Farewell to Paradise Lane
by Howard Waldman
Born in New York but long a resident in Paris, Howard Waldman taught European History for a France-based American university and later American Literature for a French University. His short stories have appeared in numerous publications. He has published four novels, all available on Amazon: Back There, Time Travail, The Seventh
Candidate, and Good Americans Go to Paris When They Die.
One hundred and three days after the catastrophe in Paradise Lane—he kept insomniac wee-hour count—Paul Jacobs was driving his wife to the Carrefour supermarket when the radio announced the man's suicide.
"Good riddance" said Francine.
"If I'd known, I'd have worn black this morning," said Paul.
An hour later as he was unloading his shopping cart on the checkout belt, Francine spotted the pre-wrapped hamburger lying next to Marvels of India, her latest travel book purchase. The couple scorned hamburgers, as they did most of the century's gimmicks. She stared at the distasteful thing, then at him, tragically.
Summoning a tight smile, he restored it to the meat counter.
Driving home, he felt the growing weight of her silence.
Finally she pronounced: "Tu finiras en prison, Paul."
Monstrous, the idea that frail, nervous Paul Jacobs, still a vulnerable alien after forty years in the country and pathologically attentive not to run afoul of French law by so much as a jay-walk, could possibly "end up in jail" as the dead man had. Francine possessed all the essential virtues but virtually no sense of humor.
"A joke," he countered. "Anyhow, supermarkets don't carry potassium cyanide any more."
She didn't find that funny. He took his jittery sense of humor seriously and was annoyed when his exercise of it went unacknowledged.
Her continuing silence forced him to think: if poison were as easily available as chopped meat, would he have been tempted to imitate the other man?
The other man was (had been) a druggist in Corrèze who had poisoned his neighbor's vicious German Shepherd. He developed a taste for the activity, turning it into a crusade. In all, he fed his lethal meatballs to over a hundred dogs of various breeds, vicious or not, and ended up murdering an eyewitness. Paul conceded that this was going too far. Finally the druggist was arrested and had hanged himself in his cell a few hours ago.
As the car approached their hamlet, Paul's mind pursued the theme of the chemical eradication of unbearable dogs.
It wasn't true, he realized, what he'd said about the absence of poison in reasonably well-appointed supermarkets like theirs. In the gardening section you could find pest eradicators. The antidote to ants was strychnine. So theoretically the operation was possible. But Nazi was a million times heavier than an ant. He'd have to buy maybe ten thousand tubes of ant poison and a thousand hamburgers to be operational. What would Francine say when he started piling up twin mountains of lethal tubes and hamburgers on the checkout belt?
Paul started laughing uncontrollably at the image. Francine stared at him in alarm. Fearing an accident, she made him pull the car over. Now he wasn't laughing any more.
"Just a joke, Francine, that hamburger business, I'd never do a thing like that, don't ever let me do a thing like that, Francine. Francine, do you think I'm going crazy too? I haven't slept a wink for months. Why did this have to happen to us, Francine?"
He leaned away from the steering wheel into her consoling arms and she cradled him. To passing drivers they must have looked like lovers yielding to passionate impulse. But they were in their sixties. Caught off balance by the further surge of his need, Francine slipped nearly prone under Paul's weight. Now to passing drivers they must have seemed like lovers in the throes of climax. She ignored a sharp pain as Marvels of India on the seat poked into her spinal column. She went on comforting him.
"You take everything so seriously, my little Paul. It's bad for your nerves, terrible for your blood pressure and your heart."
She paused and then repeated for the tenth time since the start of the disaster:
"Listen, Paul, why don't we go on a real vacation, get away from all this, say a month in India. It's a different universe." He parried the suggestion as he'd done nine times before, mumbling:
"Maybe. We'll see."
He took over the steering wheel again, white-knuckled, and turned into what he'd once called Paradise Lane but didn't any more.
On the fussy maps that bothered with it, their secluded lane bore a more down-to-earth name, Chemin du bois. But in those retrospectively happy days Paul Jacobs called it Paradise Lane because it led to his Edenic garden, honored by six illustrated pages in Jardins et Maisons and the subject of hundreds of his paintings, eight of which he'd sold, largely to friends and neighbors.
Wherever he set up his easel in his garden, the prospect was marvelously timeless, the century held at bay.
Wheat fields to the north.
Pasture with prancing yearlings to the south.
Their two-century-old house to the west.
To the east, on the other side of the lane, the elegant house that belonged to their sole neighbor, Denise Forelle, a grey-haired, ailing, but pleasantly supple widow who exchanged rose-cuttings with him and nicely corrected his gender mistakes in French.
Their sky too had been marvelously timeless until one day the disorders of the century intruded in the form of rerouted airliners that drowned out bird songs and scarred the blue with their exhaust fumes. Paul often discussed the celestial outrage with Denise.
"There's not much we can do about it," he once said. "Supermarkets don't seem to carry MPAD shoulder-fired missiles any more." Denise never failed to smile when he mimed launching a rocket at a passing Airbus. She had a good sense of humor.
The subject of the worsening world outside was a favorite one with them. Their bodies—though tempted long ago—had never met, but their minds had, constantly, in passionate reactionary exchanges on how everything was going to pot, had been for decades, but in mad acceleration these last few years. They tirelessly detailed the collateral damage of progress:
Where cows once ruminated in dignity, fast food was being bolted.
Where once chanterelles could be found golden in the moss, brakes were relined.
Satellite dishes were everywhere like beggar-bowls oriented skyward for the poisonous gift of dubbed American serials.
So many other things.
Even their haven had suffered, he sadly observed once, and not just from the rerouted airliners. He pointed north at the wheat fields where, productivity overriding beauty, Monet's poppies had been chemically exterminated. The stream over there, once teeming with perch, was now practically an open sewer. Who saw grass snakes anymore or toads? Who cared about them? Where had the nightingale gone? Ah, to awaken to the 3am nightingale. Do you remember all that, Denise?
Yes, and we were thirty years younger, she said, choosing this time to laugh at it. With her head thrown back like that, sag and wrinkles were abolished. For a second, she was decades younger and in good health.
But most of the time Paul Jacobs ignored the inroads of progress. On the whole, Paradise Lane corresponded—on a sadly reduced scale, to be sure—to the harmonious image of France built up in his mind while a dissatisfied young man in Chicago, an image enhanced by the unpopularity of France with the sort of people he despised. Also motivating his migration was the hope that the atmosphere of France would allow his budding artistic talent to blossom. As it had, he liked to think.
Sixty-four days before the catastrophe, Paul was making his usual mellow evening rounds of his flowers, sipping chilled Riesling to excess. More than a check-up on his Portuguese handyman's weeding and watering job, it was a show he enjoyed putting on for Francine. She was seated in the veranda with a travel brochure in her lap and travel brochures at her feet.
With a sickly-sweet pontifical smile Paul contemplated his rhododendrons. Chanting pig Latin, he made the sign of the cross and sprinkled Riesling over them. He repeated the operation over his lilies.
He shot quick glances at the veranda. His unctuous smile faded. He didn't exist for her. Physically she was eighty meters distant from him, mentally ten thousand kilometers away, sightseeing in China. To attract her attention he launched into top-of-the-lungs doggerel celebrating the wonders of their private paradise. He paused between lines for a gulp of wine and inspiration.
Honeysuckle in June
Causes me to swoon
Luring bees the bumble
And the honey
Beneath skies sunny
Who cares about money
Without it insane
All of it free
Free free free
Francine looked up from her travels an absent second, then returned to those important things on her lap.
Not so long ago she'd been herself, the real Francine, an attentive if worried one-woman audience who never failed, gently but persistently, to warn him against the effects of excessive white wine on the heart and kidneys. He felt abandoned by this cyclic indifference, this lapse from her usual persistent concern for his health (although he'd generally made a slight show of annoyance at that persistence). If now, stricken to the heart or kidneys, he silently crumbled to the ground behind these appropriate lilies, she was sure to go on admiring the Terra Cotta Warriors of Xian on the other side of the world.
Paul snipped an exquisite pink rose. He entered the veranda where she sat, still absorbed in her travel brochure. He advanced the rose in her focus of vision. She looked up, smiled faintly, took the absolutely scentless flower, breathed in its supposed perfume, and closed her eyes a second in a bogus show of ecstasy. Her gaze slipped back to the Temple of the Perfumed Concubine.
Before he could chant "My plitty concubine," in a Chinese laundryman accent and perhaps place his hand on her nearest breast, she glanced at her watch. "Dinner time," she said and got up, China slipping from her lap to the floor where it joined a dozen other travel brochures. She left the veranda.
Paul stooped and picked them up. They represented the climax of her reading cycle. For months she would devour nothing but harmless novels (with a significant bias, though, for authors from out-of-the-way lands). Next, a month of travel accounts and voyages of exploration. Finally, a painful week of tourist brochures. Then back to safe novels.
Paul placed the brochures neatly on the table. During her travel-agency phase he found the things scattered on the floor all over the house. Ordinarily Francine warred on household disorder. This, he understood, was deliberate proselytising disorder. He was meant to pick up the booby-trap brochures and, captivated by those curlicued temples and gushing prose, agree to exotic travel. He did pick them up, but that was all.
The matter of travel was one of the few areas of disagreement between Paul and Francine. Nothing violent about it though: just vague wishes for exotic experiences on her part, and patient explanations on his of the problems involved. She never really nagged, unless those strategically scattered brochures could be taken as a mute periodic nag.
For a long time there wasn't even that harmless disaccord. They were both teachers with meager salaries. With two children to raise and those brutal monthly payments on the house—that lovely folly of theirs—she was the first to insist that they had to stick to a tight budget. And when they'd scraped up enough money to visit faraway places like India or Peru, there were always improvements and repairs to be made on the house, bits of land to be purchased to round out the garden. Reluctantly, Paul finally agreed that upon retirement they'd spend a month in Egypt exploring the Valley of the Kings.
Retirement came. Two days before their scheduled flight to Cairo fifty-odd tourists were mowed down by pious gunmen at the Mortuary Temple of Hatshepsut, one of the sites on Paul and Francine's programmed visits.
Naturally Paul cancelled the trip. He was sick for days at the thought of their skin-of-the-teeth escape. It was weeks before he was able to process the near-tragedy into feeble jokes such as: "Sixty tourists murdered! Mostly Germans, that's true, but still . . ."
The world worsened radically after that. With the clash of civilizations, airliners had become an easy prey to deadlier things than engine failure: explosive soles, dentures, suppositories. Legions of foolhardy tourists were being blown up, taken hostage, raped, tortured or disfigured. For Francine's benefit Paul was careful to turn up the volume on the TV news on each fatal incident.
The world outside their refuge was mined, he told her repeatedly whenever she timidly brought up the matter of distant travel. Take her beloved India. All those tropical diseases lying in wait in a land with inexistent public toilets and lepers roaming the streets and rivers polluted with imperfectly cremated cadavers. Not just humdrum things like cholera and malaria, but those monstrosities he'd garnered via Google: trypanosomiasis, leishmaniasis, schiatosomiasis and other life-threatening horrors easier to catch than to pronounce.
Paul sulked the tiniest bit during dinner. But then, over her delicious tarte tatin, Francine wondered if Riesling white wine wasn't harmful for his rhododendrons and his lilies just as it was for his heart and kidneys. He put on his usual show of annoyance but felt better. He even suggested a week in safe if rainy Sweden, forestalling worse suggestions on her part. He sensed they were immanent.
The day after, cloudless blue, their eldest son came up from Aix-en-Provence with his wife and seven-year-old daughter, Emilie. Paul kissed his miraculous granddaughter dozens of times that day and stalked her with his camera as she searched, graceful as the yearlings in the south pasture, for the chocolates he'd hidden in the orchard. Denise had regretfully turned down Francine's invitation for lunch: she didn't feel up to it. Paul uncorked two expensive bottles of Pommard to accompany Francine's roast. His jokes were well received. After, he conducted a tour of his flowers and enjoyed his daughter-in-law's ecstatic exclamations and then her appreciative sounds as he showed off his latest paintings of those same flowers hanging on the living room wall like so many additional windows on his garden.
So all in all, it had been a pleasant enough life in Paradise Lane even if not actually paradisiacal. But then, as somebody or other pointed out in the sort of book Francine favored before her travel phases, the only paradise is a lost paradise.
In early June Paul and Francine returned from Sweden with head colds and jars of lingonberry jam and fish balls for Denise. They found her house empty.
The next day they learned that she had died a few days before, suddenly.
Paul had fits of weeping he hid from Francine.
Paul and Francine left joylessly in early July for the annual five-day visit to their second son and his barely civil wife and their two boys in Bordeaux. Francine gave the Swedish fish balls and lingonberry jam to the wife who eyed them—Paul, Francine and the jars—suspiciously and said that jam and fish made her break out in spots but thanks anyhow. Paul had to look away as he imagined how Denise would have received the gifts.
Back from Bordeaux, they turned into Paradise Lane and the deafening snarl of a chainsaw. A battered pickup truck full of branches blocked the access to their house. In Denise's garden a big, chunky, pigtailed man in sunglasses with tattoos all over his bare torso was completing the massacre of Denise's peach tree. The nearby bed of irises lay in trampled ruin. "My God, poor Denise," Francine whispered.
They both understood that Denise's house had a new owner and that his handyman had been let loose in her garden and had got his instructions all wrong. Paul honked five indignant times. Getting no reaction, he honked persistently. The long wail sounded like a dirge for Denise's downtrodden irises and martyred peach tree. The man went on with his dirty work. Paul went on with the horn, ignoring Francine's restraining hand on his arm.
Finally he got out of the car and waved his arms about. Without switching off the chainsaw, the handyman jerked his head interrogatively in Paul's direction, eyebrows shot up, mouth open in a snarl—body language signifying "What the fuck do you want, Jack?" (Maybe not so obvious, even to himself. Deep down what he wanted was more than access to his house: he wanted resurrection of the peach tree, the irises, and why not Denise herself as she'd been thirty years before.)
Paul resorted to a sarcastic dumb show for this destructive dummy: pointed to himself, pointed at his car, turned an imaginary steering wheel, pointed at the truck, turned another imaginary steering wheel.
With studied insolence the man turned his back on Paul, picked up a bottle of wine and took a long swig. Another bottle lay on its flank in the middle of the ex-irises. The handyman returned to his job of mutilation.
The gate was open. Ignoring the new sign on it—Keep Out! Vicious Dog! (Defense d'Entrer! Chien Méchant!)—Paul entered Denise's garden as he'd done a thousand times over thirty years. The interloper switched off the chainsaw, stuck two index fingers in his mouth, and produced a piercing whistle.
A sinister black dog materialized, the breed favored by female soldiers to worry the genitals of naked prisoners, never ask where.
The animal fixed murderous yellow eyes on Paul, growled volcanically, bared his fangs, and moved forward. Paul turned and stumbled back towards the car. Any instant the dog would wrench bloody chunks out of his buttocks. Any instant his heart would explode. He slammed the door shut and collapsed in the driver's seat, face sheet-white, panting hoarsely and clutching his chest. Francine gathered him in her arms.
"Your heart, my little Paul, oh your heart. Don't move, my sweetheart. We've got to get to the house and phone the hospital."
She looked about for a weapon and found nothing more lethal than a fly swatter. Fearlessly, she shot out of the car, five-feet-five of fury, gripping the fly swatter, ready to confront the beast. But the handyman had already called the animal back. "Murderer!" Francine cried, already in Denise's garden, confronting the man. She went on and on. Expressionless, the handyman finally stuck two index fingers in his mouth and produced two piercing whistles.
A skinny chemical blonde with a bare midriff and tattooed shoulders materialized. She was full of rings: in her eyebrow, a nostril, her navel, probably in her tongue and a nipple, maybe another lower down. The handyman expertly tossed car keys at her. She caught them expertly, strode past Francine without acknowledging her existence, and climbed into the cab of the truck. In seconds the way was clear.
Francine made Paul lie down on the sofa and then ran to the phone.
"N-no, don't ring the hospital, my heart's okay," Paul said weakly. "Phone Simon, he'll know who the owner is."
If anybody knew, it was Simon Robert in the nearby village. Simon, a joyful specialist in disaster, knew everything: who was illicitly sleeping with whom, who was on or over the brink of divorce, had got hooked on hard drugs, come down with cancer and exactly in what inoperable spot.
Simon answered immediately, as though he'd been eagerly waiting for their panicked call. Paul heard his voice buzzing. From Francine's pained expression Paul guessed he was communicating gleeful condolence.
Francine cut his pleasure short. They absolutely had to contact the new owner, she explained, and tell him that his drunk handyman was destroying everything in Denise's garden. But who was the new owner? Did Simon have his number?
Buzz buzz buzz buzz
She thanked Simon feebly, hung up and stared at Paul.
"That . . . that pair. He's not a handyman at all. He's the new owner, he's our new neighbor."
How could such people have come to possess the splendid ten-room house and its three decorative acres? It was inconceivable that either of them could be related to elegant, aristocratic Denise. That ruled out inheritance. Had they bought her property? According to Simon, the tattooed ringed woman, named Marine, was a walking advertisement for her piercing-and-tattoo shop in a run-down Parisian suburb; the man, named Didier, was a guard in a shopping center or maybe a prison somewhere. Maybe the money had come from drug trafficking. That explanation held out the faint hope that one day the police would restore the lane to its former tranquillity.
Meanwhile, the chainsaw snarled all week long. The tattooed vandal slaughtered everything above ground level: rose bushes, pergolas, walnut, apple and cherry trees. He even uprooted Denise's elegant hornbeam hedge where birds used to nest and hedgehogs hang out and replaced it with flimsy vinyl pvc-coated wire fencing.
Fires burned day and night in ex-Denise's ex-garden like funeral pyres. Choking billows of black smoke drifted at ground level over their garden, soiling the flowers. The barbarian was burning tires to ignite stubborn things—not just those fresh-cut shrubs and trees, but probably Denise's roomful of leather-bound classics as well, reducing Flaubert and Proust into illiterate scrawls of smoke.
Again Paul Jacobs tried to defuse the situation with humor, his pathetic way, he knew, of masking despair. "Ah, today we're entitled to Firestone Triple X" he would say, aping a connoisseur's sniff between coughs. Or the next day: "Hmm, Tubeless Michelin, 1992, vintage year."
The tire smoke had barely cleared when earth-moving equipment bulled in, propagating fuel-oil stench, clatter, metallic screeches. The excavator dominated Paradise Lane like a prehistoric reptile. Its square-teethed jaws wrenched out great masses of clay, reminding Paul of the dog who had come so close to wrenching bloody chunks out of his buttocks. What was the gigantic hole meant for? A mass grave?
This is what a certain category of individual instantly did on taking over a property. Tabula rasa: the clean slate, to assert their undiluted ownership. The Bible had the expulsion from Eden all wrong, Paul explained to Francine. Actually, Adam awoke to existence as the new proprietor of the place. He longed for the tabula rasa, so he felled all the Edenic trees including the knowledgeable one. Found that great fun and wandered out with ring-nosed Eve and his chainsaw in search of more things to destroy, my God, Francine, it's not funny, what can we do?
When the bulldozer and the excavator took a breather, their new neighbors' radio and TV combated the boring silence with rap, hysterically described soccer matches, dubbed American series and chat shows of unsurpassed triviality. And all that full blast. Didier had a gigantic red Harley-Davidson decorated with skulls. He tuned the engine thunderously a good part of the Sunday afternoon.
They ended by fleeing some of those infernal weekends. It was Francine's idea. At first Paul resisted. "I won't be evicted. I refuse to let anybody evict me from my garden." Finally he gave in, twice.
Under persistent Breton drizzle they picked their way in the sodden sand among rotting toxic seaweed and washed-up garbage. Staring at the supposed horizon, Francine said they should have gone further. Back in the clammy hotel room, scraping oil-spill tar off the soles of their shoes, she repeated that they ought to have gone further, much further.
They went much closer the second time. The weekend in Paris was more drizzle, traffic snarls, noise, agitation, pollution, the refuge of museums blocked by miles of patiently queuing Asians. The only faintly interesting thing Paul saw was a giant trompe-l'oeil painting on a blind façade representing a tropical garden. We ought to have gone further, Francine said more than once.
The lane wasn't the only zone of persecution. Nine times out of ten when Paul ventured forth into his garden, as silently as possible and hidden by the vegetation that cascaded elegantly down his fence, the dog (Paul called him "Nazi") let loose hysterical salvos of barks. Paul finally understood. The dog had sniffed his scent. Paul correlated the wind direction with the fury his fear-molecules unleashed. An east wind was safe. But the wind seldom blew that way—only, perversely, the days of tire-fueled book bonfires. The prevailing winds were western and they prevailed nine days out of ten.
Paul applied quantities of after-shower lotion. But his quintessential Jacobness still lurked under the olfactory disguise and the beast sniffed him out. Francine said that he reeked like a ten-franc cocotte.
Occasionally Paul mounted a timid verbal counter-offensive to assert his human superiority over the verbless animal. "Son of a bitch," he'd mutter, hurrying past, muttering it so Nazi couldn't hear him, although it wasn't really abusive, nothing but the strict truth: the beast was a son of a bitch. But the sharp-eared son of a bitch couldn't stand truth (perhaps a human trait after all). The term amplified his fury, grrr, grrr, bite your ass and balls and face off.
Sometimes Paul would mutter, in lieu of "Go to hell," something wittier and worse: "Go to Korea!" That dispatched the animal to what was, from all accounts, a specifically canine inferno. He didn't bother specifying which Korea; northerners or southerners, the Koreans had the right attitude toward dogs: penned them up gagged and finally ate them. Didn't hate them, ate them. Dog-chop and chopped dog were succulent, it appeared, though not for him, not even that way. Paul Jacobs couldn't stomach dogs, dead or alive.
One day, when Francine was at the hairdresser's, Paul opened the gate directly on Nazi, a foot away. Didier's gate was wide open. The insane animal sprang. Not a second too soon Paul shoved the gate shut against the impact of Nazi's body, repeated over and over. Nazi leaped higher and higher each time. First his paws appeared, then his vicious head, then half of his body dominated the gate. At the next try he was sure to clear the barrier.
Didier's whistle stopped the assault.
Paul let himself down on the driveway until his heart stopped leaping against his thorax as the dog had leaped against the gate.
When Francine returned, she heard him out but he didn't get the comforting surge of sympathy he craved. It was clear that she thought he was overreacting. She advised him to forget the dog. It was turning into an obsession. What did he think of her hairdo?
"Tell the dog to forget me. He's the one with the obsession. Marvelous hairdo."
He was safe nowhere now. He imagined Nazi hurtling over the low chestnut panel fence, landing in the garden, crushing fragile things. Then those jaws locking on his even more fragile thigh.
From that day on Paul armed himself with a pitchfork whenever he risked leaving the house. He also sent his new neighbors a registered letter summoning them to chain their animal or at least muzzle it and to keep their gate shut. He never got an answer. Paul saw the mayor. He promised to look into the matter. He never did. Paul went to the gendarmerie. They promised to look into the matter. They never did.
At night Paul relived the gate assault over and over. He imagined all the mutilating possibilities of the incident. Sleep was fragmentary and shallow. Tiny night sounds woke him. He'd sit up, heart thumping, in a defensive crouch, irrationally sure that the beast would leap through their bedroom window in a shower of glass. That woke Francine. She'd try to calm him: no, my little Paul, that's not the dog, that's an owl, that's the wind, try to get some sleep.
One sleepless night Paul heard alarming sounds close to their window. He shook Francine half-awake. "It's Nazi. He's in the garden. I told you you should have let me put the pitchfork under the bed." "Go to sleep," she muttered to her pillow, this time not offering plausible alternatives to Nazi sounds. He got no sleep. She got no sleep.
At daybreak, gripping his pitchfork, Paul ventured out and discovered a stretch of lawn ploughed up. He knew the signature: a boar. All right. He wasn't totally zoophobic. He liked the sight or trace of wild animals. They came unheralded and left. Although now, come to think of it, migratory geese could rain H5N1 on you and foxes were rabies carriers. In Greek mythology boars were redoubtable emasculators. But then he'd never been an Adonis and anyhow the loss wouldn't make much operational difference now.
Paul tried to convince Francine to ease up on inviting neighbors and friends, so-called friends. They were sure to extend wounding sympathy for his loss of Paradise Lane, secretly gloating at comeuppance. They'd never really forgiven that article in Jardins et Maisons. He even apprehended the next visit of his granddaughter Emilie, his greatest joy in life along with his garden. He saw himself following her about with his pitchfork. The supreme delicacy for dogs was child's-face. Every day the newspapers recounted the martyrdom of children killed or disfigured for life by dogs.
Something vital had drained out of Paul Jacobs since the destruction of Paradise Lane. He was incapable of painting. He found no pleasure in food or music or even flowers. The dog was growing in his brain like a tumor. He had the lucidity to realize that Nazi was more than Nazi; snarling Nazi was also Didier's tattooed torso and pigtail, the pierced and piercing blonde, the massacred peach tree, the blaring TV, and beyond these circumscribed things, the global violence of this snarling century.
Wasn't this going too far? He recalled the poem he'd extemporized in the garden in the days of Denise, a century ago it seemed:
Without it insane
He was tragically without it now. Wasn't he insane now, too, no hyperbolic figure, tragic reality? So he gave in to Francine's pleas and went with her to the doctor's. The doctor prescribed Xanax. Paul had to renew the prescription quite soon. Francine was secretly helping herself to his tranquillizers. It was a shock to discover this fissure in his pillar of strength.
In September all of France was shaken to learn that scores of dogs in Corrèze were being systematically poisoned with meatballs. The 8pm newscasters practically broke down recounting the Holocaust. Who could possibly have perpetrated such an atrocity?
"Unsung hero," said Paul to Francine. "Deserves the Légion d'Honneur."
"Madman," said Francine indignantly, almost certainly referring to the poisoner.
When the news broke that the culprit had been arrested for having murdered a witness, Paul groaned theatrically. He asked what Francine had done with the rat poison. Somebody had to take up the torch.
She stared at him and then said they'd never bought rat poison and weren't ready to buy rat poison, ever.
"Oh well, anyhow we haven't even got a hamburger to put it in."
She stared at him and said nothing.
The next day Paul placed a hamburger on the supermarket checkout belt. A joke of course. But the joke didn't go down well.
In mid-September plant lice massively invaded Paul's garden.
He donned his knapsack sprayer and systematically exterminated them with a misty fan of insecticidal soap. Then he remembered a rose particularly vulnerable to plant lice: the magnificent cascade of Zepherine Drouhin in the lane that he'd once called Paradise. He didn't bother taking his pitchfork; the job would take no more than half a minute. Anyhow Didier's yard was empty.
He started treating the roses.
Sudden furious growl behind him, powerful impact against the fence, ripping metallic sound.
Sure the fencing had yielded, Paul whirled about, stopping down the nozzle. The misty fan shrank to a powerful jet that caught the beast square between the eyes as he catapulted a second time toward the distorted but intact fence.
Nazi collapsed and howled. Exquisite sound.
But a second later Paul joined Nazi in agony as the jet powered into a fencepost and back-sprayed into his face. His eyes were on fire. Between Nazi's yelps he heard the pierced and tattooed blonde yelling:
"Hey, Didier, the old American motherfucker, he's poisoned Emperor! Call the cops!"
Quickening footsteps in the lane. Francine's voice shrill with passion:
"You shut up, you! It was an accident, I saw the whole thing. A pure accident."
Francine guided blinded Paul back to the house. She applied cold compresses to his eyes and soothed him with words of endearment.
Then when she removed the compresses, he was able to focus on her. She was staring at him, lips compressed to a thin white line.
"Tu iras en prison, comme l'autre," she said.
"It was an accident," he protested. "You said so yourself."
"You'll go to jail like the other man," she repeated. "It was no accident, I saw the whole thing."
"It was self-defence, Francine. And it wasn't poison, it was agricultural soap."
"I saw the whole thing. Rat poison. Hamburger. Now this. You'll go to jail like the other man, Paul. Maybe right now. Maybe they've called the police."
That sleepless night, Paul came up with a radical but legal solution to the problem.
The next day, he touched on the subject to Francine, very obliquely, making allusions to the Great Wall of China. It had kept the barbarians at bay and now attracted millions of tourists.
She understood immediately and vetoed the idea with unaccustomed passion, nothing oblique about it. No no no, no wall, no wall. It would be like living in a concentration camp, of their own making.
Paul dropped the subject but the following night he imagined mitigating the starkness of a cement-block wall with a white stucco job, something never found even in four-star German concentration camps.
Or why not turn the wall into a pleasant vertical garden: plant soapwort, stonecrop, alyssum, harebell, maiden pink, candytuft, aubrietia. But that would take hundreds of plants. Hard to manage, too, with crannyless concrete blocks.
The next night Paul Jacobs greatly enlarged his concept. He recalled the tropical garden trompe-l'oeil on that blind Paris wall and imagined an ambitious fresco here depicting the pre-catastrophe lane, paradise regained: Denise's irises and peach tree and hornbeam hedge resuscitated and Denise herself, young, lovely, standing in the open gateway with a proffered rose-cutting and smiling.
Bringing Denise back from the shades led him to bring back her beloved white cat, Pussy, run over ten years before. Then why not his wife's brother too and two of his own best friends, once frequent visitors, a happy throng of nice resurrected people? He saw it all in the long wee hours. The wall would annul itself. Instead of an ugly blocking out of worse ugliness, it would become transparent, opening up on lost beauty. Paul felt the return of a powerful creative surge. It would be a joyous labor of years.
But first unlyrical considerations. His handyman had been a mason. How much would the job cost?
Three days later Paul stood alongside squat Antonio who had roughly measured the proposed site with long strides and was now jotting figures in a notepad. Francine was in the veranda with a travel brochure in her lap, travel brochures at her feet, looking at the two of them.
"What's this?" said Paul, the next day.
It was an expression of incredulity more than a demand for elucidation. The big box she'd hoisted onto the supermarket checkout belt proclaimed its contents in five languages with an explicit illustration of the repulsive object within. It generated molecular agitation in food to shortcut traditional cooking methods.
And all that distasteful frozen food.
"I'll explain later, Paul."
In the car he repeated the question. She repeated the answer. She'd explain all about it when they got home.
They got home.
"Paul, I'm leaving for India in three days. It's all arranged. I'll be back in a month unless I decide for a week's extension to Nepal. Let me show you how this machine works and the other machines too: the dishwasher and the laundry machine and the clothes drier."
Stony-faced, arms folded, Paul shook his head curtly.
"All right, the cleaning woman can take care of it. You know how to boil potatoes and fry eggs. I think you do. You won't starve. Something else, Paul. When I come back and there's a wall, Paul, even the beginning of a wall, anything that looks faintly like a wall, Paul, I swear I won't stay, I'll go on another trip right away to . . . to, I don't know, to the poorest country in the world and live on one euro a day, I don't care."
In the middle of the night Francine got up and went into Paul's study. He was seated in his armchair staring at a blank wall.
"It's past two, Paul, aren't you coming to bed? What are you doing?"
"Can't you do that in bed?"
She sat down opposite him.
He was silent for a minute. Then he said:
"I was thinking about you, trying to understand you. We've never been separated more than a day in thirty-five years. You did this thing behind my back. I don't recognize you. You didn't even ask me if I wanted to go there with you."
"Yes I did, a hundred times. A thousand times. A hundred thousand times."
"Not this time."
"You'd have said no like all the other times."
"Maybe not, if I'd known you were so serious about it."
"I've always been serious about it."
"You should have asked me. Now it's too late."
"I'll ask you now."
So it turned out that it wasn't too late after all.
The taxi was coming at 8am to take them to the Charles de Gaulle airport. At 5am, sleepless, Paul got up, dressed, and lugged the two travel bags to the gravel driveway in front of their closed gate. The wind was blowing the hostile way and he expected his scent would infuriate his enemy. But the only sounds were the cry of a night bird and the first chirps of the daylight birds. In the growing light he visited his flowers.
He took the pitchfork and cautiously opened the gate. His enemy didn't react to that either. The house was dark and silent, as it had been for a while after the death of Denise. It was as if Didier and Marine had never existed. He moved the travel bags to the lane and sat on one, waiting for the taxi, head bowed as in defeat.
Light grew. The last stars melted away in the pure blue, unmarred by airliners. He held his pitchfork tightly. The sharp prongs faced south-east, beyond the lane, beyond the Middle East, the Gulf States, the Persian Gulf, faced the jangling uproar of India, the white-wrapped corpses on the funeral pyres by the Ganges, the sacred rodents in the Temple of Rats, the swarming streets with bony cows and lepers and heaps of garbage.
After a while he heard the gravel crunch, then felt her hand on his shoulder. She tried gently to take the pitchfork. He tightened his grip on it. Then he let go. She leaned it against the gate pillar. Her face was radiant. He heard the taxi turning into the lane.
"Come on, Paul, everything's going to be all right."
Francine took one of the travel bags.
Paul stood up.
"Let me carry it," he said, taking hers and then his as the taxi drew up in once Paradise Lane.
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