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So I slept through what remained of the night until the morning sun filtered through the tallow colored shades. Sophie had gone to God knows where so I got up and cleaned up, making my way back down the flights of stairs, then went in search of breakfast. I found it, as I usually did, in a café that had lingered in our neighborhood long past time for something so genteel. However, the old man who ran the place was too determined or too set in his ways to relocate, so there was an oasis of civilization in the midst of the garbage and graffiti.
The old man in question, Simon, was out in front setting up the few chairs that would fit on the sidewalk that ran along the cafe’s wood and glass entrance. He was hatless, leaving his bald head defenseless against the rain and sun, the white cuffs of his shirt rolled up guaranteeing a farmer’s tan even as he spent most of his day indoors. His rather ample gut hung over the black apron he had tied around his waste, completing the picture of his anachronism. He smiled as he saw me approach, gesturing for me to come inside. “Voici, l’Amèricain. Come in, my friend.”
I did. It was always pleasant to step into the cafe, past the counters with its small army of white porcelain cups, wine glasses and beer mugs, to walk through the rows of round, wooden tables to the back. I don’t know if it was the steam from the espresso machine or something else, but the inside always felt more pleasant than outside, whether that meant it needed to be warm or cool.
I followed Simon’s somehow both bedraggled and formal presence, him leading me across the black and white tiles till he sat me down at one of the marble topped tables that lined the furthest wall. With my back against the somber wood I could see anyone coming and going by the entrance, which always made me more comfortable. With a professional’s eye Simon had noticed that the first time I had visited and he had seated me there since.
I ordered the eggs. After confirming that I wanted the same thing I always did Simon brought me a café crème without me asking for it then disappeared in the back to prepare the rest. I sat at the table and watched people walk past the high windows up front, seeing a good mix of what last night’s rain had washed down to this part of the city. I warmed my hands around the mug of espresso and milk, letting it cool.
After bringing out my plate Simon sat down across from me and lit one of his morning cigarillos. I disliked that he smoked at the table while I ate, but I never complained about it. The eggs, perfectly prepared with no more than some salt, pepper, and a little butter, accompanied by a bit of spicy sausage and potato galette, made this easy to do.
As I dug in, Simon exhaled a plume of smoke, signaling the start of the day’s French lesson. Simon would refuse to speak English for the remainder of the meal and I would fumble responses as best I could between mouthfuls.
True to form he started with the weather. “The winter is finally leaving us.”
“Yes. There is much raining.” I hadn’t mastered French, more or less contractions, so my language came out stilted and with a heavy accent.
“Do you and your woman enjoy the rain?”
“Yes.” The regular April rains were a welcome change from the parched plains of Umbria. But the reasons for that were difficult to explain, so I kept the answer short.
Sensing this was one of the many dead ends our conversations would run into Simon changed subjects. “How was work last night?”
“The same as always.”
My unhappiness at having a job that could have gone to an able-bodied local caused Simon to prod, “Many people here would kill to have a job at the casino.”
“They can have my job.” I tore off a piece of potato with my teeth. “If they can take it.”
Simon wasn’t sure what to make of that response, although I’m not sure if it was because of my gutter French or the content of my sentence. He took a long drag from his cigarillo. “How did you arrive here, American?”
I raised my hungry eyes from my plate, surprised by Simon’s directness. He had always been inquisitive; I suspect he had begun our French lessons as a way of teasing out whatever story had brought me to his small cafe. However, until now his questions had always been oblique. I didn’t know at that moment what had caused him to ask such a blunt question, but I knew I didn’t want to lie to him. I examined his face to see if I could determine what kind of answer he was searching.
Simon was gazing at the mirror above and behind my seat as if he could conjure the explanation out of the glass. I interpreted this as a slip of his professional attention until I heard the high, tinny sound of the bell above the entrance that announced customers. I laughed at myself a little, having let the velvety eggs and spicy sausage distract me from the front door.
Simon had been using the mirror to inspect the newcomers into his cafe. As I snuck a glance past him, my humorous self-deprecation became an earnest caution. Simon’s question made sense to me now as well. The entering trio had the appearance of men searching for someone. I shoveled several forks of sausage into my mouth, suddenly unsure if I would get to finish the rest of my meal.
The voyous were closer to being boys than men in my estimation, but that didn’t matter much. Boys could kill as well as men. Maybe better. Kindness and hesitation were easier to beat out of them. These three looked like they might be that kind. The first one in was an Algerian, tall and thin, his aquiline nose pronounced by childhood starvation and the attempt at a mustache underneath it. Following him, fair by comparison, was another Corsican, the second I’d run into in as many days, bags under his eyes and a black balaclava with a red stripe around his neck. He gave us half a smile, trying his best to appear shrewd beyond his years. The last one, his ancestry straddling Turkey and North Africa, was bigger than the others, round in a way that no diet would ever get rid of. He stopped just on the inside of the threshold, closing the door behind him.
The second one, Balaclava, stepped forward, making a show of scanning the cafe. Then he pointed to me and Simon at the back. “You there, American,” he said in English not much better than my French.
Simon rotated his girth in his chair, leveling an appraising stare at them. “Bonjour. Qu’est-ce que vous faites?”
“Shut up, old man.”
I knew right then how it was going to end.