That Stubborn Plank
The skies above the city had wept the streets into a swamp.
People smoked twice as much to clean the smell of the rot and damp from their nostrils, to have something that burned and was dry. They carried their cigarettes under their hats. Wagon wheels rusted, horses hooves were cleaned and dried with extra care, still many came up lame with cramps and fungus, hair and flesh soft as if stewed. For those forced to walk, which was much of the city, there were walkways. Unemployed men took a city wage to maintain and install them and blacksmiths made fortunes in nails. Artists joked that nobody bought their work anymore because who could afford to hang paintings?
Martin had been unemployed, played at laborer, at boxer and thief.
Now he built and kept up cheap and tiny bridges.
There was one stubborn plank that refused to sit right, often falling into the water. Martin told people forced to wait that he had no idea why that infernal board would not listen to the nails he put through it.
There. It is fixed. Good day, sir, madam, miss.
She may have been a courtesan, traveling home at those hours. Perhaps she was a rich man’s mistress or a wealthy eccentric’s daughter who insisted on walking because it was what the people were forced to do. He would see her a few blocks away, tottering on the boards under that magnificent hat, and hop down from his dry perch and wade to the stubborn board. He’d look around for witnesses before he gave it a sharp rap with his hammer, knocking it into the water.
She waited while Martin hammered and thought of something to say. He looked at his rough hands and wondered if they would scrape the smooth skin of her thighs, her neck. He wanted to say good morning, but remembered the persistant rot and itch of his skin below his knees, between his toes.
Thank you, sir, she would say as he fixed the plank. He could only tip his hat in answer.
Martin prayed for courage. He prayed for rain.
Credit: Crue de la Seine. Paris, janvier 1910, Roger-Viollet