They did not end up going out to the restaurant after all, the man in the dirty coat with the large hands and the gentle voice saying that actually, he wasn't all that hungry and couldn't they just go for a walk instead? Angela reluctantly agreed, but she was eager to hear Bartholomew's stories of his travels and admitted that this would probably be easier to do if his mouth wasn't full of pizza. They walked south towards the park that lay between the university campus and the center of town. Along the way the man started to tell of the things he had seen in the past year in his journey southwards from the north pole. As he talked his voice remained calm and clear, even though his story was quite emotional, fraught with hardship, excitement, and despair. He also told Angela a little about himself.
He was born in France, though his parents were American expatriates from Florida. They had come to Paris in the thirties with a traveling stage show and after receiving a standing ovation at the Moulin Rouge they decided to stay. When the Germans invaded the country they fled to the south with their newborn baby boy and made it all the way to Amsterdam before they realized they were running in the wrong direction. They hid for thirteen years in the unpopular black and white wing of the Vincent Van Gogh museum before realizing that the war had ended eight years earlier. Needless to say, they weren't the brightest people. But Bartholomew was certain that the double mistake that led him to grow up among the forgotten works of one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century was a sign that he too was destined to be an artist. He remembered as a boy marveling how thick the paint was upon the canvas. His favorite painting was a depiction of a skeleton smoking a cigarette.
At some point in the spring of nineteen fifty-three a German wandered back into the part of the museum where the family was hiding, and after they wrestled him to the ground in self defense he informed them that the war was long over and they no longer had any reason to hide. Bartholomew would never forget that day when he emerged from his little black and white world that had so completely lacked light and color. The first thing he saw was a room full of Vincent's sunflower paintings, and the boy could not help but fall to the ground and weep at the beauty all around.
In order to nurture Batholomew's artistic side his parent brought him back to Paris after that. He began to study painting seriously and went on to apprentice with some very successful artists, but unfortunately he found that he had absolutely no talent for painting. He was still convinced that he was meant to be an artist, however, and he decided that he just needed to find the right medium. So he tried making sculptures out of clay, wood, and stone but he never achieved making them look like anything other than a lump of clay, a stick of wood, or a rock. From there he went on to take music lessons, but soon after he started the instructor snatched up his instrument and began smashing it against the wall, hinting that music was not the ideal career choice for Bartholomew either.
He then decided that he would go into vaudeville, and follow in his parents' footsteps. They were overjoyed at the news and proceeded to show him all the tricks of the trade. When his big break came, however, and he found himself alone in the spotlight in front of the boisterous crowd of the Crazy Horse saloon, he froze, paralyzed, unable to move or even speak. It was only after being pelted with rotted croissants and bits of brie for several minutes that he finally regained muscular control and was able to get offstage before the unruly mob started throwing bottles of beaujolais nouveau.
His life was a shambles at that point, and he felt that he had lost all direction and purpose. He spent long days in the park just sitting, meditating, waiting for inspiration. One day he saw a woman walking backwards past him, and he watched with curiosity as she walked backwards all the way out of the park. He couldn't imagine why she would be more interested in what was going on behind her than in front, and after going through all the possibilities in his mind he decided to run and ask her directly why she was doing it. It wasn't difficult to catch up to her since she was going backwards rather slowly, constantly looking over her shoulder in an attempt to make sure she wasn't going to bump into anything.
She was actually a quite attractive woman, tall but not too thin, with light brown hair and hazel eyes, so he asked her if she would tell him what she was doing over a cup of coffee. She consented (her name was Aurora), and the two went to a nearby brasserie, Aurora continuing to walk backwards every step of the way. Luckily she did not sit in her chair backwards and Bartholomew was able to talk to her face to face while they sipped on espressos. He asked her why she walked backwards, was she afraid of being followed?
She laughed and said no. In fact, he had been the first person to follow her so it wasn't something she was too concerned about.
He reflected on this for a moment and then tried a different hypothesis. Was she walking backwards because she had such a delicate, sensitive face and wanted to avoid having her skin become irritated by the slight breeze that so often accompanied forward motion? (He hadn't thought of this possibility until just now, but sitting in such close proximity to her fine features prompted the admittedly unlikely question.)
She smiled, shaking her head. No, there was no real rational explanation. She had just decided when she woke up that day that she would walk backwards wherever she went for the entire day. Just to be able to say that she did it, just for the story she could tell afterwards. She often did things like that, taking an offbeat idea to the extreme like the time she decided to try to see eight movies in one day, or the other time when she spent nineteen hours traveling around the underground metro system without coming up for air. In a world where it seems like everything has already been done before she felt it was her duty to try a few things that probably hadn't been done before, even if the reason that those things had not been done before was because they made absolutely no sense whatsoever.
Bartholomew was enthralled, and had finally found the inspiration in his life he had been searching for. He understood at that point that his own life could in itself be an art form, and he could cover the canvas of time with the color of his original actions and the free choices that he made. He thanked the woman profusely, exchanged numbers with her, and left the cafe with renewed energy and a new sense of purpose. Unfortunately he was in such a state of excitement that he neglected to look both ways before crossing the street and was struck by a speeding Citroen automobile and knocked unconscious. He was thirty years old at the time, and the year was 1970.
When he woke up from his coma, it was twenty-five years later, and both of his parents were dead. He had apparently been tied to an artificial life support machine for two and a half decades, and the doctors told him that his parents were by his side almost the entire time. They had grown old waiting for their son to wake up, and finally they succumbed in sadness to death, first his mother, and then his father just a few days later. After that there was no one left to pay the doctors, for when his parents died they had completely run out of money, so as soon as his father ceased to exhibit vital signs the hospital decided to unplug poor Bartholomew and allow him to join his parents in heaven.
Ironically, as soon as he was unplugged from the machine that had been his bedside companion for so long, he woke up and opened his eyes. He had come back just in time to see his parents lowered into unmarked graves. In the blink of his unconscious eye everything he had in the world had turned to dust. He gathered up the broken shards of the optimism he had felt in that cafe so long ago (though it seemed like only moments before) and used their glow to light what was left of his future.
Chapter 28 was first written November 28, 2001
It was last edited December 7, 2001