microphone and podium

Summer 2007, Volume 3

Paris (for Bill Roberts)
by Alyssa Burge

“You got a smoke, sir?”

“Oui.” Without looking up the Frenchman pulled one from his pack and gave it to the young man beside his table.

The young man, observably American, took it and lit it with thank yous.

“Do you speak English?” The American asked. The Frenchman at the table looked up from his paper. His suit was pressed, though no longer employed for business but rather to the matters of a less serious retired life. The Frenchman had, since his first interruption, almost forgotten the man altogether.

“Oui. Yes,” he replied, and continued to read, unmoved by the man’s presence.

“Well that’s great!” The American said. “Do you mind if I sit down at all? My wife… she’s across the street in that Laundromat on the corner.” He pulled up a chair and sat down by the Frenchman. “We just moved here a month ago.”

“From America,” the older man said.

“Yeah, from America. We don’t know a lot of people yet…”

The crowds passed by the café and the waiter refilled the Frenchman’s coffee. The American ordered a glass of wine by pointing at a menu.

“Not that I’m homesick, but we had a very good gang at home, and we don’t know a lot of people yet.”

The old Frenchman turned the pages of his paper while the American cleared his throat many times.

“Oh, it’s good to sit with somebody,” he started, “you don’t know how much you miss just sitting around with somebody.” He lifted his empty glass in the air to signal the waiter. The Frenchman hadn’t, in the time passed since the American ordered his first wine, noticed him drinking any of it. By the time the waiter returned it was gone and he replaced it with a full one.

The young man put two hands on the table. “Can I ask you something?” He sat up in his chair and tucked his feet under his bottom. The crowds passed by their table. “This is an important question to me, so be honest. Are you by any chance particularly offended that I speak to you in English?”

Feeling something between irritation and confusion, the old man looked at the American. He decided it wasn’t offence. “No.”

“I didn’t think so,” said the American, smoking a cigarette. “Laney thinks everyone’s going to get offended at her if she speaks to them in English. I told her nobody’s going to get offended. She’s a funny girl. But she’s learning French--she practically won’t talk to anybody until she speaks it fluently.” He sipped his wine and twisted his cigarette out in the ash tray. “Sometimes I come downstairs in the middle of the night and she’s in the kitchen, crying all over her books.”

The Frenchman resumed the paper as somebody on a train resumes the ride after it stops at some unnoticed station. The American eyed the rest of the crowd. There was a young couple seated not too far from another young couple, and besides them a table of some older men and women. He turned back, and eyeing the pack of cigarettes on the table asked if he could have another one.

The old man slid them over.

People moved in and out of the café, and bumped elbows with everybody sitting. Lighting the cigarette, the young man glanced back at the Laundromat.

“Something else about Laney, though I don’t mean to bore you, I mean you don’t even know her, but something you should know is that she doesn’t like to be left alone in the house, I mean. So we stay together all the time. It’s nice. We listen to records all the time. She knows how to dance. It’s really nice, but we’d really like to meet some people, you know? Make some friends. I don’t get a chance to go out much. I’m glad to talk to you, because we never talk to anybody.” He paused and a light came into his face. “Laney. She’s afraid to hang her clothes out on the line like everybody else here and so she goes to the Laundromat. She goes to the Laundromat because she doesn’t want anyone looking at her underwear when it’s hung up on the line.”

The Frenchman had only heard the word “underwear” and looked up to deliver a half-interested smile.

“Funny girl. Well, she’s not half as funny as some of our friends at home. But prettier. Maybe you can meet her.” He turned about in his seat and searched for the waiter. “You know what? You like music old man?”
The old man began to reply that he did, on occasion, enjoy a tune or two, but before he was finished he was interrupted.

“Another…wine? Yes?” The American held up his empty glass to the waiter. “Yes. Good. Okay.”

The American spoke loud and directionlessly now, as much to the Frenchman as to anyone else. “Me too! The universal language, right?” He slapped his legs. “Well I wish you knew some of the folks back home. My buddy Bill… he can make you laugh so hard one minute you’d think you’re in heaven, and the next minute play you the saddest song you ever heard and make you cry. You’d love him. He’s got a face like I don’t know what. Handsomest guy you ever met. Handsomest guy I ever met, anyway. Nobody here to match him. We’re trying to meet some people here but I’m sure there’s nobody like him. In fact, it’s his birthday coming up. You ever had a bunch of buddies?” He cleared his throat and his eyes moved like a fast train.

“My friend Sarah, only born four days after Bill--I can’t believe we’re going to miss it. Here’s a trick for you: you mention one girl’s name and see how jealous she gets. It could be your great grandmother, for god’s sake, and it’s all over for her. And it’s a shame, too, because she’s absolutely the most beautiful girl and funny. Funnier than any girl you’ve ever met! Trying to meet some people here but boy, is it a waste--more character in Sarah’s nose than everyone around here put together--I’ll bet you that. You want to see pictures?”

He didn’t wait for a reply. He pulled out of his wallet a collection of photo booth shots and spread them out on the table. “There’s Bill there… Sarah… Jon, Rosen. They’re all so talented… you talk to anybody about films or…books…or you can just listen to Bill make up some gross story and laugh until you choke--ha!”

He started to laugh uncontrollably. People at the nearby tables turned and smiled. Then they saw the Frenchman and questioned whether or not the two knew each other.

“One time we were all sitting around and there were two of Bill’s shoes on the floor, and out of nowhere he picked ‘em up and put them over his ears and started talking like he was on a telephone. Everybody almost died. Goddam shoe ears.”

He was smiling so big he could hardly drink his wine. The Frenchman straightened his paper and picked up to leave, but just as he did the American spotted something across the street and got up first.

“Hey, listen,” he said. “I’m really sorry for disturbing you. We don’t know anybody yet and… well,”

He took two cigarettes out from his pocket and laid them on the table and ran across the street shouting.


BIO: Alyssa is from La Palma, California, and is an English Literature major at California State University, Long Beach. She is twenty, but her birthday is soon.

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