September 19, 2014 | Rome, Italy | Clear 27°C


"It's also 1968, doors have been knocked down, and some folks are saying there's no turning back…."
By Jon Roemer
Published: 2014-06-05

lain sits with his dinner, napkin in his collar, picking at a bowl of local fish heads. No one expects him, so no one is bothering, not so different from every other bachelor tourist. The room is crammed with ascots and comb-overs. A worried Le Figaro on every gentleman's lap. Alain still fits his swim trunks. He still reads without glasses. Society pages, mostly. But he's lost track more generally. He can't say how long he's been here. A few days, a few months. The beach here is very old. He only knows it's been a while since a woman, or really anyone, has fallen hysterical at his feet.

A plus-sized fellow leans into his fricassee. Thin moustache, slicked hair, a speck of glitter on his cheek. It's a fair bet he runs a string of brutal carnivals. The rest of the café feels a lot like the canteen on a doomed steamer ship.

Finally, someone starts in, yelling across the restaurant. Another voice follows, sort of seconding the first. Soon grown men are standing, pointing fingers at Alain. They put a name to the face and then the headlines start rushing — the biggest thing since Brigitte Bardot and quite possibly, in many minds, the most notorious actor-playboy France has ever produced.

The room starts dividing, filling up with accusations, because no one can agree which one is worse. On one side, a lot of anger about society's decline and Alain's almost daily contributions to it, mostly voiced here by old men with fierce, gray teeth. And on the other, two women are probably most representative-fully grown and well-situated but pretty much out of their minds, climbing over tables, shoving off waiters, like a couple of randy schoolgirls let off their leash.

There's a real awkward pause while the ladies are dealt with, everyone else hanging back while they're pulled to the door. It's not so pleasant, the kicking and screaming. Husbands and small children are forced to watch and wait.

Alain shovels fast; dunking bread, dripping broth, before someone shouts "devil" and the crowd regroups. Then some pounding on tables. Some whistling and chanting. A roasted shank bone finally gets hurled, clocking the famous actor but just missing his famous face.

Tiny stars, little white lights, even after he's started running. And a small band of villagers trails him back home. He locks the door behind him, but the phone won't stop ringing. It's Montagnac, from Paris, sounding all worked up. Something about "friends" caught up in some "trouble." Rioting heroes versus stuffed shirts. The line is full of static, but he's pissed and on a roll.

"Montagnac is a master of the three-hankie movie; for decades, he's made France weep in her sleeves."

Alain holds the phone off. He would like a breather moment. A little buffering distance between the outside and the in. Hordes are still hordes. Restless townsfolk still get restless. From under a mess of coffee table magazines, he finds his new pistol, a glamorous gift he's not sure what to do with. On the one hand, he's relieved everyone still knows their places, but ideally, really ideally, he'd light up a splif by the pool under the moon. Still, Montagnac keeps going, blasting through static, naming a few martyrs picked up by police.

"People will remember," Montagnac is telling him. "If you're not out there with us, people will talk."

"Oh, absolutely." Alain's got the phone pinned now, kind of lodged on his shoulder, while he licks a bit of fish broth he's found on his sleeve, still frothy and savory and not so bad really, a thin wedge of celery stuck to his cuff and starting to drip on the gun's ivory grip. "And you absolutely should keep me in the loop..."

Then a long stretch of silence, brimming with angry static, as it starts to sink in that he sounds like a twit. A Triple-A narcissist, unconcerned with others' pressures, oblivious to any other center of gravity. He should be honored by the phone call, all the way from Paris. He should make time for Montagnac, a legend in the business. A towering figure from cinema's early days. But he can also watch his finger reach for the switchhook. He can watch it press down ever so slowly, like it's detonating an avalanche on a remote mountain range. One click, and there's silence. The static is over. Along with Montagnac's yammering.

The next several minutes are particularly rough going. The phone just sits there, like how stupid is he, and he tears through the papers, scanning for proof. The reports are vivid, the streets crammed with champions, and photos are blown up to full-page. They're tearing down everything, the city is in chaos. Montagnac's "trouble" is everywhere. And along with the banners, the manifestos and the violence, Alain has his own worry, one he's not proud of: it's a lot more attention than his movies ever get.

He's despicable this evening. There's no way around that. But he's also being practical, which is the best he can be. He fled Paris weeks ago with no clue what was coming. In a rush, he bought a villa here, which does not come cheap. For months now, he's had only geriatric company, and the sea sun has clearly fried his brain. Tonight he was found out, left his dinner half-finished, and then treats his pistol like a tourist trinket. He slides it back under the magazines and papers. All in all, come to think of it, for all he's been through, he's sort of impressed he's not in worse shape.

It's also 1968, doors have been knocked down, and some folks are saying there's no turning back. There's been a lot of talk about France and history, a lot of hot-winded gab about new versus old. Montagnac is a master of the three-hankie movie; for decades, he's made France weep in her sleeves. But he knows as well as anyone: Alain plays killers, suave modern killers. He was also the one who gave him the suave pistol. A man of deep tradition, Montagnac knows what's essential when a man is hiding out on a Riviera beach.

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