Archive for January, 2010

The stranger (2)

January 31, 2010

3. L’ENFANT QUI PLEURE

Un petit enfant pleure dans la rue. Un monsieur vient et lui dit: “Mon enfant, pourquoi pleures-tu?” “Ma mère m’a donné deux sous et je les ai perdus.”

“Ne pleure plus,” dit le monsieur. “Voici deux sous,” et il donne deux sous à l’enfant. Le monsieur part. Il entend l’enfant qui pleure de plus belle. Il revient. “Pourquoi pleures-tu à présent?”

“Si je n’avais pas perdu mes deux sous, j’en aurais quatre à présent.”

—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 4

*

1.

Mother warned me never to talk to strangers. . . .

2.

He stopped crying long enough to introduce himself. Though supplying a name didn’t remove the label of stranger, the old man’s—Zhen Cun—revealed certain intimacies to me, that he’d been born in the spring and hailed from a more moderate climate, perhaps Shanghai, and therefore was left-handed, wore fashionable spectacles while he read, and preferred gelatinous noodles over the thin rice noodles that was the pride of our area, likely he never set foot inside the restaurants clustered on Old Division Street, where bowls tilted forward and back between tables and mouths and soup spilled into laps, where talk was interrupted by spittle wads, toothpicks, empty contemplations of the teacup, and greetings between friends burst into unfailingly explicit digressions about the previous night’s sexual escapade or that morning’s strenuous bowel movement, a guttural world, in other words, of the familiar. No, Zhen Cun’s meals would contain respectful hesitations, lacquered spoons, and caged parakeets twittering in the corner of the restaurant’s most private dining room, which one would reach through a long, dark labyrinth of dimmed hallways that gave one the impression of traveling through the body of a magnificent beast, a dragon, say, in which case the restaurant would be called Golden Dragon and its chef’s special the Triple-Headed Dragon Delight, only instead of the room being located in the belly of the beast, it sat on top of the head, the eyes—grand windows containing the fire color of the room—opening out onto the river.

But that the old man was standing in the street crying like a child also told me that he was much older than I could ever imagine a man to be, though how old I couldn’t decide until I looked into his eyes, or rather until his eyes met mine and told me the rest of the story that his name was unable to reveal. He was staring at his hand, the curled fingers resembling larval segments, the wrist as slender as mine though spotted with rot, the forearm a dark, winter tree branch that extended toward me as though of its own accord, reluctantly, tremblingly, not meant to grab or to startle but to seek relief, or absolution.

3.

“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun. . . .

4.

“I am not a weak woman,” Mother said to me. . . .

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The stranger (1)

January 30, 2010

3. L’ENFANT QUI PLEURE

Un petit enfant pleure dans la rue. Un monsieur vient et lui dit: “Mon enfant, pourquoi pleures-tu?” “Ma mère m’a donné deux sous et je les ai perdus.”

“Ne pleure plus,” dit le monsieur. “Voici deux sous,” et il donne deux sous à l’enfant. Le monsieur part. Il entend l’enfant qui pleure de plus belle. Il revient. “Pourquoi pleures-tu à présent?”

“Si je n’avais pas perdu mes deux sous, j’en aurais quatre à présent.”

—from Short Stories for Oral French,
by Anna Woods Ballard, p. 4

*

1.

Mother warned me never to talk to strangers, or you will suffer their stories, she said, but when I came across a crying old man one day in the road, I stopped to ask what was distressing him so that, in the attempt to right the wrong in the old man’s world, made little, I guessed, by his declining memory, his scuffling gait, the number of dumplings he could fit into his mouth reduced to two, I could discredit Mother’s warnings about strangers, or at least this warning, one of a handful she dispensed daily and without a break in her speech from other, more pedestrian matters, for instance her announcement for bedtime went something like “Keep your arms at your sides and your legs straight, or whoever’s looking in through the window will think you’re a cripple and then rob you the first chance he gets, good night.” I always thought that to speak in this manner signaled lunacy, and having learned early on at school that lunacy was inherited, I resisted any urge to spout such nonsense myself. This turned out to be easy enough, for when one’s mother was the most famous actress in Mule City, where acolytes, colleagues, and even rivals prayed to her image torn from magazines and taped to their walls, one didn’t have to say a word, or rather one didn’t have a word to say, for she hoarded them all in perpetual rehearsal. She became a jawline to me, a set of wrists and fingers, knees, a waist artfully bent, and slowed down only on three occasions—when she stood on a stage, when she slept, and when she was greeted by strangers.

2.

He stopped crying long enough to introduce himself. . . .

3.

“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun. . . .

4.

“I am not a weak woman,” Mother said to me. . . .

The business of a city: The fifth floor

January 1, 2010

[This had been started on January 1, 2010.]

I’d visited three apartments in Paris, all located on the fifth floor.

*

1.

In the bathroom were Vogue covers from the past twenty years. In the dining room, a poster of Pierrot le Fou. In the living room, a poster of a Woody Allen film that I didn’t study too closely.

On my second afternoon in Paris, I was low. I’d thought the depression would remain tucked in its pocket in New York, but it had traveled with me. Around five p.m., before it got dark, I left the apartment for a walk. A button on every floor lit up the stairwell.

*

2.

Inside two hundred square feet of space lived a kindred spirit.

*

3.

Here, one evening only—one evening too many. A grand piano, books, a blue kitchen. But the odors, the disrepair.

A building with a stairwell yet no elevator—no security.

In the morning, before it grew light, an escape. Searching for the button in the wall to light the stairwell—What if that’s a doorbell? Gently I pressed; light, lit. Down the five flights with all my luggage, as noiselessly as possible. Then a locked door in the lobby. Pulling and twisting; panic, silent. Finally, an old man to the rescue: he pressed a button in the wall, the front door opened, and the still-dark morning street beckoned.

“Merci, merci, monsieur!”

“De rien.”

He wore a cap and had a newspaper tucked in his armpit. Three or four others in the street, no more: another older man also wearing a cap and carrying a newspaper, a young student with a schoolbag, a store merchant hosing down the sidewalk. I stepped onto this hosed-down sidewalk toward home.