Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Breakfast in Manosque

He checked into his pensione on the Rue Du Poete late after a long, tiring flight to Marseilles and an 85 km drive to Manosque. Too tired for dinner, he fell into the single bed, kicked off his shoes, and fell asleep. He woke at 2 am and again at 3 and 5 and gave up at 6, got up, and shedding clothes as he went, staggered into the shower.

He stood in front of the small mirror drying off, glad for the fogged glass. The last thing he wanted to see so early were his red eyes, receding hairline, and the scars he had running horizontally across his chest, as if he'd been the victim of a badly botched radical mastectomy. "Daniel, you are messed up," he said to the misty apparition appraising him from the other side of the glass.

There was no one about in the pensione at this hour of the morning, so he walked about the Manosque city center admiring the golds and pinks of a morning sky reflecting in the windows of the old city. After about 45 minutes, he found himself in a quaint little square with flower baskets hanging from the lamp posts, where a Cafe Des Negociants was just opening. The waiter was still setting up the outdoor tables. He said good morning and motioned Daniel to sit.

Daniel's French was not good, but the waiter appreciated him trying and rewarded him with a café au lait, warm croissant, bread and butter, and a tiny jar of strawberry jam. Daniel found himself enjoying his modest breakfast in this small square on a cool, sunny morning in the South of France. He bit into his second croissant. No one made the buttery, flakey roll as well as the French.

When he returned to his pensione, Mademoiselle Marie, who must have been the oldest 'mademoiselle' in Manosque, insisted that he have breakfast. In her fractured English she informed him that the breakfast came with the price of the room, emphasizing the point by vigorously fluffing out her apron. He hesitated to inform her that he'd already eaten somewhere else, and so he lied and said he was very late for his meeting at the Cadarache Research Centre. The Mademoiselle, glancing over her shoulder at the wall clock, looked at him suspiciously. Daniel knew what she was thinking, Someone in France will be working at 8 am?

Making his excuses about showering, finding his way on unfamiliar roads, reviewing his papers for the meeting, and several other things at which Mademoiselle Marie puffed her breath out in scorn, retreated to his room. Even though he'd already showered, he felt compelled by some twisted sense of morality to do so again. By the time he'd dressed and walked down stairs with briefcase in hand, his arrival hour at Cadarache after the 50 minute drive would seem to be reasonable. His meeting however, wasn't until 1400.

As Daniel made to say au revoir, one French expression with which he felt fairly comfortable, Mademoiselle Marie handed him a small basket and said, "Le petit déjeuner."

Daniel drove up Chemin Docheur Gerard Durbet to Mont d'Or, parked, and ate his second breakfast under an olive tree while admiring the view of the Durance River. He could make out Av. de la Liberation below, and the A51 that would take him to Cadarache, where he would learn about the ITER fusion center's work to help meet mankind's future energy needs. He fed bread to a pair of European Goldfinch, and then left for his drive to Cadarache.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

What a wonderful writer is Ann Patchett. I'm about in the middle of her new book, State of Wonder, and am struck by her ability to place the reader smack dab in the jungle city of hot, sticky, buggy Manaus, in the Amazon of Brazil. Patchett combines her skill at atmosphere, with an unerring eye for humanity, creating characters, whether pleasant or unpleasant, that are fully developed and full of all the baggage that forms them as human beings. Patchett adorns her characters with both the physical accouterments of who they are, but also the mannerisms, speech patterns, and utterances of who they've become. Add to these impressive skills her superb story telling, and you have Ann Patchett and her wonderful, State of Wonder.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Excerpt from The Lion and the Sun

Diplomats, attaches, military assistance advisory group personnel, field agents, and other government foreign workers are taught to vary their routine in order to make it more difficult for potential adversaries, especially terrorists to kill or capture them. I was trained to do this. My training was decades old. My mind was elsewhere. I left for my morning jog from the same side entrance of my Istanbul hotel every day, thinking how clever I was to sneak by the horde of street vendors.

From The Lion and the Sun, a Novel

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The Snowman

Everyone’s glad the snowman died
With his feet so high in the air
In the startled air
By the scream

By the standing scream
Shaking the night
Catching its breath
In the dome of its sky

The snowman dead in his cold
In the ice of his heart
The tomb of his sob
Deep in his throat

Bring flowers
To die in the ice
When the ice in the night
Melts in the dome of its sky
How cold the snowman died
So lonely 
Alone in the tomb of his sob
The cry in the ice of his heart

The cry in the ice of his heart
With his feet so high in the air
In the startled air
By the scream

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Excerpt from The Lion and the Sun

Conte called Chrissy about 2330 Vienna time. Still early evening US Eastern Standard Time. She answered on the first ring -- a simple, “Hello.”
Conte pictured her in the kitchen, standing at the counter, a bottle of water in her hand, looking like a professional model wearing the latest in yuppie hiking togs. She had outdoor looks, and ballroom grace and beauty.
“Hi, Chrissy, it’s Dan.”
At least a couple of beats before she responded. “Hello, Dan. Sarah told me you called. How are you?”
“I’m okay, honey. Listen, I’m really sorry about the way things went down. As soon as I get back--”
“I know you’re sorry, Dan. You don’t mean for things to happen the way they do, but they happen anyway.” The tone of her voice ate away at Conte. She sounded so… defeated.
“Honey, we’ll work things out. This was just something I couldn’t get around.”
“Dan, face it, you’ve always had things come up that you can’t get around. This isn’t any different than a hundred other times.”
“Chrissy, I--”
“I don’t blame you, Dan, really. But I can’t deal with it anymore. I’m angry and bitter all the time. I don’t want to be that way.”
Conte squeezed his eyes shut. He couldn’t muster the energy to respond. He didn’t know what to tell her. ‘I love you,’ would sound hollow. But he did love her. He just knew that she was right.
There was a long silence. Then she said, “I’ve filed for divorce, Dan.”
“And I’m seeing someone.” The last statement blurted out. She needed to get it off her chest. Her conscience was bothering her. Conte wondered if Sarah knew. Sure she knew.
“It doesn’t matter who. That’s not the point.”
“Well, what is the point?”
“The point is, it’s over. That’s the point.”
Conte took a deep breath. Chrissy was being emotional. He wanted to reason things out. He was good at reasoning. Relationships? That was a different matter.
“Listen Chrissy, we can still work this out. Let’s give it a shot. I’ll be back in a few weeks. Can’t we wait that long?”
“Dan, you’re not listening. I’ve filed for divorce. You’ll find the papers when you get back. Find yourself a lawyer. I have one.”
A lawyer, for Christ sake! Just what he needed. Conte clenched his teeth.
“So who is it, Chrissy?
“It’s someone that’s here, Dan. Someone that’s been here. Unlike you.”
“God damn it, Chrissy. You think I wanna be gone all the frigging time. You’re punishing me because of my job, for crying out loud!”
There was a long silence. Conte wasn’t sure that Chrissy was still on the line. Then he heard her voice come across the line low and slow, “Dan, there’s no point in us having this conversation. It’s not getting us anywhere. What’s done is done.”
“Are you sleeping with this guy?
“Dan --”
Conte yelled into the phone, “Who is it?”
“Jim, if you have to know. And yes, I’m sleeping with him.”
James O. ‘Jim’ Buchanan, her boss, congressman for the eighth district. A guy whose only qualification for office was unbridled ambition. The type of person that gives the term ‘politician’ a pejorative connotation.
“Jesus, Chrissy, can’t you do better than that? He’s a superficial son of a bitch…a real cipher. He’s just the fucking image you made up for him. He must be good in bed.” Conte heard the catch in his voice. His cheeks were wet. He hated that he was crying. He hated what he was saying.
Chrissy’s voice was filled with anger and contempt. “The point is, he’s in my bed. You’re not!”
“Well, not only yours,” Conte spit out.
The line went dead. Conte took the phone away from his ear and looked at it. Chrissy isn’t the type who needs to get in the last word, especially when dealing with an asshole like me.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Jesus Out to Sea

Jesus Out to Sea is a collection of short stories by James Lee Burke. Crime fiction fans may be familiar with Burke's, Dave Robicheaux novels, which stand out as much for Burke's wonderful descriptions of the Louisiana bayou, as they do for the tight story telling. But my guess is that few will have read his short stories, which is a shame because they reflect the same craft, as well as Burke's astounding range of characters and milieu. Burke's lyrical prose is always a treat to read, whatever his subject.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Dreaming Hair

Walker made his way carefully across Tiefer Graben towards the friseure. Traffic along the street was bumper-to-bumper and horns blared as impatient drivers waited to move through the intersection.
Cars were parked willy-nilly all along the block, including on the corner of the sidewalk. A woman walked her dog along the curb, talking to the little long-haired Dachshund about doing his toilet. The dog seemed otherwise inclined.
Walker waited until woman and dog passed and then stepped up to the building. As he did so, he saw his reflection appear in the large, plate glass window of the hair salon, just under the sign that said, ‘Dreaming Hair.’
“They probably meant to say, Dreamy Hair,” he said, to himself. He shielded his eyes and peered into the salon, trying to see around the large potted plant that sat on the window counter. There appeared to be just one styling chair in the shop. It looked like the pilot’s chair in a Startrek movie.
The chair was turned away from the window so that Walker saw the stylist from the back. She had hair clippers and was running them up the back of the person’s head completing what appeared to be a buzz cut.
Walker turned and walked through a short side alley and into the salon. The stylist nodded to him, turned the chair, and motioned for him to take a sit. To Walker’s surprise, there was no one in the chair.
“I thought you had a customer,” Walker said to the stylist, a slender young woman, with straight black hair, heavy eye shadow, and black lipstick. The woman gave him what Walker considered an indulgent smile, and motioned again for him to sit.
As Walker sat in the chair he checked around the shop for the person he’d seen in the chair when he had looked in through the window. The salon was a sterile looking, small rectangular room with white walls and a white and black tile floor. The stylist’s work counter and sink ran against one wall. A large mirror hung over the work counter. Other than that, there were no furnishings of any kind, not even chairs for customers who might be waiting their turn.
The stylist turned the chair so that Walker faced the mirror above the stylist’s work counter. Her leather pants creaked as she moved behind him.
“Nicht zu kurz,” Walker told the stylist, which was close to the limit of his hair styling lexicon in German.
“Hmm,” the stylist said. Then began humming tunelessly, while readying her styling instruments.
Walker looked at the stylist’s reflection in the mirror. She was totally absorbed sorting though scissors, clippers, and combs. Walker was struck by the woman’s pale, almost white complexion. Was it makeup? He shifted his gaze to the shop behind him and to the philodendron, and beyond it to the window. He saw a man peering into the salon. He sat up and leaned forward for a better look. The man looking in the window was him.
“Wait!” he said to the stylist, who had just turned on her clippers and brought them to the back of his head. Walker jumped from the chair and ran out of the salon and around the corner to the front of the shop. There was no one at the window. He walked across Tiefer Graben and looked up and down the busy street.
“I’m seeing things,” Walker said to himself.
Walker made his way back across Tiefer Graben towards the friseure. The woman with the little long-haired Dachshund was still there talking to her dog.
Walker stepped up to the salon and shielding his eyes, peered through the window, trying to see around the philodendron. The chair was turned away from the window so that Walker saw the stylist from the back. She was running her hair clippers up the back of the person’s head who was now sitting in the chair.
“What the...!” Walker said, as he hurried back into the salon.
“Hey, I was getting my hair...,” Walker was saying as the woman turned the chair to face him. It was empty. She motioned for him to sit.
“I thought..., didn’t you...” Walker stammered.
The stylist gave him her artificial smile and motioned again for Walker to sit. She was humming her tuneless hum, sounding like the oscillation of alternating current.
Walker looked around the salon as he sat in the chair. Once again, he saw no one else in the salon. The stylist turned the chair to face the mirror and reached for her hair clippers. Walker immediately looked at the reflection of the salon window in the mirror. There he was again! Peering into the salon.
“What the hell!” Walker shouted, bolting from the chair and rushing outside to confront his doppelgänger.
But the result was the same. No evil double stalking him. The same woman walking the same toilet-resistant Dachshund, the chaos of the city all around him. Walker stood on the sidewalk scratching his head. Then walked back to the window of the salon and didn’t even think twice when he saw someone in the stylist’s seat. “That’s me,” he said, and turned and walked into the salon.

The stylist started humming and Walker said, “Nicht zu kurz” just as she pressed her clippers firmly against his neck and ran them up the back of his head.