Read the introduction by guest editor Christine Schutt.

 


 

City of Forgiveness

“Sarna,” he said, turning to his elder daughter, the less polite of the two teenaged girls. “Bob Smith owes me money. You and your sister go to Paris and make sure he pays.” It was understood that the girls would run this errand for their father, then use a bit of the money they would collect from Bob Smith to enjoy the rest of their week abroad. “Don’t spend too much,” their father warned needlessly. He trusted them to be frugal, eat from cheap cafes and supermarkets, spend money only on the Metro and museum admission tickets. He wasn’t worried. Both girls had studied French in school, and unlike his son—a gambler, a goon—they were worldly and temperate, he thought, very well-behaved. His only concern was for his younger daughter, Oona, who had asthma and allergies and suffered from infrequent but profound bouts of fatigue. And of course he hoped that Bob Smith would pay up quickly, be a gentleman, and send the girls on their way.

Bob Smith lived in a flat in the Oberkampf, upstairs from a shop that dealt in antique upholstery. He was nearly forty, American, had the boxy jaw of a movie star, the wide smile of a news anchor, but he’d taken up the Parisian style of elegant dishevelment. His shirt looked worn and stank from sweat but was beautifully tailored. His shoes and belt were crinkled, old Italian leather. Sarna and Oona followed him down his dusty hallway. His flat, smelling of varnish and vinegar and smoke, was a mess. Oona carried the gift she’d helped her father wrap in funny pages from the Sunday paper back home. She caught her foot on the uneven floorboards and stumbled as Smith showed the two girls into the kitchen. Sarna hissed at her sister in embarrassment, grabbed the gift and held it against her hip.

“Welcome, welcome. Welcome to Paris, girls,” Smith smiled. “But please, don’t sit down,” he said, batting the smoke in the air with his outstretched hands. As he turned toward them, the girls took note: His chestnut brown hair was greasy but carefully combed. His moustache had been shaved into a long thin black stripe above his lip. His mouth flared like a tulip as he sucked on a hand-rolled cigarette and looked down at his kitchen table piled high with stained, cracked, and mustard-splattered bone china plates and bowls. He looked the sisters up and down, then fixed his eyes on Sarna. Her bony legs in thick black stockings plié-ed sarcastically. He stuck out his chin at the gift under her arm. “What’s this—a present? For moi?”

The sisters tittered. Sarna looked around, then set the gift down on the warped parquet floor of the kitchen. Oona coughed. She was taller than Sarna, shapelier, prettier, but wore a baggy avant-garde silhouette which was in fashion at the time. She preferred to dress this way—discreetly, humbly—but despite her wardrobe she could not hide her comely figure from Sarna. Sarna was very jealous.

“We’ve come to collect,” Sarna said.

Smith left his cigarette to burn on the edge of the table and went to look for his billfold. “I’ll get you your money, girls. Just don’t touch anything.” In his search through the sofa’s pillows in the living room, he aroused spectacular motes of dust in the light twisting through the broken window shades. Meanwhile, Sarna took the man’s cigarette from the table and puffed on it for a moment. Oona coughed again. “My wife,” Smith explained from the living room, “doesn’t clean.”

Mrs. Smith was French, it was clear, and appeared just then, but only briefly, through the glass doors separating the kitchen from the bedroom. She wore a thin white silk dressing gown, through which Oona spied the round shadows of her nipples. The woman lifted her arms, made strange signs with her fingers like little horns on either side of her head.

“Oona,” Sarna hissed. “You’re staring.”

“We’ve got fleas,” Bob Smith said in a sing-song, returning to the kitchen. “The whole place is crawling with them. They come from downstairs, we think. You can’t imagine our suffering. My wife spends all day in oatmeal baths and clogs up the plumbing. The landlord is furious. But please,” he said, suddenly between them, arm in arm with each. He steered them back down the hallway, showed them the door. “Have dinner with us. There’s a place on the corner. I will tell my wife to get dressed.” Sarna stood up on her toes, tried to look him in the eye, batted her lashes skeptically. “We’ll just get ourselves ready and meet you down there,” Smith reassured her. “Just ten, fifteen minutes. Pick a table in front. The air in back smells like toilette. Five minutes.” The door was shut.

“Let’s go,” said Oona, dutifully heading down the steep, curving staircase. “I’m starving.”

Sarna followed slowly, groaning and clopping down the steps like a goat. “He hasn’t paid yet,” she said. “We’ll wait for him here.” She stopped on the ground floor, in the large foyer of the building. “You go there, into the courtyard. We’ll catch him if he tries to run.”

“Run?” Oona was wide-eyed. She’d once seen thieves make off with her mother’s handbag. It happened in a city cafeteria at night, after her piano lesson, when she was just eight years old. A couple had snatched the tooled leather purse from where it hung off the back of the chair, and her mother had run out after them, onto 32nd Avenue, leaving Oona to stare at her orphaned reflection in the black glass, wheezing and weeping from the stress. She cried often, even at sixteen, eyes leaking from pain or allergen a dozen times a day. She preferred not to dab at her eyes because they were easily irritated and itchy. Instead she let the tears drip down her cheeks. It was her habit to wipe them only when they collected at her chin. Then she’d pinch them away and flick the water off her fingers. “I’m not crying,” she regularly explained to concerned acquaintances and teachers and boys trying to woo her. “I just have terrible allergies.” In the foyer of Bob Smith’s apartment building she let a few tears rill down the seam between her cheek and nose, then licked them away when they reached the Cupid’s bow of her top lip. “You think he’ll try to run?” she asked her sister.

“If he tries to escape through the courtyard, you’ll have to stop him. Just grab him. Throw your arms around him, like this.” Sarna ran to Oona, violently wrapping her skinny arms around the girl’s waist. Oona couldn’t help but melt a bit in her sister’s embrace. They were only a year apart, sixteen and seventeen. Still, Oona looked up to her sister as if to a sage, took her opinions as gospel, craved her love and affection, feared her judgment. They were an odd pair there, hugging at the foot of the stairs. An old woman passed by carrying a mouse-sized poodle in the crook of her arm.

“Comme c’est mignon,” she muttered, and shuffled up the stairs. The scent of rotted roses lingered as the girls held each other and laughed.

Sarna was not very pretty. Her face was severe, grouchy. She wore a tight-fitting black top, her ribs and clavicle sharp against her sister’s bosom. Her full skirt fell just above her knobby knees in thick pleats, the cloth’s intricate patterns evoking the colorful markets of Persia. Her necklace was a vibrant turquoise medallion, clunky and sharp against her sternum. Sarna took after their father in many ways—conniving and charming, good at dancing, clearly Romani, dark eyes, dark hair, skin dark and red and oily. Oona had been spared the hooked nose and wild eyebrows. She and her mother were pale, hazel-eyed, could pass for regular people, a benefit which was used to the advantage of the whole family. But Oona was weak and slinky, like an inchworm, Sarna thought. Indeed, Oona was gentler in style and spirit, wore a muted gray tunic which hung down from her bust like an oblong mumu. Her boots were taupe and plain. Her hair, flat and brown and slippery as silk, had been tied back carelessly with a rubber band. There was something Japanese about her, a young man had once remarked. She wasn’t as smart as Sarna. “Don’t be so shy, Oona,” Sarna said now, bolstering the girl with a slap to her gut. “Tackle him if you need to. I’ll do my best to cut him off here. Wake up.”

Oona nodded and left to pace the courtyard in the dwindling Parisian sunlight, chewing her lip hungrily and fingering the thin strap of her purse on her shoulder. It was dinnertime. She’d adjusted the hands of her wristwatch on the plane, double-checked the time against the clocks in the airport, then again in the small office of their cheap hotel when they’d arrived that afternoon. She hoped they’d make it back there by midnight, as the proprietress insisted they do. The madame was a small woman with big, kerchief-ed grey hair and long teeth, like a Russian wolf. “A minuit,” she’d repeated, spitting. Sarna had snickered about the curfew once she and Oona were alone in their attic room, which smelled of the last occupant’s pungent, woodsy cologne. “She can’t shut us out after midnight. We’ve paid for the room. If anything happens to us—if we’re raped and killed on her doorstep—she’ll have to live with the guilt. And so be it. I’m not here to be locked up.”

Oona had kept quiet. She was scared of upsetting Sarna. They’d had a fight on the way to the airport, after a man on the street had whistled at Oona as she threw away the wrapper of her candy bar.

“It’s because your ass is fat,” Sarna had said, picking at her pointy fingernails. Oona’s eyes had watered. “Men like fat asses.” Oona threw her chocolate in a shrub, then balanced on the edge of the curb, flicking tears until the bus came. Later, in the airport terminal, Sarna apologized, saying, “You’re perfectly fine the way you are,” and tickled Oona until she laughed. They practiced their French on each other. “Voulez-vous?” Oona asked, pointing jokingly at a fat man sucking from a coffee cup. Then Sarna got giddy, mimicking and ridiculing fellow passengers waiting outside the gate. “That one’s like an anise lozenge,” she said about a pale young woman dressed in all black, face pale, wearing violet lipstick in the modern fashion of the Goths. “And there’s the Devil,” she said. The young man she pointed to bore an eerie resemblance to the face on one of their mother’s cards of fortune. His skin was pink and clammy-looking, as though he’d been slaving over a kitchen stove. His mouth and nose were like the flattened snout of a cat. His hair stood up from his head in little prickly clumps.

“Too much mousse,” Oona whispered. The two sisters recounted a line from a poetic song their father had taught them as children. The song told the story of two boys who tempt the Devil into their bed with a chicken bone. “Here fishy fishy fishy,” Sarna called out to the devilish man now standing by the magazines. Oona giggled and shushed her, then joined in. “Fishy fishy fishy,” they cried. The man turned and they burst out laughing. They kicked at the floor and howled and crowed. When Sarna was pleased with herself she became bossy and brash and liked to poke Oona and grip her tender wrists while they talked.

“You’re hurting me,” Oona whined, tearing up, her laughter quickly spent.

“Don’t be such a baby,” Sarna said. “Go talk to him. Go dance with the Devil.” She pushed Oona to go. They wrestled in their chairs, knocking over the old leather suitcase they were sharing. The people in the airport lifted their eyes to watch the sisters fight, but no one intervened. Sarna let go of Oona’s wrists.

“Go ask him for a dollar. I want a hot dog,” Sarna said. “You like him, don’t you? You think he’s cute.”

“You ask him,” Oona refused, rubbing her shoulder where Sarna had just butted it with her hard head.

“Brat,” Sarna called her in disgust. She left and paid for her hot dog from the small roll of fifty-dollar bills their father had given her to cover their first day of taxis and one night in the hotel. Sarna ate the hot dog lingering in the Duty-Free, pocketed a bright pink sample lipstick, spritzed herself with perfume that smelled like Peach Schnapps. Oona, forlorn, leafed through a fashion magazine, rubbed her wrists with the scented flap of an advertisement, and cried.

The flight had gone without incident, although halfway to Paris Sarna said she wanted time alone and switched to a free seat in business class. Oona was left with a sultry Middle Eastern graduate student back in coach. The student offered Oona her dessert, a shallow inch of cake with buttercream frosting, but Oona refused it. Down the aisle, Sarna talked up the elderly lawyer she sat next to, came away with his business card and an invitation to Lyon for the summer.

At Charles de Gaulle, Oona simply followed Sarna into a stranger’s car and sat silently as her older sister blathered on to the driver. The kind man happily passed his harsh cigarettes back to the two girls, driving madly down back streets in the warm afternoon. Oona took one of the cigarettes and smoked and cried and wheezed and coughed. Sarna puffed happily, reaching up to the driver’s radio and turning up the reggae music. She danced in the back seat, her large head and wiggish black hair pumping back and forth on her bony neck. Oona flicked her tears out the open car window. She tapped her soft fingers in time to the beat.

“S’il vous plait, passez par la Tour Eiffel. Ma petite soeur veut la voir,” said Sarna to the driver, putting her arm around Oona. But they were already in the Marais, pulling up to the entrance of their hotel—a narrow doorway between a bakery and an elegant bookshop. The driver wrote his number on a scrap of paper. Sarna plucked it from his fingers and thanked him. Outside the air smelled of exhaust and spring flowers. “Don’t be mad,” said Sarna. “We’re in Paris, the city of forgiveness.” She pinched the girl’s fleshy cheek. Neither sister had been to Paris before.

“I’m terribly sorry,” said Bob Smith, rumbling fluidly down the stairs. He now wore a tight-fitting sport coat and a tassled paisley scarf. “My wife is pregnant with twins,” he explained. “She won’t be joining us.”

Oona and Sarna had been waiting forty minutes. In that time they’d first been silent, Sarna bitter and expectant, grinding her teeth, and Oona still sad but mesmerized by the gentle breeze, the clanging of church bells, Paris in the spring. And then they’d become bored and started talking again, if one could call it that. It was a game they’d played since childhood, trading questions and statements in their own secret language. “You messed up,” Sarna said, victoriously. Oona had forgotten one of the rules. One can’t answer a question with another question.

“Hungry?” Smith asked, leading the way out to the restaurant. Sarna eyed the man uneasily. Her eyes were black slits, her scowl like an old woman’s. Because the sidewalk was narrow, cobbled, Oona walked next to Smith, and Sarna followed behind the two of them. She clopped like a horse in her witchy wooden heels.

“You found the money?” Sarna asked, trying to keep up.

Smith barely turned to respond, just patted his breast pocket, the thin black line of his mustache crooking upwards. They passed a grey and dismal Laundromat, warm, fragrant air puffing out the door.

“My wife sends her regards. And to your father, too. Thank him for the gift. The babies will fight over it, I’m sure.”

“Twins, really?” Oona asked. “She doesn’t show in the slightest.”

“You know French women,” Smith replied, pushing against the door to the bistro on the corner. “Twins in her belly and all she’ll eat is Dijon mustard. The fleas have got into her brain, I think. It’s terrible. I hope you girls are hungry.” He greeted the elderly waiter who pulled chairs from the table for the girls to sit down. Smith ordered for the three of them. “Don’t worry,” he told them. “Whatever you don’t eat, I will.”

“I’m starving,” said Oona, immediately breaking the bread on the table in her childlike fists.

“The money?” Sarna asked again.

“I eat one meal a day,” Smith said, angling toward Oona, his arms crossed, elbows on the table, “and I insist that it’s a good one. My wife,” he said again. “Well. We can forget her. The lady of Dijon.”

Oona giggled, licked crumbs from her lips. Sarna sat stock-still, her pulse visible through her bony chest.

“You have the money?” Sarna asked.

“Yes, of course I have it,” said Smith. His tone was fatherly, and Sarna took offense.

“I’d eat better with the money in my hand,” she said. She laid her bony arm across the table, spread her palm.

“I can’t very well pay you here, in front of everybody,” said Smith. Then the waiter appeared with three short aperitifs. “Drink this,” Smith said, doctorly this time. “It will soothe your wild young nerves.”

Sarna, despite her fury, knocked the drink back in one gulp. Oona laughed and did the same. It was just sparkling punch.

“Charming, both of you,” said Smith, looking at Oona again. “I promise to count out the money after dinner. How long are you in Paris? Where are you staying?”

“In the Marais,” Oona said. “Our hotel has a curfew though. Twelve o’clock.”

“And then you turn back into toads?”

“Watch what you say,” said Oona, already buoyed by her sugary drink. “Sarna knows all kinds of spells.” The waiter brought a carafe of cold white wine, three bowls of vichyssoise, more bread. Oona felt restful watching him arrange the things on the table. The door of the restaurant was propped open, and a soft, fragrant breeze shimmered through the frothy lace half-curtains over her bare forearms. She stretched her legs under the table, knocking against Bob Smith’s shoes. Smith poured the wine.

“Cold soup?” Sarna peered down into her bowl, spooned the stuff up and let it spill back down. Darkness brewed in her eyes.

“You’ve never had it?” Smith asked, pouring the glasses full of wine. “Eat, eat,” he said. “I like to see girls eat.”

“It’s delicious,” Oona said, tasting it. Sarna licked her spoon. Her face twitched. She drank her wine, staring at Smith. Oona watched them glare at one another across the table. But Smith—he was handsome, he was cute—cracked a smile, and Sarna’s expression turned from a dark grimace to the cagey smirk of a coquette. She licked wine from her thin lips.

“How much money do you owe my father, anyway?” Sarna asked. But she knew exactly how much it was. Seventeen thousand dollars, minus the cost of their dinner, she supposed.

“How much did he say?” Smith responded. Sarna shrugged, grinning, sat back in her chair, and swung her foot under the table, knocking at Bob Smith’s shins. “You two are really something,” Smith said, shifting in his seat and wiping his mouth with the white cloth napkin. “The cat and the rat,” he said, pointing first at Oona, then at Sarna. “Do people ever call you that?”

“Of course not,” said Oona. “My sister’s not a rat.” She tried to sound reverent and sincere, defensive, but she did not stop slurping her soup. Sarna looked off toward the door to the kitchen. Her face in hard profile was indeed rodent-like. She smiled strangely to herself.

“How far are we from the Eiffel Tower?” Oona asked next, hoping the conversation would change direction.

“You don’t want to go there at night. It isn’t safe for little girls like you. Paris is full of vampires—didn’t your father tell you that?”

“Pff,” said Sarna.

“I’d like to see these vampires,” Oona said, giggling. “How far?”

“A cab ride away,” said Smith. “I can take you, if you so desire.”

The waiter came and took their soup bowls and replaced them with a platter of chateaubriand, a plate of roasted potatoes, a bowl of bright yellow Bearnaise.

“Eat, eat,” Smith said. Sarna sat back against her chair, crossed her arms in disgust. “My dear,” he told her, fatherly again, “I’ll pay you the precise sum I owe. Never fear. Please.” He served her a cut of meat, ladled a spoon of sauce on her plate.

“Sarna,” Oona said. “You should eat.”

Sarna rolled her eyes, but picked up her fork.

The girls ate their meals, each eyeing Smith, kicking him again and again as though by accident under the table. When they had finished, the check came and Smith pulled his wallet from his jacket pocket, folded a bill into the waiter’s hand. “Well, girls,” he said, “shall we catch a cab?” Oona ran a finger along the edge of her plate and licked it. Sarna watched her. “I’m sure your father wouldn’t want you roaming the streets with so much cash. I’d feel better paying you in private.”

Sarna grinned. It was dark out now. She let her shirt slip off one of her shoulders, tipped her empty wine glass on its side and let it roll across the table and shatter on the worn tile floor. Oona blushed. Her tears dripped. Smith said nothing, but when the gentle waiter appeared with a small broom and dustpan, Smith opened his wallet again and tucked another bill in the old man’s hand. Then the three of them stood up and walked out into the breezy evening. “There.” Bob Smith pointed across the large avenue. They crossed the street and ducked into a taxi. Smith sat between the two girls and held his hands between his knees. His right shoulder and hip were pressed against Oona. On his left, Sarna jabbed at him with her elbow and gave the driver the name of the hotel. It was close enough to have walked. The time on Oona’s watch read only half past eight.

“But the vampires, Sarna,” said Oona. “We’ve come all this way.”

“Maybe your sister’s tired,” Smith said. “Perhaps we should put her to bed. Are you tired?” he asked Sarna. He stroked her rigid arm with the backs of his fingers.

“Are you tired, Sarna?” Oona asked.

Sarna igored them and looked out the window at Paris coming to life in the dark now—the lights strung between the trees, high heeled women, couples walking arm in arm, teenagers on skateboards, men in crisp suits. Bob Smith and Oona caught each other’s eyes in the rear view mirror. Oona crossed her arms, turned, and stared longingly out the window. When they arrived outside the hotel, her eyes were crying again. “Come on, Sarna,” she whined. She’d had too much to drink. “We have hours yet. I’m having fun. Can I stay out?”

Sarna sat back against the door of the taxi.  She seemed to be smiling in the dimness. “Fishy fishy fishy,” she said, her head bobbing. A strange, thrilling wind filled the cab as the driver rolled down his window, then the sudden sharp scent of sulfur as he struck a match. Sarna poked Smith in the gut with her fingernails and laughed seeing him try to shrink away. He was like a child batting away a small yipping dog. “Scared?” Sarna asked. Her eyes rolled back in their sockets. Her mouth became wet with glee.

“Which one of us do you want?” she asked Smith finally.

“I’ll take you both,” said Smith, lifting his shoulders. He tried to laugh but instead he choked, turned red, then pulled a fish bone from his throat, astonished.

“Choose,” said Sarna. She squirmed across the seat toward him, perched on his knee like a gargoyle, smeared her greasy face across his thick and hairy neck. “Don’t be an idiot,” she said.

 

Oona counted the hours to midnight shivering outside the hotel and shuffling back and forth past the bookstore windows. Every now and then a man stopped to ask, “Quelqu’un a-t-il voler tes bonbons?”

“Ca va,” she answered, yawning deeply each time. She was neither hurt nor angry, but she was exhausted. The Paris night had sucked her dry. Meanwhile, back in America, Malko, her brother, picked his skin and spat on his arm where the needle had gone in and out. In the mirror he watched a black cloud circle his head like a crown of darkness, bloody saliva dripping from his fangs, his tongue thick and twisting when he tried to speak. In another room his mother laid her cards on the worn wooden table, one for each of her children. The Devil showed its face, and she picked it up and tore it to pieces. “My children,” she complained to the neighbor later in the day as they carried out plastic shopping bags swollen with garbage, “have no respect.” Across town, their father sat among his people in the dark of an abandoned movie theater, raised his hands as though in prayer, and counted on his fingers, dollar by dollar, all his worldly debts.

 

 


Ottessa Moshfegh is the author of McGlue and Eileen. She lives in California.

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