‘Marlene or Number 16’
MARLENE, she looks older than the men, the daylight, how it accuses contours.
MARLENE got a new lavender coat, it hangs down to her calves, long over the jean-skirt held lop-sided at her waist like a hula-hoop with a studded belt. She’s had a double espresso from the barman who says, Don’t you want to take off your coat, Marlene? No, thanks, Marlene replies, I like it on. How do I look?
MARLENE is turning in circles, the clean hem floating up and tickling the skin behind her knees.
MARLENE took a couple of aspirin during her shift yesterday afternoon cause there was nothing else, then cut her index finger trying to get a slice out of the tight lime, and the gash wouldn’t clot because, as the man-from-the-back told her, aspirin thins out blood. The man-from-the-back closed the industrial dish-washer he was loading, brought over a hand-towel and wrapped it, gracefully, around the gash, cupping his own two hands at the stem and holding her toweled-finger like an orchid-head. She followed the edge of his hands, a beckoning, a teacup, then up at him, and he at her, and then he looked away and said I’ll find you some band-aids Marlene, but began to feel mannered against the baggy intimacy between them. His head turned away, eyes lingering on the postcards taped one next to another in a series on the wall above the stairway leading to the basement where the toilets are.
MARLENE’s been pointing the finger. She’s been blaming her younger brother. Didn’t I change your pooped-underwear when you were a little chubby Messiah, though? He hung up. Marlene whispered into her iPhone, lipstick smearing on the plastic, and you are supposed to be my blood… The men are speaking Albanian over the TV in the corner of the café. This café where Marlene works, and the barman, and the man-from-the-back, who’s in the toilet just now. It’s early afternoon, the man-from-the-back rarely goes, but when he does, he urinates for a long time. The barman’s thrown out a couple jokes already and now he’s just coughing like a dandelion between sips. He reaches for the remote control beneath the counter and turns the sound up on the TV as the garbage truck thuds on the street, right in front of the couple of tables on the terrace of the café, one empty, and one with two young women, just arrived. A black man gets off the garbage truck, hazard-green trousers, neon yellow plastic vest with silver reflective strips, he rolls the green bins from the curb to the gaping metal trunk, hooks them up to the lever, which lifts, dumps, and sets them down. He rolls the bins back to the curb, where he stops to look at stream of sun falling out from the parting clouds, white hairs curling in the dark crown on his head. There’s a white man in a white truck behind him, honking. At the bar, the milk is frothing. The white man’s pounding his black-leather steering wheel, screaming, Allez!, Come on! A young mulatto with orange hair and freckles across his honeyed complexion pedals past them both on his bike, singing Francoise Hardy to himself in a high-pitched voice, Tous les garçons et les filles de mon âge… “All of the boys and the girls who’re my age stroll on by, hand-in-hand, two by two…O but me, I walk the streets alone…” Well, this street’s global, but concretely it’s in the North of Paris. The fruit and vegetable seller’s an Arab. The tobacco shop, where you get your cigarettes and lotto tickets, is run by a Chinese man. And across from him is Bombay Nights, previously Tandoori Nights, previously Rajpoot, previously Kasimir House. And this bar, named after the street, Le Saint Denis, is an Albanian hang-out, so no one can say why they serve that cheap green Portugeuse wine, but they do, fizzy vino verde 2,50€ a glass, Marlene’ll bring it over.
MARLENE’s not Albanian. She’s not a child of the eagles, Shqipëri as the Albanians call their own country, meaning Land of the Eagles. That’s why there’s the two-headed eagle silhouette on the solid red flag taped to the side of the cash register. Marlene did have a child, though. Well he was her partner’s boy, and hers, when they were together. He was panic-stricken by pigeons. They couldn’t get past the arc of Saint Denis without him peeing himself in his modest terror. The man-from-the-back comes up from the basement toilet, past the rows of taped postcards. Napoli, Marseille, Barcelona, Athens, Palermo, Rotterdam, Bruxelles, then a dense red tulip field with a Dutch woman bent over to pick one, pantiless in a mini-skirt, her sun-kissed ass-cheeks next to the cursive writing, Beautiful View From Here. The man-from-the-back goes around the staircase to the corner, where the extra orange-brown leather stools stand, on top of one, the metal fan, turned off, it’s three blades still within the wired caging, looking out as if cherishing a long-passed insult. He turns the fan on, and goes back to the back.
MARLENE’s leaning on the bar, her hip curved out, pointing across the street to the grass-green Carrefour supermarket with the homeless man slumped outside against the low-grates and the front window, shirtless, belly out, chin down, hands which have lost their sense of humor upturned at his thighs. He’s warming at the surface of consciousness, stinking of daydreams. Next door’s a small four walls with wooden booths, a phone each, 15-cents-a-minute to call Senegal, for example, Taxiphone spelled out in flashing blue and white lights. A thin man in a faded black sweater and wrinkled gray khakis walks past, holding a half eaten cob of corn, white napkin crumbled over the stem in his hand. Another man, rounder, blue short-sleeve button down, bow-legged in his stiff jeans, gray hairs on his arm, his hand missioned with carrying nothing but an standard #10 envelope. Deux, Marlene says to the barman and he gets out two wine glasses and places them on the counter in front of her. The two young women on the terrace both turn their head towards Marlene. One’s got a tall neck with a mess of her brown Norwegian hair knotted into itself, and the other, hygienic-faced, shining blonde hair behind her ears, silver hoops in her plump lobes. They are both studying at the theatre school down the street, blue door. They’re waiting for their glasses of the cheap vino verde.
MARLENE, this past weekend, was dawdling through Montmartre for no reason. She stopped in front of the man with a thinning pony-tail, a wooden-easel between them, he looked up, she said, draw me. The man drew a caricature of Marlene, her eyes puffed and sliding open, her mouth a squeaking pickle about to snap in two, her cheeks like flattened candy wrappers. She handed him the fee in euro coins, counting it out.
MARLENE’s sauntering through the bar towards the terrace with two glasses of vino verde, trying to get her lavender coat to catch a breeze and ribbon around her legs. A couple of the men wave their hand and say, Come on, Marlene, you’re blocking the TV… The man-from-the-back reties his white apron twice around his waist. His worn purple cotton T-shirt hangs at the sleeves and sticks to his shoulders, the sweat in the form of angel wings. Sorry, Marlene says and moves out of the way, but what do you think? Think of what, the man with brown leather loafers says and picks up his pint of beer. Think of my new coat, Marlene’s smiling shyly. Oh, yeah, the man says. That’s right. It looks nice, Marlene. Good color for you.
MARLENE’s still blushing when she returns from the terrace and the two women are sipping their wine behind her and she joins the men and watches the TV screen. An enormous stage is lit up with crossed beams. The camera zooms in like an eagle swooping, then abruptly cuts back to a panel of judges. A woman in a corseted canary-yellow dress, petite, reddish-orange lips, say Hello, she waves. The next judge, tight white button-up, glasses like an architect, a clef-chin and a shiny forehead someone forgot to powder, say Hello, Hello there Albania! The first act is a young man in loose white soccer shorts and a red and yellow team shirt. He spins two soccer balls on his index fingers, then takes one spinning ball to his chest, bounces it to his foot, then his heel, then up to his knee, clocking his hips to the traditional Albanian song playing in the background. The third judge is a short man with a clean buzz to his dark hair. He’s disappointed. Then the words burst through the screen: Albania’s Got Talent! and cuts to the commercial break. The man with loafers puts down his pint glass, smoothes out his thick steel-wool moustache, then goes outside to smoke. The others pick up their conversation.
MARLENE’s watching the commercials as if they were a continuation of the talent show. Her mouth’s loose and her eyes glaze and her fingers curl in, even the one she cut yesterday, with two band-aids taped around it. Are you okay Marlene, the barman asks. Marlene looks over to him. Am I okay? Marlene repeats it. She thinks about it. I’m just, Marlene takes a couple breaths, I’m just…
MARLENE! The man-from-the-back yells. Your phone’s ringing! You left it on top next to the cash register. You’re lucky no one stole it. Oh I don’t think anyone’d steal it… It’s an iPhone, Marlene! I mean I trust everyone here. But there are guys that come in and out. I mean I trust people. You shouldn’t! But I want to. If you wanted to trust people, Marlene, you should’ve gotten a shitty Nokia. I’m just looking out for you. That’s nice of you, thank you. The phone’s still ringing in Marlene’s hand. Answer it, Marlene.
MARLENE, hello. It’s Marlene’s ex. Her voice is low. She doesn’t want her son to hear. He’s nine and he’s sad and she doesn’t want any more messes. When are you coming over, Marlene’s-ex asks her, to pick up the last of your stuff? Marlene’s-ex lives two streets down from the bar, between the Japanese massage place, windows covered with posters of bare-backs and orchids, and the corner-store épicerie, she’s on the third floor, where you can yell from the street, phrases like WHAT’S YOUR DOORCODE AGAIN? and I JUST NEED TO SEE YOU.
MARLENE, I’m putting it in a box and I’m taking it to the bar and I’m dropping it off. Alright, Marlene agrees, because she wants her ex to see her in her new lavender coat and maybe she’ll bring the boy even, though he’s not her biological son, after five years, he called her Mama-Marlene. Then she hangs up and realizes her ex is on her way, carrying a cardboard box of her stuff, the last one, the final trinkets of ways she couldn’t explain herself and that plant, the small cactus she never watered and yet, it lived on, without a grudge. On the TV screen the next contestant is up. A boy in suspenders and a black bow-tie. He’s missing his two front teeth. He’s singing Leonard Cohen’s Hallelejah, voice splintering from him, eyes pinching and cheeks flushed as he’s reaching for the high notes. Next is a boy in a Muslim cap with dark skin and blue eyes, blowing the trumpet like Miles Davis while serving baklava.
MARLENE’s ex shows up with a cardboard box in her hands, she’s got blue jeans and a silky shirt tucked in, her flour-blond hair parted in the middle, strands of gray hidden, her lipstick applied, a violent rose.
MARLENE, her ex says, here take this. She hands her the box. Marlene takes the box and says thank you then puts it down on the curb next to the now-empty green garbage bins. You don’t want any of it? Marlene’s-ex asks her. I don’t think so, Marlene replies. She’s wondering if her ex has noticed her new lavender coat.
MARLENE waits. She waits. She turns a little left and bends her knees as if she’s about to curtsey. Marlene’s-ex is staring at her, pulling her eyebrows together. If you didn’t want any of it…, but Marlene’s-ex stops herself because she doesn’t want to get into it.
MARLENE is now doubting whether her ex will notice the coat at all and suddenly, the boy’s back in her thoughts. She really wants to see the boy. She misses that little boy. That little peanut-nose, that little wobbly-eyed boy, those high eyebrows and vigilant stare, Marlene misses that little boy more than anything, she could almost take off her new lavender coat and throw it into the green bin. Well, goodbye, Marlene’s-ex says, they kiss on the cheek, and she is walking away. The two young women left change on the table, and the empty wine glasses side-by-side.
MARLENE swallows because her mouth is getting dry. She’s done with her shift but she decides to stick around at the bar until it’s completely dark. The sun sets. The bobby-pin’s hanging down on a couple of strands from her head, she’s stroking her dark hair messily with her band-aided finger, mostly missing the hair and bumping the plaster into her chin. It’s the nighttime now, there is no shame.
MARLENE steps outside to make a call on her iPhone, it’s ringing and ringing, then the call’s picked up. Marlene says, It’s me again, to her ex. Her ex breaths out, Marlene, please, she says in a quiet voice because the boy’s asleep now, You can’t do this. Marlene is just listening, wondering if the boy heard the phone ring and woke up and is listening just like her, his small body crouched against his bedroom door. We said we were going to respect each other, Marlene. Marlene’s-ex is taking her time now because she’s getting angry. You’re only 38, but I swear, Marlene, at that bar, you look – about 50, and I know, that’s an awful thing to say, to someone you love, but now, we have to love other people.
MARLENE likes poetry, and it’s almost 2am, and they’re closing up, so the man with the steel-wool mustache stands up and recites a stanza he remembers from Lasgush Poradeci: WHY I NEED TO LOVE YOU.
“Because I chose to love you.
And I chose to woo you.
And I chose to kiss you.
That's why.” Then the bar-owner shushes him and says to Marlene, you should read Ismail Kadare, Marlene, he’s our guy. He even stops wiping the counter and clears his throat, and announces, Poetry is the title of this poem. He moves the rag to the side and begins to deliver the lines carefully, translating them from Albanian in his head for Marlene: “Poetry,
How did you find your way to me?
My mother does not know Albanian well,
She writes letters like Aragon, without commas and periods,
My father roamed the seas in his youth,
But you have come,
Walking down the pavement of my quiet city of stone,
And knocked timidly at the door of my three-storey house,
At Number 16.” Not bad, the man with the steel-wool mOustache says. Marlene smiles but can’t look up at the barman. She says Thank you to the floor.
MARLENE’s walking down rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis alone, with her iPhone in her hand, because the barman locked up the café and they all said goodbye. It’s cool now, the wind is blowing up her jean-skirt, and ruffling her new lavender coat. The homeless man at Carrefour is awake, he says, Psst, to Marlene but she’s got her eyes semi-closed, walking towards the arc of Saint Denis, smiling to herself. The homeless man forgets Marlene and starts picking at his bellybutton. She’s already down the street, alone and humming, to herself and to her new coat, the lavender fabric dancing in the gusts of wind, her left-hand bobbing to the melody she’s humming, and her right, cradling the iPhone between her band-aided finger and palm. He’s behind her, the shadow, speeding up, his shoulders in, narrow hips, quick steps. He lunges at Marlene.
MARLENE’s face-down on the cobblestone circle beneath the arc of Saint Denis. There’s pigeon-shit and cigarette ash smeared on her coat, torn-hem. The shadow’s sprinting far into the darkness, one hand moving the wind, the other clutching her iPhone, which is, suddenly, ringing in his grip.
MARLENE, do you, want to, come over. I’d like to see you. He’d liked to see you too. He can’t sleep. He wants you to sing him something. After, we could, lie down, together. I miss your body. I don’t think I can, just stop, loving, you. Also, I’m ready to talk about my responsibility in what happened. And your brother called me. He says he doesn’t know how to say he’s sorry, that’s why, but he’d like to give it a try. I was thinking you could go back to school. I could take care of us for a bit. You looked so beautiful this afternoon in your new lavender coat, please. Come home.
MARLENE, near the curb where it smells like stone and urine, is pushing herself over, onto her back. She opens her eyes and begins counting the stars, fourteen, fifteen…