The Transfiguration
by Preston Thomas

The Transfiguration

The female form that lay so perfectly, artistically prostrate on the sidewalk captivated and riveted the Tourist. Her form gathered his undivided attention even in the rush of the diverse crowd pressing its way up and down the Champs-Elysees. The river of people with no indication they even noticed her, nevertheless, parted like water around an immovable boulder. It was as if she were Moses commanding the seas to part. Without volition his eyes had focused intently upon her, completely unable to follow the recurrent sage advice of his wife. “Don’t look at beggars. It encourages them to approach you. You can help them more donating to an organized charity. A handout will just be wasted. Probably on alcohol.”

This beggar wasn’t looking at anything but concrete. It was impossible for her to notice that the Tourist’s eyes didn’t have the heart to look elsewhere. That everything about him betrayed an easy mark. The feminine form, hands outstretched, grasped his emotions. The bright summer sun shining full and directly overhead edged her figure making every physical detail sharp, vivid. Visual as well as emotional grasp controlled him.

Prostrate. It was the prostration that so overwhelmingly compelled his attention. Why beg in this posture? In prayer? The head covering suggested, no, demanded Muslim. The figure was face down, laying on one hip, legs gracefully (?/!) curved beneath the long skirt. Had this woman been a dancer at some time in her life? Torso turned at the hip, like the Michelangelo they’d seen in the Louvre, to present her front to the pavement. No part of her face was visible, forehead to the sidewalk. Head scarf hiding hair, any physical sign of living flesh. At the end of arms extended forward in a posture of supplication her hands were the only warm human flesh visible. From the wrists to the rest of her body she could have been a clothed sculpture of a woman in prayer. Was she praying? Here in this Mecca of international consumerist excess? An act of pious denial, a call for those who can still be touched to pray to the One True God? The tattered paper coffee cup between her hands said otherwise. If this was prayer at least part of her prayer was directed to fellow human beings in some hope that they might recognize her as one of them.

His hand found a couple of Euros in change in his pocket. He dropped them in the cup and found the words, “Salaam Aleichem,” escaping with the air from his mouth. Her right hand gave a thumbs up, shattering his mood, but not his questions. The rest of the female body remained perfectly motionless.

His wife had grown accustomed to his weakness for beggars. Her arguments against giving to panhandlers never offered him a rational means of thinking about helping the poor when he was confronted by a fellow human reduced to begging. In just about any city they visited a few of their dollars participated in a miniscule and ultimately meaningless re-distribution of wealth. Why? He couldn’t say. A childhood immersed in Robin Hood, Zorro and the Lone Ranger? Brainwashed to emulate champions of powerless people? TV role models who acted as if poor people mattered? “If one could, one should help those in need.” Was that a vaguely remembered aphorism from a Sunday school lesson? God had some kind of soft spot for the poor? If you cared about right and wrong at all, you should too? Whatever the reason, this time had been different. The confusion of poverty, prayer, religious prejudices, and the abject artistically perfect prostration of the body — all combined to mark an event that he already knew had some as yet unknown significance, the foretaste of an unforeseen possibility in his future. The coins he dropped in her cup represented a Rubicon, a change in course to a “come what may.” It would be some time before Zach Anderson forgot this female form. And, anyway, it just seemed a gross obscenity that the world should even have beggars on this boulevard, in front of Louis Vuitton with its 5,000 € handbags smugly glaring out of the window at such poverty.

The female form was soon lost to sight as the crowds closed in behind them. Zach’s middle class inurement to and ignorance of poverty triumphed at a trendy café for a tart and café au lait.

Later that afternoon the sun that had basked the Arc de Triomphe retreated behind dark clouds and a moderate but steady rain offered punctuated percussion on their umbrellas as they made their way up the Rue de Cluny looking for the entrance to Musée de Cluny. An afternoon immersed in medieval artifacts would be a counter balance to the morning spent in the postmodernist accoutrement of the up-scale shopping district.

The museum far exceeded his meager expectations. The quality and state of preservation of the ivories alone was worth a trip to Paris. The ‘lady and the unicorn’ tapestries were even more enigmatic than in art books. It was hard not to see the lady’s recurrent presence in the tapestries apart from his unnerving encounter with the beggar and her now recurrent presence in his memory. The diptych of St. Francis, Jesus in one panel a beggar embraced by Francis, in the second revealed to the Saint as the Christ gripped him with what could only be called fear.

Years later he carried a distinct and vivid memory of the last time he saw his wife. It was the room with the original heads from the statues on the façade at Notre Dame. The heads mistakenly removed during the Revolution because the revolutionaries thought them French rather than Hebrew kings. Zach had gone ahead into what appeared to have once been an open court yard and entrance to the monastery. Two or three stories above the rain beat heavily now on the glass roof covering the heads and other remnants of medieval architecture, 800 year old roof lines were still etched in the walls. He glanced over his shoulder to focus on her. She was unconsciously exuding the girl like pleasure and intensity that he found so endearing. It was obvious to him that her inner history major had taken over. She was engrossed in the audio-guide looking at the carving in the arched doorway. Himself becoming engrossed by heads lost during the Revolution it was some time before he looked back to the entry way. She was not there. Not in the room. He doubled back to see if she had returned to the stained glass. No. He quickly worked ahead a few rooms to see if she had gotten ahead of him. No luck. To Zach it quickly became apparent that the floor design of the museum would make it nearly impossible to find someone once separated. Too many rooms looped back on one another so that people looking for each other could pass like ships in the night almost indefinitely. So he leisurely made his way through on his own and browsed the gift shop. The reproductions of the tapestries were way too dear. He plopped himself down in the entrance/exit area to wait. Engaged in one of his common pastimes he watched people. He ruminated on human rituals of entering and exiting. When a family with small children he had seen enter exited an hour later, he began to worry.

After a second hour the worry was evolving to panic. He didn’t want to risk missing her exit by going back through the museum again. So he waited longer, nervously pacing the small room. Closing. He asked for help from the museum staff. The curator assured him there was no one left inside. They methodically swept the building at each closing. The police were called as a fog of fear and disbelief began to engulf him.

There being no officer with adequate English, he was asked to return with them to police headquarters near Notre Dame. The ride in the police car, European siren “heehawing,” and rain blurring the windows gave Paris the surrealist look and feel of the Salvador Dali sculptures they’d seen in the small museum near Sacré Coeur. He found himself in a small room with no windows. An inspector asked him questions, then left. Another hour later he was near frantic with worry. The inspector returned. She offered water, and with professional disinterest said, “Please tell me, once more, in detail what has happened.” Zach responded with his story from the moment they entered the museum. “We chatted about the quality of the ivories. We looked at the stained glass together. She went back for an audio-guide. I moved slowly on. I saw her last at the carved doorway as I told you.” He recounted his efforts to re-connect with her. “I always go through museums faster than she does. So I finished and waited. Will you please find her? You’ve got to start a search. She is lost somewhere, abducted!” He found the force of his voice startling.

“Monsieur Anderson, we will do all we can. The museum has already been searched even a second time. The gendarmes have looked over the abbey garden and the surrounding streets. Please, now repeat your wife’s description. Begin with her name.”

“Her name is Maria Alvarez. Maria Teresa Anne Alvarez, a very Catholic family. We wanted to do some small act to reverse patriarchy so she did not take my name. She … she looks, well … Hispanic. Olive skin, long black straight hair, coal dark eyes. She’s beautiful.” This was choked out in tears and a throat wrenched with sobs.

“I am sorry, please continue when you are able.” The inspector sounded genuine.

“She is 5’ 5” — I don’t know what that converts to in meters. Weight 120 lbs. You figure out the kilos!”

“What, again, was she wearing?” Somehow this question with its emphasis on “repeat”, seemed to shift the interview toward something more sinister.

“She had on sandals, black. Dark caprice slacks and a white long sleeve sweater — loose fitting.” A sweater that always made her look damned sexy. There was a reason he ogled her in that door way. He was going to cry again.

“Did the two of you have plans for the evening? Plans to eat somewhere?” The tone shifted back to neutrality, normal police business.

“We have been going back to our hotel in the late afternoon, relaxing and then making plans to eat. We had no plans for today.”

“Ah! Then perhaps she has gone back to your hotel to wait for you. I know you have insisted that she would not do so. But perhaps she did, perhaps she is just better at patience than you. Anyway it is time that we made contact with the hotel you are using. We must be certain, right or wrong, of this possibility.” Finality, decision in these words. At last!

“We are at 9 Rue des Gobelins, the Residence les Gobelins. Number 12. It is under my name.” Zach was convincing himself that the inspector was right. A phone call to the hotel would clear up the whole unpleasant experience. But the look on the inspector’s face shot that out of his head as fast as it had popped in.

“Monsieur, are you certain? Do you, perhaps, mean ‘Avenue des Gobelins?’ Perhaps you have misremembered the name of the hotel under the stress of the afternoon.” The voice was still caring, but with a strong hint of suspicion.

“Of course I’m certain. We only booked this months ago. I’ve only been over the travel agency papers a dozen times. We have been going back to THIS hotel on THIS street, sorry, ‘rue,’ for the last week.” He hoped the irritation he was feeling communicated.

“But, Monsieur, I know something of this neighborhood. I grew up there. There is no Rue des Gobelins. Not anyway at this time period. There was a serious battle there between the Nazis and the Resistance in 1944. Most of the buildings burned, it was not rebuilt and the street was built over. There is a plaque on the building near where the old street came out onto the Avenue des Gobelins. It names the Resistance members who died there. Please, let me check something.” She left the room.

He was now no longer worried. He was panicked, his chest felt very tight. And he was dazed, his mind struggled for coherence. This was impossible. No street! No hotel? What the hell was happening? He drank the water he had been holding in his hands. He needed to calm down, to think clearly. He was uncertain how much time had passed when the inspector returned.

“Monsieur Anderson.” Formality, a voice that spoke you are on the wrong side of me. “I have checked the hotel register for Paris. There is not and has never been, in the last 245 years, a Residence les Gobelins.” She paused, sighed and continued, “No one we have interviewed at the Musée remembers seeing a woman who had correspondence with the description of your wife. There are a number of staff whose work it is to watch closely those touring the musée. You they remember. We have filed a missing persons report and we will continue to look for your wife. But you should know that we have some questions about your ability to recall this event. The American Consul has arrived. He will see you now.” Without waiting for a reply she abruptly turned, opened the door for a short harried looking man to enter, and left behind him slamming the door. Another woman he would never see again.

“Zachary Anderson?”

Zach could only nod.

“I am John Simensky, Assistant Vice Consul for the U.S. Embassy here in Paris. The police have notified us of your … situation. They seem to think there are … well, discrepancies in your report. I’m not here to take sides in your relationship with the Paris police. I’m here to offer my help to an American citizen. And to begin investigation of the reported disappearance of another American citizen. Do you have your passport with you?”

A battery of questions designed to confirm his and Maria’s identities followed. Since his own hotel seemed to have vanished off the face of the earth, the Embassy put him up for the night at one nearby. He didn’t know if he should be troubled that this Simensky person had kept his passport. But that was the least of the problems, contradictions and conundrums vying for space in his brain. No hotel! What had happened to his, their, luggage? This was an outrage. What an elaborate theft. Were the Paris police in on it? A careful scam? If no one believed he was married, their search for Maria would be half-hearted! How could no one have seen her? It was impossible that she hadn’t been seen by the museum staff. She was simply too striking. What had happened to his memory? He KNEW they were on Rue des Gobelins!

Sleep was going to be hard coming so he left the hotel for some fresh air and sat down at a café ordering tartar and a couple of glasses of wine. When it came time to pay the credit card wouldn’t authorize. He paid with euro. He only had 70 left in his wallet, another 6 or 7 in coin. Returning to the hotel he phoned the card customer service number. When he finally got through to a live person he was told that his number was not an active account. There was no Zachary Anderson corresponding to the address he gave. She was sorry his questions could not be resolved. Following script the voice finished, “Is there anything else I may help you with?” He hung up. “Sorry!” Shit, he thought.

There was no sleep. A car came for him in late morning.

Again he found himself in a windowless room. This time somewhere deep inside the Embassy. John Simensky entered accompanied by a security-looking person. “Mr., or, ‘Dr.’ Anderson. Not only do the Paris police see discrepancies in your story, we can’t find that any of it is true.” Simensky’s tone was laced with let’s cut the bull here. “There are so many gaps between your story and what we can confirm that it is hard to know where to begin. But let’s start here:

“There is no record of your birth 5-22-78 in Dawson, Nebraska. Nor in any other Nebraska community. We are checking other databases since Anderson is such a common name.

“The address on your passport is a Burger King in a strip-mall. You have no neighbors, and no dog for them to be caring for.

“The area high school you say you graduated from has no record of a Zachary James Anderson. And that was a small town, no name confusion possible.

“The college you say you attended has no such alumnus listed.

“Cambridge University, where you … ‘earned’ your doctorate, again, has no record of your matriculation, let alone a successful D. Phil.

“The university in Pennsylvania where you claim to hold tenure does not list you as a faculty member. The people there you gave as contacts have never heard of you. You ‘have’ no webpage for us to check as you suggested.

“Neither your ‘brother’ or your ‘sister’ exist.

“We did find your ‘wife’s’ parents. They have two children, both grown men living in Colorado.

“No one has ever been issued a passport in your wife’s name. There is no birth certificate with the name Maria Teresa Anne Alvarez anywhere in Wyoming.”

He threw Zach’s passport on the table. “This is a forgery. A damn good one, the best we’ve seen in years. But a forgery.

“At this point, ‘Mr.’ Anderson, the Embassy’s primary concern is where you got this passport and what your game is.” He looked to the security officer.

Zach’s reaction was visceral. Cognitive shock spilled over into his gut and bowels recoiling back into his head exploding into pitch black. He woke up in a hospital bed. An IV was in his arm. It took some time to recall the conversation with Simensky. Well it wasn’t exactly a “conversation,” was it. More like multiple concussions delivered in sequence by a jack-hammer, he thought. His head still hurt as if the words had been physical assaults. Memory of his bodily reaction darted through his consciousness. He hoped, but doubted, that Simensky had to clean up. What sort of trick was being played on him? Ok, I passed out, that has to look “good.” A guilty person wouldn’t fake passing out and soiling himself. Would he?” He’d get it all straightened out today, and get back to looking for Maria.

There was no straightening out. An hour or two after he awoke, Simensky arrived in his hospital room.

A speech began that Zach could only follow with intermittent moments of lucidity. Simensky was adamant, other people lived at this brother and sister’s addresses. His parents never owned the farm where he claimed to have grown up. It had belonged to another local family for 165 years. In fact the people connected to the names he gave for his parents had died nearly 20 years before his birthdate, childless.

Not one of the 37 people in his high school graduating class remembered him. Those they contacted physically did not recognize his photo. His “alleged” roommate from college had roomed instead with a David Joffrion. No one in his college crowd remembered him. The NSA was fast and thorough when they sniffed possible terrorism. But the failure of the NSA to find his finger prints, or DNA, or facial recognition in any data bases, criminal or otherwise, plus his over the top physical reaction had induced the security personnel to discount him as a serious criminal or terrorist threat. The theories they now saw as most promising were novice, and very inept, scam artist, or just mentally deranged. The voice continued, an inarticulate drone.

Drifting back into focus Zach heard the Asst. Vice Consul finish off, “Frankly, Mr. Anderson we don’t know what to make of you. You don’t seem to exist, yet here you are costing the U.S. government money and me trouble. I am authorized to extend you 150 € for emergency expenses since you seem to be destitute and have made the claim to be a U.S. citizen and we do not take that lightly. You will be released from this facility shortly. We will continue inquiries on your behalf. We would very much like to know just who you are. Returning to the U.S. is not an option for you. You have no passport and we have no evidence you are an American citizen. If new information surfaces you may contact the Embassy.”

Stripped of self-respect, much of his self-identity in question, he stepped out the hospital door onto the streets of Paris. As scared as he had ever been in his life. Alone. Alone in a way he had never imagined possible. No one he knew, or thought he knew; no one who had been his friend, OR WIFE, or colleague; or relative apparently existed. Those few that did exist had amnesia about him. He got a Metro ticket and changed to line 7 at the Opera. Nausea tore at his stomach the whole way. Retching on a crowded Metro train would erode the last vestiges of self-dignity. He stuffed it down. He got out at Les Gobelins.

As he climbed the steps up to the street and turned, for the briefest moment things began to right themselves. Dare he hope? There was the corner café where he and Maria had coffee the first afternoon trying to stay awake and readjust themselves to Paris time. He could see the café seating curve away toward Rue des Gobelins. But there was no corner. Only a set-back in the street. No Rue des Gobelins leading to their hotel. He stood dumbfounded, blankly staring at the plaque on the wall of a grocery marking where the street had been. It listed four members of the Resistance who died in the German atrocity at this sight. Three men, one woman.

Did he stand there staring an hour? A day? A week? Eventually, now stripped of time as well as self-respect and identity, he walked off down the avenue and found his way up Rue de Monge. He drifted into the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre. The same homeless man he and Maria had seen was still pacing the path to the left of the entrance. A tattered mattress and a few odds and ends tucked up next to the shrubbery. Pacing back and forth beneath the trees he pontificated to an imagined audience. When Zach had had a tour book, Rick Steves claimed the Amphitheatre to be the best kept secret in Paris. And Steves had said, homeless madman aside, it was well worth a visit. Zach and Maria had come here the second or third evening. Walking down the slope to the arena floor together they had savored its peacefulness. Quiet, secluded it now offered a refuge for his broken emotions. He merged into one with the bench where they had sat to enjoy the onset of evening. It seemed centuries past.

Who was he? How did he get these memories? NO one? No wife? Who was the lover in his mind? No career as an academic. How did he get all this stuff in his head about the English Civil War? What had become of his thesis on Oliver Cromwell’s apocalyptic megalomania? He remembered writing articles about the dangers of allowing apocalyptic thinking into contemporary politics, citing the disasters of the 1600’s. He had published academic papers as well. Did he not? Eventually exhaustion overtook him and he collapsed sideways on the bench. A passing pair of lovers briefly noted him with a touch of sadness before walking on.

When the early morning summer sun woke him, he relieved himself, as hidden as possible, in the bushes and trees growing on the Amphitheatre’s slope. He found a café. Had coffee and eggs. Just over 200 € left. The thought that austerity measures needed to come into play came to his mind. If he could find the right supplies he would make living on the street work in the short term while he got reorganized, found a way to cope.

For several weeks Zach’s life on the street remained focused on finding some shred of evidence of his former life. And at night he regularly slept on the cool grass and a comfy blanket deep behind some bushes growing where ancient Romanized Gauls had watched shows. In the second week he returned to the U.S. Embassy to see if anyone from the States had made inquiries about his disappearance, if they had made any progress in identifying him. An under under-secretary to the assistant of the Assistant Vice Consul told him no. But he hadn’t expected any inquiries. The people who might have missed him by now had already told the Embassy staff they had never known him. And he, himself, was beginning to doubt there was an identity to find.

He had visited a library and struggled through bruised and battered French on his side and somewhat better English on the other to locate one or more of his publications. None of his articles were listed anywhere. His dissertation had never been published, nor was it found in Cambridge’s new online system. An ancestry.com search had turned up his ‘parents.’ But he did not recognize the people in the photos. They were dressed more like his grandparents.

Husbanding his resources he struggled into an early Parisian Fall. For the rain a “free” and quite large umbrella came his way forgotten by its proper owner on a park bench in the Luxembourg Gardens, not far from where Marshall Ney had been executed. It was large enough that if he carefully curled up beneath it he could use it as a “tent” to sleep under. It replaced the one, now broken, from that ill-fated day on Rue de Cluny. Parting with the old umbrella was difficult. When he finally tossed it he kept looking back conflicted by parting with one of the last physical connections to his vacation with Maria. At second-hand markets he acquired some change of clothing, and a large backpack. He slowly learned how to beg to supplement his reserves. Begging, it turns out, is an art. Like most businesses location is key. Competition is a factor. He didn’t stand a chance if a homeless wheel chair was in the area. Sites that attracted tourists but with a healthy concentration of locals as well proved most productive. People seemed generally inclined to believe that a woman was truly in need rather than a man. As he learned about the shape of his new life, the relative luxury of a small but dwindling cash reserve offered the sham of somehow still being a middle class academic. He conversed with himself as “Zach.” Memories were more valuable to him than at any time in his life. He spent whole afternoons sitting by the Seine trying to recount everything he could remember about Maria and their life together. One long afternoon he re-wrote his dissertation in his head. Before long and without him noticing these conversations with himself began to take place out loud. His discussions of the violent excesses of the Fifth Monarchy Men drew silent judgments of madness from passersby.

The final turning point had come and gone without fanfare and without him noticing it. It was the day his final cash reserves played out. The inertia of this event moved inexorably toward the erosion of any remaining sense of selfhood. His life became completely dependent on begging, soup-kitchens, and handouts in markets from kind vendors. He didn’t even have the shred of self-dignity afforded the poorest and least talented street musicians, or those drawing in chalk on sidewalks. At least they could tell themselves they had earned what they begged. The endless cycle of cold, hunger, heat and thirst; season after season wore away at him. The strongest forces of erosion came from the endless humiliation. To be ignored, unseen by nearly all other human beings took its toll. He knew he had a small chance of a gift from someone, anyone who looked, made even momentary eye contact with him. For the vast majority of fellow human beings, he fell in their visual blind spot. He simply didn’t exist as anything more than an obstacle to be avoided. In plain sight he was invisible.

There were no more charades to play with himself. Marriage, a shared life, a wife — how could that be anything more than a cruel mental illusion? Why have inner conversations about a life that apparently never even happened? Why remember events he had made up in his madness? What difference did English history have to do with anything anyway? The toll bill came payable in small, very small amounts of loss of identity, selfhood, physical strength and mental capacity, mental relevancy. But the payments added up relentlessly and ruthlessly with time. One event in his life, and only this one event, remained unshaken. He knew had once seen a beautiful olive skinned woman in a fetching white sweater looking at an ancient carved door frame, and that, somehow, there was more to the story.

Within a few years he rarely ever used the name “Zach” in his thoughts. If he ever attached a name to the body he inhabited the habit had become to think of himself as “Jacques.” At some point in time, a concept itself that no longer had much meaning, he had remembered that prior to the Revolution French nobility had called all peasants, “Jacques.” When the rare need arose to give himself a “name” it would do. None of the person who had been Zach Anderson mattered much. The expenditure of energy on thinking about an imagined life had become too expensive for his endless hunger and borderline nutrition. Of course, he dreamt. Or were they garish nightmare phantasies? A young olive skinned woman with deep wells of coal dark eyes haunted many of his dreams. She roused intense emotions of loss and pain. A boy and a girl that bore a family resemblance to him glared at him in other dreams. Sometimes a phantasy farm offered a healthy version of whoever he was room to roam. But the dreams passed quickly each morning, the emotions they awakened nearly instantly dissipating into the stupor of the day. His life on the street gave no space for the privileged indulgence of meditating on the meaning of dreams. Mostly he thought of little but the possibility of a soft place to sleep, how to stay out of the rain and in winter where to keep warm. Oh, and would some of the “people,” (was he still one of them?), put enough in his battered paper coffee cup to buy some bread, a little cheese, or maybe a piece of fish, or fruit to go with it. On a really good day perhaps even some wine to wash it all down.

An old looking man in smelly, dirty ill-fitting clothes; carrying a backpack stuffed with oddments that had no value to anyone but him made his way shuffling down the Champs-Elysees on a summers day. He had a bill-less cap tight on his head, his hair had recently been shaved at a shelter, a beard long and scraggly fell across his chest. For several days his begging had been fruitless. He was tired, famished and weak. The sun, hot today, was beating him down. He went to his knees. The crowds parted around him. Just a few minutes and he felt he could stand and move on again. Just a bit of rest for this body he resided in. But exhaustion and hunger continued to beat him down. He bent over, head to the pavement, elbows crooked, hands open, palms up at his head. Just some rest.

He looked every bit a Muslim man in prayer. He felt fingers press a bank note into his hand and registered the words, “Salaam Aleichem.”

 


Preston Thomas, who has wanted to practice piracy on the Spanish Main since he was five, lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife and two cats. He teaches religion at a small liberal arts college.


 

 

Photo Credit: Brian Jeffery Beggerly (http://www.flickr.com/photos/beggs/88809549) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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