Paris was ridiculous this morning. You can go around the world and expect sunrises to look pretty much the same everywhere. Obviously, some will be more dramatic because the sun’s coming up over the ocean or breaking over the mountains. Or the colors are especially stunning due to an excess of particulate in the atmosphere, thanks to forest fires or something like that.
Today, Paris was just showing off what it could be. Clouds by Maxfield Parrish. Futuristic architecture by Syd Mead. And those elegant, modern buildings aren’t everywhere: they’re just a drag off on the perimeter of old Paris, like someone was given just a little room to show what the city could be instead of what it is. And that’s a long, wide sprawl of classical architecture and the quintessential French soul. That’s my impression, anyway, as an outsider. The city welcomed me but did not embrace me, and I longed to immerse myself in it while keeping a respectful foreigner’s distance. I walked to the wrought-iron balcony and gripped it, studying the modernity in a gauzy golden shawl, lavish clouds rolling overhead−
An immense woman’s head erupted from below, blocking my view and grinning hysterically into my suite. “Bonjour, petit écolier! Profitez-vous de la vue?“
Her voice boomed through me, stopping my heart for a moment and shattering anything solid in my kidneys. When I was able to pry my white-knuckled fists from the iron railing, I smoothed my hair back and tucked in my shirt, checking that I hadn’t wet myself in terror. “Long time, no see… aw, crap, we’re not supposed to say that anymore.”
The world-occluding head tilted sideways, and as large as those eyes were, they were nonetheless adorable in their confusion. “What does this mean, that you are not permitted to say this thing?” Her hair spilled over my balcony, and I had the momentary urge to rush up and wrap it around me. That would’ve led to a poor adventure, I knew, so instead I put some water on for coffee. I should’ve gone out, in a city of fantastic coffee, but for some reason I insisted on my little electric burner and the scorched glass carafe and the amber jar of stale beans. Tradition? Laziness?
“It’s a matter of respect,” I said. “With each passing year, we’re learning more about who we’ve wronged, historically, and by we I mean people who look like me. That’s why it’s important for me to put in the effort and get it right, on top of not wanting to be an asshole.”
The giantess snorted, sending a gust from my balcony to riffle the stack of papers on my escritoire. I swore and went after them, snatching at them sloppily before they were well and truly scattered. She laughed at me, watching me strain and scamper around the dark wood floor. “Look at you, scurrying little mouse! Isn’t that just how you people are? So concerned with these little things, the individual pages of history, when all it takes is one swipe of my dainty little paw to wipe you all out.” She wiggled her eyebrows at me, huge, long brows of coarse hairs sculpted into dark, expressive arms waving over the limpid pools of her green irises.
Sure, she was casually lethal, careless and mischievous, but there were times when I would throw myself right into her mouth if she gave me a half-smile. But then, what would happen to her, my muse? Who would write her stories?
“You care so much about those individual leaves.” Her voice danced about the room as if she’d shrunk herself to my size and broken in. “Yes, pick them all up, little mouse! Much good may they do you!” Abruptly her eyes widened, practically lighting my dingy studio up like the sunrise. “Attends un peu: are you working on something?” I said I might be, and even five floors up, I could feel her massive feet hopping gleefully upon Rue de Tournon. “You are! You are! When were you going to tell me?”
I laughed and poured myself a mug of coffee, a solid, heavy, white jobber that said “Tasse Toi” on one side. “It’s not really a serious project. Believe me, it’s not worth your eyes or ears.”
She pouted, bumping her fat bottom lip against the iron balustrade. “My eyes and ears were made to receive anything you create! Why would you deny me the one reason I’m here?”
“Seriously, it’s just fucking around. I thought I’d try something, it’s not panning out.”
“You’re taking chances, aren’t you? You’re trying something new, aren’t you! You must let me see, right this minute!”
I laughed again: this was my modicum of leverage over her. She could level the building with a clothesline strike, she could punch a hole through my living space with one dainty, oversized fist, yet she wouldn’t do anything to get in the way of my writing. I sipped my weak brew and slipped my bare feet into some dress slippers, shuffling over to the balcony. She did not back away to give me room, preferring to cross her eyes cutely to perceive me, apparently. “I’m telling you, it’s garbage. It’s not even original: I’m just fucking around with writers’ voices. I was feeling dry and tapped out, so I propped open a Dickens novel and typed out what I read from him”—I stroked my typewriter with real affection—“to get a feel of how he did it. Sentence length, word choice, trying to feel his process without him being here to teach me.”
That beautiful, gigantic head rolled pleasantly upon her sun-glowy shoulders. “That sounds very interesting, mon petit homme. Do you find it useful?”
I reached out and stroked the long bridge of her nose. “It shakes me up, I think. Sometimes I come up to a point where he chose a word that I wouldn’t have, and I have to think about whether that’s personal taste or just a level of talent I don’t have yet.”
My muse withdrew her head and glared at me. “You will not talk about yourself like that while I am around. It is unacceptable. It is an insult I will not tolerate, because you are insulting me, after all.”
This again. I agonized over the intense pleasure of lingering so close to her huge, beautiful face and having to listen to this tired spiel one more time. In the end, my ennui won out and I pretended to go back for sugar. “I have chosen you. I have chosen you, little writer! Are you questioning my judgment? Are you suggesting I have poor taste? I came to you because I see what is inside you, even if you don’t! The fault is your blindness to yourself, there is no fault in my selection. Do you see?”
“Faux,” I barked over my shoulder. She couldn’t see my smirk.
There was a long silence as I spooned in the sugar, stirred it back and forth eleven times, then slowly withdrew the spoon and sucked it clean. My little ritual. This writer’s studio was full of tedious little rituals, upon the efficacy of which I was, in practice, banking everything. I supposed she had gotten bored of my sparring and left for greener pastures.
As long as that beautiful, frightful giantess was talking, no matter how angrily she spoke, I was fine. As long as we were exchanging words, no matter how heated or pointed, we were fine. It was when she fell silent that I knew I was in serious trouble.
So when I turned back to the wide open French doors and saw her countenance as dark as any thunderhead, I nearly shit myself. “Okay, okay,” I yelped, springing to the desk and grabbing a sheaf of papers. “Here you go, read as much as you like. I tried to warn you, it’s awful, but they’re all yours.”
Lightning flashed in her eyes. Gone were the playful tilts, away went the cutely curled lips. Here to stay was a colossal, ominous statue. “Read them to me,” she rumbled.
I nodded and said I was just going back for my coffee. I settled into my mattress on the floor, yanked the sheets to support my back as I leaned against the wall, and I cleared my throat. “Here, my beautiful and endlessly patient goddess, this is my attempt at a giantess story by Charles Dickens.”
When I saw her heavy, forbidding eyebrows rise, just an inch, I knew I was in the clear. Now all I had to do was improvise, without preparation, a giantess story in the style and manner of Dickens.
I cleared my throat.
A dreary, dour, but dutiful downpour converted, with the sinking of the sun, into a cruel and confident sleet upon our city. Common recollection, over roasts and carafes in uptown and pints and trenchers in downtown, was beggared to recall within an armful of years whether we’d seen such an infiltration of weather not merely inhospitable to we who were there first, but one that threw itself wholly into town as though its ownership were a guaranty to which we’d all consigned. For that was the matter of it: not a foot could be set outside that was not drenched to the stocking nor a head to poke from a window that was not tattooed with an intimidating number of icy pellets. We found ourselves quarantined, the whole of the oppidan population, with no less efficacy than had a full legion of French returned to impose an armed curfew. And so, stuck in our houses and hovels as we were—one unifying quality that nonetheless kept us isolated from each other—it was a matter of survival that we devised forms of entertainment and divers pursuits until such time in the unforeseeable future that we mightn’t be assaulted for the felony of a constitutional.
It was indeed my good fortune to find myself so quartered and boarded within the Black Badger, a public house in the lower quarter and, so, not far from my home. It would be false to presume upon the reader’s good faith that I’d been merely passing by at the time of the ill precipitation or even that it had been a healthy sprint from my dutiful rounds. To be perfectly honest one might reasonably suggest I would have been holed up in this tavern for just as long of an afternoon, evening, and night even without the rain.
As for the excuses of my company I cannot conjure reason or rationale for the coincidence of their attendance, nor am I inclined in the least way to suppose. It happened that there we were, flanking the same table, glaring at the same lump of brown bread, and fairly on the edge of our benches waiting for any excuse to charge the others to front the next round. Mr. Battertrink’s keen red eye glinted in the lantern light, rolling over his ruddy jowl to perceive any slight for which an ale might be levied in remuneration. The nose of slope-shouldered Mr. Timernuss peeked but briefly from under the brim of his hat, as though sniffing a breeze which might carry a drink. Reclusive and taciturn in all other environments, it was that bundle of long branches some jilted milkmaid named Mr. Schueler who advanced the means by which our sticky matter could be settled to the satisfaction of all.
Though she were not among our number, I would be remiss in omitting the presence of gentle Missus Eileen Waggatender, attending to us like the classical spirit of so many All Hallows Eve tales, shifting in the corner of one’s eye or breathing down one’s collar. It just so happened that this restless spectre could easily have been put to rest at the first glint of gold, and so she flitted and glid about our table overlong.
Mr. Schueler cleared his throat, his adam’s apple apparently engaging in a country jig. “Gentlemen—”
“And what do you mean by that, Mortimer?” Mr. Battertrink was on him in a flash, hairy hamhocks of fists clutching the edge of the table. Were this to prove a slight against his character, why, satisfaction would be extracted either by pistols at dawn or four pints of plain.
“Be at ease, my friends, be at ease. I’ve simply come upon an ingenious plan—”
“I shouldn’t think I have many friends.” The nose beneath the brim twitched fitfully. “I shouldn’t think what class of friend it could be that would allow a friend to languish as parched as I have.”
I stepped in, having seen this Viennese Waltz of self-sabotage for quite a few turns previous. “Gentlemen, allow our estimable companion the podium for the time being. Lacking any other ideas for our problem’s resolution, it costs us nothing to listen for a moment to a novel idea.”
“I’ll listen,” rumbled Mr. Battertrink from deep within his corpore, “but if his tune’s a clinker, he owes me a drink.”
Mr. Schueler’s long melon turned beneficently upon the barrel-chested brawler. “Not only is this a sweet and simple melody, Angus, but I think it’s all the more endearing for its familiarity. What I propose, gentlemen, is the time-honored competition of ripping yarns.”
Mr. Timernuss clutched his cloak tighter about his shoulders. “It’s many a thread you’ll have to tug out of my garments, before you’ll see the face of a coin on me.”
“No, Shaddock, I mean that we should tell stories.”
“Outlandish stories, fabulous stories, each more outrageous than the last, until…”
I nodded, unable to hide my grin. Not only was I familiar with this sort of competition, but I daresay I was a fair shake at it on a bad day. With lager on the line, why, I pitied those dull, gentle lambs whose ill fortune it was to seat with me.
“And who’ll judge the merit of these, dare I ask.” Mr. Battertrink rolled backward in his bench, crossing himself with the slabs of his forearms. “Who among our paltry number, I scarcely imagine, has the wherewithal to step back and objectively estimate our tales against each other? But of course, of course: such a labor falls upon my shoulders, once again.” He made a show of sighing, like a bull in slumber, and gave each of us a penetrating eye with which to perceive a shadow of dissent.
“That’s surely no guarantee as to who’s going to win,” said Mr. Timernuss, half-turning to prepare for flight, “but it secures beyond question who will not lose.”
As Mr. Battertrink built up the steam to heave himself off his bench, I reached over to sit him back down, and he relaxed with a thump that could have cost us an oak bench, on top of (or, heavens forfend, instead of) the potential rounds of beer. “Easy, easy,” I said, clapping Mr. Timernuss’s back and winking at Mr. Schueler. “The only impartial judge, I think we can agree, is one who’s fully invested in a winner but has no particular care that any of us should win, but only that someone does. Missus Waggatender?” Before any of these men could protest, I raised my hand in a cunning pantomime of a gentleman in search of not a person but a drink, a ruse dissembled as soon as she appeared by my side.
We explained the gambit to her, and it would be compromised journalism indeed to suggest that she was, in any sense, delighted with the plan; nonetheless, she agreed to stand as arbiter and urge the process along if she could. “What stories shall these be?” Her voice, kind and quiet, was difficult to hear above the dull roar of the masses whose bad taste it was to frame us as the only patrons yet to buy anything.
The pointy nose beneath the hat twitched. “What sort of stories?”
“Yes, what genre of stories should these be, so they can be better judged against each other?”
Mr. Battertrink’s mouth fell open, and his jowls trembled as he looked at each of us in turn. “What sort of stories are there?” he genuinely queried.
“I shouldn’t enjoy a ghost story,” Missus Waggatender said, glancing over our heads at the icy nails rapping at the windows. “Not on a night like this, anyway. Maybe on a Sunday, under a clear sky, right before church service, but not tonight.”
Mr. Schueler tilted his head toward her with all the affection of a weeping willow. “How does our lady fare with a romantic story?”
“Aye, there we are! Tales of ribaldry!” Mr. Battertrink hammered his fist upon the table, making the neighbors jump. “A real bodice-ripper!”
Missus Waggatender didn’t feel that this would be to her liking, either, regardless of Sunday service. I should note here that none of us were confident the missus was in fact wed to anyone: she simply had that demeanor about her, one that did not invite cosmopolitan tourism—that is to say, or it was in elementary school: Roman hands or Russian fingers. It was simpler and more convenient to assume that she had a husband stashed away somewhere.
Sensing once again that our assembled intellect was treading water, I put it to them plain: Missus Waggatender should select the topic. Mr. Timernuss merely trembled beside me, while Mr. Battertrink rummaged around in his skull for any device with which to contrive this solution into a debt for beer. Only Mr. Schueler, thinking I wasn’t keeping half an eye on him, shared a discreet wink for the beleaguered owner of the tavern.
“Gentlemen,” she said, having drawn sufficient breath to drop this ponderous weight upon our table, “I think you should tell the story of a tiny, little man.”
At this point, I had to sit down. My feet were swollen in my shoes, my lower back was aching, and all my going on and on about thirst set my bottles singing on the shelf to me. My muse would like me to record the grand act of generosity on her part in permitting me to pause for refreshment and haul over a chair to the balcony.
For my part, I will note that what followed was a long, long night.