INTO THE PAPER-WHITE QUIET
There are few things sweeter than Paris at springtime.
Nice! Good! Marvelous even! For a first sentence to begin the novel that would eventually become a best-selling work of historical fiction and free Rabbit Beauchamps from her part-time job at Tupperware Alley, this would do just fine.
Perhaps better than fine. Its construction was the result of careful planning and researching, writing then unwriting and writing some more. Since last June, Rabbit had studied opening lines composed by her favorite authors – from Fitzgerald to Vonnegut to Murakami and back again – trying to find where they kept the literary magic, the confident aura maybe hidden inside vast spaces between words, whispering into the paper-white quiet, “This story is going to be great.” And then, it was.
She was sipping on a chilled rosé from a frosted glass and waiting on a butter croissant at a cafe tucked beneath the shade of the Eiffel Tower, pen in hand, an almost-blank page before her, when a light tap tap came to Rabbit’s left shoulder.
“Excuse me, Madame, but would you mind very much pointing me in the general direction of the nearest metro? I have an urgent appointment across town in ten minutes and I seem to be lost.”
The words, hastily dealt and distinctly British, arrived by way of the most ridiculously dressed man Rabbit had ever seen.
First, he wore a blue top hat. Who, she wondered, in the name of Twitter and rechargeable electric cars and cell phones that reply to questions when asked, would ever wear a top hat? Second, he was practically lilliputian, no taller than the edge of the table, his top hat struggling to stay atop his head, giving up the good fight when he spoke and falling so low on his face that only a stubbly little chin was left behind. Third, three cloth leis hung around his neck, a string of Christmas lights – blinking blue to match his hat, naturally – entwined between. And fourth, he wasn’t wearing pants, just bright orange boxers with “EXPERIENCE THE MAGIC,” printed in tiny, forest-green letters across the front.
Rabbit was about to squint at him with the unknowing eyes of a tourist from Nebraska on a month-long visit to see her cranky, 83-year-old Aunt Genevieve when he spoke again.
“You should come with me,” said the hairy chin. “Because, and I’ll say this in the gentlest way possible, you seem like something of a bore. Now, don’t get offended and understand, Madame, that I speak with complete conviction and knowledge; no one on this dear planet would describe me, Tucker Langfollow III Once Removed, as a ‘bore,’ so I can tell you when someone is and isn’t possessing that particular personality trait.”
Here he paused, hoping, Rabbit guessed, that she might agree. When she said nothing, he continued. “Yes, I will say that you, my friend, most certainly are a bore, while I, a man on a new mission to un-bore you, most certainly am not. In fact, if you’d like a word to describe me, you might try ‘pecksniffian,’ derived from the great work of fiction called Martin Chuzzlewit by that irrefutable genius, Charles John Huffam Dickens, if you’re familiar with the name. Now, are you ready?”
“Excuse me?” Rabbit was, in every way possible, a woman who spoke her mind, but she wasn’t sure if she should be utterly offended or compellingly intrigued. For the sake of an otherwise uneventful afternoon, she chose the latter.
“You’re excused, Madame, now let’s go!”
“But there’s the matter of my croissant …”
“Simply take it with you!”
As if on cue, the waitress appeared carrying Rabbit’s croissant on a light blue plate, to which Tucker Langfollow III Once Removed said, “Thank you, Madame! That looks incroiable.” Then, he made a small show of placing two 100 euro notes on the table and tipping his top hat all the way up to his buttony nose while pushing Rabbit out of her chair and toward the street. She only just had a chance to grab her croissant and paper in the hubbub of Tucker Langfollow III Once Removed.
“We’ll take a taxi,” Tucker chirped, one hand clutching Rabbit’s arm, the other waving frantically into the blue Paris sky. “Taxi! Taxi! Woo! Hello! I’d like a taxi!”
Again the world tapped its worldly ways to the tune of Tucker Langfollow III Once Removed and a taxi, bright and yellow, appeared on the stretch of road by his bare feet.
“Do you often encounter such good luck?” Rabbit asked as Tucker opened the taxi door and let her inside with an elaborate wave.
“Luck is a game for fools,” he replied, hopping in the seat next to her. “Taxi, rue Chanoinesse, s’il vous plaît.”
The car jolted forward and Rabbit looked out the window to a bright, sunlit Paris, showing itself as romantic clutters of stout buildings, colorful awnings and hanging plants.
“What’s your name?” Tucker interrupted and the city turned out of focus and vague.
“Well, that’s promising!” He bobbed his chin several times. “And what do you do?”
“I’m sort of a writer.”
“Ding, ding with some points on that answer yet again! Sort of a writer is better than being a sort of anything else. You’re shaping up quite nicely, Rabbit.”
“What do you do?”
“I … Ah, we’re here! And with one minute to spare!”
They were in fact here if here meant a small, splintered door overgrown by sweeping threads of purple wisteria.
“Hurry up! We don’t have much time, my Rabbit!”
She followed Tucker through the half-open door into an empty space aglow with warm, yellow light. The place was so small Rabbit thought it might have once been a closet, or else, from the faded scent of sewage, a now-defunct washroom.
“There are few things sweeter than Paris at springtime,” Tucker said and then he was gone, a notebook resting on the floor in his place.
Rabbit smiled at the excitement of it all, because she knew she’d never see him again and because she knew the pages of this notebook would be blank and because she knew that it was the blue top hat and twinkling leis and obnoxious boxers and un-boring, pecksniffian Tucker Langfollow III Once Removed who brought her, at last, into the paper-white quiet.
[This story is a collaboration with Sarah Tézenas du Montcel, the French illustrator responsible for the delightful drawing above. See more of Sarah’s charming sketches here.]