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David Alexander
An American
Surfer in Paris

Today Tosh Williamson, carrying his surfboard, walked from Pére Lachaise to the Palais de Tokyo, following the boulevards up into Montmartre where Chapelle, at the top of the arc, swung him down again on a slow curve toward l'Etoile, and then down toward Avenue President Wilson and the step-street that descended toward Passerelle Debilly past the strange house on the high stone foundation.

From there it was over the bridge, where he paused to let passengers in a bateau mouche that slid below snap pictures of him and his boogie board and then along Branly and into the Champ de Mars. Under the northwest pillar of the Eiffel Tower, he signed autographs and posed for more pictures while the gendarmes stationed there looked on indulgently. They knew Tosh. Everybody in Paris did. In the park, under the stands of linden trees that rose on either side of the graveled promenades leading up to the Tower, Tosh repeated the exercises he had performed at Pére Lachaise beside the grave of Man Ray, where he had left a few centimes, as was the custom.

Gripping the outside edges of the board, gripping the rails, Tosh stood on the greensward and I made myself see the waves like they used to be at Malibu. Waves straight from hell. Big, bad, punishing waves that would try to trash the board and would make your asshole pucker up tight with fear. Then you went into it, Tosh went into it, running into the surf and paddling out to the waves to catch the downcurling lip and ride the crest of the monster comber. Tubed out, Tosh let the wall of water carry him in, balancing himself on the rolling, pitching top of the body board until the wave had spent its fury and he was back on shore again.

Then, planting his surfboard on the grass, Tosh posed for more photos and autographed more post cards, dolls and other souvenirs, including a copy of Paris Match with his picture on that month's cover.

"Le surfer américain," the headline of Match read, because that's what they called him. The rest of the leader went, "Est-ce qu'il est un génie fâché, une énigme qui marche ou seulement tout bonnement fou?"

In the months since Tosh had first been seen walking the boulevards and riding the Metro carrying his surfboard, he had gone from being a mere curiosity, like the ersatz James Joyces and Jim Morrisons that can be seen in the vicinity of Place Pigalle as night falls, to a celebrity, and then to something the French cherished above all else: a walking enigma.

One day he would be seen on the Boulevard St. Germaine, another at Les Halles, a third at the Luxembourg Gardens, or like today, in the Champ de Mars. Always with his surfboard, usually in baggy shorts, even in the coldest months of winter, and always wearing dark-lensed shades.

But the tourists and the Parisians only saw le surfer américain carrying his boogie board or performing his exercises in the numerous parks of Paris. None of them saw what Tosh saw.

I saw the waves the waves off Malibu I saw the waves. The others could not see the waves or hear the surf crash crash against the beach or smell the salt of the ocean or feel the cold sting of the water sting of the water.

Nor could the others know the feeling the feeling of riding the tube of a monster overhang of water then crashing through onto the other side the other side onto the beach with nothing left in you because you'd given it all on the ride in and you were empty inside but fuller and newer in a different way than you'd been on the way out.

Because it was a landlocked city, miles from any ocean, they wondered. Even those who had read the stories in Le Figaro or the new one in Match, and knew about Mason, his brother, and how Mason would have been all alone in the dark if not for Tosh.

Because they could not see the waves, nor feel the surf, they thought Tosh was crazy, even the ones who asked him to sign their souvenirs or pose with them for the photos to take back to Cleveland or Rome or Danzig or Fort Worth, and the ones who shook his hand and told him they understood him -- Tosh knew that they knew him least of all.

Not that Tosh blamed them. That would have been a mistake. Tosh himself couldn't explain what had made me take my surfboard with him from Malibu when I went to Paris to take care of Mason after that last fight, the one at Vincennes where Dupleix had done it to me him.

Mason had come out smoking, knocking Dupleix down in the second round, but Dupleix had gotten up, been knocked down again in the fifth, and in the ninth came at Mason with a clumsy right that Mason easily slipped but whose momentum carried Dupleix straight into him, their skulls colliding.

In the tenth, Mason sagged to the canvas before they could even put the stool under him, and they had rushed him by ambulance to Esquirol for surgery to remove the blood clot in his brain that Dupleix's head-butt in the ninth had induced.

The doctors had saved Mason's life, but after two months in a coma, he was left blind, brain damaged and paraplegic.

So Tosh had come to Paris, where Mason had lived in a flat on the Rue Balard, to take care of his brother, because there was no one else to trust and because Tosh owed Mason a debt since childhood.

A week or two after Tosh's arrival in Paris, Tosh had a dream where he had glimpsed something in flashes, as if through a translucent membrane lit by strobes of intense white light, but when he awoke he could not remember what it had been that he had glimpsed in the dream.

Without knowing why, he had picked up the surfboard one morning and began to walk the streets of Paris with it tucked under his arm. It had been late September then, and the horse chestnut and elm trees along the Seine were just beginning to turn as he walked along the quays on the Left Bank, heading upstream towards Austerlitz.

Tosh had drawn stares almost from the first as he had left the flat, leaving Mason in the care of Justine, the nurse he had hired to help him, and went down into the Metro station at Lourmel. He had gotten off at Palais-Royale, near the Louvre and from there had begun following the river, and they had continued to stare.

And then, having crossed the Sully bridge, he had come to the small triangular park at the tip of the Ile St. Louis, and he had stood looking upstream at the confluence where the river joined and he had seen the waves off Malibu and had heard them crash again and had picked up my board and begun to ride the waves on the green of the park.

From that day on, throughout the long Parisian winter and into the spring of the next year, Tosh had been a fixture of the Paris streets.

First the autograph seekers and the snapshot takers had approached him, then the newspaper reporters and the camera crews from the television news teams, and then the glossy magazines, and then the owners of discos who wanted to pay him to be seen at their places at night, and then the would-be spear-carriers, groupies, psychos and academics, all of which except for the last Tosh had welcomed and tried to explain himself to.

But in the end, none of them understood Tosh, because Tosh, while having seen the waves off Malibu, had not seen what was beyond the membrane in his dream, and could therefore not understand himself.

Now, in the Champ de Mars, Tosh handed back the copy of Paris Match he had signed, picked up his surfboard and prepared to leave the park.

It was getting late and it would take him another half hour to get back to the flat so he could look in on Mason. Justine would be leaving on her lunch break and Tosh always spelled her then, because Mason could not be left alone for more than a few minutes at a time in his condition. He had not taken a few steps when a mobile camera crew stopped him and a local TV reporter put a microphone in his face.

"Bonjour, Tosh," the reporter said. "Comment est-ce Que vous êtes aujourd'hui?"

"Bonjour, Claudine," Tosh told her. She had interviewed him before and Tosh resigned himself to a further delay. "Je vais très bien," he told her.

"How is your brother feeling?" she asked. "Any improvement?"

"Mason's doing much better. He gets better every day," Tosh told her. "Next month we plan to fly him back Stateside for tests at the Mayo Clinic. The doctors think enough brain cells were undamaged for him to comprehend things better than he does now."

"I'm glad to hear that, Tosh," Claudine said. "But what about you? You were a champion surfer in the United States before coming to live in Paris, yes?"

"That's right. Three times Grand Champion at the Iver Beach Festival at Malibu."

"I'm going to give you an injection now."

"What?" Tosh asked.

"Do you not wish to surf?" she repeated.

"I I do do surf surf."

"Yes," she said, smiling. "But I mean to surf for real. At a surfing event. Why do you not surf at Narbonne-Plage? Or St. Tropez? Or even Australia?"

"I might. Ask me again in the spring."

"Last night," said Claudine, changing tack, "you were seen at the Club Slow in the company of La Madeleine. Is there any truth to a rumor of romance between you and the rock star? And why did you not have your surfboard with you hemostat and fifty ccs of Lotusate?"

"I was invited there and introduced to La Madeleine. I've never met her before. And I had my surfboard with me. I always always carry carry it with me me."

"Some have accused you of being out for publicity, others of being a phony, and there are those who say you are simply mad. Still others have called you a symbolist performance artist. Which of these is the true surfer américain?"

"Tosh Williamson is none of the above," Tosh said. "Now I have to go. My brother is expecting me."

"Merci, Tosh," Claudine said. "Regards to Mason." She signaled to the camera crew to come in for a tight shot so she could put the wraps on her interview.

As Claudine made her final remarks about le surfer américain, Tosh was already on his way to the Metro stop at La Motte-Picquet, in front of the Hamon supermarket, because he was too delayed to walk.

He would have liked to bring some fruit from the open air stand in front of Hamon back to Mason, but he would only attract more attention there. The Parisian subway riders, only half as blasé as those in New York, recognized and applauded Tosh, as he made the connection at La Motte-Piquet-Grenelle and rode the Number 8 local to his final stop.

Surfboard in tow, Tosh rode the elevator, small by American standards, up three floors to the apartment. Justine answered his rap on the door, and Tosh leaned his surfboard in its accustomed spot near the entrance as he went into the living room where Mason sat in his wheelchair.

"I just saw you on the afternoon news," Justine told him as she put on her coat and prepared to leave. "At that disco last night."

"I'll be on again tonight," Tosh said and told Justine about the interview in the park.

Tosh went over to Mason and put his hand on his brother's shoulder.

"I'm back, Stone Man," he said, using Mason's boxing handle, the one he'd used with pride through his thirty-one bouts. Mason's shoulder was still solid. The muscles had not yet gone. It was still not all that long after the last fight and they had not yet turned into suet.

"Who's that?" Mason asked.

"It's Tosh, Stone Man," Tosh told him.

"Who?"

"Tosh," he said louder, because Mason could no longer hear well.

"I'm Tosh," said Mason. "Who are you?"

"No you're not," Tosh told him. "You're Mason."

"Yeah, right. I'm Mason," Mason finally acknowledged. "In this corner, Stone Man Williamson, World Boxing Organization middleweight cham-peen, from Oil City, Pennsylvania, weighing one hundred seventy pounds." Mason went still and began rocking in his chair. He reached forward, his hands clutching empty space. "Where's my soda?" he asked.

"Right in front of you on the table," Tosh said and helped his sightless fingers close around it. Mason brought it to his mouth, but the straw almost poked him in the eye before Tosh took his hand and put the straw between his lips.

The hand felt smaller than Tosh remembered it, and lighter too. Mason had once had what fighters called "heavy hands." Hands that could practically knock down a tree. Now they were limp things that weakly clutched the edges of the armrests of his wheelchair and could not even grope a soda can in the darkness of Mason's world.

Making gurgling sounds through the straw, Mason sipped his soda while Tosh went to the window and looked out onto the streets below. Traffic was moving along the Avenue Emile Zola toward Montparnasse, and between two buildings, he caught a glimpse of the Number 6 Metro cars trundling across the elevated tracks of the Bir-Hakeim bridge.

"Where are we?" Mason asked, putting the soda can down on his own. "It's dark. Where are we?"

"We're in your apartment, Stone Man," Tosh told his brother, turning from the window.

"Where's my apartment, Mason?"

"I'm Tosh, Mason," Tosh said. "And your apartment's in Paris, on the Rue Balard."

"I've never been in Paris," Mason answered. "I live in Oil City, not far from the Ford plant where dad used to work. I got a nice house there, blue frame with white trim. Paid cash for it after my first championship bout."

"You live in Paris, Stone Man," Tosh told his brother. "You've been there for years."

"It's dark in here," Mason said. "Who are you?"

"I'm Tosh, Stone Man," Tosh answered. "Tosh, your brother."

"Yeah," Mason said. "Now I remember. You had a dream last night. And you wrote a poem in your dream. About how you died when you were a kid, under the street lamps. You got shot under the street lamps. And they had to bury you under the street lamps."

"Shut up, Stone Man," Tosh snapped at Mason. "It was you under the street lamps. You and dad, where he taught you to use your dukes. You remember?"

"Yeah, when we were kids in Oil City," Mason said.

"He wanted me to fight too, but I didn't go for it. I wanted to be a surf bum. So I packed up and left and followed the summer from one beach to the next. I wound up at Malibu."

"Under the street lamps," Mason said. "Dad and you. Then the car flashed by and the gun spat fire."

"Shut the fuck up, man!" Tosh shouted, standing over his brother and balling his fists. He was a hairbreadth away from striking Mason before he remembered himself. "Just shut the fuck up," he muttered half under his breath and turned his back, forcing open his hands.

"Where am I?" Mason asked after a pause.

"In Paris," Tosh said, now with resignation. "On the Rue Balard."

"Why's it so dark in here?" Mason wanted to know. "Can you turn on the lights?"

"Soon, Mason," Tosh replied. "Soon I'll turn them on."

"I was at Pére Lachaise this morning with my surfboard and Justine gave me an injection in the dark," Mason said. "And then you got killed under the street lamps. Where's my soda?"

"Right in front of you, Mason," Tosh answered, no longer caring about the words, and helped him put the straw to his lips again.

"Who are you?"

"Tosh."

"No you're not," Mason said. "I'm Tosh."

It went on like that for a long time. Sometimes it was better and other times it was worse, and sometimes Tosh would wind up screaming his head off at Mason until Justine came back and took him off his hands.

For awhile, just after the coma, Mason had been silent, and they were afraid he might never talk again. When he'd begun talking, Tosh was relieved. But his words were incoherent, and the gibberish he spouted could easily get on Tosh's nerves. Lately, Mason had seemed to be making more sense, but then the weirdness had begun all over again.

Sometimes Tosh wondered if Mason was more aware than he seemed, and taunted Tosh just for the perverse pleasure of it. Sometimes it seemed like that was exactly what was happening.

Mason had always been the achiever while Tosh had perennially taken second place. Now that Mason was an invalid for life, Tosh wondered if he were taking his troubles out on him. But the doctors had said that he wasn't mentally capable of doing anything like that, because Mason was close to being a vegetable.

Tosh put on Euro-MTV and sat with Mason in the living room awhile as the sun crept across the floor. Later Justine came back and took over Mason's care. Tosh felt his burden immediately lift. For some reason, Mason was much more composed with Justine than he was with Tosh. Justine wheeled Mason into the afternoon sun that streamed in through the apartment's high windows.

"He likes this," she said to Tosh. "Do you know what he told me earlier today, when you were out?"

"No, what?"

"Mason said that when I put him there he could feel the light on him and that it reminded him of the electric shock in the soles of the feet one gets when one thinks of falling."

"Anything else?"

"Yes," she said, after a moment of reflection. "He told me a little later that he had seen through your membrane, and that it was you standing on the other side. What could he have meant?"

"Who knows?" Tosh answered her. "Mason lives in his own world these days."

"Yes," Justine said, looking at the man in the wheelchair. "A dark, lonely world."

Tosh fixed himself a sandwich and drank some wine from a plastic liter bottle he'd taken from the refrigerator. He napped awhile and then got up, feeling refreshed. It was already growing late, and tonight he was expected at the Metropole disco. But the five or six hours in between could not be spent indoors. Not with Mason in the next room. Tosh had to get out and he told Justine that he was leaving.

"So long, Stone Man," he said to his brother on his way to the door.

"My name's Tosh," Mason said back. "You're Stone Man, World Boxing Organization cham-peen, from Oil City, Pennsylvania."

"Sure, Stone Man," Tosh said. "However you want it."

Tosh grabbed his surfboard and rode the elevator down to the lobby and walked walked out into the street. He decided to make his way toward the Seine and follow the river to the Boul'Mich and go into the Val de Grâce quarter, then swing in a tight half-circle back up where he would cross over at Pont Neuf and wander along the warren of streets above the Rue de Rivoli. By then it would be fully night and he could sit sit on the Pont Neuf's stone stone benches awhile and watch the boats pass along along beneath him on the Seine.

But first Tosh wanted to surf, and at Violet Square, between the hospital and the church, there was a narrow L-shaped park that he knew. Through the returning crowds of rush-hour commuters emerging from the Metro station and from the bus stop on the corner, Tosh made his way, his surfboard tucked under his arm.

As the sun went down, Tosh reached the park, returning the greetings of some who called out to le surfer américain, and once inside the park, began his familiar routine. There was the ocean, at Malibu, with the monster waves waves breaking breaking out out past the jetty, and Tosh pushed his surfboard into the water, paddling toward the waves the waves, and it was all right again, the way it always had been, as the water closed closed closed around him, it was all right.

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