Every night since Mark began working at Le Boucanier, she had appeared, usually around three am, after the other Montparnasse bars had closed; and always with a smile for Mark when he would swing open the reinforced metal door with the Judas-eye and greet her.
She was in her 50’s, her blonde haired unevenly dyed; a little overweight and her face puffy from drinking. Everyone at Le Boucanier knew the Polish woman with the wooden right arm. She told everyone she was a countess from an aristocratic Krakow family crushed first by the Nazis and then by the Communists — but after several of her checks bounced, the manager started calling her Countless behind her back. The nickname caught on, but to Mark, she remained Countess. Her prosthesis told of some terrible event in her past.
One morning, at closing time, Jack told Mark to clean up the bar. The Indians who normally did the job had been picked up by the police for not having working papers, and Jack was short-handed.
Mark started wiping down the bar, emptying ashtrays and removing empty glasses in the dimly lighted room. Then he lurched back. Resting on the end of the bar was the wooden arm still gripping a glass of vodka. Countless must have gotten so tipsy, she had unstrapped her wooden arm and wandered off in the night,
Mark didn’t know what to do with the prosthesis. He waited until Jack came upstairs to turn off the lights, then he showed him the arm.
“Put it in the freezer,” Jack said “When she shows up tonight, you can just take out her arm and say, ‘Here’s you drink, Countless.’”
Mark took the arm and glass and startled sliding them into the freezer when Jack stepped up behind him and took them. “Here, do it right.” He thrust the arm backward into the freezer, so that the hand jutted from the icy interior holding out the vodka glass.
After finding a cab for Jack, Mark started walking home to his apartment on rue Rambuteau, across the Seine in the 3rd arrondissement, forgetting about the two Indians who came every morning to Le Boucanier to restock the freezer with beer.
When Mark returned to work that night, Jack was waiting in the bar to say he had been woken by the police. Something had happened at the Boucanier. When he got to the Boucanier, neighbors were milling around the entrance. The police said people heard shrieking coming from inside the club. Three or four witnesses said they saw the front door burst open and two short, brown skinned men emerge from the club and race up rue Jules Chaplain. No one could understand what they were saying except for one word in French, “le bras,” the arm.
Jack said he followed the police into the club and looked around. Nothing appeared broken or missing. Jack didn’t say a word to the police about what Mark had left inside the freezer.
All evening Mark kept waiting for Shastri or Raj to turn up so he could apologize for the fright they must have had opening the refrigerator and seeing an arm holding out a drink, but neither man returned to the club.
About three-thirty in the morning, with the bar filled with tobacco smoke and loud voices talking over each other, Countless came weaving in, sat down at the bar, and ordered her customary drink – with her right sleeve dangling empty at her side.
A thick silence rippled through the customers.
Going behind the bar, Mark opened the freezer and removed the arm and the glass then set them down in front of her.“Your drink, Countess.”
Shifting the prosthesis around and feeling how cold it was, she rubbed it with her other hand. After a moment, she strapped on the arm, lifted the drink with her other hand and sipped the vodka.
“It taste okay, Countess?” Mark asked.
Turning, she lifted her glass in a mock toast. “Impeccable, Cherie, impeccable.”
Stewart Lindh’s poetry & prose has appeared in Shenandoah, Antioch Review, and Poetry.