A cold morning for Seattle. Since midnight in the Capitol Hill walkup, while Yves slept back down the hall, I’d kept myself at the cardboard desk, trying to write. In all that time I’d managed maybe half a page of a troubled novel, but my rule then was, even though you made no progress, you weren’t allowed to do anything else. I’d signed off, closed up shop, pulled on a sweater, and come out and down three floors, threadbare maroon carpet, dank yellowing cream plaster, not a soul but me, to the entrance door that locked but whose thin glass offered little security, and out. In the entryway a giant hedgehog at the mailboxes raised a paw toward our buzzer.
“Sorry?” I said. “I live there.”
Her points and wisps of wool-–cape, beret-–twinkled with the misty rain but I saw nothing festive in her pale face. Her bee-stung lips pursed, she measured me with dark grave eyes. “It’s Yves I came to see. You must be his friend. I’m Fanchette,” she said, in a French accent a bit different from Yves’s, and more pronounced.
“He’s asleep,” I said, “and, well, we should probably not wake him yet for a while. He was extra busy last night at the restaurant. But listen, I’m going out for coffee down the block. Why not join me, you know, and then we can come back and roust him out. I’m Joe, by the way. And he’s mentioned you.”
“Thanks, no, I can’t today. But please give him this back, which I enjoyed. And please thank him.” Yves’s dog-eared paper Boris Vian L’Ecume des jours, his favorite. “Goodbye, Joe.”
“Au revoir, Fanchette,” I ventured. Even so little French felt risky then, and with many francophones I would have stayed in English in so brief and guarded (I already felt) a first encounter. With this Fanchette, however, vulnerable and unafraid as she seemed, I felt like laying some cards on the table.
Poor as church mice we all were then, in the mid-seventies, Fanchette, Yves, and I, part of a francophone Seattle demimonde of French, Arab, African, and Indochinese immigrants and visitors, and Americans who for one reason or another could be called Francophile, mostly in our thirties, getting by. We three were also, it turned out, part of another demimonde, LGBT Seattle. Furthermore Fanchette’s and my morning meeting closed the third leg of a triangle of friendship and love whose endurance has to do with more than our shared bilingualism and sexual orientation.
I myself was only proto-bilingual then and (as later) felt no obligation to set straight those who might overestimate my proficiency. I had studied French in a little western Kentucky high school, under the spell of French culture–-art and sophistication that seemed achingly unattainable to the first son of a widowed strip coal miner. At the same time, as I have come to realize, the roots of my attachment to France run in a curiouser and more personal track.
My mother died when I was ten and my brother eight. Two years later my father remarried; he lived fifteen years after. He was always good to me and my brother, and I owe him much of my character, notably his bemused reserve. Still, in the ten years my mother had with me she exerted a larger and more decisive influence, under which I still operate, although I haven’t been able to recall her face for many years.
Margaret Wise had grown up in Hazard, in the Kentucky Appalachians, been educated there through secondary school, and then moved to the western part of the state, which must have seemed minimally more prosperous, and where she had relatives, an older spinster schoolmistress cousin, and a still older childless great aunt married to a retired L&N train conductor. There Margaret and Lawrence Porter married and soon began their family with me. “Bomb the Japs with junk,” reads the line under the announcement of my birth in the 1942 clipping from the town paper, and sometimes in childhood, musing over that document, I couldn’t help wondering about the connection.
Because coal mining was a vital industry, my father stayed in Kentucky while his younger brother went to fight in France, to return strutting like a bantam rooster, not a feather out of place. All the same, both brothers proved war casualties, Earl when, his horizons shrinking to a now severe pre-war narrowness, he lapsed into alcoholism and still more pitiable failings, and Lawrence when he lost half a leg in an accident in the overworked coal tipple. The war may have persuaded Margaret and Lawrence to propagate quickly, me after some eleven months of marriage, Dan less than eighteen months after.
I owe Margaret the early fostering and perhaps even the instigation of my love of books. She read books herself, novels, and she taught me to read before I was old enough for school. I remember that a censorious neighbor woman accused Margaret of “favoring” me over my brother, and there may have been some truth there–-I was not only the first but also, I believe, more like Margaret herself, and also simply more singular. But the neighbor’s censure surprised me, and it seemed mistaken. Margaret loved us both well, perhaps as well as possible, and I recall no rivalry whatever between Dan and me. Margaret had prepared me well for his arrival, and I remember her return from the hospital, the commotion of a wheelchair on the snowy front porch, and then inside, her parting the blue swaddling clothes so that I could touch the cheek of the new brother, who seemed to have been conceived and borne as a gift for me.
I recall a later touch too when Dan, age three, fell off his tricycle on the sidewalk, and was struggling back aboard with a scraped knee and a few tears by the time I had crossed the lawn. It was hot summer and yet when I took Dan’s little back between my hands to lift him, I felt an electric chill go through me.
Margaret taught me to read, and she catered to some of my whims. When something I was reading contained the word “florist,” new to me, and she saw her explanation of its meaning provoke wonder in me–-zinnias and bachelor’s buttons for our living room came from the back yard, and I’d never considered who supplied the carnations we wore to church on Mother’s Day, red for Dan and me white for our parents–she promptly drove me to visit the town’s florist. I was amazed that a grown man could spend his days surrounded by beauty and fragrance, by delicacy, while Lawrence came home a dirty amputee. Surely there was a lesson there. Some time later I showed my mastery of it when, asked the standard question by an adult, I said I aimed to be a florist when I grew up–-only to feel my self-satisfaction founder, for neither the questioner nor Margaret (herself learning for the first time of my momentous decision) seemed flabbergasted, but rather they smiled at one another in a way that meant, even then I could see, back to the drawing board.
Generally permissive and encouraging, Margaret also had a good sense of mischief. I had a ragged teddy bear, Patsy, who served (her name juster than I knew) as my confidante. One morning, sent to Dan’s and my room for some infraction, I joined Patsy in a corner behind a door and complained to her of the treatment that had outraged my already lively sense of ethics, not quite whispering into one of Patsy’s large ears, an ear larger than her muzzle, a welcoming and commiserating ear, into which I poured my heart of grief. The idyll might never have ended had not a sideways glance of Patsy’s (black disk slipping in its amber envelope) alerted me to a presence at the crack, and a sound, muffled laughter unmuffled when I turned and peered through at Margaret. At first more than anything else I felt shock, that my pathos could occasion such merriment, so little sympathy, in someone who loved me. It was a good lesson.
In my tenth summer Margaret died with little warning, of a brain tumor. There seemed no justice in it, nor much consolation in adults’ assurances that they had never seen so many flowers at a funeral. The church congregation brought Dan and me a pet. Although there seems to have been talk of a puppy, in the end it was a parakeet the minister’s wife delivered. Oscar, whom we named after her husband, never talked, but he survived our affection for a good year. We also received a book, a white leatherette album with signatures of funeral guests, and Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.” That book, when I took it out and handled it, and that poem, provoked pangs of wonder I felt glad of, but they also seemed obscurely shameful, I would so clearly have preferred keeping Margaret.