She came among us.
A group of ex-pats, on assignment in Paris, we met each day at a sidewalk cafe near Montmartre to commiserate, and she came among us.
At first, we didn’t notice.
“I’ll have the foie gras,” my friend said. “I’ll have the croque-monsieur,” my other friend said.
“I’ll have the jambon-beurre,” I said. “I don’t have much time, today,” I said.
“Come on,” they said. “A French meal is a cultural experience.”.
We laughed. They said this every day. Three-hour lunches were not uncommon. I would often sit and watch the afternoon light soften into postcard Paris evenings.
“Alms,” she said, her voice soft, barely audible above the noise of traffic and street musicians.
My friends did not hear, or pretended not to hear. They continued their tales of exploits and conquests, stories not yet written, not yet published.
“Alms, she said again, closer.
I lost the train of conversation as I watched her slowly shuffle over the cobblestone, her cup held out, rattling the few coins she had collected, her cane tapping out of rhythm.
“Votre nourriture, les messieurs.” A waiter placed our food on the table and hurried away.
“Allez-vous en,” my friend said, “Go away.”
“Je ne parle pas français,” my other friend said, as if not speaking french would relieve us of guilt.
The woman looked up. She looked at me. She was old and bent, crippled, and dirty.
“Homeless,” my friend said.
“Smelly,” my other friend said.
Our eyes met. Suddenly, I could not tell how old she was.
“What is your name?” I asked, not sure why.
“Angelique,” she said. Her eyes sparkled. “It means…God’s messenger.” Her voice was light, airy, tinged with a french accent, but with no hint of age.
“Do you have a message for me?”
“Oui,” she said.
“What is it?” I asked, feeling this moment held deep meaning.
She kept my gaze, then her eyes traveled down over my Columbia shirt and pants and she looked at the cobblestones. It was as if the full moon had set. I could no longer see her eyes.
“Alms,” she said softly. “L’aumône pour les pauvres.”
The moment was gone.
I’m not sure what I was expecting, maybe some great insight from deity, delivered through Angelique, God’s messenger. Perhaps an answer to the perplexing question of what I should really do with my life. I don’t know. I did not receive the grand message I was hoping for.
The old woman held out her cup, expectantly.
I took a coin from my pocket and dropped it in. It clinked against the other coins. She looked up again.
“Merci beaucoup,” she said. “Dieu vous protège.” Once again, her eyes were bright, blue. I nodded and she ambled away, clinking and tapping.
“I think Paris should do a better job with the homeless population,” my friend said.
“I agree,” my other friend said.
“Alms,” I heard her softly say. “L’aumône pour les pauvres.”