Old Paris, 1975
Marcel spent his nights under a Renault at the
end of the rue de l’Aude,
Around the corner from where Henry Miller wrote his Tropics.
Marcel came and went through Montserrat’s window,
An indifferent witness to scenes I would have given my week’s pay to see.
When convenient—that is, when somebody was
In the frosty, budding hush of dawn, not a car yet
On the avenue Réné Coty at the bottom of the steps
At the end of the rue de l’Aude—
He entered through the front door and waited
Until Montserrat’s mother Mary—insomniac early
A painter émigrée from St Louis, contemporary of Eliot, adept of Barthes
And the other celebrities of the Collège de France,
Jewish by birth, Catholic by election, rag picker,
Maker of piccadillo rank with olives,
Taker of lodgers, painter, lavish miser,
Rouspeteuse when not enthousiaste—
Sensing Marcel on the palier, let him in before
Put the match to the gas ring to make the coffee.
I, Mary’s tenant, a dour 23, lived in the Zulu
Across the tiny courtyard from the bathroom
Where Montserrat, 16, would sing through the open window.
I slept metallically in an iron camp bed
Surrounded by a wallpaper jungle that I had helped Hubert,
Whose fusty name evoked old Paris,
To hang once he had finished the plastering.
When I arrived that February the Winter Garden
Had not yet assumed its jungle tones, being still overgrown
With peeling paint and chalky swellings from centuries
Of spills and cold, as time entombed
The house at the end of the rue de l’Aude.
But that was before Mary had had the bathroom
With a real American-size tub of blue-enameled iron
So that she and Montserrat could take their baths
And tenants of the Winter Garden could enjoy
Touts les conforts after entering the bathroom through the courtyard window.
Mary would exhibit her paintings in the Galérie sous jupons,
Inviting her guests to descend through a trap door in the passageway,
Where Mary hung her robes and furs and, yes, her jupons.
The gallery was connected, I sensed, to the
catacombs below nearby
Denfert-Rochereau, where the bones of denizens of an even older Paris lie,
Separated by a limestone sheet and pillar from the paintings,
Including one of me painted in the Winter Garden
When I still had hair, in the green corduroy jacket
My girlfriend had sewn for me five years before.
Lit by candle and animated nearly every night
once the guests
Had finished the picadillo and the rince cochon de chez le charbonnier—
The hogwash wine from the collier’s shop on the corner of the rue des Artistes,
Where you could fill pitchers with beer and redeem your wine bottles—
The gallery was a curious counterpoint to the catacombs,
An act in the same long play in which the residents of the tombs had had their scenes,
Glowing in warm orange and yellow hues until the candles
Were snuffed or sputtered out for lack of air,
Leaving the paintings, including that of me in the Winter Garden,
In the long dark.
With Marcel and I watching—Marcel abstract, I
Montserrat once pulled off her shirt to try on another.
The girl’s body was extraordinary: breasts like fresh brioche, wild hair like
Steaming black coffee, skin like the foaming milk you mix it with,
Lips the color and texture of cassis fruit gelé.
Rarely (once only) had I been offered such a
perfect and unexpected gift,
Rarely, that is, until Montserrat, sensing both my interest and my tame respect for rules,
Began to hold her morning salon in the blue American tub,
Across the tiny courtyard from the Winter Garden.
I watched her first from my camp bed, like
Marcel at the door at dawn,
Then from the courtyard guéridon and chair—
The only objects on the courtyard but for a dead palm and a forgotten bag of rain-hardened plaster,
A statue from a world without artists—
Where I would feign absorbtion in Le Monde Diplomatique.
I listened to my Montserrat’s cadences until
Dripping, from the bath, behind the gauzy curtain, and wrapped herself in a towel,
And salute me:
And with time we grew more familiar.
I modeled for her a toupée left behind by one of Mary’s guests,
Who had prudently removed it before descending through the trap door to the
Galérie sous jupons, and Montserrat, keeping her shirt on, had said,
“Oh, wow, I would really dig you if you looked like that.”
With familiarity, I left my courtyard guéridon, bringing my coffee through the
bathroom window and finding a better seat on the térrasse, as it were,
That is, the toilet, the only place to sit in the bathroom other than the
Tub itself, which was full of singing, smirking Montserrat with her loofah.
I saw Montserrat again in 1986, I think, when
she lived on Mississippi Street
In San Francisco with her inventor husband, who was working on a robot,
And their young son, born the same year as my daughter.
Mary was visiting from Paris, and we had dinner.
Mary I last saw in 1994 in the newly
refurbished Palais Royal.
No longer did she go to hear the philosophes at the Collège de France.
No longer did she paint, and her make-up was hit or miss.
She told old stories, then told them again.
In August 2003, the year after Mary died,
I brought my children to San Francisco for a college tour.
Montserrat invited us for dinner at her house,
Where lodgers lived on the upper floors.
Though more spacious and green—the plants as luxuriant and strong as Montserrat herself,
Who worked with her sister erecting exhibits at the convention center—
It sang of the house at the end of the rue de l’Aude.
The dinner was meatless enchiladas.
Montserrat set my kids to drawing portraits in the living room
And voiced her pain at her alienation from her son.
I spoke with the young entrepreneur who had acquired Mary’s painting
Of me in the Zulu Winter Garden.
In Montserrat’s bedroom, which she shared with
an animated man
With an unusual name whom I believe she has now married,
Was a picture of her young self naked and leaning on a fence
In a pose more bold than coquettish.
I reminded her of her comment about me in the toupée.
“I was a real bitch then.”
“No,” I said, “I loved you.”