Authors: Aleksandr Voinov
“No.” Benoît shook his head. “We can’t risk you. The Allies are close; we just need to hold out for a few more hours.”
Yves wished he’d had that kind of faith. They’d been hoping for the Allies for a year now. He wasn’t convinced they’d ever show up, and if they did, that it would do any good. All they’d done since then was keep bombing Paris, and some people whispered that Paris would be a second Stalingrad or Warsaw. If it went along the wishes of men like von Grimmstein, it would.
One of his compatriots called Benoît’s name, and he turned away. “Stay safe. We’ll soon be done here.”
Yves barely recognized the city now—and what was strange about it was exactly what had been normal before the Germans had arrived. People were hanging the Tricolore flag out of their windows, even though rumor had it that the few Germans who were still around would shoot into those windows. He could easily imagine von Grimmstein doing such a thing out of spite—if he had survived. People on the streets were wearing red, blue, and white, and Tricolores went up on some of the official buildings and finally the Eiffel Tower. Church bells were ringing, shattering a silence many seemed to have been carrying in their hearts.
It wasn’t over yet. FFI fighters were still disarming and transporting German prisoners, and crowds would scream and spit at them. Gunshots still rang out in the streets. There were bodies—Yves passed a small group of Germans who’d been shot, though whether before surrendering or after wasn’t clear. They were stripped of their arms and lay there like so much debris, like a disassembled, abandoned barricade. Rumors spoke of retreating Germans shooting into crowds of civilians, and snipers up on roofs doing the same, and yet the flags were out again and crowds gathered, half expectant and half nervous.
But when the news spread that the first Allied soldiers had arrived, Yves headed to the Champs-Élysées, where indeed the soldiers who were marching didn’t wear the gray uniforms that all of Paris had grown used to. The image was jarring at first. The crowd went wild around them—pretty girls were riding on their tanks and armored vehicles, and Parisians offered bottles of wine and Champagne and all manner of foodstuffs that must have been hoarded away for months or years.
The throng of the crowd was so thick that the soldiers’ advance kept coming to a halt. Little paper notes were offered and taken on both sides. These, then, were Frenchmen, despite wearing American uniforms. Yves stood, dumbstruck, in a crowd that was rolling back and forth around him, jostling, pushing, and pulling, when he heard the Marseillaise being sung. The singing was coarse, but passionate, as though speaking aloud a secret kept in a lover’s breast for so long that one’s whole body echoed silently with it. The soldiers sang, and the civilians sang, and just then their unschooled voices sang sweeter than a chorus of angels. Yves tried to form a sound and couldn’t. He, alone, remained completely silent.
He didn’t know what to do with himself in the jubilant crowd and finally walked to Maurice’s house. The Métro wasn’t operating, but Yves didn’t mind. He simply marveled at all the new sights, at the changed atmosphere in the city, at the faces of other Parisians, exhausted and anxious and deliriously happy. Some still looked haunted—the Germans might still rally, might still bomb Paris, might still use poison gas. Yves understood. He couldn’t quite believe that it was over, either.
Maurice himself opened his door. “I’ve given staff the day off,” he explained, letting Yves in. “How are you?”
“I honestly don’t know.” He sat down in the salon, while Maurice poured them a glass of port each. “I’ve seen the soldiers.”
Maurice set the glass down before him and placed his free hand on Yves’s shoulders. “Soldiers are good. Soldiers mean business.”
“Will you open?”
“Not tonight, but likely tomorrow.” Maurice squeezed his shoulder. “I’m counting on you.”
Yves cringed. “Me? No. I can’t sing.”
“Really.” Maurice gripped his shoulder harder. “Could have fooled me.”
“I mean, I . . .” Yves rubbed his throat.
“Come on. Don’t leave me with second-rate talent on opening night. And besides, it might just shake that melancholia out of your bones.”
“True. And I think I’d prefer stage fright to this.” Yves lifted his shoulders and let them drop again. “I still can’t believe it.”
“Fingers crossed, and let’s hope for the best. That means lots of soldiers with money to spend and a taste for music.” They touched glasses like conspirators.
* * *
Stepping out on the stage cost Yves all the willpower he had. He’d been away from it for months, and yet he hoped that his records counted for something. Paris was fickle—an artist left his audience at his or her own risk; coming back always bore the danger that the taste had moved on.
When Yves stepped in front of the microphone, he felt anticipation from the audience, but it was an unruly crowd, like the worst of nights at the gloomy bars and drunken officers’ parties where he used to perform. There were some boos from the back tables, and that almost spooked him enough to get off the stage and never return. But at least the boos didn’t spread. Some people might hate him, but not everybody.
He began the set with
and almost choked on it. He’d sung it so often that it shouldn’t cut him so deep, but it did. He couldn’t sing those words without thinking of Falk, without remembering Heinrich in the audience, eager to compliment him afterward. The thought that one, and most likely both, were dead made breathing deeply hard. He should not have chosen that particular song.
Maybe the audience sensed the grief behind the words, but once the song ended, they were decidedly cool. He blinked and looked at them and found many of them looking back, unmoved, critical, waiting. He cracked a joke, one of the many that had carried him from one song to the next, but the laughter wouldn’t come. The audience was as cold as wrought iron.
He changed tack to his lighter, funnier works, and that seemed to make them warm to him a bit, but compared to previous audiences, when he’d held them in the palm of his hands, this was still a disaster. He couldn’t wait to get off the stage, which seemed to grow around him, distorting to a wasteland in which the limelight ensured there was no escape. He managed to finish his set, but the applause was only polite—they acknowledged an effort, maybe an able craftsman, but not a star or a darling. He gritted his teeth and bowed. At least the audience didn’t call him back for an encore. Under the circumstances, that would have only been spiteful.
He returned to the dressing room and quickly washed the makeup off and changed his shirt. He just wanted to get home now. Just when he’d slipped into his coat, Maurice walked in. “What are you doing? I thought you were coming to the party.”
“I’m really not in the mood.”
“Why is that?” Maurice came closer and peered in his face when Yves tried to evade his gaze. “Because of one bad show?”
Yves lifted his hands. “It’s over. I’m done. They hate me.”
Maurice looked at him sternly. “They didn’t throw glasses at you.”
Yves shuddered. He’d seen what happened to artists who’d lost control of a rowdy audience and then insulted them. Or entertainers who simply didn’t connect with them and somebody in the audience then deciding to get a different kind of entertainment out of the poor bastard. It had never been that bad for him, but it had been years since he’d had an evening this lousy. It wasn’t worth it. The money from his recordings should tide him over until he’d decided what else he wanted to do. He could maybe go sing in the countryside where the audience wasn’t as jaded and cynical.
“Maybe next time they will.”
“Or maybe next time they’ve forgiven you, and you’re back to normal. Cheer up, Yves. We’re free.”
“You think it’s because I’ve sung for the Germans?”
“Everybody has sung for the Germans. Paris might hold a grudge, but this city would be very dark and quiet if they exiled everybody who worked during the occupation.” Maurice took him by the arm. “And now come, let’s celebrate.”
Yves still wasn’t in the mood, but being near Maurice lifted his spirits, and the alternative was to wander the streets and worry about tomorrow. At the moment, Maurice was right. They were free. And stepping outside and seeing the nightlife exuberant to the point of hysteria, he did take some solace from vanishing in the crowd, which, refreshingly, did not comprise of Germans, but of Frenchmen and Americans in uniform.
At Eduard’s, the crowd was just as mixed—without any hesitation, Paris embraced the new soldiers, almost as if the Germans hadn’t left a trace. Yves kept to Maurice’s side and didn’t make eye contact with anybody. Just as they’d gotten to the bar, somebody shouted at the door and pushed his way through the crowd. Some men startled—the memory of Gestapo and arrests were much too fresh—but then the shouter had pushed through. He grabbed Maurice and dipped him, Maurice’s fleshy hand impotently scrabbling at the man’s American uniform. The soldier bent over Maurice and kissed him full on the mouth, right here, in the middle of the bar.
People stared, but just for a moment. Then whoops and cheers and wolf-whistles rang out and broke into applause.
Maurice gave up his surprised resistance and embraced the soldier, kissing him back, then the soldier put him back on his feet. Maurice stared wide-eyed at the handsome, tanned stranger, then took his head, and kissed him again. Not stranger. Charles Gutman.
“I was looking for you everywhere.” Charles took both Maurice’s hands. “How have you been?”
Maurice looked at him, opened his mouth, then blinked and shook himself. “All right, that’s enough. Bartender, drinks all around—on me!”
The bartender nodded and began pouring as the crowd’s attention shifted from Maurice and Charles to the drinks. Maurice freed one of his hands. “Charles, you’ve met Yves?”
“Yves Lacroix. Glad to finally meet you.” Charles squeezed Yves’s hand. “Seems you’ve done a good job standing in for me at the Palace.”
“I tried. We were all worried about where you’d gone.”
“Well, I joined Leclerc’s forces immediately. Fought in Africa, in Normandy, and it’s not over yet. But I needed to know that Maurice was safe.” The look they exchanged warmed Yves’s heart and made him terribly wistful.
“You’ll have to tell us all about it.” Maurice pulled his wallet from his pocket and paid the barkeeper a handful of bills. “And the best place for that is home, of course.”
That suited Yves very well—it meant getting out of the crowd, away from a bar that still echoed with the memory of Falk.
Back in his villa, Maurice broke out his best bottles, and Charles captivated them with what had happened since he’d left the city two years ago. He told about life in London, combat in North Africa, landing in Normandy and fighting the Germans at Falaise, and then, when it seemed like the Americans weren’t going to liberate Paris, but instead pursue the German army across the Rhine, how they’d finally pushed toward Paris so fast that soldiers dropped in the heat with exhaustion. It seemed mad to take on a German stronghold with such a small force, but the uprising in Paris had helped shift the balance of power.
Maurice hung at his lips, and Charles smiled fondly at him. While Yves enjoyed the stories—it made the liberation feel more real, made him believe that this was actually going to last—he did get the feeling that Charles and Maurice wanted to be alone. He took a last swallow from his glass and stood, stretching. “I’m getting a little tired. I should go home.”
“Not on my account,” Charles said, but with little conviction.
“I’m sure you have many more stories to tell. I’m so glad you’re back. Will you sing again?”
“Once it’s all over.” Charles stood with Maurice and placed his arm across Maurice’s shoulders. “Maybe we’ll be on the same bill.”
On the way home, it struck him that the city was no longer silent and the nights no longer empty. People danced in the streets, windows and doors flung open wide, as all of Paris celebrated. Soldiers, both French and American, were surrounded by girls, attracted by their swagger. In some parts of the city, lovers embraced in public, their passion not frowned upon, but welcomed like a turn of good fortune. Most, possibly all, soldiers would get lucky tonight.
How quickly the mood changed from celebration to revenge made Yves’s head spin. On the way to the Palace the next evening, he noticed a large crowd surrounding a much smaller group—no soldiers in sight, but FFI fighters, who looked on from the hood of a car as some men manhandled three young women.
Yves paused, struck by how much like a carnival the mood was: celebration and joy while all three young women were shorn of their hair. The crowd called them whores and claimed they’d slept with Germans. The girls themselves averted their gazes and didn’t show more life than mannequins, pretending nonchalance. Maybe the worst part was that nobody moved in to help, not even the FFI men, who instead sat and smoked.
Those girls might even have been the same ones his unit had run into on that fateful day almost exactly four years ago. The ones who’d decided they’d rather not leave anything to the
. He didn’t remember their faces, just remembered long arms and legs in the semi-dark of the barn. What if they were prostitutes and had served customers? During the last few years, the men with money for such things had often been German. Or what if one of them had met her own Heinrich von Starck, a protector, one who could bend the rules, get her permits or additional rationed food or even made her feel pretty and desirable for a short while? What if one of them had found her own Falk Harfner, quite against her inclination at first?
He stood and watched, disgusted to the core by how happy the crowd seemed, how much this seemed like an amusement, and how petty it all was. Looking into their resigned faces, he decided there was nothing he could do. Maybe the FFI would grow suspicious of him if he were to step in. Maybe people remembered he’d been in the company of Germans, had dined with them in restaurants, gone to the theater with them, mingled, and sung for them. This wasn’t the kind of crowd that listened to protestations—it simply pursued its own pleasure, its own spiteful needs. Yves turned away.
* * *
Americans soon filled up the empty places in the audience. To Yves, they seemed much less disciplined than the Germans—but also much fresher, younger, full of bluster and optimism, and clearly Paris had made them feel very welcome indeed.
They drank hard, they spent a lot of money, and all Yves could do was sing and be glad that the few booers didn’t seem to have returned. He had to shorten his patter, and he cut some of the comical numbers because they didn’t work on Americans in the same way, but they liked the music well enough, and he was grateful for it.
One evening, a well-dressed man came toward the stage, and once Yves could see him clearly, he couldn’t help but smile—though his heart was pounding. Vandio waved him to the side of the stage, and Yves came to him.
“I would like to make a request,” Vandio said.
“Of course. I’m so glad you’re back.”
Vandio winked. “Can we do
? Together?” He’d already climbed the stairs to the stage while Yves was still reeling at the implication. He’d never shared his stage with another male singer like this, and
was most assuredly a love song. “I . . . think we can, but—.”
“Great.” Vandio took the stage and stepped to the microphone.
Several of the Americans, well-entertained so far, sat up straighter; some whooped and hollered.
“Dear guests, I’m here to do a little song with a man I’ve always wanted to work with.” Vandio made a grand gesture and invited Yves right to his side, which would have been terribly pretentious if not for the fact that Vandio was by far the bigger star and much more popular with the Americans, who applauded and whistled. Vandio stepped away from the microphone, enough to whisper in Yves’s ear: “Can I tell them? How we relate?”
Yves’s heart jumped into his throat. “Of course.”
Vandio placed an arm around Yves’s shoulders affectionately. “I would like to introduce you to my son, Yves Lacroix. I hear he has a bit of a voice on him—you should hear his mother—so let’s give this a try, shall we?”
With the full attention of the audience, Vandio nodded to Yves, who gave the signal to the orchestra. Yves launched into his part, and thankfully, in all this strangeness, routine took over—he’d sung this as a duet hundreds of times. When Vandio joined him, he pitched his voice a bit higher, as if to suggest a female voice rather than mimic it, but to Yves he might as well have been an echo of the main voice.
Vandio did not sing him down, didn’t take the lead, just followed and complemented Yves, and the effect was eerie. The song gained tremendous power from the contrast and similarity of their voices, a new dramatic edge that gave Yves goosebumps.
The applause was like thunder, and the audience demanded more, encore, again. Vandio smiled and bowed. “What about
Yves, still surprised, nodded. In this number, Vandio showed his considerable talent, echoing Yves’s voice and alternating stanzas with him, and suddenly it seemed like a friendly competition for the sake of the audience as they joked and improvised. It was almost like playing just to play, for the sheer joy of it, and Yves found it was at once effortless, and intense. For this set, he was fearless. He could do no wrong, and if he misstepped—and he did a few times—he recovered without a second thought. They had the audience completely in their control, and the evening was a riot.
Afterward, they sat with a glass of wine in Yves’s dressing room, both thoughtful and quiet, until Vandio finally broke the silence. “I’m glad you accepted the offer.”
“To sing together?”
“To tell them who we are.” Vandio shrugged. “I haven’t been much of a father, and I can’t promise that’ll change. It’s not something that comes naturally to me.”
Yves nodded. “Madeleine told me only recently.”
“How did you feel about it?”
“I . . . it all seemed to make sense. You, and her, and maybe everything else.”
Vandio poured Yves more wine and then topped off his own glass. “It was a chance at a more respectable, steady life for you.” He shrugged. “I can’t be in one place forever. It’s not Romany. But, Yves.” He leaned forward. “For the moment I’m in Paris—I came over to entertain the troops. The Americans are mad for music, and they pay well. There is a lot of work if you want it, and more money than anybody needs. I can introduce you, and they’ll pay you for as long as there are Americans in need of entertainment. And after that . . . my agent in New York City would like to meet you.”
“Meet me? How? Why?” Yves shook his head. “He doesn’t even know me.”
“How do you think I know your songs? We got our hands on some of your recordings—not easy, I tell you. William is very eager to meet you. We can make music together, go on tour in America. You can become a very rich man. And a very famous man.”
Yves expected that old fear to rise again, that dread of the stage, the audience, the weight of fame. But none of that came, not this time. He saw that Vandio believed in him—and Vandio was by far the more experienced singer, and possibly the better one, too. If he could get him engagements with an easier crowd, that sounded amazing. “We could even record together.”
“I expect they will soon knock on our door.” Vandio glanced meaningfully at the door to the dressing room, and Yves nearly expected to hear a knock, but none came. Vandio smiled indulgently, as if they were merely late but would definitely show up.
“I’d love that.” And he did. Suddenly, everything was exciting again. If he could feel that same way again—playful and accomplished at the same time—while onstage, it would all be worth it.
“Very good.” Vandio lifted his glass. “To the future, and to the Americans.”