Patricia Wild

Do I tip this guy or not, wondered Evvie as the young man with dark, slicked-back hair took her concert ticket. For the past week, she'd been waited on by such young men: courteous, attentive, tolerant of her highschool French. They'd brought her glasses of wine on her Boston-to-Paris flight, served her coffee at outdoor cafes, sold her diet Cokes at four dollars a can. One young man - a vendor in the tiny Haagen Dazs near her hotel - had the grace to remember her after she'd showed up for a third afternoon in a row for a cooling glacè. "Madam," he'd said, smiling, his head slightly cocked, as if the arrival of this sweaty, portly, gray-haired American honored both him and this white-tiled, hole-in-the-wall establishment.

"Un cassis," she'd replied, flustered, pointing to a purple, almost wine-colored, icy confection in the case between them. She didn't know what cassis meant; it just looked good.

But, oh dear, she was already at her seat in the second row. No time for fumbling with her purse . Evvie smiled at the usher, whispered "Merci," then cautiously lowered herself onto a spindly-looking cane chair. The young man with the slicked-back hair nodded slightly - Evvie couldn't tell from his expression if she'd done the expected thing - then returned to his post at the entrance of St Louis en-l'Ile.

Located on Ile St. Louis not far from her hotel on the Left Bank, St Louis en-I'Ile, whose stone walls, dark paintings, gold and brass ornaments appeared somehow ordinary, had escaped Evvie's attention at first. Few churches within walking distance of her hotel had. For the past week, Evvie had spent a lot of time in Parisian churches.

On her second morning in Paris, Evvie had been ready to come home. The heat, the noise, the crowded sidewalks were unbearable; her room in the Hotel des Grandes Ècoles was right under the eaves - a charming room, but hot as hell. Groggy from lack of sleep, she'd been walking near on the street nearby in search of something cool and caffeinated when something compelled her to look up. Across the narrow street above a modest restaurant, she saw a lacy, second story balcony railing lined with pots of geraniums, all colors. Sets of cream-colored louvered doors, most of them shut tight against the heat, faced the street. One set of doors was opened, and half out on the balcony an old woman, her wispy hair pulled back into a messy bun, was hunched over in a wooden chair reading, a ridiculously fat cat beside her. The room behind her, completely dark, would be cool, Evvie mused, and smell of - what? Lavender? Cat piss? Rotting tuna?

I could just while my time in Paris away reading, Evvie thought as she walked along, like that mother in The Hours who tried to make a perfect birthday cake for her husband. I could just stay in my hotel room all week and read. Who would know, who would care? But instead, on the next block, Evvie darted inside another church and collapsed on a pew.

* * *

"Everything's already been paid for, for crissakes," Evvie's daughter Claire had said. "It'll be wonderful. It's Paris, Mom. You'll have a great time." Claire sat on a peeling Adirondack chair on her mother's back porch while Evvie re-potted geraniums.

Claire, Evvie knew, had more to say; Claire could just wait. Ignoring her daughter, Evvie surveyed her second-story porch, bathed in late-afternoon sun like a lush, acre-sized plot. Grunting as she gripped the porch railing, she pulled herself up, briefly glancing at the postage stamp-sized yard below, overgrown with ailanthus saplings and still littered with debris from when she'd had her tenants' kitchen done over - was that two years ago? Gotta clean that up, Evvie admonished herself for the hundredth time, wiping potting soil from her faded pink shorts. Leaning over, Evvie lifted the first of three clay pots - "Mom! Your back!" - and placed it near the railing as if to mask the spot where some of the porch slats were missing. Vertical stripes of a darker pink at the sides told the story of recently let-out seams. Evvie had put on some weight since Ed had left four months ago.

Evvie stood back to assess the geranium's effect. Then, bending from her knees this time, picked up a second pot. From the corner of her eye, she could see Claire sneak a peak at her watch. Slowly, Evvie lifted the third pot. Finally satisfied with her plants' arrangement, she collapsed onto an ancient wicker rocker beside her daughter and drained her glass of iced tea. "They'll get plenty of light out here," Evvie asserted.

"How can you possibly turn this opportunity down?" Claire pounced. "Paris, Mom. Paris! If you don't go, you'll regret it for the rest of your life. You know you will."

Evvie glared at her daughter. "If my sister - "

"Only Aunt Helen could break a foot going upstairs."

"The point is, she did! She's not coming. And I'm not going to a strange city - even if it's Paris - by myself." The statement began as a snarl but ended as a whine. It blended with the traffic sounds rising up from Somerville Avenue; rush hour had begun.

Claire looked at her watch - overtly, this time - then leaned over to grab the black leather bag at her feet. "Gotta go. Gotta date," she lied, her head still down and slightly turned away from Evvie's questioning eyes. "We're meeting in Davis Square," Claire continued, looking at her mother warily.

Ed, Evvie decided. Ed's her date. She's meeting her father and doesn't dare tell me; I can always tell.

"Such a clichè," he'd said sheepishly, when he told her he'd fallen in love with his teaching assistant. "You'll always be my dearest friend," he'd said as he walked out the door.

Claire stood, then leaned down to kiss her mother on the top of her head. "We'll talk about this later," she promised as she stretched for a moment, allowing her mother to drink in the sight of this tall, lean, capable daughter.

"I am not going," Evvie declared to her daughter's retreating back. Evvie sat still for a moment: Good smells were coming from La Ronga's bakery just around the corner on Somerville Avenue. The bells from Saint Anthony's began to chime. Evvie imagined herself trudging along a Parisian street, elbows pumping, head down as if braced against a brisk north wind, with her cheap haircut and sensible shoes; tall, thin, exquisitely dressed Parisians gliding past her, snickering. A toadstool among irises, she projected, reaching for an opened book and a box of cookies.

That night, right on schedule, Evvie awoke a little after four in the morning. And, as it had been every night since Ed had left, there was the briefest of moments when she did not remember what had happened. For a merciful instant before she was fully conscious, the weight pressing her chest lifted; life was the way it had always been. The air conditioner hummed, a new minute flashed on her bedside clock radio, the darkness surrounded her, her aloneness surrounded her; she remembered.

Trying to fall back to sleep, Evvie imagined Claire at the checkout lane at Star Market back home, her daughter's lovely head looming over glossy magazine covers, batteries, candy.

"Yeah," Claire would drawl to some make-believe woman in line with her. A young woman, Evvie decided in the dark. Clearly anorexic but beautifully dressed. "My mom's in Paris this week."

"By herself?" questioned the faceless acquaintance.

"By herself," Claire would answer proudly.

"That is so cool," the skinny woman would affirm.

And her daughter would nod, smug, her lips curled.

* * *

Evvie looked down at her hands. In the dimmed light of the nameless church, she could just make out the narrow, smudged band of white skin on her left ring-finger. That'll be gone by the end of the summer, she decided, rubbing the whitened skin as if to speed up the process. I still need that Coke, she thought. She put her sunglasses back on, stood up, readied herself to again face the crushing crowds, the heat, the dust, the raucous, always-present motorbikes and jackhammers everywhere she went, the homeless people - many of them maimed in some way - the endless lines surrounded by prattling Japanese.

And so, for the rest of the week, whenever she could, Evvie would wearily enter the nearest available church or dusty cemetery to rest, write in her journal, doze, tick off, one by one, the Must See sites on the list compiled by her co-workers at the Newton Public Library. Old Farts' Paris, she deemed these time-outs; I should write a guide book she decided, looking around St. Louis en-I'lle.

* * *

Evvie discreetly observed her fellow concert-goers: an older, beautifully-dressed crowd. My last night in Paris, she thought and, at last, here they are: the irises! She'd been surprised by the throngs of shabby, weary, city-dwellers she'd encountered all week. Certainly the heat contributed to these Parisians' bedraggled appearance. Nevertheless, she'd been relieved at how few beautifully clothed people she'd seen.

Perhaps irises hole up in places like this, Evvie conjectured, as an exquisitely dressed woman of about her age appraised her! Unremarkable places, unpretentious: certainly not tourist sites, but known and loved by the people who actually live and work in this city. Like the Brattle Theater, she reasoned. Or - and this was going back to the early sixties - the Boston Symphony's open rehearsals.

She and Ed bought season tickets; those Thursday evenings at Symphony Hall were their only entertainment. Ed was preparing to defend his dissertation; Evvie had just started her MLS at Simmons. Jousting past other concert-goers, many of them older women with umbrellas and shopping bags from Filene's Basement, Ed and Evvie would race up the stairs to Symphony Hall's first balcony to claim seats as close as possible to the right-hand top of Symphony Hall's horseshoe. Between movements, Ed whispered what to listen for next. He'd been a Music major at Oberlin before switching to Mathematics.

We never dreamed, Evvie had written in her journal earlier in the week. We were always just trying to get through the next week, she wrote while sitting next to Utrillo's tomb in a Montmartre cemetery.

Two men and two women, all four in their late twenties and dressed in black, began their pre-concert preparations. The cellist and violist, young men in shiny suits and slicked-back hair could easily have been mistaken for glacè sellers or waiters. The second violinist - who blinked constantly - was a tiny creature whose thick and very curly long hair dwarfed her narrow, somber face. She, like the men, looked expectantly toward their formidable leader, the first violinist. A lantern-jawed blonde, her hair pulled away from her stern face, she strongly reminded Evvie of Claire. One by one, the four young people adjusted their seat placement ever so slightly, arranged handkerchiefs of varying degrees of whiteness - the cellist's handkerchief was positively gray! - on a lap or under an instrument, and coughed. The first violinist raised her instrument, sharply inhaled, and the music began.

Right away, as the beginning measures of Schubert filled the church, Evvie knew what was wrong. She saw the look exchanged between the four musicians and instantly understood. The harsh, polished surfaces of St. Louis threw back the sound and required a sort of continual vigilance, a tiny but necessary note-by-note adjustment the young musicians had not anticipated. The acoustics of this church would demand more effort to blend with one another than they'd expected.

Evvie allowed Schubert to bathe her. She watched the faces of the musicians as they sweated from the heat and their exertions. She shook her head at the adjustments, the infinitesimal alterations she knew so well!

Like that trip home from the Cape many summers ago when Claire had been maybe eight and there'd been something wrong with the car - was it the Suburu? For whatever reason, Ed had turned the heater on. Even with the windows open, it must have been over a hundred degrees in that car. All three had sunburns, Ed had a headache, Claire's bathing suit itched. Evvie drove: she modulated her voice to accommodate Ed's headache, sang jolly, silly songs to distract Claire. "Do stop," begged Ed. She did. So Claire whined.

Oh, yes, how well Evvie knew this balancing act. And she also knew, as clearly as she was certain that she was sitting on a tiddly cane chair in a church on a tiny island in the middle of the Seine in Paris, France, that she would never be responsible for this balancing act again. Never. And with that realization, Evvie wept. The woman who had stared at Evvie before the concert looked at her again. And smiled. When the second movement began, again signaled by a sharply inhaled breath by the first violinist, Evvie nodded at the woman as she wiped her eyes; then they both returned their attention to the music.

I must remember to look "cassis" up later, she reminded herself, when she opened the church door and stepped outside into the sticky night. She walked briskly across the Pont de Sully, without pausing to watch the play of lights from an oncoming bateau mouche along the riverbank. Evvie had packing to do.

© Patricia Wild

Submit your comments on this story to our MoxieTalk discussion group by clicking here!   You can also send your comments directly to the author using the form below.

You can do both by typing your response below, submitting it and then copying it, going to MoxieTalk, and pasting it into the form there for posting a message.

Email: (required)


Copyright 2002 Moxie Magazine All Rights Reserved