“A Handful of Quiet” by Jody Jenkins, Paris

Borders June 12, 2011 18:53

topic: BORDERS medium: TEXT

The maison rouge was neither a house nor red. It was a hotel painted in a powdery, pastel green that rubbed off like chalk on your fingers.

And the soot from chimneys and the exhaust of the endless stream of cars that choked the narrow Rue St. Jacques had gently dusted it layer upon layer, day after day, year after year, until finally from a distance the color of the first three floors resembled the deep black earth of a freshly plowed field through which a profusion of bright, tender green growth had suddenly sprouted. Only behind the shutters, which were thrown open to the light of each day, was something of the original color preserved in the angel-like wings that were revealed each evening when the shutters were pulled tight against the night.

But despite its sainted appearance, the old hotel was named for the hope of lives that never came to be. Mr. Stratos Caramanos had inherited it from an uncle who had died in the 1970s, and from the day he and his wife and daughter left Greece aboard a Balkan freighter bound for France, their only thought was of the minimum years of investment it would take to step out from under it, to buy a house in the Midi, and paint it the pastel red with cobalt blue shutters his wife so loved and still have enough left over to raise some sheep and dabble in wine. And it was for that dream they toiled, serving the lowly laborers who had come from the countryside where the lack of work had gradually driven them off the land. Many were from the south and their accents danced gayly like young, pent-up country girls at the bal musettes. Like the Caramanos, most had come with no intentions of staying. They hoped only to bridge the bad times until they could return home again. So they lived low, using only what they needed and sending back the rest.

There was credit at the bar and Mrs. Angelica Caramanos prepared the meals with a flair for simplicity. And their daughter Eleni moved among the men crowded at the tables in the back, serving out plates of lamb roasted on a spit that smelled of lemon and desert flower and subtle things snatched from a Mediterranean life. Mother and daughter tucked the sheets with care and culled pensées from the window boxes and left them in small vases on their writing tables so the men would feel a little nearer to home. Because like the Caramanos, they had cast themselves onto uncertain seas and had only one another on which to rely. And like the Caramanos, they saw generosity of spirit as a basic ingredient of anyone’s daily bread.

Still many of the men found themselves scraping simply to cover the cost of the pension, with little or nothing left to put into a postal check. And men who had never wanted to sink roots in a city that made them feel like illegal immigrants in their own country, were slowly being cut off from the worlds that had nurtured them. For some, their lives took on a sort of permanent impermanence, hovering somewhere between their graying dreams and the realization that perhaps destiny had never imagined a better world for them. And in their eyes Mr. Caramanos caught glimpses of the cold nature of fate as night after night they nursed glasses of uzo-like pastis and spread their stories on the counter as though considering their last bits of change. Mr. Caramanos knew that those who inhabited his rooms were no different from himself. He had just been lucky. And yet he could not help but wonder where their dreams had diverged from their will to shape them.

Unlike his uncle, Mr. Caramanos was not born to business. His father had been a shepherd and as his father’s son he yearned for the unspokenness of solitude and open space. But he was no fool and knew also the bondage and poverty of his father’s life. To Mr. Caramanos, his uncle’s offer from the grave was nothing other than the offer of a freedom he had never even dreamed of. And though he saw very clearly his own good fortune, as the years went by he grew restless for the day when he would be released from his indentured servitude. He might scrape the head off of a demi with a spatula and set the dripping beer on a coaster in front of a customer, and glance up to find himself suddenly standing beneath a vine-covered trellis sagging with grappa fruit, gazing out across the flat, windblown nothingness that shimmered beneath a grinding sun, sweat running down his brow like olive oil as he stared at his little piece of the world with the hunger of a man for a woman. It would come so close, so quickly that he had to shake himself out of it, sometimes with crescents of tears rimming his eyes for such moments were like a brush with death.

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