Unbound Fiction December 2001

Francs

Francs
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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.

The woman's large eyes, a weak blue, filled with tears, and her story came in a phlegmy rush. After breakfast they decided to take a walk. So they bathed—entering the tub together, I imagined, in order to conserve water, the small figure soaping his massive consort. Then they dressed and stepped out onto the landing. They shut the door and heard the lock click. Alors. Ach! The handbag, with the key to the flat tucked into its innermost pocket, had been left inside. "I blame only myself," moaned the woman, knuckles pressed to forehead. "We are locked out until Thursday."

"The concierge..."

"We could be imposters. He cannot let us in. His hands are tied." To illustrate she crossed her thick and somewhat hairy wrists.

"Quel dommage!" I exclaimed.

"A German hotel might trust us for a few nights," the woman said. "They might advance us cash to buy a few pieces of underwear."

How crucial money was, exactly as novelists claimed. People married and murdered for it, flattered and threatened, rode bareback, tutored dullards, wore themselves out on the boards.

"I have some cash," I said, looking around for Mein Herr. He was back under the tree, smiling wistfully. "I could..."

Oh, no, said the woman.

Oh, yes, said I.

O no.

O yes.

Nein.

Ja.

Non.

The woman's eyelids were closed. Her mascara was melting.

"Oui," I said, concluding the divertissement. "I have eighty francs." It was equivalent then to about fifty dollars. (But I was lying; I had ninety francs.)

"If you write down your address," the woman said, briskly opening her eyes, "we will send you the money. The instant our daughter comes home."

So I gave them the address, and the bills; and then I went home myself.

"They do sound like frauds," said my husband mildly.

I didn't tell him that the show he'd missed had been worth twice eighty francs—the come-on, the tale, the pretty business of taking the address. I didn't tell him that the man was probably a woman and the woman surely a man—we had enough drag, there among the apartment's ruffles. And anyway, tomorrow, practicing their art in a different part of town, the playful pair might revert to their rightful genders and costumes. I didn't mention that I had withheld a ten-franc note engraved with Voltaire's crafty visage. Quelle joke: my scamming them.

I have that note still. Every time I look at it I think of Balzac's misers and Zola's thieves and Colette's hardworking artistes and Flaubert's Frédéric, risking everything on one throw of the dice. Then I imagine my rascally friends after we parted. They are waiting for their lunch in some steamy haus. His hands caress hers, hers his.

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

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