The Art of Flight – by Dimitri Keramitas

by TBLM

It came down to a slip of paper, an official form: A-354. If André had been a clochard, a homeless bum, it wouldn’t have mattered. Paris’ so-called free spirits, as liberated as any dog (except those they leash around), were notorious for not caring for regulation. Freezing on a slab of sidewalk in winter they’d accept a cup of soup but nothing that entailed the dreaded red tape. André wasn’t a clochard, just down at the heels, down on his luck, down but not out.

He’d had to leave his hotel on the rue de Montreuil for lack of funds. André knew there’d always be more money, another hotel. For inner warmth he swigged from his leather-lined flask (picked out of a pile of Zippos, ashtrays, fountain pens and other rubbish at the brocante market, cost: several meals). As he ambled over the Boulevard Soult, his territory, his stride was bow-legged and jaunty. But his brow furrowed in a way unusual for him, like fault lines across his forehead.

André plotted strategy as he carried his compact frame into a tobacco shop. André had little formal education but he had a knack for picking up useful knowledge that came his way. That hadn’t been the case years ago, when he’d lost his mill job, then his woman, then his home. He knew those public bureaux that provided so-called “minima” for survival. He knew the officials who mattered. He knew the forms. So he knew that not having A-354, conferring priority for emergency housing, meant not having a proper place. Since neighbourhood shelters were full one other option was sleeping outside, becoming a clochard—a clodo. And that was not an option.

He’d visited the emergency housing office on rue de Charonne. A young functionary with professorial spectacles but wearing a ponytail and a tee-shirt told him a part-time job would qualify him for the form, and one hundred fifty Euros cash money would reserve a spot for a month. The man suggested the public shelter near the Bastille, but André knew that it had recently been the site of a brawl, clodos fighting over the few remaining beds. The sidewalk there was still smeared red. He blocked it out of his mind now as he took in the blended tobacco aromas in the shop.

One thing that distinguished him from the clochard was ritual. André did certain things like clockwork. Every day he went to the tabac to buy a cigarillo, Eldorado No. 2. The thin little cocoa-colored cylinder, fifty centimes, placed carefully in a corner of his mouth, lit with the fluid movement of the ciné heroes he’d loved as a child. His father’s generation, in his village in the east of France, had smoked cigars, cigarillos, no-filter cigarettes, pipes, and (in the case of the token North African migrant) water pipes. Like those men, he enjoyed the sensual feeling of smoke roiling his insides.

Unlike those men, André no longer had the promise of work in the mills. His childhood was filled with tips from his father relating to millwork but the mills left, just like his father. As André took his El Dorado and change he saw a poster hanging from the counter, announcing the Foire du Trône, a carnival that came in the spring and stayed for three months, with old-time rides, games of chance, snack bars, and hucksters. A job he held seasonally, but consistently, was as attendant for the Thunderbird, a big favorite, a circular chain of cars hurtling over an undulating rubber apron. André’s job was to strap in customers and make sure the wooden safety barrier was secure. The job brought four hours wages every day for the three months. He got a payslip and even some benefits, free lunch and metro tickets.

André came out of the shop with a burst of energy. He gave his baseball cap a rakish angle and headed up the boulevard. Boulevard Soult, one of the marechaux, the streets circling Paris, led to the site of the Foire near the Bois de Vincennes park. He always waited till just before opening day to ask for his job—the ride’s proprietors were often short of workers, afraid of being left short-handed, so offered more than they would have otherwise. They’d be happy to sign André up early and therefore cheaply. Might they give him an advance? Forget it. But an attestation, temporary contract, some piece of paper? Yes, said André to himself, mimicking the answer the boss would give.

Aside from the baseball cap, André had on a sailor’s shirt, windbreaker, oversized cords rolled up like a deck hand’s though he’d never seen the sea, and wore Walkman earphones around his neck like a stethoscope. He always spent half an hour in the morning making sure he looked right. Nothing was new, nothing that didn’t come from the Emaus second-hand shop, but all of it was clean and in decent condition. People might look past him, but they didn’t look away from him. He took as many pains to choose his clothes and keep them up as he did to get a square meal (more). He saw two friends idling on a steam grate, playing music on a radio, passing a bottle.

“Where to, André?” said Fredo.

“The fête foraine,” André said, using the old-fashioned word for a travelling fair that didn’t quite apply to the Foîre. “Some of us actually work from time to time!”

André showed his gap-toothed smile, making sure they knew he was joking. But everyone on the Boulevard knew him, so they didn’t hesitate to screw up quizzical mock frowns

“A worker, eh?” Fredo spat good-naturedly. “Karl Marx wrote about people like you. You’re going to miss the Parliament of Fools.”

“They’re meeting at the Bois, not far from the Foire,” said Fredo’s companion Maxence. “You can pay a courtesy call.”

Non, merci,” said André.

The Parliament of Fools was nothing but a self-appointed group of clodos. They were in session every so often and chose a dozen ministers with phony portfolios. They took complaints, handed down edicts, levied non-existent taxes, and other nonsense. But if they weren’t a real parliament they didn’t consider themselves fools. They ran a protection racket shaking down fellow “citizens of the pavement.” Though André liked just about everyone on the Boulevard he couldn’t help smirking when he saw the self-styled Prime Minister in his bushy beard and flowing overcoat, browbeating his cronies.

The Foîre was finishing up its preparation phase, dust-clouds of worked-up activity swirling everywhere. Men put up rides and installed games of chance and “skill.” Africans swept the concourse, gypsy boys prowled the exits, security guards surveyed blankly and smoked cigarettes. But André didn’t see his ride, the Thunderbird. He took one path then another, expecting the ride to appear, only to come to other rides or snack bars selling candied apples and sugared waffles.

He finally saw the men who managed the ride. They were animated as they moved about a ride, not the Thunderbird. When André called out, their glances of recognition lasted barely a second before they went back to ticking checklists and giving orders. One of them, while continuing to act busy, edged toward André and saluted him with a tap on the shoulder.
“Bad luck, eh, André?”

“How did you know, Eric?” said André.

“How’d I know about the Thunderbird? Putain, I was there!”

“The … I thought you meant … The Thunderbird … where is it?”

Eric put on a furtive expression and turned away from his workers. He dragged from his cigarette and explained that in another city, two adolescents had been thrown from the Thunderbird, killing them both. The Foire gave no quarter on safety so the ride was eliminated. André kept a jocular expression as his heart dropped. Eric said there might be work but nothing was sure. André felt the workers’ eyes on him, as if he’d been responsible for the accident, but he managed a sliver of smile as he left.

Along the Boulevard he gazed at men toiling on the tramway line. They were working hard, making serious money, the Arabs and Africans doing the hardest tasks. He came back to the steam grate, where Fredo and Maxence were working hard at not working. They offered him a bottle of low-grade plonk. He was thinking about his mill job with nostalgia, memories merging with more distant ones of jobs he’d almost had, or had for a while—the best job he could have had he never even tried for, because it would have taken him away from his girl, back when he still had normal relationships (unless Giselle counted as normal).

André shuffled into the tabac to buy another cigarillo, violating his one-a-day routine. As the shop had just re-opened after the lunch hour there was a line at the counter. In front of him, buying an English newspaper, was a lanky dark foreigner, taller than André, middle-aged but youthful. His face was lopsided, one side not level with the other. André pointed to a headline in L’Equipe about the upcoming Cup, sports being a subject most people could talk about, agree to disagree. Nowadays even women and men in suits were football fans.

“OM will clobber them. PSG—they have nothing, eh?” he said to the foreigner.

The foreigner looked at him, bemused. “You are talking of soccer ball?”

“I’ll be listening on the radio. I don’t care how long I live in Paris, I’m an OM man one thousand per cent!”

“I don’t follow,” said the man. “OM is the team from Marseille, yes?”

“Yes.” André couldn’t imagine any human, even a foreigner, an uneducated one, not knowing the rudiments of the beautiful game. And this man didn’t look uneducated.

“You want OM to win!” he said. “Though you are not from there.”

“Right,” said André.

“It’s best not to stick to one piece of earth. Just like the ball!”

The foreigner’s broad smile held together both sides of his uneven face like a latch. What did this man listen to, if not football? What did he talk about with friends? His friends were likely other foreigners, and they probably talked about the countries they’d left behind. Go figure, thought André, pointing at the cigarillo in the display case, though the proprietor knew precisely what brand, and most of all, what quantity. When André left the shop he found the foreigner standing outside. The man noticed him and spoke up.

“You’re looking for some work?”

“Maybe,” said André. “It depends what.”

“Carrying things over to Charenton.”

“Today?” André asked.

“5 o’clock this afternoon. And it doesn’t depend on what, but how much!”

“How much?”

The man told him. “And that’s cash!”

André waved, as if waving him off, or else giving assent. The foreigner called after him: “That’s money enough for you to go see OM!”

He preferred going to see Giselle to ask if she might temporarily advance money from her check. They’d broken up some time ago. Still, there was something between their eyes whenever they crossed paths, which André managed to contrive every couple of days. For a while Giselle was his woman. They’d managed to find discreet places to make love: alleyways, boarded-up construction sites, isolated nooks in shelters. But sex wasn’t the point. They were together. He called her ma biche, she called him mon petit chou. They walked hand in hand, to the amusement of others. André kept her with him on the fine line between street life and clochard-hood. They did laundry together, spending a bottle of wine to look correct. Like him, she had style, favoring brocaded jeans jackets and skirts, and a raffish jeans cap she wore over lank, gray-streaked hair. He drank less. She stopped completely.

She surprised him by stopping the drink. She no longer begged for butts, either. Once when they met, André’s nose couldn’t stop twitching. The congestion in his sinuses, the result of pollution, cold, and unsavory crap ingested over time, opened a crack to let in an odor. She’d put on some sort of scent. Giselle went from looking at him fondly to looking at him deeply. When he talked of leaving Paris she frowned and told him to stop dreaming. She said, “This is too much effort, André.” He contradicted her for a minute then went back to his happy-go-lucky face.

André arrived at a little park, littered, graffitied, slated for refurbishing. It was frequented by clochards, hookers, and drug-users draped over the playground equipment and benches where parents had sat. He found Giselle in the company of a pack of clodos. From a distance he saw her on the street facing the park, trying to flag down cars. He thought she was doing a parody of a streetwalker then realized she was in earnest, though no one stopped or even slowed down.

Giselle entered the confines of the park and as consolation knocked back cheap cognac handed over by the others. When André reached the park their eyes met and she squinted a pained, angry look, but not the steely indifference she would have bestowed on concerned passersby. André showed a crumbly smile, waved, and kept walking.

André thought of the oddball foreigner. Had he been serious about that job? He was too weird to lie. He’d said 4 or 5, and now it was … he didn’t know what time it was. His watch had stopped days ago. Suddenly what had been a hazy cloud of possibility looked concrete under the glare of his need and so he walked to the rendezvous, quickening his steps, taking sharp breaths that cut his lungs. When he got to the appointed corner nobody was there. Heaving, he looked about as if the appointment had been the surest thing in the world. After turning round several times on the pavement people began to stare. Noticing some acquaintances sitting next to a pile of street newspapers they were intermittently hawking, he walked over to take comfort in their cheery indifference.

“Damned foreigner!” André said, not very convincingly.

“You mean that Hindu?” said one of the clodos.

“He said there was a job lugging crap.”

“I saw Maxence talking to him. They went off together.”

“Maxence? Did he steal that job from me?” André asked.

“I didn’t actually see him doing any work.”

“That sneak. Stole my job! I’ll … I’ll …”

André decided, even before he finished his sentence, not to do anything to Maxence though by rights he could take it out on his hide. There was no obligation for a fair fight, just come behind and wallop him. A fight between clochards. People would turn away, no one would care, no police would come. André wasn’t afraid, nor was he particularly gentle when he’d been wronged, but he was not some clodo who thrashed about on the pavement.
You’ll, you’ll …” mocked one of the men. “What’s the big deal?”

“I need help,” said André. “Money. To get a place at the emergency housing.”

The clodos scraped pavement self-consciously with their shoes and looked about as if in search of a long-lost comrade, until one of them spoke up.

“Why don’t you go see the Parliament of Fools? You’re a citoyen of the pavement. If Maxence took what’s yours they’ll force him to give it back.”

“You think?” André asked.

“If he knows what’s good for him.”

The Parliament of Fools was in session at the Bois de Vincennes. They were sprawled over several benches; waiting until hangovers dissipated and they collected enough food scraps and alcohol to fuel their departure. As the weather turned they’d head south like migratory birds. Many were asleep and snoring, others awake and smoking, drinking, arguing, gesticulating, retching, reading yesterday’s newspapers. André recognized Maxence among them, lounging innocently. So much for the stolen job. Their eyes met. They approached one another and Maxence offered a bottle. Although André didn’t care much for the hard stuff he never refused a man’s hospitality.

“So where’s the foreigner?” asked André. “Did he say when he was coming back?”

“I couldn’t understand his jabbering. He was joking about OM but I didn’t get it. I think he said in two days.”

“That’ll be too late,” said André.

“I told them about your problem,” said Maxence, making a gesture. “Maybe they can help.”

The Prime Minister rose, firm and unsteady at the same time, and looked blearily at André. He pointed a club-like stick at him as he spoke.

“You need something, Citoyen André. We can give it.”

The Parliament of Fools ruled over clochards in this part of Paris, so a word from its leader would result in men who regularly missed meals giving up a Euro or two. A large bag of coin to aid one of their own in urgent need wasn’t unheard of. André knew it and the Prime Minister, red-veined eyes aglow, knew that he knew it, and gloated in his potential altruism.

“I know you don’t appreciate us, Citoyen. I know what you think of the men of the pavement. I also know your livelihood depends on guarantees only money can buy.”

“You know everything then,” said André, his mouth set in a crooked grin.

“That is how I seized this exalted position. That’s what this position is founded on! We survive by our wits. For our help we ask only a favor in return.”

André winced in recognition. He was in a daily struggle, though he hid it under an amiable expression. It was less hidden now. When he walked with his jaunty stride his leg bones cracked, and when he smiled widely he felt his sunburnt skin draw back. The smell of plonk in his mouth didn’t wash away, not even with smoke from his cigarillo. André unfolded a piece of paper describing the little favour. He looked up at the Prime Minister.

“Do you know this—that I’m not going to accept your handout?” said André.

“I do now,” said the Prime Minister, with a curdled look.

*

Why not just take the money he needed? All along the Boulevard were banks studded with ATM machines churning cash for those with the magic codes, and sometimes for others as well: a flatbed truck had rammed the ATM of one bank, the thieves taking thousands and disappearing into the traffic. André thought about sneaking up behind someone at a machine and snatching the cash. He practiced, waiting in line and mumbling a threat in a not-quite-audible voice. Being a crook was better than being a clodo, wasn’t it? He couldn’t say. While standing behind a young woman he couldn’t help wondering who she was, what sort of job she had, why she had money and he didn’t. Not out of a sense of grievance but just to know why. A beseeching look broke open his face as composure gave way. The woman smiled wanly in return, and kept glancing at him as she walked away.

Madame!” he called.

The woman rushed back and took the credit card she’d left on the ATM’s little counter. He could have taken it. He figured his presence had unnerved her, caused her to forget the card. André tried to do the same at other ATMs, to no avail—one man thought he was trying to pick him up. André walked hurriedly away and came upon some clodo friends who offered him a bottle. André didn’t just suck down his customary swig but tilted the bottle up as if it were an intravenous drip. The clodos saw a man in need and let the bottle empty.

Normally when André got drunk he’d sit happily on his haunches, gazing at the world through his inebriation. This time André refused to sit. He kept moving. Even when he stopped he kept moving. It was funny: everything preventing this moment had been leading up to it. Maybe it would be the same now, this place leading him elsewhere. Or maybe not—sometimes elsewhere is here, he thought, as the sky lurched sideways, buildings arced one way then another, the pavement flew skyward. André didn’t feel drunk yet he rolled, swung arms, kicked legs on the pavement, but with the street above him. When he tried to get up, only to fall, it was like being hurled into space. His equilibrium cut its moorings and he heard it whizzing between his ears. Closing his eyes he entered a dream of soaring through times and places, between his village and Paris, even dreaming that the foreigner had taken him to his own faraway land. He then dreamed that this was not a dream at all.

The light of day had changed when he awoke, his head resting against one of the rolled-up carpets the street-cleaners used to direct water in the gutter. How long had he slept? The sun was red, lurching over the horizon. He threw off the cardboard someone had covered him with. André felt, if not sober, then lucid. Nothing was different. He’d slept the night outside like a clodo. That’s what he was now, a clochard, a tramp. Yet he felt rested and light.

André flew over the pavement, over the parks along the Boulevard, over puddles and patches of grass. He felt himself rise hundreds of meters, where he saw the broad lines of things but lost their details. He’d always felt the particularity of a person or building lay in its details but now he appreciated the long view, enjoying the wavy contours, the way outlines of different things came together, if only momentarily. He skimmed in and out of days. He came in for landings gracefully, like a seaplane on pontoons, on the most convenient bodily angle. Bottles of plonk fueled him. While he felt perfectly organic his friends of the pavement handled him like mechanics servicing a plane, positioning him for rest, leading him to where he could go pee, handing him gobs of sustenance.

After days of flying, attracting no little attention to himself, some decided that they’d had enough. While André was sunning himself at a bus stop a tall man wearing a fierce yellow bandana approached him. The man gave André a cigarette, more than half a butt, but made clear that he was there on business. The Parliament of Fools had summoned him. The man was to accompany him, effective immediately. André didn’t mind. He loop-de-looped with a beatific look until they reached the Bois de Vincennes. His old friends were there, looking doleful. The Prime Minister’s face seemed darkened, as if by an eclipse.

“You’re out of control,” said the Prime Minister. “We all believe in freedom, but not when it endangers others. You’ve crossed that line—flown clear over it.”

“Neighborhood people complain, more police start prowling,” said another. “The grocery store owner won’t let me stash my gear in his backroom anymore!”

“What authority have you got?” said André. “You bunch of clodos.”

“Our authority comes from survival,” said the Prime Minister. “You know how far back this Parliament goes? We are older than the republic and older than the monarchy it replaced.”

“What’s that got to do with me?” said André.

“You are getting to be an embarrassment,” said the Prime Minister.

André felt that he was about to be sentenced. Everyone looked on with stony eyes or, confirming what the Prime Minister had said, an embarrassed expression. Then a female clochard, a bag lady with four large sacks, spoke up.

Et alors?” she said.

“The street needs discretion,” replied the Prime Minister.

“Et alors?” she repeated, raising her voice. “This is a parliament, not a court! Who are you to judge? Eh?”

“We have your interests at heart,” said another minister. “I think we know more than—”

Ta gueule!” shouted the woman. “Shut it!”

The woman was echoed by other women, then by their companions. André tipped his cap towards his supporters, and there was a motion to postpone the proceeding to a later date.

“Preferably far enough in the future that we don’t remember it!” said one clodo.
The motion was passed by raucous acclamation. André wanted to thank the woman but she’d drifted off. He was slapped on the back by his friends, back to being friends. He bore no hard feelings, had none to bear, but he wanted to go flying by himself, solo.

Gliding along the Boulevard, the shops, bus shelters, cars, everything, looked poignantly small, though their dimensions hadn’t changed. He had an urge to see something different, so he swooped through a passageway. In the passage he saw the bag lady who’d helped him. He was startled to see her scaling a wall separating the passageway from disused train tracks, the railway that had circled Paris in the old days. The wall was stone but moss and lichen colored it a mottled green and tangling over the walls were skeins of vine, tufts of grass and weeds. It looked like a living thing, an organic mass stretching like an indolent vegetal snake.

The woman clambered down the wall like an adolescent though she was in late middle-age. She held a plastic shopping bag. Looking for berries? A piece of insulating material dropped out of the bag. Turning around to pick it up she revealed the tell-tale puffy face and varicose legs of the clodo. Still, she was as agile as a cat.

“What are you searching for?” he asked.

“Treasure!” she replied.

Treasure of a sort: insulators. Functioning, suspended in the air, they were of no value. Now useless, cables having long ago been buried under the street, they were worth a nice sum. They put the treasure into a sack that she said she was going to take to a scrap dealer the next morning.

“That Hindu at the Porte de Charenton,” said the woman. “He pays a fair price.”

Ah bon, the Hindu.”

It was as if a sword of Damocles had been cut from its thread and laid gently to rest.
The woman limped to her encampment next to a row of unused garages covered with colorful graffiti. With a nimble movement she slid into a sleeping bag, then propped herself on one arm and picked at a can of sausages. One eye spied Andre between smacks of her tongue over whitish, chapped lips.

“You hungry?” she asked.

“I could eat a bite,” André replied.

“Got plenty.”

Andre lay next to her on a section of ground cloth. He popped a few black beans from another tin into his mouth but he didn’t feel hungry any more. He lay on his back with his arms folded behind his head and gazed at the woman, and then at the sky. He’d flown full circle. Everything had started one evening lying in bed with a woman and here he was, stretched out next to another. Before it had been in a tiny bedroom in a cramped box of a house within an enclosed piece of earth. André recalled the furious coupling of that time and contemplated the warmth he shared now. There was no promise of sex but that didn’t matter. He liked lying next to her, not too close, not too far.

Ca roule, ma poule?” he asked the woman.

Bah, oui,” she answered, as she tuned her ancient transistor radio, eventually alighting on the Cup match still in progress.

***