Not very far from my house, there is a hilly street, sloping gently up and down, shaded by towering pines and bordered with apartment buildings built up in the 70’s, their façades bleached white by the sweltering summer sun, their folding awnings striped beige and brown, the remains of that decade’s peculiar taste. I used to drive through that street on my way to work. I sometimes walk it to the grocery store, pine needles creaking under my feet, cicadas muffling the sound of passing cars, sticky hot air in the summer, scathing cold wind in the winter.
I have driven countless time on its asphalt warped by the underground pine roots jolting the car along. Its rutted sidewalks have become a fearful path for the elderlies walking up and down its slopes on their way for daily shopping. Canes snagged in the crevices, thick-soled leather shoes skidded too easily on rainy days, regular femoral neck wreckers. As a sea resort, their political clout should have sealed the fate of these other old-timers, there would have been an army of city workers rattling the poor bastards down with chainsaws, gone would have been the cool shade, the herbaceous smell of the sap trickling down their trunks as wax from a candle. But their evil ploy was never carried out. And so, I could still drive the street up to my house, reaching its uppermost point, a hole in the pines’ canopy bathing the road in sun or moon light. I drive it to leave town, I drive it to come back, I drive it every day, each bend, grade, branching streets known to me like the back of my hand.
One Saturday morning, I left early to beat the old geezers and get a choice spot on the line before the grocery store opened. Shopping went as usual with its lot of annoying, slow-walking, unabashed old people coming on a Saturday, of all days, to mingle with the other categories of the population, cutting lines, pushing away your unattended cart, shoving kids out of the way, tasting juicy grapes and spitting pips down the aisles. I made out of this hell rather quickly and, to my surprise, did not strangle one of them on the parking lot as he dragged his old car around and refused to stop at the crosswalk. The way up was pleasant, the promise of a bright weekend was written all around, in the smell of coffee wafting out of the pot, browned pieces of toasts on the side, dwarfish jars of jam coming in different flavors, the glass jug of freshly-squeezed orange juice, waiting for me, on the terrace , laid out with love , by my wife. The birds took part in the nascent glorious day, chirping from bough to bough, playfully chasing one another. Traffic was ever so light on Saturday morning, allowing for brave squirrels to run down the trunks, climbing on other trees, their fiery fur dancing on the bark.
About midway up the street, I stopped at a bent sign on the side of the road. It had not been completely uprooted and a piece of sidewalk was still hanging on. Its pole was scuffed with red paints and surrounded by gleaming shattered glass. It perilously hung there,threatening to let go at any moment.The asphalt was a different color there. Tyre marks, brown stains, darker ones, the remains of saw dust blown away by a light breeze. It had not been there the day before but I knew about youths on Friday nights, I had been one. On those nights, and especially in the summer with our windows open for any trace of fresh air, we could hear the tremendous revving, the thunderous rumbles, as these kids tackled the steep slopes, swerved through the bends, stamped on the brakes as the road unexpectedly plunged downward. Accidents happened, stopped when cops made it a hot roadside check. Booze, pot, nothing too fancy. Gasoline stuck stubbornly to the asphalt and the sun was warming it, made its smell hover in the air for the breeze to spread it. I stared at the patchy stains, then looked at the road behind, trying to reconstruct the car course. The old fart from the grocery store whinnied his car painfully up the street and sent me on my way, back to the prospect of breakfast.
My wife and I got a divorce that day. She could not cope with having me around all the time after retirement. She left me and the house behind. She was afraid I would become one of those Saturday morning shoppers, peevish, self-serving, plum mean. I did take up the hateful of habits of shopping on days when young families did too, but at least, I didn’t drive there. I was walking up the nice old street, carrying my shopping bag bristling with celery stalks and green leeks when it hit me. The street had changed. I didn’t see it right away but the feel of it was different. The sign had been changed two months after the accident and it had been standing proud for more than half a year, showing its black exclamation mark on a yellow background. The trees were the same, the shade, the time of the day, everything was the same and yet something different caught my eye. On the asphalt, right where the oil and gas stains had been washed away by sun, rain and the rolling of tires, there was a white, spray-painted, gigantic heart. In the middle of it, the name Jeremy appeared along with a date, a day before my wife had told me we were through.
I hurried home and started the computer my children had bought for me, a camera clipped on the screen for conversation with my grandchildren. I squinted at the screen and slowly typed in the elements I had: JEREMY, 07.12.2015, and the name of my city. An obituary, of course, in loving memory, to our son, our grandchildren, our friend. I couldn’t find any local press article that would have been bound to dissect every detail for me, the way the car would have skidded uncontrollably down the grade and crashed into the sign or the blood tests which would have inevitably shown alcohol and weed. No details, just the pain of a family summed up in a few phrases on an obscure website. I wasn’t satisfied. I brooded all day, following the course of the sun over the bay, drinking more wine than I usually did or should have. It was nagging me, this kid, dying on my street as ethereal as the fragrance of the sap, the stench of oil and gas, the scent of crushed needles. I slept on it, believing that it would drown the idea away. But each day, on my way shopping, the heart spread across the road, the tantalizing name at its center, the fateful date shuttling me back to my own dark memories, they were all urging me on, calling for me to unearth their genesis. I didn’t find anything. I paced up and down the town cemetery, reading over every stone, the granite ones, the marble ones, those with pictures on it, some of them just babies ( knot in the throat, tears brimming up), the family vaults, my own parents’. I found a few Jeremys of course, but none who matched the date. I lost hope, concluding that he must have been cremated, and found peace in knowing that he was being blown around to places that he loved, planted in the soil, already planning his rebirth.
My children always call me on the 12th of July. They know the divorce has been hard on me. Calling me the day before is just a way to help me exorcize the image of their mother with her bags already in the back of a cab as I was whistling my way home relishing the breakfast to come.I was enjoying the setting sun, its warmth dying out with the appearance of the evening star shining bright, opening the way for the myriads to come. I wasn’t really listening to my daughter’s apologies, how she didn’t want to revive painful memories.Instead, I listened to the noises coming up from the seaport below, the honks, the traffic, the soundcheck for a concert that was to take place near the beach. She wished we could get back together, that I could stitch back what her mother had deliberately and unashamedly torn apart. I told her I’ll give it a shot knowing that she would have to hang up soon as I heard James bawling in the background for his lost pacifier. She promised to call back tomorrow. I just hoped she wouldn’t. I stayed some more outside, engulfed in darkness, the halo of the seafront rising up to the sky and inhibiting the stars’ pulsating light. I was staring, tracing the path from one star to the other in a hopeless attempt at figuring a constellation when the sound of a car below snapped me out of stargazing. The rumble, distant at first, was travelling through my street and it echoed in my mind, awakening the memory of Jeremy. The heart was disappearing. After a year of traffic conniving with the elements, the paint had gradually disappeared, only some letters and figures could be guessed at. I listened as the car finally made it and drove past my house.
I didn’t know what to expect. I was afraid a patrol car or an unexpected police check might put an end to my expedition. In my backpack were paint sprays, remnants of my old job as an architect. I carefully walked down the treacherous sidewalk, I too, fearing now the potentiality of a broken femoral neck. The lampposts were faulty on this stretch of the street so that my advance and my intent should be concealed. I reached the end of the bend and with the help of a thin crescent of moon managed to see a woman in the middle of the road. She was leaning on a crutch and was resuscitating the fading lines. I tiptoed closer, afraid to scare her away, afraid to hear an engine growling, its lights glowing, her limping figure trying to reach the safety of the sidewalk. But she worked fast and nice and was done by the time I reached the spot. On seeing me, she started.
“Don’t be afraid. I mean you no harm.”
“Who are you?” She could have bludgeoned me with her crutch.
“I’m Martin. I live nearby.” Lame. “What’s your name?”
“Listen old man. I don’t know what’s this all about. Can’t you just go on?”
“Who’s Jeremy?” She looked back at the fresh paint faintly tinged with starlight.
“Who are you?”
“Told you, I’m Martin. Listen, I don’t want to scare you. What’s your name?”
“Alice” she frowned still unsure about me.
“Nice to meet you Alice. I’ve noticed that painting of yours, I walk and drive through here every day. I just wanted to know about it.”
“Jeremy was my boyfriend. He died right there on the spot” she pointed towards the sign.
“Where were you?”
“On the passenger seat” She looked at the crutch.
“Sorry about it. I’m sorry. I feel bad, feel like I shouldn’t have been so curious”
“That’s okay. I’m just making amends”
“What do you mean?”
“This stuff I paint, every year, on the same day, it’s my second chance, it’s our second chance.”
She told me everything. How they had argued, the engagement ring she had thrown at his face, him speeding up as anger was welling up, the sly sudden slope, the brisk stamping on the brakes, the black out. Hospital for six months, left leg broken up to the femoral neck, broken stuff take time to heal, reeducation. She was haunted by her words lacerating through Jeremy’s heart to hurt him, just to hurt him. A young lovers’ spat, inexperienced, loving till it aches, Alice and Jeremy mean to each other as if it were proof of their boundless love. The heart was her redemption, living through the memory of dark-haired, blue-eyed Jeremy, a renewal of vows, a lifeline through her ordeal, just a way to protract their love on the spot where it had been lost.
The heart does exist in the city of Sanary-sur-Mer in the South of France. It is two hundred yards from my in-laws under pine trees, of course. It was revived and repainted for five or six years. However, no one came this year, whether for coronavirus-related reasons or other I don’t know, but it is fading away. This story is my contribution, the date in the heart is apocryphal but the name inside of it is the same. I never knew him, don’t even know if it was a car accident, don’t know a thing and don’t want to. I just hope that through my writing I steep him a little more in eternity. Like Martin, I would hate to see the heart disappear.V.G