The first time I saw Mel behind the counter I knew he was different. A series of incompetent, if friendly, pharmacists had preceded him, but Mel wielded his mortar and pestle with confidence. One of the most striking things about Mel was his appearance. It’s rare in the south to see dyed black hair on a middle-aged man, contrasting with green eyes (contact-induced?) and skin the hue of a New York pallor. The diamond stud on his earlobe similarly didn’t seem to mesh with his white pharmaceutical jacket. If central casting had been called, what had the drugstore specified? Someone from Death in Venice? Claude Levi-Strauss said that “Identity is a kind of virtual foyer to which we have, perforce, to refer to explain a number of things, but which has never had any real existence.” The thought of the human species trapped in the virtual foyer of non-existence, well, it gives one pause. Did Mel know that he was a construct of his own making? Yet, he was competent. Amazingly, quietly competent amidst a sea of assistants who seemed to be still learning the alphabet when one picked up one’s prescriptions by name. The flashy jewelry, the attention to his appearance—it fascinated me. He never made eye contact, but he was aware of each bottle he had filled, each waiting prescription, the telephone calls that mechanically requested the pharmacist to pick up the line. Where did Mel go when he left the drugstore at 9 p.m.? To walk his standard white poodle? No, there was nothing standard about Mel.
The journalist in question bore a slight resemblance to Princess Diana. This was something she capitalized on, not in physical terms but on the psychological level. She demanded attention, placing her imperious nose in the upper stratosphere and leveling her gaze at one. When I picked her up for lunch in my mini-cooper, I thought first about carrying her bags and then helping her into the lowly passenger seat. The irony of course is that on closer inspection she doesn’t really look like Princess Di at all, rather more like a caricature of her. Nor is she that gifted of a journalist, though her self-confidence erases all doubt in her audience. She is wonderfully charming at first, but then cynical and biting comments begin to issue from her mouth. As she approaches the meaner levels of gossip, her prominent nose displays a drop of fluid in the nostrils. Perhaps because of the long journey, she doesn’t seem aware of the event threatening to take place, but always rescues the day with a nearby tissue. No matter how many French scarves she dons, the threat of that droplet endears her to me. Ah, what is man but the sum of his bodily fluids?
The BP gas station I used to frequent had a series of one-armed men who worked there. I think there were three, but it may have only been two. I mention this not out of discrimination, but rather out of curiosity—what could have attracted these men to the same gas station? They were sort of interchangeable—I mean, they were all nice, helpful, and smiled at the quaintness of someone who had not yet mastered the art of pumping gas. The odd thing about this occurrence is that whenever I had my car filled up with others in the passenger seats, I warned them about the one-armed men—but they were never on duty when I was with others. Indeed, I have only met one other person who knew the one-armed men at the gas station, and she also found them elusive in the company of others. When they tore down the BP station to build a Mexican restaurant, I wondered what happened to the men; would they turn up in another station or garage in town? I’ve never seen them, but I’m on the lookout.
The mover, Tom, carried the dining room table to its destination as if he were handling a bag of groceries. At one point he spit on his hands to get a better grasp of the tabletop, though I am not sure how effective this method was. He did his work quietly and with incredible competence, only pausing once to go to the restroom. Despite the fan I could hear the steady stream of his urine—even that was done efficiently. Every so often one meets a person who has found his saucer—a perfect fit. He liked his job, he did it well, and he disappeared in his Mayflower truck as if he were riding off on a white steed.
I felt as if I had entered the Valley of the Dolls. They were everywhere, overflowing the tall glass cabinets that had been built to contain them and encroaching upon end tables, squatting on the piano, lurking on the windowsill, and even smiling benignly (?) from the hall closet where one hung one’s coat. Sleeping in the living room amidst this precious assembled clan fostered a deep sense of anxiety, as if they were restless souls trying to escape the prison of their porcelain flesh. My mother was valiant—this was her life that I was tossing in boxes and bags for the women’s shelter, for the various charities, and lastly, for her. How would I react under similar circumstances? I vowed to become a Buddhist then and there. Non-attachment is the only way. Yet weren’t the dolls, all 500 of them, just the most plaintive cry for some connection? Why had love failed to reach her main aorta?
Returning to the library in Paris in its new incarnation—four massive glass towers symbolizing the four disciplines (?), the cold, steely interior with layers of bureaucracy thinly disguised by the use of computers, how I would miss the domed interior of the old Bibliothèque nationale! And what about the regulars? Would they make the transition to the new millennium with the grace I couldn’t summon up? Days passed without a sighting of the researchers of old. Then, I saw him, still wearing his aviator glasses though they were clear instead of canary yellow. When Anne saw him years ago, she commented that he must be afraid that the words would fly off the page too rapidly and that he had to protect his eyes. Seeing him roam the corridors in deep thought filled me with joy. He made it to the other side—with his trusty glasses to ground him in his flight to the 21st century.
Sitting in the Salle of Litterature francaise I observed at least nine scholars working on Flaubert and about the same number consorting with Balzac. I wondered if they experienced the same waves of doubt as art historians toiling on “Chartres, encore?” But everyone harbors the silent conviction that he has the key to some elusive passage that the world is waiting to discover. Looking up I was startled to see “Foulard” walking with extreme self importance to his appointment with destiny. As his moniker might suggest, Foulard always wore a scarf or extreme cravat with every outfit he wore to the library. He even had a friend whom we dubbed “son of Foulard” who also wore scarves, though his neck attire was far more subdued than that of his mentor. Again, the feeling that all was right with the academic world if both Foulard and Aviator glasses could bridge the gulf between the BN of old and the new towers of learning, leaning precariously towards the total impersonal realm of scholarship in the 21st century. The author may be dead, but the seeker of truth in the authorless texts lived on.
It was fascinating to see the clochards of the quartier gather on a corner at the end of the day. Did they compare their earnings? The women seemed the most boisterous, laughing and punching each other in the arm for emphasis, whereas the men were just settling down for a fine bottle of table wine (no cork screw needed). I had read about how tightly orchestrated the system of the streets and their homeless inhabitants were in Paris. I was just so thankful that it had at last turned warmer, that the promise of spring chased away the vision of those human covered grates. My daughter asked me how I could walk past each outstretched hand as if it weren’t attached to a needy human being. I suppose that is what makes the urban dwellers so steely, how can they afford to waver for an instant? I do offer coins to some, but as my arteries harden so does my carapace acquire another coat of shellac.
In the BN of old, he used to arrive with a lady. They sat together, working, dressed elegantly, and when it was time for lunch, he helped her on with her coat. He always wore the same camel’s hair coat and cut such a striking figure with his shock of thick white hair. I passed them at a local restaurant, consuming the menu du jour, with café après. No sandwich in the park for such civilized savants. I saw him in the new BNF but he works alone now. There is still the same air of gentility, the same camel hair coat, though the latter has a few spots near the collar. Were they lovers, collaborators, colleagues, friends? Why does he seem so sad without her? Perhaps it is just age, both mine and his; I wonder how many years he has been without his graceful companion. Was it death or adultery that drove the wedge in their alliance? How sad that cynicism rears its head after 50. One cannot live that long without looking in the mirror.
Fanny had an unerring sense of direction except when she went the wrong way. Then she was lost beyond measure. The Saturday in question she had set off for the Asian Farmers’ Market and found herself in a part of Georgia where English did not seem to be the native language. When she stopped to ask directions, the gas station attendant screwed up his face as if her words were painful to hear—and clearly beyond comprehension. As she prepared to become one with the leather upholstery of the driver’s seat, she pondered the derision she formerly held for GPS systems. Who on earth could she call to find her way back to civilization? Why the hell hadn’t she brought breadcrumbs?