Monday, September 29, 2014

#143: "France in 25 Exposures" by Christiane Buuck

~This essay first appeared in Seneca Review (2005).

1. Meat
The white truck stops in the middle of the empty street. Its driver, dressed in a white plastic rain suit, leaves the engine running on the cobblestones of the rue Cler. He nods to the owner of the boucherie who has also just arrived. No words this early. The sky is still black, the lights of the Eiffel Tower extinguished. Up goes the door of the truck. Up goes the chain mail of the storefront. The owner of the boucherie props his door open with a wooden block. Inside the lights flicker and cast a sterile glow. He walks to the back, to the coolers. There is a sound like a mechanical bumblebee. A white metal arm extends from the back of the idling truck, dangling the carcass of a cow. The man in the white rain suit puts on his hood and his plastic gloves. He steps back one, two, three, four paces. Ready now. Find the focus. He lunges for the slab like a wrestler, everything throttling forward. Together they swing with the momentum, arc up like the swaying of a bell. At the crucial moment the carcass comes free of its hook. Its weight settles. He fights it, holding his balance, stumbling toward the door of the boucherie, a waltzer dancing his dead partner.

2.     Madness
The street sweeper opens the valve of the fire hydrant on the rue de la Santé beside the insane asylum. He takes a dirty bundle of bound blankets from his wheelbarrow and pushes it into the sewer grate so the water runs down the cobbles like an oil slick in the street lamp light. The fog of his breath glows before dissipating into black morning air.  His broom scratches across the street, pushing debris and crottes de chien into a pile.
Beyond the barbed wire fence, on the second floor of the white stone building with the windows that open only so far, a white hand emerges. It feels the air. The fingers stretch and clench, caress the wall and the edge of the window. Then the pounding begins. The window will open no further. The hand retreats and in its place a faint halo of breath escapes into the cold air. The madwoman moans and it sounds like some kind of music. The street sweeper pauses, resting his wrists on his broomstick.
On me tue! On me tue!” she wails. They are killing me. Each sentence’s inflection exactly the same. In that moment there are no cars, no trash trucks, no rumbling of the métro below. Only the sound of the rushing water and her desperate soprano. The street sweeper begins sweeping again.

3.     Breasts
The cobblestone alley is empty save for the old man. The tall blonde appears from around the corner, hips swaying for an imaginary catwalk. The stooped man in his cardigan and slippers stops to watch her as she strides, arms swinging, into a flood of morning sunlight. Her hair is a Farah Fawcett halo. Her tweed pants hug every curve. The white angora sweater slips off both shoulders to reveal a perfect neck, perfect collarbones. In the pureness of this light he can see so much. He hasn’t seen so clearly in years. Her sweater is nearly transparent. She looks through him as he stares at her and takes in every bounce, every jiggle. He turns as she passes and watches until she is gone.

South of Paris
4. Music
            It is Easter Sunday. Walking home from church she comes upon a field of sheep. Thirty-three ecru ewes on a green slope. And thirteen lambs. Each wears a sonnaille with a different tone. The sun catches on one, the B flat. The sheep looks up, its note pausing in the carillon, while she takes out her tape recorder. She thinks she can capture this moment, lock it in time on a thin band of plastic in a miniature machine. The sheep, unimpressed, lowers its head and walks away ringing.

5. Du vin
            Agnès is sixty-nine, round, a former nun. She and Roger lived through the war.
“My father had a cave,” Agnès says. Her eyes magnified big as an owl’s through thick lenses. “He had inherited some very old bottles from his father and was saving them for special occasions. Weddings or birthdays or anniversaries. When we heard the Germans were coming he made us bring everything up. He invited the whole village. You’ve never seen such a party. Everything we couldn’t drink went down the gutter. My father said, ‘The Germans may take everything else, but they won’t have my wine.’”
            Roger lifts his empty glass, tipping it a little toward Agnès.
            “Ah, no,” she says, “No more for you. That’s enough.”
            “Mais non!” Roger replies in mock indignation. He sets his glass down and struggles to his feet to go fetch the wine bottle from the kitchen where it is kept out of easy reach. She turns her head now, looks away but does not try to stop him because it is just one more glass, because it is just a little pleasure. Sweat beads on Roger’s forehead as he sits back down with the bottle. “There now,” he says, topping off his glass until it shines like one round ruby. “There now.”
Agnès begins to clear the dishes.

6. The bellmaker
            They bring them forth steaming and spewing from the furnace once a month. Daban is the last in his family to do this. He is the seventh generation. He has a son, but his son will be a banker.
            “I didn’t have a choice,” Daban says as he pulls on the flameproof gloves and wraps his arms in wet towels. He puts the soldering mask on over his beret. “I wanted to study history.”
            The other three workers prepare in the same way – masks, gloves, towels. Everyone sweats in the low ceilinged room.
            “Stand back,” he says. “On y va!”
            The oven door swings out, pulled by a man with a long iron pole. There is Daban, a silhouette against the white fire of the small opening. He walks toward the light, plunges his shovel in once, twice, until he finds the one he is looking for. It is a question of balance now. And strength. The heat is unbearable. He brings the glowing bundle forth from the flames. A steaming mass of mud and straw and metal in the center, hidden and transforming. Like a crab he steps the awkward weight to the trough in the courtyard. It hits the water with the force of volcanoes. A wreath of steam and sodden smells. Later the cocoon will crack and split, expelling the newly minted bell. Daban points to the sodden discarded shells. “Look,” he says. “Ink burns at a higher temperature than paper.” The newsprint that lined the mold is still legible even now that it has turned to ash: corn selling high, concert tonight.

7. Entre chien et loup
            She has chosen a back alley – a quicker way home before dark. Her walking stick taps in even rhythm. There is a sound to her right like something great and powerful breathing. A woof of air and a smell of stale saliva. The walker starts, glances to the low garden wall, sees red eyes and paws the size of human hands, sees a creature taller than a grown man, feels a twist in the gut, runs.

8. The view from this bedroom window
            Roger does a good impression of a hard-boiled egg on matchsticks. He is out of proportion from wine and sugar and diabetes. His pate is smooth. Down there, in the small park, he toddles next to Java, his small, white and very loud dog. Roger wears his bedroom slippers. Sometimes he stops and cries out, swaying upright but painfully akilter, a phenomenon of either his advanced sciatica or a femur that snaps in and out of place. Pop. The egg wobbles.

9. Oracle of the rue Cler
            The Spanish woman has found two lovers sharing a chocolate and coconut crêpe on the bench.
            “Ah hah!” she says with a thickly accented French. She holds six shopping bags in her hands. Her neck rattles with gold jewelry. The young lovers try to ignore her even when she sits down.
            “You are in love!” she exclaims. They turn to her.
            “I can see this. You are in love!” The lovers look at each other. The young woman speaks French. The young man does not.
            “You will be very happy in life,” she tells them. “I can see it in your eyes. I have seen love before. Good love and not so good love.”
            “Merci,” the young woman says. But the seer cranes past her, to the young man who does not speak French.
            “You must guard this,” she tells him. “This is precious, what the two of you share. Oh, such happy people!” She stands up and walks away with her shopping bags.

10. Métro
When the homeless man steps in everyone ignores him. He shouts that he has no job, that his wife has left him, that he doesn’t know his kids. He shouts that they are all swine, all of them. He is drunk. Everyone knows the drill but the tourist. They ignore him. He doesn’t exist. The commuter standing right beside the homeless man does not even wipe the frothy spittle that lands on his sleeve. This man is not his problem. But the tourist hasn’t learned this yet. She looks at the homeless man for a split second. Maybe less. And then he roars toward her like a force of nature, eyes swimming, chin stubbling, hurling a clot of obscenities. No one else speaks in the car, but they all listen. The pole is shiny and feels oily in her hand. She wonders how many people sneeze on the pole in a given day as the homeless man’s phlegm explodes on her face. She thinks he will strike her soon. Because she is scared she wonders which is worse: the fact that no one will help her, or the fact that no one will help him.
The train screams into the next station and the man stumbles off in a rush of wind bearing the undersmells of the city.

South of Paris
11. Fire on the mountains
            Somewhere someone speaks the language of these mountains. They are alive tonight, burning with runes and first speech. This is the season of the écobuage, the time of avalanche prevention. All the slick grasses on steep hillsides must go up in smoke like sacrifice. The fires burn in odd patterns – lines, swirls, arcs. From the plain they look like writing.
Every year hikers die in the fires. They ignore the signs or they get lost and the flames extinguish them. On the plain, because it is a warm evening, people eat out of doors. Late in the night they sit and smoke, their cigarettes glowing red in the dark, and discuss the patterns of the fire. For several hours three of the mountains in a line spell “L,” “U,” “V.” Look at it, they say to one another. Even the mountains want to be American.

12. Arrival of the Tzigane
            This is the name they call themselves, the gypsies. The French use it mostly in anger when the Tzigane arrive at the end of May. They stop for a few days on their way to the Mediterranean, to the shrine of the Black Madonna to sing and dance and matchmake. They drive all manner of caravan, dress in outdated clothes, speak a language of harsh consonants and dissonant vowels. The south of France braces itself for the migration. Saplings are planted in empty fields to prevent camping. Bulldozers pile gravel and debris onto vacant parking lots. Owners of tourist campsites barricade entrances and turn off all the water in the restrooms. Signs outside villages warn, “Gypsies, nomads, it is forbidden to park in public spaces…” These placards are larger, more eye-catching than those bearing the names of the towns.
            No one speaks much about their arrival, but there is a current in the air, a general frisson. “Robberies in the quartier. They use an unmarked white van. They work in pairs, you know. Always in pairs.” Whispers at the Tuesday and Saturday market. “Don’t forget to lock up.” Women raise eyebrows to each other over heads of lettuce while the gypsy girl who is much too young to be pregnant buys bread at the next stall.

13. La Psalette
            Here is the choir director. He is also the Protestant pastor. His mother took one of those medications that causes birth defects. His arms are half the length of normal arms. They only just reach his mouth when he blows the pitch pipe. Sometimes it looks like he is drowning when he conducts. He waves and waves at the choir. “Allez! Allez!” he shouts. “More!”

14-16. à table
“Isn’t Agnès a good cook?” Roger asks. “That’s why I married her, you know.”
Agnès smiles, wiping her plate with a piece of baguette. “You know what the hardest part was?” she asks. “The hardest part was when we had a Black girl rent our spare room – from, where was it?”
            Géorgie,” says Roger.
            “Non. ‘Géorje-ee-ah’ –”
            “Is that in the north of the United States?” Roger asks the guest at the table. She is the expected expert on all things American, from the death penalty to the merits of air conditioning.
            “It’s in the southeast,” she says.
            “Anyway, she was from Géorgie and she hated to eat. I swear she did. I made all the best things for her,” Agnès says.
            “We ate like kings when she was here,” adds Roger.
            “I made quiches. I made couscous because that’s an African dish and I thought she would like it. Do you know how long it takes to make couscous? You have to roll the semoule in olive oil three times. By hand!”
            “Agnès was in the kitchen all day long. It’s upsetting when someone won’t eat.”
            “Of course.”
            “I made everything I know how to make. Everything. I even called my daughter, the one who lives in Romania, to see if she knew any other recipes,” says Agnès.
            “She was too skinny. It was painful to look at.” Roger holds up his pinkie finger to indicate how thin she was. He is smiling for the camera in this one.
            “I would serve her and before I had put even a spoonful on the plate she would say, ‘Oh no more, merci. No more. I couldn’t possibly eat any more.’ And I hadn’t even given her half a spoonful!” Agnès picks up her spoon and indicates half with her index finger. 
            “And she never took seconds. Not even of dessert,” Roger winks. “Speaking of desert…” He turns to Agnès.  She pretends not to hear him, upset as she is by the memory of the American Who Would Not Eat.
            “We eat well in this house,” she says, looking this new American level in the eye. “There are others who don’t go to such trouble. Others who have pasta every night. But not here, no.”
            “No,” Roger adds, teetering up from his chair.
            “No,” Agnès repeats with finality. “This is where people come when they want to learn true cuisine à la française. I have never been so insulted in my life.” Agnès slaps her napkin on the table with her wide hand. “Roger!” she calls to her husband who is now in the kitchen. “Bring the cheese and fruit!” In the fraction of a second while her head is turned the guest scoops the gristle from her second serving of the pork roast into her napkin where it joins the remains of the first serving and twenty or so French fries Agnès heaped on her plate for thirds. This picture is a mix. Part shame and waste. Part liberation.
            When Agnès turns back to her she smiles. “Everything was wonderful, as always.”
            Agnès looks at the empty plate and radiates contentment. “You see, I told you you could finish it all.”
            At this very moment Roger returns bearing the cheese tray with the handle made from a goat’s foreleg and hoof. Agnès cuts cheese for the guest. Roger pours another glass of wine for the guest and another for himself.
            “Save room. There’s still desert,” he whispers to her and winks.

17. Other endings
            The bouquet is bigger than the kitchen table. She is holding it like a beauty queen or a bride, balancing it carefully on her arm at the same angle as her burgundy beret with the jaunty bow. She is smiling here, backlit by the yellow walls. It is a cautious smile. There is reserve, self-preservation in her eyes. After all the other words they have said, these two who once shared a crêpe on rue Cler, she is uncertain of these buds and stems. She does not know if they speak of new beginnings or an end. She is afraid the answer is her own to choose.

18. Proposal
            There is a shepherd on the path just ahead. His sheep are in the cornfield that has just been harvested. They eat anything, these sheep. His dog weaves among them and nips at their heels.
            “Bonjour, mademoiselle.”
            “Bonjour, monsieur. And how are your sheep?”
            “The same. Always the same, these sheep. Always eating. Do you walk fast!” His black beret, the size of a dinner plate, shades his eyes from the midday sun.
            “I’ve just come back from St. Vincent.”
            “Alors! More young people should be like you!” His face is smile worn and his teeth brown from coffee and tobacco.  He talks about McDonalds. About China “the next superpower!” He talks like a man who spends a great deal of time with his sheep and his dog. His hands are thick, the skin tough and each fingernail opaquely strong. They must never get cold. He rests them on his staff. It’s his next line that’s caught in this picture – the way his mouth curls up with his own daring, the way the sheep ring in the background.
            “And would you be offended, Mademoiselle, if I asked your age?”
            “Not if you told me yours too.”
            “Eh!” he laughs. “I’m seventy-eight.”
            “I’m twenty-four.”
            He is on a roll now. “Then you’ll not consider me rude if I ask if you are married?” he ventures.
            “Are you married, Monsieur?”
            “Oh là là! Who has time for marriage with all these sheep?” He laughs. “But I do have a nice house and all the milk and cheese you could ever want. Not to mention I’m away half the year…” Behind the joking exterior there’s the hint of a boy of eighteen boasting for the girls at the village dance, hoping, if only for this moment, that one of them will say yes. If only for tonight.

19. Neither here nor there
            It’s just a dirt track. This path through the woods on the crests of the hills is as old as the earliest animals. Men widened it and rode their horses here from Pau to Lourdes. Now hikers come for a shaded stroll. They call it the Chemin Henri IV because he grew up in an unspectacular castle nearby. Henri is a local claim to fame for three reasons. He ended the wars of religion. He decreed that everyone should have a chicken in the pot (poule au pot) once a week, an edict for which local event caterers are eternally grateful. And, legend holds, he often traveled here, seducing country girls by the hundreds along the way. “Henri IV,” according to the local joke, “didn’t know his member wasn’t made of bone until he turned fifty.”

20. La piscine
            Because of the new pool, the neighbors are used to seeing trucks of every color come and go from the house next door. The workers arrive most days to smoke and inspect the hole in the ground which doesn’t seem to change much from week to week. Every now and again the husband, Nordine, comes through the gate that connects the two back yards and gives a report.
“They’re really busy,” he explains waving his hand in the general direction of his pool-in-progress. The laundry dries stiff and hot on the line on the west side of the house. The neighbors nod to Nordine and sip their drinks.
            “They have so many orders this year, and then April was all rain…” He trails off. He has a habit of trailing off. The neighbors have gotten used to it.
            “Will it be finished in time to use it this summer?” one asks, exhaling and tapping away ash.
            “Well…” sighs Nordine. “They don’t know…I never signed anything, you know.”
            “No contract?”
            Nordine shakes his head. “I wanted to tell you that we’re going away this weekend to the beach, but we’ll be back on Tuesday…”
“Ok, Nordine.”
He walks back to his house, deliberately, as if he has all the time in the world. He is, at last, out of the frame.

21. One last cigarette
It is almost midnight. Tomorrow the week begins again. Nordine’s neighbor steps outside to smoke in peace before going to bed. Across the fence a white truck with no markings backs up to the front door of Nordine’s house. One man climbs out of the truck and inspects the front door. A second man waits in the cab. She squints but it is impossible to see the license plate from here.
In the stillness the hannetons of early summer, large beetles with feathered antennae, loose themselves in the ivy of the trellis and buzz. She drops her half-smoked cigarette and crushes it out before going inside to call the gendarmes.

22.   Baptême de l’air
Today Agnès turns seventy. She has never been in an airplane. Her children, even the daughter who lives in Romania, pool their resources and rent a four-seater. Agnès, Roger, pilote, guest. “You go,” they all say, pushing the American into the last space, a tight squeeze beside Agnès and the flimsy metal door. Agnès takes her hand like an excited child as they fly between cloud islands above the châteaux of the Loire Valley.
            “Look – Chambord! Chenonceau!” Agnès shouts. “Azay-le-Rideau!” She names every one. Roger jokes with the pilot, pretending he knows how to fly. Pretending his expertise extends even to this.
            “Smooth air today!” he says. “A good day for flying! Piece of cake!”
            Here they all are. Even the rainbow out the window is real.

23.   Market day
Grievances run deep at the market. Almost everyone knows that the fishmonger from Marseille, the one who drives eight hours each way twice a week to be here, had an affair with the wife of the history teacher ten years ago. He keeps coming. He needs the money.
This morning two women walk past while he stacks morue fillets on the ice. The older one puts an arm around her friend and says, loud enough for him to hear, “Don’t fall for that fishmonger’s yellow paella over there in the big steel vat. Everyone here knows that paella will make you sick. He sets it out like that day after day, market after market – no ice to keep it cold. That’s paella for show, for the tourists. Anyway, he’s from Marseille. You know what they say about fishmongers from Marseille, don’t you?”
Just before the women are out of earshot he shouts, “And you know what they say about women from Nay, don’t you?” and then calmly lays out the shrimp with their antennae facing in the same direction.

24. Odds and evens
            “Hi,” she says when he answers. “The flowers came.”
            “Oh good,” he says.
            They wait on opposite sides of the Atlantic for what comes next.
            “Are they okay?” he asks finally.
            “They’re amazing,” she says.
            “How are you?” he asks.
            “Can we just be still for now, and not talk?” she says. “Can we just listen to each other for right now?”

25. Panorama
If she were to send him a postcard from here, she would have to walk a distance to take the right picture. She would hike to the clearing in the wooded hills just east of town. Each season here is beautiful, but she will choose a spring day. The trail will be muddy from yesterday’s storm and will smell of rot and growth. The purple columbines will be blooming. The church bells will chime but the church will be hidden by the trees.
She would want him to see the mountains. They run the southern horizon from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean, separating lands but not peoples. The largest interconnected ant colony in the world lives at the base of them, its network of minuscule tunnels and egg chambers lacing from salt water to salt water. The ants will be too small to show up in the photo. But the postcard picture would show how the farmland starts to ripple as it rolls away toward the mountains, the hills a darker green than the plain and dotted with sheep, the mountains many colors, but always somehow purple.
She would think about how pilgrims have tracked this ground for millennia, moving south and west over the mountains toward Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where James the Greater, Son of Thunder, is said to rest in a silver sepulcher in the belly of the cathedral. She has heard the stories of how the Virgin Mary sometimes steps lightly in these parts and appears to shepherds and small girls. They say that sacred springs fill her footsteps and to drink from one is to be healed, body and soul. Further along this path where she would take the picture, if she walked long enough and could find it, is an ancient place called Gleize Pause. No one recognizes the language anymore, nor the meaning of these words. They name a simple crumbling circle of mossy rock among the trees.
            She would choose a clear day. She would take one perfect color picture of all of this for him and would write on the back: “Here’s the best I could do.” And then she would walk back to town.
            This is the first piece I ever published. I have lived abroad in France three times, each time for a year, and this essay is the product of two of those years. Each “exposure” is something that happened in Paris or Tours where I studied for a time, or in the southwest, in the Béarn, where I lived and taught high school English for a year. I used to marvel that the children at the school could concentrate at all with the Pyrenees right outside the window on the southern horizon. While I was abroad I took notes and tried to write, but when I came back and began an MFA program, all I seemed to have was a bunch of fragments. I printed them out and played with their order on the floor of my apartment. I didn’t know a lot about lyric essays at the time, but have since come to embrace the form. There is so much implied, so much elided, in white space, and this space is not unlike the space between cultures and languages. The white spaces in lyric essays are sites of graceful slippage from one thought to another, one moment to another, the pieces connected sometimes only by juxtaposition. In the end I found that there were strands in the images, characters and themes that repeated, and these strands could be braided to give a sense both of place and of story and of a whole. The title came later, only after I had whittled the images down to twenty-five. I liked the idea of a roll of film (there still was film then), of a roll of twenty-four that somehow, magically, allowed one extra shot, an unexpected gift of an image.
            Deborah Tall accepted this piece for the Seneca Review, and not very long after she passed away. I spent that summer reading everything of hers I could get my hands on, partly to learn about the person who had given me my first break, partly to thank her by honoring the work she left behind. I like to think this essay is for her and also for the man who shared the crêpe and sent those flowers.

Christiane Buuck’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Seneca Review, Crab Orchard Review, Cimarron Review, Cutthroat and The Sun, among others. She earned an MFA from the University of Arizona, and completed a creative writing Fulbright to France. She teaches writing at Ohio State University, and is at work on her first novel.

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