Cousin Cash Comes to Paris
What can I tell you? Ricky Jenks was the family embarrassment. The fat kid. The bed wetter. The C student who broke your heart because you just knew he could do better. If only he would "apply'' himself. Laughable athlete. Luckless with girls. Not that he lacked talent. He was a naturally gifted pianist. That, in any event, was what Ricky's parents always said, as if to excuse all his obvious shortcomings. Whatever modicum of artistry Ricky Jenks possessed, he was by no means a musical prodigy. In most families, Ricky's ordinary imperfections might not have been a badge of shame. But he was the progeny of one of the fabulous Pendleton sisters of Norris, New Jersey: three famously smart and ambitious black beauties who all married "well'' and prided themselves on breeding "well'' the next generation, the blessed black children of the 1960s, who would be trained to stake their claim in mainstream American society. Ricky's kid sister grew up to be a judge in Miami. All of his cousins were prominent in their fields as well. Ricky, on the brink of 39, knew he was considered a bit of a fuckup. Back in America, anyway. But Ricky, despite all his ostensible privileges, felt he'd been dealt a pretty weak hand in life. He figured he had made the best of the raw human material he had to work with. Ricky Jenks was not a proud man, nor did he suffer from self-pity. Yet he always found it somehow fitting that the place where he felt most at home in this world was called the Street of the Martyrs.
April in Paris, 1999, had been typically dreary: leaden gray skies, a chill wind blowing spitty drizzle in your face. May tends to be the truly beautiful month in this town, the time when the sun reappears and the cafes fling open their doors, round-top tables and rattan chairs taking over the sidewalks. "This song should have been called 'May in Paris,''' Ricky Jenks often said before launching into his rendition of the famous standard at the creperie where he played piano. "But 'April' scans better.'' The sun was shining boldly, though, on this last Thursday morning in April, filling Ricky's studio apartment with brassy yellow light. The tall narrow windows were open wide. Ricky sat in a chair, wearing a T-shirt and gym shorts, tiny cup of fierce espresso in hand, his bare, chubby knees pressed against the intricately wrought little iron railing over the window ledge, looking out on the rue des Martyrs, a steep, mile-long street that climbed through Paris's northern precincts. Ricky's building, number 176, was smack in the middle of a precipitously inclined stretch of Martyrs. At the bottom of his block was an intersection where the neighborhood of Pigalle, the neon-bathed commercial sleaze district, boasting round-the-clock peep shows, leather underwear shops and the International Erotic Museum, bordered the neighborhood of Barbes, a buzzing network of African and Arab communities. At the top of Ricky's block was Montmartre, the hilly, cobblestoned neighborhood that combined a bohemian grit with a village-like quaintness tourists found irresistible. The main boulevard of Pigalle and the whole of Barbes and Montmartre were the three key regions of Paris's sprawling Eighteenth Arrondissement, a city within a city: eccentric, hard-bitten, robustly alive.
The telephone rang but Ricky had no intention of answering it. Fatima groaned. Ricky turned and saw only a tumult of jet-black hair poking out amid the white sheets and pillows on the sofa bed. The phone rang a second time and now the sheets undulated in the bold late- morning sunshine. There would be one more ring before the answering machine clicked on. Ricky hated disturbing Fatima's sleep but he couldn't bring himself to pick up the phone. The caller had either dialed the wrong number or was someone Ricky wouldn't feel like talking to. No true friend of Ricky Jenks would phone him before eleven in the morning. The third ring. Fatima grumbled loudly. Ricky saw two burnished-bronze arms emerge from the tangle of white sheets, slender hands groping. Fatima's black hair disappeared beneath a plump white pillow. Her arms were splayed atop the pillow, behind Fatima's covered head, crossed awkwardly at the wrists. Oh, well, Ricky thought, it was time for Fatima to get up anyway. She had another day of relentless studying ahead of her.
"Bonjour," Ricky heard his voice say jauntily on the answering machine. As his greeting played on the tape, Ricky returned his attention to the rue des Martyrs. He sipped his potent coffee, the caffeine tingling in his brain. He felt the sunlight on his face, prickling the skin on his cheeks. His eye wandered across the motley array of establishments across the street: the seedy cafes and popular nightclubs, the bread and pastry shop, the Chinese, Senegalese and Lebanese restaurants, the fruit and vegetable store, the transsexual/transvestite whorehouse, the nursing home. Ricky Jenks loved his block and in that brief interval of time between hearing the electronic beep on his answering machine and the voice of the caller--a one-second pause during which he gave no thought at all as to who might be phoning--it dawned on him, like a pleasant whisper in his ear: ``Hey, maybe I'm a pretty lucky guy after all.''
Then he heard the voice of the caller, rising above the static, the aural clutter of a public place. ``Yo, R.J.!''
A sudden twinge of panic, a tightening in Ricky's throat. Nobody called him that--"R.J.''--anymore. Before he recognized the voice, he knew this was someone from his distant American past. But he could not bring himself to believe that the voice belonged to...no, couldn't be...not him...not here!
"It's your favorite cousin! Heh heh heh.''
Ricky felt as if he had been pushed backward into a swimming pool. Though he remained seated in his chair in his cramped and tiny Paris apartment, he imagined he was flailing, tumbling blindly, falling through the air, then splashing down, helpless, shocked, unable to breathe, submerged in the cruel, cold past.
"Are you there?'' the voice on the machine asked. "It's Cash.''
Ricky, submerged, could hear the old confidence in his cousin's honeyed baritone--and the expectation, the undoubting assumption that Ricky, when he learned who was calling, would hurry to pick up the phone.
"Maybe you're not there. I hope this is the right number. I only heard someone speaking French on the machine. I'm calling for R.J., Ricky Jenks. This is his cousin, Cassius Washington. I just arrived in Paris. I'm at Charles de Gaulle Airport and I need to talk to him. It's an urgent matter. I will only be in Paris for a few hours and I need to speak with Ricky, so if you're there, man, please pick up...Ricky?...
Are you there?''
A violent kicking and tussling in the sunny sheets. Fatima bolted upright on the sofa bed and, at that moment, Ricky broke to the surface, emerged from his icy blue trance. He could breathe again. Fatima was rubbing her eyes, scratching her lush and unruly black mane. "Rahr rahr rahr,'' she said in a needling whine. That was Fatima's imitation of American speech, a grating nasal drone. No real words. Just noise. That was how all Americans sounded to Fatima. But Cassius Washington sounded nothing like that. Cash had a mellifluous, Michael Jordanesque voice to go along with his smooth and sculpted good looks. That beautiful voice now had a desperate edge to it on Ricky's answering machine.
"Okay, well, maybe you're really not there. I got your phone number from your mom. She said this would be a good time of the day to reach you but...whatever. Maybe you don't want to talk to me. After all the shit that's gone down between us, I guess I could understand that. But, you know, I thought we'd gotten past all that shit.''
Now Ricky was aquiver with rage. He saw the little cup of espresso trembling in his hand. How dare you! How fucking dare you come to my town, to my side of the ocean, and talk about all the shit we've supposedly gotten past! Fatima was out of bed now, standing, stretching and yawning with a feline languor, one of the white sheets wrapped around her lithe, cinammon-skinned body like a sari.
"All right,'' Cash said on the answering machine. "I'll be staying at the home of a business associate. On the Left Bank. Like I said, I'm just here for the day. But I'll try you again later. I could give you the number on my cell phone but I...No, I better not. I'll just call again in a little while.'' Ricky heard a horn honk obnoxiously in the background. "I need your help, R.J. You're the only person in the world who can help me right now. I need you, man. Okay. Anyway, I--''
The answering machine beeped three times in rapid succession, cutting off Cash's voice.
"Rahr rahr rahr,'' Fatima said irascibly, turning and walking into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her. Even sleepy-eyed and grouchy, Fatima was the most beautiful woman Ricky had ever known. He hated to admit it, but he was deeply, achingly in love with her. He hated to admit it because she was not in love with him.
Slowly, Ricky's rage subsided. He felt strangely soothed by the sound of streaming water from behind the closed bathroom door. He drank the last of his bitter coffee, rose from the chair, slipped into a pair of baggy black pants and sneakers, put a New Jersey Nets cap on his prematurely graying head. While Fatima showered, he would go out to buy their daily bread. But first he pushed a button on the answering machine, erasing Cassius Washington's message.
"I'm antisuccess, antitechnology, antiexercise, antiself-improvement, antistock market and antisobriety. But I am not anti-American. I actually like most Americans. I just can't stand living in America.''
That was how Ricky Jenks liked to answer the questions of why he had come to Paris, France and why, after nine years, he was determined to stay here. Like a lot of what Ricky said it sounded only half-serious. Ricky laughed when folks wondered if he had been inspired by the great black American jazzmen who had lived in Paris before him: the Bud Powells, Sidney Bechets and Kenny Clarkes. Ricky would cheerfully explain that he was a pretty mediocre piano player and that he harbored no aspirations of greatness. He could see the shock in the faces of his fellow Americans when he spoke of his mediocrity and lack of ambition. In America, Ricky Jenks would be considered a loser. In France, he was simply himself.
"You are too lazy for America,'' Fatima would chide him. "You are like a Frenchman. Or an African. You live for pleasure. Americans live for work.'' Fatima would nod vigorously, endorsing the American way. She wanted nothing more than to emigrate to the United States. She was in her last year of studies at Paris's elite Institute of Political Science. Once she got her degree, she was determined to find a job in New York, the city Ricky had once called home. The daughter of a Moroccan man and an Cameroonian woman who had grown up in the southwestern French city of Toulouse, Fatima thought Ricky was foolish to have left the United States. "You black Americans,'' she scolded, "you don't know how good you have it.''
"Maybe you're right,'' Ricky would say with a shrug. "Maybe you're right.''
He never told her how France had saved him. How he had come to Paris a broken, humiliated young man. How he had needed to be a stranger in a foreign land, his old identity obliterated, his American past extinguished. He didn't speak of the catastrophe that had, at once, shattered and redefined him. Ricky never told Fatima about his cousin Cash and how he had, more or less, destroyed Ricky's life.
Copyright 2003 by Jake Lamar