“Choisissez une carte.” My hands tremble as they spread out the deck of Bee cards, their checkered backs similar to the pattern of an ugly crocheted sweater. I used to think the same design was beautiful. Expecting our visit, ma grand-mère spread word that I was a magician and would be performing for all the residents in the building. I hadn’t done a card trick in years. I tell my mother point-blank I don’t want to do it. By the next morning, I’ve settled for a private show for the family in the corner of a nearly empty cafeteria. On the other side of a sea of empty round tables, an ancient man in a faded blue jogging suit steadies himself with a chair as he performs stretches that I fear will crack the limbs off his body. With bony fingers, ma grand-mère pulls a card out. The veins on the back of her hand sprawl to her knuckles like the rivers on a crinkled map. She has lung and liver cancer, but it is difficult to tell. It is not obvious that there are sharp-edged black spots now crowding the inside of her body. I hand her a black marker to sign her name across the face of the card to reassure her there are no doubles. I notice she is so thin my cousin sitting behind her has no need to peer around her. After she hands the card back to me—a seven of spades with a slightly smudged A. Bouvet looping in its white space—she folds her hands into her lap and leans forward. I perform the Ambitious Card, a routine wherein the selected card is returned to the middle of the deck, only to return to the top. While the effect is repeated under conditions that grow more and more impossible, I notice the edges of the card begin to fray and its corners crease. It is a wearisome trick for one card. I snap my fingers. Her card lays face-up on the top of the deck. She looks at me in disbelief, like I were a real magician. Her name, barely noticeable, is still squeezed in between the slits of the seven spades. I offer the card as a souvenir, but she declines with a quick shake of her head. She won’t need it. I will.
My mother is standing next to me, holding a photograph of her mother’s father, carefully pinching its edge between her thumb and index, murmuring “comme deux gouttes d’eau”—like two drops of water—as she looks from me to him and back again. It is the first time I see my great-grandfather, and I immediately wonder if ma grand-mère saw his face in mine or my face in his, because she too saw him as I did—from this photograph—for he died of pneumonia in 1934, two years after she was born. It is a portrait from the second button of his jacket to the top of his head, where his hair is erect, combed upward. He is only head and shoulders, a bust, or one-third of a man, or perhaps less, considering the lighting. The photograph is full of shadows. His jacket sleeves are creased into dark cuts. The left side of his face is toned the gray of wet concrete. When I look at his eyes, they are so beady and black and temporary that they resemble two windswept grains of obsidian sand. The only thing about him that doesn’t avoid the light is the chain of his pocket watch, dangling out of his breast pocket, and the right side of his face, which is caught in a flash of white that carves around his right ear like the edge of a bright moon against the grainy black curtain behind him. I see what my mother sees: We have the same nose, eyes, ears, and chin, but I also see a man not so different from a silhouette, a man who was barely ever there, who was nearly nothing but a name: Arthur Bourque.
“Hard” is the word my mother uses to describe her mother’s life. Sometimes this is all she says, and sometimes she adds. “She never knew her father.” Marie is never mentioned. “Hard” is also the word I would use to describe what writing about ma grand-mère is like. She was hard to get to know. I never heard her tell a story about herself. I found her elusive, sometimes untraceable, even during the years when her crystal ashtray followed her from coffee table to kitchen counter to dinner table. My first memories of her are filled with blue smoke. As a child, I was hypnotized by the way it would ribbon out of the Du Maurier between her fingers, drift upwards, and disappear somewhere between the burning tip and the ceiling. I could never tell where it ended, just like her. The only place from where I can start is her beginning. She was born June 13, 1932, the day Saint Antoine died thousands of years ago, the very same saint my mother told me to pray to when I had lost something. Consequently, her name is Antoinette (although everyone called her Toinette), and I could often be found whispering her name from room to room in the house as a child. For me, her birthdate is a small, smoldering point, and the next eighty-two years of her life a series of hard taps to a cigarette, just as she used to do, always a perfect crumb of ash falling from its end, intact until it touched the glass bottom where it then scattered into weightless gray flecks.
—Benjamin Bouvet-Boisclair lives in transit between New York where he serves tables, and Santiago, Chile, where he teaches English. His work has also appeared in The Literary Bohemian.