Sunday, March 13, 2016

HERMAPHRODITE by Peter Nolan Smith

Back in the early 80s the Louvre belonged to art historians and lovers of the finer things in life. Few Parisians visited the former Bourbon palace and once a week I wandered the museum's desolate corridors to admire its vast collection.

At that time I was le psychionomiste of the Bains-Douches nightclub and my friend Alabama Tony tended bar at Paris' only Mexican restaurant. We threw his football in the courtyard. The chestnut tree on the courtyard restricted our range and the cobblestones were murder on our feet, but the French clientele loved our rendition of Joe Namath and Don Maynard in Super Bowl III.

Margharitas.

Mexico.

Models.
The Studio on Rue du Temple was a grand success, but Dixie had a tug on Alabama Tony's soul and after work he played Lynard Skynard and Blue Cheer on his guitar to homesick Southern models, who loved him for being Alabama Tony in a city of Yves and Jacques.

"You come all the way from Birmingham to hang out with girls from below the Mason-Dixon line?"

"A pretty girl is a pretty girl, but even prettier with a drawl."

"Can't argue with you about that." I was having an affair with Tony's sister. The blonde army sergeant was stationed in Germany. I had a thing for women in a uniform.

After hearing about the Louvre's desolation Tony said, "I'd like to go with you'all."

"You like Art?"

"Not even as a name for a boy, but I'd love to chuck a football in the Louvre." Tony had a good arm and I was fast on my feet. The Studio's touch football team had beat every expat squad this side of the Seine. Tony strummed the opening chords of FREEBIRD.

"Then let's do it."

Next day the two of us entered the Louvre with a football in Tony's backpack. We walked to the second-floor galleries on the river. The afternoon sun glowed through unwashed windows the height of a three-story building. Epic paintings scaled the walls to the vaulted ceilings.

"The king used to live here?" Tony was slightly awed by the regal surroundings.

"Until 1682 then the Sun King moved to Versailles."

"Louis Fourteen, right?" The City of Light had worked its magic on a redneck.

"One and the same. It stored their art collection until the Revolution."

"Damn, the rich were rich back then." Tony tugged out the football. No one else was in the long hall and he waved his left hand "Go long."

I sprinted across the wooden floors and caught the long spiral around a secondary Delacroix. We were a little careful with our passes. These paintings were worth millions. A group of Japanese tourists appeared in the distance and Tony stashed the football.

"You'all know this 'art'?"

"A little." I had taken Art Appreciation 101 at university.

"Then give me a tour."

"Okay, but don't look at any of the paintings. There are too many. Let them look at you. We are only here to see a statue."

"Of what?"

"You'll see when we get there."

We ignored the Davids, Vermeers, George de la Tours, artifacts from ancient civilizations and royal jewelry.

"Can I look yet?"

"Soon."

We arrived before the Mona Lisa. A score of foreign visitors admired Leonardo's masterpiece, which was considered the most famous painting in the world. The great artist's muse Salai had sold the painting to Francis I for 4000 ecrus of gold, but we had not come here to see La Jocondaand I told him, "Turn your head to the right." Tony swung his gaze to a reclining marble figure on a matching buttoned mattress.

"The Sleeping Hermaphroditus."

"Hermaphrodite?" Tony was no simple grit.

"Half-man, half woman."

Tony stepped forward to examine the sleeping enigma of sexuality.

"How old?"

"Roman, the mattress was done in the 17th Century. It's known as the Borghese Hermaphroditus. The Borghese family was one of the richest in Europe."

"Where are they now?"

"Not here. No one sees it. They're here for the Mona Lisa."

"So it's our statue.

"Yes."

"And you consider this the most important piece in the Louvre?"

"That and throwing a football."

"Cool." Tony caressed the cold stone. "And smooth."

That night I was at the Studio with Tony's sister, Eliie. Her brother suggested to a runway beauty from Louisiana that they visit the Louvre.

"What for?" the blonde asked with a bayou accent.

"Because it's as lonely as a graveyard and I want you to meet someone."

"Who?"

"It's a surprise."

"Sounds scary," Tony's sister was kidding. Ellie wasn't scared of anything.

"I like scary." The blonde signed up for the tour and we agreed to meet in the afternoon.

Ellie and I went back to my hotel in the Marais and Tony took the blonde to the Latin Quarter.

Later we we met in the courtyard of the Louvre. Pigeons swirled in the air and a few tourists wandered in the courtyard. Tony and I paid for the girls and guided them to the riverside galleries, where the diffused southern light off the Seine suffocated the Louvre's forgotten passages and Tony told our guests, "Don't look at the paintings."

He was a good student.

"Why not?" asked Ellie, expecting a good answer and Alabama Tony said, "They have seen hundreds of thousand of people and they are tired of eyes.

He fixed his gaze on the blonde.

"Forget Michelangelo, David, or Delacroix. You're more beautiful than any of theses paintings and you'll be more beautiful if you don't let them steal your beauty."

"Like a camera stealing your soul," asked the rookie model.

"Everything gets older faster when someone is watching."

Alabama Tony led us through the Louvre and the blonde believed anything he said with that mush-mouthed drawl, since he sounded like 'home'.

""Where Tony learn that shit?" Ellie was holding my hand.

"I gave him a lesson or two."

"I thought the bullshit sounded familiar." She had been on two of my walking tours of Paris.

"Merde peut-ĂȘtre, mais regardez pas les tableaux."

Our eyes-down tour passed Bellini's sculptures, Raphael's cherubs, and the treasures of France, and at the Mona Lisa where Tony announced, "Don't lift your head, but you'all standing in front of the most famous painting in the world. Everyone knows its name. It's a woman. She has a smile. No one knows why."

"The Mona Lisa." Even the blonde knew that and she was only 18.

The girls wanted to see the Mona Lisa, but Tony and I blocked their field of vision.

"The Mona Lisa is better known famous than the Crimson Tide football team and everyone wants fame, but to your left is the most exquisite statue in existence this side of the Boll Weevil Monument in downtown Enterprise, Alabama."

"I hate that creepy thing." Ellie shuddered with disgust.

"Well, this ain't that."

Tony played his grits card with vingt-et-un cool and his French was impeccable for someone brought up north of Mobile. "Fermay tes ewes and donned moi your hands."

Our 'dates' obeyed his instruction and we led them to the statue of the Hermaphrodite, where he positioned their hands on the statue's naked marble ass.

“This is the Borghese Hermaphroditus.” Alabama Tony knew what he knew. “It’s not famous like the Mona Lisa, but the Hermaphrodite survived the fall of Rome. The Louvre is filled with Greek and Roman statues without noses, arms, or legs, but this statue escaped all harm. Two thousand years without a blemish to its flawless stone flesh. It is eternal.”

Alabama Tony had the timing of a delta tide and paused for a span of time not needing a count.

“You'all can open your eyes.”

The statue's whiteness was startling in the evening dusk.

"Maybe a boy, maybe a girl, but certainly not the Mona Lisa." Alabama Tony pointed back to Da Vinci's immortal painting.

"No one can touch the Mona Lisa, but anyone who touches the Borghese Hermaphroditus will fall in love. "

That line was my cue to finish up the tour.

"You girls care to drink some wine in the Palais Royal?"

Ellie said yes and we retreated to a renown cafe at the northern end of the garden. The barman knew our names. We toasted the magic of the Borghese Hermaphroditus. Everyone was happy.

We perfected our non-seeing tours of Le Louvre with models, Sorbonne painters, dancers from the Crazy Horse, and wandering heiresses. Our best time from the entrance to le Hermaphrodite was twelve minutes, but our luck couldn't last as long as the existence of a naked transvestite's statue.

That winter Alabama Tony started spending time with one girl. Tracy was a brunette from Vermont. Her smile was too lovely for a cover girl. She was a teenager dripping with North Country innocence. Tony was in the sights of her maple syrup brown eyes.

"I think she wants to get serious."

"How serious?"

"I'm not seeing anyone else."

Those words explained the sad faces on the Dixie girls at the Studio. Tony wasn't playing FREEBIRD for them anymore.

"She wants to go to the Louvre."

"You going to show her the tour?"

"What you'll think?"

"You like her?" I thought she was a good girl.

"More than like."

"Then do what you think is best as long as you remember the danger of the Hermaphrodite."

"You mean I'll fall in love?"

"It happens to us."

For me more than once.

"That falling love story's a bunch of phooey." Alabama Tony smirked at my caution. "Besides Traci's from Vermont."

"What's that have to do with it?" I was a New Englander.

"She's just another Yankee girl."

"And you're Johnny Reb. Every town squares in Vermont had a statue of a Union soldier defiantly facing the South. The South will not rise again."

"We will, you damn Yankee."

The next day Alabama Tony walked our route through the museum. Tracy was smart for a teenager. She had been to a real school. She pouted at his warning to not regard the other paintings.

"I didn't come to Paris to be told what to do. I could have stayed in Vermont for that." Tracy pointed to the wall. "That paintings's English. That's French and that's Delacroix's LIBERTY LEADING THE PEOPLE."

"How you know that?" Tony had come to the Louvre on his own. He looked at the paintings then. The color of the light showed him the truth about art. Paris had that power.

"I've been here before." Tracy stepped closer.

"I've never seen you here." Tony held her hand for the first time. It held the softness of a stalled breeze.

"And I've never seen you."

A vagrant ray of sunset struck the wall mirror. The lighting was perfect. The only camera was their memory. Time slowed to the pace of their breathing and she hushed, "What now?"

"I'll show you my favorite thing in the Louvre."

"The Sleeping Hermaphroditus."

She laughed like she had been waiting for this punchline.

"How you know?"

"All the girls talk about how you bring them here and have them touch the Sleeping Hermaphroditus' ass to fall in love. Funny, but they all did for a few days. Maybe that's the power of the The Sleeping Hermaphroditus. You willing to try?"

"I am if you are."

Tracy took his hand and led him toward the Mona Lisa. She had come here on her own too. They passed the gogging gaggle before Leonardo's painting and stopped before the blemishless statue.

"It's so perfect."

"Saved from a grave of dirt."

"To sleep on stone."

Traci held Tony's hand. She steered it to the statue. They touched the marble together.

That autumn the two got married at the Studio. The cobblestones were covered by leaves from the old Chestnut tree. We drank tequila and danced to the owner playing OLD ROCKY TOP on the fiddle. At the end of the night Alabama Tony and I threw a football in the medieval Marais courtyard. Two high stakes Ivy League lawyers challenged us to a game. We beat them like rented mules. Cobblestones were our home advantage and we toasted our victory, yelling "Joe Namath."

Tony stopped.

"What?"

"Look."

I did.

Tracy was beaming at her football hero. Neither of us had broken a window in the courtyard. At dawn the newlyweds went home.

The Louvre was never the same for me after that. People rediscovered the museum.

French first.

English.

Dutch.

German.

Japanese.

Paris was safe. It was the City of Light.

In the day foreign crowds flocked to see the masterpieces. They all stopped at the Mona Lisa. Few looked at le Borghese Hermaphroditus, because the fame of Mona Lisa was a tough act to follow even for the cool stone of a sleeping beauty.

A few dared to touch her.

But never me.

Nothing else had a better feel when you wanted to fall in love during football season.

Even in Paris.

Go long.

Frank the owner of Le Studio, Tracy, and Tony 1983.

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