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Gregory Wolos

 

The Dry Boys—Paris, 1995

 

In Jean-Paul’s film, Carl Walchuk played a juvenile Christ, and the young Jesus’s Parisian tenement overlooked a black-topped schoolyard where adolescent Buddha and Mohammed played soccer without him every afternoon. But the tenement, the black-topped schoolyard, the soccer playing existed only in the filmmaker’s imagination; in reality, the cast and crew were squeezed into a hotel suite. The furniture had been pushed against the walls to accommodate lights, cameras, and sound equipment. Two cameras focused on Carl as he sat on a metal radiator cover and gazed out the eighth floor window, supposedly at the holy boys playing soccer—“football,” Jean-Paul called it. He strained to emote over what he didn’t see—he stared at the late afternoon traffic clogging the rain-slicked avenue.

“You must look mournful, Charl,” Jean-Paul insisted. “Mournful, but exultant. Your isolation is your triumph. I don’t see it in your eyes. Do you see it in his eyes, anyone?”

No one answered, not any of the film crew, not Celeste, the pretty make-up woman who had been nice to Carl in small ways, or Raymond Walchuk, Carl’s father, who had crammed himself into a corner chair and made notes in a paperback copy of Crime and Punishment. Giggles trickled from an adjoining room, Jean-Paul’s bedroom, where Ernest and Phillipe—Mohammed and Buddha—played games while they waited for their scenes to be shot.

“When it stops raining, we do the football,” Jean-Paul told the two teenagers each morning before shutting them in the bedroom. It had been raining for a week. “Now, you are the dry boys.” Which was a joke, although Jean-Paul never smiled, because the working title of the film was “Les Garcons Seches”—“The Dry Boys.” Carl didn’t know whether or not Jesus was considered one of the dry boys. Not only didn’t he speak French, the titles translated meaning had never been explained to him.

Everyone involved in the film was lodged on the eighth floor of the hotel. They’d been there for ten days, and Carl had seen nothing of Paris. Not a single frame had been shot outside of Jean-Paul’s suite. Meals were brought in. At night Carl sat in the room he shared with his father and watched French television—football, plotless movies, and incomprehensible interview shows—while Raymond read Dostoesvsky’s novel and jotted down ideas on a yellow legal pad.

*******

“I don’t know what Jean-Paul’s doing,” Carl complained one evening after another unsuccessful round of filming. On the television two scruffy intellectuals, their voices hoarse from cigarette smoke Carl swore created a haze in the hotel room, droned on and on. “I don’t know what he wants.”

“It’s because you don’t understand French,” Raymond said. He marked his page and looked at his son. “They should be tutoring you instead of having you memorize everything phonetically. Even though they’re summarizing what you’re supposed to be saying and feeling, there’s a disconnect between the sounds coming out of your mouth and what’s in your head.”

“It’s blah-blah-blah,” Carl said. “But it’s not just that I don’t understand the language. It’s the movie. I don’t get it. Shouldn’t I at least get it? Am I supposed to be one of the “dry boys”? And why is whatever that means a secret?"

Raymond shook his head and shrugged. “We all work differently. I like everything scripted with a storyboard for everyone to see: a beginning, middle and an end. No improvisation. That’s why we were so successful making Teddy—and why we could shoot so quickly. And you know if I hadn’t provided Mr. Salinger with a detailed screenplay, he’d never have approved the project. Same thing with Son of Kong.”

“Jean-Paul calls Mr. Salinger ‘the old Jew.’”

“I’m not sure he’s Jewish. Maybe half. There’s a lot of anti-semitism in France. And Mr. Salinger fought in World War II. A lot of the French were happy but resentful when they were liberated. People get that way when they’re saved. You’re supposed to be Jesus, you should know all about saving. Some of the French hated Jews as much as the Nazis did. I would have thought somebody of Jean-Paul’s generation would be over that, though. There—that’s the history lesson you were supposed to have. When we filmed Teddy, you were required to have a tutor. But this is France. I’ll have to do. ‘Oo-lah-lah.’”

“Oo-lah-lah,” Carl sighed. “Mrs. Abernathy smelled like cabbage dipped in vanilla perfume. She made me read Jane Austen and Dickens.”

“Emma and Elizabeth Bennett and Oliver Twist and Fagin—that was good, right? It’s awkward for Jean-Paul that we’re here. We’re something of a sensation, did you know that? The Paris newspapers are writing about us. Son of Kong was huge in France, and Teddy, too. Celeste says that reporters dressed as hotel staff have been trying to sneak up onto our floor. They’re calling this hotel the Bastille. Like we’re in prison here. The eighth floor is due for a storming. More history for you—that’s the French Revolution.”

“I know—‘liberty, equality, fraternity’—1789, I knew that.”

“They’re camped out in the lobby. Photographers want to get a shot of you, Teddy-boy.”

None of what his father spoke of was news, but Carl felt pressure building behind his eyes, as if his head was swelling. He’d grown accustomed to the attention he attracted back in the United States for playing Salinger’s child genius in the movie his father had directed. He wished he had the freedom to enjoy his international fame first hand. “We need to revolt, Dad.”

“Yeah—I think our friend Jean-Paul is jealous.”

“Is that why I’m not allowed out of here?”

“It probably has more to do with money. He doesn’t have the budget to use too many locations. And it’s cheaper to keep you under wraps—no body guards required for his little Christ. He’s saving time and money.”

“How’s he saving time? We shoot the same thing all day long—me looking out the window. We never leave his hotel suite. And he’s never satisfied. He’s got to pay for the hotel, right? And we just sit around.”

“He calls it ‘interiorizing.’ You’re supposed to be an introspective Savior. In some ways his film is getting smaller and smaller. Maybe it would help if you spoke a little of the language,” Raymond said.

 

Carl picked up a ceramic ashtray from the end table beside his chair. Tiny flower petals detailed the rim, and its bowl was stained ash-gray. “I don’t like not knowing what I’m saying. It sounds fake.”

“I’m sure Jean-Paul could give you a philosophical rationale. Like those guys—” Raymond nodded toward the gray men on TV. One rubbed at his tired eyes with the heels of his hands while the other gesticulated with the cigarette he held between his thumb and index finger. Neither stopped talking. Nothing indicated that they were listening to each other.

“Ernest and Phillipe speak perfect French.”

“They are French,” Raymond laughed. “And your Mohammed is a blond and your Buddha’s a freckled redhead. And both are blue-eyed. I can’t make up my mind if Jean-Paul’s making some kind of ironic comment with his casting, or if he simply didn’t try very hard. Maybe not trying is his ironic comment. Both kids are famous from French television, as I understand it. I think Buddha was in a vampire movie. Jean-Paul’s probably exploiting them for their national box office appeal. Internationally, you’re the big deal. Don’t you talk to them?”

The ashtray slipped out of Carl’s hand, struck the table, and wobbled loudly. He flattened it under his palm. “They’re not nice to me. They stick together, and I think they make jokes about me.” Carl found himself tearful. This trip to Paris had been nasty and claustrophobic, not the “once in a lifetime experience” he’d anticipated. He felt his father’s gaze nibbling over his features, and he decided crying would be senseless.

“How about we order room service?” Raymond asked. “Anything you want. Carte blanche. See—now we’re learning French. It’s obvious those kids are overcome with envy. It’s their national emotion. American stars shine the brightest, everyone knows that. Christ, you know what I feel like doing? I feel like smoking. Let’s smoke. Everybody here smokes. We’ll turn this French experience inside out. Just don’t tell your mother. Maybe smoking’s the secret way the French inhale their language.” Raymond cocked his head at the television. “Look at those guys. It’s got to be the more you smoke the more you can talk.” He picked up the telephone and tucked it under his arm. “How about cigarettes and ice cream? French vanilla. And something to drink. Orange soda? It’ll be an international sugar shock festival. We’ll turn off the TV and I’ll describe the characters in Crime and Punishment. You think French is tough, wait until you hear these names—try Raskolnikov—try Svidrigaylov. I’ll tell you about the screenplay I’m working up, then you’ll tell me about Great Expectations. Is that the one with Pip? And the little girl who never marries him? And the crazy old lady in the wedding dress? You know what? Tomorrow I’ll demand that you and I be allowed to sneak out into the streets after you shoot. We’ll slip out incognito. Jean-Paul owes us.” Raymond slid the receiver out of his armpit and dialed the front desk.

*******

“You’re watching the other boys play football,” Jean-Paul said. The lights were rigged behind Carl so the cameras could capture the side of his face, the gray exterior, and the child’s reflection in the glass. “Now say your line. It’s your thoughts. There will be a close up of your lips later. Now speak.”

Zhu-zhu, zhu-zhu-zhu, zhu-zhu,” Carl mumbled. The words fell from his mouth like pebbles-- he had no idea what he was saying, and the ignorance made him tense beneath the tranquility he’d been instructed to project. Smoking with his dad hadn’t helped him understand the language. His mouth and eyes were dry, and he felt feverish. He hadn’t slept—his room had seemed full of large black birds that covered the chairs, the dresser, the floor, his bed. They were still and silent, except for an occasional preening rustle, but he could feel their collective mass. And the vanilla ice cream hadn’t soothed his taste buds. After he’d choked through a few mouthfuls of smoke (“Don’t inhale!” his father had warned) it had congealed in flavorless lumps on his tongue.

“Who needs French? You’re a born mimic!” his father had persuaded when the opportunity to appear in Jean-Paul’s film arose. But, while it was true that Carl could reproduce his stepfather Klaus’s German accent, his stomach ached as he listened to the French director’s instructions—they were like the absurd courses of a meal he didn’t understand, served at the wrong time of day. Like cold soup at dawn. Like the story he heard of someone drinking the water in a bowl meant for rinsing fingers.

“Coupé! Enough for now,” Jean-Paul grumbled, and Carl turned toward the director a moment before the lights were extinguished, catching a painful instant of glare. “Go play with the other boys.” Carl would rather have kept sitting at the window. It was quiet now in Jean-Paul’s bedroom, where the “dry boys” waited, but an hour earlier there’d been laughter loud enough behind the closed door for the director to shout “See-lans!” The instant stillness had lasted for a ten count before titters resumed.

While he’d been locked in his through-the-window contemplation, attempting and failing to oblige his director’s demands for shades of nuance he didn’t grasp, Carl was certain that the boys had cracked open the bedroom door and watched him suffer. Maybe they’d peeked through the keyhole. He slid from the radiator cover on wobbly, bare legs—like all the children in the foreign films he’d watched with his father before coming to Europe, Carl wore short-shorts. He slunk toward Jean-Paul’s bedroom.

*******

The French boys sprawled across Jean-Paul’s king-sized bed, a deck of playing cards scattered between them. They made identical puckered smiles as Carl appeared, as if they’d been sucking on lemons. Both were blue-eyed, but Ernest-Mohammed’s dilated pupils darkened his, and Philippe-Buddha’s were the skim milk white of a February sky. Carl when it would be their turn to act. Were the rain-delayed soccer scenes all they’d signed on for? They didn’t seem to require parent chaperones—maybe things were different in Europe. Maybe their parents worked. Could they have been orphans? Why were they locked up all day?

Carl cleared his throat— the pseudo-French he’d been gibbering all day was stuck in it. During the hours he’d sat at the window he’d begun to wonder about the body he kept so still: soon he’d need to shave; patches of hair would surface at his crotch and under his armpits; the voice one reviewer of Teddy described as “sweet with truth” would change.

“What’s ‘moo-ton’?” Carl asked as he entered, mostly for something to say. Jean-Paul had muttered that as Carl stepped away from his window.

“This,” Philippe hissed. He poked the head of his penis out of his shorts. He flicked the plump mushroom cap with his finger, giggled, and tucked himself away. Carl shivered as if he’d bitten into aluminum foil.

Ernest ignored the display. “‘Mouton’ is sheep, Teedy,” he said with an exaggerated good-cop politeness that made him more frightening than his red-headed friend. He flashed worried eyes. “Did someone call you a sheep? Jean-Paul said that?”

“Baaa!” Philippe rolled onto his back. “Baaa! That means that you are a very bad actor.”

“I don’t know.” Carl tried to grin. “He might have said something else.” Carl had grasped Teddy’s transcendence; he’d assumed he’d get pre-adolescent Jesus—or at least that Jean-Paul would show him a path to understanding. But left in the hands of these boys, all he felt was foolish.

Mouton! Baa-baa-baa!” Philippe bleated at the ceiling, flapping his arms and legs like he was trying to make a snow angel in the sheets.

“Jean-Paul should have called you ‘agneau,’—‘lamb,’” Ernest said. “Jesus was the lamb, right? Mouton is not such a nice thing to say. It says you’re dumb.” He smoothed back his blond hair, sat up straight, and patted the edge of the bed beside him. “Sit.”

Carl swayed forward, but his feet didn’t move. He felt a little faint, and wished his father was with him. That morning before shooting began the senior Walchuk had pressed Jean-Paul for permission to leave the premises after filming.

“Go now, explore. The boy will be okay.” Jean-Paul had shooed Raymond off with a back-handed wave. “I think maybe you distract him.”

Raymond had hesitated, looked at Carl, who stared back impassively, though pleading inside for his father to Stay, stay! “I’d like to get to the museums,” Raymond had mused, “and some of the galleries. Carl—Son of Kong—Fils de Kong—what about it? Can you handle some independence? Your mom’s been encouraging that. Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, right?

Carl had bowed and smiled, even as he felt the blood drain from his face. “Get me a postcard of the Mona Lisa.”

“Ah, La Giaconda,” Jean-Paul had murmured, shifting his attention to the crewmen re-positioning the camera and lights.

“If I get to the Louvre.” Raymond had given his son’s shoulder a squeeze. Then he’d abandoned him to the French.

Carl looked at the boys on the bed. What, he wondered, was going on in the outer room now that he’d left? He thought of the last line he’d delivered: “Zhu-zhu, zhu-zhu-zhu, zhu-zhu.” If he asked Philippe and Ernest to translate it, they’d mock him. Their eyes danced over him as if they expected him to burst into song. They were panting, their mouths agape. Philippe sat up and crossed his legs in the middle of his nest of sheets and cards. He gripped his knees. A strange Buddha. But the Buddha hadn’t been the Buddha when he was a kid. Had Mohammed been Mohammed? Carl didn’t know. He was certain Jesus had always been Jesus.

“Teedy. Come over here, Teedy,” Philippe wiggled a finger at Carl. “Show me your teeties, Teedy.” The redhead pinched his own nipples through his striped polo shirt, elbows out as if he were doing the chicken dance. “Teedy est un singe blanc,” he trilled.

Carl wiped his nose with his shoulder.

“Philippe says you’re a white monkey,” Ernest smirked. “We liked your daddy’s Son of Kong. We had Kiko monkey dolls in France. But they were made cheap in China—they leaked their insides.”

Philippe stuck out his lower lip, spread his arms, and rocked from side to side, “Maintenant, Je suis un singe-mouton blanc, comme Teedy! Baa-eee-eee!” he squealed.

“He says he’s a white monkey-sheep. Like you.” Ernest laughed. Carl had to pee, but didn’t move. He was afraid these boys would stop him before he got to the en suite bathroom, and he’d piss himself. He looked longingly at its open door—he could see the white porcelain sink and the mirror reflecting shelves with folded towels. If he made it in there, he’d lock the door and wouldn’t come back until he heard his father’s voice. What, he wondered, if Jean-Paul had hidden a camera somewhere and was filming this scene? What if this was his movie? Carl wished he knew what the director was thinking. To Jean-Paul, he represented an idea, but since Carl had no clue what that idea was, he felt like nothing. Teddy he’d understood. Teddy had fit him like a glove. When Carl had been Teddy, he’d been the idea of Mr. Salinger and his father. But—and he felt the burn of tears he didn’t dare release—even as Teddy he hadn’t been himself.

“Teedy—” Ernest squinted one eye at Carl from his perch on the edge of the king-sized bed “Do you have a girlfriend?”

Carl shook his head no.

“Would you like to be my girlfriend, Teedy?” Ernest patted the bed again, and summoned Carl with a wave of his head. “Or—I can be your girlfriend. Come here, and I will give you a kiss.” Philippe still rocked back and forth in the middle of the bed, but his hands lay in his lap, and he’d stopped screeching. His eyes were so white Carl thought they’d rolled back in his head.

Carl seemed to float, and he smelled something briny that reminded him of the sea. Had he peed himself? He looked at his crotch—his shorts appeared dry. Nothing ran down his smooth thighs.

Ernest rose from the bed and stood in front of him. The French boy was nearly a head taller. His knee brushed against Carl’s thigh. “You’re Jesus,” Ernest whispered. “I’ll taste you like a wafer, you see? The wafer is your body, yes? You pass yourself to me with your lips. Breathe like you’re swimming. Do you like swimming?” He stooped slightly so that his head was level with Carl’s. His breath smelled like peanut butter. Carl closed his eyes. He felt like he was wax melting through a grating into warm black space.

Pain and Philippe’s screeching laughter bit into the darkness. Carl’s lids lifted to Ernest’s snarl as the French boy twisted his nipples through his T-shirt, back and forth. It took Carl a moment to realize that the pain belonged to him, and he cried out.

Kwa-kwa-kwa? Kwa-kwa?” a voice boomed from behind and Ernest’s hands dropped. From the French boy’s eyes, Carl could tell that the bedroom door had opened behind him, but he couldn’t look. In the instant before Ernest stepped back toward the bed, his lips brushed Carl’s temple. “Kiss-kiss,” he might have whispered. Carl felt the side of his head, and it was wet. He rubbed his burning nipples. Tears rolled down his cheeks. He found himself staring at Philippe, who hadn’t shifted his cross-legged position. His freckles rose and fell as he nodded at something Ernest was saying.

“Teedy asked us to teach him how to cry. It’s a trick we use for sad scenes,” Ernest explained with a look of patient intensity to whoever had opened the door. Carl finally turned, wiping away his tears with his wrist. Two men stood in the doorway, Jean-Paul and a thin man with a froth of platinum hair and dark glasses. The strange-looking man spoke to him.

“You okay, kiddo?” The smiling faces of the film crew hovered in the background. Raymond Walchuk removed the bright wig and dark glasses. Phillipe giggled, and Raymond cracked a grin, though he kept an eyebrow raised while waiting for Carl’s answer. “Incognito,” he explained when his son said nothing, and he waved the wig and glasses. “And it worked. I wasn’t recognized by a soul, even when I took the glasses off in the museums. I remembered your Mona Lisa post card—and I saw her live—what an expression! But you’re okay?” he asked, confirming an answer his son had never given.

Carl opened his mouth, but nothing came out. His father nodded. “Remind me to tell you about an artist I saw—Balthus.” He shook his head.

“Ah, Balthasar Klossowski de Rola,” Jean-Paul said softly. The French director was studying Carl’s tear-streaked face. “Innocence stolen with a voyeur’s eye.”

“Yes,” Raymond said.“Yes!” He rested the heel of the hand holding his glasses and wig on Jean-Paul’s shoulder, and though he still looked at his son, Carl felt his father’s interest drift to the new subject. “Those little girls, yes. Can we talk about that?”

Oui, later,” Jean-Paul’s focus was on Carl. “Mon enfant,” he purred, “I think now would be a good time to film. Can you come back out here to your window, s’il-vous plait?”

Carl exhaled. He couldn’t remember when he’d last taken a breath. Feeling was seeping back into his legs and feet. But he still had to pee, worse than ever, and knew sitting at the window would be impossible if he didn’t.

“Tomorrow, you go out,” Jean-Paul smiled. He ducked under Raymond’s hand and backed into the suite. “You’ll go see the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. We’ll make you into somebody else, like we did with your papa.”

 

 

Gregory Wolos’ short fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Versal, The Los Angeles Review, PANK Magazine, The Baltimore Review, A cappella Zoo, The Roanoke Review, Superstition Review, EDGE, Grey Sparrow Journal, Prime Number Magazine, Jersey Devil Press, LITnIMAGE, Waccamaw Journal, Storyglossia, FRiGG, elimae, Apple Valley Review, New South, Underground Voices, Prick of the Spindle, Gulf Stream Magazine, The Fiddleback, The Coachella Review, the Press 53 anthology Surreal South ‘11, and many other journals, both online and print. Hisstories have earned two Pushcart Prize nominations and have won both the 2011 New South Writing Contest and the 2011 Gulf Stream Award for fiction. His latest collection was named a finalist for the 2012 Flannery O’Connor Short Fiction Award. He lives and writes on the northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. See: www.gregorywolos.com.

 

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MadHat, Issue 15, Winter 2013-2014