The Tower by Véronique Bizot
My friend Saez will have spent no more than an hour of his life in the company of his father-in-law, no more than the time it took to pick him up at the airport and bring him back to the apartment on the 26th floor where Saez lives with his wife, Marie. The moment he set foot in the apartment, Saez’s father-in-law, who until then had never left the mountains of the Armenian Caucasus, walked straight to the bay window, leaned out, ostensibly to take in the view, and vanished. Later Saez explained to me that he was so busy dragging his father-in-law’s enormous suitcase out of the elevator that he heard nothing, not a cry or a curse of any kind. Actually it was Saez who had cursed, suitcase handle in hand, as the elevator doors closed abruptly on his shoulders, and when he had finally entered the apartment after having pushed the suitcase along the landing, his father-in-law had disappeared. He thought he might find him in the bedroom or the bathroom—he went back into the empty living room, then called his name. It was the first time he’d met his father-in-law, the first time he’d said his name out loud. He thought perhaps the old man, who had not uttered a word since leaving the airport, had gone back downstairs, but the empty elevator was still on the landing, so Saez took the stairs all the way down to the ground floor, thinking he’d find him lurking in some corner. Nothing. He went back upstairs to the apartment, opened the wardrobe, the closets, looked under the bed, even went so far as to slide open one or two of the dresser drawers, before pausing finally in the middle of the living room, seized by a thought that was hazy at first, but that slowly grew clearer, until a strange sound, a kind of hoarse warble, escaped from his throat, and he became aware that his palms were prickling and that his head was involuntarily bobbing. Jaw clenched, he walked to the bay window and looked straight ahead, as if his father-in-law could have been flying in the air or perched on top of another tower. The sky was empty. It was because of the sky and because of the view, though partly obscured, of the Saint-Denis basilica, that Saez and Marie had taken the apartment. Hypothetically, if one were to stand at the far right edge of the bay window, stick out one’s chest and crane one’s neck, part of the basilica could be seen on the left, its ancient stone and stained glass, as well as the adjacent green—the sight of which, Saez explained, must have hypnotized his father-in-law, vaguely familiar as it must have appeared, in an otherwise completely foreign, undoubtedly disconcerting urban landscape. A landscape at which he had barely glanced, added Saez, since leaving the airport, sitting stiffly in the passenger seat, eyes glued to the glove compartment.
The next hours passed as one might imagine. The body was gathered at the foot of the tower, stuffed into a plastic bag, and brought to the morgue, at which point Saez came knocking at my window. I live a few streets away, in a ground floor apartment with no view whatsoever, a situation Saez had always found absurd, but apparently not today. As soon as he entered he demanded a drink, which he downed immediately, then he approached my window and looked out at the uneven pavement in the small courtyard, the garbage cans aligned against the brick wall, refraining from his usual comments. He seemed nervous, though Saez—I’ve known him more than twenty years—is a peaceable guy, unlike his wife Marie, with whom I lived before he did. Peaceable, composed, rarely disturbed, endowed with serious degrees, like me, that neither of us made much use of in the end, because Marie had immediately declared that our diplomas merely prophesied a miserable existence leading straight to depression. Marie had declared upon meeting us that we must deprogram our brains, as a matter of the greatest urgency, emptying them completely of the idiocies that had accumulated there like dead leaves; we would travel for a year, two years, long enough for something to take shape, a shape that remained yet unknown to us, but that would ultimately end up crystallizing and—at least this is how we interpreted it—make us worthy of Marie. And if nothing takes shape? I had objected to Saez at the time. If nothing crystallizes? What proof is there that we’re not specifically intended to lead miserable lives? Saez had no idea; nevertheless, he had spent the night burning our résumés, our cover letters, even our monthly commuter passes. So we left, that is, the two of us left without Marie, because she had just landed her first movie role and could barely make the time to drop us off at the airport with our bags, saying she would join us as soon as possible; she never did. From that point forward we turned up, increasingly filthy and broke, in various parts of the world, until we reached the little restaurant in Krakow where Saez first put his pencil to paper, almost mechanically extending a spot of grease on the tablecloth into a kind of sketch of the two of us, which we considered with astonishment. Saez had drawn us as the pair of unshaven, disheveled academics we would likely have become without Marie, still it seemed to us an accurate representation, to which I added in the bubble-shaped grease, a line written in ballpoint pen, the first thing that came to mind. Saez tore off the piece of tablecloth, and a month’s worth of work later, we left Krakow and returned to Marie in the guise of the two comic-strip authors we became. I wasn’t expecting this, was all that Marie said, as she examined our illustrations. Then she came to live with me for a while.
Twenty years later, I’m not sure myself whether I’ve completely escaped depression, which at times seems to have permeated my entire circle of friends, the older I get—except Marie. Marie is a joyful and persuasive woman, who joyfully left me to marry Saez, persuading me not to make a fuss about it. In fact I did not make a fuss, I did not do anything, I remained friends with Saez, who was propped up on my sofa at the moment with a second glass of rum, informing me that his father-in-law had defenestrated himself and that he had looked everywhere in the apartment and finally found him on the lawn, twenty-six stories below. Ouch, I said. Defenestrated, repeated Saez with a giggle, probably on account of the rum. He walked to the bay window then poof, he was gone. And Marie? I said. Impossible to reach her, said Saez, she’s shooting in the deepest, darkest corner of I don’t know what countryside. I left a message. What kind of message? I asked. But Saez only grunted, clearly not remembering.
Three days later we found ourselves on the highway to the airport, in the back seat of a hearse, a coffin between us, Marie still unreachable. It was a small coffin, like its occupant, a model made for export, designed for flying, insulated with zinc and equipped with a purifier which, we were told, would prevent the whole thing from exploding in the air. To the airline, Saez’s father-in-law was from this point forward considered merchandise, repatriated in the hold, his trip invoiced by the pound. At the airport, his coffin was transferred to a luggage cart escorted by the funeral home employee in charge of customs proceedings, then disappeared behind a set of double doors. Saez and I presented ourselves at check-in for the flight to Yerevan with the suitcase of the deceased, which we had not yet even opened, and which disappeared in turn behind rubber strips, after which we were given our boarding passes. Saez seemed exhausted, though he smiled incessantly, with a smile that was directed at no one, and that I found rather worrying. We had practically not left each other’s side for three days, both of us trying, one after the other, to accomplish the always difficult feat of reaching Marie. Although Marie had shown no pleasure at the prospect of reuniting with her father, of whom she had only a vague memory, it had been arranged that Saez would take care of him while awaiting her return. No one knew what had incited this man to leave his village in the Caucasus to come to Paris, nor how long he intended to stay. The enormous suitcase with which he had disembarked from the plane had given Saez a small shock, as had the man’s emaciation; nevertheless Saez had greeted him with a smile, which his father-in-law did not return. Once in the car, realizing the futility of communicating in any language, Saez had ventured only a few brief remarks, punctuated by gestures, on the traffic jams and the heat. His passenger had not responded. When they had arrived in the tower’s parking lot, Saez’s father-in-law had not budged. Saez had taken the suitcase out of the trunk and carried it as far as the elevator, then had returned to the car. This is where we live, he had said, trying again to smile. Then he had pointed at the height of the tower, he later told me—as if, come to think of it, I was suggesting to the poor guy a good place to end it all.
Once burdened by the coffin that was unloaded from the plane and hoisted into our small rental truck, we did not delay in leaving for Yerevan. Some four hours on a bumpy road toward Artashat lay ahead of us before we would arrive at the village of Saez’s father-in-law, where we had guessed there must be someone who could take charge of the funeral service we were not sure we even wanted to attend. Saez drove on doggedly, and I had to climb into the back to try and keep the coffin from rocking and slamming against the walls of the truck, thanking god we had refused the model that had been recommended to us, with a small porthole so that the deceased’s loved ones could contemplate his face one last time. From what Saez had seen of that face at the foot of the tower, no one would escape from such a sight unscathed. Only when the back door of the truck opened as the gravel-heaped road began to ascend sharply did Saez finally consent to slow down, then to stop, just long enough for me to get my spare pair of pants out of my bag, which I used to tie the door shut. The landscape was quite beautiful, we could have scarfed down the sandwiches we bought at the airport while looking at it, but I didn’t dare suggest it. Saez clearly wanted to get rid of the coffin as soon as possible, and only an infuriated sense of ethical duty prevented him from unloading it on the side of this deserted road, so narrow two cars would not have room to pass. Added to this was the thought that, once rid of the coffin, we would have to drive much further before being able to turn around, and would thus be inevitably obliged to endure the minor ordeal of passing in front of it again. I proposed driving but Saez refused, appearing to think the dead body we were transporting belonged to him—and, he argued, as far as I know it’s been at least ten years since you’ve driven. This was not entirely true, but I didn’t insist, and we resumed our jolting ascent. From my position in the back of the truck, seated awkwardly with the coffin wedged between my feet, I saw the nape of Saez’s stubborn neck, his big hands gripping the wheel, and in the rearview mirror, his bushy eyebrows furrowed, under which his eyes were partially obscured; and though we were obviously not on vacation, I began to take offense at the silence in which he had enclosed himself since we left, a muteness that seemed to express his indifference, if not resentment toward me, despite the fact that I had assisted him in every step of the repatriation of the body, and that even now I was literally sitting on the metal floor of the truck, being shaken like a sack of marbles—and all, it seemed to me, for the sake of friendship. I was once again tempted to tell him—and Marie would agree—that he was in no way responsible for this death. So the bay window had been wide open at the moment his father-in-law had entered the living room, so what? It meant nothing, it was summer after all, everyone left their windows open without, therefore, people systematically throwing themselves into the void. Saez turned his head briefly toward me. Beyond his profile I saw a small, very blue lake at the bottom of the road and a hamlet squeezed between two rocky hills in the background. Is that it? I said. Probably, Saez answered, braking slightly. The coffin banged into the back of Saez’s seat as the road began to drop abruptly and, guessing that the coffin was finished moving, I climbed into the front. The truck’s engine suddenly seemed excessively loud in the harsh, perfect stillness of the landscape, and as we were approaching the houses I noted the absence of any sign of a cemetery or, for that matter, any sign of life. The road past the hamlet narrowed even more, so that it was nothing more than an overgrown path. So this is where Marie was born, I thought, conscious of the bewildering disparity between this place and the place in which I had always known her; measuring the sum of accidents and circumstances that propels someone from one point of the earth to another radically different one, a place so disconnected from the first that the word “fate” comes to mind, even though one never thinks that way. In short, Marie suddenly seemed like a stranger, someone who came from very far away, as if her foreignness were a character trait I had until that moment never imagined, but now would be unable to forget. Saez turned off the engine and we sat for few moments without moving, caught in the silence of the place, perceiving through our open windows the transparency of the air, the transparency of the water of the lake, the immobility of everything; then, opening the grinding door, Saez climbed out of the truck. I followed him to the hood of the car, then we spread out, observing our surroundings. If not for our cargo, we could have been taken for two tourists enjoying a pleasant rest stop. I was starting to ask myself, for that matter, where we would sleep that night. Five little houses of dry stones, some capped by conical roofs, made up the environs; we approached slowly, expecting someone to emerge—no one, nothing, not even a dog. It seems completely abandoned, are you sure we’re in the right place? I asked Saez, reflecting that after all we had completely relied on the address written on his father-in-law’s documents, which we located first through the aid of an Internet search and then on a road map, to decide to repatriate the body here.
Saez, who had gone up to the door of the first house, gestured at me to come up, and I observed, based on the state of what was probably the kitchen, that someone was living there. Saez called out but no one appeared; we made the rounds of the other houses, which seemed uninhabited, two of them partially collapsed. What do we do now? I asked. I thought of the sandwiches. Maybe we could eat something while we wait. If you want, responded Saez, distractedly. He contemplated the lake, encircled by bright green grass and surrounded on one side by two cliffs whose tapered extremities formed a vanishing point toward the mountains. Magnificent, isn’t it? he said. His face seemed fixed in reverie. Yes, I said, impatiently; Saez, undeterred, took a few slow steps toward the lake, took off his socks, then pulled up his pant legs to submerge his feet in the water. I looked at the truck, then at Saez’s very white legs, his partially hairless calves. Listen, I said, we should move the truck into the shade. I was now quite annoyed and what’s more, worried that someone would show up and discover us there with our cargo, Saez splashing around in the water. Worried also, on the other hand, that it was just as possible that no one would show up for days, that maybe we had come upon a village of shepherds who were out grazing their animals, miles away. I returned to the truck, re-parked it under the sole clump of trees, took the bag of sandwiches and went to sit on a low wall, in the shadow of one of the partially collapsed houses. Saez finally got out of the water, shoes in hand, and joined me. Such pure water, he said, sitting down next to me. His feet were blue. I passed him the bag of sandwiches and we ate, each lost in our thoughts, mine bringing me back to Marie, to the little girl Marie had been in this place. I tried to recall what she might have told me about her childhood, but only evasions came to mind. Did Marie ever mention this lake? I asked Saez. Marie? he said, looking at me as if he couldn’t figure out who that could be. At the end of the day, I said, we know almost nothing about her. Saez furrowed his eyebrows slightly, waved a fly away from his sandwich, and we stayed there a while on the low wall, the truck in our sights. Later that afternoon, a quick survey of the landscape revealed a vast, undulating landscape beyond the hamlet, a spread of bulges and folds reminiscent of the skin of a gigantic elephant laying on its side, ringed by snow-capped mountains in the distance. The birds were scarce and very black, flying very high, the only moving objects in this setting so deserted it remained unruffled even by wind.
The sun went down; we had not seen any one. Suddenly it was cold, we climbed back into the truck to get sweaters, neither of us had brought socks. Saez suggested we spend the night there on the front seats, or even better, he suggested, after glancing in the back, lying down next to the coffin. I said it was out of the question and that if it were up to me, I’d dig a hole as long as there was still light, so that we could leave immediately, find a hotel in town, and catch the first plane back to France in the morning. Next to the lake, I said, the soil must be less dry. Saez replied that to bury a body near water was unthinkable—what did we know about the conditions of this lake in heavy rain, and for that matter, why was I in such a hurry to leave? What’s awaiting us at home that’s so exciting? Marie, I said, Marie is waiting for you. What’s she going to think, finding the apartment empty? Whatever she thinks will be preferable to the truth, exclaimed Saez. She’ll be worried, I said. She won’t be worried, said Saez, I left her a note. A note? I said, you told her in a note? Obviously not, said Saez, obviously not. I just mentioned there’d been a change in plans, that her father changed his mind about coming to France, that you and I went off for a few days, that’s what I wrote. I admit it’s problematic but anyway, that’s what I did. I see, I said. Now, said Saez, I suggest we wait at least until tomorrow morning before taking care of the coffin. If by tomorrow morning no one’s shown up, we bury it and get out of here.
We took our bags and got out of the truck, locked the doors, and made our way to the little stone house. It had two rooms: the kitchen and a room with a low window and a big bed covered with a floral quilt. It was very dark and the kitchen was so encumbered with furniture, objects, stacks of flyers, and crates filled with various provisions, that we could hardly maneuver between the table and the stone sink. In the back of the room, a curtain was drawn across an alcove, revealing a single bed also covered with a floral quilt and, carefully folded on a chair, a pair of thick canvas pants—maybe the pants Saez’s father-in-law had taken off before leaving the house. Saez went back out to examine the generator, which he said he had seen behind the house; I sat on a stool, looking around the room for an object that would be familiar enough to ground me in reality, to quell the floating sensation I was feeling, and that I feel every time I venture outside the city, to tell the truth, after night falls. At last I fixed my attention on a blue plastic colander hanging on the wall, identical to the one in my kitchen, and staring at it, I saw myself at my sink, draining pasta in the peace of my own apartment, a space I traversed in my mind in order to test out first its existence, then my own, which calmed me down slightly. The sound of an engine started up outside, a few bulbs flickered in the room, went out, flickered again, then silence. Saez appeared at the door, announcing in a rather cheerful tone that we should make do with the candles that were there in abundance, a good dozen of which he lit with pride, whistling—I almost hated him then. We cooked some rice in an old pot, unwrapped a goat cheese that Saez found excellent, as well as a bottle of wine, after which the question of whether or not to bolt the door arose. Saez was partial to leaving it open, while I was loath to imagine being surprised in their bed by the house’s inhabitants—who might even be armed, I added. The way I sleep, I’ll hear them come in, declared Saez, but once we were lying down side by side under the floral quilt, he immediately fell asleep, his breathing hopelessly discreet, and I was alone in total darkness, listening for any sound while trying to chase away any thoughts of the dead body, also lying down, less than ten feet away in the truck, emitting, with an imperceptible hiss, a faint odor, acrid yet sweet, that I seemed to be breathing in all night.
Saez was no longer in bed when I woke up, and had already made coffee, which I had to reheat. Through the window, I saw him come out of the lake, bend forward and shake his head out like a dog’s, then hurry with quick little strides toward the house, which he entered, completely naked, to finish drying himself vigorously with a towel, while asking me cheerily if I had slept well, so that I had the impression of being some kind of newly arrived guest who was not yet in the swing of things. I thought to myself that I hadn’t seen him naked since our youth, after which our intimacy was restricted to working together, while his body was undergoing invisible changes and alterations, but that now revealed Saez to me in a completely new light, as if before me was not the familiar being whom I called Saez and whose name, for so long, was enough to define him, but someone whom I suddenly understood to be so different from me, so unpredictable and antagonistic, that he could somehow appreciate the charms of a place I found nightmarish. I waited for him to put on his clothes before reminding him what we had agreed the previous evening, upon which he suggested I go look outside near the trees, where it seemed things were already well underway. Saez had unearthed a shovel with which he had accomplished half the work before stumbling on a bed of loose stones it took us a solid hour to clear out, after which we continued our hit-or-miss digging, taking turns.
We dug silently, methodically, and with determination. We took the coffin out of the truck and dragged it to the hole, where it was clear we were lacking the proper equipment to lower it gently. A plank, Saez concluded, leaning over the hole, we need a plank—and he took off in a halting gait toward the houses. I sat down, back against the coffin, and inspected my aching palms; I could barely bend my fingers. I was exhausted. Saez came back carrying not a plank, but two long tree branches that we arranged sideways like rails, down which we managed as well as we could to slide the coffin, which remained inclined as if hesitating, until we pulled out the branches with a single, abrupt motion, and the coffin fell with a thud, followed by a crack that made us turn our heads. A man and a woman were standing beneath the trees a few yards away, side by side and perfectly still, arms at their sides and nothing—no weapon of any kind—in their hands, merely staring at us with not even a glance at the tomb. We dropped the branches at our feet and when I saw Saez lift his arms in a show of peace and start to smile, I followed suit, noting the woman’s petite stature, in her blue dress that resembled overalls, her angular, ageless face—and on the man, the same sunken eyes, the same thin mouth, nothing resembling Marie. Neither moved when Saez took a step towards them, then another, nor when he seemed on the verge of holding out his hand, then motioning at them to wait, gesturing at the truck, toward which he ran. I remained where I was, forcing a smile on my face, to which they did not respond, only stared at me with the same inscrutable air—Here, said Saez, returning to where they were standing, and thrust his father-in-law’s passport under their noses, open to his picture, which they contemplated without reaction. Me, Marie husband, declared Saez, thumping his chest. Marie little girl here, he said, holding his hand out at the height of a child. And him, he added, motioning me forward, him my friend. Marie friend. I nodded. Airplane France, said Saez, lifting the passport up in the air, his arm miming a wing. And then accident, he said, wrinkling his forehead. The woman coughed. We come back here with the body, said Saez, holding his hands as if gripping a steering wheel. Sleep there last night, he said, motioning toward the houses, then joining his palms against his tilted head. Wait for you, he said, tapping his watch. And dig this morning, he added, drawing a curved line in the air with the passport, in the direction of the grave, to which the couple finally turned their attention. In three strides, Saez was at the edge of the grave, where he stood silently, head cocked, arms crossed. The man and woman exchanged a look, stepped in tandem toward the hole and, standing there, looked not only at its contents but also at the mound of dirt and piles of rocks we had dug up. Everything done correctly, affirmed Saez after a moment; he held the passport out to the man, who took it, examined its front and back covers, then indicated, with his chin, the shovel at Saez’s feet. Finish of course, Saez said immediately, and bent over to pick up a shovelful of dirt, which he threw on the coffin. At the second shovelful, the man nodded briefly, gave me back the passport, then he and the woman turned in unison on their heels and took off toward the houses. Well, well, well, said Saez, a streak of mud across his forehead. You have mud on your forehead, I said. I shoved the passport into my pocket, got on my knees, and we pushed the dirt and the rocks into the hole with our bare hands, leveling everything out with the shovel, and replacing as much we could the few salvageable clumps of grass. Saez picked up the two branches, stood them up vertically, and let his eyes wander over the landscape. He looked disappointed. They didn’t seem to recognize him, I said. Maybe we made a mistake. What kind of mistake? asked Saez. I picked up the shovel, then remembered the suitcase. There’s the suitcase, I said, what do we do with the suitcase? What do you think, said Saez, leave it with them, obviously. And if they don’t want it? I said, pretty sure they wouldn’t want it. In fact, once the suitcase was in front of them, the man and the woman had no reaction. They stood in the doorway of their house, faces expressionless. Saez leaned over, opened the suitcase, and what we saw, placed on top of the clothes, were half a dozen packaged gifts of all sizes, all awkwardly wrapped with the same iridescent green paper, as well as a big metal alarm clock which, when Saez picked it up to hold it out to the couple, rang. A short laugh escaped from the woman’s lips; she put her hand over her mouth and stared at the clock until it stopped ringing. Suitcase stay here, said Saez, gesturing decisively with his hand. The man shook his head, moved toward the suitcase, shut it, carried it to the truck, hoisted it in, came back to us, picked up the shovel, and disappeared behind the house. Let’s go now, I said to Saez, who was still holding the alarm clock, and I put my hand on his shoulder. We went back to the truck, put the clock back into the suitcase, Saez climbed into the driver’s seat, started the engine and put the truck into gear. Wait a minute, I told him. In the rearview mirror, I saw the woman running toward the truck, waving her arms. I got down and waited, and when she had reached me, after catching her breath, she uttered a few words, forehead wrinkled, pointing insistently into the truck, and my last view of the place was of the woman walking away, holding the alarm clock in both hands, her legs like little sticks.
Véronique Bizot’s work in France includes short story collections Les Sangliers (Stock, 2005) and Les Jardiniers (Actes Sud, 2008) and several novels, all from Actes Sud. Mon couronnement (2010) was winner of the prix Lilas, the Grand prix du Roman, and the prix France-Québec Marie-Claire Blais. She works as a journalist in Paris.