“At the Canal Saint-Martin . . .”
Leon holds his hand up, attempting to cut off Trevon from saying another word.
The pigeons swarm in, alighting on the stale popcorn Leon has scattered on the circular brick courtyard that sits in the middle of the Skylight Towers. There’s not a skylight in any of the 240 apartments in the towers. Leon thinks the towers were built, or at least named, based on a lie. He hates lies and liars and he feels that he’s surrounded by both all the time. The pigeons are a distraction from that, from everything. Sitting on the black wrought iron bench designed with peacocks twisted in unnatural positions, he watches the pigeons, looking for those that look sick. He’d like to catch a sick one, snap its neck, and send it on to eternal peace, forever free of illness and the need to scavenge for bread crumbs. He has never tried to catch one, but he thinks about it.
Gray clouds fill the sky, clog it, not allowing full sunlight to shine through. There is the smell of rain in the air. Funny that rain has a scent, but water in a glass, has none, Leon muses. He’s brought his umbrella. Folded up, it lays on the bench between him and Trevon like a dividing line, a border, a wall. The morning news forecasted rain. He doesn’t trust the girl who is the weather person. She’s much too pretty, and too young. Why should she be bothered with being serious about the weather? When he was young and virile, he didn’t care if it rained, snowed or if the sun shone brightly. The times that she’s wrong he wags his finger at the television, intoning, “They need someone older, wiser.”
Leon tries to ignore Trevon. He has tried that many times before, but Trevon can’t be ignored. Trevon is immune to it. He doesn’t understand when it’s time to stop talking, especially when it comes to that autumn they spent in Paris. Trevon had just got divorced. The beauty of the golden foliage in the Luxembourg Gardens had made him weep. Trevon usually wasn’t a man to weep. That experience, the walk through the gardens, the Canal Saint-Martin, changed Trevon. Leon is certain of it. “You’ve become unhinged,” he has said to Trevon on several occasions. Lately, Trevon has returned to talking about their walk through a small section of the Canal Saint-Martin. The last thing Leon wants while searching the pigeons for the sick ones is to discuss what happened at the Canal Saint-Martin.
“There is talk of the rents to increase.” Trevon changes subjects.
“Perhaps they intend to install some skylights,” Leon says, sardonically. He reaches into the bag of popcorn, grabs a large handful, and tosses the popcorn. The pigeons react as if they are in a panic. Their coos grow louder, more frantic-sounding. The pigeons are fast enough to not let any of the popcorn land on them, and then they attack the fallen kernels like they will die without it, and maybe some will, which weighs heavily on Leon’s mind. With the popcorn bag empty, he wads it up and tosses it in the nearby waste can. He doesn’t like popcorn but when going to a movie he always buys a large bag of popcorn for the pigeons. He rarely remembers the movie.
Sarah is a very fat cat. Leon overfeeds her, putting out too much food and never allowing her food bowl to go empty. When he returns from sitting in the courtyard with Trevon, she hisses at him as if she can smell the scent of pigeon on him. He was given Sarah by a friend who was dying from cancer. Sarah was already an old cat. That was two years ago, soon after he and Trevon had returned from Paris. He has forgotten the friend’s name but he recalls seeing the friend on his deathbed. The friend was on pain medication, a morphine drip, and had a huge smile on his face up until the moment he took his last breath.
“It looked so unnatural. A dead man shouldn’t be smiling when he’s dying, no matter what drug he’s being given,” he later said to Trevon.
“Death comes to everyone,” Trevon answered, beaming, as if that had not occurred to anyone else and as if it was an answer to a question that hadn’t been asked.
“What I’m trying to say is that death is a gruesome event and that is how a person should look when they die as if they are experiencing something unpleasant.”
Trevon slurps his mocha coffee. “I wish I had seen my wife’s face the last time she walked away from me and went out the door forever.”
“I’m certain she wasn’t smiling.” He’s afraid of where the conversation is leading.
“Our trip to Paris made me realize what I was missing in my life. Do you know what it was?”
“No, I don’t and don’t care to.” Exasperated, afraid Trevon would begin weeping, Leon stands up at the table where they are seated and leaves Trevon at the coffee shop. The balmy breeze that ruffles his unruly mop of red hair has the scent of . . .of what . . . the Canal Saint-Martin. He begins down the street, headed for home, unable to shake the feeling of deja vu. There is a sensation that he hasn’t left the canal. What was it that the thief said who tried to hold them up using a flick knife? “Un couteau coupe l’eau.” (A knife cuts water).
Sarah is sitting on the windowsill, cat-chattering at a pigeon perched on an electrical wire hanging just a foot away from the window. Leon would love nothing more than to raise the window and let Sarah bury her teeth and claws into the impertinent bird. It’s a fantasy of course. He doesn’t want the pigeon harmed, and besides, the apartment management nailed his window shut after he was caught tossing garbage out of it. Mrs. Thornhill from the adjacent apartment building was outraged and threatened to call the authorities when wilted lettuce fell on her head. He heard this second-hand from the management, but it made him wonder, who are the authorities? He takes Sarah in his arms and rubs his nose against her face. The cat begins to purr. Then, there is a rapping on the door.
Breathless and sweating, Trevon enters Leon’s apartment gasping for air. “I saw her,” he stutters.
Even though she lives only a few miles away, she hasn’t been seen since before the trip to Paris.
“Where did you see her?”
“Through her window. I peeked in and there she sat, on the sofa, with a man.”
Mouth agape, Leon says, “If you get arrested as a Peeping Tom, I’m not bailing you out.” He sits Sarah down. “What on earth would make you do such a risky thing?”
I thought about knocking on her door just to tell her about the Luxembourg Gardens and how that thief cut my finger off because I wouldn’t hand over my wedding ring.” He holds up his hand to show off the stump where tears begin to roll down his cheeks. “I’m so lonely.” He began to sob, his body shook.
Leon wants to smack Trevon, but that’s nothing new. He has only smacked Trevon once, and that was to calm him down when he became uncontrollably hysterical after the ring thief cut off Trevon’s finger. They have been friends for a long time, before the two men had married, before they lost their wives, Trevon, because of divorce, and Leon’s wife when she slashed her wrists in their bathroom, filling the sink with blood. That was before he and Trevon moved into the Skylight Towers.
Sarah was rubbing her body against Leon’s legs. “Maybe you should get a cat,” Leon said as Trevon used the back of his hand to wipe snot dripping from his nose.
Trevon sighed heavily. “I don’t want a cat. I want my wife back.”
Leon thought about slapping him.
“Let’s take a walk along the Canal Saint-Martin.” Leon had the Paris Tourist Guide open on the cafe table on the hotel room small balcony. He was using his finger as a guide as he read each sentence. It was in English and French. He tried to read the French paragraphs, having become proficient at reading and speaking it while his wife was alive. She was born and grew up in the Paris suburb of Issy-les-Moulineaux. She was turning tricks in downtown Baltimore when Leon met her. He was one of her johns before they began to date. “Vous ferez,” she intoned when he asked her to marry him. He didn’t speak French at the time and only later realized she settled for him – “you will do” – in the same way someone settles for a grilled cheese sandwich when they would actually prefer a sandwich with meat.
It was Leon who invited Trevon to take the trip to Paris, as a way to move on from his divorce.
“Is it safe?”
“Very. It’s a night spot for many Parisians. Jeanette and I went there each time we came to Paris and it’s within walking distance of this hotel. We can go there this evening.”
The warm air, filled with moisture, was unusual for Autumn. Walking at a leisurely pace the two men don’t speak very often. Trevon seems genuinely absorbed by the abundance of sights and smells of the city streets. Leon kicks at the pigeons who land on the sidewalk, descending like feathered helicopters. The tip of his shoe never makes contact with a bird; they are too fast and accustomed to human behaviors and he has no real intention of kicking one. It’s fun to think about though. The men reach a set of stairs that go a short distance down to the walkway on the wall several feet up from the water. It has gotten dark and the lights from the clubs, hotels, restaurants and streetlamps shimmer on the water’s surface. Small pleasure craft and water taxis meander up and down the canal.
Just as the men take their first step onto the walkway, while they are blanketed in shadows, a man with a bandanna over the lower part of his face, accosts them, brandishing a flick knife. There is no one else nearby, although voices and music echo along the canal.
“Attention mes amis, un couteau coupe l’eau,” the knife-wielding thief says. “Donne-moi ton argent,”
“What did he say?” Trevon stammers as he grabs Leon’s arm.
“He wants our money,” Leon replies, peeling Trevon’s fingers from his arm. “I think he called us water.”
In French, Leon explains that they left their wallets and money in their hotel room. He opens his jacket and pats the pockets to show they are empty and turns and pats his pants pockets. He tells Trevon to do the same.
Flustered, the thief waves his knife around, bringing it perilously close to Leon and Trevon’s faces. He mutters curse words for a few seconds before he grabs Trevon’s hand, laying his eyes on Trevon’s wedding ring. “Donne moi cette bague,” he says.
“He wants your ring,” Leon tells him.
With one quick slice of the knife, the thief cut off Trevon’s left ring finger. Trevon howled in pain as blood spurted from the remaining stump. Perhaps it was Trevon’s high-pitched squeal that sounded like a whistle that distracted the thief for a moment, giving Leon the opportunity to grab the knife and plunge it into the thief’s chest. The force of Leon’s thrust propelled the thief backward, sending him across the walkway, over the edge, and into the water. There was the sound of hectic splashing for a few moments, then all was silent. Except for Trevon’s shrieking.
Leon smacks, Trevon, hard. Maybe too hard.
“He has my finger, and the ring,” Trevon whimpered before he stuck the finger stump in his mouth. After all, what else could he do with it?
In the courtyard of the Skylight Towers, Leon and Trevon are sitting on the bench.
“Do you think they found the thief’s body? Or my finger and the ring?” Trevon asks as he looks at Russian mail order brides in the back of an erotica magazine.
Leon is poking his finger into the soft belly of a dead pigeon that he has lain on one knee. Its body looks as if it has been hit with something, or kicked. Leon is overcome with grief, but he doesn’t allow Trevon to see it. His grief surprises him. It’s just a pigeon. There must be billions of pigeons on Earth.
“Did you hear what I said?” Trevon says.
“Why does it matter? The thief lied. I detest liars.”
Upon returning from Paris, that evening and every evening thereafter for several weeks he filled the kitchen sink with water, took knives with different blades and tried to cut the water. The water splashed, separated and divided momentarily, but it was never cut. There was no wound. It didn’t bleed.
“I’m sorry about your finger. And the ring,” he said to Trevon.
Never having heard those words coming from Leon, Trevon felt as if he had been smacked.