Milos’ apartment was on the outskirts of Paris. He set a bottle of wine in front of Cosmo and began making phone calls. After the first few calls, he started getting some back. Cosmo filled his glass and went to the balcony. Outside the sun was shining onto a narrow street.
“So this is Paris,” he muttered to himself.
He wondered what the difference was to back home. There was some litter around, but nothing like what there was where he had lived. The buildings were not new, but hey seemed solider, not quite as hopeless. The blacks and dark-complexioned people who he later learned were North Africans seemed familiar, even though their dress was different. And, of course, the cars were smaller and the street narrower.
Cosmo took another long sip of wine. He was about to wonder what he was going to do there, but the wine’s soothing effects answered the question in advance. “Damn, this stuff is good,” he mused. “And cheap! Paris is starting to look better already.”
By the time he finished the bottle, he had become rather drowsy, lay down and fell asleep. When he awoke a couple of hours later, he heard loud talk and laughter from the living room. It was almost dark outside, and it took a while before he remembered where he was. He roused himself, slapped some water onto his face, and brushed his hair – there were some female voice out there too! – and smoothed out the wrinkles in his shirt the best he could.
“Hey everybody, this is my friend Cosmo!” Milos called out.
Cosmo shook a bunch of hands and soon had another glass in it.
“I appreciate the consideration,” Cosmo said referring to the glass, “but I think I could use a coffee first.”
“Du café, du café, a splendid idea. Milos, you’ve been misleading us,” one of the men chided. “You told us he only drank alcohol.”
“Yes, Cosmo, how can you do this to me?” Milos laughed. “Make a liar out of me in front of my friends.”
“Don’t worry,” Cosmo reassured him. “I’m gonna be drinking all your liquor soon. I just wanna collect my thoughts before I begin. Besides, I don’t wanna get too drunk now, not with these pretty womens here,” looking in the direction of the two women present.
“Oh oh, un gallant!” one woman laughed.
“Oh yes, ladies beware!” Milos stood up and began speaking in mock serious tones. This is Cosmo, the all-embracing.” And he proceeded to make up sexual exploits for Cosmo in England.
“Damn, Milos, I musta been drunker than I thought. I don’t remember none of that shit.”
“Now he’s being modest my friends, one of his many virtues.” And turning to Cosmo, “Come, I’ll make you some coffee in the kitchen.”
Cosmo’ spirits soared. The coffee tasted great, not to mention the pastis, which he also found quite agreeable. More friends showed up, and some began cooking. It was turning into a welcome home party for Milos, but Cosmo felt as if it were a welcoming party for himself. He drank and ate and everybody smiled at him. Only it was a little difficult to follow any conversations, since they were all in French or Czech. A couple of pretty women he spoke to could barely understand English, and although they laughed at his drunken efforts to conjure up his high school French, they were soon talking to others with Cosmo as a mute bystander. Several people held short conversations with him, but their English was so poor that they soon tired. As the evening wore on, Cosmo found they had stopped trying, and he sat in a corner alone.
If it had not been for the effects of the wine, he would have been confused. As it was, he was just dazed. At home he had known where everyone stood and what moves he had to make. But here it was different. like everything was slightly out of whack. The people’s dress and gestures were just that different that he knew his judgment of them and the situation was liable to error. It seemed they laughed at everything but his jokes. His come-ons were regarded as kidding, and his kidding was treated with seriousness.
However, he was not unhappy. He understood the people back in New Jersey, and that was the reason he had left. If he did not quite comprehend the situation at the moment, at least he knew it was not a threatening one. And best of all, he did not have to get up and go to work the next day, or the day after or the day after that.
Cosmo did not have any real plans; he was too cynical for that. Still, he had a wistful feeling, a yearning for something that could be. Would he find her in Italy? He realized he was in no big hurry to get there and find out.
The next few days Cosmo went around Paris to all the places Milos had told him he must see. He went because he felt obliged, but none of the sights impressed him that much. He instead preferred to sit in a sidewalk café and watch the women walk past. He learned to order the necessities: un café, un sandwich, un rouge, un demi. Milos took him around to see different friends when he was not busy, but the visits were often tedious for Cosmo as he could not understand what anybody said.
After a while Cosmo did not know what to do any more. Paris appeared dirtier than when he first arrived and the people in the streets colder. Milos and his friends were urging him to settle down and learn French, but Cosmo had just begun his journey and did not have the peace of mind to stop just yet. Maybe some day.
Out of boredom, Cosmo went to the store/workshop where Milos and a friend bought, sold and restored antique furniture. Milos showed him around the showroom and in the back where furniture was stacked high.
“Hey Milos, looks like you wanna start your own Salvation Army outlet.”
“Hmm, very funny. Do you know how much this is worth? Do you even know how much that one little chair is worth? It’s a Louis seize,” he added proudly.
“Well, good for Louise, though she better not be no fat bitch cause it don’t look none too sturdy.”
“When I understand you half of the time, Cosmo, I feel like I have made great progress in English.”
“You oughtta go for one of them crash courses in New Jersey. Living there makes you feel like you crashed.”
“I suspect it was such a wonderful environment that formed your personality.”
“Hey, that’s a low blow, but okay, I deserved it for giving you a hard time. That’s cause I haven’t had anything to drink yet today.”
“I get the message. There’s some wine in the back. Why don’t you bring a bottle here and make yourself comfortable – but not too comfortable – and watch the store for me for half an hour while I go buy some things. I doubt if anyone will come in this early in the morning, but if someone does, just let him look around and try to keep him here until I come back.”
“Don’t worry, just how much is my commission?”
“You’re drinking it.” And he repeated, “I’ll be right back.”
Cosmo settled down in the swivel chair behind Milos’ desk and poured himself a full glass. He softly sand bits of an old song that came to his mind:
My daddy told me
Only way to keep your head in line
Drinking that wine, wine,
Keep your head stoned all the time.
He tried to remember the last time he had heard it, when or where, but he could not even remember the title or who had sung it. He let his eyes wander about the store, gazing at the different pieces, wondering why people would spend so much money for them. His contemplation was interrupted by the opening of the door and entering of an elegantly dressed man of about forty. He wore a dark suit and tie, which looked expensive even to Cosmo’s untrained eyes, was clean shaven and smelled of expensive cologne. He had the look of a man in a hurry who did not take no for an answer.
“Bonjour Monsieur,” he exclaimed in a tone that almost sounded like a command.
“Bonjour,” Cosmo smiled. “What can I do for you? We got the best of the best and our prices can’t be beat. Take a look around and see for yourself.”
“Vous ne parlez pas francais?” the man asked somewhat taken aback upon hearing a sales pitch in English.
Cosmo shook his head, having progressed enough to understand the question. “No francais, je parler English. You speaka da English?” and without waiting for an answer, continued, “Don’t worry, just take your time and look around. Milos – it’s his store – will be back in a few minutes.”
The man, who spoke no English, was somewhat perturbed at the situation, but was determined to persist. “Je voudrais encore voir la chaise.”
Cosmo just smiled and shrugged his shoulders.
“La chaise,” the man repeated. “Louis seize.”
“Louise’s?” Cosmo asked.
“Oui, oui, c’est ca: Louis seize.”
“Oh yeah, that one. It’s back here,” he said leading the man to it.
“Oui, je voudrais discuter le prix encore une fois.”
“I don’t know what you’re saying, but Milos told me, this one is Louise’s.”
“Oui, oui, Louis seize.”
“Yeah, it’s Louise’s, so I guess she bought it. Why don’t you try one of these other ones over here. They’re much sturdier.”
“C’est belle,” the man said examining it more closely.
“Look buddy,” Cosmo said becoming a little angry that the man seemed to be ignoring him, “I already said it’s Louise’s and that means it ain’t for sale.”
The man took out a pen and pad and wrote down a figure. “C’est mon dernier prix,” he said defiantly, also becoming angry at what he perceived as the salesman’s ignorance and arrogance. What was France coming to with so many foreigners!
“No way, just forget about it!” Cosmo raised his voice. “You hard of hearing or something, mister?”
The man had made a good offer, but the impudence of the salesman had just gotten out of hand. “C’est le dernier fois que je viendrais ici. Au revoir monsieur,” he once again exclaimed in his command tone. Then he turned and quickly walked out.
Milos returned shortly afterwards. “Cosmo, I see you have been taking liberally of your commission, but I don’t see that anything has been sold.”
“Yeah, well I couldda sold that flimsy chair, but you said it was Louise’s. Beats me why people would want something like that anyway. I’ll take a good ole sturdy armchair any day.”
“What did you say?” Milos asked in an anxious tone.
“I said gimme a good ole armchair any day.”
“No, no, about the Louis seize: did you say someone came to buy it?”
“Yeah, a real uprightgeous businessman type. Wasn’t too friendly either. He’s lucky I didn’t throw him out on his ass; couldda ripped his fancy suit. Come in here acting like some big shot and like he don’t know no English.”
“He wanted to buy the Louis seize?” Milos asked again in astonishment, somewhat confused by Cosmo’s rambling.
“Yeah, I told ya that already, and I told him what you told me: it’s Louise’s – whoever the fuck she is – and that’s that. Tried to interest him in some of them other chairs, but the guy was too pig-headed.”
“What did he look like? Was he about forty years old, same height as me, with dark hair and clean shaven?”
“Yeah, that sounds like him. Wearing fancy duds and smelling like a chemical factory with all kinds of perfume shit.”
“Oh, no!” Milos said despairingly. “But why did you let him go?”
“He was only interested in Louise’s chair.”
“Well, what’s wrong with that? That’s my prize piece.”
“Yours? But you said it’s Louise’s.”
“Yes, exactly: Louis seize.”
“Well, if it’s Louise’s then I figured she bought it.”
“She? Who is she?” Milos asked nervously.
“Louise, who else?” Cosmo replied exasperated.
“Louise? Who’s that?”
“How the fuck should I know?! You said it!”
“I said it?”
“Yeah, you said it’s Louise’s.”
“Oh no, no, no! I said it is a Louis … seize,” and he carefully separated the last two words.
“Louis? Louis says what?”
Milos was becoming frantic. “Louis seize the king!”
“Well, what does Louis say to the king? And what king anyway?”
“Louis seize is the king!”
“Louis says is? I dunno whatcha mean. What kinda English is that?”
“Louis the sixteenth!
“Ah, him. Why didn’t you say so in the first place.”
“But I did. ‘Seize’ is French for sixteenth.”
“How am I supposed to understand that? And since when do we speak French together?”
“I can’t believe it!” Milos mumbled to himself. “Three months of negotiations down the drain… . Did I understand correctly that you had a dispute with Monsieur Baudin?”
“A dispute? You could call it that. The fucker didn’t want to discuss nothing on a friendly basis. Just kept shoving a piece of paper under my nose, so I had to teach him some manners.”
“Paper? What paper?! Let me see it!”
“I dunno… . Must be here somewhere,” Cosmo reflected. He scanned the desk and store before spotting it. “Look, there it is, on the floor over there.”
Milos rushed over to retrieve it, read the large figure scrambled upon it, and let out a large moan: “Oh shit!” There followed a long string of curse words in Czech.
Cosmo slunk into a corner hoping that Milos would soon calm down without becoming violent. Milos was pacing back and forth muttering to himself and periodically throwing his arms up in the air. Finally, he stopped and slumped down into a chair. “Cosmo, do you know how much money I just lost? That is, with your help.”
“Wait a second before you tell me; let’s have a drink first.”
Milos stared a few seconds quizzically at Cosmo before acquiescing. “Perhaps you are right this time. But no wine; I need something stronger,” and he got out a bottle of cognac.
They emptied their glasses quickly and refilled them. An uneasy silence followed as Milos muttered to himself. Cosmo became uncomfortable as he realized just how much damage he had caused.
“Hey Milos,” he ventured cautiously. “I’m really sorry about this. I guess I always sorta mess things up when it comes to the serious side of life…”
Milos remained silent. “I’ll apologize to the guy if that’ll help some…”
The silence would have become unbearable if the door had not opened. A long-haired, bearded man with an over-sized pullover and smelling of goat entered and greeted Milos: “Bonjour mon ami! Milos, it’s time to celebrate; your benefactor has arrived!” And then sensing the uneasy situation, “But you look troubled: money or women?”
“Oh hello Jacques. It isn’t a woman this time. I just lost my best sale ever, and I’d rather not discuss it now.”
“Don’t worry friend. When you see what I have brought you this time, you will forget about all you have in this store. There is only short time between you and a fortune.”
“Some beautiful old pieces?” Milos asked his eyes lighting up.
“Two hundred years of French history, and all at a special price, just for you.”
“Oh, let me see them!” And then realizing that he had to go outside of the store to look in Jacques’ truck, he turned to Cosmo with a questioning look.
“I ain’t gonna do nothing. If anyone comes, I’ll just keep my mouth shut and point to you outside.”
“Please do. Look, there’s Jacques’ truck,” pointing several doors down. “I’ll be there.
When Jacques and Milos reentered the store, Milos’ mood had much improved.
“Jacques is our best supplier,” Milos explained to Cosmo. “That’s cause he lives in the middle of nowhere and there’s no competition. The people are poor and would like nothing better than to sell all they own and move to the city, that is if they haven’t already done so and left everything behind.”
“Non, even when they stay, they prefer plastique,” Jacques contradicted. “Ah ma France, mon pays, what is happening? The people no longer like the past, only the modern: le fast food, la musique americaine, même Reagan.”
“Good thing too, Jacques,” Milos put in. “Otherwise we’d be out of business.”
Cosmo liked the man. It was not only that he was dirty and smelled, but from what he gathered he did not really work for a living, something that always drew Cosmo’s admiration.
“But where do you live?” Cosmo asked.
“Ah, oui, in the mountains. Tu sais, we have a little farm, very nice, cause all the bourgeois leave and go to the big cities. It’s the tranquilité, tu sais.”
“Say what?” Cosmo asked.
“No, not ‘say what’, Cosmo” Milos corrected. ” ‘Tu sais’ is ‘you know’.”
“What you say is what you know,” Cosmo quizzed. “Well, maybe, that is if you’re playing it straight, although most people say more than they know and the smart ones say less.”
“It’s hopeless,” Milos sighed. “And which kind of person are you: the more or less say?”
“Let’s say I ain’t saying.”
“Say what?” Jacques chuckled.
“Hey, my man catches on quick. You’d better watch him Milos. He’s probably making all kinds of profit offa you.”
“Oh, you have the mind of a real capitalist pig, Cosmo. We deal in mutual trust. I try to cheat Jacques and he tries to cheat me. But then he is so successful at it when buying and I when selling – today’s occurrence excluded – that we don’t need to cheat each other so much.”
“Oui, oui, only an American would think such nasty things,” Jacques added. “I must help my friend Milos, cause he helps me. Before I used to sell to a real French swine, tu sais. He only wanted money, money, money. But Milos, he only wants a good time.”
“Although money doesn’t hurt,” Milos interjected.
“In fact, it’s kinda like cause and effect, unless some weirdo’s involved.”
“Not like us normal people, eh Cosmo,” Milos chuckled.
“Hey, don’t ask me what normal is,” Cosmo said. “But I sure know that anybody who doesn’t have to slave at some boring job to pay his groceries and can’t enjoy life must be in trouble.”
“And you, Cosmo?” Jacques asked. “I think you are not slaving here. Are you enjoying life?”
“You betcha! Here I am, young and single and with a little money in my pocket in Pari, even if it ain’t what it once was. But then I’m just on my way to Italy anyway.”
“Italy? What does it have to offer that France doesn’t? Don’t you know that this is the cultural center of the world?”
“Yeah, well maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I just got started with this traveling business and I don’t wanna stop already. Besides, I got a couple of friends I promised to visit down there. I might be back one day, but first I wanna take a look around this here Europe.”
“Italy, eh?” Jacques mumbled. “Some good people are there, up in the mountains and out in the countryside, but the cities, o la la! As bad as here. Still, you can come with me and you will get started in the right direction.”
Milos could have kissed Jacques.