Saturday, July 4, 2009

an american in paris (short fiction)

She loved the city. A warm, early-October day found her along the Champs Elysées, long strides with the sweeping breeze constantly messing her soft chestnut hair. The swift wind through the trees sounded like a waterfall. Her heart poured with joy and excitement as she paused for a moment at storefronts, peering at jewelry displays, admiring white Venus de Milo-like ladies in snug-fitting red and powder blue dresses, waving at the baker making bread, admiring the Chaplin miniature plaster cast guarding a cigar vendor. Vintage shops nestled in with up-scale stores.

Sitting on a bench close to a row of chestnut trees she noticed her black shoes were dusty. Stooping down to dust them with a white handkerchief, she thought of the designer heels she’d be wearing later as she attended a gala. She imagined how they might look along with the white pullover and tight blue jeans she wore now. A man locking his bike in a bike rack on the cross-stoned sidewalk noticed her and whistled softly. She smiled shyly at him, pushing her hair back away and he saw her exposed pale neck. He tipped his hat towards her and a faint blush appeared. She felt warm.

Later, in between two modern day stores she noticed one of those archaic shops snuggled a footstep back just off the Champs Elysées. It was a small barbershop. She’d never been in one (except for the torn comic books). Pushing the ancient wooden door open led her into a whole new world. Smelling of tonics and unfamiliar potions in bottles with dust on sloping shoulders and a hot lather machine hissing, it was empty except for the proprietor, Jean, a man about seventy years of age, graying at the temples with sparkling hazel eyes. They sparkled more when he saw her radiant face. He joyfully clasped his hands and shook them.

“I want to do you!”
“Excuse, me?” She milled and moved around, noticing up above on a high perimeter shelf old kerosene railroad lamps in different shapes and colors, covered in dust. And down below, untidy bottles and razors with a mirror along the back wall.
“I always….,” he came close to her, gesturing with his hands a swooping motion outlining the shape of her head, “snip snip!”
“Ohhhhh,” she laughed. “Well, maybe one day,” she said, thinking of her days of youth when she was a short-haired tomboy. She gently ran two fingers down the razor strap dangling from the barber chair.

She stopped and looked at one more thing as she edged towards the door. He followed her gaze. An uneven row of old picture frames dotted the paneled wall where the door swung open. One was a man playing violin, his head severely planted in the chinrest. She moved closer and rose on her tip-toes squinting to focus on the dreaded familiar tattoo on his left inner forearm.
She turned and met Jean’s eyes.
“Auschwitz?” she inquired solemnly.
“Oui, mademoiselle. Evacuated then to Bergin-Belson,” he said sadly.
Outside, the wind died away.

Anastasia sat in the barber chair, her legs crossed and jeans ready to split any moment, her feet not reaching the base of the wood framed, black upholstered throne on a shiny swivel. Jean sat in one of his naugahyde covered chrome waiting-chairs for the first time ever, thinking no wonder customers are impatient in such a stiff seat.

They talked uninterrupted for two hours as no one crossed the threshold. They spoke of many things, mostly of hope for the hopeless. She shared the story of her violinist relative that never made it out alive, recounting how her heart almost stopped at the mirror image of a photo her grandmother had shown her. Jean spoke of narrow escape, torn away from his mother in the arms of friendly strangers, and showed her the priceless pocket watch of his long lost father, allowing Anastasia to cradle it in her left hand, repeatedly snapping open it’s tarnished bronze cover.

He shared with her the tightly wrapped egg salad sandwiches out of a brown sack his wife had prepared, and two hidden bottles of spicy 3 Monts. She kidded and playfully scolded Jean that a barber should never handle scissors after drinking. Before she departed, they shook hands and she promised Jean she would let no other ‘snip snip’ her hair evermore. He grinned from ear to ear, a grin that no one could ever knock off him.

At the gala that evening she was somber but outwards cheerful. She could not get the Ghost of Anne Frank out of her mind. Back at the hotel after midnight she kicked off the tight designer heels and drifted asleep, tear streaks on her face, slumped on the edge of the bed, her last dreams softened by the wonderful barber. In the morning she gulped down room service breakfast and dressing in stylish black pants, white blouse, a pull-over green and blue cardigan, with her hair pulled back in a ponytail exposing simple, elegant, diamond stud earrings, she hurried along the sunny, chilly, streets of Paris, imagining living in the city. She peered breathlessly in the slightly blinded window of the barbershop and seeing silhouetted movements entered.

All the waiting chairs were full of the working class with one under steady scissors. They fell silent like mischievous schoolboys in the presence of an icy schoolmarm with her hair in a bun. She immediately noticed all the railroad lamps above were shining and dust free, and the cramped shop no longer appeared it‘d just been unearthed. Jean came out from behind the chair in mid-snip and they hugged exchanging warm whispers. He introduced her to his friends one by one. They each stood in turn, Anastasia grasping their hand with a firm comrade-like handshake. Messrs. Lessard, Michaud, Rousseau, wide-eyed, a bit shocked, gaped-mouthed all. She said au revoir, smiled and went away. Lessard, hair uneven, said au revoir quietly after the door had closed. The men turned to Jean in unison with unbelieving frozen gapping mouths and he shrugged his shoulders and grinned.


Blogger larkspur said...

This is a beautiful story. These always end with such a gentle smile. Thanks.

7/05/2009 7:02 PM  
Blogger willow said...

I stepped right into the character of Anastasia, from October, to the tomboy hairstyle of my youth, my fondness for egg salad sandwiches and my favorite simple diamond stud earrings. Are you psychic?

7/05/2009 7:39 PM  

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