Marc ordered one more drink. Saw the fluorescent light shower on the back of the server’s neck as she bent it to watch the glass fill. She was bone thin, with her skin stretched tight around her elbows, knees and hips and all the other corners of her body. Marc stared at the arching vertebrae bulging from the back of her neck, reptilian, rippling with each little movement of the nape.
Above the server on the wall were the colored lights of beer companies, liquor companies, advertising themselves. Behind that, in the background, were the darkened windows of the brasserie looking out into the black city street, to which Marc’s eyes were drawn. He felt suddenly hot under so much light and in the face of the dark windows. The feeling made him hyperaware of his situation, of his location at the brasserie and the hour and his thoughts.
He decided to leave. Got up, left before the drink arrived. Swung his coat up from its spot on the shelf between two booths by the entrance and threw it on, swung his scarf over his neck on his way out and tried to loop it, but the loop stuck. He’d tied it wrong. Tried it again, slung the scarf, threw the end over and looped one side, and the second loop didn’t stick. This, all outside the brasserie on the sidewalk, snow falling from above. In a minute it would stop. Marc knew this — the snow never fell consistently here.
He started, and for some minutes he wandered down Boulevard Saint-Germain, looking for a local tabac. It was 9:30. The snow fell at dizzying speeds and degrees, sticking only to the tops of the cars and the heads of pedestrians. The Parisian streets at night were cold, and very dark and very bright at the same time. Lights from storefronts blazed, always in motion at the speed that Marc paced down the busy street, cut off for moments by the shadowed bodies of passers-by that moved alongside him. If one light were shut by a body to Marc’s right, 20 more from grocers and brasseries and cafés would still glare from every direction. It was a world of light, and not a damn tabac in view.
Marc took an alley to the left. Slipped along the pavement to the next street. Whatever street. Rue de neige. Rue de lumière. And there, finally, a tabac. Marc walked up to enter. Through the window he could see the young homme, bending down inches from him behind glass, stacking up chairs. Locked. Sunday, of course. The sound of the metal bolt pitching against its frame caused the young homme to look up, catch the eyes of the good-looking man on the outside. The young homme for a second was stricken by fear, which quickly melted into an apologetic shrug and a return to the chairs. They were to be stacked, and he was to go home. 9:30.
In a sudden burst of drunken rage, Marc slammed his open fist into the glass door. Immediately, with the force of impact, a rush of pain exploded along the length of his hand, and up the ulna to the elbow, where it stopped. Marc recognized that it stopped. The forearm, the hand, were not him, so he didn’t feel it. The young homme, and his father at the bar who owned the tabac, looked up again and did not move. Looked at the clean, good-looking creature at the window, could do nothing but look at his eyes. And with that, Marc struck again, breaking his wrist upon the thick glass of the door of the tabac. The resulting minute crack in the window was imperceptible to anyone but Marc. A couple pedestrians stopped hesitantly on the sidewalk at the noise of the rage, but continued on for fear of the rage. The two men in the tabac remained still, the young homme still holding onto a small chair. Marc held the eyes of the young homme, ready to kill the bastard. To the two men inside, the lights of the Monoprix and the streetlights behind Marc lit up his edges on all sides and made him a terrible beast. Still the young homme did not move — the passers-by straggled on.
Marc’s hand was shooting bolts of heat down his arm. But it did not go past his elbow. He lifted his hand again, clenching his fist, and something in his being slowed his movement at the last second, his third blow weakened by the overrides of his brain, and when his wrist did come in contact with the chipped glass, he broke. Roared with pain, turned around violently and threw his free left arm out at the people five feet from him on the sidewalk, who then began to walk faster than before. The injured man, he burst into the busy street, letting out a long and howling cry, and for a moment everyone paid attention. For ten seconds he was the fear of Saint-Germain. But the noise quickly dissipated and the lights glowed over it anyway, so Marc turned again to the young homme, who by now had escaped to the tabac’s back room with his father. He grinned at the empty room, tipped his hat in a polite and sinister way and continued down the rue for the next métro entrance.
The métro at night is much lonelier than it should be. It’s by day a place of commute and connection, but at night it’s a place to hide from the colored lights. In the métro the lights are pure white, very artificial and bright, no jinks to them but very pure and serious luminescence. Not like the supermarkets and jewelers and pharmacies and cafés that wanted your eyes for specific greeds. Just light to show things and to drag them sullenly out of darkness. One can see how it can be a lonely experience.
Marc stood at the edge of the platform and looked left. No train. He looked right. No train. He looked at the other three people on the platform. Not one of them moved. Not one of them looked at him. The lights of the métro continued buzzing into everything in the underground room, blistering bright. Forced Marc into clarity. He didn’t want it — he was not drunk by accident — but it was métro light and the clean straight plainness of métro light is so oppressive and so chemically reactive to alcohol and quiet that Marc, in a way he had never known in the métro, was forced to see everything exactly as it was. Full of light.
At that moment, movement caught the periphery of his eye. A faint shift in matter to his left, to the stairwell. Marc turned his head, focused. Just in time to see a rat scurry along the bottom step and disappear into the recesses of the métro’s long reaching tunnels. It was no telling to Marc when the rat would ever be in light again. But it had been there in the light, and while none of the other three men on the platform had seen it, Marc had seen it, and he was relieved for having seen it. It was calming and relatable.
It was all Marc could see on the métro ride back home to Raspail. Saint-Sulpice. St.-Placide. Just the rat. Raspail. Denfert-Rochereau, Alésia.The rat. At the end of the line, Marc descended the métro and ran up into the clean night. It was 10:15 and now raining. Marc moved maybe a half a block before he came near upon an empty parking lot. There was a large ornate building for which the parking lot was built, but Marc didn’t know what it was. In the middle of the parking lot was a tall streetlight, which towered over the flat ground of the nearly empty lot. It was a vast empty square lit only by its surrounding light poles and the tall one at its center, causing the drizzling rain to glimmer in front of all of it. He moved toward it but stopped at the edge of the lot. His head was still dizzy, but he could easily see the reflection of the streetlight on the wet concrete between him and it — long, and white, and bright on the black surface. A clean little ovular line in the earth coming straight toward him. Slowly, but sans hesitation, Marc paced along the edge, to the other side of the lot. Wherever he went, the reflection of the beacon followed, always pointed, always facing him. It didn’t matter where he stood. The center was pointed and always moving with him and toward him. Marc blinked. Moved back the other direction to the other side of the lot, where the light followed him again. For a moment he stood silent, considering his next move. Listened to the rain pitter on the hard ground all around him. He blinked once more, so as to imprint the beacon of light on his mind as he turned away, and he walked in the other direction, thinking of the rat, the reflection stretching after him at the same speed that he walked.
This is great stuff Rob. Your writing was always good, but this is really excellent.