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 weeks. From her upcoming third short story collection, Night Train to Paris:
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.