Painting by Lesley Goren from her series, “Survey of Los Angeles Dwellings.“
by JONATHAN OLDSTYLE
“Call me Barcarolle,” said the very old clown, “although it is not my name, it has sufficed as such.”
He was not always a clown, Barcarolle, which is to say that when he awoke one morning he was just a man who had been asleep until only a moment before, and as he rubbed the night from his tired eyes, he saw that there was a day stretched out ahead of him, and he did not say to himself “This is a new day and I am still a clown.”
He would become a clown later in the day, but that morning, the circus did not enter his mind, neither chestnut horses nor pale ladies with feathers, sateen high collars and bows holding fast ringlets of yellow hair. Instead, Barcarolle thought about hot coffee, steaming in the morning air.
Neither within the span or entirety of his life had he been a clown. Once, for a time and long ago, he was just a boy, and as a boy he’d said to himself “I shall become a bullfighter and the whole of Spain shall know my name!”
In truth, that name was “Barclay”… an American word, a name written on the shirt of the American soldier who spent one weekend with his mother in Sorrento before leaving her with nothing but memories and an unanswered curiosity never spoken aloud but only now and then, shrugged upwards from a place inside of her, far below her shoulders, which the man who was her son recalled from his childhood as tanned brown from summer sun and bitten by fleas or flies, and scratched and scarred.
His mother plucked purple grapes with the other women of the village, and in the winter she washed bedsheets from the new brick hospital at the center of town. Barclay, not yet Barcarolle, would pull his small cart across the cobbles from there to their home on the outskirts, weighted down with stained and wrinkled cloth, to be returned a day later, freshly folded and ready to be used again by the men from America and their American wives.
Then there was the day when an old man in town walked into the café on the corner and sat at the piano and made music in the dark part of the room. Barclay passed by the sounds pushing out through the open door and standing in his way, flooding the close air with the taste of a place he’d never been but knew he knew, and he felt he must stop right there where his foot touched the ground. He stood in the doorway and saw what he had heard happen, and he cried, but only inside.
On the outside, he smiled and people watched him, and when he turned his eyes to them the worries vanished from their faces as they saw that nothing was amiss with the boy, that he’d just stopped, that’s all, perhaps just to take a breath or two as he went from here to there.
And so he went on his way, and he thought of here and there, and he thought of how always, no matter where he was headed, he always arrived back at someplace called Here, and how what had been here before had somehow become There. And he laughed, out loud, and when he laughed he saw the two ladies in fine clothes sitting at the small tin table outside the café laugh as well, and he said to himself, “People like to laugh.”
And that’s when the boy became a clown, when still a boy, not yet a clown called Barcarolle, at least not on the outside, not to other people. That name came after he’d grown tall and thin, years after that second day when he’d returned to the café and peeked inside, and saw the old man playing the piano, making sounds like a gondolier’s paddle dipping into the water and lifting out into the air once and again, parting time and pushing on ahead, through it and on top of it.
“What is that you are playing?” asked the boy, and the old man at the piano who answered his question with one word, “Barcarolle,” and nothing more.
And so that is who the man, Barclay, became from that moment, Barcarolle the clown, but only inside, and nobody knew until many years later, when the old man had gone, leaving a piano bench with no old man to sit on it who could play the piano that stood silent, not even Barcarolle, who took his name on that day from inside himself, unfolded it and showed it to the world.
“Call me Barcarolle,” he said, as he walked from the café, up the cobbles of the street, past the hospital where his mother’s clean sheets once covered the bed in which she died, and to the edge of town, the edge of the other side, on which stood the house where he’d once lived.
He walked onwards, out into the countryside, and when he passed people he’d never known before and they saw the happy face that he’d painted on top of the sad one hidden behind it, they called out, “Hello, clown!” and he’d wave back at them and say, in a happy voice, “And hello to you, too! Call me Barcarolle!”
ABOUT THE WRITER: Jonathan Oldstyle grew up in the Hudson River Valley. Aside from a series of observational essays in the New York Morning Chronicle, this is his first published short work.
ABOUT THE ARTIST: Lesley Goren attended the Rhode Island School of Design and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where she concentrated on drawing and painting. She has always been fascinated with architecture and the stories buildings tell. When not at her small desk making small paintings, she can often be found on one of the gorgeous trails in Topanga. Her website is www.LesleyGoren.com.
Moving through my own city as a tourist. I have begun to question how our different neighborhoods shape our identity, and where boundaries (tangible and intangible) force us to question how we view ourselves and our neighbors. I began “Survey of Los Angeles Dwellings” to explore this concept in Los Angeles.
The project consists of a series of small paintings and drawings of homes from each of the 200+ cities, unincorporated areas, and communities within Los Angeles County, focusing on bringing out interesting elements unique to the character of that building and its neighborhood. The diversity and the stories, the different landscapes, the ideas present in each of the homes all come together to paint a bigger picture of what LA is to all of us and how it shapes who we are as a community and as individuals.
More of “Survey of Los Angeles Dwellings” at www.LesleyGoren.com.