A NEW YEAR’S EVE
“I don’t know what it’s supposed to be. A play, a book? Is it modern?”
Late for our party now, Lain and I, with little fashion to it: we were part of the show. Supposed to be, at least. I imagined Camille, fellow worker, my poor dear. She watched from the skyloft, always moving, pulling ropes. She was pretty and tall and confused, the cute kind you don’t get frustrated with, not the kind that owes you money. I spent a lot of time with her, above that stage, it was unforgiving; unforgiving lights, seemingly asking you the question:
“Shame today, mademoiselle?”
“No, sir Roilet,” I’d say.
Lying already. Father’d be proud.
It would have been me up there, the horror, in front of the drunks, hanging on the words they knew by-heart and under those lights, those unforgiving lights, the tradition for our family theatre at Rouge Point; just a New Year’s party, really. An excuse to make speeches and reenact the fire of ’68. The new theatre rose out of that dust and rubble.
No one’s sure how it started, that fire. My father maybe, my grandfather? Maybe grandmother, she hated the skin. Of course that doesn’t stop the stories, the myths. The (most common) legend goes:
Three men came in to see the show. Back then, in grandpa’s time, there was no pretense to art or history. It was a high-class brothel, but a brothel nonetheless. Pillars and silk curtains it may have had, but whatever frame you put around it, it was a whorehouse. And these three men came in, in tailored suits and slick hair, nice shoes. They ordered wine and women, not an uncommon order, and were served. They got drunk, but who’s to judge? it was welcomed, encouraged even, by the staff and employees. Drunk customers part with more than sober customers.
Having had their fill of wine and women, they refused to pay, and papa tried to have them tossed. A fight ensued, enlarged by tradition now into an epic struggle, and somewhere in the third act a table caught fire. Then it spread to the curtains, then the termite-infested stage, and within an hour the firefighters were in the parking lot with grandma, who had taken up arms against the flames in her nightgown and curlers, doing battle with the flames.
By the time the sun came up the fire died, but the sun lit only the ruins of grandpa’s theatre, and when it was rebuilt, he left the running of the theatre to grandma, but she had no taste for it. She oversaw its rebuilding, but had little interest in it otherwise. When mother came of age, she rebranded it and tried to make it into something a little more artistic.
I tried mother’s mobile phone again. Because I’m a sadist, apparently.
“Still not answering,” I said.
“It’s after midnight,” said Alain.
“It’s always after midnight,” I said. Always cold.
And quiet in the car.
Twelve-oh-one, the clock blinked neon red:
Alain was born Charles-Alain Pinon, a name he hated – so what does one do? what mothers do: call them the name they hate so they’ll know you’re mad. We met at University and lived in Paris, then. A handsome man, Charles. 29 and afraid of turning 30, a cliché to be sure; journalist, critic, on a pedestal of his own design. He worked with me at my family’s theatre La petite illusion (The Little Illusion) – which my mother ran; he was a ‘jack-of-all trades, master of none,’ as he would say: he did the story-boards, set-design, writing, props, arranged the score, the dialogue – all of that fell on him. He stocked the prop store, the character store. I stayed behind the scenes, running backgrounds, pulling props into view for the audience, and generally hiding the frames of Lain’s illusion. We lived in a different time, Lain and I, a romantic past, circling an antique toilet drain, with Madea and Jason, Falstaff and Madame Butterfly. The golden age of tragedy had passed.
We were returning to a canton in Marseille, La Pointe-Rouge – my childhood home, south of an imaginary line someone had to draw to remove. We had driven down the week before, for the Christmas play, and were staying on my mother’s estate. The lines along the road were golden, bright-yellow and blinking as we passed and faster, faster, blurred and then smudged into a long streak, blinking out in the rearview mirror.
It wasn’t a long drive but it got to me. The claustrophobia of that car. It used to be my dad’s, I’m told. I turned on the radio. Static, hissing and scratching between channels; blips of weather forecasts, rain commercials, up-coming shows and local news, announcements.
….From Saint-Roch Mont Fleuri were re–
Lain’s long, twitching, nervous fingers slid an unmarked disk into the rustic, faithful CD player and the static hum ran short, trailing off and in came a moaning violin, a cello, a piano too; a soft voice, somber, Vocalise. Rachmaninoff! soundtrack to suicide, each note a different color, first blue and soft and vulnerable, a symphony of shameful pinks and white, low white, ivory and softer, pouring from the speakers like shy smoke. For Anna, maybe? That coming train; Or was it for Alain?
Alain turned up the heat and turned away, looking from the window into the dark, taking in the sights. The view of the Catalan sea was striking; deep blue. almost black but speckled white like birds’ eggs. A calm sea and a calm sky, still, a perfect mirror where the Earth and Heaven met, where the sky hit the water and turned in upon itself, scattering spare stars across the surface, lighting, if but a touch, that lonely port. Abandoned now. No more war. Not now, at least, just monuments; there will be more. Monuments to monuments, that monolithic road up Le corniche;
La prada first, then not far off, the familiar Le Porte de l’Orient – a war memorial. And like the war more beautiful at night, in silhouette, exquisite in the dark but dismal in the clearer eye of day, more-so than port Vallan des Auffres, small and popular among d’jeunes; so exclusive in fact no one went.
The coast is famously picaresque; a major tourist attraction in summer months and, as it is with traps, embarrassing out of season, when it’s spoiled. One façade after another, as though a mad God woke from a long nod in a gaudy mood, and decided on a countryside. It met with harsh reviews.
There’s nothing to see but the view.
“Are you excited?” Lain asked.
“I suppose,” I said. “Mom enjoys it all. Getting drunk and burning down the stage.”
“Someday, it’ll be all yours,” he said. “You’ll have to burn it all down too, someday. My question is, would you put the fire out?”
I wouldn’t. I remembered a quote, I’d burn the world to the ground if I could be Queen of the Ashes.
“Play Madame Butterfly.”
Un bel di, vedremo
Levarsi un fil di fumo…
Such beauty, such colorful and velvet words ,so vibrant and trembling, and red! a red rose… Alive and pulsing, passionate vibrations — the type of music that might lullaby a mad God …
Sull’estremo confin del mare.
E poi la nave appare…
I put the call through again. No answer. Again, no answer. Again and again and again. Lain hadn’t noticed this errant behavior, listening to the music. I called her private phone.
Poi la nave bianca
entra nel porto…
“She never answers,” I told Lain. “It makes me wonder. How does she become busy? She never answers the phone. She doesn’t answer the door.”
… romba il suo saluto.
Vedi? È venuto!
“Don’t you know,” said Lain, “women of her stature and repute have people on hand, you know, to be busy for them in.”
“Have you tried the desk?”
“I’ve never gotten through to anyone at that place,” he said.
“My mother thinks,” I said, “she thinks that if the line is always tied up, the caller will assume the place is busy. If it’s busy, then it’s open. Someone’s there. She leaves it off the hook when we lock up! If it’s always busy, then someone’s there, and if someone’s talking, that means two! Then it’s a great place to be! Exciting! Packed! Phones ringing! If people were able to get information about the hours, the shows, the schedules, they wouldn’t know anything about the place.”
Io non gli scendo incontro. Io no…
Mi metto là sul ciglio del colle e aspetto…
“I’ll give that to her,” I said. “My mother knows how to work the Chinese cheese.”
“What the hell is ‘Chinese cheese?” Lain asked.
I laughed. It’s as ridiculous as it sounds.
“Mother calls some customers Chinese cheese, the customers who ‘ne peut pas dire un hamburger de bifteck.’”
Translators note: ‘The difference between steak and hamburger meat.’
“So, you don’t have to put any real effort into it?”
E aspetto gran temp
e non mi pesa…
La lunga attesa
I tried to call again. Marie Callas in one ear, phone in the other. I hoped she wouldn’t answer. That creepy voice-mail picked up, the automatic voicemail with the passive-aggressive robot voice. I let it finish.
“Answer your God damn phone woman!”
E uscito dalla folla cittadina,
un uomo, un picciol punto…
The familiar sights rose out of the darkness. Lain paused the music before the next verse started. The square was dark, lights off at the boutique and the rental stores, for ties and coats, even dresses, ties. My mother ran that too. Poor Camille, so shy. I wondered if my mother noticed it wasn’t me. Camille’s about my height, but a little taller, and skinnier with longer hair, down to her shoulders with bangs. And mine, sigh, says mother, sigh, ‘It’s just too short. Girls your age should have long hair. You don’t want to look like a boy, do you?”
Do you? DO YOU? DO YOU?!
Lain was gathering his things, headphones, pens, that valise, that stinking horrible old valise he wouldn’t throw away, ugh. It smelled. Cabbage and soup and age like a derelict house, stained with ashes and scuffs but he wouldn’t throw it out. I gave him a new one, for his birthday, and it was authentic leather with elegant trim (white and pleated) and it matched the writer/artist character he went for so well. He never used it. Ingrate!
S’avvia per la collina.
Chi sarà? chi sarà?
“Your mother hasn’t answered?” a kind question. If you see someone quiet, when they’re going to a party, they’re having a situation. Say something.
It was 1 am.
“They’re probably too loud to hear it,” I say. I call again.
“Busy, call me back!”
“We’re about there,” I say. I put the phone in my purse.
“They’ve probably already started. I imagined Tragos, that poor Janitor in his goat costume. It’s an old tradition, and it goes back to the first performances. They sacrifice a goat (Tragos) before a performance, to the Gods. For a good review I assume.
“It’s a tradition, Renette. Like the Romans did.”
We could see smoke over the trees that broke around the corner.
E come sarà giunto
“I guess they’ve started,” says Alain. He seemed disappointed, adding: “I really wanted to talk to Falstaff. “
We pulled into the parking lot. It was empty. The back part of the theatre was on fire. The theatre production had been big, a deep-space show, lots of moving boards; we had to use pulleys for each measured distance. It was a lot to burn down. I imagined them lined around the drapes, my mother leading the mob. Petrol along the edge of the sets, the sliding boards, and Renée was there, a timid stagehand, to watch each little scene, each background she had painted, each knock-off Turner, but she tried. She had to watch them burn.
I locked the car doors. Alain slung his bag over his shoulder. The lobby was dark, and I thought everyone must be gathered by the fire in the back. There was a lot of scenery to burn. All of Renée’s little trees, her birds, those pastel skies.
The parking lot was overflowing, full of familiar cars and colors. But the lights were strangely dim despite the fire in the backlot. A packed house, it seemed, but eerie and quiet. Lain had his headphones on, still listening to Madame Butterfly. His yaourt was spot on.
(Yaourt is French slang, to yogurt, to mumble lyrics you don’t know).
No one was at the desk in the lobby. We went to the worker’s entrance. Locked! Someone I didn’t recognize looked my way then ran. A burst of fire lit the sky. The ground shook, we backed away from the door as the glass shattered in the frame and rained on the walkway in front of us, sparkling and glittering in the light. It was beautiful.
Lain shook me, jarring me back into the moment.
He reached into the empty frame and unlocked the door. We ran in. The carpet was dim but visible, a low red, crimson almost. There were two doors to enter at either end: one to the Director’s box, the other to the gallery (the auditorium, the seats.) The seating gallery was staggered, a raked gallery, rising upward, so two inclined paths led toward the proscenium arch. I looked into the auditorium; the stage was lit, the house-lights were down, but the seats appeared to be filled. And they were; each seat had a dead patron watching a stage of actors, dead as well, on their backs–in full costume and masked, quiet. Lain had to shake me again:
“You have to call your mother,” he said.
“What should we do?” he said.
“I’ve got to call Emergency-12,” I said. I didn’t know what else to do.
“Fuck that!” he said. “I’m American. Nobody does violence like this except Americans. Not like this. Nobody does over-the-top violence like Americans.”
We walked up and down the rows of seats, each audience member glued into their seats – literally, glued and not the good way, their hands and arms along their armrests.
“We have to do something?”
“I’ve got priors,” Lain said. “It’s up to you.”
The fire was encroaching the stage and two more thunderous jets of fire let loose. I thought of my mother on stage in that Paris theatre.
“They’re going to blame me,” he said. “I know it. This is fucked up. This is something I’d do for a story.”
I put in a call to Emergency one-12.
“Emergency,” a voice said. A more human passive-aggressive robot. “Police or ambulance?”
“Both,” I said.
And it begins …
“Troy has fallen.”
“Troy has fallen…”
A NEW YEAR’S DAY
“Troy has fallen!”
MY MOTHER DRESSED AS CLYTEMNESTRA, HEAD of poor Tragos in one hand, a prop-sword in the other.
“Troy has fallen!”
The crowd erupts like Spartan whores, a sea of glittering flammable faces smiling, applauding, whistling.
Clytemnestra was the wife of King Agamemnon, a queen – my mother loved the role. Queen and executioner,
The plastic sword fell silent along the cotton head of Tragos, our poor Janitor in drag, on hands and knees.
Off it comes and so the head rolls down, down, down, off the stage into the gallery. A thespian scoops it up:
“Happy New Year!”
“Happy New Year!” comes the echo.
The crowd erupts like Spartan whores, a sea of glittering flammable faces smiling, applauding, whistling. The gallery of poorly lit tables on floor-level rose in my imagination. The clapping, smattering politely, died away in my memory. The sirens and lights approached ever faster.
My mother loved the role, the Queen. Queen and executioner:
And so the plastic sword falls silent along the cotton head of Tragos, our poor Janitor in drag, on hands and knees.
Off it comes and so the head rolls down, down, down, off the stage into the gallery. A thespian scoops it up:
“Happy New Year!”
“Happy New Year!” comes the echo. It echoed in my head. I could hear the sirens coming, then. Lain had put himself in the least suspicious looking spot, and sat on the sidewalk in front of the visitor’s entrance. He tucked in his shirt, combing his hair. He took off his headphones, put his things in the prop-store, his cabbage smelling valise and sketches. He threw away his cigarettes, too. Such subtlety in his guilt. He kept quiet as I tried to explain it to the police, why a burning backlot wasn’t a cause for immediate alarm.
“It’s a tradition,” I said. “After the Christmas play, we celebrate the new season by burning the sets.”
One officer was walking around taking photographs. Another with a flashlight, coordinating with the fire-truck that had arrived to put out the fire. Only the backstage area had been burnt. The stage, for the most part, had survived. The audience, all of them creepily sitting up-straight with their eyes pried open. Row after row, adults and younger members of the audience, men and women. Young boys and girls.
The police officer was polite enough. Lain was questioned separately. I was hoping he told the truth.
“What’s your name, miss?” the officer said. He looked at me keenly, scrutinizing my expression.
“Renette, sir,” I said. “Renette Brisbois.”
“Are you from around here?”
He must have been new.
“I grew up here,” I said. “I went to Lycee Montgrande, the drama-school. I went to University in Paris, with my friend. He works with me here.”
“This is your theatre?”
“My mother’s,” I said. “I just work here. Me and Lain–” he gestured. I nodded. “Yes, him.”
“How can we get in touch with the owner?” he asked.
“My mother,” I said.
“What’s her name?”
“Mme. Nanty,” I said.
His eyebrow rose. He knew her, I assumed. I was surprised he didn’t know where he was. After that it was a much smoother conversation, he was more helpful, less suspicious of my every answer.
“Do you have someone to call?” he asked. “Where’s your dad?”
“I don’t know,” I said. He let the matter rest.
“We’re staying on Mme. Nanty’s estate,” I said. “Is there anything else we can do?”
He handed me a copy of the information he took down and gave me a number to call if I heard from my mother. It hadn’t hit, how surreal it was. A gallery full of up-right patrons, eyes wide an attentive. What a play that’d make! And Lain had the same idea, I saw: he sketched it as we drove back to our apartment. Madame Bovary’s wailing recommenced.
Chiamerà Butterfly dalla lontana.
Io senza dar risposta…
And down the peak the scenes ran in reverse. We eased down the monolithic peak at Le corniche and not far off La prada, then the familiar Le Port de l’Orient. Monuments unto monuments. Soon they’ll make all monuments to better monuments, more articulate and perfect in testament to their art, each a better reflection of expression and aesthetic than the last.
Me ne starò nascosta
un po’ per celia…
“Your grandfather went to the war, didn’t he?” asked Lain.
E un po’ per non morire
al primo incontro…
“He was part of the Resistance,” I said. “What that means to me, to the French, is that he refused to serve good food to the enemies. They didn’t get the true Parisian experience. That whole story, the burning of the theatre, that was blamed on soldiers. I think my father burnt it down.”
“My grandmother, or my grandfather,” I said, “they hated running the place. My grandmother was insulted by it all. Working in a theatre, you really get to see the depravity of people. You think you know?”
“I’m American,” he said.
“So your father burnt it down?”
“You said your father burnt it down,” he said.
“No, well, my grandfather. I think he burnt it down. For attention.”
“No press is bad press,” he said. He let the matter rest.
Ed egli alquanto in pena
The sun came up behind them, the monuments, each more ghostly in the dark. It looked much better, backlit by the sun, each new light that fell upon it spoiled the view. And the lonely port was getting busy, at least busier, and then where we started along the row of façades, one after the other, Vallan des Auffres. So exclusive, still no one there. How different everything is in different light!
I nomi che mi dava al suo venire.
Tutto questo avverrà
te lo prometto…
“Are you tired?” I asked.
“Not really,” he said. “I hate to say it, but it–wasn’t it–it was inspirational. That whole thing, wasn’t it? Theatre-lens: the audience is forced to watch, like Alex from A Clockwork Orange, with their eyes pride-open with little lid-locks. The whole theatre, crazy. I’ll never forget it.”
“I wish we could hold an audience like that,” I said. Poor taste, but true. “You have to exaggerate the violence just to keep them awake now.”
“‘Too many notes, too many notes.'”
Tienti la tua paura,
io con sicura fede l’aspetto…
The sun was up now, and with it the sea its wild hair tussling, breaking at the helms of ships and swimmers, the Catalan, it had been black but blue now, light and clear. Little skiffs were on the water, boats, some modest and quite old. Kids playing along on old wooden piers, dangerous really, and such a drop off. A line of homes and cobblestone. Smoke rising into the air, the birds were up and singing. Lain was asleep, the sun catching the top of his dirty-brown hair, that sleep-crust in his eyes, that big bottom lip. An insane little drunken angel, my Alain. And he timed that song that way, Madame Butterfly…
There was nothing to see but the view.