Geoffrey Heptonstall's fiction includes a novel, Heaven's Invention [Black Wolf 2017] and a story for Scarlet Leaf Review, My Lovely Dear [June 2017]. Recent poetry appeared in All the Sins, The Drunken Llama and Runcible Spoon.
SOMETHING FRENCH, LIKE A CONNECTION
‘My, what is it with you?’ Lucille once asked him. ‘You waiting for something French to happen?’ Lucille said that kind of thing. It made no sense, not to Bud. He just let it pass. No point in arguing with Lucille. No point in arguing with anybody. Let the world go on moving round the sun. Folks could say this and maybe that, but all the while Bud had his dreams. They were most important to him. They were real. He was floating through clouds, clutching rainbows, and feeling a shower of stars fall on his bemused head. When he looked out of the window, as he often did, Bud saw what nobody ever could guess was happening to him. Something French? Well, maybe.
Bud’s dream was of flying. The first time he flew he was so young, a child of seven years. Early one morning he leapt effortlessly, naturally, gracefully from the garden wall into the air. It was the time of his life, soaring and swooping over the rooftops and the trees, then high into the clouds. It did not seem at all unusual. Surely at some point in their lives everyone can fly? In Bud’s case it was one morning a little before the waking call from his mother when he was seven. Then, without warning it was time for school. There would be no more flying.
Bud stayed close to his dream. He would watch the motion of birds in flight. He watched the planes that flew on their way to distant cities they could reach in the time he could write for Miss McMaster about the boy who could fly as easily as a fish can swim.
He liked movies about birds and also about planes. In Flying Down to Rio, seen on TV the summer he was thirteen, the sight of the showgirls dancing on the wings of the plane thrilled him because he imagined that when he was a little older, eighteen maybe, he was going to see such spectacles for himself. This would be happening all the time, like shoot-outs between cops and hoodlums at the D-Lite grocery store. If he drank with fellow cavalry officers he would casually toss his glass into the fireside. Then there would be the time he had to jump from the car that was about to plunge over the cliff. Then there would be the time the flight attendant asked, ‘Is there anyone here who knows how to fly a plane?’
Actually, when it came to doing it for real Bud was not a good flier. Planes made him nervous. He did not dare look down at the ground below as the craft rose so swiftly into the air. He was happier in the clouds. Their soft cushioning look gave him the illusion of safety. He always listened carefully to the attendant’s instructions. It comforted him to think that if the plane landed on water, when he was floating in the water the light in his hand would attract the attention of the rescue party. With such thoughts he whiled away the hours of flight, drifting gradually into some dream of showgirls and dare-devil aeronauts. This was the Bud that nobody really knew.
A better marriage might have made the vital difference. But Lucille wasn’t one for flying. There was a time when Bud tried to tell her of his plans, ambitions and hopes.
Yes, they were hopes that dwarfed the skyline of theirs and anybody’s city. But Bud had serious ambitions then. He had talent. He knew he had. High school hadn’t brought out the best in him because of all the jerks. And the job in insurance was for the little guys. Someday the profile would read ‘There was a time when he was just another insurance salesman cold-calling in wealthy neighbourhoods until the day the door opened and…’
That day was not yet. The years were passing, but nobody was going to open the door unless, of course, he opened it for himself. He suggested they move to somewhere different, somewhere with more opportunities. He suggested Los Angeles, but Lucille just laughed. The vision of Bud staring out at Hollywood homes was Bud all the way through. ‘Leopards don’t change,’ was all Lucille would say in response. Bud could think only of a balloon escaping from his hand, and disappearing into the kingdom of the lucky.
Some afternoons, if he had completed his quota for the day, Bud would slip into a movie house downtown. He knew where all of them were. He avoided places where he thought there may be somebody who would see him and tell Lucille. She did not share her husband’s need for some entertainment that life could not provide. Busying herself about the house, Lucille could avoid Bud, dozing on the couch, mouth open with peculiar sounds, and eyes closed.
One day there was a movie of a kind Bud did not usually see. It was foreign. Foreign meant difficult and strange, with no action, and with words you had to read at the bottom of the screen. He did not see the point of them. He supposed that crazies and retards watched them because they knew no better. What Bud liked was a good movie.
This movie turned out to be interesting once you got over the lack of color. At least nobody spoke. It was all motion and music, like the old silent days, classic days of an ancient time, a Roman and Greek and Egyptian time. Bud never understood why there was no color then. He had heard it said that back then there was not the spectrum of color that there is now.
It was a bleak world that Bud feared he might stumble into accidentally one day. Let us suppose he turned a corner, only to find himself in an unfamiliar street. When he looked back the alley he had walked down was no more. There was no way of return. Fearing that might happen, Bud did not like movies that were not in a world he knew.
But this was different.
It was French. He could tell that by the shots of the Eiffel Tower. Also there was a man in a beret. And guys sat at sidewalk tables drinking wine. The Continentals did that. They did it a lot because their sports and movies weren’t so good.
So why did Bud like this movie so much? Well, there was the man selling balloons in the park. The boy buys all the balloons, only to find he cannot keep his feet on the ground. He rises and falls. Then the wind starts to blow so that newspapers and hats are scattered, the boy rises higher and higher into the sky above Paris. He is gliding gently, taken by whatever current blows, for he cannot really steer. He tries putting one hand out, but he changes course only a little. So he lets the balloons take him where they will. He is free. The boy looks happy. Bud remembered what such a feeling was.
The problem was, as always, that Lucille did not remember. She could not have had the faintest notion of what Bud was trying to say if he had told her about the movie he saw. Some sardonic remark was going to be all he would hear. And so Bud did not tell Lucille of the beautiful experience he had had that afternoon. ‘How was my day? Oh, you know…’ She did not and would never know.
Maybe the less she knows… Bud thought. If she tried to understand. But how could Lucille, so practically-minded, make sense of something French with balloons? It wasn’t about something she knew. It was something Bud knew.
Bud knew that what he had seen was true. There was a city called Paris, which was French. If there he could find a man who sold balloons in a park, then he, too, might glide over the boulevards and cafes where marmzelles in silk skirts would blow kisses as Bud, the hero, passed overhead on his way to…wherever his flight would take him. This, he thought, was something he had to do at last. One day it was going to be too late. Until then it was never too late.
The clock on the City Hall struck the hour. Bud as a boy had wondered what would happen if he dared climb the tower and changed the time of the clock. Would people walk backwards, repeating all they had done in reverse? Would the world be thrown into chaos? Would a great hurricane blow, and whirlwind spin? Would day become night? Would gravity vanish so that everyone rose up towards the sun? Was that what would happen? Wasn’t there a movie about that? It would make a great movie. Bud used to have ideas like that all the time.
Well, now it was time to live out some of those ideas. He used to say he would. He no longer said it out loud. But inside his head Bud was the same dreamer who had been known to fly. He foresaw the grins and snickers, the shaking of heads when they heard what Bud had gone and done. But he also foresaw the tickertape welcome home.
Or, if that was expecting a little too much of envious people, there would be Lucille, yellow-ribboned, greeting him off the bus and walking home with him, arm in arm. ‘You were always my hero, Bud. I just knew you could do it really.’ The nagging and the snorts were not the Lucille that was deep inside her. At heart she loved him. She would love for sure the man she was going to see in a new light when he came.
So why had it taken so long for the Bud that nobody knew to strike out as the Bud everybody loved? Well, there had obstacles and obligations. They grounded a person.
They weighed you down. When Bud was a boy he visited a home that had a bird in a cage. He felt so much sorrow for that bird. He wondered at the cruelty of people who could imprison such a creature for their own pleasure. They were thinking only of themselves, whereas Bud was thinking about freedom and the right of a beautiful, harmless creature to live a natural life.
‘They would put me in jail,’ he thought, ‘if they wanted to.’ Bars on the window always made him uneasy. Even the metal fence outside the school was something he would have liked to tear down. It was when he thought of that fence, and the thought of other walls and locked doors that finally impelled Bud to make his escape.
It was easily done, telling Lucille that he was going hunting with a few of the guys. She didn’t seem to think it strange that Bud possessed no gun, and that he had never been hunting. He was not an outdoor person at all. ‘I need to find the real me,’ he told Lucille. ‘Well, she said in reply, ‘there’s a man in there somewhere, I guess.’ She expected him back in three or four days.
Bud a choice that was no choice. He had to fly. And so he took flight to Paris, the city of many movies he found unforgettable because they were about Paris. The name itself evoked images of a charm and style that Silverwood City never had even in the finest weather when a guy felt lucky. A guy was lucky in Paris whatever the season.
Bud knew this was to be the movie part of his life, a starring role in a picture for which he would be remembered if only by himself alone.
‘I always wanted to see Paris,’ said a short, fat man from Milwaukee, ‘ever since I saw Tony Curtis in Wild and Wonderful.’ ‘Well, for me it was Gene Kelly,’ a sweet lady from Philadelphia replied. ‘And to think,’ a tall, pale schoolteacher from South Carolina added, ‘we’ll be seeing the famed cathedral of Notre-Dame as immortalized by Charles Laughton in that great classic movie, the one about the hunchback.’ Bud heard all these testimonies with some interest. He felt, perhaps, he was among friends. But when he mentioned the balloons nobody was listening. Not a word was said. Somebody changed the subject, saying, ‘I don’t remember Tony Curtis in a Paris movie. Was that before or after Spartacus?’
The plane began its descent through the French clouds. Bud opened his eyes to see the pelican that flew by. At first glance it was another plane. But then he saw it was a bird. It was not quite a like the creatures you see flying. It had a look about i. Pelicans do not have so much intelligence and personality in them, he felt sure. They were birds. They flew. There was not much more to them, except in a pelican’s case an enormous beak.
Bud was puzzled by what he saw. On the other hand he was in the air above Paris. They did things a little differently there. That was why he had come across an ocean. If he found himself in a Paris that wasn’t Paris he would be disappointed. He was not going to be disappointed. The sassy grin and wave from the pelican told him that this was going to be a great movie.
And so it was no surprise when he saw the friendly pelican again. He had hoped they might see each other. It was to be expected that at the Eiffel Tower something French would happen. It did when the pelican landed and introduced himself. ‘Monsieur, I ask have you seen Zouzou?’ the pelican said in a clear but slightly anxious tone. ‘Beret and striped jersey and pencil skirt? She was here, but my fear is that she has fallen.’
‘Pardon me, but do you play the accordion you have there?’ Bud asked. The pelican shot an affronted look at the hapless Bud. ‘Of course. It is how I make my living. Zouzou sings, and I accompany her. I have a good singing voice myself, you understand, but I prefer to play my accordion.’ At that moment Zouzou, looking as the pelican had described, came floating down, followed by a gendarme who floated not nearly so gracefully. He seemed flustered by the indignity of his experience. ‘This charming young lady fell, and I tried to save her,’ the gendarme explained. Bud saw. He had hoped that something French would happen. Something French was happening. If the folks back home could see him now…
But weren’t they watching back home? This was the kind of movie that Bud had been waiting for. They were lots of guys like Bud, spending their lives waiting for something French to happen. Now Bud was the lucky guy who found that it was happening to him, floating through the Parisian sky, following Zouzou the chanteuse, her pelican accordion-player and the gendarme who had attempted to rescue the marmzelle.
‘Just follow me, m’sieur,’ said the pelican. Although it seemed natural, Bud did not know until then that he could fly like a pelican. Something he had always dreamed might happen was happening. These things happened in movies about Paris. As he once said to Lucille, ‘It ain’t just about popcorn.’ She just gave him one of her looks. She was very good at giving those looks.
Now Lucille was far away. Bud could worry about explanations to her later. For the moment they had to find Zouzou before it was too late. Soon in their descent the pelican and he found her. ‘I lost my balance,’ she said. ‘I thought I saw someone I once knew.’ Her voice was wistful, almost sad when she spoke. ‘Someone who owes you money, huh?’ the pelican suggested, but Zouzou was drifting through memories and regrets, and she heard nothing of the accordion-player’s worldly wisdom. He knew a thing or two. She knew different things. Bud thought it was a very moving scene, one that needed a little music to make it perfect.
‘Sometimes it’s very good just to let the mind float a little,’ Bud said, his voice, also, becoming dreamy. He saw nothing now but wisps of something fine that could have been cotton, or it could have been candy floss, though they were not sticky. They were like fine, spring rain. They were clouds, for no longer was he falling: he was rising. And he was rising so high, following Zouzou, the gendarme and the crazy pelican. Bud supposed it was the instinct for survival, like the war hero he would have been but for that medical examination.
Bud no longer cared what the people back home thought of this. For once – just once – he had nobody to consider except himself. There was nobody - nobody except of course his new friends who were teaching him how to follow his dreams. It was easier when there was no Lucille to wake him.
Before too long they had left the clouds behind. The gendarme said, ‘I am here to ensure there is no breach of the regulations. The law is very strict on matters of dreaming.’ All Bud knew about the law was that it was very strict on just about everything. ‘Therefore,’ the gendarme asked, ‘I must ask you, m’sieur, do you have a licence to dream?’
‘My name is Jacques-Henri Villeneuve-Dumesnil.’
‘That’s really too bad,’ Bud sincerely commiserated. ‘You could change it. Lots of movie stars do that. I got a book back home…’
‘I have heard enough,’ said Jacques-Henri Villeneuve-Dumesnil. ‘I am affronted by your impudence. I shall arrest you here among the clouds, escort you safely to earth, and there have you guillotined as an example.’
‘I thought,’ Bud reflected sadly, ‘I was on the road to freedom. But I guess guys like me just don’t get the breaks.’
And so Bud’s French movie moved to its close. Bud always knew when a movie was about to finish. Sometimes there was a kiss. Sometimes there was a shoot-out. All that remained was a falling baguette which fell unexpectedly on Jacques-Henri’s head. Helmeted, he had protection from the worst effects of projected missiles, but the baguette of stale, hard bread caused the gendarme’s helmet to fall over his eyes. Jacques-Henri was flying blind, his body swooping and spinning until he was out of sight, lost in the candy-floss.
‘O- la! la!’ the pelican exclaimed, ‘That was fortunate for you, m’sieur. But don’t worry about him. He’ll wake up on solid ground as if nothing had happened. And we, m’sieur, shall fly to the moon.’
‘Sounds good,’ Bud agreed. ‘And if it’s good enough you and Zouzou I guess it’s fine by me.’
When Bud was a boy he dreamed of flying to the moon. He was not the first, of course, but nobody had flown there the way he was going to fly there, the way he was flying now. There was no contact with earth, nothing to remind him that he was an insurance salesman from Silverwood City, nothing to deny him the dream of being the guy who simply flew to the moon because he wanted to do it. He wanted to do it, and he had the right contacts. That’s what a guy needs to get the breaks. Well, with Zouzou and her pelican friend….
Bud looked about him, and all he could see were stars in the darkness. He called out their names, but heard nothing in reply. There was no sign of the moon, nor of earth. Bud was somewhere in the depths of space, floating. It was among the fears he had as a boy that he might find himself out there. Now he was there. Moments before it had been interesting and fun. He had made friends with some unusual people. But they had deserted him, just as he had deserted Lucille and all the people he knew back home. He had no home. Lost in the Universe, that was to be the ultimate experience of his life. A guy like Bud just doesn’t get the breaks.
Or so he thought. But a guy’s luck can change. And there came the sound of an accordion from far away. It was so faint that wonderful sound that told him he was not alone. He could hear something French happening. And he heard familiar voices calling out to him. ‘Come down, M’sieur Bud,’ they cried from below.
When Bud looked down he saw clouds. And through the clouds something metallic shining. Slowly he floated down, following the voices to the tower where he could gently land. It wasn’t over. That was the interval, a time to buy more popcorn, a time to allow all those images sink into his memory.
It was dawn over the city. The views of Paris were overwhelming. ‘This is better than anything,’ Bud gasped. ‘I mean, it’s just so real. So real it’s like a movie.’ Bud was lost for words. ‘When words escape,’ said the pelican, ‘then it is time to sing.’
‘Yeah, I like musicals. Guys in tuxedos. Dames in high heels. You can’t beat those musicals. Like Gigi. I guess that’s one you Frenchies like as much as we do.’
But the pelican was not listening. He broke into song. It was not the kind of tune Bud actually liked, for it was more of a wail than a melody. But it reassured Bud that he was not lost in the stars f or ever.
‘Regard this I implore you,’ Zouzou cried. ‘See what a world is there for us. A world of liberty for which I am prepared to fight, a world for which my friend Raymond the pelican is prepared to die on my behalf, should the need arise.’
‘Should the need arise,’ the pelican agreed, rather mutedly. Perhaps it was the hour of the morning that had curbed his enthusiasm, whereas for Zouzou this new day was the dawn of a glorious new opportunity. ‘This, my friends, is what we have sacrificed so much for. This is liberty. This is this the hour of liberty. We shall be from this moment forward free for ever.’
‘Sounds pretty good to me,’ Bud agreed. ‘I just wish it could be real. Really real.’
‘Ah, my friend, you can make it come true,’ Zouzou insisted.
‘Well, I’d like to think so, but, you see, there’s Blanche back home in the States.’ No sooner had Bud spoken than there was heard a familiar, somewhat raucous voice he thought he might never hear again. It was a voice from Silverwood City. It was a voice that had once purred in Bud’s impressionable, innocent ear. It was the voice of all that he supposed was lost in this beautiful dream. It was the voice of Lucille coming ever closer through the sky.
‘Hi, y’all,’ Lucille shouted as she floated down in the arms of Jacques-Henri Villeneuve-Dumesnil of the Paris Gendarmerie. ‘Look what I’ve found. I mean, there I was at home – alone – when out of the sky fell this adorable little cutesie into the pool I was about to throw myself into it when I learned the truth about the rat I had the misfortune to marry when I was a sweet young maid who had never been kissed except when there were soldiers in town. I was always dependent on the kindness of soldiers until someone came to the house selling insurance and dispensing what I thought was love.’
‘She pounced on me,’ said Bud. ‘I didn’t know what was happening, not even when the preacher held the shotgun to my head. It all happened so fast.’
‘It was so that I might please my Daddy before he died. I said, “Daddy, I have found love”. All Daddy could do was shake his head. But I paid no heed, having fallen instantly in love for the first time that day.’
‘Lucille, honey, I can explain…’
‘There’s no need to explain, Bud, for I have found something that no insurance man could give me. And what I have found is, like, a connection. I have never felt a connection before. Now I have found it with Jacques-Henri. He saved my life.’
‘But, Lucille, this is my movie! Maybe I’ll wake up soon. I’ll find my head on my pillow in our home in Silverwood City. And all this I’ll forget as soon as I hear the alarm. Well, that’s how things should turn out, I guess.’
‘This sure ain’t no dream, Bud,’ Lucille insisted. ‘I do declare. You think I’d be in one of your dreams? Well, my, that’s just not right, Bud.’
‘So what’s happening to us, Lucille, baby?’
‘Well, pour moi, it is love.’
This surprised Bud. It surprised him a lot. He just did not associate Lucille with love. Love was about wild excitations, whereas Lucille always had seemed more the homemaker. Lucille always had been proud of her home, and pleased to be living in Silverwood City, a regular kind of place in the greatest country on earth. Lucille had never seemed the roving type.
On the other hand, Lucille was a French name. It was possible that she had heard the call from far away. Something had spoken to her in her mind. It must have been too powerful for Lucille (and, boy, was she strong) to resist its temptation. Bud had never been able to tempt Lucille, not once. Where he, the little guy from no place, had failed, something French had drawn her in.
‘You know,’ Bud remarked with a laugh in his voice, ‘in years to come, honey, you and I will be able to say “Well, we’ll always have Paris.” What you say?’
‘I say who’s the “we”?’
‘Bud, one day maybe you’ll understand. Or maybe not.’
‘I guess it’s about love,’ Bud said. ‘Here we are in the city where people fall in love like they never do back home. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To fall in love before it’s too late. Me, I just love Paris. And maybe I’ll soon be back in Silverwood City, but I’ll always have this, and it won’t just be a dream.’
‘Something like that, Bud.’
‘Is there no love in America?’ Zouzou asked.
‘Not much,’ Bud replied.
‘I declare that is not true, Bud,’ Lucille protested. ‘When I was young I had some handsome beaux. I was the belle of my home town. I had the prettiest curls and the daintiest smiles.’
‘Lucille was different in those days,’ Bud explained. ‘We all were. But Lucille was real different. Yeah, there was love in America once.’
‘O-la-la,’ Zouzou declared, ‘now it is France, yes?’
‘Then, M’sieur Bud, you must stay. You can make things happen. Like this. It is you, is it not?’
‘Yeah, it’s me, all right. But, honest, I didn’t know what I was doing. I just thought that something a little French maybe. I didn’t expect anything serious to happen. Now it has. And the little guy from Silverwood City wakes up in Paris. And it’s my doing. I’m sorry.’
‘Please, do not apologize. It has been fun, n’est-ce pas?’
‘Sure has. That’s true. It’s been fun. Something French. Just what I wanted. Wait till I tell them back home. But I can’t, can I? I can’t say a word. No, I go home and say nothing.’
‘Then, M’sieur Bud, stay here in Paris and you can do everything.’
‘I do declare,’ Lucille interrupted, ‘Don’t I get a say in this, may I ask?’
‘Madame,’ the pelican explained, ‘it is simple: you have found love with your gendarme, Monsieur gets to remain here in the city of his dreams. C’est tout.’
‘Well, I don’t know. Whatever will they say in Silverwood City?’
‘It is no concern now, madame. You have fulfilled your destiny. For some it is to fight for France in the Legion. For others it is to play the accordion. And for some it is to dance the can-can. You, if I may say, madame, seem the heroic type. Perhaps only the Legion can satisfy the innermost yearnings of your beating heart.’
‘My, such sweet words I never thought I would hear again after poor Daddy passed away,’ Lucille replied, hurrying at last towards her gendarme.
‘Well, that just about wraps things up, I guess,’ Bud said. ‘My destiny is here for sure. I’m through with insurance. I’m through playing poker every Friday with a bunch of jerks who hate me. I’m through with living in a neighborhood where I’m the guy from the wrong side of the tracks. I’m through with watching movies in place of living the life I want. I’m through with everything except the boulevards of Paris.’
The pelican pulled out an enormous handkerchief to wipe a tear from his eyes. He explained that such moments as this always made him a little sentimental.
It was Zouzou who broke the mood of delicate sadness when she took the pelican’s beak in her arms and kissed it. Something she had never done before. And at once there was an explosion that made everybody gasp. The pelican, to general amazement, was no more. An enormous cloud of smoke took his place.
Then through that cloud appeared a young man the sight of whom made Zouzou shriek, ‘Jean-Claude! Is it possible? Can this really be you? No matter, for we are together again, and now we will never be apart.’ So saying, Zouzou embraced Jean-Claude whose return was a dream come true.
Everyone applauded. ‘Something French,’ Bud murmured, ‘Something French.’
And in the distance an accordion played as the Eiffel Tower came into view. It seemed to approach closer and closer, like a great beast that might leap up at any moment. There was no escaping the fact that this was the best movie a guy could ever see.
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