A gray blanket cloaks the trees of Montparnasse on a late autumn morning. Smoke from the coal fires that heat the homes and shops along the narrow streets swirls upward to join the fog that congeals intermittently into drizzle. This part of Paris hides the signs of the Great Depression better than the blighted industrial districts, but the tattered storefronts, the shabby dress of men with nowhere to go, and the age of the few cars that ply the streets betray a community struggling to keep its soul together.

An old, oddly configured vehicle lumbers slowly along the cobbles. The dispirited pedestrians pay it no mind. Nor do they heed the two women and one man who walk behind it. The women appear to be locals; the shawls around their shoulders and the scarves on their heads could have been taken from the woman selling apples on one of the corners they pass or from the grandmother dividing a thin baguette among her four little ones. (Or could she be their mother? Hard times play evil tricks on youth and beauty.)

The man must be a foreigner. He dresses like an Englishman, one whom the Depression seems to have spared. His heavy wool coat and felt hat shield him from the damp; the coat’s collar and the hat’s brim hide his face from those around him. He might be an American; he walks more assertively than the average Englishman. He probably walked still more assertively when he was younger, although how many years have passed since that sprightly era is impossible to say.

The two women speak quietly to each other. Neither addresses the man, nor he them. The vehicle—whether it is a car or a truck is as much a puzzle as most else about this small procession—slows almost to a stop, then turns onto the leaf-strewn lane of the cemetery that these days forms a principal raison d’être of the neighborhood. It moves tentatively along the track, picking its way among the gravestones and mausoleums, beneath the connecting branches of trees left over from when the farm on this site began accepting plantings that didn’t sprout, not in this existence. The driver finally locates what he has been looking for, and he stops beside a fresh pile of dirt that is gradually turning dark as the drizzle soaks in. Two men shrouded in long coats suddenly but silently appear, as if from the earth itself. They stand at the rear of the vehicle as the driver lowers the gate. They grasp handles on the sides of the bare wooden box the vehicle contains, and with a nonchalance just shy of disrespect they hoist it out and set it on the ground between the pile of dirt and the hole from which the dirt has come.

They step aside, wordlessly letting the three mourners know that this is their last chance to commune with the deceased. One of the women produces, from a cloth bag, a small cluster of chrysanthemums and places it on the coffin. The man takes a rose from inside his coat and, with quiet tenderness, lays it beside the other flowers.

The three step back and gaze down at the wooden box. The drizzle turns to rain. The gravediggers slip short loops of rope inside the handles and lower the coffin into the grave. They pull up the ropes and begin shoveling the dirt back into its hole.

The hearse drives away, at a faster pace than before. The women walk off together. The man lingers. He looks at the grave, then at the city in the distance, then back at the grave. Finally he too departs.



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