The south of France is like the north of France. People fall in and out of love. No one knows how to sauté anything anymore. The revolution left after a noisy round of charades, and late capitalism locked the door behind it. Will China look down? Does Canada matter? The New World wants softer lighting, and the answer is a string of tinsel laid over an open grate. In the north and south of France, cinema is dying and abstract art is dying and videography is dying and sound collage is dying. Stendhal said, “Far less envy in America, and far less wit.” Celine said, “Sadness has different ways of getting to people, but it succeeds almost every time.” Love isn’t fatal and death, like the Gulf Stream, circulates heat. “God’s only excuse is that he doesn’t exist,” continued Stendhal, with the south and north of France already two sides of a coin so faded no one could tell up from down.
Bernard got a job after college at Learn!, a company that made educational software, working on the sequel to a video game in which players used math formulas to beat up trolls and shoot flaming arrows into the hearts of troll villages. In January, he agreed to move in with his cousin Veronique, who lived outside the city center on welfare because of arthritis in her knee, and who smoked marijuana most mornings in a park next to a statue of Charles de Gaulle, whose arms were raised in triumph. The park had backless benches. An old wiry mime in patchy makeup and ripped ballet slippers—and with a slight bulge in his leotard—did a trembling impression of the statue all day. Growing up, Bernard had seen Veronique twice a year at family dinners, when she’d told him about reggae and the divine lion of Rastafarianism. Or was it the divine light? France needed to either outgrow mime or embrace it again. De Gaulle hadn’t rescued the country in World War II from evil. That had been the fresh Americans and battered British and endless Russians. Bernard thought reggae sounded like trampolining in one’s head, and moved in with Veronique instead of getting a place by himself, as he’d wanted to do, because Veronique’s mother, his aunt Janine, had begged him, hoping that his presence would inspire her daughter to go to college or get a job or at least stop sleeping with the deadbeat roommates she kept finding on so called lifestyle websites.
On Bernard’s first night in the apartment, Veronique lit a joint from her breast pocket and said, “Why’re you looking at dwarves?”
He opened a window, having lost his asthma inhaler a month before. “What?”
“On your computer, those frightening people.” “They’re trolls in the game I’m working on.”
“Are they?” She ashed her joint into a Moroccan dipping bowl. “My friend Odette just got divorced—it’s freezing in here—and I think you two would get along.”
Bernard watched a man on the street peeing into a trash can. “What’s this neighborhood like, exactly?”
“I can invite her over right now and put on some calypso, have a dance party.” Veronique grabbed a phone, its screen cracked into twin spider webs.
“There’s a guy outside—”
She held up a silencing finger and talked into the phone, then set it down and said that Odette was at work at a bakery where her manager was ex-military from America or Alaska or somewhere, the point being he was an asshole, so she couldn’t come over but would have them to dinner the next day.
Bernard went to bed and for an hour heard laughter coming from the living room television, then forty minutes of panting, then a long, low-grind blender. He kept flipping his pillow over to get to the cool side. Eventually it became morning and he took a walk on sidewalks slick with black ice and saw that in this part of the city what broke or was abandoned stayed broken and abandoned. The cold made it all throb in place. He passed empty storefronts and Halal butchers and Gypsy kids selling iguanas and a block long souk with spices like varicolored dunes rippling across linked tables.
At Our Lady of the Immaculate Heart, Bernard heard the slow peal and repeal of a pipe organ coming through wide, ivory-inlaid doors. He drew up his jacket collar and blew on his numb fingers until they tingled with pain. A posted itinerary said that Father Maazi’s sermon was about to begin. It would be on mercy.
Inside the cathedral, Bernard sat on a straight-backed pew with worn velvet seat cushions. A dozen old dowagers and middle-aged couples were scattered around, plus a young woman whose blond hair was pulled back by a black barrette. The barrette looked like a sleeping moth. Father Maazi, a tall Senegalese man made triangular by his sacerdotal robes, floated up to the pulpit and gave a benediction in Latin, then led the Lord’s Prayer in French. The congregants murmured along with him. During his sermon on mercy, the exercise of which raised man above all other creatures, even angels, whose programmed nature made them incapable of it, Bernard kept glancing over at the blonde. She had long eyelashes, a Roman nose, a thin white scar that ran from her ear to her jaw in a parabolic arc, and the open expression of someone either transported by what she heard or daydreaming. Mercy was the easiest yet most difficult virtue. It cost you nothing but the illusion that your interests were separate from other people’s.
After mass he watched the blonde climb onto a step-through bicycle with swept-back handlebars, green streamers and a bronze bell, and tuck in her skirt so it wouldn’t flare open in the wind. A minute later, pedaling past him, she slid on a patch of ice and crashed to the ground.
“Are you all right?” he asked, jogging over to her.
“I think so.” She got up and righted her twisted bicycle, inspecting a jagged scratch in its frame. “The street is like a skating rink.”
He felt pinpricks on his face from snow beginning to fall. “I saw you at church just now, and I wonder if you know anything about its social programs, like if it has an addict support group? I’m looking for someplace to take my cousin who’s on drugs.”
The woman brushed snowflakes from her bicycle seat, touched the sleeve of her coat to her nose. “This was my first time to visit there. I heard music while riding by before and went in because of that.”
Adrenaline surged through him and the woman didn’t climb back onto her bicycle. “Are you American?” he asked.
She was from Wales, an exchange student at the local university. They talked about Swansea and the price of bicycle paint and whether mercy meant sparing someone pain or promoting their happiness— that is, was it passive or active in nature?—and made plans to meet that evening on the other side of the city at a cafe called the Rumba Room. Her name was Sally. She seemed like a woman who could lose an art contest and just fold her arms in disappointment—feel a compression of the heart, yes, but not go out and get drunk and sleep with a stranger and tell Bernard he shouldn’t have been studying when she got the bad news about the contest, so that his neglect rather than her lack of self control had caused her infidelity, which wasn’t in fact a big deal. No, Sally seemed nothing like Claire, his ex-fiancée, who’d said when he ended it, “You don’t understand nuance. What’s not on the surface is invisible to you. Thank God this is happening.”
Odette opened the door of her studio apartment and said, “You’re late.”
“We had to walk since the buses aren’t running.” Veronique kissed her friend on both cheeks and unwrapped the icy scarf from around her neck. “The snow’s waist-high out there.”
“Is that true, Bernard?” Odette said his name slowly, almost sighing the second syllable, and stepped aside so they could enter a narrow room with a kitchenette along one wall, two apple green bean bags in the middle, and stacks of boxes in the far corner, like a distant metropolis, beside a large mattress covered in tangled sheets. “Throw your coats on the rug. I’ve got wine, brandy, or coffee.”
Veronique said wine and Bernard coffee as they peeled off layers and picked at frozen knots in their shoelaces.
“Ignore the boxes. Hans won’t let me keep anything in our old apartment because he’s teaching me a lesson.” Odette, in a striped apron and with jet black hair swelling into a low-wave pompadour, handed them paper cups. “I heard you almost got married, Bernard.” Veronique tossed back her wine and picked through a pile of clothes on the floor. “Can I borrow this?” she asked, holding up a loose-knit wool sweater.
“If you give back my suede boots. There’s a relief, don’t you think, Bernard, when you hit bottom in a relationship. After falling for so long and all that anticipation, the impact isn’t so bad.”
He said, “Mine happened suddenly.”
“Are you sure I still have those boots?” Veronique asked. “Because I remember giving them back.”
“You don’t remember anything,” said Odette.
When it had become clear that Bernard and Veronique would have to walk two miles through the snow to reach Odette’s apartment, he’d tried to get out of it, but Veronique said they should spend time together because they hardly knew each other, and Odette had already made them pastries, and walking was good exercise, and he owed her for what she’d done for him. What’ve you done for me? he asked, as she pinched out a joint and told him to forget it, her eyelids heavy like an iguana’s.
Odette whisked a thin yellow liquid in a bowl.
“If we’re not eating yet,” said Veronique, “let’s put on music and do some dancing.”
Bernard’s legs ached and he looked at Odette, who said, “I have to finish the glaze.”
“Where’re your speakers? I can set them up at an angle to get the best acoustics for this space.” Veronique put her ear against a wall and knocked on it, as if listening for mice.
Bernard said to her, “I’m surprised you’re able to dance.”
She frowned and went to the kitchenette and refilled her wine cup and looked at him blankly.
“Because of the arthritis in your knee,” he said.
“Knees. Listen, I meant to tell you before, but if the Disabilities Services Department calls and asks about it, about my arthritis, say you don’t know anything because I never discuss it because it depresses me.”
His coffee tasted like wood smoke. “Why would they call and ask that?”
“It’s something they do.”
“You want me to lie to them?”
“It’s not lying, since we haven’t discussed it.” “We’re discussing it now.”
“No, we’re discussing whether we’ve discussed it.” Veronique’s cheeks were turning pink or maybe auburn, and her dreadlocks formed a Medusan squall on her head. She finished the wine and poured more. “This is serious. My livelihood is at stake.”
“But if you’re okay and get disability checks, that’s fraud.”
Above the metallic whir of her fork against the bowl, Odette said, “You guys should relax on the bean bags for a minute. My friend gave them to me who never used them.”
Veronique said, “How do you figure fraud?”
“Because you’re taking money under false pretenses from the government,” said Bernard.
“A rent subsidy and food vouchers?”
“If enough people did the same thing it’d bankrupt the country. You should get a job. Then you wouldn’t have to worry about getting found out.”
She stepped toward him, her face a mixture of confusion and anger and fear and incredulity and guilt and scorn, then shook her head, turned around, and picked up her coat from the rug. “I told my mother I’d take you in since you’re having a hard time.” Struggling to put on waterlogged shoes. “But this isn’t working out. You can stay another few days, till the weekend, but after that find some place else to live.” Yanking open the front door, she said, “And don’t touch the phone.”
Odette looked up from her bowl. “What’re you doing?”
“Those boots were in the sack of things I returned before the roots festival in October, when I gave you the skeleton lamp.”
“No, they weren’t, and I didn’t want that lamp. Come have an olive.” Veronique slammed the door behind her.
Outside falling snow hid parked cars and trees and rooftops, haloed street lamps, softened the atmosphere. Bernard and Odette sat at a small round table eating pastries filled with curried potatoes, raisins, carrots, lentils, and persimmons. She asked him why he’d studied math. He said it was because his father had been a mathematician. Also, Galileo had called math the language God used to write the universe. Odette said she’d enjoyed doing linear equations in school because they were like recipes, a set of unique ingredients fusing into something whole. Bernard excused himself to go to the bathroom, where he splashed cold water on his face. He should’ve left after Veronique did and gone to wait at the Rumba Room for Sally. It was nine-thirty. He found a porn magazine in a stack of cooking journals leaning against the bathtub. A page was ripped out.
Back at the table, he didn’t touch his coffee. Odette had removed her apron and wore a v-neck blouse over a mauve chemisette. She looked somewhere between thirty and forty years old. By calling math the language with which God wrote the universe, Bernard said, Galileo had suggested that all three phenomena—language, God and the universe—were discreet but interconnected mysteries. An overlapping trinity of infinities. Bernard undid the top two buttons of his shirt and wiped his forehead and said that you could no sooner read the last imaginable sentence than you could find the edge of God or reach the end of the universe.
Odette chewed for a long time. “But the universe is expanding,” she finally said. “So it doesn’t go on forever and you could get to the end of it with a fast enough space ship.”
The picture of Sally in Bernard’s mind had turned into a faint, semi-translucent image, like a daytime moon. On his plate was a bed of golden flakes. “There can never be a fast enough space ship,” he said.
Odette leaned back in her chair. The radio played an old Breton folk song with a Caribbean arrangement. Her eyebrows were as thin as bird wings on the horizon. She said, “You should eat the last pastry.”
“Thanks, but I have to go in a minute. I’m meeting a friend at ten.”
“Oh?” She got up and cleared the plates and set them on the kitchen counter noiselessly. Her dress hung to her calves, a delicate brown. “Then take my umbrella. It’s in one of the boxes, I think.”
The green bean bags in the middle of the room were shiny and shaped like dewdrops. A dark wet ring surrounded Bernard’s shoes on the rug. Last summer he had applied to a PhD program and proposed working on the problem that had occupied his father at the end of his life, Goldbach’s conjecture, a proof that all even integers greater than 2 could be expressed as the sum of two primes. His rejection from the university came just after Claire announced she was engaged to someone else. On the phone, Aunt Janine told him to calm down, to breathe, but how could he breathe calmly when he was supposed to carry on his father’s work, and Claire was supposed to ask him to forgive her? Aunt Janine said he could apply again next year, and Claire was an idiot. Also, Veronique’s roommate had just moved out. The third one that year. Veronique, she said, was twenty- eight and adrift in the world. Bernard wondered what that had to do with anything. Aunt Janine said, You’ve got to help her. I’ve done all I can do.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” he said. “What happened with Veronique.”
Odette ran the faucet and put on a pair of yellow latex gloves, the rubbery snap of each fitted finger sounding like tiny whip cracks. “She shouldn’t have asked you to lie.”
“Thanks for saying so, because—”
“But you shouldn’t have refused.”
He watched her slide the dishes under a white stream of water, heard a hiss and submarine clanking. “Veronique can’t sit around all day getting high,” he said.
“She needs a job.” He tried to think of a reason. “To give her life meaning.”
“Most people hate their jobs.” Odette stacked the plates and then scrubbed a cherrywood cutting board. “You’re going to be late for your friend.”
He looked at his phone. “They texted and said they can’t make it.
Because the snow’s getting worse out there.”
Glancing over her shoulder: “Is that true, Bernard?” He swallowed. “Yes.”
Steam rose from the silver sink like censer smoke. “Then you’ll have to stay the night.”
Odette gave him a new toothbrush with rubber stripes along its sides. For better grip. He went into the bathroom, and although the porn magazine was still there, he studied a pyramid of hand soaps on the shelf above the toilet. Each of its four corners was a different shade of yellow. When he came out, she had changed into a sleeveless nightgown and lay on the mattress with a blanket folded back at her waist. Her hair, let down and parted in the middle, crashed gently onto the pillow behind her. A candle on the window sill gave the room its only light. Bernard pushed the two bean bags together and got into a horizontal position.
“Are you comfortable on those?” she asked. He nodded. “I love bean bags.”
Odette’s body took up barely a third of the mattress. “Nobody loves bean bags,” she said.
He felt the beans squeeze tightly together as he shifted his body. “You must like your job, since you make pastries in your free time. I know a masseuse and she never gives her boyfriend massages.”
“You want to talk about work?” “Veronique said your boss is mean.”
Odette placed her palms flat on the mattress and gave him an incredulous smile, like he’d broken in to rob her and then called the police. “He’s a Francophile, so everything we make is classically French: éclairs and friands and gougéres. It’s boring. He lost a foot in Iraq, and the hospital served him Freedom Fries. Let’s talk about something else.”
Bernard’s fingers stuck to the vinyl surface of the lower bean bag. “How did you meet Veronique?”
“Hans used to play in a reggae band she liked, Natty Dresden, and he’d come to all of their shows.”
Bernard’s mother had left France when he was fifteen to live with someone she’d met in San Francisco. His father took him to a steakhouse soon afterward and got drunk and told him they’d be fine without her. No, they’d be great, because now they could do all the father/son things they hadn’t been able to do before: eat frozen food, go to weeknight football games, watch action movies, visit strip clubs. Bernard would have been embarrassed by these plans, but his thoughts were full of friends and school and girls and music, and he paid no attention to them. When his father got lymphoma a year later, he said, You shouldn’t have smoked when you were young, and found excuses not to escort him home from the treatment center. Can’t you call a cab or get Aunt Janine to take you?
Odette said, “I wish I had an extra blanket for you. You’re going to get cold.”
“I never get cold.”
“That’s lucky. I’m always cold.”
Bernard could barely keep his eyes open. “Why don’t you get a space heater?”
“They’re fire hazards.” She rubbed her arms and her nightgown didn’t slip down her shoulders. She didn’t sigh or propose that they work on linear equations or say, Bernard, I’m going to tell you something you already know but won’t admit, although if you did then a lot of what’s wrong here, like your lying on those stupid bean bags when I’m cold and alone on a huge mattress, and your having invented that text from your friend, and your unmerciful speech to Veronique about fraud, might be fixed: your aunt didn’t ask you to move in with your cousin because she thought you could save her. On the contrary.
After a minute, he got up from the bean bags and lay down next to Odette. His clothes were uncomfortable at first, but then they weren’t. She blew out the candle and breathed evenly. With his legs he explored the empty space at the bottom of the mattress. As he adjusted to the darkness and Odette came into view as gradations of black, along with the room’s furniture and boxes and clothes, he saw, without surprise, with a kind of relief, that what lay beneath the surface was just a darker version of what lay above.
The north and south of France are full of people who by acting in plain sight will never be caught. They live in the Old World, which is newer than the Ancient World. Stendhal worshipped Emperor Napoleon and Celine embraced fascism. When known as Gaul, France was occupied by barbarians whose ancestors had drawn bison on cave walls. These drawings broke down motion into its constituent parts. Napoleon’s dream of a unified Europe survived him, and fascism was the idea of order worked out to the nth degree. Does this explain the later popularity of surrealism or musique concrete or New Wave cinema or the Pompidou Centre or Jacques Chirac, who as Minister of Culture forbade Americanisms like “les blue jeans” and “le weekend” from being spoken on the radio? To be French is to be heir to Indochina and Algeria, as well as to secularism and accordion love songs designed to drown out infidelity and cancer and regret. Trolls must be burned alive. If you show them mercy, they’ll destroy you. It’s their nature.
Bernard couldn’t see the sun when he left Odette’s apartment building in the morning, but it seemed to light the world from within. The snow on the ground was blinding. He turned toward Veronique’s apartment and Odette had said to him, Goodbye, Bernard. It was a pleasure meeting you.
After cutting through an indoor shopping arcade and crossing two parking lots, he entered Liberation Park, where a flock of elderly Chinese women in baggy pants and sweatshirts swiveled in unison, carving out shapes in the air. Beside a statue of Charles de Gaulle, an old Frenchman in uneven pancake makeup embraced the sky.
Bernard turned around and saw Veronique sitting a few feet away on a bench, headphones in her lap and a burning joint in her right hand. She smiled and said, “I told you, you and Odette would get along, and here it is the next morning.”
He said, “I’ll call friends today to ask if I can stay with them while I find a new place.”
She took a long drag and patted the bench beside her. “Sit down. You don’t have to move out. I was drunk last night. Alcohol affects me badly.”
“I shouldn’t have accused you of fraud.” “Why not?” Taking another drag. “It’s fraud.” They sat in silence for a minute.
“Can I have some of that?” he said, indicating the joint. “Thought you had asthma.”
“One hit won’t hurt.”
His phone buzzed, a number he didn’t recognize. He held it to his ear, and a woman’s voice said, “Bernard? Hello, it’s Sally from yesterday. I’m sorry for not meeting you at the cafe, but it was snowing so bad and I lost my phone. My friend called the Rumba Room for me, but no one answered. And now I found my phone. Maybe you’d like to meet for coffee, if you’re free?”
“I’m with my cousin right now.” “The cousin on drugs?”
He exhaled a stream of invisible smoke. “We’re watching a mime.” “Does he pretend to be trapped inside a box?”
“This one doesn’t do that. You should come see him.”
He gave Sally directions to the park, then got up and dropped money into the empty cap lying at the mime’s feet. Veronique clapped. The mime wasn’t trembling. Bernard said to him, “Don’t go anywhere.” The mime gazed steadily into the distance. Bernard turned to look in that direction, at an expanse of white that seemed to have no beginning and no end. It was beautiful and hostile. Veronique continued to clap and a light breeze started up from the west.
From A Moral Tale and Other Moral Tales. Used with permission of Dzanc. Copyright © 2017 by Josh Emmons.