As Trevor examines and documents the relics the box offers up, he begins to imagine the story of Louise Brunet's life: her love for a cousin who died in the war, her marriage to a man who works for her father, and her attraction to a neighbor in her building at 13 rue Thérèse. The more time he spends with the objects though, the truer his imaginings of Louise's life become, and the more he notices another alluring Frenchwoman: Josianne, his clerk, who planted the box in his office in the first place, and with whom he finds he is falling in love.
|Publisher:||Little, Brown & Company|
|Product dimensions:||5.80(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.10(d)|
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13, rue ThérèseA Novel
By Shapiro, Elena Mauli
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2011 Shapiro, Elena Mauli
All right reserved.
A photograph dated
26 Janvier 1943
THIS MAN HERE, HE has to be a collaborator. Look at that mustache. Does it remind you of anyone? This is a mustache that he would not have worn after 1945. You know he doesn’t make it that far, yet you do not know how you know he never sees a free France again. He dies of a massive heart attack just a year after this picture is taken. You see him stricken, breaking a sudden sweat, clutching his left arm with his right hand. Moments before, his face had been so placid as he read his newspaper. Look at the face from moments before and try to read the cause of his body’s failure—
If you were a romantic, you would say: he died of a broken heart. He was, after all, a widower. His wife died when his daughter was born—in 1896. It must have been a very, very slow broken heart. Maybe it took so long because it kept getting half-mended by the young women he hired to tend to his children.
Or he died of a broken heart because his country was in bondage—though he survived the invasion by nearly four years. Really, morally, he was quite flexible. The situation was not ideal. He didn’t necessarily enjoy it, but he never fought it. He was too old. It was no longer any of his business.
He was seventy-three years old. It was just his time. His last name was Victor. His first name is yet to be found in the documentation.
AFTER THE TROOPS MARCH into Paris in June of 1940, he spends an entire month completely drunk. His daughter is concerned. Her husband says: “Leave him alone. This is how he mourns our country.”
This condition is unusual for him. He always had an even temperament. He was always a moderate person. Despite his constant state of inebriation, he isn’t loud or sloppily emotional. He doesn’t say anything that might get him shot. He hardly says anything at all.
The men who used to work with him say his pathetic drunkenness is caused by his recent retirement—he simply doesn’t know what to do with himself.
He never explains to anyone the reason for his sudden excess. In July he comes back to himself. He lives a quiet life. He doesn’t belligerently look into the German soldier’s eyes when he gets asked for his papers on the street, a mere three steps away from the front door of his apartment building. He doesn’t belligerently refuse to meet the German soldier’s eyes when the soldier looks into his face, scrutinizing him for signs of subversive tendencies. He respects the curfew.
He buys meat on the black market. On the black market, he also buys a delicate pair of sheer stockings with a black seam up the back: a gift for his daughter. She thanks him but doesn’t wear them. She says she will save them for a special occasion.
HE KNOWS HIS VISION up close is failing. His work becomes more difficult. Soon he’ll have to retire. This frightens him. He would like to be able to work all the time—it would make it easier for him to ignore the rising rumblings of the forthcoming war.
HIS DAUGHTER HAS BEEN trying for years to have a son. She has not been successful in begetting any child, not even a daughter. She cries to him: “I am too old now, I never will. Why didn’t I? Am I not a real woman?”
He holds her febrile body against him. He feels her hot face against his neck, moist with tears. “My dear,” he says, “be glad you don’t have a son. Look at the shape this world is in. Be glad you don’t have a son.”
Still, he would have wished a son for his daughter, just to make her happy—even though he knows that the grief of losing a child is much keener than the grief of never having him.
HE LOVES HIS WORK, its tiny precise nature. He can get lost in it for hours. He has been doing this work for so many years that his hearing has lost sensitivity to the sound of the drills and sanders. It hardly even registers anymore. When he was young, the noise echoed in his head for hours after he got home. He could hear it as he went to sleep—even when he made love to his wife, so long ago.
THE GREAT WAR IS receding; it is a new decade, and his daughter seems to be taking well to married life. It doesn’t escape his notice that the fellow she married looks strikingly like him. The resemblance makes him smile. It isn’t uncommon for good girls to marry their fathers.
She babbles joyfully about having a son. She cannot wait to cut up her wedding dress to make baptismal robes for the plump pink baby boy she will push forth from herself, in blood and pain and happiness.
He looks at his daughter’s sweet oval face, at the young hope in her dark eyes, and is reminded of his wife. Louise is the only thing he has left.
HE GETS A GREAT price on fifty-seven eight-millimeter pearls from one of his suppliers. Their color is beautiful: a uniform cream that can flatter any complexion. They are also almost perfectly round. Their smooth weight in his hands is a joy to him.
He has one of the women in the shop string them on white silk thread: though his hands are skilled in so many ways, he has never been good with knots. He is a man for metal and stone, for welding and cutting and polishing—a man for intricate patterns in chains of gold and glinting facets on diamonds.
He makes the clasp himself, from white gold. He encrusts it with tiny round diamonds. It is truly a labor of love. He will give his daughter the necklace on her wedding day. She is marrying a fellow that he approves of, who works under him at the shop. The fellow’s name is Henri Brunet. He should train him to take over, after he is gone.
HIS ELDEST CHILD, HIS only son, dies swiftly of the Spanish influenza in December 1918, after surviving the Great War. His life is a disaster. If it weren’t for his daughter, he would take the rifle he went to war with, wedge it tightly under his chin, and blow the back of his head off.
HE SERVES IN THE Great War. He is too old for this. This is ridiculous. He is too old for shells and shrapnel and falling men with bloody gore splattering from their shattered skulls—these men who fall and stay there, rotting and dissolving into the noxious earth.
There is an explosion behind him. He ducks from the shower of poisonous mud, covers his head with his arms. Something flies into the back of his neck and gets wedged there. It burns in his flesh. He thinks: it must be a piece of shrapnel. He goes to the doctor. The doctor swabs the site with alcohol, roots around in his muscle with a big pair of flat-ended tweezers. He pulls the thing out and shows it to him.
The thing isn’t shrapnel. It’s another man’s tooth, a man who got blown to bits in the explosion.
“It looks like a canine,” the doctor remarks.
He laughs and laughs until tears pour from his eyes. Then he vomits. He will never forget the smell of the alcohol and the needling pain in the meat of his neck as the doctor worked in the back of him.
His son is in the war too. This is ridiculous. The boy is just a child; the hair on his face is still downy.
His daughter is in love with a boy he does not approve of—her own cousin, who is in the war too and writes her torrid letters from the front lines. There are so many things that are ridiculous—he doesn’t care what world he has to live in, as long as he never has to go to war again.
HE IS IN THE Paris metro with his son and his daughter, each one holding one of his hands. His love for them often hurts him.
The train pulls into the station with a great squeal. It has five cars: four green ones, and a red one in the middle. His daughter looks up at him and asks: “Papa, why is the first-class car in the middle?”
He has never wondered this before. Children ask the strangest questions. He spontaneously answers: “Well, if the train stalls and gets hit by another train from the back, or if it hits a stalled train from the front, the middle car is the safest. It’s to keep society’s more valuable members from getting damaged, you see.”
This just occurs to him as he says it, and it immediately strikes him as true.
“Papa, that’s terrible!” His son looks at him with large outraged eyes, his sense of justice deeply shaken.
He shrugs. “Dear boy, this is the world. This is just the way the world works.”
HE TURNS OUT THE first young woman he has hired to tend his children. Though she feels so good, he is afraid he will get her pregnant. Then he would have to marry her. This offends his sense of propriety.
IT’S A CLOUDLESS DAY in the spring of 1896 when his wife gives birth to his second child, a daughter, and dies of complications from the delivery. He names the child Louise. He looks at her tiny flailing limbs and feels utterly lost. He thinks this must be the worst day of his entire life. He is still young.
HE SETS AN OVAL SAPPHIRE into a gold ring. The stone’s pure blue color mesmerizes him. The filigree work he has wrought around it is beautiful. His supervisor has spent a great deal of time showing him how to do it. He thinks maybe he is being groomed to take over after his supervisor is gone.
The stone glints darkly at him. He has never been so happy. He will give this ring to his wife to celebrate the birth of their son. It’s the first piece of jewelry he’s made that he gets to take home instead of selling. He is proud of his labor. He is glad that his wife will wear his work on her body.
HE IS FRIGHTENED the day he gets married. He’s pretty sure he loves the girl, but he isn’t sure about till death do us part. That’s a long way away. How is a man to know how much he will love a woman decades from now, after she has grown old and withered, and perhaps mean and bitter?
Today she looks lovely in her white lace. Her oval face has a high flush, and her dark eyes will not meet his. She is a virgin. This makes him nervous. Being with a virgin makes him fumble and flutter also, as if this were his first time. At first, the business of clothing removal is very serious—they don’t smile. Then, he somehow manages to get tangled up in his own suspenders. He makes himself laugh with his contortions. His mirth means she is allowed to laugh also, and she does.
“Here, I will help you with these,” she says, and she does.
They are naked and free and at the cusp of the rest of their lives: it’s like he’s starting over, as if he were being born.
THIS MAN THERE, HE is barely more than a boy. He has not even left his father’s household. This is his first serious picture, taken alone without his family. His father laughs and says: “The next picture you’ll have taken, you’ll already have your wife and your children. Enjoy your bachelor life!”
He is excited. He looks forward to the future. Look at his forthright gaze. He has just gotten an apprenticeship making jewelry. His father is disappointed that the boy will not pursue his studies in law but understands that the boy is good with his hands and wants to do something with them. The boy has always been gifted with tiny work.
His protruding ears are endearing. He is too young to even know that a portrait from a profile or three-quarters perspective would be immensely more flattering. The ears would not stick out so. Eventually, he will figure this out.
If you were a romantic, and you hadn’t just been pulled back here through what is to come, you would say: He has his whole life ahead of him—how lucky he is.
Un souvenir de ma villégiature
THIS IS A POSTCARD that Louise receives from her father in the last month of the Great War:
Who are these men? You do not recognize any of them. The father is not pictured here. At least, none of these faces looks to you like the face of the man pictured on January 26, 1943, or the same man pictured in the last decade of the nineteenth century.
Still, you gaze at this photo because you cannot help seeing the following:
The black dog in the foreground. You know nothing of dogs, but this animal looks to you something like a golden retriever, except dark. Is it an especially courageous breed that is well suited to life in the trenches? You cannot know. Perhaps he is just a mutt—perhaps he is even a she. The dog is indeed a female. The men have called her “Eclat d’obus,” but just Eclat for short. An éclat d’obus means “shrapnel,” literally “shard of shell”; there isn’t a single word that means shrapnel in French. The men call the dog this because their time at war has given them a perverse sense of humor: Eclat is the daughter of another dog they had before, this one named Obus—thus Shell begat Shrapnel.
Obus is dead now; she was blown up on the front lines: both her hind legs exploded clean off, with a great splatter of canine gore. The dog’s howls of agony were so terrible that the man nearest her took his revolver out of his holster and immediately shot the animal in the head. He wept then, silently, covering both eyes with his hand. He will never forget the heat of his own forehead cupped in his palm that day. He had not cried for some of his best friends—friends who died right in front of him—friends he did not have the courage to shoot in the face to end their suffering though they begged for it, as they knew the ambulance would not come in time for them.
Some of the men are smiling for this picture, just a little. How are they doing that? They are so strong.
That mincing fellow in the middle. You can tell just by the jaunty tilt of his cap and the limp wrist on his right leg, crossed tightly over the left—just from looking at this, you can tell the man is queer. If you look at the rocky ground at his feet, you can imagine how hard it is. You can see the dust and the scuff marks on his shoes. If you let your gaze travel up his body, immediately you see the bindings around his skinny shins. You have to look up what those are called: “puttees,” you think is the word.
Can you imagine? The soldiers wear them every day. They cannot be comfortable: certainly, they must be tight. Do they not hinder the blood flow down to the feet? Can the men not feel the pulsing muscles in their legs strain against this constriction when they have to run like hell from something?
In the trenches, they sleep in these. They never take them off, never unwind the bindings. They get used to them because they have to. Did you know—each roll of this bandage around the shin is an incantation, truly a binding ritual, meant to keep the meat on the bone. Each roll around the confined flesh is a prayer: don’t fall apart
don’t fall apart
no no don’t fall apart
You see, all the men in the photograph wear puttees. All the men in the picture are bound, trying to keep themselves together. That is how considerate they are, for the love of God and country and women and the other men—for the love of all that is good and true—they keep themselves together because they have to. They are afraid but they are not cowards.
Also, look at how bulky their coats are, and how every single button is fastened, up to the very last one around the neck; they must have several layers of clothes under there. They must be trying to keep the heat in. These men always suffer from the cold. Every day they suffer from the cold, but still they find time to gather at a pile of rocks. They find time to arrange themselves artfully and stay still for a moment—the moment of picture-taking. It is a moment of companionship; they have brought some of their beloved accoutrements: the dog, and the fellow next to the queer one has his pipe in his hand, and the fellow next to that fellow holds what looks like a roll of papers (maybe he likes to write?). It is a moment of companionship; a loose fist rests on a friend’s shoulder; an arm wraps around a friend’s knee.
Huddled together, but strong
still for a scrap of time
for this picture
look at it
they want you to.
Still, this picture is a postcard that Louise receives from her father—so why don’t you flip it over and look at the message?
Col d’Oderon—Alsatian Frontier. On 12-10-18.
To my beloved little Louisette
A souvenir of my holiday here.
Your father who embraces you:
[Illegible initial] Victor
His signature is very difficult to read. Louise’s father apparently likes muddled flourishes. You are not even sure what his first initial is. Is it an L? You will have to pay attention to some of the other documentation to see if you can figure this out.
You are caught by his word villégiature. You had to look it up in your desk reference because you’d never run across it before. You thought it meant something like a military campaign, but the clear black type in your book states “holiday, vacation.”
It occurs to you: perhaps Louise’s father has a strange sense of humor also. He has been to war, too. Why should he be different from all the other men?
THERE WAS A DAY, about two months after this postcard arrived, when the father and daughter almost—
But wait, first let us gaze upon another object, relevant to the forthcoming episode—another souvenir that Louise has left behind in the record. It is an object she was given in childhood to pray with, and she always remembered very well the last time she used it to say Our Father over and over again. That day she tried to muster up all the scraps of faith she might have in her unbelieving heart, her fingers clutching the beads, attempting so earnestly and so hard to believe that it would be all right, that another boy would not be lost. The war had just ended and another boy would not be lost: it was not necessary.
It was a day in December 1918. A weary France had just signed the Armistice. Louise was back at home with her father and her brother. Her father was well and her brother was not. Her brother was in bed delirious with fever, and Louise sat at his side with her wood and mother-of-pearl rosary dangling from her hands, praying for his recovery—oh, if this worked—if he got better, she might perhaps believe a little in a benevolent God, if only for a flicker of time.
Her brother turned slowly on his side. She looked up from her rosary at the soft sound of his body sliding against the clean white sheets. He was facing her, his eyes wide and limpid in his pallid face. His skin always shone now with feverish secretions—he sweated so much that his nightgown was often drenched, stuck to him. At this moment, he looked lucid.
“Do you need anything?” Louise asked.
“Do you see him?” her brother whispered back.
“The fellow in the corner of the room—do you see him?”
He did not seem frightened; instead he looked almost conspiratorial, as if they had come upon some unexpected animal in the forest and he was deciding whether he wanted to spook the animal for fun, or merely stay still and watch it.
Louise looked and saw only an empty wooden chair, bathed by the dimming light of late afternoon.
“He is sitting in the chair,” he explained.
It pained her that her brother had clearly gone mad with his illness. She tried to believe that this was not a bad sign. “There is no one in the chair,” she said softly.
“Yes, yes—be still and look carefully. There is a man sitting in that chair with his legs crossed and a pad of paper resting on them. He is wearing dark slacks and a white cotton shirt and a blue tie. He is quiet and he is taking notes and he is looking at me.”
“Oh, darling, there is no one there—please, come back,” Louise said, her eyes filling with tears.
“It’s all right. He’s not hurting me. He’s taking notes on my dying. He is a scholar and such things interest him, you see. He has your rosary in his left hand.”
“Your rosary, the one you’re holding. He has it in his left hand, and when he is not looking at me, he is looking at it.”
“That’s impossible: I am holding my rosary,” she insisted, as if his acknowledgment of this fact would immediately make him well again.
He shrugged. “I know it’s impossible, but it is so. He is holding your rosary and oh—now he is looking at you.”
Louise flinched as a start of electricity snapped in the pit of her chest when she heard these words, and as the tremor zinged from her solar plexus and down her arms and into her startled hands, she saw a flash of something white above the chair—like the crisp white cotton of the shirt on the man who clearly was not there. She thought she heard a pen scratch a few words on paper. She thought she felt a quizzical gaze run up her body and she opened her mouth to say something, but before any words came out, the feeling of the nonexistent eyes went away and she was sane again.
“He is looking at me again,” announced the thin voice from the sickbed. “He looks a little sad. I think he knows I am going to die soon.”
“Oh, no—please, don’t say that. You’re going to get well. I am going to get you another cold compress. Would you like another cold compress?”
Louise’s brother smiled weakly and nodded yes, then sank back into his pillow and closed his eyes. It was the strangest episode of his delirium: so quiet and so gentle, not like his other terrified ravings full of shell impacts and screaming exploded soldiers. There was a terrible night where he wheezed and coughed and twisted on the mattress in an agony unbearable to behold, convinced that he was being gassed again.
This day with the peaceful academic taking notes on their unwinding lives in a corner of the room—Louise never forgot it. Her brother died the next day of the Spanish influenza.
Petit calendrier memento pour 1928
AS YOU CAN SEE, the notebook is tiny—approximately two by three inches—but its paper is good and thick. Behind the flowered cover, the front flap announces: “This Calendar contains THE CHARTS of Luck-Bearing Precious Stones.” The first page advertises the business of a jeweler named Cleper, whose shop is on the boulevard de Strasbourg. The diary is clearly a small favor given to customers or potential customers as a form of advertisement. Louise has it because Cleper worked in her father’s shop with her husband, before Cleper split off and opened his own shop. The three men are still friends.
Cleper was very proud of his little diary idea, and gave one to his friend Brunet, who then gave the thing to his wife, as he had no use for something too small to contain his business appointments. The quaint superstition of the copy inside the booklet tickles housewives, which Cleper means to do. Witness the second page:
THE ANCIENTS attributed Virtues and a Power of protection to Precious stones
To ward off ill fortune, one must wear the SPECIAL STONE from the month of one’s birth
To preserve one’s health, one must wear each month a DIFFERENT STONE
CONSULT The Charts of LUCK-BEARING PRECIOUS STONES
PARIS, LA BOURBOULE
The middle spread of the booklet contains a chart of birthstones and what they symbolize, and helpfully points out that such stones can be mounted on rings, barrettes, pendants in platinum, gold, silver. The back page lists which stones must be worn each month to preserve one’s health. That Cleper is a clever fellow. His first name is Pierre; clearly, he was born to work with stones, was he not?
The record has not yet yielded a photograph of Pierre Cleper, but this is known: he is a decent-looking man of medium height—not what you would call dashing, but his looks do not explain the fact that he is not married. The fact is that he does not want to marry, ever. He does quite well on his own, thank you very much. He can have a woman when he needs one.
He was in the Great War too, as was every man. Once, the force of the blast from a nearby shell knocked him clean down. Somehow he was uninjured—unsliced by shrapnel, unburned by flame. It was strange. The only thing that happened was that the sound of the explosion made him deaf in his left ear. The other ear works just fine.
Louise has not written much in Pierre Cleper’s little diary. It floats around on the bottom of her purse, and she digs it out when she needs to scrawl down an address or a telephone number. The only marks she has made on the pages where the months of the year are charted are in June and in July: on the nineteenth day of both these months, she has put a small x, in pencil. To the outside observer, this means nothing.
Did you know, the year of this little memento calendar, 1928?—this is our year. Halfway between the Great War and the Greater War: this is the year of our story. In its waning months, yes—an unusually warm November is when everything begins (Cleper’s birthstone chart proclaims November as the month for topaz, the gem of ardent love, nobility). A new family moves into Louise’s building, and new things start to happen.
Madame Henri Brunet
THIS IS THE CALLING card for a happy married couple:
It lists their address—a narrow edifice in the center of Paris, too small to allow for the installation of one of those thrilling creaky elevators that are cropping up in the larger buildings. This is all right by Louise: elevators unnerve her. She does not like the metal grids they are nearly always imprisoned in: an afterthought to the building’s design—a violation of the staircase, formerly open. She does not like the jarring clang the grid makes when it shuts after her, when she gets into the small rising box. She is none too fond of the rising box either, encased in its metal shaft: the heave as it pulls her up is a foreign queasy thing, and the closeness makes her nervous, especially if she is in there with another person. It amuses her that they often put a mirror in the elevator, so she can watch the slight shudder of her body as the thing stops abruptly when it reaches the requested floor. Perhaps she can catch the slight widening of her eyes in the reflection, at this moment of vertigo.
Louise likes the building she lives in. It is six stories high with a green front door into a narrow entryway leading to the staircase and a small courtyard in the back. There is a chambre de bonne under the roof, a romantic and miserable space where some artist or student always lives. She lives on the third floor. She trudges up and down the stairs several times a day (with and without grocery bags), but she tells herself this keeps her fit. She likes the tile on the landings: stark black and white squares, a chessboard.
This is the calling card for the woman alone:
There is no address on this one. What is the meaning of this nearly blank thing, with only the tidy black inscription of a woman’s married name? It means that the woman is of comfortable enough means to bother with such an affectation as a calling card.
But what does it signify when her first name is not on the card? What does it mean that all the names that she was born with are not in fact printed on her calling card? This is a funny thing.
If you pay attention, you can see there is something written on the back of the card, pressed hard enough that it makes a slight impression on the front side. Flip the card over—see?
This is her handwriting. This is the handwriting of the owner of the record. If you cannot read it, here is translated what she has written, to remind herself (and you, perhaps):
Mlle. Victor Louise Noémie
Born 13 May 1896
in the 15th Arrondissement
She has underlined her maiden name twice, and underlined it hard—her father’s family name. Her Christian name is Louise. She is thirty-two years old.
THE ILLEGIBLE MAN IS not in the record; there is no photographic evidence of him. His name is not on any of the documentation. The illegible man does something effete and ineffectual for a living; he makes nothing with his hands. Perhaps he is a professor.
All of the sensuality in his face is in his mouth. There is something lascivious in the full curve of his tremulous lip. This makes sense: he is a man who talks for a living. The spoken word is where he exists most.
Since his youth, his smile has been slightly crooked. As the years have passed, the crookedness has increased. It gives his face something like character. His eyes are light and blank. His hair is dark and receding. He has a florid complexion: the slightest surge of blood is an explosion of red on his cheeks and neck, down into his shirt collar. Because this flush can so easily be seen, he tries not to have too many emotions.
The illegible man is fecund. He has three sons. His wife is pregnant again—he wishes so much for a daughter, this time. His life is continuously saturated in boyness.
The illegible man has beautiful hands with long fingers, with which he gestures eloquently when he lectures. He does not wear a wedding ring, though he owns one. It is a plain yellow gold band, which sits loose in his wife’s jewelry box. He does not like the feel of metal against his skin. He does not even wear a wristwatch: he carries a pocket watch. He attaches it to his belt loop with a chain.
He teaches adolescent boys about literature in a school near the Père Lachaise Cemetery. He takes the metro there every day. His last name is Langlais. His first name is not yet known, but he is not far. The illegible man will soon be in the building.
Tu es très gentille, mais pas ce soir
LOUISE HAS ONLY ONE student, these days. Years ago, she was a piano teacher with a sizable roster of pupils; she was making a bit of extra money to save up for the financial burden of all the children she would have with Henri. As the years have gone by, the need for this extra money has decreased: the jewelry shop that Henri runs with Louise’s father has grown more prosperous, and also their hope for children has waned. They have been married nine years, and no progeny has arrived. They are not sure what is wrong.
Louise suspects her husband. Louise harbors the conviction that her body is sound; after all, her own mother had two children shortly after marrying her father, in quick succession. She might have had many more, had she not died.
She believes in the fertility of her body, so she thinks Henri must shoot blanks. She will never utter this thought. It is an ugly one for a wife to have.
SO, LOUISE STILL HAS the one student, a girl named Garance Saccard, aged fifteen. She comes twice a week, some weeks more. Her parents pay the same fee no matter what, but Louise is happy to give the girl extra lessons: Garance is a talented musician, with a finely calibrated ear. Louise gives her sheet music to take home, gorgeous classical pieces of startling complexity. The girl learns them ridiculously fast and plays them for Louise on the grand piano in her parlor.
Louise’s piano is an heirloom, from her mother’s family. It is enormous and dark, and takes up half the room. Camille used to love to listen to her play it, back when they were practically children, before the war. Before the war had made them turn to each other as something other than cousins, as a man and a woman. It might not have occurred to them if it weren’t for the war, which had changed the urgent yearning for home in his letters into something unexpected. Before he’d written, “Next time I see your face, let me kiss it all over,” he’d written, “I wish to be safe at home, running up the stairs at your Papa’s house, hearing you call me up on that great big piano.”
These days, Louise is too conscious of the way the piano’s sound roars across the apartment when it is played; it can be heard in the staircase; it can be heard in the courtyard; it can be heard in the street! This is why Louise can seldom bring herself to play it now: a false note would be an embarrassing thing—nearly public, even though no one could see her flustered face.
Seldom does Garance hit a false note. Louise thinks that she is not teaching the child anything, but the child keeps coming back. The child does not ask for a reference, for the name of a more qualified piano teacher who is more compatible with her soaring virtuosity (an instructor who could get her into the conservatory). The child must love Louise.
When Garance does hit a false note, her cringe is immediate. Her head retracts into her shoulders and she winces sharply, as if someone has slipped a needle into the back of the hand that dared strike the wrong key. Sometimes, Louise can even hear the girl’s swift pained inhalation: an error in music—physical discomfort.
Yet the girl does not lift her hands from the keys at such a moment. She plays on through her cringing, fazed for only the smallest hiccup of time. Truly, Louise is privileged to teach this girl. Louise marvels at her luck. After the lesson, she makes tea and they sit in the living room together, sipping it and chatting about this and that and everything. They are friends.
“You know what I like to do, sometimes, at school?” Garance asks, while waiting for her cup to cool enough so that she can pick it up.
“What’s that?” Louise is smiling already.
“I like to find the meanest, hardest teacher I have. I like to focus on the one who scares the hell out of all of us students. This year, it’s my Math teacher. He’s cold and never smiles. When he gets mad, he doesn’t yell, but he throws his chalk at us. He’s a terror. This man—his name is Dupont—this man Dupont, I go to him after class. After everyone leaves the room as fast as possible to go to lunch, I stay there for a little bit and ask him questions about the magical workings of the quadratic equation. After a while, this makes him soft. After a while, he might even give me a tiny little smile when he passes me in the hallway—but of course not a smile big enough that anyone else can see. Just in his eyes. This is when I know I can begin, you see.”
The girl pauses for dramatic effect. Louise swallows her mouthful of tea (too sweet, she has put too much sugar in it) and gazes straight at Garance’s liquid green eyes. The girl continues, “After that, when I chat him up, I can talk about other things, like the weather. Maybe what kind of books he likes to read. Maybe he’ll even start looking at me like a person, like maybe I’m pretty. One day, he passes me in the hallway, and nods. He nods! He says yes, and I can strike! So, the next time I talk to him, I ask him what his first name is.”
Excerpted from 13, rue Thérèse by Shapiro, Elena Mauli Copyright © 2011 by Shapiro, Elena Mauli. Excerpted by permission.
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