“Chicago on the Seine,” by Camille Bordas

Miami Vice Churchill documentary Quantum Leap

Duel/Night Court Blade Runner DO NOT ERASE

Either we reached that “Blade Runner” stage—something worth keeping forever—or we kept going, erasing and erasing until we couldn’t, in all conscience, ask more of the tape, until random split seconds from “Knight Rider” emerged in the middle of “Stand by Me,” until it looked like the ghosts of previously recorded movies had come to haunt the new ones. Sometimes I pictured the tape thinning and thinning, scenes pressing on other scenes, fighting for space. At some point, we retired the tape. It always felt bad retiring a tape on an insignificant note, a just-O.K. movie, but it was better, I thought, than insisting on finding the tape’s ideal content and risking having the strip snap.

“Marianne says hi,” I said.

“O.K.,” my dad said.

I considered telling him about the breakup, or about Eva Glasper, but he wanted to talk about the dead horses in Hollywood.

“I don’t buy that they died of food poisoning,” he said. “I think someone poisoned them deliberately.”

Our unit’s secretary came to my desk and handed me a padded envelope.

“A courier left this for you at reception,” she said, and I was glad to have my father on the phone as she said it. He probably got a kick out of hearing that line—he probably imagined himself involved in glamorous international intrigue simply for overhearing it. A courier left this for you at reception. He loved spy movies. I think that he (like I once had) still wanted to daydream, or perhaps actually believe, that my work at the Embassy was cover for something better.

“You have to go?” he said to me on the phone. “Sounds important.”

I had no idea what my father imagined about my life. Did he think my work was risky? Did he think I was a brave man, fighting evil in the shadows?

“Just because I paint sad bananas doesn’t mean I am a sad banana.”

Cartoon by Edward Steed

“It’s nothing,” I said, before deciding to give him a little thrill, to play along with his fantasy. It was his birthday, after all. “I just need to help get someone out of the country.”

“Someone important?”

“You know I can’t disclose that kind of information.”

The padded envelope contained Eva Glasper’s personal items, found at the restaurant where her heart had stopped. Her packed suitcase, and everything she’d had at the hotel, had been sent straight to de Gaulle for her transport the next day, and what she’d had on her person at the hospital was now with her at the morgue, but the restaurant hadn’t known where to send the thin notebook she’d put by her plate, along with the complimentary pen she’d received from the Paris Aerospace Conference. I leafed through the notebook. She’d taken a lot of notes, sketched many cryptic diagrams, made a handful of quick yet precise technical drawings. This notebook was the kind of object a prop master would’ve wanted for a movie about industrial espionage, either to cut to quickly in a mad-scientist scene (scientist up all night, surrounded by her notes and open textbooks) or to place at the center of the plot (a notebook with calculations holding the answer to global warming, the key to humanity’s survival). I’d always wondered who made these things, the crazy notebooks in movies—if one guy in Hollywood was known for them and filled three or four a year with equations, drawings, and maps, and whether his work was led by scientific truth or by aesthetics. I knew that Eva Glasper’s notebook was real, that it contained real science, but it still looked fake to me.

“I’ll let you go, then,” my father said, and did.

Eva Glasper’s body was on the Left Bank. I took a bus there, and as it crossed the Seine my brain glitched for a second. Instead of registering the Eiffel Tower ahead, it supplied a Chicago insert, the Whirlpool building. This had happened to me before on buses over rivers. Crossing a bridge on foot never did it, but something about the specific speed of a bus got my brain reaching for old images, giving me temporary access to a non-updated version of me. The former version of me had taken the LaSalle bus every week, to see an allergist downtown. After the bridge was the Whirlpool building, and, since then, that was apparently what my lizard brain expected and prepared my eyes for when I crossed a bridge on a bus. The same thing had happened in my previous postings, at our Embassy in Cairo and at our consulate in Sevilla. The Whirlpool building over every river. Chicago on the Nile, Chicago on the Guadalquivir.

The morgue used to be a public place in Paris. Back in the nineteenth century, I’d read, you could just go in to see who’d been stabbed the night before, who’d jumped into the river. People showed up every day for entertainment. Thousands of them. I guessed some also went in fear, because their husbands hadn’t come home, or their children were missing, but for the most part Parisians went there for fun. Access to the morgue is of course restricted nowadays, but a diplomatic I.D. gets you in almost anywhere, and I was prepared to show mine at reception. There was no one at reception, though. No reception to speak of, really—the door to the small stone building simply opened onto a hallway, off of which branched other hallways. I didn’t want to accidentally stumble on a dead body—I’d come to see Eva Glasper’s, to make sure Eva Glasper’s ghost didn’t leave Eva Glasper’s body, and seeing any other body would’ve felt wrong, like stealing—so I kept my eyes down as I walked the hallways. After a minute I heard something, other footfalls, and followed the sound.

“May I help you?”

I assumed she was a mortician. She wore scrubs and purple Crocs.

I said I was looking for Mrs. Glasper.

“Are you family?”

“I’m from the American Embassy. I talked to your colleague on the phone earlier.”

She asked for identification and led me to the body.

“I was just finishing working on her,” she said. “I haven’t seen anything suspicious so far.”

“Why would you have?”

She figured that, if the Embassy had sent me, it meant Eva Glasper had been more than a simple engineer, or that we suspected some kind of foul play.

“I’ve just come to pay my respects,” I said.

I didn’t think she believed me.

She offered to leave me alone with the body, but once she left the room it became hard to remember why I’d come. Was I supposed to talk to Eva Glasper? Her daughter had wished for someone to explain the “situation” to her, but could I communicate it telepathically, or did I have to utter actual words? I dragged a stool closer and sat for a while. What was the situation? I wondered. What remained unclear to Eva Glasper’s soul or spirit or ghost, if it was still floating somewhere over us in the room?

“There’s been an accident,” I said. “You died.”

And then: “I brought you your notebook.”

After a minute, it didn’t feel as uncomfortable as I’d thought it would, sitting there talking to her. It did feel like she was still with us in some way, in some unthreatening way. Maybe her daughter was right, maybe something of the deceased did linger in the hours following death, and you had to guide it somehow, or let it know you were there while it figured out where to go.

I told Eva Glasper about the horses in California, which had died almost exactly when she had. She might meet their spirits where she was headed, perhaps even ride them all the way there. It sounded corny, but it was freeing to be corny, to let out clichés and comforting words. I knew they had no truth, but for generations they’d made death bearable. At least for a little while. I remembered reading somewhere that death was easy to understand at first, that it was only the amount of time it lasted that was incomprehensible.

After about twenty minutes, I heard a sound, like someone clicking a pen through a loudspeaker. I asked Eva Glasper what she thought it was, and immediately regretted doing so. You could always pretend that the dead were good listeners, but asking them a question broke the spell. I assumed that Eva Glasper’s ghost had ideas about what the sound had been (something to do with the cooling system, most likely), but, because she couldn’t voice responses anymore, my asking her a question might have been humiliating. Maybe Eva Glasper was angry right now, which was the exact situation her daughter had feared, an angry ghost refusing her new quarters. I imagined her ghost exploding in silent rage above my head, a breach in the fabric of life, a reversal, spectral invasion. I imagined Eva Glasper trading places with me, taking over my life while I took her spot in the cargo plane tomorrow, the grave in Boston. A change in narration—Eva Glasper narrating my life from now on, starting right now, this very evening. Would I even notice? Would she have to be me, or would she bring herself and all her knowledge about aeronautical engineering into my body with her? Would she love the same people I loved, or dismiss them and pick new ones, men and women I had never noticed? We heard the clicking sound again.

I’ve always wanted to try, came a thought (mine or hers?)

a different body.

I picked up the notebook I’d left by her side, worried but also oddly thrilled by the possibility that its contents might suddenly make sense to me. Because I had become her, or she had become me. But it was all still gibberish.

The mortician knocked, and let me know she’d soon have to put Eva Glasper’s body back in the cold. She saw the notebook in my hands and said, “I read to them sometimes, too.”

She was holding a magazine in her right hand and gave it a shake, as if to prove her assertion.

“I wasn’t reading to her, I—” I looked down at the notebook and closed it. “Here, will you add this to her personal items?”

The mortician came closer, but didn’t grab the notebook. She looked like she’d been crying.

“I can’t add anything,” she said. “All her stuff is in a sealed bag. I can’t mess with it. You’ll have to send it to the family yourself.”

Perhaps she was still crying.

“Or keep it,” she added. “She’s not going to need it.”

“Are you all right?” I asked.

She said she could give me five more minutes, and I assumed she would leave the room again, but she sat across from me, on the other side of Eva Glasper, and started reading her magazine. The way she’d folded it, I could make out that she was reading an article about Thomas Pesquet, the French astronaut. The famous photograph of Pesquet reading “The Little Prince” in the International Space Station illustrated it. He was going to space again in a few weeks. The mortician sniffled softly.

“I hate Thomas Pesquet,” I said, trying to cheer her up. “He’s smart and good-looking, and, what, he gets to leave Earth whenever he wants, too? How lucky can a person get?”

For some reason, this made the mortician cry harder. Her name was Romy.

“I’m sure he worked very hard to get where he is,” she said.

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