The Caretaker (Story by R.C. Peris)

“Mon Dieu! They’ve sent me a terrorist.” The old woman quickly grasped at her throat in an attempt to steady her breathing. She was wearing a faded Chanel suit from the 1970s. Around her neck was a string of pearls bought in Mallorca in 1968 by her fourth husband who then quickly lost his fortune in a bad investment. Shipping. His insurance had lapsed on two shipping boats that sunk in a great storm in the Indian Ocean. Marguerite would not be humiliated. She divorced her husband and quickly found a wealthy photographer to marry. When Marguerite was young she was quite stunning. But her fifth husband never photographed her except for one time when she was sitting on a bench by a window reading Flaubert. He body was in darkness but the tip of her nose and the book were lit by dying light. A tiny sliver of the Eiffel Tower could be detected in the window. Her fifth husband was mostly absent for the six years of their marriage and when he died in a boating accident near Monaco, she did not cry. She inherited a fortune and the immense apartment in Paris was hers and hers alone.

The caretaker, Haja, was a Muslim woman born in Algeria but raised in Marseilles. She was new to Paris and was studying to be a nurse. Haja wore a veil but her lovely face was not hidden from view.

“I assure you,” said Haja. “I am no terrorist.” Haja took the accusation in stride. These types of comments were hardly unique. “I am here to care for you and escort you to the doctor. I will make your meals, administer your medication, clean your house, do your laundry…”

“And my cats.” Marguerite stood taller in an attempt to seem haughty.

“Yes, I will attend to your cats.”

“Do you know who I am?”

“Marguerite Delacroix.” Haja suppressed a yawn.

“I am descended from the royal line in Austria and Russia.”

“I see.” This meant nothing to Haja.

“You will always address me as Madame and never use the informal with me.”

“Oui, vous êtes trés important.”

Marguerite wandered off to her bedroom and Haja began her work. The large apartment was gilded and decorated with antiques. Haja was careful with every object. Later, Haja heard music playing. Madame was playing Chopin from her stereo. She was sitting on a divan with a rigid back. Tears were streaming down her facing. Her makeup was dissolving.

“What is wrong Madame?” Haja was mildly concerned.

“My head hurts. It hurts every day. My blood pressure. My life. I’m so alone. I’m so scared. I’m so near death. What does anything even mean?”

Haja didn’t know. She was very near being Agnostic. She wore the veil because her parents, with whom she lived, insisted. She had no words of comfort.

“It’s time for your medication. Take your medication, sleep, then wake up, dress, face Paris, drink coffee, eat some cake, pet your cats…life consists of small things. Focus only on each moment. That is all. I think, perhaps, life makes no sense but that’s too difficult to deal with. Yes. Focus only on the moment. What do you feel now?”

Marguerite wiped tears. “The beauty of the music.”

“Good. Now I will make chicken with mustard sauce and as you dine I will go to the bakery and buy a small Austrian pastry in honor of your lineage. Or perhaps you would prefer a crepe with cream and caviar. I saw a small tin in the refrigerator.”

“Oh, that sounds wonderful. Thank you for respecting my lineage.”

“Family is important. Your life is important.”

“How?” Marguerite looked desperate.

Haja shrugged. “Life may be absurd and fleeting but meaning and blood give us roots to the Earth. Now, if you’ll excuse me. I must see to dinner.”

Marguerite’s body went slack and she allowed Chopin to drench her and soon she was no longer sad. Life meant something. She didn’t know the meaning. It did mean something. It had to. The alternative was unbearable.


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