I saw a man hit by a car today. It was my fault, I suppose, though I did nothing. Not today I didn’t, but many years ago I did something and I guess now that he never forgot. Nor did I, but it has not crossed my mind for at least a decade, probably longer. When he looked at me, I recognized him and it came back to me no less than to him.
It was a long time ago, when the Marché aux puces was still really flea-bitten and cheap, no multi-year leases at high prices for the stalls, nothing for sale that you couldn’t pay for with the cash in your pocket, no need to call the insurance broker when you brought the treasure home. The recollection makes me feel old, but so anyway does the passage of years, and it’s been a few and then some since a group of us in our late teens, maybe half a dozen, took the Métro to the flea market one Saturday just to take in the sights, maybe find something neat to buy, and pass the time in good company. It was one of those lovely experiences straight out of Romain Rolland and his belief in the joy of being many—which always reminds me of how termites can’t do a thing until they reach a critical number, something Rolland probably did not have in mind.
But like termites or a troop of apes or laughing dolphins, we were bonding and doing things together that we never would have enjoyed so much alone, and we were enjoying ourselves and one another immensely. We landed at a booth where there were shiny metal objects for sale—pill boxes, salt-shakers, pocket knives, toast racks, all old, not one any better than pressed sheet metal with some worn-out, weary silver-plating—which brought out the magpie in me. I took a shine to a small pocket knife, handled it, studied it as if I had a clue about what I was looking at or for, and as I dropped it as casually as I could—when something small actually drops with a thud and bounces, it is not all that casual—and asked Madame the price. It was still the era when people gave prices in old francs and I think she said vingt mille balles, twenty new francs or about four dollars at the time. I looked away and offered ten francs. We went back and forth, and for twelve francs, I think, the knife went into my pocket where it belonged.
As my friends and I were leaving, a man came up, probably ten years older than I, a little bigger, sneered right into my face, and said, Vous marchandez comme un juif, Rothschild, and laughed, showing his teeth. Do I really bargain like a Jew? Well, of course, and I reminded him that relatives of mine from eastern Europe had been turned into lampshades and piles of shoes and heaps of gold teeth by the Nazis, so certainly he could not have minded when I shoved him into a wall with my left hand and slapped him two-three-four times across his face with my right before I helped him to the ground. I did not kick him when he was down. I just left with my friends. The joie d’être multiple felt more like misery loving company, if that makes any sense: it did then.
It was years ago and nonetheless it was a stupid thing for me to do. The man was a jerk, but I had no business hitting him, not terribly hard, but hitting is enough. If I had done nothing or maybe said something equally insulting or just turned my back, I think our mood would have suffered less. That still bothers me. But it is what I did, no undoing it, though my memory has been kind enough not to go into syndicated reruns season after season. Just as well: I have enough of those anyway.
Between that day and this I have lived through two marriages and the same number of divorces, a war in Vietnam, disco, Reagonomics, heavy metal, some graying hair, and all the other scraps, scrapes, déchets, detritus, income tax payments, and consequential flops, joys, and random passions that pave the garden path to middle age and give us, as George Orwell saw it, the face we deserve by the time we are fifty. So has he, and I think he’s had a worse hand of cards or just played it badly: the sneer—I saw it just a moment before he saw me—had become his habitual expression, his badge, his ticket of admission to the life he has earned for himself. Then he saw me.
We were walking towards each other on a busy street not far from the Jardin des Plantes, both of us alone, perhaps five metres between us, maybe a little more. When he saw me, he stopped abruptly. I came back to him as quickly as he had come to me—and with the same hammer of a deep, unwelcome memory breaking through the thick crust of years lived with an ear-and-balance shattering crack! I know he started and went rigid—I could see it. So did I, though it was only hours later that I could be sure because all my muscles between my toenails and the roots of my hair were still stiff from the shock of recognition, not the high-brow, literary version of the phrase, but the literal tensing, coiling back of the body, trying to hide itself in a sense of… of terror, remorse, revulsion?… I could not say and cannot. But I did see him. His eyes opened as if they would undo his forehead and cheeks. His mouth gaped and he heaved up his shoulders, turned, and bolted into the street, going to his left, pushing his way past three or four bewildered walkers in the city and into the side of a red Citroën, going no faster than thirty kilometres an hour in the midday traffic.
Uproar, brake screams, everybody yelling, pointing, sirens, the cops, the Samu in their ambulance. He is conscious, not bleeding that I can see. Some good soul is crouched down by him on the ground, holding his hand, talking into his ear, and a driver has pulled up behind to protect him from other cars and dragged a blanket out of his car to cover and comfort him: I cannot leave, but I do not want him to see me. If seeing me, at a distance of five metres and, more to the point, of at least thirty years, could unravel him, what would he think, lying helpless in the street, of my standing over him, looking down, not smiling? No one deserves that. I wait behind two rows of the spontaneous audience of the drama, looking between bodies, not over them. The paramedics come out with more gear and shtick than you’d think they’d need for the aftermath of an earthquake, and twenty minutes later they have him almost on his feet, getting him into their ambulance. His left arm looks limp and there’s some drying blood on his right hand and cheek, but the sneer has left his face and also the look of horror. He could be smiling, he could be.
It’s astonishing. Did an old demon turn out to be less likely to come back and strike him again—strike him harder—than he did the first time? Did running into a car and surviving give him a fresh benchmark for what is dire and serious, worth being haunted by for half a lifetime? Or did someone holding his hand and covering him with a blanket when he was down give him, after so many years and buffets and slaps in the face, a sense of love or at the very least the physical sensation of kindness in a human touch? You wonder if this is the best day of his life.
© Joseph Lestrange