Appears in Other Voices #47
1. The French-American War
Gunnery Sergeant Balser, on leave in Paris, gets an urgent call to the Prime Minister’s office. There has been an international incident, the stooped and beribboned Prime Minister explains to him, and hands him the phone. It’s the President. Balser recognizes his voice instantly and draws himself to attention.
“It’s war on France, now,” the President says. “You’re the only soldier over there we’ve got. Time to do your duty.”
“Yes, sir,” Balser says.
The President hangs up. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has been watching.
“So,” the old man says, hitching a weary eyebrow, “eet’s finally ’appening.”
In enemy territory now, Balser offers only a nod, and backs out the door. Outside in the square, his ordinance is waiting, the latest Northrop Grumman technology, dropped in by parachute. He clambers inside. Automatically, the giant, fleshy barrel extends and rises, making the vehicle so top-heavy it starts to teeter, but the ball-treads compensate with a continual bounding, allowing him to bounce and shoot, bounce and shoot. The tank is both massive and maneuverable, a miracle of American know-how, yet even so, he is only one man—an American, it’s true—but still, just one man, with just one giant penis tank, against a whole nation of outraged sophisticates, and it’s only a matter of time.
Frenchmen run like their cheeses, swoon and keel over like so many Jerry Lewis impersonators, their buildings crumbling as easily as their complicated pastries. But on Rue Simon Le Franc, they sneak-attack from sewer grates and blow his ordinance on its side. Clambering out, he races to the Pompidou Center, sending librarians scattering as he bursts through the entrance and scrambles up the escalators, while, through the windows, he can see the remaining might of the French Army gather in the square below. On the top floor, he spots a young American woman. He can tell she’s American by her reticulated musculature, her firm breasts, her head-to-toe acne, her fearless blue eyes.
He asks her if she is prepared to do her duty. She raises her chin, nods. Standing in the window, they strip, and in full view of the onlookers below, cycle through every sexual position known to man. He is up, she is down, she is up, he to the side, front to back, upside-down, they revolve like components of a gyroscope, faster by the second, sequencing through the thousands of postures with flawless mechanical precision.
Down in the square, the French general, in his double-knit epaulets and battle-ascot, cannot give the order to shoot. The men wouldn’t fire even if he did, for they, too, realize that they are already defeated—beaten at their own game—and there is nothing for them to do now but go on watching, sickened yet mesmerized by the fearsome spectacle of American copulation. So this, they tell themselves, is the future of love.
She knew she was a mob boss’s daughter, but she didn’t really know what this meant until the day she learned her father had a mistress. She heard it from some friends in school. A mistress. She couldn’t believe it. She was so upset she couldn’t eat her lunch. At home, after school, she marched into her father’s office to confront him. He cut short his phone conversation, returned the pearly receiver to its silver-plaited cradle, and beckoned to her, the bright rings on every stout finger glittering. She walked around behind the desk, and the two of them pantomimed hugging each other—their ritual greeting, for they never touched. He then asked her what the problem was, and she told him that she knew he had a mistress, that she didn’t know who it was but she was so embarrassed she could die.
To her surprise, her father didn’t deny the accusation. Instead, he nodded, a judicious spreading of jowls.
“It’s true,” he said. “I do indeed have a mistress. In fact… I have several.”
He thought about it and again corrected himself.
“To be more accurate, actually it is really beyond several. It is many. Many, many mistresses.” He pondered the issue some more, as though this were the very first time he had contemplated his many, many mistresses. “Doubtless,” he said, “a number of my mistresses are people you know. Good, respectable people.” He furrowed his tidily threaded brows and pushed out his sleek pink lower lip—his most solemn expression—before continuing. “All your teachers, for example, are my mistresses. Every one of your girlfriends is my mistress. I have mistresses on every block, and mistresses in every house. I have mistresses, in fact,” he said now with an intensity rare in the man and which she was always thereafter to remember, “as young as five years old.” He widened his eyes as he said it, and she could not help but be impressed.
“And your boyfriend too!” he exclaimed brightly, as though suddenly remembering. “Your boyfriend too is my mistress!”
He told her he hoped this cleared things up for her. He pantomimed a soft, shapeless kiss in the direction of her cheek. She returned the gesture, and left.
In a daze, the mob boss’s daughter walked out of the mansion and over to the playground at the end of the block. She sat down on a bench and gazed at the cavorting children, the gossiping mothers, the motionless homeless men, her father’s mistresses all. She’d always known there must be something connecting all these people together. Her father was that thing. His force was not love, no; but it was not the opposite of love either. It was more like a pantomime of love, at the very center of things. This idea pleased the mob boss’ daughter, in a way. It corroborated her deepest suspicions, and afforded her a cool conviction which would accompany her for the rest of her solitary days.
Lost, I was, in a toy store. I knew not where my parents had gotten to, and no one else could be seen. The store was cavernous and inadequately lit in a far-off, pale fluorescence. It was late, and the store would soon close, or perhaps it already had, leaving me completely alone with the toys—the thousands, perhaps millions of them lined up on the shelves in columns recessing into the darkness. I no longer wanted a toy. I could scarcely believe I ever had. Toys were falsehoods, I now sensed, falsehoods for lonely children, and I no longer wanted to be lonely. In search of an exit, I weaved through the towering aisles, until, turning down the dozenth or perhaps the hundredth, I saw a toy puppy standing on the linoleum floor. It must have come down, either stepped or fallen, from a low shelf. Its plastic eyes were cataracted from poor manufacture. The color of its fur was hidden beneath a layer of dust. As I approached, its tail began to make its way, at a near-glacial pace, from one end of its arc to the other.
“Hello, toy puppy.” I assumed a cheerful voice, because that was what I always did.
The toy puppy, its tail motion aborted, now began tilting its head to the right, by the same fractional degrees, with the aid of invisible but audibly straining gears.
“How long have you been here?” I asked.
Its left paw rose a listless inch from the floor, and lowered. The sequence repeated, each count taking a small eternity. I had no choice but to interrupt.
“You must be sad to be living here. Without a family. Without anybody to feed you or play with you.”
The toy puppy’s head swiveled incrementally up, then down. I thought about how awful it would be to live in a toy store. That was when I said it:
“I can take you home with me!”
The toy puppy made no move.
“You can join our family,” I exclaimed. “We can goof around and play ball and chase each other and wrestle and go everywhere and do everything together!”
I tried to make myself sound confident that this was how it would go. But the toy puppy saw right through me.
“Bow-wow,” it mocked. “Bow-wow. Bow-wow.” Its voice came metallic and distant from a small, shoddy-looking speaker at its throat. Leveraging itself with its paws and chin, it clambered back up onto the shelf, turned around to face the aisle, and stared out, at nothing more, probably, than the dust motes on the surfaces of its eyes.
I continued on my way, now finding and turning down the central aisle. Ahead of me was an exit. Beyond the exit would be a bare parking lot and stretch of highway under the glow of dusk. Beyond the parking lot and the highway would be other toy stores, and their parking lots, and the highways—those strips of bleached asphalt connecting the toy stores to the parking lots. My parents would be out there too, in the lot, bags in hand, peering up at a faltering light.