The Last Frenchman

by Richard Pace


George De Niro is no relation to Robert De Niro the actor. Nor is he Italian. He was born in France, though a number of generations ago his ancestors settled in the city of Marseilles from Sardinia, the island off the Italian peninsula.

"Tell Sheila to be here at seven o'clock," George said. "Also tell her that tonight is my birthday."

George is seventy-five years old today. He keeps himself in great shape. He goes to the gym three times a week and still has a part-time job at a flower shop close to his home.

"I need three wreaths for the Templeton funeral and one for Shapiro," Murray said to George. "The orders are on the desk in the back."

George is a tall good-looking man. He has designed flower arrangements since he was fifteen, when he started as an apprentice at his aunt and uncle's shop in Marseilles. He earned and invested a fair amount of money in his lifetime and lives in a retirement village in Fort Lauderdale.

"Bon jour," George said as he entered the back room.

"Mornin' George," Carlos answered. "I saw the orders on the desk and I already started on the wreaths."

"I wish you wouldn't start without me," George said. "These are my customers and they expect a certain sense of style and originality that they know I can give them."

Carlos muttered a few curse words in Spanish under his breath but kept on working as if George had said nothing. He knew that George lived in another world where acting superior mattered a great deal.

"George, you're all dressed up today. What's the special occasion?" Carlos asked.

"Nothing! Do your work," George said. "And add some more red carnations to the white ones on that wreath."

What was with George today, Carlos thought. The old Latin pecking order kept popping into his head. Having been born in America of Cuban refugees and only in his late-twenties, Carlos paid little attention to how it worked. Latins, whether they are French, Italian or Spanish speaking, see themselves as the creators of civility and valor that comes from the European cultures. They clump the rest of the Europeans and countries that speak northern languages into two groups, Anglo-Saxon and Slav.

As with most cultures, Latins consider themselves above the competition--the non-Latins. After effectively dismissing the rest of the world, Latins discriminate against each another. The French, with their heritage of high style in almost everything they do, are the leaders of the pack. The Italians, with their solid cultural base of music and Roman heritage, come next. On their heels are the Spanish, with their defense of the Catholic religion, and then come all their ex-colonies.

Of course, Carlos knew that in this day and age, especially in America, this old fashioned European way of thinking means little. And yet amongst the older generations these rules are real and clung to rigorously.

"Tell me something," Carlos asked, "do you like me?"

"I'm a man," George said. "I don't like other men."

"I didn't mean it that way," Carlos said.

"Don't talk nonsense. Just work," George said.

"What's wrong, today?" Carlos asked. "You look great, even youthful, but you seem so grumpy. What is it?"

"You Americans think you can solve every problem with talking," George said.

"You know, George that's the first time you ever acknowledged that I'm an American. You usually refer to me as the Latino, Murray as the Jew and my wife, Mary, as that Irish girl," Carlos said.

"You think it's great being called an American. What does it mean to be an American? It means you're anybody, just plain Mr. Smith," George said.

"George, you're an American yourself," Carlos said. "You don't dress like an American or speak like an American, but you are American. As American as I am. Why did you become an American if you feel so separated?"

"I'm an American because I'm here. It's proper. It's the right thing to do," George said, "You know Carlos I'm seventy-five years old today. My wife is dead. Even my son is dead. I'm alone. And I am discovering that loneliness knows all nationalities."

Carlos never saw this kind of behavior in George before. His emotions were erratic. He who was always so strong in his convictions usually showed off a cynical optimism. A work ethic that said if you work hard and mind your own business, everything would be all right in the end.

"How do you say Happy Birthday in French?" Carlos asked.

"Bon Anniversaire!" George said.

"Well that to you George," Carlos said. "I'm sorry I can't pronounce that, but how about you and me, we go to lunch together. We only have two jobs this morning."

"I don't think so," George said, "but thank you. I'm going to go home early today. I need to rest up. I have a date tonight."

"Get outa here," Carlos said. "Who with?"

"A hooker!" George said proudly.

"You old son-of-gun, you," Carlos said, "only a Frenchman would brag about a date with a hooker."

"I know," George said, "but we are going to have Champagne and I'm going to make bouillabaisse. It's the most famous dish in Marseilles. It's a fish stew. And I'll have flowers and music and she is the most beautiful woman I ever met."

George suddenly came down off the excitement of telling Carlos about his evening and again became sad and distant.

"I don't know, Carlos, if any of this is worth it," George continued.

"Wait a minute, George," Carlos said, "you're spinning in circles. I think its wonderful that you planned an evening of romance. Hooker or no hooker."

"Romance! What romance?" George said. "I'm old and of no importance. I'm not even a Frenchman anymore. I have no wife. I have no children. Do you know, to a Frenchman having a wife is a sign of importance. It says love is your domain."

"I've only been married two years now, but sometimes it can be a real pain in the neck," Carlos said.

"No, no, no! That's not what I'm talking about," George said. "All relationships are sometimes a pain in the neck but just plain marriage is a reason for living."

George turned toward Carlos and stared at him for a while then started to gasp for breath. He grabbed at his left arm and began to slowly spin around. Carlos tried to reach out for him but George was such a big and powerful man his jerking motion prevented Carlos from stopping him.

"George! George! What is it? What's wrong?" Carlos asked.

"Help me! Help me!" George kept saying. He grabbed for his heart, shuddered violently and collapsed into unconsciousness.

"Murray! Murray! Call an ambulance!" Carlos shouted into the front of the store. "George just passed out! Call an ambulance!"

Hospitals tend to reflect the communities that they serve. Because Spencer Medical is surrounded by four retirement villages, most the of the patients are elderly and half are emergencies. Sadly, none of them recover from the most common ailment of all, old age.

George has always had a dislike for hospitals. Ten years earlier, he saw both his wife and son perish from cancer in the same year. While they were both sick in the hospital together they joked that they were really conspiring against George. He was going to have to eat all that fattening French food he loved cooking so much by himself.

After George was taken into emergency care, all responsibility fell on Carlos. The hospital staff asked if he would go through George's things. He felt that even thinking about the little intimacy that George shared about his life was an intrusion of privacy. George was such a painfully private person that Carlos knew he would probably open a can of worms when he started to go through George's effects.

"Hello, my name is Carlos Sanchez and I am a friend of George De Niro," Carlos said to the woman who answered the phone.

"Is anything wrong?" a woman's voice on the other end asked.

"I'm afraid so. You see, George had a heart attack and the hospital would like to get permission from a relative to operate," Carlos said.

"Oh! Of course!" My name is Christine De Niro. I'm his granddaughter." The woman said.

"I'm sorry, Ms De Niro," Carlos said. "I will stay with him until the doctors figure out what to do. They told me that after I contacted you they would call you shortly."

"Thank you, sir. As you know from the area code you called I am quite a distance away, but I will be there tomorrow," she said. "Tell me, do you think he will be OK?"

"I don't know," Carlos said. "He's such a strong man. It's hard to judge such strong people. Do you know what I mean?"

"I'm afraid so," she said. "His strength has helped us all and hurt us all."

After speaking to George's granddaughter, Carlos felt drained. His wife Mary had joined him earlier. She was a part-timer at the florist, but never really got to know George. She always felt that George had only one thing on his mind. Not quite the age-old thing of sex, but she found that George was kind of a slave to love.

He once told her about his wife, Cecile, and spoke as if she was a part of him, even though she was dead for so many years. It is as if he lived in a world where people are actually attached to one another. Not so much sharing each other's experiences, but enslaved to each other's emotions.

"Well, they decided to operate," Carlos said to her as he re-entered the waiting room. "His granddaughter gave permission over the phone."

"Do they think he'll pull through?" she asked.

"I don't know," he said. "I just hope he's not losing his will."

"Are you Carlos?" a woman asked him as she entered the waiting room.

"Yes, I am," he said.

"My name is Sheila. You called me on the phone before and left a message for me," she said. "You see, I had a date with George, tonight."

Carlos was confused. When he called the number that he found in George's wallet next to Sheila's name, he thought he was calling a relative. An answering service took the message that George was at the hospital and to contact Carlos as soon as possible.

So this was the prostitute. She was beautiful and genuinely looked like the kind woman you see on magazine covers.

She was tall and very slender. She had on a short black dress with black stockings and had an evening purse and long black gloves in her hand. She obviously had dressed for the evening prior to getting the message that George was at the hospital. Though Carlos never indicated that he knew the story, his look told everything.

Mary was amused knowing how passionate about life George was that he would hire a class-act woman to escort him for the evening. Where Carlos was quite crass about the concept of a prostitute, Mary was more understanding. She even liked the idea that George could take care of his needs, even if they were more spiritual at his age. The spirit was willing.

"What happened?" Sheila asked.

Carlos explained the situation and Sheila started to get upset.

"Do you think he has a chance of surviving this?" she asked.

"It's funny with George. You don't know," Carlos said. "I think that he'll come out of this only if he stands a shot at being vital, and that would mean knowing someone like you cared."

Carlos had no idea why he said that. It implied that he cared for George's silly romantic attitude about being Latin, being French, being a virile man and all the rest of it.

The three of them decided to get a bite to eat in the cafeteria. All eyes fell on Sheila when she entered. The florescent lighting only enhanced her beauty. This is what George lives for, Carlos thought, a woman who wants to be with him.

"How long....?" Mary and Carlos both said at the same time then stopped themselves.

"How long have I known George?" Sheila asked for them. "About four years. As you probably guessed by now, I'm an escort. Not a street walker, mind you, but I make no excuses nonetheless."

"How often do you see each other?" Mary asked.

"At first, George would call me every so often and take me to a movie or go to dinner. One time we went to an affair where George received a medal from the French government for charity work he did for French speaking islands in the Caribbean," Sheila said.

"I know he comes around with raffle books and asks for help for Haiti and some other places, but I didn't know he was that serious about it," Carlos said.

"Apparently, he has this feeling about doing the right thing," Sheila said. "It seems to stem from a view of people joining together to fight off their loneliness. He is a very lonely man. What can I say? He has needs that are exceptional, like having an attractive woman to love and wanting people to understand that he's important. That he counts."

"There's nothing wrong with that," Mary said.

"I don't know. That scares me." Carlos said.

"What is this? Truth or dare or what?" Sheila said.

"I'm sorry," Carlos said, "I didn't mean to personalize what you were saying. It's just that I'm beginning to understand a little more about George and I think I know what he was getting at this morning when we were talking just before he collapsed."

"You mean George actually started to open up?" Mary asked.

"I guess that's what you can call it," Carlos said. "He told me that he didn't want to be just a Mr. Nobody. He felt that without a certain amount of passion, life wasn't worth living. At least, that's what I think he meant."

"Yeah, that sounds like George. I think you're beginning to know the man," Sheila said.

"You know, Sheila, let me say something." Mary said. "You sound like a smart woman. Why the escort thing?"

"Because I get to meet men like George who ask me to marry them all the time." Sheila said. "It's very flattering. You see, according to the rules, to get to date me, I don't have to put out if I don't want to. I'm a true escort. Women like myself often meet husbands by just being available to date them through an agency."

"Do you think George was going to ask you to marry him again?" Mary asked.

"Oh, yeah!" Sheila said. "And tonight I was going to accept. I love George. And in his rather obsessive way, he loves me. After all, he's a man of passion. He's French, for God sake."

One of the doctors that Carlos spoke to earlier when he first got to the hospital approached the table.

"Mr. Sanchez, can I speak to you for a minute?" the doctor asked.

The two men left the cafeteria together. Without saying anything to Carlos, the doctor led him into an elevator.

"Mr. Sanchez, Mr. De Niro wants to speak to you," the doctor said. "After reexamining the prospects for survival, we realized that it would be best not to operate. Mr. De Niro is conscious now and he would like to speak to you."

When Carlos entered George's room, he saw a priest leaning over him giving him the last rites. He remembered when he was a kid in Catholic school he studied the various sacraments, like communion and confession. Ones that he was able to participate in. But Extreme Unction, which is the official church name of the last rites, was too remote until this moment.

He knew he would never be able to erase the sights, smells and sounds of what was happening. He smelled rubbing alcohol in the air and it was always going to remind him of what the last rites meant.

After the priest finished administering the sacrament, Carlos suddenly found himself alone in the room with George.

"Help me, Maman! Help me, Maman!" George started to say.

His eyes were closed and Carlos could see that his friend was in pain. He went over and took George's hand into his own. George opened his eyes.

"Do you like me?" George asked.

"Not like that," Carlos smiled.

George smiled back.

"I was dreaming of my mother and my sister," he said. "They're both dead now. My sister became a bonne soeur, a nun. You know, she was so plain. I think she was afraid that no one would marry her but her Jesus. I loved her. Perhaps it's true. Perhaps we do get to see the ones we love after we die."

"Come on, don't talk like that," Carlos said.

"You know, most Frenchmen are hypocrites when it comes to church. After they discover girls, they hardly ever go to church," George said. "Some of us even claim to be atheists. Every once in a while we go to a wedding or see a grandchild receive their First Holy Communion, but then years go by before we step foot in a church again. Then comes death and the fear of being a rascal haunts us and we ask for a priest."

"Being Latin myself, I understand exactly what you say," said Carlos. "I haven't been to church since Christmas and that was only because Mary dragged me there. And you're right about girls. When I was fifteen I made out for the first time with a girl and nothing seems to compare since. But you know, I haven't told you Mary is going to have a baby and I will have new obligations..."

As Carlos spoke, George passed on. Perhaps he has joined his mother and his sister, who was so plain she became a nun.


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