The stranger (3)

February 2, 2010


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



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


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


“I’ve lost my purse,” said Zhen Cun,[1] her voice startled as though she’d only just noted the loss.

“What does it look like?” I asked.

“Red, with a gold clasp and a short strap. I had once spilled some ink on it—unused to pens, my hand had waved the things around uncapped, I must have been about to write a letter, carrying so many pens at once, and then one of them which had been leaking for some time spilled ink all over the purse so that a blue stain spread throughout the leather like veins.”

“I’ve always disliked pens myself.”

“Oh, I don’t dislike them, I’m just ill acquainted with them. I do all my writing by pencil, the kind you have to sharpen, not the mechanical ones that click out a sliver of lead, no, I prefer sharpened pencils for the pause they provide me in the course of writing, that is once the point becomes blunt or in some cases breaks off, I have room to breathe once more, I mean there is really nothing quite like breathing in the fumes of a sharpened pencil to wake yourself up, to open up a line in what you’ve written to enhance the imagery further. A pen, on the other hand, offers no traction, literal or metaphorical, on the paper. I am a poet.”

“You work with words and paper, and need to discover the relationship between the two.”

“Why, yes. You see exactly how I mean. Now this purse, my neighbor had given it to me for my birthday last year, dear Mr. Shu Pao-ming, who never forgot the day, though I had long ago stopped anticipating it myself. A red purse! At my age—no. I tossed it aside, and didn’t think about it again until yesterday, when Mr. Shu died, was found dead, or had expired is how the police put it, in a very curious location in his apartment. Now if you were to ask me to guess where an expired body would be found in an apartment, I would guess, and I’ve watched enough soap operas to have an idea, the bedroom or the bathroom or the kitchen, even the balcony, or perhaps the roof, but in Mr. Shu’s case, he was a musician, you see, or used to be, he was found inside his cello case[2]. It wasn’t murder, mind, nobody forced him inside the case, nobody broke his body into bits and pieces to fit him in there. He had wedged himself inside all on his own. He was a little man, I mean he had been a little man, generous in voice and in heart but so very little in body, and every night he had curled up inside the cello case and gone right to sleep. It turned out that one night the lock on the case accidentally clicked into place, and he couldn’t let himself out. Now, Mr. Shu and I got along well enough—he was prone to giving me gifts, like a pet, and I was prone to accepting them, old as I am and surrounded by things that belonged in the past—but if I didn’t see him, I didn’t give him a thought. There were days, even weeks, when I wouldn’t encounter him, or hear one note out of that beautiful cello, and not once would I wonder about the absence or the silence, I was too busy with the absence or silence inside my words. Can you understand how that is?”

“I think so. I’m sorry about your neighbor.”

“This morning I took the purse from the closet and examined it a long time, and I can tell you now exactly where the the pen’s ink first hit, the direction of the braiding of the strap, the clasp’s weight, all without having to look at the thing, though really, now, I’d rather be looking at the thing. This man had lain dying in the apartment beside mine, separated from me by a mere wall that you could knock down with one punch, and I had sat at my desk, duped by strings of silent words into believing that I was a poet.”

She said nothing for some time. Her eyes were finally dry, and she massaged her hands slowly, rubbing Mr. Shu into her life. How she had lost her purse I was no longer curious about, but I was oddly moved instead by the fate of Mr. Shu. If she was now letting him in, embracing his gifts as she should have, or believed she should have, when he’d been alive, then I felt like letting him in as well.[3]


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


[Notes after the jump.]


[1] I’ve decided that Zhen Cun is a woman, not a man. She may revert to manhood tomorrow, however. [Indeed, in the course of writing #4, I realized that Zhen Cun’s penis must be returned to him.]

[2] A friend who plays the cello has suggested I change the instrument to the bass and to make Mr. Shu even smaller than described. Will do.

[3] What? Eh. No.


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