La Vérité: A Memoir

By Velvet Belle Tree

I looked over the list of life events.  The object of the game was to match the event with a person from our tour group — to see how well we had gotten to know our fellow travelers in the two weeks we’d been together.  Some events seemed ordinary, some dull, some vague. But one hit me smack between the eyes: “I think I was responsible for the murder of two men.”  Oddly, I was fairly sure who it was:  a woman in her late 70s or early 80s from the New York City area — the area I had grown up in.

We were in a private dining room in Nice, having our farewell dinner.  It was the end of one of the best two week periods of my life.  We’d flown into Paris to join a motorcoach tour of France under the auspices of the Smithsonian.  We had three people sheparding us.  Jane, a young Englishwoman who handled all the travel arrangements and was our “fearless leader”;  Tom, a young American professor of history who provided the intellectual aspect of the tour; and Henri, our French bus driver.

Unlike the Road Scholar/Elderhostel trips I’ve taken (which were excellent in their own right) this group was enlivened by the diversity of the ages of the participants.  I was particularly glad to have the woman who was traveling with her pre-adolescent grandsons — cousins who were born about a week apart.  Though lively, they were particularly well behaved for boys their age and it was a joy to see their enthusiasm.  Alas, the teenage girl in the group didn’t fare so well.  She was a vegetarian and this seemed to baffle the French.  They seemed to never have heard of such a thing:  fish is OK n’est pas?  No, it wasn’t, and the poor girl didn’t get much to eat.

There is, of course, always at least one person in these groups who, to put it nicely, is just not with it.  There was the widowed Chinese woman from New York who was unable to comply with the one bag limit.  She’d been shopping and had shopping bags strewn all over her bus seat.  When asked what she did, she stuck her nose in the air and proclaimed: “My husband left me enough money so I don’t have to work.”  Her “event” in the game was: “I am a butterfly” — no one had any trouble figuring out who it was.  The other person was more oblivious than obnoxious.  Ten days into the trip she asked the bus driver a question.  We all stared at her, mouths agape.  By then it was quite obvious that Henri did not speak a word of English.

To digress, on a previous trip to Alaska, we had been told that for the portion of the trip on the scenic railroad we should bring an overnight bag for our stay in Denali park since there was no room for our bags on the train and our luggage was going by truck and we’d reclaim it at our next stop.  We were told this and received instructions in writing.  But, of course, one woman didn’t get the message and had no overnight bag with her.  Her excuse — she was an artist!

There were many highlights to  the tour:  Mount St. Michel, Lascaux, Rocamandor, Carcasonne.  We didn’t actually see Lascaux, no tourists can anymore.  What we saw was its reproduction, Lascaux II.  But it was an exact reproduction and you felt real awe at the artwork (and it truly is artistic) of our ancestors around 17,000 years ago.  It was awesome in the original meaning, not the current debased meaning, of the word.

We arrived at Rocamandor at the end of a long day of traveling over windy mountain roads.  We changed bus seats every day so that everyone could have a chance at the front seats.  That day, I had the misfortune to sit near the back.  The sun was strong and low in the sky.  Knowing we were all tired and needing cheering up, Jane proposed a game.  We were to give French phrases that had become part of the English language.  Several were offered such as “bon voyage.”  Someone said “mal de mer” and from the back of the bus I shouted:  “I have mal de bus.”  At least I got a good laugh out of that.  When we finally arrived, the driver parked the bus with the back just about hanging over the cliff.  We rewarded his excellent parking with an ovation.  While there, we were told by the guide that at some point in history they had been digging and came across a skeleton (or part of one).  “Oh, this must be St. Amandor!” the workmen exclaimed.

In the medieval wall city of Carcasonne, our guide was as enchanting as the city.  She had been in the French Resistance and now, fifty-two years after the end of WWII, she sashayed around, showing us how she had distracted the Nazis while the Frenchmen did their undercover work.  She told us about the many movies that had been shot with the walled town as background.  In one, a battle scene had to be re-shot because a flash of light was seen bouncing off of one of the actor’s watch.

The trip ended in Nice and we soaked up the ambience of the French Riviera in addition to seeing the lovely chapel designed by Matisse to thank the nuns who had nursed him through an illness.

Now we had finished our farewell dinner and had filled in our answers to the game.  As we went down the list, Jane gave the correct answer and the person who wrote it stood and told us a little about their event. 

Then she read out: “I think I was responsible for the murder of two men.”  The room was silent as Rose stood up to tell us her story.  I don’t know whether we thought she was fantasizing, had long harbored an undeserved guilt, or was it really true?

 “When I was a young unmarried woman,” she began, “ I worked in New Jersey as a bookkeeper.  The company’s business was leasing out juke-boxes and taking a cut from the proceeds.” I began to think she wasn’t making things up.  That was a business known to be controlled by the mob.  “The man I worked for was Meyer Lansky.”  Bingo — the story became more probable. 

“Every week, men would come in and bring in the week’s take.  As part of my bookkeeping job, I kept track of how much each man brought in each week.  Then one day, I unknowingly did a terrible thing.  I told my boss that two of the men had recently been bringing in less money than previously.  I never saw them again.”  She paused then.  It sunk in that the men had been skimming and you didn’t mess with a man like Lansky. 

Then she continued.  “I didn’t know what to do.  I was smart enough to know that you couldn’t just quit a job with these people.  Luckily, I was engaged and it was close to my wedding day.  In those days, women didn’t work after they were married, so I could safely leave.”

She sat down.  The game continued, but it was all very anti-climactic.  A harmless game had revealed a woman’s dark secret which had haunted her for so many years. 

We flew home the next day, full of wonderful memories and one chilling story.