The flaneur, Francis, is intolerant. Not like an adjective. A noun. It is the molten middle that keeps him warm. He is especially intolerant of smells. Or at least today. The office smells. “Miserable,” he says it loudly. Even though the office is empty, he wishes someone could hear him. “It’s miserable. It smells like old paper and the stale odor of other peoples’ breath.” Worse, the new man had left a chunk of cheese in the pantry. It blended with the normal odors, adding a hint of the vagrant smell that occasionally ruins the streets. He looks at the window. The sun is softening in the late afternoon. No one is in walking on the street. He swings his feet from the desk and sits up to shuffle some papers and then grab his jacket.
On any ordinary day, he gets done with work as early as possible and locks the door to the small office. And this is an ordinary day. He is bored with numbers and paperwork and often leaves them heaped on his desk to give the appearance of being busy. By their very volume, they suffocate the backlogged work. Later, he will shuck it off on the new man — the young one who takes to things with less skill and more eagerness. He has neither the antiauthoritarian distaste for work nor the laziness necessary to make one adroitly efficient. Francis is expert at condensing the work of the day in favor of lengthening its leisure. This is where he excels in numbers: hours cultivating the art of solitary leisure against the drudgery of human interaction and necessary toils.
“What is the new man’s name?” He cannot recall. It is something ordinary. “Jonathan… Mark… Michael…” Something. Nothing seems quite right. The man simply annoys him too much. Every encounter is incredibly genuinely, helplessly saccharine. The new man laps up extra work like it is water in the desert. Worse, he is humble enough not to boast or complain about the workload. He works late, waiting for the approval of the owner, who only comes in when things are wrong. (So Francis makes sure nothing is ever wrong, even though things are always not as they should be.) It is exhausting to watch the new man. It is exhausting to tolerate him. The new man is almost, dopily canine. It seems as though he might pounce on Francis the days they work together. Francis reconciles to call him Fido. “It’s not my fault. It’s all that comes to mind.” And once he has named the new man Fido in his mind, his actual name would disappear forever if mentioned. If he is to see the name on a letter, it will be almost illegible, as if it faded immediately. “Fido.”
Jacket unbuttoned, Francis closes the door behind him. The string of bells jingles as it shuts. Across the street, he sits there staring at him. “Fido must be giving things to him,” Francis remarks to no one. The street is otherwise empty. The scamp’s ears perk up. Francis scans the street. Not a soul moves over the shadowy sidewalks. It is blissfully devoid. Not even the leaves in the dry gutter stir. Other than him sitting there looking desperate. “Why can’t you just piss off and go away!” Every day he is here lately, making that stoney spot out of the pedestrian traffic his home. It bothers Francis. He is raggedy and has a moronically affectionate look always. Tucking his hands into his pant pockets, Francis turns crisply and heads off.
He saunters toward the corner, where the sunlight is bending. It is a perfect bit of sunshine. He pauses to breathe in the buttery yellow light. Oddly, the moment is uncharacteristically uncomfortable, rushed. He has the peculiar feeling he is being watched, even followed. He refuses to indulge the annoying nagging feeling that he should turn around. It is a perfectly good walk and he will not be bothered.
Rounding the corner, he walks lackadaisically down the side street moving slowly between patches of golden light and cool shade. There is nobody who, by design, walks more slowly than Francis. It is his art, rolling his feet all the way down with every step. This street smells like lavender and roses because of all the little gardens of old women. All the little old women who never make it beyond the garden edges. Today is particularly pleasant. No one is visiting. No children squeal. No car doors slam. No shrill hellos and dulcet goodbyes. That is an unbearable savagery. If all the manicured streets could be as empty as now. It is almost perfect — but the feeling irritating the back of his neck persists doggedly. He will not look. “That filthy, shameless scrounge.” He walks a little faster and hears a shuffle behind him.
“Always avoid eye contact,” he says to himself — and, if possible, any turn of the head. Any collapse of will power shows weakness. “They can smell it,” he grumbles silently to himself. It is like chum in a shark tank. He screws in his indignation, unknots the muscle tensing between his eyes and lifts his chin.
At the next intersection, he surveys the streets a little anxious for he follower. He stretches his necks one side to the next and curls his toes inside his shoes. The ground behind him is silent, but he still feels him behind him. The sidewalks to either side feel walled in by the houses, crowded by the shops. The charcuterie and wine store is to the right. It is the shortest route home, but also more walked. A car door shuts and the chirp of a greeting trills in that direction. “There is wine at home and just enough cheese and bread at home still.” He decides to take the longer route by the river instead. The trees are shadier there. Cyclists prefer the opposite bank, where the cafes are. The path is not wide enough for couples or joggers. On the way, he only has to pass one general store and a café.
Unfortunately, they are outside as he approaches. The shopkeeper and cafe owner are often in front — which is the primary annoyance he had hoped to avoid. They smell like old people because they are old people. She smells of cooking and sweat. He reeks of aftershave over an underlying sebaceous musk. Between his dry sticky mouth and her overly wet one, it pains him when they speak. Because they know his father, the two always smile and wave. Like the sun rises, they do it today as he tries to walk by unnoticed.
“Hello!” The greasy mouthed woman slurps.
“How is your father,” chimes the old man, wheezing a little at the end of the question like a deflating balloon.
“We heard he was sick.” Francis is unsure if it’s concern or excitement; it’s the way of busybodies. “He has not come for a coffee and chat in some time.”
A leaf blows by and Francis wishes he could be carried off with it. Busybodies have no purpose in their own tiny lives and no other way to fill the time but by peeping and meddling into the lives of others. They should take up leisure, think about nothing but the quiet. He looks toward the pathway a few feet ahead and digs his hands deeper into his pockets.
Not getting an answer, the old man echoes, “Yes. It’s been a long time since your father has walked over. He used to come every afternoon. We heard he is not well at all. Is he…”
“No,” says Francis, “He is still alive. A bit of gout. A cough.”
“Is he getting better?” asks the old man.
“I don’t really know,” says Francis, rather matter of fact. He feels like the old man is getting closer. He moves so quietly, so obsequious. Perhaps they are deaf, as the both of them have inched closer. He halts them with a curt continuation, “He is not dead. That I would have heard. I don’t spend much time there, especially when he is not well.” Francis steps backward.
The café owner and the store owner look at him blankly. Uncomfortable, but too damned polite to say much or end it abruptly.
“I see,” says the woman, “It is nice to see you at least. You tell your father we will come visit next Sunday.”
“I will pass the message on. Or you can phone him.”
“We will call ahead, but be a good boy and call him,” she says.
“Even fathers like to see their sons,” adds the old man, his eyes down, “And I’m sure he is not so sick…”
“Is it Frank?” The woman seems to be distracting the café owner. “What do you go by now that it isn’t Frankie?”
“No. It is Francis. Like Saint Francis. A full and proper Francis.”
“Oh.” She twists her hands in her apron. A cat curls around her leg. He looks at it. “Are you fond of pets?” The cat falls to its belly between Francis and the owners.
“Only from a distance. I don’t mind the cats that eat mice and hunt birds in other people’s yards. I don’t mind terribly birds provided they don’t roost near me. And definitely not pigeons.”
“I don’t like dogs. That I can tell you certainly.”
“Ironic name,” the old man remarked, “Francis. Like Saint Francis.”
“Everyone suffers their own arrows. We are all martyrs to something.” He said, ignoring the implications. “Anyway, I will tell my father you say hello and may come visit.” He does not remove his hands from his pockets once. Without further words, he nods his head and walks away from the hostage takers.
Everyone martyrs themselves to something. His was to the tedious little tasks of civility.
If they said goodbye, he did not hear them. He is busily moving forward, on until his feet are rolling in the soft sand of the narrow path along the bank that has no stores. It is mostly a path only because in the early mornings, people forged into the underpopulated banks to fish. It is quieter on this path — which had something to do with fishing. The fishermen are at least mostly silent as is the glassy river, which makes it easier to ignore them in the daybreak mist.
It has been a long time since he had seen his father and his mood is sour, physically sour, a feeling in the stomach like milk and pickles. He breathes in the trees, looks at the river, and kicks a rock. There are too many discussions at the family home. His mother is constantly fussing and preening. His father always tries to update Francis on neighbors and the failing health of barely remembered relatives. The last time was at Christmas and there was a particularly offensive hand-drawn card on the mantle. Francis had left so abruptly, he had forgotten his favorite coat with his mittens in the pocket. He had to walk home the short way, hurriedly, and caught a terrible cold. “Frankie,” his father had called after him, a few steps from the little stoop, “Frankie, come back. You should know…”
“What is the point of knowing anything about other people?” mutters Francis, slowing down to feel the path beneath him.
The soft scuffle of the stalking scamp behind him thuds and he the infuriating tschk, tschk, tschk of scratching assaults the tranquility. He increases his pace to get distance. What did it want? His leisurely stroll is being ruined. He briskly makes it to a bend, running into a fisherman so that he bounces against the rubber barrel belly, almost knocking a tackle box from the red-nosed man.
“Excuse me,” gripes Francis contemptuously. The man smells like fish and vodka.
“I’m sorry, son,” says the fisherman, fumbling to move his rods out of the way. “You came so quick around the bend. No need to be in a rush on such a beautiful evening.”
“Ugh,” Francis did not mean to say it aloud. Unpausing, he whisks his front vigorously with his hands. “For the love of god, watch where you are going!”
“It was an accident,” the man’s voice swells and his cheeks start to cherry, “You don’t have to be an ass about it. And stop that brushing yourself off! There’s nothin’ wrong with me. Don’t have to act like you caught somethin’.”
“Ugh.” Huffs Francis, more disgusted. “You smell rotten.”
“Damned rude. You have a problem with me?”
“I don’t give a damn about you,” he retorts, “I am sure you got fish guts and scales on me.”
“No manners in ya. I should belt ya.”
Francis doesn’t hear the quick trot come up behind him as he tries to push past the fisherman. The fisherman steps in front of Francis in the middle of the path with his bearish chest out so there is barely room to pass by on either side.
“Let me by!” shouts Francis.
“No,” Francis welters side to side to slip past, but fails. “Move, you corpulent ignorant fucking drunk! You have no right.” He has not sworn in years. Not a fight. Not a raised voice. He has sanded down the intolerable chaos of emotions, refined them into calculated observations that guide rules: avoid large crowds of strangers, but especially of acquaintances; do not indulge the artifices of kindness; avoid brooding or deep thought; drink enough but not so much; eschew anything that does not inspire rational control; take longer windier routes when going towards anywhere; and do not touch. Most of all, want nothing. If you want it, remember that whatever you need controls you. There should only be tranquility, which desire goes against.
“Apologize, damn ya!” Shouts the fisherman again.
Francis is shaking, fists clenching, eyes beginning to burn. His heart is banging. The rush and heat of blood fills his ears. He is about to shout no again when the red-face fisherman is suddenly distracted
“Off damn you!” he shouts.
The scamp growls through clenched teeth, tugging at the fisherman’s pant leg. “Let go!” the fisherman yells furiously, kicking and trying not to drop poles or tackle box.
Francis slips by and jogs down the path until he can hear nothing behind him. “Good,” he says. He takes out a kerchief and dabs perspiration from his forehead. Bending over with his hands on his knees he takes a few deep breaths, closes his eyes and stands up now that his heart is a regular inaudible thump. The evening is cooling. He pulls his jacket down crisply and begins a deliberately slow stroll forward. He needs the slowness to move from the balls of his feet through his blood and into his brain.
Then, behind him he hears the patter of paws and the pant of the street dog trotting behind him. He takes a few step, hears the dog whine and stops dead.
“What do you want?!” He turns quickly, shouting and beginning to perspire again.
The dog is sitting in the path about six feet back, his ears up and head cocked.
“Go away! Just go away!” He kicks a small tuft of dust up at the dog, who looks at him curiously, stands up, and barks.
“What don’t you understand?! Go!” And he lurches toward the dog, who scurries back down the path with his tail beneath him. “I hate dogs. You are awful servile, emotional filthy beasts! The embodiment of weakness and pathetical character, always stupidly following around the things you depend on! You smell. You beg. You whimper. You are intolerably useless. Go!” The blood is back in Francis’s ears. His arms are flailing and he chases the dog down the path a few feet to be sure it’s gone.
The stroll has been ruined. The entire evening ruined. The daytime ruined. All of it, ruin. His whole life. The world of people. The creations of god. The emptiness of science. All of it is intolerable. If it were only him with the river, a breeze through the grass, and a few copses of trees, that would be a perfect world. Flaneuring was the closest to peace one could come by in a world of feeling things. It was all so utterly, absurdly unreasonable. “Intelligent design my ass. A sick joke, if anything.” He clenches his fists a few times and releases them, facing ahead again and looking up through the branches.
The sky is turning a little pink and he continues forward. “Fuck.” He hates the loss of composure. He tugs at a wrinkle in the jacket sleeve. The rest of the walk is quiet and circuitous. All his energy spent, he finally turns away from the river. He walks down all the side streets and through a little community garden, which is mercifully empty through supper time. The sidewalks are turning from white to grey.
He gets back to his porch when it is beginning to turn night, slightly violet with some gold around the edge. A small dinner and some wine will put him to sleep. His legs are tired.
How long had he been walking? Slowly strolling, stretching out time? It is truly a refined art, stretching out the time between places. He has so much leisure time now. Over the years, it has become his sole preoccupation. Everything else seems to disappoint him. Work is meaningless repetition. People say nothing that matters. Social engagements have become tiresome. Nothing but walking seems to actually be leisure. The rest is all work and failure, expectation and disappointment, imperfection and irreparability, vulnerability and damage. He is too lazy to change. He is too proud not to be lazy. He has rules unbreakably solid as walls and the comfort of a life without more than the minimum obligations.
On the porch, he sits in the little metal chair by the wooden café table. Has he ever been this heavy? His feet feel very far away as he looks at the dust on his shoes. They are too far to clean off as he normally would. In the corner of the table are carved two sets of initials. The letters are almost perfect lines. They were dug with care and a screw driver that is still beneath the kitchen sink. He rubs his fingers over the indelible depressions. A breath that doesn’t leave his chest. He looks around. All around the patio is the lavender that greets him every day when he leaves and returns home. It is always clean smelling, joyous and calming. Things were better then. And he has taken care of the lavender ever since, even as he let the table split and dry in the sun and many seasons of inclement weather. He never pulls the patio cover down. She loved the lavender. “She loved everything,” he says aloud, scraping his lungs. The dog is sitting in the dirt patch at the bottom of the two stairs. He is unsure when it crept up. “How did you follow me all the way here?” he says, exhausted. The dog lays down with its belly to the walkway and gives an apologetic whine.
She even loved dogs. Every dog. Even the ones with mange. “Oh, Franc, I can wash my hands later. This poor dog.” She had a way of making him want to be a better person, which he sometimes resented. But from her, he tolerated it. Mostly. She would never change. Once, she had loved him. “That, perhaps, to the best of my knowledge, has changed.” But she was always so stubborn. Even her tears were unstoppably stubborn, flowing down her cheeks helplessly. He remembers the dishes left after dinners and wine. He recalls the messes she made in coats, bags, books and scraps as she exploded into every room. She would leave a swallow of wine or a water glass in the bathroom, on bookshelves. One had sat by the bed for months after her. The sprouts of her grew wildly in every room in recipes and projects. Why couldn’t she just be a little better? Pay a little more mind to the rules? No. It was not in her. She signed everything with disorder. Her hair was never perfect. That was her. She would get dressed up for a big night and there would always be a little scrap of hair out of place or some smudge of a stolen bite that had fallen on her dress. “Gabriele,” she would twist her lips when he called her that, “Gabby, you should be more careful. We are going out. We will have dinner then.” He would scold her and tuck her hair away. At some point, when he was not looking, she would have it back out of place.
“Franc, I am not a child. Don’t be so… I don’t know what is wrong with you. I have not changed.”
“No, you never do.” It was cold, cold enough to chill him, too. Now she was holding back the tears. It was the only time he saw her almost succeed. Just a few huge tears came each time she blinked. And she quickly wiped them away before speaking.
“I can’t give you what I’m not, love you for anything other than you are or as anything I’m not. It’s all I have. It is everything. That was alright once. You said it was honest.”
It was honest. He was not. Not enough. He wanted to hurt her, to hurt himself. He had thought it was him who was solid, but she was as consistent as the tide. He was simply unyielding. And very efficient.
“She still makes those damn handmade cards,” he thinks, “They take so much time.” His father was so thin the last time he was there. It looked like his skin was made of tissue. He had once been much bigger than Francis. Franc wants to remember him that way, outside of time. It is intolerable to see him crooked and disintegrating. “I will go tomorrow.”
The porch is well swept. His legs are tired. Everything is perfectly tranquil and arranged. His life is leisurely and sterile. The lavender is permeating the night air.
He hangs his head in his hands and cries. All these years, all the collecting years, spilling out. Not a scrap is out of place, not anything. Nothing is left. It is perfect, ordered. Nothing out of place. Not her beautiful mess. His head fills with sobs and snot. The cuffs of his sleeves get wet. The floor gets dark where the tears splatter. He does not try to stop them.
After a little while, something scratches his knee insistently. The dog is pawing at him as he looks up. It cocks its head. Its breath fills his face. He wraps his arms around the dog’s neck and buries his head in the warm soft oily fur. The dog licks his forehead and cheeks as he cries. It whines along with him. Franc cries until he is entirely empty, not even the persistent feeling emptiness that kept the space where his agitation was stored. That emptiness was nothingness. This is a viscous heavier one, one that he has been walking over every day.
When all the tears are gone only the heaviness is left. He wipes his face on his sleeve. He pats the dog on the head and stands up. The dog steps forward and stops. Franc goes inside, holding the door open. There is enough cheese and meat for two. He will have to stop by the store the next day.