Spring is what I yearned for that winter day.
But I was trying hard to avoid taking a tumble on the slick sidewalk. My eyes were fixed downwards at the ruts and ridges of frozen snow. I picked my way tentatively amid the ice to find level surfaces to plant my feet on. A shawl wrapped around my face to keep out the bite of a nasty January further prevented me from seeing other wretches who were passing me in either direction and similarly preoccupied.
I was heading carefully into the wind towards the post office. A slashing cold cut into my flesh from all sides.
I had to cross two major thoroughfares, and each was guarded by stoplights. At the first one I had to wait, the government brick of the post office visible in the frigid distance. Begrimed semis and window-fogged cars streamed slowly past in vaporous clouds and exhaust, cautiously wary of icy islands on the street. But it was an unending, noisy flow, and it would be rank insanity to attempt cutting through the interstices on slippery asphalt.
I prudently decided to bide my time until the light should change to red.
Jumping up and down and around to keep my extremities from freezing, a few feet away I noticed an old woman trying to cross the street in the direction of moving traffic and the green light. Because the weather had been bitter for over a week, snow had piled up high along the sidewalks as the street crews worked hard to keep arteries navigable. The crusty mix of snow and ice would pile up into ridges that rimmed the street.
She was having trouble finding a defile through this slick topography of layered hills and valleys thrown up by the yellow plow trucks. Like most old people, she would be terrified of slipping and falling, and breaking brittle bones. She was hunched over, a cane in one hand and a netted shopping bag hanging in the crook of her elbow. She had on a thick black coat whose grandest hour in the sun had passed some time ago. She made little hopping, bird-like movements back and forth, as if undecided where to commit herself for the crossing.
“They do too good a job of plowing here,” I said.
She turned a face rugose with age into my question. Once upon a time it had held great beauty, a glimmer of which was still observable in the surprising clarity of the wide-set large brown eyes and the filigreed tracery around her mouth. “Oh, dear,” she said, almost as if she were amused by her predicament. “I can’t seem to find my way over this snow bank.” A small smile played about her lips. It was in her eyes, too. “Isn’t it silly of me?”
“Here, walk with me to the other side of the street.” I held out my arm for her to grab.
She took it wordlessly.
The light was still green. I found a stable path around the obstacles of snow, and we set out across the street. She was holding me tightly and leaning into my side for support. Incongruously, my nose almost anesthetized by the cold of this bitter January day, I could still catch the faint vernal scent of lilacs from her perfume. We got to the other side well before the yellow came on.
Safely on the sidewalk, she let go of my arm. She looked at me, a gentle glint in her eyes. Perhaps it was imagination.
“Thank you, young man,” she said. “My name is May.” She held out her gloved hand, and I took it. She squeezed with a gentle firmness, and her eyes locked a beat too long on mine. She disengaged our hands, nodded, and — I could not be certain – seemed to crinkle her eyes in a smile as she was swallowed up in the steaming crowd before I could tell her my name.
At this point it was my great misfortune, on this most horrible day of all days, to be run into by Professor Schädling of the Romance Languages department. I simply had no chance to see her coming and take the normal evasive maneuvers.
She was a notorious pest, impervious alike to the dry cold of winter and the dripping heat of summer. As usual she was wearing no head gear. Where others would rush indoors to escape the rigors of our hideous climate in either season, this self-anointed ‘campus character’ had made a minor career playing the rôle of un-amusing eccentric. Among her favorite ploys was waylaying innocent victims outdoors in the worst possible weather to bore them with a prolix lecture. Until a few months ago this had invariably been a recitation of her latest misconceptions about the German Aufklärung (“I am half German, after all!”) but these days, straying even farther afield from her ‘area’, she would pour forth her febrile musing on the origins of the folktale in eighteenth-century Bavaria, a new ‘specialty’ in which she was reported recently to have taken a keen interest and already come to be considered (in her own mind, that is) an ‘expert’.
One hated to be directly rude or unpleasant. She milked this all too human tendency with an aggression that was as shameless as it was passive.
“Oh, Mr. Pastis,” she shouted behind me. My heart quailed, but I was trapped.
“Oh, Professor Schädling,” I said with forced civility. I unfurled the shawl from around my mouth and gave her a tight smile. “How are you doing?”
“Cold enough for you, is it?” And she actually giggled.
I mumbled something intemperate and inaudible.
“Where are you headed?” She had now caught up with me. I hated myself for letting this spawn of a German father and a French mother control me to the point that I had now fully removed the protection from my face so I could talk to her. The high plains wind stung my skin.
I was on my way to the post office to pick up a letter I was expecting to find in my box. During November and December I had been answering ads in the personal columns of the student newspaper, and I appeared to have hit it off just right with one of the searchers. She was going to be sending me a firm answer, with directions, regarding our proposal for a first meeting. We had told each other in the effusive way of strangers corresponding that neither of us would regret this … this colloquy. She had assured me that she was young and that she was beautiful, and my considerable advantage over her in age was a plus in my favor. “I like older men I can admire.”
Desuetude in such arrangements now lent an anticipatory edge to my mission.
I thought that if I told Schädling the truth about my destination, she would perhaps — I shuddered — offer to accompany me to the post office and back. It would be an intolerable imposition, but impossible to wriggle out of. But if I said I was going out for coffee and a sweet roll, she would surely want to ruin my morning by joining me. The relative safety of the university library lay in the other direction, and I could not possibly plead this as my objective today.
“I’m on my way to the post office.”
“Good. Why don’t you stop in with me for a minute at the Montparnasse. I think we could both do with something hot to drink, don’t you?”
Everybody called this place the Nasse, but I was dealing with a pedant who, a graduate of the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris, took childish pride in correctly pronouncing those rolling French “r’s” that live halfway down your throat on the way to the lungs.
The Montparnasse is one of those coffee bars that always spring up around campuses all over the country. The decor is bohemian, the coffees varied and good, and the nibblies among the better available in town. It was colonized at all hours of the day and night mostly by humanities people, poets, poseurs and other wannabes who liked to give themselves intellectual and artistic airs. Faculty were as likely as students to slip in between classes to drink coffee and talk, or drink coffee and read The New York Times while their copy of the TLS lay ostentatiously folded next to the pastry dish.
I generally avoided the place.
“It’s right on the way to the post office, you know,” she volunteered informatively.
I kept walking with studied determination.
“I’m meeting a mutual friend of ours there,” she dangled bait before me.
And I bit.
“Who?” I hated myself.
“Professor Gildersleeve of the Classics department.”
I knew the woman well. She was your typical histrionic narcissist, to be sure, but then she did teach seventeenth-century French drama – Corneille, Molière, Racine … all those gars – and the eighteenth-century philosophes – Voltaire, Rousseau, Condorcet … all those mecs. And I had served on some pointless committees with her. She had always struck me as a fairly reasonable and intelligent individual, which, given the normal run of crazies who now throng unhappy humanities departments in disgruntled departments up and down our land, is considerable praise.
It was cold, and it was a long walk to the post office. Truth be known, today I had myself planned to break up the trip to the post office into stages and stop off at Montparnasse on the way. Schädling crowded me, physically as well as psychologically, and the chilly bitterness of the day had lowered my resistance. And it seemed churlish in my own mind to change my plans just so I could refuse her invitation on the nonetheless valid principle of her documentable odiousness.
“Here we are,” I announced lightly and held the door for my companion.
Such are the fortuitous ingredients that go into the making of those random thrills that unforeseeably give spice to the bland lives of rationalists and skeptics like myself.
The place was crowded at this time of morning. And the scent of coffee and baking things was delicious, even penetrating the dank, soggy smell of too much winter clothing drying out in the steamy warmth of the hall. We elbowed our way to the counter and placed our orders, got our numbers, and pushed over to the table where Gildersleeve was sitting. She was facing us, her interlocutor at the table showing only back and shaggy hair.
This creature, it proved to my horror, belonged to a piece of Comp Lit trash housed in the English department — his the pretentious sobriquet was Grendel. I had been forced to meet him on a number of regrettable occasions and I knew he taught, among other things, Old English. And was one of those monstrous academic bores, even worse than the pesky Schädling.
I gritted my teeth and, and with polite restraint, suffered hellos and introductions all around. After we had assured each other about the meteorological accuracy of the day’s temperatures and winds, and speculated about the truth-value of the forecasts for the next five days, the phatic talk turned substantive.
Or so they all seemed to think.
“Grendel and I were just discussing folktales,” Professor Gildersleeve brought us up to speed.
“How interesting,” I lied.
A candescence glowed in Schädling’s pale Germanic eyes and I waited for her to utter some foolish irrelevancy.
“Yes,” Professor Gildersleeve continued. “It really is.”
“Yes,” echoed Grendel, “it is.”
“They began in Bavaria, you know,” Schädling enlightened us.
A waitress brought up the orders Schädling and I had placed, interrupting the tricky silence that hovered across the table.
“You folks need anything else for now?”
We all shook our head in the negative.
We stirred our coffees. We bit into our cookies and croissants. We dabbed the corners of our mouths with paper napkins that were still folded.
I kept my private counsel about Schädling’s moronic declaration. It took deliberate effort on my part to persist in the acknowledgement that she was a full professor of French – this grim half-German raised, no doubt, on too much Grimm.
A prefatory clearing of phlegm rumbled up from Grendel’s throat as he stirred on his chair.
“That’s a bit extreme, isn’t it?”
Gildersleeve nodded her head in silent agreement. Normally I would have expected her to be more voluble at a juncture like this.
“Extreme?” Schädling wondered. “How do you mean?”
“Well,” Gildersleeve began tactfully, “folktales are considerably older than the eighteenth century. Why, you could argue that all of Beowulf is an extended folktale with embedded smaller cycles.”
“And what about the Odyssey?” Grendel asked.
Gildersleeve was popping to life.
This would be another battle of the blind Indian wise men, one observing that the elephant is a kind of snake, another correcting that it is more like a tree, and the third insisting that it is actually a mountain side.
“The Odyssey?” Schädling asked in astonishment. “That’s not German, or even Germanic,” she added with conviction, as though this informed remark should obviate any discussion that might lead her into the epistemological darkness of unfamiliar forests without any trails of cookie crumbs.
We all drank some more from our coffee cups.
I thought idly of the cold quarter mile to the post office.
Around us stations were crowded with eager talkers hunched over tables and leaning into each other to be able hear above the din of other voices. A constant river of people in heavy bundles of clothing flowed in and out of the Montparnasse. The waiters and waitresses with their expressos and lattes and pastries streamed expertly among the customers.
“The fact is,” Gildersleeve objected, “folktales are hardly the property of any one time or place. They’re everywhere and have probably always existed.”
“That’s a certainty.” Grendel seemed pleased to be supporting her.
“How can you know that?” Schädling asked.
“I think it’s pretty well accepted by most serious scholars,” Grendel explained. It made him just a little more tolerable to find that he was capable of irony. Gildersleeve, too, pulled at the corners of her mouth with a barely perceptible smile. Schädling was apparently too much in full spate to appreciate that she was being mocked — kindly, but mocked nonetheless.
“It’s a field that was developed by Germans,” she persevered, shifting ground with the obdurate determination of the academic whose proprietary assumptions about in-field ‘expertise’ have been challenged.
“I don’t think anybody would object to that,” Gildersleeve volunteered, not without kindness. “With the possible exception of the French. But that wasn’t the point at issue, was it?”
My own view, unarticulated at the time, was that Gildersleeve was trying to be too crisply Socratic with this mushy messy mixture of a Franco-Germanic mind.
“No. The issue was not the origin of folklore studies, but the origin of folklore. Wouldn’t you agree there is a difference?”
Now it was Grendel’s turn to support her with his sharp nods of affirmation.
“I suppose you have a point,” Schädling admitted reluctantly. “I think I see what you mean.”
Thank heavens for small favors, I thought to myself. At last, enlightenment for the benighted.
The entire silly discussion was tedious beyond belief. Beating dead horses, reinventing the wheel — use whatever vulgar analogy you wish — explaining the obvious to idiots or trying common reason with them are tasks that would have gotten Sisyphus himself to run shrieking down his hill in defeat. It almost surprised me that Gildersleeve and Grendel (it’s an irresistible alliteration, isn’t it?) had been so patient and gentle, for I knew that neither one suffered fools of this ilk gladly. And both were knowledgeable as well as insightful on myth and folklore. It may have been that they had a comfortable enough mastery of the subject that they did not feel it necessary to deride a colleague’s uninformed enthusiasms simply to validate their own sense of academic merit. If so, my hat is off to them for a charitable act of kindness unusual in our all too often feral profession of the humanities.
I was just on the point of beginning the awkward process of extricating myself from this unpromising entanglement and be about more serious business when Grendel spoke up.
“Let me give you an example from our own times.” His stubby fingers made a row of neat sugary mounds on the table. “An example of a folktale that is as modern as it is ancient.”
Although I was suspicious in general about folklore as a proper subject for serious investigation, I found my curiosity piqued. It was, after all, still a gelid day outside. I would delay my departure.
“A wealthy woman is frantic,” he begins, accelerating us medias in res. “A child is missing. Has the child run away? Has she been abducted? Is she lying dead of a drug overdose in some alley? Or — worse — is she working some boulevard somewhere to keep body and soul together?
“There is no message from the girl. No telephone calls, no postcards, no telegrams. The police do not call. Private detectives report only dead ends, faded leads, unconvincing excuses.
“What would a mother do? Can she simply sit at home waiting to hear from the girl, or whoever finds her, dead or alive?
“It is more than a mother’s heart could bear.”
In spite of myself I am strangely drawn into the emerging world of this tale. I see that Gildersleeve and Schädling are concentrating on Grendel’s face intently. For us, the background noise of the Nasse has faded into a gentle susurrus, scarcely noticeable.
“The woman dresses down.
“But if she goes looking, who would pay any attention to an old woman? Everybody would take her for a street person, one of the legions of deranged who eke out lives of unending despondence on back street and in dangerous parks. People would simply ignore her importunate badgering. How could she engage anyone long enough to elicit useful information about a missing child?
“Yet, she cannot afford even a remote chance that she might be recognized. Her mind is made up.
“She takes a Greyhound to San Francisco.
“She qualifies for a bed and locker in a woman’s shelter near the old Ferry Building by the Embarcadero Hyatt. Here she sleeps during the day.
“At night, into the early morning, she haunts Market and Mission. She becomes a familiar figure, part of the human detritus littering the streets: the crazy one searching for a child. The pimps and pushers leave her alone, for their antennae, sensitized by years of hustling and hugging the edges, tell them she is not what she seems. She could be vice in drag.
“In and out of cheap bars and sorry ‘live’ shows she goes. Past the sad glitz of Chinese electronics wholesalers and all night doughnut shops run by marginal Laotians. Up and down stairs of stinking flop-houses and abandoned warehouses. She queries hookers the right age, but soon they learn to avoid her approach — her appearance interferes with business. She stumbles on stuporous drunks under cardboard homes, and on the skittish deals of shooters securing a night’s supply.
“She has become an urban grotesque in her own right.”
Fairy tale with a contemporary twist, I thought to myself.
“The quester grows weary. She begins to lose hope, but she will not, she cannot give up.
“One early morning, returning from a night of futile searching, she is shuffling past the grand driveway of the Hyatt. A stretch Mercedes is idling in front of the glass doors. An older man with a beard, obviously wealthy, is getting into the black car, door held open by a liveried driver, and with him is the missing girl. The woman is electrified.
“She makes for a cab stand just outside the hotel. She pulls money out of a stocking. ‘That limo up there,’ she points so the cabbie can see. ‘Stay behind it. Keep them in sight, but don’t let them see you.’ She fans his face with a crisp hundred.
“The dark Mercedes moves down Market and then turns right. Traffic thins out, and it climbs through the empty streets to the top of Nob Hill, where it pulls up in front of an imposing apartment building. ‘Just keep on driving past, not too fast,’ she instructs her driver. As they come abreast of the limo she sees the man and his companion clearly. It is the missing girl, and she looks as though she does not want to be with the older man.”
Grendel looked satisfied. He drank some coffee.
“Is that it?” ask Schädling in disappointment.
“I doubt it,” says Gildersleeve.
I nod in silent agreement.
“No, that’s not it,” Grendel says. He looks each of us in the eyes. “How would you finish the story?” he asks, surprising us.
Schädling leaps to a compendious resolution, telescoping the narrative in a way I would have expected of no other student of the Aufklärung than this enlightened one. “I would have the old woman buy a gun and rescue her daughter. She would shoot the man in the car.”
Gildersleeve is more traditional. One must recall that she is a classicist. “The story so far sets up certain resonances,” she says. “I’ve heard this one before. The woman has help in locating the child — we don’t really know, do we, that it is her daughter — and she is not without influence. Important people she knows are obligated to her in useful ways, and she calls in her markers. The Mercedes man has to give up the girl.
“This is an agricultural tale, you know,” he adds.
“It sounds urban to me,” Schädling protests.
“Depends on your frame of reference,” Gildersleeve chides her.
“So what happens,” I now ask, interjecting myself at last. I want to deflect their expectations that I, too, suggest some ending to this silly business. “Cut to the chase.”
He considers me.
“All right, I will.
“We know that the woman is not who she appears to be. In fact, she is the girl’s mother, but she is no ugly old woman. She shucks her shuffling gait and rags and turns into an elegant sophisticate of twenty-nine. As I said, she has access to levers of powers, and she pulls them. To the extent possible under the circumstances, the daughter is recovered. The husband never finds out, and he wins the election.
“But why the disguise, you ask? Why not come right out and tell the husband, and have the police or the F.B.I. look for the girl?
“She had a daughter when she was fourteen. The child’s grandparents bring it up as their own. Ten years later the woman marries a man fifteen years her senior, a lawyer with political hunger, but tells him nothing about her daughter. He thinks the girl is her sister.
“Five years after their marriage the husband, now in his mid-forties, is on the point of announcing his candidacy for high public office, running on a platform of return to morality and family values. The timing of the abduction is simply bad luck — it happens — and it makes for an impossible bind. How much imagination does it require to appreciate what a clever reporter with some time spent googling news databases could put together? The girl’s disappearance would be major news, and it would soon lead to disclosure her true connection to the candidate’s wife. How viable would his issues-campaign be after this made the national media?
“The wife truly loves her husband and believes in him. But she is also a mother, and she loves her daughter, as well as feeling unbearable guilt. What would any of you have done?”
We have no answer.
“Rape, premarital pregnancy, family secrets, child prostitution, drug addiction, the transmutation of appearances — all the unhappy folklore of our times. You read about it every day in the paper,” he gestured to sections of dailies and news magazines visible everywhere in the Montparnasse. “You’ll see it on half a dozen television shows this week alone. And as I’m sure Professor Gildersleeve will corroborate, you read about it in ancient literature. It’s classic stuff! It’s true, and it’s compelling. That’s why it endures, as meta-reality, as narrative.”
We all sat without speaking.
There did not seem to be much more to discuss that morning, and shortly thereafter we went our separate ways.
I was not unmoved. And in my own mind I was less condemning of the validity of folklore. Grendel had managed to make a rather interesting point, I thought.
At last I reached the post office and thankfully entered the warm lobby. The letter I had been waiting for lay in my box. I stood in the busy lobby at one of the heavy stone slabs that served as sorting tables for postal customers. I was reading her letter.
You’ll get this letter either Thursday or Friday.
I’ve decided I want to meet you.
I want us to transform the fantasies we have been writing about into reality. On Friday.
If you are still game, meet me at five-thirty Friday afternoon in the Montparnasse.
How will you know me?
Go to the Depository and buy a copy of the January issue of Poetry. Sit at a table and be reading it. I’ll be the woman who sits down next to you and is wearing the perfume you can smell at the bottom of this letter. I have wide-set large brown eyes.
(aka Kay Alfé Treinor)
As instructed, I smelled her letter at the signature.
I stared out dreamily through the broad windows of the post office. Snow had started to fall again, and it was already dusting the dirty ground in a soft blanket of white.
I held her letter close to my nostrils and breathed in deeply again, a smile settling softly on my face.
The scent was recently rather familiar.
Lilacs have always meant May to me. And the renewals of spring.