Tuesday, March 06, 2007

What goes around...

This actually happened, I'm sorry to say.
The kids loved the nearby public garden in Arles. It is situated on a slope that looks down on the main boulevard. Just beyond the garden are Roman ruins. We went there every day. There were always other kids and parents there so not surprisingly things happened there, mostly sweet things, but not all.
During one visit, I was seated on a bench near the merry-go-round where Tess and Colm had been playing. They had just scampered off to another part of the playground when a little girl about 4 or 5 years old climbed on the merry-go-round. Her older brother pushed her round and round while an elderly man in a shabby suit seated himself nearby on a stone wall. The boy and girl amused themselves for awhile. At some point I noticed that she had a scrap of paper about the shape and size of a business card in her hand (although what it actually was remains a mystery to me...it might have been a piece of trash). She was lying on the merry-go-round, her arm dangling down letting the paper scrape lightly along the ground as she whirled around. She seemed mesmerized by the sound and perhaps the sensation...her brother unflaggingly kept her going round. I saw the old man get up, his eyes fixed on the girl. It was only a matter of a few steps to her but his arthritic gait drew out his approach and captured my attention. At length he reached the merry-go-round. The boy backed away as soon as he felt the old man, but the little girl was oblivious to his presence swinging past him two, three, four times. The man stared at her and then made an abortive gesture at grasping her arm but the speed of the merry-go-round carried her beyond his reach. Momentarily thwarted he watched her come back by her one more time and fly away once more like one of the park's white pigeons. He stared at the contraption, conjuring an approach or perhaps a memory and finally, clumsily he succeeded in bringing it to a stop. As the girl came slowly to a stop before him, she felt him grab her arm. She turned over on her back and pulled her arm away from him, the paper still in her hand. The man's whole demeanor and bearing seemed to instantly coil and stiffen. He reached blindly for her hand, and she instinctively protected her possession stretching her hand across her body. Mute and furious, he wrestled her hand, finally grasped it with one hand, pulled her up to sitting position and then snatched the paper from her with his other hand. He stuffed the paper in his pocket and coming from far off and with a force that took me utterly by surprise, he swung hard and slapped her full across the face, knocking her off balance and back into the center of the merry-go-round. The sound was more like one of those fake theater slaps except that this had been all too real. In less time than it took for me to register this observation, the man had released the girl, turned and begun limping back to his furtive perch on the wall. The entire event had taken no more than twenty seconds, not one word had been uttered. The girl recovered her balance, sat open-mouthed and breathless for a few seconds, her hand cupping the side of her head. I knew what was coming; I could see the cry coming from deep inside, lagging behind the shock. But when it came it wasn't the piercing shriek I had expected; rather, a soft keening, like a sound muffled by pillows. She sat there alone on her haunches. From my vantage point I had both her and her grandfather in my sights. Hunched over and crab-like, he did not look at her, his pincer hands ceaselessly turning something over, the paper perhaps? In the foreground of my vision sat the girl, abandoned and desolate on the merry-g0-round where only moments earlier she had been spinning dreamily in space.
I stared at the man, who though only a few feet away was as remote as the Roman ruins behind the park. My own anger contended with other feelings of confusion and helplessness. I noticed a couple standing off to my side. They were staring too. They had arrived just in time to see the slap. At that moment my kids came running back to the merry-go-round all smiles and ready to get on board for another ride. I got up to join them but also to get a closer look at the girl. She hadn't moved, tears streaked her face, her hand remained pressed against her head. Her cry continued unabated but softly. And then she was spinning away as my kids took hold of the merry-go-round. The other couple's son jumped on board. They were oblivious to the little girl's plight and she regarded them blankly. She seemed not to register the merry-go-round's movements. She swung passed me, was carried away and then brought back again. . . I asked the couple, "Did you see that?" They nodded.
"C'est pas beau," said the woman.
I looked to them for some sign that perhaps we might say or do something but their intentions were manifestly to remain aloof. I felt out of my depth, but at least I could stand here for awhile and simply be present. I wanted to reassure the girl but part of me wondered if even that might lead to trouble with the old man. And what if it did? So I stood there simmering watching her pass by again and again. At length the girl's brother returned and coaxed her off to come and join him in a different part of the playground. I lost track of her, but the old man remained there in full view. I sat there almost obsessed with him for several minutes. Finally it was time for us to leave. Beth and the kids walked ahead of me past the old man. I followed slowly and as I passed in front of him I stopped and stared directly at him. He was haggard and unshaven and nervous. I needed to go. I needed to say something.
"Bonjour monsieur."
He looked up and seemed puzzled to see me there. He did not answer. I looked at him for a couple of seconds, I didn't know what I was going to say. And then -
"Soyez gentil avec la fille." It was part admonition, part plea.
He looked at me, his head jerked a little as he was stifling a response, then he looked away. That was it. My family was elsewhere; I went looking for them.


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