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
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
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
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
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
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
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