A few days after the business with Yannick and Laure, the Snack-Wagon arrived. A large trailer-van brought it and parked its load on the grass verge just opposite Cr^epe Framboise. A young man in a red-and-yellow paper hat got out. I was busy with customers at the time and paid little attention, so that when I looked out again later that afternoon I was surprised to see that the van had gone, leaving on the verge a small trailer upon which the words Super-Snak were painted in bright red capitals. I came out of the shop to take a closer look. The trailer seemed abandoned, though the shutters that secured it were heavily chained and padlocked. I knocked on the door. There was no answer.
The next day the Snack-Wagon opened. I noticed it at about eleven thirty, when my first customers usually begin to arrive. The shutters opened to reveal a counter above which a red-and-yellow awning gaped. Then a string of bunting, each colored flag bearing the name of a dish and a price-steak-frites, 17F; saucisse-frites, 14F-and finally a number of brightly colored posters advertising Super-Snaks or Big Value Burgers and a variety of soft drinks.
“Looks like you’ve got competition,” said Paul Hourias, exactly on time at twelve fifteen. I didn’t ask him what he wanted to order-he always orders the special and a demi-you could set your watch by him. He never says much, just sits in his usual place by the window and eats and watches the road. I decided he was making one of his rare jokes.
“Competition!” I repeated derisively. “Monsieur Hourias, the day Cr^epe Framboise has to compete with a grease merchant in a trailer is the day I pack up my pots and pans for good.”
Paul chuckled. The day’s special was grilled sardines, one of his favorites, with a basket of my walnut bread, and he ate reflectively, watching the road, as usual, as he did. The presence of the Snack-Wagon did not seem to affect the number of clients in the cr^eperie, and for the next two hours I was busy overseeing the kitchen while my waitress, Lise, took the orders. When I looked out again there were a couple of people at the Snack-Wagon, but they were youngsters, not regulars of mine, a girl and a boy, with cones of chips in their hands. I shrugged. I could live with that.
The next day there were a dozen of them, all youngsters, and a radio playing raucous music at maximum volume. In spite of the day’s heat I closed the cr^eperie door, but even so the tinny ghosts of guitars and drums marched through the glass, and Marie Fenouil and Charlotte Dupr'e, both regulars, complained about the heat and the noise.
The day after that the crowd was larger, the music louder, and I complained. Marching up to the Snack-Wagon at eleven forty, I was immediately enswarmed in adolescents, some of whom I recognized, but many out-of-towners too, girls in halter tops and summer skirts or jeans, young men with turned-up collars and motorcycle boots with jingling buckles. I could see several motorbikes already propped up against the sides of the Snack-Wagon, and there was a smell of gas mingled in among those of frying and beer. A young girl with cropped hair and a pierced nose looked at me insolently as I marched up to the counter, then thrust her elbow in front of me, just missing my face.
“Waitcher turn, h'e, m'em`ere,” she said smartly, through a mouthful of gum. “Can’tcher see there’s people waiting?”
“Oh, is that what you’re doing, sweetheart?” I snapped. “I thought you were just looking for business.”
The girl gaped at me, and I elbowed past her without a second glance. Mirabelle Dartigen, whatever else she might have done, never raised her children to mince their words.
The counter was high, and I found myself looking up at a young man of about twenty-five, good-looking in a dirty-blond sharpish kind of way, hair past his collar and a single gold earring-a cross, I think-dangling. Eyes that might have done something for me forty years ago, but nowadays I’m too old and too particular. I think that old clock stopped ticking just about the same time men stopped wearing hats. Come to think of it, he looked a little familiar, but I wasn’t thinking about that then.
Of course, he already knew me.
“Good morning, Madame Simon,” he said in a polite, ironic voice. “What can I do for you? I’ve got a lovely burger am'ericain if you’d care to try it.”
I was angry, but I tried not to show it. His smile showed that he was expecting trouble, and that he felt confident to withstand it. I gave him one of my sweetest.
“Not today, thank you,” I told him. “But I would be grateful if you’d consider turning your radio down. My customers-”
“But of course.” His voice was smooth and cultured, his eyes gleaming porcelain blue. “I had no idea I was disturbing anyone.”
Beside me, the girl with the pierced nose made an incredulous sound. I heard her say to a companion, another girl in a halter and shorts so small that fleshy half-moons showed beneath the hem, “Did you hear what she said to me? Did you hear?”
The young blond man smiled, and reluctantly I saw charm there, and intelligence, and something oh-so-familiar that needled and nibbled. Leaning over to turn the music down. Gold chain around the neck. Sweat stains on a gray T-shirt. Hands too smooth for a cook, oh there was something wrong about him, about the whole thing, and for the first time I felt not anger but a kind of fear…
Solicitous: “Is that all right for you, Madame Simon?”
“I’d hate to be thought an intrusive neighbor.”
The words were all right, but I still couldn’t shake the thought that there was something wrong, some mockery in that cool, courteous tone that I’d missed somehow, and though I’d got what I wanted, I fled the place, almost turning my ankle on the gravel of the verge, with the press of young bodies against me-there must have been forty of them now, maybe more-and the sound of their voices drowning me. I got out quickly-I never liked to be touched-and as I went back into Cr^epe Framboise I heard the sound of raucous laughter, as if he had waited for me to leave to make some comment. I looked back sharply, but he had his back to me by then and was flipping a row of burgers with practiced ease.
But still that feeling of wrongness remained. I found myself watching out of the window more than usual, and when Marie Fenouil and Charlotte Dupr'e, the customers who had complained about noise the previous day, did not arrive at their usual time, I began to feel edgy. It might be nothing, I told myself. There was only a single empty table, after all. The majority of my customers was here as usual. And yet I found myself watching the Snack-Wagon with a reluctant fascination, watching him as he worked, watching the crowd that remained by the roadside, young people eating from paper cones and polystyrene boxes while he held court… He seemed on friendly terms with everyone. Half a dozen girls-the one with the pierced nose among them-propped up the counter, some with cans of soda in their hands. Others lolled in languid attitudes nearby, and there was much studied perking-out of bosoms and flicking of hips. Those eyes, it seemed, had touched softer hearts than mine.
At twelve thirty I heard the sound of motorcycles from the kitchen. A terrible sound, like pneumatic drills in unison, and I dropped the skillet with which I was turning a row of bolets farcis to run out into the road. The sound was unbearable. I clapped my hands over my ears and even then felt sharp pain lancing my eardrums, made sensitive from so many years of diving in the old Loire. Five motorcycles, which I had last seen propped against the sides of the Snack-Wagon, were now parked on the road just opposite, and their owners-three with girls perched delicately behind them-were revving up to leave, each trying to outdo the rest in volume and attitude. I shouted at them, but could hear nothing but the tortured screech of the machines. Some of the young customers at the Snack-Wagon laughed and clapped. I waved my arms furiously, unable to make myself heard against the din, and the riders saluted me mockingly, one rising onto his back wheels like a prancing horse in a redoubled gale of sound.
The whole performance lasted five minutes, by which time my bolets were burnt and my ears ringing painfully, and my temper risen to the melting point. There was no time to complain again to the owner of the Snack-Wagon, though I promised myself that I would as soon as my customers left. By then, however, the wagon had closed, and though I thumped furiously against the shutters, no one answered.
The next day the music was playing again.
I ignored it for as long as I could, then stamped off to complain. There were even more people than before, and a number of them, recognizing me, made insolent comments as I pushed my way through the little crowd. Too angry to be polite today, I glared up at the Snack-Wagon’s owner and spat:
“I thought we had an agreement!”
He gave me a smile as wide and as gleaming as a barn door. Inquiringly: “Madame?”
But I was in no mood to be cajoled. “Don’t go trying to pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. I want the music off, right now!”
Polite as always, and now looking slightly hurt at my ferocious attack, he switched the music off.
“But of course, madame. I didn’t mean to offend you. If we’re to be such close neighbors we should try to accommodate each other.”
For a few seconds I was too angry even to hear the warning bell.
“What do you mean, ”close neighbors‘?“ I managed at last. ”How long do you imagine you’re going to be staying here?“
He shrugged. “Who knows?” His voice was silky. “You know the catering business, madame. Such an unpredictable thing. Crowds one day-the next, half empty. Who knows what may happen?”
The warning bells had grown to a jangle now, and I was beginning to feel cold. “Your trailer’s on a public road,” I said dryly. “I imagine the police will move you on as soon as they spot you.”
He shook his head. “I’ve got permission to be here, on the verge,” he told me gently. “All my papers bear scrutiny.” Then he looked at me with that insolent politeness of his. “Do yours, madame, I wonder?”
I kept my face stony, while my heart flipped over like a dying fish. He knew something. The thought spun dizzily in my head. Oh God. He knew something. I ignored his question.
“Another thing.” I was pleased with my voice, with its low, sharp quality. The voice of a woman who is not afraid. Beneath my ribs my heart beat faster. “Yesterday there was a commotion with motorcycles. If you allow your friends to disturb my customers again, then I shall report you for creating a public nuisance. I’m sure the police-”
“I’m sure the police will tell you that the cyclists themselves are responsible, not I.” He sounded amused. “Really, madame, I’m trying to be reasonable, but threats and accusations aren’t going to solve the problem…”
I left feeling strangely culpable, as if I, and not he, had made the threats. That night I slept fitfully, and in the morning snapped at Prune for spilling her milk, and at Ricot for playing soccer too close to the kitchen garden. Pistache looked at me oddly-we had barely spoken since the night of Yannick’s visit-and asked if I felt all right.
“It’s nothing,” I said shortly, and returned to the kitchen in silence.