Get comfy and let the LITERARY LATTÉ stimulate your intellect and emotions.
From Susanna Solomon, a frequent MillValleyLit contributor, fantastical musings of Parisian imagination and delight are debuting here over the next few releases. This is the second story from her upcoming third short story collection, Night Train to Paris:
SHAKESPEARE & COMPANY
“No, it’s true, I used to live here,” he said with a grin. “Just upstairs.”
“You used to live in a book store?” I asked.
“Can you think of better company?”
I ran my hands along the spines of the books tucked under a staircase at the back of the bookstore, Shakespeare & Company. In Paris. I was there for a week and it was my second visit.
“Name’s Tom,” Tom said, extending his hand.
“They have bedrooms upstairs?” I asked. “An apartment? A studio?”
“Of sorts.” Tom laughed. “Two beds and a fold-out Murphy bed. People stay here for years.”
“Windows?” I asked. I don’t like small spaces and was feeling a little too tucked in at the back of the shop under the stairs.
“A view of the Seine,” he said. “And Notre Dame.”
“Good Lord,” I answered and sat down on a stool.
“You have to ask gently, and not be aggressive in any way. It’s like anything – if you make yourself a pest. There’s a fine line. I wanted, I asked, I got in. Took two years.”
“And now?” I answered, thinking of the comfort of my hotel room with the ensuite bath.
“All you have to do is stack shelves for two hours a day, and read a book a week,” Tom answered, making space on a shelf for two paperbacks he held in his left hand. “But there are stories.”
“Ghost stories?” I asked. Paris or no Paris, sleeping in a bookstore would be fun. “Like Scott Fitzgerald, or James Baldwin or Hemingway?”
“Not at all,” Tom laughed. “A thin ten-year-old in a white nightdress holding a candle.”
“You’ve seen her?” asked an American girl to my left. Too many braces, too much hair color, but her literary appetite was good. Her hands were full of books. My books. For I was an author. I was going to stay silent this time. Tom knew who I was, but not the others, and that’s the way I liked it.
“Two years ago. After the shop closed at midnight. Fernando, the Murphy bed guy, he was out in the Marais, and as for the other resident,” Tom said resident, like res-i-dent, “he had just moved out. So it was just me. Mostly. I remember I was holding a cup of espresso in my hand.”
“You drink coffee that late?” I asked, scanning the owner’s picks. Why hadn’t they picked my books?
“Twenty-four hours a day. Coffee doesn’t do a thing for me – but doobies do.” He sighed. “But I hadn’t even struck a match when I saw her.”
“She was floating by the door?” I asked.
“On my bed actually.” He thought a sec. “Not quite under the covers. Standing over it, like apparitions are supposed to do.”
“A character from a novel you just read?” I asked. “Madame Bovary?”
“When she was twelve, Miss?”
“Mona. It wasn’t Madame Bovary when she was twelve. No one knows what she looked like then.”
“Holding a croquet mallet.”
“I saw that episode of Endeavor. You’ve been watching too much BBC.”
“What’s not to like?” I asked. “Show me. Show me now. Upstairs. Just up there. Would the owners mind?” I gestured to the front of the store.
“If you buy at least three books,” Tom answered. He towered over me, but still, there were possibilities ….
“Now?” I asked. I wasn’t really ready to choose a book, much less three. “So, tell me, the ghost – “
I nodded, my palms sweaty.
“She was crying, sobbing quietly. I asked her why.”
“Tell me more,” I nudged closer.
“’If you’d been stuck in an attic a hundred years, you’d be crying too, buster,’ she said.”
“That’s kind of modern language.”
“Don’t you think she reads too?” Tom replied.
“I guess,” I said dryly, “for how can a ghost read a book, much less hold one?”
“She leaned toward me, I was trying to back up to the stairs – those stairs just above my head, then she stopped, held out her hand and spoke again. ‘Get me out of here, Tom.’ Upon hearing her speak my name, I practically fell down the stairs, they’re steeper than you think.”
“You’re pulling my leg,” I said.
“As she was pulling mine? Not hardly. ‘I won’t hurt you,’ she said. She was wearing a bright white bow in her hair like those photos of those Victorian girls you’ve seen.”
“’I couldn’t find a brush,’ the ghost said. ‘Pardon my somewhat disheveled appearance but there are no beauty supplies here, as you can see.’ She ran her hand through the air and sparks flew out of the ends of her fingers. ‘Guy stuff,’ she said. ‘No good for me. Don’t you guys ever bathe?’”
“How could I tell her?” Tom went on. “There’s a sink downstairs, at the back, and a shower at the Youth Hostel down the street, but – but. She scowled, wagged one finger at me, sending sparks. ‘You’re afraid I’ll be seen, if I go out on the Quai?’ I wasn’t sure what to say, so I sat down on the bed.”
“What did she do, then, Tom?”
“She sat beside me. About 4’-10”, her legs stuck out as her feet in her blue shoes were too short to set on the floor.”
“Did you touch her?” I asked. “Did she feel like fog? Or water? Or maybe jello?”
“You have some kind of wild imagination, Mona,” Tom said, looking up and noticing that a few more people had arrived and were now leaning in doorways, listening.
“And?” I asked.
“Mist, yes, that’s right. She felt like mist. Cool. Young. Beautiful.”
“And sad,” I added.
“How did you know?” he asked. “She had reddened, watery eyes.”
“Not from living a few hundred years too long?” I asked.
“No. From people asking her stupid questions.”
Oh, that shut me up fast.
“You’re the one who started it,” I said finally.
“We spent some hours together. She told me a little about her home in the 9e. The walk she took on her way past St. Sulpice, down the alley, the strong hands who grabbed her. She hadn’t planned on being out after dark, but she’d been playing with Sophie – and had lost track of time –“
“One of the Paris Rive Gauche murders,” said one of the onlookers. His face was lined, his body thin and wiry. He put one hand on the banister going upstairs. “I’ll protect her.”
“No!” Tom cried, pulling up his long form and pivoting so he was at the stairs, his one hand on the stranger’s arm. “She doesn’t handle visitors well.”
Just then an ear-splitting scream came from the front of the store. We all ran. Ten to fifteen of us crowded the front of the shop and pushed our way to the door.
“ça rien, it’s nothing. No one. A pickpocket. He was caught,” a gendarme said. I saw the cop cars, heard the woo-woo of sirens, and thought about the ghost upstairs. She could have used a gendarme that night. I was the first to reach the stairs while everyone was still at the front of the shop.
“Miss?” I called gently, hoping no one would hear the creak of steps as I rose. Two, three, four steps. “Miss?” I pushed open the door, expecting an apparition, a girl not even half my age, a girl who had never had a chance.
“Yes?” answered a voice, a man’s voice, a man with a week-long beard and a gravelly voice. “Customers aren’t allowed up here, Miss.”
I blinked my eyes. “Tom…he said,” I sputtered.
“Ah,” the unshaven man said. “You missed her by minutes. My ‘petit adventure,’ my lover, she had to go to work.”
“Not your girlfriend, kind sir,” I answered, heart pounding in my chest. The …” I felt like a fish out of water, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t get air.
“Ah. Thomas. Again,” the man sighed. “The apparition.”
I nodded. “You seen her?” I asked.
“In my dreams.” He sighed, walked toward me. He was very tall and looked down on my face, then shook my hand. “You are not the first, dear…”
“I should say not,” I answered.
His hand was dry and warm.
“We are in a monument to storytelling, Miss. A library for the greats. A place where dreams are made. Did Tom give you a dream? That you believed?”
I turned my face. I couldn’t look at him.
“Would you expect anything else at Shakespeare and Company? In Paris?” He grinned. “Come have some Kir Royale. You like Kir Royale? Or perhaps Absinthe? Come take a look from here. You are not the first, and you won’t be the last – but you are the prettiest.” How could I resist? My own ‘petit adventure’. When I reached him he was standing by the window while the sun cast its last rays on the spires of Notre Dame. “I’m Georges,” he said. I was about to tell him my name when his lips closed on mine.
by Susanna Solomon
The third day I was in Paris I hopped the Metro back to Musée D’Orsay. The building was huge; once a train station, now it was a museum. Glass ceilings soared above me. Balconies and stairways led every which way. A gigantic clock, which I’d missed last time, hung outside the window at the front of the museum, just outside the third floor.
You could see all of Paris through the back of the clock. Haussmann buildings, across the river, rose behind the Roman numeral VI. A few tourists looked out the window in front of me. The numbers were backwards, of course, because the clock was supposed to be read by people outside, coming to the train station, not by people inside the building looking out.
It was raining. People were milling about, waiting for the rain to stop. And then they were gone. I took my place behind the VI and looked out at the misty Seine below, at the mansard roofs across the river. I imagined walking through the clock and traveling back in time.
What would it have been like?
To be there during the revolution when the streets were full of blood? To hear the German jackboots pound the streets as they marched to the Arc de Triomphe? To wave American flags from open windows on the day the Americans arrived in their tanks, trucks and jeeps?
I had been a little girl then when Maman pressed a small American flag in my hand. Everyone was lining the streets and cheering as the tanks rolled by. We’d been down so long. I held Maman’s hand tight and looked up. Tears ran down her face. She had tried to protect me, but I’d seen the grim lines of hungry people, the soldiers returning from war, leaning on their wooden crutches, desperation and despair filling their eyes. And I remembered our butcher, Abe, and his family disappearing. Maman had prayed every night, and I with her, my knees on a threadbare carpet in front of the windows, listening to Voice of America.
And back further? I could see through the rising mist, through a dark cloud which dissipated. When the plague came, we were poor and didn’t have the option to move out of the city like so many of our neighbors. Our house was stone, at least, but others, who lived in wooden structures, their homes had been burned down to rid the streets of rats. Two of my friends in our building had died, and Aunt Renée’s baby Ruth was in the worst way and was not expected to live. Why I was spared, I’d never know, but as I grew up, we left our memories behind. No one wanted to think about the time when Paris lost 30% of its population. It took years until I stopped having nightmares about seeing wagons full of bodies roll through the streets.
The clock in front of me clicked as the hour hand slid to 5 p.m., while the minute hand, at least ten feet long, eased along behind. I looked through the glass again. I could see myself, as a young girl, running in the park across the river.
“Come on, Amy! Follow me!” my cousin Jean-Marie from Lycée Fénelon waved me on. We were walking hand in hand in the Tuileries, our mothers fifty feet behind us. Jean-Marie held a ball, a red one, and gestured for me to go back, to run back so she could throw it to me, and I ran, as fast as I could and turned. But Jean-Marie was gone.
“Jean Marie!” I called. I saw no one.
I ran back to where we’d separated. “Jean Marie!” I yelled, but no ten-year-old girl with braids was in sight, just an older couple, walking arm in arm under some mulberry trees.
Fighting rising panic, I ran around in all directions, hollering her name. There had been news in the papers about bad guys kidnapping girls and chaining them up in crates. Had they already grabbed Jean Marie? I ran back, back to the picnic bench where we’d started, eager to find the moms.
The ground beneath my shoes sounded like sandpaper as I ran. I didn’t remember running so far away from my mom and her sister. Had they been standing under this tree? Or that one? In the open or in the shade? I moved fast, covering ground, yelling Jean-Marie, Jean-Marie, until my throat got sore and I just yelled “Maman! Maman!” and that’s when I saw them, our mothers, sitting on a bench. My mom and her sister Francoise who was pushing a stroller back and forth with her feet. I ran closer, panicked. They would blame me, they’d call the police, and horrible things would happen to Jean-Marie.
“Amy!” my mother stood up straight, dropping her knitting on the ground. “Come, Amy. Come, she’s here.”
I ran into my mom, driving my head and shoulders to her belly, and she held me, close, close, as my cries turned into big hacking sobs. “She’s here, dear, right here, don’t worry so, my darling,” Mama said and Jean-Marie came over and held me too. “You had such a scare, my sweet.” I couldn’t stop shivering.
“Everything’s okay, sweetheart,” my mother said and held me for the longest time. My heart was pounding, my hands were clammy and cold, but Jean-Marie was fine. She held the red ball and looked at me with kind eyes. People on benches nearby shook their heads, while a group of Parisian teenagers, all girls, gossiped and laughed as they walked in the open, and I held Mama closer until I felt better, a little bit. It took all day, two cups of chamomile tea and cinnamon toast, two slices, before I felt like myself again.
I backed out of the clock. I’d been in Paris with my own mother, years ago, and she had been wearing her shirtdress as usual. We’d walked the Quai, checked out the books at booksellers along the way, held hands as we crossed streets, and I, so much smaller, had to run to catch up, until she was gone, really gone, and I had been fourteen.
The big clock struck six. A guard came up behind me and said, “Madame, nous fermerons maintenant, we are closing. Merci, Madame,” and I followed a few people down the escalator, out the lobby and into a drizzly rain. I walked around and looked at the giant clock. It was so high up there; I could barely see what time it was, but knew it was time to go. Tomorrow, perhaps, I’d come back, step through the clock, and once again be in my mother’s arms.
Return in a few weeks to read Susanna Solomon’s “Shakespeare & Company.”
Susanna Solomon’s stories have been published both on line and in print in literary journals and in two short story collections, Point Reyes Sheriff’s Calls, and More Point Reyes Sheriff’s Calls. Her novel, Montana Rhapsody, sets an LA savvy pole dancer and a farmer in a canoe deep in the wilderness on the Missouri River in Montana where their trip does not work out quite as planned. Currently at work on her absolute favorite – a collection of short stories – called The Night Train to Paris, she hopes to have out in a year or two.
Susanna Solomon’s short stories can be found on line (Harlot’s Sauce Radio, The Mill Valley Literary Review, Foliate Oak Magazine), in print, The MacGuffin, Meat for Tea – The Valley Review, and, Shoal, the Literary Journal of Carteret Writers. Videos of her readings can be found online, in five years of Redwood Writers Anthologies, and in The Point Reyes Light. Susanna is an electrical engineer and has owned and operated her business for twenty years.
Photo credits: Musee clock—web source. Susanna reading, Paris clock—J.Macon King.