500 Words—Jean and the Cafe
Jean turned the corner and stepped down gingerly from the curb, letting his stronger knee bear the weight before allowing his age-worn one to manage the cobblestones. He winced in anticipation as he took the next step, but today seemed a good day, and he crossed the street to the café without any more strain than warranted a few winded groans.
It was early, and the shops were just opening. A few grazers cased the fruit stand, one or two aimed for the bread shop and Jean set his course for one of the empty tables on the sidewalk. He set his jacket down in an empty chair and eased into the one beside it, and he exhaled with the sound of a man with weary bones.
When the server delivered his croissant and coffee, he watched how adept she was at holding the silver tray with one hand, and how she kept it perfectly level without a sign of trembling. “I’d have that thing listing south like a steam ship,” he thought.
“Thank you, dear,” he said, and with a shaky hand, he dipped a knife in the jam and spread it on the bread. He dropped a rock of sugar into his cup, dribbled in some cream and stirred. The rattling the spoon made against the ceramic launched him backward to when his hand was as steady as the hand of any fresh-faced kid, when he was full of the future.
There was a time when Jean could stir cream into anything with the smoothness of light, and the custard he produced was the best of all the cafés on the block. He turned raw ingredients into delectable treats that people stood in line just to sample, and each bite was an indulgence.
Every single layer of his opera cake touched the tongue with pleasure. Each bite of his profiteroles melted as quickly as the cream inside them. And a taste of his apple tart was like home on a cold evening in February.
Jean ran a tight pastry kitchen, and he was proud of his craft. “You’re not making dessert here,” he’d say to his apprentices. “You’re forming bite-sized pieces of art, and if you form them well, you’ll have the entire village lining up at your door.” “People know the difference between a strawberry tart made with no feeling and one made with the art and soul of a craftsman,” he would say. And if a boy who didn’t mind his advice set emotionless tarts into the pastry case, Jean would ship him off to a competitor. “Go make your slop under someone else’s shop sign, then.”
Jean took a bite of the croissant and watched as just enough flaky crumbs fell to the plate. There was nothing worse than a croissant that collapsed like a paper crane, and this one was done well. He leaned back and slurped from his cup, and he let out a satisfied sigh. Art is a good croissant, he thought.