I sat in a Nashville coffee shop, the one across from the library, waiting for a meeting with someone who had apparently found better things to do. I had secured a quiet table near the back, away from the ceiling speakers which were playing “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” as people my children’s age sipped sweet mocha drinks and laughed in sardonic tones, void of joy, evoking a dark, flatly cynical melody which curled through the shop like steam off a dragon’s tongue.
Waiting, I toyed with my Blackberry™, hoping for a positive sign from my wayward appointment.
I heard a low voice asking, “May I join you?” in a French accent. I could hardly refuse; my table was large enough for several people and the one available seat was being held for my meeting. I said, “Well, I have someone coming, but, sure, have a seat until he arrives. By the way, I’m Phil”.
“Bon Soir, Phil. I am Edmund.”
Interested, I said, “Nashville has many citizens of foreign blood, but I can’t say I have ever encountered a Frenchman here before. Are you from Quebec?”
“Non, mon ami, I am from Marseilles, France.”
“Well, mon frère, I’ve done a lot of traveling, but as far as France goes, I’ve only been to Calais, and that was just a ferry stop on the way to Belgium. I would love to see Paris someday.”
“Ah, yes, Paris. Well, it has changed considerably since I was last there. I hear I wouldn’t recognize it.”
Realizing my meeting was never going to happen, I asked if I could buy Edmund a coffee.
“Oh, no, thanks, it’s on me”, he said, summoning the barista. “Please, two caffe au laits”.
“Yes, Mr Dantès”.
Dantès? “You must be named for the protagonist in The Count of Monte Cristo”, I said.
“Oh, no, my friend, I am The Count of Monte Cristo; I’m Edmund Dantès”.
What amazing luck to be drinking coffee with one of my favorite literary characters!
I told him that I had become aware of his story as a young boy, reading a Classics Illustrated comic book of Alexander Dumas’ wonderful book. I had never forgotten the pictures of Edmund tunneling through the prison rock, hoping to escape, only to meet another would-be escapee, the Abbé Faria, an old priest. The comic tickled my fancy, swashbuckling and escapist, and centered on revenge.
I don’t know how old I was when I finally read the actual novel, but I have read it several times over the years.
Now, here I sat with the richest man of his time, the Bill Gates of the 19th Century. I wondered if he had any interest in making a record; he could solve all my financial problems, and if he had any semblance of talent, the technology of 21st Century Nashville could make him a star, as it had plenty of mediocre singers.
“You know, Ed”, I said, “Your story is remarkable. I mean, you were a very naïve sailor who trusted some very evil people. Ironically, it was your naiveté which got you into prison, Prison, hardship, failure, and misfortune led you to becoming educated, and to your treasure, your fortune, and fame.”
“True. No one learns much from comfort, my friend. But isn’t it funny? I went from being a man who believed in the goodness of humanity to a man who very nearly ruined myself by becoming obsessed with power and vengeance, the worst traits of humanity.
I was given a choice between repaying evil with evil or taking the higher road of forgiveness. I chose to repay evil in kind. Despite my wealth and fame, I carry a burden of remorse."
“Okay, Ed”, I conceded, “Humanity is fallen, that’s a given. None of us are perfect. But it seems to me that you got lucky. You didn’t have your moment of repentance until you’d avenged yourself against every one of those bastards who’d put you into prison. I mean, you got richer than sin, killed all the bad guys off, and then had your ‘come to Jesus’ moment. So, even though you’re one of my heroes of literature, it’s kind of hard to totally sympathize with how your story ended.”
“Sir, would you care to see the scars on my back? Alas, what I wouldn’t give to have not gone to jail and been tortured for 14 years. What I wouldn’t give to have just kept the girl in the beginning of my story, lived a simple, modest sailor’s life, and died an old man with loving grandchildren and children gathered around. Instead, I had to lose my woman, my Mercédès, to my supposed best friend, who hated me all along. You know, Philippe, betrayal leaves a deep gash in one’s soul. Have you been betrayed?”
Hmm. I didn’t know about that. I guess everyone’s been betrayed, haven’t they? Haven’t we all experienced the fallout of The Fall? Sure, I’ve been stiffed, I’ve been sued, and I’ve been wrongly accused. (I’ve been rightly accused, too, by the way.) But I haven’t suffered, really suffered, and I don’t know many who have. I spent a night in jail for hitchhiking one time, and the sheriff purposely left the window outside the cell open in the middle of January, just to be mean, but I’ve never suffered in the way Edmund Dantès had.
Edmund ordered up two more decaf lattes, and some gluten free cookies as well.
Now was as good a time as any.
“So, Ed. How much of the treasure is left? You were a sailor who found a lot of dough; I’m just wondering if you were good with money or if you were more like a trailer park guy winning the lottery?”
Turns out, Edmund Dantès had learned a thing or two in prison. The Abbé had taught him several languages, mathematics, economics, and ethics, long before he revealed the secret treasure of Monte Cristo. Edmund used this education to economically ruin his adversaries; there was suicide and murder involved. I assume he got better grades in Calculus than in Ethics.
It occurred to me that perhaps he was still living because he’d paid for the services of a magician, a witch, an alchemist, or wizard to keep him alive for a few hundred years. Of course, I asked.
“No, my friend. I live across the street. But it gets stuffy in there, and it’s so bloody quiet with all the shushing and four-eyed glaring, that I often come here and see if anyone will remember me. Alas, it’s quite rare to find anyone who reads these days, never mind someone who’s read my story.”
“Yeah, well, there’s the movie, right?” I asked.
Edmund’s eyebrows raised, owl-ish, and he just whispered, “Please” in an exasperated tone.
“ Sorry, man.”
With that, he made his way back to the library, while I sat in disbelief.
Why has that story held me for so many years?
I like this man, who fights against impossible odds and wins. Who doesn’t like the idea of finding and having more money than God? Likewise, I don’t mind that justice finds his old enemies and has its way with them, as justice isn’t altogether a bad thing.
My own story is one of redemption, plain and simple. It’s unfolding as I go, and I’m not writing it, but I am turning the pages, and I do have something to say about what the protagonist does.
Does he find his treasure? Indeed, he’s found it in the love he gives and the love he receives.
What about revenge? Does he get revenge? Well, I’ve thought about my “enemies” and the vengeance that might be fun to have on those who’ve burned me or mine, and to be honest, I like me better when I’m letting go of old foes. The scars have a better chance of healing and disappearing if I don’t speak of them. If I can come to a place of imaging they never existed, perhaps they’ll completely heal.
Does he win in the end? Indeed, I can assure you, he does. I’m not leaving without a fight.
In the meantime, I’ll have another latte.