THE BLUMS IN EXILE
Scenes from an unpublished novel
“You do not tonight expect French cuisine, I hope?” Claudine Blum greets Vasco Ramos, as she flips a most prosaic hamburger in a cast-iron frying pan.
Dressed in honest black, rather than her customary navy blue, she has invited him to dinner for the first time in the two years they have known each other. Unlike her diamond-bedecked mother Vasco met earlier at the door, a handsome tanned woman in her late-forties dressed in formal French mourning veils for the husband she had for years done everything in her power to ignore, Claudine wears virtually no jewelry: a blue-enamel Cross of Lorraine on a thin gold chain about her neck, a political not a religious statement, and the simplest of pearl earrings
The Blums’ flat has more than ever the air of a temporary bivouac. There are no rugs on the stained-oak floors. The furniture is nondescript. A hodgepodge of unmatched pieces scrounged from various apartment-house basements and sundry attics with no overriding spirit or personality to blend the incongruities: the bastard French chaise with the Philippine-bamboo easy chair or the overstuffed American sofa. Nor has any effort been made in the last two years to superimpose a personality. There are no pictures on the walls. No flowers. No bibelot. There is not so much as a pillow that gives evidence of ever having been crushed with affection.
Disorder is rampant. Chairs are left where last used: next to a lamp with a cord too short to reach a central grouping and before a window where toenail clippings give evidence of a recent pedicure. A pair of red satin high heel shoes (certainly not Claudine’s) lies on the floor before the sofa, an open purse on a blond, glass-topped coffee table alongside a coffee cup crusted with a crackle glaze of caramel sediment. It is the dishabille of those who have always had menials to pick up after them.
Although he is awed by the drama of the family’s recent history, something about the place and the Blums themselves chills him. Like the furniture, each member seems a separate, unrelated entity. All the parents of his other friends are simple in comparison. Even Jonny’s impossible parents are more of a family and their violent tempers and alcoholic brawls ultimately less lethal than the Blums’ exquisite decorum.
Tall, balding, sharp-featured and languorously elegant, M. Blum, dressed at home always in a meal-spotted, floor-length, silk robe, was like a Comedie-Francaise diplomat: worldly, wry, cynical of all save his devotion to an ideal that had once been France. Preoccupied with the War and his own imminent death, he remained aloof from all household concerns, detached from everyone, particularly his wife, whom he treated always in the presence of strangers with excruciating politeness. A deference so extreme it might, perhaps, have been intended to be read as irony. He never raised his voice, never nagged, never complained. His kindness was a formal ritual, correct, often charming, but ultimately heartless. He lived only for France. And the son now fighting for that France. Philippe. An almost femininely beautiful Free French flyer based in London whose photograph in a tarnished silver frame is the sole personal touch in an otherwise soulless apartment.
Obstinately, and apparently against considerable odds, M. Blum refused to die, keeping himself alive by force of will until the Paris he would never again see was liberated. Weekly he dragged his desiccated but proudly unbent body to the broadcasting studio to tape the messages that were later radioed to Occupied France in the name of the Free French. Until De Gaulle’s vindication gave him at last the leisure and the will to die. Four days after the liberation of Paris he was quietly cremated and his ashes stored in a small pine box to be transported back to France for burial in Pere Lachaise.
“Votre petit camarade de jeu, cheri,” Mme. Blum called from the doorway. Then with her mourning veils thrown back off her still-tanned face and looking eerily like a bride in black, she bestowed on Vasco a smile as brilliant and as hard as her diamonds. Which, like Paris, have themselves only recently been liberated, in this instance from the security of a local bank vault
She has both fascinated and terrified Vasco from the moment he first saw her open the door to their apartment two years before. It was a revelatory moment, in an instant bursting every cherished myth of motherhood. She was then also dressed in black, a skimpy two-piece bathing suit cut so low her navel was exposed with several inches to spare, her still elegant body shining like a piece of freshly polished Chippendale. Having just come in from sunbathing on the Marina Green and looking as though she gobbled up young men like him as appetizers, she made no effort to cover herself, but sat with seriously-tanned legs crossed on the arm of an overstuffed easy chair, speaking to him in a language she surely knew he did not understand. She took out a cigarette, and looking about for matches, smiled as he approached with a trembling flame.
“Charmant,” she said.
He understood that, and something more, which her smile alone said.
“Mais, il est joli,” she continued, speaking to Claudine but keeping her dark eyes fixed on him.
Then Claudine entered, standing expressionless before her shamelessly worldly mother as she spoke:
“Oui. Mais il est mon joli. “
He saw Claudine then, only for a moment, as she must have seemed to others: a slightly chubby adolescent with fine skin, superb bones partially hidden by too much flesh. The raw material for a beauty which might someday be more than just the promise it now was. Unlike her mother, Claudine never sunbathed, but shielded her creamy-white skin at all times, even on the beach, from the naked sun. Not once had he seen her in a bathing suit or a pair of shorts.
“I’m sorry,” Vasco stammered at the door as he arrived for dinner. “About your husband.”
Without a word, Mme. Blum nodded somberly, then once again smiling, she stepped aside to let him pass. She made no effort to dim the radiance of her smile with her mourning veils or, except for the formal but silent acknowledgement of his equally formal sympathy, so much as a pretense of sorrow. Her husband was dead, her face said in a language that needed no translator, but Paris was free. As she was herself once again free, liberated from the bondage of an arranged and mostly loveless marriage. In less than two weeks she would be in New York to await the sailing of the first ship carrying non-military passengers to France.
“You do not tonight expect French cuisine, I hope?”
“Hello.” Blushing with pleasure, Vasco peers into the pan, the contents of which are hardly tempting enough to hold his interest for long. Then he looks at her. In the two years he has known her, virtually all the baby fat has disappeared and her beauty has become considerably more than promise. “You look lovely tonight,” he says, though her beauty ironically resembles nothing so much as a Nazi poster extolling the glories of blond Aryan pulchritude. For her face conjures up images of Alpine meadows, creamy rich sauces, pink Austrian cheeks and tinkling brass cowbells rather than Parisian chic. Marlene Dietrich is the Platonic ideal upon which it has been modeled, with perfectly sculpted cheekbones, a strong, distinctive jawline, and heavily-lidded, not-quite-blue eyes.
“Why tonight, especially? Lovely at the stove? Me? Or are you just practicing your sweet lies?” Her teasing eyes challenge rather than mock.
“Why should I lie? If you didn’t look lovely, I’d say your dress looked great. Or something else. That hamburger, for instance.”
He hopes it is not going to be another evening of cruel game-playing.
The doorbell rings.
“Bon soir, mes enfants,” Mme. Blum calls from the hallway.
“Bon soir, Mamma.” Claudine’s reply is scarcely loud enough to carry beyond the kitchen.
The door slams shut. They are alone.
“Your mother looks impressive in mourning,” he ventures.
“Yes, doesn’t she? Always tres chic, Mamma.” The voice is so dryly non-committal it is all he needs to understand more, perhaps, than she intends. “0h, cheri, forgive me. I forgot.” She smiles as she once again flips the hamburger patties, which he has realized for some time are already overcooked. “Tonight is Friday and you do not eat meat on Friday.”
The forgetting, he knew, was a lie. She meant to test him.
“I’d eat anything you cooked. Any day of the week.”
She laughs, quite unaffectedly for a change, like any ordinary young girl.
“And how you would suffer! Before I left France I did not know how to boil water. But will you have to go and confess yourself to a priest? Poor Arabee.” She is the only one outside his family permitted to use this variation of his strange nickname.
“Yes, I’ll have to confess. Particularly since you didn’t give me the option of forgetting it’s Friday.”
She laughs again. “I will be your sin. Like the name of a cheap perfume. My Sin. But suppose Lenore drives us off a cliff and we all die. Will you then have to go to hell? Just for me?”
This at least is a game he can play without effort. Or hurt.
“Yes, I suppose so. But you wouldn’t want me to go alone, would you? So we can keep each other company.”
“But must I go to hell too for eating meat? Even when I am not Catholic?”
“Not for eating meat. Just for feeding it to me. It wouldn’t be fair to let me suffer all alone, would it? Especially if you are to blame. And God, we must assume, is fair. If nothing else.”
“Ah, God,” she sighs, the teasing smile suddenly gone from her voice. “It is such a big word for so few letters. Far too big for my tiny head. So we will talk about something else.”
Prejudiced though he may be, he is forced to admit Claudine’s dinner adds no fresh luster to the glory of France. Tall, over-weight, thick-ankled Lenore, the only friend with a car, and every bit as important, as a government worker, with enough gasoline to keep that car running, is never late and she is due to call for them at eight. They are going to a farewell party somewhere out near St. Francis Woods and they may never again be alone together. It is now or never, and he cannot live with the prospect of that never. As a delaying tactic, Claudine is wasting precious minutes with her toilet.
“Can’t you just sit with me for a minute?” He is standing behind her at the mirror and trying not to look at his own reflection. To be reminded yet again how impossibly young he is. “Before Lenore comes. You know she’s always early.”
“But I haven’t finished my hair.”
She is playing coy, holding a comb indecisively in the air above her perfectly-coiffed hair.
“Leave it. Your hair looks fine.” He grabs the comb from her hand, throws it onto the vanity table and draws her to the couch with him.
“My, how forceful you are. Suddenly.”
Her smile is a mocking challenge he accepts. He embraces her, trapping her hands against his chest. She resists, pressing against him to free herself.
“No. It is too late. What good would it do? Only make you sadder.”
He holds her tighter, muffling her protest with his lips. Miraculously their noses do not bump. The prospect had terrified him, for laughter would have proved fatal. Now that he has begun, he will not stop until she answers him, kiss for kiss. He can feel the squirming warm body pressed against his gradually relax, while her hands cease to press with any conviction. As he draws her closer, the hands soon slip up and over, about his neck. He kisses her on the neck, the cheek, and that tenderest of spots behind the ear, before once again finding her lips. It is a technique garnered from assiduous study of Charles Boyer (he has already seen Mayerling six times) and again, miraculously, the stratagem works. Not only has she ceased to struggle, she is actually clinging to him. Her lips part, her tongue slips into his mouth. He sucks on it, drawing it deeper into him, his bliss paradoxically blemished only by its physical manifestation uncomfortably trapped in the rigorous bind of his Jockey shorts. No sooner has he achieved his object, than the doorbell rings. A loud and ugly buzz. Like static interrupting a short-wave radio broadcast.
Stunned, they part, their eyes dazed, a silly sad smile on his face.
“Merde,” Claudine says, and he understands that too. “Damn the fat old cow.”
He will never, he thinks, understand the workings of the female mind, yet they are the sweetest words he has ever heard cross her pretty, pouting lips.
Julian Silva is a fourth-generation Portuguese-American whose Azorean ancestors first settled in the San Francisco Bay Area in the 1870s. His novel, The Gunnysack Castle, was first published by Ohio Universiy Press in 1983. The second section of the Death of Mae Ramos, “Vasco and the Other” was originally published in 1979 in Writer’s Forum 6, University of Colorado.
In 2007, Distant Music Two novels: Gunnysack Castle and The Death of Mae Ramos was published by Portuguese in the Americas Series, University of Massachusetts Dartmouth . Distant Music is the story of the Woods (anglicized Portuguese) and Ramos families and their descendants in California. In these narratives Julian Silva “celebrates not only the resilience of men and women confronted with failure but, even more important, he exposes the compromised morality of their achievement” (Portuguese in the Americas Series).