When we quarreled I would go to sit at the wooden benches outside the Eglise Saint-Maur. From our window onto the courtyard we saw the stone cross above the rooftops and each Sunday we awoke to the bells signaling the mass. Belleville was and is still a poor quartier and I was never alone at the benches outside the church, the clochards, what they called the homeless drunkards, having gotten there before me. The smog blackened church was the most peaceful, wonderful structure to look up at if you had just been quarreling and feeling nasty, and I took my place there among the drunkards and sat quietly as the evening light turned to night coming in.

The clochards may have felt as I did about the church and the changing sky, though more likely it was drunkenness that made them appear introspective and interested. Many of them looked as if they had been beaten and their red faces crushed or stepped upon. One was without shoes and had large, swollen feet and twisted toes and was deep into conversation with himself. They were all dressed heavily for sleeping outside, their nightly take of beer or wine in the plastic sacks they guarded between their legs, while I was never so dressed because I knew that later I would return home and we would apologize and get into bed together and be warm and happy under the covers, loving each other with the intense and special love that is available only after a quarrel.

Sitting with the clochards calmed me, but then one who was a regular, a bearded fellow like the Russian peasants I had read about in Turgenev, staggered up from his bench, turned and vomited, splattering the bench and the cobblestones, and continued heaving it out as I went quickly away.

For the rummies of the quarter you had to be careful as any act of friendliness or generosity would bind them to you for life. I knew this and took seriously my commitment to ignore them and avoid the lifetime connection. There was, however, a big older woman, a poivrotte, who had staked out the stone steps of the building on our corner. She was very upward thinking for a rummy and especially friendly, especially when she was soused, and had somehow ignored her situation enough to consider herself something of a neighborhood watch-woman and advisor.

Once, when she was in a stupor, and I was new to the neighborhood, she stopped me and told me, with the sincerity of one who has taken on the obligation of preserving the community, the story of how she lost her daughter. Her French was difficult to understand on account of her drunkenness and missing teeth. Her daughter had been somehow misplaced and there had been an accident. It was unclear what had happened and the chronology seemed wrong. She began to cry as she told it and I began to worry that those passing on the street might suspect me of having done something malicious to the woman. She finally let me go with the advice to guard with great care the ones I loved. I thanked her for the advice and vigilance for the quarter and assured her, certainly, that I would do my very best, but just that she should stop crying.

Helene thought the woman nice and was for a time willing to overlook her being a poivrotte. Helene thought her a clean and reasonable drunk and this was at least a positive towards communication with her. To this I replied she had not seen the old woman as I had seen her, squatting with her skirts up and urinating between the parked cars. Or the brown liter bottles of the beer she used and scattered around her position on the steps for the men of the Proprete de Paris to dispose of. Helene sometimes purchased cakes for her and this resulted in a stream of daily advice and encouragement. Finally, Helene began to use the other side of the street, even though it was not the practical way to reach our building.

On this day I was returning from the American Library and discovered the woman among the parked cars beside the church. Seeing her there I assumed she was in the course of conducting her business and I tried to hurry past without seeing or disturbing her. She was leaning across the hood of a car and she stopped me and begged that I listen.

"Monsieur," she said. "Excuse me M’sieur, but can I say to you something?"

I did not wish to stop but I was feeling unusually polite then. I was returning with books that I was very excited about and that I felt could change everything. She did not yet seem soused in the afternoon. Usually you smelled the sour, dead odor from a distance.

"A boy today was hit in the street just here by a vehicle, and the vehicle did not stop but continued."

I saw that she was about to cry and I told her that I was most sorry.

"No, M’sieur, they believe that he has died."

She pointed to a police van and two gendarmes at the intersection of rue d’Orillon and rue Saint-Maur, stopping cars and asking for identification.

"They look now for the assassin. Regard."

"Did you not see something from the steps, Madame," I asked.

"I was occupied when it happened, M’sieur." She rubbed her eye with a big dirty hand. "It is a great tragedy."

"The neighborhood becomes so bad, M’sieur," and I could see the tears beginning to well up. "It has become so bad. I have been robbed five times these last months. For five francs, for ten francs, for twenty francs even."

"It is a terrible thing, very bad," I told her, imaging how soused twenty francs would have made her, her sitting bleary-eyed on the steps and carrying herself big-gutted behind the cars.

"No, M’sieur, you must comprehend. It has become dangerous. You must watch for your safety," she tells me expertly. "You must watch for the safety of those that you love." She is an authority.

"I shall watch for even those I do not love. I shall make a good watch of everyone."

"M’sieur," she looks at me horrified and hurt, the neighborhood falling down about her, "M’sieur, you joke?"

"Never," I told her, "Never about those I love."

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