Something was wrong. Nothing seemed to be quite right with anything he set his eyes on. The street lamps seemed to be several inches shorter than he had remembered; the park through which he walked through every day for the past forty-five years seemed just a little too cramped. The trees were overgrown, and yet they hadn’t grown an inch. The sidewalks were too close together, as if the civil engineers had intended the park for children not yet ready for their first year of school. The birds around him were flying way too close to his head, and yet, nobody around him seemed to think or act any differently to these clearly obvious changes in reality.
Harold was a tired, lanky man in his late seventies. He had lived his entire life in the suburbs of Paris, and he knew the city and its outskirts like the back of his weathered, wrinkled hand. His dog had been the only love of his life, and just sixteen years ago he had died of a cancerous tumor on his hind leg. Ever since that tragic day, Harold knew he would forever live alone. His flat had only ever really been intended for one person, and he was content with the intimacy he kept within his walls.
Harold always walked. He had traversed these paths to and from work for many years, but even following his retirement, he had continued to walk about the city throughout the day. He enjoyed the fresh air, the sound of the city, and the warmth of the sun on his aging face. He kept his wits about him and rarely ventured into the touristy parts of the city. He had no desire for crowds, and it was precisely this discomfort that felt exaggerated all around him today.
Along the Seine, he knew he was find the space to breathe. Perhaps he was just a little too tired today. He made his way out to the river, and sat down on a bench. It was the perfect fall day in Paris. Just chilly enough for a cardigan, just warm enough for a relaxing rest in the sun. And yet, as Harold tried to relax, he felt like the sound of the river below him was just too loud. The cars driving behind him sounded as if they were about to crash into him sitting on the bench. He got up again, and started walking onward. He would have to visit his favorite bakery today to ease his nerves.
Forty minutes into the afternoon, Harold walked up to La Dolce Vita, an Italian bakery set on the corner of a back street in the Parisian landscape. The little cafe façade was nothing particularly special. The flower box on the front of the old wooden door gave it a bit of charm, coupled with the lead-paned windows that were anything but modern. Two unsteady iron tables guarded the front door, though their tottery appearance disregarded their centennial patrol of the sidewalk.
The rusty chain from the sign on the door inviting guests in, clinked against the glass as he stepped in. The aroma of the bakery was his favorite olfactory memory in the world. He often paid for things he had no desire to eat, simply to smell the deliciousness wafting through the air.
Something was wrong. There were no smells coming from the kitchen. Mme. Biscoyne wasn’t bustling to and fro in the alley clearing dirty dishes and setting out works of art from her staff. Empty porcelain trays lined the case next to the register, crumbs of pastries and scones from yesterday lining the blank white porcelain like a feast for mice. There was no hint of espresso on the air, no milk frothing, no steam from the tea kettle.
And yet, peculiarly enough, Harold realized he had never seen La Dolce Vita so incredibly busy in his life. Every table inside was seated to the maximum, the line at the counter was twice as long as he had ever imagined the little shop could hold, and Messrs. Francis and Renois were busier than ever at the cash registers.
Harold looked around. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He felt sure that he was dreaming. This could not possibly be reality. A woman to his left had just bitten the corner off a lamppost that he recognized from the park. A man next to her had sipped water from the Seine from his demitasse, and the man behind him was breaking off a chunk of the cane with which Harold, himself, had been walking all day long. Harold looked down, and suddenly realized he was much closer to the ground than he had remembered when he woke up this morning.
Everything around him was morphing into things much smaller than he had ever known. No one seemed to notice or care that everything was shrinking, that everything was disappearing, that everything was not as it should be. As he turned to leave, for he knew he was making a terrible mistake and surely needed to simply wake up, a man from the long line of customers in front of him brushed his shoulder, turned to apologize, and offered Harold the “am” of his “4:00am” on the plate in front of him.
Harold stared blankly back at the man. But before he could summon a polite reply, he belted, “Have you all got nothing better to do with your time!? This world needs help!”