Thursday, March 03, 2016

A Chance Encounter: Clair Meets Baptiste

I received an email recently from a new reader of my stories and she wanted to talk about Baptiste, the Breton musician at the center of The Old Mermaid's Tale. I love it when a reader falls in love with a character. She said, "In that scene where Clair meets him for the first time, my toes just curled up." So, for your entertainment pleasure, here is that scene--Clair is working in a diner on the Lake Erie Waterfront in 1963.

Compared to the frantic pace of the evening shift, the diner’s morning crowd was dull. Coffee steamed up warming a few familiar faces crumpled by too much alcohol and lack of sleep. Elderly couples and a few devout seamen stopped in after six-thirty Mass for breakfast. A couple of cabbies I knew from the summer ordered pie with their coffee. The pie man hadn’t made his delivery yet so I went to the kitchen to see if there was anything left from the night before, a sure thing considering how slow it had been. As I placed slices of peach pie in front of them I noticed a new customer had slipped into one of the booths. He sat with his back to the room and I knew...
I snatched a pot of fresh coffee, shook my hair, and wet my lips. My heart pounded and I wobbled to his table on trembling knees. He sat sideways in a booth, an unlit cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth. A library book lay open on the paper placemat before him. His head was bent and a veil of well-brushed, grey-streaked black hair hid his face.
“Coffee?” I asked aware of a tremor in my voice. I cleared my throat trying to regain my senses, turned up the clean cup, and held my breath.
“Yes.” His voice was deep and hoarse like someone who has swallowed too much smoke and bad weather.
Willing my hands not to tremble, I filled the cup trying to sneak a glance, to penetrate the shadow created by the heavy curtain of hair.
“Do you know what you want to order?”
He hesitated unwilling to leave his reading. Then he raised his head providing me with my first look at the face that fills my dreams even now.
I cannot say what it was about his face; it was not exceptional. Predictably dark and weathered, a seaman’s complexion, marked by deep creases earned squinting against harsh suns. His nose was large and misshapen as though it had collided with a few fists. Though he was freshly shaved, he had the sort of heavy beard that would look a day old by mid-afternoon but his mouth was tempting with a thin, well-shaped upper lip and a voluptuously full lower one. It was his eyes that were captivating, alive and blue as the flare of a sulphur match, set under heavy brows. My soul was already hostage to the illusion of romance I had fashioned around him but now I fell wantonly in love.
Recognition flickered across his face and he smiled. “You’re never here during the day,” he said. “I thought you were a night bird.”
French. I had guessed correctly. His accent was lyrical and, despite a smoky hoarseness, his voice was low and enticing. I bit my lip and was shocked at the heat rising in me.
“It was slow last night,” I stuttered. “They needed someone to work until noon today. I used to work days ... during the summer...” He had a good smile. His teeth were strong and white, not perfect, but not neglected. And there was something irresistible in its frankness, a little reserved but wholly genuine.
“Ah.” Something outside the window caught his attention and he turned from me. I willed his eyes back to me. I wanted his eyes wandering over me.
“Do you need a match?”
“Hm-m-m-m?” He turned then took the cigarette from his mouth. “No.” A grin, shy and sudden. “I am trying to ... um ... slow down. What is your name?”
“Clair.”
“Clair.” He repeated rolling it around in his mouth as though it were a wine he was testing. “Very well, Clair. Then I will ask you for eggs and ham, all right?”
“Yes,” I murmured, writing, resenting the need to tear my greedy eyes from his face. I glanced down at his book but was arrested by his hands. They were huge and heavily veined with long, well-muscled fingers and callouses at the tips. From playing the guitar, I thought, his hands were strong and supple from his craft. He held a pack of matches in his hand and as I watched he nudged one match away from the others with his thumb and bent it back to flick it across the strike zone.
“That’s amazing the way you do that,” I blurted. “I’ve never seen anyone light a match like that before.”
The flame blazed and he lifted it to his cigarette. He drew deeply and exhaled two long blue streams through his nostrils. “I am surprised. Many seamen do so. It is a useful technique at sea where one hand is always occupied.”
“You must have awfully strong fingers.”
He splayed his hand and regarded it. “I began piano lessons when I was very young,” he said, almost as though realizing it for the first time. “My hands were trained early.”
“I’ll get your breakfast.” I ducked away. My breathing ached. Some fateful boundary had been transgressed and who I was now remained to be discovered.
The rest of my customers that morning must have thought me dim-witted. My attention never wandered from his booth. I stole glances as he ate, absorbed in his book. I rushed to fill his coffee cup every time it stood a chance of being drained. No one complained but I wouldn’t have blamed them if they did.
When he closed his book and seemed finished I reluctantly prepared his bill.
“Victor Hugo,” I said, placing the slip of paper on his book. “I just read Contemplations for a European lit class. It was sad.”
“Really,” he raised an eyebrow, “you are a student then?”
“Yes, at Chesterton. This is my senior year.” I fingered the edge of the book tracing the cracks of the old leather. “Toilers of the Sea, that sounds like it’s about fishing.”
“Fishing, yes. And about exile.” He looked into my eyes. Was it possible that wide awake I was trapped in a dream? Was it possible that everyone in the world moved at a different pace, spoke at a different rate, lived in a different sort of time?
“Do you like your school?”
“I love the subjects I’m studying,” I admitted, “but I’m too restless in class. I lose patience when the instructors belabor the point. I guess I’m beginning to lose interest.”
“Maybe,” he said reaching into the pocket of his jeans, “you are smarter than the other students. Maybe they do not recognize what a valuable discipline education is. Unfortunately we do not realize that until much later.”

He stood and I looked up. He was easily a head taller and I stepped back overwhelmed by the physical presence of him. He counted out bills plus a generous tip, and reached for his coat. Slipping it on over the black sweater he wore, he turned the collar up and shook his head to loose his hair. Somehow in watching his preparations to depart I felt hopeless and lonelier than I’d ever been in my life. His limp was apparent but tightly controlled. Heat stung my eyelids. I folded my fingers around the money and clung to the lingering warmth from where it had nestled in his pocket. I moved behind the counter and rang his order into the register. Read the rest....

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