Lionel

I didn’t so much meet Lionel as discover him. It was a hot July night, in a church parking lot at the intermission of an A.A. meeting, and I saw something move in the bushes. When I looked over a second time, Lionel stepped out of the shadows with a bashful grin. Before anyone could ask, he announced,

“I dropped a flaming cigarette. I was afraid to torch the place down.”

Everyone looked at one another—there were a few chuckles. Although Lionel spoke perfect English, there was always something stilted in the phrasing, awkward in his choice of terms. And his thick French accent was almost comically refined compared to the R-less street-slang of the many long-term Bostonians he associated with in A.A. It was a slow, melodic drawl that bent and contorted words. When he said my name Jon, it had three syllables. A simple ‘allo would span an octave. Long after he knew better, Lionel continued to mispronounce common place names. Lowell was Loo-ELL—Worcester was WOR-sess-ter.

At first glance, Lionel was odd looking. Pale and rounded-headed, he had a little mouth and stereotypical French jowls that were reminiscent of a chipmunk. If you looked at him quick, you could have easily imagined him with whiskers. His eyes were chestnut—as was his hair at one time—and he had a large, Roman nose perfectly suited for the glasses he wore so often. Beneath his formal expression, there was always a hint of irony, maybe a subtle smile, as if he was remembering a dirty joke.

Lionel might have been the only true Frenchmen I ever met who immigrated and settled here. In the great ethnic stew of Boston, there were Irish, Greeks, Italians, Chinese, Dominicans—but I had never known anyone from Provence. For that reason, there was something mysterious about him.

There’s a line in Casa Blanca when Captain Renault, in questioning Rick about his hazy past, says, “I like to think you killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me.” And that’s how I felt about Lionel. In all the years I knew him—with all the facts and anecdotes I had collected—I could never quite paint in my mind a complete portrait of his life. Much of what I learned was through offhanded remarks and passing mentions. Lionel was an only child, the son of provincial doctors. As a boy, there were tours through the Suez by cruise ship—ski trips to the Alps. He had a relative who fought with the Resistance and was killed by firing squad—an eccentric aunt who lived alone in a Paris apartment and kept cats. I was surprised to learn he had been in the service because I could never picture Lionel holding a gun. I always wanted to know more about his drinking years, but like everything else, he downplayed that part of his life with characteristic French understatement—“Let’s just say it wasn’t all that pleasant.”

For someone with a Captain’s rank and Harvard degree, Lionel was remarkably unassuming. He was a successful dentist, yet never seemed to associate with the executive set in Boston’s leafy Metro-West suburbs. His years in the area took him from a condo in Jamaica Plain, to an apartment in Roslindale, and, finally, to a modest house in Dedham—hardly the zip-code trajectory of someone concerned with status and mobility.

Lionel was a man of lovable, and sometimes humorous, contradictions. He was a healthcare provider and a chain-smoker. He was an accomplished professional and a recovering alcoholic. By all accounts, he loved women, yet he never married or had children. Lionel was the only person I knew who spoke of “Opera Season,” but he could sit for hours in a dingy Dunkin’ Donuts and feel no less edified. When once I came by his new house to a fix a computer, he gave me a grand tour of his original artwork, all the while stepping over piles of dirty laundry and unpacked things.

It is often true that the lasting image we have of our friends is from the period in which we first encountered them. As such, I will forever remember Lionel as that gawky, mid-40’s dentist, lingering at the edge of the crowd, lips puckered around a cigarette. In the sometimes raucous social circles of A.A., he was out-of-place and yet completely at home. Lionel was easy to like, and as gentle as he was gentlemanly. I’ll never forget returning from my honeymoon to find a bouquet of flowers at my doorstep, left by him along with some small note of congratulations.

I hadn’t seen or spoken to Lionel in a few years when, by coincidence, I emailed him this past January. I was going to Clearwater, Florida and, recalling he owned a condo nearby, wanted to know if he would be there.

“Good morning Jon, Unfortunately I will not be on the premises…I wish you a pleasant stay there. Let me know if I may be of any help!”

Knowing now that he was just weeks from death adds great significance to his words. Why, I wondered, didn’t he mention his illness? I like to believe it was because he didn’t know he was dying. But considering the prognosis, it was more likely that he didn’t want his friends to know. For many of us who knew him, Lionel drifted into our lives and touched us with his quiet charm and humanity. And he would leave much the same way; humbly, unexpectedly, and without much fuss.