A few days ago, Paige and I sat down for dinner and went through every letter in the English alphabet.
I had just explained to her my frustrations with my French phonetics class, more specifically how what seemed to me to be the most minuscule mistake in pronunciation made a huge difference to my stickler of a professor. Trying to shed some sort of light on the situation, we went through our familiar alphabet to see how small of differences existed between letters that were second nature to us. It only took a few minutes for me to realise that my mother language was just as difficult and the one I was so poorly attempting to learn. I realised then how easily I had forgotten about the idea of reflection, and I decided that I would spend a few extra minutes before class the next day to really try to differentiate between the French words sol and seul.
Unexpectedly, my time abroad has been almost entirely comprised of just that: reflection. I thought before leaving that this experience would be jam packed with events, full schedules and minute-by-minute playbacks. I thought that when I would return to the states that I would then reflect, and that my time in Paris could be filled with experience and only experience. I’ve learned quickly that if you don’t take the time to reflect, then each experience just ends up piling up blandly on one another. And I’ve fully accepted that in order for me to reflect, that sometimes I just need to stop and wait.
I’ve always been one who needs to be doing something at all times. The idea of sitting at home with nothing on the schedule for the rest of the day seems torturous to me. If I’m ever to sit without a purpose, I grow worrisome, imagining grossly inaccurate and exaggerated thoughts like “I’m wasting away my life by just sitting here,” or “I could be doing something significant right now”. Relaxing became the antonym of itself, and I found myself constantly on the go.
In Paris, unwinding is not an option. An atmosphere of relaxation seems perpetually draped over the city, and I always joke that 11/10 stores are closed on Sundays. When entering a café, you’ll find yourself faced with either a leisurely group of friends drinking and smoking, or someone perched in a booth, a book and glass of wine in hand, taking a moment to themselves in the middle of the work day.
And if you’re immediate thoughts are anything like what the Parisians I’ve met have described as completely American, they’re something like: “What? How? They should be doing something- There are far more productive things to be done!” And maybe there are. Maybe there’s work on their desks, and maybe there’s someone calling on their cell phones. But every time I’ve seen one of these people in these cafés, or on these patios, or just watching the city from their balconies, I can guarantee you that they’re acknowledging nothing along those lines. I grow envious watching them and their lax movements, and the way they watch the world move around them, perfectly content for the moment as an outside perspective.
This is what I’ve learned the most so far. That coffee doesn’t have to be in a giant mug when an espresso can be taken at the same pace. That walking down the street doesn’t have to necessarily mean that you have a place to go. And that the most fulfilling days are usually the ones when you don’t think about the day at all.
Bullet in the Brain
Anders couldn’t get to the bank until just before it closed, so of course the line was endless and he got stuck behind two women whose loud, stupid conversation put him in a murderous temper. He was never in the best of tempers anyway, Anders – a book critic known for the weary, elegant savagery with which he dispatched almost everything he reviewed.
With the line still doubled around the rope, one of the tellers stuck a “POSITION CLOSED” sign in her window and walked to the back of the bank, where she leaned against a desk and began to pass the time with a man shuffling papers. The women in front of Anders broke off their conversation and watched the teller with hatred.
“Oh, that’s nice,” one of them said. She turned to Anders and added, confident of his accord, “One of those little human touches that keep us coming back for more.”
Anders had conceived his own towering hatred of the teller, but he immediately turned it on the presumptuous crybaby in front of him.
“Damned unfair,” he said. “Tragic, really. If they’re not chopping off the wrong leg, or bombing your ancestral village, they’re closing their positions.”
She stood her ground. “I didn’t say it was tragic,” she said. “I just think it’s a pretty lousy way to treat your customers.”
“Unforgivable,” Anders said. “Heaven will take note.”
She sucked in her cheeks but stared past him and said nothing. Anders saw that the other woman, her friend, was looking in the same direction. And then the tellers stopped what they were doing, and the customers slowly turned, and silence came over the bank. Two men wearing black ski masks and blue business suits were standing to the side of the door. One of them had a pistol pressed against the guard’s neck. The guard’s eyes were closed, and his lips were moving. The other man had a sawed-off shotgun.
“Keep your big mouth shut!” the man with the pistol said, though no one had spoken a word. “One of you tellers hits the alarm, you’re all dead meat. Got it?”
The tellers nodded.
“Oh, bravo, ” Anders said. “Dead meat.” He turned to the woman in front of him. “Great script, eh? The stern, brass-knuckled poetry of the dangerous classes.”
She looked at him with drowning eyes.
The man with the shotgun pushed the guard to his knees. He handed up the shotgun to his partner and yanked the guard’s wrists up behind his back and locked them together with a pair of handcuffs. He toppled him onto the floor with a kick between the shoulder blades. Then he took his shotgun back and went over to the security gate at the end of the counter. He was short and heavy and moved with peculiar slowness, even torpor.
“Buzz him in,” his partner said. The man with the shotgun opened the gate and sauntered along the line of tellers, handing each of them a Hefty bag. When he came to the empty position he looked over at the man with the pistol, who said, “Whose slot is that?”
Anders watched the teller. She put her hand to her throat and turned to the man she’d been talking to. He nodded. “Mine,” she said.
“Then get your ugly ass in gear and fill that bag.”
“There you go,” Anders said to the woman in front of him. “Justice is done.”
“Hey! Bright boy! Did I tell you talk?”
“No,” Anders said.
“Then shut your trap.”
“Did you hear that?” Anders said. “‘Bright boy.’ Right out of ‘The Killers’.”
“Please be quiet,” the woman said.
“Hey, you deaf or what?” The man with the pistol walked over to Anders. He poked the weapon into Anders’ gut. “You think I’m playing games?’
“No,” Anders said, but the barrel tickled like a stiff finger and he had to fight back the titters. He did this by making himself stare into the man’s eyes, which were clearly visible behind the holes in the mask: pale blue, and rawly red-rimmed. The man’s left eyelid kept twitching. He breathed out a piercing, ammoniac smell that shocked Anders more than anything that had happened, and he was beginning to develop a sense of unease when the man prodded him again with the pistol.
“You like me, bright boy?” he said. “You want to suck my dick?”
“No,” Anders said.
“Then stop looking at me.”
Anders fixed his gaze on the man’s shiny wing-top shoes.
“Not down there. Up there.” He stuck the pistol under Anders’ chin and pushed it upward until Anders was looking at the ceiling.
Anders had never paid much attention to that part of the bank, a pompous old building with marble floors and counters and pillars, and gilt scrollwork over the tellers’ cages. The domed ceiling had been decorated with mythological figures whose fleshy, toga-draped ugliness Anders had taken in at a glance many years earlier and afterward declined to notice. Now he had no choice but to scrutinise the painter’s work. It was even worse than he remembered, and all of it executed with the utmost gravity. The artist had a few tricks up his sleeve and used them again and again – a certain rosy blush on the underside of the clouds, a coy backward glance on the faces of the cupids and fauns. The ceiling was crowded with various dramas, but the one that caught Anders’ eye was Zeus and Europa – portrayed, in this rendition, as a bull ogling a cow from behind a haystack. To make the cow sexy, the painter had canted her hips suggestively and given her long, droopy eyelashes through which she gazed back at the bull with sultry welcome. The bull wore a smirk and his eyebrows were arched. If there’d been a bubble coming out of his mouth, it would have said, “Hubba hubba.”
“What’s so funny, bright boy?”
“You think I’m comical? You think I’m some kind of clown?”
“You think you can fuck with me?”
“Fuck with me again, you’re history. Capiche?”
Anders burst our laughing. He covered his mouth with both hands and said, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” then snorted helplessly through his fingers and said, “Capiche – oh, God, capiche,” and at that the man with the pistol raised the pistol and shot Anders right in the head.
The bullet smashed Anders’ skull and ploughed through his brain and exited behind his right ear, scattering shards of bone into the cerebral cortex, the corpus callosum, back toward the basal ganglia, and down into the thalamus. But before all this occurred, the first appearance of the bullet in the cerebrum set off a crackling chain of ion transports and neurotransmissions. Because of their peculiar origin these traced a peculiar patter, flukishly calling to life a summer afternoon some forty years past, and long since lost to memory. After striking the cranium the bullet was moving at 900 feet per second, a pathetically sluggish, glacial pace compared to the synaptic lighting that flashed around it. Once in the brain, that is, the bullet came under the mediation of brain time, which gave Anders plenty of leisure to contemplate the scene that, in a phrase he would have abhorred, “passed before his eyes.”
It is worth noting what Ambers did not remember, given what he did remember. He did not remember his first lover, Sherry, or what he had most madly loved about her, before it came to irritate him – her unembarrassed carnality, and especially the cordial way she had with his unit, which she called Mr. Mole, as in, “Uh-oh, looks like Mr. Mole wants to play,” and “Let’s hide Mr. Mole!” Anders did not remember his wife, whom he had also loved before she exhausted him with her predictability, or his daughter, now a sullen professor of economics at Dartmouth. He did not remember standing just outside his daughter’s door as she lectured her bear about his naughtiness and described the truly appalling punishments Paws would receive unless he changed his ways. He did not remember a single line of the hundreds of poems he had committed to memory in his youth so that he could give himself the shivers at will – not “Silent, upon a peak in Darien,” or “My God, I heard this day,” or “All my pretty ones? Did you say all? O hell-kite! All?” None of these did he remember; not one. Anders did not remember his dying mother saying of his father, “I should have stabbed him in his sleep.”
He did not remember Professor Josephs telling his class how Athenian prisoners in Sicily had been released if they could recite Aeschylus, and then reciting Aeschylus himself, right there, in the Greek. Anders did not remember how his eyes had burned at those sounds. He did not remember the surprise of seeing a college classmate’s name on the jacket of a novel not long after they graduated, or the respect he had felt after reading the book. He did not remember the pleasure of giving respect.
Nor did Anders remember seeing a woman leap to her death from the building opposite his own just days after his daughter was born. He did not remember shouting, “Lord have mercy!” He did not remember deliberately crashing his father’s car in to a tree, of having his ribs kicked in by three policeman at an anti-war rally, or waking himself up with laughter. He did not remember when he began to regard the heap of books on his desk with boredom and dread, or when he grew angry at writers for writing them. He did not remember when everything began to remind him of something else.
This is what he remembered. Heat. A baseball field. Yellow grass, the whirr of insects, himself leaning against a tree as the boys of the neighborhood gather for a pickup game. He looks on as the others argue the relative genius of Mantle and Mays. They have been worrying this subject all summer, and it has become tedious to Anders: an oppresssion, like the heat.
Then the last two boys arrive, Coyle and a cousin of his from Mississippi. Anders has never met Coyle’s cousin before and will never see him again. He says hi with the rest but takes no further notice of him until they’ve chosen sides and someone asks the cousin what position he wants to play. “Shortstop,” the boy says. “Short’s the best position they is.” Anders turns and looks at him. He wants to hear Coyle’s cousin repeat what he’s just said, but he knows better than to ask. The others will think he’s being a jerk, ragging the kid for his grammar. But that isn’t it, not at all – it’s that Anders is strangely roused, elated, by those final two words, their pure unexpectedness and their music. He takes the field in a trance, repeating them to himself.
The bullet is already in the brain; it won’t be outrun forever, or charmed to a halt. In the end it will do its work and leave the troubled skull behind, dragging its comet’s tail of memory and hope and talent and love into the marble hall of commerce. That can’t be helped. But for now Anders can still make time. Time for the shadows to lengthen on the grass, time for the tethered dog to bark at the flying ball, time for the boy in right field to smack his sweat-blackened mitt and softly chant, They is, they is, they is.