Travels with Lance Johnson

    He was one of those Amerigringos who, sweet, good person that he was, thinks that if they don't understand, you just say it louder, in English. I'm an experienced traveler who prefers to remain indistinguishable in the background - which was hard to do in Japan, but easier in France if we just keep quiet.

    First night in Montpelier, 4 AM, jet lag, we're starving. We walk out into the warm autumn air, head for a street where we see lights. Everything is shut down except for the Love Pub - which promises to be a restaurant as well, so we go in. We've just gotten off a jet, checked into a hotel, and wandered outside, but already we've had several preliminary adventures which I'll save for elaboration.

    I speak a few words of French, and read a few, and could pick it up but not fresh off the jet. We get menus. There is not another living customer in the place, and I doubt they were holding any dead ones propped up at any tables as shills, but there's considerable discussion about where we will sit. The Love Pub is kept open by a waiter and the chef. There is no one else. Fortunately.

    We look over the menu and stumble and point (I'm still nervous about my French having been considered, in Paris, degourasse) and whatever we select, they're out of it - which should be no surprise at 4:AM.

    Finally we score a hit, and we order....Lapin - which is a word I don't know - go ahead and grin you bastards - and we get Lapin, which sounds exotic and tastes vaguely like chicken and veal, with some ugly but tasty brown gravy, but, you see, we can tell from the skeleton, bony ribs visible in the carcass on our platter, that this is no animal we've ever seen before - perhaps it's a mara. Couldn't have been, I didn't hear about maras until later, up north of Toronto. In the zoo.

    We eat the lapin, drink wine, eat all the bread - French bread with the capital F deserved, and the waiter and chef watch from across the room. Lance has something stuck between his teeth - a bit of Lapin, which I know enough to prounounce lapanne, even if I have no idea what we're eating. And he says, "I need a toothpick!" We don't see any on the table, and I suspect toothpicking might not be a big feature in the culture of French haute cuisine au lapin. But Lance is really suffering and getting fidety.

    "Do you want me to ask them for a toothpick?" "No." "Well what then? You don't even know how to say 'please'" (I don't know the word for toothpick, but I could get around it with une petite chose comme fait du bois que on' s'utilisez entre les dents pour .... somesuch,) Lance says "No I'll just go and ask them, I can do it" He's a big man, and full of confidence, and of lapin and it's 5AM and we're jetlagged and there's no one around, so I let him loose..

    He saunters, yes saunters, he's a big guy, over to where the waiter is, in fact, waiting, or more lounging, tipped, very thin and angular, against the jamb of a large window into the kitchen. Chatting, waiter with chef, the two of them watch Lapinned Lance hop-lope over to the window.

    "Toothpick" he says, as if they might be mind readers. "I need a TOOTHPICK!" They both turn blank stares towards Lances unpicked teeth as he bares them in a dog-grin, lips curled impossibly back to near his ears, at the chef and cups his fingers together, thumb touching ends of the rest of his fingers in what I suspect is a remarkably French gesture for an americanigringo.

    "Quoi?" I am close enough to follow both the questions of the french crew and Lance's louder attempts to communicate. "I need a TOOTHPICK, I HAVE SOMETHING STUCK BETWEEN MY TEETH" Lance repeats, louder now, and he gives that grimacing dog grin, showing alot of teeth - they might have in fact seen the lapin if they'd just looked closely instead of leaning over backwards to get away from Lance's forward-slanted upper body as he groans "Mmmmmph, moooopyhhergu gurgle" as he gestures towards his mouth with his francophiled hand movements.

    In French, of course, the waiter asks the chef "what the hell do you suppose he wants?" The chef has taken a step back from the window where things are getting a bit loud. "I don't know, but he certainly seems to be in distress" "Well what are we going to do?" The chef, long accustomed to solving with food that which carpenters solve with a hammer and nails, thinks for a moment, before there's another outburst, still louder, "HEY, TOOOOTHPIIIIICCCKKK, CAN'T YOU UNDERSTAND, I NEED A TOOOTHPIIICKKK!" Ummph mmmpght. Lance is getting a bit red now. "Hell, says the waiter, give him another basket of bread."

    The chef turns, picks up a full bread basket and passes it through the window to the waiter who proffers it to Lance.

    Lance stops dead. Frozen for the most brief moment, and today, twenty years later I can still see the montage. White-uniformed chef, eyebrows raised, peering from under his chef's hat, out of his bright kitchen at Lance, the waiter, black pants, white shirt, no tie, skinny, a shadow of beard cropping out of his late hours of work, the two of them wondering how to help this crazy american, and Lance, french hand-gesture in mid-air, frozen in front of his bared teeth, as he leans forward towards the two frenchmen.

    Lance lowers his hand, the one with the thumb on fingertips, and reaches for the bread basket. He is silent as he takes it from the waiter. Lance turns and walks back to our table where, thankfully, the lights are less bright than at the kitchen window, and he cannot see the tears in my eyes.

    Lance Johnson, country boy, Northern Main, his mom is named Goldie, Lance, a Down'easter, IBM third-line manager, come to France to meet with lab directors and computer whizzes, far from the best potatos in America. No toothpick.

    He places the bread basket on our table as he sits back in his place, picking up his napkin from the floor as he lowers himself into his seat. Every move is slow motion. He reaches forward, takes a piece of bread, breaks it, places a portion in his mouth with that special and new French hand position, and begins to chew.

    Sotto voce, I whisper," Lance, what the fuck are you doing?" "Hell, Dan, You gotta take what they give you."

    Daniel Friedman's Poetry & Short Stories
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    This article series contains poetry, prose, short fiction by Daniel Friedman. For more of Daniel's writing see this link: Daniel Friedman's Poetry & Short Stories. Any relationship of text in these materials to persons living or dead is probably not a coincidence.


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