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A RAINY DAY IN PARIS


A certain memory haunts me from time to time that has to do with my father and me in Paris, back in 1955. I was twelve years old. I was the only son who seemed to get a little close to my father, who was the great stone face in our family. He never showed me any affection, like a pat on the shoulder or a hug. He might mutter "Happy Birthday," but only if prompted to by my mother, who then slipped a present to him to give to me. He never remembered birthdays, except my mother's. She made up for his failings as much as she could, but what she never accomplished was the illusion of his warmth. She couldn't figure out how to stage such a performance.

We landed at Orly airport after flying all night on a noisy Air France prop plane. I pressed my face against the big oval window to drink in the faded light, to absorb this mysterious city my father had known as a soldier in World War II. He was across the aisle talking to my mother, whose face was animated and youthful. When we arrived at our hotel near the opera house, I could smell the stale air of a hundred years in the lobby, and feel the worn hands that had touched the brass grill of the tiny elevator as we clanked through the spirals of a staircase. Who knew when the last Nazi officers had filed out of the room we were now in? Nothing had changed since they were here; the color of the walls was indescribable, a kind of putty gray with soot lining the moldings of the ceiling.

The traffic was audible through the tall French windows looking out over the glistening street below. A jewelry store's windows glowed with watches and cigarette lighters set on dark velvet shelves. Everyone was hurrying down the street under black umbrellas while the traffic stalled. It was glorious. It was like nothing I had known before. You could feel the past in your breath. You knew somewhere in that old, rain-soaked granite capital that Edif Piaf, whom my father loved, was still sleeping in her big feather bed. Maurice Chevalier was eating breakfast in his hotel room, with the drapes parted to the black iron spire of the Eiffel Tower. Somewhere in all that clutter of light and chrome and shrill taxi horns was the stooped figure of Charles de Gaulle shaking some visiting dignitary's hand. Paris had endured, grown more brittle and varnished through the Depression, the war, the arduous peace that followed.

We ate lunch in the adjacent room, my parents' bedroom, from bags my father had brought in from the deli. He poured out wine and cut up some cheese, tore off hunks of baguette. Never had I tasted food so delicious. We had coffee sent up and sat there in the monotony of the rain falling, not speaking. The city crept up our veins and dampened our clothes. I could hear the giggles of the chambermaids as they made up the beds nearby; they sounded like school girls, but they were older than me by a few years. They were children when the sirens were wailing after each bombing raid.

My brother was eager to explore the neighborhood, and my mother doled out some French francs. When he was gone, my father asked me if I would like to go with him for a little tour of the streets. My mother wanted to take a nap. I gulped down my surprise and followed him out the door. He had been counting his American money carefully before we left. We were on some sort of errand. He spoke excellent French and had a chat with the concierge at the desk in the lobby. Off we went without an umbrella into the simmering rain and the muttering gutters. The cafes were empty, the restaurants shuttered. It seemed a bit dreary after all the stories I had heard about the city of light. We were moving through the dregs of winter, with hardly a sign of spring anywhere except in the cement tubs of a park, where someone had planted geraniums.

We stopped briefly and my father bought a glass of wine; I stood next to him at the counter. He sipped leisurely, and even offered to say this had once been his favorite bistrot when he was a soldier. I looked around at all the gilded mirrors, the old woman nursing a cognac, a man poring over a newspaper, with his umbrella dripping beside him. We went out into the gloomy afternoon and continued our "tour." He was looking for someone, but I couldn't say why. Finally, a man stepped forward out of a crowd at a bus stop and spoke rapid French. My father nodded and answered and produced a folded wad of American dollars. The man smiled and led us to a doorway. He showed a thicker wad of francs and counted them out carefully. My father seemed pleased.

After a few moments of hesitation what to do next, the man took my father's arm and led him into the dim corridor of the building. I watched everything carefully. Who knows what the exchange rate was at the time, but my father, always eager to save a buck, must have felt this black market rate was considerably better than the official one. The men stood there with me between them. Finally, they shook hands, and the man pulled out the thick wad of francs and my father took out his wad and they exchanged them. No sooner had they done so, than the man took off and disappeared into the street. My father was happy. He pocketed his loot and smiled at me. He had made a good deal.

Out on the street he found shelter at a newsstand and counted the money. He sucked in his breath; he had been cheated, badly. How? My father didn't want to explain, perhaps for fear I would blab it to my mother. "He had two packs of money," he said reluctantly. "He kept the good one in one pocket, and the other, with mostly five franc notes tucked inside, in the other. When we exchanged, I didn't think to count up the money in front of him. He pulled a good one."

We didn't head home; instead, my father made his way through a maze of streets to a dreary, blackened government building and we climbed up the stairs into the lobby. The place was full of police. He spoke to someone who pointed to the next stairs. Down an unlit corridor was a row of offices, each with a door painted with the names of departments. It was like a scene out of Sherlock Holmes. He knocked at one and a man beckoned him in. We sat down at his desk and my father explained the whole matter to him in lilting French. The detective, I assume that's what he was, nodded appreciatively and propped his chin on his manicured fingers. He was intrigued, or perhaps he was used to pursing his lips without giving away his perceptions. At some point he wrote a few notes and stood up; the meeting was over.

Out on the street again, I asked my father what had happened. "He knew the man who shorted me," he said. "He's going after him. He may still have my money. Don't tell your mother; don't tell your brother," he said, and walked quickly. I had to run to keep up.

On the bus, he leaned down to my ear. "He's a real pro; he's been working tourists for the last several years. They know where he lives. It'll get solved."

My father hunched his shoulders a little. I had caught him in a mistake; I was now entrusted with the error and told not to divulge a word of it. My father was mortal, I told myself. He goofed. He had fallen for the cheapest trick in the book. I had seen the marble of his statue crack a little. We held a secret in common, and I would lose everything if I whispered a word about it. It would all get out and my mother would let her tongue flash and eyes smolder. My dad was tight; he gave her an allowance to live on, he watched her constantly. She was never to give us money we didn't earn, for our chores, you know. He was the provider, the keeper of the purse. He allocated the sacred fluid of democracy as he saw fit. She counted her coins carefully. Now he had been fleeced and proved himself a spendthrift, a sap. I knew it. I had that secret close to my heart. It was all about growing up, and discovering the less than godly stature of a man who had sired you. I glowed inside. Paris had given me the gift of knowledge when I least expected it. I never forgot, and I never said a word about it until now.

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