Henry tumbled into the pastry shop like a crumpled bag blown in off the street. He straightened his hat, fought the persistent leaves from his coat, flicked the wet bits of street-side scurf from his trousers, and clumsily repositioned his heel in the familiar warm moistness of his calfskin loafer. But as soon as he rose up through the dulcified air, its eager pulsing sweetness swooning about him, the composure he had struggled to regain was lost.

For a moment Henry felt compelled to hold firm the handrail in order to gauge his surroundings. Feeling a sense of confidence he closed his eyes tightly, heartily expelled the last parcel of outdoor air from his breath, then drew in a steady river of warm baked fragrance which swelled his hollow chest, stretching the sacks of his lamb-pink lungs nearly to bursting until finally, puffed up and bow-shaped, he discovered he could inflate no further.

Dangerously impaired by the limits of his physique, Henry’s next course of action was to exhale as promptly as possible. And an impressive exhale it was! Unlike the wheezing and spitting of a balloon scurrying away from the desperate fingers of a five-year old, Henry’s defluxion was released in a measured and nearly inaudible wisp, affording him one final appraisal of that breath’s effluent perfume while arousing not a single fault finding glance from the other customers.

No more than three inquisitive sniffs later and Henry was off, poking his nose this way and that until it grasped the gustatory thread that floated invisibly on the air and led him, with each consecutive sniff, down the steps deeper into the shop until he reached the long glass case where sweet edible treasures bathed in sugary light. There were golden pastries, glistening cream puffs, puddings and petit fours, glazed chocolate nipples and impossibly weightless cakes. But none of these were of interest to Henry who paced up and down in search of the treat that seduced him from the refuge of home and into that house of comestible pleasure, the one thing that would bestow upon his distended buds their amorous tryst: the tartlet citron.

His eyes darted nervously over custard filled fritters, past caramelized tortes, behind rows of pastel-colored Napoleons, but there was no sign of the citron he had been imagining since the first gleams of dawn. They couldn’t possibly be out, he feared. Perhaps they sold one, maybe two, in the morning, but more than that in a month when the frost was just beginning to lose its crackle and fingers were still too hesitant to linger long outside the warm den of a pants pocket, a month when savories and cream filled dainties were still the fashion and his treat’s height of popularity was yet a season away, was simply impossible. Three and four looks did him no good; he saw marzipan figurines and fruitcakes galore, but not a single tartlet citron. His cheeks flushed, his eyes began to tear. Desperately, he sought help from behind the counter.

The clerk whom Henry threw himself before did not acknowledge his presence; she merely looked through him as if staring at some nameless smear on the horizon. Henry’s fidgeting and silent cues of need did nothing to jostle her from what was actually conscious disregard. Finally, with no further recourse, Henry risked clearing his throat in what he hoped was an affable and encouraging manner.

“Can I help you?” the girl moaned, rolling her eyes vacantly around Henry as she struggled from the back counter that had been supporting her weight.

“Yes, oh yes…” Henry pleaded, desperately out of breath. “The tartlet citron! What happened to the citron?”

The girl shook her head and twisted her lips and then glanced at the clock to determine how many more hours she had to endure before pointing a sneering fingernail at Henry’s kneecaps. “They’re right in front of you.”

Henry wasted no time and excitedly dropped to the level of her paint-encrusted cuticle to locate what he had before so carelessly overlooked when his nose met violently with the glass of the display case. Undeterred by such occurrences, he pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and buffed away the smudge, then folded and tucked it back into position in one smooth and practiced motion. For his second attempt he chose a less zealous bend of the knee, thus allowing a moment to unfold the wings of his wire spectacles and pull them back to rest precariously astride his slender up-ticked nose so when he finally gazed upon his object of desire every pore of its taut lemon-scented skin would reveal itself with absolute clarity.

Well, it was no wonder he had missed it; what he found was not a viscous summer breeze caught suspended and supine in a cup of tender crust, but a sliver of curd choking beneath a hueless spume of meringue.

Henry gasped, “There’s meringue on it.”

The clerk shrugged indifferently, “They changed it.”

Henry threw his arms into the air. It never occurred to him that they would have altered his tartlet citron. The mere thought of tooth and tongue slogging through a cold lifeless fog of meringue was unbearable. This, he insisted, was not the tartlet that was to spring the day’s plans into motion!

As if the recognition that he would not enjoy the fingering and nibbling of his perfect pastry wasn’t enough, Henry was left without a moment to compose the physical manifestation of readiness. How mortifying, he thought, to be found lacking an alternative plan. Just the idea of a hurried decision upset him. Should he stay? Go? Should he choose something else? It was all so disorienting.

Left with no time for thoughtful contemplation he hurriedly searched the case for a clear direction, but the contents of the case were rendered a blur of disparaging choices. Pastries that usually loitered in the shadow of his ideal confection became glaring opportunities for error; each one taunted him, prodded him and drove him into a corner of uncertainty- each one anticipated a wrong decision.

Henry glanced at the girl but found no help at all, just a pitiless stare ridiculing his lack of forethought. He blamed only himself. Had he properly prepared for this moment, had he meticulously outlined the course of his day taking into account all its possibilities before he ventured from home, he would not find the razor sharp backhand of indecision cutting through him.

Henry was paralyzed. The low hum of fluorescent lights coursed through his faculties like a dumbing current while each impatient tap of the girl’s finger crashed down upon the counter in a condemning rebuke.

Then, surprisingly, a perfectly simple idea sprung to mind; one that seemed as bright and fresh as the tartlet that existed only in his imagination. One that would set a new course for the day, perhaps his life– Henry would choose without deliberation.

He quickly glanced over the case for the first item that came into focus.

“Oh, right there,” he chimed excitedly, almost forgetting the detritus of the decision making process. “The amandine… just like in Paris.”

Henry fondly recalled the one he had on holiday; how he held the pastry beneath his nose and snuffled its unctuous crust; how its crispy flakes swarmed about his nostrils and beads of buttery air sent him into sebaceous revelation. His tongue swam merrily through deep pools of anticipation. “I’ll take one!” he exclaimed.

Reeling in the spontaneity he ordered a cappuccino as well. “Oh, is that Perrier? I’ll take one of those… and a baguette too! Have you been to Paris?” he cheerfully inquired, craftily imbuing his sentence with a peppered inflection to encourage a little tête-à-tête.

“I’ll just bring them to you,” she said with a saccharine smile as she handed him a bag containing his bread and water.

As Henry sat beside the window in contemplation he realized a rich and honey-hued nostalgia was slippering his thoughts. Was it the Boulevard Saint-Michel or Saint Sulpice that he wished to recall? It did not matter; the sounds, smells and tastes were as vivid in memory as if he were there at that moment. Henry could scarcely wait to feel the heat of the stocky cup between his long spindly fingers, or to imbibe its strong aromatic brew. He even fancied the tickle of its frothy cowl upon his freshly shaven lip. Henry closed his eyes while expectant fingers lightly twiddled before him.

“Your croissant and your cappuccino,” said the girl as she dropped the items before him.

But when he looked up he did not see a cappuccino at all, just a morose coupling of murky brown liquid and despondent foam shamefully exposed within the thick walls of a fountain glass. Most shocking of all were the chocolate-stained suds. Henry turned the color of sour milk.

“Is something wrong?” the girl challenged with a tone that threatened him to answer.

He grimaced and scowled to free his words but his speech was shackled by the confounding sight before him. The tiny vessels dappling the surface of his cheeks dilated into crimson as droplets of perspiration swelled at the edges of his hairline.  Worst of all, the soft pits beneath his arms stung with the wet of his skin’s nervous weeping. Henry, an ardent traditionalist, expected nothing less than a rigid adherence to old guidelines. The arrogance of tossing a parlor drink into the face of custom and calling it a cappuccino, he silently fumed. He would not stand for it. He would tell her. He would rally the forces of cultural continuity to defeat the perversion before him. He would shout with the force of artillery fire, “A third! A third! A third!” while slamming his fists upon the table.

“Well?” she dared, with one hand on her hip and a look far too defiant for Henry’s meager nerves.

A knotful of sounds tumbled down his tongue then tripped over his lips.

“Excuse me?” she goaded, “I didn’t quite get that.”

“Uh… it’s just… I guess it’s… fine,” Henry relented, shamefully sinking into his chair with all the weight of failure pressing upon him. The girl sauntered off, her hair flipping back and forth in a final taunting gesture…

.

Henry had completely lost himself in his morning deliberations. He would have marched back to the counter and demanded a word with the Chef had he not been so alarmed by the racket in the hall, he thought. Then, as Henry leaned an ear toward his front door, a loud “Thwack!” nearly routed him out of his reading chair. Henry braced himself. Who was that, he wondered, and at this hour? Rumblings in the hall were often harbingers of unheralded events, like a sudden knock on one’s door promises an unplanned for visit. The idea filled him with dread as he was never prepared for such things. Then a rustle of sound pricked his ear again. It was one of his neighbors! If it was the man from 327 he was safe; he was a specimen of faultless manner who would never think of making a social call unannounced, unlike some, he thought with a shiver. The footsteps grew heavier. Steps of increasing menace rumbled under his chair. He stared at the crack beneath the door and watched nervously as a shadow scuffled the tissue of light laying there. He caught his breath– it was Barbara.

Henry exhausted himself evading her. Not two days earlier she had cornered him in an exchange he was still recovering from. After carefully studying the passageway to ensure it was free from encounters, Henry stepped from his apartment and quickly made his way to the end of the hall. Then, just as he was about to open the trash chute, she tapped him on the shoulder shocking the wind out of him. There he stood unhinged as she lobbed questions like giddy gunfire; questions wholly unanswerable by Henry like, “What have you been doing lately?” and “How’s work?” How mortifying, was Henry’s only thought during the barrage, to be seen carrying one’s rubbish.

Not today, Henry pleaded, hoping her footsteps would pass by his door without pause. He simply had too much to do. The most delicate matter of his day was at hand, a matter requiring his undivided attention. Perhaps she was only walking her dog? The thought relieved Henry. He slackened his clutch from around his knees, but refused the temptation to flatten the furrows in the fabric of his pants as the sound of fingertips smoothing out wool might betray his presence. Slowly the footsteps moved along and the tremors stilled. After a few pensive moments Henry nestled back into the caress of his chair, his breathing returned to its naturally tentative rhythm, and soon Henry’s attention revisited his earlier undertaking: the design of his day…

.

From beneath the striped awning of the pastry shop Henry contemplated the surge of people washing over the cobblestone streets of the market with a gaze inclined toward hopefulness. This was notably out of character for a man of such skittish nature, particularly when confronting a horde of people cramming through street stalls and coagulating around spectacles of questionable worth. Such unpredictable environments often provoked in Henry, through the ratcheting up of nervous tension, a most dreadful efflorescence of the skin which made even the menial tasks of squatting to retrieve a fallen pocket silk torturous and emasculating.

Oh not today, Henry insisted. Not after risking so much and venturing so far would he scurry home, not after the grievances he had earlier suffered, and certainly not before his formulations for a proper errand had been seen through to an accomplished end.

Emboldened, Henry searched the long avenue for the shingle that signaled his next order of business: the cheese for his baguette. He examined the route, plotted its course, brushed out his coat and turned his cuffs the way a captain might set the rigging of a ship to the first hopeful wind following a terrible storm. Without a second thought he launched into the gulch rippling with tourists, his body tossed this way and that against their flux, he steered hard about the buskers and the vendors, veering off the sidewalk, slipping between parked cars and jutting back again making perfect time. He was, however, totally unaware that within a few strides he would run prow into the livery-eyed beggar woman who had Henry locked in her sights.

He usually monitored his path with vigilance to guard against such encounters. Experience had informed him that the vagrant type would pounce upon any unsuspecting pedestrian given the chance, even upon one whose unremitting stride suggested a man summoned by matters of importance. Few things in life were as disconcerting as having finally achieved an efficient pace only to have it torqued by a pandering for nickels.

It was not out of callousness or uncharitableness that Henry immediately averted his gaze and changed course to avoid such confrontations; Henry was simply a creature of privacy and convention who chose to confer gifts of the philanthropic nature through pen, check and ledger from the privacy of home. Moreover, Henry’s avoidance of the common beggar was governed by his distaste for coins; he did not carry weighty objects in his pockets, much less change, as the jangle rattled his nerves and upset the swag of his trousers.

Since the gaze of the mendicant and her mark must never meet, Henry determined that the scrutiny of one’s course and the measuring of one’s progress should lift the eyes no higher than a downward skirting angle. He sought an artful balance between acute observation and feigned indifference which must be practiced, for failure to identify dangers looming above one’s path, such as the partially truncated limb of a magnolia tree or a sagging holiday garland negligently draped, could lead to a series of calamitous stumbles.

Henry could just as well forge a number of off-putting emotional states such as anguish and exasperation, or other disparate mannerisms belying the sort of buttoned-up disposition of a less than worthy donor. For instance, Henry could walk with a newspaper folded and held within inches of his nose exemplifying a worldly and well-posted man that would, he surmised, distract the beggar into a state of speechless admiration, a pleasing idea for one who secretly knew his ken of current events to be sorely lacking. Such dramatic elicitations, such dalliances in the theatrical, became little games he played to divert his thoughts from what he referred to as “painful public undertakings.”

But perhaps Henry had grown too comfortable working these finely tuned maneuvers or maybe he still jostled from the morning’s earlier disappointments, so he failed his guard and by the time he saw her it was too late. He looked straight into her eyes and was snared. Nevertheless, her slip-shod gait exposed a slender opportunity for escape which he exploited by pushing forward and hoping the last seconds would find him swept out of her reach or swallowed in a swell of activity. But as he studied her progress he caught glimpses of a cardboard sign she carried which quickly flashed the words food, children, help, and Lord. If there was any hope of fleeing it was abandoned with the reading of such haloed words, words with the calculated function of sweetening the cynical donor like sugar cubes dropped into bitter tea. Then, as if Nature itself were declaring a position, the sun emerged between the clouds exalting her in a light so resplendent that she stood before him with hand cupped and arm poised in an imploring bend which, raised to the tenderest level of supplication, invoked and beckoned him like the ambassadress of the poor.

Without thinking his hand dove into his pant’s pocket in search of an offering. But nothing could be found, as even the lint had been picked free following the slacks laundering. Frantically he rooted through the compartments of his coat to at least affect good intention or perhaps hoping if by transcendence of natural law something would appear. As the sun’s light deadened beneath the reconvergence of clouds, darkness poisoned the crevices that scored the woman’s face, her lips cockled and her eyes bulged from the shadows of their sockets.

Then suddenly he realized the answer. He immediately peeled apart the paper, reached an arm into the long sack, his hand fumbling its way down, then grasped and pulled out the Perrier, all while excusing himself for having nothing else to give. Then, without pause, he embarked on a meandering account of how he spent his last dollars on a cappuccino that because of poor quality and execution never even graced his lips, when unexpectedly, and not half way round his circumlocution, the woman snatched the bottle from him ignoring his words entirely. Henry was at first miffed by such utter disregard for the socially observed rituals of gift giving, but his criticism melted away as quickly as her crooked grin grew broad and her wide rheumy eyes turned to jade lagoons of gratefulness in the reflection of the bottle’s green glass.

As he walked away the unease that nettled Henry’s public exchanges abated and was replaced by a step accentuated with a lightly buoyant and ever increasing beat. While strolling along in rhythmic swing, imaginings of the woman colorfully flickered through his thoughts: the snapping open of the bottle in one commandeering twist; the drawing in then gulping down; the cold rivulet of bubbles bursting in her throat like tiny wet celestial firecrackers; her certain surprise; the stopping and the pulling away; the immediate release of suction in a flit of air followed by a sigh; and finally the turning of the bottle to read the label to discover what elixir, what restorative so crisp and invigorating she had the rare pleasure of imbibing. So impressed would she be that Henry imagined her looking back to him and hoisting the bottle high above her head in praise of his goodness.

Henry considered it was probably not every day that someone in her position received fine French water. Anyone could thoughtlessly toss a coin in the direction of a beggar, but take into account the long hours standing in the open air voicing in uninterrupted stream the same flatly toned and unchanging entreaties to a dismissive public.

Then Henry stopped dead in his tracks. He suddenly realized a gaping and before-unnoticed hole in his heroic deed. His great act of benevolence was, in reality, an awful miscalculation. He turned around, his hand reaching out in vain as if she were still behind him, as if he could physically stop her from drinking the water or from retreating when in actuality she was already a block away. Without thinking he leaped back into the crowd in a desperate attempt to catch her before she was ruined by his reckless gesture. How could he be so heedless to the subtleties of her profession not to consider the effects a bottle of expensive water could have on her purse? No one in their right mind would pity a beggar who spent her gains on luxuries while her children were waiting hungrily for her return. She, being wise to the nuances of beggary, would have already realized this and hastily repelled the offending article into the trash, at least Henry hoped.

But when he finally caught up to her she was standing with the Perrier held proudly before her sign as if to announce to the world that these were her halcyon days, as if to hold in contempt all those who toiled away in the factories, the office towers, the department stores and the lowly kitchens while she, gentle lady of leisure, was rolling in the clover sipping imported water.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, his finger tapping the woman’s shoulder with a halting and vague touch.

The woman turned, not because she felt the physical contact of another being, but as if to refute some imagined presence. But when she realized who it was gratefulness filled her eyes once more. “Oh sir, I can’t thank you enough, sir. Sure was thirsty,” she chirped.

“Listen, the water… I think it would be best, well, if you gave it back.” Henry implored with the greatest difficulty.

“You got to be kidding?”

“My God no, not in the least; if you would just consider the damage I could have caused you and your children you will see how reckless I was.”

“What are you talking about?” She demanded, utterly confused.

“What I am trying to say is, well, walking away I thought of your position and your offspring and I could not bear the notion that because of my negligence you would all be suffering. I realized if people saw you drinking the water, that particular water, they might choose to give their change to one they perceive to be more needful. Therefore, you should give it back and later I will return with a more respectable offer.”

“I ain’t giving this back. Besides, I already drank from it.”

“But you don’t understand. It’s for your own good. Oh! Even better, I could take it back and go right now and buy you a bottle of ordinary water. That would work, you can have that instead.”

The woman’s mouth fell open. “You know what? You can take your hoity-toity water and shove it, ‘cuz I don’t need it; I don’t need nothin’ from the likes of you.” And in one swift and proud movement the woman thrust the water into the hollow of Henry’s chest, released her grip from the bottle leaving him barely enough time to secure it within his own, swung around, retrieved her bag and cardboard sign then stomped away leaving him with brow knitted and mouth agape in an expression of congealed astonishment…

.

Henry paced from one side of the living room to the other. He was upset at his failure to anticipate all the complications an errand might contain. Perhaps he should just burst through the door and into the hall. He marched across the room determined to turn the handle, but at the very last moment, instead of throwing himself into the hands of fate, he pressed his ear to the cold metal door and listened. Intimations of emptiness whirled through its cavity. The hall was vacant. Barbara had not returned from walking her dog. Should he take a chance? Should he rush out hoping he slipped by her unnoticed? How absurd, he criticized, after already discovering the results of such impulsive behavior in the crafting of his day. It was a good thing he had not left, he was far from prepared. If he was to succeed in his endeavors, he reflected, he must prepare himself for every conceivable mishap. The fault lay not in planning, but in his failure to plan enough. He must remain focused, conscientious of every painstaking and seemingly insignificant detail around him, unfaltering in step, with absolutely no deviations from plan. If he was to make a success of his day, he must think of everything…

.

Henry crouched down, taking careful measure to secure the secrecy of his presence beneath the storefront window, each finger grasping with white-knuckled tenacity the brick ledge running the length of the window’s sill, an anchorage that offered a line of sight which barely cleared the three foot barricade of wall he hid behind so he could, without detection, peer through the glass and into the shop, through the metal shelves towering on the other side of the window, through its hold of svelte-shouldered bottles and then on into the first set of aisles where his eyes quickly climbed over squat-jarred comfitures, past honeys of pine, oak and huckleberry, pastes of fig, chestnut and clementine (each evoked from previous visits as his compulsion rejected leisurely assessments of stock in the interest of time), then deeper in and more urgently his unflagging eye bisected the stores main arterial and quickened through a subsequent set of aisles which were filled on the left with carmine-colored cans bearing an exhaustive show of fleshy red tomatoes (fastidiously arranged by volume, type and method of process) while to his right a cumulation of potages, kippers, and other tinned bits erected in rapid fire pillars which propelled his gaze into an area open and unobstructed by merchandise but perpetually shifting with the uncertain gestures of people queuing for positions in lines which vaguely existed, customers who like Henry were craning to see through the intervening spaces created by the constant jostling of those preceding them, but unlike the shoppers whose attention was beguiled by the glow and bounty of the deli cases, Henry’s search was impelled beyond the display, over the counter and into a realm where no customer was welcome, a niche containing within its long and narrow confines the objective of his grueling reconnaissance and the answer to his burning question- who was working the cheese counter on that afternoon?

He endured the pain at the balls of his feet, submitted to back-bent toes, sustained an unrelenting fire which blazed down his back and smoldered across the lateral planes of his thighs, he even resigned himself to the paresthesia prickling his legs all to prove unequivocally the absence, or presence, of one particular individual: a most ill-natured fromager.

He waited as a hunter waits: fixed, hidden, resolute and riveted. But his fortitude was an ephemeral pose. The moment her figure cast its dark and menacing shadow across his retina, the instant the probability of a contentious exchange was hypothesized, his courage crumbled like a dry cheese.

Henry found the store uncommonly busy for a Tuesday; the customers were two and three deep from the crème fraiche down to the mortadellas. Clerks rushed back and forth, their movements circuitous, their bodies bowing and arching around one another to reach their targeted charcuterie. Others busily alternated position before the slicer, a prodigious mechanical monster that spun its blade into a high-pitched metallic hiss, a resonance which, when impelling arms pushed lobes of cured pork and beef products across its sharp disc, momentarily attenuated into a dangerous snarl and then rose again in timbre as gauzy leaves of aged and air-dried flesh gently fell one upon the other atop bone white paper. Against such a vaulting milieu of commerce, the volley of words, the sinewy and tentacular arms, the tastings, the wrapping and labeling and conveyance of goods, Henry saw an opportunity to slip into the store and into a line that would put the greatest distance between himself and that intractable cheese hawker. He stood up, waited for the blood to freshen his legs and time to draw away the spell of dizziness that discomfited his stance, and then moved stealthily into position.

As he readied himself at the far reaches of the counter, Henry mentally rehearsed the distinguishing features prescribed for his cheese: its coloration, its form and size, its fragrance. He then mentally recited the methods used in its crafting. He wished to be in a state of absolute preparedness should a bit of friendly banter arise. But what if he misspoke or a most important detail should slip his mind? At that moment he was struggling to remember the time of day the cows were milked. But time did not matter, that was an altogether different cheese. Remembering this silenced his alarm, but only briefly. The fleeting cessation of self-doubt merely unbound his fretful mind to search for other bits of apprehension, other ingots of misgiving buried within its depths, other dim and insignificant embers of criticism in the penumbra of his mind that could, when stoked by the fierce and unrelenting winds of insecurity, ignite into a punishing flame. Such a firestorm erupted the second he reconsidered the pronunciation of the town from where his cheese came. Then questions arose on which syllables to inflect. French was an insuperable language! A lifetime of English held Henry’s vocal chords back with Victorian restraint; sharp, concise, and angular were the postures his tongue naturally struck. English trained mouths and throats, Henry surmised, were inclined toward glottal articulations and aspirated stops, not words that seemingly vanished in the air before their end. Vocal muscles bred on the Queen’s English certainly were not inclined toward nasally vowels, nor the drowsy stretching shapes of sound, loose, careless, even negligent in the way they somersaulted round the tongue before slipping through the teeth and out the mouth to hang upon the air in a grand and haughty jeté.

Henry would have mired in self-impugnment had it not been for the dour voice of his nemesis. Though he was determined to keep his eyes from drifting in its direction, the grunting noise she made while slicing through a bresaola was too much a dangerous curiosity to resist. What held him struck by nervous awe was the grim wattle of her neck pendulously swinging from side to side with each thrust of her arm as she sawed off slices of blood-blackened beef. And then there was her face, with its awful resemblance to the pinched end of a salami and its cold black eyes refracting no light at all like peppercorns dried and withered and pressed too close together into her wan and wrinkled flesh. Her eyes were set too low above her narrow snout and undercut chin, and the whole ridiculous façade, from brow to jowl, back-pedaled beneath a mount of hair that suggested a war helmet of drubbed and greased nickel.

He felt safe at that distance, hidden from sight behind all those that stood between them. Henry was almost up. He was so close he could nearly touch the case. Seeing the very cheese he desired bundled up and tucked into its little spruce box inspired a river of confidence. Forgetting for a moment the probabilities of conflict he allowed his taste buds to gush with unbound anticipation. Why should he worry? He encouraged himself. He had done his research; he knew exactly what to ask for. If she helped him, so be it, his armor was on. But fortunately for Henry a bonnie young clerk stepped in.

“I would like to have a look at your selection of Vacherin,” Henry said with renewed vigor as he admired the clerk’s trim and tidy appearance.

“Of course. This here is a lovely round,” the clerk said as he handed Henry the cheese to inspect. Henry critiqued the color, held the disc to his nose and inhaled deeply, pressed down on the center of the cheese with the tip of his forefinger to appraise its yield and then decided without a doubt he was not impressed.

“Can I wrap that for you, sir?” the clerk asked.

Though Henry had come to the conclusion that the cheese clearly had none of the qualities he was encouraged to look for, he certainly did not wish to offend the man with a discussion on its weak points. Instead, he cleverly asked if he could compare it with another.

“I’m afraid that’s the last one. Is there a problem, sir?”

Henry was disarmed by the clerk’s interrogation. He had not prepared for a choice between anything less than two; it was the season for his cheese. He anticipated perhaps a specimen requiring a bit of nurturing in the recesses of his fridge, but this one was pale, odorless, and quite nearly embryonic. Henry panicked. “That one doesn’t look good,” he announced, immediately lamenting over the choice and tone of his words.

The repercussion of Henry’s ill-fashioned declaration came harsh and swift. Somewhere near the other end of the counter the air erupted and a long drawn “Whaaat!” roared past Henry and through the delicatessen like a virulent strain of listeriosis. All who were in earshot succumbed to its threat. A few able bodies on the periphery scattered, while the unfortunate ones found themselves trapped in the epicenter of the service area. The experienced clientele, slowed by the paresis of fear, managed only to slip behind the tourists who, in their naiveté, were unaware of the perils of purchasing a wedge of cheese or a few slices of pepperoni. But even the uninitiated grew fidgety when a nervous truncated giggle was the last sound anyone heard before her odious voice broke the air and fouled the room again. “Doesn’t look good? Let me see that!”

How? How did this happen? Henry whimpered. Not one minute before, that spiteful peddler was on the other side of the store and now she was holding his Vacherin. When the patrons realized Henry was her target they stepped to the side and left him exposed. They silently watched, each one wearing the same permanently disjunctive expression caught somewhere between fear and excitement.

Henry was defenseless, unable to move, momentarily deaf to all but the blood pounding in molten earfuls through his brain. He struggled to recall the words he had just uttered. He knew what he had meant, that the cheese did not have the particular qualities that he himself was looking for.

“Oh, doesn’t look good, huh?” she cackled. “Well, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” she proclaimed gesturing wildly and drawing the other clerks in for a closer look. “I wouldn’t have a problem taking this home tonight, would you?” she asked another clerk who nodded his head in collusion. “Looks like it would go great with a full-bodied Beaujolais,” he winked. All the while Henry was sagging into the floor like a camembert putrefying beneath a vicious sun.

Her scourge was only in its most nascent stage. Next she held the cheese up for all the customers to see, her talon-like fingers clenching the Vacherin as if it were prey, thrusting it toward the onlookers in obscene jerks and gesticulations exposing the loose fitting skin of her forearm which had the same brine-washed patina as the cheese she was holding. “How about a consensus folks?” she barked. Of course none of the people before her had a clue what she was brandishing. No one dared to inquire, no one dared answer.

“Any of you think this cheese doesn’t look good, raise your hand. Anyone out there want to take a splendid Vacherin home with you tonight?” Her bilious invectives were relentless, whipping around Henry in a lashing assault of sound, as if a single minor chord was being struck loudly over and over and over again, tormenting him with its deliberateness, torturing him with its repetition.

Henry looked to the other customers but they only shook their heads piteously. A few mournful glances were drawn across the faces of reluctant participants, but most wore the mark of contempt, their lips curled back in rictus. So badly he wished to counter her attack, to inform her that the cheese she held in her hand was too young; that supple erubescent swells had not yet rippled through its rind; that when placed under the nose the balsamy redolence that recalled the felled pines of the Jura were non-existent, not to mention the faint barnyardy notes hinting at the luscious ooze tucked beneath its skin; that the interior should not be a bland beige paste that is cut with a knife, but a wildly pungent viscosity that must be carefully collected with a spoon. What she was holding was perhaps the poorest example of one of man’s great gastronomic achievements. But none of that mattered as Henry recoiled in fear of her next venomous strike.

“Tell you what,” she offered the crowd, “I’ll buy it, you take it home and tell me if it’s any good… sounds like a great deal to me,” she snarked, throwing her head back. One of the customers lurched at the chance, thrusting his arm into the air, even jumping a little and smirking as if he had won the opportunity to slip the noose over Henry’s head while posing for a snapshot for the folks back home.

The world around him, the color blurs that composed the crowd, the smearing of shadow and light, the imbroglio of voices became even more distant and indistinguishable as Henry retreated inward. For an uncertain duration Henry hid himself there. Then the gentle clerk who initially helped Henry stood up from behind the case with a newly discovered Vacherin and pressed it into his hand. The feral perfume of the cheese penetrated the depths of Henry’s withdrawal and slowly coaxed him back out. He looked to see what he held and discovered it was exactly the cheese he had been searching for, perhaps the most perfect example he had set eyes upon. But there was no joy, no comfort in that revelation. All he wished for was the solitude of home, the safety of his reading chair, a soothing cup of tea, a familiar book resting on his lap, but each of those things were painfully out of reach. Henry had ventured far from predictable walls into a world where intention surrendered to chance; a place of flawed patterns, incomprehensible and without order; a realm where people did not fit neatly with expectation. The world beyond Henry’s apartment was a world in disarray.

He looked at the clerk smiling sadly at him. Unable to speak, his tongue pollard by humiliation, he found only enough strength to hand over his money and then pushed his way out through the snickering spectators.

Henry staggered through vague and deformed streets, his vision confused by the tears that refused to fall. He took the quickest path he knew, disregarding all his previously sanctioned routes, neglecting the patterns and methods of traversing the city that had earlier been delineated, making what in any other circumstance would have been the rash decision to drop down the steep weather-beaten stairs above the harbor to travel along the waterfront, not even realizing through the fog of prolonged derision where he was but moving in the direction of home nonetheless.

His every thought gave way to scenes of his public flogging. Self-pity had mutated into the want for revenge. But revenge could only satisfy his most primal desires, he insisted. Granted, an instantaneous pleasure would be gained if he could level her with a horrible act of public denigration. She would suffer just as he, but his pleasure would be fleeting. He wanted to expose that agent of ruin for what she was, but in doing so he also wished to make a louder appeal for change. How would he do it? He knew absolutely. He would use one of man’s most potent weapons. He would write a letter!

What a revelation, Henry thought. He would gather all his resources, footnote this and that cheese scholar, quote long passages of cheese wisdom, and then finish it off with a sharp and savory quip. He would publicly expose her as a fraud while simultaneously discrediting the cheese shop. And why stop there? He would throw in the café and its epicurean crimes as well. He would send his letters to all the newspapers and post them online. No dignified consumer would honor incivility and disregard for tradition by frequenting those shops again. People of importance would urge him to write further exposés. They would enlist his efforts in the search of those individuals, those restaurants and hotels, those stores and federal offices that dedicated themselves to experiences of distinction. He would promote with each written word the flowering of refinement. He would honor those who put artistry, technique, craftsmanship, skill and proficiency above profit, complacency and ease. He would be recognized a leading voice on matters of excellence and integrity, be called upon night and day for opinions. Oh yes, he declared, he would become in the eyes of the world the Conservator of Quality!

Henry was nearly running now, all but floating as though the idea had given him flight. His fingers twitched and flicked the air as if they were already striking the keys of his computer. But what if she was right about the cheese and he was wrong? How he anguished over the thought! No, he protested, he was quite sure of what he had read. Nearly home, Henry made the decision to consider his day a triumph- a new identity awaited him, a new way of living.

But as he stepped from the curb to cross the street an instinctive fear drained his reverie. He tucked his head into his shoulders and slowly looked around but found nothing unusual. He scanned the trees and the vague alcoves of the nearby buildings and still there was nothing. Yet the undeniable sensation of a lurking eye remained. Then, just as a second more carefully placed step was made, an inky shadow emerged high above his shoulder. A nervously placed hand over his brow shaded his sight and revealed a crow hunkering down on its wire like a crazed sentinel. The instant their eyes met the bird let out a shrill and foreboding curse. It was a grim threat that sent Henry fleeing just as an attack was launched against his head. Henry narrowly escaped, but each attempt to cross the street redoubled the crow’s hysterics. It dove ever more aggressively, delivering a frenzied caw which splintered off into doorways and corridors as the bird torpedoed through the urban ravine. Clumsily swinging his baguette in the air, Henry put up a pitiable defense. They were the final desperate throes of a defeated man.

Unable to make it home, Henry slunk back across the street to find shelter in the shadow of a vacant building. Beneath the cold vigilant eye of the crow he sank down upon sharp pebbles of concrete which prickled through his wool pants, he let the bread and cheese hit the ground amidst his feet, and then, relinquishing all hope, his face fell heavily into the pallid net of his open hands…

.

When Henry turned and gazed across the room, evening had curtained the walls in a feeble light. There might still be time, he thought. Unsure how long he had been standing by the door he glanced outside to gather the lateness of the hour. With the recognition that the day was nearing its end came his first untroubled moments. The stores would be closing, he thought. It was much too late for pastry now, and there would be no time for cheese. Like so many other nights Henry would search his cupboards for any items that might make a meal.

He was glad he never left, too many things could have gone wrong. Perhaps tomorrow he would get up early and devise a more elegant plan, he thought. Maybe instead of a tartlet citron he would attempt an éclair. Oh, he would avoid all contact with the homeless for sure. And though he knew it could never slack his desire for Vacherin, he regarded Roquefort a more prudent bet. Maybe there was no ill-natured clerk working the cheese shop after all. If he should be so lucky, a stop at the wine shop could surely be devised. Ah! Henry sighed, recalling those simple evenings among the mists of the Aveyron. Who knows? There were probably other possibilities he hadn’t even considered… he would have to give it some thought in the morning.

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