VILGRAIN AFTER ASHES
by Tobias Carroll
Étienne Vilgrain arrived on the scene in time to see the last of it burn. A pile of paper a hundred pages thick, a diamond mask, a jumpsuit that more than likely had been ill-fitting. Vilgrain felt grief alongside a discordant relief that nothing more humiliating had been left behind. He had apparently been summoned here to witness the end of a certain period in the life of his friend Andrew Gold. And so, after watching the last fires turn to embers and the last embers turn to ash, Vilgrain left the concrete behind with stories to tell.
Issue #125 soundtrack: Dave Godowsky “Conscientious Objector”
A year or two earlier, Vilgrain in an airport bar, his connecting flight brutally delayed. Making conversation with a woman whose name, he’d come to learn, was Vera. He liked that. “Like Nabokov,” he said, and she nodded. “My parents named me after the Pink Floyd song, I should say,” she told him. “I have no idea why. I always hated the sound of it.”
“The song or the name?” Vilgrain asked.
“Does it matter?” she said. And that was how it began for them.
Vilgrain’s friendship with Andrew always seemed one bad conversation away from swinging into utter horror. Andrew’s thing was obsession, of fixating on obscure avenues of culture for which Vilgrain had always had little interest. More succinctly, in Vilgrain’s phrasing: “dumb shit.” As in, “What flavor of dumb shit are you into this week, Andrew?” which was usually greeted with a smile and a shrug. At one point, Andrew became obsessed with ephemera from American indoor soccer teams of the mid-1980s. Several months before that, he had decided to assemble the city’s largest collection of gardening books published in 1950s New Zealand.
The worst part of it, Vilgrain confessed to someone somewhere at some gathering, was that Andrew wasn’t actually a hoarder. His obsessions were manageable, and often came with the realization of his own eventual loss of interest. The cookbook collection, for instance, had been sold to a fellow aficionado for a tidy sum. Andrew had purchased a very nice, very old bottle of whisky with the proceeds, and while Vilgrain took certain umbrage at his friend’s peculiar collecting habits, it did not stop him from enjoying the peated beverage in question.
Somewhere along the line, Vilgrain realized that he had become the unlikely narrator of Andrew Gold’s life. He was, to his chagrin, a biographer.
Two weeks after they met, Vilgrain and Vera were at another bar in another city with friends of hers, siblings, fraternal twins of different genders. The brother, tall with terrifying hair, stumbled over Vilgrain’s first name. “Tough one you’ve got there,” he said.
“Not really,” said Vilgrain. “It’s the French version of Stephen.”
The tall man with the noxious hair regarded Vilgrain with the look of a baffled puppy.
“Another tip,” Vilgrain said. “Guillaume? That means William.”
This was essentially how it went for Andrew. It wasn’t quite a revelation that he had had; it was more of a slightly increased self-awareness that came upon him one night like a fast-growing moss. Perhaps it was a serendipitous combination of the lighting and the temperature and the view from his room. Who can say? Andrew Gold looked at his life and recognized a lack. He considered his peers and saw a host of pathways towards relative respectability. In his case, there was only ambiguity and a lack of youth.
“Andrew Gold was cursed, basically,” Vilgrain said once, years later, the longest explanation of his old friend that he would ever give. “He could see the problem, but he had no sense of the proper way out.” He enjoyed his life, and had no real desire to salt the earth where he stood. Still, he was aware of the instability. He was aware, too, of a constant unsustainability. It lurked in wait for him like a childhood monster.
Andrew Gold walked a delicate frequency, at least for a while. In practice, he sought to implement a series of terrible ideas. The first, long before the items he burned before vanishing, was the monster suit. It seemed like an act of regression. Vera had called it out first. “Like a little boy,” she had said, and Vilgrain had nodded in recognition.
This was what it involved. Andrew purchased dozens of paper shopping bags. He drew monster faces on them, punched out holes for his eyes, and wore them as he ran down city blocks past outdoor cafes, emanating pained shrieks and bellows while brunching couples watched.
It was very possible, Vilgrain later realized, that he had been responsible for the evolution of Andrew’s costuming. “One of these days, you’re going to get cuffed,” he had said. The two of them were sitting at a coffee shop on some corner in some neighborhood somewhere. “My friend,” said Vilgrain, “you are engaged in some 1960s Stan Lee melodrama.”
Four months later, Vera was on vacation visiting friends out west and Vilgrain was at Andrew’s place drinking beer and watching ethically dubious giant-monster movies. Vilgrain asked Andrew if he could use his computer to print something. Years later, he would still wonder why he hadn’t confronted Andrew later that night–why he didn’t raise some fuss about what he had seen. It had certainly alarmed him when he had opened his friend’s browser and saw, still on the screen, search results for the phrase “How do I make a superhero costume.”
One of Andrew’s binge purchases that had stayed in his possession was the complete run of a Quebecois superhero comic called Le Boulanger, which had been published over the course of three years in the early 1970s. After purchasing it, Andrew, who spoke no French whatsoever, had asked Vilgrain if he could stop by to translate. Vilgrain had refused. Whether or not that was the correct decision remains unclear. Perhaps the tantalizing mystery of North American Francophone superheroes would have dwindled for Andrew had he actually heard some of the dialogue in the comics recited out loud.
Three months after the immolation of Andrew’s heroic paraphernalia, an email from a journalist turned up in Vilgrain’s inbox. She was at work on a long feature for The New Yorker about the history of the Quebecois comics industry, and had heard tell of Andrew’s exploits.
“I would love to tell you that I had something that could help,” Vilgrain wrote in response “But there’s nothing. Andrew burned the whole of it.”
The journalist replied, saying that she understood. Still, she did work a brief mention of Andrew into the finished piece, which would eventually form the core of a National Book Critics Circle-nominated work of nonfiction: “Over forty years after the creation of Le Boulanger, there were reported sightings of a man clad in his distinctive uniform all over Manhattan, Queens, and Roosevelt Island. Though never formally identified, the man ceased these activities roughly seven months after he started, and no others saw fit to take up the mantle.”
Vilgrain wondered if Andrew had read the book, wherever he was. Perhaps he had, Vera replied.
Not long after he had donned the costume for the first time, Andrew asked Vilgrain for advice about how best to proceed. “I mean, I won’t deny that it gives me a little thrill to wear this, but–I’m not sure what comes next. Do I stop crimes or something?”
Vilgrain looked Andrew in the eye. “I mean, you could just go to conventions,” he said. “I’m sure someone there would recognize your character.”
Andrew’s face got petulant. In a voice just about a hiss, he said, “This isn’t about conventions.”
For the first few weeks he engaged in the practice, Andrew would report back to Vilgrain about his nightly costumed activities. Eventually, he stopped, having gleaned that Vilgrain was uninterested, that Vilgrain more than tacitly disapproved of Andrew’s crimefighting minus the crimefighting. They still met for drinks or coffee with some regularity; it was simply that certain subjects were not discussed.
Sometimes at social gatherings, Vilgrain would wonder if Andrew would make an excuse, sneak to the bathroom, and there would don his ostensibly heroic attire. He wondered if he and Vera would end up needing to make excuses for their friend when the guests began asking where Andrew had slipped off to. This never actually happened, however. At these parties, Andrew would generally make awkward conversation for a few hours, drink too much, and make his way home in a cab.
Vilgrain was never sure why Andrew became disillusioned with the heroic game. At some point during Andrew’s period of being Le Boulanger, Vilgrain felt as though he was no longer Andrew’s de facto biographer or confessor. He was mostly glad about this, but nonetheless felt a sense of loss. And then came a stretch of weeks where Vilgrain heard nothing from Andrew at all. Then came a text message, suggesting that he go to a long stretch of quiet waterfront concrete in the hours just after dawn on a Monday morning. And so he did, to his slight bemusement.
It was there that he saw the remains of a costume and other artifacts in the final stages of being consumed by fire. He was unsure about the stack of papers: a manifesto, he guessed, or something worse. It was there that he realized that Andrew was off to parts unknown.
In the weeks and months that followed, Vilgrain realized that Andrew had vanished into some patch of ambiguity. Andrew had unexpectedly moved on to the post-heroic part of his life. As the gap in time grew and Vilgrain’s memories of his friend’s face dimmed without photographs to serve as reference, he found himself missing Andrew more and more. He wondered if he might see his friend’s face somewhere, in the crowd at a televised sporting event in some distant city or in the background of a regional business’s mistakenly geotargeted commercial.
For Vilgrain, life continued. One day in a warm season they watched the sunlight shift across the face of a nearby building, and took in the shadows cast by the stones of its facade. No diamond masks fluttered in the breeze, and no jetpacks brought heroes down from the sky. Even with the absence, it was a welcome afternoon.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. His writing previously appeared in Issue #32 of Storychord, and he has also been published by Bookforum, Men's Journal, Tin House, Hazlitt, and Rolling Stone. He is the author of the collection Transitory and the novel Reel. He's on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll.
Max Bayarsky is from Brooklyn, New York. He makes movies and drawings that taste like how they’d feel in the palm of your hand on a cool night. For more, find him on Tumblr, Instagram, and Vimeo.
Dave Godowsky is a songwriter based in Brooklyn. After opening for Bon Iver in 2009, Justin Vernon invited him to make an album at his Wisconsin studio. The album (“All You Love Is Need”) was released under the pseudonym “John Shade” (named after a Nabokov character from the 1962 novel/poem “Pale Fire”). Seven years later, he’s released “Pregret,” which features guest appearances from singers Adam Duritz and Lianne LaHavas. Find the album on Spotify and Bandcamp, or visit him online at davegodowsky.com.