Marcel, half owner of Chez Nous, studied the young couple at table number five. They were perfect in every way, beautifully dressed, beautifully mannered, obviously adoring of each other. Chez Nous, with its crisp, white table linen, subdued lighting and music, attracted couples like that.
Another couple entered, older, but still young, only in their forties. Anyone under the age of fifty was still young to Marcel. At fifty-five he felt old and wished he could retire, but what would he do? He had always worked. Ever since he could clear a table he had worked. First for his father, then for Uncle Etienne, then for himself until Elaine left and the neighborhood changed to neon-infested streets with enough fast-food places to satisfy every taste and low budget. Le Bistro no longer suited the palates of the residents. After working at different venues as chef or cook, depending on the sophistication of the restaurant, he partnered with Louis, his much younger brother, to open Chez Nous.
Marcel seated the older couple and speculated. Nothing special was going on there. Neither of them had a spark, an appearance of anticipation. This was to be just a Saturday night dinner. Ah, well. Not every couple came for the romance promised at Chez Nous.
Ever since the food critic for the local newspaper raved about her 10th anniversary dinner almost three years earlier, calling Chez Nous "the most romantic restaurant in the city," reservations had increased so much that weekend bookings always had to be made a month in advance. The restaurant had hardly been noticed before. After the review, couples came and paid the newly increased prices for the same food and service, but left feeling somehow as if they had been transformed by "the magic of Chez Nous." Marcel had thought to give a cash bribe to the critic, but Louis vetoed that idea with several emphatic "Non!"s. Instead Marcel offered all the specialties, including champagne, with no charge.
"It's still a bribe," Louis had insisted, but he was pleased with the review. Three years later couples still thought there was magic. What fools they were spending so much money when a walk in the park, also considered to be romantic, would be just as effective.
That young man at table five. Ahh...now comes the box. Sometimes a little box for a ring, sometimes a bigger one for a necklace or bracelet. This one was a ring box, pink velvet. Pink, blue, gold, silver, they came in all colors, but always the same thing inside. And now the young man will smile. Yes, smile and will ask. "Will you and so on and so on." And the girl will speak, perhaps cry, perhaps squeal and jump up and down.
Marcel took the coffee pot from the waiter and approached closer. "Will you..." the young man said.
"Yes" was the reply. "Yes. I'll marry you."
Marcel refilled their coffee cups and left without being noticed. Later, as they were leaving, he asked, "Was everything to your satisfaction, Monsieur?" Marcel presented his most affable smile.
"Yes," the young man said. "Absolutely."
"Bon. It's truly reassuring to know that l'amor and Romance still work at Chez Nous. We aim to give the diners what they paid for."
The young woman widened her eyes; the young man stopped smiling, took his fiancée by the arm and headed closer to the door.
"Monsieur! Mademoiselle! Wait!" Louis, approaching rapidly, went to the reservation desk, and took something from a drawer. He presented it to the young man.
"Congratulations on your engagement. All of us here at Chez Nous wish you the very best. This is a certificate for a complimentary bottle of wine the next time you visit. And, please do come back."
Marcel didn't credit anything offered at Chez Nous to real life. It was simply the surroundings, the low light, candles, music and too much wine. Those two innocents would wake up soon enough. Six months, a year, maybe even five years. That lightheaded feeling wore off like the silver veneer covering a tea service from a discount store.
Louis was a silly romantic. "There are so many problems in the world in people's lives, they need something to soften life," he said often. "What nonsense" was Marcel's reaction. People need to face reality. No rose colored glasses. No soft-focus lenses.
"Marcel." Louis called after him."Why do you insist on annoying the customers?"
"It was a joke. I was smiling as I spoke."
"You were sneering, not smiling. They probably won't come back."
"Marcel. We're partners, remember? I'm not just the hired chef. We must talk"
"I'm closing up and going home."
"Move that 50th anniversary party into the Mona Lisa Room. The number is now sixteen. The Garden Room is too small."
Marcel looked at Louis with annoyance. "Such a lot of fuss and on a Saturday when we're busy. Fifty years. What's to celebrate? That they survived fifty years of living together, fifty years of strife and struggle?"
"You have no soul, no romance in your heart Marcel. No wonder Elaine left you."
"I had a soul. I had romance. It's because Elaine left me with the sous chef that I have no romance or a soul as you say."
"No. You never did. Inside, you are as dried up as a prune. Elaine was right when she said you love no one, not even yourself."
"What was that about Elaine?"
"Nothing. Get the staff going on the room switch. There's only thirty minutes."
Marcel had no time to think about what Louis meant regarding Elaine. His orders to the staff were sharp, quick and efficient. "Stop grumbling," he said, "and get it done. Get wood for the fireplace, more candles, more flowers. Louis wants to give the customers Romance. Well...we'll give them Romance." He turned off the wall speakers and brought in a small CD player they used when a group wanted special music—Montovani, Strauss waltzes, Italian love songs, lots of violins, and treacly melodies—what dupes people were to fall for all of these schmaltzy trappings.
At seven o'clock the anniversary party arrived all together. The old couple, gray-haired, plump and jolly took their seats at the head of the table while the rest sorted themselves. Marcel couldn't imagine fifty years together and still be smiling. His parents had a thirty-year marriage before his mother died, but it wasn't a smooth one. Thirty years of ups and downs, more downs than ups, with heated arguments, objects thrown, and doors slammed. He andElaine didn't fight. They retreated into silence until one of them, hours or days later, had enough and began speaking. More often it was Elaine.
"How's the party going?" Louis asked as he was lighting the candles on the cake. "Have you checked in there lately?"
"Oh, they are all dripping with love and praise. The food, the atmosphere, the music...I humbly bow before your genius." Marcel bent low then picked up the cake and slowly walked through the main room, making sure all the diners got a look at the flaming cake.
"Oooh! Ahhhh! How lovely."
"Thank you. Thank you. Everything was so romantic." The gray-haired couple was effusive in thanking Marcel and the staff.
Everyone was happy—the anniversary party, the other customers who peeked at the cake, and Louis, with all his romantic notions. It brought in the customers and the money, but Marcel would not pretend he believed in any of it.
"Ah, yes," Marcel said."We do a superb job of selling Romance here at Chez Nous. But, tell me. How did you do it? How did you stay together for fifty years? Weren't there times when you wanted to call it quits, when everything went sour or stale? This is only one day out of fifty years. All the other days, the weeks and years could not have been romantic."
"You sound bitter," said the old man. "A failed love, perhaps?" The old man looked thoughtful. "You're right. Not every day was perfect. There were bad days, weeks, even years when there was no time for anything except the determination to survive. If you value your spouse as a person, not for looks or talent or success, love stays. So does romance. It's a feeling one has. It's not an object or a place. It's a feeling inside one's soul."
The soul again. Elaine killed his soul when she left.
Marcel found Louis alone in the kitchen, now all spotless stainless steel, barren of any evidence of the chaos earlier.
"Très chic," Marcel said from the doorway. "Paisley ascot, navy blazer." He moved closer and sniffed. "After shave. Not the same Louis who came in wearing old sweats."
"I'm meeting Ben at the club for a little dancing. It's an anniversary for us too. Seven years together." Louis made a move to get past Marcel.
"Wait." Marcel's hand was on Louis' chest, pushing him back into the kitchen. "What did you mean Elaine was right? When did you talk with her?"
"I talk with Elaine often. We speak at least once a month. We're friends and have been ever since you brought her home to meet Dad."
"She never told me. Just how close friends are you, mon frère?" Marcel still had a hand on Louis' chest.
"Come on, Marcel." Louis grabbed Marcel's hand by the wrist and pulled it away from his chest. "Friends only. You know what I am. Elaine and I are kindred spirits." Marcel, rolling his eyes, jerked his hand away from Louis' grasp. "Elaine has great intuition and sensed I was gay even before I told you and Dad." Louis hoisted himself onto a worktable. "What do you want to know? Why she left you? Why she ran off with the sous chef?"
"I want to know what you meant, that I never loved anyone not even myself. I loved Elaine and wanted to make the marriage work. It was she who was unfaithful and left. She didn't want to stay married to me." Marcel, his anger rising as he remembered the scene with Elaine, thrust his fists in his pockets and paced around the steel counters and workbenches.
"You never made a commitment, Marcel. When she left, you never really missed her. Your pride was hurt so you blame the breakup on Elaine."
"She was unfaithful. Not I!"
"That's only because you had no interest in anything except Le Bistro. Elaine had everything you wanted in a wife: talent, beauty, charm, intelligence. She was an asset. Customers came to hear her play and sing. You stayed faithful to keep Elaine, not because she fulfilled your life, but because she was your moneymaker and your mistress. She was not a wife."
Marcel grabbed a copper pot from an overhead rack and raised it. Louis jumped off the counter and moved out of Marcel's range.
"When Elaine was in the hospital you worried that business would drop because she wasn't there to play and sing."
Marcel flashed back to the night Elaine collapsed. "Sing just two numbers," Marcel had insisted. "There's no cabaret without you."
Marcel lowered the copper pot. "I hadn't realized she was that sick. She never said anything earlier.
"You never looked. She looked unwell when you came to see Dad that week before. When she was in the hospital what did you say to her? Not that you missed her, but that the customers missed her. All the flowers you sent didn't make up for your lack of feeling. Now, put away that pot and go home. I'm off to meet Ben."
Marcel held onto the copper pot. It needed polishing. All the copper pots needed polishing. Tomorrow, he'd get someone to do it. Louis should have seen to it, but he was thinking only of Romance, not the practical business of running a restaurant. Marcel took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves, and began polishing the copper pot he was holding. He would do them now. Then he would know they were done, and done right.
Thoughts of Elaine churned with each swirl of the polish. The night she had left she said he was too practical. And hard. Maybe she and Louis are kindred spirits, but someone has to be practical. It was up to Marcel to be that someone. Elaine didn't, couldn't see that.
"We have a restaurant to run," he had said. "There's no place for softness in this life."
"I know the world is hard, but we can do a lot to soften our lives. I must. That's why I'm leaving. You'll have to get a new sous chef as well as a singer."
What Louis had said wasn't all true; he did miss Elaine, and not because some customers stopped coming after she left. It was nice going home together after Le Bistro closed for the night. A shared snack, a glass of wine, a few jokes about some of the customers. He missed that. And on the days the restaurant wasn't open, even if they didn't speak much. She was there. He wasn't alone. Why hadn't he realized this when they were married?
Value your spouse as a person the old man said. And just how had he valued Elaine? For her looks, her talent, for the business she brought in. Louis was right. They all were right: Elaine, the old man, the sous chef for loving Elaine the way she should have been loved. With the last pot glowing on the overhead rack, Marcel stood back and admired his work. They did look pretty there, catching the light. A few shiny copper pots in the dining room would make an attractive decoration. Add a little more Romance to Chez Nous. He would talk to Louis in the morning.
BIO: Adelaide B. Shaw lives in Millbrook, NY with her husband. She has three children and six grandchildren. Her stories have been published in several literary journals, including By-Line, The Greensilk Journal, The Country and Abroad, Bartleby Snopes, Loch Raven Review, American Literary Review, The Writers' Journal, SN Review, Bewildering Stories, Cyclamens and Swords, and Storyteller. Adelaide also writes children's fiction, haiku and other Japanese poetic forms, such as tanka, haibun, and photo haiga and has been published widely. A collection of short stories, Potpourri, Volume 1, as well as her award winning collection of haiku, An Unknown Road, are available as e-books on Amazon Kindle. Adelaide's blogs are: www.adelaidewritewritewrite.blogspot.com and on www.adelaide-whitepetals.blogspot.com