Morning In A Small Café
One did not have to be a fortune teller to be able to tell Marianne how her day would go, but the young man’s prediction echoed in her ears. Whether or not he had just been guessing, he had described her life with an accuracy bordering on the occult.
One also did not need to read the chalkboard in front of the café to know the breakfast special for it was always the same: tartines, croissants, and pain au chocolat, served with a generous helping of misery as well as black and bitter coffee mixed with tales of woe.
“Marianne, would you take care of table five?” a soft voice asked her “I have my hands full with two and six”
The soft voice belonged to another waitress named Manon. Manon was about Marianne’s age and had straight, dark hair which framed her serene, madonna-like face like a nun’s veil. She often smiled, but hardly ever spoke, which made her come off as a bit simple minded, but Marianne had always got the impression that she had seen some rather unpleasant things in her time.
“No problem” Marianne answered.
Out in front, the usual breakfast crowd was assembled. A young man with short dark hair and a somewhat grim expression sat at table five and was looking around the room.
“Good morning, Jean,” she said to him, “coffee?”
The young man turned and looked up at her.
“Yes,” he answered in voice like he had been let down.
Marianne filled up his cup. She knew that he was disappointed that she was his waitress. Jean came there because he was sweet on Anna, the other girl Marianne worked with, and everyone knew about it except Anna herself. Anna and Marianne were often mistaken for each other when seen from behind because they were both petite blondes.
As she went to bring Jean’s breakfast order to the kitchen, Marianne’s mind went, as it often did, to Edmond Danton.
The Dantons, Étienne and Carole, were friends of her Tante Catharine’s and Étienne advised her on her finances. Étienne was a repulsive, pig- like man with only his money to recommend him which smacked of something illegal. Someone must have been swindled or killed when he made his money. Though the stock market had been struggling, the Danton stocks and those of his clients were yielding profit as usual.
The two youngest Danton children, Virginie and Nicholas, took after him. The next two oldest, Solange and David, took after Carole, his aging vamp of wife. But Edmond, the eldest, took after neither of them.
Marianne had met Edmond Danton at one of Tante Catharine’s dinner parties. He was rich, handsome, and exciting; the type of man a girl cannot help but fall for a little bit, and she and her cousins Mathilde, whom no one would ever have suspected of having a heart, and Agnès certainly had. Poor Agnès had not stood much of a chance, Mathilde stole her thunder like she usually did. Edmond had been the only person to ever get the better of Mathilde; while he had been courting her, he had cast glances in Marianne’s direction and had come to the café and ordered the leek and potato soup, Marianne’s favorite dish, enough times to make Manon and Anna giggle to themselves and say she was very lucky. But in the end, Mathilde was his choice. They were now married and spending their honeymoon wherever there were glittering parties and people gambling away large sums of money, and Marianne’s heart was bruised but not broken.
The front door of the café opened and a policeman stepped in.
“Excuse me, Mademoiselle,” he said to Anna, who was waiting the tables closest to the door. “I’m looking for someone, a young man who stole a wallet around Dujardin’s produce stand, and I believe he might have come this way.”
The policeman began to describe the Algerian boy who had hid in the kitchen. Marianne almost dropped her coffee pot and she hoped that the Algerian boy had gotten far away.
“Sorry, I haven’t seen anyone like that,” Anna answered.
“Thank you for your help,” the policeman said. “Have a nice day.”
He tipped his hat and stepped out. Marianne breathed a sigh of relief.
Marianne at Home
As predicted, Marianne’s day passed as it usually did except that she stayed late because it was her turn to close up. Evenings were hard because sad people would come and cry into their wine and occasionally some drunk might try to grab her and demand a kiss.
When she was finally able to leave, the sky was dark over head and orbs of light from the streetlamps lit the way to the Jardin du Luxembourg.
Marianne came to one of the lawns and sat down in the grass. The night was balmy and summerlike. Her feet were sore from standing all day, and slipping off her shoes, she could see in the dim light the bloody scabs from where their backs had scraped against her heels. Tonight she would have to soak her feet and mend the holes in her stockings and she definitely due for a new pair of shoes.
With her shoes off, Marianne got up and ran around in the grass. The bristly grass scraped against her her sore heals and stung. When she ran out of breath, she put her shoes back on and continued her walk home.
She walked down a cobblestone street lined with buildings covered in old posters, windows and shutters. At the end of an alley plastered with posters, Marianne came to a large building with a facade of shutters with the word “hotel” painted in blue on it. A large round tower was attached to the building near the roof. The building was overgrown with flowering climbing plants which criss-crossed the walls and were woven among the shutters.
The lobby of the building was damp-smelling and had art nouveau wallpaper, woodwork, and stain glass windows from about twenty or thirty years prior, which looked like they had seen better days. The woodwork had become yellowed with mold, the windows were grimy and cracked in places, and the wallpaper was falling off in sheets, exposing the plaster dry wall underneath. The building had been built to house visitors to the 1900 World’s Fair, with all of the then latest amenities such as electricity and running water. But the World’s Fair came and went, business dried up, and the place fell into disrepair.
Marianne went and knocked on a set of moldy French doors.
“Who is it?” A man’s voice asked.
“It’s me, Papa Verte,” she answered.
“Then come in, Mon Enfant.”
Behind the French doors was the tiny front room of a ground floor apartment which had only enough room for an old rocking chair, a large radio, an orchid plant, and another set of French doors which led out into the courtyard.
A silver haired gentleman wearing a paisley shirt sat in the rocking chair smoking a pipe. The black French bulldog with a white belly, chin, and paws who had been sitting at the silver haired gentleman’s feet got up and went over to Marianne, who bent down to scratch the animal behind the ears.
“Were you a good boy for Papa Verte, Johnny?” She said to the dog.
Papa Verte owned the building and almost never left it except to deliver the rent money to the bank. He spent his days rocking in his chair, smoking his pipe, listening to the radio, tending his orchid plant, and watching and greeting the people who passed by. He had been kind, almost fatherly towards her ever since she had moved in and looked after Johnny while Marianne was working.
“Who’s the smartest doggy in the world?” Marianne reached into the pocket of her apron and took out a beef bone, which she had wrapped up in a napkin. She unwrapped it and dangled it in front of Johnny who barked hysterically.
“I thought you’d forgotten about him,” Papa Verte said, “don’t they keep you late enough at that café?”
“It was my turn to close up,” she explained, “thanks for watching Johnny for me.”
“By the way, you should send that shirt up to me to mend. The breast pocket is torn”
Papa Verte put his hand in his pocket and it went right through.
“What is it?”
“I’ve lost my wallet. Oh well, some poor soul could use the money more than me.”
“Anyway, send that shirt up when you get a chance and I’ll fix that pocket.”
“Goodnight Papa Verte.”
Johnny followed Marianne out of the room, but was so engaged in his new bone that he walked into the wall. They walked back out in the lobby and and began to go up the stairs.
A women in a dressing gown stepped out of the porter’s lodge followed by a large, sooty grey cat. Marianne had to quickly pick up a growling Johnny to keep him from lunging at it.
“Leave Allumette alone,” she whispered to the dog before she turned to the woman to say “good evening, Madame Poisson”
“Mademoiselle d’Aubrey, someone just telephoned for you,” Madame Poisson said. “a Monsieur Danton.”
Her breath stank of whiskey.
Marianne went back down the stairs and stepped into the porter’s lodge to pick up the telephone.
“Edmond?” she said into the mouth piece.
“How’s Cinderella tonight?” Edmond’s gravelly tenor whispered into Marianne’s ear.
“Listen. I’ll be coming back to Paris next weekend for business before we head on to Monte Carlo. A friend of mine is having a party next Friday night. How would you like to go?”
“With you and Mathilde?”
He laughed and said she was amusing.
“I can drop by and pick you up around eight next Friday. There’ll be a band and dancing, it’ll be fun. What do you say?”
A part of her desperately wanted to say yes though she knew he could not be trusted. She had always known that he had never been serious about her and was only looking to have his fun with her and then go back to Mathilde. Marianne knew better than to risk her reputation by going out alone with a married man, but she found it hard to say no to Edmond.
“I’ll have to think about it.” she answered.
He gave another amused laugh and seemed to think she was just trying to tease him.
“Get back to me on it. Goodnight Cinderella.”
Marianne hung up the telephone and said goodnight to Madame Poisson, who was hiding behind the slightly open door which lead from the porter’s lodge to her own apartment, and went upstairs with Johnny in tow. She lived on the first floor of the building, at the end of a hall of yellowish doors with blackened knobs and numbers painted on them. Her room was under the slanted roof of the round tower. It was small and cosy and after a long day it looked as good as a suite at the Ritz.
It was nice to have a have a quiet little place of one’s own to return to at the end of the day, especially after years of sharing a dormitory with with ten or so other girls that could be busy and noisy until late into the night despite an early wake up time, specifically when the girls grew older and began to chafe against the restrictions of the convent.
Usually it was the worst behaved girls acted like perfect little angels when the sisters were around. The sisters were either oblivious to their behavior or turned a blind eye to it. Most of those girls came from wealthy families and their parents payed high tuitions.
Marianne went over and lit the burners on the stove to heat up a pot of soup and a kettle of water to soak her feet with. While waiting for the water to boil, Marianne filled two bowls, one with water from the sink, the other with dog food, and set them on the floor for Johnny.
In the most secluded part of the room was a changing screen with a nightdress hanging over it and a small dressing table littered with ribbons, pins, combs, and cosmetics jars. While Marianne got ready for bed, Johnny curled up in a furry black ball on the old rug by the tiled hearth.
After she had eaten her supper, Marianne strained her eyes in the dim light from the old lamp her Tante Mimi had given her and the small fire in the hearth to see the needle she was threading to mend her stockings with.
This was Marianne’s favorite time of day. She could now be alone with her thoughts and dreams. While mending her stockings, her mind concocted exciting and romantic scenarios in which she was the heroine.
Five months Marianne had been in Paris and she had not yet touched excitement, and if a girl cannot find excitement in Paris, where else could it be found? She had expected more to happen when she had decided to leave the convent and come here; more than waiting tables all day and staying home all night. Her life was not very exciting, but she knew plenty of people who had led worse lives than she had. Anna had run away from her hateful father who had tried to marry her off for profit and the neighborhood gossip was that Manon’s older brother Camille had started the fire which had killed the rest of their family. Camille was doing time in La Santé for armed robbery and Manon did not like to talk about him. “Just be glad you don’t know him,” she would say when asked about Camille.
Most importantly, she was free. Free from feeling like a burden to anyone. Her independence was the most important thing to Marianne; she had wanted it the way most girls her age wanted a lover. She took comfort in her daydreams and strength from the fact that she was now free.
No one, not even Edmond Danton, could make her feel helpless as long as she held on to them.
After mending her stockings, Marianne turned off the lamp and put out the fire. She had only needed the fire for light because electricity was expensive and the rent was so high that she needed to save money where she could.
Yawning, she dried off her feet and went over to the old metal framed bed and ducked down under the the low, slanting ceiling. Above her was a sky window which opened out onto the roof. Before getting into bed, she pushed back the lace curtains and opened up the shutters to let some cool air in.
“Good night, Maman,” she said to a framed photograph of her mother which had been taken before she became very sick that stood on the night stand next to a crucifix.
She lounged voluptuously on her side against the pillow and then fell on her back with one arm cradling her head, the other resting on her side.
Looking at her hand, she noticed that her ring was missing. The Algerian boy must have taken it when he had been reading her palm. She had been such a fool to trust him.
“Damn him” she muttered under her breath as she turned over and buried her face in the pillow.
Augustin was of a rather changeable temperament. The smallest misfortune could put him in the worst sort of mood but any bit of luck could send his spirits in the other direction just as extremely.
A few days later, he had a better day than usual. The near by garage had work for him that day. Père Belanger, the man who owned it, was a good sort and helped Augustin out whenever he could.
That day he came home with some money in his pocket and was in the best mood imaginable. He walked home whistling to himself and smiling and winking at pretty girls.
Augustin came to a passageway about thirty paces long and five or six paces wide paved with greasy, yellowish stones. On one side of it were low, flattened shops with dirty, greenish, windows which oozed moisture from their cracks along with an acrid, cellar-like smell. On the other side were three streetlights. Above him hung a glass roof which was blackened with years of grime. On fine days, like this one, some pale light came through it and made the passage way seem less gloomy.
At the end was a set of blackened stairs which lead up into the dingy courtyard of an old, grey building. Articles of ragged clothing hung out of the windows to dry and noisy and unruly gangs of urchins played on the uneven paving. The place rang and wreaked with the sounds and smells of life.
Augustin lived in a room in a corner of the first floor which had been converted into a separate lodging by knocking out a window which had looked out onto the courtyard and replacing it with a set of french doors and knocking out the original door and filling it in with plaster. His few belongings were placed neatly around the room; it was not hard to be neat since he did not own very much.
Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a ring. It’s red stone winked at him in the dim light conspiratorially, like it knew he was guilty. He did not know why he had taken it but something he could not control came over him. In this case, he did not have the usual excuse of “they had money, I didn’t” that he usually had when he stole. That girl had helped him and he had repaid her by stealing something that was probably very precious to her.
Augustin had made a promise to himself that if he ever saw her again, he would return it. As long as he had it, he had the hope of seeing her again. Even if she cursed him and hated him forever, that would all be worth it.
“Monsieur Augustin” a voice called from the courtyard.
A pale, waiflike girl of about fourteen appeared in the doorway and looked at him with large, unblinking, cat-like eyes and stood there with a gawky pose and precociously world weary expression which reminded one of Degas’s little dancer.
“Yes, Eulalie?” Augustin answered.
“Have you seen my old man?”
“No, I haven’t.”
Eulalie began to twist her long, burgundy colored hair into a plait and tied it with a large white ribbon which made her look even more like the little dancer.
“I hate wearing my hair in a braid” she whined,”But if my old man sees me with my hair loose, he’ll color me black and blue”
The girl’s bony and gangly limbs bore witness to the fact that she had been colored black and blue many times before. In Augustin’s hand, the red stone winked at her.
“That’s pretty, where’d you get that? Did your girlfriend give it to you?”
“None of your business” Augustin answered, giving her a playful smile.
“I think I’ve seen that ring before. There’s a girl that comes to the grocery stand where I work sometimes after school and she has a ring with a red stone that winks like that. I thought it was pretty and I told her so.”
“What does she look like?”
“About my height but older. Blond hair and grey eyes.”
“Does she live near by there?”
“I think she does. Why are you so curious?”
“Again, none of your business”
Eulalie laughed at him and then ran away. Now that he was alone, Augustin pulled a box out from under his bed. Inside, he kept the money from the bourgeois’s wallet. Counting the francs, he got up to 100. After the francs were counted he stashed them back in the box and slid it back under his bed.
The Rue St. Denis
In the evening, Augustin decided to go and visit his Tante Maude. Tante Maude still lived in the old flat on the rue St. Denis and so did the landlady Madame Villon who still had not forgiven Augustin for the death of her cat eight years earlier and gave him a look which could have turned him to stone.
It was Lèon who opened the door for him. The two young men greeted each other in the rowdy, familiar way they usually did.
“Where’s your maman?” Augustin asked.
“Still working” Lèon answered.
Not much had changed in the old flat. The old sofa decorated with doilies still stood in the center of the living room with a table covered in old magazines in front of it. Near by was an old tweed armchair and a set of cluttered shelves with an electric fan sitting on top of it. Off in the corner was a table and chairs and a radio.
“Would you look at all this junk” Augustin said as he looked at the things crammed among the shelves, “Your maman doesn’t throw anything out does she?”
One of the things he found was a small, spanish guitar.
“I can’t believe she still has this.”
“It belonged to my father” Lèon said.
Augustin strummed a little on the guitar. It was out of tune from not having been played in a long time.
Léon’s father, his Oncle Gérard had been a good man. He had been shot and killed trying to stop a man who had robbed the service station he had worked at. Lèon had been only five at the time and did not remember much about him but Tante Maude had talked about him often.
“I’ve been doing some work for Père Beranger down at his garage lately” Augustin told his cousin as he began to tune the guitar, “And he’s been fixing up this old motorcycle, a 1920 Harley Davidson 20-J. You should have seen it, Lèon, we fixed it up real nice. Père Beranger even let me ride it a little bit and it rode like a dream. Nothing in my life has ever felt as good as when I was riding that motorcycle; racing down the street all fast and loud.”
“If only old Desmarais could of seen you” Lèon commented with much admiration
“All he would of seen was my dust. I tell you, for that one moment, I didn’t care about him or anyone or anything else”
Lèon smiled and clapped him on the back. They sat down on the sofa and Augustin began to play a tune he had heard somewhere long ago. As he played, the image of the fairhaired girl from the wedding and the café came to his mind and the name Marianne almost came to his lips and rang in his ears as softly and sweetly as a prayer.
“What to know what else has happened?” he asked Lèon
“What?” Lèon answered curiously
“I’ve met a girl”
The door opened and Tante Maude stepped in.
“Lèon, are you home?” She asked
“Yes maman, and Augustin’s here too.”
Augustin got up and went over to kiss his aunt on the cheek.
“Nice to see you Augustin” she said, “How have you been?”
“Very well, Tante Maude,” he answered.
“Are you going to stay for dinner?”
“Certainly, why not?”
He noticed the same uneasiness she had around him that had been there for the past eight years. It was like she expected something bad to happen every time he showed up. He always felt guilty for the worry he had caused her during his adolescence and that he needed to make it up for her some how. Times were not easy and he could tell that Tante Maude was working harder than usual to get by. She was probably somewhere in her forties but the times were aging her horribly.
After dinner, Augustin and Lèon decided to go out.
“Be back by breakfast,” Tante Maude said cheerfully.
When Lèon had gone out the door, Augustin took Tante Maude aside.
“I’ve been working at this garage lately and I have some money.” he took a wad of money out of his pocket. “This isn’t much but I want you to have it”
“Keep it” she said with a smile, “Buy some new clothes. Take some girl out.”
Before he left to join Lèon, he left the money on the table when she was not looking.
The place Augustin and Lèon were heading to was a bit of a hike from the Rue St. Denis but was definitely worth the trip. It boasted some of the best jazz to be heard in Paris and those who went there would have fought anyone who said otherwise.
The place was called Le Monstre and it’s patrons walked through a doorway made to look like a monster’s mouth. In side they met the eyes of a beautiful dark haired girl whose face was painted on posters under the phrase “Mademoiselle Hélène”. Then they descended down a seemingly endless spiral staircase into a dim room lit with electric lights covered in red shades.
In it’s heady atmosphere, gangsters and wealthy middle aged businessmen sat among working class youths, students from the Latin Quarter and artists from Montparnasse. Rebellious heiresses seeking to annoy their parents looked for poor lovers, grisettes hoping for a better life looked for rich lovers; frustrated wives looked for anyone, and tarts looked to make a living.
It was the type of place where young and old, rich and poor, beautiful and ugly, corrupt and innocent, bohemia and the establishment met and mixed and occasionally duped one another.
Usually no further entertainment than the band was needed, in the dim light it was expected that the patrons would entertain themselves, but that evening a young singer was to be heard.
“Mademoiselle Hélène” the master of ceremonies announced.
A girl of about eighteen or nineteen in a form fitting gown of blue crêpe de Chine stepped shyly onto the stage. She was of medium height and voluptuous build with pale skin and dark, curling hair. Her blue eyes were large and endearingly sad looking, and the cheeks and lips of her beautiful face were exaggeratedly rosey with rouge.
The band began to play and Mademoiselle Hélène began to sing a popular song. The usual hooting and whistles which always greet a pretty female singer came from the male half of the audience but the entire room soon fell dead silent. Hélène’s voice captivated them from the first note.
The celebrated band seemed to play even better just because they were accompanying her. Augustin had heard the song many times before on the radio but he had never heard it performed better than he had at that moment.
A man sitting at a table next to the stage watched Hélène more closely than anyone else in the room appearing to be utterly mesmerized. He was in the prime of life, perhaps early to mid thirties, handsome in a manly, athletic sort of way, impeccably dressed and obviously rather wealthy. Like, perhaps more than, most of the men there, he had fallen completely in love with the young chanteuse.
When the song ended, the room erupted into applause. Hélène seemed surprised, as if she had no idea of the effect her voice had. She gave a playful smile and wink to her audience and then disappeared.
“What did you think of her?” A voice asked Augustin and Léon.
A young man with red hair and a face like a sleeping puppy dog appeared next to them.
“Jules, good to see you” Augustin said, welcoming him to sit with them.
He liked Jules a lot because Jules was a likeable person. Jules had the sort of naive, easy going good nature of someone whom everyone likes and nothing bad has ever happened to. He came from a fairly well off bourgeois family who could afford to send him the Sorbonne. One of his sisters was a dancer in the Paris Opera Ballet and married to a rich art dealer.
“How are you Jules?” Lèon asked
“Good, good, I came in when that girl was singing and was glad I came. I’ve always liked this place, they play good music here and I like good music”
“Clare didn’t come with you?” Augustin asked.
“No, Père Abel has her working late tonight like always. The poor girl never has any time to have any fun. There’s a lot to be said for sneaking into her place late at night but what’s the point of having someone like Clare if you can’t take her out and show her off. On top of that, I don’t have the money to marry her”
“That’s too bad” Lèon added “Clare’s crazy for you. Speaking of which: you never told me about that girl, Augustin”
“What girl?” Jules asked
Augustin just smiled at them. He stayed quiet on the subject of Marianne mostly because there was not much to say and he enjoyed teasing his friends by making them think there was more to the story than there was.
Augustin walked over towards where the band was playing and made a request of the song he had strummed on Oncle Gèrard’s guitar.
Later when the three young men left Le Monstre, they noticed a que of admirers outside of the stage door waiting for an audience with Mademoiselle Hélène.
When Augustin returned to the passageway which lead to his building, it was filled with gloomy shadows which the flickering pale yellow circles of light from the lamps did little to chase away. Walking down that passageway at night had always made Augustin nervous. One never knew who might be hiding in there.
An imposing figure stepped out of the darkness. Augustin, a tall young man at about five foot eleven though not one who would stand out as being particular tall, was overpowered by this figure’s shadow.
“What do you think you’re doing?” A booming familiar voice asked.
A gruff, bulldog-like face was revealed in the flickering lamplight.
“Don’t you have anything more important to do?” Augustin answered curtly.
“Yeah, but I’m not doing them right now. Do we understand each other, Lerou?”
The imposing figure with a bulldog-like face called Desmarais disappeared back into the darkness. He had been the very person Augustin had feared to run into. Desmarais had been after him since he was a boy and his shadow hung over Augustin wherever he went.