rancs 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.
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.