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Every third drink was on the house. The waiters liked her and had long since figured she had no money or not a lot, and they wanted to help. She could have bought the place was my guess, but I wasn’t going to tell the waiters and screw up a good thing for her. It wasn’t their business, and anyway Françoise loved a bargain and liked people, especially men, to make much of her. Her tipple, as she put it, was red vermouth, un Martini rouge, with a very precise proportion of soda-water and ice: ice first, then the vermouth, then the bubbly. She decided she liked me because I got the mix just right for her.
That was an accident. The first time I saw her, she was telling the waiter in her fluent but cumbersomely accented French that he had got it wrong again. She turned to me, for no reason other than I was a man at the next table, and asked if I knew how to mix a drink. I could try, and I did, and Françoise was delighted. She made the waiter watch. He and I then performed the first of our many Françoise shrugs—the ordinary up-with-the-shoulders and spread-the-hands shrug, but with a roll of the eyes, up to my right and to his left. It had the virtue and the aesthetic of the Rockettes or synchronized swimming and meant just as much.
Françoise was old when I met her. Plain Fran at birth, she had Frenched her name when she married late in life and had been, even so, Valéry’s widow much longer than she had been Valéry’s wife. The table scraps of her personal biography that she fed me every once in a while didn’t make a feast, perhaps a casse-croûte and a slim one at best, but it was an interesting life she had led. An army brat from Oklahoma, daughter of a perdurable colonel who amazingly managed to dodge retirement in the face of the army’s up-or-out version of the Peter Principle, she had nothing to tell me about the time after she left college—I think without bothering to graduate—until she met Valéry when she must have been near forty. Then it got good.
He was a diplomat, and either someone at le quai d’Orsay really didn’t like him or he was a born adventurer, but he was posted to Vietnam, several countries on the verge of riot and dissolution in Africa and, as a treat, Bulgaria or Albania, but not both. Françoise loved it. As an ambassador, Valéry always had enough of a budget to live well, which in those countries at those times was not difficult, and not far shy of splendid: good wine always materialized, servants were abundant, grateful for the work, and did not steal more than decency permitted, and the European works of art that came on the market were definitely not forgeries—Valéry evidently had the eye of a connoisseur and the heart of a detective—and could be had for practically nothing with nothing by way of provenance either.
Best of all, as far as I could understand Françoise’s stories, there was really nothing to do in these posts save passing the time with the other European diplomats, their hangers-on, and the occasional transient ex-pat, who may or may not have been a spy or a crook, but could always tell a story or sell something cheap to earn a meal and a free flop for a week or two. Considering newspapers arrived two or three months late if at all, radio was BBC on shortwave or nothing at all, and local news was nothing at all minus a great deal, visitors were bundled right into the bosom of the community and tended to stay. The cagey ones were able to figure out how to arrive at a diplomat’s new posting after a decent interval and start the process all over again.
Why not? Everyone came out on top, which is even better than everyone being above average. It was like frontier life, but instead of the tales around the campfire or singing around the piano in the parlor, there were complicated narratives, sexual and political intrigues, a fair amount of gambling for petty stakes which had a way of mounting up, and best of all dressing for dinner. With a longish siesta in the afternoon in all these sweaty boondock posts, it was possible to sit down to dinner, with silver, china, crystal, and servants in uniform, all the guests dressed to the nines, including jewelry, around eleven in the evening. Samuel Beckett said that all days are the same, except the last day, which is shorter. They did Beckett one better. Dinner at eleven meant going to bed after five or six in the morning, and waking up just after noon in time for a light lunch in the heat and, a little later, a siesta. Short, and sweet, days, all of them.
Françoise’s stories made me jealous. She clearly edited out the mosquitoes and the stench and the unimaginable poverty, and I would not permit my imagination, as I listened, to put them back in. It was a lovely, fun-house-mirror of a moveable feast that I had missed and that had passed by. No one was ever going to see it again. But she did not seem to care about that, only that her mirror was smashed when Valéry, even fatter after twelve years of marriage, died of a heart attack while on leave in Paris. So she stayed in Paris and had not left the city for more than twenty-five years when I first got to mix her a drink.
Even then, it was clear, if I bothered to think about it but tried not to, that Valéry had died with his boots on, that the broadsword of history had clobbered that—what was it?—early post-colonialist or pre-post-modernist moment not long after his heart called it a day, but slowly, by a thousand cuts, with bits and pieces falling off the wagon, the paint chipping, the windows breaking, until there was nothing left but a pile of scrap by the side of the unpaved road. If Françoise knew this—of course, she had to—it had no place in her recollections.
And good for her. If her mind wasn’t so engaged in the photogenic past, what would she have had? Old age and frailty were no fun. She had had a mastectomy, a hysterectomy, cancer surgery, and several other procedures and invasions of her interior privacy. Her long late afternoons in the café with her vermouth and ice and soda water were the only things from the present that were any good. The rest was visits to doctors, many of them, including the one scold who kept telling her to cut out the drink and the smokes, too. “Why,” Françoise wondered, “so I can live even longer? Maybe there’s something else they can cut out of me without killing me completely.”
Better to be sociable, if not in evening clothes, and to tell stories and to listen to stories from me and her other courtiers who would arrive and depart as erratically as I. If she came leaning on her cane at first, then later with two, then a walker with an African woman holding her arm, the table was ready for her drink and the chair was still there waiting for her to sit down. The coming and the going, however slow and difficult, were le prix d’entrée for her, just like travel on dirt roads and by rubber-band airplanes once upon a time.
But it was hard to see her weaken over the years, being pushed in a wheelchair by the woman she called la noiraude, which was not a nice word even then, but better than its English equivalent because it was foreign. The liveliness of her mind, her stories, her curiosity about what I had done or seen, all of this was so unlike the body, the carcass—the old flesh case—which in her case was as disheveled as the little wagon of her past life, broken and ready for the knackers. It was strange at first, and then a little sad.
It became unbearable when she began nodding off during a story—hers or mine, it did not matter. Nor did it make any difference if she lost her thread or dropped her knitting because of the vermouth or just the weight of age. I could not stand to see it and stopped visiting with her. I thought of it as an act of friendship—that seeing the sickly version of Françoise’s mind and wit was somehow improper, almost lewd. But I don’t know what she thought. After I’d been away for more than a year, I went by the café and learned that she had not been around for six months at least. No one knew for certain if she had died. No one even knew where she lived. The waiter shrugged and asked me if I wanted to drink to her memory, on the house. I couldn’t.
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