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Le Garçon Excentrique
In the Latin Quarter of Paris, anything was possible. It was in the very center of the city, squeezed in close to the Seine as if the other districts had shoved it closer and closer until it had no more room. Students spoke in every language—from Latin (hence the name of the quarter) to Chinese to Hebrew to Slovakian. Parisians on the street greeted each other warmly with a kiss on both cheeks. Artists painted in the heat of the summer and the freezing air of the winter, wrapped up in old coats, borrowed scarves and gloves while composers banged away at pianos in third floor rooms of old school buildings and ripped at violins in the corners of the several parks.
If an important member of French society had stepped into this part of the city, they would have been appalled at the dinginess of the fifth arrondissement. But to the residents of the Latin Quarter it was a bustling city of its own with more culture than the rest of Paris put together.
The apartment of Sabine Mathieu was a shabby, one-room flat containing her bed, her piano, and every scrap of paper she’d ever written on. Or, so it seemed. Paper fell in heaps and piles around the room, in the piano, on top of a ¾ size violin, under the sheets on the bed, in the closet and on Sabine’s clothes. She usually wore a grey pair of trousers and a bathrobe and kept her hair in a messy ponytail.
Sabine was incredibly quick. She wrote music for a living and was currently working on a composition for a wealthy American man who was obsessed with France and was willing to cough up the francs for a unique piece of music composed just for him by an authentic French composer.
The problem was, it was getting hard to be unique. Recently, foreign music had been all the craze. Debussy had started it all by mimicking American tunes by Scott Joplin. He had used the pentatonic scale for Asian-sounding music and even written songs that were supposed to sound like objects—like rain and snow. Erik Satie, one of Sabine’s heroes, had written some melodies that followed the forms created by long dead composers and some that seemed to have no point at all except to annoy the listener and the pianist.
So instead of using melodies from her older pieces and spicing them up a bit, Sabine had waited until the very last minute to compose, hoping an idea would hit her by then. It hadn’t. Instead, she had gotten frustrated as composers all around her turned out piece after piece, each one more exciting than the last. It was as if her mind were closed to new ideas: sometimes she sat for hours at a time, a pen balanced over a perfectly blank sheet of paper, but she could never get anything down. She was beginning to panic that she wouldn’t finish the music by the time her client needed it—the very next day.
Deciding she needed some fresh air, she stood and went to the door of the studio, ignoring the strewn pieces of music on the floor and stepping carefully over her violin and a pile of laundry. She brushed off her trousers and pulled a skirt on over them, hoping no one would notice. Over this, she shoved her arms into a fashionable jacket and wrapped a scarf around her neck to protect it from the biting wind that came off of the river this time of year. Before she headed out, she turned, slipped a few spare pieces of paper and previous compositions into an old, tattered portfolio she’d used in her early composing days, shoved some francs into her pocket, and locked the door behind her.
Slowly, Sabine began to make her way north, towards the Right Bank, although she had no idea why she was going that way. She glanced around her for inspiration: a young couple holding hands and laughing, children chasing each other in the park, street vendors yelling out the prices of warm crêpes, sandwiches, and baguettes. Sabine wandered through this all trying not to yawn. She had seen this all before, it was nothing new. What she needed was a murder, or a blizzard, or a robbery…something exciting.
Once she had reached the Right Bank, she heard a clock somewhere chime the hour—it was four o’clock in the afternoon. Not only was it time for a snack, this meant that her piece had to be done in 24 hours, exactly. But instead of stopping at a café or salon du thé, she kept wandering north, making a turn every once in a while. She decided that wandering was kind of pleasant, in a way. She almost never got the chance and rarely did she explore the Right Bank.
While Sabine stood on a narrow sidewalk outside of a warm pâtesserie, she didn’t notice a man carrying a black umbrella, rushing down the street. That is, until he bumped into her and she fell with a gasp. She clung instinctively to his ankles as she tried to pull herself up, scattering her music and blank pages everywhere and causing the man to fall himself. She apologized again and again while he muttered incomprehensibly under his breath.
Embarrassed, they both began to scoop up the music and stuffed it back into Sabine’s folder. Realizing what it was, the man removed the thick red scarf that had covered most of his face and began to scan the music on the sheet in his hand. Sabine shifted uncomfortably and cleared her throat. The man waved the music in front of her face.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est? What is this?” he shouted. Sabine took it from him, afraid that he would tear it to bits if she didn’t. The man looked livid, although she had no idea why he would be.
“C’est ma musique. It’s my music, monsieur.” She turned red as she tucked it carefully into her worn folder. Seeing that the man was angry and needed to calm down, she patted his arm. “Would you care for a drink?”
“No,” he said grumpily. “I don’t see why people always insist on buying drinks for others. A sandwich would be just as useful, if not more. Especially to me. There’s never food at home.”
“I’m sorry, monsieur. I didn’t realize…would you care for a sandwich, then? I’m a bit hungry myself,” she added.
“I know of a place just up here, on rue Charlot. Excellent bread, excellent cheese. By the way, your trousers are showing,” the gentleman said, now sounding perfectly cheerful. He picked up his umbrella and examined it. “A few scratches, but it will do for now,” he concluded. “I just hope it doesn’t rain. What good would an umbrella be then?”
Sabine straightened her skirt hastily and smoothed it down. “I’m afraid I don’t understand, monsieur. Umbrellas protect us from the rain.”
“Nonsense,” the man said, sounding impatient again. “I don’t need protecting from a bit of wet. No, the water simply ruins the effect of the umbrella. How does it make you look impressive and intimidating if you’re all wet? How many umbrellas do you own?” he barked.
“I don’t know. A few,” Sabine answered. This gentleman was a tiny bit strange.
The café, however, was delightful. It was a tiny little place tucked in the corner made by rue de Bretagne and rue Charlot. There were a few empty tables outside, pushed against the wall so that pedestrians could get by. Inside, the place smelled like fresh-baked bread, warm cheese…and chocolate.
The man made a hmph sound and Sabine remembered the umbrella discussion they had been having a few minutes ago. “One can never have too many umbrellas. May I see your music again? I’d like to hear the tune.” He held out his hand, letting Sabine know that he did not expect her to refuse. He whistled the tune as he flipped through the pages. “Hmm…do you know what the problem is?”
“Do you? Because I really need to finish this and I’m afraid I’m stuck,” Sabine informed him. They ordered—she a pastry and chocolat chaud and he, a croque-monsieur, insisting that the best in Paris were made in this café.
“Your problem is neatness. Why don’t you just end it here?” he asked, indicating the line where she’d left off.
“I can’t, I didn’t finish the idea,” she said, taken aback. She’d never been accused of neatness before. The idea of her being neat was almost laughable, except that she knew the gentleman would explain himself in a moment. He poured himself a glass of water and took a long sip before he started.
“First of all, your melody is much too clear. You could try…” he tapped the table with his fingers as though it was a keyboard. Sabine tried to follow, but all she got was an impression of a few chords. “And the form is straight out of the Eighteenth Century! Mix it up a little, no one will yell at you for breaking the rules. Put the notes in the order you want, not the way Beethoven or Clementi would do it. It’s so stiff it’s making my back ache. And this paper is too…blanc…just try to make it a little more exciting. Regardez…” and to Sabine’s surprise, he pulled a folded paper from his pocket and showed her. Once she got past his strange handwriting and notes, stories, shopping lists, drawings and edits, a melody began to take form.
“It’s beautiful,” she said, and then she noticed the signature at the bottom of the page. “Monsieur Satie!” she gasped.
“Oui, c’est moi. Who else would it be?” Sabine didn’t answer. This was Mr. Satie? She examined him, his bushy beard and lively eyes, his scratched, imperfect umbrella under his arm and his wonderfully crazy piece of music next to her own on a table in a café she hadn’t heard of until 20 minutes ago. “This, incidentally, became the first Gymnopédie,” he said, pointing to the music on the table.
To her surprise, Sabine was furious. “You have written so many great pieces and this is all you can help me with? I need more advice than that! This is supposed to be done by tomorrow!”
Monsieur Satie sighed and picked up two pears off of the counter next to them. He held them up for her to observe. “Can you see these pears, mademoiselle? Tell me what they have in common.”
Sabine did not see the point, but she looked at the pears. “They are similar in shape and color, they both have short brown stems, they both have brown spots on them. Why?”
Satie placed one of the pears in her hand. “Taste it.” Sabine hesitated and then took a bite out of the side. It tasted awful and rotten. The inside was brown and squishy. She spluttered and tried not to spit it back out. “Now try the other,” Satie encouraged her, pressing it into her hand. This time she took a small nibble off of the side. It was crisp, fresh and delicious.
“If you don’t mind my asking, why are these pears so important?” Sabine asked, taking another bite out of the fresh one. “What do they have to do with music?”
“You and I are both composers, non? We both express ourselves through our music. To many people, we are all the same. My good friend Debussy cannot stop writing in the form of Wagner, the idiot. My ideas take no particular form, they’re just ideas. And you have your own style. There’s nothing wrong with that,” he said, glancing at the music again. He raised his eyebrows. “No, no, it’s all wrong, but it’s none of my business. The point is, although the pears look similar, the taste of them is very different indeed.”
“I see. And I suppose you think I’m the rotten one?” Sabine asked. Satie grinned and took a bite out of it.
“No, that would be moi. Different people have different tastes. I prefer the older pears, when the skin is withered and the flesh is decayed. They don’t hurt as much when people throw them at you.” He placed it on the side of his plate. Sabine wrinkled her nose but this didn’t seem to surprise Satie. She left some money on the table and they walked out into the cold winter air again. After the warmth and color of the café, the city seemed cold and dark. A drop of water fell on her head. “Oh, now look what you’ve done. It’s raining!”
“That’s not my fault,” Sabine protested.
“No, but I would be at the park by now if I hadn’t run into you. I suppose this is ruined for good now,” he sighed, looking at his umbrella. “Here, you take it. Maybe it will inspire you. It won’t do me any good now. It’s velvet,” he added as Sabine almost dropped it in surprise.
“Thank you,” she said as she tucked it under her jacket for protection.
“Until we meet again, Mademoiselle…”
“My name is Sabine. It was nice to meet you, Monsieur Satie.” She shook his hand.
“Send me a copy of your music when you finish. I’ll be curious to see how it turns out.” And he left without another word to her, grumbling about the rain and how this sort of weather was suitable only for une Holothorie.
A month later, Sabine finished a new piece of music, which she had written in the darkest black ink. Her cheeks were red and flushed from a fever and every few minutes she coughed loudly. She sat by the fire, wrapped in a thick blanket. Her sister, who was staying with her took the pen and music from Sabine and replaced it with a cup of warm tea.
“How are you feeling?” Sabine’s sister asked. Sabine smiled.
“Better. The doctor said I should be recovered by next week,” she said in an reassuring tone.
“How should I label this?” her sister asked, putting the music into a folder.
“Call it, Le Garçon Excentrique.”
Sabine got well. Around Christmas, she received a letter. The paper was expensive and the calligraphy was exquisite. Mademoiselle Sabine, it said.
Erik Satie is the greatest musician in the world; whoever disagrees with this will please leave and never bother me again. Happy Christmas.
Sabine tied Le Garçon Excentrique up with a piece of string and addressed it to Cher Monsieur Satie. In the margins she had written, anyone can eat a pear, but no one can quite copy the taste. I hope you enjoy my creation, even though it’s nothing like a rotten pear.
Two weeks later she got a postcard. On the front was a bizarre drawing of nothing in particular and on the back was her own address and one word: parfait.