CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

On the last day of her life, a Sunday, Coco returned from a drive.

Dismissing her chauffeur, she pushed her way through the revolving doors of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Still disturbed by what she had seen, she felt exhausted. Her body felt so heavy, every step she took seemed about to pull her down.

That morning, as announced in the newspapers, a cull of pigeons had taken place. Everywhere she looked, the boulevards were strewn with their bodies, the streets were thick with the litter of dead birds.

Shocked by the sight of this slaughter, Coco had been startled, too, by the sudden silence that obtained. Aside from the occasional hum of morning traffic there was, she noticed, no undersong to the city anymore. Its melody, a kind of liquefied cooing furnished by the birds, had disappeared. Now everything suddenly seemed so still. Mist clung to the trees, making ghosts of them. The city seemed bleached of color. An odor of decay rose to Coco’s nostrils and almost made her faint.

Back inside her permanent suite at the Ritz, she rested in her single bed. She did not have to go to work again until the following morning. Around her, the walls were white, the vases dense with flowers, and the shelves filled with leather-bound books. But inside her a sense of emptiness swelled.

Lying there, she heard the church bells chime. The sound transported her for a moment back to her schooldays at the convent in Aubazine. She remembered prayers being whispered in the church by the altar, and candles glimmering over rows of dried flowers. And through the intervening years arose a penetrating whiff of incense lifting in clouds above the Madonna.

Next to her, she saw the triple icon Igor had given her as a gift after leaving Garches some fifty years before. She wondered, Was it really so long ago?

She smiled, reflecting how, out of the dense weave of the century, they had managed to snag in the developing threads of each other’s lives. In her memory, their love affair made a vivid pattern, a small but perfect dance. They were each in their late thirties then. In retrospect, it occurred to her how young they both had seemed. Now she felt so decrepit, so old and alone. She pondered what might have been had they stayed together; how differently for each of them things might have turned out. She still had, in storage somewhere, his mechanical piano. He had never returned to pick it up.

Memories of the last half century mixed with the impression of the room’s whiteness, making the space within her seem infinitely wide. Slowly, as the sound of the bells faded, and the sense of her own tiredness grew, she drifted off to sleep.

An hour later, she awoke abruptly. A bubble entered her stomach. Pain crowded her chest.

She screamed to her maid, Céline: “Open the window! I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” The noise seemed torn from her.

Seeing the icon on her bedside table, an impulse seized her. She crossed herself. A series of images flashed across her eye: that first night at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées; the bunch of jonquils he brought her at the zoo; the nacreous button she sewed back on his shirt; the night of the storm when she fell into his arms; her hands trailing noiselessly across the keys of the piano; the sunlit walks they both took in the woods; the dancing on the tables at Le Boeuf sur le Toit; and the pistachio-colored parrot that drove them crazy squawking her name.

The images condensed with hallucinatory clarity. She thought she heard a distant music: the spasms of a piano, a shadowy harmony. She caught and followed the song along the communicating rooms of her senses. And in the phantasmagoria of sudden memory she recalled how he looked as he leaned to kiss her, remembered sharply his dark eyes.

The pain spread in bands across her chest, arrowing down her arms.

She heard Céline utter something reassuring and saw her reach for a syringe. Her head lifted effortfully from the pillow. Her body arched upward, then fell back heavily. She felt something tighten around her. The scent of lilies touched her nose. A single tear filled her eye, tense with iridescence.

Then everything went blank.

An ocean away, Igor was getting out of bed in New York. He experienced a pain, as if a rib of his had cried out. A dull throb lingered as he rose to his feet. He stretched his arms to take away the ache. Then, dressing, he unwrapped a new shirt from a crinkly cellophane packet. He felt a tiny thrill of static exercise the hairs on the back of his hands. Teasing out layers of tissue paper, he detached a blanched cardboard support and a clear plastic halter from inside the collar. He released pins from the shoulders and the back. The sleeves were pleached like a cinema curtain. One square pocket framed the left breast. Then, undoing two or three buttons at the throat, he pulled the shirt on over his head. After a moment of half panic in which he felt he was being smothered, his head emerged through the neck of the shirt. Whitely he raised his arms as though about to fly.

Back in Paris, the vacuum cleaner scythed in giant sweeps across the foyer. The revolving door of the hotel spun clockwise on its axis. Brushes at the top and bottom shirred against the floor and ceiling, keeping the cold air out.

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