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Fiction by Mildred Pond

The Stowaway - page 22

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We climbed down some steps and found ourselves in a cave-like, windowless, but mercifully cool room. The lone French owner sat reading a newspaper behind the counter under a single, shaded light bulb. “B’jour, Jacques,” he said casually, as if our Foreign Legionnaire had dropped by only recently, instead of eighteen months ago on route to his first tour in Vietnam. “B’jour, Fabrice,” said Jacques. Fabrice, the bar’s owner, had a limp from a World War II injury in Algiers, Jacques told us. He had originally settled in Djibouti, hoping to make his fortune with a French coffee exporter, but when the exporter had sold the business, Fabrice had lost his job, and instead of returning to France, had opened the café. Fabrice brought to our table coffee, bottled water, plus a bottle of chilled white wine, tasting it first, approvingly, before limping back to his newspaper. What happened next started quietly. The light was so dim that I didn’t see them slip through the door and down the stairs – at first two, then three more – swiftly and silently, hopping like agile monkeys along the dirt floor. The first one to reach our table, crouched close to the floor, began to tug at Janet’s pocketbook. She yanked it away, let out a scream, and the poor fellow, with practiced agility, because he had no legs -- both of them had been cut off at the knee – hopped over to me.“J’ai faim! ” He mumbled, and held out his hand. Aghast, Janet reached into her purse, realized she didn’t have the proper currency and pulled out several American dollar bills of different denominations, which she handed out to the – by then, five beggars. They came closer, crouched low, their shoulders leaning against her thighs, begging for more. “Janet, be careful,” Solange whispered, as Janet rose to give two more American bills to another pathetic beggar crouched by the bar. They were lepers. Finally adjusted to the darkness, I saw how diseased they were, with chins or noses wasted away, an arm cut off at the elbow, stumps of legs on which they hopped with impressive quickness. Janet agitatedly found a few more bills and passed them out.