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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MONIQUE
By Max Bayer

 

 

 

 

 

South of France, Summer of 1951

It was about thirty-five miles east of Nimes when Franz stopped at the small village of Lunel to have some coffee. He had his coffee in one hand and a baguette with a hefty chunk of camembert in the other. Bicycles, motorbikes, and small cars threaded through the narrow streets, darting in and out of alleys. He sipped his espresso. Franz had come to France to write feature stories for a new magazine. He had been trolling the Mediterranean coast for ideas and had just sent an article about the camps Vichy French officials had used to intern Jews, Communists, gypsies, and just about anyone else Nazi officials had ordered them to round up.

His train of thought was interrupted by the shouts of a man not more than ten feet in front of him who began screaming at a woman in a green jersey dress. The shouts in a guttural French became louder. All attention turned to the man. Franz looked on in horror. The man knocked the woman down as he waved his hands wildly while he continued to berate her. Her groceries fell from the cloth bag she was carrying. Carrots, onions, and a wrapped chop fell onto the hot cobblestones, with a half-dozen broken eggs congealing around them.

The man, who appeared to be in his late fifties, was short and stoutly built, with a deep tan. There was a furor in his eyes, leading Franz to believe that he wanted to kill her. The woman lay cringing on the pavement, attempting to gather her food as the man cursed at her. “You German-loving bitch! You lived and ate well with the Bosche, while we all starved. And you dare to show your face here again! You are lucky we did not shoot you when they left. People like you are the scourge of France. You do not deserve to live! I spit on you and your kind.”

Everyone stopped walking to watch, and traffic came to a halt. The woman remained kneeling, keeping her head down, cowering in fear. She had blonde hair which stuck out from her red scarf. She looked to be about thirty years old. She had scraped one of her knees but seemed afraid to examine it. The man kept screaming and then finally spit on her. Franz was shocked that no one standing by said a thing. No one attempted to help the woman. What was wrong with these people?

Franz could no longer sit and watch. He dropped some coins on the table for his coffee and went to assist the woman. He picked up the chop packet, wiped it on his jacket, and stuck it back into her bag. She glanced up at him with a look of gratitude that he would never forget. She was fighting back tears, while she said softly, “Merci, Monsieur.” Her eyes conveyed her thanks a thousand times more than her words. Franz was pained by her humiliation, no longer cognizant of the man berating her. Or the multitude of stares.

A bystander shouted, “What kind of Frenchman are you, to help this collaborator and traitor? Maybe you are one of them too!”

Franz replied in his best schoolbook French. “Excusez-moi, Monsieur, mais je ne suis pas français, as you can tell from my accent. I am an American, a tourist enjoying your beautiful country.”

“Ah, yes, what do you Americans know about these people and what they did to us during the war? Yes, help her and make your conscience feel good. But you do not know what it was like. These bitches fucked the Nazis and had plenty to eat. But we who were on rations had next to nothing. And we who fought back were beaten and starved. They tortured my friends to death.”

“I am sorry, Monsieur, I am truly sorry about your friends.”

Then Franz turned away from the man, grabbed his bike, and offered the woman a ride home. He instructed her to sit behind the handlebars. As he pedaled off, the crowd shouted at them but, to his relief, made no move to follow them.

“Where is your house?” Franz asked the woman in French.

“It is about one kilometer down this street. Then some turns I will have to show you if you take me that far.”

Franz rode slowly with his bike rattling against the narrow cobblestone streets. They passed some old buildings, a fruit orchard. About half a kilometer they went, and she turned her head and said, “I came back only because my mother is sick. I had no choice. I must care for her.”

“Of course you must,” he said into the wind. He leaned forward to say the words close to her ear. She smelled clean and flowery, and he could glimpse her cleavage bouncing along on the path.

Franz could feel her body against his as she sat on the bar in front of him. Pedaling hard up the slight incline caused his breathing to increase. He tried not to breathe too hard in the small of her neck.

“Over there, Monsieur, you can make a right and then two more streets and a left.”

In a few more minutes, they were in front of a tiny stone house with a red tile roof. The stones looked old, with green growth on the lower portions. Given the sunken tiny windows, the walls looked a foot and a half thick.

“Okay then, I hope you will be all right,” he said as he helped her with her groceries and with no excuse to stay proceeded to leave.

“Please, young man, let me prepare some lunch for you,” she said. “I want to thank you for what you have done for me. Please, I insist.” Without waiting for his answer, she led him alongside the house to the back and up a very narrow spiral staircase into a tiny flat. He leaned his bike against the thick stone building. She introduced herself as Madame Monique Bisset. She was staying in her mother’s flat with her young son, Paul.

Her mother was sick in bed in the back room. Monique went to check on her. Then sent Paul to sit with her and told Franz. She had met a German soldier, Gunther Niedelbaecker, during the occupation. “I gave him French lessons, and he gave me food. Just before the liberation of southern France, Gunther was taken prisoner of war and I never heard from him again.”

“And Paul?”

“He has never known his father.”

Facing the tiny sink with her back to Franz, “After the liberation, I took Paul to Marseille, where it was easier to live without the complete condemnation I suffered in this small town.”

However, even in Marseille, though no one ever spoke of it, people seemed to suspect that Paul’s father might have been a German, and many families did not allow their children to play with him. She worked as a waitress in a restaurant. She was seeing an Algerian man, she told Franz.

Less than an hour had passed since Franz had stopped for a coffee in Lunel, and now he was sitting at a tiny table across from Monique in this small kitchen. She served him a bowl of bouillabaisse with bread and cheese. He noticed that she touched his arm as she gestured to express herself. She turned frequently toward the tiny two-burner stove. In just those few steps, she seemed to exhibit her womanhood, which Franz could not help but notice. He felt himself being drawn to Monique, yet he was conscious of the awkwardness of the situation: her Algerian boyfriend she had just mentioned, her son playing at their feet, and her mother complaining from the back room.

Franz wanted somehow to make everything right for her and her family. But who was he to think he could fix other people’s lives? He was a 25-year-old American man traveling through France to find stories to write, adventure to relish, and maybe love to cherish.   

“Madame, I very much appreciated your lunch, but now I really must be going,” Franz said reluctantly.

“Franz, please call me Monique. If you could stay a little while longer, perhaps you could help us go to the station for a train to Marseille. When we came here, Paul and I walked the eight miles from the train station in Nimes. But now that people know we are here, the walk back will be difficult for us.”

“How serious is her illness?”

“She has only a bad cold and some fever and should be much better in several days.”

He watched Monique as she cleaned up their lunch dishes, moving back and forth between the table and kitchen sink. He took in her tight dress, her prominent breasts, and her soft, curly blonde hair, which came into full view without her scarf. Even with her back to him, she sensed what he was up to. “I can feel the way you watch me, you know,” she said with a smile. “Are you sure you want to go?”

He was taken aback by her frankness, not realizing that his lustful stare was so apparent. He stammered a bit, not knowing exactly what to say in response. “But if I did not go, where would I stay?” he asked, trying to sound practical and to make light of their situation.

“Do not worry, chéri, we can figure something out.”

“Well, I guess I could stay for one night.”

“Do you really think that you will be able to leave tomorrow?”

“If not tomorrow, then the next day for sure.”

So, it was set. He needed to stay for at least a day, two at most, to continue to protect her and her son and to see them off safely to Marseille. From that moment on, he regarded her differently. What would she be like in bed? He had harbored a taste for older women ever since he had known Fatima.

Franz went out to the balcony at the top of the spiral staircase. Stretched out from corner to corner and using his duffel bag as his pillow, he snoozed while Monique prepared the evening meal.

Franz recalled his first visit to a whorehouse when he was a green recruit in Paris six years ago. He had come to France still innocent in the ways of women. In the Army, it seemed that all the recruits ever talked about was girls and sex. That’s where he had met Fatima. She took him to a room upstairs and starting speaking French to him. He remembered a little bit from high school, and she was pleased that he understood her.

It did not take him long.

Afterward, he felt such exhilaration for having done it. He was now one of the guys. He would never have to sidestep any conversations again.

Franz spent the next two days with Monique. Her son slept in the back room with his grandmother. Franz slept in the other room with Monique. He took her son to the beach. Paul did not know how to swim. Franz taught him a little. Paul asked if they hated the Germans in America too. “Now that the war is over, they don’t hate them anymore,” Franz told him.

“I want to go to America,” he blurted out. Franz was at a loss for words. He had lost his own father when he was ten years old, but at least he had known him.

Monique’s lovemaking was very expressive. It made him feel good. But also sad that she would throw herself on him so easily. On the third day, he brought them to the train station in Nimes. He gave her three packs of Camel cigarettes when they departed, as distasteful as the gesture was. He knew that American cigarettes were better than French francs. She was very appreciative of the cigarettes and the help in getting to the train station. She smiled and kissed him on his cheek. He helped her board her train. He watched it depart and saw her wave from the window.

The experience gave him an idea for a story about the despised women of France. He traveled back to Paris and followed leads of people to interview. He wrote his story to wild acclaim by his American editor. “Great stuff, Franz. Looks like you had some personal involvement to add authenticity to the subject.”

Sitting in a Paris café with his French friend Roger, Franz told him the stories he had written about the south of France. He focused on his recent one about the French women who had dated German soldiers. He was proud of the firsthand knowledge he had of these women. Roger didn’t seem interested. So, Franz asked if he should tell him more. Roger answered, “If you insist.” Thus he told Roger how he met Monique. He was proud of how he had helped Monique when her groceries had been splattered on the pavement and the angry man was berating her.

Roger asked him what happened after that. Franz explained everything, in detail. He even embellished upon the events, describing Monique and her physical attributes. Franz felt like a big man and was pleased with his story.

Roger was silent. He looked at Franz. Franz felt the words about to come. “Franz.”

“Yes, Roger, you want to say something?”

“Yes. My older sister was accused of being a collaborator. She was hungry and was close to a German who gave her food. They shaved her head and paraded her through the streets. They taunted her. They threw things at her. My parents had to put her out of our home. She cannot marry. Maybe, one day people will forget. Her crime was to love. She loved the enemy. That was her crime. But my sister’s name was not Monique.”

Franz was silent. He no longer told the story of Monique to anyone.

 

 

 

About the Author:

Max Beyer

Max Bayer was born to immigrant parents who fled war-torn Europe in 1942. He came to writing late in life when he discovered that his parents—Holocaust escapees—left a daughter in Germany when they fled to America. He attended the City College of New York and completed a tour in the Peace Corps in the south of India where he met his wife, Mildred of 48 years. He received his PhD in City and Regional Planning from Rutgers University and has worked as a strategic planning consultant for the Urban Health Institute while pursuing his passion for building and writing. He currently shares his time between suburban NJ and his pastoral retreat in upstate NY. 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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