BEHIND EINSTEIN

After she realized I was Jewish, our new concierge, Madame Lagache, took to me. But right from the start she didn't like Beck. I couldn't understand it. Almost everyone at Hopital Forcilles had been wild about his clumsy, American-abroad ways. Only Madame Lagache resented his assaults on French syntax and found no charm in the rags he carefully threw on each day, his tattered smoking jacket, his gas station shirts and retirement pants. She didn't see him as a jazz personality with a new look. She thought he was immodest.

"Monsieur," she called to me from her doorway that first week. "Will you and your friend be staying long?"

She was a small woman with round shoulders, a ruddy complexion, and hennaed brown hair worn in an abridged pageboy that just covered her large ears.

"Until we have finished the renovations."

Madame Lagache could have had us thrown out with a single phone call to the building plumber, whose atelier was directly across the street. The plumber would have strolled over, taken one look at the pipes, and told us the apartment was illegal until he installed the fixtures. That would have taken a few weeks if Claude Villeneuve agreed to pay, which he might not have. That was why I had to win our concierge over immediately.

"What is your occupation?" Madame Lagache asked.

We were students, I told her, and friends of the Villeneuve family. Claude hadn't returned my calls that week and I was doing nothing, but I said les travaux were under way. Madame Lagache squinted suspiciously at me with her steady left eye, while the right one bobbed exotropically.

"What is your field of study?" she asked in an icy tone. Perhaps I was squatting in the apartment with no purpose or permission. Perhaps Claude did not want me to stay, and so had engaged no plumber.

It was too late to turn back. Beck and I were students of medicine. I didn't mention our interests in the arts. I told her we'd just graduated from Yale University in the United States, which was half true, and that we were taking a year to learn French. Her door opened further and one of her arms snaked out and pulled me into her apartment. In her other hand was a book so old it looked like a sponge. She saw my glance and handed it to me. Ars Moriendi, The Art of Nourishment, first published in 1492. I looked up and saw that her tiny flat, as narrow as a section of the stacks at the top of Carnegie Library at Syracuse, was blanketed with books.

"La m‚decine," she repeated. "Have you explored a cadaver then?"

I translated the question as best I could. In France, at my age, I would have been well into medical training. Yes, I said, I had explored a cadaver, and wondered if this meant examined. I thought of the frog, the two rats, and the eel I'd brutally dismantled over the previous years. Madame Lagache set the porous book aside, grabbed my hands, and held them to her face.

"You have the fingers," she said, sniffing them, "of a form weaver." Her own fingers were cold and rough. My French wasn't nearly up to this kind of talk. It was more on the level of "How long have you been in Paris?" and "American food is less good than French food." I decided to let the remark about my fingers alone. Would she please, I hazarded, tell me about her books?

She grinned with such force that I snatched my hands away and bumped the back of my head on her door. She put on her reading glasses and started hauling volumes off the shelves with both hands. The first one she opened for me was Bourrit's account of the first ascent of Mont Blanc, by Paccard and the cowardly peasant Balmat, in 1786.

"Paccard returned blind and without the use of his fingers," Madame Lagache mentioned as she pressed the flaking binding to my chest. "Neither Balmat nor Bourrit ever forgave him."

What did I like to read? she asked. I told her I enjoyed Ionesco and Camus, these being two writers from my French class whose names occurred to me. Madame Lagache asked why I didn't study this world and told me that she herself had stopped reading literature fifteen years before. Now she investigated healing, astrology and history, which were all one subject. She knew the poems of her youth by heart and looked at them only when she wanted to write them.

I was sure I'd missed an important transition. Write what? Then she brought down a volume of Apollinaire in which someone had crossed out and revised a number of verses in a pointy, backward-leaning hand. She glanced over these, her lips moving, as if to reassure herself that the corrections were justified.

"Before writing," she assured me, "I consult the originator." She kept talking while I decided she meant original. What bothered me was the familiar way she kept calling out "Guillaume," as if Apollinaire himself were right there with us. The greater part of her collection, she told me, was in storage in the cave. This was only the material currently on display.

"You may borrow what you like." She used the familiar tu. I had become a borrower and a tu at the same moment. I bowed as far as space permitted.

"You are too kind," I murmured, still employing the vous. This was a little different from my relationship with my landlord at school, a gentleman by the name of Julius Beggs on Allen Street, who read only Soldier of Fortune. When I once asked him to fix my front steps, which had crumbled into a pile of brick, he offered instead to fix my dumb college ass for me.

"Are you interested in the Greek medicine?" Madame Lagache now inquired. She handed me a long volume wrapped in blue paper. I undressed it and examined its illustrated pages. A color plate detailed the removal of a tooth in a Golden Age tableau, complete with a marble dental chair and a cloud-covered Parnassus. The Greeks employed a hot iron rod for a cautery. She lifted a dozen books from a cutting board, the topmost of which was the Calendrier Solaire et Lunaire of Bai Niam Li. Then she opened a drawer and pulled out a jar of rusty nails. She put up water as if for tea. She was entirely friendly now. Another woman had been staring accusingly out the window at Beck and me every time we entered or left the building.

We sat side by side at her small table. Lace doilies marked her end of it as the tea table. A fountain pen, a pile of books, a block of heavy paper, and a maneuverable lamp topped by a magnifying glass transformed my end into the desk. Under the lens was Po‚sie, Musique et Graphologie by Docteur Jean-Charles Gille-Maisani.

"What do you know," Madame Lagache asked with studied disinterest, "about the Masons?"

I cleared my throat. I said I believed the Masons were a fraternal order of craftsmen who had built the great cathedrals of Europe. Madame Lagache's left eye fixed me above her toothy smile. My schoolboy's knowledge amused her. It was as if I had said I believed the moon was made of Jarlsberg.

"The Masons are the Lost Tribe of Israel. They constructed a lunar capsule in Egypt three thousand years before Jesus of Nazareth."

I nodded as if I'd suspected as much. Germaine, as I called her after that day, pushed aside a half dozen sheets of cryptic scribblings to reveal a shiny new paperback, La Pierre et la Foi, by Noah de Rocca. She turned the pages with callused fingers.

"You are a Jew," she announced. She used the archaic h‚breu instead of juif. I hesitated, wondering just what a Jew was in Germaine's mind. Perhaps it was like a Mason, mysterious and powerful. If so, how would this affect my chances of keeping the apartment?

"Oui."

Germaine pulled a second book from beneath her notes. It was called Les Juifs et l'Empire. On the cover was a drawing of a king with a large gold cross suspended from his neck. Beside him stood a white-bearded man bearing a staff and whispering in his ear. The kettle lid rattled. Germaine rose and dropped a few of the nails into a teapot, then added water.

I leafed through The Jews and the Empire. On one page I learned that Christopher Columbus came from Spanish Jews living in Genoa. On another page, a doctor of theology in Lucerne argued that Charlemagne had been disastrously counseled by PŠre Cordovero, an Umbrian Jew masquerading as a Benedictine friar.

We sipped what looked and tasted like dirt mixed with clam juice. Germaine explained to me that the Jews were not only the ancestral Masons, but had reached other worlds at key moments throughout history. She said the contributions of Einstein could only have been the result of contact with a higher intelligence in the Triangulum galaxy. She hauled a book from the floor and hunted in it until she found his astrologic chart. Together we pored over the text, which explained that Einstein had been a mediocre student and then had inexplicably become the most brilliant physicist of the century. I hunted up and down the column for a synopsis of what Albert had done during the years between his pitiful showing in his first year of high school in Aarau and his acceptance of the Nobel prize in Stockholm. I also looked for some mention of the physics think tank in the Triangulum galaxy, where diverse life forms cooperated in the spirit of enlightened inquiry. From what Germaine said, the galactic nucleus, defined by its small disk of neutral gas and its three averagely bright suns, was an interstellar Los Alamos. There was nothing about Triangulum on our page. I concluded that Einstein's visiting professorship there was Germaine's own contribution to the history of ideas.

She lifted away the pages to where a strip of felt-backed fur marked her place. On the lefthand page Rigaud's portrait of Louis XIV. The Sun King wore yellow knee garters and tomato-red high-heeled sandals. On the right was his birth constellation. Dozens of planets were diagrammed in their orbits on the morning of September 5, 1638, at 2:38. Germaine bent over the chart and explained the correspondences that had governed the life of le Roi Soleil. As far as I knew, Louis XIV was not a Jew. We had apparently left les H‚breux to go about their interplanetary affairs. Germaine spoke and pointed here and there in the packed pages, which linked the Franco-Dutch War, the Great Winter of 1709, and the deaths of the beloved Duchess Adelaide of Bourgogne and two of her three sons to sinister aspects in Louis' royal sky.

"Will you take over your father's practice?" she asked out of the blue. I blinked at her. I hadn't mentioned that my father was a doctor. How could she have known I was planning to be an ear, nose, and throat man? Now that I actually have to decide on a specialty, I don't know what to do. But back then, I just thought of Dad's demanding golf schedule and of the way he usually reads American Journal of Otolaryngology on the john Sunday evenings, and said to myself, Why not ENT?

But how had Germaine known? And why had she asked me about my father when we were in the end of the seventeenth century? I told Germaine my plans. Still she studied me intently, as if she hadn't understood my pronunciation of oreille. For the first time, I wondered then if she knew more about my future than I did.

"You are Pisces?"

"Aquarius," I told her. She nodded as if that was what she'd meant by Pisces.

"You have the courage," she said, "to enter the other."

Other what? I wondered. But Germaine just left the word floating in the air.

"You possess a transparent soul."

I fingered Germaine's bookmark, which I fervently hoped was rabbit. I was remembering the feel of the tumors, hard as pebbles, beneath Madame Puget's skin when I'd washed her each morning in August at H“pital Forcilles. During those weeks I'd worked in the terminal ward, I had felt that my soul was...transparent was as good a word as any. But I'd never thought of this as an advantage.

You cross thresholds of time, Germaine told me now. My shadowlight bore energy seeds. In particular, if I understood her, I would be good with ailments of the liver. That meant something to me. I was glad Germaine saw a gastroenterologist in me, even if she was officially only a janitor. I was just getting started studying for MCATs then.

Out in the hall, the elevator groaned and rattled to a halt. The grillwork doors squeaked open, footsteps approached, and a fist pounded Germaine's door. We sat in silence, then Germaine rose and ponderously walked two steps, as if passing down a long corridor.

"Bonjour, Ch‚rie!"

A squash-shaped woman with a bronze helmet of hair peered into the room. She raised her eyebrows high when she saw me, then looked away. It was as if I were buck naked and lying in a feather bed, not sitting at Germaine's table in front of a teacup. Shouting, the woman informed us that her toilet was blocked through absolutely no fault of her own. She swore she had put neither grease nor trop de papier down it, and then asked whether Ch‚rie, as she again called frowning Germaine, would please call the building plumber at once.

"I will see to it," Germaine answered. She closed the door so quickly the woman had to jump back. Germaine didn't call the plumber at once. Instead, after the elevator had risen, she placed her telephone in a drawer, which she then closed on the cord. Her fingers twitched murderously and her weak eye ping-ponged off the side of her head. She didn't stop frowning until she'd finished a second cup of tea.

"Your mother misses you," she told me. In French this came out, You are missing to your mother.

"But my mother is--"

Germaine dismissed my mother's death with a wave of her hand.

"She will visit you. I have already contacted her."

I didn't ask what Germaine meant by visit or contacted. I was afraid to undermine the new bond between us. Now that the topic of plumbing had been so harshly reintroduced by the helmet head, I felt much less confident of Beck's and my tenure.

Later in the week, when I brought Germaine one of the delicate bouquets of violet skullcaps sold at the Faidherbe-Chaligny m‚tro exit for twenty francs, she told me more. As soon as Mom's soul had been liberated from Saint Francis' Hospital, it had traveled to the sixth Cepheid-type star in the globular cluster Omega Centauri. From there, Germaine gradually led me to understand, Mom had followed my progress through life with earnest, but in no way anxious, interest.

None of this surprised me. I'd known it already, the night Dad picked me up from Onkel John and Tante Clara's in Schenectady. For two weeks I'd been staying in the attic room with Curt, going to school with him and Mina. Onkel John had given me two dollars allowance, even though all I did was make my bed and help clear the table. Dad didn't drive up to their house until almost ten o'clock at night. He helped me pack my duffle bag and held my hand all the way home in the car, driving with his left hand the way he always had when he wanted to play with Mom's hair. I didn't have to ask him where she was. I knew I wasn't going to see her anymore, but I also knew that I'd never be without her.

"Come again soon," Germaine told me that first day, when at last she ushered me into the hallway.

"With pleasure," I answered, and bowed for the second time in our brief acquaintance. Germaine was starved for good manners. Her lonely days of cleaning and guard duty were interrupted only by the offhand greetings of passing tenants.

"You are in love," she told me. "Walk cautiously in the streets."

I thanked her and told her I would. She summoned the elevator, which sobbed like a wounded beast as it wended its way down from the fourth floor.

"Above all," Germaine told me, "watch for buses."


Excerpted from the book LOVE Enter by Paul Kafka, 
reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
Copyright (c) 1993 by Paul Kafka.

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form.

mende@het.brown.edu