I was having lunch on the Quai des Célestins the first time he called. It was somewhat of a nice day, I think. Monsieur Leduc ordered the veal cutlet and I think I ordered the pasta. Or maybe I ordered a salad. Yes, I ordered a salad, now I’m certain of it. The wind was gentle, only a breeze really, and I remember thinking, when there is a breeze like that one should always order something light. I looked at Monsieur Leduc’s veal cutlet as it arrived in the hands of the maître d’, and then I looked out at the Seine and the trees that lined it and I thought about how I had really made a perfect choice with the salad and that Monsieur Leduc very likely already regretted having ordered the veal cutlet. Or that at the very least he would regret it later as he went home and thought about it. The breeze then came to our table as if waiting on us. It lingered for a very short time in my hair, and then it lingered slightly longer on and around Monsieur Leduc as though berating him for his choice, as if frowning down on the veal cutlet. I smiled at the intimate moment we shared, the breeze and I. What’s the matter, I think Leduc asked me, but I said nothing. How’s the veal? I asked, starting him on his way. When I was home, Esmé told me about the call. I thought nothing of it.
He didn’t call again until the week after, when I had all but forgotten about the first call. What you have to understand is that they call me all the time. All day long they call, almost all of them madmen of the first order. I have a story, they’ll tell me, this without exception followed by a promise. Inexplicably, they think that making a promise somehow makes it all better. I’ll want to listen to their story, they say, because it’ll knock my socks off. They don’t mention that they’ve told their story to countless others like me before, sometimes for years and years, and so they go around peddling their miserable stories like so many salesmen. I know it, I can hear it in their voices, like an undertone only I can hear that’s whispering to me to get out, to get out of the conversation at once.
Sometimes when a certain detail has piqued my interest just enough for me to follow up, ask an innocent question, they’re incredulous. They can’t believe it.
Naturally, I thought it had to be one of those and I didn’t give it another thought. And when I missed his second call, I still didn’t give it a thought, but at least I recognized the name. Fournier called again, Esmé said to me and I remembered the previous time she’d said the name, the week before. Or perhaps I thought it had been a different Fournier then. With so many calls, and so many Fourniers, who’s to say what’s what. But in any case, there was a name now and I most definitely recognized it when he called for the third time, the very next day.
“Fournier again,” Esmé said.
“What does he want?”
“He wouldn’t say.”
“Is he crazy?” I then asked. Esmé knows about the madmen. “I don’t think so,” she said. “But then again, who can tell?”
I can tell, I thought, but didn’t say.
Instead, I asked: “What did he sound like?”
Esmé thought for a moment, then decided something for herself.
“Like he wears a hat,” she said. “Not when the weather demands it, but incessantly.
Like he wears a hat all the time. You know the kind.” As a matter of fact, I did.
I waited for the call then, even canceled an appointment I had in the afternoon with the president of a company that sold running shoes. It was a very important meeting, and yet I canceled it without a moment’s thought. Why did I do it? I have no explanation. It was unheard of for me to cancel an important meeting like that. Only the week before, I had received evidence, incontrovertible proof, you see, of that company’s fraudulent activities, and I had been waiting anxiously to sink my teeth into David Bordelon, their president. And then I canceled, just like that. Called him and said I was feeling ill, could we meet another time. But I knew we wouldn’t meet again, that this had been my one golden opportunity to nail the man down and that I had missed it, and tomorrow already it would be too late, and it was all only so I could be there, at home, when the man Fournier called, a man who might or might not be wearing a hat when the weather didn’t call for it. I was out of my mind. And needless to say, no one named Fournier called all day. I waited like a foolish person, and in the evening, on top of everything, I became paranoid. What if the man Fournier had been a device, I began to think, and my mind took off as though a lid had been opened. What if Fournier was really Bordelon and he was having a good laugh over it the very same moment. Or he had been sent by Bordelon, this seemed to me somewhat more likely. That Bordelon had sent him to get me off his scent for just that one day, that one crucial day that was all he needed in order to get away. But then the phone rang and it was Fournier, and at once I knew that I had been right to cancel after all. I picked up the receiver and said:
“Is that Pacquet?” “Jules Pacquet, yes.” “Fournier,” he said.
I said nothing, waited. It was obvious he was wearing the hat even now, and I could hear that he was indoors, and mind you not in a booth or a restaurant or any place that he would leave again, but in a house that belonged to him. It was in his voice: a proprietor’s voice. And through it all, he wore the hat.
“You’ll find what you’re looking for on the No. 38 bus,” Fournier said in an assured baritone. I thought that I had misheard. I asked him to repeat himself, and of course it turned out that I had heard him very well the first time. “What you’re looking for,” he said. “It’s on the No. 38 bus.” Said it and hung up. For some time, I sat and pondered the phone and the man who had been on the other end only a moment before. I began to think about the most inconsequential things, mostly about the hat and what model it would be. I thought it would be the gentlemanly kind, certainly no gaudy affair. The hat in Fournier’s case, I was sure, was meant to obscure his person, not to flaunt. Never to flaunt. I imagined a wide rim and a color like packed dirt. About all of this I felt fairly confident. It was only much later that it came to me how strange it had all been, that here was a man who pretended to have this knowledge. Worse, who pretended to know me better than I knew myself, who made suppositions about me, and yet didn’t know the hour I would be home, who had tried three times already to reach me unsuccessfully. It was maddening, to say the least. What did Fournier suppose I was looking for? That should have been the question to ask myself, and yet all I thought about then were the different kinds of hats I knew and the voice on the phone and how I couldn’t help but think that the name Fournier was as false as the hair underneath the hat.
One day I went to sit on the bus. It had been several weeks already since Fournier had called and the whole affair had comfortably settled in that region of the mind that we reserve only for the most important matters. I routinely dragged it out, almost every day. Held it, so to speak, up to the light of day and observed it from all angles, then put it back until the day came when it would feel right to go out and sit on the bus. I was confident that I would know it in my heart when that time came, and when it finally did I went out to the Gare du Nord and sat on the No. 38 bus.
I entered at the front, paid my fare, and took a seat in the back, from where I could see everything perfectly. I even wore a hat, a wide-rimmed hat the color of packed dirt. It had taken me almost two weeks to get it right. There had been no shortage of wide-rimmed hats of course, but then the color didn’t match, and sometimes the color was perfect but the hat ridiculous, and so it had gone on until I had found the one that was just right, and I bought it to wear on the bus. I don’t know if I expected Fournier to show up or not, but in case that he did I wanted to let him know that I was on to him, that he wasn’t the only perceptive one in Paris. That I had knowledge, too, of a kind. As I sat in the rear of the bus, I pictured what his reaction would be when he saw the hat. That it would make him uncomfortable was almost certain; men like Fournier hated to be found out. Maybe he would even leave the scene, I thought, and his flight would give him away.
But I was the only one on the No. 38 bus that morning with a hat like mine. There was a gentleman with a black hat, sitting right at the front, almost next to the driver. However, I ruled him out at once, the hat being much too small; he wasn’t Fournier. In the third row, a woman sat wearing a trumped up thing with whole fruit in it: peaches, mulberries, and even a pineapple that was perched precariously on the side, waiting to slide down in a big way and take everything else with it. The rest of the crowd, hatless. I leaned back in my seat, feeling somewhat dejected. So Fournier hadn’t shown, it was disappointing, but what had he wanted me to see? I looked around; focused. The bus made a stop and a breeze entered along with several distinctly Parisian characters, all of whom seemed to wear matching frowns, maybe because it was cold, or because St. Germain had lost again the night before, or maybe because they were all miserable scoundrels; it didn’t matter. The breeze was in their hair as they came in. It ruffled the hair as if it were pointing them out to me that way, one by one, and dismissing them all as objects of interest.
I rode the bus like that all the way to Porte d’Orléans and back. And then I didn’t get out either but remained sitting in the back as though I was in charge of something official. Several times the driver of the bus noticed me. I saw him eyeing me carefully in the mirror. I smiled, tipped my hat. He shrugged and drove on, and like that we had reached a deal to stay out of each other’s way. At each turnaround I went and renewed my fare and then returned to the back of the bus to await the next load of passengers, and every time we made a stop the breeze entered as though sniffing for explosives. But we never found anything, the breeze and I, and after a while I found myself drifting off.
I returned the next day, and the next. More than two years, I rode the No. 38 bus like that, the first to board it in the morning and the very last to leave it late at night. I became a fixture. People greeted me. They seemed to like seeing me there, in the back of the bus, already waiting for them when they came in. Mostly they were the same people every day, and I soon knew their routes, and because I chatted with quite a few of them I knew their reasons for being on the bus and their ways of employment and their outlook on life. The driver never once asked me my business. And when at last I found out what Fournier had wanted me to see, those two years seemed like a small investment indeed and worth, so to speak, every moment I had spent on the bus. It turned out that I had seen the man every day. Perhaps I had even talked to him once or twice, I can’t remember. Yes, I think I talked to him and that he had said he was an office worker of some variety, that he worked in an office near the Lycée Charlemagne. Or that he worked in the Lycée itself. In any case, I had never given him a thought, maybe because he appeared to be the kind to whom nothing of consequence ever happened, or maybe because he was on such a fixed route; all his days seemed alike. But boy, was I was wrong, and it all happened in the blink of an eye; one moment he was looking out the window, distracted perhaps by some festivities, and the next he was coughing. I was sure that he had coughed. I looked around; I was the only one who had seen it. It never happened again, but I was sure that I hadn’t been mistaken, that I had really seen him cough and that his breath, for one moment, had rattled. I was sure.
Then he had covered it up with his right hand and looked about at the other passengers, not with embarrassment but something else. But they had all been too distracted by the festivities outside to notice. All except me who had just happened to glance at the man at the right time, and I had seen it. I quickly looked away, out the window, and made it a point of not looking at him again. When he got out, I noticed that it was on the Rue de Seine, and then I reclined again in my seat, certain that he was a careful one and that the following day he wouldn’t be on the bus.
I was right; when we arrived at his usual stop the next morning, he wasn’t there. I looked around for him, but he was nowhere to be seen. It took me a few days to learn that he lived indeed on the Rue de Seine, on the fifth floor of a yellowish building with peeling plaster on the corner of Jacques Callot. The shutters were drawn, the light behind them weak. The name on the plaque said Petit. For days after the incident on the bus, he remained indoors, never left the house. When at last he emerged, he had the look of a small rodent sniffing the air for danger. He looked both ways twice, seemed to hesitate, didn’t see me, then headed out. I followed him to work, sat in a café the whole time that he was inside, and when I saw him come out again in the evening, I followed him home. It was then, as we once again approached the Rue de Seine, that it hit me with perfect clarity that I had in fact been there before, on that very same street, many years before, maybe going back as long as thirty years. All thoughts of Petit and of why I was there in the first place were as if wiped away. My sole focus was now the street. There was a shop there, I remembered as I looked at the yellowish house in which Petit lived. The fact that it was Petit’s building seemed of no consequence anymore. My long chase after the man, forgotten. What was important now was that I had been there before, and that I remembered a certain shop, one where they sold books of a very special kind; they were all about mountains, if my memory didn’t deceive me, and about the art of mountaineering. I had in my youth become endlessly fascinated, you see, by mountains, and had even gone to scale quite a few of them, that’s why I had sought out the shop. It was the only one of its kind I ever found. All the other book shops had some literature on mountains, but only the one on the Rue de Seine had made the mountains its only focus. It soon became, for the while at least that my obsession lasted, like a second home to me. On a whim, I abandoned my stakeout of Petit’s house and went to look for it, found it just around the corner. I spent much time browsing the shelves in a fog of memories, rereading all of the old books and the new ones, too, that had been published, and becoming by all appearances quite lost. It all came back to me then, surrounded by those books: the strain of the climb; the winds; the cold; the lure of the summit. And how very fitting that Petit would choose to live here!
At one point, months had passed, I simply left the shop again and resumed my vigil of Petit’s house. I was relieved; he still lived there. I resumed also my route each day to the Lycée and back, but I never saw him cough again. However, one morning when we had almost reached the Lycée, I rounded a corner just in time to see him massaging his shinbone, as though he had bumped it. Another time, on an empty street near the Saint Sulpice, Petit looked about and carefully sneezed.
“Alright,” I said to myself, “You really have no choice here anymore.”
I decided to enter Petit’s apartment. One morning, I waited for him very early; watched him emerge from the building in his very squirrel-like way; then went and picked the lock. I found the place terribly tidy, and thought I understood: Petit couldn’t afford to be messy and had thus arranged his life in a most uncluttered way. As a consequence, I found the evidence I was looking for with ease: medical books, handkerchiefs, cold remedies. I touched nothing, left the building as though I had never been inside. The next morning, for the first time in more than two years, the No. 38 bus left the station at the Gare du Nord without me.
It was about a week afterwards that the phone rang. Esmé was outside and I answered it. “Pacquet,” I said.
No answer came, but I knew it was Fournier. He was wearing the hat.
“Have you found him?” he asked. The voice was deeper than I remembered, almost a bass. “I found him,” I said.
“So, what will you do?”
I said nothing, let the silence stretch. Impossible to say how long we stayed silent like that. Maybe we worked something out then as we stood there, me in my loafers and a bathrobe and Fournier standing gauntly in some hallway with the hat on. Maybe we worked out a deal of some kind, an unspoken agreement. Then again, maybe we didn’t.
“Goodbye,” I said at last, unsure if there was still anyone at the other end who could hear it. I waited some time.
“Goodbye,” Fournier said.
For a long time, I remained like that with the receiver in my hand.
Now I am again on the Quai des Célestins, on a day as lovely as any in Paris. Leduc is looking at me quizzically, a curiously fluffy drink before him that looks like a piece of cloud is floating in it. He points at the salad; I shrug and smile. His plate arrives. He hasn’t learned; it’s again the veal cutlet. When I tell him that it has been three years almost to the day, he seems unsurprised, smiles politely. He doesn’t remember a thing, of course. I look around for the breeze then, find it at the next table taking issue with someone’s pork chops, and sort of make an apology for Leduc. The breeze comes to ruffle us both, as though it’s immensely glad to see us, really just immeasurably glad, and I look out at the river and the same trees that have lined it for so long, and I think about what I know now: that on the Rue de Seine, on the corner of Rue Jacques Callot, lives a man with a cough. He’s the only one on the Rue de Seine with a sniffle, the only one in Paris whose hair, in time, will whiten; the only one whose life will end. And then I think that it would rather please me to scale a mountain again, and that it would really be a hoot if I went and asked Petit to accompany me.