Part Two in the Derailleur series.
We don’t appreciate rail travel west of the Mississippi. It’s seems to hold a place just a notch above Greyhound. In Europe it is mainstreamed into the notion of motion. Where here we’re sequestered in sheet metal cages, on the rails you’re exposed to directions and purpose instead of brake lights and isolation. Get on a train and look up from your reading and you’ll have a conversation and see land pass without appeal to commercial sensibilities. No exits, no billboards, just stations and platforms to help you make the transition back to asphalt. I believe that’s what I miss most about Europe, besides the people.
It was late afternoon by the time my train pulled out of Gare du Nord. In the best light it’s not all that pretty. If I remember, Algerian settlements, lots of vacant and abandoned residences and tracks. Eleven thirty that night my train stopped at the platform in Tourcoing. I went to a baggage car to retrieve my bike, a Schwinn Continental I shipped from the States, and the bags that held the rest of my life that didn’t fit into my briefcase. But there were none, just my ten-speed.
There were no Elders to pick me up either. It was after curfew so I, for once, was convenienced by the inconvenience of SNCF having lost my luggage by not having to balance it on my bike while I rode around the strange town of Tourcoing looking for perhaps the simplest address of my mission, 100 rue Carnot. I found it on a transit map and rode right to it with my briefcase strapped to the rear rack of my Continental.
It took a couple of rings before the main door of the ancient apartment building buzzed open. Missionary bikes weren’t hard to spot in a place that has many bicyclers. They were burdened with racks and most anything American in adhesive stickers, so noticing the three tucked in out of the way in the lobby confirmed I was in the right place and relieved any question as to where I should put my ride. The apartment was on the top floor of this two-century building. I don’t remember how many stories, but it wasn’t enough to abate insects or dissuade rodents or dilute odors wafting from below.
A groggy Aussie answered the door, my next companion. “I figured you’d find the place. It’s not very hard,” he said. Inside were two bedrooms bisected by a kitchen/bathroom, the ultimate convenience for young men. My new comp showed me our room and my cot, the four legs of which were placed in coffee cans filled with water. “Keeps the nighttime visitors away.” His bed had a mosquito net, the very first thing I’d purchase the next day.
I’ve never been one for slippers, odd considering how tender-footed I am. I couldn’t sleep that night, thinking back to that girl in the patisserie, that girl the patisserie. Ooh la la. Twenty is a real shitty time to be celibate.
In Nancy, my previous ville, there were these concentrations of apartment buildings, batiments, or “bats” we called them, government subsidized housing, self-contained mini quartiers: Algerians, Ghanans, Moroccans, French unemployed, and students. We spent weeks tracting them out and in August in France when no one’s home that’s saying that these apartment building were really big. I used a golf ball to knock on doors to save my knuckles.
We could knock out a couple hundred in a day, but one day in August one of these doors was opened by a blonde girl, maybe eighteen, wearing panties and a UCLA t-shirt smiling at us as if we’d just landed our phallic spaceship. Anything virtuous, lovely or of good report. I thought I was hallucinating which wasn’t a stretch considering the amount of wafting contraband that hugged the ceilings of the hallways in that housing. She invited us in and I seriously entertained the invitation for a moment. We hadn’t taught since July, our stats were taking the summertime dive and if she’d just put some pants on we could get through the restoration, I bet.
The thing about French girls in the Lorraine is that they’re all spectacular and there was every variety, diversity never looked so good. Nancy was among other things a university town and we as Americans were a cultural distraction to French coeds who’d emerge from metros and busses and banks and markets just when I thought I was done looking at them. Despite the UCLA shirt and the surfer-straight blonde hair, she was French, which made her even more difficult to resist. “Hi we’re a couple of American missionaries. Are you alone?” She seemed very enthusiastic to join our cause, whatever American cause it was except perhaps a religion with a strict moral code. She thought, “Yes, I am alone!” was the right answer.
Sans slippers, I rotated my rump around in my cot to get my feet to the floor with visions of the patisserie and the coed justified by the thirteenth article of faith in my head. I was not thinking clearly. I even wondered what my comp meant by those coffee cans looking at the one adjacent my bare foot.
I stepped into the kitchen/bath and in one dark footstep smashed at least a dozen cockroaches. I found the light switch and clicked it on to confirm the slaughter and the subsequent scatter of hundreds more from the kitchen floor to the darkness under everything on it. A makeshift wall made from two-by-twos framing newspaper insulation contained by wallpaper separated the kitchen/bath from our bedroom. The sound it made as the roaches mounted inside it was what finally made me scream. No sexual diversion could abate that moment.
It wasn’t the context of cockroaches that I found so horrifying, it was the fact that the human inhabitants of that apartment had either ignored or endured the infestation and chose to do nothing about it. Until that night. The other three were shod in flipflops, the second thing I’d buy the next day, and garments when they met me in the kitchen/bathroom. And they immediately commenced squishing the slower roaches. The objective was immediate and clear. With very little communication, three of us moved appliances while the fourth scorched roaches with an improvised flamethrower made from an aerosol I can’t identify now and a lighter. The thought never once occurred to me to question why there was a lighter in that apartment.
We dismantled the kitchen/bathroom and tore down the moving infested wall and threw the demolition out our windows while roaches crawled up our arms. We fought a good fight and crashed hard sleeping well into the next day.
My reveille was that sound only more irritating than a dentist’s drill, the frequency of mosquitoes’ wings phased just beyond that little nub of flesh outside the opening of my ear. And then the itching. Everywhere. I was covered in bites all over my body and face, even on my scalp and the souls of my feet, still crusty with remnants of the massacre. Sitting on my cot, scratching my initiation, I noticed my comp watching me from behind his net. “He’s awake,” he said seemingly to himself until his sleeping companion raised up from the covers, one of the other two Elders. I was trying to pull focus through the net to see if I was really seeing what I was seeing. He huddled close to my comp and smiled. “He doesn’t have a mosquito net either.”
Oh, okay. “Good morning, Elder,” said his net mate. And we made small talk the rest of the morning in the shambles of our demolition, clearly reason to not tract today nor the next but reassemble the abode.