Monkey House

In the oldest park in Paris, Le Jardin des Plantes, visitors can buy a ticket and see the exotic animals in the zoo. It is not up to this writer to cast a judgement on the act of keeping creatures in cages for the sensorial delectation of humans; in this piece’s reality, it is what happens.

The hot sun beat down on the soil in the park and the flowers seemed to droop in desperation. The visitors sought shade where they could, though some more daring folk went to smell the flowers or inspect the scientific labels. Some had seen on their phones that there was a chance of rain later in the day, which was hoped for by some in the park.

The animals were mostly moping about the dry earth, looking for shade where possible. There was a supply of water, but the heat had made them drowsy. Except for the monkeys, who were unusually alert. They were communicating much more with each other, shouting and scrambling about their adventure park.

The visitors that were gathering around the monkey house were staring intently at the sight, remarking on the singularity of their behaviour, but also perturbed by the slightly menacing air that the scene had. The monkeys were bearing more of their teeth when they opened their mouths, and mother monkeys seemed to be keeping an eye on their children more severely. This seemed like a leadership contest and a victor might be pronounced before the watershed.

An American family came out of the reptile house and stopped by the monkeys to see what was what. In one spot of the large enclosure, a pair of monkeys, perhaps younger than the others, had snuck off to a different area and were acting amorously together. The father and mother giggled at each other, looked at their children, squeezed each others’ hand and left the zoo, not seeing that another male monkey had come and beaten off the other for the female.

They sat together on a bench, taking out their sandwiches, remarking on how hot it was. They checked the map to see where they had to go next. After a few moments, it became clear that a group of ravens were interested in their food. Two had come directly up to them, while three more lay waiting behind the bench, making the father turn his head. They were surrounded.

“Just give them some bread and let’s get out of here,” he said abruptly. It was clearly not just the bread they were interested in, and when the family got up to leave, one of the slicker birds flew in to take the map, snapping at the father’s fingers as it did so. “Goddam bird!” He said with a curse. “Come on, honey, it will be fine; look, we can ask that couple on the bench,” said his more rational wife, taking the initiative in her own suggestion, though not without some frustration; she did not like the idea of getting involved with ravens, already flown off to their lofty shade.

The monkey house was simmering in the afternoon heat, with seeming arrangements being made and teams formed. There was the occasional screech, but they were mostly keeping the peace. One of the tourists outside managed to snap a picture of two monkeys confronting each other. He added it to his story immediately.

“Excuse me,” seemingly not noticing the intense conversation that was going on on the bench, “but you can tell us where Notre Dame is?” The couple paused, looked at each other and the man with a strained but understanding temper pointed them in the right way. “Thanks very much, sir, and have a great day” said the father, shaking his hand. If Frank was in any other mood, he would have appreciated the moment. As it happens, he found himself in a delicate situation.

“You know, I think I love you more than I love her,” resuming his early thread. “I don’t know if I would care if she found out.”

“Well, that’s exactly what she’s going to do. I told you; she’s got someone after us. And I think he’s in this park.”

“That’s nonsense, Sandra would not go to those lengths, I can assure you. If she suspected a thing, she would be straight on it, no holding back.”

“She’s been watching me, I’m sure of it. On my way back from work the other day, a car followed me for a good three quarters of an hour. I’m scared.”

“No need to be scared; Sandra’s a perfectly rational and compassionate woman. She knows we’ve been unhappy for years now. I don’t know how we’ve coped.”

“Yeah, but hearing that you’re abandoning her and the children for a woman fifteen years younger might just push her over the edge.”

“Do you have to remind me of this?”

“You told me you loved me.”

“I do.”

“So do I.”

It is at this moment that Frank catches in the corner of his eye a man with a camera behind the trees on the other side of the park. He curses, considers running after the man, but decides to wait it out in the shade. He needed to drink something, but he felt stuck on the bench, glued to Imogen. This is it, he thinks, it ends here; the game I’ve been playing and the lies I have told. Here it all finds an ending.

In the monkey cage, two powerful males have risen to the top, casting to their own sides supporters, depending on where the interest lay. Or this is how it seemed to the tourists who were riveted by the exceptional energy that this group of monkeys was exhibiting. Anymore and it might end up trending.

Frank wondered where his wife had found the money for a detective and, more importantly, when he or she had started following him. But as he said, he couldn’t find the energy to care for his wife anymore and sat on the bench, he slumped his greying head on the shoulder of a woman who had been carrying him for ten years. She wished him luck on business trips and heard all the stories of the children; she was the supportive partner he thought he had never had.

Imogen looked up to the sky and saw that it had gotten darker, heavy with urban precipitation, one large stomach ready to burst open. “Come on,” she said, “let’s get out before the rain breaks.” The get up from the bench, turn right towards the exit by the large greenhouse and that is when they see two figures, one more familiar than the other. It was Sandra and her brother.

“How could they have possibly known?” Frank said to under his breath, but loud enough for Imogen to hear. “I told you; she had someone on us,” she retorted. Well, this is it, Frank thought to himself, I must tell her in front of her brother. He’s not going to like this at all, the angry little brute.

Sandra had been tipped off by her sleuth of the whereabouts of her husband and lover. She had known about it for some months now, slowly digesting an extramarital affair that lasted almost two decades. Now, she was to meet her rival, and confront them both. She lived it as a tragically proud moment in her life, comforted by the presence of her brother who had agreed not to intervene unless necessary.

“Sandra…” Frank said, seizing the moment to speak. But she brushed him off and went directly to Imogen. “So you’re the woman who thinks she can scab off my household?” She asked cooly, but with a definite menace, not malice, in her voice. Imogen felt the stare of a betrayed woman look her up and down, she could see the studied, bitter resentment on the face of the woman she envied deep down, and was on the brink of capitulating.

Back at the monkey house, the tourists were having a field day. The two male monkeys who had been squaring up to each other were pushing each other in the enclosure. The troops around them were howling, waiting on tenterhooks for the moment, and it was strange to see that such a racket had not attracted the attention of the guards. But they didn’t care; teeth was going for flesh, and punches were being made.

“Look, Frank,” Sandra turned on him, “I don’t want to make a scene out of this. Come on, let’s go and get out of the rain and discuss this elsewhere.”

“I’m not coming with you,” snapped Frank in a tone that was not his own. “I’m staying here, with Imogen, the woman I have loved for the last 20 years.” Sandra buckled at the knees and was about to fall, when her brother came and supported her. Imogen seemed to snicker at this woman, just then so proud, cut down by Frank’s words. The brother noticed and with violence said “wipe that grin off your face, you whore.” “Don’t you speak to my fiancee like that.” “But you’re already married to me,” came a mumble. “Or else what, cheater?”

With that, Frank launched himself at his brother-in-law, who in defence had to let Sandra fall to the ground. Imogen could be heard shouting in the background, as the two men wrestled on the wetting dust around the tracks, their grunts becoming more proclaimed, the two women shocked by the scene in front of them. All of a sudden, there was a gunshot. The clouds broke, an immense downpour of rain. Frank became weak, falling to the floor, clutching his heart. The brother stood back and watched life wrinkle out of a man. The women were escorted away in metal coats, as heavy drops ricocheted off the metal. The police blues flashed their usual melody. The zookeeper put away his rifle and watched the monkeys return to the old status quo.

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Il faut bien servir à quelque chose

“Il faut bien servir à quelque chose…”

… said Paul to the man standing at the bar.  They clinked glasses and took a long swig of what each was drinking.  It was at this moment that a boy of about five or six came running around the corner of the bar, dodging in between the chairs of the tables by the large windows, overlooking the cobbled streets of Barbizon.  He was playing some game with his sister – it might have been tag – and she was laughing by the knees of her father, who was playing his own adult game at the bar.

The children breathed life into the greying décor, and a couple, no older than seventeen, sat and wanted to hold hands, because it was cold, and looked into each other’s eyes while all around them darted the stares of newcomers who had just sat down to take a hot chocolate.  Two plates of food were carried out by a waiter of the brasserie, delivered to a patient table and set upon like a winter feast.

With his most recent professional accomplishment, Paul was spending his time gambling in so-called PMUs, which gave him the time to unwind.  Usually on the horse and chariot races, in this bar there was only the bingo to while away the time.  This he did with consummate professionalism in a hobby, going out for smokes and drinking half pints of cheap beer.

A man with a hat on his head had walked in a few hours ago and was standing to the left of Paul at the zinc.  He wore this hat to keep out the cold, but when it was summer he wore a hat to hide a scar on his head.  When he came in, he ordered syrop au citron and thought about the times he was living in, and being artistic he had to plenty to consider, standing at bars in brasseries, wondering what the hell is going on.

He said hello to Paul, who respected his seniority and asked him what was what.  He replied that he was a painter, trying to catch the minutiae of a village with two centuries of printed history.  A fine task, said Paul with little reflection, for he was occupied with what his next professional engagement might be. No rest for the wicked.

All of a sudden, one of the children fell over a chair, having misjudged the amount of space to give a chair leg, but did not burst into tears.  The father put down his betting pencil for a moment, ready to pick up the child if necessary.  The couple stopped their chitter chatter to see if the boy was alright, and even the local drunk turned an eye from his beer to assess the scene.  Yet the boy simply looked at his knee, rubbed it and ran off to rejoin his sister.

In conversation with the painter, Paul admitted to taking a little break from his work, omitting that he had recently been charged with obtaining information about the forthcoming French elections and had needed to interview some very high personalities.  He had come to the countryside to take some fresh air and to march among boulders in this ancient domain.  The older replied that he lived there, exhibiting paintings in the village’s largest gallery.  Paul could not help but be impressed.

The man had a bag by his side, out of which – like some terrible cliché – a brush and palette stuck out.  Paul was intrigued by this and asked him to show him what he had in there.  “Si vous me payez une bière”, replied the older man.

Paul considered.  He could see the people around him and did not want to disturb them.  In this little corner of France, they talk about guns between themselves and the military.  Ostensibly, they do not support art that is not nationally their own.  But in Barbizon, there is something more, Paul had learned, and the locals do appreciate the artist.  In their own way.

“Allez-y,” said Paul and the older man removed from his bag a sketch book and soft crayon, which the older man was very well accustomed to handling, as well as dealing with the curious eye of the public.  Why do you think he drank so much?  He had painted all over the world, from Japan to the west coast of the USA and thence further East always, in some spiral to refind his birth place and to rest his ashes in his homeland.  He was stuck in Europe.

He and Paul continued their conversation over a cigarette outside and noticed that it had started snowing.  Paul thought of the final story from the Dubliners, remarking on the universal nature of art and its ability to combine the high and the low in one story.  “Vous êtes un méchant”, said the older man.

This pricked Paul’s attention, who then questioned him.  But instead of saying anything about it, the conversation became political.  As Stendhal would say, the pistol was fired in the theatre; the older man asked whether Paul thought Sarkozy was going to win the elections.  He did not exactly, so Paul gave his own two cents and they both returned to their beverages at the bar.

“C’est l’heure pour moi, je crois” said Paul.  “Avant de partir, je vous fais votre portrait”, replied the older man.  Flattered, Paul accepted, thinking his witty conversation had earned him the honour.  After all, passing through an artist town, one has one’s portrait done.  He stood at the bar, still like a shark, and surveyed the room around him.

When the portrait was done, proudly displayed on the bar, the other clients looked at it, looking at Paul and mostly nodding in approval.  Paul could not tell if they had done this before.  Even the couple holding hands in a tight embrace broke their attention to snatch a glimpse of the art of Barbizon.  Paul felt both intimidated and proud by this moment, and so he asked for the bill.

When it came, shortly before his taxi back to the station, he offered the older man a beer, who accepted it.  He clinked his glasses, threw the rest of his beer down his throat and strolled out of the café.  The couple stood up to pay their bill, silently nodding at the artist, and opened the main doors into the snowing night.  The father ushered his children along, telling them to stop playing, and left the brasserie.  The artist finally sat back on his chair, raised his glasses and said to himself “Il faut bien servir à quelque chose”.

 

 

Venice, 2016

Image result for nymphs virgil eclogues

Gorgias and Iasone talk shop

Gor: Here you are, reclining on your boat, under the shade of your favourite palazzo.  You strum your guitar like never before, a wistful tune of Spanish origin, yet I know you know this lagoon and have never left for South American shores.  And while I am searching a way to flee this place, to move on and never come back, you teach the delicate waters to resonate with sweet words.

Ias: My dear Gorgias, it is a mystery to me what has procured this peace and I do not see this inspiration stopping soon; for a long time in my life I have enjoyed the altars of Bacchus and willingly served his cult.  As a young man, my mind would be softened by words and the images created by another.  Now, this aura reigns my soul again, so it seems, and has allowed me once more to play on my swift boat.

Gor: I certainly do not deny you this privilege, friend, but instead I marvel at your composure, while all around us there is frenzy.  I have driven my boat around these canals for weeks on end, finding only a few thin tourists.  I saw this one man standing out in the crowd, with a very pretty woman, much his junior, and who looked like a fat sale.  We exchanged words, and he was about to embark, when he tumbled, clutching his chest.  He fell like an oak on the stones in front of the church, shouting something about the goodness of his mind.  Died before the ambulance could reach him.  But tell me, Iasone, what has brought on this blessed state of mind?

Ias: I have been reminded of the city of Paris, which I once thought just another tourist trap like our own.  Many years ago, I visited this place and brought my choice lines of poetry to dress them up in more cultured rags.  At the time I was in the habit of comparing bitches with pussies, mothers with daughters, oaks with acorns.  But then I saw this global metropolis raising its head above the international playground, like the chestnut trees reaching towards the skies on its wide and famous boulevards.

Gor: And what brought you to Paris in the first place?

Ias: Freedom.  I discovered it late in life, before my beard had made me wiser and while in my eyes change could be achieved through violence.  Then I was held between Italian cities, cultivating my bitter gardens and milk-white pretentions, exerting physical force over the undulations of an unremitting ideal.  I did not care for freedom; I thought not of material accumulation.  And though many a time rich ideas would leave my humble threshold, the return I was seeking would not give back, and my right hand, stained with brassy ink, could seize no profit. 

Gor: At the time we crushed this afternoon a cup of amber wine on the San Giacomo, I wondered why you wept to think of these former streets from a Parisian perspective, and wherefore you glutted sorrow on sunk grapes; you have been absent from this Bay.  The fountains, the palazzi – they missed you.

Ias: What could I do?  The high tides would not free me from manacles, and She, my god, threw herself from the cliffs, as I missed her kiss; and we both missed the synchronicity of waves.  And then I saw something more, something concrete, the thing now for which our tour travels from place to place and from which near seven years ago I was given the first statement of change: “Boys and girls, feed your verses as before, and rear your mighty tomes”.

Gor: Happy you now must be in the lofty Pyrenees, though the streets are emptying and tainted algae make a parasite of our youth.  Fortunate soul, to gaze upon the Seine under the cooling shades of our beautiful city’s canopy; your days are spent in the demarcations of swift Culture, drinking from the cool taps and listening to the flock’s gentle lowing.  And what’s more, Italian borders are never too far away, and upon Hesperian sheets you can be lulled whenever you choose, while sea dogs and Sirens, your own delights, will never cease their plaintiff melodies.

Ias: You inspire me again: sooner wine be turned to water, pigeons to tigers, or the exiled Syrian to princes once again, or the Union to tatters, than I shall turn my gaze from those streets lit up.

Gor: Come, my friend, it is time.  San Francisco calls, the Dominican Republican waits on us and all of France yearns to hear the words of our review.  I will miss my rural home and the country side that surrounded me, a child.  The birches that point directly to Heaven have shaded me for such a long time; they have seen me grow, but I them never.  Now a dismal soldier threatens, and barbary stands ready to ravage our well-tilled soils.  Look at where war has led us, faithful citizens of an eternal republic; it was for this that so much ink was spilled?  Go on, fellow writers, with your happy lines.  Look at me in my ruin, as my once cherished house crumbles in despair; songs I’ll sing no more, what an exile I’ll die and my over-polished crop of wailing words will fall short before the dawn, languishing by the willows and sickly cypresses. 

Ias: But you will stay here the night.  The Venetian moon is rising and we have all we need for the moment: wine, wit and wisdom.  The tavern awaits us, the crowd longs to be pleased and the smoking pipes caress our hoary throats.