When it comes you will know it, when it comes you will know it, I kept saying to myself. It came and went and I didn’t know it until two stops past. I had counted before I got on the metro. Eight stops. And I counted because I wasn’t able to see the signs on the wall in the metro halls, the bodies crammed together, a mob of Parisian heads surrounding me and crowding the door in the evening’s busiest hour. So I counted and stood in the middle and subtracted one at each stop. I had three to go and that’s when I began repeating, when it comes you will know it. And then I started thinking about Estelle at home in the apartment, sitting next to the telephone, organizing our flyer campaign for high-traffic street corners and bus stops and metro lines and now I realize I’m two stops past and goddamn it.
The plan was for me to be in prime position to hand out the flyers in the Gare du Nord metro station before the six o’clock crowd, but I stopped for a drink that became five. Estelle won’t know, though. She won’t leave that phone in case the police call and she trusts me to do this right but I had to have a drink. You can’t help but have a goddamn drink before you go into the metro with a stack of orange flyers that have a picture of your nine-year-old daughter in the middle, surrounded with AIDEZ-NOUS a RETROUVER JENNIFER written in bold black letters. You just can’t help it.
I bump past people blocking the door at the rue Monmarte stop. It takes going up and down stairs and through a rounded hallway to get to the other side of the tracks. People are everywhere and in a steady shuffle, ready to get home, put up their feet, have their dinner, read their paper. The train arrives and this time I concentrate, get on late so I can stand near the door, see out of the window. Back two stops to Gare du Nord where five metro lines and half of Paris collide and there is every kind of face—old, pretty, tired, laughing, cynical, white, brown, round, thin, childish, hollow. No matches for Jennifer. No little girl with thin, wavy hair and brown eyes, wearing jeans and a pink backpack and her heavy coat. Two months and nothing. Two months of her dancing in my head in this outfit. I stop at the foot of the escalator where people cluster in a pack of impatience and pass out the orange flyers. Some take, some ignore, probably think I’m promoting the new Fascism or recruiting for a cult. The ones that take fold and stuff it without looking, maybe will find it later when they reach into their pockets or purses as they pay for bread on the walk home, will say to themselves, “Where did this come from?” And I wonder the same. This day, this moment, this getting here, this standing at the escalator. Where did this come from? This slow, slow ticking of the clock. The crowd thins as the time between trains expands and out of a stack of two hundred flyers, I keep five to post on the exits that lead up into the streets.
I get onto the escalator and the woman on the step in front of me sees what I’m holding and says, “I have seen this. On the news. You haven’t found her yet?”
I shake my head and say, “Not yet.”
“You should go on television again,” she says and turns away. I feel confident that if universal law allowed it, I could put my hands around her neck and choke her until her mouth was dry.
The walkways’ and intersections’ exits and entrances are organized chaos and I almost get knocked down over and over working my way through the traffic. When I’m done sticking up the last one, I look at my watch and time for thirty seconds, then count how many people look at our flyer.
Two. Which is up one from last week when I posted at Gare de L’Est.
I get on the metro and head back home. At the café on the end of my street, Monsieur Conrer serves me another drink and when I go into the apartment Estelle is perched on a stool next to the phone in the kitchen, cigarette in one hand and red marker in the other. She looks up, smokes, then says, “How’d it go?”
We have stopped sleeping in the same room because we don’t sleep. Estelle takes the couch and I lay in the bedroom. I hear her all hours of the night—pacing, opening the refrigerator door, changing channels. I try to trick myself into sleeping by imagining we’re on a long vacation and Jennifer is left behind with friends. Sometimes Estelle will come into the bedroom and crawl over close to me, rest her head on my chest, curl herself into a ball. She is a combination of smells—of perfume, of cigarettes, of coffee. But she doesn’t ever stay curled next to me for long.
I have tried to go into Jennifer’s room and make her bed, put her shoes away in the closet, close the teen fashion magazine lying open on her nightstand. I had laughed when she held it to me in the bookstore and said she needed it. “Need? Nine is a single digit number. That information is for girls with double-digit birthdays.” She looked down at it, ran her hand across the glossy cover, as if she could feel herself in the perfect face staring back at her. “Let’s just pretend I’m twelve,” she said. I took it and made her promise not to tell her mother. Which she did the moment we walked in the apartment. Later that night, with Jennifer asleep between us on the couch, Estelle had reached over and playfully smacked the back of my head and said, “Don’t rush her.”
So I go into the room, but tiptoe around the way it is, careful not to disrupt her life. We keep the door half-open, giving ourselves a glimpse of what we’re waiting on when we walk down the hallway.
Even life upside down has its routine. Estelle stays at home on high-alert but I have to go to work because the earth keeps spinning. My co-workers can’t figure out how to treat me. Too normal and they risk apathy. Too sympathetic and they become patronizing. What I get is overly cautious smiles when I’m handed a fax or offered a smoke or asked about something I should have done already. Hidden sympathy in tiny gestures that I appreciate but I would rather them kick a hole in the side of my desk and scream, “What the fuck is the world coming to!”
This is the story we were told—Jennifer’s class went to the Musee d’Orsay with their teacher and a volunteer parent. You see such field trips around Paris daily. She was there as they sat in a circle in front of a Van Gogh. She was there as they sat in a circle in front of a Cezanne. She was there when they ate their sack lunches in the courtyard. She was not there when they counted heads to walk to the bus stop to go back to school. She was not there as the teacher retraced their footsteps. She was not in the bathroom. She was not in the gift shop. She was not in the snack area buying a chocolate bar (which she had a tendency to do on field trips). She was not anywhere.
And still, she is not anywhere. How can a person not be anywhere? I don’t know. But she is.
Our flyer campaign is in full swing and twice a week after work, I go through the same routine I went through at Gare du Nord. We change colors from orange to yellow. Estelle thinks they are easier to read in passing. We go to a larger size paper. We move the telephone numbers of our apartment and of our detective from the bottom to the top.
I have done my duty at the Place d’Italie metro station and stop at the café on our street. It’s winter and dark at 6:30, the lights from the shops glowing yellow in the early night. I know Estelle is waiting but I can’t go up, not yet ready to hide my despair. Monsieur Conrer has a glass of whiskey waiting for me as I come in.
“Where today?” he says as I sit down at the bar.
“A good spot. Something will happen,” he says. His hair is thin and silver and his shoulders slump. He has his own children and grandchildren and he has cried for us. It happened a week after Jennifer disappeared. I talked Estelle out of the apartment on a Saturday afternoon and we came and sat here at the table by the window. We had a carafe of wine and I got up to go to the bathroom. When I came back, M. Conrer was sitting with Estelle, they held hands across the table, and they both cried quietly. I stepped back into the bathroom and watched through the cracked door until they were finished. Ever since, this is one of the few places she will go. He tells me everyday we’re one day closer to having Jennifer home. I drink the first whiskey and ask for another.
“Estelle came in for lunch today,” he says.
I hear him but I don’t answer. He lays his pack of cigarettes in front of me and I take one.
This time, when he tells me we’re one day closer, I say, “The chances are dying by the minute.”
“Don’t think like that.”
“That’s the least of what I think.”
“Don’t think that either,” he says.
But I have. And I do. Is there only one? Or two or four, or do they rotate, charge a fee, bring them down a thin alley, into a short door, sell her off in ten minute intervals. Are there women too? And if there are... I don’t want to but I think it. I pray to God that she can at least be given a civil abduction. M. Conrer reaches over with the bottle and makes it a double. Then the bell on the door jingles and Estelle walks in and takes a stool beside me.
“Detective Marceau called and said he has seen the flyers and that we’re doing a good job,” she says and this has given her a satisfaction, a hope that I notice in her eyebrows.
“Good. Did he say anything else?”
“Only that they’re working hard. And that maybe we should up the reward.” She takes a cigarette from M. Conrer’s pack. “Was Place d’Italie a very busy spot?”
No, it wasn’t.
“Yeah, pretty busy,” I say.
“Can we go up to thirty thousand?”
We started at fifteen. After a month we went to twenty. “Whatever we need to do,” I say and make the mistake of sighing.
“That didn’t sound very convincing.”
“I said whatever we need to do.”
“It’s the way you said it.”
“Estelle. A million. I don’t care. I’m on your side.”
“Don’t talk to me like that,” she says and throws her cigarette at me. “Maybe we should just quit. Just fucking quit and move away and act like we never had a daughter.”
“Gimme a goddamn break. I’m tired.”
“And I’m not?” she says and bangs her fist on the bar. Then she’s up and crying before she can get out of the door.
I knock off my drink and ask for another.
“Aren’t you going up to her?” M. Conrer says.
“Why don’t you?” I shake my head, then point at the empty glass. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” I say. “Just let me sit.” And as I watch him move to other customers, offer matches, chat about the weather, I wonder if he would be so certain, so comforting, if one of his children were forever nine years old.
M. Conrer finally tells me he’s not pouring anymore, so I leave and take the metro to St. Michel. I thought whiskey warmed you but I’m freezing as the wind blows through my light jacket and I move up rue St. Severin through the neon and smell of lamb. I make my way through the Latin Quarter and to the river and walk along the sidewalk.
Nighttime dinner cruises ease by, waiters in tuxedos delivering wine and salads to the tables of the brightly lit cabins. A white foam trailing the boats. A misty rain starting to fall. I reach Pont des Arts and the lights of Paris—the high-priced apartments lining the river, the illumination of Notre Dame behind me, the way the spotlights of the Louvre reach into the clouds—even in the damp night they are golden, something heavenly. I have stood here with Jennifer and once, as she looked down into the river and what surrounded us, she said, “If I jumped I bet I could fly.” Then she thought about it and said, “Or probably drown.” I figured she was too light to drown, but fly, maybe. And I said, “I feel certain you’d fly but let’s not try it today.” She held out her arms and swayed. “Like this,” she had said. “I’d fly like this.”
I turn up the collar on my coat and walk towards Musee D’Orsay.
It’s several blocks, time enough for the mist to wet my face and dampen my hair. Estelle and I walked this neighborhood for days, in all directions from the museum, looking for Jennifer’s backpack or barrette or ID card. She’s a smart little girl. Smart enough to leave a sign. But we aren’t smart enough to find it. On the sidewalk along the river is a bench that faces the front doors of the museum and I think if I sit there long enough, Jennifer will come around the corner, or stick her head from around a tree and say, ‘Ha! Remember that time you grounded me for stealing your cigars and selling them on the playground? Got you back!’
I move along through the mist and when I get to the bench, it’s already occupied. With Estelle.
“Can I sit down?” I ask.
She looks up and says, “The way you wobbled along the sidewalk, you’d probably better.”
She’s more prepared for the night than I am, bundled in a thick flannel coat and her neck wrapped in a scarf. She sits slumped with her arms folded and hands tucked under her armpits.
“Been here long?” I ask.
“Hour or so.”
“Still hate me?”
She sits up straight. “Not really.”
“What the fuck is the world coming to?” I say. It sounds just like I wanted it to.
“It’s come and gone, I think. It passed into Shitsville when we weren’t looking.”
We know better than to laugh but we do and it’s as if this is the first joke we’ve ever shared. Like a long forgotten memory that you thought was gone. She moves closer to me and I put my arm around her.
“You smell like a bottle,” she says.
“But I’m O.K. Where do we post tomorrow?”
“Nowhere. We’re out of flyers. It’ll be day after tomorrow before our next order is ready,” she says, then she slides down and puts her head in my lap and feet up on the bench. The mist turns into a drizzle but the wind has died. She closes her eyes, and I watch people walk back in forth in front of Musee D’Orsay. They look up and around, cup their hands and peek into the lobby, tourists who believe museums keep mini-mart hours. I brush the wet hair away from Estelle’s face, touch the wrinkles in her forehead. I ask her if she wants to get out of the weather but she says, “No. It feels good.” I lay my head back, listen to the traffic, listen to the river. The days, the weeks. Now the months. It’s heavy and I’m almost out when Estelle sits up and softly slaps my cheek.
“Wake up,” she says. Her dark hair is flat on her head and she licks the moistness from her upper lip. “Let’s go get drunk somewhere. Somewhere close before I change my mind.”
“Fine,” I say. “But I’ve got a head start.”
“I’ll catch you.”
She stands, takes my hand and pulls me to my feet. We walk back towards St. Michel, where we’ll find a warm seat in a café at a table for two in a back corner. Where we’ll spend more than we want to. Where we’ll drink and smoke and throw out meaningless comments about the music or the waitress’s shoes. Where we’ll talk ourselves into expectation.
Copyright © Michael F. Smith 2004. Title graphic: "Clock Detail, Musee d'Orsay" Copyright © Chris Ludlow 2004. Used by permission of the artist and Urban Caravan Photography.