French Class: The Perils of Pierre

I transferred to Wright State University in the winter of 1982 to get a bachelor of arts degree.  My academic advisor told me that I needed a foreign language, and I signed up for French 101 that summer.  The class time was 8 a.m..  I worked third shift on weekends, and transferred to a normal sleep schedule each Monday so that I could stay awake for day classes.  8 in the morning presented a challenge early in the week, but I adjusted by Wednesday.  But if I arrived groggy and slow witted, my professor, Pierre Horne, had a manner of teaching that woke me up immediately.  He often placed his pointer finger on the side of one nostril and intoned the French word “un”.  The  nasal sound of the extended vowel, which reminded me of a garbage disposal whining after it had ground up its last bit of refuse, made the underside of my brain itch with irritation.  I  also stirred to a functional level of alertness when the professor spouted a steady stream of mushy vowels and consonants while pointing to objects in the room.  He paused to ask students questions about what he had just spoken, and chose his victims randomly.  When he called on me he stared with an expectant look that said, “Only a complete moron would fail to understand the beauty and majesty of the French language.”  After my inevitable moment of humiliation, of sputtering the few words I recalled that may or may not have been apropos, he always called on a willowy blonde two seats up the row.  She would answer at length in perfect French, and he would compliment her on her impeccable Parisian accent.  I hated that girl.

Eventually I picked up a understanding of French grammar as the professor began to relent and explain the basics in English.  I passed the first test but was stumped by one question.  Professor Horne spoke a phrase in French, and we were supposed to translate it into English.  He said, “Les voix des anges.”  That sounded like “Lay vwah dez on jzuh.”  I asked him to repeat it, and he obliged with a superior smile.  I understood that “les” was “the”, and “des” was “of the” but had no idea what “voix” and “anges” meant.  We hadn’t used those words in class when we discussed going to the library, our dietary preferences, the names of pieces of furniture, and the color of Gabrielle‘s hair, blouse and skirt.  I asked the professor after the test for the correct translation of the phrase, and he told me it meant “the voices of angels”.  I later paged through the text book several times and finally found “les voix des anges” in a caption beneath a photograph of Notre Dame in Paris.  The choir, apparently, sounded like the voices of angels when they sang in the cathedral’s choir loft.  Why hadn’t Gabrielle, my fictitious amie, stressed the importance of that nugget of information before the test?

One unfortunate lad joined the class late.  He had been in Israel studying Hebrew and found the transition into French difficult.  He annoyed Professor Horne especially when he pronounced “je”, the French word for “I” as “juh” instead of “jzzzuh”.  Pierre got incensed every time the kid butchered the French language and would cry out, “What is this juh-juh?  There is no such thing as juh!”

When the professor was in a happier mood he would muse about the oddities of American culture and the backward nature of life in Ohio.  He related anecdotes about a disastrous wine tasting at a local winery, the foulness of peanut butter,  and the rudeness of a bank clerk who said, “Hello, Pierre,” after she read his name on a form.  He expected her to address him formally as Mr. Horne as she and he were perfect strangers.  In France no one would dare to assume such intimacy (using someone’s first name) until a relationship had evolved much further.  (Perhaps his father had addressed his mother as Madame Horne until after the birth of their third child.)

I had to take two more semesters of French and chose another professor.  This man, whose name escapes me, spoke English with a French accent spiked with New York gutturals.  He had been born in Russia, escaped with his parents to Paris, and eventually settled in Brooklyn.  Having learned to speak three languages by the time he was a teenager he held the French language in lower esteem.  It was one of many.  He was much kinder and patient with us, and made no disparaging remarks about Ohio and the United States.  He did show us the 1950s film noir, “Hiroshima Mon Amour”, in which a French woman tells her Japanese lover that she was horrified when she and her friends listened to a news report about the Hiroshima nuclear bombing.  Her eyes filled with tears as she whispered to her Amour Japonais, “When we spoke of Hiroshima we said, ‘Those American bastards!'”  Two questions occurred to me after I read that subtitle:  Why would a French woman, a survivor of the Nazi Occupation, sympathize with an WWII ally of Germany? And why did the French flaunt a bias against Americans as if they were making a principled stand?

My new professor was a friend of Professor Horne and knew that many of us had taken his colleague for the introductory course.  He told us that Horne was on sabbatical in Paris where he intended to absorb as much of the latest French slang as possible.  I expected that our snobbish professor would be glorying in a return to the land of his birth where the cuisine enchanted the palate and bank tellers greeted customers with frosty aloofness.  We heard the opposite, however.  Apparently Professor Horne was homesick.  He found the French hostile and rude and missed the open friendliness of folks in the Midwest.  Pierre longed to return to Ohio, Wright State, and his sleepy, dull-witted students who insisted on butchering the most beautiful language ever spoken.

I took perverse pride in the fact that we had somehow managed to pull him down to our level.  Perhaps on his return he would dash out to the local supermarket and buy a loaf of spongy white American bread, a giant tub of sticky peanut butter, and a jug of Ohio wine that “tasted like turpentine”.   He might even beam with pleasure when the cashier called him “hon” and asked him about his weird accent (“Are you from Canada, Pee-air?”).



The Curious Case of Mr. Peacock (Friendship Failure)

1983: Peacock turns to me and gets a slightly cruel look on his face. He tries to mask his caustic assessment of my character by speaking with a casually objective tone of voice. He says, “People have been asking where you’ve been and whether you and I are still friends. I tell them that you use up people, and when you’ve had your fill you just move on. That’s fair, isn’t it?” I stare at him and say nothing in return. But I cast my judgment on him as I silently conclude that he is a man who can never let go of people. He lost an older sister when she was killed by a drunk driver in an auto accident, and he has never fully recovered. Peacock doesn’t cut his connections with a friend or a lover when the positive energy and good will have faded away or burned out. He holds onto them even as he gets more bitter and critical, and doesn’t understand why an object of his obsession eventually flees.

Spring 1978: I pass through a broken door frame and skirt a suspicious puddle of ooze on the scuffed tiles of a dimly lit hallway as I make my way to his door. He lives in a tiny dorm room in Stewart Hall on the campus of the University of Dayton. I have a bottle of Rhine wine in one hand and a Janis Ian album in the other. Peacock lets me in and produces a joint, and we smoke, drink, and talk until early in the morning. The sound of the music takes on cleaner, sharper edges and sometimes echoes inside my head when the singer hits the high notes. When we get very drunk and high he tells me that he dated a girl in high school who later became a lesbian. He worries that he did something to push her over the edge. I point out that the probable cause for her conversion was the parish priest who got into her pants when she was 17. Peacock doesn’t listen and continues to stare sadly at the floor.

Fall 1978: Peacock discovers that I’m dating a girl named Anne. I’m still on the rebound from my disaster break up with Madonna, and ask her out in an attempt to have a relationship with someone who is less manipulative. Peacock thinks that my choice is hilarious. He teases me by imitating her goofball laugh, and continues his impersonation by saying, “Oh Denny, hyuh-hyuh, kiss me, hyuh!” I try to defend her, but he’s persistent and begins to mimic some of her facial expressions. I laugh against my will and feel both disloyal to Anne and embarrassed by our relationship. I continue to watch Peacock mock both her and me, and realize that he is putting Anne and me on the same level. I thought that I had done her a favor by condescending to ask her out, but as Peacock’s ridicule slowly deflates my ego I realize that she and I are equals, and even suspect that she is the better one of our two.

Summer 1979: Peacock is at the wheel of his AMC Eagle. He’s smoking a cigarette and nervously fiddling with the radio dial. We listen to a cut from Breakfast in America by Super Tramp, and when the music fades he gets serious. He tells me that nothing is sure in his life except for his certainty of his moral goodness. The only thing that Peacock knows with complete confidence is that he is good person and will always choose to do the right thing. I identify several flaws in his argument but say nothing. I wonder whether it will ever be possible to settle a disagreement or win an argument with him.

Fall 1980: Peacock, his buddy Mike, Sue (Mike’s younger sister) and her sour faced girlfriend sit around a kitchen table drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. Peacock and I are both interested in Sue, but she’s making it obvious that her latest frustrations with attending college are her one concern. We slowly get drunk except for Mike. He hangs back and plays the part of our ersatz Daddy. He smokes a pipe and smiles benignly at our foolishness. We all end up at a state park sitting by a little lake at dawn. The drunken buzz is wearing off and the dull weight of a hang over starts to press down. We smoke the last few cigarettes in the pack and stare glumly at the sun as it peeks over the horizon. Birds begin to chirp all around us and they grow ever more annoyingly cheerful as they remain impervious to our group’s collective misery.

Peacock likes girls with big chests who look like they grew up on a farm. Patti fits the description perfectly. She is staring at him from across the hall as our genetics class waits for the door to the classroom to be unlocked. It’s obvious that she wants him to ask her out, but Peacock continues to lean against the wall and look at her with an uncertain smile on his face. He never gets around to calling her up. A few months later he mentions that he’s in a close friendship with a woman who is engaged to get married. The day of the nuptials is coming up soon, and Peacock is upset because he knows that she would be much happier with him. And to make matters worse, the bride-to-be has just unexpectedly ended their friendly visits. A few years later he tries to charm the girlfriend of his roommate, Jack, and doesn’t understand when Jack takes determined steps to keep him away from his future wife. Peacock is sure that things would be much better, all the way around, if the better man won the lady.

Summer 1981: Peacock sits in a straight backed chair at a table near the front door of his rental house on Alberta St. I carry boxes down the stairs, cross behind him, and take them out to my Pinto wagon. He glares at my back when I walk out and at a point slightly to the left of my nose when I walk back in. When I stop and try to explain my reasons for moving he refuses to respond. After I carry my last load to my car I make one more attempt to salvage what is left of our friendship. He crosses his arms and sneers while I try to get through to him. I lose my temper, bend down and shout in his ear, “You never listen, you self-righteous prick!” I want to force him to break his silence, to hit me if necessary. A fistfight would be a better way of ending things. But he stays rooted to his seat, and I stomp out.

Summer 1995: I’m watching my daughter play on a swing set in a park a few blocks away from Peacock’s rental house in Kettering. Peacock has made the effort to rekindle our friendship after an estrangement of 10 years. We trade visits when he passes through Orlando and I come to Kettering to see my family. He seems to like my children, and we speak to each other with nearly the same friendliness and ease that we enjoyed back when we first met. He remembers incidents from the past that I can barely recall. He knows the names of a few of my girlfriends at the University of Dayton that have faded from my memory. It appears that he lived my life with greater intensity during those years than I did.

The conversation takes an unpleasant turn, however, when he brings up a few arguments that we had back then. He wants me to apologize and admit my fault, and I do that up to a point. He takes no responsibility for his part in our disagreements. We fall into an uneasy lull and watch Annie slide down a slide. He breaks the silence when he mentions that he is a member of a struggling congregation in downtown Dayton. He is proud that he tithes ten percent of his income and sits on one of the parish committees. They couldn’t do without him.

Christmas 1997: I’m sitting on a sofa at my parents’ house. The high fever that struck me on Christmas Day has abated, but I’m still weak. Peacock shows up with a box of fancy nuts and gives them to my parents. He talks with them in an animated way and pointedly ignores me. When he glances in my direction he has a sneer on his face that looks familiar.

I send him a card and letter on his birthday a few months later and he doesn’t acknowledge them. I never hear from him again. He has finally had his fill of me and has decided to move on.

Fast Food Work is Fun: Part II–Christmas Party

In 1981 some friends and I rented a house in a neighborhood known as Slidertown near the southern edge of downtown Dayton.  We were a group of artists and students from the University of Dayton, and used the building as a collective studio.

That year I worked full time at Godfather’s Pizza to save up for a return to school to finish my B.F.A.  I decided to throw a party for my coworkers while the studio artists were away on Christmas vacation.  I tidied up the main room, hung some garland, made a huge pot of barbecue using my Mom’s recipe, set up a record player and bought a six pack of cheap beer.

Folks arrived in twos and threes and brought snack food, wine, beer and booze.  There was a keg outside of dubious origin that may have been lifted from the restaurant’s premises.  The party was subdued for the first hour or so, but picked up as more alcohol was consumed and inhibitions began to fall away.

I stepped outside to get away from the noise and burgeoning chaos and talked to a day manager and Debbie, a night shift manager from another store.  Snow was falling lightly in big, puffy flakes and started to accumulate.  Street lights sparkled on the surface of the snow and on the ice in the bare branched trees along the street, and the night became hushed and still.  We heard a jingling sound and muffled clop-clops, and when we turned to look up the street we saw a man wearing a buckskin coat and cowboy hat riding a large white mare.  The horse had a belled blanket on its back.  The man dismounted, tied his horse to a post in a bent chain link fence and helped himself to some beer.

I never learned the cowboy’s identity and never found out why he was riding a horse on Brown Street–the nearest stable was at least 10 miles away–as I was nominated to drive Billy home.  Billy was the son of a friend of the restaurant owner.  He had the eyes and lips of a young girl, seemed very thoughtful but was a little mentally slow.  He appeared to be sensitive, and while he could do the work at the store he often seemed on the verge of tears.  Now he was on the verge of passing out, and I had to help him into my Pinto station wagon.  He lived in Centerville, a wealthy suburb on the far south side, and I had to stop for gas.  Billy began to dry heave when I pulled up to the pump, and I ordered him to open his window and hang his head outside my car.  I was flustered as I filled my tank, and discovered the next day that I had forgotten to put the gas cap back on.

We made it a few miles down the road when Billy threw up on the side of the car. He was rendered speechless for another mile, but was able to give me slurred directions when we got nearer to his home and he began to recognize familiar landmarks. We eventually made it to his neighborhood.  The houses were mini-mansions set far back from the road amidst stands of maple and oak trees.  Billy got out of the car when I slowed to a stop as I tried to decipher his final directions, and he started to stagger through shallow drifts of snow beneath the trees.  I called out to him to try to get him back into the car, but he waved and shouted something unintelligible to me as he stumbled up a driveway that may have belonged to his father.  I waited to see if he got inside as I feared that he might freeze to death in the cold, but he waved me off as he pounded on the front door.

When I returned to the party three fourths of the booze, beer and wine was gone, nearly all the food had been eaten, and folks were scattered all over the house in small clusters.  I could smell spilled beer and pot and the delicate aroma of boozy vomit.  Dee sat in the upstairs hallway holding her stomach and moaning.  She told me that she was in a lot of pain and that she had drunk too much.  I offered to take her to a hospital, but she refused.  She was afraid that her abusive husband would find out that she had gotten sick on Jack Daniels again.  Megan, a dark haired beauty too young to be drinking anything stronger than root beer, told me again and again as she struggled to remain standing that Dee was all right.  Buford was lying on his back a few doors down, and he gurgled to me with a smile on his face when I checked up on him.  Downstairs someone cranked up Molly Hatchet on the stereo, and it was nearly loud enough to drown out the sound of a crash.  I ran downstairs and found an overturned trash can on the floor in the main room.  Beer cans, bottles, paper plates and plastic cups were spilled out in a nasty jumble, and there was broken glass nearby.  A couple rolled around on a sofa a few feet away, and the throes of their passion may have caused one of them to kick over the can.

I retreated outside again, lit a cigar and stared at the stars, and pondered my folly.  The snow stopped and the temperature dropped down to near zero, and the chill did wonders to clear my head and force me to reconsider nearly all my choices in life.

Around 2:00 I went back inside and told everyone to leave.  They staggered out in twos and threes, Dee among them having recovered as predicted by the raven haired Megan, and they wobbled and wavered their separate ways.  I got up at noon the next day and started to gather trash and sweep up party debris inside the house and out in the yard.  (Nothing calls the spirit of the holidays to mind like the sight of a crushed beer can next to a pile of cigarette butts in the snow.)

When I went back to work the next day Buford shook my hand and thanked me for throwing the best party ever.