The restaurant where Abby Harper found herself had not always been a restaurant. In fact, the space had gone through eighteen renovations during its many years on Rue de l’Abbaye in Paris. The restaurant had first been a butcher shop, the owner of which was an Armenian refuge who had left Marseilles for the brighter prospects of Paris. His butcher business floundered after the first four years, during which he made a perfectly unremarkable living. The butcher shop was then turned into a series of cafes, each one more faceless than the last. Then there was that brief time in the 70s when the space had been abandoned, a blank canvas for tweekers and addicts alike. A Saudi businessman then leased it and turned the space into a nightclub. This particular venture was short-lived and the space was, once again, left abandoned. It would stay vacant until a man by the name of Monsieur Phillip Bonaparte would buy the space and turn it into Le Bonaparte Cafe. Bonaparte’s was simple, but always busy. Over its awning was pulled a taut vinyl canopy running the length of the cafe. Wicker chairs lined the outside walk in the quiet alcove that was the unremarkable street of Rue de l’Abbaye. Abby Harper, however, chose the friendly confines of Bonaparte’s interior. The weather had been much too hot that day, anyway.
She had arrived to Bonaparte’s late (a trait she had always despised in a person). But upon her arrival she found her date had not yet arrived and relief washed over her. She was seated near the kitchen, a placement she had found peculiar considering her date’s reputation and stature, not only among the Parisians, but most of Western Europe. She thought it wise not to fuss considering Bonaparte’s was unusually busy that night.
Abby ordered a bottle of Chateau Pavie and waited, fretfully tapping her fingers on the sterile white tablecloth. Guests chewed their food, clinked their glasses, and scraped their silverware. Everything was noisy, grating. Abby considered how lucky she was to be sitting at that table, to be drinking such a fine bottle of wine, and to be waiting for the man who was set to walk through Bonaparte’s narrow entrance.
To understand Abby Harper, one must understand her past. She had always wanted to be a journalist. She read voraciously as a child, penned essays pertaining to an array of studies, affairs, and subjects. She had been published in journals, magazines, newspapers, and, by the age of nineteen, had completed a novel outlining the life and death of Richard Nixon. She graduated from Columbia with a double major in English and Journalism and had been awarded a grant her junior year to study under Sam Sifton at the New York Times.
As far as Abby’s looks go, there’s not much to say. In short, she is a perfectly handsome girl. There is nothing stunning about her, but nothing offensive either. She has dark brown hair cropped just above her shoulders and possesses these unusually light brown eyes. So light, in fact, that sometimes by the shine of the moon they turn an odd shade of peach. Her shoulders are small, like a doll’s shoulders, slight and fragile. She is short, but not too short. She has fair skin, but not too fair. To the casual observer, Abby is fantastically ordinary. She never caught the attention of a man at Columbia, nor did she particularly care to.
Abby was content with her malfunctions just as she was content with her glimpse of resonance. She had many attributes, she’d written about many things, but what Abby didn’t have was what college admissions offices call “life experiences.” Born and raised in Manhattan, Abby hadn’t seen the outside of the Tri-state area in all of her 22 years. So three weeks before her 23rd birthday, Abby boxed up her typewriter and set out to take a low-level internship at Le Monde newspaper in Paris, excited at the possibility of garnering those highly coveted “life experiences.”
The morning she arrived in Paris was no exception to her experiences in life. She was carelessly ignored by the bagmen at the airport, crudely overlooked in the taxi line, and shrewdly received by her landlord at the flat she was renting. Her landlord was a beast of a man. He had a belly that poked below his undershirts, undershirts that were perpetually stained in red wine, body odor, and duck fat. He always wore suspenders, one strap running tightly across his shoulder, the other hanging loosely next to his waist. He had a grey beard and a puffy face wrought with broken capillaries, an affliction brought on by too many bottles of Chateau Rayas.
When Abby arrived at her flat she knocked on his door with three meek raps. He answered chewing a half-lit cigar and donning a frayed cream-colored fedora. “Qui êtes-vous?” he grumbled. “Et pourquoi êtes-vous sonner a ma porte putain!”
The man was speaking so fast all Abby could do was blink.
“Pourquoi?” he repeated.
“I’m Abby Harper,” she said softly.
The flat was located on the tiny side street Rue de Montmorency. During business hours the street was bustling with shoppers, tourists, and students, but at the strike of sundown it emptied, devoid of energy, its extravagance abandoned.
“What’s your name?” the landlord asked.
“I’m Abby Harper, Monsieur, I’m renting the flat upstairs. I mean—I’m going to be renting the flat upstairs—I believe we spoke on the phone. Are you Monsieur LeRouche?”
“Oui.” The LeRouche she was speaking to was Alfred LeRouche, a former transplant from Lyon whose wife had left him ten years previous and he hadn’t so much as walked fifteen feet from his leather sofa ever since. “You aren’t too much to look at, are you?”
Abby looked down at her pleated khaki skirt and checkered argyle sweater. Her hair was pulled back in a short ponytail and her loafers had a hole in one of its toes.
“Well don’t just stand there blocking the walk,” said LeRouche. “Come in, come in. You’re letting the air out.” He stubbed out his cigar and discarded it into the street. LeRouche neglected to help her with the bags. He lumbered up the three flights of spiraling steps while scratching his hairy belly. Abby followed, lugging her two suitcases and perspiring through that sticky argyle sweater.
Abby’s flat was the last door on the third floor. LeRouche unlocked the door and pushed it open. It swung on its rusty hinges revealing a room no more than the size of a broom cupboard. There was a twin mattress on the floor (no bed frame, no boxspring, no sheets, no pillows, no blankets), a hot plate and a small sink in the corner, and, across from the bed, a futon that had seen the lights of better days. On one of the cushions was a faded orange stain that looked almost cartoonish; the other cushions had been shredded as if a herd of rats had taken to it with merciless savagery. A single incandescent light hung from the ceiling, a frayed mesh string dangling from its end. Perhaps the rats had gotten at that, too.
“It’s cozy,” said Abby.
“I know what it is,” LeRouche grunted.
“Well…” Abby watched a daddy longlegs crawl out from behind the hot plate. “…Thank you, sir.”
LeRouche didn’t turn to go.
“Merci,” she tried.
A flash of impatience dressed LeRouche’s face. While he wasn’t completely disgusted, he was awfully close. His body odor seemed to perfume with rage. He held out his arm and flipped opened his palm. Abby noticed how old his hand looked, blanketed in callouses and deep, meandering crevices. It looked like a piece of paper that had been crinkled up, tossed in the waste, fished out, and reopened.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Abby reached into her purse and placed a Euro in that wrinkled hand.
“What the hell is dis?” the Frenchman asked. He tipped his head toward her, the end of his Fedora nearly poking her in the nose. “Silly American girl. The rent! I’m looking for the rent!” His yells shook the old building with each exclamation. Bits of cigar spittle sprayed from his mouth, slapping Abby in the face without so much as a delicate introduction. “You need to pay the first months rent in advance. That way I know you’re not going to do anything…” He cast a baleful glance at her khaki skirt. His contempt was blinding. “…That way I know you’re not going to do anything…well…American.”
“I’m won’t do anything…American,” she said, unsure what that even meant.
LeRouche scoffed. “That may very well be. But the point remains: I still need your rent, as that is my policy. If you choose to ignore this policy, along with any others that may come to mind, you’re welcome to hold residence in the street with the vagrants and the mimes.” They stood silently for a moment before LeRouche shouted, his arms raised exposing his odor stained undershirt, “Well, get on with it, Miss Harper!”
Abby, hand shaking, reached into her purse and removed a checkbook.
“A check?” he asked.
“Do you not take checks?”
LeRouche let out a sigh that made the entire hallway shudder. “My, my, my, young lady.” His shoulders slumped, his face darkened, he seemed to have lost his energy. “Les’ just get dis over wis’.”
Abby wrote out the check for the agreed upon amount and LeRouche left, slamming the door as he went. She heard him lumbering down the stairs, each foot dragging after the other.
Abby took the middle seat of the futon and watched a cockroach crawl up the far wall, just above her bed. She thought about going to kill it, but realized more cockroaches would inevitably come and there would be little use. There is always little use in killing a cockroach, she thought, her eyelids becoming heavy. The ceiling light flickered, casting shadows about the room. Her head lolled back against the futon’s springy cushion and sleep took her. Though it was a sleep that was full of angst and distress.
* * *
The man whom Abby was waiting for at the restaurant was an Englishman. Though, technically he was born in Wales, he was raised in west London since the age of three. The Englishman’s father owned three newspapers and the Englishman’s mother was married to the Englishman’s father. Neither of his parents were particularly interesting, though they made a fine living and that’s more than can be said about most people. One of the newspapers the Englishman’s father owned was Paris’ more conservative journal Le Figaro. The Englishman’s father was also part owner of Le Monde and a smaller, satirical newspaper that barely had 10,000 subscribers.
As for the Englishman’s looks, he was quite dapper. He usually wore a suit or a blazer, though rarely a tie. He was fit, but not arrogantly so, the type of body a swimmer might have. His jawline was so chiseled it looked as if his face was cut from a slab of marble. His hair was cropped short, his nails well manicured, and when he smiled Abby swore the blues of his eyes sparkled. Love, though, can play many nonsensical tricks on a person’s brain. Most of which are cruel and hardened.
The bottle of wine arrived and the waiter offered to pour her a glass. She decided to wait for the Englishman, as he never cared too much when she started without him.
The Englishman in question went by the name of Ross. Ellington Ross, to be precise. He was the youngest of four children and had always acted the spoiled part of his upbringing. His mother doted on him, his father fed him money—sometimes force-fed—and Ellington Ross went about his life acting the role of the socialite he had always hoped to be.
Abby came to meet Ellington Ross on her fourth day of work. It was at a raucous affair, an affair that should have been docile, but it turned into something of a fanfare. Champagne was popped, people danced, the food seemed never-ending. Abby’s boss and editor, Pierre Moucau, was the guest of honor. He had published his 1000th edition of Le Monde and was due to receive an accolade for such an accomplishment. Abby was invited since she was technically Le Monde staff (though she would be expected to stand in back and blend against the drab tapestries). Once she arrived, Abby felt this sensation of wonderment. Something magical was about to happen…
Then there, whilst standing against the wall, the man named Ellington Ross approached Miss Harper with his cool and casual confidence. He had swagger and he had grace, but, magnificently, he had little else. Ellington Ross was a one-note schmoozer, but he was pitch perfect. Abby fell into his trawls almost instantly. She had been standing against the door in a wrinkled navy blouse, awkwardly pressing the hem with her sweaty palms. Her hands were narrow and thin, but on this particular evening they looked bloated, like sausages stuffed with rancid air.
As luck would have it, Ellington Ross turned out to be an awfully smooth talker. It has been said (at some point or another) that he could talk the rattle off of a snake. “You look lost,” the Englishman said.
Abby turned and witnessed the well-crafted Englishman standing before her. He was dressed in a newly tailored suit, the black of his jacket exceptionally deep, and the white of his shirt crisp and starched. He wore no tie even though this was to be a black tie affair. The Englishman didn’t seem to mind, let alone care.
“I’m sorry, am I in your way?” Abby huddled into the corner.
“No,” he said, flashing that smile that had melted hundreds of girls previous. “You’re not in my way.”
Abby was sure he was speaking to someone else. And because she believed this, she said nothing.
“I’m Ellington Ross,” Ellington Ross said.
Still, she said nothing.
“And you are?”
“I’m Abby Harper?” she asked more than said.
“What a charming name you have, Miss Harper.”
“And what is it you’re doing over here all by your lonesome.”
Abby felt her face flush and her bloated hands clam. “I haven’t a clue, really.”
“Are you not enjoying the party?”
“I’m enjoying the party just fine.”
He looked her over, his eyes filled with skepticism. “That seems to be a lie, Miss Harper. You wouldn’t lie to Ellington Ross, would you?”
“You refer to yourself in the third person?” she asked, a merciful rush of relaxation finally finding her.
“Only when I find myself in the company of a beautiful girl.”
Abby had spoken to several men in her days, and had even gone on a handful of dates, and at no point during these liaisons did any of her male compatriots refer to her as beautiful. One boy—Josh something or other—referred to Abby as “cute.” But that was the extent of his comment and, in spite of her many phone messages, she never saw Josh-something-or-other again. But hearing the words for the first time from such a polished Englishman, Abby found her knees weakened by bashfulness.
“Are you sure you’re speaking of me?”
“You’re the only beautiful girl I see around,” he said. “So, yes, I’m speaking of you, Miss Harper.”
She wiped her sweaty forehead with the back of her sleeve.
“Would you care to dance?” Ellington Ross asked. He extended his arm indicating she should take it. “I promise I’ll go slow.” He leaned in so close she could feel the warmth of his breath. He whispered, “I’ve never been much of a dancer, but I’ll give it my worldly best—if you’ll have me. I’ve never been a presumptuous man and I don’t intend to start now.” All of this, of course, unbeknownst to Abby, was a lie.
But she said, “I’d love to,” and took his arm and followed him onto the dance floor. It was hard to ignore the stares of the other girls as he led her through the crowd. There were interns of which she was familiar and others she was not, there were editors from magazines who knew Ellington Ross far better than they would have liked, there were reporters on the edge of their chairs, knee deep in bacon wrapped figs and smoked turbot with lemon, all of them watching this young girl transfixed by a man who was both revered and loathed. Ellington Ross and Abby danced until her legs could take no more. When they were done he led her out of the ballroom just as Pierre Moucau was ready to take the stage. They walked and they talked and they got lost. Abby thought he might take her to Notre Dame, or perhaps a stroll along the Seine, but he finally led her to a park that had no name and they settled down on a small yellow bench. It had The paint was brittle and chipped, and there was a gold platelet near its base that read: L’amour est la riviere de la mer. As she took a seat she looked down the path and saw a row of elm trees sway listlessly in the wind. A pair of shadows appeared at the end of the narrow path and a couple appeared. They were holding hands but didn’t look all that happy. The man was glum, the woman bored. Another relationship that had gone stale. The couple passed them wordlessly.
“They weren’t all that pleasant, were they?” said Ellington Ross.
“No,” said Abby. “I suppose not.”
“I’d like you to know Miss Harper: you’ve charmed me; you have charmed me like no girl ever has.”
“Is that so?”
“Most definitely so. When I saw you standing there, a quiet girl against a door much too large, I was instantly captivated. My heart swelled and my soul became rich. You were the girl I had been looking for through all the superficial nonsense that is Paris. You, Abby Harper, are what makes captivation so bloody enticing.”
Abby felt a tremendous rush of comfort, as if she and Ellington Ross had known each other for years. He was no longer a stranger, but a partner. Ellington Ross, sensing such a moment, leaned across the decaying bench and kissed Abby on the mouth. Their lips parted and he put his hand on her waist. The warmth of the evening washed over her and the spring birds chirped amongst the elms. A flutter moved through her stomach. He brushed back her hair—the hair she had always considered to be intrinsically ordinary—unable to fathom the man who was meeting her lips. The night wore on until it turned into dawn and Abby returned home feeling the blinding palpitations of love. She didn’t sleep a wink the entire next day, there was too much to reflect on, too much to celebrate. Paris had finally reveled itself in the most unexpected of ways. And that was how Abby Harper came to meet Ellington Ross.
* * *
The waiter came around and asked Abby if everything was all right.
“Yes,” she said. “Why do you ask?”
“You’ve been sitting here a while, Madame, and your companion has not yet shown. I just want to make sure…” But the waiter didn’t finish the thought. “May I pour you some more wine, Madame?”
Abby looked at her glass which was already half full.
The waiter hung his white towel across his left arm and poured an ounce and a half into her glass.
The waiter disappeared and Abby resumed watching the door.
* * *
The next few weeks with Ellington Ross breezed by with more romanticism than Abby could imagine. He took her to the theater, to the symphony, to the opera. He paid for expensive dinners, bought rare jewelry. Their entire affair moved on without incident and the happiness Abby felt seemed eternal, unencumbered by the inevitable impracticalities of love.
And then came the day of the picnic…
The afternoon was cool, a light breeze kicking up off the Seine. Abby and Ellington Ross crossed the river and veered into The Tuileries Garden. He carried a wicker picnic basket he had packed with two short loaves of baguette, a wheel of Brie, Spanish olives, a bottle of white Burgundy, and a jar of preserved figs. They found a small bit of shade under a cluster of Mulberry trees and laid out a red, flannel blanket. They sprawled out on it and stared up at the cloudless sky. She curled into the crux of his arm as he nibbled on a bit of bread.
“Are you cold?” he asked.
“No.” Though, she was. He could tell.
“You seem cold.”
“It’s such a marvelous day, isn’t it?”
“It really is.” Abby’s thoughts drifted to a faraway place. She wasn’t sure how much time had past when she heard him ask: “What’s on your mind, Miss Harper?”
“All sorts of things.”
“What is the one thing that is at the forefront of your thoughts? Where is your mind fixed right this very minute?”
“I supposed most of my thoughts have been fixed on Le Monde’s essay competition.”
“It’s stupid, I know.”
“Why is it stupid?”
“Because I’m all wrapped up in a competition I have no business winning.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because there are so many great writers—great journalists—entering. And I’m just a lowly intern.”
“They’re all lowly interns,” he said. “It’s Le Monde’s essay competition designed specifically for interns and interns only. They do it every quarter.”
“You know it?”
“My father founded it.”
“And he’s on the judging panel.”
Abby felt her face grow hot. “Oh…” her voice trembled. “I’m such a colossal fool sometimes.”
“I wouldn’t pay it much mind.”
“The competition or the gaffe.”
He smiled and it seemed to warm her. “Either.”
“I’d just like to win. That’s all. Maybe it’d give me some semblance of justification.”
“Justification for what?”
“For traveling to Paris. For taking a low-level internship at a paper most Americans have never heard of. I could have worked at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Herald. Instead, I chose Paris. Winning this competition…I don’t know…maybe it would make everything worth it.”
“Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not.”
“Do you not think so?”
“I don’t believe in competition.”
“That’s because…” But her voice faded.
He sat up and crossed his legs in front of her. “That’s because of what?”
“No, what did you mean?”
The red in her face transformed into a sickly grey. “I didn’t mean anything by—“
“No, Abby, that’s because what?”
“Tell me!” He snapped so quickly she felt her body jerk. The blanket mussed in one of the corners and a few of the garden’s onlookers took notice of them. She suddenly felt hypersensitive. She could hear the mulberry branches rattling against each another. She could hear the pebbles clicking as the wind blew them across the path.
She opened her mouth to speak but felt nothing but dry, hot air. And then the words came, timidly. “That’s because everything’s been handed to you. It’s hard to be in competition with anyone if you’re already ahead of the curve. You’ve lived a privileged life, Ellington. I’m not blaming you for it, it’s just something—”
“That is most certainly untrue!” “I don’t mean—“
“I had to work, Abby—Bloody hell! I have to work. And for you to insinuate my life has been easy, well that’s just…that’s just bloody preposterous!” Abby felt the tears welling up in her eyes. A pit grew in her stomach. She shivered. She could see a madness in his eyes, something deep, seeded; a canyon filled with rage and denial. This madness was fueled by many things, but logic was not one of them. “Jesus Christ, Abby! When did you decide to start being such a bitch?”
Abby’s lip quivered and the tears finally fell.
“And now you’re deciding to cry? Are you mad? Is this the path you’ve chosen? A path paved with insensibilities? If so, then I simply won’t have it!” Ellington Ross stood from the blanket, dusting off his lapels as he did, and headed off. She watched him until he disappeared amongst the crowd, then she let the tears consume her.
* * *
Abby checked her watched. Abby checked the door. Abby checked the back exit. None of them delivered good news.
“Are you sure you got the time right?” a voice asked.
Abby looked up and saw, once again, the pale-faced waiter towering over her. “Yes,” she said. “I’m sure. At least I think I’m sure.”
“Well, have you tried calling?”
“He doesn’t…He isn’t answering.”
“Well, as you can see Madame, we’re very busy tonight and—“
“He’ll be here. May I have another napkin? This one’s dirty.”
The waiter looked at the spotless napkin and rolled his eyes. “Of course. I’ll be right back.” He didn’t move right away. “Perhaps you’d like to call him one more time. Maybe he’ll answer…eventually.” He finally headed off.
Near the kitchen, another waiter dropped a tray of dishes and she shuddered against the noise.
* * *
Ellington Ross’ words refused to leave Abby’s thoughts. She wandered home from the garden, drifting through the streets without any real sense as to where she was going. At night, all of Paris looked the same. The alleys weaved into streets, the streets grew into roundabouts, and the roundabouts, somehow, transformed into dead ends. All of it was unique, but grotesquely familiar. And when it began to rain, it did little to deter her wanderings. She had left the picnic basket, but took the blanket and Brie. She bit off large corners, smacking her lips through soft mouthfuls of dairy. All those that passed her in the street watched the sad girl shuffling to and fro, a flannel blanket draped over her like a poncho, a handful of creamy cheese clutched in her fragile hand. She was miserable, yes, but the cheese was doing its damnedest to help.
Abby turned and saw Monsieur LeRouche shadowing the mouth of an alleyway. He had a small bag of groceries—a head of flat leaf parsley and the greens of two leeks stuck out of its top. In his other hand was a small umbrella. The rain scattered off the nylon top with sad little beats.
“Monsieur LeRouche?” Abby said through a mouthful of cheese.
“Madam Harper, what are you doing out on a night like this? It’s simply dreadful.”
“I…” But all she could do was look at her cheese. Soon she began to cry, the Brie quivering in her hand.
“Madame Harper, what ever is the matter?”
LeRouche discontinued his inquiry and held out the umbrella. She moved listlessly toward him, the blanket slipping off one of her shoulders. LeRouche slipped the end back over her shoulder. “Come on, my dear, let’s get you home.” He led her through the rain, traversing the city’s streets like a wise Sherpa. She spoke very little at first, but by the time they made it back to Rue de Montmorency she had gone through the entire story. She told him of Ellington Ross’ outburst and the name he had called her and the look in LeRouche’s eyes was that of disgust. “He is not a man,” he said. “He is a child. He does not deserve you.”
“No, you don’t understand, Monsieur LeRouche, the thing about it is: I don’t deserve him! I really don’t! He’s too good for me. The entire incident had to do with me and my silly attitude! It was my fault. Besides, a girl like me has no business—“
LeRouche suddenly stopped. They were three doors from the flat and the rain had intensified, but LeRouche needed to get something off his chest. “Madame Harper, you are a treasure. You are a gem. A true gem. At first I was weary of you, sure, but since that time I have seen quite a remarkable girl begin to form into an even more remarkable woman. And no right-minded man would ever, in his life, call you something as appalling as that. You should be cherished, not chastised. And for you to blame yourself for such an incident is pure madness! I hope you understand that.”
She nodded and the Brie finally fell from her hand. They watched the rain carry the cheese away, slipping over the cobblestones before disappearing into a nearby drain.
“Come now, I shall make you a stew that will warm you for days. The recipe has been in my family for years, and if I should fail at its execution then the wine I’ve purchased shall be tonight’s perfectly acceptable substitute. Does that sound all right?” She nodded again and he led her inside.
That night they dined on the most delicious stew Abby had ever tasted. They drank three bottles of wine from the Rhone Valley and tore pieces of baguette so crusty LeRouche’s table was littered with crumbs before the second loaf was ever unpacked.
“So besides this boy, what else troubles you?” LeRouche asked. “I can tell when a woman’s heart is resting solely on one thing, but you, my dear, are shaken by many things.”
Abby told him all about Le Monde’s essay competition and, as she had done with Ellington Ross, assured LeRouche she had no business winning.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because I only just started there. Because I’m the only American entering. Because so many other writers have so many other things to say. Important things! Because—“
“My dear, it’s precisely because you are saying these reasons that you will not win. If you believe because you are an American and for that reason you will lose, well then you shall lose. Do you believe you can win, Madame Harper?”
Nobody had ever asked her such a question before. It was simple, direct, but somehow poignant. She thought about it for such a long time LeRouche managed to finish his glass of wine and pour another.
“Yes,” she finally said. “I believe I can win.”
“Splendid!” he declared and topped off her glass. “And what shall you write?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea.” They began to laugh, sloshing heavy drops of red on the crumb-cluttered table.
At half past nine Ellington Ross called to apologize. LeRouche insisted she not take the call, but she was already under his spell and couldn’t refuse. Their conversation lasted just two minutes. But in those two minutes Ellington Ross managed to say all the right things and make all the right apologies. But there was drabness to his words, something artificial and forced. It was as if he was clipping his nails or folding his socks during the call. Abby accepted his apology and LeRouche emitted a painfully audible sigh. Ellington Ross told her he would meet her the next evening for dinner, at a place called Le Bonaparte Cafe. He gave her the time of the reservation and the address with such haste she had barely accepted the offer before he hung up with a quick, “Great!” followed by a brutal click.
Abby retook her seat at the table and LeRouche poured her another glass of wine. On the stove, the leftover stew continued to simmer.
* * *
It was getting late. Much too late. Twice more the waiter had come back around to ask Abby if she was sure her guest would be arriving. Her face would flush and she’d catch the furtive glances of the unlucky guests still waiting for a table. She insisted her date was coming and just when she thought she couldn’t wait any longer, Ellington Ross walked through the door. She clumsily stood and knocked over one of the water glasses. “There he is!” she said with this high-pitched squeal. “He’s here!” The waiter rolled his eyes and disappeared to retrieve a towel.
Ellington Ross was dressed in a blue blazer and faded red pants. Underneath the blazer was a pinstriped shirt and a scarf wrapped around his neck that had not been tied. He looked spectacularly ridiculous.
Abby remained standing. “Hello, Ellington.”
He took his seat without reciprocation.
“Did you find the place all right?” She was still standing.
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
The waiter returned with a towel and began mopping up the water.
“Go away,” Ellington Ross instructed. “I won’t be here long and it won’t much matter if this is dry or not.”
The waiter disappeared.
“You’re not staying long?”
“Sit down,” he instructed.
“Why aren’t you staying long?”
“I told you to sit down, Abby!”
Abby gripped the edge of the table and lowered herself into the chair. Her legs wobbled and the muscles on the back of her neck began to twitch.
“You couldn’t have gotten a better table?”
“This was all they had,” she said. “When I got here—“
“Nothing is ever your fault, is it?”
“Ellington, I don’t understand why you’re—“
“—Save it,” he interrupted. “I can’t take another lecture from you, Abby. Your lectures are bloody awful and frankly I have no use for the trite statements you insist on spooning down my throat.”
“Ellington, have I done something wrong?”
“And my name! Bloody hell! I hate how you say my name!” “How do I say your name?”
“The way you say everything. You speak like a little girl, Abby Harper. You speak like a sad little girl who doesn’t know her P’s from her Q’s. Do you know that? Do you know you speak like that?”
Abby wanted to answer, but was—understandably—afraid to sound like a little girl.
“Do you know what happened to me today, Abby?”
She shook her head.
“I was crossing the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir—have you crossed that bridge before?”
She shook her head again.
“Of course not. Anyway, I was crossing the Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir and a small child was complaining to his mother—in French, naturally—that he wanted some sort of cookie. The boy was speaking so fast it was hard for me to fully understand. Anyway, the mother was scolding him about his manners and just as they passed me I glanced back to look at them. Now, this isn’t an action I’m normally accustomed to. Normally such people don’t deserve one glance, let alone two. But, for some reason, this boy intrigued me. This whiny, spoiled little boy had captured my attention. Can you believe it? Anyway, I looked back at the boy and just as I did the sun hit the walk in such a way there was a brief glare that struck my eye. Naturally I wanted to see the object that had diverted my attention from the boy, and when I looked down I saw a shiny American penny resting facedown on the walk. A coin such as this—much like the boy—had never aroused my attention in the past, but there I was, on the bridge, coming out of a meeting in which I had closed a three million dollar account, and I was staring at a penny! I mean, can you honestly believe that?” Ellington Ross reached into the pocket of those red pants and removed the penny. He set it on the white tablecloth and stared at it with this sobering expression.
He held up a hand for her to stop and took a long sip of water. Abby placed her hands under her thighs and rocked back and forth.
“Stop doing that!”
“Anyway, I stopped to pick up this penny and I looked at the year. Do you know what year it was?”
Abby shook her head.
“It was 1943. Isn’t that fascinating?”
“Are you unsure?”
“Are you unsure if it’s fascinating or not?”
“Then why did you say ‘yes’ as if it was a question?”
Once again, he held up a hand for her to stop. “It’s fascinating, Abby, because 1943 was the year the United States stopped minting coins in copper. You see, once the penny became currency, all coins were minted in copper. Ninety-five percent copper to be exact. But since production of such a coin was so costly, and the copper coating the penny was worth much more than its one cent value, they began to mint the coins in zinc. But this production didn’t start until February 27th, 1943. So the coin I picked up could have been made in January, thus making it far more valuable than a coin made in March. There’s this small window in 1943—not even two months—where a penny could be worth much more than it would be later on. This penny—the very penny resting between us—could be a strange anomaly in the U.S’s currency.” He looked up and saw her vacant expression knew very little of what he was talking about. “You don’t get it, do you?”
“Abby, on one side of February 27th, 1943, this penny is worth something. It can be melted down and sold for a fine sum. Some might even say a respectable sum. But on the other side of February 27th, 1943, this penny is seemingly worthless. Children use it to throw into wells and make wishes their parents are too cowardly to tell them will never come true. But the thing about this penny, on either side of February 27th, is that it’s still just a cent. One measly, little, insignificant cent.” He spoke of the penny with such malice the vein in his forehead began to pulsate. “Copper or not, a cent is just a worthless object that isn’t worth my time bending over and picking up. You, Abby Harper, are one of the pennies of society. And I can’t believe, even for a second, that I wasted my energy picking you up off the street.”
The air rushed out of her lungs. “What?”
“How eloquent of you.”
“Only you, Abby Harper, can manage to stutter using one word sentences.
“But…you apologized…you called me last night and…you apologized…”
“An apology I immediately regretted. It was as if the words were independent from my mind. As they slipped across my lips I couldn’t believe they were real. And, yet, there I was, saying this nonsense I barely believed! How truly mad I must have been to trust such words, even though they came from my own mouth! How truly asinine!”
“Ellington, if I did something, I’m—“
“No, Abby, that’s the problem. You don’t do anything.” Ellington Ross slid back his chair and stood. “You have my number, I suggest you lose it.” And, with that, Ellington Ross left the restaurant in such a fervor his red pants were nothing but a blur.
The waiter never returned.
* * *
Abby found it quite difficult to pull herself from the confines of her seedy flat. She would listen to LeRouche shuffling about downstairs, clanging pots and pans, slamming cupboards, yelling at stray cats that wandered too close to his door. Occasionally she would catch the fine smells of his dinners wafting in through her window, though nothing smelled quite as good as that stew. One night he made his way up to her door, knocked, and asked if she was all right. She sat silently in the dark and waited until his footsteps to disappear back down the stairs. As days drifted by, her clothes began to stink, her sink filled with dishes, and the clutter in her apartment became an epidemic.
But one morning, after she woke, Abby sat down at her typewriter and began to write. At first, the words struggled to find the page, each one was like a disconnected symbol aimlessly stamped next to the other. She would write five sentences then promptly scribble them out without bothering to reread them.
Finally the words began to flow. She wasn’t sure what they would be or where they were going, but at least they were taking her somewhere. And somewhere was better than where she was.
The night slipped by and, before she knew it, morning made its way into the studio. The light stretched across the ceiling, drawing long shadows over her eyes, and by the time the room was illuminated she had typed her last word. She neatly stacked the pages, covered the typewriter, and crawled into bed, falling into a sleep so deep dreams were unable to find her.
* * *
The evening of Le Monde’s writing competition came. Abby was an anxious mess. As soon as she slipped on her dress her body felt so constricted she thought she might pass out. Her mind was elsewhere, but it was everywhere.
LeRouche came up the stairs and wished her luck. She thanked him as she rushed down the stairs, not bothering to lock up. He shouted something else when she reached the front door, but she was already out of earshot and his words went unheard.
The cab ride to the Fouquet Barriere Hotel was a dizzying string of buildings and streets. She didn’t recognize any of the architecture, nor did she care to. The city became a series of flashes and when the taxi pulled up to the hotel she barely noticed she’d arrived. She stepped out of the cab and felt the stifling Paris heat lick her skin. The evening was unbearably muggy. A layer of sweat built up between her dress and hips and she was thankful for having worn black.
The event was on the terrace and when Abby stepped onto the patio she found more than a hundred guests milling about, each with a glass of champagne or Campari cocked nonchalantly in their hands.
Near the back of a terrace was a small stage, no more than eighteen inches off the ground. A podium rested in the center of the stage, six chairs behind it, three on each side. An older gentleman, white head of hair, white eyebrows, and white beard, stepped to the podium. “Good evening, ladies and gentleman, good evening.” The man’s voice was harsh and deep. “I’m Dalton Ross.” Dalton Ross! Abby’s eyes darted around the party, unsure if she wanted to see Ellington Ross or not. “I’d like to welcome you to Le Monde’s Junior Intern Essay Competition. If you please, I’d like to have all the finalists join me on stage.”
Abby made her way through the crowd. She could feel the eyes of the other guests staring at her. Surely they must be staring at the other finalists, but it felt far from it. She took a seat at the end of the row and folded her hands in her lap, her eyes unmoving from the podium’s acrylic base.
“Now, ladies and gentleman, before judging begins, we’ve asked the finalists to read a short excerpt from their essay.”
A lump filled the back of Abby’s throat. Read? She hadn’t been told such a thing. She looked to her left and saw the other finalists had their pages in hand, heads raised, eager to get to the podium. Surely this was some mistake. Perhaps LeRouche had forgotten to give her the message, perhaps it was her editor who had forgotten to relay the information, perhaps…
But all of her theories were extinguished when she looked into the crowd and saw the leering face of Ellington Ross. She no longer needed to speculate about whatever reasons there may have been why she didn’t get the information. Ellington Ross’ horrible face was answer enough. This was a trap.
Dalton Ross looked to Abby. “Let’s start with Miss Harper, shall we?” And when he said it she noticed he smiled, too, much like his son: evil, vindictive. “Miss Harper, would you mind coming to the stage?”
Abby’s legs wobbled. Her dress clung to her body as perspiration seeped through it. A lightness rose in her head. And just as she was about to faint she heard the comforting voice of Monsieur LeRouche, “Madame Harper! Ici, Madam Harper. Vous avez oublie votre papier!” LeRouche was sprinting through the crowd, pushing anyone and everyone in sight. He was wearing that stained undershirt with that trademark cigar spitting smoke as he chomped on its end. His fedora was a bit off-kilter and his suspenders hung loosely at his sides. He was out of breath, his pot belly bobbing as he made his way to the podium. “Madame Harper, oh, Madame Harper, you forgot your paper!”
The guests, each donning a suit or dress valued in the thousands, watched a man worth no more than a hundred euros interrupt their sacred affair. Some were appalled, some were confused, nobody was impressed. Save for Abby Harper. A smile tore across her face and she felt a marvelous twinge of pain in her cheeks.
“Madame Harper, how silly of me not to have reminded to you about your paper. A hundred apologies.”
Dalton Ross glared at the slob climbing onto his stage. Abby thought he might step in to intervene, but he only watched with silent horror as the sweat-stained man handed Abby her essay. He winked and, in spite of his disheveled, perspiring state, she wrapped her arms around him and kissed his cheeks
“Merci, Monsieur LeRouche.”
“It is the pleasure of my night, Madame Harper.” LeRouche sauntered back into the crowd and Abby stepped to the podium.
“Bonsoir, I’m Abby Harper. And my essay is about the fundamental flaw in the establishment I call love and you call amour.” There were a few gasps and a few more sighs, but most guests blinked disinterestedly. “All right, well perhaps I’ll begin. Love is a conceited bitch.” A few laughs. Ellington Ross scowled. Dalton Ross next to his son, hand on his shoulder, as if he was a rabid dog in need of restraint. “Love is an illusion, a magic trick everyone thinks they understand, but honestly have no idea how it works. I am a writer, but I am also a girl, and I found myself in the throws of love not long ago. But those feeling were tarnished as I sat in a restaurant with a boy named Ellington Ross.” Nearly every guest turned to Dalton Ross and his son. Abby waited patiently for them to turn back. “But Ellington Ross never had any intention of falling in love. All Ellington Ross wanted was to humiliate a girl in the most spectacular way possible. I had invested so much in him, and had believed he was the suave, debonair man I had first met. But the layers of his artificiality washed away after each meeting, until finally he was nothing but a core of hatred. He was belittling, he was arrogant, he was abusive, and he was a man who believed the world should be handed to him. I had believed things would be different up until the very end. But, on a stuffy evening in north Paris, Ellington Ross screamed, in front of fifty dinner guests, that I was nothing but a worthless bitch.”
“That’s enough!” Dalton Ross’ voice boomed. “Miss Harper, step down from the stage this instant.”
Abby didn’t move.
“Miss Harper, I said step down!”
“No,” she said.
“I’m not stepping down.”
“Miss Harper, step down immediately!”
“The finalists were required to read an excerpt, sir, I’m reading my excerpt.”
“No!” she screamed.
“Be still my broken heart!”
“That’s not the saying!” Dalton Ross was a man possessed. Abby looked beyond him and saw Ellington Ross begin to push through the crowd. “You heard my father,” Ellington Ross cried. “Get off the stage you fucking cunt!”
Now it was everybody’s turn to gasp.
Still, Abby refused to move.
“Didn’t you hear me you stupid cunt? I said get off the fucking stage before I pull your stupid cunt off my—“ But Ellington Ross was unable to finish his words. LeRouche grabbed hold of his three thousand dollar suit and socked him in the nose. There was a fantastic display of blood that shot into the air, spraying a few unlucky bystanders. Ellington Ross screamed, the noise tearing through the party. He tried to yell at LeRouche but his mouth was too full of blood. Abby thought she heard him utter another curse, but couldn’t be sure, for LeRouche clocked him again for good measure.
“Security!” Dalton Ross called. “Ellington! Ellington, are you all right? Security!”
Ellington Ross began to cry; sob, actually. “He hit me, Daddy,” he said through his tears.
“How dare you hit my—“ But Dalton Ross, too, was cut short. LeRouche had had enough. He slugged Dalton in chin, sending him sprawling onto a nearby bench. Unlike Ellington Ross, though, Dalton was knocked out cold. LeRouche removed the cigar from his mouth and stubbed it out. A woman standing nearby turned green and raced out of the party. LeRouche ran to the podium and grabbed hold of Abby’s hand.
He led her off stage, pushing through the sea of guests without an ounce of regard. They made it to the elevator before security arrived. It was appalling and perfect all at once.
The elevator doors closed and LeRouche said, “That was something.”
“Yes, it was.”
They listened to each other’s breathing as the elevator descended, the murmurs of Le Monde’s guests growing fainter and fainter. The party’s memory began to fade.
“So what now?” Abby asked.
LeRouche smiled with those yellow, tobacco-stained teeth. “You’ll figure it out, Abby. That much of which I’m sure.”
“How do you know that?”
He readied himself to respond but the elevator doors opened and they stepped back into the night.