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Light by Janet Mason | Flash Fiction | #thesideshow

(June, 1926)

On the left bank of the Seine, a boulevard wound around. It was lined with hotels and shops with tall windows and wrought iron railings. Tina turned down one side street and then another. Then she saw him again: the old bent over man with the large format camera on a tripod. He walked along the street like a crooked stick in his black cloth jacket. Tina hung back so he wouldn’t see her.

He stopped and set up the camera. Tina stood still and watched. He surveyed the scene in front of him. First he angled the camera toward the empty chairs on the street outside of the cafe. Then he moved it so that he was looking at the empty street in front of the cafe. Far in the distance was a street light. In front of the street light, black branches of a horse-chestnut tree filtered morning light. A dark wet spot glistened on the bare pavement in front of the empty chairs. The cafe owner must just have been outside with a bucket of water. The cafe would open in an hour or two. These chairs would be full of people having brunch. Conversations and arguments would ensue. The poor artists of Montparnasse would be renting tables by the hour because they couldn’t afford studios.

The old man seemed oblivious to what might happen — as if he were as captured by the moment as much as he captured it.

Tina trailed behind him down an alleyway. He made a left onto a small street and stopped in front of a shop window. Inside the window were folded trousers with three male mannequins behind them. The mannequin on the right wore a black felt hat and sported a skinny black mustache. The mannequins to the left were wearing white straw hats and clean shaven faces. Tina could see that the buildings and the trees behind the old man were reflected in the window. When she looked deep into the window, it looked like the mannequins were standing outside in front of the buildings and the trees.

When he had taken the exposure and slipped the frame out of the back of the camera and under his arm, the old man ducked his head from under the black cloth. Then he turned around and bowed in the direction of Tina.

Tina was opposite the storefront he had been photographing.

All that was between them was a narrow cobbled street.

“May I ask why you’ve been following me?” His English was perfect.

Embarrassed, Tina turned on her heel to go. But then she stopped. There was no one in sight. The old man seemed harmless enough.

“I just wanted to see what you where photographing,” she said. “I’m a photographer, too,” she added.

“Oh, I am relieved. I haven’t done anything wrong… that I know of… but no one wants to tangle with the French Army. I thought it was possible that they were sending out more attractive and better dressed officers.”

Tina laughed. Then she asked, “How did you know I was watching you?”

“You may have thought I have eyes in the back of my head, but actually I saw you in the reflection of the window. Not much gets by me. I saw you when I was photographing the cafe just now and last week in Montmartre near the hotel on the alley.”

Tina nodded. “The day you disappeared.”

“It was nothing personal,” he said. “I was in a hurry. I am photographing all of old Paris so I have a lot of ground to cover and little time since I am an old man.”

“Do you sell your photographs to magazines?” asked Tina.

Now it was the old man’s turn to laugh. “I doubt that today’s magazines would be interested in my work. I photograph documents for artists and I have been photographing Old Paris for decades. But I have done little justice to the great city of Paris.”

“You are a documentary photographer, then,” replied Tina.

The old man laughed again.

“If that is what you want to call me, but really I am an actor. That is how I met my love, Valentine. It is getting late and she will be expecting me for brunch. We are being joined by our young American friend Berenice who has taken an interest in my work and is tutoring us in English. Why don’t you come and join us?”

“I’d love to,” said Tina. The name of his American friend sounded familiar. Tina remembered that she had given the last of her coins to the street urchins.

“I can’t bring anything,” said Tina.

“Don’t worry,” said the old man. “There is always enough food to share with friends. And my studio is not far from here.”

“Well, okay,” said Tina.

“I insist,” said the old man. “Welcome to Montparnasse — where the artists are all penniless.”

Tina smiled and fell into step beside the old man.

“Where are my manners,” he said. “My name is Eugene.”

Janet Mason is an award-winning creative writer, teacher, and blogger for The Huffington Post. Her radio commentary airs worldwide on This Way Out, the LGBT news syndicate based in Los Angeles. Her book, Tea Leaves, a memoir of mothers and daughters, published by Bella Books in 2012, was chosen by the American Library Association for its 2013 Over the Rainbow List. Tea Leaves also received a Goldie Award. Janet’s short stories have appeared in many literary journals including the Brooklyn Review, Sinister Wisdom, and Aaduna. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize.