Louis solemnly marched back and forth between the pharmacy at Number 10 and the tobacconist at Number 14, eyes right, with a deep sigh each time he passed Number 12, the Cafe Victor Hugo. Unlike the doors at Numbers 10 and 14, the door to the small bistro at Number 12 remained unopened, even though it would normally have been open for twenty minutes by now. And by now, Louis would have reached page two of Le Monde, would have finished his jus de pampelmousse, and would be settling into his cafe au lait and croissant. These things were seemingly trivial but they characterized his morning ritual, and rituals should not be kept waiting.
“Where is that infernal Jacques?” Louis demanded of the locked door, of the brick facade, of the sidewalk. Agitation hardened the wrinkles of his face and turned his blue eyes steely. Jacques had operated the Cafe Victor Hugo for twelve years now, succeeding his father who had operated it for as long as it had existed on the boulevard from which it took its name. Jacques was a little young, but he was a good man who ran a good bistro, because he properly ran it the way his father ran it. And he was properly deferential to the old men who sat so often at the corner table, the men he had inherited when he inherited the bistro.
Of the old men, only two remained on this earth. Francois and Emmanuel had both died within the past year, Bertran two years before, and Jean was in an institution unable to move or speak — quite a change, since, for 73 years, he had hardly ever refrained from speaking. Of the group who held sway night and day at the corner table, only Louis and Albert remained. And one day, Louis mused, Albert would be sitting at the corner table without him, or he without Albert. “Such is life,” he said aloud, then caught himself with a little laugh. “Life? Such is not life; such is death. Where is that man? I have so few needs, and yet he would deprive me of them.”
Weekday mornings, the Cafe Victor Hugo was as deserted as the cathedral down the street. The few patrons who sat within silently worshiped their morning papers and sipped their holy morning liquids. In the corner pew, the church elders did not just read their newspapers; they scoured them in a search for indiscretions and transgressions, breaking the silence as necessary to castigate the sinners with a healthy dose of hellfire and brimstone. “That jackal so-and-so has done it again” or “just like the Americans” would occasionally thunder through the bistro, and the simple blessing “merde!” was voiced as frequently as “amen!” at an American Baptist get-together.
Evenings, on the other hand, were not the least bit silent. After a hearty cassoulet or leek pie and several rounds of drinks, a smoky haze would envelope the corner, tongues would be loosened, and the jackals of the morning and anyone else who had crossed the old men during the day would be vilified in earnest.
“Andre the butcher is a criminal of the worst sort,” Albert would say. “The moneychangers driven from the temple were not nearly the usurers that Andre is. Fifty francs for a sausage of less than a kilo.”
“And one must question the parentage of Andre’s sausage,” Louis would add, always ready to goose along a good tirade. “Only God knows what he stuffs into them.”
“Maybe he’s like that Englishman who ground up other Englishmen and stuffed them into sausages.”
“A sausage stuffed with Englishmen wouldn’t be worth half a franc.”
And then Louis might drag poor Jacques into the fray: “And what’s in your sausage, Jacques. Any Englishmen? Or worse still, Americans?”
“Non, non,” Jacques would playfully protest. “One hundred percent French. And only children. Plump ones.”
But even such a conversational detour into the contents of sausage would not let the poor butcher off the hook. No matter how far the old men wandered, they would eventually return to Andre. “That wife of his cheats on him, you know.” A fairly simple formula controlled the debasement of the day’s villains, for the villains shared certain qualities that must inevitably be addressed. Their credentials as Frenchmen were suspect. They consorted with foreigners, particularly English-speaking foreigners — and possibly shared their blood. Their wives invariably cheated on them, their daughters were wanton, and their sons effeminate.
“Where is Jacques?” Louis shouted at the tobacconist as though he were the man’s guardian. The tobacconist merely answered with an insulting gesture as he always had since the day Louis called him a Vichy whoremaster. “Can the French do nothing on time anymore?” He turned back toward the pharmacy.
In the evening, once the villains had been dealt with, the old men mellowed out on cognac and grew nostalgic for better days. They were prodded on by the old songs that Jacque’s father had first put on the juke box that no longer took money. The great war evoked many of their best memories. Even though they had hated the war when they were young and in it, it had, over the years, become a thing of beauty and pleasure. Their individual little experiences, trivial at best and nasty at worst, had been melded into one unified grand history, one that became grander with each retelling, now a sweet dream of youth rather than the nightmare of carnage it had actually been.
They revered the past, but every day a little bit of it disappeared. Change came without being invited. And with each change, something good was gone forever, until the world had changed so much that it was no longer their world. It was someone else’s world and as foreign as the most remote world in a science fiction story. “Perhaps it’s the way of preparing us to die,” Louis would say. “Making the world a place in which we no longer care to live.”
“Just look at this cafe. Look at the empty tables. People today are too healthy to eat cassoulet, too aloof to share an aperitif. If they go anywhere at all, they go to discos where the music destroys all hopes of conversation. They go to shopping centers where everyone is a stranger. They buy their food to take home, to eat alone. And they watch television or tap those silly little phones. Nobody talks. Nobody relaxes with friends.” And nobody paid much attention to Louis’ lament, except Albert who would nod sympathetically and try to stay awake.
Forty minutes, and still no Jacques. Louis paused at the door to the Cafe Victor Hugo once more, and for the first time he noticed the sign. It was the same sign that had always been there — the one that said the bistro was closed. The other side, the side that should have been displayed, proclaimed the bistro to be open. But something had been hastily printed beneath the word closed. Louis looked closer and saw that the words until further notice had been added.
The sign took his breath away, weakened him. How could this be? Without telling us? This was terrible. He must speak to Albert. A fear suddenly gripped him, and the closing of the bistro took on an even greater and more fearsome significance. He knew everything about Albert, every intimate detail about Albert’s life — everything but what mattered now, his last name, his address, his phone number.
Louis continued to pace, again to the tobacconist, again to the pharmacy, and back to the darkened bistro. He would wait. Maybe Albert would come.