I DON’T REMEMBER HOW LONG Jean-Claude and I had been talking about my buying another of his guest rooms–probably ever since we walked out of the notaire’s office after signing for the first one. Now he was bringing it up more often, and I was in no mood or position to deal with it. I got a twinge of fear at the thought of buying anything. I cringed when the phone rang, because I associated that with somebody wanting money.
It was a spacious room, annoyingly called Noyer for its walnut furnishings, which would be made to go away, along with the name, if I ever did buy it. Its tall windows let in cool morning light; the floor was of original red earthen tiles, and I found the bathroom to be curiously serene. You could lie in the tub and look out the window at curving rooftops and blue sky through ancient windowpanes curtained with hanging vines. I loved the room. We needed it. I was planning to buy it . . . but I couldn’t just whip out a wad of bills the way the stereotypical American is expected to do.
Emerging from his depression as if from the dugout, J-C went straight to bat. He brought over a sheaf of annotated scrap papers from his files at home to refresh my memory of our last conversation. He had some new ideas to add. I reluctantly agreed to a meeting. Andrew opted out, pleading no head for business and no stomach for meetings.
In off-season the shop was J-C’s battle station. Although his house was a five-minute walk, he drove—through his gate and up the road past the church, straight through the intersection at the Post Office, down the hill, right at the poubelles (the garbage carts), up the hill again and a sharp right onto the narrow street skirting the ramparts, arriving in the Place de l’Horloge with thundering authority.
You could track him by the roar of his BMW—nineteen-ninety, the year when everyone else traded Beamers for Hondas. He never left the eighties. You’d hear the shriek of his emergency brake, the crack-slam of the car door, the violent jangling of keys and the creaking of the shop’s shuttered doors as he yanked them open.
There followed for me an anxious lull, as in a monster movie. Down below, The Thing was attacking his adding machine and scribbling things on scraps of paper—he used advertising circulars, torn envelopes, backs of announcements—scribbling things that would cost me money. I felt the vibrations of his intense purpose, his ferocious will through two levels of floor and ceiling. I made a fresh pot of coffee and thought about spiking it with something.
Now fully armed, he ran up the stairs. I smelled his cigarette smoke, heard his shoes slapping the stairs and the cursory knuckle rap before he threw open the door and spun into the room, eyes glittering.
“I propose you this.” He thrust a paper in my face. It was a sheet torn from the old yellow legal pad I’d left in his shop the year before. The notes and diagrams and figures were dug into the paper from the force of his stroke.
It was a proposal to buy the guest room, the anteroom that linked it to mine and half of the vaulted stone cellars down below. The deal would make us more rental money. It would make a place for Andrew to show and sell his paintings. It would make me the majority owner. But I still couldn’t buy it.
“This looks good.”
“Yes, it is good.”
“I guess the price is okay.”
“It is best price.”
“I can’t do it right now . . . ”
“When you want.” Nonchalance was correct form.
“It may be a while.”
“Well, you know, after my mother dies . . . ”
“What’s the matter?”
“French peoples don’t say sings like zat.”
But I’d finally gotten his attention. He now understood that there was no more left where the first batch came from. I would no longer jump at his high figures without blinking. The friendly side of his nature frosted over a little as he spoke about the ways in which we could resolve this situation now. Did I have enough to make a deposit? Yes. Would I sign the compromis de vente now and start arranging for a loan? Well, I would think about it. A sale agreement would make it a whole new ball game.
When I was a little girl riding in the back seat of the family Ford, I heard my mother ask my father if he had any money. He said no. I burst into tears. When they understood, they laughed and explained that Mommy just needed a little cash for shopping, and we were going to go get some. I wasn’t convinced. I suspected that Lockheed hadn’t given Daddy the money, so he couldn’t give it to us. The cat was out of the bag. Money did not come to you. You had to go get it.
At five, I started a business. I picked up rocks, painted them different colors in my room, arranged them in a flat box and sold them door-to-door for nickels. People on my street seemed to be delighted with the idea and brought out their change purses and jelly jars to pay me. So I raised my prices.
There were no allowances in our house. My parents just didn’t get around to establishing a system. If we wanted money, we wangled and wheedled. As I got older, and our family grew prosperous, Mom would often hint about large sums of money put away for me, somewhere safe, so I would never have to worry. It was a wonderful idea, and it would give me confidence in my life. But I never came to trust the certainty of it.
I didn’t get an allowance until freshman year in college, when I began receiving a check every week, signed by my father, with a note typed by his secretary. Seven dollars. Even in 1965, that would not keep you in Cokes, pantyhose and cigarettes. I still had to get money. I painted flattering portraits of my sorority sisters, cut their hair, wrote “Dear John” letters to their boyfriends and forged their parents’ signatures on permission slips.
All three of my husbands found this ability to get money very handy, so I was encouraged to keep getting better at it. I learned to ride the waves of economic highs and lows like a surfer, navigating with an exhilaration that has fear at its center.
When the booming eighties ended with a recession that rocked Washington, D.C., I was divorced and trying to make a go of a little advertising business I’d formed with a graphic designer. We called ourselves Ed and Marcia, and our droll tagline was “First Names in Advertising.” Ed was a stylish guy who wore Hugo Boss and, swimming upstream, had traded a Honda for a Beamer that year. Our office was in the business heart of downtown Washington, and the rent practically ate up our billings. I had traded down in my latest real estate transaction, trying to reduce a big mortgage payment and taxes, and gotten hit with capital gains tax. I was desperate for money. It was on my mind twenty-four hours a day.
My former therapist had assured me that most successful, independent women live in fear of turning a corner and slipping on that Bag Lady Banana Peel. She said many of us, including me, mistake money for love in our emotional bank.
I used to stand in the gray-and-navy-suited line at the ATM machine on K Street in Washington, gripped in the cold fist of fear that my last card would not only fail to produce cash but that it would be seized. One of city’s many street people was usually sprawled in the doorway next to the ATM, a powerfully built black woman in a tight red T-shirt, black stretch pants and sneakers, with her bottle in a paper bag propped beside her. She’d stare super-powered rays at each person as they slipped their card into the slot. She cocked her head like the family dog at dinnertime, following every step of the transaction that would bring bills out of the that silvery alcove. When the machine sighed and spat out the cash, she’d lean forward and extend her powerful arms in a harvesting gesture.
Most just snatched their bills and put her behind them as quickly as possible.
She would holler angrily after each gray-or-navy-suited back. “GIMME MONEY!” and then aim her fierce attention on the next customer.
One day, feeling a kind of sisters-in-poverty connection, I made an attempt at commiseration: “Sorry.”
“SORRY, MAH BLACK ASS,” she yelled. And then, counting off each cowering individual behind me, “SORRY. MAH. MOTHA. FUCKIN. BLACK. ASS.”
And that goes for the rest of you pusillanimous bureaucrats with your leather briefcases and polished shoes.
In those hard times of freelancing in the American business world, I’d learned a pattern: work to get work, work to do the work, then work to get paid for the work, because people do not want to give you money, even in good times. They do not like to receive your bill, and they will find all kinds of reasons to lower the amount, delay the payment, cut it up into minuscule installments (with no interest, of course) or, if all else fails, send checks that bounce right back.
Furthermore, I found that if you’re a woman and reasonably presentable, your male clients assume you don’t really need the money. You seem to be in the same class as their wives, who play tennis at the country club and do volunteer work. It would be indelicate to pay you for your services. You probably have an indulgent husband, or a lucratively guilty ex-husband, and you’re just doing a little work for antiquing money.
So . . . wah wah wah. The fact is, I had been a part of the omnipotent American marketing machine, paid to create powerful ideas of need for things, and then compelled to satisfy the ideas of need created in me—a frantic hamster wheel of an existence. Now, safely distanced from the machine, surrounded by a practical people who mistrust fad and hype, I didn’t feel compelled to run out and buy a great honking SUV, or a pair of Armani jeans, or this year’s equivalent of the diamond tennis bracelet. But I did need to buy a guest room and bath.
J-C dropped by every day to see if I’d made a decision. He was turning into a different person—no longer jollying me along. He became stern and disapproving, his finger stayed in my face.
“You mest come and make the pâté de grives.” He had a “frizzer” full of thrushes, shot before Brigitte left, and what had begun as an invitation to learn pâté–making had somehow become an unfulfilled obligation. He’d begun to harp on it lately. Whenever the issue of money arose, he’d bring up those little frozen bird bodies that mest be made into pâté before too long.
“How long will it take?” I always asked, thinking of dozens of tiny beaks and bones and gnarled claws. Not to mention the pellets.
“One day. Maybe two. Brigitte knows.”
Yeah, Brigitte knows—that’s why she’s not doing it anymore.
I did not want to spend two days in J-C’s kitchen getting a flock of dead birds the size of roaches ready to be spread on toast. I had to pay him off. Now there was no way around it—I’d have to tuck my tail under and slink to the bank.
I prepared by studying French financial vocabulary words and phrases and drinking Côtes du Rhone from a spigot box. At last I made a rendezvous with the loan officer, received a list of information to bring with me to apply for the loan, and translated the list into a lot of things I didn’t have.
Just like American banks, French banks want you to prove that you don’t need the money you’re asking for. Being an American helped because everyone assumes we are rich. But at the time there was growing concern that America was going to do something stupid in Iraq, and then being an American would entail liabilities. I had property and investments to show to the bank, but they also wanted proof of regular revenue. Mine came in little trickles from different sources, and it would take some doing to present it coherently.
I went to the bank flanked by Andrew and Jean-Claude. J-C, believing me to be completely inarticulate in French, was there ostensibly to translate but more likely to protect his interests. I had a fat folder full of papers claiming a steady flow of income and substantial assets. J-C had worked up a convincing prospectus for our joint commercial use of the property. It forecast bright business prospects—barring, of course, another unforeseen world tourism catastrophe.
The three of us sat down in the loan officer’s little office, facing him across his desk. It was two o’clock on a Friday afternoon and I hoped the gentleman was feeling mellow. He was well groomed, with an air of bureaucratic authority. His pink cheeks suggested that he, too, had enjoyed a glass or two of wine at lunch.
When he began to speak, rapidly with a thick accent, I was glad I had company. In situations having to do with money and numbers, the language center in my brain closes down. I sat stupid, helpless and trusting while Andrew and J-C answered questions directed at me. Andrew handled figures and dates. Jean-Claude’s role was to pick up nuances in the conversation that might point the way around the barrier that stood between our deal and the bank’s money.
Monsieur did not seem to like my collection of papers. He opened the folder and shuffled through them, looking for something that apparently wasn’t there. Jean-Claude explained to him that Madame’s freelance situation brought income from multiple sources, which generated multiple documents. Monsieur nodded cordially, but I could see that he was a man who liked things to go smoothly and easily. He closed the folder on my numerous slips of paper with a delicate peevishness. I could hear him thinking: “This is a pain in the ass. I don’t know what the hell these papers mean and I don’t want to have to figure all this out. I want one piece of paper I can show to the loan committee, get my commission and go home.”
After three weeks, we hadn’t heard from the bank. J-C, in the hospital for a back injury, nevertheless stayed on top of it. When we went to visit him, he insisted that I call the loan officer and see what’s going on.
“I don’t know what to say,” I said.
“You mest say, ‘Look, man, it ‘ahs been now sree weeks. What his the hansair? Is it yes, no or shit?” He was wearing pajama pants and a Don’t-Mess-With-Texas T-shirt, blowing cigarette smoke out the window. “Yes, no or shit.”
I hate to speak on the phone, I hate speaking to bank people even more, and I hate speaking French on the phone to bank people more than anything I can think of. I stalled. Another week went by while I reviewed French terms for “no-good sorry deadbeat” and other possible reasons Monsieur might give me for rejecting my loan application.
J-C called. He was now out of the hospital and back on my case. He reminded me that the grives weren’t getting any younger in his frizzer. Then he asked about word from the bank.
“My bank is remodeling,” I told him. “We saw a long line of people waiting in the lobby. That’s probably what is holding up the loan.”
“Non! They do zat in Avignon. You mest call NOW and say ‘yes, no or shit!’ ”
He recounted dealings he’d had with banks in the past. “You give them all the informations, and you tell them when you will need to know the ansair. If they don’t call, you call them and you ask them ‘Is it yes, no or shit?’ If they say no, you take all of your money out of their bank and put it in another one, and then you say to them ‘Now you are shit, man’. This is how you do with French banks.”
Reluctantly, I called the bank. Monsieur’s assistant took a message. He didn’t call me back until the next day. I could understand just enough of what he was saying to know this: He wanted one piece of paper.
I reported this to J-C, who snorted, “Hah! Just as I sayed.” He had meanwhile spoken with his own banker, who would be interested in giving me the loan, based on my property holding alone. J-C had even made an appointment for me later in the week.
“Okay,” I said, thankful that I wouldn’t have to worry about that paper. “So I can get my folder from my bank and take it to your banker!”
“First you mest call your bank and say: ‘It ‘as been a month. I ‘ave a deal to complete, and I ‘ave another bank interested. If you don’t give me the loan, I will take allllllll my money out of your bank.’”
“Should I send the paper he wants?” I asked, wondering how I would get one.
“Yes. You say, ‘I will send you the paper, man, and then you have two days to tell me is it YES, NO or SHIT!’ ”
I obtained, with the help of technology, the simple paper Monsieur wanted. I faxed it to him with a politely and carefully worded version of J-C’s refrain.
Two days later Monsieur called. I answered the phone. “Bonjour, Monsieur,” I sang out bravely, bringing Andrew out of the atelier.
A rushing creek of speech poured from the receiver, the syllables bouncing as if over rocks. My brain netted only the words for “loan,” “documents” and “response.” Taking a deep breath, I said “Monsieur, je suis désolée, je ne comprends pas. Is the answer yes, no or . . . ”
“Oui, oui, oui,” Monsieur assured me. He sounded triumphant, congratulatory. The single paper had flown by the board. I would get a confirmation in the mail. A few signatures and that would be that.
I hung up. Andrew stood by me clenching a handful of brushes.
“Is it yes, no or shit?”
“They gonna gimme money.”
–Marcia Muir Mitchell