Approaching and pulling to a stop at the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Harley paid the taxi, now idling along Boulevard Saint-Germain in front of Café de Flore, and pushed himself out of the narrow back seat of the Peugeot 306, just as narrowly avoiding placing a foot in the awaiting puddle below. The driver waited, watching in the rearview mirror, and slipped on a sardonic one-sided smile when comedy was averted.
Harley Edison had arrived.
He had actually arrived, more precisely stated, early this morning and had already settled into his rented rooms on Rue Galande. It wasn’t the closest place for his work, but it was walkable when he wasn’t in a hurry. The café on his corner was called “Le Dante,” and it was apparently so named because Dante Alighieri allegedly lived hereabouts in 1308 or 1309. The church at the other end of Rue Galande, Saint-Julian-le-Pauvre, was Dante’s place of worship while the Poet was here in the City of Light. Harley liked being on his street and in his neighborhood. Nel mezzo del cammin, as it were.
Now rested and coffee’d and feeling refreshed, he had a look around this unfamiliar square, the place he would be spending the next eight months of his life, writing a book for someone else. It was not his first time in Paris, but never had he stayed more than a few days at a time before. This felt like the beginning of something. Harley’s insides thrilled with anticipation. Either that or he was going to be sick.
The journey that led him here began uncharacteristically fast and impulsively. On the evening of his speech and acceptance of the Lawrence Sterne Award, he had gone from nerve-wracked behind the podium to relieved and collapsed behind a cognac. The speech went well in the end, and most people seemed to enjoy it, but giving talks like this placed dead last on the list of things Harley cherished about the life of a writer. As an editor, he could stay in back rooms and closed offices and work without having to declaim anything to anyone. A sharply worded author’s review was the extent of it. Of course he was happy to embrace the freedom and independence of his life now, not so much a working writer as much as a writer who worked a lot. But there it was, and here he was: gratified, grateful, and greatly relieved. He lifted the cognac snifter, in its satisfyingly wide-bottomed Baccarat crystal, and breathed in his reward for this night. As usual, the arrival of Charles François de Mondion would now dampen Harley’s halcyon moment.
Harley was not alone at his table of honor. In fact, it seemed that there were several people around him, not precisely talking to him but talking over and across him, one touched his elbow and the other leaned over, slightly too closely, making him central to the conversation without having to take part in it. But Harley’s mind was indeed far away from it all anyway. His thoughts went immediately back to a manual that he had not quite finished editing and that, even tonight, he should really get back to it. The editing was more about rewriting it into something understandable, and since it was a manual for a new GPS tracking device of some kind, the makers probably knew exactly when he was working on it and when he was not.
No, he thought. Not tonight. It is my night after all. Was there more cognac?
His life had been a series of episodic fits of frenzied work and complete torpidity for the past two years since leaving his place as associate editor at Olivetti. Gowan was still there, of course, but he was in the hardware department. Harley’s position as editor was to scratch out technical manuals for the new machines, about which he knew nothing except the notes from the engineers plus some tidbits and scraps from Gowan. It was thankless work, soulless work. No one really cared or verified what he wrote. Still he did it as conscientiously as he could. What if a customer came roaring back to complain about the line of epic poetry secretly inserted into in the troubleshooting section? A little e-learning about stepper motors is a dang’rous thing…?
Since leaving the embrace of corporate life, and its perception of safety, he realized that he had waited too long to be free of it. He was still working on a lot of tech manuals; he had been good at it after all. But he found other projects to bring in the rent money and add to the kitty. But most importantly, he gave himself time to work on his own writing too. This was the godsend and solace on the other end of the spectrum from giving speeches. His novel Portrayals was recognized tonight, but he had several stories published in different places. It was not enough to live on; it was the twenty percent that made the drudgery of the other eighty percent worthwhile. While the relative freedom of his new life was priceless, he was now working twice as hard and earning half the money for it. Still worth it.
The shadow of Charles François de Mondion, a lanky and somewhat ungainly man in his early to mid late forties, dressed impeccably as ever for the occasion, down to his gold cuff-links depicting the 47th problem of Euclid, loomed over Harley’s reveries and brought him back to the room. It was not the first time Mondion had importuned him.
“Charles!” Harley raised his snifter. “Come to congratulate me?”
“Yes, well, while I am here,” Mondion huffed but nodded solemnly. “I haven’t read it. I do need to talk to you though. As you know.” He asked the waiter for another Hennessey and sat down. “So, I congratulate you Mr. Edison.”
Mondion was sent to represent an industrial group from Paris, one that has been operating since the 1700s but that has been quietly receding in recent decades. It was part of the La Société d’Encouragement pour l’Industrie Nationale, or the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry, an establishment standing behind some of the largest and most prominent building companies and industries in France since the French Revolution. To look at Mondian, however, you wouldn’t see anything revolutionary about his old-school manners. Except maybe his temper and guillotine-sharp tongue.
He had approached Harley just as he started out on his own when Mondian’s “principals” were trying to revive an old French industry that had been languishing for nearly two hundred years – languishing but not dead. They needed someone to write the story, a book that would place this old enterprise in into its proper context and one which could later become a reference book on the subject. It was a monumental undertaking, Harley remembered well. The research alone would take six months even before he opened a new document and poised his fingers to write anything.
“We are still expecting your positive answer,” the French representative said in a lower register, gazing out over the table, not at Harley, not at the waiter who arrived with the cognac. “You gave us certain commitments, and we most certainly – ”
“I never promised you anything, Charles. You brought me the project, and I said I would look it over. Well, I looked. I didn’t say I would do it.”
“You said nothing.”
That much, Harley had to admit silently, was true. Instead of answering them, he thought about it for a long time. In the end, it would have been too much time and not enough money for him to accept. The opportunity cost would have been catastrophic for his business and his hopes of paying the bills. But it was Paris. Really it wasn’t so much as that he hadn’t made up his mind. He had put it neatly out of his mind, choosing not to think about it. Maybe circumstances would force a decision one way or another.
The ballroom was still buzzing, but slowly the numbers began to thin out. Harley rose abruptly and made his way to the signing table, set up for him to smile and write his name for strangers. The line formed at once and the traditional book-signing gestures were made and words uttered.
“Can you make it out to my husband, Shirley?” For Shirley. Yes, of course! Wide smile.
After waiting for a very brief moment, Charles François de Mondion walked quickly to the front of the line and tossed a calling card in front of Harley, on a book meant for Derrick. “I will not return to Paris until the end of next week.” Thus delivered of his message and making a regal pivot on his heel, he made his exit, leaving most of the line wondering what kind of improv theatre was happening now.
The chastising October wind had a distinct bite, slipping past sleeves and collars and along wrists and backs. Harley adjusted his jacket, wishing he had dressed more warmly, and headed into the square. The Rue Bonaparte ran through the middle of it, dividing Place Saint-Germain-des- Prés into the church side, to Harley’s right, and the literary café side on his left and where he was looking now. These two cafés, Flore and Deux Magots, had seen the likes of Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sylvia Plath, James Joyce, Jean-Paul Sartre, and André Breton. And while the shadows of those giants, objects of Harley’s admiration and sometimes aspirations, threatened to eclipse him completely, his attention suddenly focused on the reason for his arrival:
4 Place Saint-Germain des Prés.
The Society for the Encouragement of National Industry, which, to Harley’s ears, sounded like a good name for a pep squad, subsisted within a venerable and understated hôtel particulier, built under the aegis of Georges-Eugène Haussmann. Recessed from Rue de Bonaparte, with an elegant cut-stone façade, it is not immediately visible although it is one of only a few buildings on the square. Harley took a step back and took it in. A quiet majesty emanated from it, wrapping the beholder in waves of homage. No matter what you may think of the work they did or the dubious origins of the Society, they had an indisputably respectable house.
Of course the Pep Society (Industry! Rah!) was only the host for Harley’s client. Mondion explained that the hotel, the building, was mostly abandoned and in disuse, but a suite of offices was rented to the real client, La Rive. It was because of the nature of La Rive that Mondian wanted to bring in Harley in the first place. It was all about books.
Harley spent the rest of the day wandering idly through the streets, hardly aware of what he was seeing but letting the exoticism, the unfamiliarity, of the Parisian cityscape envelope him. He walked from the Pep Society down along the Seine, past the bookstalls, images matching the faded coloring he knew only from the films of Truffaut, Godard, and Chabrol. They were mostly filled with fridge magnets and other tourist-fare now. The feeling of removal from his everyday surroundings, to be immersed in a rich and enticing iridescence, both known and unknown to him had begun to overtake Harley’s sense of what he was doing. Somehow he had heard the possibility of a kind of renewal in Mondion’s renewed invitation to work with them, to come to Paris, to spend several months away from anything and anyone he knew.
His breath was shallow and he had to stop for a moment. He recognized the construction around the spires of Notre Dame, nearly destroyed by fire a few years ago, and realized that he was not far from his apartment. He had not walked long at all, but in that interval he had been, for a time, outside of time. Harley shook his head in dismay at the sophomoric sentiments. He needed to sit down, to regroup. He wanted to call Tess.
At certain moments in his life, the world seemed to swell into an untenably large balloon, surrounding and engulfing him in a kind of semi-liquid state in which Harley had trouble breathing, thinking, or reasoning. When he was young, he could not yet articulate it fully and had no idea what was oppressing him so utterly. In this mode, Harley’s signs of life came to a stop. He had a memory of hearing his mother’s voice and perceiving her hand on his shoulder: “Addi, you can come back now.” It was as if she knew where he had been and what was happening. He would heed her voice and come back.
It happened in the shock of Doug Templeton’s unimaginable death, the accident that changed everything. He looked on, eyes vacant, and withdrawn into the liquid balloon. He could see, but no images were being processed. He was a boy staring at a surrealist painting, where form and meaning are severed, broken, disconnected. He needed the world to make sense, to find a pattern and forge a cohesive whole, but while he was like this, the world had to wait. Meaning was in abeyance. When he shivered into wakefulness again, there was Doug, still, cheek flush against the autumn grass. His friend.
Facing Place Saint Michel on his bench, feeling the cold air on his neck, Harley was very much aware and alive to his quandary. There would be no fugue state in which to hide today. Still it was a dilemma. He needed to share all this with someone, with someone he cared for and who would listen. Far from home, about to begin a long and somewhat vague project, his hand gripped the phone, and the thought of calling Tess rose through him again.
Tess would want to know what Message was crouching behind the call. Did he call because he wanted them to be “together” again? As to togetherness, Tess and Harley could more accurately be called contiguous rather than intertwined into any kind of togetherness. Over the course of the past two years, they had drawn closer together and then repelled further apart, like magnets switching poles. Usually the separation followed Harley’s pitch to intensify things between them. Tess was unambiguously on the fence about them, as if that were possible. She said that their relationship was more of a circumstance.
Each time this happened, Harley resolved to resolve the situationship by ending it. The up and down of it all had become too much. He hated the way it made him feel. In the very beginning, it was Tess who had asked him out. It was soon after her law degree and a few months after Harley had pinged her on Facebook. At the time, Tess claimed she was too busy with her studying, but the reality was that she wasn’t in much of a mood for dating. Now she was. Harley agreed to meet her at a café in town, which was pleasant enough, and then again, in a few days, but no sparks were flying. The country lawyer girl. He did not think there could be much of a future there. He had no easy means of getting to her, she lived quite far away from the city. Nor she to him. And while Harley had to admit he found her amiable and attractive, he couldn’t make it all the way there. She does not light my lights, he ruled.
The calls stopped. The messages faded, and it all got chalked up to a case of missing chemistry. Three months later, however, she reappeared on the phone display, as if nothing had ever happened: Tess Scalzain.
Of course he answered. He couldn’t not answer.
“Since you weren’t calling me, I thought you needed me to do it,” Tess chirped into the phone. She was someone who chirped. “Can you meet me tomorrow at five?”
Tess had enrolled in a cooking course that had classes rather near to where Harley lived. Scrambling to make sense of the reeling course of the universe, Harley blinked in frozen surprise and agreed. He had not been expecting this, but ok. He still thought she was cute and maybe Round Two would be better. He also liked the direct approach she had made, even if she had wrong-footed him for a moment.
Thinking about it now, it was typical of the kind of reversals they went through all the time since they had been together. The advance and retreat. Here it was Tess. Next time would be Harley. And each time they came within a hair’s breadth of any kind of quickening, verging toward a deepening of feelings, one of them would balk. They already had a certain amount of intimacy. They talked and shared secrets and stories. They were very compatible in bed and had a great deal of satiating sex. Her appetite and tastes aligned with his in many delightful ways, and they were drawn together. For Harley, this began to add up to something new. Although he refused to give it a name for weeks, knowing that by giving it a name he would give it life and existence, it finally bubbled unbidden to the surface:
“I love you, Tess.”
… Silence. Motionless. Zero gravity.
The declaration that should never have seen the light of day. Roland Barthes believes that maybe love should never be expressed like this, that it cannot be described as a continuing condition. “‘I-love-you,’” he writes, “has no usages. Like a child’s word, it enters into no social constraint it can be a sublime, solemn, trivial word, it can be an erotic, pornographic word. It is a socially irresponsible word.”
“I like you.”
Silence. Motionless. Zero gravity.
In this moment, everything is suspended: time, law, prohibition: nothing is exhausted. Saying that you love someone is never more than partially about the other person. When the flaming heart is shot through by an arrow as it makes its way through the null space which the I-love-you must travel to reach its object, there is no smooth way to recover. Harley sunk.
In the aftermath, of course, he managed to evade the enormity of the moment by pretending that a vast chasm had not just yawned open between them. They made believe for a while, but the evening ended early with each heading in differing respective directions. No one addressed it. No one looked at it. But it would fester.
Even now, nearly a year later, Harley had not metabolized the pain of that moment. There was no further mention of that irresponsible word, love, since then, and yet something was unmistakably growing between them. Now he needed her and was willing to close his eyes again to the possible futility of their ongoing situationship. The uncertainty and self-doubt stung the worst. Twin slaps in the face, delivered every time he thought of her. Of them.
His hand was still on his phone. And it was ringing.
The song “Music to Watch the Girls Go By” by Andy Williams always reminded him of Tess and that was her ringtone, playing incongruously loudly now. As if she knew his mind. As if he spent too much of his time dwelling on their precarious perch. That was more the truth. He answered.
“Hi Tess! I was just thinking of calling you!” he said brightly. Bright worked well for them, helping push the darkness back. It actually worked; Harley felt lighter and happy to hear from her.
“I know, silly! Why do you think I called?” Laughing. “Are you ok in Paris? Did you see where you will work yet? How is your apartment?”
Ultimately, we are all grateful for pleasantries. They are a stretch of road in between trees or mile markers. They allow us to pass smoothly across thoughts and ideas that may not be ready to be said, not ready to come out. Harley and Tess chatted for a few minutes about nothing and everything. She was unhappy with her friend Susanna, who promised to introduce her to some PR people but had not been answering her messages for the last four days. What do you think it means? And I had to take the Rambler into the garage again! I think it might be time to change, but I love that car. Will you drive around Paris? Harley listened with a smile, making noises at the right time. Pleasantries were also a means of hearing the other’s voice, a soothing balm for Harley right now.
“I can’t believe you are going to be there for almost a year,” she lamented.
“That’s kind of why I wanted to call.”
“They need me here for eight months. But it might be more. And I already miss you too much.”
“Harley? I miss you too. Are you quitting? Are you coming back?” Tess jumped right to conclusions. Still, Harley heard an unidentifiable tone in her voice, something between surprise and high alert.
“I just arrived. I can’t quit.”
The words were not coming. Asking her to join him, bringing her to Paris to share this adventure with him: wasn’t that exactly what he had been thinking about only a few minutes ago? If Tess were to come, they could do all the things tourists do here. They could take a lot of selfies in front of famous monuments. They could eat snails and frisée salad and fresh fruit clafoutis. The scenes that played through his cloudlike mind were all deeply romantic and filled with meaning, very much the scenes that he and Tess had never yet known together.
And maybe if she were to come here they could decide who they were to each other. And maybe that darkly looming verdict was scaring him to death, suddenly grabbing him by the throat and stopping him from asking her to come.
“I wanted to ask you,” he started.
“Yes?” Tess suspended the reply, knowing the question already.
“Eight months is too long to be apart. Would you want to come to Paris? Maybe for a while at least?”
Harley felt the relief of expelling the message, but the muscles in his shoulders and back seized up at the same time. Mixed messages coursed through his nervous system for the second time today.
The line was silent. Tess was not answering. The assumption that Harley had made was that she would love to see Paris again, firstly, and that she might love to see him too, secondly. Yet now nothing. No sounds.
“Are you still there?” he ventured. They could have been cut off.
“Yes,” Tess said quietly.
“‘Yes’ you will come here?”
Next Installment Coming Soon!
Copyright © 2022, Chris Farmer
All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any form without permission from the author, except as permitted Serbian copyright law. For permissions contact the author on the Contact page.