All the Innocent Ones Back Home: Paris
Sylvere placed his saxophone next to its case on the small stage, walked to the bar, and sat on a stool near one end, staring into the black, heavy night. Outside it was hot and humid, but inside it was cool and comfortable. A large air-conditioning unit, humming along softly, was set into the wall opposite the bar, not far from an archway which led to an adjoining room with about 25 tables and a larger number of chairs. Summer in Paris, he said to himself, is getting hotter every year.
Sylvere turned back toward the bar and ordered a glass of beer from the bartender, a boy who would seem to be too young to work in any bar but who had approached from the other end and who now looked to his right at the stage on which Sylvere and the three, other members of his band had just finished their set. The band was popular in Paris among those who enjoyed listening to live music of the jazz variety, although not many people had attended the latest performance, perhaps because it had started at 5:30 in the afternoon and lasted only an hour.
Today had been a difficult day for Sylvere, a talented musician, but, at the same time, an indifferent and, sometimes, careless performer, especially when he was preoccupied by events back home. He preferred American jazz, primarily a series of obscure compositions by Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, and others of their generation, although this music, Sylvere admitted to his friends, didn’t make sense to him.
But playing the saxophone, for Sylvere, was not, and never was, a particularly enjoyable way to pass the time. The reactions of others to his playing surprised Sylvere and, often, amused him, as if other people’s admiration for his talent had nothing to do with him. Music was a medicine Sylvere took to make it through the day. It was, more precisely, a sedative, something to help him relax and, perhaps, even forget, if only for a short time, the death and destruction.
Now music erupted from speakers somewhere in the building, filling the bar and the adjoining dining room, where a wedding celebration was picking up speed. A few minutes earlier Sylvere had noticed a young man, who, like him, was African or else African European, pass through the bar and enter the dining room, where the man had proceeded to set up the equipment he brought with him, a computer and various other electronic devices connected to it. He was the DJ hired to provide entertainment for the wedding celebration.
The boy placed a glass of beer on the bar top in front of Sylvere and slipped away. Sylvere grasped the tall glass in one hand and brought it to his lips. Today, after receiving a report of another massacre of men, women, and children in his hometown, including the killing of a childhood friend, a village doctor, he knew that music no longer could help him. All the innocent ones back home were trapped in a cycle of violence from which few had any hopes of escaping. Theirs was a world of pain and suffering. It offered little possibility of anything else.
Sylvere took a long drink of beer from the glass, then two more gulps, staring straight ahead but seeing nothing, not even the 40 to 50 people eating, drinking, and dancing to the DJ’s music in celebration of the marriage of a French man in his fifties to an African woman in her twenties. Sylvere placed the empty glass back on the bar top. As he looked around, realizing his three band-mates were gone and he was the only one sitting at the bar, he could think of only the people who would die next.
“Another wedding, so much joy and hope,” Sylvere said, but he wasn’t talking to anyone in particular. He had spoken his words in the dialect of his ancestral home. Still, the boy, who had approached from the other end of the bar and picked up the empty glass, looked at Sylvere, raising his eyebrows. The older man, though, turned on his stool, once again, and looked into the black, heavy night.
Suddenly, an image of his third-oldest daughter emerged from the darkness. Sylvere closed his eyes. But the image remained. He could see Julienne clearly. She sat motionless in the back seat of a taxi, staring straight ahead, as the driver loaded her suitcases into the trunk of the white Mercedes sedan. It was the day she left for nursing school in Brussels. She never would look at her father, who stood in the road next to the back door of the vehicle, peering through the window, hoping to exchange some final words with his daughter before she departed.
“Whisky,” Sylvere said, abruptly, turning back toward the bar and gesturing to the boy. Sylvere could still see the image of his daughter in the taxi. But he knew Julienne wasn’t in Brussels any longer. Where was she now? The boy placed a wider, shorter glass on the bar top in front of Sylvere this time, filled the glass with an amber liquid from a green bottle, and moved back toward the other end of the bar. Sylvere stared at the amber liquid, but he made no attempt to drink it.
The bar and dining room occupied the second floor of a popular restaurant outside Combs-la-Ville, a suburb of Paris, where Sylvere had lived for forty of his seventy-three years. He was entering the twilight years of his life, but he didn’t look like a man who was in the habit of sitting in front of a television set all day long, waiting for his death to overtake him.
The restaurant, called El Bulle Petite, a reference to the famous Spanish restaurant, now defunct, located in Roses, Spain, was always crowded. Sylvere, though, called the restaurant, La Bulimia. It was not one of his favorites. Because he liked to indulge himself at mealtime, he carried too much weight on his 5’10” frame, but he would never pass through the doors of El Bulle Petite, regardless of the occasion, if the decision were his alone. Always, Sylvere, when he entered the restaurant, grew irritated.
Life in the small town 30 kilometers southeast of downtown Paris went on unremarkably most of the time, and it even could be full of joy and hope. But, now, Sylvere felt only despair. He knew life would be less complicated for him and for the people around him if only he could accept reality. But he could not. He wanted to replace it. In a world of never ceasing violence and the death and destruction it caused, Sylvere found himself, on occasion, gasping for air but nevertheless, against all odds, resisting the forces pressing down on him and everyone who mattered to him.
Sylvere looked at the amber liquid in the glass again. The music had stopped. He could hear someone giving a speech in the room next door. He drained the contents of the glass, stood up, and removed a wallet from the inside pocket of his dark green blazer, catching the eye of the boy. Sylvere took a few bills out of the wallet and waited as the boy approached.
“Monsieur,” the boy said, speaking in French, “the drinks are on the house.”
Sylvere looked closely at the boy for the first time. Maybe he wasn’t a boy after all, Sylvere realized, thanking the younger man and replacing the money in the wallet and, next, the wallet in his pocket. Sylvere walked over to the stage, picked up his saxophone, and inserted it into its case.
“See you next Saturday?” the bartender said, looking up from some bottles of mineral water he had started transferring from a cardboard box to a small refrigerator. Sylvere, who was walking toward a side door which led from the bar to a set of external stairs and the street below, stopped and stared at the bartender.
Then Sylvere recalled that he and his band-mates had agreed to perform in the bar at El Bulle Petite the following week too. It was their idea, but he realized he didn’t mind. Maybe after the second performance he would even start to like the place. Anyway, playing his saxophone for an admiring audience, no matter where the audience was, or how small it was, would do him some good.
“Yes,” Sylvere replied in French, making his way to the exit, “We’ll be here.”
Sylvere opened the door and stepped into the dark, heavy night, an image of a pot of fish stew simmering on the stove now appearing before his eyes. His house was only a few blocks away. He wondered if his son or youngest daughter had left him any of the fish stew. It was his wife’s specialty and, also, his favorite dish.
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