The first two weeks of June in Paris were so cold and rainy that I had to go to the flea market at the Place d’Aligre in the 12th Arrondissement to replace the short-sleeved high-desert shirts I had brought with me from Mexico. I paid two Euros for a heavy cream-colored wool sweater that zipped down to my solar plexus and made me look like a small-boat captain at the evacuation of Dunkirk exactly seventy years earlier. I bought a faded green Levi jacket stiff with mildew, which – from too much Marais district Orthodox strudel – barely buttoned over my English sweater. Thus equipped, I went to the Seine to paint. I wanted to see which part of the mystique of Paris I could be part of, to see what lay below the surface of things French.
I had been to the top floor of the Orsay and seen the exhibit of P. H. Emerson, who drew with ink pen over original Heliographic negatives in the 1890s. The ink additions were hard to distinguish from the ghostly landscape backgrounds, especially in my favorite: “Marsh Leaves, Feuilles des marais,” London, 1895. I found it mildly disturbing, this process of super-imposing new representations on older ones, with a different medium.
There is more information you need to know. My great great-grandfather was born in Rouen, in the Haute Normandie. One recent Sunday morning, I had begun chatting with a woman sitting next to me at the Turenne Café, near the Place Des Voges. She was taking her café au lait with a group of neighborhood friends. The conversation turned to where I was from. I said I was from Mexico. But where are you from? they asked. Well, before that, California. But before that? I realized this was a question of origins. Perhaps my flea market sweater was showing and that was a clue. And so I told them about my great great-grandfather being born in Rouen.
“Then you are French,” they exclaimed, in unison. And then in fun: “Champaign all around!” And when I left, one of them pointed to the west and enjoined: “Be French!”
At a certain bench, beside the Seine, on the Ile Saint-Louise, I moistened my squares of color and considered what I saw before me. A dredger, its filling barge and a tug sat under the Pont Louis Philippe, the bridge that crosses to Ile de Cité at the Notre Dame. The dredge itself was what we used to call a steam shovel. This one was diesel, orange, and sat on rubber wheels, on top of it own barge. Six hydraulic arms bent down to the top of the barge to give the machine stability. From the barge, two massive black stilts extended down into the river bottom, to hold the whole floating assemblage in place: the dredge barge, the filling barge, and the tug – the vessel closest to me.
Before I go on, I should mention that I took my friends at the Turenne Café seriously and decided to know more about being French. I went to Rouen in search of Edouard Dupré and stayed a week. I made many phone calls. I knocked on doors. I walked through graveyards and looked at church records. I spent many hours at the Internet site Cercle Généalogique Rouen Seine Maritime.
George Edward Dupré was born in Rouen, France in 1798. He emigrated to Kentucky and owned fifty slaves. He chartered schooners and traded his goods in the Caribbean for tree crotches of sandalwood and mahogany for ship’s knees. On his third voyage, in 1838, his ship, ravaged by a great storm, broke its back against a reef on the coast of Florida. While most of the crew drowned, he and his idiot cabin boy clung to wreckage and drifted ashore, where they were killed by Seminole Indians. He was survived by my great-grandmother Sarah.
He had a brother Clément who stayed in France and produced generations of Cléments, the last of which fought the Germans in Normandy with the Communist branch of the French Resistance: The Front National. French Gestapo agents, a group called the Bonny-LaFont, arrested his love Marie Lambourne and said they would execute her if Clément did not give himself up. An exchange was arranged. Marie went free. Clément was tortured in the basement of 93 Rue Lauriston in the 16th Arrondissement, along with countless others. He gave up no information. Depressed, broken, and alone – with the image of Marie the last thing he saw behind his closed lids – he was guillotined one winter dawn in the building’s courtyard.
I found Marie in Rue Francs Bourgeois, in the Marais, near the Picasso Museum. She was 87 years old, five years older than me. She has a daughter and a granddaughter. Both of them are called Clémentia. I showed her all of my notes. She taught French to foreigners at the Sorbonne for many years. She spoke slowly and clearly, so I could understand. She was gracious and warm. The second bottle of wine – a Mosel – was covered in dust. She said we would not wash it because we were dealing with all aspects of the past. She brought out sheep’s cheese and three-quarters of a prodigious baguette she had purchased in that morning. She said we were cousins of some sort, and she would tell me anything I wanted to know.
I asked her about Clément. He was brave. And very funny, she said. He could blow up trains. He could also make up riddles, if we woke up anxious and afraid, early in the morning. We had a brass bed. She looked me straight in the eye, as she continued.
“There were four things then. Him, me, the brass bed, and the wonderful love we made in it.” I felt I should look away when she said this. But I didn’t.
She paused. Night had fallen. It was cool in the room. She got up slowly and turned on the electric wall heater. Then she sat down at the table again. She poured the last of the dusty wine into our glasses.
“This is the best wine I have ever tasted,” she said. “And I know it is because you have come to hear my story.” I took a sip and put the glass down.
“You probably want to know what happened to the bed,” she said. I said I hadn’t really thought about it. What I had thought about was a young woman with her eyes, together with a young Frenchman who might have looked a little like me, naked and clasped in love.
“When he died, I could not bear to lie in it alone,” she said. “I gave away the springs, and even the mattress. Then I enlisted a friend to carry the brass head frame to the river. I went with him. The Bonny-Lafont never gave me his body. The agent I dealt with said I should look for it in the Seine. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not. Sometimes the bodies of resistance fighters turned up in the river. So did the bodies of German soldiers.”
She stopped. She took her glass and poured the last inch of her wine into my glass. She smiled, with a face full of a joy I didn’t understand. “I can’t drink anymore,” she said. There were tears in her eyes. She got up. She said she was very tired. She kissed me on both cheeks. She said we were family. She said I was indeed French and that I should take that very seriously. She said she would call me soon.
Two days later, a letter arrived. “I know you are wondering – if you are who I think you are – what we did with the bed. We walked out onto the Pont d’Acole, I think it was, and threw it into the river. Very, very early in the morning when it was still dark. I cannot explain exactly why but it made great sense to me then. Remember we are family. Come visit me soon.”
I know I have kept you sitting, for too long, on the stone bench beside the Seine, waiting to see what I would paint. Also, let me defend myself by telling you that I do not believe in straight connections. It was cold. But I had my Dunkirk sweater and my Levi jacket. The dredge worked under the Pont Louis Philippe. Its steel bucket had four large teeth for rooting and tearing on the river bottom. Over and over, it swiveled and dumped the captured silt into the filling barge along side, swiveled back, dipped in again, like a great mechanical swan feeding on the bottom, and this time – jammed in its teeth – brought up the metal head frame of a bed. The machine swiveled. It shook the bucket over the filling barge like an angry animal, and the bed fell down out of sight into the collected silt.
I know what you are thinking. And I agree with you. It was not the right bridge. The river bottom had been dredged for seventy years. Most of us are not big on miracles. Jung would have called it synchronicity – two events connected by an overly attentive mind, but not connected in actual fact.
At the same time, the main barge – the dredger – raised its two black stilts, and everything drifted twenty feet closer, with the current.
I held my brush in midair. The matter of P.H. Emerson’s heliograph negatives was coming up. The barge drifted toward me, intruding into the foreground I had constructed on my painting. It brought the mud-blackened bed frame closer. And I began to wonder who or what was becoming the dark ink accent on a ghostly Emersonian background.
I could not believe it was Marie and Clément’s bed. But I did have to believe it had been someone’s bed. The same kind of question drifted closer: Who had thrown it from the bridge, and why? What blurred negative lay behind?
When I got back to my apartment – the size of a matchbox – I found another letter from Marie, the handwriting shakier.
“I believe it was the Pont d’Arcole. Very, very early in the morning – when it was still dark. I thought the bed would find him and give him comfort.”
Below these few lines there was a different handwriting.
I am a friend of Marie’s. I do not know what these words mean, but she had already addressed the envelope, and they lay next to each other on her desk. I am assuming they are connected. Marie died peacefully in her chair with a book of war-time photographs on her lap. I am including my phone number, if you would like to know more. Sincerely…
And then there was a name and the date, from two days earlier. I called the phone number, and Clémentia, Marie’s daughter answered. When I told her who I was, she said she already knew and she would like it very much if I would come to her mother’s memorial service; that she knew quiet clearly it would have been her mother’s wish.
At the service, I was warmly received in both word and gesture. Two weeks later, I sent the daughter a narrative similar to the one I’ve just told you, describing everything – except for P.H. Emerson. Two days later, she phoned and asked if I would do her a favor. She said she wanted to see the spot where the dredge had brought up the bed. I reminded her that her mother thought the spot was below the Pont d’Arcole. She said she had already made a decision. And so we met at three in the morning at the north end of the Pont Louis Philippe, where the dredge had been positioned. With the Notre Dame as ghostly background, Clémentia poured her mother’s ashes into the Seine. She held the empty urn – an old tea tin – in her right hand, slack at her side. The other hand, the one nearest me, held the tin’s lid. On an impulse, I put my arm around her waist. She put her lid hand around my waist, and I held her close against me as she sobbed.