It was getting late in the day. They were walking along the Quai de la Tournelle just down the Seine from Notre Dame. It was January and the trees had no leaves. There was a dusting of snow everywhere, the sidewalks, the steps down from the Quai to the Seine, the stalls, they were all covered in a light snow. They walked up to the railing to see up and down the Quai and look across the Seine to the Ile St. Louis.
The Quais are elevated walkways that run the length of the river. The entire city of Paris is raised. The streets and bridges of the city are 50 feet higher than the river itself. From a Quai, you could actually see the river beneath you; walk down stone steps to its banks, wander the length of the Seine and under the bridges. The banks of the river under the bridges always seemed a sinister place. It was often foggy and smelt of stale beer. In the evenings, street musicians would gather under the bridges and play drums. Whenever he watched them it made him think of Henry Miller and other sinister Parisians.
Along the Quais, however, it was a different matter altogether. They weren’t sinister at all. There were beautiful tree-lined streets that ran the length of the main artery of Paris. On one side, you could look down to the Seine or across to the opposite bank of the city; on the other side (at Tournelle) were old ornate Parisian townhomes. Six stories made of cream stone with black roofs. Ornate like slices of wedding cake. Running all along the riverside were the bouquinistes.
The bouquinistes are vendors that have sold from stalls along the river for centuries. Originally they sold Protestant pamphlets from green, metal cabinets hiding from the Catholic authorities. During the Nazi occupation they hid books for aristocrats so that the Nazis wouldn’t get rare treasures. There are hundreds throughout the city. Some sell old volumes of French literature, some almanacs and dictionaries, some even sell old comics from the 1950s. He loved the juxtaposition of standing in front of Notre Dame and reading The Green Lantern. At night the 200 olive green cabinets were closed and locked up making the center of Paris look like a US army barracks.
Susan reminisced. “Jay used to like going to old bookstores. In Philly while he was still at Penn, he liked the old anatomy books, like ‘Da Vinci drawings’ old. I’d go through photography books from the 40s and 50s.”
“That sounds nice.”
They strolled through the stalls and thumbed the old chapped volumes.
“Hey look” he said “Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge”
“I like Rilke”
“But I’ve got that one.”
“How do you pronounce that?” he asked.
“I have no idea,” she laughed.
He opened to the first page. “Paris is where people go to die,” he read. “Sounds cheery.”
“Oh, it sure is. Ooh, check that out.”
They crossed from a stall that had old leather-bound literature to one that had ancient maps. They were all set out in large flip bins.
“Here there be dragons… can I ask what happened to Jay?”
“What happened to Jay?” she repeated almost absentmindedly, tracing the coastline of Singapore with her finger on a map. “Jay got sick and didn’t get better.”
‘But you said he did it himself, did he have something terminal?”
“No, he was just, he was a doctor, sort of, had just started his residency. He pushed himself a lot through med school, not so much through college where we met, but the more he kept pushing himself, the less positively his body reacted, or his mind I guess. The less positively his mind reacted.”
“Did he become depressed?”
“Sometimes. Sometimes he’d get depressed. Sometimes he’d get violent.”
“No, not really, never physically or anything. He ripped a phone out of a wall once. I was around for that. That upset me but he just kept…drifting further and further away…”
“Sorry, we don’t have to…”
“Yeah, we don’t. Hey, look, chestnuts. Let’s get chestnuts.”
At the bridge, a vendor was roasting chestnuts out of an old oil drum with a fire burning in it and a tin plate over the top. A North African man stood close by tending the fire and calling out “Marrons, marrons!” to passersby.
“Deux, s’il vous plait.” She said when they got up to him. The vendor scooped out two orders into warm wax paper bags.
“One for monsieur.” Said the man. “And one for the jolie fille.” Susan smiled at him. “Your wife is very beautiful” the man complimented Susan.
“Yes.” he answered “but she is not my wife, but merci. Merci, monsieur.”
Susan had gone ahead to the Pont de la Tournelle and after walking down it partway stopped and leaned over the railing looking towards the Pont Neuf. She smiled as she enjoyed her snack.
“These are good,” she said.
“Yeah, they are. Look, sorry about that. It’s not my place to ask and I should have said something to that guy…”
“Don’t worry about it,” she smiled and leaning over kissed him on the cheek. “It’s my problem. I’m the one who told you about it, anyway.” He turned away from her and followed her gaze upriver towards Notre Dame. The two of them spent the next several minutes there in silence, shoulder to shoulder, snacking, looking out over the Seine and watching the sightseeing boats going up and down the river as the sun began setting.
“Do you know these boats?” he asked “The bateaux-mouches?”
The Bateaux-Mouches were sightseeing boats that ran up and down the Seine. They were wider than most boats, completely flat across the bow, like a barge. They were covered with tables and chairs, a floating patio. There was usually a large, Plexiglass room in the middle of the deck where sightseers could sit in the cold or rain instead of being out at the café tables. They ferried visitors up and down the river, in winter and summer, during the day and into the evening. The sliced through the canyons and valleys of the quais illuminating the walls of the city and its ancient monuments at night with an army of floodlights fixed along the boat from stem to stern.
“No, I don’t.” she answered.
“They’re those long flat boats there, see. ‘Fly Boats’” One was coming towards them a few bridges down, passing under the Pont Napoleon. “They’re sightseeing boats. You can see everything like a fly on a wall. Clever, huh? Now is the perfect time to see them, too.” The sun was almost set. The streetlights had come on, shopkeepers had lit their lamps and the floodlights of the Bateaux-Mouches had been illuminated.” Come here, I want you to see this. Do you want to?”
Susan followed him back to the Quai de La Tournelle. The bouquinistes were still open and would be for hours, even in the winter. They crossed the street and he found a bench.
“OK, this looks pretty good. Let’s sit here.” From their vantage point across the street, you could see directly across the river over to the Ile St. Louis, but the Seine was hidden, the streets of the quais being elevated. If you had never been to Paris before and were sitting on their bench, there was no way you could have known that on the other side of the street the Seine was tucked away, hidden under the quai and silently flowing under the bridges past the drum circles.
“OK, now just sit here a second, you’ll see when it passes.” He put his arm around her and they sat for a short time and waited. Slowly a dim disc of light began to creep in from the corner of their view. The edges of the tree branches upriver were gently lit at first, described, drawn into sharp contrast with the night that was rapidly falling around them. Then they gradually became washed out; diffused by the brightness. The details of individual branches were made obscure by the floodlights. Across the river the walls and roofs of all the homes that faced out onto the Seine were suddenly plucked from darkness and completely visible. Shutters, windows, plants, rain gutters. Every detail of the first two floors was placed under unyielding scrutiny by the light, gradually dimming and relenting as you reached the higher floors. The closer to the Seine however, the more scalding the light. It went from illuminating to obscuring it was so bright. The walls of the Quai on the far side of the river lost all color, clarity and distinction. Everything was washed in such an overwhelming light that it became hidden. The bateaux-mouches conspired to keep these details of Paris secret. Fly on the wall, indeed! Onlookers from either Quai turned away as the boat passed underneath them, unable to differentiate anything in its passing. He and Susan, however from their vantage point on the other side of the street, were able to look directly at the bright light. Witnessing the illumination from below at a safe remove they could take in every detail and were able to see something that the blinded passersby on the quai could not. As the boat passed in front of them, it illuminated, then obscured first the trees, then the homes. However, as the light began to recede and the boat passed by them, it was neither the homes nor the trees that were initially returned to view. The first thing that they were able to see was the shadows of the trees upon the walls of the homes across the river. A massive forest of negative space, 50 foot tall black trees slowly traversing the length of the Ile St Louis. Black Nightmares from Wizard of Oz that lay hidden under the bridges with Henry Miller, liberated briefly by the passing of the boats, then once they glided the length of the island they slowly disappeared. The countryside of the townhomes that they terrorized gradually coming back into view, then their terrestrial cousins that spawned them from the other side of the river. Then the boat was gone, the entire nightmare scene and the Quai de la Tournelle was returned once again to an urbane boulevard where independent sellers hawked antique books.
“Wow.” Susan said.
“Isn’t that cool? I was walking to work last week and saw one of them coming and had to stop. Nothing’s more important than this, I thought. Nothing else I should be doing and nowhere else that I’d rather be than here on this bench in Paris, watching a sightseeing boat light up my city from below. I was late but watched the entire scene as the boat passed. ”
“You just got that job!”
“It reminds me of those scenes from alien movies, like Close Encounters, when the spaceship lands and the deserted country road is washed-out with bright white light and someone gets abducted. I wonder, when I watch them pass by if anyone was taken, or if anyone wanted to be taken.”
There was a group of old bums across the street sitting on the steps that ran down to the river, three old men with unkempt beards in tattered coats and gloves.
“Like those three over there” he mused “they must see those boats pass by 50 times a night. Do they want to be abducted? When the boats pass and the light floods in so bright they can no longer tell they’re in Paris do they say ‘Take me out of here. Take this ratty old coat and this bottle of fortified wine and leave them here on the side of the river but let me come with you.”
They sat for a while in silence. Night had now completely fallen.
“Why did no one take us?” Wondered Susan.
Kyle McCluskey is 41 and lives in Chicago. He studied creative writing under Kyle Beachy.