Poppies Growing Through the Walls, Invariably
by Philip Kobylarz
Each morning the shutters must be opened, shutters that are as big and unwieldy as doors. Held back by hinged doorstop devices attached to the walls outside, each opening celebration is accompanied by a loud, painful creeeeeeaaaak in both the shutter’s hinge and the hinges of the body that’s doing the opening. When they’re opened, daylight and the city’s operetta of sound is welcomed. Shutters shut leave inhabitants with no idea of the conditions outside– hardly a drop of light is let in through them. Shutters caught in the wind can do thousands of francs of damage. Caretakers against the forces of weather, humans soon become the caretakers of shutters. The daily ritual of opening and nightly vespers of closing them gives one a sense of control over the greater powers that be just outside the molting window sills. Personae made by the architecture that frames them.
Will the chain pull toilet be working today? is always the question somewhere lurking in the worry lobes of the brain. Some of these devices have signs posted next to them “Do not pull hard”. The well of flushing water is raised seven feet above the seat. Lesser miracles are worked when its plumbing doesn’t leak on the occupant below. The bathroom’s pagan atmosphere is further exemplified by that other toilet seat never occupied for too long.
The bidet is the lower body’s sink. It may double for a basin to wash clothes in, a playful child’s urinal, a porcelain foot washing pool, or a temporary home for goldfish suffering the indignity of a bowl cleaning. Why Americans fear the bidet so is for the reason that it reminds us we don’t clean ourselves as resolutely as most of the rest of world does.
In the attic, the rain reservoir goes mostly unchecked, unthought of. When it storms, the roof not designed to be completely water tight, filters streamlets of rain into a concrete basin. The water is used either as a back up emergency supply or in very old buildings as a source. Hopelessly outdated they are nevertheless kept around because they are too cumbersome to remove.
The spillway built into the slightly tilted terrace empties as best it can into a drain pipe that on nights of parties inevitably gets emptied into by human rain storms. It’s too easy not to pee into. After a downpour or a cleansing by hose, graceful erosional sediments mimic the patterns of what sand naturally does at the beach: eddies undone, alluvial fans of windblown silt, birds’ feathers, leaves, the remains of pigeons’ late night snacks collect on the terrace and slowly spill in waterslides leaving signatures of gravity. Morraines of daily existence.
Skylights that in forgotten passageways to the roof’s upper terrace are rarely taken care of properly (cleaned) and the natural light they so freely give is taken for granted, filtered by dust and filmy layers of smoke. Hardly does anyone ever even look up at them to gauge the sky’s current current of blue, grayness, white. Encased in a bubble or behind a plane of glass as seen from the roof and a thin sheet on its underbelly (the ceiling of the room illuminated), these passages are limbolands for the collections of cobwebs, plaster mortified, and the occasional coin or child’s toy dropped from within the corps of the structure that superstitious builders deposited in the mortar for luck.
These skylight passageways hear generations of laughter, fights, and joy as they’re fogged over by countless clouds of cooking fumes while they’re only remembered or appreciated when, in their great age, they leak tears of having been forgotten. What they can see is the yellow and blueish glimmers of dwarf irises blooming in the hills that city dwellers consider “so far away”.
No one homE
An intersection Y-shaped. Billboards that change so often it’s hard to remember what they were advertising, but the face of the man who re-pastes it is like a friend’s. Glass closets of phone booths that serve a clientele around noon and then six o’clock. Sometimes there’s a line whose members can’t help themselves waiting, crushing cigarette butts with their heels, finally, tapping on the outside barrier to let a greedy caller know that it’s time to get out.
Just before the street breaks into a long lonely boulevard taken mostly by buses and drivers who, in speeding off to work, take the long way to avoid traffic, past a field growing lettuce and cabbage outlined with concrete irrigation canals, with sad apartments on either of the road’s sides, behind a crumbling wall, is a house.
No one lives in the house and the ground it occupies in its zoo cage of overgrown weeds, trees that have never been pruned, virgin patches of original grassiness that serve as a reminder of what has everywhere else been paved over. Bamboo grows out of control and is ripe with its fruit of discarded garbage. Butterflies spawn in humid shadiness, beauty like leaves in apotheosis.
The house looks nearly habitable: it still has its tile roof in tact, the walls aren’t in such ill repair, there’s a pile of bricks under a window waiting to help out, and someone has planted a tomato garden in a tame corner of its wilderness.
At night when I have the courage to leap the wall, I approach and knock on it’s sagging door. A cat leaps out the window almost taking flight. I rummage through the refuse inside, with a flashlight, searching for evidence of why I am there.
She wonders what life is like in Kansas today. If trees still grow stories high above the white farmhouse whose floors are in a slump and whose eaves are inhabited by more birds than her brother could ever hope to pick off with his BB gun. She wonders if cows are standing at the fence as they are wont to, waiting to have what’s left of the vegetables and skins of fruit delivered to them just for their big wet pink noses asking. She wonders if Joséphine will be at the boucherie four thousand three hundred miles from where her thoughts are today so that she might ask her as she does every other day for the plumpest rôtiserrie chicken which she’ll share over the next few days with her dog who in its old age must pee on newspapers carpeting the halls of the three-tiered house. She wonders what she’ll do this season for money: be a tour guide for some sporadic wealthy travelers from the States (many wives of doctors) who invade her secluded world to offer her their unconcealed ignorance and news of the country that she, like a lover, almost fell in love with, so out of desperation, abandoned. She wonders when it will stop raining and if it’s the sound of the drops on her windows that she has never even once washed that is making her feel this way. She wonders when she’ll ever have guests again, being lonely for the loneliness of company, escaping from her visitors when they come by practicing the piano or reading books very slowly in her bedroom, looking out her window at the one small mountain she can see that hides from her everything her life has ever been.
Walking through its southern, uncelebrated entrance, you enter a Greek temple. There’s a courtyard with a monolith centering the space– on top of the monolith are two heads, Janus style, its named carved underneath: Eurythemes.
Men distribute their families in the courtyard of the city park and force them to act as a short-lived audience for their impending games of boules; women sit on benches talking about anything and everything and happily don’t watch. On one side of the courtyard that is a field of leveled tan gravel, there’s a wrought-iron fence that keeps safe an ancient mossy fountain and some fallen pillars of ruins probably as recent as the 18th or 19th centuries. Antiquity kept behind bars.
The château that presides over the courtyard dates from the eighteenth century and normally houses a museum of artifacts. It has been closed to the public for far too long, awaiting renovations. At least one family, or a solitary caretaker, lives inside for there is discernible life fidgeting behind an expanse of shutters. And there is laundry hanging from them to be dried.
Hardened arteries of pines ripple from the ground near the children’s play area. There are some cheap carnival rides, a small merry-go-round. Sad faux organ sounds keeping mechanical time counterpointed by crying and screaming. Youth’s rage for life.
Beyond the château is its grand entrance way resplendent in flowing staircases that pour around a water-filled basin with fountain. Stretching for hundreds of yards in front of the fountain are manicured lawns planted with flower beds. Faithful joggers circumambulate around these lawns on which children chase soccer balls or around which they race the runners, pedaling like crazy their bulky rented bicycles.
Outlining the lawns is a racetrack of gravel, what used to be the château’s driveway for carriages. Adults too rent the large, steel- framed pedal-driven rickshaws. They seat up to five, so the two peddlers in front do all the work. Outings on these contraptions habitually and with clockwork regularity crash into trees or curbs or other bicycles. They are easily steered out of control when their frightened pilots approach the park’s one mild slope.
Of course, they must be evacuated by all passengers when uphilling the slope. This is especially true, but not believed by the leagues of poor sons-in-law who try to transport their cargoes of overweight mothers-in-law and pregnant wives up the little hill that to them quickly becomes a rounded off Everest. Watching the weekend bicyclers provides a vaudeville of how social relations will either collide or in some way stall.
The rest of the park is a woodland wound with trails. There are hidden nooks of imaginary campsites and paradises of shade cooler by pools of water. Paths, some paved, some covered in gravel, some dried tongues of mud wind through isolated clumps of forest that one can almost get lost in. The woods conceal hiking trails that mountain bikers use as quick weekend getaways. A water spider’s skating rink.
On the northeastern most corner, behind the botanical and rose gardens, there’s a shaded tunnel paved by a dirt boulevard that leads to a statue of Diana on the hunt. She looks over a gorge that is filled with a shallow creek, the river L’Huveaune, which is usually tepid and drained of all current but a trickle.
The pleasant wooded fields on the other side of the gorge hide Roland Petit’s famous dance school. Emptying into the sea, the creek river widens into an inlet creased and folded into rocky coastal limestone– a tiny bay where kayak enthusiasts gather. The natural canal leading from dry gorge to impatient sea runs under the north, main entrance to the park where there are a few food stands and long chaotic lines of bicycles rented and returned. This area is constantly peopled with innocent revelers during the day while the night brings out ladies of the evening.
The park’s interior is shaded by plane trees, one of which rises sixty feet into the heavens. Its branches are evenly spaced scimitars that tempt the daring to climb to its highest perch. This tree presides over a field of its own. The wealth of trees, at first look, keeps the man-made lake at the park’s center a well-kept secret. The lake is large and features a bird island and a human island that can be reached via footbridge. On this latter faux isle, there’s a faux glacier offering a small variety of sandwiches and ice cream: snacks priced at four times their value, but then it’s the scenery that’s truly being rented.
The lake extends around this island in a narrow channel that provides a navigational challenge for those not used to rowing and steering. This tree and bush lined channel is held in high regard by flocks of migratory and residential birds. It’s a regular nesting place for the park’s ducks and swans, a few roosters and chickens too, as it allows them all to escape the crowds with their bags of bland, stale bread.
The tiny channel artfully does what it’s meant to do: mimic in miniature the Loire valley or make boaters and those strolling feel as if they are on a famous French canal. It’s soul refreshing.
Other points of interest: a fountain constructed to resemble a cave, dripping with beards of moss with a pool swum by hungry non-koi pond fish (they’ll eat the bread!). A person-sized reproduction of an Armenian cross looking quite Celtic in decor and design. Statues of once famous dignitaries gesturing to something just off in the moving waves of leaves. The remains of world War II bunkers growing anything that will try to cover them up, to invade their memory boxes with vegetal forgetfulness. Paths that wind in and out of people, families partaking in and enjoying this public airing of who they are. Women in what Americans might think of as their “Sunday best” when really it’s how they usually dress, talking to other women standing in semi-circles of interest, their shoes kicked off, their bright white feet grooming the grass. Children running everywhere because its the one place they are allowed to be wild yet they are polite enough to diminutively ask you to retrieve a ball they got stuck in the tree under which you are dreaming. People exercising and watching other people exercise, which is an exercise in the civility of desire. The lake caked in places with floating bread that the spoiled, pampered birds will eat only out of boredom, if at all. The music of the children’s rides drifting the day away in the absence of any responsible thoughts. Air cooled by sea breezes, swirling, swirling, swirl–
Old news, no newS
Considering the language barrier, an all too real invisible concept that, with simple body movements, can be, and is constantly broken through, the consistently unfair rate of currency exchange always in the bank’s favor, the challenge of navigating a city built on a street and autoroute schematic rooted in civil disobedience/confusion, a bureaucracy that no longer takes pleasure in its straight-faced orders invoking hundreds of steps, several of which might be to prove one’s existence, whose documentation in triplicate needs to be stamped with actual lick-able stamps not for mailing but of government approval that cost a phenomenal fee, to be then followed by further Byzantine procedures that have developed circuitousness to a High Art, the inability to park anywhere one might need to be at any given time, the host of tiny social inflections that either pave the way to approval or barricade oneself from functioning “normally” within the greater good of peoplehood, weighing the quotidian challenge of remembering the right vocabulary word memorized once in a dimly lit hall of the academy so that when you walk to the local bricolage and ask for “batteries” you don’t accidentally ask for “pills” (piles/pillules) if merely to avoid the conversation tangent such an incidence will stir up, learning how to pronounce the names of American cigarettes in French because French ones are too strong so that you won’t be corrected when asking for Lights as “Leets” when the vendor, attempting English says it “Lyghtes, vous ne le savez pas?” as if he were himself from Virginia, through the thick and thin of it, after a hard day’s coping as a foreigner, there’s the wonderful gift of the evening news. Sometimes, pictures of the States, but mostly anywhere else but … as the commentators and experts and news people banter about so speedily, so perceptively, so intellectually that not a word is comprehensible. Deliverance.
Typically your waitron in France will be a man. Mature, suave, well-groomed, and occasionally well-mannered and easy going. Typically, women abide by the mores of a sexist country: they may keep bar as they are more reluctant to hand out free drinks while their presences entice and lengthen the tabs of friendly, amorous drunks. One thing’s for sure: most bars contain a 10:1 male to female ratio.
One will find women in the kitchen producing the meals, which in France, regardless of where lunch or dinner is taken, are gourmet. They might be the bussers of your table, the sweepers and moppers of floors, but rarely will they wait tables.
When this rarity does occur it is quite plain that they are the most beautiful waitresses in the world. Why this is so boldly true is found almost singularly in their comportment. They hold themselves as you would want to. Hair pulled back in a bun with a few strands falling on their inhumanely high cheekbones, whose textures are not masked by make-up, that they blow away again and again throughout the day with puckered lips you shall never ever ever kiss. Shoes with heels that lengthen their frames tipping the balance and giving them a stature of power, keeping them high above the most excellent tables of food decorated by dishes a chef has prepared resembling more modern decorative art than plates of stuff to be eaten.
They smell of dinner and perfume and a hint of perspiration. Their faces shine with the determination of hard work– they bite their lips (again, those which you’ll never taste) when they can’t remember who ordered what, blink their eyes, and with a shrug, smile.
They wear lipstick the exact same color of their already rouge lips and leave imprints of them taking swigs off the bartender’s nearly empty bottles, on the bottle’s own pucker. Or they’ll steal a hit off the sous chef’s cigarette. They flutter their eyes at the manager when he comes by clapping his hands and his stern tongue chirping out, constantly, “plus vite, plus vite!”
They check up on you asking if all’s well, either pretending to care or are incapable of masked pretense so you are never sure of the sincerity of their insincerities. Their hands are clean, nails manicured, and stockings dark and tight; they understand that part of the menu includes a glance their way (desire translated into a gratuitous tip).
They let you know by a look or by escorting you to the door on your way out that your tip was either fair, too little, or ample. As you go, they return your glances into a recognition, they size you up, and perhaps for a moment wonder who you are, as they wipe their forearms with a clean white towel, delicate hand on delicate clavicle, smiling, licking their teeth as they wave bye-bye to their clientele who by now are feeling the pang of another kind: goodbye, bonsoir, bonne soirée.
Philip Kobylarz is an itinerant teacher of the language arts and writer of fiction, poetry, book reviews, and essays. He has worked as a journalist, a film critic, a veterinarian’s assistant, a deliverer of furniture, and an ascetic. He currently teaches at Los Medanos and volunteers at the Union City Historical Museum. His work appears in such publications as Paris Review, Poetry, the Best American Poetry series, Massachusetts Review, and Lalitamba. He also published a collection of poetry entitled rues and a collection of short stories entitled Now Leaving Nowheresville. He spends his time in the East Bay, Huntington Beach, and Wroclaw with his cat KatdawgRocket 99, his dog Chibi, and his beloved Karina Anna.