Paul, the Head Waiter
5. Paul, the Head Waiter
Sacre bleu, the cockroaches!
Paul raised a foot and brought it down hard, missing the skittering roach by inches. Huffing, he watched the bug run across the floor, up the wall, and into a tiny crack near the ceiling. So bold! Paul thought, twitching his trim little mustache.
"Mon Dieu, vermin everywhere," he muttered as he turned his attention back to creating swans out of linen napkins. "It will never do. No. Non."
While his annoyance was genuine—nobody wanted little bugs running about during a wedding reception, it spoiled the ambiance—he was not shocked. The little roaches were as much a fixture of the tavern as the beer barrels behind the bar, the broken shutters, and the slight rising smell in the smaller guest room upstairs. This place was at least as old as the village, a timber-frame tucked round the corner from the village square proper. There was a tiny sign, but it didn't need one—everyone knew what it was. The Tavern. Only one in the village. In all honesty The Tavern, which served the village as a pub, a restaurant, an inn and a hall, was a real baraque. A dump. And yet, it was Paul's baraque. Through work and talent he had made it his own.
"You just stay where you are put, boys, comprendrez-vous?" Paul called as he expertly folded the napkin, a swan quickly appearing under his skilled fingers. He hoped his little bug-boarders were listening. "In your teeny hidey-holes, oui? No more running about, not when we have a wedding party tomorrow! When the Van Dorts and their guests are gone, you may come out again. D'accord, boys? Deal?"
Even as he spoke he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. A roach even bolder than the last was twitching its way up and down and around the bottles of wine that Paul had set out on the long serving table. As Paul watched it, the beastie slowed, then stopped, perched atop one of the bottles. It seemed to be looking at him. As if it could tell that he was watching it. After a moment the roach twitched its little feelers at him and skittered down again, off and away to a crack in the floorboards.
So very cheeky! All he could do was shrug, unable to keep from smiling a little. The little roaches had been here long before Paul had arrived and they would most likely be here long after he left.
At the thought of leaving, Paul paused mid-swan, staring at its featureless little head. From within the walls came the skittering of bugs, and from somewhere else came the sound of a slow, steady drip of something or other leaking.
He knew this place, as they say, like he knew the back of his face. Nearly fifteen years he had been here, and ah, memories. There were the marks on the door-frame where Lady Glottberg's enormous hoop skirt had become stuck. It had taken Paul and three other men to pry her loose. There above the wide front window was a hole in the plaster where one of the resident Generals had accidentally fired a round from his service pistol while re-enacting a war story—Paul had never figured out which one of them it had been. Both of the old men had claimed credit. There in the corner was the little table where the Captain Wadleigh and his wife always sat, their visits like clockwork every other Saturday evening.
Ah, but he should not let affection cloud his judgment. This he knew. He did not want to be in such a place forever. And the offer he had had, it was excellent. One he would be a fool to turn down. His cousin Auguste had written to him of a job opening at Le Petit Moulin Rouge. Maitre d'Hotel. Just what Paul had always wanted, just what he had been working for.
And yet...he would miss this place. Tiny bugs and all. Paul sniffed, wiped a little tear from the corner of his eye, and went back to his folding.
"I've finished the wedding cake!" came Madame's low, round-toned voice. Paul glanced up to see her standing in the doorway at the top of the stairs that led down to the kitchen. Her flushed face betrayed a morning of work, as did the apron dusted with flour and smeared with icing, and her sleeves pushed up past her sturdy forearms. She looked very pleased with herself.
"It's sublime," she added, joining him at the long table where he worked. "Wait until you see it!"
"I am sure it is merveilleux, Madame," Paul told her. Immediately Madame puffed up like a little ruffled hen.
"You can call me Agnes, you know. I've told you so a hundred times," she told him, her tone amiable. This was an old, friendly disagreement between them. Paul gave a dainty shrug.
"It is a mark of respect," he informed her kindly. "As I believe I have told you...ooh la la, at least un million times."
"You old saucebox," Madame said, swatting him playfully on the arm. Quickly Paul glanced down to make sure she hadn't got flour on his jacket. "At least call me Miss Plum. 'Madame' makes me sound ancient. I'm only thirty-six!"
By Paul's count she had been thirty-six for at least a decade by now, but he let it pass. He handed her a basket of fresh orange blossom and a vase, and she set about putting together an arrangement for the wedding party's table.
Companionably they worked side by side in silence. Ah, stout and comfortable Madame. They had begun work here at the tavern at the same time, the day they had both arrived in answer to an advertisement-she to cook, he to run the dining room. And once he'd convinced her he was prepared to love her only for her personality and her magnifique blintzes, the pair of them had gotten on famously. He'd tried not to think too much about how he would miss having her about.
"How long will you be staying after the wedding?" Madame asked him now. She tried to sound nonchalant, but Paul caught the undertone of sadness. Looking down at her out of the corner of his eye, he saw that she was resolutely not looking at him.
Paul finished his last swan and set it to one side among its fellows. "Not too very long. I will make certainment Monsieur William and Mam'selle Nell are happily in the bridal suite, and then I shall go."
Professional that he was, the mention of the bridal suite made Paul run down the little checklist of preparations in his mind—nice sheets (easy, as there had been no guests nor live-ins since the Generals had died), a bottle of champagne (the genuine, which he kept locked up), a tasteful flower or two. Parfait. He would prepare it all after the dining room was finished.
A sniffle distracted him. Turning, he saw that Madame had begun to cry. Clearly she was trying to hold it in, but the sniffles and snorts were difficult to hide. As her hands were full of orange blossom the tears ran freely down her face.
"Oh la la," he clucked and soothed, "Ah non, Madame...The little flowers do not need watering. These little swans do not need a pool."
Paul tittered and nudged her with an elbow, but she did not smile. Frowning in sympathy, he handed her his handkerchief, which she took wordlessly.
"Ah, Madame," he said, watching her mop her face. "I am sad also. It is hard to leave here, it has been my home. Mais...c'est la vie, oui? Meetings, partings. I shall write. And you must visit! You and Boris both must come to France to see me."
"What'll we do without you?" Madame asked, shaking her head and blowing her nose. Paul waited for the noise to subside before he spoke.
"You shall get on fine," he assured her. "You will run the place well. I have full faith. You will all get on just like little ducklings, oui?"
"Just ducky, you mean," she replied, muffled by the handkerchief. But Paul grinned to hear the smile in her voice. "Won't be the same without you though, Paul. You've got that certain...I don't know what."
"Je ne sais quoi," Paul supplied.
Their nice tete-a-tete, perhaps the last they would ever have, was interrupted just then by the unmistakable skitter of a cockroach. Yes, there it was, investigating the wedding table, hurrying this way and that and poking its little antennae against Paul's intricate cloth swans and freshly polished silver. With a flick of her wrist Madame snapped the handkerchief at the roach, but it evaded her handily. Together they watched it scuttle across the dining room and disappear into a hole along the base of the bar.
"Oh, I do get tired of them little things," she said. "We really should get rid of'em. It's not fitting to have bugs where people eat."
"Borax," Paul told her. He gently took the handkerchief from her and paused, thinking better of putting it in his vest pocket again. He stuffed it into his jacket pocket instead. "We used it at the inn at Lyon. Mix with sugar, scatter on the floor, et voila. Dead little roaches."
"Eh, I'll tell Boris," Madame said. She set the orange blossoms and vase to one side and brushed off her hands. "I'll go put the cake in the cool room. I'll see you at tea."
"A bientot, oui," he replied. After she had disappeared back down the stairs to the kitchen, Paul finished the arrangement of orange blossoms with quick, assured fingers. Simple and elegant. It would do. And so on to his next task, the bridal suite.
In a little nook near the top of the stairs was a tiny door which hid the dumbwaiter shaft. The dumbwaiter had been one of Paul's first improvements at the tavern. It was not mechanized, of course, they were too poor for that. Pulleys and weights did the job just as well. And the shaft was a wonderful means of communication between floors.
Paul opened the little door and stuck his head into the dimness, looking down into the shadows. The dumbwaiter itself must be one floor up. A quick upward glance confirmed his suspicion. He whistled, short and shrill.
"Boris!" he called, his voice echoing a little. "Boris! Attendez!"
There was a clank and a clatter, and then Boris's round, bald head appeared below, thrown into shadow by the dark dumbwaiter shaft. Tilting his face up, he regarded Paul with large, slowly blinking eyes.
"Yes, sir?" asked Boris. Cooking smells wafted up the shaft from the kitchen. Ooh la la, lamb. He might not be bright or quick, but none could beat Boris for butchering or for roasts. He had a gift. Most likely not even the Moulin Rouge could boast such talent in the kitchen.
"Please, tell Madame to send me up the good sheets, for the bridal suite," Paul said. "Bring the dumbwaiter down and send it back up, I will meet it upstairs, oui?"
"And some of that lamb for me, if it is ready," Paul called with a laugh. "It smells magnifique!"
"Yes, sir," Boris said, pleased, and Paul watched his head disappear. Paul took another sniff. That lamb truly did have an intoxicating aroma. Paul's mouth watered a bit. He had not eaten a thing all day, so busy he had been.
From above came a rattle. Paul cocked an eyebrow and twisted his head to the side, glancing upward. The rattle grew louder as the dumbwaiter descended. A split-second too late, he realized what was happening.
Paul didn't even have time to gasp before everything went black.
"New arrival! Tap another barrel!"
When Paul opened his eyes, he was in a dim room. He'd barely had a chance to take in his surroundings when a large purplish face thrust itself toward his own. Paul reeled back in surprise.
"Hey there, sir! Welcome! Here, what'll you have?" asked the face. As the face withdrew, Paul saw that it belonged to a man standing behind a bar. He wore a long apron and had a mustache that was truly formidable.
Disoriented and unused to being the one asked such questions, Paul only blinked. He glanced around and realized he was in a pub. Of sorts. But it was not his tavern. Something seemed wrong. Something he could not quite put all his fingers on...That was when he glanced down. Glanced down, gasped, and then screamed. And then he screamed again.
Paul had no body. He stopped at his collar, which was resting atop the bar. He was a tete with nothing beneath. His body was gone! Gone! Such things did not happen!
"Ou est mon corps?!" he cried, glancing around desperately, nearly tipping himself over. "My head! Oh ma poor tete! Where is the rest du moi?!"
"Oi, now! Oi!" said the barman loudly, speaking over Paul's frantic confused Franglais and pushing a pint glass of something red and bubbling at him. "Calm down, sir. Here, drink this, you'll feel better."
Paul stopped short, and stared up at the man before spitting, "Drink? I have no arms! Quel est wrong avec vous?"
But the barman simply held the glass up to Paul's mouth for him. After a moment's consideration, Paul took a sip. Whatever it was, it did seem to calm him down. Even though he had no body. Just a head propped on a bar, thankful for his starched collar helping to keep him upright. Another sip. He did not bother wondering where the drink went, with no throat to carry it. In this regard his ignorance was his bliss.
"Better?" asked the barman. Paul could not nod without a neck, so he wiggled his eyebrows. The barman seemed to know what he meant, for he grinned.
The bar was filling with people. From his vantage point next to a keg Paul could see all down the bar and most of the rest of the room. It was small and dim, with earth walls. Like a crypt. Indeed, most of the people here he recognized as being no longer among the living. He had catered some of their funerals. A few nodded and said hello. Tres gentil of them.
"I am...as you say...mort, oui? I have died?" Paul asked, knowing the answer. Only little roaches could go about with such important parts missing. Men were not so strong.
"'Fraid so," said the barman, filling another pint glass and handing it to another customer over Paul's head. "Not so bad, though, once you get used to it. What happened to you, if I may ask?"
"I am not sure," Paul said slowly. He tried to think. And then he gasped. The dumbwaiter. The dumbwaiter.
Oh, that Boris. That cretin! That imbecile! If ever he saw him again...! Though really, Paul was aware that if and when he saw Boris again, Boris would be quite beyond anything that Paul could do to him.
"Un accident," he told the barman, "named Boris."
"Eh?" asked the barman, cocking an eyebrow.
"Rien," said Paul gloomily. The barman stepped away, leaving Paul to sigh and sit morosely next to his half-empty pint glass, watching a pair of cockroaches roaming along the bar, weaving their way unremarked between elbows and glasses. Some things never did change. He was rather comforted by the sight of the little bugs.
Paul realized that the roaches were scuttling their way over to him. When they were a few inches from him, they put out their tiny feelers and tested the air. Squinting and giving a sharp look at them, he saw that they looked a bit different than other roaches. Something about their color. And they seemed to sense that Paul was closely regarding them. They seemed to be watching him. One twitched a little closer, and made a little noise.
"Bonjour," Paul replied. For a moment the three of them simply regarded one another. Something about the calm, familiar way the cockroaches looked at him-and Paul knew that they were truly looking at him-made him ask, "Do I know you, boys?"
One of the roaches trundled closer until its feelers touched Paul's chin. Again came the little squeak. Ah, it was mad, fou...but Paul could have sworn the teeny bug said, Borax.
"Oooh la la," Paul clucked, looking at the little beasties. They did look a little purplish around the feelers. "My poor little boys. I am sorry. It was my idea, the poison. I do hope you forgive me. We are all in one boat now, oui?"
The roaches tilted their feelers as though in agreement. Then, much to Paul's shock, they scurried over to him and wedged themselves under his stiff collar. Displaying amazing strength for small bugs, the two roaches hoisted Paul's head onto their backs.
"Sacre bleu!" he cried in alarm and confusion, as the roaches carried him along the bar. As they traveled, more roaches joined in the entourage, until Paul was being supported by at least a dozen cockroaches, some alive and some dead. Corpses all along the bar moved their glasses out of the way, laughing and applauding at the unexpected little show.
"Ah, merci, yes!" Paul exclaimed with a laugh when the roaches finally stopped at the end of the bar. Thank you, boys!" What unsinkable little bugs they were. Creatures to be admired.
Most of the roaches dispersed, leaving Paul hoping that they would be back again. His two little dead friends stayed with him, arranging themselves attractively on his collar. Roaches. A bar, with shelves behind—coffins, he noticed now. Even a piano, which also looked as though it had recently held a corpse. And the clientele...so much more boisterous, so much more alive! It was what he had thought Paris would be.
Paul sniffed and blinked. He'd never see Paris. There would be no Maitre d' position, there would be no Moulin Rouge. No writing to Madame. Partings, oui, as he'd said. He'd not thought they would be so permanent.
"C'est la vie," Paul murmured. Then he caught himself, and grinned a little. "Or c'est la mort, oui?"
He looked around again, twitching his mustache as he considered with a more professional eye. And his conclusion: Quelle baraque! What a hole! Not fit for piglets! A crypt that should be a mausoleum, a charnelhouse that should be an ossuary.
The idea was there, the promise. A tavern was the first place one should always go when in a strange new place. At the end of a long day's travel, people wanted a jovial atmosphere and a nice drink. To put up their feet, sigh, and relax. In style. And what, in the end, was death but a long, long rest after the day was done? And what was this Land of the Dead, but a strange new place?
A few ideas began to form in Paul's mind. He would have to ask the barman whether he might be in the market for a fully trained Maitre d'Hotel. With all his talents, he could make this little place shine!
"Par Dieu, I could be head waiter after all," Paul said to the roaches, who twitched and squeaked. Then, realizing what he said, he giggled.
Head waiter. Tres amusant. He would have to remember that.