Of all the iconic places in Paris, Place de la Bastille is perhaps the most…well, disappointing is the first word that comes to mind. Maybe I’m being a little harsh there, but that is how I felt when I went there the very first time ages ago, my head full of the French Revolution and all. I recently came across a post at Europe Up Close about Place de la Bastille in Paris, with mention of Les Misérables–half the movie takes place there–and a lot of pictures of the place. Nice pictures of the place. Perhaps one day I’ll revise my impression of the traffic-clogged circle. I am open to anyone’s attempts to change my mind.
Anyway, that said, we recently finalized the eighth volume of 52 Serial Shorts that starts with a Place de la Bastille story. Since the volume will not be published until a little later this year, I couldn’t resist sharing the story. I love the final twist.
Place de la Bastille, July 14
“Patriotism has never been my cup of tea. I was born in the early nineteen seventies and belonged to a generation that still had to do compulsory military service. Needless to say, I moved heaven and earth to be declared unfit for service. I couldn’t see myself running at dawn with a backpack that weighed more than I did—I have a rather slender build—and pretending to be camouflaged in nauseating green clothes. Thanks but no thanks.
“So the reason I’m went to the Place de la Bastille today was to please my new girlfriend. Bastille Day is a stupid celebration if you ask me. Before it was stormed, the Bastille was no place to celebrate anything.
“All the sudden, surrounded by the crowd, I found myself on top of a tower screaming, ‘Fire!’ I looked at myself and realized that I was the Marquis de Launay, governor of the Bastille. I was about to be massacred by the enraged mob, and they intended to parade my head on a stake through the streets of the capital.”
“Cut! Those lines are not working, guys,” the producer cried out. “Bastille Day is for prime-time TV, not a funeral. John, it’s like your de Launay has already lost his head. Fight for it, for God’s sake! Truth be told, with a sidekick as lifeless as Dennis over there, there’s little chance the crowd wouldn’t actually bump you off. That’s no reason for you, Lee, to do a crazy-eyed Desnot sharpening your knife. For that matter, that pocketknife doesn’t work; Desnot was a cook, for crying out loud. Where is the props guy? I said a cutlass! OK kids, let’s try again. Hey, what’s that woman doing out there with a smoke in her hand?”
“She’s my girlfriend, Fleur. She works for the sponsor,” John said. “Remember, the contract says someone has to be smoking in each episode.”
“Seriously. Pall Malls at the storming of the Bastille?”
“Everything is possible in a series like The Twilight Zone.”
“OK, OK, but that girlfriend of yours gets guillotined as soon as possible.”
“And John, since you’re walking around like someone who has already had his head cut off, you’ll play the role of the good Doctor Guillotine. I love it that he died by the guillotine. The inventor of the death machine—executed by his own blade. Brilliant. But we need to spruce up the setting with some instruments of torture and skeletons. It seems the revolutionaries at the Bastille uncovered the remains of the Man With the Iron Mask. So we need a body. A real one. Smoke lady, while we’re working, go to the morgue and get us someone who’s a little, well, stiff. The coroner is a friend. She’ll find some dude who hasn’t been claimed.”
The smoke lady didn’t have a choice and did what she was told. She took the metro to the morgue on Quai de la Rapée. She knew the head coroner because she had interviewed her once, when she was working on Bring in the Defendant.
As soon as she was out of the metro, the heat weighed her down. The Seine was pallid, the riverbanks were empty, and the streets were dead, like the bodies in the morgue. The morgue observed no holidays. It was open twenty-four/seven. As foreseen, the door gave way limply, almost tenderly.
Suddenly, formaldehyde and air conditioning assaulted her. She was frozen with anxiety. How was she going to get her hands on the dead meat she needed for that tyrannical producer? I’ll have to negotiate. I don’t see any other solution.
She started sneezing, from nerves as much as from the cold. And to top it off, the great priestess of the stiffs was standing right there. The blond Doctor Schlass was always so steely, so classy. Nothing had changed—she was still hot at fifty-five. “Madame…” It came out as a stammer.
Schlass cut her off, “Are you in trouble, my little one? Or looking to go back to the good old times?”
The smoker had more than one trick up her sleeve. She ignored the less-than-subtle allusion to the good old days. Yuk! Mrs. Schlass. Monique. How could she forget her? She was wearing Doctor Schlass’s watch on her wrist.
“I’m here to rent a body for a movie.”
“Murder or natural death?”
“A murder would be better,” the smoker answered. She discretely pulled down her sleeve. Cartier, all gold.
“You’re the one from Bring in the Defendant, aren’t you?”
“Aren’t I what?”
“The reporter, in the dressing room, after my nap… My post-mortem facial surgery.”
The smoker broke down sobbing, “It was my twin sister, Roudoudou. She smoked like a trooper, and she was burned alive in…”
“…a trooper’s arms, wasn’t it?” Monique Schlass cut in. “What a corpse she made. You are so pretty. What time is it, Miss?”
Tatiana de Rosnay
That is when I decided to let them know I was there. I had tailed Fleur from the Bastille to the morgue, in the wake of her cigarette smoke.
“Oh John, it’s you,” she said, wiping away her tears with a forced smile.
Monique Schlass cut in again. It was clear she enjoyed cutting. “Let me show you what I could rent out. Quick, I’ve got four fresh stiffs to take care of. What’s the movie about?”
“It’s a remake of the storming of the Bastille.”
We followed her through a maze of dark corridors. Fleur was sobbing again. She was really going to have to explain this Roudoudou thing to me. We needed to be on the set in half an hour with the body. Doctor Schlass slid a corpse covered with a plastic sheet in our direction.
“This one will work. A Robespierre. It looks like he comes directly from the Errancis Cemetery, where they buried guillotine victims.” She pulled the sheet back with a sharp movement.
Didier Van Cauwelaert
“Hello, my name is Louis Grimaud, fifty-nine years old, former septic-tank inspector, now deceased. Apparently you can’t hear me, because there are no mediums among us, but I really want to thank you. I always dreamed of being in the movies. Or on television. I was pushed into an early retirement. What an ironic twist of fate that was—the tank skimmer being skimmed off the sanitation staff. After that I went from audition to audition, trying for a job as an extra. And now my dream has come true, post-mortem. I give thanks to the pulmonary embolism that killed me just in time to be in your scene. I still don’t know if God exists, but there are no coincidences. From what I can read in your thoughts, it’s an episode of The Twilight Zone, my favorite cult show. The story of a space-time accident during the storming of the Bastille—a favorite subject of mine. And I wear the costume well. Every year, for the office Mardi Gras party, I dressed up as Robespierre. I’ll be the star.”
“It’s too small. Do you have another one?”
More Short Stories
Don’t miss the first two volumes of the 52 Serial Shorts collection, now available.