A painting by the French artist Grenier of a carful of children on a stone bridge has obsessed me for years. They’re waving merrily to some clowns in the shadows, who are drowning in the river beside their capsized boat. The background of the painting is a luminous horizon, but the dark current and the dark cries of the clowns keep pulling me away from appreciation of the sky. Until recently I thought this painting was entirely metaphorical.

I learned about the work from Pierre-Luc, himself a painter, a bear of a man, former son-in-law of the film producer Marcel Levine at 2:00 a.m. in a little bar on Rue St. Denis. For this information, I had to pay for Pierre-Luc’s drinks and promise to read his 400 page novel about the thoughts of a man taking out the garbage one evening.

The painting has also told me about the real conditions of my life.

The police have connected the disappearance of Barbusse and the missing painting. But they’ve done nothing other than that. They’re probably waiting for someone to come in and tell them the whole story. The world is crawling with experts these days, some on the theatre, on clowning, on Barbusse, and maybe even on you and me. But they’ve done nothing about this. So I continue to look, and I will not stop looking. Only I can find Barbusse. Not because I’m something special; I’m not. Because of whatever I am, because of my suffering, because of the peculiarities Nature has given me, I will succeed.

Have you noticed how the great clowns have a special magnificence? It’s a kingly quality, but not what we normally think of as kingly. Their lives were not about power, and even when they became famous, they had a kind of strangeness that separated them from the throng. Barbusse, Fernandel, Chaplin, Emmett Kelly, Popov: they weren’t ordinary clowns. Even with ordinary clowns, though, I’ve never quite understood what makes them tick. When I was ten, my father took me backstage at the circus. My heart hammered painfully against my ribs when I shook hands with Bobo. Free of make-up, he looked ordinary, like Isadore Lacombe at the corner depanneur. I knew something was wrong. He smiled at me and spoke politely, but he stank of scotch, and his eyes were red.

Before I’d seen the actual painting, I knew the river was deep. In the poor reproduction I often studied in the library, the river simply looked dark. But the depth of the river is important. Mistakes in judging depth can lead to collision, to floundering, to drowning. Occasionally, even sharks have been known to swim upstream in long rivers. I’ve thought about it a lot. The river is not just an image of something I once saw. I know that. What I don’t know is how to get it out of my dreams.

“Are you still having dreams about the painting?” the doctor asks me.

I shrug. “Sometimes.”

Dr. Garner is a quiet man, with a pale, studious face. He looks as if he never exercises, but manages to keep his weight down even in his late 40s because he takes everything in his life in small doses.

The doctor wants to know why I am not more cooperative. What can I say? How can I even begin? He is free; I am not. That’s one reason.

This place is not what you might think.

It’s not a loony bin. It’s simply a locked ward of an ordinary hospital. A temporary circumstance. His office looks more like an accountant’s office: neat, practical, efficient. The file folder of my case is crisp, without any creases or indentations. He opens it with a delicate touch as if he were handling old parchment and touches his gold spectacles lightly, as if for good luck. Behind him, the window shows a large maple and when the breeze comes I listen to the leaves.

“Mr. Robichaud, we unfortunately don’t have a lot of time for this. I must make a report to the court fairly soon. Already, we’ve had a few interviews, and, normally, there is just one. Besides, I am sure you would like to have this decided quickly too.”

What does he want? If he wishes, I can lie. But he’s got to let me know the kinds of answers that would be useful to him. Too often, you don’t know the game you’re in.

He reaches into the folder and pulls two drawings out. He puts them down side by side on the desk in front of me.

“This is the self-portrait you did yesterday. What do you think about it today?”

Hiding is not easy when you’re 6’ 5” tall.

There are times when you don’t want anybody to see you, but I’ve never been able to hide. Mirrors lie. They show someone who looks like a destitute giraffe, like the one I saw at Granby Zoo last month. Mirrors don’t show the person you are, the form in the heart that sometimes appears in your dreams.

When I’m on the roam, I’ll be wearing a mac, with suspiciously bulging pockets, which actually hold a handkerchief, a notepad, a pen-knife, a pocket telescope, my cell phone., and a few other items. I like deep pockets. When I’m on the roam, I can get hit by a sudden downpour, making me look like the cat that fell from the roof into the rain barrel twice in one week. But all I have to do is pull out a plastic green rain hat, which sits on my head like a tiny tarpaulin.

“I’ll never be an artist, that’s for sure.”

The pencil crayon drawing shows someone who looks more like one of those hanging wooden puppets that happily flap their arms each time the string is pulled. A long, mournful face, like the face of a hound. My lack of technique prevents me from showing any of my real character.

Dr. Garner chooses to ignore my remark. Casually, he takes off his spectacles, and, looking at me with mild blue eyes, asks me to explain the second drawing.

“What do you mean?” I ask, feeling uncomfortable in the wooden chair.

“This is your drawing of the Grenier painting, isn’t it? Rendered from memory. Neither of us is an expert, but wouldn’t you agree that this drawing shows a lot more skill than the other one? There is control, balance, a feeling of confidence.”

He pauses and looks at me. “This is a very good drawing. I find that fascinating.”

I ask him to tell me what he really thinks the significance of the difference between the two drawings is.

“What I really think? An odd choice of words. It’s for you to tell me, since you have made the drawings.”

I can’t tell him anything.

 

Doctor Garner is not a complete stranger, though he doesn’t know it. I’ve seen him on the street. Once, before he became my doctor we stood side by side waiting for a red light, an odd enough occurrence in Montreal.  He looked straight ahead, never moving his head. The only reason I remembered him was that the week before I’d seen him at the park with his son. He was helping his son ride a bike.  I was sitting on a bench, reading a book.  His boy looked about six and was very nervous and kept calling out, “please don’t let go, Dad.” The doctor ran behind the bike, holding the frame with one hand to keep it balanced. He’d slow to a walk every few meters, and then began running again. The boy wasn’t enjoying the experience, though the doctor kept reassuring him in a quiet, steady voice. I was caught by the boy’s fearful tone. He seemed really terrified of falling. After a few minutes, the doctor must have decided the moment had come for the boy to ride on his own, because he let go of the fame. The bike moved down the path rapidly, with the boy’s whitened fingers gripping the handlebars. The doctor called out “very good, Edmund” as the bike approached the curve in the path. The bike wobbled and fell over. The boy lay at the edge of the sidewalk, looking at his skinned knee and crying. The doctor ran to the boy and tried to console him. I couldn’t hear what the doctor was saying, but the boy kept wailing, “you let go, you let go.”

I didn’t know who he was until I was assigned to his caseload and saw him in his office. Doctor Garner is an important and busy man. How can I tell him of the trivial incident with the bicycle? That I saw him lose his son’s trust. He asks me if I swim. Then he wants to know when I learned how to swim and I have to describe a pointless anecdote about my childhood and the local pond. His voice is like some kind of drug that makes me feel even less myself. I wonder if he continues to talk in this way whether I will finish in this institution, so confused by the questions that the doctors will have justified my hospitalization. Then he asks me what I make of the similarity between his name, Garner, and the artist’s name, Grenier.

This is hard. Do I have to pretend that I am crazy or that I am normal? I am very tired. It’s like being on stage and never being allowed off. But Pierre-Luc, my only visitor, figures it is my own fault.

“What is this obsession with clowns? It’s an embarrassment. Clowns. Good God, so maudlin, so clichéd, so predictable.” He shakes his head. “After twelve, no one takes an interest in clowns.”

“I am mainly interested in the one.”

‘Barbusse? “ He sighs in exasperation. “That man has been exposed. Yes, a genius. Certainly a clown at one point. But, even you have to see that being hunted by the police for multiple robberies, including bank robbery, is not good theatre. It’s just mostly deplorable.”

I let Pierre- Luc have his say. I let all of them have their say. My childhood was uneventful.  I have never been abused and never suffered from any trauma. I think that answer disappoints them.  I grew up in the Eastern Townships, in a formerly English-speaking village called Stanton and can’t find anything bad to say about it.  My biography won’t help the good doctor Garner, nor the prosecutors.  Most of my relatives have dispersed to other parts of the world, and Stanton itself is not the English enclave it used to be, when I was growing up as one of the few French Canadians in the town.  So biography and geography don’t help much.

I’m not saying that the answers are not found in this world. What I’m saying is worse. Some of the threads are in this world and some are part of my nature, and I think it’s better not to try to disentangle the ball of wool. Look at it closely, but leave it as a clump of multicolored, gnarled, stubborn threads.

– End of Chapter One –

 

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