By GARY ZEBRUN
Thursday Night Stench
He ate Limburger cheese and smoked fat cigars. When Bruno tossed off his Hush Puppies, ready to pass out on the Lazy Boy, it wasn’t long before the room smelled like boiled cabbage. If he took off his socks, you could see fungus scaling his feet. Close up, his sweat smelled like semen. Not long ago, near Strawberry Fields in Central Park, I was assaulted with the memory of my father sweating shoeless in the recliner. I was passing under two flowering Bradford pears, whose blossoms smelled like dead fish. (To make sure I was right, I looked it up in The Hidden Life of Trees). We called it the Thursday Night Stench because the rest of the week, day and night, he wasn’t home. I’m twenty-eight, and I can’t get near a cigar or look at cabbage without wanting to gag, and the smell of semen, to my chagrin, always reminds me of Bruno.
C’est la vie
My father’s real name is Boris, but I started calling him Bruno after I saw The Godfather II at the Filmothèque du Quartier Latin. I was 19, an NYU exchange student at the Sorbonne. He looked a little like Bruno Kirby, and had the same high-pitched voice, not like a girl’s, but a scratchy tenor, streetwise and ambitious, that made you wonder if you should believe what he says or run.
“Why did you ever marry Bruno,” I asked Chloéé when I got back from Paris.
“That’s what I’m calling him now.”
She just shook her head.
My mother likes to say she’s French. A Bilodeau. How she got the name Bilodeau, the sisters at Saint Francis Orphanage never told her. According to Chloéé, my deadbeat grandparents were both in their twenties when they conceived her, both from the small village Notre Dame du Portage six hours north of Montreal. She says the town is best known for seismic activity every 36 hours. That’s the tall tale my mother tells everyone. If I had to find one word for Chloéé’s understanding of her past, I’d have to say, apocryphal. For better or for worse, she’s always more comfortable in her own reality than anywhere else. No one knows anything about her dipshit parents, or how they ended up in Rhode Island’s Blackstone Valley, where she was born, in the parking lot of a liquor store. The anonymous progenitors cut her umbilical cord before they dumped her at the door beside a stack of broken-down Budweiser boxes. That’s what some cop assiduously noted in the incident report. C’est la vie, my mother says about being born outside a package store. She’s a stoic.
I persisted and asked her again why she married Bruno.
She gave me one of her annoying why-go-there looks, though to my surprise, with a rare twinge of self-incrimination, she said, “I imagined I could love him, someday.” After a silence that let in a melancholy she didn’t know remembering my father could engender, she said, “Boris wasn’t always Thursday Night Stench.”
Then, practiced in the art of deflection, my mother leaned into the scarf I was wearing, a buttery cotton one I bought from a gitan stall at the Rue Mouffetard Marché. “Aren’t you the perfect expat bohemian! You’re lucky I’m not like Mrs. Piletti. You’re lucky I let you go.”
“Who’s she?” I asked.
“You’re the cinema aficionado, aren’t you?”
“Ernest Borgnine’s mother in Marty. You’re nothing like him.”
I gave her a look.
“You’re such a curious boy.” Chloéé unwound the scarf around my neck and draped it across her shoulders. “What we need right now, doudou, is a martini.”
Bruno bought the only movie theater in Central Falls, which is just a one-square mile municipality, one of the most densely populated cities in the country. “We’re big enough, the size of 484 football fields,” proclaims a plaque in City Hall in the smallest city in the nation’s most diminutive state. Before it became New England’s cocaine crossroads, Central Falls was a melting pot, with more than a hundred nationalities packed so close there was no chance for anyone to claim dominion over another. Long before my father bought the BV Ziegfeld, the movie house was the community’s center of entertainment, with a screen as large as The Columbus in Providence. It was the place Irish, Scottish, Russian, and French-Canadian waifs struggled to understand one another while they watched decade after decade of classics—The Gold Rush, Trouble in Paradise, Notorious, Singin’ in the Rain. I suppose Bruno had one admirable human quality: he liked movies, especially old ones. When people said, there must be something you respected about your father, I’d say rien in a nod to my Francophile mother and add, well, he did save the Ziegfeld.
Bruno decided the cinema would become an “Art House”; across the bottom of the marquee, under the title of the film in smaller black letters was the tagline, THE BV ZIEGFELD, WHERE ART NEVER DIES. Some Sundays, before he skipped town (he didn’t leave a note), I’d spend the day at the movie house, watching the same film from the matinee to the late show. Bruno would take in the afternoon show too, and then disappear, leaving the theater in the hands of the cashier and usher for the rest of the day. Sometimes I would follow him to the lobby doors. Through the window glass, the cashier, a grandmotherly Italian woman, would signal me to come into the box office. With a quizzical expression and a shrug, she’d give me a hug and say, “Johnny, you’re nothing like your father.” Where Bruno went, no one knew. People speculated he gambled. My mother believed he fucked around, or as she said in French, il a baisé. Who knows, maybe he has a whole other family across the border in Plainville. He played the greyhounds, that much everyone knew.
One unforgettable film for me back then was How to Murder Your Wife. Years later, I studied it in a History of American Comedy course at NYU. It wasn’t George Axelrod’s finest moment. Afterall, he’d written The Seven Year Itch, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and The Manchurian Candidate. The teaching assistant who led our study group, an overweight nerd who hardly ever washed his hair and smelled a little like my father’s feet, loved the satire of the male fantasy, if only I could kill her and be a bachelor again. The movie was supposed to be funny, a farce, when I saw it in class, I finally could lol. But back then at the BV Ziegfeld, I was eight, and seeing Jack Lemmon in the role of a cartoonist play out his uxoricide daydreams in a comic strip, I panicked. I thought, Dad is going to kill Mom.
I imagined Bruno drugging my mother and kept hearing my father’s voice in my head saying the cartoonist’s line, “I cold-bloodedly then fed her into a tomb of goop from the gloppittta-gloppitta machine.”
It would happen on a Thursday Night Stench. He’d insist he’d make Chloéé the evening martini and slip in something like rat poison, but tasteless and slow to kill, the way the Brewster sisters did in Arsenic and Old Lace. I’d be asleep before she died and wouldn’t see him feed her corpse into the goop cement that he had whipped up inside a footlocker in the garage. She was small enough to bend and contort and fill it. The movie was about to begin again, the house nearly empty and me trapped in this fantasy that seemed more and more robust as I thought of Bruno and my mother.
Luckily, the usher, Barry Gauthier, a former high school football star at the Mount, jolted me out of this terror, tapping my shoulder and saying he needed me outside.
If there was one person I wanted to be with, more than my mother, Barry was the guy. In the summer on a Sunday evening, after the last moviegoer sat down in the theater, he’d take off his blazer, shirt and tie, and head outside to change the week’s feature. He always wore a wife beater under everything like Brando in Streetcar, and even then, long before I’d fly the rainbow flag, I couldn’t stop looking at him.
He’d toss letters he didn’t need down and say, “You better catch them or else, Bozo.” Barry was only a few steps up the ladder, so it was almost as if he were handing off a football. No chance I’d flub one.
On that Sunday night I worried about Bruno killing my mother, the title of the next movie was so short that I filled two buckets with discarded letters. He never told me what new one he needed. Our game was I had to guess, and Ben Hur didn’t take long. In no time he snapped the B and N from the letter changer arm onto the marquee. Piece of cake. Also, it was a movie Bruno liked to reprise a lot. I’d seen Ben Hur about six times, touched by what I thought was at its heart a mother and son love story. And what budding gay boy wouldn’t be captivated by the sight of Charlton Heston’s pectoralis major gleaming in original technicolor. Watching Barry in his tight tee, the letter changer his whip, I imagined him on a chariot, ready to let his four white horses rip.
“Hardly worth the cone I promised you,” Barry said, about my guessing Ben Hur. “Don’t expect things in life to be so easy.”
He was like that, kind of regretful and philosophical.
“I coulda been a contender. I could’ve been somebody, instead of a bum,” he used to say a lot to himself and sometimes loud enough he wanted me to hear, quoting Robert DeNiro quoting Brando. Years later, the first time I saw Raging Bull on Netflix, I got a boner thinking of Barry.
“Bozo,” he told me when he dropped me home, “you better go to college or you’ll end up like me, or Jake La Motta, or worse, like Boris.”
Jack and Danny
I remember it was August, a few days before I turned 10. Bruno decided to have a Jack Nicholson fest. One Flew Over the Cuckoos’s Nest, Mars Attacks, Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor, and Chinatown had played earlier in the week. A movie extravaganza like this sparked a lot of interest from Central Falls moviegoers. Working class women could take or leave pretty boys like Tom Cruise or Brad Pitt. Nicholson, hardly eye-candy, reminded them of the men they either loved or hated in their lives. And these men, immigrant-spawned, saw a piece of themselves in whoever Nicholson was embodying: P.I. “Jakes” Gilles, Colonel Jessup, Wolfman Will Randal, insane imposter Randle McMurphy.
The last movie of the week was The Shining. I had gone upstairs before the first show began, and the projectionist was teeing up a reel of film.
“Hey, Johnny, come on in,” he said.
I had never tired of the sight of the two 35 mm projectors which nearly filled the room like cannons from another galaxy. “The beasts, something else, hey,” he told me when I first saw them. I was maybe seven at the time and must have looked like I’d walked into Oz. I remember Henry saying, “This is where the magic happens.” He always kept a Thermos of coffee and a flask of whiskey. He ate black Twizzlers like they were going out of style and stored a pack of red ones for me.
The afternoon of The Shining, he said, “This isn’t the kind of movie you should see alone, kid.”
So, sitting on stools before the projection glass window, we watched Jack go crazy, terrorizing his wife, Wendy, and only son, Danny, at the Overlook Hotel in the Rockies. I remember the moment Jack talked about dislocating his son’s shoulder; I held Henry’s arm and didn’t let go until the movie ended. He said one showing for me was enough and called Barry, who would take me home.
“Do you think my father is going to kill me?”
Henry gave me a look and said, “Hey, kid, it’s just a movie.”
Barry bought the BV Ziegfeld in a bank auction after Bruno disappeared. Even before the recession hit, he’d been squandering movie house savings on who knew what. (We’d lost the house in a foreclosure, too.) Barry would drop by the apartment every Sunday. He’d bring Chloéé fruit and vegetables he picked up at Wojciks Farm. Later, he’d take me to the theater for the matinee, and afterward we’d stop at KFC for a bucket of legs and wings, which we’d bring home for dinner. My mother made a fancy French pastry for dessert those nights—éclairs, Nutella crèpes, crème brûlée, and around Christmas, the craziest bûche de Noël topped with chocolate marzipan and cutout pictures of Parisian landmarks.
The marquee of the BV Ziegfeld was dark on Monday Night Porn, and there was a dim red light in the lobby evocative of a bordello. On the window of the cashier booth was a sign: CLOSED MONDAYS. Cops didn’t interfere, and it wasn’t unusual for a cop on the beat to pop in for a scene or two. Bruno started what he called “dirty movie nights” not long after he took over the cinema. Mostly men would enter the lobby and wait until Bruno or Barry let them in. Sometimes a guy would bring his girl, and Bruno would give him a judgmental look, Barry told me. Who would have thought Bruno had that kind of boundary? Barry thought of ending X-rated Mondays, but two Monday night features made more money than a weekend of Singin’ in the Rain or 2001, A Space Odyssey.
Once I got to high school, I spent less time watching reprises of the old films at the Ziegfeld. It was after the Y2K Millennium scare, and I’d fallen hard for Christian Bale in The Dark Knight and, go figure, Iron Man Robert Downey Jr. He was more bad boy than the on-screen heroes I’d swooned over at the Ziegfeld when I was younger. But Monday nights, well, they were a different story. I was only too glad to return to the movie house and fill in for the regular usher whenever he was sick or busy with something else. If I got a Monday call, I knew I’d be in for a night of boners. Sometimes you got a glimpse of a guy’s hard-on, and there were endless shots of their asses that were only rivaled by the butts of gods and warriors in the antiquities’ halls at the Louvre. There’s a statue of Mercury there that drives me crazy every time I see it. His curls are spilling out of a winged helmet. His torso arcs down to more curls around his cock, which is seductively left to your imagination, hidden under a cloth draped across his bent thigh. I don’t have to tell you how beautiful the messenger’s ass is.
On porn Mondays, sometimes I’d invite a pal from St. Joe Prep. He was straight, a baseball pitcher, and I had to pretend I was climaxing at the sight of a guy’s face buried in between two tits, while all the time I was watching the guy’s ass and wishing the ballplayer would meet me in the dark alley behind the theater. I remember some of the names of the movies, which I thought were kind of poetic: Harlot … the Story of a Girl; Tonight, for Sure; Dirty Western; Nothing Personal; The Gafenberg Spot (She didn’t even know she had one); Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie, which was too arty to pack the house, and the one gay porn Barry ever booked, Moan. It was a spoof on Scream. Most of the moviegoers walked out. These were tits and ass men, for sure. Barry told them it was all a mix-up, and the distributor would get an earful. The next movie would be on him. And me, I took a seat and couldn’t believe naked men could be so theatrical and hot. No holds barred. Nothing like the predictable bang, bang, bang of a guy in straight porn.
All those years Bruno owned the movie house, Chloéé never stepped into the BV Ziegfeld.
“Books,” she said, “and records. Je n’ai pas besoin du cinéma.”
I suspected, though, that it was Bruno, not the movies, she didn’t want to see.
Not long after he fled, I saw Chloéé leaving the matinee at The Columbus in Providence. Go figure, so much for her not needing movies. I was on a school bus for a field trip to the zoo. The movie playing was La Vie en Rose, and she was wearing her favorite dress, a blousy black silk thing with white roses on it. No one dressed like that for a matinee. Out of the corner of my eye, as the bus sped by, I thought I saw Barry, too. When I got home, she was in the kitchen singing Edith Piaf’s “Je ne regrette rien” and making my favorite soupe à l’oignon. I wanted to say, I saw you at The Columbus, but she seemed so content slicing an onion, tearing up as much from whatever was moving her as from the onion mound on the cutting board.
Dans les yeux
When I told my mother I was gay in 1998, she seemed like she already had known. When I told her I was in love with Barry, she wasn’t surprised. I was barely 12. It was a confounding time in gay history: The Ellen DeGeneres Show was cancelled, months after she came out on television. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin was elected to Congress. And Matthew Shepard was tortured in Wyoming, tied to a fence, left hanging overnight. He died days later. Yes, the year Johnny Bilodeau told his mom he was gay. I just got home from seeing Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and on the bus back, I’d daydreamed of Barry, who slipped in and out of the body of Johnny Depp in thought balloon images while I sat beside him smoking a cigarette. It was going to be hard, I thought, but I was going to tell Chloéé that I loved Barry too, and we would have to put our fates in his hands, settle for whatever, whoever he decides. I knew I was being ridiculous; I knew what Barry’s answer would be, but I was tired of hiding, enough was enough. I’d still love her, and God knows, neither of us could be angry with Barry.
It was evening, just after supper, when I broke the news. That day was momentous for another reason, too. We’d officially changed our names from Karpoff to Bilodeau. She opened a bottle of Veuve Clicquot that she’d been saving. We raised our glasses, and she made the toast I later learned only French natives use when they want to express the depth of their emotion.
“Dans les yeux. New beginnings.” And then, rather aloofly, “Now, tell me why you think you love Barry.”
Not why do you think you’re gay. Not why she wasn’t surprised. But why I believed I loved Barry. It was, even for Chloéé, an unexpected response. I wanted to say, because he loves me too, though I knew that wasn’t true, not in the way I loved him.
Just to make herself perfectly clear, she said, “Barry loves you like a father loves a son,” which was so obvious, all I could do was tear up.
She kept on her own determined track. “Do you dream about naked boys, honey?”
The honey made me feel like eight years old again. “Sometimes.”
“Do you dream about Barry naked?”
I blurted out, No! so forcefully she knew I was lying.
As if on cue, Barry knocked at the door and walked in.
“Coucou, Johnny tells me he’s gay and he loves you.”
Barry lifted me from the kitchen chair and took me into an embrace. He whispered in my ear, “We should have told you about us. You’re going to be alright, Bozo.”
I knew Chloéé was right. Barry loved me like a father loves a son, like Bruno never did, Bruno who didn’t give a shit about much except his own dick. I caught him once in the storage room behind the concession stand where he kept a twin bed with the image of the classic Alfred Hitchcock silhouette imprinted on a blanket. He was banging some neighborhood know-nothing who looked like Lily Tomlin on a good day, his ass bang, bang, banging like some wannabe stud in a Monday night porn. He turned and saw me at the door. It was just months before he disappeared. He paused, giving Agnes or whoever she was a break, and sending me this bet-you-can’t-wait-for-this look, as if it were some unexpected but welcome father-son moment. Before I turned away and left, the woman said, “Boris, for Christ’s sake, get up and shut the door.”
While I was in Barry’s embrace, he signaled Chloéé to join us; she kissed me on the cheek. “Mon ange,” my mother said, “it is so hard and marvelous to be young.”
“What the fuck! “
That’s what I said when Barry told me Bruno was back in town. I was watching Eurovision 2015 on YouTube and cursing Sweden’s Måns Zelmerlöw, who said that it was unnatural for men to sleep with other men or become parents the week of the show. Of course, he won, performing of all things the song “Heroes.”
I’d come home from Los Angeles to be with my mother. She was days away from the end-of-life point in hospice. On the scale of morphine-medicated pain, Chloéé swept through most of the stages in just two months: Minimal, Housebound, Limited Mobility, to where she was then, Impaired Speech and Eating. All that was left was Incapacitated and Death. Barry was devastated. But I could see in her eyes, even in the fog of dying, she wasn’t unhappy. She didn’t believe in God—the nuns at St. Francis beat belief out of her by the time she got to high school. Instead, she believed in music and books. She believed in Barry. I’m pretty sure she believed in me.
Years ago, I asked her what she thought about good and evil. The nuns in grammar school had driven into us that we had to love everyone no matter what they might do to us. And I was sure I hated Bruno, certain this instinctual revulsion for a father made me irredeemable.
“Doudou,” Chloéé said, “why do you worry about these things at your age?”
I was 10, and the next day Bruno took me to the attic where he sat me across his thighs and whacked me with his belt because I had fessed up and told him I detested him. I remember saying, detested, and don’t think I’ve ever said the word again. He wanted to know why. I would have explained without the strap if I knew.
And my mother said, “Show me where he hit you.”
I pointed at my butt.
“Show me,” she repeated with a nonchalance. I pulled down my pants and jockey shorts.
“A little pink, doudou. You’ll survive. Why did he do it?”
“I told him I detested him.”
“That’s a little confrontational.”
“He beat me, and it’s my fault.”
The next day Bruno didn’t come home, which wasn’t unusual, but the day turned into days, then into weeks, then months until my mother and I looked at each other over dinner and said, “He’s gone.”
I’d like to think he left because I told him I hated him. Hated him maybe because he filled the house with his Thursday Night Stench or because he snored when he was watching Survivor or maybe because whenever he was home my mother never laughed and moved with a passiveness that to me was as inexplicable as Bruno himself.
When I was back for Christmas, not too long before Chloéé got the diagnosis, we were drinking a martini and listening to Pink Martini’s Sympathique. I asked her, “Did Bruno ever hit you?”
“What a thing to ask, doudou?”
“I don’t understand why you weren’t upset when I told him I hated him and he struck me with his belt.”
“He did that? I don’t remember.”
Pink Martini was playing “Que Sera Sera,”a, a squeaky, carnival-like rendition that lacked all hint of possibility and rescue that was in Doris Day’s voice when she sang it in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
I said, “You know Doris Day sang this to save her son’s life.”
“Did she?” Chloéé raised her empty glass. “So, what do you say, un autre verre, doudou?”
I gave her a look.
“You know I love you.”
I took a long breath in. “I know.”
Months later, fuckin’ Bruno turned up. How could he know Chloéé and Barry would spend their final days together, more content than she’s ever been, in a cottage on Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, about a half hour drive from Woonsocket to Webster, Mass.? That’s a mouthful, isn’t it? Forty-five letters, fourteen syllables. If it were the name of a movie, you’d need five marquees to spell it out. In Algonquian it means fishing place divided by islands. The lake is shaped like a figure eight and fishermen like to say the name translates, “You fish on your side, I’ll fish on my side, and no one will fish in the middle.” Perfect place for Chloéé to die.
In the fall, before the doctor told her she was stage four, she had planted what she called her jardin française au bord du lac. By spring, lying in her bed, the cancer sapping the life out of her, she could see an efflorescence of lily-of-the-valley, lilac, hyacinth, and sweet iris. “Johnny,” she pointed outside when I got in from L.A., “n’est-il pas beau?”
Imagine coming home to watch your mother die and learning that your long-lost father not only has shown up, but that he had also escaped from a mental institution. As far as we had known, he could have been dead. A psychiatrist from the Napa State Hospital had found a drawing of a woman and a boy, rolled up and hidden in a slit inside the mattress. Scrawled across the bottom was Fuck Chloéé and my shit of a son. Also stashed there were a postcard of Niagara Falls, some pages torn out of a paperback with a sentence underlined, the end of the world is right around the corner, and a Polaroid snapshot of my mother on a South County beach before their wedding. On the back Bruno had written, la belle Chloéé. On the front, a knife drawn into her chest. A psychiatrist tracked down my mother, and not long before she began slipping in and out of consciousness, he told her that her husband might decide to return to Rhode Island, and if he did, we should know he could be dangerous, which seemed like a gigantic understatement. Days later we learned he’d changed his name from Boris Karpoff to Gordon Summer and had been troubadouring throughout Northern California playing guitar and telling people Sting stole his name. Bruno was hundo p delusional. A newspaper story about him said he had been harassing children and telling them they needed to prepare for the end of the world. He was arrested in a theater that was playing The Road. I remember one conversation from the film that still makes me tear up. The man tells the boy, “I’ll hear you if you call. I’ll just be a little way and I’ll be able to hear you if you get scared, and you call me, and I’ll come right away.”
Fuck Bruno, I thought, who the fuck does he think he is.
I barely heard her whispering in the lounge chair on the terrace. “Mon ange, come look, there’s a pelican on the lake.”
“It’s a loon, Chloéé There’s no pelican anywhere on this lake.”
“You’re no fun,” she said, with a characteristic insouciance, the quickness muted in her dying light.
Fire and rain
Bruno never showed up at the lake cottage. Neighbors in Central Falls said they didn’t see anyone snooping around the apartment. If he came back to haunt my mother, he wasn’t much of a ghost. He could have googled the name Bilodeau and fond us, eventually. I’m not anonymous. And there’s a Facebook profile: Johnny Bilodeau; Works as indie filmmaker; Went to Central Falls High like Viola Davis; Studied at NYU; Lives in Los Angeles, California; From Central Falls, Rhode Island.
How Bruno ended up inside the Ziegfeld in the middle of the night, no one could figure out. Did he keep a key to the lobby all those years? More likely, the usher forgot to chain one of the emergency exits when he closed that night. It wasn’t hard to pop open an unchained back door. Singin’ in the Rain was queued up on the digital player in the projection room (the two beasts had sat dormant for years), and it wouldn’t be hard to figure out that all he had to do was pop in a CD and flick a switch. Projecting these days isn’t rocket science. I wonder what he thought about the changes. Not only the dormant projectors. The popcorn machine was gone in the concession stand and 20-gallon bags of pre-popped corn were stacked up in the backroom. In the lobby, black-and-white vinyl tiles replaced the worn-out red-and-gold carpeting woven with the old studio logos: the Universal Globe, Paramount’s Mountain Range, Columbia Pictures’ Torch Lady, and the MGM Roaring Lion. Most of the seats were replaced with wider tilt-backs, except for a row of old red velvet ones along the back curtained wall that Barry kept in homage to the past. What was Bruno thinking when he entered that row and found the middle seat he’d always preferred? Was he nostalgic, regretful? Was he hoping he could lose himself in celluloid dreams, the one genetic trait I’m glad he passed on to me? Fire investigators concluded the conflagration started with a lit cigar that ignited the curtains behind him. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep and was overcome by smoke. When did he drop the cigar? Was it an accident? Arson? Suicide? Was it early in the movie when Gene Kelly tells a reporter the secret to his success is living always with dignity? When Kelly, enchanted by Debbie Reynolds, sang “All I Do Is Dream of You”? He was so consumed in the fire that if it weren’t for DNA, no one would have known the body in the ruins was Bruno.
My mother stopped eating while I was at her bedside, not even the cream inside the éclairs from Chez Pascal that Barry would spoon out. He’d bring the creme close to her lips and she’d open her mouth into the barest slit. She slowly grazed a spoonful, which was all she could let melt in her mouth before closing her lips. Her conversations drifted into short phrases and words, mostly unintelligible. Her breathing was labored, and her throat made tiny sounds like a chirping. Her urine was tea colored, and her delicate feet, ankles, and hands ballooned. If she heard Barry and me talking about Bruno and the BV Ziegfeld fire, she didn’t respond. I think it was her way of telling us she didn’t want to spend her last days thinking about the man she knew she should have never married. If he burned in a fire, well, as far as she was concerned, c’est la vie.
After Barry went out of the room, I felt an intimacy that I had not expected, alone with her on the day before she died as she lay in the bed so unresponsive. I told my mother stories and questioned her even though I knew she couldn’t answer. I wondered about the day I saw her leaving The Columbus after seeing La Vie en Rose. Had she been there with Barry? Why she never came to the BV Ziegfeld. Why she pretended she never liked movies. I told her about my first boyfriend. We met at a café on Place de la Contrescarpe in the Quartier Latin. She’d never been to Paris, so I described the fountain in the middle of the square with four Paulownia trees and a streetlamp with five globes. I told her about the grubby Café des Amateurs, which was no longer there. Hemingway drank there. “You would have liked Fabian,” I said. “He had auburn hair, green eyes, and a laugh like he was born to be happy.” I told her I was sorry we were never in Paris together, and how I had planned someday to own an apartment there, where she and Barry could spend springs and autumns. I wanted to believe she was listening, though the only movements she made were leg twitches and an almost imperceptible drawing in and out of her thumb and finger on the bed sheet as if she were trying to pick up something so thin it was unattainable. I told her how none of what I knew about Bruno really explained why I’d hated him for so long. What did she think of that? I asked. Her only responses were the twitching of her legs and the circles she made with her thumb and finger. I imagined that if she would be able to speak, she’d say something like que sera sera.
The next morning Chloéé awakened to an end-of-her-life rally. We’d been warned by the nurse that it could happen, what she called terminal lucidity. These bounce-backs could last minutes, hours, some even days, but they were harbingers of certain death. When organs shut down, they can unleash a kind of natural steroid that rouses a dying person. This is most common when a relative is nearby, evoking a fervor to connect with a loved one, to say good-bye. Barry had left to get an éclair. She lifted her hand and took my arm.
“Doudou” she said, “mon ange, je t’aime.”
She said she wanted champagne and oysters. Did I know oysters were aphrodisiacs? she asked. Her eyes were wide.
She told me to find a good boy and live with him in Paris and make movies people could enter when their lives are drab and full of sorrow.
Did I know, she asked, An American in Paris? And she sang, S’ Wonderful! ‘S Marvelous! / You Should Care for Me! / S’ Awful Nice! ‘S Paradise! / S’ What I Love To See.
She raised my hand to her lips and kissed it. And then our hands fell to her chest. By the time Barry returned, her facial muscles had relaxed, and she had become ghostly pale. Her jaw dropped and her eyes clouded over. Our hands still folded on her chest, I felt a few last breaths before her heart stopped. I turned to Barry, who was at the door holding an éclair in his open hand. “She sang,” I said. “Chloéé sang.”
Gary Zebrun is the author of two novels, Someone You Know, a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award, and Only The Lonely. His work has appeared in The New Republic, The New York Times, Iowa Review, Sewanee Review,The Believer, and other journals. He’s had fellowships at Yaddo and MacDowell. His new novel, Hart Island, will be published by the University of Wisconsin Press in spring 2024.