Friday, August 1, 2008

Hungry Heart

We've been loyal customers of the concrete block pizza hut at the rond-point since last summer. It really is built of concrete blocks, and it sits in the middle of the parking lot. You pass it if you're on your way to the service station and the car wash, or if you're stopping to add air to your tires. It's painted a faded yellow, with a open counter, covered by a shutter during the day, on one of the long sides, a door on one of the short sides, and a wood-burning oven on the other. The preparation area takes up the back wall. It's the size of a large SUV, no more. Across the top is a neon sign: Pizza Pierre, it says, in wavy letters that suggest heat, and with two tiny flashing pizzas to dot the i's.

The neon comes on every evening around 5, and the shutter over the counter goes up. Smoke has already been rising out of the chimney for an hour or so. Bar stools appear, a bottle of rosé or two sits beside the takeaway menus on the counter. Usually there's an old man who sits and nurses a beer, his own brought from home or bought there I'm never sure; there's no beer on the menu. Nor does he ever seem to be ordering or picking up a pizza. He's just there.

The pizzas are standard local fare: about 12 inches around, very thin crusts, toppings ranging from green peppers to smoked salmon but mostly cheese and tomato sauce and olives and--remember we're in France--ham. They're pretty good. Especially if you've not had the habit of cooking every single night of the week, or if it's Sunday evening and you realize you forgot to get provisions at the store before it closed Saturday afternoon.

We took L to Pizza Pierre when she visited in September. We ordered the pizzas when we got there, so we stood in the parking lot and waited for a little while while Pierre made them. At one end of the lot, Pizza Pierre's teenage son folded pizza boxes out of the back of his open Peugeot 105. His friends kept stopping by on their motocyclettes, their girlfriends sitting on the back wearing cheap stilettos and too much eyeliner. The old man was at the counter, as usual. A woman came up with her two children and ordered. The kids were young--6 and 8ish--and tow-headed and skinny. She could have been 25 or 45: running to heavyset, dyed hair, poured into her office clothes. She smoked a cigarette while they all waited and tapped out her ashes about an inch from her daughter's scalp. Over by the car wash, a woman got out of her minivan and stepped up on the chassis to brush leaves off the top of the car. She was wearing zebra-striped pants, a tight red tank top, and 4-inch cork-soled sandals.

L and I took all this in, and then took our pizzas home. In the car she turned to me and said: I think everyone in southern France who could be a character in a Bruce Springsteen song was in that parking lot. It was all there: adolescent longing on the motos, midlife struggle in the face of the mother, a determination not to give in to the odds. We laughed about her observation and it stuck.

A few weeks after that, Pierre went away--on vacation, we figured, to recover from the summer crowds--and Madame his wife took over. Pierre was a runner, with the elastic tanned compact build of a marathoner. He was always friendly; one time he gave C a bottle of the hut rosé (drinkable only with a view of the Mediterranean). Madame was also small and wiry, but pale where Monsieur was tan. She doled out smiles carefully and rarely. Pierre was gone for a couple of weeks, and then a couple of weeks more, and then just gone. I was pleased to think of telling C and L that it appeared that Pierre "had gone out for a ride and never come back," like in the Springsteen song. Then we didn't think about it any more.

Until yesterday. The quilting ladies came, and between talking of which stand we bought peaches and lettuce from, talk turned to Pizza Pierre. I wondered idly what had ever happened to Pierre. Martha, our English neighbor two blind curves up the lane, knew the story, as she seems to know most stories in our village.

First, Pierre wasn't Pierre. The original Pizza Pierre was a postman who retired on disability and opened first a pizza shack and then, when the euros began rolling in, a pizza hut. Then he retired again, for good, and the man whom we had thought of as Pierre bought the business. He had been trained as a restauranteur, and, before coming to our rond-point, had worked in large hotels on the coast. He and his wife ran the hut together for several years and did a pretty good business. Then things went south between them, and he left. Martha said she'd seen him working in one of the restaurants in the place in the next village, but now she's heard he's back down on the coast, working in one of the seaside bars.

Meanwhile, his wife stayed on, and she's the new Pizza Pierre. She's bought a potted palm that she rolls out every evening beside the bar stools. The words to the song about heartache and hard work are just about there already; if I knew a few guitar chords, I could maybe have a hit. We travel, as much as we ever do, within the context we have. And while I can't look out our windows and see a white boat off the coast of Antibes without thinking about Auden's expensive delicate ship sailing calmly on, I won't, either, order pizzas from the hut again without hearing a little Bruce Springsteen.

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