[A short story for you today. There are days when I languish in the Slough of Despond over my personal insignificance. I have no idea how widespread this malady is, though I suspect that many people suffer it from time to time. And in a sense, it’s a problem all of us humans share, for what do our personal accomplishments really matter? What man, be he titan or bum, will be remembered for eternity? Whose doings will amount to more than a brief ripple in the currents of time?
But the perspective of eternity, though important, is not the one that matters to the evaluation of a human life. We will not be judged on how deeply our deeds reverberate through time. We are merely expected to do our best with what we have…as co-protagonist Allan does in the story below.
This story is dedicated to Gerard Van der Leun…and, as always, to the greater glory of God. — FWP]
Before she embarked on her trip to America, Amelie’s supervisor had told her that Americans are different. She’d been warned that she would encounter behavior a good distance from what any European would exhibit, that the strangeness would come from both men and women. She’d been advised to brace herself for anything, to cultivate an impersonal demeanor and a smile that would stay glued on her face regardless of what she might encounter.
She’d tried very hard, practicing her English several hours per day, studying Americans’ modes of dress and their public conventions, familiarizing herself with their most popular celebrities and forms of entertainment, and generally steeling herself for eccentricities beyond her imagination. In her twenty-seven years she’d not previously exerted herself so single-mindedly, but it was only what L’eclat expected from its American representatives.
On the morning of her first day as Albrecht’s L’eclat saleswoman, she donned the prescribed form-fitting black scoop-neck top and short pencil skirt, ornamented it with a single gold chain, added a pair of black patent leather high heels, and went to her post with a confidence and aplomb that her efforts had surely justified. Yet with the very first customer that approached her counter, her resolve failed her completely.
He appeared ordinary: age perhaps forty, about 175 centimeters in height, brown eyes, brown hair just starting to thin, a pleasant, smooth-shaven face, and a slender build. His clothes revealed nothing of wealth or status, but that, too, she’d been told to expect. Americans of both sexes, it seemed, all wore loose-fitting sweatshirts and faded jeans whenever they weren’t going to a wedding or a formal ball.
“Oui, Monsieur?” She smiled just as she’d practiced it. “How might L’eclat and I help you today?”
He mirrored her smile, albeit with a hint of weariness.
“I’m on a quest,” he said. “A gift for a woman about my age.” His voice was a pleasant baritone.
She nodded. “A special gift for a special woman on a special occasion?”
“Yes to all three,” he said. “Tomorrow is her birthday. She treats her husband with contempt, and I’m trying to seduce her away from him.”
With that, Amelie’s smile, her breath, and all of her preparation for American strangeness fled from her.
He looks normal enough. Why would he say such a thing to a complete stranger? And why would he want a married woman who abuses her husband? Is he trying to spare the husband out of friendship? Does he think he can reform her? Or is he…what do they call it?…a masochist?
“Monsieur, I…don’t know if I can help you.”
The customer smiled crookedly at her astonishment. “I imagine that wasn’t anything like what you expected to hear,” he said. “But you haven’t heard the punch line yet.”
Punch line? He intends to punch her? No, wait: that’s an idiom. It means the last line of a joke.
“What…what is the rest of the story?” she forced out.
The customer’s smile was unchanged. “I’m her husband.”
She began to laugh crazily, and found that she could not stop.
Amelie returned to consciousness several minutes later. The mysterious customer was crouched over her, chafing her hands and stroking her forehead while murmuring entreaties. Two older store employees looked on with expressions that blended concern with embarrassment.
As she opened her eyes, his smile returned with added warmth. He looked over his shoulder at the Albrecht personnel.
“All is well, ladies,” he said. “This was my fault. I think it was my statement of needs that made your young colleague faint. But she appears to be with us again, so you can relax.”
Both women looked somewhat dubious. Amelie forced herself to sit up, smile, and nod at them. They retreated with evident reluctance.
“Are you all right?” he said. He hadn’t released her hands. “I didn’t mean to shock you.”
“Yes…yes.” She shook her head briefly. “I was told that…to expect surprises, but—”
He chuckled softly. “You’re European, aren’t you?”
Amelie nodded again. “French.”
“Americans can be a difficult lot,” he said. “Quirky. Given to spontaneous silliness. We act as if all the world’s a stage, and we’re all auditioning for better parts.”
It brought a fresh smile to her face.
He has an endearing manner.
“Is that what you were doing?” she said. “Auditioning?”
His own smile faded. “I’m afraid not. I meant what I said. My wife treats me with contempt. I don’t know why.”
“Yet you still want to…to please her.”
“It’s more than that, dear,” he said. “I want the woman I married back. But she doesn’t seem to want the man she married any longer. I was hoping that a really special gift might open her eyes, make her see me instead of whoever it is she despises.” He frowned. “Are you married?”
“Do you think you might marry someday?”
“Someday,” she said, “if God should smile upon me, I will marry.”
“Well,” he said, “I pray you never have so sad a story to tell about your husband.”
But not that he might tell one about me?
“Please call me Allan.”
“Allan, I don’t know if anything L’eclat sells has the power you require, but…” She wrestled with her timidity. “I would like to hear more. I will have an hour to myself starting at one. Would you care to stop by then? We could meet at the store cafe for lunch, or perhaps just have coffee.”
Something subtle but unmistakable flowed into his expression. It lifted the corners of his eyes and mouth ever so slightly.
“I would like that, too,” he said. “What’s your name?”
“I am Amelie du Nord.”
“I’m Allan Parterre.” He helped her to stand. “I’ll see you at one, Amelie.”
He squeezed her hand gently and departed.
“It developed over time,” Allan said. He cast a quick glance around him, apparently concerned that someone might be listening, but the cafe’s two other patrons were at the extreme opposite end of the seating area. “Our first couple of years were good ones, but after that she gradually lost interest in…well, everything. Our home. Our mutual friends. The things we once did together. These days, she doesn’t even speak to me, at least when she can avoid it.” He sipped at his coffee. “At this point we’re just two people who live under the same roof.”
“Do you still sleep in the same bed?” Amelie said.
He nodded. “Not that anything ever comes of it.”
“How long has it been?”
“About eight years now. We’ve been married for thirteen.”
I can’t imagine it.
“How do you cope?”
His half-grin was replete with sadness and longing. “I try not to think about it.”
“Allan,” she said, “is it possible that she might have someone else?”
The spasm that crossed his features made it unnecessary for him to answer, but he did anyway. “That’s something else I try not to think about.” He looked down at the table.
But if it’s so…
She was seized by a realization. She laid a hand on his. It brought his eyes up to meet hers.
“You have wondered,” she said in a measured cadence, “whether this is your fault. Whether her coldness is something you’ve earned. Isn’t that so?”
His eyes widened. He nodded.
“But you’ve tried to treat her as you always did before, as the woman you loved enough to marry, haven’t you?”
“As best I can,” he murmured. “It’s hard.”
She thought about it briefly, reached an unpleasant conclusion, and summoned her forces for the revelation.
“Allan…” She paused to gather her forces. “I know something that you need to know,” she said. “It’s a secret among women, something we try not to let men learn, but I will tell you if you’ll promise never to let another woman know that you know it. Will you do that for me?”
Intensity flowed into his expression. He gazed at her as if he were a biologist studying an entirely new species. Presently he nodded.
“You have my word.”
She looked briefly away.
Though I know I must do this, it will cost me.
“Your wife is a woman, yes?” He nodded. “Then she shares the traits that all women share, including this one. We are whores. Every one of us, wherever we may be, at every moment of our lives.”
His mouth dropped open. “What do you mean?”
“Have you ever patronized a whore, Allan? The admitted sort?”
He shook his head.
“A whore does what she does for payment,” she said. “And she will insist that she be paid before she provides her services. But imagine for a moment what would happen were you to pay, and then turn your back on her for a minute or two.”
It took him only a moment. “She would slip away.”
She nodded. “Of course. She would take your payment and leave without giving you what you had paid for. No whore wants to provide her service. The money is all that matters. If she can get that without having to…to…”
He held up a hand. “I get it, Amelie. But how does that bear upon the frost between a husband and a wife?”
“No matter what she has told you,” she said, “your wife did not marry you out of love, but because she wanted a husband, and you seemed suitable. Eight years ago she ceased to be a wife, while you have continued to be a husband. She is in the position of the whore who has contrived to slip away with the payment…in your case, a payment she continues to receive.” She spread her hands. “Why provide the service if she will be paid even if she withholds it?”
He stared at her, unspeaking.
“I know it’s hard to believe,” she said. “Women are supposed to be the romantics, the ones always reading and talking and thinking about love. Perhaps it was once so, but it hasn’t been that way for many years. Men are the romantics today. Men are the ones who think of love, who imagine it and strive for it and sometimes give their lives for it. My own mother told me so as part of my instruction. She told me that the only relationship I should ever have with a man is one of a whore with a paying client.”
“And you believed her,” he whispered.
“I didn’t take it on faith,” she said. “She told me not to. She told me to look at the world through unclouded eyes and decide for myself. So I did. I put my assumptions aside and looked, and I saw. And what I saw confirmed her words beyond any possibility of error.”
She smirked at the recollection. “Mother was honest with me. She told me to look at her and my father as I would look at a pair of strangers, and I did. And I saw. For thirty years he has paid with loyalty, affection, and a comfortable home. She has provided him what he paid her to provide, but no more.”
“And you,” he said.
She nodded. “Yes, children too. Two of us. That was part of the bargain. But Allan, had she ever refused him the services he expected, he would have ceased to pay. He has told me so.”
“Does he have a mistress?” he asked.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. Perhaps. If he does, I would bet that she is married, too. We French are more realistic than you Americans. You give of your strength, your money, your concern, even your lives. You give without limit or condition, you ask nothing in return, and you expect to be loved for it. Why do you think the people you help consider you fools and hold you in contempt?”
There was a long silence.
Presently he said “Amelie, you may have healed me, and you may have ruined me. Right now I can’t decide. But either way, I am grateful…and if it’s all right with you, I would like to continue this conversation. Could we meet for lunch here tomorrow?” She nodded. “But before we part for the day, tell me, please: do you think of yourself as a whore?”
She’d known the question would come. It had been part of her reluctance to speak at all. Still, she faced it with a gentle smile and all the stoicism she could muster.
“I don’t think of myself at all, Allan. I decide what I want, look for it around me, and think about how I might get it.” She glanced at the wall clock and rose. “I must return to my station.”
He nodded and looked away.
Amelie presented herself at the cafe at one the next afternoon, as promised. Allan was already there. He saw her enter, smiled, stood, and beckoned her to his table. A waiter arrived as she seated herself, took their orders, and moved smoothly away.
“Thank you for coming,” he said.
“De rien,” she said, then put a hand to her lips. “Excuse me, please. I meant to say ‘think nothing of it.’”
“But I do think something of it,” he said. “You could be spending your lunch hour in some other, more pleasant way. Perhaps with a friend or colleague. I’m just a sad sack of an American you deigned to help.”
“What is ‘deigned?’” she said.
“Oh. Forgive me.” He smiled. “It’s an old word for ‘agreed.’ No special connotations involved. At any rate, I’m happy to have your company.”
She felt warmth blossom in her bosom.
He is a charmer.
Why would a woman mistreat a man such as this?
Perhaps he is not what he seems?
“I am happy to have yours, Allan,” she said. She produced what she hoped was an appropriately mysterious smile. “But I must admit I had hoped for some compensation.”
It brought his eyebrows up. “All right, lunch is on me, but—”
“Not that,” she said. “I sell L’eclat jewelry. I draw a commission for my sales. When you approached me yesterday, I was hoping to sell you some, but we never got to…that part of our relationship.”
He laughed. “Right. We can fix that, but…after lunch, okay?”
She nodded, and they proceeded to talk of other things.
When Amelie was back at her jewelry counter with him standing before her, she clasped her hands at her middle and intoned in her best saleswoman’s voice, “Does Monsieur see anything he might like to bestow upon the object of his affections?”
Allan chuckled. “A few pieces, but they’re not for me. Perhaps Mademoiselle would favor me with the use of her taste and judgment?”
“Certainly, Monsieur. This one is only too pleased to be of assistance.” She cast her gaze along the rows of top-tier items. A lovely gold chain of Cuban links sat at the left end of the display. She unlocked the display, fished it out, and laid it fetchingly on a mat of black velvet for his inspection.
“This is twenty-two carat gold, about forty grains. The design is simple yet elegant, made to be worn with any ensemble and on a wide variety of occasions. Does Monsieur think his intended will find it attractive?”
He nodded. “I’m certain she will. However, I’d like to accessorize it in a fashion that would allow her to dress it up, or not, according to her fancy. Perhaps a removable pendant, and of course matching earrings. What would you suggest?”
“Ah! Monsieur thinks flexibly. I believe I have just what he has imagined.” She turned, retrieved a one-carat water-white diamond pendant in a gold teardrop setting, added a pair of matching earrings from the display case behind her, and set them in the appropriate positions alongside the chain. “Does Monsieur think his intended would approve?”
He smiled brightly. “I have no doubt of it. Consider it a sale.” He reached for his wallet. “What is the total, please?”
She punched at her calculator. “For all of these together, ninety-five hundred dollars and no cents, before the set discount of fifteen percent. With it…” she punched again, “…eight thousand seventy-five dollars and no cents. Before the state sales tax, of course.”
“Of course.” He pulled out his wallet and passed her a gold credit card. She ran it through her reader, nodded at the acceptance, and handed it back.
“Your total is exactly eight thousand, four hundred thirty-eight dollars and thirty-eight cents, Monsieur. I assume you would like these gift-wrapped?”
“Oh, no need for that at all.” He picked up the chain, slid the pendant onto it, and before she could react was standing behind her.
“Monsieur, this is not—”
“Hush, Mademoiselle. This will take only a moment.” He looped the chain around Amelie’s throat and clasped it. The diamond hung just above the start of her cleavage. He circled the counter once more and beamed at her in evident satisfaction.
“I’m afraid I’m no good with earrings,” he said. “Would you please put them on for me?”
Hardly daring to speak, she took the earrings from the velvet mat and applied them to her ears. He smiled and nodded.
“Just as I thought. They suit my intended to perfection. Are you happy with them, Mademoiselle?”
“Allan,” she breathed, “this is not—”
“Please,” he said. “Just look in the mirror and tell me.”
It was adornment of a height to which she’d never aspired, far beyond her means. Yet it did suit her. The brilliance of the diamonds and the warm golden shine of the chain lent radiance to her features. They glorified her, made her seem a creature of stature and substance rather than a mere saleswoman at a department store jewelry counter.
“Do you truly mean to do this?” she murmured.
“I do,” he said. “You are a jewel in your own right, and you deserve jewels with which to announce it to the world. But it’s time for you to compensate me.”
“What do you seek from me?” she whispered.
“Only the answer to a single, simple question.”
His eyes bored into hers.
“Do you really think yourself a whore, Amelie?”
Her heart leaped in her chest. She gazed once more into the mirror.
The woman whose image I see is pampered, cherished, exalted…and loved. A creature whose lover has raised her above the common earth. She need sell herself to no one. She is no one’s whore and never will be.
She is Amelie du Nord. Me.
“No,” she whispered.
He smiled and nodded. “Neither does Monsieur. Remember it.”
He pocketed his wallet, turned, and left the store.
Copyright © 2018 Francis W. Porretto. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
“I shall pass this way but once; any good, therefore, that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” – Author unknown