(a chapter within Wonderbread Man, novella, foundation for a film)
He sat there as if on another planet. He could have been a figure within a painting. After all, he was seated at a wooden, circular table, at the front of a Parisian café, overlooking a corner of Rue Cler and Rue du Champ de Mars in the heart of the city.
It was getting towards 2:00. A little world revolved around him as street workers in green suits cleaned the streets with their brooms. Singular strangers passed in front of him, then couples, students in tour groups, classmates in their red and white school uniforms, pretty slender women with small mouths, and ugly women with short fat legs and frizzy hair, clean cut men in narrow suits with small leather briefcases and two days worth of stubble, and people wearing eye glasses of so many shapes, sizes, and colors that one couldn’t say what was in vogue. A jet black couple, one in a long patterned dress, the other in a white shirt passed.
He knew he looked like a foreigner because of his baseball cap, short sleeved baby blue polo, and Levi jeans. He didn’t care. He, for this moment in time, would play his role in the tableau. It didn’t matter to him that he felt like a number, a spec in the universe. He was happy to be like a beige and red spotted, oblong stone resting upon some vast beach, well trodden or undiscovered, it didn’t matter. Let the moon take its arms to push and pull at regular intervals;let the sea salt waves of time rub against him; let the constant ebb and flow of the crowd brake against him.
It wasn’t the appearance of the scene that really mattered from a vantage point somewhere in the distance, whether in front or behind him. These were just circular reference points. Subject, object, vanishing point…the landscape, a familiar theme as he had witnessed earlier in the week at the Musee d’Orsay and Le Louvre would never stand still unless someone painted it.
His newly steamed café au lait held the pattern of a peacock. The silhouette of the white crème against the beige foam created quite a remarkable image:the long slender neck and sharp beak, the fanning plumage–a photograph of it should be taken now, but he didn’t have a camera. Someone played a French horn in the distance from Tosca. Another busker. He waited for the sound of a church bell and a lilting voice but it would never come.
He wanted all of it. He wanted the city: the poor and disheveled, the impoverished and hungry, the rich and the fancy, the cool and the hip, the elderly and the vibrant, the mother and the father, the girls walking hand in hand, the beard and the bald, the short-legged man and the mother with her stroller, the vagabond and the thinker and his pipe, the crazy and the sophisticate, the Asians flocking in their tours and the muscle head in his tank top, the hunched over nun in her habit and short-haired female couple, the slender and the obese, the smoker and “la sheik” in her gold banded bracelets, earrings, and long necklaces, the tattooed calfed man and the woman wearing a wide smile and bonnet, the black haired young man carrying a guitar in its case on his back and the prostitute in her blue miniskirt and white high heels, the homeless man with his paper cup stretched out and the starched white shirted business women carrying her fancy red leather purse, and the maid and the waitress for they were always so particularly kind and gentle.
His croissant “complet” made him smile. For the idea that a croissant made of butter had the added description of ‘complet’ in an of itself, by itself as itself was very funny to him. It would become an inescapable argument. “I would like a croissant with butter please?” “Complet?” And then… “with butter?” “Complet?” and so on. It was the very definition of “wry.”
He sipped on his café and it was strong, very strong, and good. The French language worked on him, and inside him. He thought hard and deeply and was wishing he could describe how he felt about this foreign tongue and speech. He thought:
“French is a living, thriving soul. The chair. La chaise. The table. La table. The horse. Le Cheval. The swan. La Signe. The ear. L’Oreille. The arm. Le Bras. The nose. Le Nez. The mouth. La Bouche. The tongue. La Longue. The spoon. La Cuillere. The Knife. Le Couteau. The flower. La Fluer. The bowl. Le Bol. The river. La Riviere. The dog. Le Chien. The cat. La Chat. The dress. La Robe. The Sun. Le Soliel. A language where everything is either masculine or feminine. It is a language of nature, from nature, to nature, of the sexes, for all human life. Born on the first day in Adam and Eve and established on the second with all the animals of the forest, and all else, all that materialism and extravagance that would follow.
The world of speech is our being, and what a gift of expression to each other. Here, in French, every word, every utterance has a subtext. Every nuance of conversation tells another story, and with every dialogue, you have intercourse in the air:a rapport between lovers, words crisscrossing across two shores, a ballroom of dancers twirling about the floor. Always you hear in this vocal music, the interplay of everything natural from the earth, the relationship of birth, charged by sex, a context of matrimony, and all have the underpinnings of love. Such a constant murmur and surge of blood in two heartbeats woven in complex threads of multiple meanings. His thoughtful internal soliloquy then dissipated.
Clouds rolled across the sky, and he noticed one of the nearby buildings seemed to disappear as the light bounced away from the whitewashed walls and became hidden by the clouds. The green colored shutters looked somehow elegant even in the shadows against the white walls and silver tinned roof. He sipped again on his coffee. The building soon lit up again by the breaking of the clouds. He thought again.
“Maybe it is an expression of how the first man and woman discovered the world around them. Had they enjoyed themselves in the naming all things? Were they possessive or did they flip a coin to see who went first?”
“Can I take this plate, sir?” he said. And the plates were taken away.
He practiced some French vowels in his head: a, ah, ais and ait like ‘aye,’ ail and iy like ‘eye,’ é like ‘ay,’ and è, ê like ‘eh,’ eau like ‘o.’ Then, i, ie like ‘ee’ and, and yes, of course, oui as in ‘wee’ but with a working guttural throat at the start of the sound, y like a long ‘e,’ and eu, a very hard sound to make, and ou and ‘oo’ like in ‘root.’
Is that what you want? he thought then said aloud: Es-ce que, celui vous voulez? Such a playful language, too. He smiled and said it again with a different object:Es-ce que, cela vous voulez? And the word ‘soufflé’ meaning to ‘whistle.’”
He looked across the street and saw a woman on a park bench getting ready to feed her baby naturally. He looked away out of courtesy. Another on a bike passed rather quickly, but the bright yellow colors of her bicycle held his attention as she whisked away down curving street.
“The ‘au,’ ‘eau,’ and the ‘eu.’ The ‘ou,’ ‘u,’ and ‘y.’ ‘La bas,’ ‘la bouche,’ ‘haute cuisine,’ ‘chouchou,’ and ‘soupsonner,’ ‘poussez,’ ‘huile sur toile,” even words with a medical bent, ‘ankyloserant.’ Such inflectioned and dipthonged combinations: merveilleuse, batailles, papillon, falloir, hotel, ateliere. The alteration of the letters to adjust sound as in the ‘c’ for ‘quebec’ and ‘c’ in ‘ca,’ the ‘i’ and ‘ile,’ and the differing ‘e, e, e’ as each letter its own note of music. Such twittering between and among flocks of a feather. He continued to muse.
‘L’ame,’ the word for “spirit” is such a beautiful word. The ‘ame’ a root from ‘animated’ perhaps, ‘anima.’ Perhaps, there is not enough justice, totality, or sense in this sentiment. But the French seemed to emanate the source of life, of all things, out of woman and man just after that very first utterance of the big bang. Not the “um” of Asian descent but the “ame” from the French. Could they be related?
The waiter came with the bill and he took the receipt and searched his pockets for change. He left a good tip and placed the coins neatly on the tray.
He had one final thought, but he hoped he could take up the argument again. “Tu es belle” versus “You are beautiful.” Which would she prefer? The adjectives must too perform, and put on their suitable attire. La belle femme française aime sa chemise bleue alors que le monsieur américain préfère son chapeau brun. The language always makes a night on the town.”
As he got up to leave, he looked at the sign of the restaurant with its indigo and violet lettering and image, ‘The Nightingale’ one more time, and slipped into the vast crowd moving to infinite iterations of thought, motion, and sound.
He heard a distant voice shout while coming out of restaurant though it was vaguely audible coming from such a distance as if ringing off these five storied buildings, down the narrow street:
“Toute alors…toute alors…toot a loo..toot a loo…toot a loo ” he thought. “My goodness.”