"Greatlooking women they've got here," said the private first class.
The other nodded. "I'd be willing to sully the Aryan race with a bit of that."
Despite her corpulence, she was elegant, but she behaved as though she had no right to be on the street. When the owner of the shop came out and glared at her suspiciously, she put the apples back. After a few uncertain steps, she noticed the soldiers, who were standing in her way with grins fixed on their faces.
I stepped behind the field gray uniforms and ducked into a narrow side street. I was walking uncomfortably fast, setting a blistering pace, in fact, when what I actually wanted to do was stroll. I counted the hotel signs as they glided past overhead. Go into one, I thought, ask for a room on the top floor. Take off your bootseasy does itopen the floortoceiling window, and let time slip motionlessly by.
I slowed my pace. The shop across the street was several rooms deep. Back in the farthest room, a lightbulb was burning. I crossed the street. In front of the entrance, there was a stack of chairs with pink coverings. I bent down and touched the splitting silk. Someone in the rear of the shop raised his head. The light made his face stand out sharply against the shadowy background. When he looked at me, I straightened up quickly, as if I'd been caught doing something forbidden.
I looked for wider streets, more people, more of a crush. Most of the shops were already closed, empty behind reddish brown metal bars, offering nothing to the hurrying passersby. A bakery was still open, though the line was long. I joined it, avoiding people's eyes. They kept their distance from the uniform. I bought a loaf of floursprinkled bread. As I stepped out, a garcon was sweeping up wood shavings from the sidewalk.
I passed a black gate I'd seen before without ever noticing that it led not into a building but into a narrow street, practically an alley. I drew myself up to decipher the faded street sign. Rue de Gaspard? The gate was shut. Although I was curious, I hesitated. Then I leaned on the gate, and one of its panels gave way. Passing pedestrians scrutinized me as I stood there like that, half in the street, half in the entrance. I looked past the iron threshold. The little street disappeared in the shadow of a wall. Gray light on the pavement. I slipped through the gate and set off down the alley. Closed shutters everywhere. Where the buildings were lowest, the evening sun shone through.
When I turned the corner, I came upon a junk dealer who was carrying his wares back into his shop. With a bronze bust in his arms, he blocked my way, unintimidated by my uniform. I noticed a pendulum clock leaning against the wall. Walnut housing, polished brass pendulum.
I said, "Il me semble que j'ai vu exactement la meme a Munich."
My unaccented French surprised him. "C'est possible, monsieur. Je l'ai achetee d'une famille qui a vecu longtemps en Allemagne."
"Quel est votre prix?"
The dealer named a price for the clock, a sum no Frenchman would consider paying. I offered half as much. He wouldn't yield so much as a centime, claiming he'd promised not to sell the clock for less than it was worth.
I said, "Well then, I'm sorry," and penetrated farther into rue de Gaspard.
A young woman was sitting motionless on a stone that lay like a rock fallen from the sky in front of a bookshop. I could make out her slender legs under her coat. She was reading. When I was nearly past her, she looked up. I went no farther and stepped into the shop instead. The man behind the counter had gray hair, combed with a part. He was holding the stump of an unlighted cigar in his mouth and spreading paste on paper labels with a stringy brush. He took a quick glance at my uniform.
Excerpted from April in Paris by Michael Wallner Copyright © 2007 by Michael Wallner. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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