The New Paris

The night the bird visited them, they were eating a late supper on the balcony that overlooked the boulevard.  The scene below was idyllic: a handsome avenue, wide in the way of the new city.  The houses were tall and impressive; the lamps made the leaves on the young trees shimmer.

The husband glanced out over the darkening skyline and said, “The ghettos are all but vanished.”

His wife swallowed a grape that turned sour as she ate it.  Washing her mouth with wine, she said, “No, they have only pushed the ghetto to other places.  It is like grass that sends shoots under the soil.  The gardeners rip it up in bits, but the runners are always slinking out into the dark, slipping along, over and under the worms.”

He frowned. “Poverty isn’t a weed, determined to survive.”

It brought her up and they were silent for a moment.  She had felt proud of her analogy, but with a clean swipe, he’d opened it up, revealed the emptiness of it.  With words she was usually the clever one, but he had a way of seeing to the heart of matters.

As they sat in their silence, the clouds that had made the day grey before now let free the water they held.  The rain chased them inside with their glasses and their plates, but when they were finished eating, they came to stand at the doors to the balcony.  They shared a cigarette, the ghetto and the analogy forgotten for just then.

chagallThen the bird came to perch on a branch of the new tree just beneath them.  It was a common enough creature, small and sooty, the kind that had always flocked to this part of Paris.  Perhaps it was surprised by the smell: nothing so much as stone and brick, the vapor of gases, the fragrance of flower gardens and wine.

It sang out into the wet night in tones as orange as a fading sun and as dark as the wet bark.  The sound was mournful and reminded the wife of where she and the husband had come from.  She recalled for a moment a narrow, crooked street, beggars barking and flies hunched on horseshit.  The smell of bakeries could never quite bloom in the sordid and ordinary and ugly odors abounding.

Her mother died on a table with one short leg, giving birth to a cold mass that an old woman carried away in rags, her brow creased, her lips closed tight.  No prayers. Somehow the rest of them grew in the same airless room, years onward, each taking care of the other, the father no more grown than the children.

The fates of she and her husband were not fixed.  By the time they met, they had each benefited from providence. Hers was to clean at a school where the old mistress showed her the best things to read; his was to be taken in by an uncle of small success, taught a religion of sums and francs.  Luck or circumstance had always lifted them a little more at each crossroads, until they arrived at adult lives of glib pleasures and lavender sleep.  Chances washed them clean and the very outwardness of themselves, like their boulevard, reflected a new order, peacock proud.  Anything was possible for the quick and the keen.

It was not the entire truth, the bird seemed to sing.

Her husband was right about poverty. She ought to have known better.  The bird must detest this boulevard, scrubbed fruitless.  There were no back yards and thin side yards, thick from neglect, in which to hide a nest.  There was no room for little birds in the new Paris.

“Poverty is not a weed,” she said, passing the cigarette to him.

“I don’t know what it is,” he answered.

“We of all people should know.”

The bird stopped singing just then.  Perhaps it was listening to them.  Or perhaps it had nothing more to say.  Then the rain stopped and they ended the cigarette in the soil of a potted rose.

“We are ordinary,” she said.

He was silent, glancing over his shoulder at the little clock on the mantle. The salon behind them was gay in the lamp light.  A yellow sofa and a parade of still lives along the damask wall.  Their cat stretched on the Oriental carpet, yawning at them as he peered in, as though confirming the wife’s appraisal.

“At the theater last week, the comedy I went to see when you were away in Bristol.  They showed a cheery sort of poor man, a jovial and honorable old thing.  The actor had jowls like a hound and they’d painted his face rosy all over his cheeks.  It made him look like a drunk.”

“They loved him.  He had a chance at wealth, which he gave up for some sentimental reason that escapes me.  It made all the comfortable people in the audience feel good about themselves.”

“I didn’t mean to upset you,” he began.

“Then I have read books that showed poverty as a misery, yet again they were written romantically. Tragedy.  But the girls I grew up with were wretches, course and hard too soon, and not the elegant lilies the authors like to pity.”

He lit another cigarette and passed it to her.

“Poverty is a small bird, sometimes a slow bird or an unlucky one, who cannot find seed because all the quick and early birds have already taken it all.  Only we are not like birds.  When the lucky people are finished taking all the seed, they build storerooms to keep it in, and they brick over the gardens so the flowers and the grass will scatter no more feed.”

“Maybe that’s true,” he said. He felt suddenly tired.

They would keep the dinner party they had planned for the next night and the picnic set for the following Sunday.  Over the years, the city would grow around them, one wide boulevard after the other, smothering the ancient houses, the thin gardens, and all the crooked veins of Paris.  The lampposts would march along like soldiers, beating away the shadows of the dirty past.  Other birds would survive the new order, the grey pigeon always prevailing. Their bird never came again.

And the wife forgot, almost, that once upon a time, in the heedless hour between wealth and knowing, that grapes used to taste sweeter.

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