the barge
by Joseph Young

There’s one barge always moored against the cement embankment of the Seine that has this little set up of a café table, a few old cast iron chairs, and a potted palm all on the roof over the hold. I’ve never seen anybody on this barge, but the orange cat sleeping in the window above the captain’s wheel is too lazy and fat not to get a regular feeding and its daily strokes. Maybe the owners go into the city often to buy strawberries or play ping pong in the park. Maybe they go sit by the giant head in the plaza before the crumbling cathedral, the one near Les Halles, and smoke cigarettes with the homeless guys. Perhaps they are even the ones who drew the mustache below the marble nose of the giant head.

I don’t think the barge is always moored in the same place; I believe it moves. It probably floats downstream to pick up loads of gravel in Le Havre. Do they make gravel in Le Havre, there by the sea? It seems they would. I imagine big orange and white rock crushers that turn the sea bluffs into parking lots for Neuilly, huge and smoky bulldozers rumbling across the Olympian floor of the gravel pit, a seagull riding unperturbed on the roof. At 4 o’clock, when the big engines shut down, the neighbors to the pit are always surprised by the sweet sound of the waves.

I think the owners of the barge are a man and woman, married but without children. I think so, but of course I don’t know. I see her in dark hair that reaches the center of her back, a strand or two of gray catching in the city light. She does most of the piloting of the barge, because she loves the feel of it cutting against the current, the bump of a log along the hull, and because he is lazy and prefers to drink coffee over the hold. He loves her more than she loves him, the way it goes, and his eyes are lazy over her face in the morning.

Occasionally, an American girl in tights and a wool hat will take a black and white photo of the barge. The tableau of the café table and cat, the scattered chunks of white gravel dull in the sun, stirs something in her that she can’t find at home. A feeling of… Well, if she could name it, she wouldn’t be taking its picture.

The man of the barge, sitting on the embankment staring at the dirty river, smiles at the girl because he thinks she’s pretty. You’re pretty, he says to her. She smiles back and shrugs her shoulders. No parlez. The woman of the barge, on the street above, is looking down at them. She takes a long draw on her cigarette and shouts hello to her husband. He looks up at her and waves. The girl in the wool hat glances at the man and then at the woman. The woman nods to the girl and smiles.

The three of them stand below the yellow shimmer of the plane trees, the smell of fish and urine and old stone filling the space between them. There is a feeling of suspended time—like the slow approach of warm rain—and everyone is very happy.

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