I met him at a restaurant on the outskirts of Saint-Avold. We sat in a windowless dining room, enclosed by mirrored walls.
“You look hideous,” I said. “Where did you find such an awful sweater?”
“It was a birthday present,” he said.
“A present? From what mortal enemy?”
I took a quaff of my Manhattan. “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. But why in the world, dear brother, would you wear it?”
The waiter cleared his throat. He’d been standing beside the table, grinning like an imbecile.
“What do you want?” I said.
“Your order, monsieur.”
“Don’t monsieur me. We’re American. Bring us steaks. Medium rare.”
My brother gulped his martini and waved the empty glass at the waiter. He’d aged considerably since our last meeting; his face was sallow and wrinkled, like a golden raisin.
“How did you get so old and so ugly so fast?” I said. “Last year you looked almost human.”
“At least I’m not fat.”
“This is my winter weight. I put it on to keep warm. By June I’ll look like Johnny Weissmuller in his prime.”
“Johnny Weissmuller wasn’t bald.”
“Neither am I.”
We were the only customers in the restaurant. A decade ago it had been one of the best in northern France. Packed tables. Merry conversation. Bright, clean surfaces. Now everything white had gone slightly yellow: the ceiling, the tablecloths, the waiters’ jackets.
“I don’t want steak,” said my brother.
“I don’t want steak. I want lobster.”
“Well, why didn’t you say something?”
When I told the waiter to change the order, he informed me that the steak was already being cooked.
“Good. Feed it to the rats,” I said.
He slunk off, and my brother chortled. I looked in the mirror at the back of his head. Thick, gray hair. Not a hint of scalp. Bastard.
We drank without speaking. I could hear thelow rumble of a television in the bar, some pots clanging in the kitchen, the faint pitter-patter of rain on the roof.
A woman entered and sat at a table in the corner. She was wearing a green dress with a felt hat and fox stole. On her chest, over her heart, was a blue cornflower—the Bleuet de France—commemorating Armistice Day.
“How old do you think she is?” said my brother.
“She’s got a dead animal around her neck, so pretty old.”
“As old as we are?”
“As old as you are.”
The waiter brought the woman a drink on a tray. She said, “Merci,” and lit a cigarette.
“Redhead,” I said. “With very good posture.”
The woman turned. “Are you gentlemen discussing me?”
“You speak English,” said my brother.
“And your accent isn’t completely unbearable,” I said.
“Nice of you to say so.” She took a drag on her cigarette then held it off to the side with a cocked wrist. The smoke drifted up in velvety curls. I wondered why she wasn’t wearing gloves. They were the only thing missing.
“We’re on our way to the American Cemetery,” said my brother.
“Good God, no,” I said. “We’re visiting our father’s grave. We meet here every year on November eleventh.”
“Even though we never knew him,” said my brother.
“We were toddlers when he died. Fighting to save you people from the Krauts.We had a tough childhoodthanks to Herr Hitler.”
“France is in your debt,” she said, returning to her cigarette.
The scent of tobacco aroused old cravings. I could remember my last B&H vividly. I’d smoked it halfway, then used the rest to burn my Actors’ Equity card. The transition from leading man to character actor was not for me.
The waiter served our food. My steak was overdone. He took it away and brought another, probably the one I’d sent to the rats. “I’ll eat it, but I’m not going to pay for it,” I told my brother. He wheezed with delight. “Do you ever?”
I had another Manhattan to help choke the meat down. The woman was on her second brandy and a third cigarette.
“Excuse me,” I said.
She turned. “Yes?”
“If you had to sleep with one of us, which one would it be?”
My brother burst out laughing and sprayed gin everywhere. He’d been a big tippler in his day, but couldn’t hold his liquor anymore. The woman didn’t seem shocked at all.
“The one with the hair,” she said.
Of course. He’d always been considered handsome. A pilot for TWA. The idol of every dopey stewardess. “Are you sure?” he said. “Baldy here once played Hamlet.”
“I would’ve guessed Falstaff,” she said, glancing at my midsection.
My brother stumbled over to the woman with his lobster. “You’re my kinda gal! Have some shellfish!”
He settled in beside her, leaving me alone at the table, surrounded by mirrors. Everywhere I looked I saw myself. From the side, receding hairline. From the front, creased brow and blotchy skin. I thought of my father, decomposing under French dirt all these years.
“Waiter!” I said.
He approached slowly, with a stooped gait, as if he was afraid I might belt him.
“I can’t finish this steak. It’s as dry as the damned Sahara. Bring me another.”
He took the plate back to the kitchen. The woman met my eyes in the mirror and said, “Difficult people die alone.” Then shelooked away, leaving me to stare at my reflection.
Later, in the cemetery, my brother fell beside our father’s grave, smashing a bottle of cognac.
“Get up, you oaf,” I said.
He lay there, blubbering. “My heart’s shot. The doc told me I could go anytime. Hey. I love that woman in the restaurant. I really do. Do you think she’d marry me? It’s not too late, is it? I don’t want to die alone.”
“Everyone dies alone,” I said.
As we walked back to the car through the rows of pale crosses, I wondered, as I did every year, if it would be our final trip.
About the Author
Dan Morey is a freelance writer in Pennsylvania. He's worked as a book critic, nightlife columnist, travel correspondent, and outdoor journalist. His writing has appeared in Hobart, Cleaver Magazine, McSweeney's Quarterly, Lowestoft Chronicle and elsewhere. His work was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2017. Find him at danmorey.weebly.com.