As I sit here, struggling to come up with a worthy introduction to Phil’s writing, the word that keeps coming to mind is “immersion”. This is perhaps not the most satisfying descriptor, as I’m sure there are many more-precise terms out there, words I could have called to mind with ease in the younger decades of my life. Things change, memories fluctuate in importance, and relative values shift, but our essential core, our humanity, remains the same, for most of us. Good writing should speak to that core, tap the shared vein, open a window that gets us beyond the outward, unfamiliar package and into the recognizable contents. Phil’s stories do just that.
His characters can be flawed and messy, perhaps not even likable. They can also be endearing, even enviable. It’s the bagel with everything on it. Each bite tastes a little different. And the bagel is served in a precisely-lit diner where you never know who is coming through the door or what they might have to say, which brings me back that word, “immersion”. It’s the texture and the precise dialogue and the dense atmosphere that convinced me to get a punch-card to Phil’s Diner. I didn’t want to miss the daily special, randomly chosen by the chef and delivered on a slightly-cracked but still-sturdy blue plate, as with the serving below. Enjoy.
Late Summer 1967, Paris, France
She stood in the window, interlaced her fingers, stretched her arms over her head and yawned, felt her long, silk nightgown almost too much to be wearing against the sun. Three months ago she had been Amanda Vincent. Twenty-two, Masters with Honors from Cambridge, madly in love enough with a beautiful French-Italian playboy to walk out in the middle of her Ph.D. in International Finance. This late Monday morning she was young bride of three months Amanda Morisè, daydreaming out the window of a third-floor Montmartre apartment at the noise and dust of Paris, the memory of day long lovemaking fresh in her mind. It was late summer, warm, close. A light knock on the door brought her back to Earth.
She answered the knock to find a young woman much like herself, wearing a soft cotton summer dress, hair pulled up loosely against the heat, her arms crossed at her wrists, waiting. She had the bluest eyes Amanda had ever seen.
“Amanda? Amanda Morisè?” From the sound of her voice her visitor was very French. And on the verge of impatience overcoming her mannered demeanor. “Je peut entrer? To speak a moment? The matter I think most important?”
Amanda was still somewhere between her daydreams and the young woman standing in the open door. “Yes. Yes…of course. My manners escape me…” As her visitor passed she thought that if whatever was holding her guest’s hair together let go, it might just explode off her head.
“You possess the mind of his charm, Madame,” her guest said as she passed. “I am Alixandrie. It is too formal, I agree. I am called Alix. As in your America, now we shake the hands, oui?” The blue-eyed girl’s English was much better than Amanda’s French. Alix declared a halt to further polite formalities and launched into a story, told in a series of broken sentences wrenched from the center of her being. Some tears were shed in the telling and it ended with “I believe you also are married to my husband, Yannick Morisè.”
“No, that’s quite impossible,” Amanda’s tone completely dismissive of Alix’s story of a whirlwind romance followed closely by betrayal. “I know you’re upset, but you’ve made a mistake. I’m sorry for whatever your husband may have done, but my husband left just this morning for Marseille. His name is Yannick, but it’s not an unusual name, neither is Morisè.” Her daydreams returned, she saw them eating breakfast together, barely clothed, he spanked her lightly on her behind as she walked past him with her coffee. How, as he was leaving, he had bent over, dropped an end of his tie down her robe, raised his eyebrows, smiled when it followed him as he stood after a quick, deep kiss goodbye.
“No! No, I tell you he is in a house in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, half of one hour’s train ride from Paris. He believes I have come to Paris to discover an answer of my pregnancy. You are assured, Madame Morisè, I am not. I have come to meet you, the wife he married two weeks after me. Of treachery as such, be most assured!”
Alix removed a note card from her black leather clutch with an address in Saint-Germain printed at the top. “I am not believed? By you, his beautiful American woman? Tomorrow he will be away the day. If not for you, perhaps another wife? The Mademoiselle of flowers waits in the road from the station of trains. Show her this.” She took Amanda’s hand and smashed the card in her palm. “She will show the way to you. Tomorrow.” Her face softened. “Offer her kindness, please, the flowers girl. If what is discovered in Saint-Germane you cannot believe? No more will I speak of it to you.”
The blue of Alix’s eyes burned through the redness of recent tears straight into Amanda’s own before she gently moved a strap of Amanda’s nightgown back onto her shoulder, turned and walked quietly away. The soft fragrance of fresh flowers followed her. She put Amanda in mind of a small, beautifully sad garden as she pulled the door closed softly behind her, not quite closing it all the way.
Amanda looked at the card. Quite a girl, and even more of a story. Yes, Yannick had married her in a quiet civil ceremony, that was true. Often accused by the press of squandering his inheritance on a laundry list of immoral pursuits, he’d told her he needed no more publicity. That it was best his enemies, even his friends, not know that he now had such a beautiful wife. She had agreed. He could get her to do whatever he wanted. The things he said, the things he did to her, with her…It was all a lie. It must be. A jealous girlfriend with a story, attempting to start some girl nonsense. She would go to Saint-Germaine in the morning and get the truth from the lovely little French girl with her wild hair, blue eyes, and pathetic little lie.
When shown the card, the flower girl said “Oh, Oui,” and spoke rapidly and only in French that she knew the way, offered to walk with Amanda.
“No, thank you.” Amanda tried to politely extricate her hand from the flower girl’s. “I prefer the quiet. It’s so unlike Paris.” She tried in English, and her best French, the flower girl not understanding. Amanda finally said, “Mercì” for the all the girl’s pointing and handed her a silver 10 Franc coin, which made the flower girl squeal, take Amanda’s hand back and kiss it until she had to pull it away.
The tiny house was no more than a half a mile from the station, off a narrow street. She passed through the hedge wall in front and knocked with purpose. Alix answered and the door opened into a cool, dark room. Amanda wanted to say “Show me your evidence, tell me your tale, cry and let me leave. My husband will be home tomorrow.” Alix’s blue eyes were burning, lighting up the dark entryway. Amanda decided she might be better served with tact. It wouldn’t kill her to be polite. The girl was obviously hurt, give her a chance. Hear her out. It was a lovely village, so quiet after Paris, and Alix’s cottage was remarkably cool.
“I have said you are most beautiful,” Alix pulled the runaway strands of Amanda’s hair from her cheek, pushed them gently behind her ear. “Sad, no? Two beautiful women should meet such as this, our lives entwined in deceit.”
“I’m still certain there’s been a mistake of some kind, I —” Alix’s touch had been light as a feather, warm and cool at the same time…
“I talk too much to you, his beautiful American woman. See your ‘husband,’ Yannick Morisè. Come.”
Amanda had heard at Cambridge, mostly by way of racial innuendo, that French girls were temperamental, hot headed. Meaner than Spanish girls, smarter than English girls, sexier than Italian girls. This was always said by someone in a pub, in a fake French accent. It might just be true.
She followed Alix down a short hallway to a small bedroom dominated by a double bed, the window at the foot of it open where a light breeze drifted in, bringing with it a garden awash in flowers. It felt like home should feel. No, this wasn’t Paris. A view of trees some ten yards distant replaced the dusty haze that surrounded the Eiffel tower. The soft rustling of the hedge, the flowers. It was serene, like she was inside of poetry, so –
Alix practically ripped the doors off a double armoire, banging them violently on the cabinet’s side. Inside, Yannick’s signature blousy, white collarless shirts he had handmade in Florence hung there in testament to his presence. His white collared dress shirt from the High Street in Oxford. No…Surely, they weren’t her Yannick’s. They couldn’t be.
Alix picked up a man’s lacquered jewelry box, dumped the contents on the armoire’s shelf and tossed the box to the floor. Amanda recognized a familiar pair of cufflinks, the Tissot watch she had bought him as a wedding gift. No, no, no…She lifted the watch as if it were unreal, turned it over to see the “Love Always, C.A.M.” she’d had engraved on the back. She was shaking. She tugged on a shirt, softly at first, then violently, ripping it from its hanger to stare blankly at the tailor’s mark on the bottom. YFM, a number. It was true. It was all true. The compact bundle of electric French girl had told her the truth.
Alix saw her start to fold and set her on the edge of the bed, keeping her hands on Amanda’s shoulders. “No more tears. No more for this bastard, our ‘husband,’ will there be tears. Your Father has wealth I am certain?”
“Yes.” She felt dizzy, sick…
“As also mine. This Yannick desires more than beauty or sex, our money to waste. Do not faint on me, Amanda. The steps we take most severe to destroy him, he will not destroy us.” She looked Amanda in the eye, shook her shoulders. “We have the means. In France also the women may judge these things. Divorce him together, destroy him together. Together. For all women we shame this misery from the face of France!”
Alix left the room and returned with brandy in a water glass, gave it to Amanda and waited a few minutes for it to hit. When Amanda had calmed, Alix walked with her slowly, held her hand all the way to the station where they sat together on a worn, wooden bench and waited for the train. “Be strong for us,” Alix whispered when she kissed Amanda on the cheek before releasing her to board the train. “Be. Strong.”
Alix had said “We must be taken ill when he returns to us. He cannot touch us. No sex, no control, unable to attend the bank for him? He will go mad.” Amanda stuck to her orders from Alix, feigned “ill”, kept her mouth shut while her anger and her heart simmered into a slow boil for the two days Yannick was home before he was off to Florence on “business.”
Amanda had not only inherited her father’s money, but her one character flaw as well. Impatience. She didn’t wait well, didn’t like, as her father had said, to “let shit ride.” Now she’d let some sweet talking, hot love making pretty boy French bastard take over her body, her mind, her very soul. Let him blind her, blindside her, and marry her just two weeks after he’d married a wild, rich, blue-eyed French girl. Who the hell did he think he was?
Whatever Yannick’s business in Italy, it had been unpleasant. On his return he was irritable, needed a shave, needed a shower, wanted a woman. He drank champagne from the bottle, directed loud, profane insults at Amanda in three languages, asked her why did he have a sick wife he couldn’t fuck? She lost it. Told him she knew. About Alix, about all of it. Because some “arrogant, idiot, dickless bastard had left a watch in a cottage in Saint-Germain.” She called him “the most useless piece of shit excuse for a man ever born.” An outburst that left her on the floor of their bathroom semi-conscious with a broken jaw, a cracked cheekbone and two fewer teeth than she’d had that Sunday morning. Lying on the floor, consciousness fading, all she could think of was Alix. Unaware, alone, and directly in Yannick’s path. He had stormed out in such a rage. He was dangerous. Alix needed to get away…To be safe…Amanda passed out thinking of her, of Alix, the French girl with those blue, blue eyes.
Yannick arrived in Saint-Germaine, at least as drunk and more self-righteously enraged than when he’d left Paris. Alix refused to let him in, but she did let him make enough noise pounding on the door and screaming profanity at her to wake her neighbors. He found an axe leaning against the woodpile, used it to break down the front door. When he was at last standing inside, dripping sweat, axe raised and with a dozen or so neighbors looking on, Alix shot him four times with the Walther PPK her father had taken from a dead German officer in 1944. She dropped the pistol on Yannick’s body when she stepped over it and through the splintered door into the late summer night. She would take the next train to Paris, find the beautiful American woman and tell her the good news. Tell her how a passionate, blue eyed French girl with impossible hair had begun to feel about her, see what she thought about that.
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