Thursday, December 31, 2015


This is the mandatory end-of-year blog in which I ponder unanswerable questions. This year, I will not ruminate on things to come as my predictions have been consistently wrong, except for the one on Donald Trump that I made two years ago, but I was kidding, really!

Unanswerable questions:

  • Why is Chelsea Clinton e-mailing me daily about her mom? The Clinton family has more money than God. Surely Chelsea must understand that in this time of economic stagnation, every dollar I have goes to basics such as utilities, mortgage, my tri-annual haircut, and the Saturday brunch at Freddie’s Beach Bar.
  • Why, when we now have more means of communicating with one another, do my emails to my agent still go unanswered? Why do people—even friends—not respond to emails anymore? Are they truly that busy? I had one friend say, after I sent him a couple of messages, “I owe you and email.” Well, yeah. I already knew that.
  • And speaking of agents, are they really that busy that they can’t even let you know your submission has been rejected?
  • Why have publishers gotten rid of their editors? The quality of popular lit keeps going down. Who decided that Spellcheck does a better job than Myrtle, who worked as a copy editor for thirty years and did a pretty good job of making John Updike and others readable?
  • Why do I have to pay a fee to the magazines I submit stories to?
  • Who decided the phrase “I should have” when used in dialogue should suddenly become “I should of”?
  • Why do I get mail from the National Rifle Association? I think the NRA is a terrorist organization. They have as much chance squeezing a buck out of me as ISIS does.
  • Why do we pay for cable? When it first came along, cable was touted as a self-sufficient service that would earn money through ads.  
  • Why does the Sierra Club want to send me a free backpack if I give them twenty bucks? First, if I pay $20, it isn’t free. And second, if I am into Sierra Club-ish activities, I already have a backpack, and it’s a lot better than the one they offer that can basically carry one orange and a box of Kleenex.
  • Why do service companies (okay, my HMO) say they’re changing their program to make it better for their clients, when everyone knows  it will make it worse for the clients and the HMO employees, and benefit only the HMO’s bottom line?    
  • Why are some cats afraid of cucumbers and others not?
  • Why don’t hunters become real sportsmen and kill their quarries with a sharpened stick? Wouldn’t that make the endeavor a bit more equitable and worthy of respect?
  •  Why don’t we train and arm the Syrian refugees, then airdrop them and tell them to take their country back?
  • Why does the CEO of a major company make 340 times as much as a company employee?
  • Why, oh why, do Porsche Panameras exist?
  • Also, Porsche Cayennes?
  • Why are we supporting Iran and Iraq, both countries that practice stoning men and women as a means of execution?
  • Why is the New Yorker Shouts and Murmurs column less and less amusing?
  • Why did French President François Hollande ride as a passenger on a moped, wearing a helmet, to visit his mistress?
  • Why was no one in France surprised by the above?
  • Why did it make front-page news in the U.S,?
  • Why is Howie Mandel still on America’s Got Talent?


So that’s all the questions I can muster of a 60° December 31st in Virginia. If you have questions, pass them along.  Happy New Year!

Monday, December 28, 2015

Noël, 2015

The Christmas holidays are never a good time if there’s no family around, though I know some people would argue that having family during holidays is the definition of stress. Me, the little family I have left is some 3,000 miles away in Paris and thereabouts. The last Christmas we spent together was in 1991, the year before my mother died.

My mom and her eldest daughter, Florence, had been tiffing, as had been the norm since the end of World War II. Flo never forgave my mother for divorcing Marcel, my mother’s first husband and the father of my two sisters. Florence blamed my father for the divorce, and the resentment lingered for decades and never faded entirely.

Flo and I, though, were great friends. I idolized her. She was a published writer whose books had been well received by critics who compared her (mistakenly, I think) to Francoise Sagan. She also managed a French rock idol, and they appeared on magazine covers with matching Porsches and mink coats.

I was working for a UN organization at the time and had reason to travel to Paris for a conference held in mid-December. I arranged to stay an extra week, and the plan was for the entire family—my mother and father, Flo and Isabelle, my other sister, and their four kids—to have lunch in my parents’ apartment.  

It went about as well as could be expected.  Flo stormed out mid-meal over an imagined insult. My mother wore her best Who, Me? look, and my four nephews, who had little liking for each other, pushed Christmas food around their plates and looked bored. Isabelle, ever the fixer, tried to fix things that could not be fixed. My father was distraught. He had been trying for four decades to get Florence to accept, if not like, him. She never would. I knew he’d be listening to my mother’s plaints for the immediate future and be blamed for not offering a solution to a situation he hadn’t created.

So a quarter-decade, later both of my parents and Florence have passed away. I spent the day before Christmas cleaning my house and spoke briefly with Isabelle who still lives in the same apartment in Paris. I haven’t seen her in several years, but we speak every other month or so and this day she tells me about the work she’s doing, about the mood in Paris after the latest terrorist atrocity, about her fears that the ultra-right anti-immigrant political party might gain power. Then she asks about Donald Trump and there’s little I can say. I can almost see her shaking her head. “Ils sont foux, ces Americains…” Yes, I agree, Americans are crazy right now.

On Christmas day I go with my friend Stacey and we have a Mediterranean meal. In the past, we’ve opted for Chinese or for a seafood buffet of doubtful freshness. This year, the meal is tasty, but I can’t stop focusing on the African man by himself at the table next to us. He might be Ethiopian or Somali, and he eats with the precise fastidiousness of an ancient European. He cuts his portions into tiny pieces; the chicken, potatoes, hummus and stewed beef occupy separate realms of his plate. He is methodical and does not look up. He is wearing a sports coat a couple of sizes too large, a blue dress shirt, and a poorly knotted tie. He sits as I do, with both hands on the table in the French fashion. Our eyes meet briefly; I smile, he does not.

Later Stacey and I take separate cars to go to the movies. As I get near the mall’s entrance, I see a homeless man standing with his back to the wall and surrounded by six or seven policeman. I don’t know what transgression he may have committed. He holds his hands out with the palms forward to show he doesn’t have a weapon. His belongings are next to him: three or four shopping bags, a sleeping bag, a knapsack, some clothes tied in a bundle.

It has started raining. The cops’ body language is aggressive. Two have their hands on their firearms. I don’t know what to do and so do nothing. I feel guilty during the entire movie, and when we leave, the homeless man is gone. Noël, 2015.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Things Are Not Working

I wonder if it is time to admit that Things Are Not Working?

I’ve always been a strong believer that the United States, as a country, has been a grand experiment based on the best principles humans could conceive at the time. Yes, the French came up with Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, but it was Americans who decided to truly give these concepts a shot on a national basis. Now I wonder if the experiment is failing.

When creating the basis for the nation, the Founding Fathers didn’t do it perfectly. Originally only white male landowners would have the vote and it was this middle and upper class that was tasked with finding leaders and seeing to it that the elected public servants governed adequately and responsibly. More than a century later, women were enfranchised, as were as racial minorities, though the path was never a smooth one. The country’s basic philosophy asssumes that given the opportunity, people would want and cherish the ability to have a hand in their future. This makes sense. Revolutions arise because of popular dissatisfaction among the have-nots and the can-nots. Once rights have been fought for and gained, they are preciously safeguarded.

In our times, though, the real have-nots are an almost vanished breed. Yes, there remains poverty and hunger and homelessness, but the overwhelming majority of Americans has roofs over their heads, enough to eat, physical mobility, and credit.

The latter has allowed people to buy things without paying for them, and to enjoy what is now considered the pursuit of happiness: a wide-screen television, cable service, cheap food, and a tolerable physical environment. People are relatively satisfied within these cocoons where basic needs are met. They have purchasing power through their credit cards and their daily lives are not unpleasant. So why agitate for change? Why vote? Why remove one’s self from the comforts of home to go to a polling place and express opinions? Freedom in America is a six-pack of Miller Light, pizza, and Monday Night Football.

Americans vote less, per capita, than do the inhabitants of any other free country in the world. What is considered a privilege elsewhere is seen as a hindrance here.

This non-involvement in the running of the nation has allowed a plutocracy to reign; our elected servants have found a sinecure, and devote far more time to keeping their jobs than to serving their constituents. What was once a nation that sought the best and the brightest, has basically stopped caring and become bovinely satisfied with the lowest common denominator.

The present electoral system doesn’t help. I’m reasonably sure the nation’s forefathers could never have foreseen society as it exists now. The documents they drafted—a constitution, a bill of rights, a comprehensive set of laws—were aimed at protecting a system that no longer exists and dealing with the predicaments of a nascent society. Could the lawmakers have foreseen the women’s movement? Vietnam? Millions of cheap and powerful weapons in the hands of irresponsible people? A system of higher education that bankrupts the students? A nation where the wealth is so unevenly distributed?  Could they have conceived the realities of oil spills, depleted ozone layers, global warming, rising oceans levels and man-made droughts?

Probably not. What they beheld was a vast land with unheard-of natural wealth, and a population willing to risk it all for the freedom to roam and eventually settle.  They weren’t fools; they were painfully aware of human foibles and shortcomings, but I doubt that they could even conceive of the greed involved and accepted in today’s business practices.

Things are different today. We live in reactionary times. Rules and regulations are enacted after the catastrophes, not before. We largely shrug off daily catastrophes that include the daily murders of children and the assassinations of presidents. We often enact laws willy-nilly (a great British expression that dates from the 1600s) to fend off perceived threats. We protect assets rather than people, and have come to see wealth as synonymous with success, which it rarely is. We cannot pay our debts, individually or nationally, and yesterday’s carefully built infrastructure—roads, bridges, dams, canals, power grids, water and sewage treatment centers—are falling apart. We cannot afford to rebuild.

We are the only developed country without truly affordable health care, and many nations far poorer than the States put our system to shame. Though we claim to regulate our drugs, we have no cap on prescription costs

Since World War II, we have lost three major wars—Korea, Vietnam and Iraq—and been involved in scores of lesser conflicts, most of them failing propositions that cost billions of dollars and hundreds of lives. Our veterans cannot find work and must wait months for medical treatment.

Things Are Not Working. We’ve reached a point of no return and it’s time to rethink the system from top to bottoms.


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas in Paris

The last Christmas we spent in France before coming to America was a somber affair. My two sisters, almost grown up by now, would not be going with us. One was attending school in London, and the other, though still in her early teens, was already establishing herself as a mainstay composer at the Paris Conservatory. I would not see them again for several years.

My parents decided to have a party, what the French call a reveillon, both to celebrate the holiday and say goodbye to friends. One guest, I forget who, foolishly gave me and another kid, Eric, spud guns. An error, that.

Spud guns were the silly present of a silly year. Basically, they were compressed air bb pistols that shot little bullets of potato, carrot, radish, or any other available hard tuber.

Eric and I were delighted. In no time at all we wreaked havoc, first by shooting at the lightbulbs that, when hit, hissed and emitted the smell of freshly-made mashed potatoes, and then, ever more adventurous, by deciding to go after live game.

The guns weren’t accurate at a more than six feet but even at that distance, getting hit felt like a bee sting.

There was one large woman both Eric and I disliked, a regular at my mother’s afternoon bridge parties who always talked down to us as if we were mental midgets. My parents, I knew, didn’t much like her either. She was one of those people you invite based on the notion that the best place for a pyromaniac is the firehouse.  That way, at least, you can limit the damage. This woman, I knew from my parents’ conversations, was a malicious gossip and deserved wounding by rootstock.

She was juggling a well-filled plate of hors d’oeuvres and a flute of champagne when we each took aim at a selected buttock. We had both pumped our guns for maximum velocity and the organic missiles struck her as she was cramming a petit-four into her largish mouth. She roared. The champagne went flying and she dropped the hors-d’oeuvres. She spewed bits of half-chewed petit-four, spun around, and saw Eric and me cowering behind a fauteuil. The room was a frozen tableau. Eric was trying desperately to reload his gun. Another mistake, that. She seized him by the neck, slapped him twice hard and then dropped him like a sack of coal. This prompted Eric’s father to grab her around the waist, which she took as an attack from another quarter. She turned on him and bashed his ear with a ring-studded fist. Somebody screamed; somebody laughed. My father stepped in, ducked a blow and got her in a bear hug. He dragged her away as Eric’s father used one of my mom’s linen napkins to staunch the blood flowing from his cut ear.       

Both guns were confiscated and destroyed.  Eric and I were sent to my room in tears and told that the Père Noël would be taking back any gift he might have left for us.

The Père Noël must have thought better of the punishment. I don’t know what Eric got, but I received a handsome child’s suitcase in which I packed some belongings for the weeklong boat trip to America.  

In retrospect, the attack was worth it. Though they would never say so openly, I knew my parents secretly approved. The potato gun tale was told and embellished every Christmas for decades, and probably had something to do with my present thoughts on gun control. Guns don’t kill people, but tubers can hurt.



Friday, December 18, 2015

The Good Doctor

So my good doctor is retiring. He told me this as he was gazing at the video screen and manipulating a tiny camera in my innards.

“Hmm, well, you’ll see Dr. K next time. Looks good. Yes. I’m leaving. February. Nope, don’t see anything in there. Looking good. That’s what, the third clean exam? Good work. Good work.”

This is the doctor to whom, two years ago after my fifth operation, I wrote a Valentine:

I’m glad that you’re here

I would be much sadder

If you weren’t around

To take care of my bladder!

He never mentioned it, but his nurse said he liked it.

He’s read a couple of my books and even listened to a few songs I wrote.

Now I’m lying on the examination table waiting for his arrival and watching seconds tick away on the wall clock. The good doctor has done this test on me about a dozen times now. It’s never pleasant, and I’m always nervous, so that when he comes into the room and says, “Mr. Sagnier, how are you?” I respond without fail, “Scared,” and he replies, “Hmpf.”

He was, at times, alarmingly actual. “Well, of course, if it spreads, we’ll take out your bladder…”


“But probably we won’t have to.”

In January, he examined me shortly after the New Year. He was looking a little sallow, a little pinched around the eyes. He said something to the effect of, “Glad I’m not operating today. A little too much cheer with the neighbors. Hmpf.”

I was glad too.

My good doctor made me feel safe, and even when the news was not good. When yet another operation was scheduled, he radiated a sense of confidence. After surgery, he’d do the post-operative visit and say, “You won’t remember this but…” and explain everything. He was right most of the time. Coming out from under—and happy to do so—I couldn’t recall what he’d told me, so I’d email him the next day to get clarification. Mostly, he’d write back, “Got it all! See you next week!” Then I’d get the full and sometimes scary scoop. “Some invasive stuff, so we’re going to do another course of BCG…”

And we would. I’d be injected with a solution of sheep cells carrying inactivated tuberculosis bacteria which, according to the web’s Chemocare site, “is thought to bring about an immune response in the bladder by triggering an inflammatory reaction.  This reaction brings disease-fighting white blood cells and cytokines to the bladder.  The immune system cells then fight directly against the tumor cells.” I thought the process was rather weird but the good doctor was reassuring. “The treatment was invented in France!” In France? Really? Well, that makes it all okay!

I’ll miss the good doctor, and do hope the next physician will be as personable. This is scary stuff and a good doctor makes all the difference.  

Wednesday, December 16, 2015


Cancer test tomorrow and as always I’m getting antsy. The last two exams went well; the cancer in my bladder is being kept at bay. I’m doing the stuff I’ve been told to do, going through a big gallon jug of water every other day. There’s no visible blood in my pee, and I’m not hurting. Still, I’m scared.

An acquaintance who might become a friend was diagnosed with bladder cancer three months ago and he’s had a hell of a time, far worse than what I’ve gone through. I fear for him. I am fixating on the fact that my oldest sister Florence died of this kind of cancer a decade ago.  She was diagnosed too late for chemo or even surgery. I’m luckier. The doctors spotted the bad cells in me pretty quickly, and after nine surgeries and three courses of chemo, I might be good to go.

Still, I can’t escape that this sad adventure has taken its toll. I have the impression that I’ve aged fifteen years in the last four, and there have been a host of emotional side-effects. I feel lesser, soiled, and unattractive. There’s a sense of shame attached to the illness, as if I did something wrong and am being punished. I’ve noticed that I’m isolating more and quicker to anger and depression. I’ve been told and read such emotions are standard fare for (I will not use the term survivor, which I dislike) the afflicted.

Hmpf. Afflicted doesn’t sound any better. 

There are a couple of positive things coming out of all this nastiness. I’m writing with a greater degree of urgency, and I’m writing more often. I’ve also found I have to prioritize. I have a hundred books in my head, and most of them will probably never see the light of day; there’s simply not enough time.

I’m wrapping up the sequel to Thirst and starting another project (more on that later), and I still want to write the definitive post-Apocalypse novel. The book on kangaroos taking over the world will have to wait, as will the biography of Joseph Pujol, the Pétomane.

I’ve also met some fantastic people whom I never would have encountered were it not for the disease. The folks at Cancer Can Rock recorded one of my songs and mixed it masterfully, and many others have come forward with good words and good advice. I’m grateful to them all.

So for tomorrow, fingers crossed!

Thursday, December 10, 2015


The birthday-party-naked-Nazi-woman-film fiasco had repercussions.

Psychology was very fashionable that year in France. B.F. Skinner had been featured in Paris Match and my mother knew everything about free will being an illusion. She’d been particularly taken by the notion that actions depended on the outcome of other actions.  My father was tasked with finding out what I’d seen and how it had affected me, psychologically speaking.

What I had seen was two naked people, one whom may or may not have looked like the father of a  the kids at the party. The naked people had fought briefly and without much skill, and ended up on the floor where they’d wrestled without much passion. That was when my mom came in and tipped over the projector.  

How did I feel about it? Well, to quote Babette, it certainly wasn’t Fantasia. I bought Mickey Magazine every week from the newspaper kiosk lady on the corner, and for months there’d been scenes from the movie featured in the magazine.  Fantasia had dancing brooms, cascading waters, hippos in tutus and other wonders. The only thing the naked Nazi woman had was a riding crop. Plus, as Babette had aptly noted, there wasn’t any music. In fact there hadn’t been any sound at all.  

I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. My parents had a book of photographs of jolly naked Rubenesque ladies. It was hidden behind other books in the living room bookshelf, and I’d discovered it a year earlier. The ladies in the book looked a lot happier than the naked Nazi woman. Plus, I was around unclothed women almost daily in my mother’s dressmaking atelier. The two young women hired to model were half-naked most of the time. We played cards, and I admired their roundness, which they made no effort to hide.

Babette, visiting a few days later with her mother, who had a fitting appointment for a dress, said it had to do with the naked man and probably the swastika on the woman’s hat. This was post-war Paris. The city had barely recovered from the German occupation and the wounds were far from healed. “If we’d seen the rest of the film, I’m sure the French man would have won the fight. He was already on top of the woman when your maman came in.”

I tried to parlay the experience into an outing to see the latest American Western at the neighborhood theatre, but my mother said, “No more movies!” My father attempted to appeal her decision. He wanted to see the Western too but she was adamant. “God knows what ordure they might show!”

The amateur film-maker responsible for the debacle sent a note explaining that he had mistakenly picked out Fantasies Nazis rather than Fantasia from his film library. It could have happened to anyone. He begged her forgiveness. He never got it, and months later his wife left him. The man, she would confide to my mother, had hidden his dreadful proclivities from her, though she whispered that in bed he had made unnatural demands that she had, of course, rebuffed. Luckily, they’d never had children. My mother re-admitted her into the circle of friends, but never into the inner circle. Unsubstantiated rumors circulated that the poor woman had herself been coerced into appearing in her husband’s filmes risqués; she became quite an object of interest to the men when their wives weren’t looking.

Babette was briefly obsessed with the experience. One day when we were at the Parc Monceau she said, “You remember the naked people film?”

I did, of course.

“Well,” she looked around to see whether anyone might overhear her, then, with a smug look, told me, “The naked people weren’t fighting!







Wednesday, December 9, 2015

A Memorable Birthday

For my seventh birthday, my mother decided to throw a party. I didn’t have too many friends, so she invited people she knew who brought their kids, most of whom were strangers.

The children’s party was held in the dining room while the parents socialized in the adjoining living room. The gifts, I remember, weren’t all that great. A belt, a tie, some socks, and a book on astronomy I was pretty sure I’d seen at someone else’s house a few months earlier.

The highlight of the kids’ evening was to be a showing of Walt Disney’s Fantasia, which had come out earlier in the year and I hadn’t seen yet. One of my mother’s acquaintances was an amateur cineaste who’d somehow obtained a bootleg copy of the film.

After cake and obligatory singing, the man set up his projector to show the movie on a bare wall. We kids sat cross-legged on the floor. Babette, whom I was deeply attracted to, whispered, “I’ve seen it already. Wait until the little mushrooms come!”

When the man had finished threading the film through the various cogs and gears, he turned on the projector, made sure everything was working, then flicked the ceiling lights off and left the room.

We waited. The projector whirred and clicked. The cooling fan made a wooshing noise.

Without warning, a woman strode onto the screen, riding crop in one hand, wearing a military jacket with a swastika on it and a Nazi officer’s hat. She appeared not to have pants on. She faced the camera and took off the jacket. She was naked beneath it.

 There was a gasp shared by the viewers. Babette leaned towards me and whispered in my ear, “I don’t remember this part.  And there’s supposed to be music.”

The woman stood, a nasty Nazi-ish sneering expression on her face. A man walked onto the set, a cartoon of a Frenchman complete with beret, striped shirt and baguette. He didn’t have any pants on either.

The woman looked at him with disdain, then barked something (this was a silent film) and hit him on the butt with the riding crop. A kid behind me said, “Ai! Ca ferait mal, ça!” I agreed; that must have hurt.

The woman walked around the man a couple of times as if inspecting a side of beef. She shouted at him and he took his shirt off but kept the beret. The same kid said, “Il resemble à mon papa!”

I didn’t know the kid’s dad so couldn’t tell if he really looked like the man on the screen. The Frenchman and the Nazi woman embraced; the camera followed them as they sank awkwardly to the floor. The man lay on top of the woman and his butt moved up and down. The woman’s mouth was a round O though really she looked sort of bored by the whole thing.

At this point, Babette said out loud, “I’m pretty sure this isn’t Fantasia!”   

No one else said anything; all eyes were glued to the scene on the wall.

The door opened a crack. My mother checking on the kids. It opened a bit more, then I heard her whisper, “Mon Dieu!”

She rushed the projector and tipped it over. The screen went black. A kid started crying, then another. The reels were dislodged and rolled around the room spewing 16 millimeter celluloid.  The filmmaker rushed in yelling “Quoi? Quoi?”

My mom started shouting at him as he frantically tried to rewind the film onto the reels. “Une erreur, madame! C’était une erreur!”

Kids ran out of the room and found their parents. One boy I knew slightly pocketed the present he’d brought, a cheapish cap gun. Within minutes, most of the parents had left. My mother supervised the cineaste as he gathered his equipment and bits of broken film strips. He kept muttering the same words, “Une erreur, madame! C’était une erreur!” She showed him and his wife to the door and slammed it shut after them.

Babette and I hadn’t moved. We’d both been entranced by the eruption of noise, falling equipment, yelling mother and wailing children. .We were still sitting on the floor and she said, “Ça, au moins, c’était amusant!”

I agreed. It was probably the best birthday party I’d ever attended.   




Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rainy Days in St. Germain

On Saturdays when it rained, I might be bundled off after the half-day of school to see my great aunt Thérèse—Tatie. I’d take the train from the Gare St. Lazare to St. Germain where Tatie lived and walk from the station to her home.

Tatie was short and probably did not weigh a hundred pounds; she  smelled of ancient talcum powder and lilac soap. She wore a fox stole year-round, a nasty thing with claws and a tiny glass-eyed head full of sharp little teeth. She dressed in combinations of grey and mauve and at night slept with her hat on so as to not disturb her hair.

Even though she had a live-in maid, an evil little Bretonne named Mathilde, the house was poorly taken care of and filthy. There were balls of dust and fur from her almost-dead poodle, Mathurin, cobwebs on the ceiling, piles of old magazines and, always, a stack of unwashed dishes by the kitchen sink. None of this bothered Tatie.

My parents’ relationship to Tatie, and indirectly to her maid Mathilde, was complicated by the state of her home.  On the one hand my great aunt was a delightful and eccentric woman of some means and capable of bestowing largess upon our genteelly impoverished family. My father, however, found Tatie’s house so filthy that, when invited there, he would only accept to eat fruit he would peel himself and soft-boiled eggs in the shell, on the assumption that neither Tatie nor Mathidle could have touched the edible parts.        

Mathilde and Tatie detested each other, but Mathilde would never quit—who else would hire her?—and Tatie would never fire her; neither could envision a life without the other. Mathilde was a thief who regularly embezzled small sums from the household budget and stuffed the stolen moneys into her mattress. Tatie may or may not have known about this, but did in the end get a sublime vengeance: When Mathilde died, the money was still in the mattress. Mathilde had no living relatives so Tatie inherited money.  

Tatie’s house was a crowded museum of colonial artifacts and to me a constant source of wonder. She had met her husband at a military ball when she was sixteen and he was a dashing soldier of  twenty-one. They eloped that very night. He died young while still in the service and she remained childless and  never remarried, spending her time among the relics of their time in the colonies.

Tatie had spears from darkest Africa, leopard skins, ancient firearms, daggers, a full suit of armor that seemed hammered together to fit a child. I managed to dislodge one arm, much to her consternation, and it fit. She had ao dais from Indochina, kaftans from Algeria, an elephant’s foot fashioned into an umbrella stand, a collection of jade figurines from the Far East and what years later I would recognize as an exquisite samurai sword. She also had a collection of graceful ivory netsukes I was not allowed to touch, though I did when she wasn’t looking. One figurine, a monk, had a rotating head with a smile on one side and a frown on the other.

Rainy days in St. Germain were also reading days. Tatie had a collection of illustrated books showing battles in violent colors, where the French flag waved high over corpse-strewn battlefields. There were images of Napoleon addressing Parisians after escaping from exile and the French fleet laying rightful waste to the British navy. There was a pair of  posters—they now hang in my dining room—of French kings and queens from Merovingian times, including Thierry I, II and II, and their wives, who had appalling names like Cunégonde and Bertha Big Feet.

The only downside to visiting Tatie when it rained was the dog, Mathurin, who never moved, farted often, and emitted a gut-wrenching smell. Mathurin was sneaky, too. I was lying near him breathing with my mouth and reading when he suddenly lurched up, bit my butt, then fell asleep again. I should have gotten stitches but Tatie was afraid that if we went to the hospital, the police might come and take Mathurin away.

I still have a scar on my butt.