The Second Law of Thermodynamics
The energy of the universe is constant. The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum.
Nolan is lost and it is all Helen’s fault. Well, not all–it was stupid of him to go explore uncharted tunnels alone; stupider still to leave without telling anyone first. But most of the blame resides with her, for failing to even consider that his going, or rather his staying gone, was anything other than intentional. You must always consider every possible outcome. That was what Nolan had said, her first time in the tunnels, when she’d asked him if it was safe. Bring extra batteries, bring water, bring a cellphone. She hopes he’s heeded his own advice.
The abandoned sewer she and the two detectives–she thinks their names are Javier and Gustavo, but maybe those are just the only Spanish names she can think of–are following right now smells like rotting leaves and wet dog, though it is mercifully dry. Helen keeps darting ahead of the men, shouting Nolan’s name, too afraid of not hearing a response to bother listening for one.
“We will find him, your friend,” the tall, potbellied detective who is possibly named Gustavo says, when he catches up.
“We might,” Javier, who is about two thirds the height and half the weight of his partner, amends. Helen tears off again, leaving the men to grumble that at this stage, they really shouldn’t have to be on their feet this much, and light another cigarette.
One night was all it took for Nolan to leave. One night of Helen being a frothing mud puddle of a mess from two, three pitchers of sangria and briefly misguided hands and a shearling bind. She vacillates between indignation and guilt, but fear trumps both. Her mother would be arch and diffident. Don’t be silly, Muppet. Of course the detectives will find him. That is what they are being paid to do, isn’t it? Her grandfather would badger the Consulate’s receptionist until he got someone to agree that an American boy lost in Barcelona’s questionably constructed, long-abandoned sewer system was a matter of grave and urgent import. At the very least, I’d say we need to russell up a pack of Reserves, Ambassador. As for Nolan himself, well, he knows that getting lost is always one of the possible outcomes, in the way that school children know that fire is one of the possible outcomes of a fire drill. That is to say, you know it, but you don’t believe it until it happens to you.
Helen wonders what belief has done to Nolan. He isn’t crying–she can’t imagine him even getting to the sniveling stage. But to know you are lost and not know if you will be found, and to have little in the way of distraction… he is definitely terrified. Perhaps he is also angry. Anger would help, she thinks.
“What is he wearing, your friend?” Javier wants to know. It seems like an odd question–they have not exactly been dodging twenty year-old boys left and right.
“A White Sox hat,” she says, confusing him. Does she really mean a hat made of socks? Probably a knit hat, he decides. He wants to know why this boy decided to break into his city’s dirty laundry, so to speak, especially if he’d never been to Barcelona before. There is so much above ground to see–he is a little insulted the boy didn’t give any of it a chance.
Actually, Helen doesn’t know if Nolan is wearing his baseball cap. On the flight coming over, it had been tipped over his face, but he hadn’t been wearing it at dinner last night. A baseball cap provides no useful function in an abandoned sewer, but perhaps it provides a comforting one. She wishes she had a handkerchief to tie above her nose. She comes to a fork in the sewer, and waits for Javier and Gustavo. A fork means they will have to split up. Javier volunteers to go alone, and Gustavo looks at Helen and sighs, thinking of the new leather swivel chair he just had installed in his office. It tips back, so he can finally put his feet up on his desk and survey the comings and goings and exchanges of the pedestrians in the the Placa Real. Were it not for these trespassing Americans… but never mind, he will be ensconced in it soon enough. Javier will find the boy–he has a sixth sense about such things.
“Do you know if people come here very often?” Helen asks Gustavo a few minutes after the fork. He is quick to answer.
“No. Drug dealers, possibly. I do not think this is a place that attracts people who have nothing to hide.”
Except Nolan, she thinks. Who has nothing to hide but emotion, assuming he has emotion to hide. There’d been that one time at Cafe du Nord, but he’d looked so horrified even as the words were leaving his mouth, she can’t be sure he really meant them.
Her sneaker strikes something that disintegrates in shivers across the ground. Gustavo’s flashlight reveals them to be just pebbles, but they were standing guard atop a piece of paper. Helen goes to pick it up, but Gustavo is quicker.
“Don’t touch!” he barks. From one of the pockets in his leather bomber jacket come a pair of latex gloves that he has some difficulty fitting over his catchers’ mitt hands. When the gloves are half on, he grabs the paper and puts it in a see-through plastic bag. Only then does he hold it where Helen can see it. Page 403 of Journey to the End of the Night.
“This is Nolan’s,” she breathes. “He’s been reading it all month.”
“All month, unng. How many pages are there?”
“I’m not sure. It’s quite a long book. Maybe 500?”
“That is why I stick to crime fiction. Never more than two hundred pages.”
“Do they help with your job?”
“In a way. They give me an alternate reality into which I can insert myself, on slower days.”
“As fiction ought to. Though I suppose your leap is closer. Can I borrow your flashlight?” He hands it to her and she holds it to the page.
“Looking for a clue?” Gustavo asks. A dour man, but he sounds as though he might be humoring her.
“I don’t know. Maybe? I don’t know if 403 was a deliberate choice.” Her eyes jump to the page’s one underlined quote:
“An unfamiliar city is a fine thing. That’s the time and place when you can suppose that all the people you meet are nice. It’s dream time.”
“If it was deliberate, we may find another,” Gustavo says. Helen folds the page in two and slips it into her kangaroo pocket. They plunge on.
Chapter 2: One at a Three Top
So I was telling Julien, when we were in Avignon last weekend, ‘You know, it is really time to think about progressing.’
Ah yes, it is Opium. I couldn’t help myself. Do you like it?
He likes to think he conducts the whole orchestra, but between us, he can barely manage the tambourine.
Their pieces are beautiful, but not very durable. Henri bought me a set last year and only one remains.
Do you think it is healthy, this affair? Her father is beside himself, and I can’t blame him. We all know what happened to Yolande.
She is in a rut now, but you never know. Perhaps all she needs is a little catalyst.
Winter is coming to the sixteenth arrondissement, and Cafe Carette is filled with the feathery trills of newly-furred Parisians. Around most of the enamel-lipped tables, two or three occupants tilt sideways on flimsy metal chairs, two or three voices collide in delighted exclamations, four or six elbows reach in unison for chipped white espresso cups and miniature columns of pistachio-rose mille feuille. Helen Abney sits in the back, one at a Parisian-sized three-top, the brim of her new Pierre et Fils fedora tilted so her eyes don’t show, the dregs of coffee in her cup cold and chicory-bitter, Marie Claire open to pages 67-68; La Bete Humaine untouched. Flotsam in a darting handed, clucking tongued storm, she tethers herself to the elastic movements of the closest mouths.
Florrie untethers her by swooping low to ask if she’d like another cafe allonge in a Scottish brogue so strong the French words sound like auto-tuned German. Florrie is maybe thirty, milk-pale and plump around the places that are normally stretched thin–elbows, wrists, knees. Helen, feeling pricks of guilt for having lingered over her first cafe allonge for over an hour, is telling Florrie yes please, one more would be lovely as four girls from the study abroad program tumble through the door. All are glittery-eyed and windy-haired and oblivious to the chorus of exaggerated shivers and burrowed chins their entrance triggers. Helen can’t pull her hat any lower, but she raises Marie Claire up like a shield. The last time she talked to Jessica was at Le Giraffe, when she’d said yes, she’d come out onto the red-lit dance floor, throb to Hot Chip, ignore the other women in their muted Herve bandage dresses and graceful stiletto sways, make eyes at the men, whippet-thin in featherweight v-necks with slender fingers draped around goblets of Stella and Hienekken. Be there in a moment; just need a refill, she’d said. Once Jessica vanished into the maw, Helen had fled for the exit. That was a month ago, and Jessica’s only glared since.
When Helen was three weeks old, her mother enrolled her in a cradle-to-adulthood developmental study at Harvard. Psych grads watched the slow firming of her flopping body and brain. They noted the first recorded smile, measured the determination in the first fist clamp around the crib bar, analyzed her distress calls as they changed from malformed bleats to multi-pitched wails. And from wails to silence. She was a quiet baby, given to scuttling under tables and watching her fellow subjects’ proceedings with what one researcher described, and then erased, but not quite well enough, as “alienesque eyes.” Alienesque is not a DSM-approved adjective; Helen can see why it had been erased.
At six months, what chance has nurture? And at 19, what chance has culture? Naturally born a shrinking, slinking violet, but still she longs to rewind the scene, give Jessica an apologetic smile, be the fifth at a three-top.