His mother’s footsteps thundered in the hall and a familiar feeling of dread formed in the pit of his gut. “Put that horror back in the armoire,” she said appearing in the doorway in a dull brown dress.
Julien held up the painting and looked at her. “I was thinking you could auction it off at the bazaar.” She was chairing the Spring Charity Picnic and Bazaar at Notre Dame on Sunday after Mass.
“No one wants that vulgar thing. All that garish color. And it’s a park scene. Real art depicts our Lord and Savior. Or His Mother,” she said.
It was a painting Julien had done as a secondary school student at St. Thomas Aquinas, a street scene at the Place des Innocents, riotous with hues of greens and blues. His mother, Josephine, loathed it from the moment he brought it through the patisserie door. He had bungled the sky. There was a certain shade of blue, Parisian blue, in the early evening just before twilight that was impossible to capture.
He stuffed it back in its place behind his woolen trousers. She’d derided it so many times he’d been forced to remove it from his wall. But Henri Matisse had debuted a similar painting, Woman with a Hat, the previous fall at the 1905 Salon Automne at the Petit Palais. It sold for a shocking four thousand francs.
He tied his apron and hurried downstairs. His father, Ansell, stood near the door, a large ring of brass keys in his hand. Julien placed his fingers on the unfamiliar knob and turned it with a click. The Patisserie Bellerose & Son was now wired for electricity. Soft light fell from the chandelier.
It had cost a fortune. They’d be eating the inferior wheels of chalky camembert hawked at the market at Les Halles and have to watch for adulterated cuts stuffed with the limestone they dug out of the side of the Butte.
The shop was located on the busy Rue du Dragon on the left bank. The sea shell shaped pink madeleines, flaky lemon tarts, dark chocolate éclairs, pistachio macaroons, and rosewater cream puff pastries were laid out in tantalizing rows, but it was the slender batons of sweet bread that kept the family in business. A father and son pair had been turning out the bread side by side since their ancestor, Alain, left the employ of King Louis XVI to open his own establishment a few years before the Parisians stormed the Bastille. Ansell joked that Bellerose boys were born with a dusting of flour on the tips of their noses.
Julien took his place next to Ansell and together they kneaded the famous dough elbows bent at precisely the same angle. Ansell cut several gashes on each loaf and took the tray to the ovens.
Eugenie, the shop girl, ambled over to Julien’s station, her wide hips swaying, and executed an ungainly pirouette. “I love the ballet,” she said.
The sour scent of her sweat turned his stomach. “Go back to your counter.”
Ansell returned from the kitchen, and Eugenie rushed back to her register. Julien glared at the back of her head.
Ansell followed his gaze. “Perhaps this is the year you will make your mother happy, eh?”
Julien shook his head almost imperceptibly, afraid his father would notice, but unable to let the comment go unchallenged. An elderly regular entered the store, her black knit shawl held tight against her frail torso.
“Bonjour Madame Le Clerc. How is Auguste? Is his condition improving?” Ansell asked.
“He hasn’t even the strength to go to Mass. The priest is too busy to stop in and give us communion. And us parishioners for fifty years,” she said.
Ansell walked from behind the counter and pressed a bag into her hand, a crusted loaf poking out the top. “Perhaps Julien can bring the wafers to you after Mass on Sunday.”
Julien scowled and opened his mouth to speak, but Ansell held up his hand.
“That would be ever so kind. Are you sure it won’t be too much trouble?” She asked.
“He’ll be there,” Ansell said. “Sunday after Mass. Don’t you worry.”
“You know where I live. On the butte. 19 Rue Lepic.” She handed a coin to Eugenie and went out, clutching the bread.
“It isn’t proper,” Julien insisted. “Only the priest can give the wafer and only in the mouth. You know this.”
“She’s been a loyal customer for forty years. Your mother can convince Father Denis.”
“But it’s wrong.”
“Enough,” Ansell said.
In the evening, after the last customer exited the store, Julien followed Ansell into the kitchen. They wiped the crumbs from the ovens with fresh rags. “Papa, I don’t want to marry Eugenie.”
“Nonsense, your mother has been planning this since you were still in the bassinet. She’ll accept no other into the house. And she brings a good dowry. We can update the kitchen.”
“But I don’t like her. She’s clumsy. And mean. She used to torment the watchmaker’s daughter because she’s pretty.”
Ansell snapped the oven door shut. “It’s been decided.”
The next morning Julien joined his father at the breakfast table. Josephine fetched the bread basket and set a small jar next to his plate. “I got your marmalade.”
“I thought Les Halles was out of it,” Julien said.
His father looked up from behind his newspaper. “Your mother went all the way to the Neuilly. She spoils you.”
“That’s a long way to go for marmalade,” Julien said.
“And she took the omnibus,” Ansell said.
“The Metro is faster,” Julien said.
She sat down, unfolded her napkin, and placed it in her plump lap. “I have no intention of riding that sewer train.”
Julien dipped his teaspoon into the jar. “It’s not a sewer. It’s clean and well-lit.”
“Only tombs and hell belong underground,” she replied.
Julien looked at this father. “I’ve decided to take up painting again.”
Ansell slapped down the paper. “There is no time for frivolities and toys. A new boulangerie is opening on the quays. I’ve heard rumors they’ll be undercutting our prices.”
I wouldn’t be away from the shop that much.”
“They’re employing ten workers. Ten. They’ll make enough to feed the entire first arrondisement. If we’re going to keep up I need you to work more than you are now. The electric lights drained our savings to nearly nothing.”
“I don’t mind helping, Papa, of course. But I also want to paint.”
“How many in France would trade places with you? Young people today don’t want respectable lives. You want no children, no families. You want fetes and playthings.”
Julien caught Ansell’s eye. “Painting is not a frivolity and my brushes are not toys.”
“Paint is expensive. We have no spare money.”
“I can save.”
“No,” Ansell said. “I won’t allow it.”
“I don’t want to be a baker.
Ansell bounced his fist off the table, rattling the plates. “Every Bellerose is a baker.”
Josephine stood and removed the marmalade from the table. “You’ll obey your father.”
“You have no talent for it,” Ansell said. “Your paintings were tasteless and silly. Master Laurent said so himself.”
“I was only fifteen, and Laurent is only a secondary school teacher. He knows nothing.”
Ansell pushed the chair from the table. “I don’t want to hear any more of it. Let’s hurry. We’ll be late to Mass. Your mother and I will meet your there.”
Eugenie and her parents, the Guillards, were waiting at the northern most entrance at Notre Dame when Julien rode up on his bicycle. He leaned it against a lamppost and adjusted the leather satchel he wore crossways over his coat.
He avoided Eugenie by letting his gaze sweep across the Cathedral, beginning with the circular rose window. His eyes fell upon the two soaring rectangular bell towers and the two-horned gargoyles that drained rainwater from the eaves. A breeze blew off the gray waters of the Seine, at one with the gong of the church bell.
His parents appeared from the direction of the Quai St. Michel, and Eugenie’s mother, Lucille, immediately took Josephine by the arm to discuss preparations for the charity bazaar following Mass.
Ansell pulled Julien aside. “It’s arranged with the wafers. Father Denis refused but your mother threatened to stop bringing him the bread. Take the wafers to Madame Le Clerc after Mass, but don’t dawdle. Come right back for the bazaar. Your mother wants you to spend time with Eugenie’s parents.”
“Papa,” he urged. “It’s not right for me to take the wafers to the Le Clercs. Why do you even care?”
“Listen. My father had some financial trouble the year you were born. We almost lost the business. It was a loan from Monsieur Le Clerc’s father that saved us. You won’t disappoint them. Not another word about it.”
Julien cringed and followed his father to their pew. His parents had insisted he attend religious schools. The wafer embodied Christ, to be handled only by the priests, and any leftovers they had to consume. Old favors notwithstanding if the family was going to participate in the sacraments the least they could do was follow the rules.
The choir chanted and Julien shut his eyes. He wanted the mass to end and was grateful when the worshippers were called to the altar for the sacrament. He waited in line and upon reaching the altar crossed himself and locked eyes with Father Denis.
Father Denis lifted the host. “The body of Christ.”
“Amen,” Julien said and opened his mouth.
Father Denis set the host on his tongue and discreetly handed him the two extra wafers. Julien made his way to the pew and after pocketing the sacred contraband pushed himself on to the kneeler to beg for forgiveness.
After Mass, he strapped the satchel across his torso and rode off on his bicycle toward Montmartre. The streets teemed with revelers sauntering home from a night of debauchery in the bal musettes in Montparnasse, accordion music still ringing in their ears. Horses clopped past him as he dodged the manure piled like banks of snow near the curb.
When he reached the crowded Place des Victoires a familiar figure stood near the gilt bronze horseman in the center of the plaza, a woman at his side. The young man’s upswept wavy hair enhanced the triangular shape of his head. A thick moustache protruded from his nostrils.
“Marcel!” He’d known Marcel since the first day at St. Thomas Aquinas. Marcel had been a full six inches shorter than any other boy in the school and was nearly swallowed up on the staircase. Julien had taken hold of his elbow and ushered him to safety.
“Julien! It’s been ages.”
Julien shifted his satchel so the wafers pointed in the other direction. “You should wax that moustache.”
“You’re still making bread with Ansell?”
“I have no other choice.”
Marcel introduced the young woman with him as a friend. Germaine Rinaud wore her chocolate brown hair in curls piled on top of her head. Thick strands escaped over her shoulders and down her back. Her breasts exploded from a tightly corseted, but thick waist.
“We’re heading to the Cafe Blanche across from the Moulin Rouge. Her friend is a poseus there,” Marcel said. “You should come.”
Julien’s cheeks flushed pink. He’d heard of these scandalous women who sang in the cafes for money. “I’m expected at a church bazaar.”
“I wait tables at Chez Marbeuf near the Opera,” Marcel said. “Come see me some night after my shift. I get off at eleven. We’ll go to a cabaret.”
“I will,” Julien said, knowing he couldn’t without causing a scene with Josephine. “The night is the devil’s playground,” she said with such frequency one would think it was a phrase she had coined herself. He waved goodbye as he headed toward the busy Rue du Fauborg Montmartre.
When he reached Madame Le Clerc’s residence, she received him with enthusiasm as if she wanted him to visit, grasping at the wafers with her yellow fingernails, but Julien left abruptly and snatched up his bicycle. She meant no harm, but Josephine had tormented the priest on her behalf. He thought of his parents and petty Eugenie and gripped the handlebars until his knuckles were red. Rather than riding toward the bazaar he headed for Pigalle and turned onto the Boulevard Clichy.
The windmill atop the Moulin Rouge twirled in a flash of red. The greasy odor of pomme-frites emanated from the Cafe Blanche. Marcel and Germaine sipped café cremes at the table farthest from the entrance.
“Fiorella, will be out in a minute to sing,” Germaine said as Julien approached. She affixed a cigarette into a holder and held it to her lips. Marcel produced a lighter and set the circular end aflame. She inhaled and allowed the smoke to trail out through her mouth and nose. Julien looked around to see if anyone else had noticed.
Marcel chuckled. “Relax. This is Montmartre. All the girls smoke. Germaine works across the street as a cigarette girl. The can-can dancers are her best customers.”
Fiorella lifted her dress and stepped out from inside the café. She smiled, revealing one front tooth that slightly overlapped the other. A severe black bob complimented her delicate egg shaped face, and underneath her ivory dress, she wore no corset.
“Some of the dressmakers are selling dresses without corsets,” Germaine said.
“You should wear one,” Marcel said.
Germaine scoffed. “Some women love the freedom. I couldn’t.”
Fiorella closed her eyes, and from her lungs sprang a lilting sound:
Give us, give us the air of Paris
Where the winds of heaven blow.
Give us, give us the waters of the Seine.
Where the tears of angels flow
She continued through three refrains, and the diners exploded into an ovation as the waiter passed a hat. She curtsied and sat down.
“Fiorella’s only been here a month. She’s from Lisieux,” Germaine said.
“Pretty name,” Julien ventured.
“In Spanish it means little flower,” Fiorella replied,
Germaine exhaled a plume of smoke. “Is your mother Spanish?”
“Yes. It’s my father who’s French. I was named after a Spanish nun. They say she’ll be canonized.” She looked away as a man entered the café. He squinted from behind the gold-rimmed spectacles perched low on his nose and tipped his hat. “Bonjour,” he called out.
“I think he fancies you,” Germaine said.
“Don’t be silly. Monsieur Matisse is a painter. Married. I introduced him to a customer who bought a painting.”
Julien turned and discreetly stared. “That’s Henri Matisse? I want to paint too, but I have to work with my papa in our patisserie.”
Fiorella rose to sing another song. “There are many hours in the day. If you want to paint, paint.”
After supper, Marcel ordered a round of absinthe. Fiorella cited her voice as a reason to decline while the other three sipped at the fiery green elixir. Julien’s eyes watered and he coughed, but he finished it. They asked for another. Julien was drunk by the time he left just after sunset.
Ansell called him into the sitting room where Josephine sat brooding in her favorite chair. “Where were you?”
“I ran into Marcel and decided to spend the day with him and his friends.”
“We were embarrassed before the Guillards, and poor Eugenie was heartbroken,” Josephine said.
“I have no wish to sully her reputation, but she isn’t who you think she is and I won’t marry her. I’ll pick my own wife.”
Josephine stood. “They own a good butcher shop, and I’m close to Lucille. It’s been arranged.”
“We need the money. The patisserie could go under if we don’t replace the ovens. They won’t last much longer,” Ansell said.
“I’m sorry. I can’t sacrifice my life for this.”
“I won’t have some strange girl in the house,” Josephine insisted. “Eugenie is a part of the family.”
“She’s not part of my family. And I’m going to the Louvre tomorrow with my friends after my work is done. The museum is open late.”
“Who are these friends?” Ansell asked.
“You know Marcel. Germaine works in Montmartre. The other girl’s name is Fiorella.”
“Fiorella? Is she French?” Ansell asked.
“Half. Her mother is Spanish.”
“Never,” Josephine said.
“She’s a poseus from the twentieth arrondissement,” Julien continued.
Josephine raised her eyebrows nearly to her hairline. “The twentieth? A Spanish peasant, and a harlot? You can’t be serious.”
“She isn’t a harlot. She has the voice of an angel. And she carries the favor of a saint. We’re friends. I just met her.”
Ansell headed for his rooms and shook his head. “I don’t know what’s happening to you.”
Julien’s friends waited at the museum entrance. Fiorella held a cardboard box filled with half used tubes of paint and worn brushes. “These are for you. Monsieur Matisse owed me a favor.”
Julien opened it. “For me? No one has ever been so kind.”
Germaine pulled Marcel away to look at statues. Julien guided Fiorella to the Fragonards hanging in the Grand Galerie. “They’re wonderful. Something in the way he portrays the light,” he said.
She looked at the walls in wonder. “Look at this one, The Bathers. The light is almost ethereal. I think the color is called eau de nil. I’ve never perceived the sky this way.”
“The trees should be royal blue,” he said.
She crinkled her nose. “But that would be odd.”
“They’re intruding on the sky. Perhaps their color should reflect that.” He put his arm through hers. “Let’s go into the Salon Carre.” They entered the gallery quietly so as not to awaken the elderly guard napping at the entrance. “Which of these speaks to you?” He whispered.
She walked toward a canvas at eye level. “This one.” “Corregio, Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine. What is it that draws you?”
“It’s classic. It reflects the skill of the painter and the story is clear.”
“But it doesn’t emit much feeling does it? Don’t you think the work should reflect the feelings of the painter?”
She tilted her head to one side. “Perhaps. But there’s nothing wrong with tradition, is there?”
“Tradition has its place. It’s the building block. But the world is always moving forward.”
“I sometimes would rather it stand still.”
They perused as many rooms as they could before the museum closed and then found Marcel and Germaine examining the Victory of Samothrace near the entrance.
“She’s a goddess. Her form is a bit like yours,” Marcel said to Germaine.
“I look nothing like her,” Germaine replied.
Marcel twirled his moustache. “No, you look more like the Venus de Milo with arms.”
“Nonsense,” she said.
They left the museum and walked along the quays toward Notre Dame. The girls sauntered ahead, their voices low in a mysterious feminine hum. Fiorella stared at the great cathedral. “It’s breathtaking.”
Julien quickened his step. “Gothic is an architecture of the sky. The arches are steep, the towers are vertical, reaching toward heaven. Unfortunately the congregation within it often fails to live up to its aspirations. I’d like to capture this chasm with paint.” He held the heavy door and they entered the cathedral.
“How would you do that?” Fiorella asked.
“By playing with the tint,” he answered, but she ran toward the altar where a statute of the Blessed Mother mourned over her fallen son stretched across her lap. She made the sign of the cross and knelt down. Julien observed in silence. On this night he couldn’t summon the nerve to ask her for an outing alone.
On Sunday Julien and his parents attended mass, but Eugenie and her family sat on the opposite side of the cathedral, as stiff as the statuary. Julien studied the colored light stealing its way through the stained glass into the chilly aisles of the nave.
After cleansing his soul through the act of communion, he sullied it once again by concealing the two extra wafers. He left the Cathedral without bidding his parents goodbye.
The chestnut trees along the banks of the Seine had lost some of their fiery yellow leaves in a storm. They had dried in the fickle sun and their brittle remnants crunched beneath his feet. The swirling gray water created mesmerizing patterns in the sunlight. He reached into his satchel and recovered the wafers. He envisioned Jesus himself, emerging from the river Jordan.
Visions detonated. His mother, creped hands pushing Eugenie at him, smoke pouring from her eyes. The silver sliver of compromise in Father Denis’ eyes. Blue trees, cerulean rivers, horses the color of the sun. Fiorella’s face cloaked in a robe of the softest white fleece, almond eyes lit by the soft glow of candles with long wicks. Germaine’s angular limbs turning green, and her lush, soft body exploding from her corset.
The wafers were body of Christ. Better to throw them into the baptismal water than to deliver them to sad Madame Le Clerc. It was better for her. He crossed himself and threw the wafers into the Seine. His bicycle had fallen from its perch against the post. He retrieved it and headed toward Pigalle. Perhaps he’d summon the nerve to ask Fiorella to accompany him for a stroll in the Neuilly along its chilly banks.
Written by: Shelley Schenk, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, 2015. Previously published in Philadelphia Stories, Winter, 2015. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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