Unbound Fiction December 2001

Francs

Francs

francs have a rich and disreputable past. I fell permanently under their spell long ago in Paris. Lovely stuff, soft from the touch of many hands, bits of colored paper engraved with famous faces. The ten-franc note was my favorite—Voltaire, so sly; you could tell he was in trouble with usurers. We had rented the fussy apartment of a bachelor professor—every wall sateen, every curtain eyelet. It was like living inside a petticoat.

My young husband spent every day at the Bibliothèque. I spent every day wandering. I watched jugglers and listened to fiddlers. In parks, and on the stretches of grass beside the Seine, I read Balzac and Zola and Colette and Flaubert: novels about society and the human heart. Really, though, the books were about money—who has it, where to hide it, what a suit of clothing costs, how long you can keep the butcher waiting.

On an August morning I fetched up at the riverside park near the Place de l'Alma. A couple stood there—the man short and round, the woman tall and bulky. He wore a suit and tie, she a coral knit dress. As they edged closer I noticed that the woman's outfit was the exact color of the false bloom on her cheeks.

"Parlez-vous Français?" she inquired in a husky tone.

"Not well," I admitted.

"Deutsch?"

"Nein."

At this the plump man bowed, twirled one hundred and eighty degrees, and bounced away. A cheerful cream puff of a fellow... The woman's dignified stoutness hinted at beer and sausages. "Do you happen to know," she said in guttural English, "of a German restaurant? Or a German guest house?"

Her face was heavily made up—under the rouge she wore a greasy base—and she had an air of suppressed sadness. The man, free as a hoyden, ran to a chestnut tree and scratched his back on its bark.

"I don't know such a place," I said.

The woman emitted a Teutonic sigh. She sat down on a bench and glared at her enormous cracked shoes. I sat down too. The man now hovered behind us, his full lips pursed around a toothpick.

They came from Bavaria, she told me. Their daughter, a photographer, lived in the Marais—oh, a charming place, the mother said, her coarse features animated. The father ("speaks only German," she bitterly confided) smiled too, as if we were discussing pastry.

They had arrived last night, by train. Their daughter welcomed them with joy. But also with sadness, for a sudden assignment demanded her presence for three days in another part of the country, and she couldn't refuse, she wishes to make her mark, you understand, Mademoiselle. She had driven off early that morning in her little Fiat, leaving them with food and tickets to a concert.

I glanced at the father. As if on cue he began to play an imaginary violin. Dark curls bounced on his brow.

Presented by

Edith Pearlman's first collection of stories, Vaquita, was published in 1996; her second, Love Among the Greats, will be published in 2002.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.

Video

Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.

Video

The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.

Video

Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.

Video

Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses

Video

Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in Entertainment

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In