Texas Writers Observed

An alternative waltz across Texas

DAO STROM If you look at her website, you will find two bios for Dao Strom. There is Dao Strom the writer, author of the hauntingly beautiful Grass Roof, Tin Roof (Houghton Mifflin, 2003) and Dao Strom the songwriter and musician, whose “voice carries the ethereal weight of the Appalachias (or some other distant mountain range)” and whose most recent CD is the hauntingly beautiful “Send Me Home.” There is also Dao Strom, the mother of six-year-old Lincoln, and Dao Strom, the writing instructor. All of them were born in Saigon, came to the United States at the age of two, grew up in Placerville, California, studied film for a while, and graduated from the Iowa Writers Workshop with a book contract in hand. They all find inspiration in the stories of Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and V.S. Naipaul—among others—and in the music of Loretta Lynn, Emmylou, and Gillian Welch—among others. They all came to Austin for the music, answered newspaper ads for musicians, and then decided to settle in. Home, however, is something else, which Strom explains on her website with the parable of the Buddhist nun who is traveling and comes to a town, but finds no one willing to give her shelter. She sleeps out in the woods and wakes in the middle of the night to see the full moon shining through the tree branches above her and realizes that had she been given shelter, she would not “have received this vision of the moon, which is very lonely and beautiful. And she is grateful then at having been turned away by the people of the town.” Grass Roof, Tin Roof is loosely based on Strom’s own life and that of her mother, a journalist and writer in Vietnam who emigrated to the United States with her two children. Currently Strom is working on a new book, The Gentle Order of Boys and Girls, the structure of which is loosely based on the Nina Simone song, “Four Women.” It centers around the lives of four young Vietnamese-American women, who struggle with relationships, motherhood, and with finding ways to express themselves. One of them is Leena, who is married to an American businessman and living in Texas. With Leena, Strom explores the experience of the recent immigrant who spends a lot of time in a big house by herself. “I wonder,” says Strom, “what could happen?” The following excerpt is from Grass Roof, Tin Roof: My mother collected newspapers. Mostly Vietnamese publications sent to her by old friends now living in San Jose or Los Angeles. She clipped articles and stowed them in binders and envelopes, supposedly to be organized into some form of record at some later date. My mother was apt to get lost in a task, so enamored was she by the possibilities—the wealth—of information, and so reluctant, too, to reach any end that might force her to admit unrequited ambitions. Who is to say if she would actually need to look again at any of these papers? Yet she could not throw them away. My father, who had also thrown away a past—his by choice, however –criticized my mother for refusing to let go of pain. He called her selfish. “Your mother,” our father would say, not unfacetiously, “your mother is a fire hazard.” And I would take this in. Certainly he meant her papers, but in my young mind it was she I saw going up in flames, up into black curling smoke. It was her hair I saw shriveling to ashes and rising, her flesh melting; it was her eyeglasses I saw exploding from the heat and then—as in the movies—only the frames that survived and landed, with a dramatic thunk, at the edge of a circle of ashes. It would be the end of a scene, the glasses in the foreground of a low-angle closeup shot in which smoke and a few glowing embers of orange were a blur in the background. My mother would be gone from me; I feared this constantly. She was vulnerable and a little afraid of the world and smaller than average. She sat on a pillow when she drove and wore high heels everywhere, even at home. Whenever she went alone to a movie or to run an errand, I prayed for her safe return. I worried she might be kidnapped by a strange man as she crossed a parking lot, and we would be left to live with just our father. It is true my mother almost burned to death once in her childhood. She was playing in the kitchen with her older brothers when they turned on the stove and accidentally set her on fire. It was a gas stove; the flames jumped, or my mother was standing too close. If it had not been for an aunt passing unexpectedly by the house that afternoon, that might have been the end of my mother, then and there. But the aunt threw a blanket over her and saved her. My mother was six years old. She later told me this story as a kind of justification: it was the reason she never taught us how to cook. As for my mother’s collection of newspapers—these have since been thrown away, too.

CHRISTINE GRANADOS “I’ve got so many stories,” says Christine Granados. “But they’re not the truth. The truth would mean going back to my grandmother and asking her all these things.” Instead Granados has crafted her own version of truth by assembling a vibrant collection of characters—clueless Anglo lawyers; overprotective fathers; daughters who mother their mothers; hapless receptionists who yearn to be a part of the telenovela social and sexual whirlwind of their low-life co-workers; Evangelical ministers who engage in affairs with their sisters-in-law, (as revealed during a marathon funeral service); loyal girl friends; latchkey kids; Courtneys and curanderas—and turned them all into a divine comedy set in El Paso. Or to be more precise, El Chuco. There is always an edge to her writing, a layer of irony and pathos that resides somewhere deep below the surface. Drifting through her debut collection, Brides and Sinners in El Chuco, are moments that are bleak and downright tragic: incest, overdose, paranoia, as well as the fault lines of racism in the Latino community. Granados, who is now 36, was born and grew up in El Paso. Her father was a truck driver, her mother a secretary. They worked to move the family from the barrio when the author and her siblings were still quite young. After finishing college, Granados landed a series of jobs with newspapers in El Paso, Austin, and California, following the footsteps of the boyfriend whom she would later marry. Somewhere around Long Beach she began to think that “this business” wasn’t really for her and started searching for something different. She joined VISTA and ran a tutoring center, edited a fashion magazine for Latinas, and found her way into a workshop run by author and fellow El Paso native Dagoberto Gilb. Eventually Granados figured out that what she really wanted to do was tell her own stories. She enrolled in the creative writing program at Texas State University in San Marcos and received her MFA degree last May. Her first teachers, however, were the members of her family—her real introduction to storytelling. Granados says that like everyone else in her family she was infected with—perhaps blessed is a better word—what she refers to as “the embellishment gene.” At the end of the book, she offers a quote from her mother and sharpest critic: “It just comes out of her like a pedo,” Corine Granados says of her daughter’s writing. (And as Dizzy Gillespie once said about jazz, if you have to ask, you’ll never know.) Today Granados lives in Rockdale, Texas, population 5,700, where her husband’s family owns the weekly newspaper. Her husband, Ken Esten Cooke, is a reporter. Granados writes a weekly column, observes life in a small town, works whenever she can on a novel set on the border, and often wonders about all that her sons are missing by growing up so far from El Paso. The following is an excerpt from “Vieja Chueca,” among the stories that will be published by the University of Arizona Press next year in Brides and Sinners In El Chuco. Aurora heard a loud whistle, and she cringed. Calling that boy just like a dog, she thought, and she turned to see Verónica hand Rudy a wad of money. Guillermo stood out on their porch mopping his brow. He had a face like a large, moist ball of masa with two raisins for eyes, and he was constantly mopping those small eyes with a handkerchief when he walked in the 100-degree heat. He would emerge from their air-conditioned room for one week every month, when he had to go door to door to collect rent checks and late fees. He didn’t have to do much around the complex because Aurora kept an eye out. She was the one who told him when someone was going to leave without paying the rent, in which case Guillermo used his large, round, rock-hard belly as a wedge to get inside people’s units when they tried to slam the door in his face…. In the laundry room, Aurora was pouring detergent from a brown sack into the washer when she heard the bell on the door jingle. Rudy had opened the scratched white plastic door, and he stuck his face inside for a second before he was off. Aurora walked to the door and watched him. The sun, no longer directly over head, made a short shadow of Rudy. Aurora left the lavandería after she put her clothes in the washing machine. She knew it took 26 minutes for the wash to run through its cycles, and she wanted to get home to finish sweeping her stoop before the evening winds brought more dust. She saw a crowd of children peeking into Verónica’s bedroom window. Aurora slowed down when Rudy spiked a sack he held and yelled, “Get the fuck out of here!” The children ran away, and the fat girl yelled, “At least my mom don’t have to sleep with nobody to pay our rent.” Aurora stopped walking. Rudy kicked the wall by the window, then he ran away. In several slow steps, Aurora made it to Verónica’s back door. Her knee throbbed as she stepped onto the stoop. She glanced back at her place. She noticed her porch was tinged beige with sand. Verónica’s screen door creaked when Aurora opened it. A blast of cool air hit her face, and the scent of garbage made her hesitate, but she pushed past the odor and walked inside. The apartment was littered with dirty dishes, trash overflowing, and clothes scattered on the floor. The shelves on the walls were cluttered with crucifixes, candles, and figurines. She heard moaning and followed the sound into the bedroom. When she opened the door, she saw her husband, with his pants at his ankles, on top of Verónica. His dimpled ass was the same color as her porch after she’d scrubbed it and it had dried, Aurora thought. The bed was a mattress on the floor. She looked down on it and watched her husband exerting himself. Aurora looked calm on the outside, but inside she was as confused as a roadrunner at night. She picked up a fork from a plate on the dresser, examined it as if she were going to eat with it, then walked toward the bed and drove the tines into the soft, ash-colored flesh of her husband’s buttocks. “¡Ay, Dios!” he screamed, pushing himself away from the force of the fork and deeper into Verónica. She held him in a tight embrace as he tried to scramble off of her. Aurora looked out of Verónica’s bedroom window and saw Rudy, whose eyes were as wide as Lotto balls. She laughed out loud, and he darted away.

RAJ MANKAD He was drawn to Texas—mainly to Houston—because he grew up on the Coast. To be more precise, Mobile, Alabama, the part of the state that sticks out on the bottom, as deep as the Deep South ever gets. “Stunningly beautiful,” says Raj Mankad, “where there are more trees, even more live oak trees than Houston, and the air smells sweet.” Where Mankad was an outcast, neither white nor black in a city where the narrative was that you were either white or black. Mankad was born in 1977 to a family of doctors. His parents emigrated from Gujarat, India, to Chicago and later moved to Mobile. He attended medical school, but quit after doing public health research in Peru. In 2001, he came to Houston to work as a teacher and earn an MFA in creative writing at the University of Houston, where he received the Donald Barthelme award for his fiction writing. In 2002, he took a break from school to work for a feminist non-governmental organization in India. Returning to Houston as the drumbeat to war in Iraq intensified, Mankad worked tirelessly to organize anti-war protests. For the past year, he has served as the managing editor of Feminist Economics, a journal based at Rice University. This is not, as he recognizes, “the portrait of the usual writer MFA programs produce.” As Mankad explains, “I’m a politicized writer and I write in different genres. My activist commitments, my writing, my scholarship cross-fertilize.” If it is not yet clear, he believes stories can transform the world. Mankad is reworking a nonfiction manuscript based on his experience in the highlands of Peru. The following is an excerpt: The bullfighting arena served as an open-air town hall for Huascahura. I was with a veterinarian named Gabriela. She explained to the 200 men and women gathered there that we wanted to study their feces. She did not go into the details of the protocol or the scientific merits. Her presentation was simple. If we found worms in the feces, the participant would get medical treatment totalmente gratis. The men in baseball caps on the bleachers and the women on the grass with their broad-rimmed hats and billowing skirts—they all raised their hands in our favor. While the town meeting went on in Quechua and Spanish, Gabriela and I looked at each other. We had work to do. The next morning, we handed out plastic containers, carefully coded and labeled, and for those who could not read, we drew stickmen on the lids, big ones for the men, skirts and hats for the women, and tiny stick kids for the children. Somewhere around 600 hundred people lived in Huascahura. The houses, made of earthen blocks and tin roofs, usually had wooden doors that were latched shut. We knocked on them one by one noting the places where nobody answered in a speckled black logbook so that we would know to return. The women who answered sometimes spoke through a crack in the door, other times they invited us in for a meal. At one home, several hundred meters from the Plaza Mayor, we waited for the owner in a courtyard on a wooden bench. There was a small cooking fire to my right, its smoke patterned by diffracted sunlight. The shadows from moya leaves danced when the wind blew, a parrot perched on a beam of the roof, the head of a sheep hung just above the door. The wind blew again, the shadows danced, the smoke billowed in the sunlight. And the wind blew again and again and again. The name of the state, Ayacucho, means “Place of the Dead” or “Land of the Corpses,” and if I were not a medical student carrying out a scientific study, I might have thought there were spirits out. Another home, toothbrushes tucked in the holes of broken bricks in the wall. Puzzle pieces and chicken feed littered the dirt floor, beaten into hard chunks by feet, hooves, and paws. Brittany Spears played on the radio. On the walls were pictures of the white cover girls for Pilsen and Cusqueña, the national beers. They wore bikinis that outlined their nipples and vulva, photoshopped pupils you could swim in. Next door was a house with hay piled on the roof, drying I suppose, and next to that the old drunks who yelled at us from their doorway, refuse strewn about their courtyard. In the afternoons I processed the feces collected in the mornings. So as to keep as few items as possible contaminated, I lined up samples, five or six corresponding tubes in a row, after recording the numbers in the notebook. I wrote out the labels ahead of time to keep the marker clean. Then I opened up the first sample. Because there were no latrines in Huascahura, the samples I received were mixed with grass and dirt. In one sample, I discovered a small wild flower tucked in the feces. I stirred the feces with a small plastic rod until they were soft. With the same plastic stick, I scooped the softened fecal matter out and carefully placed it inside a small vial full of formal and other preservatives. Children peeped through the crack in the door of the laboratory (an abandoned house) and watched me. I wore a mask to help with the stink, my hands wrapped in latex. Getting the feces through the small opening of the vial required patience and concentration. When my nose itched I never scratched for fear of rubbing some parasite borne in the fecal matter into my eyes. Ever watching, the children made sounds of delighted disgust when I pushed the mashed feces through the tops of the small vials. They laughed and giggled. What did they make of me? Did they have any idea of where I was from or why I was there? The adventurous ones crept up to my worktable, then shrunk back in fear.

VINCE LOZANO In 1978, when Vince Lozano was 13, his father decided to leave the Air Force and move his family back to South Texas. It seemed like a good idea at the time; the children would be closer to their widowed grandmother and other relatives; they would grow up outside the city, with all that fresh air. And so one minute Lozano was living on Andrews Air Force Base, outside Washington, D.C., and the next he found himself in Banquete, a rural town some 30 miles outside Corpus Christi. “I was shocked by South Texas,” he says, recalling the stark isolation of the coastal flats, the palpable heat and humidity, and the party-line telephones. There was also the unspoken Anglo-Mexican divide that was sometimes hard to define, and sometimes as obvious as the segregated cemetery near his home, where Lozano used to like to go to read. There was also another divide. Every day Lozano shuttled back and forth to a Catholic school in Corpus Christi, where his fellow students were more likely to be the sons and daughters of doctors and oil executives than the children of retired Air Force officers. He began to wonder how he fit in—and how his family fit into the larger history of South Texas and Corpus Christi. Lozano didn’t know it yet, but he had stumbled onto his great obsession, a family history that in its own way is a microcosm of the history of North America. It would take him awhile to recover from regional shock, and come to regional compassion. He worked his way through several degrees, several career changes, and several unsuccessful efforts at writing fiction based on characters and places that had nothing to do with his own life (Harry Houdini was a popular subject for a while). Now 40, Lozano is working on a non-fiction narrative based on his family. It’s filled with characters as diverse as the mining engineer from Vermont who was kidnapped during the Mexican Revolution, the part Huichol Indian woman whom the mining engineer may or may not have married, and the Irish immigrant who wed the family patriarch, the first Vicente Lozano. “Big Chente” moved to Corpus from Port Isabel when he was 12 and became “merchant and godfather” to the Mexican community after making his fortune in 1906, when he used an unsecured loan to bid on fire-damaged ham at the railroad depot and then turned around and sold it to an army of cotton pickers who happened to be returning from the fields. “For better or worse,” writes Lozano, “the family’s ascendance to the merchant middle class was built on selling burnt ham sandwiches to Raza.” But the character who most intrigues Lozano is his grandfather, also named Vicente, Big Chente’s son. His grandfather suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, which further isolated the family, and complicated what Lozano likes to call the “latitudes and longitudes of race and class” in South Texas in the 1940s and 1950s. The following is an excerpt from a work in progress: My Grandfather Vicente was a man picking up and operating on too many frequencies, a Holy Fool mediating class resentments in his family, and channeling the segregated unease just below the surface of his 1940s Corpus Christi. The underlying dissonance was unacknowledged racial static emanating from a monster radio tower perched somewhere between the Rio Grande and Nueces rivers. That arid strip of land favored by early movie location scouts to play the Old Testament in silent movies; a Borderland which has never really settled into being anyone’s Mexico, Texas, or the United States. This ghost tower was hidden in plain sight among the mesquite breaks south of Kingsville and was easily as powerful as other border radio stations of its day. Like the mega-watt WXER blitzing all the way from Ciudad Acuña to the Great Lakes with Pentecostal preachers and Doctor John Romuls Brinkley’s ads for goat testicle cures. Or XERF throwing Wolfman Jack’s howls as far north as Canada. But this tower could only repeat its one repressed frequency: the collective uneasiness of Anglos and Mexicans living side by side; a magnetic pulse whose eruptions browned the city grid, added police to civic celebrations like Buccaneer Days, and whose aurora, King Ranch vaqueros reported, lit up the nighttime sky. The clandestine broadcast, bleeding Spanish over English, crackled everywhere and nowhere: in the faint, angry clink of china being washed at the Saint James Hotel by a former soldadera, in the snobbery of my grandfather’s sisters toward their india maid. The racial static manifested itself in German missionary priests who could not believe that they were stuck in South Texas performing the Latin Mass; it irritated the bark of a chained dog hearing the rumble of the cotton train roll in; and it sharpened the wary glance of a prim Frost Brothers clerk watching a laborer put down his end of a plate glass window to curse in Spanish. Anywhere the faint tension of unspoken segregation charged the air, the ions vibrated against his inner ear. In fact this atmospheric ambivalence about being white or being brown, about being Mexican or being American, never stopped washing through my grandfather’s acutely self-conscious body. It partook of the same self-consciousness that made my grandmother remember—83 years later on her nursing home bed—that a man had once walked up to the baby carriage in which she sat next to her lighter skinned twin Guillermito near the Bosque de Chapultepec. He had praised Guillermito and jokingly called her morenita fea, ugly darkling. My grandfather’s paranoia also shared the same Tourette’s-like compulsivity with which my Uncle Pee Wee cannot stop joking about his own darkness whenever he gets together with my whiter Uncle Buster—a joke so tired that Buster has finally told him, “Ya, primo. Give it up.” My grandfather could not give it up. He lived through a time—or a time lived through him—when a color line was starting to creep through the Mexican community. Schools and movie theaters segregated. Over a quarter of a million Mexican Americans were deported to Mexico. Anglos owned more and more of the concessions—real estate, transportation, dry goods distribution—in which his merchant father had acted as a power broker. What did it mean to be a middle-class Mexican during such a time?

CRISTINA HENRIQUEZ Early in her writing career, Cristina Henriquez had a decision to make: Panama or the United States? Although she already had “a bunch of stories” set in the United States, she opted for Panama. She chose wisely. Earlier this month The New Yorker published one of her short stories. A collection of stories and a novella—all centered on Panama—will be published next spring. When the Observer last spoke to her, she had just returned to her home in Dallas from a research trip to the Panama Canal. She was about 50 pages shy of a first draft of a novel, a work of historical fiction. “I’ve gone to the Canal every year since I was born,” she said. “The sort of thing that my parents dragged us to. This time I had to be very meticulous.” Henriquez grew up in the United States. Her mother is American, her father Panamanian. Her paternal grandfather once had a radio program and was briefly exiled in the early 1950s. He later became mayor of Panama City. He also served as a senator from the province of Panama. Today his granddaughter writes elegantly crafted stories of young women negotiating life in a particular corner of Latin America—negotiating relationships, negotiating jobs, negotiating family bonds and national traditions, and negotiating modernity in a country where modernity is not always all that it’s cracked up to be. In a short story called “Mercury,” an American teen-ager goes to Panama to visit her grandparents while her parents are going through a divorce. She’s been brushing up on her textbook Spanish, intent on having a conversation with her grandfather, and busily typing a letter that someone will have to read to him now that his eyesight is so weak. Soon after she arrives, however, she discovers that he has also lost his hearing. “We will never have a conversation, she thinks, and it’s like being hollowed out inside, everything scraped away but sadness.” In a story called “Trash,” the young narrator bounces back and forth between a dead-end job in an appliance store, a dead-end boyfriend, and a drug habit. Although her circumstances are vastly different from those of the American teen-ager in “Mercury,” her story is equally poignant. After receiving her MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, Henriquez worked in Dallas as a publicist for the KERA, the public television and radio station, and taught fiction workshops at the Writer’s Garret. At the ripe old age of 27, she now works full time on her own fiction. The following is an excerpt from the story “Ashes,” which appeared in the July 4, 2005 issue of The New Yorker: The last time I saw her, my mother was sitting with me on her patio. She was in the metal rocking chair she’d had since before I was born, olive-green seat cushions and floral ironwork along the arms. She had her legs stretched out in front of her, knee-high nylons rolled down around her crossed ankles like life preservers, terry house slippers on her feet. She looked relaxed as she lectured me on her favorite subject—politics. She was telling me how fortunate it was that she had named me Mireya, because the President of Panama was Mireya Moscoso. She must have said about ten times, “That could have been you,” as if the only prerequisite for becoming the President was having the right name. She hated that politics held no interest for me. The one thing my mother liked about Armando was his appetite for the political. Just for that, of all the people in my family, she was his only fan. That day, there was an election parade in the neighborhood. Martín Torrijos was riding all over our section of town, shouting from the windows of his van and waving a Panamanian flag in a bid to become the next President. It was the reason we were outside on the patio. My mother was waiting for him. We’d been talking for almost an hour when his big white van, followed by pickup trucks with speakers on the flatbeds blasting music, rumbled up our street. My mother stood and smoothed out the front of her robe. She was old enough that her spine had begun to bow. Torrijos stopped his van in front of our patio. He asked my mother how she and her sister, meaning me, were doing. My mother shouted, “What will you do about the hospitals?” Torrijos smiled and waved. “And what about the canal?” she yelled into the sunlight. Torrijos tossed a T-shirt out the window to her. “For you!” he shouted. My mother let it land at her feet. “Pendejo!” she shouted, and the van continued up the street. It wasn’t everyone who would call a politician an idiot to his face. I smiled until I thought my cheeks would burst. I’d always felt there was something special between my mother and me. Like she was somehow more mine than Jano’s. But maybe all children feel that—a sovereignty of ownership over the parent they love best.

DOMINIC SMITH “When the vision came, he was in the bathtub.” So begins a 19th century novel that will be published next February. In The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre, Austinite Dominic Smith reinvents the life of one of photography’s pioneers, the man who gave us the daguerreotype. Celebrated for the invention of a new art form, Daguerre in the novel, is also fated to descend into madness as a result of his exposure to mercury—the very beautiful but sinister substance that had made his invention possible. Mercury Visions is not only set in the 19th century, with the Revolution of 1848 as a backdrop and the poet Baudelaire as a recurring character, it also evokes the century in its scope and spirit, beginning with meticulously reported observations on food and dress. (With a little help, Smith concedes, from the travel writings of Charles Dickens). The language is dense and dreamy, and, as with all of the best 19th-century novels, there is also a decades-old doomed love affair—Romanticism in capital letters. The 19th-century, says Smith, allows you to do what you can’t in your own, to write in a way that contemporary fiction does not allow. “It’s largely an invention, as you try to conjure a sense of period.” Now 34, Smith grew up in Sydney, Australia, and came to Austin via a circuitous route: Kalamazoo, L.A., Iowa, Amsterdam; architecture school and dot.com-companies. As a fellow at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas, he had almost finished a novel about the complex relationship between a particle physicist and his very ordinary son, when he decided to sign up for an elective course in photography. All writers, he explains, “need to do something with their hands to get out of their head.” A chance remark about the rivalry among early photographers convinced him to put the physicist aside for awhile and start a new novel. In 2003 Smith was awarded a Dobie-Paisano Fellowship; Mercury Visions was nurtured by long walks around the 260 acres of J. Frank Dobie’s legendary ranch. “It’s a little bizarre to be walking around the limestone bluffs and to be writing about 19th century Paris,” he says. Then again, he was writing about a Paris that no longer exists in France. In 2007 Atria Books will publish The Beautiful Miscellaneous, the novel about the particle physicist. Smith is already immersed in a new project, a novel about three generations of the forgotten men of Hollywood–the stuntmen, that begins with two identical twin brothers who leave their Texas farm to work in silent movies. “My family is always asking, ‘When are you going to write about Australia,'” he says, “but it takes you the longest to write about what’s most engrained.” They might have to wait a long time. “I’m not interested,” he says, “in fictionalizing my life.” The following excerpt is taken from The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre (Atria Books, 2006):

When the vision came, he was in the bathtub. After a decade of using mercury vapors to cure his photographic images, Louis Daguerre’s mind had faltered—a pewter plate left too long in the sun. But during his final lucid minutes on this cold evening of 1846, he felt a strange calm. Outside, a light snow was falling and a vaporous blue dusk seemed to be rising out of the Seine. The squatters had set fire to the barrens behind the Left Bank and the air was full of smoke. Louis reclined in warm water perfumed with lemon skins, a tonic he believed to be good for his skin and nerves. The wind gusted under the eaves. He placed a hand against the adjacent window and from the bath, perched high in his rooftop belvedere, he felt the night pressing in against him. His head was partially submerged and he heard the metallic click of the tenant’s pipes below. It was a message; he was sure of it. The world was full of messages. He sat up, wiped the steam off the window, and looked out. There was something ghostly about the boulevard in the wintry pall. The bare-limbed almond trees were flecked with snow. A nut vendor pushed his cart through the smoky twilight. A man stood before a storefront, staring at a pyramid of startling white eggs. Was he counting them? A man was counting eggs on a street at dusk while the peasants were trying to burn the city down. This pleased Louis, though he couldn’t think why. He leaned back in the bathtub again and heard, as if anew, the ticking of the pipes. He lay there, letting his mind go still, and became aware of his own heartbeat, the sound of a tin drum through water. This was the time of day he grew speculative or nostalgic and he set to thinking that the pipes and his heart were talking to each other, exchanging notes in a secret, mechanical language. Then, as Louis watched the increments of darkness grow at the window, he heard his heart skip a beat. His chest tightened and he felt a dull, cold pain in his fingertips. This had happened before, a stutter in his pulse on account of the mercury in his blood. But he had never listened to it, and now his heart stopped for a full second. It was like a small death. He felt something shift in the room. Holding on to the rim of the tub, he pulled himself to a standing position. He reached for a robe and put it around his shoulders but was unable to move farther. Looking around the washroom, he felt himself alien to his own life. Poison-blue bottles of iodine lined out the medicine shelf like Prussian soldiers; his straight razor stood agleam on the washstand; a flask of mercury shuddered on the sink. Everything seemed directed at him. He looked out the window and saw the moon rising behind a cloth of weather. An enormous albatross perched amid the stone gargoyles of Notre Dame. The peasants had looted the zoo and all kinds of exotic animals had escaped. A Bengal tiger was said to be prowling the Latin Quarter. Louis saw that the barrens continued to burn, but now there was a barge loaded with firewood drifting down the river in flames. Night was everywhere. People had quit the streets except for the man counting the eggs. The man stood with his hands in his pockets, fingering his change. The little life one leads.

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