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Vignette from a Third-Floor Window
Yet another previously unpublished and relatively intense short story. This one might propel you straight into 1984. Well, if that were still in our future.
Vignette from a Third-Floor Window
a short story by Harvey Stanbrough
In the third-floor room across the street from and overlooking the Café la Tristesse, François lit another cigarette and attended to his duty. Mostly.
Occasionally he glanced straight across at the third floor window above the café. Through it he could see the end of a bed to the right, a wash stand straight across against the far wall, and the corner of a chest of drawers to the left. He imagined there must be at least one chair in the room too, and maybe even a desk, but he wasn’t privy to that information with his limited field of view.
But mostly he attended to his duty. Mostly he watched carefully as people came to the tables on the sidewalk in front of the café in pairs. Or came alone and formed a pair when they recognized someone they knew. Or someone they were supposed to meet.
That last group was the target of his spying, but he watched all the couples. He had nothing else to do, and watching all the couples fit well enough with his job. He watched as they sat and ordered the strong black coffee and maybe a small baked treat, then ate and sipped and chatted, then stood and moved on down the street or back up it, either in the original pair or in the new pair or again by themselves.
He’d been watching for five days, always standing at the bare glass window in his sock feet and dark slacks and his ribbed a-frame undershirt with the straps over his shoulders and no sleeves and a cigarette in his mouth. If he could be certain nobody would come into the room directly across the way and look out that window he might not even have worn pants. It was hot enough in the upstairs room not to need any other clothing. His job would not require any sort of sudden pursuit, or any interaction at all for that matter. So neither his shoes nor his long-sleeved white dress shirt nor his jacket would be necessary until the job was finished and reported and he was free to leave and resume his normal job as a novelist.
For now, his only job was to be observant, to watch and report. He hadn’t even brought his typewriter.
On the first day and through part of the second, he’d peered with the furtive glimpses of an amateur spy between the thin white cotton curtains with the bit of delicate, finely crafted lace across the bottom and around the edges. Probably a woman had lived in the room at some point. Perhaps it had been her bedroom. Or perhaps she was the lady of the house at a time when all the little apartments were only bedrooms of a single home. Whichever the case, she did good work and the lace was complete with the tiny little eyelets that were so difficult to integrate into the rest of the lace at just the right places.
But midway through the second morning he’d noticed that nobody on the street below paid him the slightest bit of attention. Or even raised their heads to look at anything above their normal eye level. And they should, if they were lovers of art, as he was. Or of freedom of expression, as he was in his usual role as a novelist. Or of freedom from being spied upon, for that matter. But they wouldn’t look. They were all silly, too self-absorbed and happy in their ignorance. After all, if they didn’t like how things were now, well, things would change. It was practically none of their concern.
If only they would look, on the upper reaches of the buildings all around there were carvings in stone or molded in concrete. There were gargoyles with the feathered body of an eagle and the scaly neck and face of a dragon. And there were elves and gnomes of every sort and geometric figures of every sort as well, and carved vines and leaves and what he supposed were probably grapes and all manner of other artistic things just waiting to be appreciated.
And even if they didn’t care about art, if only they would look, they might spot a figure watching them at first furtively and now openly through a window. And they might imagine a kind of hell preparing to descend, though one they might well avoid if they looked soon enough and then acted on what they saw.
But they wouldn’t. They never looked up. Not so much as a glance.
So midway through the second morning he’d grabbed the curtains and slid them wide open on the narrow little brass café rod so he wouldn’t have to nudge one aside with the back of his fingers as he watched. It was more comfortable that way, and if he wasn’t constantly in contact with one panel or the other of the curtains, he wouldn’t be tempted, as he had been once or twice already, to wipe the sweat from his forehead on that delicate, finely crafted lace edge. It was the sort of thing his mother used to create with some regularity before she’d said the wrong thing to the wrong person one day and disappeared without a trace sometime in the night before he’d stopped by the following morning.
The café rod from which the curtain hung also was a minor work of art, with its finely turned end caps and the fact that it was measured and set in brackets at either side of the window rather than being loaded with a spring at a factory somewhere, probably by a machine, and little rubber pads fitted on the ends and thereby made to fit whatever window the customer wanted to put it in.
The very thought of how close he’d come to wiping his brow with the lace edge of the curtain brought perspiration beading to the surface of his forehead, and he raised one palm to swipe it away. Without thinking, he quickly palmed it across the back of his trousers—back in the day his mother would have commented on that if she’d seen him do it—and looked out the window again.
He shook his head slightly as he continued to view the tops of the citizens’ hats and the tops of their bare heads and the curious angle of some of the parts in their hair and the shoulders of their fine suitcoats and dresses.
Their chatter was almost muted by the closed window, but it came to him just loud enough to tell that they were happy and going about their lives. And good for them that they had no clue that he was here or what he was about. Good for them. Apparently they all felt safe and secure in their silly little surface world.
He shook his head again. Silly little people going about their silly little lives in their silly little world. Content to remain ignorant of larger events that might loom in the shadows on the edge of the fears that resided in the more intelligent among them but still had not touched them yet. And therefore would never touch them, according to their silly reasoning.
And either way was the same, really. To be aware of a threat and ignore it was the same as being ignorant of it in the first place, wasn’t it? Well, except that those afflicted with the latter state didn’t have to only appear to be happy and worry-free. Behind the veil of their ignorance, they actually were.
François was very glad his job was only to watch and report. He was very glad it would not fall to him to visit upon these clueless, happy sheep what would soon befall them. Or to defend them from it either. It was all he could do to defend only himself, as he had done this time by accepting this distasteful job. But as a safeguard for his conscience he kept the thought in the back of his mind that he’d really had no choice.
He called upon that thought now and then, especially late at night when he should be able to drop seamlessly into sleep but wasn’t quite able to get past his nagging conscience. He called upon the thought and wrapped himself in it, pulled it up under his chin and comforted himself with it, until finally he dozed off.
But only for awhile. And only to awaken the following morning to the reality of a beam of sunlight very slowly singeing its way across the floor. And too soon afterward, the larger reality of himself standing at the window once again in his sock feet and his dark trousers and his a-frame undershirt and lighting yet another cigarette and peering down through the window on a tragedy that hadn’t arrived quite yet. It was a little like being a time traveler from the future.
Maybe that would be the topic of his next novel. Maybe the protagonist, probably a man very much like himself, would travel to a future time and observe the citizens going about their lives. And maybe he too would be there only to observe and report. Or maybe he would race through the streets, maybe stark screaming naked to get their attention—as if they would notice—and warn them of what was coming. Or maybe that character would turn away from the window, unable to look any longer, and return to his own time to try to effect change there. Or maybe he would simply observe, do his job, receive his thirty pieces of silver, and then go away and write a novel about a time traveler.
Personally, François was certain that he himself would not choose to defend them from the tragedy when it came. And it really was looming. But he’d learned through a period of rough national service that the ignorant, happy citizens bleating and blatting and chuckling below were both delighted in their ignorance and in their unremitting agreeing with each other. And they were completely and utterly undeserving of his defense.
They were undeserving of even one drop of spilled blood or even the life of one enemy soldier, much less his own or that of his colleagues. And in more cases than you might expect, the defense he and others had offered was not only unwarranted, but unwanted. The protected citizens ignored or belittled the spilled blood and the stacked bodies of their protectors and marginalized their sacrifice. They spat on him and his colleagues. They pulled down statues that had done nobody the slightest harm.
And that was all fine and well. That was what helped him make up his mind to accept this job in the first place. Or rather to accept that he had no choice but to take the job. But even if he’d had a choice, he might have gone along anyway. The people outside the window didn’t deserve anymore than to have a willing spy in their midst.
Cliché as it sounded on his mental tongue, the citizens truly were only sheep bound for the slaughter, and that was with his unspoken apology to actual four-legged ovines everywhere. The citizens happily shuffled along the designated lanes toward their inevitable fate, all the while loudly defending those who would enslave them. They couldn’t be bothered even to pay more than lip service to the importance of the individual vote. Or to the need for transparency to ensure honesty in the tallying of that vote.
He crushed out his cigarette against the window sill and dropped it on the floor, then lit another and continued watching. More people came and paired and sat at the tables. They ate, chatted meaningless and unimportant platitudes and other inanities, sipped at their coffee, their pinkie fingers raised ostentatiously, and left.
Not that it mattered to him which candidate for the land’s highest office had won. What mattered was the vote! How did the citizens not understand even that much? And the transparency of the tallying of that vote! And that the candidate who had won actually deserved to win as a result of the will of the people! Those things mattered a great deal.
Well, they mattered to François. But not to the citizens. Not, at least, to the point that they would question them.
One couple caught his attention. A man, facing him, in dapper grey wool slacks and grey Italian loafers and a matching jacket with brown leather patches at the elbows. Imagine! Pretending to be an intellectual on a day as hot as this one! But the intellectuals no longer wore wool-tweed jackets with elbow patches. They wore man-buns and belly fat. They wore eighty-dollar jeans with the knees ripped out and t-shirts with sayings that identified them as part of the cool set.
No, this man was no intellectual. He was a pretender who hadn’t done his research. He looked like an intellectual before the intellectuals had come to rule the land. Before perception had begun to carry more weight than intent. Before the citizens had developed a highly selective memory, the sure sign of a failed nation filled with cowards. He had a neat van dyke beard, trimmed to a point centered precisely below his chin, flanked by grey sideburns that extended halfway to the jawline on both sides. He might as well have stopped shaving and allowed the thing to cover his face.
And the trim young man facing away in the plain black probably lace-up shoes and the dark grey cotton slacks and the white, long-sleeved working man’s shirt that ballooned a little above his beltless waist and the plaid cotton flat cap on top was pretending nothing. He looked exactly like what he was. A writer looking for a deal. A man who apparently didn’t mind a little censorship if allowing it would land him an advance against royalties.
The cap is what caught François ‘ attention in the first place. Or rather that the young man had publicly shown his deference by whipping it from his head and holding it—apparently in both hands, judging from the position of his elbows—at his chest when he and the older man first met at the table. Dangerous stuff when a spy is watching.
But maybe the older man was a spy too. Maybe he was a plant, only posing as an intellectual to test the younger man and see whether he really wanted to bow to the state. That would explain the outdated costume.
But no matter. Having already bowed to the state himself, ironically so he could write what he wanted to write—or at least that was their agreement with him—François’ job was to watch and report other so-called “subversives” like himself. And there could be only two ends to the meeting.
If the young man chose not to go along with the alleged-intellectual’s proposal, François would report that to his superiors and that would be the end of his role in the matter. They would pick up the young man, probably in the dark of night, and handle the situation as they saw fit. It was none of his concern. The young man was a citizen, and therefore not deserving of his defense anymore than were the other citizens. To each his own.
And if the young man chose to accept the intellectual’s proposal, then he was a traitor and a supporter of blatant censorship and therefore a friend of the state and François wanted nothing to do with him anyway.
After the two men exchanged pleasantries, the intellectual pulled back a chair and sat, and then the young man sat, his flat cap still at his chest, still apparently clutched in both hands in a show of deference.
The intellectual said a few words, then raised his right hand and snapped his fingers without looking around, a way to illustrate his authority.
But a waiter, also in plain black shoes and grey slacks and a long-sleeved white shirt and with a balding head and a grey fringe in a horseshoe around the sides and back but with a white apron tied around his middle, appeared beside the intellectual as if conjured out of thin air.
And the intellectual said a few more words, again without so much as looking at the waiter and apparently ordering for both himself and the young man. And before he could snap his all-powerful fingers again, the waiter disappeared as quickly and magically as he had come.
To the left, another couple caught François’ attention: another young man and a woman, he with close-cropped dark brown hair and she with the same dark brown hair but cascading down her back over her white peasant blouse and almost to her dark blue skirt. Both were already seated, and he wondered how long they’d been there. He hadn’t seen them arrive. François looked for her shoes, but he was unable to see them beneath her chair.
As he watched, the two of them set their cups down and stood, their initial repast at an end. But instead of them going on down the street as either a pair or singly, the young man glanced past her and slightly up, almost directly at François, and said something to the woman. And the woman said something back to him and nodded, and the young man took the woman’s left arm just above the elbow and she walked with him into the café.
Which of course wasn’t really a café at all. The inside is where they prepared the food, so in that way it was a café, but all the chairs and tables and service was outside on the sidewalk. The room that held the hidden inner workings of the café did double duty. In addition to the small kitchen in the back it also contained a counter on the right just inside the door. On the counter lay a guest book, and behind it a clerk waited to rent the rooms above the café by the hour, day, or week. It was a thriving enterprise, and one completely in keeping with the time and place and the all but complete lack of moral direction.
So François made a bet with himself. He could see now that the woman was wearing the low, wide heels of a young female enjoying some time away from her parents, not the tall, narrow, more-alluring heels of a prostitute. But the way the young man had taken her arm—tentatively, at best—was more a gesture of kindness or politeness than one of absolute possession. So François bet with himself whether the man would rent the room for an hour or for a day or longer. And certainly he himself would be at the window long enough to verify the former if not the latter.
He looked again at the table to the far right, the one nearest the street corner where the intellectual sat with the young man. Both had coffee in front of them now on saucers, and both had a small pastry on a little plate to one side of the coffee.
The gentleman said a few words—the last looked like “Understand?” complete with slightly raised eyebrows—and took a bite of his pastry, and then the young man took a bite of his too, although he only nodded in response.
And the gentleman delicately picked up his coffee and the saucer and took a sip from the cup. After which—and only after which, you could tell—the young man picked up his coffee and his saucer and spilled a little of his coffee into the saucer. Then he moved the saucer to his mouth and sipped.
Which of course made the intellectual frown, which caused a shrug and a slightly bowed head and no doubt an apology from the younger man for his ignorant manners as a prelude to an inevitable promise that he would not repeat the offensive display.
And he didn’t. Thereafter, as before, the young man took a bite his pastry only after the intellectual had taken a bite of his. He also chewed the same number of times, judging from the three-quarter back view of how his jaws worked. Likewise, he took a sip of his coffee—but directly from the cup, though he never quite got the pinkie finger straightened out—only after the intellectual took a sip.
How very odd the whole thing was. How very choreographed. But on whose part?
But the intellectual and the young man were staying longer than most of the pairs at the tables. Even longer than the young man and young woman who had eventually gone inside. Well, from what he knew, given that he hadn’t seen them arrive. François had forgotten them for a moment, but just as he thought of them again, a movement caught his attention in the window directly across the way.
It was the woman. She had come to the window and peered out. She blocked out the washstand he’d seen earlier. Behind her to the right was the footboard of the bed, and to the left the corner of the chest of drawers still showed.
She grasped the edge of the white curtains, which appeared similar to the curtains in François’ own room, as if to slide them together. But instead she only looked down at the street for a long moment, watching the people moving there. And for a fragment of that moment, she seemed to focus on the intellectual and the young man. Then she tensed her fists and forearms and shoulders as if to jerk the curtains together.
And then she glanced up—well, across really—and she saw François and the slightest smile crossed her face, like the one on that Mona Lisa painting by that guy. What was his name again? And why couldn’t François remember it? He loved art of all kinds. But no matter. For that split second he and the woman made eye contact and something about her seemed familiar. And she shook her head slightly, probably at something the young man had said from somewhere behind her in the room.
François frowned. Had he met her before? But he was sure he hadn’t. Still, he loved art, and who could forget a face like that?
And then she released the curtains without closing them and turned away.
She disappeared to the bed side of the window, and François resumed watching the table at the street corner.
Eventually as he watched, the intellectual and the young writer set their saucers and cups on top of their empty pastry plates—the young man following the older man’s lead—and slid them toward the edge of the table so the waiter would know they were finished.
And a moment later the balding waiter appeared and the intellectual offered him a note of currency. At the distance, François couldn’t make out the denomination, but it didn’t matter anyway.
The waiter smiled broadly and chattered, his lips moving in a staccato motion as he restacked the plates on the plates and then the saucers on top of those and then the cups on top of those. Then he nervously wiped his hands on the apron and picked up the stack with one hand. And he put his other palm against his chest and leaned slightly forward and tapped his chest three times with his palm and then straightened again and waved that same hand side to side in an obvious effort to tell the intellectual his money was not necessary.
And the intellectual saluted the waiter with a raised hand and the waiter turned away a half-beat too quickly and hurried into the café as if running for safety.
And the intellectual and the young man stood up and the young man put his flat cap on and clapped the intellectual on the shoulder and they moved around the corner and disappeared from view.
And that was that.
Nothing more of note happened over the next few hours and the window grew darker and the outdoor café no longer had customers and the window across the way was dark and there was nothing more to see.
And François was really tired.
He sat on the edge of his bed at first and yawned and stretched his arms high over his head. For a moment he hated himself a little, and then he lay back, still in his clothing but with the top button on his trousers undone. And he told himself his lie and he snuggled into it and it helped as it was meant to do, and he wondered again about the woman at the window and he went to sleep.
It was not yet 9 p.m. but tomorrow would be another long summer day of standing at the window witnessing the frailty of humanity personified on the street below him and wishing things were different.
François awoke, or thought he awoke.
He thought it must be around midnight, or maybe three in the morning. He would feel this good, this awake, after three hours of sleep, or six. Or perhaps nine, but if it had been nine the room would be a little light and it wasn’t.
The room was dark, as only a deserted, almost-empty room in a near-abandoned building could be dark.
But the bed was heavy on one side. And a light scent of perfume hung in the air.
He smiled toward the black ceiling, somewhere up there in the darkness. That scent certainly was not his sock feet. He must be dreaming.
He reached in the darkness to his right for the place where the bed was heavy to prove to himself he was dreaming.
And the weight on the bed shifted slightly and something touched his mouth, something soft and—delicious is the only word that came to mind—something soft and delicious covered his mouth all at once and pressed gently and simultaneously, and a woman said, “Shh. It’s okay.”
And the voice was quiet and it was right. It was okay.
He nodded to let her know he agreed that yes, it was okay.
The softness of her hand—he knew it was a hand when she withdrew it because it was cool to the touch but warmer underneath—moved away and she said, “Are you awake?”
And he said, “Yes” in a tone a half-beat softer than a whisper.
And she said, “You won’t remember but I was in the room. When they drugged you, I mean. When they recruited you to do this thing.”
And he said, “All right” because there was nothing more to say. Then he thought of more to say and said, “But you were in the other room too. Across the way, yes? In the window?”
And she said, “Will you trust me?”
And he said, “Yes. I will trust you.” He paused. Then he said, “But you were in the window, weren’t you? And I seem to remember you from before too. But long ago. Did we know each other long ago?”
And she said, “I’m going to put a hood over your head. I will lead you down the stairs and over the sidewalk and around the corner and into a car.” She paused. “You will trust me that much?”
And he said, “Yes” because he was certain he would and he felt he truly had no choice this time and for some reason he was glad he didn’t. And he said, “But you were in the window before, weren’t you? And you knew me before, didn’t you?”
And she said, “Raise your head a little.”
And he raised his head a little and something soft and dark slid over it and a drawstring tightened around his throat but only a little and everything looked the same as before she’d pulled it over his head, so it made no difference except that now his breath was damp on his face.
The weight of the bed shifted a little and she took his hand but with a different hand than the one that had covered his mouth, and she said, “Come.”
And he rose awkwardly and she led him from the room and down the stairs and out the door and around the corner and a car door opened with that tiny vacuum sound and he climbed in with her hand on top of his head.
And his left shoulder pressed against another shoulder and the weight of the seat to his right shifted and the car door closed and popped his ears a little but the scent of perfume was still there and her left hand rested just above his right knee and she squeezed lightly and patted him there and he was very calm.
Then the engine of the car started and the driver shifted smoothly into gear and they pulled away from the curb and the drive lasted maybe an hour and maybe two hours and nobody spoke the whole time.
And very early in the morning, before the slightest hint of sunrise, the car slowed and then turned suddenly to the left. And there was a bump and the sound of brush on the sides of the car and then some smaller bumps, and the woman took her hand from his thigh and released the drawstring and removed his hood.
He looked to his left.
The man there was not in a hood. It was the man he’d seen earlier. The man with the woman.
The man smiled, and just as if it mattered, he said, “I’m not her lover. I am her brother, Ramon.”
And François remembered him, but not only from the table across the street and it did matter. He tried to say, “Thank you” because he remembered and he felt saved, but his voice caught in his throat because his throat was very dry, and he looked to his right and said, “Veronica.”
And her eyes practically sparkled and she said, “Yes,” and she smiled the most beautiful smile he’d ever seen.
When he was small, no more than 9 or 10 and Ramon was the same and she was a year younger, she had been the girl of his dreams. And now she was right here, and she and her brother had saved him, and they were taking him to a place where they could just live.
And after a time the car stopped and Veronica got out and Ramon got out on the other side and Veronica extended her soft, tender hand and François took it and she help him as he slid across the seat and stood unsteadily on cramped legs.
And she turned away, still holding his hand, and led him maybe twenty yards away to the edge of a pit, their hands swinging between them, and as she walked she said quietly, “I really wish you hadn’t noticed me and my brother, François. I really wish you had focused on your job.” And she stopped and she looked at him and she smiled and she said, “Do you trust me, François?”
And he understood. “Yes,” he said, then, “You were in the window. But you’re with the state now, aren’t you?” He paused. “I have always loved you, you know,” he said quietly, and he was only stating a fact.
“Yes,” she said, and she nodded. “Yes, I know,” she said, and she put her hands on his shoulders and looked into his eyes and smiled and pressed down.
And she stepped to one side as he knelt, and he knelt for no other reason than he knew it was what she wanted him to do. And that was fine if that was all he could give her.
And someone—probably Ramon—racked the slide on a pistol behind him and that was fine too.
François said, “Oh,” and he looked up at Veronica and smiled. “It’s all right.”
And a scant moment later he saw his mother again.
The next day around 7 a.m. a young dissident novelist named Steven who wrote all manner of things that were not politically correct and not in keeping with state policies opened the door on a third-floor walk-up. He’d made a bargain that went against his grain, but what’s a guy to do? Really, he had no choice.
He went to the window and looked out.
There was another window directly across from him, but it was dark. The room was apparently empty.
Well, that wasn’t his assignment anyway. He looked down and to his right.
Maybe it wouldn’t be such bad duty. At least the Café la Tristesse was a pretty little place. A sidewalk café with no inside tables.
Who knew such a thing could exist even in the slums of a city as large as St. Louis?
And the things was, you never knew.
Maybe, just maybe, he would see somebody he knew.