The Playgirl of the Western World
by A.E. Weisgerber
Chekhov left stories, reminding Popeline Magrath that kindness was the raison d’être. Things were not the prize, but Popeline never read anything Chekhov wrote, never got his moralizing finger-wag, never took her eyes off that distant glimmer of a car on a coastal highway, a car coming around a bright sunny bend in a movie, the fabled Citroen DS-19.
“What a car, Popeline! C’est magnifique!” Her mother smoothed her daughter’s hair.
Two summers later, mother died in a one-car wreck. Popeline, orphaned and blossoming, inherited Mrs. Magrath’s desires and developed, from age twelve, an affinity for all things French. All roads wound to the DS-19. Her father quickly remarried, and Popeline, too, married soon.
Her husband, Mr. Dan Bellanger, called her Poppy. He said to her, I can see you are a mascara and Beaujolais aficionado, lass, yet, if you’ll agree to be my loving and considerate wife and take the name Bellanger, I’ll care for you.
Popeline realized, two summers later at Mr. Dan’s ex-wife’s wedding, the care was wanting. It was a hot afternoon, and Mr. Dan was wilting. Poppy, his bored third wife, was not being cool at all.
Mr. Dan lifted a glass of ice water to his mouth, contemplating her latest tiresome remark. “Don’t worry about what I put in the envelope,” he said as the glass kissed his lower lip. He stared over Poppy’s head to the passing waitress, continued, “There is always money enough to wish others happiness, so stop it.”
Mr. Dan wet his lips with the ice; he did not drink. He set the glass down and, after a moment’s study, moved the glass –just a nudge– so that its shadow was aligned most pleasingly with the shadow of his white wine glass and his red wine glass.
Three shadows: a long ago hike, when he and his mother and his father came through a clearing in the woods. They had hiked along the cheerful Black Brook, crossed little wooden boards now and again on their way up the mountain – navigating winter debris up up up the steep gorge to a picnic spot where the bald rocks cast about, sunning.
His mother’s shadow was small, like Poppy’s. Why is it, Mr. Dan wondered in his quiet survey of the reception, that sixty-five percent of the guests at this wedding are wearing black?
Poppy was fiddling with her bag, inventorying her makeup, and her gamine allure stirred him. She was making a wish on an eyelash, she said, “and it’s best for you that it come true and quickly.”
That very week, Mr. Dan came into some money. While arranging a transfer, he mentioned to his Fidelity man that he had worked for Howe Dewey. Fidelity said, “How did we not know this? We do manage their pension. Are you in, Mr. Dan?”
“I don’t know. They send me quarterly newsletters, yet.”
With that, a keypad slid across the table. Mr. Dan typed in his identification, and unlocked a cache containing $488,000. It dawned quietly, but for twenty years some throwaway pension, filled with South Africa Restricted Funds, outperformed the Nikkei, Foote, and Dow.
On the telephone, Poppy said, “I thought you packed your kit and ran screaming away from that wreck of a career.”
“I supposed I did.”
“Mon dieu. That much?”
Poppy encouraged him, since it was found money, to take the lump sum. Mr. Dan said, “Perhaps, my pet, we can buy you that silly car.”
She would have to go with him to sign spousal papers if he were to take the lump sum, so none might cast aspersions on Fidelity, should the money sour.
That night, Popeline dreamt in black and white: Jean Seberg at the hotel scene in Breathless, Antoine’s burning shrine and ruined apartment in The 400 Blows; then, driving her awake, to the sounding alarm, that Citroen in Le Triporteur. She was sweeping down the highways toward Nice. Her big black sunglasses. Her silk kerchief. Dan blowing kisses Adieu, Adieu, mon petit choux!
The next day, the Fidelity man said, “Mrs. Dan, would you please sign here.”
She signed: P-o-p-e-l-i-n-
Mr. Dan’s brow knit as he watched his young wife’s hand. “Poppy? No. Sign your legal name.”
And Poppy shook her head and there was a skip in her signature. She finished “..e.” She pushed the paper away, her lashes veiling those bright green eyes of hers.
Fidelity cocked his head.
Mother had barely glimpsed the car in a, a terrible film, a film about a boy who ruins a cake. It was he who drove the Citroen.
“Pegeen,” said Mr. Dan. “Her name is Pegeen.”
A.E. Weisgerber is from Orange, NJ. Recent work in 3:AM, Queen Mob’s Tea House, SmokeLong, DIAGRAM, Gravel Mag, and The Alaska Star. She is a 2018 Chesapeake Writer, 2017 Frost Place Scholar, 2014 Reynolds Fellow, and Assistant Series Editor for the Wigleaf Top 50. She is writing her first novel. Follow @aeweisgerber or visit anneweisgerber.com