Mom always said I was a trophy hunter, “like your Aunt Evelyn,” she’d add, under her breath. I’d bring home an abandoned wren’s nest, an antler or some old chipped piece of stone off the prairie, and she’d swivel away from The Price is Right, lean forward in her Lazy-Boy, raise her eyebrows, mutter it could be a wooly mammoth tooth, an arrowhead, or something from the big bang. Then she’d grab the chair handle, recalibrate and recline. “One of these days you’ll strike it big. You’ll drag in part of a tricerathaurus or something, and the newspapers will be on the lawn, taking pictures like they do for Ed McMahon and the Publishers Clearing House.”
But unlike my trophies, Aunt Evelyn’s were more substantial—starting with a Cadillac, a mink and Uncle Ned, the man who took her to Paris. And Aunt Evelyn never withheld giving Mom the latest count, “She’s been to Paris twenty-five, or is it fifty-two times, or is it a hundred and fifty two times?” Mom said this with a wink as she drew on her Craven “A”. “She says the best place for steak and chips is the Tour d’Argent, did you get that?” Now mom is cupping the receiver in her palm to annoy Evelyn who’s on the other end. “Oh she says steak frites, you got that?” She’d hang up the phone, “everything has its price,” she’d say, “every person has a price,” and she’d smudge the little ashes that had dropped from her cigarette between her thumb and forefinger and then she’d grab the handle of the lazy boy, as if she were about to eject through the roof, but she’d recline into her little cloud of smoke and envy.
Before I left for Montreal, I returned most of the trophies back to the prairie, a little worse for wear, bits of string and glue holding them together to be found hundreds of years from now and wondered at by new civilizations. They weren’t mine to keep. “You’re not dying, for god sake,” she said. Then she watched me scrape a little depression in the ground outside, and press each piece of flotsam back into the earth. She stood at the door to my bedroom, arms crossed, cigarette in the corner of her mouth, and watched me pack my bag, then she handed me my bus ticket, “you’re leaving me, just like your father did.” I was only like him when I annoyed her—when I did well in French class, tooth whistled, stacked coffee cups in the sink, or drank out of the milk bottle. Hatred had a stranglehold on her.
“I can’t stay.”
“I’m not giving you any money if that’s what you’re hoping. There’s money for college. Not for Montreal. Of all places!”
“College in Montreal?”
“College in Lethbridge. I don’t believe in handouts and neither should you.”
“I’ll get a job.”
“Hah, just try. Maybe you can be like your aunt, the queen of Regina. It’s not like she worked her finger to the bone.” This diatribe trailed off to be replaced by one last inhalation that made the end of her cigarette glow like you could see all of Hades through a pinhole camera.
Spend your life surrounded by whispers about who or where your father ended up, on top of why you skip with girls, throw like a girl, sound like a girl and above all, flirt-and-then-some with Monsieur Delvin the French teacher, like a girl, then yes, Montreal is of all places where you go.
There are no such trophies to be found on rue Ste. Catharine. Hot August wind shifts papers and wrappers aloft and tosses them between buildings. Montreal’s streets are hard and empty on this Sunday afternoon. But the concrete is warm on my rear end.
◊ ◊ ◊
I got a job and, up until last month, Montreal has kept me fed and sheltered. Thanks to events, or occasions, weddings, openings, vernissages, lancements—I was learning new words everyday. There were funerals on the steps of one church and weddings on the steps of another. Mix oppressive heat and humidity with rented formal wear, throw in women with wide brim hats, veils, padded shoulders on black and white suits and it’s hard to tell the nuns from the non-believers.
Georges needed staff because someone had booked Le Parisien, not just one theatre but the whole thing, for a film debut, and wanted him to cater the whole fucking affair himself. Georges said there was a hundred in it for every waiter who was there for set up, our first fifty, and tear-down, our second one. An easy C-note: the week’s rent and food.
Celebrities wandered the red carpet, Jacques Villeneuve, the singer or the race-car driver how should I know? Renée Simard, after my own heart. Luba. Diane Dufresne. All Quebecois icons whose larger-than-life brooding faces graced the placards at Place des Arts. Gino Fucking Vanelli! Oh my God!
Maintenant, us waiters were getting refills in the lobby office, drinking what we could not pander, to make up for the teetotalers, and then, with a tug of cuffs, cummerbunds and bow ties, we magically balanced another full tray across the lobby, while Georges forced a smile and, with the flattened palms of a traffic cop, directed us back up the grand staircase towards the popcorn concession for refills, like one huge grain conveyor of stone-faced waiters. We felt like a million (because it was the closest to a million any of us would ever get) while Patsy Gallant sang last decade’s hit, Sugar Daddy, either live or recorded. We were superb.
Even getting soaked by a whole tray of champagne didn’t bother me. (A glass tipped off my full tray. Monique bent down to get it. “Don’t bother,” I said. She didn’t understand, “ne te tracasse…” My biceps were squeezing the oxygen from my lungs. On the upswing she slammed the back of her head into my tray.) No one moved. No one gave so much as an inch of personal space. Padded shoulders, and raw elbows held me in space. I was the centre of no one’s attention, or so I thought, until someone established himself as a saint by cleaning the sticky fizz off my leg, and then wiping hard at my crotch presumably to get a rise, and to find out what lay behind the unyielding zipper of my waiter pants. Nothing more than a swollen, sweaty, and now sticky, under-handled piece of summer sausage. After that, a shiny pate circled with red hair, like a rutabaga, topping a crooked-tooth smile—the kind you’d swear never to kiss—emerged, looking innocent and open, while he stuffed his souvenir hanky into his breast pocket. He winked. He was all jewelry, diamond stud not on his wedding ring finger, a glitzy Rolex (Ned had given Aunt Evelyn one. Aunt Evelyn had given Ned one—I’m still not sure how she paid for it. “She owes me nothing, and I hope she doesn’t give me one of those gawd awful pretentious watches. What is all the fuss? I wouldn’t be caught dead!” Mom had said), and, when I looked down at the mess on the floor, could see he was wearing some kind of black patent leather reptile skin shoes with tassels. I nodded and turned, soaked in sweat and champagne, smelling like both, trying to get out of the throng. But the guy who had bonded himself to my crotch followed, acting like he knew me. He had this big laugh and a way about him, nodding and smiling at everyone, that convinced me and others that he was surrounded by friends. It made me believe we had met and I couldn’t remember him, or that he was a friend of Georges and somehow knew me.
I smiled—that’s what you do for the first half of a hundred dollars—and then he toasted me every time I walked by (unlike the cultivated blasé stare that I was learning city people were so good at). But his guy looked like he wanted someone to laugh with—maybe try the zipper trick one more time. (When Mom heard I was flirting with the French teacher she said I was naïve. I can still hear her.) I’m banking on laughter. “I’m Patrice,” he finally said, hint of an accent. “Why don’t I take you out for a nice dinner. Are you an actor?”
“Surely with that movie star smile and those features. Haven’t I seen you at auditions?”
“I’m a director.”
“I don’t get off until—” but I stop. Was I drunk? Dinner would cost more than the next fifty I’d been promised, and who would know if he was offering to buy me dinner until the bill came and I’d have wasted fifty bucks, especially if I drank and was reckless. Would he ooh and ahh at me over a plate of spaghetti? I’m not sure I was ready for that. “Your name is Patrice?”
I think he saw the look in my eyes as if he had said his name was Bruce or Leslie. I was dead set against so much as a smirk, even if it killed me right there on the spot. Monsieur Delvin’s name was Fabrice.
“My father was Irish, ma mere, Français.”
“My Mom was Scottish, you know, prairie stock really, for generations. Father, we, well she, doesn’t talk about him.”
“Farmers, hotel owners, that kind of thing.” My uncles, the farmers, were dead, assets liquidated, ex-wives in Arizona. Ned was the only hotel owner I knew. Good thing Evelyn married up as Mom called it, or I’d have no bragging rights at all. And what about her? Could I follow her example? Could this Patrice become a friend and make some of my dreams come true. It all came too quickly into view. He had a nice touch for those moments and it had been too long.
I shoved my way into the office and parked my tray, gulped some fizzy so quickly that it came back out my nose. Look at all these wannabe supermodel waiters trying to outperform each other. Why not just blow the boss if they were so desperate for shifts? Maybe they were.
Would this be my new life, entertaining the crap out of some old guy and never having to work another day of my life? These so-called waiters all said they knew someone who did it but I didn’t think there was enough sugar to go around Montreal. I mean why were they still schlepping free bubbly?
If I left now, would I ever work again? I could still turn back, still pull the ejection handle on Mom’s Lazy-Boy. But no, I braced myself and headed for the door, eyes down.
I was free. I was walking beside a man old enough to be my father. I wasn’t trailing him, or trying to keep up with him. We were walking, bumping shoulders, chuckling.
“My Porsche is at the corner.”
Maybe I would love him.
Being in a convertible Porsche is like driving around the streets in a bathtub. Sharing your intimate world with street life. Everybody could see me and I could see them. I was all voyeur and exhibitionist at once. Would they think I was a fraud? Why the hell did I care what they thought? Surely we could blast out of here like Luke Skywalker.
His fingers were hairy, and not in a way I found attractive. If his head was a rutabaga his fingers were parsnips. And he clutched the steering wheel like he was Aunt Evelyn, drying a fresh manicure while she piloted that Cadillac of hers. And they gleamed, his nails, like drops of spilled glue, opalescent and highly buffed. This made me think he’d never touched much, other than a pen or an elevator button, a cufflink, or a leather steering wheel. I wondered what it would be like to feel them on my skin.
His teeth were too white and his lashes too dark. Was he wearing makeup? It’s the not-so-true that always seems to draw attention to whatever is lacking. What was Evelyn without her hair and makeup? Mom without her chair, her cigarette? He didn’t seem to mind my staring at him. Perhaps he thought I was admiring him.
“Patrice O’brien,” he said again as if to make conversation, making Patrice sound French and O’brien, Irish. “You haven’t heard of me, but you will.”
We pulled up in front of a restaurant, which meant getting out in front of everyone on the patio, in fact all patios of all restaurants on that block. Were all eyes on me? Did it look like he had brought his own waiter? Oh the shame. Quick, pull the ejection right now. My Miami Vice suit was at the cleaners.
The restaurant was where people like me thought people like him ate dinner. No terrace, which left me with a sense of regret and curiosity. It was a steak house for rich folk. How could a place be so air conditioned on such a hot day? And it was darker than any funeral home I’d been in. Why? Why on a bright summer afternoon, albeit sweltering, were we locked away in a dark vault? The food was big and the squat waitresses raced by as if to deliver the plates before they collapsed under the weight—plates with giant lobster, something that looked like a crown of ribs, and bleeding steaks. I hadn’t seen anything this thick, since I’d left the prairies.
He knitted his fingers like the cat’s cradle, where his harvest rutabaga head came to rest. He was already full of looking at me longingly and we’d just met. Would I disappoint? He spoke, “I knew we’d get along when I saw you roll your eyes after the champagne fiasco.” He laughed again and perhaps therein lay my power or his weakness. I wish he didn’t find me so funny.
I smiled. The dry sticky residue had made my pants stiff. “I’d almost forgotten.” My penis stuck to my leg, a feeling which, without underwear, both aroused and annoyed me. Made me feel I had to pee and play all at once.
“You like to laugh, don’t you,” he said and then started to laugh himself. “I can tell.”
“I suppose I do, I mean if you can’t laugh—”
“Exactly.” And there we were on common ground.
“So what do you do?” I guess I really meant, why are you so rich. How did he make enough to have all of these glittery showy things?
He answered my question, “Game shows.”
“You won all your stuff in game shows? Like your car? Wow.” I thought of Mom watching the Price Is Right and never so much as getting a one-way ticket to Burbank or wherever they recorded the shows. “I’ve never met someone who actually played game shows.”
“—I make them. I make game shows.”
“Oh. Like The Price Is Right?”
“Canadian game shows.”
“Definition!” I half shouted, or so it seemed in the mausoleum. I shimmied my shoulders like the go-go dancer on the show and tooth whistled the three-note theme song.
“Not that particular one,” he seemed perturbed. “Quebec ones.”
He raised his eyebrows. I raised mine. I tried to appear interested. “T.V. Prix—Ma Blonde Sucret?”
“I think I’ve seen that one.”
“The one you said. What are the prizes?”
“Eastern townships. Prince Edward Island. Last season a couple won a trip to New York City for a night.”
“Well furnishings,” he said.
“That kind of thing.”
“Someone won a mattress on Definition once,” I said.
“Hmmm. Pillows too.”
“Canadian game show prizes,” I said. His face turned redder than it already was. I had killed the conversation. “What’s it about?”
“Well, since you asked,” he smiled as if to forgive me, not that I was deserving, “we try to find lost loves and romances from way back. Match them up if they are single, still.”
We had dinner and he had steak frites like Aunt Evelyn. I didn’t know where my next meal was coming from so I ordered a T-bone with a baked potato and lots of sour cream and butter.
I hadn’t talked this much since arriving in Montreal. He asked me if I travelled. He said that Paris was where television production was taking off for the French speaking world and that he wanted a piece of the pie. He said maybe we could go to Paris, but I knew I would only ever go to Paris with someone I loved, or alone. Would I love him? We laughed. We talked. He seemed nice. Did you learn to love someone or did you just fall in love?
We had many dinners, and he paid every time. I hadn’t eaten so well in months. I didn’t ask to go to all the fancy restaurants. I just said yes when asked. I had face aches from the smiles and headaches from the wine, and heartburn from the bonjours and interruptions from those who knew or wanted to know him. I wondered if one of us was showing off the other. He would touch my arm in public, as if to say I belonged to him, like his Porsche and Rolex. It seemed a small price for a free meal.
Did Aunt Evelyn love Ned, or was being queen of Regina enough? What was I doing?
Perhaps I liked him more than I thought I did. Perhaps I thought too much about it. Through it all he would chuckle, a little forced, like a game show host.
On a hot July night he had me out with some of his friends, two sour men who were as old and dry as the foothills. He called it a double date. In the restaurant, mirrors lined the walls so you could see yourself and everyone else in the bright light. I had a moment of trying to feel like I had truly made it. Was this what it felt like to be part of something? I looked the best of all of us, but that wasn’t saying much.
The food was bad. I’d never had an oyster and I don’t think I will again. I sat on the toilet most of the following morning. The others had steak frites. He told the sad men we were planning a trip to Paris as he turned a huggy thing into a squeezy thing on that tendon that runs from my neck to my shoulder. Paris? Really? Their eyes narrowed, suspicious, like I had begged him to take me to Paris.
He took me to watch an audition for a new show he was hoping to produce, something about playing tricks on people. He said the show would write itself but that they needed a strong host. Actors came in, one after the other, some trying too hard to be funny, he said. They were all striking though. He said everyone on television had some degree of fuckability. Deep down you could see yourself sleeping with each and every one, regardless of your persuasion. That was a fact of life, he said. I thought about Bob Barker and The Price is Right. Then I thought about Don Jonson in Miami Vice.
In his kitchen that night, in his “pad” as he called it, with only some flat Canada Dry in his fridge to celebrate getting through the auditions, he tried to kiss me but my lips hardened against it on their own. Well, I had to open my mouth a little or there would never have been another free meal, or Paris, and he would have questioned my motives. I remembered in grade nine, behind the farm supply, how Debra Beckwith tried to put her tongue down my throat and I threw up. Until that moment I had thought a French kiss was once on each cheek. The flat ginger ale settled my stomach. It was good. I had barely eaten. What were my motives?
Over him in the bed, I imagined I was one of his TV actors—looking at his white featureless torso, his reddened face, his crooked white teeth—sleeping with him for the part. Then I tried to imagine that he was one of his TV actors. I took his crooked damp tool in my hand, but I couldn’t— “I think I need to go to the bathroom.”
“You’ll need nice shoes for Paris. Let me buy you some shoes.”
◊ ◊ ◊
We waited for our flight to be called. He looked so happy. He looked like he’d found that special someone to spend the rest of his days with, his soul mate. He gripped my shoulder, as if to lay claim again to his goods. I longed to be touched, but these touches said I own it. I felt a stabbing sensation of pity. I felt like I was a part of a huge lie. I saw his hopes. I saw myself confused and on my way to Paris. I looked down at my new burgundy loafers.
I had never been on a plane. I could see the pilots through the windshield. They were as handsome as any pilot in any movie I’d ever seen. Wings splayed and ready to flap. It was huge. Patrice kept using words like “jumbo” and “newest” and “biggest.”
Inside uniformed women greeted us. Did they wonder why I was with this man? Did I wonder if they slept with the pilots? They smiled and indicated a sea of green and blue, row upon row of seat backs like in a movie theatre. I asked nothing, not how long, not where, not how far.
We flew into a brief night with a fast dawn and a forced sunrise. I was damp in my seat from the heat and spilled wine and tea. My eyes were clammy and my mouth was thick with the taste of barbeque nuts, creamy boeuf bourgignon, (okay, beef stew), miniature bottles of wine (I don’t even like wine, just champagne), custard, and an aperitif that tasted like cough medicine. My neck ached where each vertebra met. But I was on my way to Paris! Paris! I couldn’t even imagine. And when descent was announced I could barely get my shoes back on.
◊ ◊ ◊
Three hundred dollars from my tip jar should have been enough for Paris. I mean I wanted to treat him at some point. Maybe lunch at La Tour d’Argent, the place Aunt Evelyn had mentioned to Mom (”and who really cares,” to quote Mom). But in one day money ran through my fingers: in cab fare (all you think about in a Paris cab is if you are travelling the shortest distance between two points); tips for the stone-faced doorman at the Ritz; the offer to pay for a café au lait on the Champs Elysée, $25; two beers in a tiny bar behind Notre Dame, $50. Three hundred in Paris was peripherals and notions—Kleenex, Q-tips, change for beggars—for a few days! How did people do it? Three hundred could last me for years in Montreal. I thought maybe if I loved him more, or at all, money wouldn’t be such a worry for me. Why couldn’t he carry some cash instead of just that damn American Express that no one wanted? A little for un shoeshine? Un boisson? Did I say coat check at the Lido? The Lido. I couldn’t pretend to afford the Lido, but he wanted to see the show.
“I could do that.”
“Chorus boy.” I pointed to a poster by the ticket booth, teeth too straight, hair too perfect.
“You’d have to cut down on your steaks, my dear.” In one day, Paris was changing him. He had become more flamboyant, more happy, more entitled, more bitchy.
But I couldn’t be bitchy to someone so homely.
“It’s a tits and ass show from what I can see. You have to be able to dance. Can you dance?”
“I did four seasons of Plains Fun.”
He ignored me, took in the room. Rows of tables and tourists. Likely not a Parisian to be seen.
“Plains Fun.” I repeated. Louder. “We performed, did musicals, Oklahoma, Annie Get Your Gun, Carousel.”
“For a moment I thought you said Pleins feu.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
But it mattered to me to know the language of love. I wanted to tell him, to say something, to reconnect, say something in French, make a joke, have a laugh like back in Montreal, but my impulse was stifled by the opening act; sequins shimmered, music was deafening. Was that skin or flesh coloured leotards? We were mesmerized. It was all tits and ass, walk, walk, turn, walk, walk, turn, and no dancing required. I could do that.
◊ ◊ ◊
Outside, the sidewalk had filled with night-time strollers. I shunned the idea of being stuck with the bill for a nightcap at some tourist trap on the way back to our hotel. “I’m tired.”
“You’d be up well past your bedtime if you worked at the Lido.” He mistook my fatigue for an invitation, and back at the hotel seemed especially aroused. “Those boys in their bottomless tights,” he said as he half patted, half swatted my bum. “Those bottoms. Those bums. My God.” He took me in his arms, again, like he had in his kitchen, only this time we were over the vanity. His pointy fingertips touched the back of my neck, meeting a combination of goose bumps and hair standing on end. I hoped he couldn’t tell. I imagined the fingertips of the creature from the black lagoon, and those cheap, badly fitted rubbery costumes the monster-actors had to wear. My spine arched away of its own free will. My apathy had changed to revulsion. “What is it?” I asked. My behind was pressed against the edge.
“Apparently nothing! I’m not here to play maudite tour guide! Do you understand? Do you think you could rise to the occasion?”
“I said I was tired.”
“Do you think I don’t see it in your eyes?”
“Why can’t we just laugh and have fun? What’s so wrong with that? Here, let me dance for you. I thought you liked to laugh.”
“A trip to Paris for laughs and fun? What lottery do you think you’ve won? My God!”
“You’re hurting my wrists.”
“Limp as they are.”
“I just can’t, right now.”
“Get out. Get the hell out of here.”
◊ ◊ ◊
I walked somewhere to a street with lots of people. People acting as if they’d just seen a parade or a concert and were elated, full of joie de vivre. They had taken over a long street. They held each other’s hands. A man and a woman kissed each other as they walked, bumping into people, blocking others; they were loving in public. I remembered that it was the city of love. Someday I would return and be in love.
I bought an Orangina from a man in a dusty grocery the size of a closet, only because I didn’t want to be empty-handed, didn’t want to walk like some prairie hobo with my hands in my empty pockets. But everything cost something, even a glass of water. I sat on a curb and stared. I thought nothing. There was nothing to ponder. Everyone belonged. I did not. I didn’t care that he thought I was too fat to be a chorus boy. I’d show him.
Soon the crowd thinned, and I went back to the Opéra de Paris. The hotel was quiet and no light came from beneath the room door. I knocked but there was no answer. I slept upright on a banquette in the foyer. I pulled off my shoes and my bare feet bore the imprint of the rim of my shoes.
In the morning I went upstairs and knocked. There was a cough. The door opened and he stood shrouded, glistening with sweat, more puffy than usual. “I just need to sleep.” If I hadn’t been familiar with his already ruddy complexion I would have thought he was on death’s doorstep.
◊ ◊ ◊
For the next three days, while he nursed his sickness, I wandered, drank lemon water, espresso, ate baguette, lots of pain. I watched people spend loads of money on simple things like tiny bottles of Perrier, while I searched the cheap places. Cafés advertised on chalkboards, three course meals. Cheap or reasonable? Was it the same café I had been by earlier or were they all starting to look the same? Paris on five francs a day? I had enough for a hundred days, if I didn’t eat much and slept under a bridge. Back home in the summer I’d slept by the river. Why not here? I would write “Paris on a Dollar a Day” when I got home. But the embankment looked hard and unnatural
I didn’t want to hate Paris. I took to staring at the sidewalk, hoping someone had dropped something, un franc, un sou. The least bit of change would have been miraculous.
Aunt Evelyn’s handouts would have helped. A twenty here, a twenty there, always in a birthday card, until she told me that I was too old for that now, being poor would build character and that, sorry kid, the well was dry, ask your mom. If the two hadn’t detested each other so much I might have benefitted more. Weren’t aunts supposed to be the ones who salvaged broken spirits, indulged you in sweets, stroked your cheek? And Mom had laid down the law, and it sure as hell had nothing to do with Paris, Montreal or anything east of the Saskatchewan border.
In the evening when I returned to the hotel, a pile of dirty dishes sat outside the room; greasy plates of steak fat, uneaten frites, of which I took a few nibbles. I wished he’d ask me if I’d eaten. I had appeared too self-sufficient. He had no idea how little I had, and it was too late to tell him. I slept on the sofa by the door while he wheezed and dry-coughed in the bed. I had missed all windows of opportunity to leave this story.
His cough woke me, “Can you call the hotel operator and ask her to dial this number?” He stood over me still in a sweat, and gave me a wrinkled piece of paper. “It’s two zeros to call Canada. Tell the person who answers that Patrice O’brien is on the line. I’ll tell you what to say.” But the line came up with one long static-filled tone all the way under the North Atlantic and back to our hotel.
On the fourth day, I came to a big cemetery—Père Lachaise, they called it. Father the chair, literally. I’d heard of Maisonneuve, Lafleur, Desjardins, but who had a last name “The Chair?” It seemed the only place where I wouldn’t have to spend money in order to spend some time. It was hot now, and a heavy grey sat over the city. I wandered. What was festering within these boxes? It smelled like the filthy shower curtain going grey at the hem in my rooming house on St. Denis, I longed for coolness but there was only oppressive, humid grey. Where was the famous “Paris light?” There I was, in Paris with a man named Patrice O’brien fermenting in a three-star hotel room. I wondered if he would die. I wondered if I hoped he would. Was I that callous? If he did then I’d just take over, spend the rest of my life in the hotel ordering room service and pretending to be him when necessary. Perhaps I could bury him in Père Lachaise if it was too expensive to fly his corpse back to Montreal. Then Paris would become my new home. I’d give tours of my spurned lover’s final resting place. I’d show them. I’d charge a fortune for the privilege. “Let them eat Sara Lee frozen cake,” I’d shout. I’d throw bird shit from the balcony and smear the sidewalks with dog shit. No one would be safe. But me.
But I had made him laugh, and he had tried to touch me. And seeing the shameless way he could laugh so loud and look so clown-like had touched me. Was I ruthless? I hadn’t brought soup, juice or even a croissant—but then he did have room service.
I passed annoying groups of tourists holding maps as if on a treasure hunt. You’d think someone famous was buried there. Why, I wondered, did people have to see things? Stay in hotels? Eat in restaurants? Wander in groups? Line up to see this or that? Always lining up. Always waiting.
Slowly the grey enveloped me, and a quiet descended and the tourists were somewhere beyond, and could barely be heard. Soon I saw the green against the grey, and the stillness permeated my angry, frightened soul.
Drops from above started to fall, at odd, long intervals. Would it rain? Would the rain bring cooler air? I would be in Paris without an umbrella.
High above the canopy, the sky filled with birds moving in waves, then in figure eights, infinities, huge question marks, bed sheets twisting, none colliding, all with such perfection and coordination. I thought of that day. The flow of champagne. The assembly-line precision. The tray as it tipped. The hand on my crotch. I dozed in the heat. Was I doomed? To bad decisions? To love men? To avoid opportunity?
A voice from behind pulled me out of my nap. A toothless man, as wrinkled and old and shrouded as one of the statues, winked at me and mumbled something. And soon it was raining bird poop. It lined the edges of each stone coffin, made angels weep, braised cupids.
“Th’est de la merde. Merde!” He ducked his head between coat-hanger shoulders and laughed a hoarse cigarette-laugh like Mom will some day. “Mothieuh, moment th’il vous plait,” he took a breath and hacked out a few more words: “franc, thoo, thawnteem?” His eyes wandered. He was at the mercy of handouts, but didn’t seem to care. He laughed again, despite the shit, despite his soleless shoes, his frayed smelly overcoat in the heat. He smiled from the depths. His very twinkling eyes were handsome, while the rest of him rallied to stay in one piece. There was something remarkable about him that it seemed I would never know. I shrugged. I reached into my pocket and handed him ten francs. Two days worth of Paris on five francs a day. He smiled. “Ahhhh.” He said, and even though he could see my loafers, it was as if he knew how much I needed those ten francs.
I went back.
“What have you seen?”
“An old cemetery. You know. It was free.”
“And it rained bird poop on the tombs.”
There came a knock on the door. Patrice put his finger to his mouth to hush me, and he tried to wave me away from the door, but I opened it. “Monsieur, il faut payer.” It was the man from the front desk, waving a piece of paper like a surrender flag. But the look on his face did not say he was surrendering. He looked at me “Toi, tu t’amuses?”
After that Patrice and the man yat-a-tatted in a French that could have been Swahili for all I knew. Their voices rose, stifled, bit at each other. Patrice, still in his shroud, pushed the man out the door as he continued to speak.
He sat back on the bed and I sat in the easy chair. “Why did you open it?”
“Why not?” I had no idea. I thought maybe he wanted Patrice to stop leaving his half-eaten fries in the hallway. I waited. I waited.
“We have to go.”
“Why? Where to?”
“Back to Canada.”
“Couldn’t we just move down the street?”
“Do you have any money?”
“A little, even by Canadian standards.”
“That doesn’t help.”
“My credit card is acting up. There must be some problem at the bank.”
“Then just phone.”
“Eh bien. Okay. So. No. I did.”
“While you were out. The number I gave you.”
“And that’s the last of the cards. I thought they would extend my limit.”
“Sell your car.”
“It’s not mine to sell.”
“Your watch? It’s a Rolex.”
“It’s a fake.”
Everything was fake, everything a façade. I was fake. He was fake. “When can we go back?”
“Our flight leaves in two days.”
“You have nothing? We have nothing?”
“I might have a friend,” he said.
“Stay with him.” I pushed the sole of my shoe into the plush pile of carpeting under my feet. “I’ll go. I can get myself to the airport.” I hoped to God the Wizard of Oz, this false man who stood behind his façade of car, jewelry, and bravado wouldn’t make me have to sleep my way back to Kansas.
“Where will you go?”
“I’ll find someplace. I have an emergency number. A rich aunt.”
“Can she help us?”
My mind flashed to the cemetery, then to a hotel lobby, then back to the cemetery. I wanted him to think I was resourceful, and perhaps a little secretive “Can I have my ticket?” I thought he had money. Money for dinners. Money for Porsches. It had all been so alluring. I realized how much I wanted him to have money, how much I liked him having money, and how much I liked him for having money. Even so, there is an incredible sense of freedom turning your back and walking out of something you suspected was not a good thing. I was poor, broke, but free. I had two days of Paris left.
◊ ◊ ◊
When I got to the Lido it was already early afternoon, and a crooked man was sweeping up the litter by the doors, using a rolled newspaper. I hit the glass on the door with the side of my fist, hoping someone would see or hear me. The man continued to wipe around the edges of the entryway until he had a pile of cigarette butts. An older woman’s heavily made-up face startled me on the other side of the glass. Her skin was soft and wrinkled and covered in something creamy. Her lips were large and red. She looked down at the handle, she looked at my shoes, and then pulled the door. “Monsieur?”
“Je veux auditioner.”
“As-tu un rendez-vous?”
“Mais, il faut.”
“But. Oh shit. Merde. Can I…je peux laisser…”
“Oui. Oui. Laissez votre nom, et votre numéro.”
“Et coat check?” I hoped it was an international term.
“Mais, il faut parler français.” She held up her hand, the palm soft like the skin on her face. “un moment.” She smiled, then let the door close on my face. The man scooped up his little pile of cigarette butts, held out his pant pocket, dropped them in and then disappeared. The door opened again. “Tiens.” She gave me a pen and paper.
“Serveuses seulement, et encore, il faut parler français.”
I scribbled the only number I had, double zeros. I couldn’t imagine a call from Paris to the middle of the Canadian prairie but I couldn’t hand her back a paper with just my name. She looked at the paper, “Mais c’est pas à Paris?”
I pretended to not understand, “Tour d’Argent?” I asked the woman.
“Notre Dame.” The woman waved her arm in the direction back along the Champs Elysées.
“Et, euh,” She touched my arm, “bonne chance à vous.” She winked. “Tu vas faire une bonne audition.”
◊ ◊ ◊
I stood outside the Tour d’Argent for a long time. I was limp. My feet were damp, my ankles raw. Crème glacée at the Tuileries had left me with only enough francs to get to the airport. But it had been worth it to sit on wrought iron, bare feet in the gravel and pretend I was a tourist or, more so, un Parisien. Meanwhile the gaping entrance of La Tour d’Argent yawned me away. How could Ned and Aunt Evelyn do it? I couldn’t imagine Ned in anything other than a bolo and a ten-gallon hat, even though I doubted he owned such things. Maybe she was his cover in Paris and he was hers in Vegas. That was it; they were each other’s accessories. They were meal tickets. I watched Evelyn march up to that immense entry way and muscle her way in, probably wearing that mink coat or a Chanel something-or-other, but I could not follow. How could I even ask to be a busboy? No, a busboy at the Tour d’Argent must be worth at least ten cater waiters from Montreal and, besides, my shoes were the wrong colour. And me, not French enough. A dishwasher? Probably not foreign enough. To know Evelyn and Ned had graced these steps was even more awe-inspiring than the façade of Notre Dame. I had a moment of true hope. Someday I would return as a customer.
When I turned, I pivoted on a small thick worm of dog shit. If I had been flexible enough I would have landed in the splits. I could feel people’s concern but I could barely see it. It was enough to elicit a pinched brow, or tightened lips. Myself? I would have burst open with laughter at the sight of someone slipping in dog shit on a Paris sidewalk. I didn’t want to hate Paris, the dog shit, the bird shit, the beggars, the prices, the want, the need, the tourists buying the baubles that said I could afford nothing. I had a dark cloud over my head that even the City of Light was having trouble penetrating. I wanted the Paris created by my imagination each time Mom had reported, no matter how callously, on Evelyn’s latest visit.
◊ ◊ ◊
But Paris looks ugly when you are being dragged away, on an airport bus, saving your last francs for an overpriced sandwich at the airport and staving off hunger until you get your free nuts on the plane, hoping there will be a few seats in the departure lounge to sleep on. The grey sky hung over the industrial landscape—the one they don’t show in the guidebooks—confirming that I should go and not bother returning until I could afford to.
◊ ◊ ◊
Sitting on the hot concrete step in front of Le Parisien on rue Ste Catherine without the money for even a shitty movie in air conditioning, I wiped my hands on my pants. The telephone had a greasy feel to it. Calling for money has its own set of rules: be polite, optimistic, dismayed. “I was wondering—”
“I have a message for you.” My mother’s voice trumpeted victoriously, from her mission control recliner out on the Canadian prairie. I could hear Bob Barker in the background, “Come on down!”
“A woman said she was calling from some place called the Lido. Her English was terrible. I think she wanted to talk to you. She kept saying the word audition. Oh-dee-see-yawn. And she said rendez-vous, that I understood.” Mom spoke in small gasps trying to keep as much cigarette smoke in her lungs for as long as possible. “I told her I had no idea where you were. I told her that you weren’t in Saskatchewan that’s for sure.” There was silence as she took another hefty draw on that cigarette. “Don’t you have a phone in your apartment?”
“I’m between moves.”
“Well why did she call?”
“It was just a waitering job.”
“Waiter? What do you know about being a waiter?” Mom took another lungful. “Anyway, she hung up on me. Saskatchewan must have did her in. It was a few days ago and I didn’t have a number for you, still don’t. Where are you calling from? You are so like your father. September is just around the corner—Ned and Evelyn are in Paris. What am I supposed to do out here alone on the prairie?”
She was pulling out all the stops since phone calls from Evelyn frequently ended in a standoff for weeks at a time. What was there to miss? But I was speechless and Evelyn was in Paris. “When did she go?”
“A week or so ago.”
There was silence with a rush of hollow rasp that says two thousand miles of phone line is keeping you at arm’s length. “The next time you call you can tell me when to meet you at the bus station.” The line went dead. Good. I felt a wave of nausea, like I did when I was a kid and drank too much Freshie.
The story had to end. Forget Paris. There had been so many chances to step out of the ordeal, eject from the Porsche, the departure lounge, and I had almost missed them all, clung on until the very last. It was a stroke of luck that he wasn’t on that flight home.
The steps of Le Parisien movie theatre are warm in the late afternoon sun. The wind has died now. The entryway sits like a stage onto the street. Behind me the doors are closed. No premieres. No bubbly. No hundred dollar bills or Porsches. From a record store down the street Patsy Gallant sings, “Are You Ready for Love? Ooooooh.” There’s a small explosion of feathers. The remains of a pigeon, crammed by the door. I rub two quarters together. Enough for another phone call.
Andrew Binks is the author of Strip and The Summer Between. His prize-winning fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Globe and Mail, This Magazine, Prairie Fire, PRISM, Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly, among other Canadian and US publications. He is a graduate of UBC’s MFA in Creative Writing and lives and writes in Prince Edward County, Ontario. “Sugar Daddy” is part of a linked collection, French Stories.