third chapbook of prose poems, This Vanishing Architecture,
will be published this summer by Innerer
Klang Press, Charlestown, MA.