In Paris one night the doorbell rings,
and there's this little guy, shaking like a leaf
and going "uh-uh-uh-UNH-ah!" and his eyes get big
and he raises his hands like a gospel singer
and goes "UNH-ah-uh-uh-uh-UNH-uh-ah!"
and for just a fraction of a second I think
he's doing the first part of Wilson Pickett's
"Land of a Thousand Dances" and that he wants me
to join him in some kind of weird welcome
to the neighborhood, so I raise my hands a little
and begin to sort of hum along, though
not very loudly in case I'm wrong about this,
and I'm smiling the way old people smile
when they can't hear you but want you to know
that everything's okay as far as they're concerned
or a poet smiles in a roomful of scientists,
as if to say, "Hey! I'm just a poet!
But your stuff's great, really! Even if
I don't understand any of it!" And by the time
I start to half-wonder if this gentleman wants me
to take the you-got-to-know-how-to-pony part
or means to launch into it himself, he gives
a little hop and slaps his hands down to his sides
and says, "PLEASE! YOU MUST NOT MOVE
THE FURNITURE AFTER ELEVEN O'CLOCK OF THE NIGHT!"
so I lower my own hands and say, "Whaaaa . . . ?"
and he says, "ALWAYS YOU ARE MOVING IT WHEN
THE BABY TRY TO SLEEP! YOU MUST NOT DO IT!"
And now that he's feeling a little bolder,
he steps in closer, where the light's better,
and I see he's got something on his head,
like strands of oily seaweed, something
you'd expect to find on a rock after one of
those big tanker spills in the Channel,
so I lean a little bit and realize it's what
stylists call a "combover," not a bad idea
on the tall fellows but definitely a grooming no-no
for your vertically challenged caballeros,
of which Monsieur here is certainly one,
especially if they are yelling at you.
But I'd read an article about AA that said
when your loved ones stage an intervention
and go off on you for getting drunk
and busting up the furniture and running out
into traffic and threatening to kill the President,
it's better to just let them wind down
and then say, "You're probably right,"
because if you're combative, they will be, too,
and then your problems will just start over again,
so I wait till Mr. Combover stops shaking—
it's not nice, I know, but it's the first name that comes to mind—
and I say, "You're probably right," and he raises
a finger and opens his mouth as if to say something
but then snaps his jaw shut and whirls around
and marches downstairs, skidding a little
and windmilling his arms and almost falling
but catching himself, though not without
that indignant backward glance we all give
the stupid step that some stupid idiot would have
attended to long ago if he hadn't been so stupid.
The next day, I ask Nadine the gardienne
qu'est-ce que c'est the deal avec the monsieur
qui lives under moi, and Nadine says his femme
is toujours busting his chops, but il est afraid
of her, so il takes out his rage on the rest of nous.
There's something else, though: a few days later,
Barbara and I see Mr. and Mrs. Combover
crossing the Pont Marie, and she is a virtual giantess
compared to him! Now I remember once hearing Barbara
give boyfriend advice to this niece of mine,
and Barbara said (1) he's got to have a job,
(2) he's got to tell you you're beautiful all the time,
and (3) he's got to be taller than you are,
so when I see Mrs. Combover looming over her hubby,
I think, Well, that explains the busted chops.
Not only that, Mrs. Combover looks cheap.
She looks rich, sure—Nadine had told me Monsieur
is some sorte de diplomat avec the Chilean delegation—
but also like one of those professional ladies
offering her services up around the Rue St. Denis.
But who are they, really? "Combover" is one
of those names from a fifties black-and-white movie;
he's the kind of guy neighborhood kids call "Mr. C."
and who has a boss who says things like, "Now see here,
Combover, this sort of thing just won't do!"
He's like one of Dagwood's unnamed colleagues—
he's not even Dagwood, who at least excites
Mr. Dithers enough to be fired a couple
of times a week, not to mention severely beaten.
Only Dagwood is really in charge. Everything goes his way!
Despite chronic incompetence, ol' Dag keeps
the job that allows him his fabulous home life:
long naps, towering sandwiches, affectionate
and well-behaved teenaged children, a loyal dog,
and, best of all, the love of Blondie.
Blondie! The name says it all: glamorous but fun.
Big trashy Mrs. Combover is not glamorous,
although she thinks she is, and no fun at all.
She is the anti-Blondie. Her job seems to be
to stay home and smoke, since we're always smelling
the cigarette fumes that seep up through the floor
into our apartment day and night. And he says
we're keeping Baby Combover awake when we move
the furniture, which we've never done, but then
we've never seen Baby Combover, either. Or heard him.
Baby Combover: the world's first silent baby.
Barbara has this theory that, after a life
of prostitution, Mrs. Combover has not only repented but
undergone a false pregnancy and imaginary birth.
Therefore, the reason why Baby Combover is silent
is that he is not a real baby who fusses and eats and
wets and poops but is instead a pillowcase with knots
for ears and a smiley face drawn with a Magic Marker and
a hole for its mouth so Mrs. Combover can teach it
to smoke when it's older, like eight, say.
Now I know what they fight about: "You never spend
any time with the baby!" hisses Mrs. Combover.
"I will—later, when he can talk!" says Mr. Combover.
"Here I am stuck with this baby all day long!
And those horrible people upstairs!"
And he says, "Oh, be silent, you . . . prostitute!"
And she says, "Quiet, you horrible man—
not in front of the baby!" Maybe it's time
for a call to the police. Or the newspapers.
I can see the headlines now: OU EST L'ENFANT COMBOVER?
I feel sorry for him. With parents like these,
it would be better if someone were to kidnap him.
Or I could take him back to America with me,
I who have a wife who loves me and two grown sons.
Why not? We've got all this extra room now.
We'll feed him a lot and tickle him;
there's nothing funnier than a fat, happy baby.
And when the boys come home to visit,
they'll take him out with them in their sports cars:
"It's my little brother!" they'll say. "He's French!"
The neighborhood kids, once a band of sullen mendicants,
will beg us to let him play with them,
even though he doesn't speak their language.
Look! There they go toward the baseball field,
with Baby Combover under their arm!
I love you, Baby Combover! You are Joseph Campbell's
classic mythical hero, i.e., "an agent of change
who relinquishes self-interest and breaks down
the established social order." But you're so pale!
You've stayed out too long and caught cold.
Barbara and the boys gather around his bed;
they hug each other, and we try not to cry.
Baby Combover is smiling—he always smiled, that kid.
His little mouth begins to move, and we lean in
and think we hear him say, "Be bwave fo' me. . . ."
Back in Paris, Mr. Combover grows a full head of hair.
Mrs. Combover reaches up to touch it.
He puts down his attaché case and caresses her cheek.
"How beautiful you are!" he says. It's so quiet now.
Then they hear it: in the next room, a child is crying.