Pure Gold


From the north, if you intend to descend into Lyon, you're pretty well stuck going through the several-mile-long Fourviere tunnel. These days, and even more so during the summer months, this means a bouchon (you'll normally find a bouchon at the small end of your wine bottle; but the French deftly morph "cork" into "traffic jam"). At almost any time of day expect a twenty, thirty, even forty-minute period where you'll be plodding along a two-lane highway packed deep with every conveyance known to modern European man. Hulking tractor trailers, rasping motorcycles, motor homes and house-trailer rigs, expensive sedans and tiny nondescript Renaults and Toyotas carrying ordinary folk make up the ingredients for your bouchon.

As usual I deny the very idea of this delay as I head down into Lyon from my digs out in Le Bois d'Oingt, where gold-stoned chateaux punctuate green vineyards and dark forests cap rolling hillsides, where life's rhythms are gentle and quiet -- compared to the din of the highway, where hissing brakes, clashing gears, blaring horns and whining tires mark the order of the day.

"Jesus H. Christ!" I blurt out as a galaxy of red brake lights looms just ahead. My foot flies to the brake pedal, and my eyes dart to the rear-view mirror, so I'm prepared for a rear-end collision if le cowboy behind me also traveling at 90 miles an hour hasn't noticed that I'm coming to a near-emergency, total stop. But I see in the rear view mirror that he has seen me, and also stopped, and with the peace allowed by this I think, "How unusual... for the bouchon to be this far out of town. Must be an accident, how else could the traffic be this bad, still a good hour and a half before today's rush hour?" But my mood swings quickly and sharply: "Just what I need, an accident. Great."

My eyes narrow on the rows of vehicles in front of me, all at a dead stop. "Stupid goddamn idiots. Every second they're flying down these highways at these speeds they're just begging for this." I rock around in my seat and tug down on my pant legs, trying to get more comfortable for the constant clutch-working and shifting of the 2-mile-an-hour crawl I'm trapped in.

I shake and roll my shoulders, and let out a deep breath. "Actually, it's all pretty cool, come to think of it.... endless streams of people actually getting somewhere, and fast. Why? Because these people know how to drive, they are actually skilled at it -- highly skilled, in fact! And they should be, after zillions of hours in driving schools, and rigorous tests. Not like home in the U.S, nope. Who teaches us Americans how to drive, anyway? Nobody I know! Can you imagine the carnage, if we were traveling down our highways at 80 or 90 miles an hour?" Another deep breath escapes the prison of my chest, as I struggle to expel the tension I'm feeling.

"I'm going to be a half hour late to my dinner meeting with George and Edith. It isn't like they wouldn't expect me to be late, or care for that matter. Even so, I don't like it anyway, being late. It's just plain rude, even in a world where my sense of manners is long-since passe. I mean, you're even lucky these days if someone actually shows up, let alone on time. And God help you if they actually acknowledge being late! Now, would I even remember what to do with that, an apology?! Whatever; I'm going to be late, damn it."

Down the steaming hot asphalt I inch, jammed in among a dense, stinking array of 18-wheelers. TRANSPORTS MUNSTER, MIDOL, DISFAT, SDTL, LE ROY -- names, words in languages and places totally foreign, incomprehensible, unpronounceable, emblazoned on the fronts, sides and rear ends of these monsters, these plastic and canvas-enshrouded containers of all we need and all we think we need, heading down the road to their commercial destinations, corrugated warehouses where the shopping public swarms. A claxon-bleating emergency vehicle comes speeding along the right side of the auto route, along the edge. "There you go," I mutter to myself, "it's an accident for sure."

I eject the CD, hot to the touch from inside its mechanical sleeve, and I thumb through my CD holder, looking for something that's going to move me. God knows I've heard enough of these CD's for the week I've already been in France, and I've got two more weeks to go! How stupid of me to bring the same old shit I've been listening to at home. Another round of Andrea Bocelli is just going to kill me! And to think that just a few years ago I was driving down this very autoroute, tears streaming from my eyes, singing along with Andrea at the top of my lungs, "Sogno! Sogno!"

Now those were the days, weren't they? Bargains around every corner! Fabulous bronze chandeliers, exquisite hand-forged iron mirrors. Wall sconces, art glass vases -- mountains of merchandise, and at easy prices! And it seemed I was the only buyer. There was some competition, mind you, but nothing compared to the frenzied crush of buyers today. Mon Dieu! Now I can hardly find anything, and when I do I can't afford it!!

Claxon-honking-like-an-angry-goose, another emergency vehicle roars down the shoulder, yanking me from the world of my work quandaries and annoyances, jerking me back to the hot tarmac, the diesel fumes, the piercing arrows of sunlight bouncing off fenders, hoods, chrome, windows. On a metal trellis on its back, there's a huge flashing-lights triangular sign with an exclamation mark in the middle. "ACCIDENT" is spelled out in yellow lights above that.

My left knee, injured years ago, hurts from the constant pumping of the clutch pedal. I try working that pedal with my right leg, and nearly rear-end the Mercedes in front of me. Finally there's a little movement in the stalled traffic, just enough to make me feel like this torture could actually end. I might be allowed to get on with the rest of my day -- hey, my life, for that matter! Slowly rounding a long sweeping corner, I see a blaze of blue and yellow flashing lights, a concentration of parked vehicles on the right side. Enfin! I inch along, Elton John crooning "things can only get better...doo-wop, doo-wop." There's a solid wall of nose-to-butt 18-wheelers on my right: BUCHACA, EXPRESS FALAIZE, S.T.B. ITALIA, ROGET, AUCHON.

Up ahead in the far right lane, two semis are stopped, one about 20 yards ahead of the other. I don't see any wrecked vehicles, no crumpled fenders, no scattered glass. What is this all about? Traffic is starting to move along, now maybe five miles an hour... I roll up toward the front of the first parked big rig.

One sure fire element of my trips to France is that I'll always see something I've never seen before, something so dazzlingly beautiful that I just swoon during that first two seconds of being in its presence. My heart skips a little beat, I inhale sharply, then stop breathing; then let it out s-l-o-w-l-y. It might be a painting, it might be a chandelier, it might be a towel rack. Or even a building, a trolley, a poster. There might be several eye-poppers on one trip, sometimes it's that good. Last year, an Art Deco marble and onyx, gilt-bronze mounted clock, with an iridescent mother of plastic face, spirited me away...

And it's Pure Gold I see as I crawl past the front of the first tractor-trailer. A lump of it, in fact, right there on the concrete in front of this snub-nosed, dark blue, ten-ton brute. The lump is about a foot or so tall, maybe five feet long and two feet across. It's crinkly, wrinkled gold. Brilliant gold just dazzling in the late afternoon sunlight, throwing its beauty all over creation. It's some new "space age" material, something invented for some planetary probe, then brought back to earth to amaze us. And it's open, you see, because it's actually a bag, and the opening is pointing right at me as I glide by, as I take my three-second "accident glance" into the heart of whatever has happened here. And from that opening, because it hasn't been closed yet, protrudes first a red sneaker, then a yellow sock, and then a pink leg -- the delicate pink leg of a child, a child whose body and head are enveloped by the rest of the crinkly sleeve of gold that makes this a body bag.

That pink leg belongs to an ten-year-old child. I know it, I've seen that leg before. I know just how unformed that leg is at ten years old. That leg has tiny blonde hairs all over it, almost invisible unless you're really close to it; unless, for instance, you're sitting on a couch and it's resting on your lap, squirming around and punching your Sunday paper. Whether it's his calf or her calf, you can't even tell, it doesn't have enough definition yet. And that bright red sneaker -- it could belong to a Jean-Pierre or a Francoise just as easily, as could that sunny yellow sock. You know those colors were chosen just for fun and play, don't you? And the owner of that pink leg was so proud, all decked out in those colors, bright red and bright yellow, as she bounded about, learning to leap, and make sudden stops, and twist this way and that, and squeak the rubber of that fire-engine red sneaker against wood and vinyl floors, and go up on the toe, then rock back on the heel...

Now lifeless. No movement. No promise. No future. In an hour or two that pink color will be replaced by a dull, dimensionless ivory sheen, or something darker; but right now, in the few minutes after whatever in God's name happened here, it is still pink, as though it were still alive, as though it had a now, or a tomorrow.