It was a pilgrimage to Paris, one that he carried out with the blind purpose of a sleepwalker, dragging the valise with his thirty-two-and-a-half possessions, in his fist the slip of paper scrawled with a vanishing hand: 111 rue des Dames.
--Ask her, said the wide-jawed woman speckled with moles (some authentic) when he inquired as to which train to board.
--Seven francs for one! But I'll give you two for fifteen! conceded the shrill Indian mother, children emerging from the folds of her sari, selling bracelets bent from bright yellow ticket stubs.
The Algerian girl stared concertedly past him.
--The man in the window may know, said the first woman, generously.
--The one in the uniform, advised the windowed one, pointing.
--I don't work here, said the man in the uniform, surprised and slightly offended.
--This is it, the conductor concluded. --One way or round trip?
--One way, said Gilles.
He stared out the window for three hours. In the glass, in the tunnels that pass beneath bridges, his face slid in next to him, regarded him with a dazed look of recognition.
It was a still night in which things clarified themselves: arguments, a star's silver pulse in a lattice of leaf shadows. His apartment was a thirty-meter studio facing south and he walked into it to find his mother luminous and disembodied, eyes lolling, her head a giant hovering moon in the single room. He was very still. His lip pooled sweat. He did not understand how she had conjured this up: the black-and-white photograph hung high and squarely centered on the wall of the otherwise empty room. When had she sent it? Who had hung it? Why had he not noticed its vanishing from the foyer of the house in Villefranche? He was overcome with an immense anguished relief. That night, he was too exhausted to sleep. He balanced on the edge of his suitcase and, patiently and with complete devotion, waited-- for her to blink, speak, loosen her hair, to inform him that he'd only been dreaming, to assure him that it was in truth he who was dead. In the early light of the day of his new beginning, he found himself sinking, not waiting, his hand still wrapped round the bit of paper, achingly alive.
It is clear now, as one dreaming a problem may discover its radius and navigability, a misspelling tired eyes traversed repeatedly over. Steadied by conviction, he lifts the photograph from its silver hook and lays it on the mattress, floats the dust with the silk square. His mother, gradually, shimmers.
He must do it properly; the presentation of a gift is often as important as the gift itself. Giddy with the knowledge of the joy in wait for his unsuspecting neighbor, he chooses a liter of milk from the unexpired column, and a fresh white candle. He chuckles to himself. Some send roses, he thinks, fully confident that, being an American, she will appreciate innovation. He tiptoes into the hallway and, kneeling, goes to work. He positions photograph against milk box, a few meters from her door, and angled to direct its subject's gaze straight into the face of, for example, a young upright American flat-shoed female. His mother has marvelous bone structure; he lights the candle to emphasize this, leaving it by the bottom right corner of the wooden frame.
It is that unsuspecting hour, neither night nor day, when dreams reveal dreams and the earth, humbly stripped of man, unveils its secret love and sings openly back to the moon. In Boston, it is 10:30 pm.
He sounds her doorbell once, then again. Silence. Once more, and again.
--Who's there, her voice calls, mystified with sleep.
--Who is it?-- More alert now. The low moan of hinges; he can picture her sitting up in a tangle of sheets. --Tell me who's there.
He taps again, slips back through his door and clicks it quietly into place. Through his peephole he watches her door sliver open. He can just make out his mother's fickle smile; her lip curves and drops, curves and drops in the flickering light.
--Who, says Angela, her glance falling upon the woman watching her undistractedly from below. --Oh dear god.
She is a vision, Angela, in something sleeveless and fading. Her arms are crossed over her chest like one whose heart is overfull , her face luminous, nearly, as that of the other. To witness their meeting is nothing less than magic for Gilles. In this infinite hour, he sees something resolving itself--in the light that dances the two faces together, in the way they cannot take their eyes off each other. A visceral logic permeates the scene; he feels a saint who, knees bruised with prayer, falls upon a proof.
--Oh dear god, she repeats, blowing out the candle. The scene switches off. Song of a door opening and shutting, and hurried footsteps. A secret shadow, he parallels her movements on his side and, upon hearing a prolonged creaking, sets his ear to the length of wall by which she is surely now sitting in bed.
--Oh, he hears. --Oh oh oh.
He wakes early, refreshed, the breadth of his triumph settled upon him during the night like a fine pollen. He casts off the yellow robe and, scrubbed and bideted, negotiates his way into a crisp Tuesday suit (albeit, in a spirit of adventure bordering on sheer recklessness, coupled with a Monday tie.) He staggers the papers in the briefcase. There is much to be done today but first he must make a quick call--it will take just a minute.
--Bonjour, he says. --Très bien, I am so glad I caught you before the commute.
--What? Who? Ah, yes. What is it? You seem so serious.
--Yes, well, I have a bit of news.
--Oh, of course, of course, it's only logical.
--Class will be canceled today.
--Oh, goodness, what has happened?
--The building, says Gilles, --is on fire.
-- Mon dieu!
--Yes, but relax. Assume a comfortable position. No one is hurt. A janitor narrowly escaped with six brooms and a dustpan and a small black cat was seen exiting by the cafeteria door. That's all. But the disarray. It may take days, weeks even until we are in order again.
--Mon dieu, I cannot imagine.
--Of course not, says Gilles.
--No, no, of course not. But do tell me how this has come to pass--?
--Cause unknown. Some say the electrical panel in the kitchenette blew. Others, a cigarette. But my guess-- Gilles lowers his voice --is that it was an inside job.
--And further --oh, perhaps I should not say.
--No no, please do!
--Very well. Between you and me, and take this as you will, the fire began in the mathematics department.
--The fire began in the mathematics department!
-- Exactly. Understand that for a while it will not be safe to be anywhere in the vicinity, especially for those of your discipline.
--Yes, yes, of course, I understand.
--A sorry state of affairs.
--A sorry state of affairs, indeed! Do let me know if I can be of any assistance, asbestos testing, consoling, construction. Sweeping.
--Of course, André.
--And thank you, Félix, for calling.
--De rien, says Gilles. --Try to get some sleep.
He hangs up and, briefcase in hand, tiptoes into the hallway, noting triumphantly that it is empty but for the package of milk.
The sun whispers its way to silver in the Paris grey, and on the rue des Dames and rue de Levis he is upright and efficient.
--Un pain au chocolat, he demands, proudly ordering just one.
--The best in Paris, says the shopgirl, rotund with authority, as she wraps the roll in opaque tissue.
--Your finest pencil, he says.
--And eleven more to go with it, the papeterie patron solemnly vows and, chin jutting, conjures a flat box from a deep drawer.
--Give me a haircut.
--And we'll trim that beard while we're at it, assures the barber, eager with sharp edges.
--Shine my shoes.
--Why should I? says the barber, lathering his hands.
Gilles grins. It is a joke after all; his buckled shoes are bright as the first and only other time he ever wore them, and box his feet now in a perfect fit.