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La Belle Époque
Mildred Avide looked through the window at the horse-drawn carriage and gasped as her niece, Philadelphia, stepped onto the running board before descending to the cobblestones. She wore a stretchy, black gown that revealed way too much cleavage It just wouldn’t do.
Ever since Captain Ned went missing on the Marie Celeste, Mildred had struggled to make ends meet, even relying on the generosity of gentlemen callers. As she aged, it became harder to hide her wrinkles. Even her corset couldn’t camouflage the extra weight around her middle. If she played her cards right, Philadelphia would finance a comfortable old age.
Sure, Mr. Plus d’Eau’s skin was too pale to be healthy but he’d inherited a vast, mining empire. A marriage to Philadelphia would keep Mildred in laudanum for the rest of her days if only the girl would put on a corset.
Philadelphia was too much of a free spirit to control. She even requested a pair of dueling pistols for her eighteenth birthday. Her choice in men was even worse. She was smitten by Marcel Proust. Not only did he sit around eating cookies all day but he was a writer. Mildred would deal with him at tonight’s banquet.
After the maid set out plates of carpaccio, Plus d’Eau dug into the bloody beef with gusto. His chest-length beard hung in a column of ringlets and his torso filled his suit jacket like a block of granite.
“More water, Mr. Ploo Dough?” Proust offered a carafe after exaggerating the pronunciation. There was something of the gypsy about him with his dark eyes and olive skin.
“You jest, sir.” Plus d’Eau’s voice was so deep that it rattled windows. “Plus d’Eau is the Gallicized pronunciation of a name from a language lost in prehistory. Before the age of heroes, before the great culture of Crete, before the city of Uruk, mortals whispered my name in reverence and fear.”
“The carpaccio is very tender. Don’t you think?” Mildred asked Philadelphia.
“Mmm.” Philadelphia nodded.
“Tell me, Mr. Plus d’Eau. What do you do for a living?” Mildred asked.
“I tear wealth from the bowels of the earth. I have amassed enough gold, silver, and palladium to buy nations but what do I care about mere mortals? No matter whether rich or poor, after a few rounds of Phoebus’s chariot, all descend to my underworld realm to do my bidding for eternity.”
“With all those riches, you must live in a marvelous mansion.” Mildred motioned to the maid to bring the sole meunière.
“For eons, I lived under the smokey crater on Mount Tartarus, where mortals feared death would strike any who dared trespass. If the screech of my thigh-bone flute didn’t fill their bowels with icicles, balls of heat lightning and sulfuric fumes would. My privacy lasted until the meddling vulcanologist made their way to my summit. May pyroclastic flows burn them for eternity!”
“So, where do you live, now?”
“I downsized to a townhouse on the Rue de la Paix. After strengthening the joists to support my obsidian throne, it meets my needs. Plus, it’s withing walking distance to the Metro.”
“How about you, Mr. Proust? Where do you live?” Mildred asked.
“In Mamma’s home in Combray surrounded by plane trees, current bushes, and the buzzing of honey bees drunk on the perfume of lavender. At night, I dream my bed is a lifeboat, I cling to after escaping a pirate attack off São Miguel. Of the brigands, I can only say that they rode a trireme, rowed by vegan Aztecs, and the captain had a parrot with a peg leg, he having claimed it as booty from a tanker full of adulterated olive oil off the Straits of Malacca. My soft pillow becomes the gunwales and the crickets’ chirps the swearing of that cursed bird as the Atlantic dashes my craft in its waves. Then when the titmouse calls and dawn peeks through the curtains, I realize I’m in my room with its chair, writing desk, and cuspidor that seems to be the only one in the world. The seawater that I tried to drink in desperation is none other than my Egyptian-cotton sheets. Soon Mamma will greet me with a bowl of café au lait, a kiss on the forehead, and a medium-rare moose steak from the animal she dispatched in the garden before sunrise.”
“Your Mamma’s home!” Mildred set down her fork. “You must have quite the career to afford that.”
“I work at the biblioteque where the chief librarian has the unruly mustache of a Visigoth or perhaps a Bothnian. Hiding from his suspicious glare among the dusty stacks, the old leather’s smell reminds me of an elephant’s musk as it labors in a Thai logging camp. My arms ache from hauling volumes of Beaudelaire and Rimbaud much like a mahouts’ arms tire after scrubbing a bull elephant with a coconut husk. Alas, the dust proved too much for my asthma so I’ve been on sick leave for the past decade.” Proust tasted the sole. “The fish seems overcooked as if it were wrapped in banana leaves and buried under hot coals instead of being sauteed in butter.”
“Let me get more wine.” Mildred carried the empty bottle of Montrachat Grand Cru into the kitchen, refilled it with cheap table wine and brought it back. “Are you married, Mr. Plus d’Eau?”
“Divorced. Persephone’s mother never liked me. She left years ago and her lawyers took me to Hygeia. May vultures feed on their livers for eternity!” Plus d’Eau banged his fist on the table before cleansing his palate with lime sorbet.
“You’re an eligible bachelor, then.” Mildred turned to her niece. “Someone like Mr. Plus d’Eau would make an excellent catch.”
“Aunt Mildred, I’m barely eighteen.”
“You aren’t getting any younger.” Mildred motioned to the maid to set out the blanquettes de veau.
“My compliments to the cook.” Plus d’Eau raised his fork. “This veal is pale as a blind, cave fish. Reminds me of my younger days under Mount Tartarus before that fool Orpheus ruined my peace and quiet with his damn guitar.”
“Thank you.” Mildred turned to Proust. “How about you, Mr. Proust? How will you support children on your salary as a furloughed librarian?”
“Really, Aunt Mildred!” Philadelphia rested a hand on Proust’s forearm. “Marcel and I are just dance partners. He’s teaching me the steps to the Madison.”
“Still, a girl needs to think of her future,” Mildred said.
“Marcel is writing a novel.” Philadelphai looked up at Proust. “And I’m going to write one, too. When my book is the talk of Paris, you’ll see.”
The maid set out plates of salade Lyonnaise.
“I miss a woman’s company.” Plus d’Eau took Mildred’s hand and brought it to his icy lips. “Mildred, your witty repartee sends my ichor pumping. Would you do me the honor of dining with me this Friday?” A bouquet of asphodels sprang from his fingers as if by magic.
“I don’t know what to say.” Mildred blushed and placed her hand over her heart. “Of course, I’d be delighted. Portia, please bring out the cheese plate and coffee.”
“Thanks for dinner, Aunt Mildred, but Marcel and I have to go.” Philadelphia stood. “They’re having a dance contest at Bacchus Club and Anna Karina is judging the Madison.”
“I thought that name sounded familiar,” Proust said as he and Philadelphia climbed in the carriage. “When Plus d’Eau mentioned ancient languages, I thought of Sumerian wizards charting the stars from atop ziggurats or Brahmins reciting the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit. I was so engrossed was in Orientalism that I forgot Latin. Plus d’Eau sounds like Pluto, god of the underworld,”
“Silly.” Philadelphia punched Proust’s shoulder. “What would a Roman god be doing in nineteenth-century Paris?”
Philadelphia brushed dead leaves off the polished granite of her aunt’s tombstone. Mildred had seemed so happy when leaving on her honeymoon to Mount Etna with Mr. Plus d’Eau. Tragedy cut her celebration short when she fell into the crater and lava swallowed her. All that was left to bury were some broken fingernails and a lock of hair. Strangely, no matter when Philadelphia visited, the asphodels on Mildred’s grave were always fresh.
Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, New Verse News, Oddball Magazine, Paterson Literary Review, Pearl, Pirene’s Fountain, Slipstream, Space and Time, and Tales of the Talisman. His most recent books are The Shaman in the Library and The Prague Deception.