I Am (Not) Jean Andre Fournier

J. Fournier

My name is Jean Andre Fournier, but I am not a baker.

I was born on May 15, 1888 in the small town of Keithsburg, which is in the south of France. It was named after the famous American town of Keithsburg, Illinois, a town once said to have been visited by Jerry Lewis. Keithsburg--the one in France, that is--likes to think of itself as a river town, even through there is no river nearby.

If you are not French, you may not have heard of me, but I'm a pretty famous French philosopher. What, you haven't heard of me? Then you must be an American, or something like that. And if you haven't heard of me, I could be anybody writing this story. For all you know, I could just be an unknown writer writing about a character named Jean Andre Fournier. But let me ask you this, if I wasn't actually Jean Andre Fournier, would I know I was born on a Friday, the last day of the week? Not likely. And would I know it had been a rainy pessimistic week, a week that everybody was glad to see the end of? No. It proves I am who I say I am.

Actually, it wasn't a Friday. It was a Sunday. A sunny Sunday. My mother told me my birth day was a beautiful day in the spring. Late spring, with late-spring flowers in full bloom. Flowers all over the place. My mother's favorite flowers were purple and white and orange-striped crocuses. She would have planted them all along our front walk. When I was a child playing in the yard, those crocuses worried me because they attract hornets. Never bees, only hornets. Hornet all over the place, buzzing around those crocus flowers all the blessed day. Don't ask me why there would have been so many hornets. I don't know. Maybe hornets just like crocuses. Maybe they desire to possess those silly orange flowers, so they drive the bees away to have them all for themselves. Something like that. I bet.

But if I was to tell the truth, I would have to admit I don't actually remember seeing a single hornet when I was a kid. But I bet I would have been afraid of them if I had. I would have thought about them all the time. Deep thoughts. Like philosophers do.

But you know how these family stories get carried down through the generations. "The child is afraid of bees," they would have said, sipping their French tea on the unnecessarily wide white French porch. The porch would have had fat white columns at both ends. Fat French columns.

"They are not bees," I would have protested. "They are hornets. Hornets are much more dangerous than bees."

But as I said, I don't remember any hornets. Do they have hornets in Illinois? I don't know. How could I know? I'm French, remember? A famous French philosopher.

I grew up in Keithsburg, like I said. Not Keithsburg, Illinois, Keithsburg, France. It's where a lot of us famous French philosophers grew up. But don't bother to look for Keithsburg on any French maps. It's not on a single map. They don't allow it.

Keithsburg was a wonderful city for a child to grow up in, especially back then in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Back then, Keithsburg had broad avenues lined with touching Cezanne houses. That's right. I'm not kidding. Real Cezanne houses. Picture it. Muted tones of tan and orange, rusty-red tile roofs, black squares to indicate windows. And there would have been cheerful-looking people strolling down those broad avenues, people dressed to be seen, and Monet kids with surprisingly bland faces. Playing. With hoops, or whatever they played with back then.

Ah yes, the streets were the place to be back then. Not like now with all this angry streaming traffic that chokes streets and people alike, not to mention the panhandlers that are everywhere these days. Have you see how many of them there are all over town now? Too many. It's sad. Homeless, I guess, with their plaintive pleas for help hastily written on scraps of cardboard. I give them what I can, but it's like spitting in the ocean. That's what my father used to say: "Might as well spit in the ocean." It was one of his favorite sayings. Do I help them by giving them a few coins? Who knows? Philosophically speaking, we philosophers would say they are making meaning for themselves. They are creating their own reality. Maybe it's true. Maybe it's something in their brains that makes them who they are. We famous philosophers always say reality is created by the individual--by our individual brains, that is.

Okay, as I was saying, nice little French town. Broad avenues. People walking. No homeless.

And no river.

Now for the important character development part.

Let's start with my French father. My father was a prosperous man. A man of business.

No he wasn't. Just kidding. Men of business are not all that interesting. Actually, my father died when I was only seven years old. He died of some terrible disease, something really deadly that people died of back then. Left us destitute, my mother and me. Left us penniless after he died of whatever deadly disease it was he had.

But I still remember my father. He was a tall man. With a thick black mustache. He was always sneaking kisses on the back of my mother's neck. It made her giggle. As a child, I wondered if it was his mustache that tickled her, but now that I am a grown up philosopher I know it was something else that was tickling her, a concept, something in her brain, a thing created by her cortex, some reality she was personally creating.

Okay, let's review. My father was an elegant Frenchman. Always wore a black beret. Now, thinking back on it, I wonder if he was growing bald. He was a prideful man, that's for sure. The ruler of his domain, our huge French house. He walked around our huge French house speaking French and smoking Turkish cigarettes that filled the air with heavy aromatic smoke that my mother had to chase out of the house with a flapping dishtowel. I also remember him as a coffee drinker: black coffee, thick as paste, coffee that to a young child like me smelled like wet, rotting plants, the sort of odor one might find in a mysterious dark jungle where lions and tigers roam.

Too bad he died when I was so young. I would have asked him things. You know, things about life and . . . other important things.

You know what I think? I think if a person can't remember his father very well, he might as well create one. An interesting one. But not a cop. Definitely not a cop. Cops are not all that interesting. Not at home anyhow. Cops leave for work every morning wearing a crisp brown uniform that through a child's eyes looks pretty damn uncomfortable. But I suppose some discomfort is well worth it if you get to drive a motorcycle and walk around with that much authority. And he had a gun too. A big gun in a black leather holster. He put it on as soon as he woke up. He even wore it while he ate breakfast. That always seemed odd to me. If he didn't like those eggs my mother cooked every morning for him, was he going to shoot her? Kids have funny thoughts like that.

Now about me. I was a sickly child. No surprise there. What famous philosopher wasn't a sickly kid? Being a sickly kid gives you a certain perspective on life others don't have. A philosophical perspective.

Because I was sickly, and because my father died when I was very young, I was a pampered child. The problem was, my father left us no money, like I already said, so my mother and I had to go live with my grandparents. Which meant we were now both children.

My grandmother was a strict Catholic. For some reason, she enjoyed going to funerals. If anyone in our small town died, she went to the funeral. Whether she knew the person or not. Her reasoning was that it was such a small town she must know the person from somewhere. She had a whole drawer full of delicate hankies used solely and expressly for the purpose of dabbing at the corners of the eyes in affected sadness at the loss of the dear departed. I know this because I often prowled her things when she was gone. (I'll tell you a little secret: I even tried on some of her underclothes one time.)

I would have also had a French grandfather. My French grandfather would have been a non-believer. Never once went to church, as far as I know. He made fun of his wife's Catholic values. Called it superstitious nonsense. Poppycock. As she left for church each Sunday, it was his ritual to shout out the window at her: "Foutaises!" (which is French for hogwash).

I of course, had no choice but to go to church with her. I didn't mind. I liked walking beside her, smelling her heavy perfume. To me, it smelled like a whole bunch of flower smells all mixed together, except more chemically smelling than real flowers. I was proud to walk beside her because on those long walks to church she was no longer the old woman who moped around the house in an apron and heavy shoes, but a strutting showcase of unironic style. On Sundays, she somehow transformed herself into a different person. It was done via a haughty attitude and a carefully arranged assemblage of clothing, clothing that was sure to catch the eye of everyone who saw her pass. You had to see it to believe it, but I'll try to describe it anyhow. First off, she always had a shawl seemingly carelessly draped over her shoulders. Those shawls were always colored to match the season. And she always wore the same white walking dress, a dress that was about as fancy as you can get, all decked out with pleats and ephalets that made me think of an elegant military uniform, the kind of outfit a great general would wear (if he was to wear a dress). Over that was a heavy mantle-like pelisse of couleur d'oreille d'ours velvet that almost touched the ground. It was important to her that her outfit revealing nothing of her thick ankles, and little of her remarkably big feet.

And of course, I must also make mention of her small purse, which was always carried in the grasp of both of her hands, in front, down low, as if it provided an additional layer of protection beyond cloth and nylon to shield what lay beneath. She never went outside without that little purse, and it fascinated me, not only because it had the shape and color of a silvery seashell, but also because I knew what was in it (I snooped). Only I knew that hidden beneath the various bottles of artificial odors and containers of coloured powders and face paints was a round tin with a tight screw-on lid that contained a mysterious whitish-tan powder that after only a few sniffs off of the back of her hand somehow had the power to transform her from a moody shrew who cast doubts on the chastity of nearly every woman she passed to a joyful devil-may-care enjoyer of the day and appreciater of birds and clouds as we wandered our way toward a discrete little neighborhood bar where she sat at her special table back in a dark corner mischievously sipping a milky green liquid she referred to as her absent medicine (pronounced with a lisping th on the end). She partook of that medicine each Sunday on the way home from church, and each time, just as we were about to leave the place, she always whispered the same cheerful message to me: "Let's just let this be our little secret, shall we, Jean, my dear boy?"

So there you have it. A sickly child, mostly taken care of by a strict-Catholic, funeral-going grandmother who was addicted to a whitish-brown-powder and a green drink. No wonder I grew up to be a famous philosopher.

What's that you say? What about my mother? Well, I don't like to talk about her all that much. Especially not in a postmodern story like this. Mostly she stayed in her room and cried a lot. I remember her as a shadowy figure lying in her lonely bed in a darkened room that was upstairs, way down there at the end of the dark hallway. I can hardly remember what she looked like because she always had a wet washcloth over her eyes. The only person who was ever allowed to go into that room was her mother, my strict-Catholic grandmother. I guess my mother never quite got over that phone call that told her he was dead. Somebody on the phone that night said his body had been found next to his police motorcycle. Out on some highway. Possibly an accident, they said. Raining, they said. Hit and run.

No way to ever know what really happened out there on that rain-slicked highway. A phone call in the middle of the night to say he was dead, mother crying and crying, retreating to her room for good. At least that's my memory of it. I was only seven years old when it happened. Too young to understand it all. It was a long time ago. So long ago, he sometimes seems like a dream father.

But I still have his bent-up police badge. It's real, at least. The metal feels cool in your hand when you take it out of its special box. Cool and reassuringly real. It's the only thing I have to remember him by. Without that bent-up badge, he could have been a father I made up in my brain. That's what we humans do, you know. We make things up, and then we think they're real. It's true. Ask any famous French philosopher.

Copyright 2010. All rights reserved.

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