FICTION: Madame Gertrude by Benjamin Mark

I suppose–before I tell you of the events that led to the robbery and its subsequent aftermath–I should let you know that I could and should be referred to as a Francophile. I have always been enamored with the language and had studied it all through the years my husband was off to work and my children were grown and I was left to my own devices in a home that had become devoid of life.

It should come as no surprise then that it was shortly after his death that I decided I would be better off living in Paris … the city of my chosen origins. I told no one of my decisions. I knew they would think me unbalanced and some–in their own appointed roles of self-righteousness–might even decide to have me put away in a sanitarium for what they would consider to be my own good. After my husband had died I found a certain amount of back stabbing among those who I had once considered to be kindred spirits. I was wallowing–I heard from others who professed to be my only true friends–too much in my misery and did not have the sense to know when enough was enough.

And so I made the arrangements in secret. It was not all that difficult. I discovered, in fact, that planning and executing one’s plans was more easily accomplished when no one knew what you were doing. And one day I simply disappeared–at least in my mind–from the thoughts and consciousnesses of my erstwhile companions.

I was in Paris. I remember it distinctly. It was the month of June. The sun was warm. The flowers were in bloom. And the Parisians were glorying with exuberance as they immersed themselves with politeness as only Parisians can.

“Bonjour Madame Gertrude,” they said. They did not seem to notice my age as they lifted my hand to their lips. “And how are you today, Madam Gertrude,” they said, never once seeing my graying hair or the deep wrinkles around my eyes and lips. I saw my reflection in their eyes as that of an attractive and fashionable young lady just barely nearing her prime. No one who saw me through their eyes would ever take me for a seventy five year old American dowager escaping her meager existence on 97th street and Broadway for a small apartment on the rue de l’Échaudé in the Latin Quarter of the city of lovers.

My children hardly ever wrote though I must admit they did call upon occasion. I never dwelled upon the cost to them. They were well off and could easily afford a phone call now and then.

There is now a certain sense of freedom in my life and I often decide on the spur of the moment to visit one famous landmark or another. Today it will be the Tuileries Garden. I have grown to love it there. The trees. The amusements for the children. The grasses. The lake. The palaces. But mostly the Bistro de Paris. They know me well there. Especially Clément. He is the Head Waiter. He is a Maitre D’ with a democratic viewpoint. Unlike some others … he does not seat his clientele to better spots or worse spots in his restaurant according to their looks. We are equal to him. Though I must confess that at times I suspect that he views me in a special light. How often when I walk in is it that he promptly strides over and bows with a formal flair known only to the French and takes my hand and kisses the back of it and the promptly claps his hands and says Claude … a table by the window for Madame Gertrude if you please. And they all crowd around me when I’m seated.

“How are you today, Madame Gertrude? You look exceptionally ravishing today, Madame Gertrude. Did you do your hair by yourself, Madame Gertrude? You should go into the business, you know.”

And then it is time to order. The French are the experts in haute cuisine. I do not have to order. They know me well. They start me off with a bit of paté and then a salad followed by a small cheese variety and coffee and pie. It does quite fill me up you know. All the while they hover over me. “Some wine for Madame? Tea perhaps? Café au lait?” They know how much I love espresso with steamed milk. And then at the end Clément comes over.

“I am personally bringing you the check Madame Gertrude because I do not want the others to see the discount I am giving you. They would frown upon me for playing favorites. But you do know you are my favorite, do you not Madame Gertrude?” All this to an aging seventy five year old matron who is allowed to forget her age in this Parisian Bistro.

And then of course there was the robbery that I spoke of when I started this little telling of  my tale. It was inevitable. One cannot have a reputation without being noticed and even envied. I was at my usual table. Clément was his usual charming self. But it was then interrupted by the commotion. They came barging in. Four of them. Two men and two woman. Guns at the ready. Oh … the fear that presented itself on the faces of those who had always in the past put on facades of bravery in order to ensure that no one could see their frailties. I knew many of them as they were–as was I–regulars at the Bistro de Paris.

“All wallets on the tables,” shrieked the blonde-haired skinny girl who was clearly the leader of the group. Of course we all complied. There’s bravery and there’s stupidity and even I … who had started to take a bit of a clinical view of the events rather than cower under the table—metaphorically speaking of course—placed my wallet squarely in the center of my table … on top of my as of yet untouched glass of red white.

She was pretty in her own way and when she saw what I did she glanced–rather probingly for one so young I thought–into my eyes after which I thought I saw a small glimmer of a smile play about the corners of her lips.

“You,” she said, waving her gun at me. “Put that away. We don’t want it.”

And then she and her pistolero companions strode with fearless determination to each and every other table and put every proffered wallet in a bag. And then the blonde shrieker lovingly grabbed the hand of one of the men while the other girl did the same with her man … and they all walked out . . . palm to paw so to speak … bag full of wallets slung casually over the shoulder of the one man wearing a beret. At the last second … unseen by any of the other patrons of the Bistro … she winked at me as if to say, ‘You are one gutsy old broad Madame Gertrude.’ This was of course nonsense as we had never met and therefore did not know each other. Still … I must admit I was quite flattered … and of course quite content that my meager funds were left untouched.

Clément had–of course–lost his charm. He was unable to regain his composure. His abject misery at what he clearly thought was his failure at protecting his clientele from those voleurs was evident in every trembling fiber of his being. He could not hide the quiver of his lips.

It took the patrons themselves to calm him down by coming up to him and patting him on the back and saying, “Bravo Clément. You did well. We would not have been safe without you.”

All lies of course … but lies with benevolent intent. For they as well as I loved this headwaiter of ours who was struggling to save face. And in the end …after bracing him up with a bit of espresso laced with Sambucca and Grand Marnier and anything else they could think of–all compliments of the house at this point–they finally restored to him a small modicum of the dignity he had lost. And then it happened. The worse thing that can befall the elderly befell me. I was reminded in the most cruel fashion of my solitude. Paris–which had always been my oasis–was now, for a small moment, a ship floundering upon the turbulent open seas of disaster, threatening my every illusion of security.

Clément–as it turned out–was having a thing with a pretty little serveuse who went by the name of Mireille. Since Clément always took care of me personally … I was never aware–prior to this day–of the little sprite. After the hubbub of the robbery had abated to the point where sanity was once again making itself known to all … it was decided by the establishment to close for the day. It made economic sense since everyone–myself excluded of course–was in a dither and in a hurry to get home. And so the arrangements were made and everyone prepared to leave … waiters and waitress and the rest of the staff included. It was then that it all hit home.

It was drizzling out and while I was putting on the little plastic hat I kept in my purse for just such occurrences … everyone began to stream out through the doors hands clasped in hands … fingers desperately intertwined … Clément and Mireille included. Everyone had someone to hold on to except me. I never missed my dear dear husband as much as I did that day when my aloneness in this world was flung at me with such a vengeance as to cloud every hint of joy that I might have thought existed in order to give me occasional pleasure. I walked out alone. No one–not even Clément who always treated me with grace–was aware of my situation. There is nothing so alone as to be alone amongst the crowds. They all see you … but no one is aware of your presence.

It was easy for me to hide my tears, for they were camouflaged by rain  drops. And as I walked away I decided then and there not to go home right away even though I had food shopping to do. I would find sanctuary in a crowded indoor facility …safe from the elements and safe from the probing eyes of anyone who might know me well enough to see my discomfort.

And so I went to the abode which once housed a creature who–in his way–lived a life as lonely as mine. I am talking, of course, of Quasimodo and the cathedral of Notre-Dame. The crowds were enormous. Everyone oohed and aahed at the buttresses and gargoyles. They all saw me and no one saw me. I bought my ticket and the man said, “Only one, Madame?” I nodded and he let me in, barely noticing my existence. “This way, Madame,” said the pretty little guide. She was probably nineteen years old going on three. “My name is Leena,” she said.

And she led the way with a group of us. We were all newcomers to each other and therefore quite friendly without being friends … a phenomenon only strangers can master. She made us all introduce ourselves. Madame Gertrude. Monsieur Zekeh. Mademoiselle Claudine. And so on. I was the eldest, which led everyone to ignore me more than most while all the while I would get special attention from Leena.

“This is the bell tower where Quasimodo lived. Do you know who Quasimodo was, Madame Gertrude? Did you see the movie, Madame Gertrude? Does anyone know how old Quasimodo was,” she said while looking directly at me.

No one answered … and so after a bit I said, “Twenty years old. Just right for marrying someone your age.”

I want to tell you … Leena blushed. She stammered. She didn’t know how to respond. But she recovered and retaliated and said, “I guess then we could both be your children as you are easily old enough to be our mother, Madame Gertrude.”

And now it was my turn to be embarrassed. But I was a good sport for she gave as good as she got, and I smiled and said, “Touché mademoiselle Leena.”

And the rest of the group laughed and someone patted me lightly on the shoulder … lightly I presume in order to ensure he or she did not shatter my apparently fragile bones.

The rest of the afternoon was spent rather pleasantly touring with Leena. The rain had stopped. And after the tour was over I had a serving of pommes frites sold by a street vendor who I had gotten to know over time and who asked me if Madame Gertrude would like some mayonnaise with the fries? And I thanked him and he tipped his military style hat with the flap off to his right side and said, “Au revoir, Madame Gertrude. You have a nice day.” And he bowed with gallantry and I curtsied back as only an old lady can, and some onlookers applauded at our little social dance and I went home.

Returning alone was a bit depressing as it often was … but I elevated my spirits by reminding myself how lucky I was that I could choose to live in the city of magic and love whenever it pleased me. The lights glittered. When the taxis honked their horns–in Paris all the cars honked with French accents–I smiled and waved at the drivers and they always waved back … and before I knew it I was back home.

There was a sign downstairs indicating that the elevators were not working … apologies to all … please use the stairs … it would all be fixed within the hour. I lived on the third floor and though I took my time and paced myself I don’t mind telling you that by the time I reached 3C I wasn’t sure if I would see the sun rise the next morning.

Still … there was the food shopping. I rested for a short bit till I heard the elevator doors clanging shut indicating to one and all that the world was once again functional. I sighed with relief. My neighborhood was clearly not always the dreamland I envisioned it to be. I got my shopping cart ready … threw my coat on over my shoulders … picked a red wool beret to wear … and went out. As I was about to close the door to my apartment I glanced back in one last time to ensure all was well. There were the pictures on the wall of my chosen city. My home away from home, as it were. There was the Louvre in water color. There was the Notre Dame Cathedral I had just visited. There was the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe and the Tuileries. There was Le Marais . . . aristocratic shopping center of Paris. Which one would I visit tomorrow, I wondered? In which picture would I live?

I was alone in the hallway, which suited me well. But when the elevator arrived, I scooted in with fast evanescing hopes of enjoying my solitude as Sadie–she lived just down the hall–came in.

“Hey, Gertie,” she said. “They’re having a show tomorrow at the Beacon Theater. It’s on 74th and Broadway you know.  Want to come with me? It’s only about twenty two blocks and we can walk it.”

‘Hmmph,’ I thought. ‘It’s Madame Gertrude if you please.’ Tomorrow, I knew, I would be safe at home in Paris again.

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Benjamin Mark

Benjamin Mark studied writing at The New School for Social Research. He has been writing a weekly e-zine for over ten years entitled Tidbits which has a free readership distribution of around 10,000 readers per week around the world. His unpublished and published writing accomplishments are on www.benimark.com. Educated in Europe and U.S. Multilingual . Member of Mensa and Intertel. Favorite writers. Louis Ferdinand Celine. William Burroughs. Hubert Selby Jr. Gunter Grass. Other short stories have been accepted by Integra and Storyfile and Typishly and Dark Ink Press magazines.

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