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Eating Saint Germain

by Linda Thomas

Paris is bisected by the river Seine, and on the Left Bank of this river lies the neighborhood called Saint Germain. Here, the streets are lined with row houses that exemplify Paris--stretches of buildings five stories high and tied together by Corinthian pilasters. Above them, there are sixth and even seventh floors, often set back under mansard roofs made of lead or copper that has gone green in centuries of rain and the heavy blue air that lies like a wing across the city. At the street level, there are cafes whose tables spill onto the sidewalks, and shops fitted in like puzzle pieces beneath awnings: here a boulangerie, there a tabac, over there a boutique selling cloth or gemstones, kid gloves or horticulture books. This neighborhood is home to the Luxembourg Palace and gardens, sixty acres of flowerbeds, fountains, and sculpture. Here is the twelfth century church of Saint Germain des Pres, inside, the tomb of Rene' Descartes. Here is the magic triangle formed by the Brasserie Lipp, the Cafe' de Flore, and Les Deux Magots, long the haunts of the notorious, the celebrated, the literary, the political.

I am here in Saint Germain, and it is dark now in Paris, after 10 p.m. We are seated at a crowded outdoor restaurant on the narrow Rue Saint Benoit, not far from the outdoor Buci Market, and we are surrounded by Parisians whose tables and chairs are set so close to ours that we might as well be dining together. The tables take up the walkway so that the many passers-by stroll in the street, dodging cars that speed past, often beeping their horns. The only light falls softly from the narrow leaded panes of the restaurant windows, and the tables are covered with white linen, silver, and crystal. The couple beside us is French, their conversation ripe with nasal lilts and polite low chuckles that erupt now and then just after the man has slid his eyes our way, made a comment to his companion, and lifted his fork to his lips as though we are the evening's entertainment. His companion is lovely, her dark hair short and fitted like a sleek cap to her head.

Robert is relishing an enormous bowl of green-lipped mussels steamed in an herbed broth. In his delight, he sometimes actually makes a tiny slurping noise as he lets a loosened mussel slip from the shell into his mouth. I use my knife to lift sheets of romaine and uncover nests of haricots verts--green beans so shapely and green that they do not deserve the lowly word "bean"--in my Nicoise, along with boiled potato slices and chunks of grilled tuna. Just now, Robert has caught the attention of a boy wending his way through the tangles of tables that line the block, his hands full of small nosegays of flowers that I do not recognize. "Here!" Robert calls.

As the boy approaches, the Frenchman at the adjoining table looks at me directly, lifts his knife, and wags it like a finger as if to say, "No." I ignore him, and Robert makes the exchange of sixty francs for one of the nosegays, and presents it to me. I beam a little and inspect the flowers up close. They are small and tawny, lily-like and tightly bunched so that more than thirty blooms hardly make a handful. And their odor!--like the street perfumes of Paris, musk and spice, mysterious, alluring. "Smell this!" I tell Robert. But just then, the woman at the next table taps her glass with her spoon to get my attention. "Psst-psst," she hisses, cupping her fingers like a mouth, in a mime of fingers expressing the squeeze bulb on a perfume atomizer. "Psst-psst." The two laugh and return to their meal.

I feel somehow chastened, so I order anisette, hoping to establish myself as cosmopolitan, but when I glance again at the French couple, they are engrossed in a murmured conversation and seem to have forgotten me and my perfumed flowers. I concentrate on the sweet licorice aroma that rises from my anisette tumbler and realize that, from down the street, the sound of voices has grown louder. When I crane my neck to peer over the heads of the other diners, I see a crowd of a hundred or more people approaching and, suddenly, an enormous flame erupts above the street and flares almost to the second floor of the stretch of row houses.

In the center of the street, walking ahead of the crowd is a shirtless man, his body glistening with sweat. He carries a plastic jug of liquid in one hand, and in the other, a tube lighter. He draws nearer to our restaurant, takes a swig from the bottle, lifts his face, and as he spews the liquid into the air, he flicks the tube so that the liquid explodes in another burst of brilliant orange flame that lights the facades of the buildings and the faces in the crowd. All around him, people call out in French, words that I can't understand but that sound, in their tone, like taunts intended to urge him on. As he passes, the crowd trails behind, as does the unmistakable odor of gasoline.

In only a few minutes, he reaches the intersection where Rue Saint Benoit meets the Boulevard Saint Germain, and the explosions of flame stop. I sip my anisette and feel the pounding of my heart begin to slow. Then, he is back, moving among the tables. He is young, no older than twenty-five, and his chest and arms gleam in the soft light as if he's been rubbed with blackened oil. His hair is matted, oily, his eyebrows singed, and around his mouth is a ring of soot. He carries a sock into which--he hopes--the diners will drop coins of appreciation for his blazing performance. As he moves, stops, moves, stops, he does not say a word, just holds out the sock and waits.

The fire-eater nears our table, Robert reaches into his pocket, and I glance at the French couple beside us. The man looks at me, closes his eyes, and shakes his head slowly. But the sock is here now, held out past our china plates of rich food, a soiled and shapeless white gym sock that might stretch all the way up a man's calf. I can't imagine that a man could live long, breathing gasoline for his living. I hear the clink of coins as they drop.

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Linda Thomas was a judge in the Tapestry Fiction and Poetry Contest. A native of southern California, she has been writing poems, stories, and essays for 25 years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals, including American Poetry Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, and the University of New Mexico's Blue Mesa Review. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine, and is a community college professor of writing and literature.

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