I love French films; I own well over 200 of them on DVD. And not just the New Wave films we all know, but the pre-war films of Julien Duvivier, Jacques Becker, Marcel Carne, Sacha Guitry — and above all, those of Jean Renoir and Marcel Pagnol.
I am afraid that under the influence of such films as “Le jour se leve,” “La bete humaine,” and “Quai des brumes,” I am guilty of writing a pastiche short story Which I here present to you. Please read it in black and white.
L’echafaud de mon desir
Mon desir pour l’echafaud
My name is Etienne Duford and I am the chef de cuisine of a small restaurant in the town of _________. It is hardly more than a village, near Orleans, and a stopping place for truck drivers hauling cargo from Bourges to Paris.
And my restaurant cannot be called haute cuisine. It is only irony that causes me to name myself “chef.” Mostly I serve the truckers blanquette and gigot along with vin de table and rather a lot of digestif. I guess there was a lot of digestion needed to process the food I served. Next door is a small six-room auberge called the relais de St. Pierre. The restaurant is part of the St. Pierre, and its owner is my boss.
St. Pierre. It makes me laugh. “On this rock I build my church,” said Jesus. Well, we grow sugar beets in this corner of the world, and they are hard as rocks. Farmer, I joke, do you really need to plant the beets, can’t you just plow up the rocks that are already in the ground?
The beets pile up in the autumn in little pyramids beside the fields and along the roads, waiting to be picked up and brought to the factory. That paysage is the only thing that gives our region anything you might claim to be distinctif. Otherwise, this is flat country, both as geography and as culture.
Yes, I am married, to la belle Helene, as I like to say, a farmer’s daughter. No, she is not really all that belle anymore, although, for 47, she still has a decent figure and I can’t complain. We still sleep together, although I seldom touch her. Not that she doesn’t have her own affairs to keep in order. Affairs. I can’t really call them amours. That would be much too grand a word. I don’t mind them, and it leaves her a little extra spending money.
But it is the other one you want to know about — my Juliette. Daughter of old Ambroise, owner of the St. Pierre. Julie, ma jolie. The perfect ideal of womanhood. Une vierge de 28 ans, and the main reason I have never left this dusty town. I knew her when she was a child and I was in my 20s, just opening my restaurant. I watched her grow up. She is the only pinpoint of grace in this town, or in my existence.
I would see her sweeping the dirt in front of the auberge every morning and see her shake the laundry out back. No, I didn’t pay much attention to her when she was young. It’s strange, now that I think about it. This isn’t something that happened those many years ago. I really thought of her as a child, at least until she was in her mid 20s. Then, I realized how beautiful she was, how graceful, and how she was a door to un monde plus gentil, more refined. Too refined for me, helas. I watched her, but I could never approach her.
Then, there was Jean. If a movie were to be made, he would be Gabin. He was one of the truckers who stopped regularly at the St. Pierre. He ate at my place, and perhaps drank a bit more of the vin ordinaire than was good for him. I loathed him.
Why? Because of the attention he paid Julie, ma jolie. She deserved better. He smiled at her. I wanted to paste him one. This was no belle et la bete. There was no prince buried underneath the coarse skin.
Twice a month he came through with his truck, spent the night at the St. Pierre and ate my rillons with mashed potatoes and mustard sauce. He smacked his lips. In others I would have taken that as a compliment.
“What do you think,” he said one evening. “Great piece of meat, no?”
Surely, he wasn’t talking about the cutlet, which should have been turned into a shoe.
“I would love to get me some of that.” And he indicated, by a rude gesture, he was referring to his nether regions in contact with something soft and feminine. “She’s really something.”
Loathing doesn’t accurately describe my feelings; I hated him. He was a pig.
That Thursday, he came to dinner. I remember, he had only oeufs and some vin rouge. There was pomade in his hair and the smell of the barber shop. His suit hadn’t exactly been pressed, but it was cleaner than usual and I assumed that he had steamed it in his room.
“She gave me the high sign.”
“The morsel. I’ve been after her for years, and I think she’s finally ready to give in.”
A big grin covered his face like the wrong sauce on a magret de canard. He wiped his mouth with his forearm.
“Another glass, s’il vous plait,” and he slammed the empty glass down on the table.
When he left, I pulled the towel from my belt, put it on the bar, and followed him. I kept a ways behind, and ducked behind the corner of the St. Pierre as he went in. Looking in the window, I saw him laugh his greasy laugh, slap the concierge’s desk and yell out, “Juliette!” I had an instant chunk of ice coagulate in my gut.
I went back to the restaurant, closed up for the day, and went upstairs. Helene was sitting by the door.
“I’m going out tonight,” she said. “Don’t wait up.”
I’m a man with some small education, although I claim no sophistication. I never finished school. But, I have a tolerant nature. I was not going to make a fuss over this habitual betrayal. I haven’t been the best husband to Helene, and she hasn’t been the best wife to me. It’s a little compromise we both make with life. I don’t ask and she doesn’t rub my nose in it.
But that wasn’t a good night to hear it one more time. I put my coat on, went back downstairs and out the door. I walked down the street and out of the village, out into the fields. I could see only black. It was still twilight and I could make out the hills of beets by the roadside, and the windbreak of trees at the far end of the fields. I could see the windows of the village light up behind me. But inside, it was all black. I wasn’t thinking about Helene. My thoughts passed instead to Julie. “How could such a gem exist even in the same dimension as that slug? How could she abide his barbarity?”
By the time I got to the trees just to the west of the village, I sat on the ground, looking back at the houses, silhouettes now against the graying sky. I’m a grown man, but I sobbed, wiped my nose and took a deep breath. I pulled my knees up to my chest, wrapped my arms around them and sat still, continuing to look back at the cluster of homes.
Homes? What is a home? What is one supposed to expect from life? Is there anything like a good marriage? Is it all accommodation? All a matter of giving up? In those books, there are great love affairs, but how do they all end? They all end in death. Anna and Vronsky, Romeo, Juliet. Juliette?
If they end in marriage, they are Charles and Emma. Helene.
The air was unseasonably warm that night. Thursday. The day of the week with the least character. It is a bland day. An empty day.
I heard something in the woods to my left, a shifting of branches and leaves.
I hoped Helene had found more in existence than I had. I had looked for foie gras and found turnips. No sauce helps the turnips.
I was certainly feeling sorry for myself. The son of man knows not where to lay his head.
I wiped my nose and took a deep breath. Then there was a giggle. There was no doubting that voice.
I got up and walked quietly down to the noise.
There she was on the ground, with her legs split open and the beast wedged between, grunting and rooting. She giggled again. I yelled out. I picked up a beet, hard as stone and took a whack at the beast’s head. He rolled off his prize and looked up at me with the slack uncomprehension of a farm animal. I lifted my arm for a second sally when he pushed me off, grabbed his trousers from around his ankles, yanked them up, rolled away from me, got up and began running off into the beet field, leaving the astonished Julie on her back, white and naked from the waist down, and her tuft of pubic hair, smoke above the fire, a punctuating point in the whiteness where the two legs met, downhill from her upraised knees. I yelled a second time and brought my arm down on her head. I did it again. And again, and again. Her head split open, it was gummy with blood. Her eyes looked up, but they didn’t see anything anymore. I dropped the beet and yelled a third time.
“Julie, ma jolie!” And I cried. I cried like a baby and collapsed next to the slab of meat that used to be the girl I loved.
Now my only assignation is with la veuve, the “widow.” Its blade will will take my best part — my mind — and slice it from my gross part, and the division will be the end of me. No great loss to the world, I fear, but rather a disappointment to myself.
Signed on this 30th day of November, 1937