Translated from French by Lynn Palermo and Catherine Zobal Dent
In the five years he had lived there, Dima had never known the courtyard of his apartment building to be anything other than dirty, gray, and gloomy, like all the other courtyards in the neighborhood. The old ladies would sometimes talk nostalgically about bygone days when the neighborhood had been elegant with flowering courtyards, thick lush lawns, and trees that were pruned with the changing seasons. But now, with all the vandals, those hordes of young people who were destroying everything. . . . Not to mention the anti-Semites.
That day, Dima came home from the store later than usual and in a bad mood because of his Uncle Misha’s obsessive habits. Like hiding each day’s cash receipts inside an old flashlight, which rolled around on the floor, and which they could never find when they needed it. Each time Dima asked, “Uncle, can’t we just get a cashbox like everyone else?” his uncle replied, “New York is a dangerous place, Dima, get that into your head. You have to be more devilish than the devil.”
So Dima returned home that day still irritated and wondering if they had finally finished sandblasting the building, or if, once again, he would have to step over piles of trash and pools of muddy water.
Upon arriving, he thought he was hallucinating. The scaffolding was gone, and the central façade of his building, the buildings on either side, and even the low wall separating the courtyard from the street, all glowed in a soft shade of brick that was light, radiant, even Mediterranean. And that wasn’t even the most amazing part. That morning he’d left a cramped, lifeless courtyard with two puny bushes curled against the coming winter, and he had come back home to the gardens of the Alhambra! Where earlier there had been only patches of dry, tired dirt, there was now a stretch of fresh lawn, punctuated with beds of chrysanthemums in every autumnal shade, each richer and warmer than the next: red, orange, gold, straw yellow . . . like an artist’s palette. Giant shrubs shaped like spheres and cones had been planted at regular intervals bordering the grass. Dima thought he could hear birds chirping. He ran up the stairs to his apartment.
Inside, it felt like a holiday. His grandmother was preparing meatballs and tea.
“Did you see, Dima, how they’ve transformed the courtyard into a park fit for a prince! It has everything, beautiful grass, flower beds. And the shrubs are perfect, pruned high-class. Now we have to buy some furniture. It’s good timing, our inside will live up to the outside. We’re going to have a dining room set, a real one, made out of pine, an armoire with a mirror on it, and a sofa with big pillows for the living room.”
Dima’s mother, who was peeling potatoes, chimed in, “And no more camping! We’ll each have our own bed!”
His grandmother raised her arms skyward to give thanks for heaven’s bounties. She started dancing around the table like a clumsy, comical bear, chanting in a nasal voice, “A bed, a bed, a bed just for me! Amerika is git! I have a pension, I have pills in every color, pink ones for my heart, green ones for my nerves, my grandsons are going to have bar mitzvahs in big beautiful synagogues, and some day, mark my words, I’ll even have my own apartment! An apartment for grandma, with a view of the park!”
After supper, Dima went back down to the courtyard. He knelt to touch the grass, which felt damp and silky. The bushes were real bushes, with real leaves. Dima allowed himself to leap for joy.
“Go ahead and prance around. You’re young so you don’t think about consequences.”
She was old and skinny, with an emaciated face poking out from under a big white wig that looked like a mountain of whipped cream. She hugged a light-colored coat around her shoulders. At her side in the darkness, Dima could make out several neighbors, two or three men in somber felt hats with cigars glowing, and decrepit women wearing heavy makeup.
“What good is all this, I ask you?”
“The dogs are just going to come in here to do their business. Won’t that be nice!”
“Well, I say it’s going to attract vandals. Great!”
“Obviously. They’ll have fun wrecking the place.”
An old man brandished his cane: “There was more urgent work to be done! This morning up on the third floor, once again, the elevator stopped a full two inches above the landing. That’s terribly dangerous.”
“And they’ll make us pay for these flowers, you’ll see. They’ll use it as an excuse to raise the rent.”
A bent-over old woman, nodding under her pink-tinted wig, kept repeating in a plaintive tone: “Those flowers, they won’t last long. They’ll wilt, shrivel up, and die.”
Dima couldn’t take any more. “But we’re also going to shrivel up and die.”
Then, ashamed of losing control, as he was normally sweet-tempered, he went back upstairs to his take refuge in his apartment.
The next day, a Friday, Dima was in such a hurry to get home to his beautiful garden and sit in the sun that he begged his uncle to let him go early. A surprise awaited him. Such a surprise that it stopped him on the sidewalk in the entrance to the courtyard. Right in the middle of the lawn, radiant, glowing with a whiteness that lit up the whole courtyard, like an apparition miraculously summoned with a magic wand, was a fountain, flanked by two perfectly symmetrical bushes, pruned like enormous green tops mounted upside-down. The fountain’s three basins sat one atop the other, decreasing in size and supported by a central pillar. It wasn’t until later that Dima would notice the details—the large fish winding around the pillar, the oyster shell basins, or even the water cascading from one basin to the next. What he saw right away, what enchanted him, was the statue at the very top of the fountain. A chubby little girl about a foot high, nude and laughing, seemed to leap from the water, lifting her hands as if to play. The water lapped at her feet. Dima crept forward as if the little girl in fake marble might run away. He leaned toward her. Nobody had yet tossed any coins into the fountain. His would be the first. He closed his eyes.
When he opened them, he saw dark eyes watching his own, smooth brown cheeks, and mocking lips: it was Désirée.
“You never change, do you Dima, always the hopeless dreamer. Did you make a good wish?”
She swung her arms in circles, jangling her bracelets.
“It’s pretty . . . so pretty . . . it looks like the garden of una mansión, yeah, with flowers, fountains, cherubs, the sun, and dreams, right, Dima?”
She ran off in her red sweater and white pants, leaving Dima dazzled. He didn’t see the others approaching. The old man with the cane stood in front of him and spat.
“It looks like a brothel.”
He spat a second time.
That set off a general outcry:
“Indecent, that’s what it is, an outrage!”
“The previous owner, he should rest in peace, would never have done such a thing!”
One shrill voice screeched, “These are like the fountains they put in those monasteries!”
“If my family comes to visit, I’ll die of shame!”
“Let’s call a meeting! We’re not going to let this pass!”
“A bordello, I’m telling you, it’s like we’re in a New Orleans bordello!”
Dima looked at them, slack-jawed, as if he’d never seen them before. He saw faces lined with contempt, jowls heavy with perpetual disappointment, belligerent mouths. He was almost happy to see his other uncle, Youri, arriving. Over fifty years old, his uncle, who was not thin, sported blue jeans and a leather jacket, like a young man. He grabbed Dima by the arm.
“Let it go. Can an intelligent man talk to these old women? That’s what you get with Americans. Idiots! All this fuss over a fountain!”
Dima’s relief was short-lived. His uncle loved to hold forth. He leaned toward his audience, like a wrestler toward an opponent, legs spread, arms out from his body.
“Over there, in the country I came from, when you install a fountain, someone makes a decision and the order is executed. Here, it’s nothing like that, everything is random. One day, they put up a fountain, just like that, no rhyme or reason, and everyone gets upset. It’s stupid. If there’s something I can’t stand, it’s stupidity.”
He punctuated his sentences with loud, hoarse breaths.
“Look, Americans are so dumb. Even the children, yeah, the children are so dumb they look like their parents. In Russia, it’s different, believe me.”
Dima slipped away, tired. Later, he asked his grandmother, “Did you hear them out in the courtyard? The sons of Levi are getting ready to slaughter the idolaters!”
His grandmother shrugged. Her round, myopic eyes sparkled behind her glasses. “Dima, you’ve always had a taste for exaggeration. I don’t know where it comes from. Don’t listen to them. This is America. You can do what you want. Art is free.”
The next morning, when Dima went out, the sun was shining. From the door, he saw the edges of the fountain’s three basins and sprays of water falling from one basin to the next, breaking into a thousand iridescent drops. Charmed, he walked toward it, his heart filled with joy at the sight of the grass and flowers. Then he felt something awful. Like a blow. He even cried out. The little girl was missing. All that remained in the top basin were two tiny, white, mutilated feet.
After searching with Désirée, he finally found the little statue in the cellar with the garbage. He tried to put it back on the fountain but the ankles were broken in such a way that Dima couldn’t make it stand. He handed it to Désirée.
The grandmother made them some tea, but she was melancholy. She had pulled out her photo album, which was a bad sign. She looked longingly at her favorite photograph, taken at Christmastime at Dima’s nursery school in Russia. The children stood in a circle around a fir tree decorated with candles. The grandmother started to name the children, one after another.
“You see that child, he was a little Goy, and then next to him a little Jew, and then a Goy, there, next to Dima, oh yes, that’s Dima . . . ”
Dima wanted to stop her. She was going to bore Désirée. But can grandmothers be stopped, once they’ve started?
“Don’t you remember, Dima, how beautiful it was? How the tree was so nicely decorated? That’s a real Christmas tree! You don’t see anything like that here. And there’s Father Christmas, next to the tree, do you remember Father Christmas, Dima? He made us laugh, your mother and I, what charm, what imagination!”
The grandmother trembled, and continued in an inspired tone: “Now that man was an actor! An ar-tiste!”
Her voice fell and she added, shaking her head, “At the end of the day, many things are missing here. Things that make you love life.”