Waiting for Bojangles
My father told me that before I was born, he hunted flies with a harpoon for a living. He showed me the harpoon and a dead fly. “I quit because it was very hard work and very poorly rewarded,” he explained as he packed the tools of his former trade back into a lacquered box. “Now I open garages. It’s a lot of work, but it’s very well rewarded.”
During the first period of the first day of school, when everyone introduces themselves, I spoke, with no small amount of pride, about my father’s professions, but all it got me was some gentle scolding and copious teasing. “The truth is poorly rewarded, when for once it was as entertaining as a lie,” I lamented. My father was actually a man of the law. “The law puts food on our table!” he guffawed as he filled his pipe.
• • •
He was neither a judge, nor a legislator, nor a debt collector, nor a lawyer—nothing like that. Thanks to inside information about the provisions of a new law, he was the
first person to step into a new profession created out of thin air by the Senator. And that’s how my father became a “garage opener.” New rules mean new jobs. To make sure the nation’s fleet of cars was safe and sound, the Senator decreed that everyone would have to pass inspection. Owners of jalopies, limousines, vans, and rattletraps alike had to take their vehicles for a checkup to avoid accidents. Rich or poor, everyone had to do it. Since it was mandatory, he inevitably charged a lot for it, a small fortune. He charged for entering and for exiting, for the initial inspection and the follow-ups, and judging by his laughter, that was fine with him. “I’m saving lives, I’m saving lives!” he’d chuckle, as he flipped through his bank statements.
Back then, saving lives paid very well. After he opened a lot of garages, he sold them to the competition, which was a relief for Mom. She didn’t really care for his saving lives, because it meant he worked so much that we hardly ever saw him. “I’m working late so I can stop early,” he’d reply, which I didn’t really understand. I often didn’t understand my father. I did a little more as the years went by, but never completely. Which was fine with me.
• • •
He had told me he was born that way, but when I was still pretty young, I realized that the ashy, slightly swollen
indentation on the right side of his lower lip, which gave him a nice, somewhat twisted smile, was actually due to diligent pipe smoking. His hairstyle—parted in the middle with little waves on either side—reminded me of the Prussian cavalry officer in the painting in the front hall. Aside from the two of them, I’d never seen anyone whose hair looked like that. His slightly hollow eye sockets and lightly bulging blue eyes gave him a curious gaze, deep and wise. Back then, I only ever saw him happy, and in fact, he often used to say, “I’m a happy fool!”
To which my mother would reply, “We’ll take your word for it, George, we’ll take your word for it!”
He would hum, badly, all the time. Sometimes he’d whistle, just as badly, but like anything that’s done cheerfully, it was bearable. He told great stories, and on those rare evenings when we didn’t have any company, he would fold his tall, lean body onto my bed for a bedtime story. He’d begin with a grin, then his tale of a jinn, a leprechaun, a twin or a peppercorn would chase all my sleepiness away. Things usually wound up with me jumping up and down with excitement on my bed, or hiding, terrified, behind the curtains. “That’s a very tall story for such a little boy,” he would say as he slipped out of my room. And once again, you could take his word for it.
On Sundays, to make up for the week’s excesses, he would pump iron. Standing in front of the big mirror with its fancy gilt frame topped with a majestic bow, he would strip to the waist and, pipe in mouth, lift tiny little barbells while listening to jazz music. He called that his “gym & tonic” because he’d pause to gulp a gin & tonic and tell my mother, “You should get some exercise, Miss Daisy, I’m telling you, it’s fun, and you feel great afterward!”
To which my mother, who was trying—one eye closed, tongue sticking out in concentration—to spear the olive in her martini with the little paper parasol, would reply, “You should try orange juice, George. I swear that exercise wouldn’t be nearly as much fun with OJ instead of G & T. And would you be so kind, monsieur, as to cease calling me Daisy forthwith? Pick another name, or else I’m going to start mooing like a heifer!”
• • •
I never really understood why, but my father never called my mother by the same name for more than a day or two in a row. Even though she tired of some names sooner than others, she loved the ritual, and every morning in the kitchen, I could see her watching my father with excited anticipation, holding her coffee cup or her chin in her hands as she awaited the verdict. “Oh no, you wouldn’t do that to me! Not Renee,
not today! We’ve got company coming for dinner tonight!” she would giggle. Then she’d turn to the mirror and greet the new Renee with a pout, the new Josephine with a regal gaze, the new Marylou with puffed-out cheeks. “Besides, there’s absolutely nothing Renee-like about my wardrobe!”
There was just one day a year when my mother always had the same name: on February 15, her name was Georgette. It still wasn’t her real name, but Saint Georgette’s Day was the day after Saint Valentine’s Day. My parents didn’t think it was very romantic to be seated at a table in a restaurant filled with mandatory, predictable professions of love on Valentine’s Day. So each year, they would celebrate on Saint Georgette’s Day, and enjoy an almost empty restaurant with the staff dancing attendance on them alone. Besides, Dad thought that a romantic festivity had to have a woman’s name. “Please reserve your best table in the name of George and Georgette. And can you promise me that you don’t have any of those awful heart-shaped desserts left? None? Thank the Lord!” he would say as he booked a table at a fancy restaurant. For them, Saint Georgette’s was no time to act like marionettes.
• • •
After the business with the garages, my father didn’t have to get up in the morning to put food on the table
anymore, so he started writing books. All the time. A lot of them. He would sit at his big desk, writing, laughing as he wrote, writing down what made him laugh, filling his pipe, the ashtray and the room with smoke and the paper with ink, while emptying cups of coffee and whole bottles of mixed drinks. But the publishers’ replies were all the same: “It’s clever and well written, but we can make neither heads nor tails of it.” To cheer him up after the rejections, my mother would say, “Why would anyone want to make heads or tails out of a book? What a strange idea!” That always cracked us up.
• • •
My father used to say that Mom was on a first-name basis with the stars in the sky, which seemed strange, because my mother never called anyone by their first name—not even me. Nor did my mother ever call our pet demoiselle crane by a pet name. The elegant and surprising bird lived in our apartment, parading her undulating long black neck, white plumes jutting from her violently red eyes. My parents had brought her back from a journey to I-don’t-know-where, from their life before me.
We called her Mademoiselle Superfluous, because she served no purpose, except for squawking loudly for no reason at every season, leaving round pyramids on the
parquet floor, and waking me up in the middle of the night by tap-tap-tapping on my bedroom door. Like my father’s stories, Mademoiselle was very tall, even with her head tucked under her wing to sleep. As I child, I used to try to copy her, but it was pretty tricky.
Mademoiselle loved when Mom would lie on the couch to read and pet her head for hours on end. Like all wise birds, Mademoiselle loved reading. One day my mother decided to take Mademoiselle Superfluous shopping in town. She made her a lovely pearl leash, but Mademoiselle was so spooked by the sight of all those people—and so many people were spooked by the sight of Mademoiselle—that she squawked louder than ever. An old lady with a dachshund even said that it was inhuman and dangerous to walk a bird down the street on a leash. “Feathers or fur, what difference does it make?” Mom asked. “Mademoiselle has never bitten anyone, and it seems to me that she’s far more elegant than your fuzzy hot dog! Come, Mademoiselle Superfluous, let’s go home; people here are so discourteous!”
Mom got home in high dudgeon that day. When she was in that state, she would find my father to relate the whole story to him in great detail. She wouldn’t go back to being her usual jovial self until after she’d finished.
She got upset easily, but my father would resolve things breezily. His voice was very soothing to her. The rest of the time, she was rapturous about everything, found the world’s progress thrilling, and skipped along with it joyfully.
• • •
She didn’t treat me like an adult, or like a child, more like a character from a book that she loved very dearly, and that could absorb all her attention in an instant. She never wanted to hear about trials or tribulations. “When reality is sad or mundane, make up a lovely story, young man,” she would say. “You tell such beautiful falsehoods, it would be such a shame to deprive us.” So I would make up a story about my day, and when I was done, she would clap her hands and giggle, “What a fabulous day, my darling son, what a day. I’m so happy for you, young man, you must have had such a wonderful time!” Then she would hug me tight and kiss me. She was nibbling me, she would say. I loved when she nibbled me. Every morning, after receiving her daily name, she would give me one of her freshly scented gloves, so that her hand could guide me all day long.
• • •
“Some of her features bore traces of her childlike manner: apple cheeks and green eyes that sparkled with mischief. The
shimmering barrettes she used to tame her lioness’s mane granted her the elfin sassiness of a late-blooming Plain Jane. But her bee-stung crimson lips miraculously held her precariously perched slim white cigarettes, and her long eyelashes, measuring the world up, showed the beholder that she had grown up. Her outfits, slightly extravagant and extremely elegant—at least in how they were put together—proved to observant eyes that she had lived, had known some stormy weather.”
That’s what my father had written in a secret notebook that I read later, afterward. While it may not have had a tail, it definitely had a head.
• • •
My parents danced all the time, and all over the place. With their friends in the evening; just the two of them morning, noon and night. Sometimes I danced with them. They were totally footloose and fancy-free, knocking over anything in their path, my father flinging my mother into space, catching her by her fingernails after a pirouette or two, or even three. He would swing her between his legs, twirl her around him like a weather vane, and when he accidentally let her slip from his grasp, Mom would wind up plopped on the floor with her dress fanned out around her like a teacup on a saucer.
When they danced, they would shake up amazing cocktails, with paper umbrellas, olives, spoons and whole collections of bottles. On the living-room couch, in front of a huge black-and-white snapshot of Mom diving into a pool in an evening gown, there was a lovely old-fashioned turntable that always played the same Nina Simone album, and the same song: “Mr. Bojangles.” It was the only record that was allowed to turn on that table; all other music had to settle for a newer, drabber stereo. The song was truly crazy, happy and sad at the same time, and it would put my mother in the same mood. It lasted a long time, but always ended too soon, and my mother would clap her hands excitedly and shout, “Let’s play ‘Bojangles’ again!” Then you had to grasp the arm and set the diamond needle back on the edge. Only a diamond could produce music like that.
• • •
Our apartment was very big, so that we could have lots and lots of company. The front hall was tiled with big black-and-white squares that formed a huge checkerboard. My father bought forty black and white cushions, and after school, we would have gigantic checkers parties under the watchful eye of the Prussian cavalier. He was the referee, but he never said anything. Sometimes Mademoiselle Superfluous disrupted the game, pushing the white cushions
around with her head or stabbing them with her beak. Only the white ones; we didn’t know if it was because she didn’t like them or because she loved them too much. We never did find out. Like everyone, Mademoiselle had her secrets.
In one corner of the hall, there was a mountain of mail that my parents had tossed on the floor unopened. The mountain was so huge that I could toss myself onto it without getting hurt. Warm and welcoming, it was part of the furniture. Sometimes my father would say, “If you’re a bad boy, you’re going to have to open all that mail and sort it!” But he never made me do it; he didn’t have a mean bone in his body.
The living room was a real madhouse. There were two bloodred club chairs for my parents to sit and drink in; a glass table filled with sand of every color; and a huge blue couch that was very plump and meant to be jumped on: my mother recommended it highly. Sometimes she would jump with me. I would cheer when she jumped so high that she touched the glittering crystal chandelier. My father was right: if she wanted to, she really could call the stars by their first names.
Facing the couch, resting on an old trunk covered with stickers from cities around the world, was a musty old
television set that didn’t work very well. All the channels showed images of anthills in gray, black and white. To punish the TV for its poor programming, my father made it wear a dunce cap. Sometimes he would warn me, “If you’re a bad boy, I’ll turn the television on!” Watching that television for hours was torture. But he hardly ever did it; he really didn’t have a mean bone in his body.
On the hutch, which she hated, my mother grew ivy, which she loved. Before long, the hutch had turned into a giant plant, furniture that lost its leaves and needed watering. It was a funny piece of furniture, a funny plant. In the dining room, there was everything you needed: a big table and lots of chairs for company, and for us, too, of course, which was the least you would expect.
Leading to the bedrooms was the long hall where we broke speed records. The stopwatch said my father always won and Mademoiselle Superfluous lost; she wasn’t too keen on competition, and besides, the noise of applause scared her. My room had three beds: a little one, a medium one, and a big one. I had chosen to keep my beds from when I was little, because I had good memories in them. I saw it as an embarrassment of riches even if Dad thought that my riches looked like a dump.
On the wall there was a poster of the French pop singer
Claude François in a rhinestone-studded outfit. Dad had turned the poster into a dartboard by drawing a target on it. He said that Claude François sang like a strangled cat, but that fortunately, the electric company had put a stop to all that.I
I didn’t really understand how or why, or if it was the truth or a lie. Because the truth is, my father was hard to understand sometimes.
The kitchen floor was cluttered with all sorts of potted herbs for cooking, but most of the time Mom forgot to water them, so there was hay everywhere. On the rare days that she did water them, she would overdo it. The pots leaked like sieves, and the kitchen turned into a skating rink. It was a huge mess that lasted until the soil in the pots soaked up the excess. Mademoiselle Superfluous loved when the kitchen was flooded. She would flap her wings and puff her neck out happily. It reminded her of her old life, Mom said affably.
Hanging from the ceiling amidst the pots and pans was a dried pig trotter that looked disgusting but tasted delicious. While I was at school, Mom would make lots of good
things to eat that she gave to a catering service to bring back when we needed them; our guests were always very impressed. The fridge was too small for so many people, so it was always empty. Mom would invite tons of people over to eat, at any time of day: friends, certain neighbors (the ones who didn’t mind noise), my father’s former colleagues, the concierge, her husband, the mailman (when he showed up at the right time), the grocery-store owner who came from faraway North Africa but whose shop was right downstairs, and once, even an old man in a ragged shirt and baggy pants who smelled awful but who seemed pleased to be there.
Mom had no time for clocks, so sometimes when I came home from school there was roast lamb ready to snack on, and other times I had to wait until the middle of the night for dinner. In the meantime, we danced and munched olives. Occasionally we danced so much we couldn’t eat, so late at night, Mother would cry to let me know she was really sorry. Then she’d nibble me and hug me to her wet face and cocktail smell. That’s just how my mother was, which was fine with me.
Our guests laughed long and hard, and from time to time, when they were tired out from having laughed so much they would spend the night on one of my beds. In
the morning, Mademoiselle Superfluous, who was not really in favor of sleeping in, would wake them with her squawking. When there was company, I always slept in my biggest bed, so that when I woke up, I would see them folded up like accordions in my baby beds, which made me laugh my head off.
• • •
Three nights a week, we had the same guest, who had his own room at our place: the Senator, who would come up from his region in the center of France to take his seat in Parliament. My father affectionately called him “the Creep.” I never did find out how they’d met—the story changed with every cocktail—but they were always as thick as thieves.
The Creep had an angled haircut—not a fancy one, like a girl’s, but a crew cut with right angles—on top of a round, red face divided by a bushy moustache, and thin steel-framed glasses looped over strange shrimp-shaped ears. He explained to me that rugby did that to your ears after a few years. I didn’t really understand how, but in any case, I decided that “gym & tonic” was less dangerous than rugby, at least for your ears. The color, the texture, the crushed cartilage . . . they really looked just like shrimp. That’s just how it was, but he didn’t seem to mind.
When he laughed, the Creep’s body shook with spasms,
and since he laughed all the time, his shoulders had a permanent tremor. His voice was loud, and it crackled like an old transistor. He always had an enormous cigar that he never lit. He’d have it in his hand or his mouth when he arrived, and he’d slip it into a case when he left. As soon he crossed our threshold, he’d start shouting, “Caipiroska, Caipiroska!”
I used to think he was calling for his Russian girlfriend. Since she was never there, my father would serve him a frosty cocktail with mint to cheer him up, and that always seemed to do the trick. My mother liked the Creep because he was funny, because he rained compliments on her and because he had helped us earn heaps of money, and I liked him for exactly the same reasons, no more, no less.
At our parties, he would try to kiss all of my mother’s friends. My father said he would jump at any chance he got. Sometimes it worked, and he would go jump his chances in his room. A few minutes later, he’d come back out, redder than ever, shouting for his Russian girlfriend, because he must have realized that something wasn’t right. “Caipiroska! Caipiroska!” he’d bellow gleefully, as he hooked his glasses back over his shrimp ears.
During the day, he’d go to work at the Luxembourg Palace, which was in Paris, for some reason I could never
really understand. He would say he was going to work late, but he always came back pretty early. The Senator had a strange lifestyle. When he came back from work, he’d say that his job had been a lot more interesting before the wall came down, because you could see things more clearly.
I figured he meant that they’d done construction work in his office, and that they must have knocked down a wall and used the stones to block some windows. So it made sense that he left work early, because no one would want to work in conditions like that, not even a creep. Dad would say, “The Creep is my dearest friend, because his friendship is priceless!” That I understood perfectly.
• • •
With the garage money, Dad had purchased a beautiful castle in the air. It was in Spain, far south of Paris. You had to drive a little, fly a little, drive a little more, and be very patient. Perched on a mountainside, floating above an all-white village where the streets were empty in the afternoon and full of people at night, all you could see from the castle was pine forests. Well, practically all. In a corner on the right, there were terraced groves with rows of olive, orange and almond trees dropping all the way down to the shore of a milky-blue lake formed by a magnificent dam. Dad told me that he had built the dam himself, and that
if it weren’t for him, all the water would have run away. I wasn’t sure I believed him: there weren’t any tools in the house, and I’m nobody’s fool.
The seashore wasn’t far off, and the beaches, apartment buildings, restaurants and traffic jams were jam-packed with people. Mom said she couldn’t understand why people would exchange one crowded place for another on vacation. She said that the beaches were fouled with the grease that people slathered on their skin to tan, even though they were already fat and greasy without it. But that didn’t keep us from sunbathing on the pint-size beaches around our lake. With just enough room for three beach towels, they were perfect for us, and never foul.
On the roof of the castle there was a big terrace with wispy clouds of jasmine. Unlike the crowds on the beaches, the jasmine smelled really nice. The view was so spectacular that it made my parents thirsty, so they drank wine with pieces of fruit in it. We ate tons of fruit by day, and drank it as we danced at night. “Mr. Bojangles” came with us, of course, and Mademoiselle Superfluous joined us a little later; we had to go pick her up at the airport, because she had a special status. She traveled in a box with a hole for her long neck to stick out of, so of course she squawked her little head off, with good reason for once. My parents
would invite all their friends to come and eat fruit, dance and sunbathe at their castle in the air. They all said it was absolutely heavenly, and we had no reason to think any differently. Whenever I wanted to go to heaven, I could, but usually we went when my parents decided we should.
• • •
Mom used to love to tell me the story of Mr. Bojangles. His story was like his song: lovely, melancholy and nice and long. That’s why my parents loved slow-dancing to it. It had feeling, and it went on and on. Mr. Bojangles lived in New Orleans, although it was a really long time ago. He used to travel with his dog and his ragged shirt and baggy pants. But his dog up and died, he up and died, and Bojangles cried and cried. Then he had to dance with just his ragged shirt and baggy pants. He’d dance at honky-tonks, minstrel shows and county fairs; Mr. Bojangles danced all the time and everywhere, just like my parents. People gave him drinks and tips, so he’d dance for them in his worn-out shoes; he’d jump so high, he’d jump so high and he’d lightly touch down. Mom said he danced to bring his dog back, she’d heard it from someone who knew. As for her, well, she danced to bring Mr. Bojangles back. That was why she danced all the time. To bring him back, that’s all. I
. Claude François died in 1978 of accidental electrocution in his bathtub.