It took the comely little American girl only two minutes to convince the English-speaking Greek gypsy woman to let her help solicit change from the café patrons of Paris. If only the United Nations could cross such boundaries as easily.
The precocious, raven-haired 8-year-old was brazenly striking out on her own each December morning that winter. School was out of session for the month to honor the coming Christmas holiday. When her mother, a hairdresser, dropped her off at the library each morning, wrapped in scarves and a knit hat and thick fluffy mittens, she had waited until her mom was out of sight and then stealthily slid out of the uncomfortable chair in front of the computer. She would wander the streets of the 6th arrondissement on the Rive Gauche, hoping to find a way to make some money and keep her mom from crying herself to sleep every night. A mother who would employ the warmth and heat from her own body in order to keep her daughter warm in the single bed they shared in the heatless two-room flat, a maid’s chamber basically, situated within spitting distance of the Eiffel Tower. Such destitution and sadness so close to such structural beauty. The ‘juxtaposition of life’, her mom had explained to her one morning as they scraped ice off the inside of the windows to get a better look at the tower before their chilly 15 block walk to the library.
Sometimes her mother would wake up and begin the day crying, as though sleep was merely an emotional comma, a brief respite from her conscious depression; sleep being the abyss between bouts of sadness.
Her daughter’s father was a French plumber who’d left her before the baby was born. The young girl then had felt saddled with the surname of someone she’d never met, and never quite understood her mom’s tradition-based explanation. One of her schoolmates had asked her if she was ashamed to have no father.
It was that unusually icy December in 1996 that Lisa Dean Jacquet, at the age of eight, when ‘innocence’ was still supposed to have a pulse, still expected to be in place and forming its illusory, unseen but necessary cocoon, had instead learned about the shame associated with begging.
The Greek gypsy called herself Anemone. She was not like most of the crass, loud fishwives that scattered amongst the outdoor seating areas of the more affluent Paris cafes, holding infants aloft, shamelessly cadging change solicited ostensibly to feed the baby. Lisa had learned that many of these babies were borrowed from other families and used merely as props.
Anemone, which translated to ’wind’, and in Greek mythology was a nymph who was turned into a wind flower, took a much more subtle yet still direct approach with her efforts. She made sure to not dress shabbily, but wore nothing too refined, either. She asked for money for food and rent only, sensing the less ostentatious the ruse, the more believable and palatable it would be received. She averaged between 15 and 25 francs on a good day, with the unknown irony being she did actually have a two-year-old at home with her sister, who was stricken and dying with Leukemia but who cared for the baby girl while Anemone gathered money each day.
Employing the cute young American girl who spoke fluent French would prove to be a huge advantage.
Anemone knew that most Parisians would never consider giving money to gypsies. Thus it was the American tourist who proved to be her most consistent contributor, her target demographic. It was this target group to which she pointed Lisa Dean toward initially. She taught the young girl to walk coquettishly up to the Americans, speak softly in French and then immediately translate her request for change into English. The combination tended to melt the hearts of even the more cynical and hard-hearted of American travelers.
On the flip side, the seeds for a budding cynic were being sowed in the soil of young Lisa Dean’s psyche, as she seemed to intuitively grasp the undercurrent of manipulation and deceit that pandering successfully to adults required. It was her first real lesson about life.
Anemone had agreed to pay Lisa Dean one third of all money that was collected between the two of them. Lisa Dean, of course, had no idea what would constitute a fair arrangement.
For a week, she had squirreled away the change, her ‘cut’ as Anemone had called it, at the end of each day. She had yet to figure out how she would explain it to her mom. She had visions of a warm flat, and good, hot food on the dinner table. All other conundrums paled and would work themselves out once her cold and hungry heart was sated.
It was either fate, or bad luck, that intervened and forced the issue of revelation for her.
Toward the late afternoon on the Friday of her second week of panhandling in Paris, Lisa was spotted by a woman who was a close friend of her mom. The woman approached her, eyes-wide in shock, and grabbed Lisa’s arm, jerking her away from the group of four young Americans she had been talking with, having already procured 10 Francs from the generous teenagers who found her adorable and irresistible.
Anemone saw this from four tables away and strode quickly over to confront the woman, who raised her handbag as if to strike Anemone in response to the directness of her approach.
Anemone stopped in her tracks. The two women eyed each other warily. Finally, Anemone spoke.
“Lisa dear, do you know this woman?”
Lisa nodded, starting to cry.
“Then go on ahead with her. Keep whatever you have in your pockets. Hopefully I will see you next week.”
The woman continued to glare at Anemone and then jerked again at the hold she had on Lisa’s arm, getting the girl to look up at her. “You wait till I tell your mother. Lisa Dean…begging? Really? What in the world has gotten into you?”
“300 Francs, Mrs. Dubotte.”
“I’ve got 300 Francs I’m going to give to my mother. For only two weeks of work.”
“She’s going to throttle you, young lady. I’m taking you to her shop right now. And don’t ever confuse begging with ’work’!”
That discussion was over. For a while.
That night, seated at their small round wooden dinner table lit feebly by one shrinking candle, they ate canned Spaghetti Bolognese and day-old bread heated over the tiny gas flame emitted by the one remaining functioning burner on top of the small stove. It was a scenario that had repeated itself each night, but there was tonight newness, a sense of
waters shifting, of bridges lifting, of gates opening. The winds of change pinged slivers of icy rain against the window pane, giving an almost rhythmic backdrop to the dimly lit theatre the table consisted of for this struggling family of two. They loved each other. Yet unhappiness and lack of money impinged often on that basic human emotion, slashing at their canvas of commitment like a knife through a Monet. Late at night in the polished marble corridors of the Louvre, when no one can view the assault, yet it touches on every human sense.
Mrs. Dubotte had given Lisa’s mom a brief description of the horrific way in which her daughter had spent the past two weeks. A tale that had stunned the mother into a silent rage and an almost continual glare in the direction of her daughter as they moved awkwardly about the small kitchen, preparing dinner.
Finally, as her mom poured herself a second glass of wine, Lisa knew the reproach was imminent.
“Lisa Dean, I have only one question: Why?”
“Money, why else? I made 300 francs for two weeks. That is more than you make. I hate being cold in here all the time, and this canned food tastes terrible. I hate being poor.”
“We are not poor. We are going through a rough patch,” she said defensively.
“So at least while I’m not in school, the patch maybe can be less rough.”
“You will do no such thing. Tomorrow I will find this Anemone woman and threaten her with going to the police if she doesn’t stay away from you.”
“And the 300 francs?”
It was more than she made in two weeks, and they did need food. And a portable space heater cost only 50 francs.
She nodded toward her daughter. “We will keep that money. And we will be less poor.”
“Okay, mom. Please realize, I just wanted to help.”
The mother and daughter embraced and, looking over Lisa Dean’s shoulder through the small window, spying the ubiquitous tower that pierced the sky both day and night, this struggling single mother saw two things: Her breath in the chilled air of the flat, and the lit up Eiffel Tower, which always filled her with hope.
Tomorrow they would buy a heater.
© Copyright 2016 Bill Rayburn. All rights reserved.
Book / Memoir
Book / Memoir
Short Story / Romance
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