In the December rain the buildings around the town square were the color of dirty fingernails. Still, the French had tried to jolly things up a bit. Decorations hung from streetlamps, though at midday you couldn't tell what lit bulbs would reveal at night: A curried prawn? A goiter? People had dangled toddler-size nylon Father Christmases out their windows, each with a shoulder-borne sack of presents. There were dozens of Father Christmases, and they hung slack, sodden, like snagged kites. They looked lynched.
Tony drove the old Escort around the covered market a second time. He and Izzy and the kids had lived outside Bazaillac for eleven years. At the start, people in town called them Les Anglais, because they were the only ones. Now the whole valley was overrun with English. You could fly into Bergerac for three quid on Ryanair, flash the mere cover of your EU passport to the on-duty Frenchman, and strike out. You could buy an old presbytery or millhouse for next to nothing, turn the outbuildings into gites and rent them for the summer, and then sit back and live the good lifeor so they thought. They renovated or half renovated the properties and then lost heart, complained about how many other English were in the area: you couldn't go into a market without being assaulted by the terrible voices of your countrymen. Tony had heard that Slovenia and Macedonia were the new places to go. He wished Slovenia and Macedonia luck.
Nothing was open but Bar le Tip Top, on one side of the square, and the Café du Commerce on the opposite. Both were pretty much Anglophone bars now. The frivolous drinkers might start out in the Tip Top and then cross under the covered market to the Commerce for a change of scenery, but the serious drinkers stayed put at the Commerce. Tony's son, Malcolm, was a serious drinker. The car was a Christmas present for him. Tony hadn't seen him in a week.
Between the rain on the outside and the smoke and condensation inside, the Commerce window was a blur of fairy lights and whitewashed lunch specials. The arcade was deep, and in good weather Emile, who owned it, set up tables under the arches; now there was only a creaking signboard listing the day's menu. Tony stared at the door and tried to will Malcolm through it, but Malcolm had never once stopped drinking because of Tony's will or wishes or pleas or evenembarrassingly, Tony hated to remember ittears. He looked back across the square. A short fat man ambled underneath the market roof. Sid. Tony honked, and Sid turned, his gray beard tinseled with wet, his bald head cloud-colored in the market's shadows. In his peach sweatpants and jacket he looked like the washing-up cloth of the gods, soaked and proud. The Escort's window required three hands to open, so Tony cracked the door instead, and Sid pulled it open.
"Good God," said Sid. He leaned his head into the car. "Bloody Knight Rider."
"What?" said Tony.
"Knight Rider. You've seen that program. Talking car? Hasselhoff?"
"No idea," said Tony. "Have you seen Malcolm? The car's for him. Christmas present."
"Reminds me," said Sid. "Where are you off to? Home? I have something for you."
Someone shouted from the door of the Commerce. Not Malcolm. The Maori ex-footballer stepped out, smiling expansively. His English girlfriendsomeone else's wifehooked her chin on his shoulder and stared out desolately. She had money. The Maori was a kept man. Together they looked like the masks of comedy and tragedy on a proscenium arch.
Sid stood up and his stomach, an impressive spherical object, came into the car, crowding Tony over. "Knight Rider, hey?" he called across. He pounded on the roof of the car.
"HahahahahaHA!" said the Maori, nodding in his disconcerting, rapid-fire way. "Sid! Absolutely! You drinking, Sidney?"
Sid leaned back into the car. Really he was Malcolm's friend, though he was Tony's age. He had the unsavory charisma of a man on a remote island who'd let himself be worshipped by the natives as a god, who might even use his watch and pocket torch as signs of his divinity. "You going home, yeah?" he said. "I have something to bring you. Be over in a tick. One jar and I'm there. All right?"
"Have you seen Malcolm?" Tony repeated.
"No, mate," said Sid.
"Ask the Maori, is he in the bar."
"Christ, you think he's a Maori? He's a sham. He only claims"
Sid sighed and straightened up, and the stomach reasserted itself. "Colin?" he called across the car. "Malcolm in?"
The Maori laughed and shook his head.
"Sorry, mate," Sid told Tony, slapping the top of the car again. "See you in a bit."
Tony watched him cross over. The Maori tried to kiss him French-wise beneath the arcade, but Sid ducked. They went inside. All the various Irish Johns would be there, too. There were so many now, according to Malcolm, they had to number them: John the Irish One, John the Irish Two, and so on. They were up to John the Irish Eight.
In the wintertime the Commerce was filled with the skint and the rowdy. Any one of the regulars could be accused of drinking himself to death, but all together and out in public and in France, they were merely living the good life. Who wouldn't rather drink himself to death in a foreign country? Your mother couldn't nag you, the wine was cheap. You weren't in danger of drinking yourself to mere ruined health.
The Commerce had been his and Izzy's local when they could still afford bars, back before the bankruptcy. They went every night under the pretense of improving their French. It was a long, dark, friendly bar, with a snooker table in the middle and a vending machine that dispensed cans of nuts at the front. The girls and Malcolm loved that machine; they were practically brought up at its foot. They'd turn the big cold key that worked the mechanism and check for fallen coins or cans of peanuts, even though Emile put out little baskets of peanuts for free.
Malcolm had been ten years old when they all came to France, and unable to get along with his stepfatherat least, that had been the stepfather's story. So he'd been sent off to live with his father and stepmother and stepsisters, and together they went nightly to a bar, where the boy, it seemed, learned to speak French and to drink hard without ever taking a lesson in either. At that front table he turned from a cowering child into a charming sot.
It's a shame about us, Tony thought. It was a shame, for instance, that he and Izzy had exactly the same weaknesses and bad habits. They were both terrible with money, and they had a soft spot for animals. No, soft spot didn't cover it. They were about animals the way some of their friends were about drink: They snuck abandoned animals into the house. They bought animals with money they didn't have. They swore they needed no more animals in the morning and showed up with more animals in the evening. They had two three-legged dogs, two four-legged dogs, several puppies, six indoor cats, countless outdoor cats, untold kittens, the old horse Nelson, at least fifty budgies. They would be ruined by animals.
But when the farmer down the road appears at your house with a three-legged dog and explains that he knows you already have oneapparently a single three-legged dog is all you need to become famous for three-legged dogswhat can you do? And if your two three-legged dogs fall in love, and your new three-legged dog ends up pregnant by your old three-legged dogwell, you'd have to have a harder heart than Tony had to send all those four-legged puppies away.
He hid the Escort in the barn because he hadn't told Izzy about it: they'd decided not to exchange presents this year. The house was cold inside, a shambles. They'd bought it four years before from a Dutchman who had run it briefly as a home for badly behaved French boys. Then the boys ran away, or were taken away by the government, leaving behind eight bedrooms smelling of piss and three outbuildings that had been set mildly on fire. Tony and Izzy bought it for nothing, practically, though even that "nothing" was a gift from Tony's father. "Buy this house outright," he'd said. "I'm tired of worrying about you." They'd put the house in Malcolm's name, because of the bankruptcy; the girls were underage at the time. They'd hoped he'd rise to the occasion.
At the far end of the main room, the kitchen lay in pieces. A bag of garbage sat on the sofa like a person. Tony moved it, then filled a carafe of wine from the box on the kitchen island and set it on the mantelpiece to warm. He built a fire in the stove underneath. Izzy would be with the budgies. He decided to leave her alone.
"Hello, little mother," he said to Macy, who lay in her basket nursing her pitch-black pups. She was a poodle the way Malcolm and the girls were French: generally she could pass, but an actual poodle might find her a little vulgar. Now she lifted her head and regarded Tony with the weary love of a woman for a ruinous husband. There was a knock at the door. She looked at it.
"I'll get it," Tony told her.
The puppies took no notice, and the four-legged dogs were elsewhere, but Aldo came skittering down the hall in full bark and filled the room with hysterics that woke up all but the most blasé of the kittens. His missing front leg and barrel-chested Airedale's bark gave him a wounded-vet air.
"Aldo!" Tony told him, trying to hook his leg around the dog's prow as he opened the door. "Back. Back."
Sid seemed to have swollen in the rain. "Oh, bark bark bark," he said, wiping his feet theatrically. Under his arm was a square-shouldered birdcage, and inside the birdcage was a gray parrot with a red tail.
"Voilà," he said. "Christmas present from your only begotten son."
"A parrot," said Tony.
"A parrot indeed," said Sid. "Well spotted."
The parrot clutched the bars of the cage in its beak. Its black eyes were set in rings of white feathers. It opened its beak delicately and showed a black tongue, then casually flapped its wings. In his rib cage Tony felt a similar cautious flapping. So his heart still worked. "Je m'appelle Clothilde," she said. Her accent was terrible.
"Hello, beauty," Tony said to her. "Oh, hello darling. This is from Malcolm? Isn't she lovely? Aldo. Aldo, down. Shush. For God's sake."
"That'll be fifty euro," Sid said. "Here, take 'er. D'ye mind? Wet out here. May I?"
"For what?" said Tony.
"What for what?"
"Fifty euro for what."
"For the bird." Sid shouldered a path into the room and bobbed his head in an avian way, as though it were his only means of seeing in three dimensions. He licked his chapped lips; his tongue was black, too, stained with red wine. Aldo sniffed the back of his knee, barked once, then noticed the fire and curled up by the stove.
"I thought it was a"
"Fifty down, fifty on delivery. D'ye mind? May I?" He'd already hooked his elbow at the bottom of his filthy fleece top and was flipping it up. "Just till I dry."
Before France, Sid had been a lecturer in drama at an American university and must have owned actual clothing, with zippers and buttons and dry clean only tags, but Tony had never seen him in anything other than exercise togs for the very fat. Sid tossed the fleece top on the back of the sofa and began to thoughtfully palm his bare stomach. From the hip bones downthe part of Sid in perpetual darkness, the territory in the shadow of his bellyhe seemed to be a small man. But his stomach was extraordinary: round and high and tight and gravity-defying. He showed it to the cast-iron stove, ostensibly for purposes of evaporation, though it looked to Tony like more of a challenge: Get a load of me, stomach seemed to say to fire.
"I forget," he said, looking at the half-smashed walls. "How long have you been in this house?"
"This one? Four years," said Tony, embarrassed. "We've been in France"
Sid gave a low whistle. "You got your work cut out for you, boy."
"Work takes money."
"How many bedrooms?"
"Too many. Eight."
Sid swung back and forth with his hands on his stomach. He seemed to be dowsing for something. "How much the Dutchman ask for it?"
"Can't remember. Not much."
"It's fucking raining," Sid said.
"Has been," said Tony. "This bird. Is she really a present from Malcolm?"
"Happy Crimbo," Sid said.
"He gave you fifty euro?"
Sid nodded absentmindedly and eyed the wine. "A hundred euro is a terrific price for an African gray. They'll run eight hundred in a store."
"Sure," said Tony. The bird squawked and paced her cage, and Tony again felt his heart mimic back. He had no intention of paying Sid for her. "I used to have a gray like this."
"As they will," said Sid. "When?"
"When I was twelve. My father gave her to me. I loved that bird for a while."
"Oh," said Tony. "My father taught her to talk. Religious things. Said the bird found religion. Repent your sins. Baby Jesus. What a friend we have in Jesus."
"Nothing less tolerable than a godly bird," said Sid.
"She was poorly after she got religious. Then she died. My father told me they usually lived for decades and decades, parrots. Broke my heart."
He'd told that story to Malcolm, and Malcolm had remembered. Clothilde. A lady African gray. The females were always crankier, he recalled, and she bit at the cage again. He set her on the ground.
"Now then. A drink?"
Sid turned and smiled. "What are you offering?"
"Pineau, beer. I could make you a gin, wine"
"Pineau!" said Sid. "It's such a nice drink. The angels weep. But it's not pineau weather, is it? Is that wine there? Is that wine for me?"
"Let me get glasses," said Tony. The cupboards were on the floor, waiting to be hung. The four-legged dogs came careening down the main stairs and into the room, herding an adolescent kitten.
"Sheepdogs?" Sid asked.
"Of some stripe, maybe." Louis and Borgia certainly had the gap-mouthed, hunch-shouldered look of sheepdogs, but Tony suspected an actual sheep would scare the crap out of them. Mostly they bumped into things and tried to look as though they meant to do it. Borgia sometimes tried to herd the kitchen island; a kitten was an improvement. Now she saw the parrot and began to herd that.
"That bird's not going anywhere," said Tony, taking the carafe from the mantelpiece. "That bird is caged."
Borgia stopped, her head at an obsequious tilt.
"Right," said Tony to the bird. He lifted her cage and put her on the coffee table. Sid collapsed into the old leather armchair with a plop.
"Je t'aime, Olivier," said Clothilde, and Tony thought: Nothing sounds more insincere than a parrot speaking French.
The wine tasted like buttered popcorn. Sid lit a cigarette. "D'ye mind?" he said again, as though it were polite to ask even if he disregarded the answer.
"Izzy's asthma," said Tony, helplessly.
"Izzy's not here."
"She's not in the room," clarified Sid. "Where is she?"
"Budgies," said Tony.
"She's in the budgie room."
That was the advantage and danger of an eight-bedroom house: eventually the oddest things would have their own rooms. When Malcolm sold the houseif Malcolm sold the housethe new owners would walk around sniffing, saying, as Tony and Izzy had before them, "What do you suppose they did in this room?"
"Ah, the budgies," said Sid. "I've never met the budgies. Did you know that budgerigar means 'good eating' in the aboriginal language?"
"I hope it doesn't come to that," said Tony.
"That would make you a psittiphage," said Sid.
"A psittiphage: an eater of parrots. Psittiphobe. One who fears parrots. Psittophile: one who"
"Yes," said Tony. He filled Sid's glass again.
"So you already have parrots, and now here's another."
"The budgies are Izzy's minions. This one's mine. I don't even like those budgies. I love you, though," he said to Clothilde. "Do you love me?"
She bobbed her head and said nothing.
"The budgies? One or two," said Tony. Most of them couldn't, they just babbled. Then suddenly one would say Hello there. Hello there. It always made Tony feel as though he'd been doing something vile in a room full of deaf and dumb and blind nuns, only to find there were a few regular nuns mixed in.
"Anthony," Sid said grimly.
Sid pointed at him. He waved his finger around, indicating something in general about Tony that was displeasing him. "Your hair," he said at last. "Your beard. It's a disgrace."
"I need a trim."
"One or the other. No man should ever keep his beard and hair the same length. Shave your head and let your beard go, or grow your hair and affect a Van Dyke. One or the other. As it is, you just look fuzzy."
"I am fuzzy," said Tony. He rubbed his hair ostentatiously and stared at Sid's bald head.
"All right," said Sid. "I get your point."
"I am fuzzy," Tony said sadly.
"I know, mate."
"Malcolm tell you?"
"Malcolm tell me what?"
But Tony couldn't say it aloud.
Sid lumbered to his feet and snagged the carafe off the mantelpiece. He poured himself another glass. "Jamais deux sans trois," he said, Never two without three, the drinker's motto. He took a great gulp, then looked at Tony. "Bloody rude of me!" he said, filled Tony's glass too, and emptied the rest of the wine into his own. He held the empty carafe by the neck and pointed to the corner.
"What's wrong with that dog?" Sid took a drink.
"That's Macy," said Tony.
"But what's wrong with her?" Sid took another drink.
"But what happened to her?" Another drink.
After a second, Tony said, "Land mine."
"That's not what I mean. She's all, she's got, she's swollen." Sid indicated his own bare torso with the empty carafe and finished the wine. It was just like Sid, to be prudish about a dog's teats.
"She's nursing. She had pups. You want one?"
"I live in a truck," said Sid. He held out both the wine glass and the carafe.
Tony went to the box of wine on the kitchen island. "Don't look," he said, filling the carafe.
"I don't care."
"I was talking to Clothilde."
"I don't mean to harp on the fifty euro," said Sid, "but it is fifty euro."
"Yeah, yeah," said Tony. "Where'd Malcolm find her?"
He looked at the parrot with some suspicion and came back to fill Sid's wine glass. Sid watched the rising level with the concentration of a telekinetic.
"You're selling her why?"
"I see we'll be ordering off the children's menu," said Sid, and then, with cruel patience, "I live. In. A. Truck."
"Kids don't want it?"
"She won't," said Sid. He shook his head. He'd been sitting like a human being. Now he wheeled around in the chair and draped his legs over one arm and leaned on the other. Some wine slopped and he sucked it off the back of his hand. The armchair seemed to falter with its burden. "Spent the morning tearing down the piggery," he said.
"You have a piggery?"
"Had a piggery. Hated the piggery. The piggery is no more."
"I thought you lived in a truck."
"There's this house. Nearby Manville, this side of the river."
"When did you buy that?"
"Haven't yet. Will do. The mairie's deciding whether it's habitable. I'm getting a jump on the work. Night, mostly."
"What if they decide it isn't?"
"You're renovating a house you don't own in secret"
Sid sighed dramatically. "I am," he declared, "over France. Isn't that what they say? I am so over France."
"Leave," said Tony. He moved to the sofa.
"My kids are here," said Sid. "She won't let me see them. I might drink a pineau."
"Why won't she let you see them?"
Sid glared across the room, then at Tony. He looked a bit cross-eyed, Tony thought, but maybe Tony was drunk.
"She's made allegations."
"What sort of allegations?"
"Untrue," said Sid, brooding.
Apparently all American university lecturers slept with their students, but Sid, bored by the timorous bad behavior of the Yanks, who knew how to fuck up only a semestera real man took pains to fuck up his lifehad carried one off to Las Vegas and married her. That was how he'd lost his job. "Should have waited till final grades were in," he'd once told Tony. "That, or not married her at all." They'd moved to France with plans to open an English-language theater near Eymet. Tony had no notion when they'd given up on the idea. Now they had two little kids, a son and a daughter, and Sid made his living as a chippie's assistant: he toted wood for a friend who was a master carpenter.
"What sort of allegations?" Tony asked again.
"Vindictive bitchery," said Sid. He pursed his lips and sighed through his nose. His mustache rattled. "Vindictive piggery. I thought the whole point was that pedophiles had a sense of delicacy. They had preferences, boys, girlsI mean, Christ, I don't even like children socially."
Not true, thought Tony, though his relief at disbelieving was so intense he wondered at his motivation.
"Perhaps I'll take that pineau," said Sid.
So Tony got the pineau. It was sweet and thick and cold, and he and Sid drank it in big gulps, though it was meant to be an aperitif.
"The angels weep," said Sid.
"I think you gave us this bottle," said Tony, looking at the label.
"Bonjour," said the bird.
Sid fought to sit up. His stomach seemed to be the sun around which the rest of his body orbited. "Pay her off and she'll love you forever. Isn't that how it works in the slave-girl movies? Tony," he said, "I hate to hound you, but I'd ask Malcolm"
"I don't have it."
"Izzy have it?"
"Izzy has the same no-money I have."
"The budgie room," said Sid dreamily. "That sounds nice. Let's go see the budgie room and talk to Izzy."
"We're not going to the budgie room."
"I like budgies," said Sid, hurt.
But Sid was already struggling to his feet.
"Je t'aime," said the bird again, and Sid said, "Kid, you're breaking my heart."
Tony followed Sid, and Aldo followed Tony, and Macy, yawning, followed Aldo. They walked down the hallway Indian file. From behind, Sid had the tight-arsed bullish strut of a smuggler. His bare back looked strong; he hitched up his sweatpants with one hand and almost kicked a passing kitten down the hallway. "You seem to be infested with kittens," he observed. "Hello, you," he said to it, leaning down and plucking it from under Aldo's snuffling nose. It was one of the little kittens. Tony could hear its ingratiating purr. It was true: they were infested with kittens.
"You want a kitten?" he asked.
"I still live in a truck," said Sid. In a kingly fashion he handed Tony his empty wine glass, as though it were a decree he wanted enacted instantly. He held on to the kitten.
"Izzy might be asleep."
"Oh, she'll see me."
Sid had epaulets of steel-gray hair on his shoulders. The kitten, high on the curve of his stomach, looked tiny and blissful. You kind of had to love the pair of them.
"I'll get you a drink," said Tony. "Second door on your left."
In the kitchen Tony tossed the empty pineau bottle and refilled the carafe. Jamais deux sans trois. The tiny spigot was hard to work, and the wine was running out, so he opened the cardboard box and extracted the metallic bladder and squeezed it like an udder into the carafe, from which he then filled Sid's glass. If he'd been sober, he thought, he would never have let Sid bother Izzy; and he was very happy he wasn't sober, because it was essential that someone bother Izzy. Aldo now sniffed one of the puppies skeptically. "He does so look like you," Tony told him.
When he opened the door to the budgie room one of the budgies flew out, a little yellow lutino. That left forty-nine inside.
Sid and Izzy were sitting on the awful flowered sofa holding hands; it was the room's only piece of furniture meant for humans. The sprung-open cages of the budgies encircled them. Some budgiesthe ones who feared the warden, no doubtstayed in their cages, but most of them flew around like drunken fairies. The grouch-faced English budgie called Bomber Harris paced pacifically through Izzy's spiky blond hair. The way Izzy and Sid sathe still bare-chested, holding a sleeping kitten in his other big hand near his armpit, she with her birdsthey looked like a low-budget allegorical painting, though what the allegory was, Tony couldn't say. Izzy was a bird-inclined saint who attracted budgies with her kindness, or a crazy woman who stuffed her pockets with bread crumbs. If she'd been ten years younger and twenty pounds thinner, it would have been saint for sure.
"Should that cat be in here, with all these birds?" he asked.
"I'm fucking Francis of Assisi, me," said Sid.
"Malcolm bought me a parrot," Tony said to Izzy.
"Half a parrot," said Sid, patting the back of her hand. Then he hissed at Tony, "When did this happen?"
"Oh, hello," said Bomber Harris in a ludicrously pleasant voice. "Oh, hello."
"Week ago," said Tony. "An African gray. Like Maud." He began to drink the glass of wine he'd brought for Sid.
Izzy rolled her eyes at Maud's name. "If you met that bird today, you'd never give her a second look."
"Attention," said Sid. "This did not happen in a week."
"The budgies?" Izzy scooped Bomber Harris off her head and smiled at him. "They tell you that if you want to breed budgies you can't have a pair, a pair won't mate. You need at least two pair. So we got four pair to make sure. Eventually"
"Because they're swingers," asked Sid, "or because they're naive? Should the other pair be older and come with sex manuals or be younger and come with quaaludes?"
"Quaaludes?" said Izzy. "Do quaaludes even exist anymore?"
"Since Malcolm," said Tony.
"Since Malcolm what?" said Sid.
Since Malcolm had made his announcementI'm selling the houseshe'd slept in the budgie room on the old, moldy flowered sofa they'd found in the barn. At night she draped the cages, then blacked out her own head with a duvet. I've talked to a lawyer. It's in my name. The budgie room had belonged to the worst of the badly behaved French boys, the one who seemed to have pissed in every corner of the room though the toilet was right there, the one who carved his name, pasqual, in the stone walls, and put his cigarettes out on the windowsill, and broke the lock on the window so he could creep out at night; by all evidence a feral boythe budgies kept finding long dark hairsbut nevertheless a boy who most likely had never threatened to sell his parents' house from under them. I'm sorry to do it. Izzy loved Malcolm, though she wasn't his mother, and was taking his betrayal worse than Tonywhich is to say, she believed it would actually happen. All right? Dad? Daddy? Everyone loved Malcolm. Sometimes Tony thought that was Malcolm's problem, overexposure to the rays of love, a kind of melanoma of the soul.
He stared at the brown drapes Izzy kept drawn so the budgies wouldn't fly into the window. That couldn't be healthy, surely. Even a bird needed vitamin D. He couldn't explain what Malcolm planned to do. He didn't believe in it. To believe in it was to yank at the one loose thread that would eventually, finally, unravel their entire lives. It was hot in the room, and Tony imagined a house-hunter asking about the heat. Gas? Oil? Wood?
No, actually: budgies.
Tony hoped. Izzy didn't, and she was the one who told Sid.
When she'd finished, Sid began to sink. He sank as though the vital architecture of his skeleton were being dismantled, as though, in a moment, like a tent the gossamer bulk of him would billow to the ground. Shit, Tony thought. If Sid is appalled, it's serious.
"No," Sid said. "Malcolm? No."
"Malcolm," said Izzy. "That beautiful kid."
She laughed. "He says the place needs to be fixed up first, so."
Sid got up. He pointed the kitten at Tony like a gun. "You need a lawyer. Someone French, who knows those laws, because they're set up to fuck you every way they can. They will betray you!" The kitten curled its sleeping body around Sid's hand. "Izzy, listen to me. Do you know a lawyer?"
Izzy shrugged her entire body infinitesimally, to illustrate the impossibility of this.
"Money," said Sid, nodding. "I know a bloke looking for a car." He turned to Tony. "All right, Knight Rider. You're selling the Ford."
"What Ford?" said Izzy.
Tony shook his head.
"You say it's for Malcolm. For Malcolm," said Sid, disgusted. "I say, sell all his Christmas presents."
"That's the only one," said Tony.
Izzy rubbed her head and her hair bristled. He hated that haircut. "You bought him a car?"
"A crap car," said Tony. "Twenty-five euro."
"Malcolm is in England," said Sid; and Izzy repeated, in a heartbroken voice, "Malcolm is in England?"
"What's Malcolm doing in England?" Tony asked.
Sid sat back down on the sofa. "You didn't know Malcolm was in England?"
"What's he doing there?" said Tony.
"I don't know. But he's gone. Christmas with his mother? Said he was going, hasn't been at the Commerce, and if Malcolm hasn't been at the Commerce then he's not in the country. I know someone looking for a car. An Englishman and his American wife. The fool. How much do you want for it? They have a budget. It's not much. Seven hundred euro."
"Sell it," said Izzy.
Seven hundred euro seemed simultaneously an enormous sum of money and so little it wasn't even worth thinking about.
"It's Malcolm's," said Tony again.
"Who cares!" Sid pulled a cell phone from his pocket, looked at the screen, and shook it.
"No reception," said Izzy. "End of the driveway."
"Fuck it. I'll go get them. They're staying with Little Aussie Peter. Back in a tick. I'll try to talk them up. All right, Tony? Pay attention. Action stations. The car runs?" He stood up and suddenly noticed he was still holding a kitten. "Hello, moggy. Let's go. The car?"
"Those old diesels run forever."
"That's all they need. Cash in hand, I'll tell them. Bye, Izzy darling."
"Bye, Sidney," she said. "Take that parrot with you."
"She's my parrot," said Tony. "Her name's Clothilde."
"Clothilde!" said Izzy, as though the name itself were an argument against the bird.
This was finally how their marriage would drift apart: Tony didn't understand loving fifty birds at a time, and Izzy didn't understand loving only one. Tony followed Sid down the hallway. "He might change his mind."
"He won't change his mind. What have you done with my clothing?" Sid asked the kitten, who meowed in an incensed, kittenish way. "Ah, here."
In the front room, Clothilde knocked her beak on her cage and said, "Aye-aye-aye." Somehow Sid managed to pull on the fleece top while still holding the kitten, though his head spent some time investigating first one armhole and then the other before at last finding the neck. "When was its last controle technique?"
"Not too long ago."
"Aye, aye," said Clothilde.
"More than six months? Because otherwise you'll have to do it again, and will it pass?"
"Aye!" Clothilde said.
"It'll pass," said Tony. "Listen. He's not that bad. When it comes down to doing the worst thing"
Sid had his hand on the door. He smelled sweet and winey, and his eyes looked like the arse-end of a globe, some place where the Earth was mostly oceans and unpronounceable islands, some place to fear cannibals. Please, Tony thought, don't tell me you know him better than I do.
"The worst thing is saying," said Sid.
"The worst thing is he told you he would. He's done the worst thing. Now he's got that out of the way he can do anything. Believe me. I know." Sid handed the kitten over and opened the door. "I'll be right back. Anthony. Listen to me. It's not too late. You have to decide what kind of man you want to be."
Clothilde said, "I love you!" as though she'd been teaching herself in their absence, like an orphan hoping to ingratiate herself to foster parents.
"I love you, too, my darling," Sid said, and closed the door behind him.
For a parrot Clothilde seemed to have a poor sense of balance: she squawked and dug into Tony's shoulder. It had stopped raining. The outdoor cats were edging out of the old barn and sniffing the wet air. Clothilde squawked again. "You're a pretty girl," said Tony, though even he could hear the lie in his voice. She ran her beak through his hair. He kicked the cats from the barn so they wouldn't bother her, and closed the door.
In the dim light the Escort looked almost seaworthy. It was black, with slightly tinted windows, and on both sides the word LASER was painted in space-age lettering. It was an '84, Malcolm's birth year, and that had seemed like a sign. Generally Malcolm took his bike to the Commerce, and came back wobbling drunk or not at all. Sometimes he slept in a ditchan actual ditch. "It's France, Daddy," he said. "It's not like a ditch somewhere else."
Tony lifted the passenger door handle, remembered it opened only from the inside, and went around. The paperwork was still in the glove box. The carte grisethe titlewas in order, and the last controle technique had been, miraculously, five months and three weeks before. He could legally sell the car to the American couple without putting it through another inspection, just as the Italian had sold it to him.
His shoulder hurt. "All right, Clothilde," he said, and set her on the passenger seat so he could get to work.
For seven hundred euro, could you expect a radio? He removed it, and then the safety kit: the reflective vest, the reflective triangle, the flares, all the things he'd bought for Malcolm to keep him safe and entertained. The old fuel pump had gone out and he'd replaced it with a rubber bulb: he had to open the bonnet and pump the fuel into the engine by hand, but it worked all right and a new pump would cost a hundred euro. If the Americans wanted to replace it, let them. Now he opened and pumped and slammed.
The car started. The fuel tank was full up. He got the tubing and another rubber bulb to siphon it out. He knew this was not quite decent, but the lawnmower ran on diesel too and fuel was expensive. He'd give the American couple directions to the Leclerc station.
"Hello," he said to Clothilde.
She gave a half whistle.
"Tell me a story," he said to her. She chewed at the edge of the seat. "Tell me the story of your life. Tell metell me you love me."
The dashboard looked sad with the radio gone. The steering wheel had been put on crooked at some point, which made it difficult to read the speedometer, which reminded him that the dashboard light had gone out. They could get a bulb at the Leclerc, too.
The sunroof was bolted shut.
The passenger seat didn't slide back.
The heater was hooked up in such a way that you had to turn it off even when the key was out, or you'd drain the battery.
The engine stunk of oil once it heated up.
The trunk didn't stay open. You needed a plank.
"The plank's gratis," Tony said aloud. "No charge whatsoever for the plank."
The love of a young couple for a bad car took time: you had to be with it as it got more eccentric. Tony had bought the car dazzled by the price, and then added each new oddity to the story he was telling himself: Malcolm's First Car. They were going to tell that story forever.
You have to decide what kind of man you want to be, Sid had said; and what Tony wanted was not to be this man: the bad father. He was a bad enough father back when Malcolm simply had a drinking problem, and then a drug problem. "It's my fault," Tony had said at first. "It's not your fault," people kept telling him. But they didn't know what Tony knew: After Malcolm had been living with them for a year, he broke his arm, and the doctor in the nearby city said, "This is an arm that has been broken often," and Malcolm had shruggedof course his stepfather had done it, who else?and Tony had said, "Why didn't you tell me?" And Malcolm had answered, "I did. Dad, I did."
His son was going to sell the house.
Like Izzy, he was giving up hope. It was a physical process, the hope a sort of shrapnel working its way out of his skin. It hurt. He'd hoped Malcolm wouldn't do this but he would, and seven hundred euro for a piece-of-shit car wouldn't save them.
He, Tony, was drunk. Was he drunk? He was dizzy.
He was in the barn. The car was still running. He'd meant to turn it off but it was still running. He went outside to gulp some air.
Sid's truck came flying around the corner, past the mailbox into the courtyard. They were sitting three abreast, and the woman, who sat by the window, looked appalled. The order seemed wrong to Tony. He wasn't sexist, but with two men and a woman, the woman should sit in the middle, by the gearshift. Then he saw that she was driving. Of course: they were in Sid's old English right-hand-drive truck. She'd told him he was too drunk to drive. An American would think so.
Sid tumbled from the truck as though kicked. Then the woman got out the other side, and Tony saw that she was heavily pregnant. Her husband followed her. "Fucking 'orrible," said the husband. That's right: only the woman was American. The husband was English, and drunk as Sid. Well, if they were friends of Little Aussie Peter, of course he would be. The wife wore somebody else's Wellington boots, a plaid skirt, and a striped sweater. She had red hair and no eyebrows and kept nearly losing the wellies in the mud. The man was wearing a denim jacket and blue jeans. He sat on the front bumper of Sid's truck. He didn't look at her. It hadn't occurred to Tony until this moment that anyone willing to buy a seven-hundred-euro car had to be as desperate and skint as he was. He wondered if it was even safe for a pregnant woman to ride in that car.
They had some terrible story too, or soon would. He wished he found this realization ennobling, but he didn't: he was furious at them for whatever sadness they'd already experienced, whatever tragedy was just a headlight glow on the road ahead.
They would buy the car. He would sell it to them. That would be part of the story, anyhow.
Then he remembered the parrot.
She was lying motionless on the passenger seat. Tony tried the door. The handle didn't work. "Still," said Tony. A dead bird, off its feet and off its wings, is deader than anything else. But maybe he was wrong. Maybe she was stunned and about to revive herself and maybe she would be alive but never the same. He knew nothing about the neurology of parrots.
"Anthony," Sid said from behind him. "Tony. Tony. Mate."
Somewhere in England Malcolm was saying, I should never have come here.
He was saying, It's too expensive.
He was saying, I wish it hadn't come to this, but what else can I do?
He was talking to strangers, hoping they would absolve him. They are the only ones who ever can.
"It's the worst thing in the world," said Tony.
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