Anything can become a keepsake as long as its owner designates it as such. For me, it is a piece of cardboard about five inches long and about two and a half inches wide. I have had it on my desk or in the middle drawer of my desk since 1972. It’s a bookmark from the First English Bookshop Established on the Continent. On the left side emanating from what appears to be a pole that holds an inverted L-shaped bracket with clearly defined scroll work on it that almost reaches the other side of the bookmark. The bracket supports a black scroll with the name GALIGNANI, in capital letters. Below the name is the address 224 RUE de RIVOLI, PARIS, followed by the telephone number 073-56-98. Under this are sketches of books; a few are open, while others are on their side. The lower portion of the bookmark depicts the back of a man wearing a red coat, and periwig tied with a black bow. With his left hand against his back, he holds in it a walking stick and tricorne hat. His right hand is raised, and he appears to be holding a pair of spectacles and reading the titles of several books in the window. The figure I have just described is obviously an Englishman.
I came by this bookmark during the summer of 1972 when I was in Paris to research material for a historical novel I’d contracted to write. My son, Richard (aka Rick), was with me to help me navigate the French language. He was already fluent in it, while my ability was sadly lacking despite the fact that I had three years of the language in high school and another two in college. Except for reading George Simenon in French, I had almost no use of it.
This Keepsake, like all other Keepsakes, provided a way to evoke memories of my sojourn to Paris with Rick. Those memories and tens of thousands of other memories make up my past, the story of my life. It is the same for everyone. Our stories give us our identities. Without them, we do not exist. My brief stay in Paris with Rick was the high point of my relationship with him. Nothing like it ever again happened between us.
The day after we arrived in Paris, I went to the Bibliotheque Nationale de France in search of information on the main character in my novel, Captain Jacques (John) Audubon and found nothing. The librarian told me to try the archives at National Maritime Museum. I filled out the requisite forms and was informed that photographs of Bills of lading and some other legal documents would be sent to my home address, but the Captain’s folder was still considered classified information and I would not be allowed to see any of it. When I left the building, it was late morning. I was to meet Rick around 1:30 in a cafe close to the hotel where we were staying.
Though I was disappointed by the security wraps around Audubon’s dossier, I had enough material to construct a viable fictional character.
Eventually, I wound up looking at the window displays of shops on the Rue de Rivoli, the Madison Avenue of Paris. Suddenly I realized that I was being followed by a young woman, who was probably half my age and closer to Rick’s.
As I remember our encounter, I was looking at a display of leather goods: luggage, briefcases and other items. I was inside a vestibule that opened on to the street while she was outside in front of a very large window. We were ninety degrees apart from each other. She was pretty, exotic looking, with shoulder-length black hair and gray eyes. Her nose ended in a slight upturn. Her lips were thin, and she had high cheekbones. She smiled at me, and I returned the courtesy.
I knew she was a prostitute and saw me as a potential customer. Within moments she came to where I was standing and pointing to my left cheek. Obviously, something was there that shouldn’t have been there. I swiped the area with my handkerchief, and looking at the result, I saw a piece of soot. Nodding, she smiled and in French asked me if I was an American. I said I was.
Her English was poorer by far than my French. We exchanged names. Hers was Georgette. She wanted to know why I was in Paris. I told her, “To gather material for a book.” She seemed to be delighted that I was an author. In French, I managed to tell her I was on my way to meet my son. She gave me a quizzical look.
I started to walk and motioned her to come with me. Fifteen minutes later we entered the bistro where I arranged to meet Rick. He immediately spotted us and with a big smile waved us toward him. He was seated at a table for two; but by the time Georgette and I arrived at the table another chair was in place.
I introduced Georgette to Rick, and they quickly became involved in a conversation that gave me time before we ordered food to look around. The place was crowded and the air smoky. There were several large travel posters on the walls. The day’s specials were written out on a blackboard.
After a few minutes, a waiter came to our table and handed each of us a menu. I told Rick to tell Georgette to order whatever she wanted. I could tell from the way she perused the menu that she probably hadn’t eaten anything substantial for more than a couple of days.
I know I ordered French Onion Soup, but I don’t recall whatever else I ordered or what Rick or Georgette chose. Slowly the place emptied out; and by the time we finished our desserts, I was ready for an afternoon nap; and Rick and Georgette decided to visit the Louvre and a few other places. Rick had been to Paris the previous summer with his uncle Barry, my wife’s youngest brother and his girlfriend, Susan, who he married a couple of years later. I remained at the table to pay the bill while Rick and Georgette left. I didn’t expect to see Rick until sometime later, probably after dinner.
The hotel where Rick and I were staying was one or two streets away from the bottom of the Champs de Elysees. There were many restaurants in the area. So, when Rick and Georgette didn’t show up around six o’clock I left the hotel and had my dinner in an eatery that looked very comfortable from the outside; and it was, inside, as well. I didn’t mind dining alone. It gave me time to think about Captain Audubon. I knew that he fought against the British during the Revolutionary War, that he was captured and imprisoned on an English prison ship that was anchored in Gravesend Bay, off Brooklyn. He was in his early twenties, possibly not even twenty. By the time the French Revolution occurred, he had been a captain for many years.
My thinking was interrupted by my waiter who asked if I wanted anything else after I had eaten a dessert of a rich chocolate cake accompanied by a cup of black coffee. I shook my head and asked for my bill.
A few minutes later, I returned to the hotel and entered the lounge area where, after having chosen a club chair to sit in, a man seated close to me asked if I were an American on holiday with my son, “Yes,” I said and explained why I was in Paris.
“I’m Peter Grayson,” he said, offering his hand, which I shook while identifying myself and Rick.
Grayson was tall, lean, gray-haired, craggy-faced, and blue eyed. We spoke about the war in Viet Nam. He asked me if I had been in the military. “Korea,” I answered.
I shook my head. “A Marine, a gunny – – a platoon sergeant.”
He’d been a fighter pilot in the RAF, was retired and now worked for an internal company with offices in Paris. He and his wife were staying at the hotel until they found an acceptable apartment.
Then he told me about his encounter with a UFO: “My squadron was based in Malta when we were scrambled to intercept an unidentified flying object that appeared on the radar screens of our stations. Other members of our squadron and I were able to get a good look at it.
It was cylindrical, and when we approached it, its speed increased. We were at forty-thousand feet, close to eight hundred knots, but that UFO suddenly angled up at ten times our speed and made a ninety-degree turn over Africa and was gone.”
I told him I had written a book about ufos and pilots. I had interviewed people who described what they saw as either cylindrical or circular, and either shape was capable of make a ninety-degree turn.
Before Mr. Grayson could comment on what I had told him, Rick and Georgette entered the lounge hand in hand, “Dad, I found our cousin, Georgette,” he said.
I introduced Rick and Georgette to Mr. Grayson.
Rick motioned me aside. I excused myself from Mr. Grayson and joined Rick and Georgette, “She doesn’t have a place to stay,” Rick said. “She’s living out of an old beat-up Citron.” I hesitated. I should have anticipated his request, but I didn’t, or maybe I thought whatever sexual interaction that would take place would happen on her turf, not on mine. I shrugged. He was seventeen. I knew he had been having sex on fairly regular basis since he was fifteen. But with Georgette, it would be something different, an adventure. After all, she was the older woman. By way of enticement, he said, “She knows someone at Air-France and could probably get our tickets changed from – – “
Interrupting him, I asked why we would have to change our tickets for our flight home, “There’s a strike, and American airlines are not permitted to land or take off from French airfields,” Rick explained.
“I don’t have much choice,” I said.
“That’s the way the cookie crumbles,” he answered with a grin. As soon as the arrangements were made for Georgette to have a room, Rick and she left the hotel, and I went upstairs to my room. Sometime after midnight, I awoke. Rick came into the room.
“Is anything wrong?” I asked.
“I just thought you’d be lonely,” he answered. It was my turn to grin; then quietly giggle.
Georgette was extremely helpful when I went to the Air France office on the Champs Elysees. I was able to exchange the airline tickets I had for those of Air France. But to that, I had to give up a day. Rick and I would leave France on Saturday instead of Sunday.
I am not sure whether the following event occurred on our last evening in Paris or the previous one. But Rick said he wanted to go to a particular restaurant for dinner. I had no objections, and I hailed a cab. A few minutes later, the three of us were standing in front of a Vietnamese restaurant, “Why this one?” I asked.
“You’ll see,” he said. That wasn’t much of answer, and I was very much aware that the United States and North Vietnam were at war. I wasn’t exactly pleased with his choice of restaurants. But he and Georgette moved ahead of me and were already inside. I followed them. At the back of the room there was a table with a man sitting at its head facing us and flanked by four men, two on each side with their hands already in their suit jackets. Rick moved closer to them and spoke to them in French while gesturing to Georgette and me.
It took me a few moments to realize the man seated at the head of the table was Xuan Thuy, the chief peace negotiator for the North Vietnamese for the Paris Peace Talks. The men at his sides were bodyguards, and others at the table were members of his staff. There was a rapid-fire exchange between him and two members of his staff in Vietnamese.
Thuy studied me for a few moments; then in perfect English, he said, “You and your family are welcome. But please sit at a table a distance away from where my staff and I are seated.”
“Thank you,” I said with a nod. It was only when the maitre de escorted us to a table did I realize that I was sweating.
Rick smiled at me and said, “Now what have you to say?”
“I’m speechless,” I answered. The next morning Rick and I flew home.
The BookMarker is on my desk as I write the conclusion to this piece. Rick died on March 5th, 2017 six weeks shy of his sixty-second year from “Hemopericardium” that was caused by “acute aortic dissection.” His death gave me another “Keepsake,” a small white cardboard box tied with a white ribbon and a bow on top that holds some ashes. Those ashes will be mixed with mine when I’m cremated and committed to the sea.
Here is where the title of this creative-nonfiction story comes into play. I loved my son, but I did not respect him, nor would I choose him as a friend. The teenager who accompanied me to France belied the man he became. It is difficult for me, and perhaps for any parent to realize just how thin the line is that separates our hopes and dreams for our children from the reality of their adult lives. Rick made choices, and most of them were ill-conceived. He lived in a world of fantasy, always waiting for the next big deal. None ever came.
I am bereft by his death.