It was autumn in Paris. The air was brisk, blowing cool and sharp as it tossed the colored leaves across the slightly damp ground. It was late afternoon, and the setting sun was making its way diagonally behind the white buildings, casting its rays between small cracks, alleyways, and the curled black iron railings of the balconies that looked down onto the street.
On the corner, inside a small café, sat a very patient middle-aged Moroccan man. He had a thin frame, neatly combed dark hair, and was wearing a smart outfit. Two glasses of water were slowly dripping condensation onto the tabletop. The waitress had brought them over fifteen minutes earlier when he first sat down.
She walked over from behind the bar on the far side of the room, past another small table of people and approached the Moroccan man once more.
“Would you like a café, monsieur?” she asked.
“No, thank you”, replied the Moroccan man, as they exchanged words in French.
“I’ll wait until my friend arrives to order” he said, and took a sip of water.
“Of course.” said the young woman politely, nodding and turning back towards the bar.
As she walked away, the soles of her shoes dragged slightly across the dusty wooden floor, making a small rhythm to accompany her heels, each one sliding then clapping, sliding then clapping, like a jazz drummer dragging their brush across the skin of a snare and hitting the metal rim with the side of their other stick.
Just then, a stout French man entered the café. He was sulking and didn’t raise his eyes to greet anyone. He sat down at the bar, put his elbows on the counter, and adjusted himself on the stool. His shirt was untucked and he was sweating a little. The waitress entered from his left and wiped a bit of moisture off the countertop with a hand towel as she asked him what he’d like drink.
“A whiskey.” said the man.
“Sure” said the young woman. “Neat or with ice” she asked softly.
“Neat” the man grumbled, “And make it a double” he added.
The waitress grabbed a short, heavy glass from below the bar, and brought it up onto the counter, setting it down with a soft thud. She turned around and reached up to the middle shelf, standing on her toes to grasp the bottle of whiskey, and pulled it down. As her back was turned, the man noticed how petite she was, and how her waist curved in slightly above her hips, where her shirt met her skirt. She poured the whiskey and slid the glass towards the man, setting the bottle down behind the counter. He took a large gulp and let out a sigh before lowering the glass back down in front of him.
The café wasn’t very big, only a handful of tables spread out in a rectangular shaped room, with a long bar at one end. A dozen customers or so, it felt fairly full, but there was still room to sit down. Sunlight was shining in through the front windows, and Francis Cabrel’s song “Hors-Saison” was playing over the radio speakers. The French man, loosening up a bit now, started tapping and humming along to the tune, though somber, it made him feel slightly better, almost reassuring. The waitress served a few more tables and cleared away empty glasses and plates before returning to the Moroccan man.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like some tea” she asked.
It was nearly half past five and he was growing a bit impatient that his friend hadn’t arrived yet, and was equally thirsty.
“Actually, some tea would be nice” the Moroccan man realized.
“I’ve got lemon tea with honey” said the waitress, smiling. She was quite beautiful, especially when she smiled. Her eyes were glacier-blue, friendly, and the look on her face was calming.
“That’ll be perfect” replied the Moroccan man, smiling back at her as she left his table.
She returned shortly with a cup of tea, a small saucer, a spoon, and a jar of honey. The Moroccan man picked up the honey and held it up to the sunlight.
“This reminds me of a scarf I bought my girlfriend this past weekend.” he explained. “The amber color is just like the silk threads of the fabric from the street market” he added.
“I imagine it’s quite beautiful” the waitresses agreed.
“It is” replied the Moroccan man, “perhaps she’ll be wearing it when she arrives here in a short while” he suggested.
He set the honey jar down on the table and scooped out a clump with his spoon, stirring it into the hot tea water. Each time he made a circle with the spoon, he hit the inside edge of the cup and it made a ceramic chirping sound. He blew on the tea, making small ripples on the surface, before taking a drink. The young waitress walked back to the bar and went behind it. Noticing that the stout French man had finished his whiskey at this point, she asked.
“Would you like another”
“Yeah” said the Frenchman coldly, though not as stern as before.
“Alright” the waitress responded, and poured him another double, neatly into the same heavy glass.
He drank nearly half the glass in one swig and exhaled loudly.
“I just don’t understand it!” he exclaimed.
“Understand what?” inquired the waitress.
“Nothing, nevermind” he muttered, and went back into his thoughts.
The man reflected to himself, thinking about his wife, their apartment in the Latin Quarter near Sorbonne, and her things laying on the bathroom counter, her hairbrush, a small clip, and two silver earrings. He pictured her sunglasses, sitting on the table near the door, next to some unopened mail and a set of spare keys. She got them on their trip to Lyon last summer, he remembered. It was sunny and she forgot to pack a pair. So they stopped into a small shop and picked out new glasses, dark brown frames with a bit of tortoise shell pattern on the sides of each ear piece. They spent all day walking around the city, starting up in the old town by the Basilica, and meandered their way down towards the rivers, past murals and fountains, crossing the Rhône, and eventually ate lunch at a nice spot that served mussels with saffron and white wine.
He thought about last night, when she left their apartment to go for a walk. He had looked up at her when she said goodbye, closing the hallway door behind her as she exited. It was normal, the usual routine. She would go for a walk, and smoke a cigarette to unwind. They both knew of, but never talked about the habit. It was always there, but went unspoken. Besides, he didn’t really mind it and she never did it in front of him. He was tired anyway and fell asleep with the lights on. She would turn them off when she returned and he could finally get some extra sleep now that work was finished for the week. In the morning he woke up to a phone call and later a few people came knocking at his door. “Was that really just this morning?” he thought, it seemed like forever ago now.
He paused, look straight ahead, then uttered a few moments later… “She’s dead”
“What? Who’s dead?” asked the young woman softly, who was still behind the bar, tidying up some glasses and silverware.
“My wife” the man responded, “They found her on the banks of the Seine this morning.”
“Oh no, I’m so sorry sir” the waitress said. “What happened?”
“Police suspect it was a murder or possibly suicide, they said she had marks on her neck, bruises like she had been strangled and then drowned.” said the man.
“My god, I’m so sorry” the waitress gasped, “That’s terrible”
“We’d been married almost twenty years” the man explained, “twenty years next Wednesday to be exact.” he continued.
“Oh that’s just awful” said the woman, “Here let me pour you another drink, on the house.” She topped off his glass of whiskey, which wasn’t quite empty, but nearly gone. “Who would do such a thing?” she posed, almost to herself, but aloud.
“I don’t know” said the man, “She didn’t have any enemies that I know of, and she seemed so happy recently, it couldn’t have been suicide, no, it couldn’t have been that. In fact, she came back from a business trip in the Mediterranean last weekend, and never seemed happier” he proclaimed.
He pictured in his mind how she had looked when she arrived home that day, glowing and tanned, as he squinted through the golden-orange haze of his whiskey glass, sunlight trapped in water. It was still swirling around from when the waitress had poured more in, and he watch the liquid make small currents inside itself, until finally it settled into one solid mass in his glass. He gave it another turn with his wrist, but it didn’t have the same effect as before, plus a little spilled out over the top and dribbled onto his index finger. He set the glass down and brought his finger up to his lips, it tasted mostly like salt.
The two fell silent again, and the waitress went back to tidying the glasses, though she had already finished stacking and putting them away. She felt awkward and didn’t know how to continue conversing with the man. She thought about his wife, but didn’t have an image to attach to her, so she tried to push it out of her mind for now.
At that very moment, the café door opened and some jangly little bells on a short red rope chimed as a young man walked in, holding a black duffel bag. He was tall, handsome, and his stride was confident and smooth. He addressed the bar, set his bag down beside him, and sat on the stool next to the French man.
“A lager” he called out to the waitress, and gave her a wink.
She ignored his advances, grabbed a pint glass, poured beer from the tap, and let some of the foam head run down the side of the glass and into the metal grate. Making eye contact, she handed him the beer and put a coaster down on the countertop in front of him. He was very attractive, but had an air of arrogance that displeased her.
“Thanks” he said kindly, and grabbed the glass. He turned to the man on his left and offered a cheers. The French man, raised his glass out of habit, unenthusiastically, and clinked it with the younger man. They both took a drink.
“Where are you headed?” asked the stout Frenchman, pointing vaguely towards the young man’s duffel on the floor.
“Out of town” replied the young man, “I’ve been spending too much time on my houseboat.” I need to clear my head, get away from this city for a while” he added.
“You’re telling me” replied the older man, sipping his whiskey slowly this time.
“Maybe somewhere warmer” suggested the handsome young man, “Spain or Portugal would be nice this time of year” he said. “I hear the beaches north of Barcelona are good, no tourists, all locals.”
“Sure” said the older Frenchman, not adding much to the topic.
The waitress made a couple rounds with the clientele, taking orders, picking up empty glasses, and handing out papers checks. The Moroccan man was still nursing his lemon tea, and she gestured in his direction as she passed by, arms full of dishware and half-finished drinks. She pushed her right hip into the saloon-style mini doors that led into the back room, behind the bar, and started setting items down to be washed. The dishwasher was out sick tonight, so she had to load the machine herself and fill the plastic racks with glassware. It wasn’t difficult, and only took a few minutes.
Meanwhile, the younger man, almost finished with his lager, was elaborating about his vacation plans, and the older Frenchman listened intently, giving suggestions. He had traveled quite a bit in his day, and knew the region well. He had some cousins in Italy, and was suggesting the young man make his way to Venice after passing through Barcelona, and that he must visit this one particular café and try their espresso. He was fairly drunk now, and couldn’t quite explain where it was located in the city. It didn’t help that Venice is a maze of canals and small streets, so, pinning down a specific location proved to be rather difficult. Still, he insisted that the young man absolutely try this Italian café’s espresso, a perfect balance of subtle and smooth, with a tannish-brown froth atop the black, rich, aromatic liquid.
As the stout Frenchman was concluding his indulging recount of the Venetian café, with the young man leaning in and smiling, imagining himself on the cobblestone streets, walking around in sandals and shorts, feeling the sun’s warmth on his shoulders, the patient Moroccan man approached the bar to the left of the older man, holding his paper check and a few euros stacked neatly together. He peered behind the bar, but didn’t see the young waitress anywhere. The stout Frenchman, feeling the presence of a new person beside him, turned to face the gentleman, swiveling on his stool away from the young man to his right. Clumsily, he spilled the remaining contents of his whiskey in the direction of the Moroccan man, splashing it onto the man’s jacket sleeve, which was resting on the countertop.
“Ah shit” shouted the drunk old man.
“Zut!” Responded the Moroccan man. “Heck, I just bought this the other day” he exclaimed.
“I’m sorry” offered the Frenchman, standing his glass back up on its end.
“Here!” the young man joined in, noticing that the waitress was still occupied in the back room.
He quickly grabbed something soft from his duffel bag and started dabbing the Moroccan man’s jacket sleeve to soak up the whiskey. Immediately, the two other men, noticing the scarf, looked up at the young man’s face.
“Where did you get that?” they asked, almost in perfect unison.
As the three men stood in wretched silence, moving their eyes from the scarf to each other’s faces, and back to the scarf again, the waitress walked out from the back room where she had been working.
“Say, that looks familiar” she imposed. “A lovely woman came in earlier this week wearing the same... “
The look on everyone’s faces stopped her short of finishing the phrase. She calmly turned around, went into the back room once more, and made her way across the soapy floor. She took a deep breath, found her way to the delivery exit that led to a back alley and walked numbly into the night air. After a few paces, she lit a cigarette, exhaled, and looked up. The Eiffel Tower didn’t look as bright as it normally did, and the top was shrouded in a blanket of dark orange clouds.