Monsieur LeBlanc leans against the doorframe, his arms folded over a belly grown round on pork crackling. A button is missing from his waistcoat, pulled too tight for the threads to bear. Maman wrings her handslaundress's hands, marked by chapped skin, raw knuckles. "But, Monsieur LeBlanc," she says, "we just put my dead husband in the ground."
"It's been two weeks, Madame van Goethem. You said you needed two weeks." No sooner had Papa taken his last breath upon this earth than, same as now, Monsieur LeBlanc stood in the doorway of our lodging room demanding the three months' rent Papa had fallen behind since getting sick.
Maman drops to her knees, grasps the hem of Monsieur LeBlanc's greatcoat. "You cannot turn us out. My daughters, all three good girls, you would put them on the street?"
"Take pity," I say, joining Maman at his feet.
"Yes, pity," says Charlotte, my younger sister, and I wince. She plays her part too well for a child not yet eight.
Only Antoinette, the oldest of the three of us, remains silent, defiant, chin held high. But then she is never afraid.
Charlotte grasps one of Monsieur LeBlanc's hands in both her own, kisses it, rests her cheek against its back. He sighs heavily, and it seems tiny Charlotteadored by the pork butcher, the watchmaker, the crockery dealerhas saved us from the street.
Seeing his face shift to soft, Maman says, "Take my ring," and slips her wedding band from her finger. She presses it to her lips before placing it in Monsieur LeBlanc's waiting hand. Then with great drama her palms fly to the spot on her chest just over her heart. Not wanting him to see in my eyes what I know about Maman's feelings for Papa, I turn my face away. Whenever Papa mentioned he was a tailor, apprenticed to a master as a boy, Maman always said, "The only tailoring you ever done is stitching the overalls the men at the porcelain factory wear."
Monsieur LeBlanc closes his fingers around the ring. "Two weeks more," he says. "You'll pay up then." Or a cart will haul off the sideboard handed down to Papa before he died, the table and three rickety chairs the lodger before us left behind, the mattresses stuffed with wool, each handful worth five sous to a pawnbroker. Our lodging room will be empty, only four walls, grimy and soot laden, deprived of a lick of whitewash. And there will be a new lock on the door and the concierge, old Madame Legat, fingering the key in her pocket, her gaze sorrowful on the curve of Charlotte's pretty cheek. Of the three of us, only Antoinette is old enough to remember nights in a dingy stairwell, days in the boulevard Haussmann, palms held out, empty, the rustle of the silk skirts passing by. She told me once how it was that other time, when Papa sold his sewing machine to pay for a tiny white gown with crocheted lace, a small white coffin with a painting of two cherubs blowing horns, a priest to say the Mass.
I am the namesake of a small dead child, Marie, or Marie the First as I usually think of her. Before her second birthday, she was rigid in her cradle, eyes fixed on what she could not see, and then I camea gift, Maman saidto take her place.
"God bless," Charlotte calls out to Monsieur LeBlanc's retreating back.
Maman pushes herself up like an old woman, staggering under the heft of widowhood, daughters, monies owed, an empty larder. She reaches into her apron pocket, tilts a small bottle of green liquid to her lips, wipes her mouth with the back of her hand.
"We owe for the week's milk, and there's enough for that?" Antoinette says, chin jutting.
"Haven't seen a sou from you in a month. Still a walker-on at the Opéra, at seventeen years old. You got no idea about work." Antoinette pulls her lips tight, looks down her nose at Maman, who does not let up. "A measly two francs they pay you for loitering on the stage," she says, "and only if whatever costume the wardrobe mistress pressed happens to fit. Too high and mighty for the washhouse. Nothing good will come of you. I can see that."
Adapted from The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc., Copyright © 2013 by Cathy Marie Buchanan
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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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