THE RETURN

It was just after 9:30 as they walked up the steps of the Cours Puget, their shadows pressed against the Lutetian limestone by light flooding through the large glass ceiling. The older man’s eyes remained open and unflinching in the imposing light; his companion, however, winced behind dark sunglasses as he steered the old man by the arm.

The museum was calm but for the low murmur of visitors and the occasional outburst of a gleeful child.

I’ve heard five languages and counting,” said the old man.

He wore a faded Chicago Cubs cap and carried a blue tweed coat folded over his arm which flagged with each step. Inscribed on the liner tag were the words “Property of Hank Miller.”

What was the fuss about downstairs?” said Hank. “I may not know French but I know a fuss.”
“Nothing to worry about.” said the younger man. “One of them made a snide remark about you wanting to see a Rembrandt. He suspected you may be trying to con them out of the admission fee. His female co-worker scolded him and that was that.”

Ah, that French cynicism. She was pretty, huh? Chain smoker, but pretty.”

Titus sighed as he steadied his father on the next landing. He held him to the side to let a Japanese family pass.

She was pretty, right? That’s my one superpower now. I can hear pretty.”
“I couldn’t tell you; I didn’t really see her.”

Bah, she was pretty. I can tell,” said Hank.

Titus had spoken to her, but remembered nothing about the quality of her face. He did notice the smell of cigarettes on her.
Is there an end to of these, my legs feel like jelly rolls.” said Hank, lines branching from his eyes as he smiled.

I offered the elevator,” said Titus.

If Remy Van Rijn could appreciate a good stair, I reckon I can too.”

Titus led his father to the corner of the landing, where he parked him. He glanced down at the map, and then at his watch. Hank sighed in relief as he stretched his sides.

Give me a moment, son.”

He pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his jeans and wiped his brow. His eyes stared blankly into the distance, incapable of rendering much more than soft variations in light and color. Even so, he could perceive the unique glory of his surroundings, and he looked out of reverence.

The entire courtyard was spread out below them, the work of masters standing ablaze in a wealth of light. Titus turned away from the view, folded the map, and placed it in the pocket of his cardigan. He looked at his watch again.

Unlike his father’s argent curls, Titus’ hair was a consistent, deep, chestnut color and his skin smooth along the angles of his face. Varsity tennis had refined even his movements, and the stairs would be quite easy for him if he were alone.

In spite of those natural differences indicative of age, the young man had inherited his father’s proportions of frame and distinguished countenance such that all who saw them knew immediately that one had beget the other. They appeared as one man in two stages of life: youth and senescence together in shared time and space.

Once they were done with the stairs, Titus moved a little faster, navigating his father through room after room of paintings, beauty from floor to ceiling, regarding none of them. Finally, they arrived at their destination, and Titus led his father to a small, unassuming piece, bordered by an ornate wooden frame.

He read the label, The Philosopher in Contemplation. You have all the time you need. Happy Birthday, Hank.”

The old man patted his son on the arm and removed his cap. He moved slowly, hovering towards the painting as if it were made of ash.

“You’d think they would have fixed that title by now,” said Hank. “Everybody knows this is Tobit and Anna. They’re waiting for their son to return. You remember the story? You better.” He chuckled and clasped his hands behind his back.

Titus had been told the story many times. The faithful old Tobit, blinded by bird droppings, sent his son off to collect money, and with the aid of the angel Raphael, defeated a demon with fish guts, returning home with money, a wife, and a cure for his father’s blindness. Hank held an odd reverence for the story, catechizing his son in every last apocryphal detail.

Hank leaned in, just inches away from the painting. He closed his eyes for a few seconds and then opened them as wide as he could, deepening the lines in his face.

Thank you, Ty, thank you. It’s beautiful.”

Mr. Hank Miller and his son Titus, some great chasm between them, stood shoulder to shoulder facing what was for the former a miracle, and for the latter, a final settlement; all accounts paid in full. Tomorrow he’d be off to finish college and anchored no longer.

For several minutes they stood, motionless against the even current of bodies swelling briefly near the paintings before flowing on their course to other places.

The old man’s eyes moved around the painted oak panel, searching through the veil. One couldn’t help but feel pity seeing him, the peculiar begging in his face, receiving so little, if anything.

Titus glanced anxiously around the room. A handful of people had turned away from the paintings to stare at his father and the strained effort of his eyes, his lashes less than an inch from the image, the tears welling in his eyes easily mistaken for despair.

Do you have to be so close?” Titus whispered.

“Light like that, it isn’t natural,” Hank replied. “He really captured something… something ephemeral, he got close enough to give us an idea of it. A glimpse is all.”

Titus’ eyes bore into his father’s back.

“Ethereal, Hank. Not ephemeral.”

“Yes, son, exactly.”

It had become a family legend, that Rembrandt. Countless times over the years, Hank would sit down with some Johnny Walker and launch into the story:

“The thing had me, like some spell or something. We were in the home of a recently cold professor; Mr. Becker was the name. I had been working for the funeral home for only a couple of weeks and was still green and curious about those who had checked out.”
Here, he’d take to his feet and pantomime for effect.

It stopped me dead in my tracks. I just stared at it… this small mystery. I kept asking my boss how the fella got a hold of it, bugged him the whole ride back. Finally, Mr. Fagen takes the cigar out of his mouth and he says to me, ‘What does it matter where’s it from, Henry? The guy’s dead. We don’t ask about the dead, kiddo, we just pick ’em up and plant ’em in the ground. Simple.’ But it wasn’t simple. I found books on the painting, I stared at it for hours and read every critique I could get my hands on.”

By this time his wife Anna would put up some half-hearted resistance which only spurred him on.

It was a real work of genius, Anna. The staircase in Chiaroscuro, ascending to heaven. The contrast of darkness and light so pure you could feel it. Poor Tobit – God bless ’em – wanted to go up, he prayed for death, but no, no! He had to stay with his wife and wait for their son to return. And boy did he ever!”

“Don’t forget the magic fish guts, honey,” said Anna winking at the grinning boy.

Now exhausted, Hank would plop down in the recliner and dream.

“We’re gonna go see that Rembrandt… in person. Just stand there and behold the thing. Someday, Ty.”

Like a fog settling, the impossibility of it all would fall over him and he’d be silent for a while, and then start humming Coltrane. Anna would often tease, but always in love, “Your father’s got his head on the finer things, son. Rembrandt paintings, Jazz records, Stella Artois…”

Titus missed her exclusive humor, the sweet barbs reserved just for him. Titus had decided that if the world had truly been good, she would be the one here with Hank, making him laugh in the dark. But she’d been snatched away from them too soon and too quickly.

His father spoke of her several times on the train between Milan and Paris. A hot meal and some red wine from the buffet car, and the memories would blossom.

Boy was she proud of you, Ty. Every doctor, nurse, secretary, even the bug guy; they all got the full treatment.” And then he would take on a loving, though unflattering, impression of his wife,

“‘My son’s a future Ich…Ichthy…olist… a fish professor. He was a perennial honor student in high school, y’ know, captain of the Varsity Tennis team. Just got accepted to the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki to study. He’ll be right on the Aegean.’

And she loved to inform them, you know, she’d say, ‘It was my idea to get him that aquarium when he turned ten years old.’ Her mood would turn over anytime she got to talk about you, even when the cancer was hurting. It was like night into day, Ty, night into day.”

The wine and the sound of the train took over, and the old man’s eyes would close, some memory playing behind them, and a smile would curl at the edges of his lips. Ty sat in contempt at the gall of his father, daring to feel joy in her absence, in spite of her suffering, in spite of his own unanswered prayers.

The disgust returned sharply as he stood there now, staring at the still form of his father against the plum-colored walls and framed art. The man had undoubtedly passed the curse of sentimentality on to his son; there was a good chance it was why Titus had saved the money to fund a trip to the Louvre, why he had ever considered bringing his father, by now practically blind, to a museum full of paintings.

Hank seemed to have enjoyed himself so far, yet Titus had wrestled most of the trip, his mind a pendulum swinging between hatred and pity. The utter foolishness of it all! Would Hank even know this painting from some other, this room from another? The whole city of Paris and its renowned lights were of no use.

Restraint came only from some vestigial concept of respect and decency instilled by his mother, and Titus was grateful. He was close to the end now; the façade would no longer be needed; he’d honor her one more time.

I’m gonna have a seat on the benches. The museum closes at six.”

Titus looked at his father, to see if he understood. He watched the glazed eyes moving aimlessly. What little glint remained faded each year within the shadow of his age.

Hank felt the eyes of his son bearing down,

You don’t know this, Ty, but your mother took up painting after you left for Greece. She only had the energy to do it in spurts, fifteen, twenty minutes. She said she finally understood why I like Rembrandt so much. She stopped painting after that phone call, the night you and her argued late into the night… she gave up painting after that.”

Titus stepped close to his father, speaking into his ear,

“Why are you telling me this? You think I had something to do with it?”
“To the very end, she was sure you’d find a wife someday, a good wife who would give you some kids; a good family for her boy.”

You can’t see a damned thing, can you?”
“Ha! That’s just it. I
can see a damned thing. I see them all the time. Believe me, I see plenty…. You’re the one who’s blind.”

What’s that supposed to mean?”

Hank leaned forward towards the painting. He took a long breath through his nose as if to smell the varnish.

Have some dignity,” said Titus, reaching for his father’s elbow.

Hank jerked his arm away and stepped aside. Titus began to turn, yet in the corner of his eye he saw his father tilt sharply, having lost his balance while pulling his arm away. His legs, weary from their ascent, could not support the sudden motion, and he fell. Hank’s head slammed against the wall, catching the corner of the wooden frame just above his temple. A sickening thunder hung in the air over the old man’s body, limp against the museum floor.

“Dad!”

Titus dove to the floor and lifted his father carefully, holding him in his lap. Hank groaned and gasped, trying desperately to get his wind back. He had a cut on his temple and blood ran into his hair, painting it and Titus’ hand in deep crimson.

Titus screamed for help as he caressed his father’s face. He could feel his chest heaving for air and wheezing with each exhale. Titus looked at his father’s eyes; they were locked up at the top of his head.

“Hang on Dad, hang on, please hang on! I’m sorry…Dad, I’m sorry!”

A clamor erupted among the crowd and in the distance someone began yelling. The room around him faded and the sounds tunneled. Titus leaned his face down and pressed it against his father’s forehead. He began praying, saying anything he could remember from his childhood piety. The words seemed to flow out of him unconsciously, and all Titus could remember was the easing of his father’s gasps, the steadiness of his breathing, the frailness of his father’s hand as it reached up and firmly grabbed onto his arm.

“Sir, sir, please! Let us look at him!” The voice was accompanied by a violent pull, and suddenly Titus felt his body dragged away by a large man. He watched as a young woman, dressed in a medic’s uniform, descended upon his father and placed her fingers just under his jaw. Titus’s legs skidded limply across the floor and suddenly he felt himself on a bench. The male medic squatted in front of him, looking him in the eye.

“I killed him… I killed my dad.”

“No, no, do not worry. She’s going to take care of him, monsieur. My name is Raphael. We’ll take him to an ambulance. He’ll be sent to Hotel Dieu Hopital, it is not far. We need to ask you some questions.”

The female medic looked up at Titus from the floor, her eyes were wild, the intensity of their beauty was oppressive. Her words as elegantly French as anything in the museum.

“He is your father, no?”

“Ye… yes, he is.

“How old is he?”

“He turned seventy… seventy-three today.” Titus was ashamed, but he could not escape a strong enchantment with her. It was as if he had seen a woman for the first time. They both realized he was staring, and her face showed a wave of bewilderment at Titus before switching back to Hank, who was holding her hand against his chest.

She kept her eyes on Hank and said,

“He’s got a bad cut, but I don’t think he’s hemorrhaging. We need to scan him to be sure, but I think he will be fine. Raphael,aide-moi à le déplacer.”

The male medic left Titus and helped her reposition Hank. Relief spread through Titus and he took in a full breath. He felt his hands trembling. They were wet with blood, so he instinctively wiped them on his pants, but they were also covered. It was the brightest red he had ever seen.

He heard shouting from the other room and a confusion of languages as the crowd parted to make way for a gurney to be rolled in. Two more medics stopped next to Hank and lowered the stretcher before the four of them lifted Hank onto it.

They were gone in seconds, all but Raph, who walked back over to Titus.

“Mon Ami, we must get to the ambulance.”

“Yes, yes of course.”

The walk to the ambulance was a blur; abbreviated by staff-only access doors and emergency passages. The journey seemed a blur except for one distinct moment when Raph, as he trailed behind the crew with the gurney, turned suddenly to a depiction of the crucifixion and made the Sign of the Cross on his chest. No one else seemed to notice, and it was over as soon as Titus had realized it had occurred.

At last, a large door was opened to a barrage of golden sunlight and massive buildings. There was a yellow and white ambulance parked alongside the Rue de Rivoli with bright blue lights flickering around its edges.

In both directions, the road was lined with creamy limestone buildings as far as the eye could see, their walls gilded where the setting sun fell over them. Titus felt like he had stepped into a terrible and beautiful dream.

Titus reached for his sunglasses, but he had lost them somewhere along the way. He was surprised to find his eyes remained open, thirsting for as much light as Paris could offer. As he looked around, Hank was loaded into the ambulance.

“Monsieur! Get in.” Raph motioned to the back of the ambulance.

The door was secured, and the ambulance sped away, the tone of sirens and beeping monitors moved in and out of sync with one another. Titus looked at his father; an oxygen mask covered his face, and his eyes sagged half open.

“His heart is strong, oxygen is good,” said Ralph.

Hank blinked once and then his hand began to move. He lifted it slowly and curled his fingers towards himself.

“Ty, Titus. Come here,” he said.

Titus leaned close to his father’s ear. “Don’t speak. Take it easy.”

“He’s okay to speak if he wants. It is a good sign. I’ll give him a little water.”

Hank’s eyes were clouded and pointed to the roof of the ambulance.

“Go ahead, dad.”

“Remember… remember the story? Remember? That fella, he’s a angel, Ty. An Angel of God.”

“Dad, you hit your head and I think…”

“Shhhh! Nonsense! Did you see… did you see the other medic? She was there first. She spoke to me… when they wheeled me though. She said the loveliest things. Lovely, girl… just stunning. Trust me, I could hear it in her voice. Don’t tell… don’t tell me you can’t see her. Ask the Angel, son, he’ll help you.”

“Okay, dad, that’s enough talk.”

Titus sat up and looked at the back windows covered with blue crosses and an image of the staff Asclepius carried.

“It seems you like the girl, the other medic?”

Raph was leaning over and wearing a slight grin. He was handsome, but the way a strong horse is handsome, or a well-fed lion.

“What? No, my father’s just…”
“Why the deception? I can see you like her, mon ami. I saw you staring at her. In Paris we say, ‘C’est
l’amour’” he said, waggling his eyebrows.

Titus felt his face blanche and he pressed himself against the side of the ambulance’s cold metal wall.

“What’s her name?” said Hank as loud as he could muster.

“Her name is Sarah. I can put in a word if you like. She’s had some trouble finding a good man. Maybe she needs an American, oui?”

“No, please, I wouldn’t want…”

“No, no, no trouble. I’ve known Sarah for a long time. You may be just the thing she needs.”

Raph sat back with an exaggerated wink and pulled a pen and pad out of his breast pocket.

“Please, please, just take care of my father. Nothing else.”

“Don’t…don’t listen to him, Raph,” rasped Hank. “He’s just now able to see.”

 

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