Friday, June 27, 2008

Olive trees and Communists

Jules came down this week. He arrived Wednesday morning early--Luigi passed me on our lane, no mean feat on a road that's two meters wide and shoulderless, but Luigi was in a rush because he was on his way to the airport. We've all been battening down. Violette came and the dogs I went with her up to the big house. I helped her while she made the bed, put out fresh towels and a bathrobe, and then cleaned the kitchen. The last thing she did was put a fresh bottle of mineral water in the bathroom. Then Violette roared off in her rusty red Peugeot 105, taking the rest of the week to drive a friend to see her mother, which may actually be the direct idiomatic translation of seeing a man about a dog. Olivier arranged his schedule not to be here at all: his latest method of coping with Jules. Luigi was going to be on duty.

I spoke to Jules late on Wednesday morning after he arrived. Three things were on his mind: first, (and this is how he talks), there was our piscine. Something was wrong with the water, it wasn't clear, we should never have signed a contract with the pool maintenance man, never sign anything, always keep things loose. Second: the arrosage automatique. The grass was going to die immediatement if we did not begin to water regularly beginning this moment. (Noon. 85 degrees. I think I've mentioned the mauvaises herbes that make up our lawn and how they are virtually indestructible.) Third: one of the olive trees was about to die, would in fact be dead within three days if it was not treated as soon as possible. Would it derange me very much if he came down and sprayed the tree this afternoon, as soon as he had taken a short nap?

Down the hill he came an hour or so later in his summer costume of baggy khaki shorts, unbuttoned linen shirt, and boat shoes. Added to this were sunglasses, a baseball cap bearing a bank logo, and heavy leather work gloves. In one gloved hand he carried a canning jar labeled with a skull and crossbones and in the other a plastic tank with a spraying wand. We walked down to the tree in question.

This particular olive tree sits at the end of the épandage, the septic tank leech field. Our épandage continues to be the subject of debate and concern in the neighborhood, particularly for our southerly neighbors into whose vegetable garden the épandage tends to leak. Jules showed me that the olivier d'épandage was losing its leaves, and showed me, too, the tiny holes in the branches where something has bored in to the wood. Something was clearly wrong.

Jules put down the plastic tank and looked at the label on the poison. He had written it himself--1 cuillière à soupe of the poison for 20 liters of water. This will take care of it, if we haven't already waited too long. You can't get this stuff now--it's interdit, forbidden, illegal. This did not surprise me. Do you have a spoon in the kitchen we can use to measure it? Maybe best to put the dogs inside.

I weighed my options, and after considering suggesting a legal method, something like, maybe, lemon juice and vinegar, I went to get the spoon and lock the dogs in the house. Then I went back out and watched as Mr. Environment went to work. He filled the tank with water and dropped in a spoonful of poison, which turned the water a cloudy, murky light green. Maskless, Jules began enthusiastically spraying the tree. A light breeze blew and I went to stand upwind.

A few sprays later Jules decided the thing to do was to prune the tree a bit. I went to get the ladder and he climbed up. Taking a pair of garden clippers out of his pocket, he went to work on the tree. This olivier is not a particularly big one. Its main cleft is only a meter or so off the ground, and once there Jules found a foothold easily. Then he went up to the next cleft, and the next, until he was perched in the top of the tree, easily six feet off the ground, clipping away.

Jules is leaning hard on 70 and had his thyroid removed two weeks ago. Just a little context.

I stood at the bottom and told him to be careful. He told me that at his age it would not be a tragedy if he fell out of the tree and died, but it would be an inconvenience and he would try not to. Then--somehow--we were talking about the Communists. I'm not sure how they came up. The Communists, they have taken over France, Jules declaimed.

I tried to hold onto the thread of the conversation. The current president of France, after all, was elected essentially on a platform of: Not a Communist; his primary opponent's platform was: Not as much of a Socialist as I used to be. So Jules' announcement seemed a little bit of a stretch. But, Sarkozy isn't a Communist, I ventured.

It's too late now. It doesn't matter about Sarkozy. This all happened a long time ago. Olive branches fell around my feet.

When did it happen? Do you mean after the war, 60 years ago? I was racking my brain for what happened in France between de Gaulle's presidencies.

No, it happened under Mitterand. Mitterand was president of France in the 1980s and, for the record, he was a Socialist. Now French families are leaving France every day to live elsewhere. It's the impôts, the taxes. The rich have to pay too many taxes in France, so they take their money and spend it somewhere else. In France everyone hates the rich, they think le peuple should take all the money away from the rich. Le peuple, le peuple. I think Jules would have spat if it hadn't been so hot and I hadn't been female.

The olive tree was beginning to resemble Charlie Brown's Christmas tree and I was ankle deep in clippings. Jules' cell phone rang and he straightened up to answer it, putting out one hand to steady himself in the tree while he opened the phone with the other.

Allo, oui? Ah oui, good of you to call, yes, the surgery was a success, yes, yes, I'm quite fine, thannks for calling, very touched, yes, see you soon. Actually just now I'm, en fait, in a tree. Ring you back? Yes, yes, very kind, see you soon, good to talk to you.

He went back to clipping. People keep calling but I am an old man, what does it matter if I am sick?

Still, nice that people are worried about you. I thought maybe we could leave the Communists behind. I was wrong.

I'm going to take my money and move to America. I'll swear that I am not a Communist and then I'll live there. I like America.

I don't think you have to swear not to be a Communist to live in America. A sense of national pride showed up, or at least of mild confusion.

But of course you do. Clip, clip. Everyone knows that America doesn't like Communisits.

But you don't have to swear not to be one. Do you? I thought to myself. Surely not.

Jules cocked his head towards me. Do you like Communists? Are you a Communist?

No, I said. I'm not a Communist, I just think that it's possible to be a Communist and live in America.

I saw an American film last week. I like American films.

Luigi wandered up just then. He looked at Jules in the tree and then at me, and then at Jules again, and then back at me. I looked back at him. Isn't it time for you to go pick up the girls at school? he said.

No, I said, they finished for the summer this morning. But we do have a dentist appointment at 4.

Luigi nodded and looked at his watch. You'd better go. He smiled.

The girls and I went off--there really was a dentist appointment--and when we came home the tablespoon that I had lent to Jules was on the terrace table and both men were gone.

This afternoon, two days later, the girls and I arrived home again, this time from a full day's outing to Nice. We were hot and tired and looking forward to the pool. G went to check the mailbox while E and I started down to the house.

We took a few steps and both stopped. I said something which is one of those things that as soon as I say them I tell the girls they shouldn't say.

At the bottom of the garden, next to the sickly olive tree, was a backhoe. Next to the backhoe were Jules and the owner of the gardening service that he sometimes uses. There were already two long trenches dug, one coming out from the base of the tree and the other perpindicular to it, running along the edge of the garden.

We slipped inside. C, working at home today, met us in the kitchen. We all stared out the window as the gardener climbed up into the seat of the backhoe and started digging. We could see Jules' mouth moving as the trench got deeper.

He's on his way back to Paris now, mercifully. The gardener drove his backhoe past my window a few minutes ago. The dogs and I have been down to check, and, while the trench emanating from the olivier is filled in, the one across the bottom of the garden--about 25 feet long, a foot or two across, and four feet deep--is still open. At its lowest point there is standing water. As for dirt: there's a lot of it.

Jules is coming back, with his family, for half of July and most of August. Stay tuned.

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