Gathering Chestnuts

The bad weather came one day in the fall. A cold wind stripped the leaves from the trees and the leaves lay sodden on the streets in the rain. The cold and the rain made you sad, but with the bad weather we knew that chestnuts had been loosened from the chestnut trees throughout the city. Outside the metro stations men appeared selling the chestnuts they roasted on metal half-drums filled with hot coals and as you emerged from the underground there was the rich smoky smell of chestnuts cooking. The men pushed the drums in shopping carts and their fingers were black from handling the hot nuts and packing them into the paper cones they served them in. When the chestnut sellers appeared it was a signal that the chestnuts had begun to fall in the parks across Paris and that I could go gathering chestnuts of my own.

On rue de la Roquette near Nation I knew of a park with five, fine reliable trees that I had collected from before, and on this day I stuffed a plastic sack inside my pea coat and went to see if the chestnuts had fallen. It was cold and windy walking down rue Saint-Maur but I was warm walking and thinking of chestnuts, and I hoped to make a good collection and return to the apartment before the rains. I hoped for dark glossy chestnuts, flat on one side and round and full on the other, and a little soft when I pressed them so that I would know the nutmeat inside had matured and begun to pull away from the shell.

The benches at the park were empty in the late morning, the weather too harsh for even the hardiest old bench sitters. I stepped over the low railing onto the pelouse and began to pick up and feel of the chestnuts lying in the grass. All of them were a disappointment. They were solidly hard and would require hours of cooking and even then would be hard and bitter to eat. I considered letting them mature in the apartment, but then I badly wanted chestnuts today and knew too that Florence might disagree with a pile of chestnuts aging in the kitchen.

Then I recalled the chestnut piles I had once seen at Père Lachaise Cemetery. They had been rotten then but I wondered if I might find there a pile of freshly fallen chestnuts swept from off the graves and awaiting disposal.

The cemetery was not far and I entered through the main entrance on Boulevard de Menilmontant and up the cobblestone footpath I passed the empty grave that had held Rossini, and turning off I noticed beyond Chopin a new grave. I had not known of new graves at Père Lachaise and I saw it was for the dwarf jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani. I had not heard of his death and it surprised me. He had been a fine and very lyrical player and I stopped at the simple headstone and remembered him.

Walking north I looked in on Ingres and Daumier. Without a cemetery map it was easy to become lost on the footpaths among the headstones and monuments, but I was fortunate to remember certain graves to orient myself. At the intersection of Avenues Carette and Transversale I looked down the tree lined footpath where Oscar Wilde was buried. I remembered the monument of the winged naked messenger, the anatomical parts that had made and maintained the legend of Wilde chipped off it and stolen. I remembered the lipstick kisses his admirers planted on the headstone and how they turned to brown smudges. I did not remember chestnut trees there and it was not a grave I wished to go near.

It was along the Avenue des Peupliers that I spotted a large pile of chestnuts, and I sorted through them excitedly, feeling for the proper firmness and looking for nuts of a similar size so that they might cook uniformly on the stove. They all felt of the right maturity and had a dark, glossy shine that made me hungry to look at them. Mixed among them were horse chestnuts, which are inedible and, as they say, fit only for horses. They are often confused with the chestnut but come from an altogether different genus of trees and can be identified by the shell which is a duller brown and does not shine.

It was almost cheating to collect chestnuts this way from a pile, but later when we smelled them roasting it would matter very little how I had found them. I filled the sack and looked to mark the spot. I recognized at the intersection of the footpaths the tomb of Raymond Radiguet. Poor Radiguet had died too young but had written a very good book called Le Diable au Corps and it pleased me that he had been put near a fine chestnut tree. It was such a beautiful book that I did not understand how his second book was so poorly written and unreadable. I knew the rumor but did not want to believe that the first book had been written by the man who had corrupted him. I was glad knowing that man was not interred at the cemetery. I did not know where they put him but I hoped he was far away and difficult to find.

It had begun to rain and I made back for the main entrance under the plane trees and maples. There were so many good ones I had not stopped to visit. I thought of poor Apollinaire dying of the influenza and ordering the doctor to save him because there was so much left to write. And near him the statue of the lion tamer Jean Pezon, sitting atop Brutus, the lion who had eaten him. I thought too of the life-size bronze of Victor Noir, lying with his mouth open, and the young wives who had rubbed smooth a particular area of his anatomy for luck in pregnancy. There were all sorts of graves at Père Lachaise, some happy and some sad and even some that were tragic.

At home that night I showed Florence the fine chestnuts and told her where I had found them. She loved roasted chestnuts and that I had so many of such quality and that I had not needed to buy them. After dinner we worked together, scoring the flat side of the nuts with a knife so that moisture could release while cooking and the chestnuts did not explode. I cooked the nuts in the pan until the shell along the cut had curled to expose the tender nutmeat and they were ready to be eaten.

As we lay in bed eating from the plate of roasted chestnuts I explained that despite the high tariff I had decided to be buried at Père Lachaise.

“But the cemetery is full, mon cheri. And anyway you are not important enough to be buried there.”

“But I will be important enough one day,” I said, and felt certain of it. “And there is still room.” I told her of the midget Petrucciani who I had discovered there newly buried.

Non, non,” she smiled. “He is there only because he takes up less room than a full grown man. There is no room for you. You are too big even now, mon cheri.”

We laughed and cracked open and finished the last chestnuts together. They were delicious chestnuts and we were both so happy to know now where to find them. In those days your happiness could be as simple and exciting as knowing where to find the chestnuts in the fall.

1 comment:

  1. Fall is exciting. It means you are still around before the certainty of freezing to death. Enjoy your chestnuts. The squirrels will chew them out of your frozen throat.


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