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Authors: Ken Kalfus

Thirst

BOOK: Thirst
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Table of Contents
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Also by Ken Kalfus
Pu-239 and Other Russian Fantasies
The Commissariat of Enlightenment
A Disorder Peculiar to the Country
For Inga
Sullivan Street, Rue de la Sorbonne, Cromwellsfort Road, Lennox Street, East Fourth Street, Main Street, Route 202, West Seventh Street, Kater Street, Ulica Gospodar Jevremova, Ulica Vojislava Vukovica, West Rittenhouse Square, Kutuzovsky Prospekt, Benjamin Franklin Parkway, South 24th Street
“. . . but it is a melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels, in which my often rumination wraps me in a most humorous sadness.”
As You Like It
Act IV, Scene I
Notice
C
opyright © 2010. All rights reserved. No part of this paragraph may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, oral, or telepathic, including photocopy, recording, transcription, tracing, hot type, cold type, mimeograph, ditto (in school, the copies, made between classes, would be handed to us while they were still warm and moist, their ink bearing a thick, intoxicating fragrance that would compel us to raise the sheets to our faces and think,
so, this is what
blue
smells like),
teletype, telefax, telephone, semaphore, skywriting, whisper, seance, confession, FTD, floppy disk, hard drive, RAM, careful longhand on rare vellum, silk screen, or any information storage and retrieval system without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles, reviews, profiles, commentaries, biographies, musical comedies, halftime shows, and literary prize announcements. Requests for permission to make copies of any substantive part of this paragraph should be sent to the author (who really does have this happy memory of ditto ink’s alcoholic vapor, which when inhaled deeply, as if we were sampling the air of a lush field, would induce a wicked giddiness, among the other exalted effects of printed matter), who, quite frankly, would be flattered to get mail of this sort and would consider
such requests in a favorable light as, the above sentence notwithstanding, he seeks to have this paragraph communicated in all languages and by all technologies, not for personal or proprietary reasons, but to bring another facet of the whole that exists to general awareness. Just drop me a note. My e-mail address is [email protected] Except in the case of obvious satirical intent (an exception that applies to this entire paragraph, which resembles the device that provides copyright protection but is without that protection itself), all the characters in this paragraph are fictitious, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, including the author, is purely coincidental, or at least unpredictable. Between what we describe and the truth lies a poorly marked border, and in a writer’s desperate wanderings he will occasionally cross it and then, unawares, meander back (I’m not quite satisfied with the above description of ditto ink. There are other details: the paper soaked up the blue, plumping and softening the letters, as if it too were intoxicated by the ink; this lightened the letters’ color, slightly empurpling them, a transformation that defied simile until I witnessed the rush of twilight one summer morning a few years later; I never saw the ditto machine but imagined it as a hand-powered, gracefully constructed device of a few large gears and levers; the sight of thirty adolescents pressing inky sheets of paper against their faces as if, I imagine now, engaged in some cultish ceremony never seemed remarkable; a girl whom I had known since kindergarten, traveling with her up through our schools’ grades and departmentalized classes on frequently intersecting
paths without ever quite having a conversation, might pull the paper away with a sigh of such explosiveness that I would be momentarily excited and a little in love, and then frightened, reminded of her inscrutability; in our suburban, earnestly innocent school we dared fate with jokes about needing our narcotic “fix” of the ink; crumbling pages of tests and assignments from October and November, months that seemed in April and May like a much earlier, more promising, forever lost part of childhood, after a couple of seasons at the bottom of my locker bore a faded, uninspiring scent, which was mostly a function of memory. The memory still resists full description. After such failure, of what use is a copyright?). This paragraph contains the complete text of the hard-cover edition. NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED.
Le Jardin de la Sexualité
Bouquet
T
he young au pair had grown up only twenty minutes from Grafton Street, in the pastel-colored clapboard suburb of Finglas, and she had expected Paris to be somewhat like Dublin, if bigger. But automobiles here careened down narrow streets, a subtle and capricious grammar tied the language in knots, men and women in flowing desert robes passed her as she walked the children home from school, and everywhere, on everyone’s minds, on the tips of their tongues, like a secret they could not keep, there was sex. On the way to the museum with Marie and Melanie one afternoon, Nula entered a metro station in which every billboard carried the same advertisement for a line of lingerie. The adverts were huge, reaching from floor to ceiling, and were composed entirely of a close-up photograph of two breasts gently cupped by a white lace bra. The image was repeated on nearly every inch of wall space in the station, even alongside the system map, all the way down the stairs, and then on every platform. As the train pulled from the station, the breasts flickered in Nula’s eyes.
The girls, ages ten and eight, didn’t miss any of it. No, they wouldn’t. They stared at the advertisements and, once aboard the train, launched into a discussion about a schoolmate who had begun wearing a brassiere.
“She stuffs it with tissue paper!” cried Melanie, the eight-year-old.
The two of them fell against each other, giggling. The other passengers looked away.
Marie and Melanie knew the au pair’s discomfort; this was their revenge. They hated museums. They would have preferred to spend their Wednesday afternoons, when school was let out early, in the Luxembourg Gardens children’s park or at Trocadero, where they would watch helmeted youths, some just a little older than Marie, glide and spin on skateboards down the Palais de Chaillot’s long driveways. Nula had taken them there once, but, burdened by the knowledge that the French school authorities had thoughtfully set aside the half day for educational excursions, she now insisted on searching the newspapers for exhibitions, matinees, and recitals.
It was their first visit to this museum, a majestic block of carved stone, not like those joke structures, all glass and plumbing fixtures, that had been thrown up around the city in the last few decades. Dedicated to the diffusion of scientific knowledge, it sailed through the neatly tended, grassy square like a battleship trimmed with granite weaponry and other appurtenances: a tower, a clock, a gallery of togaed figures perched between decks. Nula swept up the steps with the girls, past a scattering of men sunning themselves at the institution’s prow. Some of them squatted and spat seeds. An elder passed, dangling a single watch for sale from a rough, misshapen hand. Teeth flashed at an unkind remark.
A young man lounged by the museum door, wearing a brown leather jacket and a rakishly askew, oversized plaid cap. He stared at each woman passerby, regardless of her age or appearance, fishing for her eye, and mechanically moved on to the next one after she was gone. It was the cap that caught Nula’s attention: its vulgarity amplified his projection of self-confidence. He thought he was good-looking enough to wear anything. Nula glanced at the youth for only a moment, but the moment was too long, for he smiled at her and knew that she saw him smile.
She looked away, but before she and the girls could enter the building he had reached them. “Good day,” he said. His politeness just accented the tiny leer that began around his eyes and turned up the little parabolas of skin at the ends of his mouth.
“Excuse us,” she replied in French, passing the children around him.
“English?” he guessed.
“No,” she said, and was in the door. Melanie started to look back at the youth, but the au pair seized her and thrust her into the queue at the ticket counter.
 
When it was time for their baths, the girls would dodge her, running through the flat stark naked, hiding underneath the dining-room table, and once even dashing out onto the terrace to display themselves to the whole of Passy. They were hardly better behaved in their parents’ company. The other night after dinner, when Nula came in from the kitchen with the coffee, she found that Marie had stuck two cups under her shirt and was
playing the vamp with Melanie, who examined her sister’s chest with mock lust. But Madame Reynourd had only suppressed a laugh and lightly scolded them:
“Dégoûtant!”
Monsieur and Madame Reynourd were easy-going people, if a bit disorganized. They shambled through their flat either half dressed or half undressed—Nula could never be sure in which direction their disarray was heading; they left large sums of cash lying about; they could never remember what plans had been agreed for the children that day. Already in their forties and each a stone overweight, they were nevertheless enveloped in a kind of ripe, luxuriant youthfulness. Paul played rugby on Sundays and came home soaked in sweat. Elizabeth wore her blouses virtually unbuttoned. She flirted with the husbands of friends and, accompanying Nula to the butcher and baker, even with the young shop assistants, on the au pair’s behalf. Nula nearly cowered behind her. At night in her room several stories above their flat, she lay awake and, against the current of intention, her thoughts drifted to the couple below and their seething sexual restlessness.
The girls’ inability to concentrate descended from their parents like a congenital stain. Here on the second floor of the museum, within a glass case, a tree bloomed with stuffed tropical birds outlandishly feathered and preserved so close to the edge of life that Nula could, or thought she should, almost hear them singing, but what drew Marie’s attention was the device that recorded on a rolling scroll the humidity behind the glass. Nula shooed her away from it. The two girls began to jog
toward an exhibit describing the construction of the Eiffel Tower and then—in a moment of insight—realized that the surface friction of the hall’s polished marble floors was less than the forward momentum of a little girl in new penny-loafers. They slid the rest of the way.
BOOK: Thirst
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