A blog about writing and all things story…
Apparently some of you who have tried to read my winning short story on the arts organization site, have had trouble with their links. I’m sorry for the inconvenience. SO, I’m publishing it here so you can read if you like. It’s titled ‘The Frenchman’ and is 1500 words. PLEASE DO NOT CUT AND PAST or otherwise copy. If you want to share please forward the site link/address. Thank you!
This is what the 1970s sounded like to me; crying babies and screeching engines as my husband worked on cars with the constant refrain of Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run album in the background. And my mother-in-law, next door, whose Elvis Presley music serenaded as she sobbed because Elvis had just died. And then there was the persistent rap, rap, rap on the door from optimistic evangelists telling me because of my life choices I had been denied entry into paradise . . . like I needed them to tell me that.
I was twenty-three, wore cut-offs and halter-tops, had waist length hair, a one year old, teething child, and was married to my high-school beau, a man who thought a Sunday drive to Scappoose Oregon for car parts, was travel. I was trapped in life, a captive in hell. Those young missionaries got that much right.
All I wanted was good coffee, somewhere to sit in peace, write and dream of faraway places. But, in hell these treasures are hard to find.
However, on Wednesdays my mother-in-law–who wore black moo-moos, in mourning for Elvis, babysat. So I escaped; no child, no husband, no grief-stricken Elvis fan, no cherub-faced disciples trying to save my soul, just me, my spirit free.
My Volkswagen-bug was named ‘Medusa’ for the many bungee-cords holding her together. Like the real Medusa, who had snakes for hair, my car’s exterior had a belt attaching the bumper, a tail-light that dangled from a cord and flickered its fleeting life, and a back seat that plunged forward if not for those cables. Anyway, on Wednesdays Medusa and I chugged from Portland to Multnomah Falls in the Columbia Gorge, in search of solitude, coffee and dreams.
My eight-track tape blared, Fleetwood Mac, Go Your Own Way, as I cruised, windows down, smoking a clove cigarette, leaving the noise behind and headed toward my kind of heaven.
Ironically, my weekly journey to freedom was built by prisoners in the early 1900s, chain-gangs, no less. As I spiraled up the winding scenic highway I envisioned them working along the cliffs in their grey uniforms, shackled to one another, and I wondered, what crimes had they committed; had they murdered a lover, robbed a bank, or simply tried to escape a life that held no promise?
At the falls, I hiked the switchback trails, zig-zagging alongside the rustling waters as they hustled down from the top of Larch Mountain, spilled over the cliff and flowed into the vast Columbia River. There amid meandering trails that leached moss, the sweet scent of wildflowers, and fresh misting air that greeted my skin, was a silent sanity.
I stood on the foot-bridge over the cascading waters where legend holds that a young Indian maiden leapt to her death, giving her life to save her lover–the same place where Lewis and Clark journeyed out of the dark forest emerging at the top to discover a breathtaking view of their new world. There, I took in a deep breath of the mist of sacrifice, expedition and emancipation that had gone before, and wondered, which of those themes would rule my life?
Then, I returned to the café, had espresso, sat by the window and wrote in peace.
The Multnomah Falls Lodge was built in 1915, and though weary by the 1970s, still exuded a reserved elegance from another time, with tall ceilings, chandeliers and high back chairs. In the autumn especially, I’d hang out at the coffee shop because I would have it to myself, or sometimes even if full of sightseers I’d linger, because they made me feel like I, too, was traveling.
The old French cook made strong Italian coffee and always sat with me for his ‘five’. We watched tourists below the window clamber to their cars when it rained.
The Frenchman rolled and smoked his cigarette as if a virtue instead of a vice, and often said, “A pretty girl like you would love Paris.”
So, I fantasized about Paris as he leaned back, rested his head on the wall-papered wall, closed his wrinkled eyes and reminisced about his tattoo of love birds, his pretty Italian girlfriend who left him for a German, and how all his tragic love affairs began on a park bench in Paris.
As rain pinged against the windows, the smell of his spicy tobacco, taste of his robust coffee, and the rhythm of his deep accented voice cast a hypnotic spell. And as I watched day-trippers dash to their cars, knowing they were going somewhere else, in those transitory moments, I was free and somehow on a journey with them.
Frenchman would douse his cigarette and say,
“Ma Chérie, you are such a pretty girl. You should live a full life, not sit with an aging le chien, watching the rain.”
Then he would pat my arm and return to work leaving me to sip from one of his tiny coffee cups that, back then, were exotic to me, and write. I jotted down some of his French words, hoping I may use them in Paris someday; French, ‘le chien’ in English, means dog.
It was my secret place, and he my secret friend whose name, these years later I don’t recollect, because I called him, simply, ‘Frenchman’. I do remember the marks on his arms which looked like my uncle’s–the marks of a heroin addict. Frenchman said they were once his guide through a long dark night. My uncle had been deeply depressed after Vietnam. He too, had a long dark night.
The Frenchman’s weary voice was laced with regret, tainted by his lost loves, harsh from the cynicism of war, and only soothed by the luxurious bitterness of his rich coffees. His coffee was not what the café served, it was his blend, his small porcelain cups, and his special crème.
“I wanted to be her angel,” He once said about his Italian lover, “But she wanted a hero. When I was sent to war, shot, and lost . . . she found her hero in another.” His war was World War II, and he said that seeing me sitting at the window with my long hair pulled over one shoulder, looking like his lost paramour, brought it all back to life.
The waitress, whose apron pockets clanked with silverware, told me once that he seldom talked to anyone, and that I was the only one for whom he made that ‘special’ coffee. She said she thought he was crazy, and that with his bad temper matched only by his skill with knives, someday he might kill somebody.
I worried more that, like my uncle, someday he might kill himself.
I liked the Frenchman, so, in our sanctuary I drank his strong coffee and listened to a man who spun sorrow like mythic gold and who saw his past in my youthful image. His longing for a life not lived well, ached against those elegant walls of a time gone by.
Wondering if I could end up like him; full of regret, unfulfilled dreams, angry at the world for decisions that in truth I had only myself to blame, horrified me.
Then one day my husband spoke four dreadful words, “Let’s have another baby.”
I immediately heard the Frenchman’s whispers, “Be free Ma Chérie” and knew those four innocent words disguised the sound of shackles. A suffocating panic swelled inside me.
I took our daughter and left.
After we settled into our small flat, and after I found a job, and a bungee-less car, one afternoon I took my little girl to see the waterfall, and my friend. It had been two months.
The waitress who jangled from pocketed silverware sat with us.
“Our Frenchman,” she said, “he disappeared one night . . . never seen ‘em again.”
She went behind the counter and brought back a small box.
“He’d want you to have these. You were the only one crazy enough to be his friend.”
Inside was his coffee carafe and the two porcelain cups made in France.
Emotion surged hard against my throat, “Thank you.” My eyes burned with a sudden, crushing understanding . . . .
I wanted to believe he returned to Paris, but then I recalled the map of life deeply scared into his arms and realized my dark angel had journeyed back into his night.
The next week I climbed to where the Indian maiden fell to her death, dropped flowers into the raging water and said,
“Thank you, Frenchman, for showing me life is a journey that must be fully experienced. You’ve been my hero, my angel. Now rest. And I’ll go live that life you wanted for me, for us both. Sleep my dark angel, sleep.”
Years later, accompanied by the love of my life, I returned one of those porcelain cups to a park bench in Paris. I kept the other. I think my Frenchman would have liked that.
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