StreetLegalPlay by Kyle Thomas Smith

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Four and Five)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on March 5, 2014

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013


I know I’ve only been posting these chapters sporadically. It’s been a stressful time: my father died a couple weeks ago, less than a year after my mom – also, I sometimes forget I have a blog. Here are a couple more chapters of A Sorcerer on Montmartre. – Kyle

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)

Chapter Four:

A Rogue and Peasant Hamlet

Do they even have hardware stores in France?, Simon wonders as he turns away from the window overlooking Montparnasse Cemetery and fixes on an iron hook that is screwed into Pascal’s ceiling. He can’t remember ever passing one on his desultory walks through Paris’s arrondissements, but he suspects the French must have hardware stores or else how could whoever-built-this-place have found things like Pascal’s cabinet hinges or the whitewashed screws on his doorknobs? And where else could the real-estate developer, even it was eons ago, have obtained that hook he’s staring at, in addition to all the other nuts and bolts and sticks and bricks that make up an apartment building? They must have purchased them locally. Simon can’t imagine everyone in France has these things imported to their doorsteps from England or Connecticut or wherever. Yet Simon has rifled through Pascal’s drawers and closets like Sherman rifled through Georgia and hasn’t found a single tool, not even a hammer or a Phillip’s-head screwdriver, much less the stepladder and rope he’s been angling for. It looks like Simon will just have to Google “Montparnasse hardware stores” and hope someplace nearby pops up.

Simon supposes he could always stand on a chair and use his shoelaces or any one of Pascal’s designer belts, but the ceiling hook is for hanging plants, not a man, and what if Simon’s dramatics go awry and he winds up bringing down the whole fourth floor? Apart from the obvious embarrassment, Pascal’s landlord would slap him with a big French lawsuit that Simon couldn’t even begin paying off on his zero-Euro a year salary. Lest he forget, Simon is an illegal in these parts, as undocumented as so much of the kitchen staff at Desiree’s was, and a jobless one at that. Does he want to get shipped back to New York if he doesn’t succeed in dying? There’s no job for him if he returns and his roommates aren’t about to take him back, rent-free, especially now that they’ve gotten someone new to take his place. So, then, without a roof over his head at Pascal’s, if someone from the French Ministry of the Interior were to find him alive and without papers, they might catapult him right back to his place of origin, Wizard’s Stone—which begs the question, does Simon want to hang himself here and now in Paris or there and then in Georgia?

Simon marvels at how there is no plant on Pascal’s ceiling hook, and there never has been, not even a nice fern. Why hasn’t Pascal ever hung a damn plant? The hook is there, it’s available. Simon guesses Pascal just never had much interest. And would he bat an eye if he found Simon dangling from the hook when he gets home from work? Or would he just…sigh…throw his keys on the bureau…sit on the couch…polish off the International section of Le Monde and a glass of that Bordeaux he likes so much before getting off his derrière, cutting Simon’s body down and calling the police in rivulets of crocodile tears? Pascal might not have tools but, in the vegetable basket, he has plenty of onions for opening his lachrymal ducts if he needs to.

Simon considers that Pascal does have strong-enough knives for cutting a man down from a ceiling, though. The knives give Simon some other ideas for how to shuffle off the mortal coil, options that do not entail a trip to the hardware store. But Simon would have to stab himself too many times, it wouldn’t be as fast or as efficient as a hanging, and the thought of slashing his wrists seems an even grislier, more drawn-out business. He had thought of throwing himself out the window, but Pascal’s place is only on the third floor and Simon remembers all too well the story of an alcoholic in East Harlem who did the same thing over a breakup, and from only about as many floors up, and that guy ended up surviving—with eight fractures and a world of pain. To make matters worse, all the drunk could do afterwards was take Vicodin with scotch while soiling his couch and watching schlock TV, which is how TV Guide became his bible, which is where the drunk found an ad telling him to call toll-free for a free copy of The Book of Mormon, which being broke and bored he did, only to find the book hand-delivered to him by Mormon missionaries, who said they wanted to talk to him about salvation and since the drunk had no one else to talk to anymore, much like Simon in Paris, he let them stay and chat. Now that the Latter-Day Saints have taken over payment of his hospital bills, the now-teetotaling drunk has found himself back on his feet and in a thrall to the Mormons. He is currently putting body and soul back together by hectoring other callers of their toll-free number, oftentimes finding them far less receptive to Joseph Smith’s message than the drunk himself had been. So, no, Simon will not be throwing himself out Pascal’s window into Montparnasse, not as long as there are Mormons on the other side of the river in the 16e arrondissement. He had done too much door-knocking for Calvary, when he was younger, to want to be on the other side of that transaction now. And, yes, he has thought of falling from higher up, but he has already tried for roof-access on the huitième étage, only to find it dead-bolted and backed up by an alarm system.

Of all the options on the table, hanging still seems the best, but now Simon is thinking that’s too much of a Judas way out and if anyone has betrayed anyone, it’s Pascal. He was the one who had kept the billets doux coming via Facebook and email and he was the one who had sent for Simon when his chips were down, only to end up showing about the same level of interest in being with Simon as he has for putting ferns on ceiling hooks.

And, as of last night, Simon has discovered Pascal’s communiqués with at least two other guys, one a 23-year-old Albanian trick from, who emails Pascal in what looks to Simon like good French and whom (according to Google Translate) Pascal has been seeing in his office for nooners every Tuesday for the past several weeks. Others are from his ex, Raphaël, in absentia for seven years, who now keeps writing réunissons-nous et parler.

Simon does not feel the least bit bad about hacking into Pascal’s emails. Pascal had been dumb enough to leave the smoking gun on Full Screen while they were eating the tuna niçoise that Simon had prepared for him last night. Halfway through dinner, Pascal had gotten up to take what he had said was a business call on his mobile and, while he was out of the room, Simon crept over to the computer screen and read: “Je me suis amusé. Tu es un homme sexy. Je ne peux pas attendre pour la semaine prochaine…” Pascal came back and caught Simon snooping. “C’est privé!,” he shouted as he logged out. They did not speak another word to each other for the rest of the night. Simon simply washed the dishes, Pascal simply dried the dishes and they both went to bed in a dummied-up muddle. Simon lay awake all night and only fell asleep about half an hour before Pascal had woken up for work, leaving behind a note that read: “Buy milk.” Pascal was long gone by the time Simon woke up wishing the Albanian’s email had been a bad dream. So, was Pascal indeed dumb or, on some level, did he want to get caught? Either way, Simon had been clever enough to guess his email password, “Mignon,” which yielded a tree of knowledge he now wishes he had not picked from. The truth shall set you free or make you wish you were dead. If things between them were going to end in tears anyway, why couldn’t this have been one of the great romances like Heathcliff and Catherine’s in Wuthering Heights? Why did it have to turn into some trashy talk-show episode about a hackneyed email hacking? None of this was the stuff of great lives.

And what are the chances of Pascal seeing the error of his ways when it’s all over? Could Simon ever count on Pascal to arrange a plot for him in Montparnasse, preferably one within shouting distance of Sartre or, better yet, Beauvoir? Or is Montparnasse all booked up? Do you have to buy generations in advance? In the end, would Pascal just haul Simon out under cover of the night, dump his corpse in the Seine and go have a rapprochement with his ex or, better yet, a booty-call with his Tuesday Albanian? Simon determines that, far worse than being melodramatic and complicated, his suicide could prove downright anticlimactic. Yet his packed suitcase in the bedroom, which Pascal’s black cat Mignon is sprawled out on now as he licks his paws, could prove even more fatal.

Simon walks into the bedroom and begins petting Mignon. The cat, the password’s namesake, so sleek, so self-assured, so up for a petting at any moment is the best part of living chez Pascal. More than a few times, they have spent all day together while Pascal was ostensibly out-of-the-country on assignment (“Nozing happens in Ystad,” “You’d be bored if you came,” “I would not be able to passer du temp avec toi”) or pulling all-nighters in the editing room (“I could be un nuit, I could be zree. It’s okay, I have a bed et toiletries là-bas.”). As Simon strokes him, Mignon purrs and his front paws start strutting up a storm even while he lies on his belly with his nose upturned. Every night that Pascal is in town, Mignon sleeps between him and Simon. Many were the times Simon would reach over to touch Pascal and Pascal would rustle, as though Simon had stirred him from the soundest sleep, even if Pascal had been wide awake with his eyes open the whole night, worried about his film projects or what he had gotten himself into with all the emails he used to exchange with this American boy whom he now found living in his apartment and with whom he now had a joint bank account. Simon would end up pulling his arm away from Pascal and down to Mignon, who no sooner would wake up with a start than he would start rustling up a purr louder than a ringing alarm clock, to Pascal’s even greater dismay.

Pascal has 3,000 Euros in savings. Simon runs the numbers and decides he will take 600 as severance. He also tells himself he will keep the debit/ATM card but not use it unless it’s an absolute emergency. Besides, he also expects Pascal to rescind the account once he finds him gone, so 600 Euros seems fair. It’s about as much as Simon showed up with when his plane landed at Charles de Gaulle and Pascal greeted Simon in a swarm of people, while holding up a cardboard sign with Simon’s name on it, as though there were any danger of Simon not remembering what Pascal looked like after that week they had spent together, months before, in Manhattan. In dollars, 600 Euros is about the amount of his severance check from the August Strindberg Theatre. He would only be taking what he came with, Simon told himself, he’d be playing aboveboard.

Simon has learned that it’s always best to keep a weather eye on karma, especially in a pinch, something he had become well aware of after he had taken leave of his scruples so many years before on the road to New York with Belinda. He had come to find that, if you walk a narrow path, your chances of having it easier later dramatically appreciate. He had also come to see the opposite as true.


Chapter Five


Again, Simon and Belinda had to make their five grand last, so they dined-and-dashed in restaurants and diners all the way up the east coast. Belinda already knew how to beat a check. She had been doing it ever since she had first left Whimbrel Creek. She even did it when she wasn’t hurting for cash, just for a prank, a dare, shits and giggles—pretend to go to the restroom, wait until the waitresses’ and managers’ backs are turned and scuttle out the door. It wasn’t rocket science.

The first time they did this together, though, in an A&W Family Restaurant in South Carolina, Simon felt the presence of Jesus and the flaming sword he said he’d come back with in Revelations. Not even Sartre could have defended what Simon had done when he squinted and told the waitress he had to go get his glasses (lie #1: he had never worn any) from the car so he could read the check; from there, he’d gone out and sat waiting for Belinda in the passenger seat until she could abscond on the pretext that she’d had no idea what was keeping her young husband (three lies, plus theft, plus conspiracy). Sartre’s ethical paradigm dictates that, even in a godless universe, it is nonetheless incumbent upon each and every one of us to behave in such a way that we would wish for our actions to be those of all humanity. Did Simon want all the world behaving like a den of thieves, even in A&W Family Restaurants? When the flaming sword lanced him for this first violation, he had felt his soul becoming a towering inferno. He couldn’t speak a single word for the next couple hundred miles of their trip to New York and he couldn’t bear to look at himself in any of Belinda’s car mirrors either.

It got easier the more they did these things, though. The sword and the burning became bearable. Simon had even begun to swagger into roadside restaurants (swaggering being yet another thing he had never done before and that Menard never would have allowed, though from his first touchdown, his football-star brother Key had made a science of it and Menard had lauded Key’s every strut). Simon had even begun developing new moves for the duo’s post-dining experiences. Once at an Applebee’s outside of Roanoke, after the waitress had brought the bill, Simon had instructed Belinda to go out and start up the Mustang while he sat and enjoyed an after-dinner refill of Coke. Once he had jangled out and chomped down the last ice cube from the bottom of his gold-tinted soda glass, Simon approached an old-timer who was sitting alone, reading The Virginia Gazette in the booth behind him. “Excuse me, sir,” said Simon, “I have a friend who’ll be joining me and I want the waitress to know we’ll be needing another setup. When you see me go up and talk to her, would you mind waving and pointing at the table, just so she’ll know which table I’m talking about?” The old man said he’d be glad to and so, when he saw Simon walk up to the front and talk to the waitress, he waved and pointed to Simon’s table, not knowing that Simon was telling the waitress, “See that gentleman over there? The one waving? He says he’ll pay our check.”

Simon knew all along these were the kinds of things people like Barabbas do, but some little devil or other on his shoulder had reminded him that, on that fateful day in Jerusalem, Jesus was the one who got crucified, Barabbas was the one the crowd spared, and besides it’s common knowledge that you have to learn to cut a few throats if you’re going to make it in New York, which Menard used to refer to as “American Gomorrah” and which Aunt Gloria had called “Babylon at its best and worst,” based on things her daughter Connie had told her.

Connie had been to New York twice for trade shows when she was working for Dazzle Razzle Fashions in Savannah and she never, but never, stopped talking about it. She had made both trips in the eighties. She was even wearing a stonewashed denim jacket with detachable white-wool lining (the one that had made her the envy of her swinging-singles apartment complex), a passel of pinchbeck trinkets and a mane of fluffy blonde hair, all immortalized in the pictures her coworkers had taken of her on their night on the town in Times Square and a little ways up the street, outside a theater called Winter Garden on Broadway. The pictures had held a time-honored place on Aunt Gloria’s picture stand throughout Simon’s childhood. He remembered a show called Cats was advertised on Winter Garden’s marquee. Connie and her coworkers had bought tickets to it and Connie said she had never seen anything so spectacular. All the actors were dressed up like alley cats and had clarion voices with which they sang songs that were based on a book of poems about cats in a faraway fairy-tale city called London, where everyone speaks like Malcolm Muggeridge. The very idea was enough to send Simon’s green mind into imaginative transports in which he envisioned cities abroad and stories that included singing cats and things other than deeds done by those who incurred the Lord’s wrath or those who pleased Him by smiting those the Lord didn’t like.

But…speaking of fairies and faraway cities…how was it that Menard could have called New York “American Gomorrah” while Cousin Connie had said it was the toughest town she had ever seen? In fact, Connie had said she was scared to death walking through it. Weren’t fairies the kind that, again, back in the eighties, on into the nineties, Menard’s deer-hunting buddies would take special Saturday night trips out to Atlanta to go beat up in Ansley Square? His friends had always made them out to be namby-pamby cream puffs, who ran from them like loping hinds, which always had made Simon confused as to why Menard’s buddies had felt the need to load up their pickup trucks with baseball bats and feral teenagers if fairies were so easy to take down. Still, there was Menard on one side, saying fairies were all over New York, and Cousin Connie on the other, saying it was the toughest town in creation, a lot tougher than Wizard’s Stone, she insisted, which did even more to scare Simon, who wouldn’t have walked through his hometown at night on a bet. If the toughest town on earth was lousy with fairies, then even its fairies must be pretty tough. But he couldn’t square this logic with how everyone he knew in Wizard’s Stone had made it clear that anything fairy is the opposite of tough.

So how would it be for Simon to walk a square block of New York at any hour of the day? Would people stop whatever they were doing and target him like they do anyone who seems like easy pickings in Wizard’s Stone? How many times did he have to haul ass out of the way of bottles hurled by knots of dirt-head hicks, declaring Main Street their street, when he was, say, just on his way home from picking up a peach cobbler pie for Sunday dinner from the General Store? Did it get even worse than that on the streets of New York?

Connie was married now with a brood of five quick-succession rug rats in Macon. Yet every time Simon would see her, she would retell the tale of “The V8 Incident,” something that had happened to her, all those many years back, on one of the couple jaunts that she and the Dazzle Razzle girls took to downtown Manhattan. In recounting the story, Connie always mentioned a place on Seventh Avenue called the Chelsea Night & Day Diner, which she used to say had all these scrappy Jewish waitresses. Connie was on a big health-and-diet kick back then, “her salad days,” she called that period when she was young and thin and eating lettuce for a snack and was wearing baby-blue legwarmers more for Richard Simmons’s workout tapes than for show. At lunchtime, which they call brunch on weekends in New York, while all the other girls were too busy shopping to go eat, she had dropped into Chelsea Night & Day Diner with her boss and ordered a V8 with an all-green vegetable salad from a waitress whose entire demeanor had made it known she did not have all day, a temperament utterly foreign to Connie and the folks back home. The waitress scribbled down their orders and rushed off from their table without so much as a smile or a thank-you. When she came back with the beverage, Connie couldn’t help but notice how pulpy her V8 looked. She took a sip and told her boss it just didn’t taste right. She signaled the waitress, who was meeting herself coming and going on her way from line cooks to customers. “I’d hate to bother you, miss,” she said, “But I asked for a V8 and you brought me tomato juice.” Of all things, the waitress started arguing with her, “Waddya tawkin’ ’bout? You said V8, I give ya V8.” Connie had already known she was no match for New York City but this was still her country and a southern lady must take a stand for hospitality in it, so she laid it on the line with the waitress, “I know from V8, miss.” At which point, the waitress called out to another waitress, who was carrying a four-top tray full of omelets and toasted bagels, “Hey, Lisa! Waddya say? Is this V8 or ta-may-ta juice?” Without even breaking pace or looking down, the other waitress scooped the glass off the table, took a sip, put it right back down in front of Connie and hustled on over to her four-top across the room, saying over her shoulder, “It’s ta-may-ta juice.” Connie did not know whether to be scandalized or honored to have stepped into the starring role of such a bona fide New York moment. One thing was certain, though: “The V8 Incident” was the kind of thing Connie was talking about when she said that, to get through a day of life in New York, you have to be one tough hombre.

Simon liked the thought of finally becoming a tough hombre after all these years of his head being in the sand. So, before they had even crossed into North Carolina, Simon had said the Chelsea Night & Day Diner should be the first place he and Belinda should go when they get to New York, betting it would be just the kind of total-immersion experience they would need to inure themselves to their lives-to-come. First, though, they had to brace themselves for entering the city itself.

Simon had been suppressing anxiety attacks the whole way east and north. He knew in his bones that nothing less than a complete change of both scenery and being would do from here on out. Yet even Baltimore’s high-rises looked to be well on other the other side of manageable as they drove past them and even America’s Comeback City looked like nowhere he’d ever come back to if it were left up to his small-town self—but that was the same self he had to shed now, and how did he expect to take on New York if he couldn’t even belly up to Baltimore? Downtown Philadelphia was an even more daunting vision, yet as they crossed the Delaware River into New Jersey, Simon also had a feeling that Philly was a mere shadow of what was coming next. He had read about all these places in Civil War lessons in school but he could not imagine any Confederate cadet feeling one iota more trepidation than he did upon entering them, but still he sat in silence with a rigid exterior as Belinda intermittently looked over and laughed at Simon’s pygmy attempts to bear up inside.

From I-78, above and beyond Newark’s smokestacks, Simon could see the saw-toothed monstrosity looming in a pollution aura above the Hudson. The closer they crept up to it, the more the cars and trucks bottlenecked. At the tolls, Simon and Belinda had to pay the better part of what they would have had to pay at Applebee’s, had they paid at all. When they came through the Holland Tunnel and drove up to Canal Street, the first thing Simon heard was the crushing barrage of a garbage truck bouncing down a gravel parkway over a multitude of car horns and Al Green’s “You Ought to Be with Me” on full blast in the cream-colored Cadillac in the next lane. For the next long time, no matter where Simon happened to be, no matter if a garbage truck was in sight or Al Green was even playing within a mile radius, this cantankerous symphony was anchored in his mind as the sound of New York. A stench he would come to know too well, the fetid blend of trash, gridlock exhaust and herbs and spices from hundreds of thousands of different cultures and their restaurants, seeped into his open passenger-side window. Smoke billowed out of two manhole covers over on Hudson Street. People of any and all colors and creeds bustled past each other, not casting disparagement on each other’s differences, but, it seemed to Simon, respecting each other’s right to the sidewalk. Simon had fully expected himself to shut down inside when envisaging this cacophony. Instead, it felt something more akin to a slough peeling off a tender but altogether new layer of flesh. Whether he would survive it all seemed beside the point. He had come this far and he was here.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010). He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband Julius and illustrious cats, Marquez and Giuseppe.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Three)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on November 2, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013


Third chapter from the novel I’ve been working on

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)111213)



In his second (and final) semester at Reginald Hill Bible College, Simon had met a girl named Belinda. Or, rather, Belinda was a woman, a woman of the world, up to ten years older than all the other co-eds. In San Francisco, she had worked days as a barista at the Daily Grind on Castro Street and nights as a sales associate at the Manly Pointer sex shop in the Tenderloin. She had been a bartender in New Orleans’s French Quarter, a Mumblecore actress in three indies in Austin and a lounge singer/cocktail waitress at Search & Distill, a speakeasy-themed tavern in the Little Five Points area of Atlanta. She had dropped out of school after school after school, from one coast to the other, until she had decided on her own that she needed to settle down and finish up a degree anywhere that would accept her surfeit of transcripts. So, being out of funds, Belinda had moved back in with her mother in Whimbrel Creek, the next town over from Wizard’s Stone, and matriculated into Reginald Hill.

Founded in 1979 by its region-famous Southern Baptist namesake, Reginald Hill Bible College prides itself on being one building, three floors and no frills. Austerity is the name of the game at this Christian commuter college. The outside is beige bricks; the hallway and classrooms are all white walls, no pictures, and black metal chair desks; the chapel is all cedar walls with knotty-pine pews, a three-step pine altar and a mahogany Communion table; the ladies rooms don’t contain a single tampon dispenser. A cross stands above a steeple merely to announce the building, which in its simplicity stands as a living testament to how the only grandeur is that of God and, by extension, he who once bore the name on the sign out front, the late Reginald Hill. The sign faces the aptly named Hill Street, formerly Piedmont Street, renamed by the town of Whimbrel Creek in 1990, upon Hill’s passing. The student body numbers at a maximum of 400 students annually, with a current graduation rate of 82 percent, and Reginald Hill ranks 131 among Bible colleges nationwide, according to Christian Nation Magazine’s Top 150.

The contrast between Belinda and the sweet-cheeked, wide-eyed underclassmen in this institution couldn’t have been starker: Belinda strutting into lectures with black nail polish, black sleeveless t-shirts, septum and lips rings, Himalayan demon tattoos, fishnet stockings and rows of sterling silver hoops, running from the topmost cartilage to the lobes of her ears. Her hair was down to her mid-back, dyed jet black, at times with streaks of fuchsia, and shaved to the scalp on the sides and back. She chomped gum during mandatory Bible study groups and smoked on campus, racking up violations and remonstrations that she’d just go right on smacking gum and blowing smoke at.

The common areas hissed with whispers about how, being one of those kooky-spooky girls, Belinda must go home after class and practice witchcraft, all the while flouting the school’s injunctions against dancing or listening to bands that didn’t make the college board’s List of Approved Music. And they were right, though the hardest she ever went with witchcraft was to work with an Aleister Crowley tarot deck and a Wiccan protection circle, which seemed to do the trick since nobody, not even the wickedest trash in the trailers at the end of her street, dared mess with her. Her immunity within the trailer-park community, however, might have had more to do with how she always paid cash on the barrelhead, nothing on account, whenever she bought weed from its main dealer.

Why Belinda had been admitted to Reginald Hill was no mystery: they needed all the warm bodies they could get and offered financial aid to good essayists, without even so much as an in-person screening, a policy they revised in an emergency meeting the day after Belinda first set foot on campus. For the essay portion of her application, Belinda had dashed off ten pages about the profanation of the sacred in Anne Rice (shrewdly omitting sex scenes), which she’d meant as praise for the author, but which the board took as excellent writing and a lurid exposé of Catholic hoodoo. They had welcomed her sight unseen, saying she would set a fine example and, with the right training, make a fine envoy of Christ. She didn’t even have to list her church-service experience to pass muster, unlike every other applicant—and, if it had been the kind of hard-and-fast requirement for admission they’d tried to make it out to be, she never would have gotten in, what with Anne Rice being the closest thing to religion Belinda had ever had in her life. Once in the door, of course, no one could figure out why anyone had let Belinda within 100 miles of the building, much less allowed her to sit in class. And with each second that ticked by at Reginald Hill, no one thought Belinda crazier for coming back to Whimbrel Creek than Belinda herself—except maybe her mother Hilda.

When any other parent in and around Whimbrel Creek said to their offspring, “Get out and stay out!,” it was by way of eviction, but when Belinda’s mother Hilda said it, she meant it in the hopes that her daughter would go out and do what Hilda herself had never gotten her own act together to do, namely to leave their part of Georgia behind as one would a bad dream on a sunny day. It’s not that the option of leaving had never been open to Hilda. She was a dental hygienist, a profession in demand in every town on earth. All five of her children, whom she’d had by three different men, were grown up and gone (at least they all had been until Belinda dropped back in to finish up school), so there was nothing tying Hilda down. But relocating to another small town would be nothing more than a lateral move and a big city is too big a leap, however tempting, so Hilda bided her time waiting for a sign. A sign, like every bozo she’d ever brought home wasn’t sign enough to get the hell out of Whimbrel Creek; like Belinda’s own father, who’d run off to Florida with the Diddy Donuts counter girl, hadn’t been sign enough to sell their ticky-tacky house and start a new life. Thing was, Hilda had had the same group of girlfriends since high school who’d stayed native and whom she never could stand up to, and they would take her out to bars not even a full day after yet another one of Hilda’s romances had gone south (or west to Texas or east to Florida) and fix her up with any takers in sight, and it seemed like, every time, there was another loser lined up to sweep Hilda away and then move into her house six months later, only to be out on his ear within a year, either on account of another woman or the need to jump bail or an immutable lack of ambition to get a job.

It had gotten to the point where Belinda had stopped bothering to ask the newest guy’s name whenever she’d call home from whatever city she’d found herself living in. But Hilda never stopped asking her daughter what she’d been up to, who she’s seeing, where she’s thinking of maybe moving next (just don’t let it be here, don’t be dumb like mama, stay out before you’re too old to go anywhere’s else anymore). Not once did she mind Belinda’s vampire getups, though she always did say she’d take her own Ann Murray and Elvis any day over her daughter’s scary-dairy music, which she always had to special-buy online or all the way out at some wacky record store in Atlanta. The clothes might be a little slutty, but long as she turned down lowlifes-with-no-lives and used protection and quit having those abortions she’d always been so down on herself for having, Hilda considered Belinda welcome to all the fun and frolics she wanted. Hilda only wished she herself were brave enough to appear so outré, maybe then she’d meet someone truly different—maybe even someone, ha!, as different as her daughter, if that were possible—to pull her out of her Whimbrel Creek wallow. But she acknowledged she was an old cougar now and she liked Ann Murray and Elvis, so she knew she couldn’t pull off Belinda’s look, though she admired the guts it took in a town like this.

But the Bible college? Oh, Belinda! What the hell were you thinking? Why not cosmetology school? Belinda never could stomach the thought of doing Georgia up-dos for the rest of her life, so she said no, and you meet too many gross guys doing tattoos and piercings, so she nixed that career option too. She said she needed a degree, any degree, and she could take it from there. Hilda said, well, just don’t let them Holy Guacamole types hypnotize you into giving up on who you are so you can start preaching door to door for them, or go screaming scripture verses on street corners, and I hope you can come out of there as something more than a Holy Guacamole yourself and keep an eye on those loans too so they don’t drive you so far in debt you’ll never afford anything worth wearing again.

Yet, recalcitrant though she seemed, Belinda was at least kind of committed to making the best of what she could tell from the gate would be a bad situation. She felt sure there’d be freaks at Reginald Hill to hang with, the good kind, the kind who end up in Bible colleges when there’s nowhere else that will take them because they fucked up by partying too hard or slacking off too much in high school and have to get their grades up so they can transfer to someplace semi-decent, where they can party harder and slack off some more. She’d come to know the kind well in all the time she’d spent kicking around the country.

Her first exposure to them was at University of Georgia, where she’d gone on a full scholarship to the Grady College of Journalism and Communications, and these were hardcore freaks, the kind who blasted Dead Kennedys from ghetto blasters and free-styled on skateboards after taking fistfuls of acid and who dyed their hair green and even leopard-spotted the bleached-out parts. A few were radical queers too—one was an estranged Mohican son of a preacher man, who was paying a lot of his way through law school by moonlighting as a rent boy for a prominent member of the Athens-Clarke County Chamber of Commerce, a Republican with a rubber fetish; another two were the brassiest spike dykes Belinda would ever come to love and fear. They out-freaked all the art-school goons who swanned around campus with their clove cigarettes, Goodwill rags and European airs. The best day of Belinda’s life was when she and the transfer freaks from the Bible colleges went up to the lab on the third floor of the Natural Sciences Building and made water balloons out of condoms and dropped them on the art students as they smoked and talked on the quad, all sophisticated and philosophical-looking. They bombed a whole circle of them! And those artistes looked around, agog and bedraggled, and went screaming to the R.A.’s in their dorms, putting the blame on the frat boys, who got some kind of warning from up top. Man oh man, those were good times! She’d even dropped out that year to go to San Francisco with the spike dykes and a few other stragglers, which led to the vagabond lifestyle Hilda so envied in her daughter. And Belinda didn’t think she’d have to look too hard to find a new pack of freaks at Reginald Hill, ones who’d help make Christian hell just a little more like heathen purgatory.

Turned out, though, Reginald Hill wasn’t what she was looking for when she went looking for freaks. There were none like the ones who’d transferred to U of G-Athens, not even a pretty obvious softball dyke, which at least would have been something. Everyone looked and acted squeaky clean and was bent on being a preacher or a missionary.

That’s what Simon had thought he’d be, a missionary. That way he could see the world. He even said as much on the first day of his New Testament survey class, which Belinda also happened to be in. Reverend Holmes went around the room asking why the students wanted to pursue the ministry. Most people said the right things, even if they didn’t mean them: they wanted to spread the Word of God, they wanted be a handmaiden of Christ’s love, there was a lot of my daddy is a minister and I want to follow in his footsteps even though I fear my feet aren’t big enough to fill his shoes. They hadn’t gotten to Belinda, but by the time the question had come round to Simon, he said, “I want to be a missionary.”

Reverend Holmes said, “Why?”

Simon looked to the ceiling and thought it over, “So I can see the world.”

Everyone looked askance at him, and so did Belinda, albeit for different reasons. When the rest looked at Simon screwy, it was because he hadn’t even tried to sound like he had a calling, which it’s an unspoken rule you’re supposed to do with every teacher at Reginald Hill, not just with Reverend Holmes. To them, it sounded akin to a heart surgeon saying he’s only in it for the hot cars and big houses the profession buys him, and, if he is, well, more power to him, but he should know better than to say it aloud. What surprised Belinda, though, was that someone from the area actually wanted to see the world. She continued sizing up Simon as he sat in the hot seat.

Reverend Holmes took off his glasses, “Your name?”

“Simon Minshew.”

“That’s right,” Reverend Holmes addressed the class, “We have here Simon Minshew. And, unless you’re not from around here, I’m sure you’ve heard of the Reverend Menard Jake Minshew.” Most of the class nodded their admiration. Reverend Holmes went on, “Reverend Minshew has been a beacon of the Lord’s faith, hope and charity throughout the community for more than 40 years. I know he has been no less than a mentor and an inspiration to me. And yet here sits his own flesh and blood (if Reverend Holmes had known the whole story, he’d have thought twice about that flesh-and-blood crack), and do you hear him talking about his daddy’s big shoes? No, no. He’s saying he’d rather traaaa-vel. Now, Simon, you want to try that again? Maybe step it up? Say something more high-minded?”

Simon looked quizzical, “You mean, you’d like me to start talking about my daddy’s shoes?”

Even the holiest members of the class cracked up, as did Belinda who thought maybe there’s hope of finding someone she could work with here. Reverend Holmes whipped around, “God does not abide hecklers, Simon Minshew, and neither do I. Out of respect for your father, I’ll let it slide this once. But don’t any of you all think you can get so much as one strike with me. Simon over here has used up the only free pass I ever have or ever will give any student. Oh, and Simon, some advice: you might want to look into getting a haircut for next time. It’s past your ears and you’re not a woman.” Simon pulled his lips between his teeth and nodded. (Menard had been too busy with the Christmas season at Calvary to monitor this infraction, but on New Year’s Day, he threatened to take a scissors to Simon if he didn’t get to the barber, so Simon was now doubly aware he was overdue for a trim.) Reverend Holmes quit asking for the rest of the students’ vocational objectives and turned to go back to his podium to start his first lecture of the term.

That’s when Belinda piped up, “I think he should grow it out.”

The class gasped and Reverend Holmes bared his eye-teeth, little knowing where to start with the one-woman freak show in row two, “Little lady, when I saw you at the start of class, I’d made up my mind to have a word with you later, in private. But since you’re being so bold, so will I be. Let’s, let’s just say on the matter of Mr. Minshew’s hair, I think I’m a better source of counsel than you. And you might want to do something about that doomsday garb you got on. Oh, and that head that looks like it was marauded by a tar bucket and a lawnmower.” Hardly a soul in class hadn’t been hungering for a chance to ridicule Belinda’s appearance, and they laughed in gratitude to Reverend Holmes for slinging the first barb.

But Belinda smiled and intoned, “Sir, there’s a whole field of mullet haircuts right before your eyes. But you’re saying Simon and I are the ones who should go do something about our looks? With all due respect, Reverend Holmes, I wouldn’t trust your counsel. Nor should Simon. At least he keeps his hair all one length. Just like Jesus. If you’re too blind to see how many hairstyles in this room are worse than ours, then how can any of us trust you to so much as find the right scripture passage?” Simon turned his head, ostrich-like, toward his desk, lest he be associated with the goon speaking in his defense.

Reverend Holmes grasped for the first cudgel that came to mind, “Well, vanitas vanitatum, little lady!”

“I take that as a compliment,” replied Belinda. Reverend Holmes was never in any mood for a sparring partner, much less one who actually caught his rarefied references, which Belinda had learned from reading Goethe, Thackeray, Anne Bronte and Anne Rice—not Ecclesiastes.

“Well, it’s not a compliment!” Holmes railed, “And you and I will be talking this over with the dean.” Everyone in class was too stunned to pull a smirk—it was well known that being called on the carpet in the dean’s office (well, there was no carpet, just a few sticks of furniture and a gray tile floor) was only a step down from Judgment Day. Belinda conceded to holding her tongue for the rest of the period but also played the classic head game of staring down Reverend Holmes the whole time, never for a second letting her eyes leave his, except for once when she couldn’t help but roll hers (and he saw it) as Holmes droned on about how Jesus said to his mother, “Woman, what have I to do with thee?,” when Mary tells him there is no wine (a beverage forbidden to Reginald Hill students anyway) at the Wedding of Cana. However, by the end of the hour, Reverend Holmes had decided Belinda would be too much of a handful to wrangle into the dean’s office without the aid of some other faculty and maybe a couple men in white coats, so he let Belinda off with a warning, a favor that earlier he’d professed he’d never do for anyone but, on that first day alone, had done for both Simon and Belinda.

And so, after receiving Holmes’s warning without even the yes-sir that Reverend Holmes had demanded, Belinda glided down the halls, past the stares and whispers of her younger classmates huddled outside the classroom. Belinda walked out of the building to the parking lot where she spotted Simon, who was parked one spot over from her black Mustang. “Hey!” she greeted him. He fidgeted and gave a lickety-split smile before taking out his keys. “Sorry if I made you look bad,” she told him. Simon raised his shoulders, “Naw, you didn’t. If anything, I made myself look bad. And maybe my dad, but…”

She looked him up and down. Did she have a shot at getting laid? She’d been back in town a whole two weeks and nada, unless you count the spindly Thorgasm from Manly Pointer she’d stashed away in her nightstand drawer and also suspected her mother of taking out and using. But as she honed in on the little curlicue that had touched up at the side of Simon’s quivering lips, it struck her that she was looking at a dead end as far as all that goes. He seemed too much like the newbies she used to know back in the Castro, a certain dourness that couldn’t but explode into a thousand flames when exposed to the right catalysts. At this moment, all those boys came into full relief in her mind and she knew to the steel toes of her boots that even those ingénues were two steps ahead of where Simon was now. Her eyes beamed for the first time in a fortnight. Even better than the Thorgasm or getting her itch scratched old-school, she had found her freak.

Belinda asked Simon back to her mom’s place. Simon blanched, “I have to go to work,” and got in the 1988 Nissan Sentra that his Aunt Gloria had offloaded on to him six months earlier. Without even saying goodbye or nice to meet you, he backed out and tore out as quickly as he could, without violating the 10-mile-an-hour school zone sign that the township of Whimbrel Creek had posted on Hill Street, at the behest of the school, which otherwise preferred to keep municipal, state, and federal governments at rifle-barrel’s length. Belinda hopped into her seen-better-days Mustang and tailgated Simon all the way up to his job at Desiree’s Diner, off I-85.

That’s where it all got started—at Desiree’s. Nondescript as a highway-side diner, festooned with strips of hot pink and neon blue lights racing each other, might seem, it was the closest thing to Times Square going in these parts. People from more colors and cultures than normally would be seen in the region dropped in on account of the $9.99 Blue Plate Special advertised daily on the marquee and the Chevron station across the parking lot. Simon considered himself lucky to bus tables and wash dishes at Desiree’s, especially due to the contrast it made to home and school. He’d even broken the ninth commandment (thou shalt not lie) and the fifth (honor thy parents) when he told his mom that Desiree’s is so wholesome, they play Appalachian gospel tunes in the kitchen where he did all his soapy scutwork, and she passed this news on with an effulgent smile to Menard, who’d shared concerns over the kinds of walks of life he’d seen coming in and out of the diner on his drives up I-85. “Hope he doesn’t come back home one day with a trucker mouth,” Menard once admonished on his way to write a sermon in his study, “But no worries about him ending up with any of them loose ladies at the counter.” And, as he walked away, Simon’s mother scowled at the affront and (what she viewed as) imputation. Simon knew it wouldn’t have gone over well if he’d given her the real skinny about how even black people come into Desiree’s or that the other kitchen staff is either ex-cons or undocumented Mexicans or that the scullery soundtrack is mostly Mariachi, gangsta rap, and good ole shit-kick country.

And Menard was right about the truckers. They talked Jesus and pussy in the same breath, and with unequal fervor. The Talk Radio listeners among them often took to prating back what they’d heard from headline carny-barkers about threats to the second amendment, the imminence of Sharia Law, the necessity of preemptive strikes on Iran and Iraq and bills on the senate floor favoring freeloaders and illegals. More often than not, Simon rushed like the wind when picking up dirty dishes from Desiree’s tables and counters, lest he learn to take on the truckers’ tongues and notions. For him, four-letter words were the least offensive aspect of their discourse. In fact, he’d taken to using some curses himself, but on the sly, jawing with the illegals and formerly convicted in the kitchen: “Clean them forks and knives up goddamn good.”

Ever since she’d first tailed Simon, Desiree’s truckers were forced to welcome a new unwelcome element in the form of Belinda. They called her Resident Evil. For two months, she would camp out in the back booth with a bottomless cup of coffee, reading everything from Clive Barker to Nietzche to Rimbaud and Baudelaire—everything, that is, but the Bible, which didn’t stand her well at her new Bible college, but she didn’t care. The only reason she was even going to class anymore was to see Simon. It turned out Hilda was right. It was a bad move going to Reginald Hill and what she needed was yet another move, preferably cross-country, and already she was online every day putting out feelers to the hosts of friends she’d made along the way. In her first month in school, she’d already had three disciplinary hearings about her clothes and hair and backtalk and smoking, the last of which the student life administrator, Mrs. Hubble, called “the devil’s gateway practice” until Belinda reminded her that Senator Jesse Helms used to grandstand for Big Tobacco in North Carolina and all Mrs. Hubble could do was repudiate the hellion’s invocation of an all but sacred name.

Simon usually had downtime between five and six at night at Desiree’s and, two nights a week, he would work the late shift and Belinda would come and hang out at her usual table until all hours. As fate would have it, Desiree the owner was also Hilda’s best friend, so she didn’t mind Belinda staying forever and a day, just as long as it wasn’t too busy. And Desiree would tell off any trucker who made a remark about the wraith in the back booth—not that Belinda gave a rip what those knuckle-draggers thought of her and not that she could even hear them most of the time since she always had her headphones on with something like Einstürzende Neubauten blasting from them.

Yet Belinda was no all-day loiterer. She had work and school, at least for a while. Her first week back in the area, she had landed a part-time job stacking books at the Trueville Public Library. The head librarian was the kind of small-town anomaly who insisted on a culturally diverse collection and stuck up for banned books like The Anarchist’s Cookbook, but also asked Belinda if she wouldn’t mind staying in the stacks, out of plain view, if she insisted on dressing the way she does. And Belinda was happy to oblige since she stacked books faster than a possum plays dead, leaving her ample time at work to engage in a pleasure that was better than Acapulco Gold, better than the Thorgasm and almost as good as a prophylactic water-balloon raid—the pleasure of reading. She had always been one of those rare people who never even found hard books hard and who read so much that, for a time, she even had visions of being a comparative literature professor, that is, until she stopped joshing herself about having that kind of discipline. Plus, these days, she had to rely on books to take her away until she could take herself away, now that she was back.

Belinda always came to Desiree’s with the best books from the Trueville Library. In fact, she was the one who’d passed on to Simon one of her all-time favorites, The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir. Simon knew something about existentialism. He knew who Sartre was. His parents might not have had Internet access and they did not allow non-Christian books or TV programs in the house, but he still managed to discover who the preeminent atheist philosopher of Twentieth Century France was. Once, while he and Belinda sat drinking coffee at Desiree’s, looking out the window over to the mountains on the other side of I-85, Simon had told Belinda that Sartre was one of those thinkers who just kind of snuck up on him in high school after he had caught a glimpse of a PBS special at a classmate’s house. He noted the name and, without his parent’s knowledge, did web research. The town library’s Internet system had a porn firewall but no philosophy firewall, so Simon was able to look into who Sartre and his influences were and how one could even get through life in a foxhole without recourse to religion. Now, given Simon’s fundamentalist indoctrination and unwillingness to insurrect, he never dreamed he would find as much freedom as Sartre had found, but any approximation of freedom is better than none at all, so he kept reading him. He even read some of his dry-as-dust epistemological essays. So, when Belinda put The Second Sex into Simon’s hands and said, “Beauvoir was Sartre’s lover, I like her even better than Sartre,” Simon brushed aside his Bible studies and went at The Second Sex like gangbusters.

Unlike Belinda, Simon was someone who found reading difficult. He couldn’t count the number of novels he had picked up, put down after a couple chapters and never picked up again, even while hoping to be a writer himself some day since enough teachers had told him his papers were well-written. And Sartre’s epistemological essays had been murder for Simon to read; he needed a dictionary for half the words, and Wizard Stone K-12 had done nothing to prepare him for that or any other book, even an easy one. Yet something kept telling him to keep reading, keep reading. And as he applied himself more, he found he could at least understand some of Sartre’s fiction and even a couple of his plays, which he had asked the local librarian to order from some obscure drama publisher in New York, and which she did with gratitude for the fact that at least someone around town was reading.

But as he lay in bed with his nightlight on or sat on an upside-down plastic crate behind Desiree’s kitchen, delving into Beauvoir’s hefty tome, Simon could see why Belinda liked Beauvoir so much better than Sartre. The more he read, the more he liked Beauvoir better too. The writing was like whitewater blasting through every bulwark of his mind. In discussing how women have been viewed and treated from the dawn of civilization, Beauvoir had marshaled a stunning amount scholarship in philosophy, world literature, psychology, religion, anthropology, biology, coming at her subject from every conceivable intellectual angle. The writing was brisk, the words accessible, the arguments so massive and complex, with semicolons outnumbering periods at least ten-to-one per page. True, a lot of Beauvoir’s assertions went over Simon’s head but they never ceased to awe, and he wanted to study all that Beauvoir had studied and break out of Wizard’s Stone and make the level of impression that Beauvoir had made, though he doubted he had the brains and knew that Reginald Hill wasn’t known for churning out great minds. But Beauvoir had a big case to make and as Simon kept reading, he saw his own mother, at the one end of the female spectrum, all balled up with Stockholm syndrome, and Belinda, at the other, defying all social doctrines.

Simon became convinced that, when he sat with Belinda at Desiree’s, he was sitting with Georgia’s own Simone de Beauvoir. She sounded so smart whenever she talked philosophy. He thought she would make a great teacher—shame that, as a student, she couldn’t stick with a school. True, in most of their tête-à-têtes, Belinda would do her best to turn Simon red with stories about fisting incidents in San Francisco sex clubs or about how the streets of New Orleans smell like semen for weeks after Mardi Gras, but then she would go and say something like, “Do you notice how Beauvoir doesn’t come at Freud with any sort of knee-jerk feminist rant against penis envy? No, she performs a thorough analysis of his treatises and contends that, if Freud is going to posit a philosophy, then he’d better be ready to defend it on philosophic grounds, rather than simply decree his own irrefutable authority.” Simon had no idea what she had just said, but he wished he knew how to say stuff like that.

Then there was the night Belinda saw that Simon was halfway through the book. And that’s when she said: “It’s not just about women, Simon. It’s about all modalities of subjugation, subjugation of the ‘other.’ Let me ask you, as you read this, do you see the subtle ways in which people like you are subjugated?” He didn’t ask what subjugation is. He could tell by the tone of her voice that it means something like oppression. But he did ask, “What do you mean people like me?” But Belinda didn’t need to spell it out. She only had to hone in with one of her stares. Unlike others rounded up in the witch-hunts at Wizard’s Stone K-12, Simon had been able to duck the searchlight all these years, but Belinda had found him naked, even as he sat in the booth in his white work uniform. Simon said, “Well, I…was…reading in, in…in the intro, how, how she got the, you know, the…the title for the book. A friend of hers, another philosopher, in, in, in Paris, he, he came over and he, he said that…” Simon looked down and breathed. He could hear his own breath. And over own his breath, he could hear the ticking of the neon diner clock, six feet above his head. And over the neon diner clock, he could hear something by Garth Brooks, sounding from the speakers. And for a while, he just sat there listening to his breath until it was all he could hear. Belinda’s stare came in again and Simon continued, “Her friend said that people like, like me…are…the third sex. So, that’s how she came to call it The Second Sex.” Belinda let the air settle and then came around to Simon’s side of the booth. She wrapped her arms around him and kissed his neck. She said, “Not to worry, Simon. I know people who are already on their fifth sex.” Simon smiled and thanked the Lord, the same Lord that Sartre and Beauvoir and Belinda didn’t believe in, that another customer up front had paid and left and it was time for him to get up and go bus another table.

By the time Simon finished reading the book, two weeks later, Reginald Hill had finally expelled Belinda. By now, her infractions were so numerous, there was no explanation necessary on the part of the faculty and administration. Nevertheless, the dean had her sit in the middle of his office while he circumambulated her chair. He had rehearsed a twenty-minute lecture about the Expulsion from the Garden, expulsion from Reginald Hill, and the never-ending descent into hell that results from both, but he did not even get past the point of blaming the fall of man on Eve before Belinda rose up, spit in his face and left him in as bad a shock as Adam under the Cherub’s sword. The dean wiped the slimy loog away like it was boiling semen straight out of the Whore of Babylon’s maw.

The next night, Belinda dropped by Desiree’s to gloat, “You should’ve seen that holy-rolling fuckface! If only I went for the nuts, man. Yeah, maybe I’ll go back and go for his scrotes.” Simon thought maybe he’d hitched his wagon to a devil star if Belinda was so bent on going back for the nuts. Still, he chuckled, albeit with a tinge of sadness that Belinda would not be in school with him anymore.

Simon had never known what it was to have a close friend. He’d had almost all the same classmates most years at Wizard’s Stone K-12 but no real friends. Menard Minshew was too imposing a patriarch and his mother too warped a minion for him to want to bring anyone home, and both of them always wanted to know what he was doing and who he was doing it with, lest he be doing even the tiniest thing to stray from the ways of righteousness, so he rarely did anything with anyone and just stayed in his room and wandered around in his own head. Joining a sports team would have been one way out of this stalemate, if Simon had had any inclination for sports and if his high school had offered anything more than football or baseball. Menard Minshew would have stood the tallest under the klieg lights of every Friday night game, provided Simon had made first string, but Simon did not make any string of either team and Menard took every potshot at him he could for it, especially when bringing up how front-linesmen Tommy Sandage and Bob Jenkins were not only MVPs but model boys. He constantly goaded Simon’s three younger brothers into laughing at him for being a weakling, which being young, they did with glee, and Menard also said Simon would catch hell if he hit them or told them to shut up for it, so instead Simon learned to look down and raise neither hand nor voice to them, which turned out to be a good policy since his brother Ezekiel (Key, for short), two years Simon’s junior, did grow up to be a first-string front-linesman, twice Simon’s size.

Further isolating Simon was the reality that Menard had damned too many people, both from the pulpit and on the main drag, for anyone to believe that the apple could have fallen far enough from the tree. And Simon walked around so hunched and mopey under the scourge of all this that even those who held no brief with Menard weren’t lining up to be Simon’s friend. Daddy’s reputation might have preceded Simon in a good way at Reginald Hill—the one school his parents let him apply to, though they made him pay for what scholarships and grants did not cover, which was why he had to work so many hours at Desiree’s—but Simon had made such a practice of sticking to himself that he did not know how to approach even people who smiled at him at his new school.

And yet now here he’d found Belinda. In fact, she had sought him out. A bad seed, for sure, but he took what he could get and for the first time ever, felt his brain kicking into high gear, as well as someone literally putting their arms around him whenever she saw him, someone who was fine, ecstatic even, with knowing that hugs were about as far as he ever could go with her.

Simon did not know how he would endure the coming loneliness of Belinda being gone, but as it turned out, she would not let him endure it. Belinda became more a fixture than ever at Desiree’s, sitting in the back, crafting some kind of new plan for her future. Simon could tell Belinda had a lot more time on her hands now that she didn’t have school and was only working part-time. He thought she’d fill her spare time with reading, smoking, listening to patricide-matricide bands or maybe even venturing into writing disaffected essays that might later end up in some brainy anthology that would be such a call to arms, he could look back one day and say he knew her when. But her attention was too scattered for her to undertake much of any of those activities. Instead, she spent her idle time either ruminating at Desiree’s or, when she was at home, reconnecting with out-of-town friends online.

One night during this low point in her life, Simon sat down with Belinda on his dinner break when she whipped out a magazine, Euro Boy, right at the restaurant table. The cover showed a tan, frosty blond, callipygian ephebe—seventeen if he was a day—standing in the raw with his back to the camera, looking over his left shoulder with pouty lips, as the rest of his body faces an open window in a spare room that looks out over Prague Castle. Simon dropped his fork and pulled the magazine under the table. He looked around to see if any customer or coworker had seen it and, seeing none had, stared at Belinda, who fell back with laughter.

For some time now, she’d determined that she’d have to take drastic measures. On numberless occasions since his great confession, the grand inquisitor had asked Simon what boys he found cute. He couldn’t name one, which she could understand since she hadn’t seen anyone cute around either, so she went middlebrow and asked if any movie stars did it for him. She even would have taken George Clooney, mainstream though he might be, for an answer, but Simon didn’t go to movies, much like he didn’t know any music, not even what was on the Top 40, much less the underground stuff people like Belinda staked their identities on. So, she had to come up with something crafty and Euro Boy was it.

“So, what do you think?”

“Belinda,” he said blinking, “I’m at work.”

“Fine. Look at it later. But how ’bout that guy on the cover? You said you wanted to see the world, didn’t you?”

Simon slid Euro Boy inside the front of his pants and covered it with his work shirt. He did not take another sip of his milk or bite of his mashed potatoes and meatloaf and he did not speak to Belinda for the rest of the night either, though she stayed put for hours and he did not ask her to leave since that of course would have required speaking to her. Instead, he walked to the staff closet, slipped the porno into his backpack, and got back to work. Fortunately for him, a new rush of customers left Simon with enough table-clearing and dishwashing to do for him to work off a lot of his chagrin and aggression. When his shift was over, Belinda was still sitting where he left her, but he stormed out to his car and drove out to I-85 without so much as throwing a look Resident Evil’s way.

Simon thumbed through the magazine when he got back to his bedroom, though. He even laid back, put a towel that he kept under his mattress over his bare stomach and let Euro Boy’s various offerings from Czechoslovakia, Lichtenstein, Romania—and don’t forget that grape pickers’ orgy from Provence—help relieve him of what had for too long been backed up inside of him. It became an unholy rite night after night and he began to have a sense of what people were talking about when they said a trip around the world could help a man grow. Still, he didn’t speak to Belinda the next time she came looking for him at Desiree’s, and she didn’t make a scene, nor did she apologize. Instead, she had one cup of coffee, no refill, paid Desiree at the register, and never returned. Simon could feel the onslaught of regrets over the loss of his only friendship rising up, but he steeled himself with the rationalization that he had not lost a friend so much as gained a magazine, one which he kept secreted away in his backpack.

That is, until one night, when Simon came home to find Reverend Holmes sitting with Menard in the living room. Reverend Holmes had come by to deliver Simon’s Progress Report, a form that Reginald Hill only metes out to students failing a class and which requires a parent’s signature, a practice reviled in colleges that make a pretence of treating people in their late teens like adults in charge of their own lives. Normally, Reginald Hill teachers send these reports home with students or, in rare cases, directly to the parents by mail. However, Holmes had decided to go a step further and bring the report to Menard in person out of respect for how the venerable churchman would be bound to anguish over the news that his own son (stepson), once a student of promise, whom Holmes conceded “knows his Bible better than kids today know their video games,” had stopped turning in homework and even term papers, which Simon used to write with a spirited proficiency, as his teachers from the prior semester had confirmed for Holmes. He still got A’s on the multiple-choice sections of his New Testament exams, but in the essay sections, he’d begun loading his answers with subtle refutations of scripture (“The Four Evangelists present conflicting accounts of the Crucifixion”) and references to any number of atheistic philosophers (“Beware the man of a single book.” – Bertrand Russell).

During this sit-down talk, Holmes also had informed Menard, “Sir, Simon has not joined any extracurricular activities and he has fallen in with some strange company, specifically a dastardly little number named Belinda Quell, whom we recently expelled.” Holmes sighed and ran down Belinda’s entire profile and rap sheet. He added, “Some have reported seeing this Belinda pal around with your Simon at that diner he works at.” So, it seemed there was danger of Simon ending up with one of the loose women at Desiree’s after all.

The thing that sealed Simon’s fate, though, before he even put his key in the front door that night, was Holmes imparting to Menard: “Pastor, three times in a row now, Simon did not even bring his Bible to class.” This confounded Menard as much as it had confounded Reverend Holmes. Simon was always carrying a bagful of books and, at a Bible college, it only made sense that one of those books would be the Book of books. So, after Simon walked in, Menard ordered him to sit down and, without missing a beat, said to him in front of Reverend Holmes: “Bring out your Bible, Sorcerer. Open to Deuteronomy 21:18-21. Let’s talk about what it says to do with shirker sons.”

Simon said, “I’ll have to go get it from my room.”

Reverend Holmes said, “You had school today. Why isn’t it in your bag?”

“I forgot it.”

“Then what’s in your bag?” asked Menard.

“Other books,” Simon answered, drawing his bag between his legs.

Menard got up, grabbed the backpack and dumped its contents on the mousy-brown Stainmaster carpet. Over a heap of notebooks, pens, and religious textbooks that Simon might as well have left in his room with his Bible for how much he’d been cracking them open lately, The Second Sex and Euro Boy came spilling out in flagrante delicto. The pause that ensued over the frozen faces in the room was not unlike the one that arises between moments of laceration and hemorrhaging. Menard no sooner picked up the magazine than he let it drop like a handful of scalding water. As Menard seethed, Reverend Holmes collected the slick from right back off the ground and flipped to a centerfold of the Czech boy from the cover getting topped, dog-style, by a muscular, gay-for-pay brunette as night falls over the same daytime view of Prague castle that had appeared outside the window in the prequel photo. No sooner did Holmes cast Euro Boy down to the Stainmaster carpet, as though its acrylic threads were tongues of hellfire, than he kicked The Second Sex clear across the room, which led Simon to wonder if Holmes had heard of Beauvoir or if he just found the word sex unseemly, especially when emblazoned above the photo of a woman author on a Women’s-Lib book. He surmised that the answer was the latter but he did not have time to hash it out with himself as he looked up to find Menard storming at him from three paces away.

Not by a long shot was it the first time Menard had knocked Simon off a chair or punched him in the face. Not by a long shot was it the first time Menard had literally kicked Simon while he was down. It was the first time, however, that Simon fully understood the expression “seeing stars,” something he thought only happens to cartoon birdbrains when they get knocked out, yet here he was, witnessing a galaxy of stars exploding on to some invisible screen before his eyes, stars which began rotating in crazy patterns, so unlike the neat, orderly carousels of twinklers and tweeting birds that go around Loony Tunes characters’ heads after pianos or anvils fall on them. Menard wailed on Simon with pile-driver force, pounding on and kicking at him, as Simon either bruised or bled from his eye, nose, mouth, back, chest and stomach. It was as though, for this one moment alone, Menard had saved up all his contempt for all the things in life he had ever pronounced hateful. All the while, Reverend Holmes played backup at this bashing with an impromtu exorcism, where he read aloud from the Bible he always carried with him, flipping from Romans 1:18 to Leviticus 20:13 and all the way back up to 2 Timothy 3:1-5 as the mayhem crescendoed. Simon’s mother knew to stay in her room when these things transpired, so that’s where she stayed, crouched in a corner behind the door.

At one point, though, Menard had stumbled between stomach-kicks and Simon was able to grab his leg and throw him back so he hit the ground. This gave Simon’s bag of bones just time enough to grab the magazine, grab his keys and run like the hunted while Menard bolted to the back room to get his deer-hunting rifle, all to the shock and awe of Reverend Holmes, who now was making his first effort of the night to hold Menard back. Simon’s Nissan Sentra tore off to I-85 as Menard stood and cocked his rifle in the middle of the street. As Reverend Holmes pleaded with him to stop, to let God be the judge now that Menard had gotten some good licks in, Menard took Simon’s car’s rear window fully into his crosshairs, but, just as he was set to shoot, Simon had barreled down another street and was turning on to the highway ramp. Menard had to shoot something, though, so he turned the barrel up to the sky and pulled the trigger on the moon before turning back to the house, breathing in shallow gulps as though he were the one who had gotten the wind knocked out of him that night.

Simon had heard Menard’s shot from far away. He knew it had been Menard’s gun as surely as he felt every millimeter of his body howling and smarting with pain from Menard’s beatings. The shot resounded in his ears as he sped up I-85. It reminded him of a hodgepodge of stories he had heard as a child, ones meant to underscore the divide between man and beast, about families who raise a wild cub—a bear or a lion or a wolf—but eventually have to chase it back into the wild with a shotgun, no matter how much they love it. Not that Simon had any illusions about Menard loving him in the least, but maybe fate did, so it had sent Menard after him with firearms so Simon would be forced to move on to some new uncharted territory. But when he considered what Sartre might have to say about all this, all he could come up with was the aphorism: “Man is condemned to be free.” So, which was it now? Was he liberated when forced to run for his life from Menard’s house or was he confined to a wretched freedom, which might as well be hell, for the rest of his born days? Whatever the case may be, roaring up an interstate highway proved even less conducive to philosophical musings than being trapped in a room with two sanguinary preachers staring at a triple-X photo gallery. The only smart thing to do was run wild, run free, but where to?

The answer was easy: the only place left to run was to Belinda’s house. Although he had never been inside, he had picked her up and dropped her off a couple times when her Mustang had been in the shop with a broken taillight that the cops had kept pulling her over and ticketing her for, so he knew where she lived and how to get there. And if there were any such thing as fate, it knew how to drive its point right home: Simon’s old beater broke down for the tenth and final time, right at the Heavenly Grass trailer community, two streets down from where Belinda lived, and Simon was even able to pull it on to a patch of gravel and leave it for dead. He gave the 1988 Nissan a final bow and limped along to Belinda’s door, past a cacophony of ’70s southern rock, Harley engines and hillbilly carousing.

Simon expected that Belinda had found new friends since him and wasn’t home, but he would wait at her door for days if he had to, with his face and body throbbing and bloody. Now that it was past midnight, he didn’t want to ring the doorbell, but he didn’t own a cell phone yet and he didn’t know which bedroom window was hers to knock on, so he went ahead and rang the bell. A light went on in the hall and he was relieved to see Belinda’s figure coming his way through the square window. When she answered the door, she was wearing no makeup and a pink kimono that she had bought ages ago at a Burbon Street resale shop. She looked so pretty with high cheekbones, sky-blue eyes and soft skin, so why was she always walking around the outside world so grotesque-looking? But when she opened the door, she shrieked at the state of Simon’s face, making it clear that if anyone was looking grotesque, it was Simon.

She pulled Simon into the house and put his face in her hands as she assessed every bit of damage on it, every scar, cut and emerging bruise. Simon looked a few feet ahead to see Hilda standing in the hallway with the same expression as her daughter, albeit while wearing soup-can curlers and a red gingham housecoat. Belinda gave a quick introduction, “Mom, this is Simon, I’ve told you about him,” before she shot straight to the heart of the matter, “What happened?” Simon had heard enough about Hilda to know he could speak the truth in front of her. He reached into his back pocket and brandished Euro Boy. “He found it,” Simon said.

Belinda took Simon’s arm and brushed past her mother and the grandfather clock on the way to the kitchen, where she sat him down at the table, which Desiree had actually gifted her mother with when she had found she had ordered one too many tables for her grand opening, eighteen years prior. Hilda followed her daughter and Simon and stood in the doorway with her hand over her heart. Belinda began scooping coffee grinds into a filter, readying all assembled for the long night ahead, but Hilda could see Belinda was shaking so she took over the coffee-making while Belinda turned to Simon, breathing deeply with her eyes closed as she got her bearings.

Belinda walked over and manipulated Simon’s arms, legs, torso and hands to see if anything was broken. The only thing “off” was the look he gave her while she pulled on him, so she figured he was fine beyond the obvious contusions and gashes. After Simon gave a blow-by-blow account of what had gone down in his family’s living room, Hilda said her newest boyfriend would be home from a night out with the boys soon and she’d sic him on Menard but Belinda said, “Shut the fuck up, Mom,” and that put an end to Hilda’s silliness. The cops were even more of a no-go given the sway Menard held over Wizard’s Stone. Hell, they might even lock Simon up for hitting Menard’s fist with his face.

As Belinda and Hilda dabbed Simon’s face and upper body with rubbing alcohol, soap and water, and Neosporin, Simon asked, “Where’d you get the magazine?,” the same magazine that was splayed out on the kitchen table now, not even eliciting so much as an arched eyebrow from either of the mistresses of the house.

“From Robert O. I told him about you and he put it in the mail.”

“Who’s Roberto?”

“Robert O. Remember that for when you meet him. Call him Roberto, he’ll scratch your eyes out.”

Belinda had known Robert O from way back when she was slinging coffee on Castro Street. Born Roberto Gutierrez in a tin shack outside Laredo, Texas, Robert O had made a beeline for San Francisco almost as soon as he’d heard such a place existed. One or two times, he’d heard his papa’s day-laborer vatos make mention of it while they were all hanging around their work truck, saying they wouldn’t be caught muerto going up to that maricón town for a job, but as soon as Robert O saw some of them mincing around with limp wrists, throwing invisible feather boas, to denote the kind that swooshes around the City of Freedom, Robert O knew it was where he had to be. Flamboyant as a cancan dancer’s flashing petticoats, even as a niño pequeño on his dirt-road habitat, Robert O took his lumps at home, school, church and everywhere in between until he could get his high-school diploma and say adios forever. By the time Belinda met him, Robert O had been in the Bay Area for 13 years. He used to stop by the Daily Grand to see her, at least once a shift, for his usual triple skim latte. “Hey, Mortitia, honey!” he would say, leaning across the counter to kiss the cheek she always had offered up to him. Belinda’s style had not changed much since those days, but Robert O’s seemed to change with each new edition of GQ or Details that dropped on his doorstep. It was a good thing he had been such a sought-after stylist or he never would have been able to afford his mercurial wardrobe. In fact, even working more than sixty hours a week as head stylist and co-owner of his Affito Alto salon, with high-end clients who had to schedule three months in advance for him to sneak them in, he was still always living in the red. Normally, Belinda would have abhorred such a trend-sucker, but they shared the same yen for ecstasy, clubs and cock and recognized each other on sight as equally over-the-top. In fact, Robert O was the one who had hooked her up with her night job at the Manly Pointer when she was having trouble scraping by in the Mission District.

“What do you mean ‘when I meet him’?” asked Simon, “Is he coming over?”

Belinda turned to Hilda, “Mom, keep Simon company, k?” She unclipped her cell phone from her bra strap and left the room. It was a good fifteen minutes before Belinda came back and answered Simon’s question, “No, I just talked to him. You’re going with me to his place.”

“Now?” Simon asked.

“No,” Belinda said, “In a couple days. It’s cool, you can stay here till then.”

“Does he live around here?”

Belinda burst with laughter, “Reverend Holmes picked up Simon’s twink rag!” Hilda tried to ignore her daughter as she looked at Simon’s cuts and bruises with misericordia eyes, but soon her face also split with laughter at this non sequitur. The laughter grew and grew, now that they could take in with a fresher perspective the living-room scene that Simon had sketched out for them at the kitchen table.

A lone voice of gravity in the hubbub, Simon asked, “Well?”

Belinda caught her breath, “He lives in New York.” She and Hilda were doubled over now, in a giggling fit that hurt their guts.

Simon screamed, “New York!”

Both women were howling like witches now. Belinda fell to her knees, crying tears of laughter at her mother’s tears of laughter and at the thought of Reverend Holmes looking at those naked boys. Belinda looked up at Simon, eyes awash with hilarity, “He broke up with his b-b-b, bahahaha, he broke up with his boyfriend and moved there a few years ago.”

“From where? What? Who is—?”

Belinda got off the ground, “Never mind. Just find a time when no one’s home and grab whatever shit of yours you can.”

After a couple nights on Hilda’s red velveteen couch, Belinda drove Simon, still icing the bruises on his face, to his house so he could collect his personal effects, but they were already out on the front lawn in four Hefty bags that his mother had packed up herself. Simon ran up, grabbed two at random and bolted back to the car. He told Belinda to gun it, lest the next thing they’d hear would be another round from Menard’s rifle. Simon hoped one of those bags contained some changes of underwear. He and Belinda had five-thousand dollars of get-out-and-stay-out money, which Hilda had given them out of her life’s savings, but still Simon and Hilda would have to make it last all the way to New York and after they’d get there. Simon did not know whether to wave goodbye to Georgia on his way out, to its gargantuan mountains, forever fields and tumbling green hills. He did not know whether he would miss them or even what it meant to miss a place since he had never been anywhere but home. And even for all her time out in San Francisco, Belinda had no idea how quickly New York could go through whatever money you bring to it. Yet she had committed to staying in her next stamping ground this time, almost as much as Simon had to staying out of shooting distance of Wizard’s Stone.

To this day, Simon has the same issue of Euro Boy. Over eight years later, it would be one of the things he decided to pack in the one suitcase he took with him to France.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.


A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter Two)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on November 2, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013

Montmartre photo

Bridge Chapter from the novel I’ve been working on

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)1112, 13)



Simon the Sorcerer. That’s what Menard Jake Minshew had been calling Simon from the day Simon’s eyes had first seen shapes and his hands had first been able to grasp at the mobiles of Abraham, Moses and Isaiah on the plastic vane above his crib. Why they had to go and name him Simon, Menard never knew. Except that Menard’s wife had kept telling him that the Lord kept telling her to baptize the baby—who wasn’t Menard’s baby but some no-count punk’s—Simon. Menard had refused until his wife had argued that Simon was a good name since Simon Peter was the apostle who’d started the first church and, without the first church, there’d be no Calvary in Wizard’s Stone today. To this point, Menard had shown her the back of his hand, saying Simon Peter had founded a church of graven images and superstitions that the Reformation should’ve put an end to. But, almost in the same breath, he’d changed his mind and decided to go with his wife’s idea—which she’d said was the Lord’s idea—since Menard had wanted to get her in the habit of turning to the Lord. And so, with his own hands, in his own church, with his own water pitcher, Menard had taken it upon himself to christen his wife’s firstborn Simon. He rubbed the sign of the cross on the screaming infant’s forehead but something told him not even that was enough to save Simon.

And Menard had wondered again and again why Simon was his own lot when he was his wife’s mistake. It couldn’t have been so he could pass a test and get in good with God since, as far as Menard was concerned, he’d built Stone Mountain Calvary by the sweat of his own brow and, as such, was already in. It must’ve been there was something in Simon that God had given him to reform. So, maybe Simon was a good name. After all, his namesake, Simon Peter, was symbolic of an order that warranted reform (or, better yet, annihilation). However, Menard had gone on to rethink the matter and determined that he’d go his wife one better and nickname her son Simon the Sorcerer because, among the seven Simons in the Bible, one is a sorcerer who asks the apostles to let him share in their miraculous powers, only to hear from Simon Peter—the selfsame Simon Peter his wife had brought up—“thy heart is not right in the sight of God.” And Menard had not been able to think of a truer description of their own Simon, conceived in sin, unlike his three half-brothers, all junior preachers now with wives and legitimate children of their own. But it turned out, didn’t it, that Menard would never succeed in reforming Simon to his specifications though he’d been able to keep a church community of over 200, the largest in all of Wizard’s Stone, under his spell. Ergo, he’d failed the homework God had given him. Guess Providence won’t be setting him up with that megachurch he’s been praying for all these years.

This is what Simon had been thinking about as he stood at the mirror, combing his hair and smiling, the morning after his first night with Pascal at Soho Grand. Sorcerer—that’s a cheap shot coming from Menard but, for Simon, it’s an archetype of mystery and empowerment, which is probably why Menard and the Bible writers before him had made it into an insult, something thou shalt not be. After all, all of them wanted to be the ones plying the power, casting the hexes, the aspersions and that’s why thou shalt not. But it must have been by dint of his own sorcery, which he’d wielded unwittingly, that he had attracted Pascal, whom he was now watching in the mirror, asleep on his stomach, his bare back rising and falling in gentle undulations.

Simon had already showered and left a message on his boss’s voicemail saying he wouldn’t be in on account of a middle-of-the-night fever, which wasn’t a lie since the best fever of his post-virgin days had been spiking until about three that morning under the sheets that Pascal still was laying under, catching what z’s he could before he had to be up for his morning meeting downstairs in the breakfast room. Simon slowly combed back his brown, ear-length locks. He was wearing the same clothes that he’d made his grand Soho Grand entrance in, but soon he’d have to do the so-called walk of shame back out and make a trip back to Bushwick to change.

He wondered, what was it Pascal saw in him? He appraised himself in the mirror. His skin was copper now on the parts that showed, here at the height of summer, and his body was sturdy if a bit scrawny, still nothing he himself would turn down if it came strutting up to him in a bar or on a subway platform. But his clothes weren’t much to speak of, standard-issue, white-boy, twenty-whatever, Brooklyn: faded, holey jeans, black canvass Chuck Taylor sneakers—clothes that were both in style and didn’t cost much—though he preferred short-sleeved collar shirts to tight t-shirts, which might have made him look a little like a Bible salesman but at least differentiated him from the run-of-the-mill on the J train to and from work. And yet he’d bagged a filmmaker from France, who was laying right behind him.

How in hell’s bells could he have done that, except by some strange sorcery? Must be a new aura about me, he thought. Or, if there were any such thing as a presiding fate (he’d been on the fence about that since long before he’d dropped out of Reginald Hill Bible College), maybe it’d decided to throw him a bone. After all, it’d seen him work hard enough on his self-study French lit (translated) courses. It’d seen him study up so much on France that it’d rewarded him with the best Frenchmen he’d ever seen. Taken further, Pascal’s presence in his life must mean he’d gotten an A on his homework, unlike God’s own flunker-flunky Menard Minshew, with his sodomite stepson and no megachurch to call his own.

Before they’d fallen asleep, Pascal had told Simon he could come to his breakfast meeting if he wanted. It was just going to be Pascal and his co-director Luc, who was staying one floor up, and all they’d be doing was reviewing the interview and shooting schedules for the day. He’d also said he was sorry but he couldn’t take him on location, as he had a full day of meetings around town, some with researchers and historians way uptown at places like Columbia University and El Museo del Barrio. How did Pascal manage to get into this field?, Simon wondered. What strings did he have to pull? Was he the kind who always had been firmly on foot or squarely on horseback, unlike Simon, who seemed to be tripping his way perpetually down some unmarked path that could lead to nowhere? Pascal is 43 now, all established in a career, and he must have started out on the right rung in life to climb as high as he has, thought Simon.

Pascal had asked Simon what he does for a living, and Simon said there’s a big divide between what he does and what he wants to do, even though Simon knew full well he should thank his lucky stars that, after seven years of grunt-work jobs and no college that he’d ever admit to, he was lucky to land his communications assistant position at the August Strindberg Theatre on 38th Street. Simon came clean and told Pascal he was working in a theater, doing a lot of photocopying and mail-outs for new shows, and he wanted to write plays and books but he’d felt he still had a lot of living and learning to do and, he confessed, he hadn’t had any higher education—except at Reginald Hill, which he didn’t confess to, not to anyone, much less someone who travels the world over making films and being important. Simon had already done the math so it wasn’t lost on him that he was talking to someone who, by the time he was his age, had already earned a master’s from the Sorbonne (Sartre and Beauvoir’s alma mater, Simon had also noted) in film et médias électroniques and who, by that time, had already assisted film crews everywhere from Zanzibar and Botswana to Buenos Aires.

Pascal told Simon, “Paris wasn’t built in a day. You’re still in za possible.” Simon smiled, even though he knew Pascal was being a lot kinder than he was realistic, especially for a Frenchman. After all, he’d heard they give you a lot less of a window for getting your shit together in Europe, where you either inherit your profession or have to choose one when you’re barely old enough to drink, whereas in America, you can shoot from the bottom to the top overnight if you’ve got the right gimmick and, even more importantly, the right connections. How sweet, though, that Pascal hadn’t noticed (or wasn’t holding it against him) that his position at Strindberg was entry-level and about four or five years behind that of so many of the people his age who were already starting to tear up the town in whatever their industry.

Simon went with Pascal to his meeting, where he met Luc, a stocky guy with a lot of wispy white chest hair peeking out from under his long-sleeve charcoal gray shirt, unbuttoned down to his sternum. Luc said bonjour and opened a manila folder. From that point forward, Simon merely sat there, drinking black coffee and munching on a cherry Danish while Pascal and Luc conducted their entire meeting in French.

At one point, Pascal lunged at Luc, “Il est trop tard pour modifier le calendrier. Je me suis arrange tous les entretiens.

Oui,” Luc replied, “Sans me consulter.

They seemed to be at each other’s throats over each and every point of the itinerary, but half an hour later, they both glared at each other, albeit with a hint of le-faire collegiality, and got up to go on assignment. Pascal told Simon he’d call him at 4 o’clock and kissed both of Simon’s cheeks, as dispassionately as he would Luc’s, but this was business, so Simon didn’t take the impersonality personally. Simon said enchanté to Luc, gave his hand a solemn pump and took the subway to the Brooklyn Public Library to apply for his first-ever passport before going home.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.

A Sorcerer on Montmartre – (Chapter One)

Posted in Uncategorized by streetlegalplay on September 10, 2013

A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

(c) 2013


A Sorcerer on Montmartre

By Kyle Thomas Smith

© 2013

First chapter from the novel I’m writing

(Click the following for Chapters 1234, 5678910 (p. i)10 (p.2)10 (p.3)1112)


Montparnasse Overture

There are over 300,000 bodies buried in Montparnasse Cemetery and right now Simon Minshew is wishing his could be one of them. He’s looking down from a third-story window of an apartment building. He’s thinking, if he cranes his neck enough, he could spot Sartre and Beauvoir’s grave. He knows where they are. He went and visited them yesterday, as he has done at least a few times a week, these past two months in Paris, sometimes with a bouquet of daffodils and daisies in his arms. But today is gray and rainy and a flock of mourners, attending the burial of someone Simon does not know, have their black umbrellas opened up, high above their heads, forming a raven-wing pattern that plumes and ruffles as the mourners shift their weight from side to side, blocking out all the best tombstones that side of the graveyard.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir rest in the same tomb, though they were never man and wife and believed even less in any kind of afterlife than they did in the bourgeois convention of marriage. And Simon knows that Beauvoir was wearing Nelson Algren’s ring when she died. Still, comme c’est romantique! Afterlife or no afterlife, their ashes are interred together. Simon used to have this picture that’d be him and Pascal someday, if things had gone according to Simon’s daydreams, if Simon could have cut the figure in the world that Sartre and Beauvoir or even Pascal cut, or maybe if he’d had a college degree to boast of—then maybe Pascal’s love might have blossomed instead of withered. Was that it? Not having a degree? Or a good enough job like Pascal? Or any job anymore, for that matter? Or was it that Simon doesn’t know French? Or that he corrupts what little French he does know with innocent but egregious American crassness and a southern drawl, to boot? Pascal never narrowed it down to any one specific thing, so Simon hasn’t known what to fix or how to fix it.

Just yesterday, Simon had made a visit to Balzac’s grave in Père Lachaise. Of the over 90 or so novels Balzac wrote, Simon had stayed in nights or gone to coffeehouses and read at least 20 of them while all the other aspiring types he’d come to know back in Brooklyn and on the Lower East Side were out hitting bars or getting into whatever the latest craze was, according to Gothamist or New York or TimeOut, that month. Shouldn’t he get points not only for knowing the names of, but also for knuckling down and reading, 19th Century French novelists?

And poets! Baudelaire’s bones are right outside in Montparnasse too. In fact, Simon had to point that out to Pascal. Turns out, for Pascal, Baudelaire is just another stone in the bone orchard he yawns and looks out over while reading Le Monde and drinking un café before grumbling his way off to work with that indigenous French sour puss that Simon had come to see so much of on his own flâneur promenades and Metro rides around the city.

Too bad Georges Simenon isn’t on the list of the dead outside. If he were, then Pascal and Simon really could find something to bond over. After all, Simenon is the one who brought Simon and Pascal together.


Pascal wasn’t wearing a sour puss the night they met, but Simon kind of was, educating himself while everyone around him was having fun and unwinding. This was four months ago, when it was still summer in Manhattan. Simon had gone to Métier on Mercer Street after work and settled in on the patio with a liter of Stella Artois—Stella Artois, no less. It was ceremonial, a Belgian brew, custom-made for poring over a Belgian author’s work. He had brought with him a paperback copy of La Folle de Maigret, the original French-language version of a detective novel he’d read in English by Simenon, Maigret and the Madwoman. He’d bought the French version at Idlewild Books and had planned to write down the words he didn’t know (which were practically all of them) and translate them with the help of the Larousse translator app on his new iPhone. He figured, since he already knew the story, this would be a way of learning French from the ground up until such time as he could meet one or the other of his faraway goals: to take a full load of college courses, including French 101, or go live in France and gain life experience like Hemingway and Gauguin. And he had his nights free for these autodidactic pursuits now that he’d given up on love, something that had never once lasted for him, not even into months, in all his 27 years of life. He’d learned to settle for hook-ups instead, which is why he’d also downloaded a Grindr app. But he wasn’t going to troll the west-side streets for fellow Grindr users that night. For the next two or three hours, he planned to make it just himself, Inspector Maigret et Larousse.

Tables kept filling up around him with all kinds of other harried office, gallery and boutique workers shaking off the stress of the day, though it was only a Tuesday and most of them still had three more workdays to go before they could shake off all or even most of their stress. Still their dull roar made Simon feel less alone and didn’t disrupt his self-inflicted studies enough to make him want to reach for the headphones in his Brooklyn Industries satchel. He had his iPod all queued up with a classical playlist, just in case he’d need to drown everybody out with the kind of music that would keep him focused. Good thing he didn’t put on his headphones and press shuffle or he wouldn’t have heard: “Jules Maigret, a-t-il arrêté la folle?”

Now, even if those words had appeared right before his eyes in print, there’s no way they could’ve actually sounded off the pages of his book, not even if this were one of those French surrealist novels he’d heard about but hadn’t looked into yet. He looked up and found they’d come from the table to his left. As Simon took in the figure across from him, he wondered how he could have missed such a marvel coming in and sitting down (and, for a moment, he even congratulated himself: missing something so spectacular must mean he’s a good student, albeit of his own curriculum). “Simenon?” the man continued, “Es-tu un fan de ces livres?” The man’s skin was swarthy, bordering on dusky, and his frame was broad with hale muscles undergirding a gray soft-cotton dress shirt. Simon’s hand flopped away from the page it was keeping. The evening sun was shining hot onto Simon’s forehead and he hoped his skin had bronzed past the point where the sun’s rays could still brand him as the redneck he’d always be, no matter how tan he got or how much he studied up on French and haute culture. It also didn’t help that Simon replied in a honeyed twang, “Sorry, I, I don’t speak French,” which was no lie because, if he’d even known enough to say, Pardon, je ne parle pas français, he sure as hell would’ve said it. Still the man didn’t give up on Simon. He merely chortled, “Alors, pourquois lis-tu cela?” Simon’s face appeared about as mystified by the question as by the gentleman himself. This somehow charmed the Frenchman who, after pausing to smile, extended his hand, “Pascal de Brienne.” And that’s how Georges Simenon squared the deal for Simon.

Simon gripped Pascal’s hand and took note of how it was a different quality handshake than he’d ever felt, strong but somehow supple and altogether different, somehow. In fact, he took so much note, he forgot to give his own name. Pascal had to ask him for it outright. Simon apologized and said, “My name is Simon.” Pascal leaned in, “Your zurname?” Simon couldn’t remember ever being asked his last name by someone he’d just met in a bar but he gave it (must be a European thing, saying your last name, first thing, outside a work situation), “Minshew.”

Main-chou?,” Pascal nodded, “Iz zat French?”

“I don’t know,” Simon said, “It’s my stepdad’s name. I don’t know what he is.” (And Simon wasn’t about to add that, if Pastor Menard Jake Minshew ever found out he had a French last name, he’d be the last to admit it. Oh, Simon could hear Menard’s vituperations now: “Sissified…godless…with churches that’re nothing but pansy-socialist-papist-idolatry art museums, not anywhere’s near mmmyyyyy blood!”)

Et your real fazer, vat ethnic, er, origin vas he?” asked Pascal, “Pardon. I am…I am always intrigued by, er, cultures of diversity, like yours, ’ere, in, in America. I am, er, curieux to know people’s origins.”

“I understand,” Simon said, “Well, as far as my biological father, I don’t know. I never knew him.”

Pascal smiled, “He vaz a sailor?”

“No. No. He was a teenager. It was a mistake. At a keg party. After he found out, he just skipped off to some relative in Mississippi. Left my mom holding the bundle. She was a teenager too.”

“Ah! Zo you’re not from New York, you’re from Miz’ippi?”

“No. Georgia.”


“No. Wizard’s Stone.”

“Vizard’z Stone?”

“It’s a small town. Between Atlanta and Savannah.” That’s where Simon always says Wizard’s Stone, Georgia is, even though it’s light years away from either city, both in terms of miles and savoir vivre. Population 578, it never gets so much as honorable mention, not even on the most thoroughgoing state maps. “My real dad’s last name is Wright. I guess that’s English. Prob’ly Mayflower English. But everybody’s pretty much the same in Wizard’s Stone. Scotch-Irish, English. WASPs. The south, you know. ’Cept my mom. Her maiden name’s Muller. That’s German. Guess that makes me mixed.”

“Moi aussi,” cheered Pascal, “I’m mick’sed! My mozer’s Algérienne. My fazer’s French.”

“And you’re from…Where? Paris?”

“I live zer now, yes, for many, many years. But, er, I am origin’ly from Toulouse.”

After he had confirmed that he calls Paris home, Pascal didn’t register that, despite Simon’s intent gaze, Simon’s mind had just spun off a thousand miles, not to Paris or Toulouse but way down to Wizard’s Stone, which he’d not gone back to once in the eight years since he’d first made his way to New York City, broke and barely legal. From Mercer Street, Simon alone was able to see Wizard Stone’s rickety shacks, pierced-and-tatted-up white trash, Confederate flags hanging in the windows of foreclosed trailer homes, possession charges, battered wives, Bible bangers, empty beer bottles, teeth lost to too much meth and mangy lawns of twice-dead grass. It only made sense that his daydreams had picked this as their moment to plunge him into his Deep South cesspool of origin. After all, Algerian meant Muslim, at least to Simon’s mind, where Pascal had already become for Simon the infidel paramour from Paris whom he’d love to bring down and show off, maybe even as his husband, to Pastor Menard Jake Minshew at the First Stone Mountain Calvary Baptist Church. So what if you’re only Muslim by paternal lineage and Pascal’s father wasn’t Muslim? He’d be plenty Muslim enough for Menard Minshew, who had snapped up Simon’s mother when she was knocked-up jailbait, coming into Calvary and asking if his catchpenny church had an alms closet with baby clothes in it; who had made her cast off her Metallica and Judas Priest cut-off t-shirts; who had told her to quit her cryin’ and shut her two-bit whore mouth while he jabbed in with a sewing needle a long stem of aqua-green ink at the foot of the cross tattooed on her hand, so that the cross would go from upside-down to right-side up; who had made her thank him for it once he was done; who had made her into a housewife straight out of some Southern Gothic horror movie, with eyes gone glazy from watching only PAX, CBN and maybe a little Fox News all day, who answers the phone by screeching “Praise the Lord!” instead of  just saying hello and who’d sworn off her own son Simon—the first of her four boys—the day he’d dropped out of Bible college after not even one year, with a beefcake magazine rolled up in his back pocket and the last black eye, fat lip and bruised set of ribs Menard will ever give him. Yes, Pascal would be plenty Muslim enough for Menard Minshew. And as this homecoming hallucination was Simon’s sole and exclusive prerogative, he didn’t even have to factor in the likelihood of Menard’s Klan buddies stepping in and gunning them down before the two lovebirds could even open their rental-car doors. Instead, in Simon’s vision, Menard and the whole of Wizard’s Stone would be forced to stand there, balking, while Simon and Pascal French-kissed and fucked and fucked and fucked and fucked on the roots of the southern live oak tree on Stone Mountain Calvary’s front lawn. After a post-coital cigarette or two, they’d zip up their jeans, flick their filters and drive away with laughter and lewd hand gestures. It made him hard just thinking about it—something Pascal did register, as Simon had been sitting crotch-out at him (that’s what happens when you wear boxers instead of briefs), and Pascal assumed that he alone had aroused all the enthusiasm he saw abounding in Simon’s trousers—and Pascal on his own, with his soft almond eyes, elegant accent and close-cropped hair, could have aroused it—but there was a more comprehensive fantasy at work in Simon’s mind. As Simon’s reverie faded to black, his mind reeled right back to where he sat on Métier’s patio. “Toulouse sounds magical,” Simon said, “I’ve read about it.”

By now, the sun had grazed off Simon’s face to go brand someone else’s forehead and neck and Pascal had come to join Simon at his table, where Georges Simenon’s tour de force was soon relegated to a coaster for Simon’s first, second and, in time, third liter of Stella Artois. Pascal would soon order one and then another for himself too.

Mais, Toulouse, c’est nodzing compared to Paris.”

“It’s a dream of mine since high school to go to Paris. Is it anything like New York?”

Pascal told Simon that downtown—from Chelsea to the Village to Soho to Tribeca to Wall Street—all of it has some resonance with Paris, mostly due to the cobblestone streets and the superabundance of art, both classic and modern. That’s why Pascal said he loves Métier so much. There’s a cobblestone street outside of it and, inside, Métier is top-heavy with crystal chandeliers and fading paintings of august gentlemen in cravats and greatcoats, who once had names, though not even the waitress, manager or even the owner could tell you what those names or the stories behind them are. Yet there they hang, as vintage as the chandeliers. Pascal said that’s why he always stays downtown whenever he’s in town. It reminds him of Montmartre, one of his favorite districts of Paris. Montmartre, a name Simon recognized from Simenon, but which sounds so much better coming from Pascal, the way the re trills off so subtly when you say it right, as it does with the name Sartre.

Pascal asked Simon, “Do you like cobblestone streets?” Simon said yes. Pascal asked Simon if he’s seen the ones in Montreal. Simon said no. Has he ever been to Montreal? No. Has he seen the cobblestone streets of London, has he been there? No. Not even Boston? No. Where has he travelled? Nowhere, except that one time, up I-85 to I-81, from Wizard’s Stone to New York.

Simon asked Pascal what he’s doing in New York. Pascal said he’s directing and producing a program for French TV. What kind of program? Pascal said geography. Simon replied, “You mean like a nature special?,” but as soon as he said it, he wished he could take it back. Nature in New York City? What’s he supposed to film? Raccoons and possums in Prospect Park? Squirrels and pigeons in Washington Square? On the news once, there was this eagle that nested on a Park Avenue apartment ledge and everyone got their cameras. Pascal laughed and pinched Simon’s cheek, “comme c’est charmant!,” no, he explained, not nature, although the program does mention that Manhattan is built on granite, which is why it can support its skyscrapers. Mais, Pascal went on to inform Simon that geography goes far beyond the study of landmasses, landscapes, and maps. It goes beyond census counts and nation capitals and state capitals and everything that Simon had known as “social studies” way back when he was at Wizard Stone K-12, which he’d attended since halfway through elementary school, when the state had finally turned in a good verdict and deemed his mother unqualified to home-school. In fact, “géographie is poreux, c’est a lot like anthropologie,” it involves subtle analysis of cultures and their resources and the impact that climate has on local economies and the everyday lives and folkways of native populations.

The program he’s developing is a three-part series called, New York: Toujours une Nouvelle Amérique. It will study immigrant populations in New York City, from the 19th Century to today, and explore everything from immigrant life in the early tenements in Hell’s Kitchen and on the Lower East Side to life among immigrants today in places like Canal Street, East Harlem, Flushing and Jackson Heights. It’s all based on a collaborative study of the same name, which a team of French social scientists and historians published this year and from which a team of French TV writers has developed un scenario. Now it’s up to Pascal, le réalisateur, to bring it all to life on film. After he went into all this, Pascal chuckled at himself for being so pedantic. But his oration had the opposite effect. Simon couldn’t wait to get someone so learned and accomplished (French TV doesn’t hire just anybody to make documentaries) into bed.

By now, Pascal and Simon had looked in each other’s eyes enough to begin holding hands as they closed out Métier.

“Is Mount Martyr anything like Diagon Alley?”


“From Harry Potter.”

“Ha! Books again! Vy you read Simenon, all alone here at night, eh?”

“To learn French.”

“Vy you vant to learn French?”

“So I can go some day.”

“Let me teach you,” Pascal said, kissing a few of Simon’s knuckles.

Pascal picked up the beer tab, brushing off Simon’s halfhearted clamoring to pay for the three he drank. How their evening together ended may have been as predictable as last call at the bar, but their first kiss, which Simon received with his back up against Métier’s service door (before they hauled out the trash), brought him alive to the point where he could let the dead bury the dead back in Georgia. Right then and there, Simon would retire any exhibitionist fantasies he’d set in Wizard’s Stone and recast them on a Parisian dreamscape, where he and Pascal would do all their lovemaking tout seuls in some Left Bank apartment (he’d people the fantasy with furnishings and designs later, as no doubt he’d be replaying it for some time to come). A crescent moon hung high in a star-studded sky above the Manhattan Bridge as Pascal and Simon went arm in arm, nestled like two purring cats, down Mercer Street’s cobblestones to Pascal’s room at the Soho Grand.

In all his years in New York City, Simon had passed the Soho Grand countless times and had always wanted to go in. Now here he was, a guest, or at least a guest of a guest, and he couldn’t have planned his entrance better if he were Inspector Maigret lui-même. If nothing else, it beat the hell out of inviting Pascal to Simon’s sinkhole in Bushwick, where Pascal’s libido would never be able to withstand the sight of Simon’s three hipster roommates with their uncoordinated bodies and tacky t-shirts offset by trendy tattoos and high-end haircuts. Another thing Simon knew for sure: he’d be calling in sick to work the next morning.

Kyle Thomas Smith is the author of the novel 85A (Bascom Hill, 2010)He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his husband and two cats.