Sunday afternoon. A man and woman eating a late lunch in the dining room; another man drinking at the bar. The waitress is filling salt shakers. We take a front table next to the window. You and I sit against the wall while Margaret has the whole bench seat opposite. A day in early Spring.
There must have been a party: colored balloons drift around. Jazz playing quietly. Between two old mirrors that take up most of one wall in the dining room hangs a framed poster of ‘Port du Desir’ with Jean Gabin. The waitress, a narrow, razor-cut blond, French as the Eiffel Tower, appears oblivious to us. The bartender is talking to the man drinking. You say, “We ought to leave, maybe they’d notice us?”
Margaret has been playing with the balloons: she’ll capture them by their ribbon ties, and they’ll escape bobbing up against the ceiling or bumping under a table. She is stretching for one that clings near the top of a curtain when the waitress comes over. We order glasses of red wine and a Shirley Temple.
Margaret holds balloons to her head like a hat and slowly dances to the music. Static electricity makes her fine hair rise, clinging to the balloons. The bartender, a young skinny guy with a vest and an earring, leans against the back counter of the bar and watches her.
The wine is good – from an area outside Bordeaux. “As good as Bordeaux,” the waitress informs us in her French accent; “Not as expensive.” Two men with a woman come in and stop at the bar. The bartender pours white wine for them without their asking.
There’s an old lady at a widow in the apartment building across the street. She leans out on her hands for a look, then sits in a chair so she can see down into the street.
We finish our wine and order more. The balloons seem alive trailing along after someone who passes. What we thought at first was coldness in the waitress is gallic reserve. That matter-of-fact frankness like Gabin’s: faint smile, world weary eyes, uninflected voice.
The near-Bordeaux tastes fine – earthy, almost like food. We should have ordered a bottle.
The old lady stands up to stretch, a real arms-over-the-head stretch, then sits again to lean on her elbow. I point her out and you rest your arm on my shoulder looking up, “Doesn’t she remind you of the Old Lady in Babar?” I ask.
“Yes!” you say, and for a moment we are both absurdly happy.
The old lady may have seen Auden come and go forty years ago; he’d lived a few doors down on our side of the street. She would have been in her forties, in the middle of life instead of the end. She probably wouldn’t have had time to spend idling at a window.
Margaret is flirting with the bartender; he offers her a green balloon that has drifted up among his bottles. She takes it. “Can you say ‘merci’?” you call to her. She tucks her chin down shyly and comes back to us. We sip our wine and talk. I glance up now and then and see the old lady. Sometimes she moves ever so slightly as though to show me she is alive. I ask what you think her sense of time is like. You answer that her time is full and goes from one thing to another, as you did when you were a little girl. I realize you think I’ve asked about Margaret.
When we order wine again we ask for a cheese plate too. We’re getting a little tight and it feels fine. We’ve grown hungry and don’t want to leave. Time is moving along somewhere else, without us.
On the plate are wedges of five different cheeses. We recognize a bleu Auvergne and a Brie and a Port du Salude. They are all delicious and different and come with a bunch of red grapes in the middle and slices of apple. Served with a basket of sliced baguette. “So much for the diet,” you say, happily taking another piece of cheese.
High in the blue sky over the old lady’s building a great muffin of cloud pauses, a 747 starts across – for an instant they’re all there, held in my glance: old woman, cloud, jet. And you and Margaret and your lives at this moment. Louis Armstrong singing, Gabin stares from his poster, a pink balloon drifts, the bartender leans in to say something to the waitress.
“We could be in Paris,” you say. “It’ll be strange when we step outside and find ourselves here.”
The waitress tells Margaret she can take home all the balloons she wants. She begins collecting them, tying the ribbon strings together.
A tired looking man comes up from the back of the café pulling an amplifier on a suitcase wheeler. The bartended pours him a red wine. He has a long French face, pointed nose and sad eyes. A young woman who has been sitting at a table in the dining room comes over to him. Stands there expectantly. “You don’t know me, do you?” she says, not at all surprised or disappointed. She tells him that she has flown in from the west coast on two hours sleep. Apparently, she has heard him play somewhere.
“You look so tired,” she says, touching his arm. He nods and smiles a little wearily.
As she returns to her table where a cigarette smokes in the ash tray, I notice she has a limp. Her right foot is turned in and she limps.
An outdoor stairway angles down to the street from the building above. An old lady comes slowly down; she uses a cane, her liver-spotted hand gripping the iron railing. She descends one step at a time. The old lady at the window watches her. I wonder if she knows her. If she sees her as someone like herself, ancient. Or if she observes without much thought, noting how the other shifts from one leg to the other slowly rocking down the stairs.
“I’m glad you suggested stopping in,” you say taking my hand; “It’s nice being impulsive, we aren’t so much.” I kiss your hand, maybe like Gabin would have.
“I love it,” you say, “It’s around us all the time and we hardly know it.”
We finish our drinks and leave. Margaret walks ahead bouncing her colored bouquet under the trees.
Richard Ploetz has published short stories in The Quarterly, Outerbridge, Crazy Quilt, Timbuktu, American Literary Review, Hayden’s Ferry, Passages North, Nonbinary Review, and others. His children’s book, THE KOOKEN was published by Henry Holt. Clement Oubrerie, graphic artist, and Richard collaborate on NEDTOONS, a cartoon series featuring a corgi. www.richardploetz.com