Scene from a Cafe in Paris

In the magazine that arrives with the mail is a short story by a writer whose name I recognize as the same name printed on a novel that sits on the shelves behind my desk.  It's a book one of my mothers-in-law gave me several years back.  I remember the weight of the book in my hands, the thick pages smooth enough to lick.  I also remember being fascinated with the first hundred pages or so, a young poet chasing around Mexico City, if I remember correctly, which I may not.  But I do remember that the novel abruptly changed, the narrator I so liked, disappearing, replaced with narration that was much more confusing and chaotic, which, flipping ahead, appeared to last the rest of the book.  So I put the book down, and it sat unread for many weeks until I moved it to my shelf where it still sits, waiting for a time in life when I may be better equipped to weather the challenge.  More recently, I've seen this writer's name in a well known literary magazine, bylining a short serial novel the magazine was publishing posthumously.  I didn't read the serial, maybe because I was afraid, or maybe because I was put off by the accompanying illustrations.  I don't know which.  But here is his work again, in a famous and highly respected glossy.  So I take it that he is very much in vogue right now, even more so, perhaps, because he is dead, the mystery of death always seeming to cast its hue, for a while at least, over the life that preceded it.

The short story is not so much a story as a very detailed description of a black and white photograph of eight people sitting around a table in a chic-looking cafe.  It takes only a short bit to realize that the photo he is describing is in fact the very one accompanying his story, noteworthy because most often, the art accompanying the short stories in this and most other magazines have no real connection to the writer or the story except that they have been selected by an art editor to accompany the story, in order to provide some visual relief from the text, which may or may not enhance the experience for the reader.  As I drink my coffee and read the detailed description of the photo, my eyes dart back and forth between text and photo.  I am enthralled at how his descriptions make me notice things about the photograph I never would have noticed and, in the same right, how manipulative his descriptions are.  Such and such a man has eyes more intelligent than the others. Yes!  How true, now that he mentions it.  But if he would have said that another's eyes were the most intelligent of the eight, would I have been equally as agreeable?  Either way, I decide the piece would be completely unreadable if the photo did not accompany it, though I'm not sure why that is.

The author gets two things very wrong.  He speculates that the man in the center of the photo is wearing a leather jacket, which he obviously is not, and that the woman on the right who is looking off to the left has short hair which is obviously long hair pulled back into a bun.  But since he has gotten so many things right, I wonder if these are not gaffs so much as tricks, purposely placed, to add some element to the text, though what that element is, I have no idea.

By the time the description is complete, my coffee is cold, but the story is not yet over, rather has hardly begun.  I flip ahead and see it goes on for five more pages.  Suddenly I am exhausted.  I put the magazine down and leave the house.  Later that day I come home to make dinner.  I clear the table and toss the magazine in a pile of magazines and newspapers we clear from the table before meals.  I make a note of where I've put the magazine with the story about the photograph so that I may finish it later, if I so choose.

Later comes, but I am well into a novel by I.B.S. in hardcover, and I like the way the book feels when I am holding it, so I decide to read that instead.  And later comes again, but now the Sunday N.Y.T. appears on the table which later gets cleared from the table and put on the pile with the other magazines and newspapers that get cleared from the table before meals.  The next day, or the next after that, the mailbox is stuffed with magazines, one of which is the next issue of the same glossy where the description of the photograph was published, this one with a new story and a new photograph accompanying the story, though, most likely this one with no true connection to the text. But instead of reading this new story, I decide it best to go back and finish the story I already started. But while I am rummaging through the pile of magazines and newspapers that we clear from the table before meals, the phone rings.  It's a friend from far away who I haven't talked to for a long time. So I forget all about the magazine I am looking for.  Later when I remember, I am already in bed and don't want to go downstairs to look for it and so start a new book that's been sitting by my bedside waiting to be read.  It is so absorbing, I don't read anything else for the next week.

Today, I sit down at the kitchen table with the my coffee.  I idly pick up a magazine and flip through it.  The pages fall open to the photograph of the eight people sitting around a table in a chic-looking cafe accompanied by the story that starts with the long detailed description of the photo. Here is my chance. But I study the photo and find it no longer interests me the way it once did.

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