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I ran into Joseph Lestrange about a week ago and he was smiling, dizzy-happy, you could say. That’s something I haven’t seen in Joe’s face for quite a while—but I think you might say grinning from ear to ear was a better description, and I was glad for him. We sat down at the first café with a free table we happened to pass, ordered some wine and his inevitable olives, and I waited. But he started talking about something I don’t remember, but it could have been about where Pierre Corneille lived in what’s now the Second Arrondissement and—yes, that was it—his brother Thomas. Thomas it turns out, was a better rhymer than big brother, so when Pierre was stumped, he’d yell down through a special trap-door and ask Thomas, “What rhymes with guitare?” And Thomas would immediately reply, catarrhe. I can’t say I remember either word from reading Corneille, but it was a long time ago, and Joe offered the example without a moment’s hesitation.
This story and a couple of others went on for a while. And all the time he was smiling. After nearly an hour, I had had enough and told him to tell me what was going on. What I found out, but it took me three days of pestering him, was good news, maybe the best, and I hope you think so too. Joe has found a woman, as he gently puts it, which means, I think, he’s in love. You never know, with him, God knows: I’ve known eels easier to grasp. But here’s what I know from what I wormed out of him later.
He got an e-mail from a woman who liked one of his stories, the one about finding a cat named Jack. He gets e-mails from readers often enough and always writes back, just a thank-you note, no more. But he wrote a little more because there was something in the note that sounded a little more interesting and seemed to suggest that the woman was a very careful reader. Then they started writing back and forth, fairly often, and after maybe a week, Joe figured, What the hell, I’m going to call her—figuring the worst that could happen is she’d be completely freaked out and hang up on him. So he called, and she didn’t hang up. She laughed. And they talked for a couple of hours. That’s what he said and it sounds like the kind of thing you just can’t make up.
And then they started talking to each other on Skype so they could look at each other, talking about anything at all at great length, and one of them mentioned “Casablanca,” a movie they both like. It’s not a big deal, for a man and a woman to like the same great old movie, especially when it’s “Casablanca.”
But then something happened. The next day or two days later, she wrote and said, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, I walked into yours.” And I think, as they say (and I am a recovering historian), the rest is history. Of course, when I finally got Joe to tell me what was going on, he didn’t tell me what I’ve just been telling you. That took a few days, as I said, but he did tell me her name is Mia. What he told me in the café was this:
“She walked into my gin joint. People do that, that’s why there are gin joints, to walk into. That’s why the door is open. Why mine? Who knows? People come, all kinds, they just happen to be passing or maybe someone made a recommendation, they order something, spend a little time, then they go. Or they like the place and become regulars. Good for business and, you never know, sometimes you make a friend, but don’t count on it. Most of the time the regulars are just people you know on sight and of course their favorite drink, but strictly first names if possible. Sometimes they tell you what business they’re in, sometimes they tell you their troubles or give you advice and you wish they wouldn’t or hadn’t and maybe they won’t come back.
“So she walked in and we said hello. I thought that was nice, felt good, and guessed she’d stick around a little, like all the other new people who walk in off the street, then hit the road and maybe come back or maybe not, depending. Depending on what? Who knows? I never do. Never. Low expectations or just the nature of the business, take your pick. It comes to the same thing. You learn over time not to expect anything, nothing at all, and if something happens, it happens. You can’t make it happen. No sense in getting your hopes up, though just between you and me, I do day-dream now and then.
“Like this time. After she left, I thought it would be nice if she dropped in again, just for a while, you know, and maybe, if it was a slow time, we could talk a little, say a little more than hello. And she did and she did again. And then she came and sat down at a little table off to the side, the quietest spot in the room, instead of at the bar, and smiled, so I came over said hello, and she gestured with her hand at the chair next to hers. It was a slow time and anyway, I don’t have to deal with all the customers all the time. I sat. And we talked, a long time, longer than I’d talked to anyone in the joint since who knows how long. And then—that night or the next, doesn’t matter—she said she didn’t know why she walked into my gin joint seeing as how it’s not the only one in the world let alone on the block, but she’s glad she did. I told her I was glad too. Just like that. It made sense.
“It still does, it feels right, perfectly natural, just as it feels natural that the quiet table is ours, off limits to everyone else, and that’s where we spend all the time we can. Maybe the customers think she’s bought into the business, think I needed a partner or something. Maybe they’re right. You never know, I don’t, but sometimes I’m pretty sure I do.”
How’s that? And don’t think I could have memorized Joe’s little soliloquy. I told him I wanted a copy because I was pretty sure he’d already written it and wanted to try it out on me. He sent it, and now I’m passing it on to you. I hope it makes you feel as good as I do.