The Telecran and the Espagnol by W.C. Bamberger


The bald man was standing in his open gate, pacing back and forth across the opening. He had something in his hands, and passed it from one to the other and back. He was wearing an odd hat, brilliantly white with a stiff, wide brim and a high, puffy crown.

“He never has his gate open,” Jeunette said, her eyes wide.

“Why, is he a hermit?”

“Maybe. Maman says he has more francs than anyone on the shore, and that he locks himself up because otherwise people would mob him and steal anything he touches.”

“The very same thing happened to King Midas, you know,” said Marie.

“Marie,” Jeunette said, “you don’t even know how to be on vacation, do you? You’re not supposed to even think about what you’ve learned in school.”

“I read at home, too,” Marie snapped back.

“And, even worse than being a hermit,” Jeunette added, “Maman says he’s an Espagnol.”

Romy said nothing. She had been finding it difficult to walk and work on her drawing at the same time, so she was relieved when the other girls stopped to stare at the short, impatient-looking man in the gateway. He took two steps into the road now, and looked to the north. He seemed to be startled to find the three of them standing so near. Dignified tomboys and ardent friends, they looked and dressed so much alike—in walking skirts, linen shirtwaists, appliqué vests—that some took them for sisters. Jeunette’s Maman called them “My Three Black Mops,” because every year they let the strong breeze coming in off the sea tangle their hair.

“Good morning,” the Espagnol said after a pause, “to one and all.” He had an accent that twisted his words in odd ways, but they were polite and didn’t laugh as they would have done had he been someone their own age, or an Englishman.

“Good morning,” Jeunette and Marie answered. Romy was still concentrating and, without realizing it, she was gnawing her tongue.

“You shouldn’t stand in the road,” the Espagnol said. “A large van will be coming along soon and, if I remember right, the driver is very old. Almost as old as me. He may not see you.”

Jeunette and Marie looked over the shoulders down the road. There were no vehicles in sight.

The Espagnol was looking at Romy now, his eyes like black moons, pulling in all the light reflecting off what she held.

“You look about to bite your tongue off, my dear. What do you have there—a radio?”

“No,” Jeunette said. “You’re not even close.”

“Then I’ll step closer,” the Espagnol said, and he did. “A strongbox, for all your many riches?”

“You’re not even warm,” Jeunette said, laughing.

“No?”

“No. And it’s something you would find very interesting. It’s something you will want to you have for yourself.” Romy had heard this tone of voice before; Jeunette had been trying it out on every boy who tried to talk to them on the beaches. There were many beaches and many 15-year-old boys in Cannes, and sometimes Romy and Marie each had to take an arm and drag her off, for her own safety.

“Of course; it’s a toaster!” the Espagnol declared. “How did you know I am hungry?” He turned toward Jeunette, growled and rubbed his stomach. Romy saw then what he had in his other hand. She took two steps back.

“A pistol!”

The Espagnol looked down as if he had forgotten he held it. “Yes. But it is in its holster and the safety lock is on, I promise. Now, can you guess who presented it to me? No? Gary Cooper!”

The girls looked at one another.

“You don’t know Gary Cooper? He is a famous cowboy movie star in America.”

“We only go to French cowboy films,” Marie said. “They’re much better.”

“He gave me this hat, as well,” the Espagnol said, and he swept his fingertips along the wide brim. “But, sadly, he forgot to give me a cowboy belt”—he hitched up his sagging trousers—“so I have nowhere to hang my holster.” He raised his shoulders high, a stage comedian’s shrug.

“Now that you know about my toys, tell me what it is you have there.”

“This is not a toy,” Romy said. “It’s a machine for drawing. My uncle André invented it, and he loaned it to me only for this week. He calls it the Telecran because it looks like a tiny television, you see? A screen and two knobs below. You turn the knobs and it draws lines, I don’t know how, but I think my uncle said it has aluminum dust in it. You have to keep your little fingers under it so you don’t drop it and lose your drawing, see?” Romy then turned the machine around and showed the Espagnol the jagged lines she had drawn. “Curves are hard.”

“It looks wonderful. Your uncle André must be very clever. . . . And what is your name, my young artist?”

“Romy.”

“Ah, I knew it would be a name beginning with an R. You remind me of a little girl I once knew named Raymonde. She was an orphan and always sad.” He looked at Romy, tilting his head to the right. “You look a little sad, too. You are not an orphan, are you?”

“Of course not. I look like this because I’m concentrating.”

“I understand. I concentrate sometimes, too” the Espagnol said. “And while I’m doing that I too draw, a little. But I’m so old-fashioned I only know how to use charcoal on paper.”

“I’m sure your drawings are very nice,” Romy said politely.

“Thank you, Mademoiselle,” the Espagnol said, with a little bow. Then he looked over her head, down the road. There was no van in sight. The only movement on the road, almost too far away to make out, was the old man who came every year for the summer months, slowing leading his donkey from house to house, offering to let children ride for one franc.

“My mother says you are a painter,” Jeunette said.

“Like Midas,” Marie added.

“Sometimes I paint a little, yes.” He was watching Romy again. He watched how she turned the two small knurled, bakelite knobs and how the jagged, crooked lines crept across the wax-white screen

Romy looked up and the Espagnol’s shining black eyes were only a foot from her own.

“A rose,” he said.

Romy blushed red. “An artichoke. That’s what it’s supposed to be. We’re having one for lunch today and I hate them. This way I can. . . .” She flipped the Telecran over, shook it, and when she turned it back the lines had vanished.

“That’s called sympathetic magic,” Marie the scholar put in. “I think.”

The Espagnol threw his arms out to his sides, still holding his pistol, delighted with Marie’s comment. “Exactly right! Did you know, I am a magician, too?” He looked up the road again. Still there was no van, only the old man with his donkey, plodding ever nearer. “Would you like to see me do a magic trick?”

“If it’s a good one,” Jeunette said, raising her eyebrows. Then, in her beach voice, she added, “And when you’ve finished, I bet I can guess how you did it.”

The Espagnol looked at Jeunette for a long moment, smiled and shook his head. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said, quietly. “Now I will go fetch my magician’s tools.”

He went in through his open gate at a brisk walk.

When he was out of sight Marie said, “We should just run away.”

“Run if you want, coward,” Jeunette said. “Romy and I want to see some magic.”

Marie shrugged and stayed. The three of them drifted slowly toward the wall surrounding the Espagnol’s house where there was a small shade tree. The sky was the clear blue it almost always was here, and the one cloud they could see was banking to the east, moving slowly toward the rock-spotted hills.

The Espagnol was back in less than three minutes, carrying a large sketchpad and a stick of charcoal. His pistol was now in his back pocket. He walked to the middle of the road, spread his feet apart for balance, held the pad in the crook of his arm, and began drawing.

Now he looks like a cowboy,” Marie whispered.

The Espagnol looked up again and again from his drawing, looked toward the slow-moving man and donkey, which were now no more than thirty meters away. His hand flew across the paper without hesitation. After no more than two or three minutes he put his charcoal in his shirt pocket, turned and walked to where the girls stood and held out the pad for them to see. On the paper was a large drawing of the donkey. The man leading it was not in the picture. Romy thought it was the most perfect drawing she had ever seen. It was as realistic as if he had traced a photograph, but at the same time it showed small flourishes and shaded additions—a darkness at the hooves, crosshatches that ruckled the saddle leather—not visible on the plodding donkey, but that made him more clearly the donkey he truly was.

“That’s not a magic trick,” Jeunette said. “That’s only a drawing.” She crossed her arms.

The Espagnol beamed, then shook his head. “No, this is not the trick. But, what would you say if I could turn this drawing into a living donkey? Would that be magic enough for you, my skeptical Mademoiselle?” He again touched the brim of his hat, in a mock salute. A slight breeze stirred the leaves above their heads.

Jeunette raised one corner of her mouth, but said nothing.

“You watch,” the Espagnol said. The old man and his donkey were almost past where they stood when the Espagnol called out to him, “Wait! Do you know who I am, Señor?”  The old man with the donkey stopped, nodded, and the Espagnol crossed the road, carrying his sketch pad.

The two men began to talk in low voices. After only a few moments of the Espagnol gesturing, the other man nodded. The Espagnol took his charcoal out of his pocket, wrote something at the bottom of the page and handed the pad to the old man. The old man held out the reins of his donkey. He watched the donkey being led across the road for a moment, then turned and began walking slowly back the way they had come. The sketch pad was tucked under one arm.

The Espagnol presented the donkey to Jeunette with a triumphant, “There, you see? I turned my drawing into a real donkey!”

“He gave you his donkey?” Romy said, amazed. She turned to watch the old man walking away.

“Gave? No. We traded,” he said, and hitched up his sagging trousers once more.

“Why would he trade his donkey for a drawing of a donkey? Nobody can ride on a drawing,” Jeunette said.

“He traded because he knows my name.” He turned to Marie. “My name makes all the difference. More sympathetic magic, yes?”

“There’s nothing sympathetic about taking a man’s donkey,” Jeunette said, holding her chin high. The donkey stared blankly ahead.

“That’s not what it means,” Marie said, and Jeunette gave her an angry look.

“What it means,” the Espagnol said, “is that anything I want, I can have. All I have to do is draw it and sign it and I can have it. Anything at all! Isn’t that a wonderful magic trick?”

Romy was still watching the donkey’s former owner. He had not looked back, and now he was whistling. Romy turned back to the Espagnol. “How will that poor man live now that you’ve taken his donkey?”

“Poor man? That old tramp? Ah! He can sell my drawing and buy forty donkeys, fifty donkeys! But, enough of donkeys.” He pushed the reins into Marie’s hands, and hitched up his trousers again. Marie stepped away from the listless animal, holding the reins with just the tips of her fingers. Jeunette laughed.

“Now I want to see how your magic works,” he said to Romy. Without stopping to ask permission, he reached out and took the Telecran from her hands. “Hold this for me,” he said, and pushed the holstered pistol into her open hands. The holster was damp from his pocket, and the grip was warm from the sun. Romy had never held a gun before, not even a toy gun. She was terrified that it would go off in her hand, and she was just as terrified to drop it because she had heard that guns always go off if you drop them. She held it with both hands, shivering; Jeunette and Marie watched with their hands over their mouths.

The Espagnol was frowning and twisting the knobs back and forth. His face was very close to the little screen and his black eyes were narrowed. He pulled his left sleeve down over his hand and rubbed the screen with it. He rolled his shoulders and looked up at Romy. “How did you erase this? Show me again!”

Romy was barely able to move her arms but, trembling, she raised the pistol. The Espagnol took it and pushed it into the hands of Jeunette, who broke out into a huge smile and clasped it to her chest.

Still shaking, Romy turned over the Telecran, shook it, and turned it up again.

“Ah! Thank you.” This time, instead of snatching it from her, the Espagnol only smiled and held out his hand. His wide white hat gleamed in the sun above his big dark eyes. Romy passed back the Telecran. For the next ten minutes the Espagnol tried the knobs again and again, at intervals turning the device over and shaking it to clear the screen. Marie carefully tied the donkey’s reins to a low limb. Jeunette stood smiling by the wall, turning the pistol over and over in her hands.

The bald man suddenly straightened up, smiled, and held out the Telecran toward Romy, like a jeweler holding a display of diamonds. On the screen, smoothly curved, with none of the jagged stair-steps that appeared any time Romy tried to draw a curve, was a perfect circle.

“Do the three of you all study science in school?”

“It’s summer,” Jeunette said. “We’re not in school.”

“When they rope you and herd you in do you study science?”

“Yes.”

“Then you will know what this is.”

The Espagnol turned the knobs, then again held up the Telecran. The circle now had four lines jutting down from it toward the bottom of the screen, just crossing over a low curve that stretched from one of the bottom corners to the other.

“An octopus,” Marie suggested.

“Ah, no. An octopus has eight legs, this has only four. So it is. . . ?”

No one knew.

“A different question, then: What is one thousand, four hundred and forty?”

“Twelve times twelve times ten,” Romy said.

The Espagnol looked startled. “Really? Yes, but it is also how many times this not-octopus went around the world.”

“The Sputnik,” Marie said. “It flew and then it fell down.”

“Indeed,” the Espagnol said. “Like this!”

He threw the Telecran high into the air, in the direction of his gate. Romy felt tears come into the corners of her eyes. The Espagnol ran under the flying machine, caught it in two hands, and walked back with it. “All erased,” he said. When he came to where the girls were standing he pointed a finger at Jeunette.

“I see you,” he said.

Jeunette stood up straight, and looked down the road as if she might run. Then she turned back, reached inside her vest and brought out the holster and pistol, and handed it over. She tried to stammer an apology.

“No need,” the Espangol said. “It just tells me that you are a real woman. Like so many I have known.” Jeunette’s eyes grew wide. The Espagnol passed the holstered pistol under his nose and breathed deeply as if it were a fine cigar, then he tucked it into his front pants pocket. Then he seemed to forget about the girls and about the van that still hadn’t come. He turned the knobs slowly, his eyes almost unblinking in the shade of the big-brimmed hat. Marie bent and scratched her ankle; no one spoke.

Finally he nodded and straightened up. “Very good,” he said to Romy. “Your uncle is a very smart man. I wonder if he might. . . .” Then he suddenly broke into a huge grin and shoved the Telecran back into Romy’s hands. “My canvas!” he shouted.

The girls turned and looked, and saw a large van only some fifty meters away slowly moving toward them. The Espagnol raised one arm and the truck moved toward him a little faster. As the van approached the gate the driver and the Espagnol swore at each other, exchanged finger insults and laughed, and then the van and the Espagnol disappeared inside the gate. It slid noisily closed behind them and the van’s engine died. The only sound left was the donkey making water in the dirt.

“That was rude!” Jeunette said.

“Rude?” Romy said. “You tried to steal that little bald man’s pistol!”

“No, I did not!”

“No, she did not,” said Marie. “She only wanted to feel it, to hold that hard barrel close against her stomach, to feel it sliding. . . .”

Jeunette started toward Marie and, both shrieking and laughing, they ran along the side of the road. It was just as well, Romy thought; it was almost time for lunch. She walked over to pat the donkey on his neck, then started trudging along behind her squealing friends. The walk back was long enough she might be able to draw and erase another ingredient of the disgusting lunch to come. She raised the Telecran—and saw that the Espagnol’s drawing was still there.

At first glance Romy thought he had drawn some sharp-chinned Siamese kittens shredding a ball of yarn—something, at least, that became a messy uncoiling of lines that covered almost the entire screen. She walked slower, looked harder, and saw that the right side had been filled with a sitting animal, a sad-looking monkey; a monkey wearing a cowboy hat. The tangle of lines that filled the rest of the screen wound through the monkey’s hands then sprang out across the white space. Whatever the other things were there were three of them, arranged in an uneven pyramid, with the largest nest of curled lines beneath the center . . . woman? A woman of a sort, at least. Her eyes and lips were oversized, her hair serrated rows falling past her shoulders. Those U’s and loops and dots . . . Romy thought they could be breasts, except that there were four or five, or was it six? And between them, its barrel become cooked macaroni but the rest of it clear enough, was a pistol. Curls from the tangle below wound their way through its trigger guard. There were two other faces, or at least other eyes and mouths, though none as big as the central ones and drawn lower down on each side, each framed with the identical waves of lines. The pointed-nosed monkey was staring at the tangle sadly, though which of those few dashes and loops that made up his muzzle showed this sadness Romy could not have said. It was the strangest picture she had ever seen, stranger than her own when she tried to draw with the knobs, but she thought of that perfect circle and knew that the Espagnol had drawn exactly what he had wanted to draw.

Jeunette and Marie came circling back, passed her, then slowed to flank her. They were both panting for breath.

“What are you drawing?” Marie said.

“It’s not mine. The Espagnol drew it.”

Jeunette leaned over and squinted. She was too vain to wear her spectacles out of doors. “It’s just crazy,” she said. “Erase it.”

“No!” Marie almost shouted. “Remember what your Maman said about him?”

“She says a lot of things. Which?”

“That he’s a famous artist and anything he touches turns to gold.”

Jeunette laughed. “She didn’t mean it. She just meant he makes a lot of money.”

“Makes it by selling his art. This is his art, too!”

Jeunette and Marie each crowded against one of Romy’s arms.

“We’re rich!” Marie said.

“How rich do you think?”

“The Espagnol said the old man could buy forty donkeys with his drawing of just that one donkey,” Romy said.

“That’s called the exchange rate,” Marie said, and gave herself two knocks on the skull, their private sign for a dumb joke. “Ours might not be as big, but it has more lines. And it has people. And a monkey!”

“People? Where?” Jeunette wanted to know.

Romy pointed to some of the whorls on the screen. “I think these might be women. That part is the monkey.”

“I don’t think that’s a monkey. I think it’s Jeunette,” Marie said and shoved her.

“No, wait,” Jeunette said, in a quiet voice. She ignored Marie and tugged Romy’s arm gently to get her to stay still. She bent even lower over the screen, holding back her curly black hair with both hands. Then she let go of one side of her hair and slowly lowered her finger to the screen. “That’s me, right there.”

All three stared where Jeunette was pointing, at what seemed to be the middle face of the pyramid. “Just look at how big my eyes are; look at my mouth. That was when I . . . when he thought. . . .” her voice had dropped to a near-whisper, “I was trying to steal his pistol. That’s me, right then.” They all stood looking. Romy told herself that Jeunette knew nothing about art, and didn’t care about it. But she had indeed seen herself in those whirling lines, Romy had to give her that.

“She’s naked!” Marie said, and slapped Jeunette’s arm.

“I’m erasing it,” Romy said and she started to flip the Telecran. Jeunette grasped one wrist, Marie the other. Romy’s arms were locked in place. “Let me go!”

Jeunette shook her head. “Listen. Maman says that little bald man is an artist, a real one, and he drew me; he drew us. Do you know what that means?”

“It means we’re all big scribbles,” Marie said.

“No. It means we’re beautiful!”

“If that’s us, why did he draw you naked?” Romy said.

“Oh, grow up!” Jeunette said. “That’s how a real model is supposed to be drawn. It means nothing at all, nothing to the model and nothing to the artist.” The two girls were still holding Romy’s arms. “Don’t,” Jeunette said, “be a child.”

“How do you know so much about models?” Marie said.

“You’re not the only one who reads at home.” She looked up the road again, back at the house with the closed gate. “He could be drawing another model right now. Or phoning to try to find one.”

“There’s probably one in the van,” Romy said. “She just needs to be unpacked.” Her arms were still pinned. “Let me go!”

“You’re not going to erase us?”

“No.” They released her arms. “I’ll ask your Maman what I should do. But, don’t forget, this belongs to my uncle.”

“But the drawing is ours. We posed.”

“Posed? We just stood in the road. He forgot all about us when his precious van came.”

“Did he?” Jeunette said.

A loud, rusty note from behind them made them all turn their heads. It was the donkey. He still stood tied to the tree, his nose a few inches from the wall, and he was braying out his unhappiness.

“I hope that bald man doesn’t forget to water his donkey,” Marie said.

“He doesn’t care about that donkey,” Jeunette said. “It was just so he could show off, show us his magic trick.” She stopped then, and turned back toward the house. Romy and Marie waited, but she didn’t move. “Maybe we should go back and take care of him. He looks unhappy.”

“You know about the feelings of models and donkeys?”

“Wait,” Juenette said. “Wait.” She wrapped her arms across her chest, tucked her hands inside her vest and began to restlessly step a little to one side and then the other. “The donkey wasn’t the magic trick at all, was it? Not really.”

Marie gestured down the road with both hands. “We should go. Artichokes await, remember. And they don’t like to be kept waiting.”

Jeunette suddenly spun around and grabbed Romy’s arm once more. “Let me see the drawing again.” She leaned, squinted. “What’s this here?” She pointed at a diagonal mark near the lower right corner.

“A shepherd’s crook?” Romy said.

“A sword? I don’t know,” Marie said.

“It should be a name. There’s no name.”

“So?” Marie said, again gesturing that they should go.

“So, the name is the real magic trick, remember? We didn’t even ask his name, did we? You can go see to the artichokes. I’ll take this back and get his name.”

“No, Jeunette, no. We should just go back to your house now,” Romy said. “All of us should go.”

Jeunette’s face was growing more flushed. “Without his name we’re not beautiful, we’re not even rich. Without his name this is nothing.”

She tried to pry the Telecran from Romy’s hands. Romy thought that Jeunette was starting to cry.

“Stop!” Romy said. “You’ll ruin it. Let me put on the safety aluminum dust lock and you can take it.”

At first Jeunette didn’t move. Then she let go of Romy’s arm and ran the back of her hand over her eyes. “I didn’t know it had a safety lock.”

Romy flipped over the Telecran and shook it. “It doesn’t,” she said.

Jeunette began to cry. She put her hands back inside her vest, stooped over and cried so hard her tears fell into the dust of the road. Romy put down the Telecran and took Jeunette’s left arm. She shook it gently. “Come,” she said. Marie took Jeunette’s other arm and between the two of them they began to walk her down the road.

Romy realized she had left her uncle’s drawing machine behind, but she thought he would probably forgive her, after a while.

Romy and Marie leaned their heads against Jeunette’s and they continued to hold her arms as the three of them walked together down the sandy road. The wind came in off the sea and blew their curls over their faces, tangling them all together. But none of them bothered trying to smooth their hair back into place, none of them worried about their parts.

“After lunch,” Romy said, “I think we should go down to the beach and look for boys, don’t you think so, Marie?”

“I love the beach,” Marie said. “Don’t you Jeunette?”

From behind them came the loud rusty bray of the neglected donkey. The sound made Jeunette laugh. She sniffled, and said, “The beach, certainly. If we survive Maman’s artichokes—summer’s greatest danger!”

About the Author

W. C. Bamberger is the author, editor or translator of more than a dozen books. His most recent novels are On the Backstretch (Livingston Press/University of West Alabama) and A Llull in the Compass: A Science Fiction Novel (Borgo).  In 2007 he edited Guy Davenport and James Laughlin: Selected Letters for W. W. Norton. He has work forthcoming on composers Christos Hatzis and Mauricio Kagel. He lives in Michigan.