Lost in the Louvre

Lucia Berlin

Short Story

Barnes and Noble

Evening in Paradise is a collection of previously uncompiled stories from the short-story master and literary sensation, Lucia Berlin. After reading them, Dwight Garner of The New York Times wrote, “Berlin probably deserved a Pulitzer Prize.” The stories take us from Texas to Chile, Mexico to New York City—with Berlin finding beauty in the darkest places and darkness in the seemingly pristine. Evening in Paradise is an essential piece of Berlin’s oeuvre, and a stunning follow-up to her bestselling A Manual for Cleaning Women.

As a child I would try to capture the exact moment that I passed from awake to asleep. I lay very still and waited, but the next thing I knew, it was morning. I did this off and on as I grew older. Sometimes I ask people if they have ever tried this, but they never understand what I mean. I was over forty when it first happened, and I wasn’t even trying. A hot summer night. Arcs from car headlights swept across the ceiling. The whirr of a neighbor’s sprinklers. I caught sleep. Just as it came quiet as a cool sheet to cover me, a light caress on my eyelids. I felt sleep as it took me. In the morning I woke up happy and I never needed to try it again.

It certainly had never occurred to me to catch death, although it was in Paris that I did. That I saw how it comes upon you.

It certainly had never occurred to me to catch death, although it was in Paris that I did.

I’m sure this sounds melodramatic. I was very happy in Paris, but sad too. My lover and my father had died the year before. My mother had quite recently died. I thought about them as I walked the streets or sat in cafés. Especially Bruno, talking to him in my head, laughing with him. My childhood friends, girls lying around on the grass, on the beach, talking about going to Paris someday. They were dead too. So was Andres, who had given me Remembrance of Things Past.

The first few weeks I explored every tourist destination in the city. L’Orangerie, the lovely Sainte Chapelle on a sunny day. Balzac’s house, Hugo’s museum. I sat upstairs at the Deux Magots, where everyone looked like a Californian or Camus. I went to Baudelaire’s grave in Montmartre and thought it was funny for feminist Simone de Beauvoir to be buried with Sartre. I even went to a museum for medical instruments and a stamp museum. I loitered on the rue de Courcelles and walked the Champs Elysées. Napoleon’s tomb, the Sunday bird market. La Serpente. Some days I took random combinations of Metros and walked and walked in each new quarter. I sat in the square beneath Colette’s apartment and walked in the Luxembourg Gardens with everybody from Flaubert to Gertrude Stein. I went to Boulevard Haussmann and to the Bois de Boulogne with Albertine. Everything I saw seemed vividly déjà vu, but I was seeing what I had read.

I took the train to Illiers, to see the aunt’s house and the village Proust used for much of Combray. I took a very early train and got off at Chartres. It was a stormy day, so dark no light came through the stained-glass windows. An old woman prayed at a side chapel and a boy was playing the organ. No one else was there. It was too dark to see the stone floor but it was worn smooth as satin. A dim light that came through the dirty clear-glass windows showed the intricate carvings in sharp relief. The exquisite stone figures seemed especially striking with no color anywhere, the way black-and-white films seem true.

The little train to Illiers was exactly as I had imagined. The dull relentless landscape, the workers and countrywomen, the cane seats. The spire of the church! The train stopped long enough for me to get off. Eerily, there were no cars to be seen, only a bicycle leaning against the wall of the train station. I knew where to go, down the avenue de la Gare under the lime trees, almost bare now in October, the wet leaves muffling my footsteps. Right at rue de Chartres, Florent d’Illiers to the town square. I saw no one at all.

I walked around the village, waiting for the tour of the house, which began at ten. I did finally see some people, dressed in such an old-fashioned way that I could have been back in time.

At the gate to Aunt Amiot’s house was an elderly German couple. They rang the bell and smiled and I rang it and smiled too. It sounded just as it was supposed to. Muttering at us through his cigarette, an old man came to let us in. He spoke too quickly for me or the Germans to understand, but it didn’t matter. We followed him through the tiny house. So few stairs for Marcel’s mother to climb! A begonia on the landing seemed out of place. The moldy windowless kitchen not at all “a miniature temple of Venus.”

The three of us stayed for a long time in Marcel’s bedroom, silent. We smiled at one another, but I could tell they too felt a deep sadness. The pitcher, the magic lantern, the little bed.

I stood in the cemented garden. I tried to see the house as a drab, tacky little place, and the town as a typical village, but they kept turning into the garden, the house, the village of Combray and were dear to me.

The dining room was truly ugly. Flocked green wallpaper and massive furniture. It was now a museum, with postcards and books. In a glass-covered stand was a page of original manuscript written in a spidery hand, the ink sepia now, the paper amber. The “page” was several inches thick because each sentence had additional sentences pasted on, like ruffles, with still more clauses pasted on top of those and here and there a word pasted onto a phrase. These appendages were neatly folded down like an accordion, but so dense they fanned apart. The case was sealed but the pasted papers opened and closed, slightly, as if the page were breathing.

Finis,” the old man said, and showed us to the door. I understood that the German woman was inviting me to walk with them to the “Méréglise way.” I thanked them and said that there wasn’t that much time before the train, which they didn’t understand, but when I said the church of Saint Jacques, they nodded. We shook hands, warmly, in the freezing drizzle, and later we turned back to wave.

It was raining hard by the time I got to the church and I was disappointed to find that it was locked. I had started to look for a café when an arthritic, ancient woman called out to me, waving her stick. “J’arrive!” She unlocked a creaking side door and let me into the church. It was dark, lit only by votive candles. She crossed herself and took a feather duster from behind the communion rail, flicked it everywhere as she led me around, talking softly without teeth. I understood that she was Matilde and eighty-nine. She was the caretaker of the church, swept it and dusted it and put flowers on the altar. Her pale gray eyes could barely see me and fortunately didn’t see the cobwebs on the cross or the dead Michaelmas daisies. She told me about the church as we walked around. I caught “Eleventh century, rebuilt in the fifteenth.” I put some money in the alms box and lit three candles. Then I lit another one, for me or for her. I knelt on the cold wood and said a Hail Mary. I was exhausted and hungry now. But there it was, the pew of the Duchesse of Guermantes. I wanted to sit there quietly. To be, well, perdu, but instead I got lost with Matilde. She crossed herself again, genuflected before the altar, and knelt next to me. Suddenly she grabbed my arm and cawed, “Berenice! Petite Berenice!” She embraced me then and kissed both my cheeks, happy to see me again and how was my mother, Antoinette. She hadn’t seen us for many years. She thought I lived in Tansonville, where she was born. She kept telling me about people in Illiers (my mother was from Illiers), asking me about my family, not waiting for answers. She heard so poorly that she didn’t notice my poor French. She asked if I had married. “Oui. Mais il est mort!” She was so sorry to hear this, her eyes swam with tears. When I told her I had to leave for the train, that I lived in Paris now, she kissed my cheeks again. She didn’t cry, stated matter-of-factly that she would never see me again, that she would be dead soon, probably.

I cried unreasonably on the way to the train station. I had a very bad lunch at the town’s only inn.

On the train to Paris I tried to remember any bed from my own childhood, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t really remember my own children’s beds. So many bassinets and cribs and bunk beds, trundle beds, hide-a-beds, waterbeds. None seemed as real to me as the little bed in Illiers.

The next day I went to see Proust’s grave at Père Lachaise. It was a beautiful clear day and the old tombs clustered together like Nevelson sculptures. Old women knitted on benches and there were cats everywhere. Perhaps it was because it was so early I saw few people, only caretakers and the knitters, a stocky man in a blue windbreaker. I had a map, and it was fun searching for Chopin and Sarah Bernhardt, Victor Hugo and Artaud, Oscar Wilde. Proust was buried with his parents and his brother. Poor brother, imagine. There were many bouquets of Parma violets on Proust’s black grave. His shiny black tomb seemed vulgar against the pale worn stone throughout the cemetery. It must take about a hundred years to look aged and beautiful, like Eloise and Abelard’s or the man whose tomb said IL A FROID.

I started walking quickly down the tree-lined paths, partly because it was getting cold and windy but also because the man in the windbreaker was always about half a block behind me. The wind blew my map away just as rain began pouring down. I ran toward where I thought the exit was, but finally had to jump a railing and find shelter inside a mossy crypt. Except for being cold it was wonderful watching the yellow and red leaves blowing in whirlwinds from the trees, the silver sheets of rain darkening the stones. But it kept getting darker and colder, and I heard not just the wind howling but moans, anguished cries. Mournful dirge-like songs, diabolical laughter. I told myself I was crazy, but I was very frightened and I became convinced that the man in the windbreaker was death, come for me. Then the band of Jim Morrison fans ran past, their boombox playing, “This is the end, my friend!” I felt pretty ridiculous. I left the crypt and tried to follow the sound of their voices since now I was hopelessly lost. It would seem logical to catch death, that hour in Père Lachaise as I ran and ran and there was no way out. I could hear traffic and horns from afar, but there was not a soul to be seen, not any cats or birds, not even the man in the windbreaker.

No, it wasn’t where I caught death, although when I sat down to rest I did wonder. What if I died there of exposure? I had no papers, no ID at all. Should I write my name down and add, “Please bury me here in Père Lachaise?” But I had no pen. I decided to walk in a completely straight line on one path. I would at last come to a wall and would luckily choose the direction which led outside. I was faint with hunger, my beautiful Italian shoes had stretched in the rain and were making blisters. I came in sight of a wall just as I also saw a familiar sad and unkempt grave in the middle of the well-tended ones with fresh flowers. This had been close to Colette, who was near the gate and the flower vendors. Dear Colette, she was still there. The gates were locked and death crossed my mind again, but a man came out of a booth and let me out. The flowers were gone, but a taxi was at the curb.

I ate in a Greek restaurant near my hotel, then had espresso and a pastry, two espressos and pastries. I smoked and watched people passing by and that’s when I first wondered if I could catch death, the way I had caught sleep. When people died, were they aware of it, the moment it came for them? As he was dying, Stephen Crane told his friend Robert Barr, “It isn’t bad. You feel sleepy—and you don’t care. Just a little dreamy anxiety about which world you’re really in, that’s all.”

When people died, were they aware of it, the moment it came for them? As he was dying, Stephen Crane told his friend Robert Barr, “It isn’t bad. You feel sleepy—and you don’t care. Just a little dreamy anxiety about which world you’re really in, that’s all.”

Croissant and café crème the next morning and then I went to the Louvre. They were building the pyramid so it was as hard to get into the museum as it was to get out of the cemetery. At last I have seen the Louvre. Just walking miles trying to get in was thrilling. It is monumental. I never knew anything so vast. Maybe the first time I crossed the Mississippi.

The inside of the Louvre was as elegant and grand as I had ever imagined. I had seen beautiful photographs of the Victory of Samothrace. And of course I love her because of Mrs. Bridge. But nothing had prepared me for the enormity of the hall. For the way she stands, so regal, so, well, victorious, above the crowds in that space.

The first day I went very slowly, reverently. Not because of the art, although the Victory and Ingres made me shiver, many things did, but because of the grandeur of the place, the history of it. Although there were mummies and Anubi and caskets, I wasn’t preoccupied with death. In fact, an embracing couple on an Etruscan sarcophagus was so beautiful I felt better about Jean-Paul and Simone.

I walked from room to room, upstairs and downstairs and back upstairs again, walking with my hands clasped behind my back as I imagined Henry James might. I thought of Baudelaire, who had seen Delacroix himself here, showing an old lady around the museum. I loved everything. Saint Sebastian. Rembrandts. I never saw the Mona Lisa. There was always a line in front of her and she was behind a window just like they have in liquor stores in Oakland.

I sat outside at a café in the Tuileries. The waiter brought me a croque monsieur and a café crème. He said he would be inside if I needed him; it was too cold to stay out there. I sat there wishing I could talk to somebody about everything I had seen. It was hard not being able to have a real conversation in French. I missed my sons. I felt sad about Bruno and my parents. Not sad because I missed them, but because I really didn’t. And when I died it would be the same. Dying is like shattering mercury. So soon it all just flows back together into the quivering mass of life. I told myself to lighten up, I’d been alone too long. But still I sat there, looking back on my life, a life filled with beauty and love actually. It seemed I had passed through it as I had the Louvre, watching and invisible.

I went inside and paid the waiter, told him he was right, it was too cold out there. On my way back to the hotel, I stopped at a beauty salon and had my hair washed. I asked the hairdresser to rinse it still another time, so desperately I wanted to be touched.

The second day at the Louvre I enjoyed going back to the works I had really liked. Bronzino’s sculptor. Géricault’s horses! Derby at Epsom. To think he died falling from a horse, only thirty-three years old. I turned into a Flemish room and then somehow I was back with Rembrandt, and when I took the stairs down I was in the mummy room. Then I got really lost, like in the cemetery, even though there were thousands of people around me. I took some stairs I had not seen before. I sat on the landing to rest. The strange thing is that I knew that outside there were some people in the streets. Maybe five or six tables with coffee drinkers at the café in the Tuileries. But inside the Louvre there were hordes of people. Thousands and thousands, going upstairs, downstairs, streaming past the pharaohs and the Apollos and Napoleon’s salon.

Perhaps we were all caught inside a microcosm. What a laughable word to use about the Louvre. Perhaps we were all part of a performance piece that had been lovingly placed in someone’s tomb, along with the jewelry and slaves, all of us mummified but moving cleverly upstairs and downstairs past all the works of art whose creators were long dead. Past the Rembrandts and Fragonard’s The Bolt, whose poor lovers were long dead too. Probably they were only models, having to earn their wages for hours and days in that uncomfortable position. Stuck that way for eternity! I had no idea where the staircase was going to lead me. Oh, good, Etruscans. Since no one spoke to me or even looked at me, it added to the illusion that we were all performers for eternity in the Immortality piece, so I ignored them also as I took my random turns and stairways until I was in a near hypnotic trance and, it felt, at one with the goddess of Hathor, with the Odalisque.

I went back to the Louvre three or four more times, each time seeing new sculptures or tapestries or jewelry, but also losing myself until I felt as if I were flying out of time.

At last I would force myself to leave, have oysters and pâté at the Apollinaire and go fall into bed and sleep without reading or thinking. I went back to the Louvre three or four more times, each time seeing new sculptures or tapestries or jewelry, but also losing myself until I felt as if I were flying out of time.

An interesting phenomenon was that if I took a wrong turn and came upon the Nike herself I was immediately restored to reality. The last day I was in the Louvre, I suspected that a staircase would lead me to her, so to avoid that I crossed the room and went through a narrow hall, down some unfamiliar stairs.

My heart was beating. I was excited, but wasn’t sure why. I came upon a new hall. A wing entirely unknown to me. I had read nothing about it, seen no photographs. It was an odd and charming assortment of everyday artifacts from different periods. Tapestries and tea sets, knives and forks. Chamber pots and dishes! Snuffboxes and clocks and writing desks and candelabras. Each little room contained lovely mundane objects. A footstool. A watch. Scissors. Like death, this section was not extraordinary. It was so unexpected.

Lucia Berlin (1936–2004) worked brilliantly but sporadically throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Her stories are inspired by her early childhood in various Western mining towns; her glamorous teenage years in Santiago, Chile; three failed marriages; a lifelong problem with alcoholism; her years spent in Berkeley, New Mexico, and Mexico City; and the various jobs she held to support her writing and her four sons. Sober and writing steadily by the 1990s, she took a visiting writer’s post at the University of Colorado in Boulder in 1994 and was soon promoted to associate professor. In 2001, in failing health, she moved to Southern California to be near her sons. She died in 2004 in Marina del Rey.

Lucia’s books include A Manual for Cleaning Women, Welcome Home, and Evening in Paradise.