I was living in a box room in a two up, two down in a northern town. Each day I would walk to work at the café, past a nun who pushed a mower across a tiny, withered strip of lawn, her glasses steamed up, her wimple flapping around her face in the sooty breeze. Each evening I would return to sit alone in my room with Don Quixote.
Months later, in a new city, I was in a great shadowy house, rolling about on top of a scouser I had met at a party an hour earlier. We were laughing, simply roaring, at the enormous hearth that had burst into gorgeous flame at the precise moment of ecstatic communion. It was all very unexpected. And then she said: Paris. Would you come to Paris. With me. And I nodded, like a fool. And then I said: yes.
Simone had a friend, who had a friend, Alice, who—Simone told me—had a great aunt who had rented an apartment in the cinquième arrondissement on the day that the steamship Persia was wrecked off the coast of Corsica with the loss of 130 lives, until the death of Georges Brassens, which preceded the aunt’s demise by a matter of hours. The rent had increased little in all that time. Alice inherited the lease, unaltered, moved in, quit her job at the Centre national du cinéma and began to live, by Simone’s account, a life of ease and refined contentment, or contented refinement, whichever was the better. Simone, and any of her friends, were permitted to stay for as long as they wished, provided they followed the dead aunt’s house rules. Whatever they were.
I arrived at the Gare du Nord on a Friday afternoon and walked through the summer rain in my tattered shoes, using the map I had made crouching on the floor of Stanford’s, concealing my efforts from the booksellers, who I suspected were wearily familiar with public displays of amateur cartography. The streets joined up as expected, becoming grander and leafier as I approached the apartment building. I walked up three gritty, weed-sprung steps to a dirty black door and squinted at the handwritten name cards that were taped into a frame: Fonthès, Smythe, Ravignon. I pressed the button next to the last one and my finger went through the fixture down to the second knuckle before I stopped and pulled out with a sucking sound. I sniffed my finger, which had a clean, faintly equine odor. No one appeared. I waited. No one appeared. I wondered whether Simone had thought better of the whole idea, whether her name really was Simone, whether I had, as now seemed almost certain, imagined our whole encounter. I lifted my fist to knock, and it seemed so strange there, hanging in the air, bunched up at the end of my arm, that I lost heart and turned around.
I crossed the street and sat under the green and gold awning of a café. Many of the least-renowned artists, writers, and philosophers of the twentieth century, I discovered later, had sat at that very table, discussing everything of their moment with great animation and failing to generate any thought, picture, poem, or novel of any lasting significance. The coffee was excellent and priced robustly and confidently at around what I fancied would be the cost of a healthy live kidney. I wondered how someone, that someone being me, would go about selling a kidney.
Fearful of another attempt at the sucky bell button, I squelched down the street in the new sunshine and walked, without any great passage of reflection, into a stylishly empty Japanese shoe shop. I selected an indecently beautiful pair of boots and asked for my size. These were brought to me with magisterial condescension, at a pace that would not have been considered jaunty at a gastropod’s funeral, giving me time to reflect with proper self-reproach on the parlous condition of my shoes in the steam rising from my desperate socks. I had 130 francs with me. I asked the price. The boots were 130 francs. I left with a feeling of pedestrian pride and luxury that I had never felt before, or since.
I stood again outside the apartment house, gazing around above street level through the centuries of city making, at the gray and honeyed stone, the textured concrete facings, the shutters. I dissolved inside and out, receiving the day, the light, the street, leaving my little or no trace. I was, I imagine, hovering, derealized, an immeasurably small distance above the pavement, when a rush of warm breath, of tea rose and peppermint, appeared at my neck.
“Sexy boots, darling.”
Simone stood there with a tall, thin shadow of a man, gaunt, sparely muscular, and performatively self-haunting in a way that wasn’t anywhere near as irritating as it should have been. In a first gesture of connection, she placed a hand on each of our shoulders.
“Conor. Tarry. Tarry Hold.”
I held out my hand, despite our too-close proximity. He grasped my fingertips with his long, fine ones, and shook slowly up once and down, looking over my head as he did so. Simone produced a brass key and tangoed with the lock until the door opened. Tarry strode forward, pulled back a black concertina gate, and we entered a tiny lift.
“I volunteer to be the first to say: ‘Cozy, isn’t it?’ ” said Tarry, in a silky whisper.
Simone punched him playfully in the shoulder. He was American.
The apartment was a cluster of small rooms, each with its door open, a little kitchen, and an even more diminutive bathroom, a slightly larger living room: a museum of light and dark, its walls dressed in scarlet brocade wallpaper, dimmed by smoke and time, dense with an odor of vintage roses and coffee, and an unnamable undertow; nocturnal and marine. There were posters of Céline and Julie Go Boating and Children of Paradise, and one for Greed, with a glowering illustration of Gibson Gowland, with his huge froth of hair; black, arched eyebrows; and lost, brutal stare.
I had placed my backpack on the floor in the living room and picked it up again to signal passively that I would like to know where I was going to sleep. Simone smiled, took my bag and my hand, and swung me into a blank-walled, gloomy room with a narrow bed and a lamp on the floor, surrounded by piles of newspapers; boxes full of ribbons, fabric, and carpet offcuts; a bucket spilling over with fake rubies, diamantes, pearls, and unknown other decorative tchotchkes. A crate stacked with paint pots and tubes, brushes and rags and palette knives, a sack of wallpaper paste and more buckets. On a shelf there were numerous scissors and craft knives, several glue and staple guns, and a new, advanced-looking sewing machine.
Simone skipped me back to her suitcase and into another room decorated with Turkish rugs on the walls and the floor, and with a queen-sized bed. Tarry followed behind, placing one foot precisely in front of the other, and dropped his navy duffel onto a wicker armchair in the corner.
“I . . .” I said.
“That’s how it is, la.”
Tarry grinned, put his hands deep in his pockets and twirled round on the spot.
“Oh . . .” I managed.
“You’re all right.”
“I don’t know.”
“Zackly . . . Help us get the scran on then.”
“Food, Finnegan?” said Tarry, though he clearly did not need a translation.
Simone left me in the kitchen, where I did the best I could with some lentils, an onion, and some thousand-year-old spices. They were laughing in the living room as I came in with their plates but stopped at once and began eating. I left and returned with my own dish.
“Ta, chuck,” said Simone, scousing it up for me, for reasons I didn’t understand.
“Lovely, Conor. Really lovely.”
I decided Tarry was being sincere and that he was skinny not just constitutionally but as a result of neglect, self and otherwise, and needed prolonged and imaginative feeding.
I washed up and left the delph on the tiny rotten draining board. When I returned Simone and Tarry had gone. I noticed for the first time that there were bookshelves built in every possible wall space. Most of the books were in French—novels, poetry, memoirs, history—but with a large selection of cinema and art books in German and Russian and a few, of subjects unknown to me, in Japanese. None in English, as far as I could see.
Simone appeared and stared at me, unblinking, for a long moment as if I were a chair, a clock, or, who knows, a banana.
“Auntie would not allow books in English in her apartment. It was the main stipulation of her legacy,” said Simone, clairvoyantly. “She thought English vulgar.” Simone bent over as if depending on a walking stick. “Even Shakespeare is more beautiful in French,” she croaked gummily, in a cod French accent.
She came close. There was vanilla and, again, roses and a faint radiation of warmth. She spoke low.
“Have you decided?”
“There’s . . . I don’t know.”
“You don’t know if you haven’t decided?”
I looked up for assistance and saw the late afternoon light playing about the blackened crystals of a tiny chandelier.
“Yes . . . No . . . But.”
“Haste beats charm, love. And I’m in a hurry. Can’t you see?”
I paused with the unfamiliar feeling of having been found charming. By someone who . . . who . . .
“Alors . . . j’avance.”
Simone stepped back. The leather of her jacket creaked as she raised her arm.
He appeared at her side.
“The evening has begun. Let us go to Le Mercure.”
I made a small movement in their direction.
“Not you,” said Simone. “Later.”
Each chose a long floaty scarf from the many varieties of pink and peach that hung on a hat rack by the front door. Tarry swirled one around her neck and she returned the favor. He bowed to me and they departed.
I stood for a time, brimming costively with wordless feelings. I took a pen, my notebook, and my copy of Rilke’s The Roses and the Windows and sat on the pale-yellow settee. The silk rustled and the stuffing settled, both mine and the sofa’s. I scanned over my lifeless fragments and added some more. I recalled that Busoni believed that ideas seek form for themselves and wondered what forms no ideas might take, something about which I no longer wonder. I opened the book and wandered among the panthers, the flamingos, the swans, the unicorns, the dolphins, among the roses and the windows.
I woke, cold and crook, to a wild scratching at the door. Simone fell in, laughing filthily, with Tarry behind her, smiling hugely, carrying an armful of bright rags and bits.
“We’ve got it all worked out,” said Simone, filling the room with brandy fumes.
“I’ve got it all worked out,” said Tarry.
“Don’t be a cow,” said Simone.
“Je suis la vache de vos rêves . . . Meuh, meuh . . .”
They stopped and looked at me, as if over some footlights and into the dark. This was my cue, to express child-like enthusiasm, to ask some form of intelligent question, or to leave, but I was incapable of acting on it.
“Mary, here, and I will be putting on a show for our friends. And you, of course.”
A crumpled cigarette appeared in her hand.
“Light me up, boys.”
There was a matchbook on the mantelpiece. I pinched out and struck one.
“There will be a special opener followed by the main event,” said Tarry.
“A performance of Parade. The creation of Cocteau, Satie, Massine, and Picasso.”
“When?” I said.
“Sunday night,” said Simone.
“I’m supposed to be going back on Sunday. I’ve got work on Monday.”
“That’s settled then. Everything is fabulous. At last,” said Tarry.
“At last,” sang Simone.
Tarry crouched, laid his treasures on the floor, and reached out a hand, which he squeezed in the air, his way of drawing me closer into his aniseed presence.
“What do you think? I harvested these from the trashcans outside the milliners down the street. They’re always dispensing with wonders.”
There was creamy lace and patches of red and gold and green silk, a hacked roll of green felt, a cerise bowler hat, slightly blemished, a tangle of black wire and a sheet of a material that looked like the surface of a thick and idling winter stream. He stood and began to declaim, waving like a willow in the breeze.
“The still calls for motion. Nothing is inert. Puppetry is the art of animation, of the organic in the embrace of the inorganic. Everything, alive or dead, is moved in many dimensions, cosmic, temporal, emotional. The puppeteer intervenes modestly with their own forces and gestures to tell the immediate story and, more importantly, a larger one of movement, that means nothing . . . Probably.”
“You could do the same in your own life,” I said, not meaning to speak aloud.
“But you won’t,” said Simone. “And, Tarry love, we’ll have to go out again tomorrow because we’ll need a lot more gear to pull off my fabulous vision for the show.”
“Your vision . . .” said Tarry.
“Well, obviously it’s a collaboration between the living and the dead, and the stiffs aren’t turning up to help. The gits.”
“Is what you think . . .”
I left in an unnoticed sulk, got into bed, and was partway into one poem when I fell asleep.
Waking in the dark, I saw Simone and Tarry standing over me, whispering. They turned around and started to carry out tools and materials. Sounds of making began. I heard a woman with a deep, resonating voice, singing slowly in Spanish, accompanied by guitars and clarinets, until I was again sleeping.
When I entered the living room in the morning, a white sheet had been pinned, tautly, to one wall; underneath was a slide projector, its carousel fully loaded; there was a battered cornet and a Dactyle typewriter resting on its biscuit-colored box, two pistols, and a portable harmonium. On the sofa were five puppets: a girl with short blond hair in a green-gray silver dress; two men in black suits and starched white collars, with red carnation boutonnières; two hermaphroditic acrobats, tending to male and female, in green silk leotards; and a white lily and a blue cornflower. In the corner was a hand-cranked gramophone, that I was sure had also not been there yesterday. Draped across an armchair was a full, loose, side-buttoned tunic of red silk patterned with wide rays of yellow and curls of pink surf and a pair of black pants with golden ripples running down the left leg and across the right leg. On top was a many-peaked jester’s hat of black, yellow, and red with a pigtail attached to the inside at the back.
On the mantelpiece I saw a red ribbon, looped around a key, which I took, next to which was a pile of change and about forty francs, which I did not feel entitled to take. I had a notion that I would walk north and, I thought, east to the Jardin des Plantes, wander and read in the gardens, and follow the river up to Musée d’Orsay and look at the outside, even if I could not afford to go inside. I would move on, maybe, to the FNAC in Montparnasse and look at the books before visiting the Jardin de Luxembourg and making my way back to the apartment.
Within moments of leaving, I was completely lost. The novelty of my circumstances elevated my awareness, made me almost tremble with vigilance, which at first rang echoes in me of the fear that was my natural state of mind and body, before giving way to a sensation of expansive relief that the worst that could happen here was in no way comparable to the worst that could, and had, happened there, at home. I knew the feeling, at once pleasurable and sickening, that memories were being made that I would have to live with for the rest of my life.
I approached a tall man in a tight suit, standing proud like a cup without its saucer, but before I could ask him for directions, he growled at me, baring his teeth and clutching his briefcase close to his chest. A woman in a violet silk evening dress smiled spitefully and drew her hand across her throat in a stiff, slashing motion and sped past. A pale, bescarved student came right up into my face and hissed: “Fug ov, Mericain.” I thought I’d try someone less bourgeois in appearance and spoke to a man in a blue canvas jacket and trousers carrying a toolbox. He grinned and apologized and told me he was a bit lost and asked if I could give him directions. Fortunately, he was looking for Alice’s street and I was able to double back and show him the way.
I walked on and found a church, which was cool and empty, and a long time after, a metro station, Censier-Daubenton. I went randomly down a street, past a Brazilian café, and saw green in a haze at its end. The gardens were very beautiful and, after some brief unpleasantness with a man in a public toilet, I settled down to read on a bench by some purple chrysanthemums. I woke in a shower of rain but, before I could find shelter, the sun had come out. I was desperately hungry, but I carried on reading, something beautifully unnerving about the heart being seized and rent apart and dragged under.
I left the gardens and trudged, possibly south, until I could no longer, my head pulsing, feet throbbing, and stomach gurgling. I stood by a tree. Traffic rattled past. A honey-like scent rose gradually around me, over the odor of piss and gasoline. I heard the clack of good shoes. A woman stopped before me, settled a fox fur around her shoulders, pulled her white gloves more securely up her forearms, placed her silver handbag on the ground, and rooted around inside. She stood and pressed her hands together over mine, looking into my face with great emotion. “Mon fils,” she said, and turned to see a boy on a skateboard making a lunge for her bag. She punched the kid hard in the side of the head, and he fell over with a clatter, pulling his arms over his face and calling for mercy. She took her bag, stepped elegantly over the boy, and waved once high in the air. A sleek black car pulled up. A chauffeur stepped out, ushered her into the back seat, returned to the driver’s seat, and drove off.
I looked down into the face of Maurice-Quentin de La Tour on a fifty franc note. I reflected woozily for some time on his superbly executed but, for the most part, boring portraits, until I realized, with immense joy, that I could now eat. I turned round and saw a shining window full of cakes and a plastic orange sign that read La Flèche d’Or. It was well into late afternoon, but they still had a large number of sandwiches piled up behind glass. Inside, I hesitated and stuttered and pointed imprecisely and the woman behind the counter huffed and said: “You cannot speak French and therefore you cannot order even a sandwich properly.” “Oui,” I said. She grabbed a sandwich, with one tongue of sweaty ham and another of greasy cheese poking out of its mouth, and slammed it onto a tiny plate. I ordered a café au lait and handed her the note. She tutted and flapped it in the air before punching the till open and giving me my change.
A neat little man behind me gave me a consoling shrug.
“I don’t understand,” he began, “and that is my preferred position. I wish neither to voyage out to your otherness nor to journey in, to my confusion . . . deux financiers, s’il vous plait . . . The longer held the moment of incomprehension, the greater the contentment. Inattention is the primary, the sole, mode of happiness . . . Nice boots, by the way. Good afternoon.” He took his patisserie box and left without paying, and I sat down to eat my bad sandwich and drink my good coffee.
I wandered in the streets and ended up far south, outside the cemetery at Ivry, the final resting place of unknown numbers of slaughtered communards. I had only the vaguest notion of where I was in relation to Alice’s apartment. My feet had swollen and either they, or my boots, were threatening to split. The evening was drawing in, the streetlights had come on, orange clouds were gathering together on high as the city turned away from the sun. I leaned against the cemetery fence and squatted. A man in a tan suit and brogues stood next to me and struck a match to a cigarette. White smoke engulfed us, pungent with tar and lavender. I looked up and saw him pick a flake of tobacco off his tongue.
“Rilke, right for your age, yes?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, failing to detect any hint of mockery. The man seemed no older than I.
“You are learning how to be alive?”
I stood up and winced at the pain in my feet.
“Too much walking? But it’s good for you! And the only way to learn the city.”
“I got lost but I enjoyed myself, I think.”
“I’m glad for you.”
He carried on smoking with an easy concentration that I have never been able to apply to anything. I felt awkward, despite his kind manner. I didn’t want to be alone but understood that it was necessary for me in relation to everyone.
“Well, I should be getting on,” I said and stepped forward.
“Estanna . . . you’re still lost. Let me show you the way, at least.”
We exchanged names and I gave him the address. He set off at a considerate pace and I followed. After a while, having passed through one of a number of pain barriers, I stopped hobbling and a half an hour or so later we reached the Place d’Italie.
“I’ve taken you this far, I may as well see you to the end.”
I said he didn’t need to, but he understood that I didn’t mean it.
Twenty minutes later we were outside the black door. I realized that we had not spoken to each other for some time and that this had been entirely comfortable. He reached his hand out and I held onto it. He looked into my eyes and, for once, I did not look away.
“Soak your feet in salt water,” he said at last. He pressed my hand in his and departed down the street.
The apartment was dark and empty when I entered. I ran hot water into a bowl, shook in salt and dried mustard, and sat on the sofa with my self-injured feet submerged. I forgot to eat, went straight to bed, and slept.
The dreams that followed were shadowed and fevered and no one’s concern, not even mine, and I woke with a presence becoming ever real over me.
“I’ve got everything we need,” said Simone, shaking a large paper bag.
I made coffee and we had brioche and raspberry jam, as a lightning storm played out above us as sound, around us as light, and in the street as rain.
“I love a squally racket. It’s so comforting.”
I agreed but could not say so.
“You’re going to have to speak some time.”
“I did . . . I do speak.”
“It’s slim pickings though, la. You stuff yourself with words all day and night and barely a squeak comes up and out of it. One of these days you’re just going to explode. Bunches of unconnected syllables pranging all over the place that won’t add up to nothing . . . anything.”
“I like you.”
“Well, that’s very decent of you.”
“You’re sorry . . .”
“I don’t know. I want to explain . . . to tell you why I . . .”
“Stop. You stop there. What use is your why to me, anyhow? If I take it in, it might just make me feel sorry for you. And what good is that? What’s that the basis for? Maybe if I thought less of myself, I’d need to bend to you . . . you who can’t pull towards me without effort. I don’t need it easy, but I’m not going to graft just to be seen the littlest bit. I’m all right where I am. Come to me or don’t come at all. All right, darling? Come alive, yes? Or don’t. It’s up to you, love.”
“It might not be up to me.”
“But it sure as shite’s not up to me, darling.”
“I’m sorry . . .”
“Yes, you’re sorry.”
“I don’t . . . I am.”
She gathered her hands around my face and looked at me tenderly. My head filled with lavender clouds, and I understood that I had said too little or too much, and all at the wrong times.
I went back into the kitchen and made some more coffee.
I tried again.
“How’s the show going? The preparations, I mean.”
“The preparations are over. The anticipations have begun.”
“There’s nothing I can help with?”
“That’s right. But I’m going to have a nap while you tidy up and then we’re going to the Parc Monceau for a picnic. Okay? Okay.”
“Okay. Where’s Tarry?”
“I don’t know.”
Tarry unfolded from the floor, where he had lain beneath a sheet of red plastic that I had not noticed.
“The glove is the earth. The hand is the corpse. One life—left. Another life—right. Lightless, lightless except in others’ memories . . .” He winked at me, saucily, and went into the bedroom.
Simone napped and I got the apartment in order, taking care not to move any of the materials laid out for the show. On the street Tarry took my left arm in his, Simone my right arm in hers, and they pranced me joyously to Monceau, taking no care as I stumbled and skittered, unable to fall into rhythm with them, or to pull myself free. I was released at the park near a Corinthian colonnade and they walked purposefully off, still at a pace with which I struggled to keep up.
I stopped nearby at a bust on a column with a sculpted woman reclining beneath. Dappled in shadow and the sour mid-afternoon light, the stone face of Maupassant was bloated and sagging, eyebrows buckled, his sportsman’s moustache spread fungally above his lips, the head gazing sightlessly across a yellowed lawn, a portrait and admission of his final days. Simone and Tarry, and nameless others, laughed and chattered behind and around me, and by the time I regained motion I was alone, and the sun was out in full force. I walked around the park, dodging the joggers, who were determinedly inconsiderate, sweaty and chic. I failed to find the picnic. I sat on a bench, aware for a moment of an extravagantly planted bed of pink and yellow flowers, before all knowledge and feeling drained out of my body and I became a needless dummy, too insensate for relief.
Down the street from the apartment, on my return, I could see an orderly gathering of people. They parted for me to reach the door. I asked a silver-haired woman in a rust-colored scarf if she wanted to come in, but she declined, saying that she could wait until the show was ready to commence, which generated a muttered assent from everyone within hearing. I entered and heard a rattle and thump above. Simone was putting out the last of a dozen fold-out chairs. Tarry was adjusting the slide projector. Three or four other people were gathered in the kitchen wearing costumes, stretching different muscle groups without touching each other.
“You got lost,” said Simone.
“Can I help?” I said.
“No, sit down.” I sat down. “Yes, go downstairs and bring up the guests in groups of four.”
I went down and did as I was told.
When everyone was seated, Tarry silently urged me to close the last of the curtains, which I did, before standing at the back.
Tarry stepped forward into a single spotlight.
“Mesdames, messieurs, mes toutes belles.” He bowed amid a discreet tip-tap of applause.
“Before the main spectacle, there will be a short visual essay on seeing, feeling, and loss.”
There was a loud clunk and a lilac-colored square appeared on the white sheet behind him.
“In a cardboard box, on a sidewalk on a street in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the day before I left for Paris, I discovered a cache of slides. Slides that tell a story.”
Tarry pressed a button with his foot and a picture appeared of a family, a girl and a boy and a woman, all smiling, on a beach in the winter. The oversaturation of the colors, and the high chroma, in the blues of the sky and sea, the yellow of the woman’s, the red of the boy’s coat, elevated the emotional intensity of the image, and indicated that the photograph might have been taken in the mid-1960s. Another image appeared. A slender, middle-aged man in a slim-fitting chocolate-colored suit, a blue-white shirt and skinny black tie, and a soft black hat, smiling, smoking, outside an apartment block.
“What is the meaning of a father?” said Tarry.
A picture of the woman from the first image appeared. It was a close-up of her, face pink and bright; green eyes twinkling; a slightly silly white hat with a large, appliquéd daisy on the band, which her exuberance carried off delightfully; a white embroidered, short-sleeved dress, of the kind that might have been bought from the better sort of department store in the early 1970s.
“What is the meaning of a mother?”
A picture of the boy and the girl, perhaps twelve and fifteen, goofing around in the top-down back of a red convertible.
“What are children?”
A picture of one small and three large trunks on a quayside.
A picture of the stern of a ship and the froth and drawn-out turbulence of its wake, and the wide ocean with a dark blue stripe at the horizon, a reddened hand and bare arm straying into the image on the bottom left-hand side.
“What is a journey?”
A picture of the family seated outside a bistro in Paris. There were nostalgic mutterings from the audience. The image was underexposed, except for the mother; the sunlight shone off her hair and scarlet Alice band, her teeth, her mouth fully apart in laughter, a reflection of a taxi in the large smooth black lens of her sunglasses. The children and husband indistinct, grinning in the shade.
“What is . . . lunch?”
A picture of the man and the woman and the girl seated on deck, covered in tartan blankets but clearly still cold, smiling out at the spectral, blue sea. The woman held a glass with a huge piece of ice floating on a golden liquid.
“What is return?”
A picture of a group dressed in black, the boy, perhaps in his twenties, holding the arm of his sister, standing unsteadily on a white gravel path, an old man, their father, holding up a hand to the camera trying, and failing, to prevent the shot.
“What is an ending?”
The room went dark and orchestral music began, lyrical at first. The spotlight returned, lighting a large curtain of shiny, slippery red vinyl, borne up on poles at either side by two shadowed figures. They swept the curtain to the floor and a tall green and yellow building, harlequined on one side, smoking a blue pipe, appeared in front of a crooked archway surrounded by gray columns with red and yellow fair booths. The building held the marionette of a black-suited manager. The melody jerked about and the building capered around, the manager trying and failing to encourage an audience to enter the booths, before exiting through the arch into the concealed kitchen. A Chinese conjuror leaped out of the dark, stage right. His motions complex, fluent, pleading. He beckoned to the audience. He departed, defeated, and the music stopped. Another building, bearing a second manager, waddled on, a blue and gray skyscraper, blowing a white horn. It skipped and jigged to the music’s swirls and clatters, and left as the tune fell backwards.
Simone appeared as an American girl in a wet sailor suit with a large, white bow in her hair, a string of pearls glittering whitely around her neck, manipulating the girl puppet with one hand. She searched, pulled, circled, kicked high, kicked back, sprang, crouched, fell backwards, Chaplined, and cakewalked in a circle. All the while the girl seemed completely, eerily, alive and autonomous, in and beyond Simone’s control. The music turned ragtime, Simone winged her arms, threw her leg high again, and—in a collage of other motions—made great space out of the imagined stage of the little apartment. She turned to the typewriter and, with the puppet girl, battered at the keys, dipped and recovered holding a pistol, which she pointed directly at me. She fired precisely in time with the music. I shifted my head a few inches to the left, felt the movement of the air and heard the crack of a windowpane behind me. I had no idea that Simone could dance, could move, like that. The room turned dark blue, a siren wailed up and down, a series of tumbling, waning themes ended with Simone and the girl departing through the arch. There was sudden silence and another pause.
A patchwork horse with tombstone teeth sidled on and danced. Everyone laughed when the horse reared up on its hind legs. It bowed and clopped away. Two acrobats entered, a woman on a man’s shoulders, in cobalt blue and silver-white astronomical costumes, each working the acrobat puppets, and they danced to music at turns strange and serene, carnivalesque and vertiginous.
The pipe and horn buildings danced on with their agitated managers, Simone followed, moving with immense vigor and economy, the horse, then the acrobats, and, lastly, the conjuror. There was a general melee and the music surged to a close.
The audience applauded. Tarry made a curtain motion to me, I pulled the drapes back, and pieces of glass fell at my feet. Simone reached over to the typewriter, pulled out the sheet of paper, and pushed it into her top. People moved the folding chairs into the stairwell. Others gathered around the performers, speaking rapidly in French, in Russian and German. Simone and Tarry each had a word for all who wanted one, until all but they and I had left.
The apartment was still and quiet. A cool breeze came through the broken pane. Simone stood and walked toward me. She embraced me, kissed me. She produced the note, damp and fragrant, and held it in front of her. It read: Leave now xxx. I began to speak but stopped when I looked into her face, white, unmoving but falling fast away from mine.
A minute later I was on the street with my bag, headed for the Gare du Nord, where I spent a cold night before catching the next cheap train in the morning.
I turned incapacity over and over in my hands. I didn’t plan on feeling much again. A thirst came on, a terrible needfulness to stop being, to never have existed, to return to all previous lived and half-lived time and erase my selves, my shadows, my ghosts, the ghosts of my ghosts.
And now I am nowhere, and I think of Paris in the present tense and myself in the past. The limitless natures of Paris, the city as a manufactory—part steel, part stone, part flesh, part water—for making people its past. Days, months, and years have gone by, little touching me beyond the, at first, slow physical decay, which accelerated imperceptibly through declining energy, occasional aches, and a tendency to minor injury, illnesses of little, and later, greater gravity, until I found myself here, hovering close to the end but with some distance yet to endure. And yet, it is only today that I realized that the something that had been approaching all this time turned out to be nothing.
The parade recedes into the distance. I folded a piece of paper over and over, watching it become smaller under my hands, and even though I had been taught there was a limit to its diminution, eventually, through persistence, I found I could make it disappear altogether.