When All the Fish Are Gone
Renée hates the house she’s renting. She hates the aluminum frames around its windows and the gravel in its yard, the carpets in its bathrooms and the circle of white fluorescence in its kitchen. Rust creeps along the bottom shelf in the medicine cabinet and plaster crumbles in the laundry room. Oh, where is the wainscoting, she cries. Where the delphinium.
Renée stands on once-beautiful linoleum—ivy on ochre—and rinses sand from watercress. The salmon is poached, the asparagus ready to grill. The cake is frosted in pink with green piping, the candles implanted. On this day Renée’s daughter turns eighteen. The boyfriend, among others, is coming to dinner. Renée likes everything she knows about this boyfriend except his name: Guppy. What if Camille marries this Johnny Guppy. Surely Camille would never surrender the elegant Valdivier in return for Guppy, but what about the grandchildren? Even though she’s forty-eight, Renée resists the notion of grandchildren. And she’s certainly not ready for any little Guppies.
Renée concedes that her preferences in this regard are irrelevant. She pulls the pine nuts for the salad out of the oven and grates ginger for the rice, shaving a tiny oval of skin from her knuckle in the process. She stores the band-aids in the same drawer as the CDs. After rinsing her finger and taping over her cut, she fills her kitchen with cooking music—Fleetwood Mac tonight—and then, singing along with Stevie Nicks, she assembles the hors d’oeuvres. At six o’clock sharp she looks out the window to see Johnny Guppy moving across the gravel, a clutch of delphinium in his hand. Johnny Guppy may be carrying flowers, but he is definitely not Renée’s salvation. There is no salvation in sight for Renée Valdivier. Oh, buck up, she says to herself and tosses a handful of dried cranberries onto the watercress with a flourish.
The doorbell rings and the house shakes as Camille bounds down the stairs to greet Johnny. Renée hears her daughter yelp at the flowers. Bearing olives and hearts of palm and macadamia nuts on a tray, Renée joins the jubilant youths in the living room. Sit down, sit down, she insists, offering cocktail napkins imprinted with excerpts from Dali’s melting watches. Should I change the music, Renée asks, setting down her tray. Oh, no, no, Mrs. Valdivier, says Johnny Guppy, what you’ve got on is awesome.
The next to arrive are the twins, Leslie and Laurel, Camille’s lifelong buddies, dark, coltish girls. They wheel in their gift, a shiny black Peugeot, with paper violets wrapped around its handlebars. Happy Birthday, Camille, Leslie and Laurel whinny. Get out, Camille yells, you didn’t get me a bike! I love you. I love you. She often says things twice when speaking to the twins.
Hey, nice shirt, Laurel says to pale, black-haired Johnny, fingering its sleeve, flapping her eyelids, and indeed Johnny is wearing a handsome shirt. A silvery thing made of Tencel, it looks like to Renée, who has been told a secret: that under the shirt, piped across Johnny’s nearly white chest, is a message for the world: An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind. How can Renée resist a boy who wears Gandhi on his chest. Leslie, Laurel, have a seat, eat, Renée urges as she returns to the kitchen, dropping an olive into her mouth as she goes.
Simply delicious, pronounce the twins in unison when the salmon et cetera has been consumed and then they rise simultaneously to carry plates off to the sink. A few minutes later they emerge with the cake topped with eighteen wavering flames, but before the song begins Camille’s phone trills the start of its ode to joy and she checks its caller ID screen and then mouths Sorry to the twins and then practically sings Bonjour, Papa, quelle bonne surprise into the phone and then exits the dining room to plunge into conversation.
There’s nothing to do but blow out the candles, everyone still in the dining room agrees. Small talk is made, about how Jean-Claude Valdivier has phoned all the way from France, about how beautiful the French pouring from Camille’s mouth is (she hasn’t strayed far from the dining room), about whether bad luck has been summoned by the extinguishing of the birthday candles by someone whose age is not the subject of the day. Should they re-light the blown-out candles at Camille’s return or embed new ones? Should the ice cream go back into the freezer or continue to soften on the table before them? What should they do? Oh, what? Renée tires of the jollity. Jean-Claude’s presence in the house, even on the end of the phone, makes her feel cranky, pushy, sad, mean. She betrays a confidence. To what degree, she asks, do words written on skin soak in. I mean, how do aphorisms—epigrams, maxims, whatever you call them—how do they affect those who bear them. Will Gandhi’s insight, Johnny, for example, make you more of a peacemaker as years go by? Pink blotches appear on Johnny’s neck. He is miffed, his privacy has been violated, his chest has been bared without his consent. Renée persists. Well? she asks. What do you think? Leslie? Laurel, what about you? Speak. She has returned to the tone she’s used as a teacher, which she is, and was, to Leslie and Laurel, and Camille as well. She was their French teacher. Latin, too.
Johnny, apparently, is incapable of speaking. Laurel, however, looks at Leslie, who nods, giving her sister permission to open her mouth. Oh, I see what you mean, Madame V., Laurel offers, conciliatory. Sure they do, sure the words soak in. Johnny will never morph into a warmonger, if that’s what you’re getting at. And Camille’s devotion to the earth will go on and on, Leslie cries. And so in this way Renée discovers that Camille, too, has a belief etched somewhere on her body. Renée should have known. But she knows so little now about this body that she was once in charge of.
After the phone call, after the re-lighting and blowing out of the candles, after the opening of the presents, the recent high school graduates stir and gather up their phones. Ever keen to keep Latin alive, Renée whispers Quo vadis? to her daughter but Camille shrugs. She doesn’t know where she is going but she goes, they all go, and Renée is left alone with dishes, with despair. The twins have stacked the plates without scraping them. What do they think, that a kitchen like this would feature a garbage disposal? That Renée could just rinse all the scraps down the drain? They don’t think. Now Renée must walk each dish across the linoleum to the trash can and scrape the left-behind chunks of salmon, the watercress leaves and stems, the gingered rice grains, the globs of buttercream, the olive pits, off not just the tops of the plates but off the bottoms as well. The rich can’t imagine a house without a garbage disposal. Laurel and Leslie have never heard of washing dishes by hand. Renée goes to the CD drawer in search of cleaning up music. She settles on Bob Dylan: What’s a Sweetheart Like You Doing in a Dump Like This. Before the CD even begins its spin, her spirits lift, a bit.
Once upon a time, Renée, whose name then was not Renée, it was Renata, (she changed it during a bout with francophilia) traveled to France to spend a summer and fall working with the grapes. She met Jean-Claude there, and, since it eventually produced Camille, without whom Renée cannot live, the encounter was a lucky one. But she also breathed in a fungus that summer, a nasty powder dusting a grape or a leaf, she supposes, and it lodged in her chest, leaving her short of breath and, often, coughing. So she should not be smoking now that the dishes are done and she’s sitting on her front stoop staring at an aubergine sky. But she is. She smokes three cigarettes a day.
Renée cannot live without Camille but she will have to. At summer’s end Camille the Beautiful will disappear into the rainy northwest to study environmental science (is there any way to preserve what’s left of nature, she wants to know) and Renée will return to the private school she gets underpaid to teach French and Latin in. She’ll still have Camille’s voice—surely the girl will call—and she’ll have words typed onto e-mail but she won’t have the physical presence in a daily way. She won’t hear Camille stomping around, in a hurry. She won’t smell her hair. She’ll have nothing. She’ll be alone in this ugly house with her cough. Oh, buck up, she tells herself and puts out her cigarette.
Even though it’s midnight, even though she’s tired, even though she’s never removed a glued and nailed down carpet before, Renée sees clearly in the moonlight that she can’t live for one more minute with the carpet in her bathroom. She can’t bear to step on it one more time in bare feet. So she gets her claw hammer, she gets her chisel, she gets down on her knees and pries and pulls and rips and scrapes and by 3 a.m., when Camille returns from Birthday Party Number Two, the fun one, her mother is beaming. The carpet is almost gone; its pieces lie in a heap in the hall. Swirls of old black glue remain on the oak planks but they can be sanded away, Renée explains to Camille, who smells strongly of woodsmoke and beer and is not focused on the bathroom floor. I need a shower, Mom, I stink, she says, do you mind if I shower? And she reaches in behind the curtain and turns on the water.
Sure, honey, sure, Renée says and the room steams up. She pulls herself to her feet and turns to leave but stops to regard the French braid, which is the color of an Irish setter, falling down her daughter’s back. Camille steps out of her jeans and into the shower but not before Renée notices the green vine of words between the girl’s hips. Let’s Destroy the Earth but Keep Humans, it says. Okay, dear, Renée calls out cheerily through the steam. I’ll leave you to your ablutions. Ablutions comes from abluere, one of the many Latin verbs Renée and Camille conjugated together, endlessly, in the car, in the sanctuary of the car, the sweet sanctuary.
Once she’s clean and sweet-smelling, Camille enters her mother’s bedroom, untangling her hair with a wide-tooth comb. Tell me again about my birth, Mom, she says, tell me about my early days. Renée, who is filthy and who would rather be listening to Bob Dylan in the shower and rinsing off her carpet dust, begins talking. Camille flops onto the bed and lays her wet head on her mother’s pillow. Her feather pillow. That shouldn’t get wet.
Camille was born early in the morning—it was still dark—on Bastille Day, in a small stone house near the fungal but beautiful vineyard her father’s parents owned. A few hours after the birth, her grandparents the vintners arrived—they had walked the mile and a half to their son Jean-Claude’s house—bringing dinner, chicken veronique, and a hand-knit bonnet for the new baby’s head, even though July 14th was hot that year. Camille’s grandmère, whose mouth resembled Jeanne Moreau’s, had knit the hat. Her grandpère, whose cheeks were always red, immediately pronounced the baby extraordinary—Quelle bébé extraordinaire! he said—and poured himself a glass of red wine to celebrate. Camille was his fifteenth grandchild.
The same priest who had poured baptismal waters over Jean-Claude’s head poured them over Camille’s as well. Renée, who had been raised without ritual, was awed by the veined white marble of the baptismal font. She was awed, too, by the mysterious murmurings and sacred oils of the priest, and by the stained glass saints who let light into the church and by the procession away from the church, the long line of sturdy relations on their way to the christening party, a whole tribe for the child to belong to had her parents chosen to continue living in France. But they hadn’t. They left. They traded in the beauty of Bordeaux, its grapes shining in the sun, its old stone edifices, its windowpanes of thick, beveled glass, for a series of rental houses in the American desert, with their cheap fluorescent lighting and, too often, aluminum siding.
The babe is asleep now. Good grief. Renée has lost her mind to think this thought. The babe is eighteen! She drinks beer! She plays in a band! She’s graduated from high school! She may even be having sex with Johnny Guppy! Renée needs help, she knows she does, but she is reluctant to return to psychotherapy. (The psychotherapists of her past provided her with less help than the lyrics to early Leonard Cohen songs did.) In any event, Renée has now got to clean herself up. She will start with her hands. (Nothing can undo a manicure like carpet removal.) The grime is thick and black under her nails, crescents of grime. The scrapes on her fingers are jagged and brown. She fills a roasting pan with hot water and squirts in dish soap. She settles on the ratty couch in the living room, balancing the pan on her thighs. She immerses her hands, and sighs. She rests her head on the back of the couch.
What mother would divulge all the details of the child’s birth to the child. What child, for that matter, would want to hear them all. So it’s no surprise that Renée has left out whole pieces of the birth scene. She’s left out the piece, for example, about the midwife, the midwife of whom Camille’s beloved papa was enamoured. Lizette.
Throughout the labor of birth, for a start, was Jean-Claude at Renée’s side, helping her breathe, wiping her brow, cheering her on? No. He was making tea for Lizette, he was talking to her about Jacques Derrida, they were listening to Renée’s recordings of Edith Piaf, and laughing. Mimicking. When Camille finally arrived, did the new papa rhapsodize over the newborn’s considerable beauty? Thank Renée for this great gift? Weep? No. He remarked upon the deftness of the midwife’s hands. Quelle habilité des mains! he’d exclaimed. His first words after the emergence of his first child. And did the midwife place the slippery babe on the post partum mother’s heart as she had promised she would? No, she placed her in her father’s French arms.
Renée had lain against her pillow, as if pinned. Granted, she’d been unable to witness the miracle of the midwife’s hands as they brought the baby to the light. Perhaps they were, in fact, remarkable. But still. Et moi? She’d finally managed, bringing the two flirtatious ones to their senses, bringing baby Camille to her chest, bringing Renée to the brink of love and then tipping her in. The husband and the midwife could then have walked off into the starry night together, singing La Marseillaise, and Renée wouldn’t have given a fig. Good-bye. Good-bye and good riddance, she might have said.
Renée’s agitation leads her into a coughing fit and the coughing fit causes the roasting pan to tip its murky contents, its globules of grime, onto the couch. When the coughing subsides, Renée stands. She opens the front door. She drags the couch, which is really just a loveseat, but who could stand to use that particular word, out onto the stoop and stands it on one end. She hates the couch. For once, she’s glad to have a mere stoop and not a proper porch with a railing: she gives the couch a push and it topples onto its back on the gravel. Good riddance, she says to the couch and returns to the living room. Renée couldn’t bear to have that couch in the living room for one more minute. She’d rather stand.
She walks down the hall to her sleeping daughter and, dirty as she is, lies down next to her in the bed. She can hear Camille’s heart beat the way it beat through the stethoscope that the midwife held against Renée’s belly. No, that’s impossible. Neither her memory nor her ears are that good. If Renée wanted to feel the real heart beating, now, she could move herself against Camille’s back and put her arm around the girl’s waist. But that would creep Camille out, to be hugged in the night by her mom. So Renée stays on her side of the bed, and listens to her daughter breathe.
Enology of course is the study of wines and on the résumé that Renée uses to get herself summer jobs in fancy restaurants, since she and Camille can’t possibly live on what a foreign language teacher in a private high school earns and the miniscule checks that Jean-Claude occasionally sends, she always calls herself an enologist. During the interview she finds a way to refer to the vineyard in France where she labored. She’ll try to mention that a certain wine undergoes a second fermentation just to show what she knows. And she throws in as many French phrases as she can: s’il vous plaît, bien sûr, Monsieur, comme il faut, comme ci, comme ça, malolactique. Restaurant owners and managers go for this stuff; they picture Renée impressing customers. She always gets the job.
This summer she’s working at Gargantua et Pantagruel’s, a posh, if uneuphoniously named, bistro on the outskirts of town. The uniform is a starched white tuxedo shirt and black string tie and creased black pants. Renée starches and irons her own shirts of course and ironing is what she’s doing on this day in August when Camille wakes up. Bring me some mousse tonight, would you, Mom, if you can, if there’s any left over, she says on her way to the kitchen.
Anything for you, Honey. Anything, Renée says, and presses the iron hard on the bright white sleeve of her shirt. Absolutely anything.
Renée wishes she didn’t have to go to work on this afternoon. She wishes she could stay at home and help Camille pack. She thinks it might be easier on her to participate in the dismantling of her daughter’s bedroom, to watch it disassemble piece by piece, than to come home and find that it’s all disappeared into cardboard boxes and cloth satchels. If she could wrap the photographs in newspaper and the necklaces in tissue; roll up the posters and the socks; return the computer pieces to their styrofoam cushions; fold and stack the pajama bottoms and tank tops, saying good-bye to each of these articles individually, the way we do to a departed loved one in a casket, she might miss them less when the drawers and walls are empty. Good grief, Renée says out loud to herself in the voice of one of her psychotherapists, Lydia, her favorite one in fact, you’re not going to be in Camille’s room opening drawers and mourning the departed socks, are you, an outburst which brings Camille back to her, carrying a bowl and spooning Lucky Charms from it into her mouth, a mouth that has come to resemble her Grandmother Valdivier’s, a full, beautiful mouth, its upper lip practically a half moon. What did you say, Camille asks, chewing on a marshmallow.
But Renée doesn’t answer. Renée just cries.
Oh, Mom, Camille says. This isn’t the end of life as we know it. Come on, butch it up.
Not only is Renée going to miss the packing up party (Leslie and Laurel will be there, and Johnny Guppy, too), she’s also going to miss the farewell concert of Camille’s eco-band. It’s not a concert, Camille reminds her mother, we’re just going to sing a couple of songs at the coffeehouse. What songs, Renée wails. Oh, I don’t know, Camille replies. When All the Fish Are Gone? Let’s Destroy the Earth but Save Humans? Any requests? Even though you can’t be there?
No, those are good, Hon. Those are good. Those, in fact, are the best.
The couch is still on the gravel out front but someone has flipped it back up onto its feet. Monsoon rains have poured down upon it and then the southwest sun baked it clean and dry. So when Renée returns from work, at midnight, she can bear to sit on it. She even wants to sit on it. She wants to delay entry to the house where Camille’s packed-up belongings will be stacked in the living room. She brushes off a few leaves and settles in.
As she lights her cigarette, her Gitane, it occurs to Renée that Jean-Claude has arrived by now. His plane has landed and he’s picked up his rental car and probably gotten to the café in time to hear the band belt out When All the Fish Are Gone, to hear Camille’s violin on its sad refrain. He’s surely charmed Leslie and Laurel with his Truffaut good looks; he surely buddied up to Johnny Guppy, talking soccer. It hasn’t occurred to Renée until this moment that he could show up here, at her house, at any minute; he is likely to drop Camille off for her last night at home before father and daughter depart for the rainy northwest, the two of them sharing the intimate space of a car, that sanctuary, for three days, the trip that Renée had anticipated would be a mother-daughter trip, until Camille dropped the bomb, the day after her birthday, that her dad had called to say he wanted to drive her up to school and Renée had given in on the grounds that girls need their fathers and Camille had gotten the short end of Jean-Claude her whole life long.
The last thing that Renée wants is for Jean-Claude to see her in her tuxedo waitress shirt, replete with tucks. Jean Claude, esteemed professor of philosophy at a major French university. The absolutely last thing. But she also wants to finish her cigarette, especially since she now allows herself only two per day, and before she’s gotten to the end of it, he arrives, they all arrive, Camille and Johnny and Laurel and Leslie, in a big silver SUV steered by Dad-for-a-Day Jean-Claude, who at home in France, Renée presumes, still drives something tiny and fuel efficient, like the Deux Chevaux they took on winding country roads on Sunday afternoons during the summer of their courtship.
When the doors fly open and the interior lights illuminate his Gallic face, Renée gasps. Even though she was expecting him, she wasn’t expecting him to look so much like Camille. Nor was she expecting him to be so handsome still. Shouldn’t jowls follow a philanderer into his fifties? Shouldn’t his hair fall out? Jean-Claude’s falls across his forehead, heading toward silver.
Renée has no choice but to go on over to the humongous vehicle in her tuxedo shirt and allow Jean-Claude’s French lips to kiss her cheeks. But she quickly turns to the twins, who report that Camille did great, the crowd went wild, her violin was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking. Fantastique, Jean-Claude adds, and puts his arm around Camille’s proud shoulders. Formidable! Superbe! Johnny nods his head, his whole upper body really, in assent.
Renée should invite the whole crowd inside and serve them cups of herbal tea, but there’s nowhere for them all to sit in the living room, now that the couch is gone, plus the wall color is a dismal green and the bookshelves haven’t been dusted in weeks. She feels so defeated that she begins to cough. She coughs and coughs, she can’t stop, she’s practically convulsing, and so they all say their good-byes, except for Camille, who listlessly pats her mother’s back. Jean-Claude retreats to his motel room, the twins go on home and Johnny lopes over and sits in his car to wait for Camille. Renée points to her car with her lips. Mousse, she says, between coughs, as if she’s dying, as if she’s Mimi La Bohème herself on her Parisian couch, she has only a few words left. For you. And Johnny. Cough. Johnny Guppy.
Camille fetches the mousse and then two spoons and carries her mother a blanket as well, which Renée takes and lies under on the couch, under the sycamore tree. Good night, Honey, she says, cough, be safe, cough, and Camille gets in Johnny’s car and they drive off for a last night of mousse and each other. And Renée lies alone on the couch with the heart shaped leaves of the catalpa tree falling down on her, the wind has picked up a bit. Alone.
Oh, buck up and avoid self-pity, Renée hears Lydia’s voice, her psychotherapeutic voice, telling her. Avoid self-pity at all costs. Just go along with them on the trip to college, she suggests; dig out your sleeping bag and just get in the damn SUV and say, On y va? Shall we go? She’s your daughter. You raised her. You don’t need an invitation. Leonard Cohen stops by as well and echoes Lydia. Put out your cigarette, my love, Leonard intones, you’ve been alone too long. Even Madame Valdivier the elder, Renée’s beloved belle mère, last seen in her waxen beauty in an ebony casket, in black lace, puts in a brief appearance. Her hair is pulled back in a bun. Her beautiful mouth is sewn shut. She nods benevolently, encouraging Renée to go with her son.
And so, on this very last night that Renée waits up for Camille, she considers an impromptu trip. Why wouldn’t she consider a trip she’s been counseled to take by loved ones. She pictures disengaging her sleeping bag from its spot under her bed and climbing into the rented Escalade with that and her camping skillet and other accoutrements for the great western outdoors. She takes her place on the bench seat in the back. Father and daughter occupy the buckets up front. Renée listens to Jean-Claude’s versions of Camille’s early days. She listens, she does not interrupt. When the conversation lulls, Renée leans forward, between the seats, and questions Jean-Claude about his relations; belatedly, she celebrates the births and first communions and she mourns the farm accidents and the deaths. She asks after the grapes and learns which seasons yielded glorious crops and which verged on catastrophe. She hears about experiments in the fermentation process. She becomes a more knowledgeable enologist. She practices her French. Yes, Renée can see the advantages of taking such a trip.
Renée sees that when they stop for gas, she will scrape the bugs off the windshield. When they stop for the night, she will collect the wood, she will build the fire. She’ll extend the speakers on Camille’s iPod so they can listen to Hey Mr. Tambourine Man en plein air. In the cool mornings, parents and child will drink coffee together out of blue metal cups speckled with white, they will make biscuits and smear them with honey. Jean-Claude will tell Camille stories about weddings and cousins and the garlands made of grape leaves that nieces wear in their hair. Camille will wish she had spent her whole life in France with her father and her cousins and their ceremonies. Renée knows her daughter will wish this.
When they arrive in the rainy Northwest, the leaves will appear as emeralds to folk from the desert. The ocean will roar and the sea lions bark. The happy threesome will stroll the campus, acknowledging the blooms of extravagant colors that adorn the halls of learning. The Northwest is beautiful, just beautiful, but certainly, Renée fears, fungal.
Father, mother and daughter will linger outside the Environmental Science building. Camille will expound. She’ll list species in dire need of salvation. This dragonfly, that vetch. Et cetera. She’ll lay out in tiresome detail the encroachments into their habitats: all terrain vehicles, Wal-Mart superstores, foul, foul air.
Renée sits up and extracts a leaf from her hair. She sees the sky going
pink with the dawn. She sees also, that, though she cares about the vetch and
is certain that its salvation is crucial, the vetch is Camille’s territory
and so is the dragonfly. And so why should she listen, again, to Camille lecture.
Why should she listen, for that matter, to Jean-Claude’s version of Camille’s
childhood. Wouldn’t she rather just stay at home and listen to her CDs,
maybe even to her old records? Re-upholster her couch? And say good-bye to
her daughter from her own front