ABOUT THE STORY
"The Arab Bank" is a short story set in Cannes during the Cannes Film Festival that was first serialized--incorporating Google Maps and Street View images--two years ago. With the 2011 festival underway, I thought I'd present the story again as it originally appeared. Below, you can click on the markers to jump to the individual sections--there are twelve in all--and you can click on the pull-quotes that introduce each section to see a Street View image from the location where that episode takes place. You can also read the story in my short fiction collection, Why They Cried, now available as a Joyland eBook from ECW Press.
It had been a beautiful spring in Cannes—the most beautiful Marco could remember. It had rolled in slowly and remained mild, even in the afternoons. At night the air embraced the bodies on the Croisette without conflict, gently blowing everyone's defenses away. Marco cruised the beaches in a pearl white Land Rover, punishing the speakers with music from Marseilles and Compton. It had been particularly easy this spring, and it had always been very, very easy.
Marco wasn't yet seventeen when discovered that if he tilted his shoulders just right, he could squeeze his body into the alcove between the Arab Bank and the Gucci store, just as he had learned to do in a dozen similar places along the Croisette. Thus arranged—mangled, really, in a contorted contrapposto—he could observe the users of the bank's ATM without himself being seen. Then, after a certain hour—when Campari and brazed goose had lulled most foreigners into a carefree stupor—he could emerge, as if from nowhere, and scare the foie gras out of them.
They never asked what he wanted. They were too terrified by the sudden appearance of a young, brown tough to even wonder as they handed over their withdrawals without a word. The authorities were no use. The Algerian paid well and the police considered the Arab Bank Surprise to be one of a thousand harmless operations aimed at levying an informal tax on tourism.
Marco had scared the foie gras out of Scandinavian newlyweds, snotty English businessmen, Persian playboys, and Americans of all kinds—including many among the army of publicists, critics, producers, directors, agents, stars, and hangers-on that invaded Cannes one week each spring. One year alone he had scared the foie gras out of Messrs. C_____, T______, D________, P______, and a foppish companion of Mlle. O______, all of whom (save the companion) he had once idolized in the multiplexes outside Nice.
It came easily to Marco. His Moroccan mother had conceived him during a fling (a professional encounter, he'd always suspected) with a man she insisted was a member of the Danish royal family, and his early appearance seemed to confirm this. His hair was white as milk, and his mother let it grow long and tangled—like a girl's. During festival season she dressed him in a soiled christening gown and together they trolled the outdoor cafes in the old part of town. She heaved a wheeled calliope up and down the uneven flagstones of the Rue Saint-Antoine, while Marco—at her constant urging—presented his smudged face and filthy palm at table after table, accompanied by a weakly coughed "s'il vous plait."
Women, especially, smiled intensely at this display, as if they wanted even the busboys to notice how deeply they appreciated children of all classes. The waiters, meanwhile, abetted this kabuki, secure that Marco's mother would compensate them for the fact that the popular guidebooks warned against tipping as though it were a serious crime. Marco's neediness was in great demand, and his small, shell-like hands could barely handle the volume.
As puberty approached, however, Marco began to resemble his mother. His hair became dark. His skin ripened to a deep olive. There was an awkward stage—which he endured stoically, keeping to himself in the housing projects between Nice and Cannes—before he emerged a formidable young man. He was short, but he was strong—an attribute helped along by long days spent hoisting terra cotta tiles up the sides of hotel construction sites, which is where he came to the attention of the Algerian.
Marco already knew of the Algerian, of course. Everyone did. The man had been his mother's protector during their panhandling days and perhaps, Marco knew, at the moment of his conception. The villa where the Algerian lived had once belonged to the English author Somerset Maugham, according to local lore, while in person he resembled the squat, silver-haired philosopher Jacques Derrida, at least according to a picture of the latter that had once appeared in Le Monde. (The Algerian, by contrast, never allowed himself to be photographed.)
Accompanied by an enormous Belgian, the Algerian approached Marco while he was working at the Hotel Carlton. It was lunchtime, and Marco was crouched down with his crew by the service entrance, smoking cigarettes and cursing. The Algerian walked up to him like he'd known him his entire life, as he may in fact have, and demanded his name.
Marco stood and answered.
"Come," the Algerian said.
Marco followed the man and his bodyguard through the narrow streets to an alley behind the Hotel Martinez. They passed through an unmarked door and into the kitchen of the hotel. The chef, an anxious Parisian whose cheeks turned purple in the presence of steam, greeted them enthusiastically and waved them to a table arranged between the service bar and the utility sink.
"How would you like to eat lunch here every day?" the Algerian asked as Marco sat in one of the two chairs the bodyguard plucked away from the table. Marco liked it. He and the Algerian enjoyed a lunch of strong coffee and mussels, all attended to by the chef himself.
The hotel needed a helper, the Algerian explained, but first Marco would need new clothes. Marco braced for the news that he would have to stuff himself into a stiff, burgundy vest—like those worn by the bellhops who manned the circular driveways along the Croisette. The Algerian explained that he would not be an official employee, however, and therefore wouldn't have to dress like one.
The bodyguard stepped forward and produced a roll of bills. He peeled off four 500-franc notes and tucked them under Marco's saucer. Then he fished inside his coat and produced a slender plastic brick half the size of a cigar box. Recognizing it as some sort of phone, Marco slid his hand under the nylon strap that ran its length and held it to his ear.
"Go shopping," the Algerian said. "The concierge will give you a room and a car. Enjoy yourself. Order room service. We'll call."
"Be ready," the Algerian said.
After that first meeting, Marco returned to the Martinez a new man. He bought two pairs of crisp, dark blue jeans, both several sizes too big, and a belt to cinch them around his narrow hips. He bought an undershirt with the Gucci logo splashed across the front and a white dress shirt with no collar. Inside the Gucci dressing room—for all the nights he had spent lying in wait outside, he'd never been inside—he slipped into the undershirt and one of the pairs of jeans, letting the legs bunch around the tops of his paint-splattered work boots.
At the hotel, he was greeted by the concierge, who ordered an eager bellboy to show him to his room. He relaxed by the pool and haunted the bars until morning. He lounged at the Plage du Martinez, ate steak frites in his room past midnight, and was never presented with a bill. Finally, one evening—while Marco was letting an Italian widow tweak one of his ropey triceps at the piano bar—the giant brick buzzed and wiggled, slaloming between their drinks like a wind-up toy.
It was a woman.
"Where are you?"
"What?" Marco responded.
"Where are you? I'm waiting."
"Who is this?"
"It's Sylvie," the woman said. "You are supposed to be here."
The woman spat into the phone.
"Alright, alright," Marco said. "Where are you?"
"I'll come," he said.
When he arrived at the Hotel du Cap, Sylvie was out front, waiting in the darkness alongside the Boulevard JFK. She was smoking a cigarette, which she carelessly let slip from her fingers as he unlocked the passenger-side door.
"You are the latest?" she asked.
"No better than the last one," she sniffed. "Where were you?"
"No one told me," he said.
"Stupid," she said, although she didn't mean only him. Sylvie seemed to think everything was stupid, a fact she punctuated with a derisive laugh released in tortured bursts, like the squawk of a macaw.
"What is this ridiculous car?" she demanded as her laugh rattled through its interior.
"A Land Rover," Marco said.
"What is this music?"
"It's terrible," she said, switching off the stereo.
Sylvie was the most beautiful prostitute Marco had ever seen. The American models on the beach, with their cornsilk hair and distorted breasts, looked more like prostitutes than she ever could. Beneath her dark brows, she had the cheekbones of a fashion model, and in profile (as Marco saw her from the driver's seat) she looked like Nefertiti herself.
But despite her beauty, she oozed unpleasantness. She told Marco she was from Ankara, that "Sylvie" was her professional name, and that she would never ever tell him her real one—a promise she made good on even after hundreds of spare mornings spent relaxing her long, salty limbs in Marco's bed at the Martinez. Customers sent for her and returned her, but sometimes Marco would have to retrieve her, she explained tersely, although she didn't explain why he'd had to retrieve her tonight.
When they arrived at the Martinez, he asked if he should walk her in.
"Of course," she smirked, stinging him with her laugh. "You have nothing to fear. The Algerian is king here, and you are his prince."
Marco quickly familiarized himself the operations orchestrated by the Algerian's organization. He shuttled Sylvie and her colleagues to appointments and couriered hashish, cocaine, and Ecstasy to the after-hour parties that flourished all summer long from Monaco to St.-Tropez. He collected tribute from the concierges, each of whom served as the ringleader of operations inside his own hotel. He oversaw an army of North African urchins who could slip, undetected, into luxury suites and rented villas and pick them clean as efficiently as schools of piranha.
Marco shaved his head and pierced his ears. He grew a goatee and fussed over it. He had a bust of Queen Nefertiti tattooed on his chest as clumsy tribute to Sylvie's ill temper. He bought a Rolex, a platinum chain, and a ring shaped like a crown. He became a fixture at the Martinez and the Majestic and the Carlton, where he mixed with the clientele, providing them with harmless international flavor—at least until they stayed too late at the lounge or he encountered them at the Arab Bank, a ruse in which he still indulged out of nostalgia.
Americans made particularly satisfying targets for such idle scams, which—like the Arab Bank Surprise—often required little more than the suggestion of violence or scandal. Not only were Americans easily snared in their own traps, they were ignorant and proud of their ignorance. They spoke loudly and only ever in English. They lacked the basic manners of a houseguest and were easily put on the defensive. Their patriotism, to which they frequently resorted, was absurd.
Marco rarely saw the Algerian. Instead he dealt with Ludolf, the bodyguard who had been present at that first meeting at the Hotel Martinez. He turned out to be pleasant; not nearly as intimidating as his silence and size had first suggested. He had a weakness for sweets, in fact, and he and Marco met each Thursday afternoon at the ice cream shop on the promenade, before it had even opened for business.
The procedure was to buy tickets before ordering—one per scoop—but Ludolf always had an unlimited supply hidden in the pockets of his gigantic suits. He sampled the latest flavors and quizzed the girls behind the counter about the ingredients. Then he and Marco would retire to the concrete barrier that separated the Croisette from the beach and talk business while Ludolf perspired through the shoulders of yet another linen jacket. They got along, in a brotherly sort of way, and Ludolf was the first to comment on Marco's transformation.
"Who dresses like this?" he said at one of their early meetings. "You look ridiculous."
Marco was wearing a yellow bandana like a crown, the two spare ends flopping around his eyebrows like limp rabbit's ears. He also wore a blue flannel shirt, buttoned straight to the top, that looked stifling for the time of the year.
"They dress like this in Los Angeles."
"In Los Angeles? In Marseilles maybe. When have you been to Los Angeles?" Ludolf asked.
"I have. I didn't see anyone dress like this."
"They dress like this in South Central Los Angeles," Marco said. "T____ dresses like this."
"You look like French Vanilla Ice." Ludolf laughed so hard he almost dropped his cone. "And isn't T____ dead?" he asked.
"Maybe," Marco admitted.
It was at these weekly meetings that Ludolf and Marco exchanged instructions and cash, and it was at this meeting—almost ten years after their first encounter behind the Hotel Carlton—that Ludolf told Marco to stay out of sight. Something had gone wrong. It would be better if Marco didn't know, he insisted. He gave Marco the key to a room at the Majestic and told him to go there and wait.
The tub fit Marco's body snugly, like the cool granite between the Arab Bank and the Gucci store. The familiarity washed over him as hot water spilled from the faucet and crashed between his feet. The phone by the sink rang. He hauled himself upright and answered. It was the concierge. Men had come asking about him, he was told. He would be safe if he stayed off the Croisette. Marco hung up, raked a hand across his scalp and considered shaving. He pulled the vanity mirror to the length of its expandable helix and inspected the dark hairs that crept from his nostrils like spiders legs. He wrapped himself in one of two complimentary robes that hung from the bathroom door and walked into the other room.
He flipped a switch by the nightstand and the blinds rolled skyward, accompanied by a motorized hum. The lights from the pool and the neon sign high above it—"MAJESTIC," it said—threw blue shadows across the bedspread and turned the salmon carpet a rancid orange. He retrieved a bottle of Jack Daniels and a half-empty can of Coke Light from the honor bar, twisted the cap off the bottle, poured the whiskey into the can, then sat by the window and lit a cigarette.
It had been four days since Ludolf told him to stay out of sight, and past the pool, across the Croisette, Marco could make out the lights outside the Palais des Festivals. Searchlights swept the horizon. Flashbulbs winked like fireflys. It was the night of the Grand Prix. The B_______ of L__________ was favored to win the Palm D'Or and the papers reported that Mlle. B______ would attend, accompanied by Messr. L_______ and his adopted aboriginal children. Mlle. S_______, meanwhile had been seen squiring a mysterious lady, whom she had allegedly met in rehab, in the vicinity of the Noga Hilton. It would be a chaotic scrum with everyone—the players, the press, and the locals—jockeying for position. There would be unprotected vanity everywhere. Maybe he could venture out for awhile, Marco thought. For an hour. Like Sylvie had said years earlier: the Algerian was king and he was his prince.
Marco pulled on the jeans and the Laker's jersey he'd been wearing since his last meeting with Ludolf. As a nod to caution, he put on a baseball cap promoting The B_______ of L__________ he had found in the closet, instead of his trademark yellow bandana. He considered himself in the mirror, then headed downstairs.
The bar at the Majestic was in full swing. The doors bordering the patio were open wide and crowds streamed in from the Palais. The cave-like lounge was separated from the lobby by a few tiers of carpeted steps. Inside, it was a black and red maze of tightly-spaced two-tops and conversation pits created from the juxtaposition of love seats, ebony side tables, and severe but comfortable wingback chairs. Marco made his way to the bar and took a stool near the far end. To his right, three women huddled in a triangular formation. They were here too early. To his left sat a man, an American, stranded on a lone corner stool—cut off from the mainland.
Marco winked at the bartender and sized the man up. He was past forty yet uncommonly good-looking. His hair was a perfect silver that seemed to both verify and complement the strength bonded into his jaw. It took Marco several seconds to realize that this was in fact Monsieur F___________, an American actor well-known for playing conflicted anti-heroes and charming bachelors, frequently in the same person. Marco could't believe his luck. Celebrities, like children and Americans, were defenseless against almost any scheme. They were out of place in a strange land, Fame, in which they were expected to appear entirely at home—an effect they accomplished by ignoring their instincts altogether. Having once studied them in the multiplexes outside Nice, Marco had spent years studying them in settings like this and had familiarized himself with their defects.
The actor kept his eyes glued to the mirror behind the bar. Marco had often dreamed of encountering Monsieur F___________ —either at the Arab Bank or the Hotel Martinez. In his movies, he projected a carefree worldliness that Marco knew to be a facade. The actor avoided looking at Marco, even out of the corner of his eye, as though the two were separated—not by inches—but by a thin, opaque wall.
He was dying to talk.
There was an art to setting the stakes. Americans were rarely capable of the French required to order a second glass of rosé, let alone to persuade irritable gendarmes to pursue a complaint they were not interested in pursuing. If the stakes were set just right, however, they wouldn't even try. They would be happy to escape at all.
"You from L.A.?" Marco asked abruptly.
"Yes," the man said, shooting Marco the sidelong glance for which he had once been named "Sexiest Man Alive."
Marco was patient. He swapped drinks and rhapsodized about France and the French. He panted about the sans souci lifestyle in a way that flattered them both—two rogues resting between conquests.
"How do you find Cannes?" Marco asked.
"Fine," his man coughed. "Different from Italy."
"Different from everywhere," Marco said, lighting a cigarette with a flourish.
"I suppose that's true," the man laughed. "The beaches are nice. And the view."
"But of course it's true," Marco said. "Look at all the people from L.A. and tell me this is not the center of the universe."
The actor said he was tired of Cannes, because of these people. The phonies. He said he wouldn't be back, but they always said that. The actor excused himself, Marco followed, and soon they were snorting lines of cocaine off the bidet in the men's room while the attendant turned his eyes politely to the ceiling.
Back at the bar, the actor became loud. The bartender winked, knowing how pliable Marco's targets became once they had conspired with him. Marco surveyed the room and saw that it had become cramped. At the end of the bar he spotted Sylvie. She caught his eye but didn't wave. Marco nudged the actor and leaned close to his ear. He pointed to Sylvie, who knew full well she was being pointed at.
"You want to fuck her?" Marco asked. "You want to sniff cocaine off her ass?" Marco knew the actor would be shocked, at least by the suddenness—if not by the frankness—of this question. It was his way of snapping away the refuge from L.A. and the phonies that he had so briefly provided.
"You want to put it between her tits?"
After years of experience, Marco knew, within a few degrees of certainty, what would happen next. The actor might not be shocked at all by Marco's suggestion. He might, instead, ask how much such a thing would cost. If so, Marco named a price, collected, and vanished. If the man decided it was up to him to complete the transaction and approached Sylvie directly, he would earn a slap and a rough escort from the knowing bartender.
Or he might get caught up in the moment and take Marco's question as hypothetical—as mere locker room talk—and advance his own descriptions of what he would like to do and where he would like to put it. Such a man had no intention of paying for anything. He was keeping up appearances and would be shocked when Marco took offense at his depravity and unleashed a stream of insults that attracted the attention of the entire room. The man's face would turn pale as he felt the entire bar—and, it seemed, an entire country—turn against him. Observed in his perversity, self-consciousness would press on him like a stone. Marco would let it weigh there for the right number of moments before suggesting a one-time payment that would set everything straight. A man in such a situation, presented with an escape from an inescapable situation, would turn his wallet inside out with gladness. Later, he would relate the whole thing to friends back home—at a wrap party or maybe even on a late night talk show—and laugh nervously about how he had stumbled upon one of those awkward cultural differences.
Finally, there was the possibility that the man would say no, he did not want to put it between Sylvie's tits or sniff cocaine off her ass. That is what the actor said, and Marco knew he was lying. "You do not think she is beautiful?" Marco asked, his voice cracking into a shrill arc. "You deny that the women of France are the most beautiful, most desirable women in the world. Tout le monde?!?"
The online vitamin supplements dogs actor did not turn pale immediately, but panic glowed inside him. One out of ten men in this situation got up and left. Marco let them go, a reward for having resisted—on this single occasion—their depravity. The rest, like Marco's actor, tried to reason. He attempted to explain that of course French women were beautiful and, yes, France was unquestionably beautiful; he just wasn't interested in what Marco proposed. But Marco would not be consoled. He pounded on the bar and knocked over his stool. The women to their right turned and looked at the actor and suddenly realized who he was, while the actor put his finger to his lips and tried to quiet Marco as he imagined that the paparazzi would arrive at such a spectacle in an instant. Behind them the crowd parted and the music died. But while Marco expected to see cameras, coming to claim his mark, instead he saw Ludolf, who grabbed Marco with his giant paws—sticky with fudge and rainbow sprinkles—and hustled him through the crowd, onto the patio, and out to the hotel's manicured driveway.
"I told you to wait," Ludolf mumbled as they broke into the night air, flashbulbs popping like firecrackers behind them. Ludolf's beefy arm hung over Marco's shoulder, pushing the bill of the baseball cap down over his eyes. Marco stumbled along until he found himself tripping on cobblestones and, at last, being pressed into the passenger seat of his own Land Rover. The bodyguard circled to the driver's side and tossed his linen jacket past the steering wheel and told Marco to cover his face.
"You couldn't wait."
Marco turned to see the Algerian in the backseat, shaking his head like a disappointed father.
"Wait for what?" Marco asked.
Ludolf plucked a tabloid off the dashboard and slapped it on Marco's lap. Marco read the story, in which a woman described being mugged by someone who sounded very much like Marco. Ludolf put the car in reverse and poked a finger at the page, drawing his attention to the crude sketch that captured Marco perfectly—bandana, bunny ears, and all.
"I didn't know she was anyone," Marco said as Ludolf steered the Land Rover onto the Croisette. He recognized the picture of the woman in the paper from earlier in the week, from between the Arab Bank and the Gucci store. It had been easy, like always. She dropped her purse and ran.
"She's Mlle. S_______'s girlfriend, from rehab," Ludolf said. "Now they want a picture of you."
"People ask my why I never allow myself to be photographed," the Algerian said as Marco slumped down in his seat and pulled Ludolf's jacket over his eyes, breathing through his mouth to avoid the scent of sea air and sweat. "It isn't to avoid detection. The police know where I am. They come by and I give them lunch. I serve champagne."
Ludolf navigated the car east on the Croisette, headed toward the Martinez amid the dense festival week traffic of Citreons, mopeds, and limousines.
"I stay out of sight because it's part of the unspoken rules," the Algerian said. "Some people see and some are seen. Which is better? Both are good. But one can't be both. None of us can."
Ludolf turned off the Croisette onto the Rue Latour Maubourg and veered down the alley behind the Martinez where the Algerian had first treated Marco to lunch. Marco pulled Ludolf's coat away from his face in time to see a flashbulb explode in his eyes, as a bright as a thousand neon signs. The hair-dryer purr of a moped engine raced and Marco staggered out of the car and tried to give chase, but it was no use. He heard Sylvie's laugh and made out the knots in her long spine as she sped away, her arms laced around the chest of an unseen paparazzo.
Marco cursed and walked back toward the Land Rover. As he approached, it rolled away. He walked faster, but Ludolf accelerated. He ran, and the car went faster still until it turned the corner and disappeared. Out of breath, Marco put his hands on his knees and gulped at the cool evening air.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I am the author of Why They Cried (Joyland/ECW Press 2010), and e-book collection of short stories that previously appeared in McSweeney's, Fence, One Story, the Land-Grant College Review, Joyland, and elsewhere. My nonfiction and humor pieces have appeared in Slate, Radar, Print, the New York Daily News, and the New York Post.