The Smiling Salesman of Strasbourg

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Because the waiter at the café
across the courtyard of the cathedral
refused to take my order when I called him,
when in fact he embarrassed me in front of my wife,
newborn child, and roughly half of France,
by yelling over his shoulder, “No!”,
because I left my table feeling ashamed
for not being quite American enough
to grab him by his throat and throttle him,
as I imagine Hemingway would have, or Mailer,
but instead only meekly gathered my French coins,
the worth of each a mystery to me,
and escorted my family into the cathedral,
almost as it were a sanctuary,
an atheist ashamed of himself before God
for not being Bukowski, or even James Baldwin,
because of this and so many other defeats
I was especially thankful when the salesman
selling the rosaries at a table near the altar
smiled at me like I was an old friend.
Maybe Jesus would have hated commerce
happening in the belly of his father’s house,
but I was happy to hand over to the smiling man
some of the shiny coins I planned to use in the café,
which the man helped me count out, taking his time,
in broken English, to prove I was not being cheated.
I would have paid twice what I paid for the beads
just for my wife seeing me treated like a man,
but he only charged me the going rate,
and bagged them, and smiled some more
before handing them over with my change.
Then my family drove back to Germany
before flying home to Seattle, where I mailed
the rosary to my mother, which she kept
a few years before, fearing she’d die
and I’d never get it back, she returned it.
Or perhaps she knew I loved it, for often
I would ask about the rosary, worry over it.
Now it sits on my desk as I write my poems.
From time to time I reach over and grab its cross,
or rub one of the beads in my thumb and forefinger,
doing this to gain renewed spiritual sustenance,
and see not crucified Christ, the Madonna,
nor even that sandstone cathedral
which Goethe called the “tree of God”
rising into the sky with its majestic statuary,
but instead picture the face of my humble salesman
whose smiling benediction has blessed me
for all these many miles, all these many meals.

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Photo used under CC.

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About Author

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James Valvis has placed poems or stories in Ploughshares, River Styx, Arts & Letters, Southern Indiana Review, Nimrod, Louisville Review, The Sun, and many others. His poetry was featured in Verse Daily and Best American Poetry 2017. His fiction was chosen for Sundress Best of the Net, won 2nd Place in Folio’s Editor’s Prize, and was a finalist for Best Small Fictions 2017. His work has also been a finalist for the Asimov’s Readers’ Award. A former US Army soldier, he lives near Seattle.

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