Dapper old Uncle Victor, with his trim and pointy beard, sat on the polished bench of Grand-Maman's house, struggling to pull off his overshoes. He was early. Hélene was disappointed. She was on a mission to retrieve her older sister's box of modeling clay from the petit salon—the smaller sitting room opposite the large one—without being seen.
"Where is everyone? Hélene, is that you? Good! Come and kiss your Uncle Victor!" He kissed her on the forehead. "What a pretty girl you are! How old are you now, mon enfant?"
"I'm six," the child said. Grown-ups were boring. They asked the same questions each time they saw her.
"Old enough to understand, then, the great research I want to share with you. 'Genes in Action' is a topic of the utmost importance. Too important to be left in the hands of assistants. I proceed alone. Making progress all the same—in fact, advancing by leaps and bounds at times. Fascinating topic, still a secret." The child's face lit up when he said "secret."
"You could be part of it. You'd be a great help to me. Are you willing?"
"Willing for what?"
"I'll explain. I've gone as far as I could with preliminaries, but now I need cooperation from new subjects."
Verbs agreed with subjects, Hélene knew. It was verbs that needed to cooperate; her teacher said so. Victor was Grand-Maman's brother. She must call him oncle. Uncle. But Maman said he was Great-Uncle Victor, not Uncle Victor.
"I need subjects for my study, you see. There'll be nothing for you to do," he said, walking back and forth along the vestibule, waving his hands. "I'll conduct the study, take the measurements of your head and ears, etcetera."
"When you do the measuring, you're the subject of measuring, right?"
"Yes, yes, if you like," he said dismissively. "I think you need an example. Let's see, who do you resemble most? Ah! Your father! You have his straight nose, for one thing. Yes. I bet you mille francs, a thousand francs, that you test high on dislike of red-orange vegetables." He nodded in agreement with himself. "You're a perfect specimen for my 'Genes in Action,' don't you agree?"
"I don't have mille francs. I have only four francs and thirty-two centimes in my piggy bank."
"We'll straighten our accounts when my paper is published."
"I don't understand what you say, Uncle Victor," Hélene said, hands behind her back.
"It's very simple. If you have red hair and your mother, let's say, had red hair, it means that in all likelihood, you enjoy music if she does. There is a strong correlation. That's how it goes."
Hélene frowned. "I don't have red hair. I have black hair."
"Oh," he said, "That's a different story. Semites, if I dare pronounce the word in this house, have black hair. With them, it's invariably tied to the inability to control certain emotional centers in the brain. Specifically, anger. Temper tantrums in children."
"No, Uncle Victor. Grand-Maman has white hair, and she..." Hélene stopped in her tracks.
He smiled. "She didn't always have white hair, did she? Got you there! And when she gets angry, she has a good reason. At least, most of the time. Some anger is justified—indeed, necessary—indispensable to the full expression of outrage."
"Outrage, what's that?"
"It means fury or indignation, child. At unfairness or neglect, for example."
"Maybe," Hélene conceded, wishing she were elsewhere. "But people with all kinds of hair have lots of outrage and temper tantrums."
"Let's not talk of children, shall we?" the old man declared, kicking his overshoes under the bench before checking his bow tie and placing a hand on her shoulder. "Hair color changes when pigments accumulate in the follicles as children grow. Keep in mind, too, that in one family hair color is tied to temper tantrums, as you call them, but in another family it's tied to something else. A tendency to ulcers, or restless legs at night; longing for salty food, nail-biting, fistfights—those sorts of things."
"But then," the girl said, struggling to find the words, "How do you know which is which? There are too many families, so you can't find out everything. Anyway, it doesn't matter, does it?"
"It matters enormously!" he protested, raising his hands. "Because once we can anticipate behavior, we'll be in a better position to, say, win arguments, make deals, avoid trouble, and come out on top each and every time. Do you understand?"
"No," Hélene said, one hand on her hip, "It's too complicated."
"One day you will," the old gentleman insisted. "Mark my words! I'll earn a Nobel Prize for science one of these days." He beamed. "Rumor has it, I've been suggested."
Hélene, standing on one foot, thumbnail against her teeth, was trying to figure what a "novel price" was when her mother materialized before her.
"Come along, Hélene," Sabine said, taking her hand without greeting Victor. "I want you to watch your baby brother while I wash my hair."
Maman never washed her blue-black hair at teatime, certainly never at Grand-Maman's house. Glancing up, Hélene caught her mother's conspiratorial smile. One behind the other they ran up the stairs, leaving Uncle Victor alone in the vestibule, waiting for the others.
"Don't pay him any attention," Sabine instructed. "Victor's forever looking for an ear into which to pour his crazy notions, like syrup into a funnel. It overflows sometimes. Just now, he's obsessed with physical resemblances. He's convinced that they match personality traits. Victor's a nuisance. He's harmless, though, with all his theories. Just getting senile." Leaving the bathroom door open, she powdered her nose in front of the bathroom mirror.
"Senile, what's that?"
"It means that when old people begin to lose their faculties, they cover up their shortcomings by telling rambling stories that have little do with reality, and though they don't make sense, they're rarely aware of it. Save me from people of a certain age." Sabine raised her head to dab powder under her chin.
Hélene sighed. Grown-ups were all tied up in explanations. But what was "a certain age?" Did some people not know their age? Was she, Hélene, certain of her age? Her mother came out of the bathroom, where she had been raising her head toward the mirror to powder her neck after taking care of her face. She placed an index finger across her lips. They turned toward Hélene's baby brother.
Christophe, who had no eyebrows, was asleep in his borrowed crib, fists by his ears, eyes invisible under flat eyelids and long eyelashes. Whenever he woke up, he howled. Was that how baby Christophe expressed unfairness and neglect? But then how could he know, since he slept most of the time?
"It's time for tea. I heard the bell," Maman said. "Let's go downstairs. But first, I want to brush your hair. Just a little."
Hélene stood, hands crossed over her tummy, submitting to the brush.When Maman was done, hand in hand they joined the family in the salon. Grand-Maman sat in the best armchair without speaking to Uncle Victor. Hélene waved to him with her free hand.
Title graphic: "Listen" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2012.