When the Circus Was in Paris

Paris street

When his great aunt Tatie came to visit Jeanot, she took the train from St. Germain to the Gare St. Lazare in Paris with her maid Guénolé. It was a half-an-hour ride in a private compartment, where a waiter served her tea and lemon drop cookies. Guénolé, traveling with her own thermos of café au lait, looked down upon tea drinkers. She thought them all related to the detested Brits who resided across the channel and harassed her exalted Brittany.

Once arrived, the maid was sent off to fend for herself, which usually meant walking two miles to a Breton café where, for a few francs, she could get drunk on cheap wine and Khir and eat crèpes. Tatie would take a taxi the three blocks to the apartment on Rue de la Terrasse. She would pause to converse a bit with Sergei Kharkov, the concierge, then drop in on her cousin Clovis Répaud and his three-legged dog Soldat. She seldom had anything to say to Clovis’ former wife, Jacqueline, who lived across the courtyard, as she didn’t like the woman and thought her haughty, parvenu, and above her station. As she had once said to Jeanot, “Jacqueline farts higher than her cul.” Jeanot had laughed. He didn’t know what Tatie meant, but any mention of farts and bottoms was funny. He liked Tante Jacqueline, who smelled good and had the thinnest ankles he’d ever seen — thinner even than a baby’s.

Tatie always brought something when she came to visit, like an odd gift for the house or inexpensive silk flowers bought at a shop near the Gare. Once several years before, she arrived with a taxidermied elephant’s foot end table from her days in Africa decades earlier. It was wrapped in plain brown paper, and the cabdriver trundled it up the stairs, held to his chest like a coal scuttle. Jeanot barely remembered it because his mother refused to have it in the house, and it ended up in cellar where rats ate it and all that was left was the brass plate attached to the toenails.

Each Christmas, Tatie gives Jeanot’s mother an uncut gem — one time a sapphire, another time a ruby, and at Easter she brings chocolate eggs for Jeanot, bought the year before during the post-Easter sales. The eggs, once the gold foil wrapping is removed, are no longer a deep brown but tannish and dusty, and they taste exactly like what they are: faded chocolates.

Tatie always dresses the same; there’s a faint mauve aura to her that stretches from hair to stockings. In the winter, she has a fox stole with a nasty little head and sharp exposed teeth. In the summer, rain or shine, it’s a formless raincoat the color of sea sand. She smells of violets, throat lozenges, rice powder, and inexpensive perfume from the Bon Marché store.

Jeanot loves the old woman because she never talks down to him. She treats him like a diminutive adult, asks his opinions and often accedes to his wishes. They have conversations about the state of the universe, the traffic, education, language, history. The latter is Tatie’s favorite subject; she’s lived through a lot of history, having traveled to Asia and Africa as a young bride and seen how the world has changed in 40 years. She tells him who the people are with streets and boulevards named after them: Haussman, Roosevelt, Malesherbes, Lefebvre. He senses that even if Tatie does not know something, she will come up with an enlightening explanation not far from the truth.

Today, they walk near l’Opéra, and Tatie stops and points to a pockmarked wall. “Regardes, Jeanot…Here the Boches lined up 20 young men and shot them. Some weren’t much older than you. See the marks? Those are bullet holes.”

Jeanot knows about the war in an abstract sort of way. The Germans liked France so much they wanted it for themselves, and it was people like his Papa and Maman who stopped them. Jeanot has never seen a German; he imagines they are very tall with large teeth and they roar when they talk. But here is what he does know: They may be big and strong and fearsome, but they’re not invulnerable. His parents proved that.

They go to restaurants together, Tatie and Jeanot, a woman from another age whose greatest tragedy was losing her own child, and a boy to whom the aged are part of his landscape. Tatie uses gros mots occasionally. A taxi driver who swerves too close to them is a couillion, a chocolatier whose treats are too costly is a salopard. Jeanot is impressed Tatie trusts him enough to know he’ll not repeat these words in front of his parents. He will keep them hidden and unused, gratified to simply know such treasured expletives. But after their walk, on their way to lunch, they both remain quiet until they get to the restaurant.

One time, Jeanot thought he’d impress Tatie by ordering something without her assistance and because it seemed important, he got the entrée with the highest number next to it. Tatie had to call the waiter back before the man could deliver two whole lobsters to their tables. This time, Tatie orders the main course and Jeanot orders dessert for both. He has learned she always gets the same thing: Pèche Melba.

After lunch they go to the afternoon show of the Cirque Médrano on Boulevard Rochechouart. The circus is well-known for its clowns, and Jeanot isn’t sure whether he likes them or not. They’re frightening, with their loud voices and bicycle horns and the way they run up and down the aisles and among the spectators, spraying them with a giant bottle of soda water. Tatie likes the clowns, though, they make her laugh, but Jeanot notices that none of the ones with seltzer bottles attempt to douse her, and he wonders if perhaps the circus has a  rule against spraying old ladies. They don’t mind spraying kids though, and one of the clowns, the meanest looking of the lot with a half-blue head and spiky red hair, gets Jeanot right in the face, soaking him, his bag of peanuts, and the Eskimo Pie Tatie bought him minutes earlier. Jeanot yells and feels tears of anger well up, and just as they’re about to erupt, same clown gives him two Eskimo pies and a huge bag of peanuts, and Tatie wipes his face with a small lace handkerchief that smells of lavender. She hails a vendor, buys even more candy, and in seconds all is right with the world.

They watch roustabouts erect the cage for the lion-tamer and Jeanot is not impressed. He wishes there were rhinoceros tamers — now that would be something to see — but the man with the snapping whip and pith helmet is both bored and boring, what he’s doing doesn’t look dangerous at all. The big cats are slow and unmenacing, and Jeanot barely applauds. His mind wanders and he remembers reading about lemmings, the little animals that live in America and jump off cliffs. He’s never seen a lemming, and he’s never seen a cliff, and so he imagines they leap off like the divers at the swimming pool where he went with the cub scouts. None of the kids had been allowed to go off the high board, but one of the bigger boys did it anyway, jumping off and landing on his stomach and making a huge splash. Jeanot knew that must have hurt, but you had to admire the grand garcon who didn’t cry at all.

If the lion tamer leaves him cold, Jeanot goes wild for the balancing act, and before it’s through, he’s planning a show of his own in the bedroom after everyone is asleep. He’ll get a couple of chairs and the little kitchen step-ladder and learn to balance precariously on top of everything just like the performer.

By the time the horseback riders appear, he’s exhausted and a little nauseous. He dozes off and Tatie settles him so his head rests on her lap. She doesn’t want to leave yet; the aerialists are next, she saw the same show last week to make sure it was appropriate for a child), and she was fascinated by the men and women working without a net fifteen meters above the ring.

She speculates briefly about the acrobats’ lives — compares them to hers. For the past forty years, she has been a widow living in the same home in St. Germain. The maid, Guénolé, has been with her thirty-seven of those years, and she wonders how in Heaven she managed to survive in such close proximity to the wicked little Bretonne whose every exhalation is misery. They almost never speak; their relationship of mistress and servant was established within minutes of Guénolé being hired and has never altered. Guénolé is a cheat and a thief who every week swipes a few extra Francs by skimping on the food budget, buying yesterday’s fish and bread, making do with household goods purchased from the nest of Breton thieves who live near the train station and rob the local stores at night. Tatie knows all this and more. She knows Guénolé has stolen jewelry from her and pawned it, knows the ill-fitting false teeth the maid wears were lifted from the pharmacy down the street. Tatie knows almost everything there is to know about the daily habits of this tiny woman who can barely cook and tends to the house so poorly. She does not know why she has kept Guénolé around so long but is fully aware their relationship will end only in the demise of one or the other. She hopes, occasionally prays, that Guénolé will not go first.

The man on the flying trapeze launches himself into the air and does a triple flip. The audience — Tatie included — goes “Ahhh” as he grabs the outstretched arms of another vaulter and alights on the platform high above. Jeanot stirs, sticks his thumb in his mouth, and sighs deeply as if discovering the one solution to a vexing problem. Tatie smooths the boy’s cowlick down, and, knowing she shouldn’t, leaves his thumb where it is.

By the time they leave the Cirque Medrano, the day has turned cool and the air is redolent of burnt diesel fuel; she shudders slightly, reminded of visits to the city during the German occupation. Jeanot is subdued and holds her hand as they cross the street towards a taxi stand. He twines his small naked fingers into her equally small gloved ones and — a surprise — makes it a point to open the car door for her. The small act of a gentleman makes her laugh, which in turn makes the boy smile. She hugs him, smells the soap used to wash his hair, and she is momentarily suffused with happiness at being with this beautiful child who is not hers.

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