Read Coq au Vin Online

Authors: Charlotte Carter

Coq au Vin (4 page)

No such luck. And now I was stuck in the busy 9th, clogged with crazed shoppers and sightseers, the traffic like a million killer bees. I had to admit, the Opéra was looking a great deal spiffier than the last time I'd been in Paris. Choking on exhaust and too weary to do any window shopping of my own, I zigzagged across the boulevard des Capucines and went down into the métro station.

Home at last, thank the baby Jesus. The alert, generous-bosomed madame who seemed to rule at the hotel was having her afternoon
tisane
when I stopped at the desk for my key. I must have looked about as frazzled as I felt, because she offered me a cup.

French businesswomen are about the least homey human beings imaginable. Anybody would be scared of them. I know I am. This one, however, told me she had noticed my saxophone, and wondered if I was in Paris to play an engagement somewhere. She had always admired
le jazz
, she said, and at the time of their wedding anniversary each year, she and her husband enjoyed making an evening of it at the music club just off St. Germain des Pre. You know—the one with the likeness of Satchmo in black plaster in the entryway.

I told the madame, in as little detail as possible, about my search for Aunt Viv. She was sympathetic—genuinely so, I believed—and when she offered further assistance, I jumped on it.

The madame's husband relieved her at the desk while the two of us climbed into the taxi she had ordered. We were going to La Pitié Salpêtrière, a giant medical complex in the 13th arrondissement that also housed the city morgue. It made sense, didn't it, to check there first? Oh yes, it was quite sensible, my companion agreed. After all, if, heaven forbid, Vivian was at La Pitié, then there was little point in canvassing the hospitals and the emergency rooms and hospices and so on—our search would be over.

The office where we waited had a beautiful view of the Jardin des Plantes. As the lady from the administrative office led us along the corridors the worst kinds of morbid one-liners were running through my brain. I couldn't help it. It was like whistling in the graveyard.

Back in the fresh air, I went weak with relief, happy to know that Viv was not one of the bodies in those human filing cabinets. The madame and I rested for a few moments on a bench in the Jardin des Plantes and then caught another cab home.

Back at the hotel we worked out a fair way of computing the phone charges I was racking up calling the appropriate municipal offices to determine if anyone fitting my aunt's general description had been admitted to a Paris hospital. It seemed only right, I told her gratefully, that I also pay the week's rent that my aunt had skipped on. That was most responsible of me, she said. Would I like to pay that now, or should she add that sum to my own bill at the end of my stay?

None of the hospitals had any mysterious amnesiacs in residence who might be my poor aunt. So, as far as we knew, Aunt Vivian was still alive, somewhere out there. She had to be. If she was broke, how was she going to get out of Paris? I was going to have to bite the bullet and go to the embassy soon, it seemed.

It was time for me to clear out of Madame's way and let her get her dinner started. I thanked her for all her efforts—the tea and sympathy not the least of them—and went upstairs.

About seven o'clock I put on a fresh shirt and jeans and left the hotel, with no particular destination.

I wound up at one of the revival cinemas near the place everybody referred to as the Beat Hotel, a dump with character over on the rue Gît le Coeur, which I had checked out the previous day. Its reputation had been made by William Burroughs and his crowd in the fifties, and I guess its legend was still going strong. Not a single vacancy.

The street was clogged with kids of all nations, hanging out, playing guitars, smoking reefer, dry humping in doorways, eating
frites
and souvlaki, and just glorying in being alive and young and stupid. A few paces away was perhaps the world's narrowest, shortest street, which I had searched for years ago, on my first visit to the city, because its name was so intriguing: rue de Chat-Qui-Peche. The Cat Who Fishes? What the hell was the point of that? Right after finding it, I had had an even bigger disappointment. I had wandered over to the rue Mouffetard, where, I had been told, a lot of cute third world students ate cheap Middle Eastern meals. I was promptly groped and nearly kidnaped by a tobacconist with hideous b.o., and had never again set foot on that street.

At least the movie was no disappointment. How many times had I seen
Children of Paradise
since my college roommate and I first caught it on campus? Too many to count. I cried again anyway.

Lord, what a beautiful night. There was no way I was going to dinner alone again. Maybe I should turn into the first bar I saw and make a fool of myself by begging some stranger to come eat with me—or perhaps I should just pick up a sandwich someplace and call it a night.

I went for the sandwich. I would not have been good company for anybody.

After coffee the next morning an idea came to me. No, I hadn't yet thought of my next move for locating Vivian. It was something a lot goofier than that.

In fact, it was probably about the goofiest idea that had ever come my way: I decided to take my sax down into the metro and play for change. Reckless. Silly. Ill-considered. Preposterous.

Formidable
, I'd do it.

It was the stuff of fantasy. Maybe I didn't have the chops a lot of my fellow street musicians back in Manhattan had, but at least I'd be able to say I played in Paris. I got cleaned up and dressed in a hurry. I wanted to get out of the room and down into the metro before I had a chance to wimp out.

I got a polite
bonjour
along with an indulgent smile from the old monsieur behind the reception desk as I tripped past him, my instrument case festooned with an old India print scarf I often use as a strap for the sax.

I bought a booklet of metro tickets and passed through the turnstile. It was an act of supreme hubris to set up shop at Odéon, one of the busier stops in the city. What with the number of hip Parisians who lived in or passed through the neighborhood every day—students, intellectuals, musicians, jazzaholics of all stripes—I was betting half of them had heard better horns than mine before they'd finished their morning coffee.

But what the hell. I wasn't playing to pay the rent; I was living out a fantasy. I settled myself at the mouth of the passageway connecting the Clignancourt line to the Austerlitz, took a deep breath, and started to blow. I began with “How Deep Is the Ocean.” Hardly anyone took notice of me. That was okay, because my playing was a lot rustier than my French. I didn't sound so great.

Still, I pressed on. I chose “With a Song in My Heart” next. Not bad, if I do say so myself. And indeed, a cool-looking man in an expensive trench coat stood there attentively until I'd finished, and then began to dig into his pocket for change. The sound of the francs hitting the bottom of the case made my heart soar. I gave the guy a big shit-eating grin and immediately launched into “Lover Man.” I felt so good, anything seemed possible. Maybe even a certifiable miracle. Maybe I'd see Viv bustling along the tunnel, running to catch a train.

The late morning crowd was replaced by the noontime one, people bustling along to lunch appointments, or going to do their shopping, or heading home for a leisurely meal and maybe some quick nooky—or vice versa—before returning to work.

I had to chuckle at the idea I'd had earlier in the morning—that if I kept at it all day, maybe I could make enough in tips to buy Moms and Aubrey some nice perfume. Ha. I barely made enough to buy a Big Mac. It really didn't bother me, though. I was having a good time.

I went above ground about two o'clock and found a cart that had nice-looking crepes. I strolled along the Seine as I ate, and then turned into a beautiful old tabac on the Quai Voltaire, where I had a
grand café
and bummed a cigarette from a waiter who was tall enough for the NBA and weighed about ten pounds.

I couldn't wait to get back to my post in the subway. And when I did, I hit the ground running. I had never managed to make “It Never Entered My Mind” sound like that before in my life. And my “Green Dolphin Street” ran a close second. I even got a nice round of applause from a group of older women with folding umbrellas.

Don't
ever
get too comfortable. It's just one of a thousand lessons that I have never truly taken in. My mother has been cautioning me about it since I was old enough to crawl. And Ernestine, my conscience, never tires of saying it. But I always forget.

It was about five-thirty. I got through a couple of bars of “You Took Advantage of Me” before I realized something strange was up. I was hearing the same licks being played—note for note—not twenty feet away. On a violin, of all things. It startled the shit out of me. In fact, for a moment I thought I was hallucinating. I looked into the passageway and saw a long-legged, light-skinned black man with demure dreadlocks and wire-rim spectacles gazing directly, defiantly into my eyes while he bowed absentmindedly.

I stood where I was, seething, until he finished, and then strode over to the gangly Caribbean-looking prick. “What the fuck do you think you're doing? I was here first,” I told him in rapid-fire French.

His eyes bugged behind the glass of his spectacles.

“Idiot!”
I shouted at him. And then went on to ask him if he was deaf, and then if he was under the mistaken impression that he was funny. I finished with “Who the hell do you think you are—Marcel Marceau?”

There was plenty of anger in his eyes, but he said nothing. Which only increased my fury.

“Eh bien, salaud? Pourquoi tu me reponds pas?”

“I'm not answering you,” he said, acidly, and in English, “because I don't know any gutter French yet.”

“Oh my God. You're…an American.”

At this point he chose to answer me in French, adding a Gallic smirk to his little repertory of expressions: “No need to be so snotty about it. So are you—obviously.”

“Obviously?” I began to splutter. “Oh, so
I
don't know how to speak French? Is that what your lame-ass little riposte is supposed to mean?”

More smirk.

I got right up in his face then. “Don't even think about criticizing my accent, mister. You speak French like a pig.”

“That's because I am an autodidact. I hope to polish my accent while—”

“An
au-to-di-dact,
” I repeated, and then began to roar with scornful laughter. I was being the schoolyard bully picking on the kid with the bulging book bag. It was cheap and unworthy of me, but I couldn't put the brakes on it. “Jesus, this is unbelievable. I have to come all the way to Paris to deal with an evil, pretentious, bourgeois asshole from the hood—”

“I was thinking the same thing about you.”

“Hey, you see here! I may be pretentious, but I am
not
bourgeois—and I sure as hell am not from
your
hood.”

“Bitch, you can be from Jupiter for all I care,” he said, abruptly ending our absurd argument. “Just as long as you move your ass along. This is my spot.”

“What do you mean, your spot? You own it or something?”

“I mean I got a right to play here at this time four days a week. I have a piece of paper that says so.”

“I don't believe you.”

“I have no interest in what you believe. I'm a legal resident of the city of Paris and I have an artist permit to play here.”

I was going to slice into him about his prissy-sissy attitude, but suddenly all the wind was gone from my sails. Suddenly I knew who I reminded myself of: a monster-gold-earring-wearing gangsta girl on the IRT; hunching her shoulders, threatening, gesticulating wildly, using her high-polished fingernails like a garden trowel as she read out some enemy in subliterate slang.

“You know what?” I said, calm now. “You can die on this fucking spot, mister legal resident. Forget you.”

I turned on my heel and walked back to my case.

As I climbed the stair at the other end of the tunnel, I could hear him playing “How About You?”

His playing was effortless, swinging, like something humming inside your own head.

I'd like to show you some New York in June, I thought bitterly.

Oh, but shit, he was good.

Well, that was nice and ugly.

“Ugly” didn't really capture the essence of it, though. It was, to use some prissy language of my own, mortifying. Jesus—why did I do that!

I hated myself.

Above ground again, my face burned with shame. Two black Americans, strangers, meeting in Paris under those singularly strange circumstances—it should have been an occasion for rejoicing. But what do we do? Rather, what do I do? Ridicule. Curse. Clown. Fight over a little patch of peesoaked concrete. Goddamn, it was horrible. And the more I thought about it, the more thoroughly depressed I became.

I walked for a while, trying to get myself in hand, shake off the bad feelings. I sat in the Jardins du Luxembourg for a little while, smelling the sweetness of the grass, despising it. I watched the parents as they sauntered home with their kids; the lovers as they kissed in parting. Everybody seemed to be carrying a baguette for that night's dinner. Man, it would be so nice to be invited to somebody's house for dinner. I was yearning for somebody just to call me by my name—for something familiar like that. A plain meal in an apartment I'd visited many times, and a couple of hours of aimless, civilized conversation. I am still civilized, I told myself. Despite that appalling interlude in the metro. I'm not the asshole who behaved that way. I'm better than that—really.

I went and had a drink at the Café Flore. In fact, I had a few of them.

Like every musician, probably, I had often wondered what it was like to play high on drugs. All the cornball stuff crosses your mind: does the heroin unlock some door in your soul? Does it make you better? I don't just mean, does it make you play better. I mean, are
you
better, however briefly.

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