No one gives up words except to get out of hell

The one good thing about being in Paris is Matthieu, Leo’s grandson, though I’m sure he doesn’t know what to make of me. When the little boy chatters in French he seems to think I understand him. He hasn’t met many people who don’t speak his language. I’m a New Yorker, have never mastered French, but then again I rarely speak English. I rarely speak at all.

I shouldn’t be in this crowded city. But Leo, my mother’s brother, lives here, and he and my mother think that if I get the right therapy I can live a “normal” life, have friends, perhaps even marry and father children. It’s laughable that my mother turns to this man as if he could be remotely helpful. Leo may be a psychiatrist, but he is as helpful as a paintbrush whose bristles have been cut off.

Leo sports a full beard on his round ruddy face, aspiring, I suppose, to look the part of a distinguished psychiatrist. He’s a heavy man and I am a small man, too small I have always felt, but next to Leo I feel like a shadow. A graceful shadow. My mother, Cora, would not approve if she could hear my thoughts.

She is convinced that the core of everything that is wrong on the planet is people not feeling good about themselves. But Mother doesn’t realize she is a prime example of someone suffering from low self-esteem. I think of my mother as a younger sister I must protect even as she tries to get help for me.

Yesterday she insisted on going to the Pompidou Centre. I could simply have refused but Leo is such a bully I wanted us both to get away from the apartment. Just as we entered the museum, I turned and walked out and Mother had to follow. I just couldn’t be in a room with so many people at that moment. Or with paintings. Sorry, Mother. Sometimes paintings are deafening.

Today when we return from the market, Leo is angry. He likes his large meal served at noon. Apparently he has been delaying le déjeuner until we returned. Did Mother forget to tell him her plans? Luckily Matthieu is here. Matthieu, this handsome boy with blond hair and golden-brown eyes, has a brilliant smile. He steadies the spinning room.

Leo asks me how I am. I nod. I have hardly spoken for thirty years. Surely he does not expect me to become a raconteur. I told Mother when I was four that I did not like speaking, and true to my word, or my non words, I rarely engage in conversation.

Mother bought vegetables and fish and sweets at the market and at six she tells Leo she will cook dinner. But mon oncle has dinner at eight and will not deviate from his schedule.

“Surely you can wait,” he tells her when she says she is hungry. She nods and sits down, breaking off a piece of bread and then another. Poor Mother. I can go for hours without eating but Mother needs to eat often. I only eat food that is green or white. Rice, tofu, collard greens, parsley. Nothing red. Nothing orange.

Matthieu, on the other hand, is a great eater. He eats everything my mother and uncle serve—kidneys, olives, cracked wheat, whitefish, roe. Bring it on, Matthieu’s smile says. If I weren’t so nauseated by it all I’d applaud. Of course he too, though he is only eight, has to wait for dinner.

As the meal comes to an end Leo tells Matthieu that he should stop nibbling bread and do his homework. Does a boy that young have homework? He is reading Rougemuraille: Le Fils de Luc, a story of a mouse who has a series of adventures. This seems like a fine book for a young boy to be reading, but Leo is not happy. He thinks his grandson should be challenging himself with a more difficult text. I do not have to understand their exchange to hear Leo’s words are harsh, sandpaper chafing delicate skin.

Leo never married but he did father a daughter. Matthieu is here because Leo’s daughter had to go away on business. NO, I want to shout. Don’t leave your son with Leo. But Matthieu’s mother is not around to hear. And I am not a man who shouts.

Mother lets Leo pour her a glass of wine at dinner these days. She said no when we first got here, but he wore her down. She does not do well with wine, but Leo, a wine connoisseur, dislikes drinking alone. Besides, he wants to educate her. Tonight when she gets up to bring dishes to the sink, she makes the mistake of carrying too much and drops a glass. Leo is furious.

“You have always been clumsy,” Leo proclaims, his large face turning redder than usual. “I know you aren’t able to replace this expensive crystal.”

When Mother entreats me, the next day, to go to another museum, the d’Orsay, I take pity on her. She thinks this show will enrich me. It is an exhibit of Van Gogh as well as Artaud’s reaction to his work. Mother lets me know, in her evasive way, that Artaud was a loony like me. Nine years in the bin.

In the museum I read Artaud’s words: “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.” I can add, no one gives up words, except to get out of hell.

Artaud says of Van Gogh’s work, “I prefer the landscapes of this quiet, convulsive man to the swarming compositions of Bruegel the Elder or Hieronymus Bosch.” Yes. Well. But Bosch has a lovely view of things, doesn’t he.

My uncle is meticulous about his apartment. We must hang our coats in the closet a certain way, place the dishes and mugs in the cupboard following exact specifications. When I shave I must make sure to clean the sink very well; my uncle gives me a shiny silver sponge to use.

He tells Mother where she should go tomorrow, to some museum or other, but she has other plans. She is going to Montmartre. When she says she’ll walk up to the Sacré-Cœur he says why do that, why not take the funicular that goes right up the hill? But non, she wants to walk, she says as he scowls. Why does she bother telling her brother her plans?

Mother has bought Leo an expensive book he requested from the States, and she had to make a trip to the bookstore downtown to pick it up.

“Ah, it’s a good price,” he says when he looks at the sticker.

Good price for him, certainly, as he never reimburses her. She once said, “When Leo asks me to get him something, I want to say, you have more money than I do; get it yourself. And then I think, what if he were to die tomorrow? Wouldn’t I regret not getting him what he wanted? Besides, he must feel deprived in some way if he keeps asking for gifts.” That’s how my mother thinks. And maybe she feels she owes him. When my father left, Leo helped us get by, paying for groceries and rent until my mother got work. But that was decades ago.

Matthieu is allowed to come with us for the day and though we weren’t planning to go to a museum, we come across the Musée d’Art Naïf, in the Halle St. Pierre, an unexpected stroke of fortune. Art here is by men and women who were in insane asylums, in prison, artists who painted in shabby apartments and whose work was discovered only after they died. My brothers and sisters! Artaud was talking about these very artists. Everyone has their own particular hell but these artists painted their way, step by step, toward an open window to breathe the air.

There is an exhibit of carved matches here, each with a different face and outfit and each figure carved out of a single wooden match! Vraiment! After seeing these minute carvings, Matthieu and I are elated. The match has come into its power. Matthieu cannot stop staring at the delicate faces carved into the tiny pieces of wood. I too am thinking about their astonishing expressions as we eat lunch in a café and later as we climb the three hundred and forty steps to the Sacré-Cœur.

Mother, Matthieu and I sit in the back row and listen as nuns sing from the choir. How good Matthieu is, quietly listening. A kind, curious boy. I smile at an old woman who walks past. I smile because I see how beautiful she is and how astonishing it is to be alive in the world. She looks surprised and suspicious as she walks on. But she has to pass by once more from the other side of the church as she returns, and when I smile at her again she smiles back. Tentatively, but she smiles. This time she must see that I smile from reverence. For what? I ask myself. Well, for life, I suppose. Matthieu has been smiling the entire time.

When we return to the apartment Leo tells Mother that his colleague will see me in two days. Then he turns to Matthieu who is leaning down playing with the cat and scolds him. What did Matthieu do now that Leo disapproves of? Leo’s tone alone is enough to sink me.

It turns out it wasn’t the way Matthieu handled the cat that was the problem, Mother tells me when Leo leaves the room. Leo wants Matthieu to practise his violin. Leo seems to think the boy is lazy.

When Leo returns he has Matthieu’s violin which he hands to the boy. He asks him to play scales. He sits across from his grandson, listens intently, then tells him to start over. My mother says, “In Suzuki practice isn’t the adult supposed to play violin with the child?”

“This isn’t Suzuki, Cora,” Leo scowls. “Don’t talk about that of which you know nothing.”

I can’t understand how Matthieu’s mother can leave her son with Leo, even if he is her father. Then Mother tells me that Leo’s daughter hardly knows him. When Leo was a student at the Sorbonne he impregnated a young woman on the cleaning staff. He supported the child after she was born but had little contact with her or her mother. After the girl’s mother died and after Matthieu was born, she sought Leo out. She too is a single parent.

The next day, Leo gives my mother the address of his colleague, who he is certain can help me. He gives Mother careful instructions how to get there and Mother decides we should go to the vicinity right away so she will be able to find her way the following morning. Then we go to the d’Orsay to look at the Van Gogh exhibit again.

My mother looks at these paintings the way a child would, as if she could enter Starry Night over the Rhône and sit down by the water, bundled in a warm coat, and look up at the heavens. I read that when Van Gogh felt a great need for God’s consolation, he went out at night and painted stars. My mother looks at paintings for the same reason. At the exhibit, she stares at a drawing Van Gogh did of a horse and carriage. My mother’s face is lined as if invisible horses have made tracks around the curve of her mouth and over and over into the deep folds of her neck, horses that are dragging her into the dust.

But I am the one who is old. I don’t believe in anything or anyone. Was it Van Gogh who said, you are old only if you love no one but yourself. What if even loving oneself exceeds one’s capacity?

Matthieu is wiser than my mother or me. As far as I can see, Matthieu loves everyone.

My mother has the guest room in the apartment and Leo of course has the master bedroom. I am put in the only room available, the room with bunk beds that Matthieu uses when he stays over. I am on the bottom bunk. I like hearing the boy breathing softly. When he is sleeping, he is safe. That is what I think at first. But tonight he starts screaming. His voice quivers with distress. He is moaning and calling out, “Jean Pierre.”

I get up. I climb the ladder and lean over and touch his shoulder.

“Jean Pierre,” he calls to me, his eyes wild. Who is Jean Pierre? I nod. I rub his shoulder. But he will not be soothed.

I knock on Mother’s door for help but she does not wake. It is Leo who comes into the room to see what the problem is. I tell him what Matthieu said. Leo is calm, his voice composed as he talks to Matthieu. As-tu eu un cauchemar? Soon Matthieu settles down. When Leo leaves I go back to bed.

In the morning at breakfast Leo explains that Matthieu wasn’t saying, “Jean Pierre.” And here my uncle laughs. “Matthieu was saying, ‘J’ai peur—I am afraid.’”

Poor little guy. My uncle talks to the boy and I hear my name. Leo is explaining the error I made. And then Matthieu says, “Oui, j’ai dit Jean Pierre.” Even I understand that he is telling his grandfather that I was right, he did say, “Jean Pierre!” Sweet, loyal boy.

Tonight I am restless. Tomorrow is the appointment with the great doctor. This doctor will probably suggest new medications and again the experiments with dosage will begin. What else can he do? He cannot make me two or three again, when the world was new and I was talking with pleasure. He cannot make me tall and handsome or cure my baldness. He cannot help me draw with more skill or miraculously bestow in me a talent for painting.

I wake early next morning before the others are up and tap Matthieu on the shoulder. I motion for him to get out of bed. We dress together. And then he follows me out the front door. It is so simple. I am rescuing him.

We stop at a boulangerie and have coffee and croissants. Matthieu is in good spirits. I don’t know if he has had coffee before but I add a lot of sugar and milk. And the croissant is filled with chocolate.

I am taking him to the Pompidou Centre. There is an exhibit of Magritte’s work: The Treachery of Images. Matthieu will like Magritte. But first we will go to Notre-Dame. We’ll climb until we get to the top of the tower. We’ll walk around the ledge. It will be good to look at the city from that height. And to be closer to the stars, even if we can’t see them.



Carole Glasser Langille is the author of four books of poetry, two collections of short stories and two children's books. Her non-fiction book, Doing Time, about giving writing workshops in a prison in Nova Scotia, will be published in Fall 2019. She lives in Black Point, NS.


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