Culture and Ideas Bronze Winner: Café Tables

By Amy Marcott

A souvenir becomes a symbol of hope.

At the end of my first trip to Paris, I had come to the Place du Tertre to buy a painting. I could not afford this. I’d just finished an MFA in creative writing and financed my trip with my student loan. But intuition told me that I should not leave Paris without a piece of artwork. I didn’t realize then that I would buy something more significant than any souvenir could be. Something I would have paid any price for: hope.

I walked around the carré aux artistes twice, dismayed by the caricaturists and the cookie-cutter pictures of Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower. My flight back to Pennsylvania left in eight hours and a dispiriting panic set in. Not wanting to give up, I made one final lap around the square.

To this day, I believe I conjured that oil painting wedged between two larger canvases. I’m not sure how I missed it before. It was a café scene, and I knew instantly this was the artist I’d hoped to find. I do the majority of my writing in cafés and have always thought of them as sacred spaces, portals to that meditative space where words I never expected flow into my head and shape narratives that help me make sense of the world.

This artist used splashes of color: scarlet and persimmon, cobalt and jade, everything infused with luminous patches that bordered on being abstract. Only under scrutiny did you notice people and tiny tables. In the foreground of one I liked, two ghost-like figures sat together, one in shades of blue, the other in greens and rust. Their small round table glowed yellow, as if with possibility itself. It reminded me of the dreamy blur that cafés can become when I’m in the midst of creating.

I thumbed through the other paintings. “Vous êtes l’artiste?” I asked the woman sitting nearby, wanting to know if she had painted them. A petite woman in her forties, she had dark hair and pale skin and a pursed-lip look of persistence.

Oui,” she said.

I thought about how to best phrase that I liked her work. “Ils sont très beaux,” I said, then realized that the word for painting is feminine and I should have said elles sont très belles. Despite seven years of French and my strong desire to converse easily, my travels had showed me that I was only useful in restaurants and train stations. Every other encounter quickly stymied me. As a Francophile, struggling with the language left me feeling like I was dishonoring France. As a writer, not being able to find the right words was one of the most troubling fates I could imagine.

Combien?” I asked pointing to a painting. The woman rattled off the price and I tried to quickly translate the number in my head then convert francs into dollars. About $125, I figured. A splurge, but at nearly twenty by fourteen inches, it was far bigger than I ever dreamed I’d be able to buy.

I narrowed it down to two cafe scenes, the one in blue and another, predominantly red.

Entre les deux…” I pointed from one to another, “laquelle préférez-vous?” She looked at the paintings and I held my breath, hoping I’d spoken correctly. She pointed to the blue one.

Pourquoi?” I asked.

It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand her explanation. For the first time my entire trip, I was having a conversation that didn’t involve the words croissant or le train. It felt momentous. Like I belonged in Paris. This feeling lasted until I asked “Carte de crédit?” which prompted a series of sentences and gestures toward a nearby establishment.

Vous comprenez?” she asked.

The only part I understood was “vous comprenez?” but I smiled and nodded like a dumbstruck fool until she led me toward a storefront then pantomimed the process as she repeated herself. Finally, I understood, though I had misheard the price. It was $250. I flushed, too embarrassed to admit it was beyond my budget. It was art, I consoled myself. It would appreciate, right?

The transaction complete, she led me up a tall, narrow staircase to an apartment overlooking the square where she’d wrap my souvenir for the journey home. Paintings leaned against the walls in thick stacks. Other canvases hung on a clothesline. She gave me a postcard showing a different café scene and her name on the back. Catherine. I stood enthralled by her productivity. I hadn’t yet published any stories, and though I had finished a draft of my novel, it was still in need of much revision. This was what I wanted: evidence of my creativity, finished and ready for the world to see.

When I returned home, I had the painting framed and settled into my post-grad life as a writer and lecturer. But within three months, I slipped into a severe depression that left me unable to write creatively for what would turn out to be five years.

My notebooks during that time catalogue my demise. A typical writing session of ten pages quickly dwindles to one, mostly the opening three paragraphs of my novel. The same sentences, about a fourteen-year-old girl driving alone at night, with slight modifications. Often, I complain that the cafés were noisy or the tables wobbly. I’d been working in these spaces for years. It was I who’d become disagreeable.

Days when I found it hard to leave the house, I’d sit on my couch and stare at the painting, the smears and bursts of color transforming into shadowy spirits. The whole thing floats on the canvas like a suggestion or a lovely dream. One figure, possibly hooded, watches from the corner. I imagined that spirit as divine inspiration itself and waited for it to find me.

Weeks of not writing at all became months. I moved to Boston and the painting sat boxed while I mustered the energy to unpack. Unwrapping it was a revelation. I remembered the intuition that had led me to Catherine’s work. Now, the glowing table in the foreground seemed a message.

I made room in my studio apartment for a similar café table, and I’d sit with my notebook and pen and envision a tide of words rushing forth, my creativity turning incandescent. At most I’d write a couple of paragraphs of stilted sentences before my attention would drift, but at least I was writing.

On difficult days, I’d look at the painting and remember that the enchanted zone I was currently denied access to did indeed exist. It was there for Hemingway, Colette, Picasso, and the long line of artists who had claimed Paris home. And it was there for Catherine, who’d let me glimpse the life of a practicing artist with her apartment overflowing with canvases. This is how it’s done, she seemed to be saying to me. You will find your way here.

Eventually, words did return to me, and fifteen years later, I revisited Paris. By that time, I had published stories, signed with an agent, and begun another novel when my first didn’t sell. I had planned this weeklong visit to be a creative retreat to sit in cafés, write, and wander. I also wanted to search for Catherine. I’d Googled her name over the years and found only one mention, in an online gallery. If she was still on the Place du Tertre, I imagined telling her how she had gotten me through dark times; that when language all but left me, her painting was hope hanging on my wall.

I didn’t know then that I had only a fifty-fifty chance of seeing Catherine, if she was even exhibiting. The nearly three hundred artists annually selected to sell their work in the carré aux artistes share their one-square-meter spaces and display on alternate days. Even though there’s a ten-year waiting list for a spot and some ten million tourists visit the Place du Tertre each year, a part of me hoped Catherine had moved on to more prestigious venues.

As it turned out, Catherine was sitting right where I had left her, though I recognized her painting’s saturated palette first. Seeing it gave my heart a lift, as if something significant was about to happen.

But Catherine herself shocked me. Her hair and skin had the thinness of a woman in her seventies. Had I really misjudged her age before, or had time not been kind to her? She wore a brown plaid blazer and buff-colored Oxfords, the androgynous style popular with Parisians. There was none of the pertness that I remembered. Sitting with her chin on her hands, her eyes cast down, she looked bored. Like she had nowhere else to go.

I considered how to address her, suddenly aware that I had not taken a picture of her painting hanging on my wall. It would have been so easy to show her and say, look, I bought that. Fifteen years ago. I look at it every day.

Finally, I approached Catherine, exchanged a simple bonjour, and leafed through her paintings. These were slightly more abstract, depicting the arches of doorways and hints of buildings, instead of cafés. I glanced at her twice, wanting her to recognize a kindred artistic soul. But Catherine didn’t look up. I leafed through her work a second time, trying to form the words that would tell her what a profound effect she’d had on my life.

But I couldn’t remember how to say fifteen years ago—il y a quinze ans? Ça fait quinze ans? Depuis something? Why hadn’t I planned out what I would say?

I wanted to ask about the changes in her art and whether she still painted cafés, what work lined her apartment walls. But I couldn’t force words out of my mouth. I was too aware that my bumbling French would never convey all I wanted to say. And I wouldn’t understand her response anyway.

I also couldn’t shake the fact of Catherine, old and tired, sitting in that same spot on the Place du Tertre. In retrospect, I think I feared hearing weariness in her voice, when I needed to know that all the time I clung to her hope, all the time I spent waiting to be surprised again by words, hasn’t been in vain. That the result of a creative life is a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment, not despair.

We owe it to artists to tell them when they’ve touched us, but I can only imagine what it would have meant to Catherine. I wish I’d had the courage to tell her in my imperfect French. All I have now is the next best thing: honoring Catherine by using the very language her painting ensured me I’d find my way back to.


Amy Marcott has published fiction in Necessary Fiction, Salt Hill, DIAGRAM, Dogwood, Memorious, Juked, and elsewhere. An essay is forthcoming in the anthology Wither: Stories of Acute Shame and Humiliation. She has earned fellowships from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and the Somerville Arts Council, as well as a scholarship to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. Her work has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won third place in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Contest, among other honors. She received a BA in English from Wesleyan University and an MFA from Penn State and has taught and consulted for Grub Street in Boston. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is at work on a novel.

Comments are closed.

Travelers' Tales