On Day Two of Being Stranded without Edgar-Michael, I stopped moping around Montmartre, looked into my bank account, and decided four hundred more euros could fly me home. His home, which I would move out of before anyone knew what had happened.
Now it’s Day Two of Working with François, and François again tells me that staring leads to money. You smile at the tourist’s eye, and after three seconds, the tourist believes that looking away would be rude.
I learn fast, I tell him. And he says, “Yesterday, you lost us a lot of business.” But I say, “Watch me today.” I’m a prodigy at this. You stare as you ask for the tourist’s hand. Look at nothing else, even if a pigeon flies between you. Even if a pigeon were to land on your forehead and poop in your eyes, stare. If the tourist glances at the bell tower, you’ve lost them, so hold on. With your eyes, say, I know you and, We went to high school together. Make them think you want to reminisce about teenage shenanigans, the rolls of toilet paper you tossed across your math teacher’s roof. Do it right, and when you ask for the tourist’s hand, they will offer it to you. So capture it. Use their fingers to weave a friendship bracelet, quick as a pickpocket, then tie it around their wrist, and before they can protest, say, Dix euros.
Or say, Ten euros if the tourist is American, because he won’t speak French beyond Parlez vous les toilettes? François says that I can capitalize on my Americanness—Americans will trust me. “But François,” I joke in French, “You are exotic, a Frenchman in front of a gorgeous church.” And he says, “I came here from Gabon, so I’m doubly exotic to the Americans.”
“Americans don’t even know where Gabon is,” I say, and he says, “Exactly. And who would you want to give you a friendship bracelet? Someone interesting or someone familiar?”
I’m not sure.
These tourists don’t want a bracelet at all. But I won’t argue with François, who teaches me his trade and lets me crowd him and his friends on these steps. “For a three-day trial period,” he said yesterday. He felt sorry for me when I told him my partner—or fiancé, or whatever rich Edgar-Michael was—waited until Paris to give up on us. We’d planned this seven-country vacation all on his dime because without him I’m what my uncle would call broke as a window, and on our way to the Louvre we argued, so we sat outside the museum fighting all evening. We didn’t even enter to buy a postcard. And inside somewhere, the Mona Lisa stared straight ahead and secretly worried that we’d break up. We said the type of hurtful things that you say softly because they are true. I softly told Edgar-Michael I had recently realized he was an asshole though I had, in fact, discovered this years ago. That little lie was the first I’d told in a long time. And the next morning, he told me he was going on to Brussels without me, see ya, and enjoy paying for Paris on your own, pal.
This is what I told François yesterday morning on my way down from the basilica. And he gently said, “Life plays tricks.” He patted me on the forehead like a grandmother who doesn’t exactly know how to comfort her sick grandson. “You can work with us, man.”
This morning, François offers me red and pink string and says, “On second thought, I doubt your story was one hundred percent true.”
I say, “Ninety percent. I’m sorry about the other ten.” Now he’ll wonder if I’m dishonest. If he should ax me. I’m a risk who flubbed up a bunch of sales on his first day.
So, Day Two, and I’m trying to show François he bet on a winning horse named me.
Up the ramp, this thirty-something with American sneakers smiles as if she’s taking a selfie though she isn’t. François watches me float that way. Let’s smile together, my eyes say to her. My teeth point outward crooked, and one of them is only a half-tooth, but years ago I figured how to make that look cute.
She notices me as I walk, and I stare like I love her and am about to propose. I ask for her ring finger. She half-turns away and says, “Je suis désolé.”
I say, “Did we go to high school together?”
She doesn’t fall for that. She doesn’t have to. Yesterday no one fell for it, but twelve of them wanted to. Wanting to is enough, wanting to makes her return to me.
“Where are you from?” she asks, and I say “The U.S.” though I went to high school in a French-speaking pocket of Ontario.
“But which state?”
She laughs, brushes her black hair back. I reach up for her hand. “Can I make you a present?”
She lets me tie a red and pink knot around her finger. I stretch the strings and make left-right-left-right-left-right and slip what I’ve created off her finger and secure it around her wrist.
“Since we’re old friends,” I declare.
She says, “Thank you” as if she sincerely likes the bracelet, and I say, “Ten euros.” I try not to sound like I’m apologizing.
“I didn’t know you wanted money for it,” she says and half-smiles, confused. She tries to yank the bracelet off, but François taught me how to tie them tight.
I feel a bit sorry for her. She wears no expensive jewelry, and a crack runs up the frames of her eyeglasses. For all I know, she went into debt to come to Paris.
“This place costs a lot,” I say. “For all of us.” I want her to understand that to save money I didn’t eat yesterday. But François said to sound forceful. We’re dealing in obligation. I drop my voice to a bass note and insist, “Ten euros.”
“How about five?” she asks.
She reaches into her purse for a ten.
I say thank you, but we both know what has just happened. She pulls away from me and runs up the steps to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica her guidebook described.
From the other ramp, François winks and his whole body becomes a thumbs-up. François likes to encourage people, which makes him good at his job. “We’re not ripping anyone off,” he told me yesterday. “We give them a souvenir and a story for ten little euros. Then we go to the grocery and buy vegetables.”
I make a thumbs-up back to him, but with only my thumb. The rest of my body is too busy doing math, adding bracelets into plane tickets.
François walks over to me to say “Nice job” and hand me a little skein of yellow string as if to say he can trust me with more colors now.
The crowd picks up. So many people want in the Sacré-Cœur, even though, you have to admit, it doesn’t look especially interesting inside, not compared to all the stained-glass and art elsewhere in the city. It’s the outside that catches your eye: the white glow, the onion domes. Still, some people enter repeatedly. Yesterday, I recognized six individuals who went in at least three times during the day. In the next twenty minutes, I nab thirty more euros—ten from a teenage boy, ten from an old woman who speaks zero English or French, and ten from a guy who tells me I look familiar and believes I’m from Grand Island, Nebraska.
François asks for his cut of the money, which I’ve promised him, and hands me blue string. He tells me my knots take too much time. “Try this way,” he says. I give him my pinkie. He loops and pulls tight. But I stop paying attention to technique when a man with a fancy camera and an out-of-date-but-attractive mustache glides up the ramp.
“Doesn’t that man look rich?” François says.
“His name is Edgar-Michael,” I tell François.
The blue string still clings to my finger as I walk over to the man with the mustache. One of François’s friends calls, “Nice camera. Want a bracelet?” to him, but the man with the mustache ignores him. Because he sees me.
After all this time, I say something a schmuck would say, which is, “Hello.”
Why does he stick out his hand? I think he wants to shake or to hug. But then I grab on because hands remember what they’ve held. He yanks his arm back. Then changes his mind and waves his fingers beneath my jaw.
He says, “Didn’t we go to high school together?”
“You look familiar,” I say. I tie a blue and yellow knot around his finger. I ask, “How was Brussels? Did you see famous art? Catch infections from any strange men with nice jawlines?”
He says, cool as a 1950s heartthrob, “I’ve never been there.”
“You’ve been here in Paris this whole time?”
He says, “I think we were in Mr. Gray’s math class. Tenth grade. Peoria Catholic High School.”
Edgar-Michael once told a story about his niece. He gave her a hermit crab, but he didn’t realize hermit crabs needed a series of fresh, bigger shells to grow into. “They’re supposed to crawl into a new one and take on its shape,” he said. “But I didn’t know that, so I guess I made it suffocate. Or die of smallness.”
He later confessed he had no niece.
Either this man before me is Edgar-Michael—as François believes, which might buy me a fourth day of work for sympathy’s sake—or he is not Edgar-Michael. Both possibilities can’t be true at the same time. He doesn’t look anything like Edgar-Michael, but he has his mustache, and he sure lies like him.
“That’s right,” I say. “Mr. Gray. Didn’t we toilet-paper his house?”
“We wanted to, but he had a rooster in his front yard, remember? Right in the middle of suburbia, this giant rooster.” He laughs.
“It scared us off.”
“We dropped the toilet paper and ran to your car.”
The bracelet is finished, but I don’t tie it yet. I let it hang from his finger. I say, “I wanted to kiss you in that car, but I was afraid.”
“I think I loved you back then,” he says. We hear flapping behind him, but eyes like his dart for no pigeon. “But what could I say?” he whispers. “What if our parents found out about us?” His left hand grazes my thigh.
“We could have run away,” I say. “I would have followed you across Illinois. Across seven countries.” I ease my hand into the thigh pocket of my jeans, clutch my wallet. His hands keep searching.
“I wish I’d known,” he says.
“But you did know. I told you for months. For years.”
“With your eyes?”
“And words.” We pause. I check out his biceps and hope he notices.
I say, “Don’t pretend you had no idea how far I was ready to take us. I would have married you even before it was legal.”
“But we fought too much.” He presses against me.
“People fight in every relationship. Look at your parents.”
“We had too many problems,” he says.
“Everybody does. If I’m going to have problems with someone, I wanted to have them with you.”
“I suppose it’s too late now,” he says, trying to feel my back pocket, which is empty.
“I guess that’s a good thing. Or else I’d take you back.”
I keep my right hand on my wallet—and this how good I’m getting—with one hand I slip the bracelet from his finger and tie a simple knot around his wrist.
I say “Forty euros, please, Edgar-Michael,” because I am a fast learner, and I have won, and I can name this stranger whatever I want.
“That’s a bit pricey,” he flirts.
“Forty euros,” I repeat, my voice as bass as a basement.
For once, he looks away. He undoes two buttons on his shirt—a pickpocket knows where to keep money—and unzips the money belt slung around his hairy chest.
At the Louvre, I told Edgar-Michael I had only recently realized he was an asshole, but signs of his asshole-ness had popped up on our third date. In the car, he called me “sweet face” but shouted—shouted—at me to turn off the radio. Still, he knew fascinating facts, and on our fourth date, he remembered I liked books about the War of 1812. He gave me a book, so I forgot about the radio.
None of us—me, the tourists—is dumb. It’s that wanting to makes us look at the wrong things.
“Here’s two twenties.” The mustache man extends his palm like wants to hold hands, and I snatch the paper without touching skin. I shove it into my pocket before François can see how much I charged.
Who wrote the rule that trusting someone means you get taken? Not me, pal, not me. I don’t make any rules. I just understand them now.
The mustache man has started a lie, so he has to keep it going: he walks up the steps as if he came to see the Sacré-Cœur.
Inside, he will look for a purse left open on a pew, or a euro bill poking out of an old man’s back pocket. The old man will look at the stone columns or the big mosaic, and he will not turn around. On its pedestal above, the statue of sad Jesus will not turn toward the thief either. Instead, he will keep pointing at his own stone chest, his Sacred Heart, and stare straight ahead at one lucky person as if he already knows their name. As if he remembers every town they’ve lived in, and every time they had to start over, and each lie they’ve hoped would turn true, eventually. He’s the only one in Paris who doesn’t need money—when he looks at someone as if they’re old friends, he means it. That’s why almost-atheists like me visit keep visiting this church. We sit on the left side, the eighth pew. In the line of sight.
I watch the thief disappear into the crowd at the entrance. A pigeon dips toward my face, but I hold steady.
François, all cheerful melody, comes over to get his cut and congratulates me with more string. Purple, black, gray, lime, tan, orange. Every color he has.
Brad Aaron Modlin is the author of Everyone at This Party Has Two Names, which won the Cowles Poetry Prize and contains the poem “What You Missed that Day You Were Absent from Fourth Grade.” He also wrote Surviving in Drought (stories), which won the Cupboard Press’s annual contest. He holds an MFA in poetry and a PhD in nonfiction. He is the Reynolds Endowed Chair of Creative Writing at University of Nebraska, Kearney. He can be found at bradaaronmodlin.com.