An Afternoon at the Louvre, by Bonnie McCune
The English call him Master George; the French, garçon George. The small boy recalls his mother’s words. The woman bending over him is saying, “Sweet leeetle boy” even though he’s five and his sister in the stroller is the little one, only two years old.
He avoids calling himself anything because he hates his name: George Custer Armstrong. Kind of a joke from his father about some old dead soldier. “Custer” sounds like “custard” so people make fun of that. He just tasted custard last night at the hotel, and it was slimy and ugly and yellowish. It looked like something out of your nose.
“Armstrong” is okay, like an Indian name “Strong Arm.” Then there’s “George,” which Davey and Josh and Mike at home (thousands and thousands of miles away, he remembers, and so awfully boring to travel, you have to sit on the airplane in one place all day and all night and even sleep in the chair, the only good parts were the little pillow and as much soda pop as you wanted) say very long and drawn out through their noses: “Geeeeeeeeee-ooooooo-rge” when they run in circles around him on the playground.
The woman bending over him touches his red hair gently with three finger tips. She smells funny, not of perfume and soap and makeup like his mother and Aunt Sally, but moist and acrid like this city where the sidewalks are so skinny you have to step on lots of toes when you walk. Sometimes they push you into the street, which is okay here, Mom says, but only in Paris because they ran out of room for big sidewalks. The streets usually are made of squarish rocks with rounded tops, close together like a puzzle. And this huge courtyard is made of stones, too. George wants to bend over and feel the stones’ curves, dig his fingernails between the cracks to see if any dirt gets in there. But his mother has grabbed his arm and is smiling in that stiff way, the corners of her mouth turned up but not her eyes, that means she wants to get away, she’s just being polite.
“Breeet-ish?” The French woman asks.
Aunt Sally knows Mom’s mad, so she answers. “No, American. From California.”
The French woman puts her large wrinkled face next to Amy in the stroller and pinches her in the stomach. “And a guurl.” That’s what the witch in “Hansel and Gretel” does, pinch children to see if they’re fat enough to eat. George doesn’t believe that French adults eat kids, but he doesn’t like this lady touching Amy.
Aunt Sally tugs at the stroller handle. “Pardon, madame. We must go to the museum.” She leans against the handle to make Mom move. George trots beside his mother, holding her hand. He twists to look at the French woman still staring after them. “Bon jour, madame,” he shouts back to her.
Mom and Aunt Sally laugh in each other’s face. “I told him the French always say that,” says Mom softly, like she’s telling a secret. She and Aunt Sally always bend their heads toward the other one and talk very quickly, almost in gasps. Sometimes they only say one or two words and the other one understands right away. Because they’re sisters. He and Amy don’t do that yet. Amy can’t talk very well.
“Just like his father, facile with words,” Aunt Sally says.
“Yes,” says his mother. George waits for her to add, “He could talk your ear off” the way she usually does, but she doesn’t.
Aunt Sally huffs a blast of air through an O-shaped mouth. She moves in front of them to lead the way over the bumpy stones to the golden pyramid that she says is a door to the museum. Aunt Sally is much older than his mother, almost old enough to be his grandmother, although he still has two grandmothers, not like some kids at school whose grandparents have already died. Her real name is Sarah but she wants to be Sally, and grownups can change their names if they want. This is only the third time in his life George has seen her. The first time doesn’t count because he was a baby.
Although Aunt Sally’s got gray hair and some wrinkles, she moves real fast. Even when she’s sitting or standing still, she seems to be holding in energy, her fingers wave or curl or stretch, her head jerks at sounds. Now she hops down the stairs in front of George and his mother, carrying Amy in the stroller all by herself. Mom steps more like a cat, each foot slowly and carefully on a stair. She holds George’s hand with one hand and smoothes her hair with the other, looking down at the people milling around by counters in an enormous open room underground.
This room is nothing like a basement or even the exercise room at the community center that’s also underground. So big George can’t see any walls, the space contains hundreds of people all chattering and dressed like weirdoes. A man with a turban. A whole family in bathrobes. A teenager whose hair is purple and sticks up in spikes. Aunt Sally goes to buy tickets at one of the square, glassed-in booths in the corners, leaving George, Amy, Mom and the stroller right in the middle. George wishes his dad had come so he wouldn’t be the only boy.
“Where’s Dad?” George asks. When Mom doesn’t answer, he raises his voice to a slight whine that sometimes catches her attention. “Where’s Dad?”
“Don’t do this to me, George. I can’t take it today,” says his mother. Even though the air is cooler here in the museum than outside, she still has little beads of sweat on her forehead. George remembers that it’s summer and people complain about the heat. Weather just happens, but he’s noticed that whatever the weather, people want the opposite.
“I’m hot,” George whines again, this time adding a fretful rub at his cheek. A gesture neutralizes a whine, converts it to a legitimate complaint or comment. The combination breaks through his mother’s abstraction.
Mom crouches down next to him. She reaches into her purse for a tissue and wipes his face. Doesn’t she know kids hardly ever sweat? “I know. I’m sorry, baby.” Baby reminds her of Amy, and she wipes Amy’s face, too, smoothes back her wisps of red hair. George looks back and forth between his sister and his mother. They have the exact same color of hair, the exact same color as George’s. Mom’s is long, of course, and waves around her neck and shoulders. She also has a very faint dusting of freckles the same color as her hair over her nose and arms, so light they can hardly be seen. George is glad now he doesn’t have freckles, but when he was little, he got in trouble once for using a marker to draw spots on his skin.
George wishes his mother would stand back up. Stooping has pulled her short black skirt tight over her rounded bottom and up her legs, and several men have looked at her as they walk by. Aunt Sally comes back waving the tickets. As Mom rises, she reminds George again of a cat stretching long and gracefully.
Down one of the tunnels they walk where it’s dark but not really scary because of all the people, up some stairs, into a succession of rooms with a whole bunch of white stone statues on tall stone blocks. They are so high up George has to bend his head back to see them.
“Where are their eyes?” he asks Aunt Sally. “Are they blind?”
“No more so than some of us,” says Aunt Sally with one of those sentences grownups use that make no sense at all. George ignores her.
In a corner as if she’s trying to hide, with one hand over her girl-place, stands a delicate version of a rounded woman. Round cheeks, round shoulders and breasts, round bottom moving into solid but curved legs. “She looks like you, Mom,” George announces.
A few heads turn at his pronouncement, but most people don’t understand. His mother blushes while Aunt Sally laughs.
“You sure have him conned, Karen. Another of your captivated minions?”
“Stop,” says his mother. A sharp twist of her voice tells George she isn’t kidding around, the ground-glass tone she uses when she has a headache and he makes noise.
They walk on through room after room of old junk–broken dishes, rusty knives and silver swords, tattered pieces of cloth, chains. George is disappointed; he thought he’d see a knight’s armor. At least Mom and Aunt Sally don’t look at every item. They walk straight down the center of each room yapping to each other. George can run from side to side or around the displays in the middle and practice his dodges and twists for soccer.
At the end of one room he spots metal chairs and tables farther down a hall. Maybe a restaurant? Maybe his mother will buy him a soft drink.
He stands still directly in front of the stroller and his mother. “I’m thirsty,” he says, first in a soft tone to try the phrase out, then with increasing volume. “I’m thirsty. I’m thirsty.” Amy joins him. “Thuur-see.”
His mother scans the room vaguely as if expecting a drinking fountain to pop out of a wall.
“You know there aren’t many drinking fountains in Paris,” reminds Aunt Sally. “Down there. A restaurant.”
She leads the way. But when they get to the tiny cafe squeezed between a balcony balustrade and a marble wall, she makes the rest of them stand at the side while she buys only a solitary bottle of water. She hands it to George and lets him unscrew it by himself.
Aunt Sally and Mom lean against the marble wall as George puts the bottle to his lips and raises the bottom straight up toward the ceiling. Their voices drift around George.
“Karen, are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Aunt Sally is asking.
“No. I’ve never been so confused in my life,” says his mother.
Amy pushes out little cries and holds her arms for the water. George kneels beside her to hold the bottle to her mouth. What would happen if he tilted the bottle a lot? Aunt Sally notices George helping Amy. She kneels down, too, supports the bottle with her palm like she’s afraid he’ll make a mistake or be clumsy. Amy gulps not quite fast enough. Water runs out the corners of her mouth, around her pudgy neck in the wrinkles of the fat, down the front and back of her sunsuit. George doesn’t want to lose any water, so he yanks it away. Drops spew in an arc.
“Don’t squirt that water on my new silk shirt,” says Aunt Sally as she jerks back. She’s very particular about her clothes, whatever that means (George imagines Aunt Sally dividing her dresses into piles by color or picking up a scarf carefully with forefinger and thumb), and her blouse glows like the windows in the big church they went to yesterday. George strokes the fabric with his free hand. It’s soft, almost like a second skin.
Aunt Sally stands up and takes George’s hand. “You have to see the Mona Lisa while you’re here,” Aunt Sally says to his mother. “Otherwise, no sense in coming to Paris.” They walk another long, long ways with George wishing Aunt Sally would let go of him, but now she’s in a big fat hurry, trying to make sure they see this dumb picture. When they get to the hall, so many people are crowded around the picture, all George can see from far away are their backs and their arms raised over their heads to snap photographs or run videocameras.
“Well, what do you think? One of our greatest treasures,” says Aunt Sally, like she’s giving them a prize for not missing a day of Sunday School.
George cranes his neck up to watch Mom trying to stare over the heads and arms. “Personally, I don’t know what all the fuss is about,” says Mom. “She looks like a very plain Italian woman getting along in years. And a crabby one at that. Of course, I can’t see too well.”
Lowering his head, George sees a pair of worn-out jeans next to him. They remind him of the clothes his father wears on weekends when he’s not going to work. His father’s legs have big solid muscles, too, that bulge under his pants when he moves. If George holds on tightly, his father can swing George on his leg, pretending to be an unstoppable monster, while George shrieks at the top of his lungs. Dad hasn’t done that in a long time. He hasn’t come to George’s soccer games either, because he has to work so hard, even weekends. Mom and Dad told George that they’d all play a lot on this trip, but so far, they haven’t.
Now that he thinks about it, Mom and Dad don’t goof around much any more. George can remember back to when he was four, three, even some at two. They laughed and tickled and ran around, built a human sandwich where they’d lie on top of each other. Dad made George fly by twirling him around.
It was last fall when things changed. Right when George tried to follow Dad to the hardware store one day. Even then he knew he shouldn’t chase the car, walk the few blocks to the shopping center. By the time he got there, Dad had left. Then the neighbors and his parents and everyone met George before he came back home. They all were waving and yelling, pointing and pulling on each other’s clothes. Mom sniffled and hugged him, but Dad was mad. He’d been gone a lot ever since.
This castle is huge! How did all the kings and queens and knights keep from getting lost? And their poor children, they’d have to stay in these large white rooms attached one to the other by doorways, no doors, no furniture, good for running but not much use when eating or sleeping. Probably had more furniture in the olden days. George likes the paintings on these walls. They’re about as big as a billboard so you can see the people and their clothes on them, almost like a time warp machine.
George walks very close to one painting to look at a guy who’s fallen down and his head’s about to get smashed by a horse’s hoof. “Don’t touch,” calls Aunt Sally (as if he would). George can hear her and Mom talking louder. Their English words form, shape and congeal in the air, shivering separate from the hum of French around them. Hardly any one can understand them, George realizes. They could be Invisible Men, there and yet not there.
“I get so tired,” his mother is saying. “I’ve been tired since Amy was born. And Allen’s no help. He hardly notices because he’s never there. The only damn thing there is to do is watch the soaps and clean. But then,” Mom’s voice drops to almost a mumble, “the phone rings or I’ll dash out for coffee and the person sitting across the table is really interested in what I think and feel. He’s fascinated that I know all the lyrics to Cats and agrees that lima beans should be flushed down the toilet.”
George turns. Aunt Sally is tugging the stroller back and forth right in front of her in jerks. Amy’s head lolls in unison as she giggles at the new game. “You’re seeking excitement,” says Aunt Sally. “And the heady euphoria of new love. It won’t last, believe me, it can’t last. Any spice loses its taste over the years, and all men fart. But there are compensations.”
“Fart” is not a nice word, but it must be a word grownups can use sometimes because Mom just shrugs her shoulders. She walks away alone, and the rest of them have to hurry to catch up. George doesn’t want to walk next to Mom or Aunt Sally or Amy anyway. They’ve spent too much time in this stupid ugly museum filled with its never-ending pictures and thousands and thousands of people who don’t care if they knock you flat on the floor. Why can’t they go outside? Even back to the hotel (it’s ugly, too, and the television speaks French) where at least he can lie on his stomach on the bed and color.
Mom finally notices he’s not with the rest of them. She turns around. “Hurry up,” she says sharply, and when he comes by her, grips the upper part of his arm so tightly it pinches. Then she takes them down, down, down, and finally they get to some interesting stuff. Like walking through a dungeon. Chilly, dark, only a few lights dot the stone walls to show what the first old castle here looked like. George shakes loose of Mom to hang over the edge of a big hole in the floor. In the middle is a pillar made of stones in all different sizes going every which way. The ground around the pillar lies far below the museum floor. How long would it take spit to hit the ground, George wonders. He checks to see if Mom and Aunt Sally are watching him.
“You’ve got two gorgeous kids,” Aunt Sally is saying, “A great husband, security, stability. The excitement can be put off for a while. I’m not saying, don’t flirt, don’t have fun. Hell, the temptation’s too great with him a member of Allen’s firm. It might wake that husband of yours up, anyway. Just don’t make any life-threatening decisions.”
George turns back to the hole, snorts in a great globule of spit, ejects it at high speed. Unfortunately, his aim is crooked, and it lands at the side of the hole where it glistens for the observant to notice.
“Easy for you to say,” says his mother. “You live in Paris, have a string of rich or disreputable lovers, dash around the world, get interviewed for your creative little baubles. Do you envy me? Would you trade your life for mine? I doubt it. George, time to leave.” She beckons him with her hand.
“We still have a few hours,” Aunt Sally says. “We’re meeting Allen for dinner at what? Seven?”
Mom takes the stroller handle from Aunt Sally and pushes it toward big underground room they first came in. “No. He told me this morning, he’ll be busy until late tonight.”
Aunt Sally pulls on her lower lip like she’s thinking hard about dinner. George hopes they can have hamburgers tonight. Or spaghetti would be nice, if people in Paris eat it.
“I don’t envy you,” says Aunt Sally. “And I hope you don’t envy me. I think our lives happen the way they do almost by accident. But you have a chance to make some real choices.”
They’re back in the underground room. Mom stops for no reason right in the middle. She turns her head all around like she’s looking for a bathroom.
“Don’t you agree?” asks Aunt Sally. She’s talking to the back of Mom’s head. “Don’t you? Oh, Karen, you didn’t,” says Aunt Sally.
George sees this giant guy with a crooked nose and big teeth coming toward them, dodging families and groups as they buy tickets, the one who came to dinner with Dad at Christmas. He visited their house a couple of times by himself, always laughing in bellows of air, pretend-hitting George’s arm with a fist, bringing ice cream, tickling Amy’s stomach.
“I did,” says Mom. Her chin’s sticking out the way Amy’s does when she doesn’t want to take a nap. She holds her hand out toward the man.
George’s feet hurt, his knee hurts where he fell down playing soccer two weeks ago, his eyes hurt, and he rubs them. A bad idea. Tears start leaking out. Must be allergies. With the heels of both palms, he covers his eyes. Then from somewhere inside his stomach, a wail inflates like a balloon or a burp he can’t keep down, until it bursts out of his mouth. Amy, astounded, one finger in her mouth, pivots in her stroller at the sound. She’s never seen George cry except when he falls.
“He’s tired, he’s just tired, he needs a lie-down,” says Aunt Sally. She lifts him up and folds her arms under his bottom so he can lay his head on her shoulder. When he cries and cries she doesn’t say anything about her shirt getting wet.
Since fifth grade, when she wrote a poem and submitted it to the Saturday Evening Post (it was immediately rejected), Denverite, Bonnie McCune has been a writer, which led to a career in community relations and marketing for nonprofits. Simultaneously, she’s been a freelance news and feature writer. Her volunteer interests include grass-roots organizations, political campaigns, writers and arts groups, and children’s literacy. A special love is live theater, and had she been nine inches taller and thirty pounds lighter, she might have been an actress. Her primary focus now is fiction writing. She published a romance novel, A Saint Comes Stumbling In, in early 2012, and her short pieces have won several awards. Reach her at BonnieMcCune.com.
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