When Nicole Gavrilovna was nine years old her life was saved by a watermelon. You know what they say: fruit is good for you.
She was walking home from school to have lunch with her father over a game of chess. He always let her be white. He sometimes let her win. She never told anyone, because if her mother found out she'd be grounded forever.
She brought scented hand-wipes, because everything in her father's studio was covered in paint or pigment or turpentine or oil. He mixed his own colours from ingredients bought at the chemist or ordered through the Web. When she went back to school she usually smelled like talcum but sometimes like lavender. She had two different flavours of hand-wipes hidden under her bed at home, and chose which to carry according to the flip of a coin -- a tarnished dirham, from her father's pocket.
Nicole had many such secret rituals. She was also very covert and serious about kissing the index page of all books regardless of their origin or content, apologizing to food before eating it, and her personal pledge to rescue small animals and babies from danger under any circumstances.
She liked to walk an even number of steps along each block -- even if she had to skip or stride awkwardly at the intersection to render proper accounts.
She was mulatto, but she told people she was black. Her mother told people she was white. Her doctor didn't care, when she asked for his opinion. He just recited colours to her: "White, black, yellow, brown -- we're all pink inside."
That was a cute thing to say. Useless, too.
Nicole rounded the corner to Rue de Trevise, sallying along the edge of the sidewalk as if it were a tightrope. She stumbled and put her shoe into the wet gutter, mouth falling open as she saw the great monster of smoke coiling up between the buildings. It was a nightmare thing casting a shadow in the light of day. Her father's apartment house was lost behind the pall.
The darkest part of the cloud took a breath and then gushed suddenly bigger, reaching out, guttering and flashing from within. It rushed down the street and over the cars, coming directly at Nicole like an avalanche.
She leaned into it, pursing her lips shut and squinting. The smoke washed over her. She smelled linseed oil and wood. Her eyes teared up.
She balled her fists and ran along the sidewalk, a lone figure moving against the grain as pedestrians fled the sound of glass smashing on the road. Some people yelled at her. "Arret! C'est dangereux!" The smoke was terrible but Nicole closed her eyes. With relish she had counted her steps along Rue de Trevise, again and again. Keeping track now was easy.
When she knew that she was directly opposite the studio she opened her eyes and turned to face the heat. There were bricks on the road. Between the waves of smoke she saw the building's half fallen face silhouetted by aggressive, darting curtains of flame. The sparks and embers made a million little eyes -- nasty fire spirits, mocking.
Nicole feared the worst. She screamed, "Father!"
And, somehow, his unmistakable baritone cried back: "Nic!"
She thought to herself: that was easier than I thought. She had been preparing herself to run into the burning building to save her father, but instead they were calling back and forth through the stinging haze, like playing Marco Polo in the pool except scarier and with a sore throat. And then there he was, coming out of the smoke, picking her up and spinning her around, reeking of paint and sweat, ganja and beer.
The see-saw wailing of sirens echoed closer. Horns honked.
Thierry jogged into the clearer air up the block, his daughter in his arms. He coughed a lot. His heart was pounding. "You were coming to see me," he accused, as if it hadn't been expected.
"I'm glad you're okay," she told him, knocking her head gently against his damp, colour-streaked brow. She coughed.
"If you hadn't been coming to see me it would never have happened," he muttered, then grunted as he shifted her gangly weight.
"But nothing did happen," she argued, rolling her eyes. "We came to each other's rescue."
Thierry allowed himself to smile. "I think I rescued you, child."
"Well, I was on my way to rescuing you if I had to so it's sort of the same."
He started to laugh then stopped as a firefighter in a black and yellow coat charged out of the debris cloud and skidded to a halt in front of them. "We're okay, we're okay," said Thierry quickly.
The firefighter advised them to get some oxygen. He pointed to an ambulance further up the block, its warning klaxon quacking and chirping importantly as it nudged its way through the seized traffic. Thierry nodded. He put Nicole down and held her hand, leading her along the suddenly abandoned stretch of sidewalk. People inside the shops blinked out at them like lemurs at the zoo.
"Are your paintings burned?" she asked.
"I think so," said Thierry.
Thierry's pace slackened as he gaped at where the ambulance had stopped. There seemed to have been some kind of accident. "That can't be that fucking taxi," he said, slack jawed.
"Language, Father," warned Nicole.
"Miriam!" he cried. He squeezed Nicole's hand tighter, then barked, "Come on," and started walking again. "Close your eyes if I tell you to, Nic. You understand?"
"Somebody might be hurt. It might be bad. I don't want you seeing that, you understand? Close your eyes if I tell you to."
Nicole thought maybe she might want to look anyway but lost that confidence as the scene of the accident drew nearer. She clutched her father's muscled forearm with both hands and pushed into his side as he walked. "Okay okay, chou-chou, okay okay," he murmured, patting her head and thereby putting streaks of crimson and cerulean into her dark hair.
The red and white Taxi Parisien had crashed into a tall iron light standard that, after three centuries of service, had been bent sadly a few degrees at the point of impact. The pole had gained an elbow while the front section of the automobile had been shredded, crumpling and collapsing as designed. There were bits of taxi everywhere.
Shards of plastic and cubes of glass crunched underfoot.
Thierry and Nicole came around the poster-plastered base of the iron standard. Two paramedics in shirtsleeves hovered over a skinny white guy on the sidewalk. He seemed to have smacked his head, because his hair was matted and bloody. One paramedic unpacked a neck-brace while the other timed the pulse.
"His legs are wrong," observed Nicole.
"Close your eyes, child," said Thierry.
There was a bunch of people hanging around the scene, including some who had stood up out of their cars to see what was going on. Nicole recognized her father's friend Miriam, the sculptor. She looked very pale and was cradling a red tea towel in her armpit. Beside her was a Middle Eastern man in a tight, dusty suit, twisting his hat in his hairy hands. He had a little cut on his forehead, and a raw, swollen look about his face -- he'd been hit by an airbag.
Inside the back of the taxi sat a businessman with aerodynamic hair. He appeared to be hugging something, his mouth a tight, colourless line.
Nicole looked to the boy on the sidewalk. He looked back at her. Velcro growled as the neck-brace was fitted around his head. His hands were folded on his chest. He looked almost comfortable. "Hi," said Drago.
"Hi," said Nicole.
"Stand back please," said one of the paramedics. "D'espace, s'il-vous-plait."
A red Lamborghini with tinted windows turned into the end of the road and then its driver jammed on the brakes as he saw the gridlock. The stink of burning rubber mixed with the other aromas: fire, oil, fear. A blonde man in a sport coat leapt out of the car and yelled in a caustically American accent, "What the hell is going on here? Move!"
"There is an accident!" the Persian taxi driver yelled back.
The blonde man stared right past the driver, into the back of the ruined car. The businessman inside the car burst into a flurry of action, slapping his hands all over the door in an apparent search for the handle to release himself. He found it and the door rocketed open, hit the limit of its motion, and then swung back and caught the businessman on the leg as he tried to jump out. "Shit!" he cried. "Damn!"
He was balancing a square watermelon. "Dillons, you bastard!" he hollered, face turning red. "You goddamned backstabbing asshole!"
"Fiona makes her own choices," retorted the blonde man, Dillons, angrily. "She chose me. Cope with it, Banting."
"I'll kill you!"
Dillons reached into the Lamborghini and hauled out his very own Monsieur Tang square watermelon, acquired to impress coy Fiona just like Banting's. Dillons lofted the six-sided fruit over his shoulder and, with a bestial grunt, tossed it at the businessman. Banting flinched away. The melon impacted on the taxi's trunk, breaking open wetly.
An agonized cry sounded from an old Asian man wearing a bulky overcoat. "My watermelon!" wailed Thomas.
Banting turned to Miriam. "Hold this," he hissed, shoving his square watermelon into Miriam's arms. He ran at Dillons with his fists up. Miriam screamed when the watermelon pressed into her wounded hand, then lost her grip.
Thomas could not stand to see yet another of his creations spoiled. With a plaintive cry he lunged at Miriam's feet, his knees hitting the ground and his cupped hands shooting out to intercept the watermelon just inches from the stones.
He said, "Ouch."
Banting and Dillons rolled over one another as they screeched and scratched and slapped like schoolyard girls. Banting pulled Dillons' blonde locks and then Dillons managed to get him off-balance with a kick to the groin. Banting rolled into the gutter, his face pinched tight and his breath knocked out.
"Hey!" shouted one of the paramedics. "Jesu' Christ!"
A elderly lady taking shelter from the fracas under the ultramarine awning of a patisserie gasped theatrically and tried to back away from the fight, simultaneously releasing the six leashes that had been wrapped around her forearm, leaving pink welts and friction burns. This, in turn, released her six terriers who yipped and barked as they charged directly at Thomas and his watermelon.
Thomas, who was very much afraid of dogs, started to frantically turn in place as the terriers surrounded him and tried to claw at his overcoat. A long rat popped out of a pocket and was quickly snapped up by one of the excited hounds. "No no, not my rats!" cried Thomas, still whirling. "No!"
The line of dogs trailed from the outswept edge of his coat like a spiral streamer, barking and leaping as another rat tumbled free.
A strange, creaking groan sounded.
Nicole looked up. The bent light standard was slowly but inexorably beginning to lean more sharply. She had a second to wonder whether her eyes were playing tricks on her before part of the standard's iron base buckled with a loud bang and the leaning accelerated. The tall, metal pole was falling.
It was going to fall on Nicole.
She was paralyzed. Her breath wouldn't come. She couldn't even shout for her father.
Drago was the next person to appreciate the situation. The shadow of the standard swept over him. At the right extreme of his peripheral vision he took in the scene: Nicole, staring upward; Miriam and the Persian, still looking around for the source of the groaning noise; the paramedic at his side, chittering into a radio; the spinning Asian man with rats pouring out of his pockets as he turned, holding aloft a great green fruit.
Drago didn't have time to think, but Dragana's ghost did.
"Shot put," he coughed.
The paramedic looked down at him, frowning, and tried to shine a light into his left eye. With a supreme effort Drago forced his head and shoulders off the pavement despite the neck-brace, his pupils flitting as they tracked the watermelon orbiting Thomas, propelled by terriers. Equations danced in his mind.
He drew a deep breath that stung his ribs and called out, "Rat man!"
When Thomas glanced his way he urgently bellowed, "The watering melon -- LET GO NOW!"
Thomas, flustered, panicked and scared, did not think: he simply obeyed. His fingertips opened. The melon sailed away from him, launched like a fat discus.
Nicole never saw it coming. She was knocked aside like a bowling pin.
The heavy iron standard boomed to the pavement with a resounding, metallic complaint. Its fixtures clattered and broke, and the watermelon smashed. Chips of broken stones skittered away, bouncing.
"Holy crap," said Miriam, eyes wide.
Thomas dropped to the sidewalk, his legs folding beneath him. A gang of ticking rats scurried out of his pockets and were enthusiastically pursued by the yipping terriers. "Mes chiens!" cried the elderly lady, but nobody cared.
The Persian taxi driver turned to Thomas. "You just saved that little girl's life...with a watermelon."
Thierry picked up his daughter. She was trying to regain her breath, making the same wheezing noises as Banting, the snotty businessman in the gutter. Nobody ran to his side. Nicole's knees were scraped raw. "Oh Nic, Nic," cooed the tall Moroccan painter as he hugged her, eyes watering. "Slow breaths, Chou-chou. Easy, easy."
One of the paramedics scrambled over to check her out. The other gestured to the ambulance driver to help load Drago on a stretcher. Down the block, firefighters shouted over the din of their roaring hoses as they doused the burning apartment house. Mist carried by the wind made everyone feel cool and oddly refreshed.
Miriam looked down and saw the plastic bag with her thumb inside. The bag had a footprint on it, and her thumb had been flattened and rudely deformed. She picked up the bag and considered it forlornly.
"It was him," said Thomas in a husky voice. He wiped the sweat from his brow, shook his head and pointed to Drago. "He saved her," he said. "He told me to throw."
"Shot put," murmured Drago from the stretcher.
"Keep still," said the paramedic.
A second ambulance arrived, chuffing to a halt beside the first as Drago was loaded in. Everyone else sat on the curb for a little oxygen: the taxi driver, the distraught owner of the terriers, Thomas, Nicole, Thierry, Miriam, Banting and even Dillons. They introduced themselves to one another.
"Miriam, I'm so sorry about your thumb," said Thierry sadly.
She sighed, staring down at the gruesome plastic bag between her shoes. Thomas tapped her on the shoulder, then drew down his oxygen masque to say, "Young lady, it would honour me to build you a new thumb."
"I was a sculptor," lamented Miriam, offering a wan smile. "Thanks, Mr. Zhang, but I need a thumb that works."
Thomas cocked an eyebrow. "My things work," he assured her. "I work until they work. Believe me, young lady. Did you see my rats?"
The skin around Miriam's eyes crinkled as she smiled for real. "I believe you," she said, wiping her eyes on the back of her wrist.
"That boy is a hero," said the taxi driver. "What is his name? I bet you he's Persian."
It was too late to find out: the doors banged shut and the ambulance reversed up the block, siren winding up to sing. An attendant from the second ambulance ran up to Miriam and started unpacking his kit at her feet. As he examined Miriam's thumbless hand he asked how long ago she'd been injured, but she couldn't answer him because time had become all screwy. Everything before the little girl had been saved by the flying watermelon seemed to have taken place a million years ago.
She took another deep breath of oxygen through the plastic masque.
In the next moments the more tragic consequences of the day were discovered: M. Tang lay between two parked cars, dead from a heart attack; and from the remains of the apartment house a firefighter carried down Linger's body, asphyxiated by fumes. They were laid out straight and covered by sheets, awaiting the coroner.
"Aw shit, Linger," whispered Thierry. "Aw shit."
He felt terrible. He knew the fire had blossomed on the back of his oils and turps. Miriam felt terrible, too. She knew her kettle had started it all. Nobody knew it but the Persian felt terrible as well -- he'd been the one who accidentally stepped on Miriam's thumb. He longed to wash his shoe.
Miriam was carted off in the second ambulance. She waved. Nicole waved back. Thomas sat on the curb and rubbed his bruised knees, wincing. Despite the role he had played in saving the girl from being squished he felt depressed and empty. He was just about ready to give up on everything, and he'd continue to feel that way until he found out that Henri Tang had awarded him the grocery store in his handwritten will.
To honour his friend, Thomas would not change the name. It would remain Monsieur Tang's for years to come. Newer customers assumed Thomas was M. Tang, and so he would live his twilight years under an alias.
Wai Po would be installed by the front door, to serenade the clientele. She would one day be stolen, but that's another story and shall be told another time.
He would build Miriam a new thumb. He would even figure out a way to wire it into her nerves. It clicked when it moved which always bothered Thomas, but Miriam swore she liked it. She showed it to everyone. In time, more people came to Thomas seeking clockwork anatomical solutions. He would take on an apprentice, and through him eventually find himself and his work tangled once again with the life of Drago, the Mad Serb.
But that is also another story, and shall be told another time.
Nicole and her mother would move to the United States. Thierry would follow them, despite a restraining order. He would be captured at the border by suspicious customs officials and rendered to Syria for special questioning. In time he would escape, however, with the help of a fellow prisoner -- a battered old Spaniard with the face of a Cro Magnon.
Other stories, other times.
Twelve years later Drago would find himself sitting across the candle-lit table of a Montreal bistro from a lush, precocious, raven-haired undergrad with whom he was, against his will, falling in love. She would say to him, "Tell me something unusual about yourself, Professor Zoran."
"Call me Drago."
"I am sexually aroused by chess," he said lightly, swirling the beer in his glass. "What about you, Miss Gavrilovna?"
She smiled. "You won't believe me."
"Try me. I'm quite gullible."
"When I was nine years old my life was saved by a flying watermelon."
His eyes widened. His moustache quivered. He furrowed and brow and asked, "In Paris?"
"Yes," she admitted, startled.
"On Rue de Trevise?" he prompted, leaning across the table with sudden intensity.
"Yes," she repeated, breathless.
Drago sat back in his chair and drew a long, pale hand over his beard. "I had been obsessing over the Olympics," he said quietly. "I never knew it would save you."
"Oh my God," said Nicole.
"You were a child. You look so different now."
"Oh my God," she said again.
They would be married, but neither of them knew that yet. As they walked home through the light snow Drago fondled a bimetallic two dollar coin in his pocket. When they came to the stoop in front of her residence he would flip to coin to determine whether or not to try to kiss her.
It came up tails, but he kissed her anyway.
The rest is history.
Life & Taxes | The Secret Mathematic | Night Flight Mike | The Long Man | Victor's Mom's Car | Tim, Destroyer of Worlds
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