A Free Short Story
by Sarah Smith
Long ago, when I was just married, I saw a girl die. I saw it planned, I was there when it happened. I sat in the audience while she swallowed poison. Now she haunts me, a pathetic outmoded ghost, a cafe singer from the days of Toulouse-Lautrec, with her pleading eyes and her outstretched hand. I’ve put her into stories, I wrote a film script about her, back when I was a little famous; but no one reads me now, and still she won’t rest. She comes to visit me at midnights, and she sings to me.
It’s so dark, she quavers. I’m so afraid…
She of all people should understand why I did it, but she’s dead now, the dead never understand.
Maybe you will.
Henry had married me to be seen with a girl a third his age, so we spent our evenings out. Henry reviewed everything, books, plays, cafe-concert, opera, even films. We would sit through the first three acts, then rush to the Figaro. Henry would sit in the smoky, sweaty office with the other reviewers, smoking his cigar, scribbling out his column on long sheets of galley paper, and swearing at the copy-boy who waited at his elbow. He had no time for society, or for me, who sat, with less to do than the copy-boy, sucking at an end of my hair.
“Write something!” Henry growled. “Make yourself useful! You think like the ordinary woman. Write stories. You’ll do well.”
I wanted to do well for him. I admired him: his handsome eyes, the way his graying hair shone darkly in gaslight, his beard, his English suits, his name at the top of columns. Henry’s name appeared in every newspaper; Henry had the best table at every literary cafe. I wanted him to love me; but I didn’t need his love, I didn’t know what need was.
Where we went depended on whose desire drove us: to be seen and heard (him) or to look (me). We both liked the cafe-concerts; Henry could shine as a reviewer and I could see Paris life. At the Ambassadeurs’ garden on the Champs-Elysees, I listened with delight to Yvette Guilbert, scandalous scarecrow in black gloves, her dress hanging from the angle of her shoulder. She fascinated me, Yvette Guilbert, who sang like a streetcorner, who could sing what I couldn’t yet speak of, murder and suicide and rape, abortion and absinthe, slow mornings at provincial whorehouses, the swaying cabs of afternoon adulteries. Yvette Guilbert was the first real pleasure of my married life.
But almost as fascinating for me as Guilbert were the second-rate cafe singers. Those ordinary singers, with no talent, spoke to me, who had an admirable lack of talent, whose whole purpose in life was to be shaped by Henry, to be loved by Henry.
The Forbidden Fruits was an unknown cafe above the Square Perrin, near Montmartre. It was hidden away from the street, in the garden of an old house that had once belonged to one of Napoleon’s mistresses. The proprietor had installed an overabundance of gas-globes, which singed the leaves of the few trees remaining. The stage, at the bottom of the garden, was the size and height of a dining-table; its inexperienced singers seemed to be balancing on it, and behind the stage a mirrored screen dazzled us. The audience sat enclosed in the intense public light of a salon or a railroad station. And into this fiery, chalky, Sahara-like desert, which we, the audience, shared with them, stepped one after another of the performers of the Forbidden Fruits.
They all performed under nicknames. The Bunch of Grapes, the Apple, the Carrot (we were not so fussy about what a fruit was!). Occasionally we had the shameful thrill of seeing a performer who had reached the Boulevards pause here on her fall downward; less often, a star twinkled briefly on his way up. We liked the tarnished stars, the comic turns, the dog who played a cello. But my favorites were the rivals, the Peach and the Pear.
On stage, the Peach was sweet to look at, blonde, wavy-haired; she gave the impression that she would be sweet to eat. She was the first to find out that Henry was a reviewer, the first to send us some of the restaurant’s bitter champagne and invite us backstage. Up close she was surprisingly hairy, like peaches found in abandoned gardens in the North, covered over with the yellow protective hairs that give them a masculine forbiddenness. There was a small gap between the Peach’s front teeth, sign of lust. She flirted with Henry; I watched the down on her cheek and chin, watched him thinking she would need to be peeled before she was eaten, and touched my own smooth cheek.
The Pear was a baby, younger than me, sixteen or seventeen, with earnestly curled black hair and a dumpy face yellow with powder. Like me, she loved la Guilbert; she wore the same drooping unlaundered dress, the same black gloves; she rolled her Rs in the same way, sang the same depraved songs by Paul de Kock; but what a difference! That round inexperienced shoulder, as helpless as an exposed breast; those eyes of a kitten about to be drowned; that tiny wavering voice, barely making itself heard above the piano.
What she had of her own was desperation.
She had one “success,” which she sang constantly. She was a barmaid in Montmartre, she sang; she was a good girl, a good girl, she never did what she shouldn’t. But now it was late, the bar was closed, and she had to go home all by herself.
It’s so dark
I’m so afraid
Won’t you go home with me?
And she was afraid, trembling, begging us—won’t you take care of me? Won’t you love me? I’ll do anything for you, she sang, throwing out her hands in a gesture of despair.
Henry clapped, approving of this desperation, and so did I. She wanted an audience. In Paris, who doesn’t? The Pear knew nothing, she had nothing to give but her powder-daubed anonymous face and her little song. But she wanted to be loved, she wanted to be mirrored in our admiring eyes. She needed to be as necessary to us as Yvette Guilbert was, needed to be ours as Guilbert was ours. And we of the Forbidden Fruits, responding to her need, felt our power. We were her addiction, we owed her our applause.
We even gave her a special nickname, Fearful.
No one knew much about her. Henry asked the Peach, who said she was Fearful’s best friend; but not even the Peach knew whether Fearful had grown up in an orphanage or a grand house, run away from a farm or a pimp. Fearful responded to every question with a tiny pleading smile nd a shake of her head.
Henry would talk with the Peach, I would sit with Fearful. She would sometimes say a few words: “Did you like me? Oh, did you really like me?” and one had to say yes, because if not she would burst into tears. The Peach’s top lip would draw a little up over her teeth, scornful of these tactics. For her they were tactics; for Fearful, the breath of life.
What is not worth having is most desired: The Peach wanted Fearful’s spot on the program. I sat sometimes at one side of the stage, where I could see the Peach waiting to sing after her ‘friend’. The Peach’s silhouette was an education: chin high, crossed arms, foot tapping—not in time to the music! The Peach was a better singer; she had a more varied program, more of a figure, more colorful costumes. Poor, quivering little Fearful—what did we see in her?
Mr. Sonny, the English ballad singer, was something not worth having either. He had a big half-handsome head and a barrel chest, but thin arms and legs; his eyelids were wrinkled and thick, an old man’s, but his jacket arms were too short, as if he were still surprised by having grown tall. An old boy, as the English say, with long brown teeth, one in front carefully repaired with white wax, and brown hair of a shade that turns lighter when washed.
One May night, when Henry was taking me on a night-tour of Paris by horse-bus—to teach me the city, said he; because there’d been no reviews that week, thought I—we found ourselves in a crowd close to two familiar heads, one blonde, one a monotonous brown. We were just getting on our bus, but I caught a few words.
“Ah, she likes you,” the Peach was saying to Sonny.
“But you know, my dear, I like you best.”
“You be nice to her, because she’s my friend. No one ever takes her out–“ Our bus moved away. I saw the Peach under a gaslight, tapping his hand with a flirtatious finger as he shook his head, laughing.
“The Peach wants to go out with him herself,” I said to Henry.
He laughed and shook his head too.
Henry was right: Next Sunday afternoon, as he and I were walking in the Bois de Boulogne, arm in arm, being seen, we spied Fearful and Sonny. They were dancing on the splintery little floor of an outdoor dance-hall, to the music of an accordion. He looked a little bored, but rather complacent and flattered; she was so young. She was radiant under her hat, she talked constantly, she had an audience, she had meaning to someone at last.
“I want to write about them,” I told Henry. “Sonny and Fearful.”
“Forget about them. The Peach, she’s the interesting one. Such a schemer.”
Every day, during the mornings, I sat at the desk Henry had bought for me and wrote words into my notebook. Every afternoon I had a schedule, courtesy of Henry. I was to make myself known: a literary salon on Tuesday, open house at Mme de Noailles’ on Thursday… I skipped the literary salons and went to matinees at the Forbidden Fruits.
A cafe concert matinee is a ghostly thing. The proprietor kept the gaslights on, barely visible in the daytime; the silk flowers wired to the trees were spectral with Parisian dust. The fiddle and piano fought the clink-chock of passing wagons. I hadn’t the heart to sit under the trees with my lemonade, pretending to be entertained; I talked myself backstage, I sat on the trampled grass, in the shade behind the mirrored screen, with the artists, as if I were one of them.
I have forgot to talk about the other distinction of the Forbidden Fruits. They served, as the specialty of the house—of course—“fresh” fruit. Fruit is nothing now, but in the Belle Epoque, a pear was two days’ wages for a weaver. The menu listed a grand procession of mouth-watering delicacies—Indian mangoes! Australian melons! — but, to the waiter’s infinite regret, when they were inquired after, they had just been sold, “the last one, Madame!” The actual fruits were what one would expect, dried figs, tasteless greenhouse grapes, wizened strawberries, green summer pears clenched like babies’ fists; and even those were suspiciously long in coming, as if some fast-footed boy from the kitchen had been sent to the street-market.
At the end of the summer, the first of the apples appeared, and Fearful told me her story.
She had come from a Norman farm, she had told me. She had sung while she picked apples, sung in the fields, sung everywhere. (I thought this sounded as if she had read it in some idol’s biography.) “Anything’s better than a farm,” she said. While she talked to me, she was picking at a core discarded by some diner, picking out the seeds. Apple seeds are poisonous, she said; so are cherry pits and apricot stones. She had thought if she never got away from the farm, she’d roast them and eat them. “It’s cyanide. It would have worked quickly; one apple would have been enough.” She held the seeds in her palm, black spots of desperation, and then, smiling, she threw them on the grass.
She was happy. Sonny had been kind. When they were — she looked at me, smiled, and blushed — when they were together, with an innocent emphasis on the word, they talked about the future. I could imagine, from my one glimpse of them, how they talked, how she talked while he looked a little bored. Sonny was tired of always going from place to place, she said. In my head I married her to Sonny; I turned her into a young woman tending bar at a seaport, Calais perhaps, Dieppe, where Mr. Sonny sang in the evenings while she listened with an indulgent smile.
She was happy, which lost her her distinction. She did not plead with us as once she had; we had lost our power over her, which was all that had brought us together. We knew it. We read the menu when she sang, we chattered with friends, leafed through a newspaper. Her name slid down the program as Peach’s rose.
It was at about that time when, as I came home, I would smell a trace of perfume in the air, find a lace-trimmed handkerchief among the bed linen. My heart would beat hard. And, desperate to please, I would try to find a better phrase than “beat hard,” I would write more furiously, jealous and scornful of Fearful’s happiness.
Happy women are all alike. You can tell their stories in two sentences. It’s misery that gives a woman character.
“You know she’s nothing to me.” One afternoon I was sitting in the shade by the artists’ entrance; Mr. Sonny and the Peach had gone around the corner, unseen and unheard by anyone but me.
“Ah, no, quelle blague,” the Peach laughed. “You’re going to marry Fearful, she told me!”
“More than I know,” Mr. Sonny drawled.
“What a rose-covered cottage she’s building for you, my friend. She thinks you want to settle down, ‘now you’re getting old’ she says—“
“Ah! Old, am I?”
“No! No! Oh, yoou — Get rid of her, then. Oh, get away, you!” The Peach giggled. I crept away.
Backstage, a few moments later, I saw Mr. Sonny with his mended tooth and evenly colored brown hair, his graying top hat freshened with ink, and between his collar and his neck a spotted handkerchief, which would be carefully removed just before he went on. I saw Fearful with her sweet complacent smile, her powdered face, her cow eyes, the look of a woman five years married, tucking the spotted handkerchief in her pocket to keep it safe for him. And I was interested in her again.
At home, that night, Henry wanted to spend the evening alone for once. “We’re always going out,” he said, looking at me as he had before we were married.
“But we have to go to the Forbidden Fruits tonight.” I wanted to see Fearful with her desperation restored, rescued from her thoughtless happiness.
“I’d like to pay attention to you,” said Henry.
“Then go with me!”
Fearful cried. On stage! She came on with her handkerchief in her hand—it was his handkerchief, Mr. Sonny’s spotted one; she caressed it and smelled it as she wiped her eyes, timidly, with one corner, so as not to spoil it. Fearful’s budget had not run to tear-proof mascara (she was an amateur after all); her lampblack ran down her cheeks in black clown tears. She sang her little song
It’s so dark
I’m so afraid
Won’t you go home with me?
But we were not the ‘you,’ of course; and we knew it. We had not been her addiction, we were no more than her first banal romance; she had betrayed us for Sonny. A few of us, young men on the hard benches in front, whistled derisively, picked up bits of gravel and threw them at her. We catcalled, pounded the tables, shouted her name, but with the slow mocking chant that bites like teeth, “Fear-ful! Fear-ful!”
The catcalls died into a horrible silence. She gave up any pretense of singing and simply stood there, twisting Mr. Sonny’s handkerchief in her hands, until someone took her by the elbow and pushed her off stage.
But now we were here, we had to stay here. Henry talked to a friend, Henry ordered one of the famous house fruits, he cut it apart with a little pearl-handled knife. He waved the knife in time with the songs from the stage. He fed me a slice of apple, making me open my mouth and stick out my tongue, feeding me like a bird feeds its fledglings. I swallowed it all at once, dry-mouthed.
“Now she has no one,” I said. I wondered what she would do.
“Obviously,” Henry said, his mouth full.
I had not screamed her name, I had not thrown gravel, but in that half hour when I waited for Henry to finish his fruit and his conversations, I did nothing. I wondered what she would do. She had no one, I thought, but me who would write about her.
I did nothing.
And at the end of the half hour, behind the mirrored screen, a woman shrieked.
I ran, darting among the people who were pressing toward the stage. Behind the screens, near the door to the kitchen, in my familiar territory, the grass was trampled with the waiters’ feet. She twisted on the ground, gurgling, rigid, her back arched. Her heels pushed and scraped against the grass; her mouth was open and brown with vomit. Among the garbage from the kitchen, I smelled roast apples and the stink of almonds. There was a tiny bottle in her hand, half full of black seeds. After all, she had never lost sight of despair.
“Get back,” said someone, “there’s nothing to see.” I wanted to stay, I wanted to see everything. A policeman touched my arm. I turned on my heel angrily, as though I had a right to be there, and stalked out to the front of the stage. All the gaslights had a white, white dazzle.
The Peach was standing next to me, among the artists.
“I’ve had worse audiences than that,” one of the singers laughed nervously.
A bowler-hatted man with a pointed beard, a doctor, hurried behind the screen. The audience was being sent away; I saw Henry hovering at the entrance, looking for me. We stood, listening to her shrieks fade away. The doctor had given her an injection, morphine, a miraculous cure — But what would she be cured for?
“Oh,” said someone with a view. “Oh, poor kid.” The backs of the men around her relaxed; there was no more urgency. At a nod from one of the men, the policeman left us to go behind the screen. The Peach’s lip twitched; she scratched it, then turned the gesture into a dab at both eyes. It was Mr. Sonny’s eyes that filled unexpectedly with tears; he wiped his lips with his sleeve, confused by his own emotions.
“She was nicer to me than you!” he said to the Peach.
The Peach let her eyes fill with tears. My husband, seeing her, patted her hand. I watched them; the Peach cried; my husband’s hand crept over her wrist, one finger caressing it.
I think of them, Sonny and the Peach and Fearful. A man; a rival; a victim for love. I think of Mr. Sonny surreptitiously touching his front tooth to make sure that emotion had not dislodged it.
I think of Henry and myself. (We divorced a few years later, but here his photo sits on my nightstand by my nitroglycerine pills. I pick it up, an old man’s photo cupped in an old woman’s hand.) Henry made me a writer. Henry wanted a writer wife; I wanted Henry’s attention—someone’s attention. I watched her; I think of myself watching her, watching the audience, Henry feeding me, both of us knowing something was going to happen, both waiting. I saw myself that night in the mirrored screen, white-cheeked, shock-eyed, triumphant. I said, I will never forget any of this, not the mirror nor the ragged silk flowers on the trees above her, not the policeman’s sagging veined cheeks, nor the smell. I’ll be able to use it later, I thought, and I did.
I think of her.
She ought to be a finished little story, Fearful, that born victim, desperate, banal, a long-dead reflection between the stage mirrors and the mirror of our eyes. She did what she ought to, according to the best melodrama: she loved, she lost, she died. It was a bad story, the kind I loved. I still do, though they’re out of fashion.
What I remember, what keeps me awake, is one gesture.
I remember her throwing away the apple seeds, and I remember her hand after that, continuing the motion, flinging up into a gesture almost delighted, not like a woman casting away poison but a girl sowing seed. Fearful is pointing toward something with that hand, that gesture; and that is how I see her, smiling, palm open wide, ready to receive something in return, some satisfaction, some happiness, a way out, neither the bar in Calais nor the pitiful apple-seeds in her bottle, something she sensed but never found.
What could I have done? Tried to help her find it? Listened to her, gone backstage that night, taken the bottle away? Interfered? Befriended her?
But then there would have been no story at all; nothing to write for Henry…but it wasn’t Henry I ever wrote for, was it?
Read her story; read; try to understand what I did. Listen to me. Pay attention.
Because they are all gone now, and there’s no one but you.
Copyright © 1997 Sarah Smith
First published: Crime through Time vol. 2, 1997