“Becket in 5th, that’s what I tell him.” A small Vietnamese man in a loose-fitting light cotton jacket, he’s scribbling something. He tucks the Clairfontaine mini-notebook into a breast pocket, now replaced by a small sachet of Drum. He looks twenty years her senior but it’s more than thirty. They stroll in time with each other, winding along the bends of old-town, past the rue du lavoir’s gurgling water troughs, careful not to trip on the cobblestones pressing up for air. It is their habitual neighborly repartée: the girl saying nothing, nodding.
“We have bet—should have—then he remember.” He licks his cigarette paper. She watches these gestures, the puckered fingertips like the outsides of oyster shells, dry pinpricked, hard stony insides of nearby grottos. He works to line up the tobacco fibers, rolling the cigarette neatly, seals it closed with surprising deftness. For a moment they could be anywhere, even a metropolis, with cars, buses, people rushing past. A group of tourists up ahead bunches round their guide who cries out:
“See here, this house once held—”
There were the blue paintings, the grey hills of sea, a rectangular waiting. One was large and red with a cobalt teapot, steamless and still, settled on a thin shelf. In the museum the piano tilts awkwardly towards onlookers. The girl brushes a wisp of obsidian-black hair out of her eyes, the window ledge is only a few meters away, only a few feet.
“200 francs I could have,” he splutters. She nods.
“Oui, Monsieur Tran, you could have gotten at least that much.”
They nod agreement. At the next bend, they wave at each other, like foreigners. He will go to Sirene’s for lunch, stop by Anatole’s poissons et fruits de mer to pick up a fat, pink tranche de saumon for Madame. This is what the girl finds so charming, how he thinks of things, follows patterns, smiles crookedly showing the gaps in his mouth where teeth rotten away long ago from too much sugar have abandoned him, how he isn’t ashamed or questioning. She waves then turns right.