That stretch of the Boulevard de Clichy where she stopped to remove her shoes was framed by great waves of graffiti, spiky stalactite designs rushing wild across the stone walls and rusted roll-gates, crowding the wide and otherwise empty street. The air stank of garbage. A heat flushed through her body and the stench closed in like swaddling cloth, salt mixing in her mouth with the evening's wine, a static sheen of perspiration about her eye sockets. It was that time of year when the generous vacations of the French closed half the city, transforming the Paris she knew into an empty and strangely quiet museum. No cars had passed by despite it being Saturday night and the boulevard a main thoroughfare not far from Pigalle's perpetual raunch; the Métro had shut down until morning; she was a young woman, slender, fit, pretty, with a long walk ahead. Whether bad luck or the result of bad decisions—it didn't matter which—she was on her own.
The wall she leaned into for balance greeted her bare shoulder with the previous day's warmth (she was a hygienic person, compulsive in keeping her hands free from public surfaces; she kept a sanitizing gel in her purse). A patch of its heat lingered on her skin as she came away and started off again, each hand clasping one shoe like some outdated and clumsy telephone. On her feet their effect was strikingly different: these were sleek, tight, six-inch Italian heels and her legs looked fantastic in them. Yet after hours of standing in a hot and cramped apartment her feet not only hurt but felt mauled, like maybe some real damage had been done. Once freed, they ached expansively, and she tested her weight on them with a few experimental steps.
Striding barefoot through Paris might be the height of ridiculousness, but there was no one before whom she needed to keep up appearances now. The graffiti alongside her seemed elusive and strained toward language without quite achieving it, the shapes almost forming into letters she could identify—words you can't find on your tongue when you need them. She glanced over every few steps to see if she could snatch something from the corner of her eye in case a person was meant to read it in that way, on the run, but none of it conformed to any alphabet she recognized. The source of the stench ran street-side to her, where a row of overstuffed blue bins aligned against the curb looked like open-market stalls presenting wares of rot: discarded food in undone takeout cartons, half-bagged dog droppings sacked atop withered flowers, bottles with a final swig for the fruit flies. She began to move as quickly as her blighted feet would allow and breathed through her mouth, the stink heavy enough that it should have been visible.
Her first August in Paris. It felt alien, off, and it appeared she had the place to herself. At the office some of her colleagues had warned her, playfully, of the weird change the city underwent this time of year. They called themselves les abandonées, a title for those low enough in the hierarchy (of which she was certainly one) to be left behind. She had laughed then, and yet—as in so many peculiar instances with the French language—it summed up the experience perfectly: the emptiness was unsettling and she felt abandoned. Perhaps the sensation was stressed in her by her lack of success at the party (she had expected to go home with a boy from Cameroon she'd been flirting with for weeks), or the unexpectedly oppressive heat at that late hour; or maybe it was just that what awaited her was an empty room with an unmade bed, clothes strewn about the floor that she would have to gather and wash tomorrow, passing her Sunday in a plastic chair alone with a magazine as Portuguese maids chatted over the hum of the laundry machines. Regardless of why, the wandering quality of her walk started to gain the weight of an expulsion, a sentence of exile.
Her hip grazed the enchained tables and chairs of a shuttered café as she turned into a lean pedestrian street; a pharmacist's neon sign hovered blue in the air ahead, not quite a beacon. Her strides slowed as she recognized a feeling she did not want, one she believed she had dismissed a long time before: the queasy hollow of homesickness, her first pang of it since she had arrived in January.
She was the kind of person who kept tight control of her emotions; the longing need of the homesick did not apply to her. She was the kind of person comfortable far from her origins, at ease among voices clamoring in unfamiliar languages, calm at work in cities and tribal areas where she knew hardly a soul or how things got done; she had once even denied food and water to refugees who could see stacks of aid awaiting them in trucks (an order from above, not her fault). A strong woman, disconcerted to learn how a long, unwanted, solitary walk through empty streets could bring out the lonesome in her. Perhaps what enhanced this sense of abandonment was that she had last been in this quartier weeks before when it had been overrun by jubilant crowds, absolute strangers dancing and embracing one another in the all-night celebration of France winning its first World Cup title. But there she was, twenty-four years old, an American who liked to describe herself as just a Kentucky girl, a woman who brought a small dose of good to the balance of the world even as she'd managed to secure a position and residence in one of its great cities. An especially impressive achievement in light of the bald sticks where she had grown up.
It was a path she had not so much set out on as found herself thrown in to. She had not grown up with specific career goals, but in her sophomore year of high school she managed to raise enough sponsor money to take part in her church's mission to the Dominican Republic. In a village there they had installed a water filtration system and taught Christ, and she had returned home with a sense of fulfillment the depth of which had been new, unimagined, thrilling to her. Two years later she did it again, to Haiti this time. That trip differed from the first in every way, and ended in failure—either from missionary ineptitude or the design of the materials, she never learned exactly. She had been bereft at abandoning people she'd come to consider friends by then to a poverty inconceivable to her before, and without having improved their lives in the slightest. It had been crushing to her teenage self. When she confessed her sense of futility to her pastor as they sat sweating in the airport, awaiting what felt like a narrow escape, his counsel had shocked her: she had her priorities mixed up, he said. The ultimate purpose of the missionary was to teach these people that Jesus loved them. This mission had had its drawbacks and frustrations, he admitted, but to his mind it had been a great success in the end. By the time their flight touched down on American tarmac she had lost her faith, found her life—that was the line she used when summing up her story over drinks, in the rare instance anybody asked.
Eight months in the city and she knew the layout of Paris better than many natives. She'd taken care to memorize Métro routes, took quiet pride in knowing which required the fewest connections to reach a destination without having to drag out the small blue Paris par arrondissement guide everyone owned and tried not to consult in public. Irrelevant knowledge now, on the street, though she did still possess a basic satellite view of the nautilus of arrondissements in her head. If she remained on the Haussmann boulevards it would be daylight before she made it to bed. Possible cut-throughs offered themselves, and she squinted at the blue-and-green plaques screwed to the sides of buildings, uncertain if she recognized the street names or not. It seemed much of her life now consisted of just such episodes, her eyes narrowing as she tried to discern a way forward, to identify whether or not she was lost, trying to recall her exact location in relation to a larger plan. Still, she walked.
For the three boys kneeling at work with spray cans and china markers, the woman's arrival signaled their moment to flee. Thirty minutes from the party and she had entered a dark lampless stretch, swinging her arms with each step even as she was having trouble estimating distances; she smacked the hand carrying both heels into a garbage container near the invisible curb and cried out as the shoes clattered away.
The boys sprang to their feet, shoving their tools deep into the pockets of counterfeit tracksuits, rip-offs of what the players wore for Paris St. Germain. They moved with exaggerated nonchalance while retreating without a glance back toward the noise that had disturbed them. The two youngest, barely in their teens, quickly got to hissing at one another, each convinced the other had failed in executing the agreed-upon escape route. They had been instructed to split up if discovered; instead, all three were angling toward the same long allée that gave out on the Place Napoleon and the Gare du Nord. To anyone observing from some distance the boys looked to be suffering muscular fits, each grunting, growling at the deaf ear of the other, twitching his head to where he thought his accomplice should take off.
Already the night had been tense. The boys barely knew one another beyond a nod around the neighborhood. They both wanted to impress their nominal leader, a seventeen-year-old recently arrived from Clichy-sous-Bois. To come from that beleaguered banlieue marked him as un bagarreur without question in their eyes, although unknown to them he had left the place to placate his mother. She had sent him to stay with his aunt (a woman who, she liked to say, had a real home) in the vain hope of protecting her son from the tuberculosis outbreak in their housing project. They lived on the ninth floor of a cité with no working elevator, climbed nine flights over needles and clochards. At first he had been relieved to get away from the nightsticks the police let fly on kids his age and color, relieved from having to cough up identification papers and detail reasons for occupying a park bench longer than some flic deemed necessary, or else risk a cracked skull. But cops were cops everywhere, he learned; it didn't matter if you were in or out of the ghetto-wall the périphérique highway had become.
So he spent his days on the move. Mytobacterium tuberculosis was thriving in his blood even if he did not yet know the fact of it. He had suffered from low fever for so long that his body would seem unfamiliar at normal temperature. He slept late, awoke coughing on his aunt's floor wrapped in a sheet gone damp with sweat, and blamed the raw spot beneath his ribcage on too many smokes the night before, too much of something or other. Bowed beneath a headache he would promise himself to lay off a bit today, give his lungs a break. But what to do when the Guadeloupean who ran the tables behind the station had no work to offer? He wasn't the type to push garment racks across rue St. Denis. He hopped turnstiles and rode aimless hours, eyes pegged for an unattended purse or the sagging suit-coat pocket. His hours glazed past as on a video screen flashing the world of goods refused to his kind, another life there glassed off in boutiques he would be asked to leave should he ever dare enter. He bummed smokes, chain-smoked slumped on slatted benches among the stench of the Métro stations, stretching his long legs into the paths of passengers who paced the siding—a game for him, a chance to prove who was boss. It was important that they were the ones to move, that they made way for him, while he himself did not move. All while casting frank appraisal at any female who wandered nearby. Old crone or hot meuf lost within her headphones, it didn't matter—if she lingered long enough he would start with the stare and sometimes even kissing solicitations; if she held her ground he would take up the challenge, increase the stakes, whisper the suffering she caused him, describe scenarios to offend a whore.
Rush hour crowds allowed him the pleasure of a little frottement. He could press himself into a gourgandine's firm haunch—softly at first, the merest graze that could be expected in the confines of the train car—and then he might push more insistently, rock in rhythm with the sway on the rails. Sometimes the woman moved off, switched places with another passenger. But not always. His favorites were the ones who panicked, stricken, stilled in disbelief at what was happening. Those he would grind into, thrusting until she had no choice but to exclaim Laisses-moi!, leave me alone. Those were best. How satisfying to work them up, to sense their distress like some hormonal secretion sounding the alarm! He would sift his nose up to just behind her ear and inhale deeply, seeing what she could tolerate before she could not accept a moment more, not one more touch. Laisses-moi!
Her complaint shook loose his laughter then, his rummy Akar-sour breath a cascade over the pretty white face cosmetically prepared just so. It was crucial that she understand how none of it—his sex hard against her thigh, her stunned outrage—meant the slightest to him. Every day needs whatever thrill that can be drilled from it. In his laughter he wanted her to not only hear but feel the utter mépris, the contempt in him; she had to understand that this boy knew the score and everyone was in play and he was atop his game, for who knew but one day it could be entirely different, one day they might be alone, and with him disinclined toward such generosity, such n'importe quoi. At half the chance he could eat their very hearts.
He made a lasting impression. It pleased him to think that these brief moments of contact—that instant she shouted Laisses-moi! and his laughter tumbled forth and the other passengers turned to look as the train screeched along the rails—he liked to think from that moment on he was in her life forever. A presence forever imprinted: his arms, thin as cuticles yet with hard muscle deeply defined, lazing overhead by the balance-rod above, arms ready to crush her and yet choosing not to crush her—a woman never forgets a moment like that. She would never know his name but his scent would be there, his heat and mépris absolu, returning to her the rest of her life and without warning, some quiet moment as she sought sleep or washed her face before a mirror, or when her mind was not quite with her mate as they made love. Thing was, a woman valued herself too highly. Every woman except his mother, who valued herself not at all.
With a grand sweep of his arm he corralled his young accomplices as their bickering attained an unacceptable level. Ta guele, he said, silencing them both. He told them they could go. Neither moved. He refused to repeat himself. Let them watch—every boy must learn how things got done; it had been the same for him. As he neared the bright graffiti they'd abandoned he slowed enough to make cursory inspection over the baroque designs in red and gold, an elaborate mask over what he'd drawn for the Guadeloupean, a penciled map that led to a fourth-floor apartment whose owner was away in the sun of the very country his mother had fled years before.
At first he took the woman hunched among the trash bins as a drunken pute gliding down from her night's work and not worth his attention. He almost decided to leave her alone. She had yet to notice him. She was either speaking to herself or singing a little song, one that carried in that narrow street walled in stone, and in her voice a charm sounded, a sweetness ground out of any whore he knew. When the search for her shoes placed her in a dim wash of streetlight, he sighted the brief dress clutching her fine figure, the step-class legs, the luster in the blonde hair she held from her face as she bent forward, peering about the gutter. She seemed impossible, unreal, something conjured.
His companions slipped in behind him, stubbing sneakered toes on uneven stones, hardly aware of moving of their own will but ready yet, prepared for all that might happen. They cast careful quick scans in every direction for signs of some cruel setup, and found none. Their dulled bodies enlivened, a jittering surge quickened their limbs, astonished to find the night's tedium broken so unexpectedly by such an offering, one they were obligated to accept. Even later, after it was all over and their days returned to routine, after they swore oaths to never speak of this night again, they would waste no time seeking a cause behind what they had discovered each was capable of doing—they accepted what happened as natural; there had been no other options. What else could she or anyone have expected, appearing at that hour and looking like that?
From her own perspective, the boys appeared with the silence of apparitions just as she reclaimed her shoes, three spirits loosed into the world from the garbage bins she had shoved aside. By the time she realized their presence, she was cornered already. Salut petite, she heard one say, the tallest and in the center, and with an accent she found unfamiliar. T'est perdu, non? T'as besoin du service? The voice exuded an extraordinary politesse she did not interpret as mocking until the others either side of him burst into hatchet-chop guffaws.
At full height she nearly managed to reach the shoulder of the one who had spoken. A peculiar tremor started to push in her veins, a sudden racing she made an effort, instinctively, to hide. She took in each face before her, each pair of unblinking eyes stilled beneath a dull red film, and saw no emotion, not kindness not threat nor even amusement; they were marbled stares that may as well have been awaiting an empty screen to proffer the next pointless show on the schedule. She was not yet ready to believe she'd entered into trouble. She started to speak—it seemed they were waiting for her to say something—but her throat was dry and her voice caught and she had to clear it before trying again, speaking into the vicinity of a collarbone and soul-patched chin. She told them she wanted to be left alone. It had come out in English. Her shoes were in her hands but she could hardly feel them. She pressed them against her chest, sharp heels turned out.
The boys did not move. When she spoke again she had found her French, stepping forward at the same time, and to her surprise they let her through. She felt the concentrated heat off their bodies as she passed through them. Then she was in the street and she did not care where she was headed so long as it was away. For several slow steps she even felt relief, a small hope that fear had been unwarranted, it had been only the surprise of the boys appearing at a time when she had believed she was alone. Paris was after all a safe city, its crimes essentially inconveniences, it wasn't like she was in Monrovia or East L.A. These boys were Parisians, and like every Parisian she'd met, they were not concerned with her one way or another.
A murmuring sounded behind her and she did not look back. A volley of laughter rose and then dropped and it sounded like they had not moved—fine, a few jokes at her expense cost her nothing. She did not look once over her shoulder, not even as she reached the allée, the nearest corner that would take her from sight. And then she did; she looked back. It was like the boys had been waiting for her to do so, like they had been awaiting a kind of signal she didn't even know she was sending. The boys whooped and cackled and smacked hands and by the time she went to run the one that had spoken was standing before her again, it seemed impossible that he covered the distance with such speed but in reality she had not moved very far, her legs were the legs in a dream when you know you must run but discover you cannot. The solid fact of him surprised her, one ropey arm barring her way as he leaned into it, casual, his bronze skin agleam as if oiled, giving off an odor of sugary alcohol and sweat.
Little light drew into the passageway there. Before she was aware of the others she felt hands on her ass, and she twisted half into the wall and half into the arm before her, and she felt hot breaths on her bare shoulders and her neck as she shouted, Stop. It made no difference. Someone held her at the waist and she shouted Laisses moi and laughter erupted around her, a great party breaking out in the empty alleyway, laisses moi suddenly the only French she knew and she heard it sung back to her in falsetto voices. Her arm scraped a stubbled cheek and her skin there stung sharply, and she lost one shoe batting away a hand as it pulled her dress above her hip, her thong snapped back against her and she twisted again and the stone wall pressed her cheeks, that was how she knew her dress was up. Hands scurried everywhere, all over her body and so many of them, rough and pinching and sweaty, her sweat or theirs, she didn't know, it didn't matter. She fought as best she could. She swung the one sharp heel left to her and struck into the meat of a face that ducked from sight with a pained cry that might have been her own. With that strike there fell a kind of pause, one in which the very atmosphere relayed an extra charge as each boy in the alleyway hesitated—not to think it over, no, thinking had fled the scene—but as though to acknowledge her one good strike, a natural rhythm arising to what the moment had reached.
Wait, she said. She wielded the one shoe before her with both hands.
The blows fell then all at once, from every direction. The mocking falsettos and tittering giggles plunged to grunts and gasps. Her feet left the ground and she felt herself floating, aloft in a harness of muscle that pinned her arms to her sides. The tallest boy bounced on the balls of his feet as he directed a series of punches to one part of her face with methodical focus, like it was the only idea he had and there was no way to defend herself against it, where were her arms, the hurt in her face surprised her with each blow, a new hurt each time. Her cheekbone gave way. She may have lost consciousness, she wasn't sure, there was a moment when his fist met her face again and she was startled to find the blows still coming, she had missed part of it. A tooth broke loose and slipped far back on her tongue and panic for air sent her writhing and the boys thought she was fighting back again. Inadvertently one of them saved her by staving his knee into her belly, bringing out the tooth along with the long evening's wine and couscous in a great wide projection. Then she was no longer floating but flying and only for an instant before she smacked against the wall and all wind escaped her, left her retching, unable to even sob.
The boys allowed another pause to gather breath. One had his hands on his knees and he coughed and hacked until he dislodged something from his throat that he left on her dress. Their bodies were not used to this kind of concentrated effort. They watched her push aside a garbage bag to make room within an overturned bin, digging out a small useless shelter, a task that appeared to require a good deal of deliberation. The act inscribed an image into the youngest boy there, one he would remember the length of his brief life—this image precisely, of her shapely bottom in the air with the thong halving its sumptuous valentine and the slow, childlike movement of her crawling into the bin, and the image would confuse him, being both erotic and pathetic, and he would come to wonder what he had wrong with him for it to fascinate him so. When they pulled her back out by the hips their hands had calmed, almost a grace to the whole thing now, they had worked hard and deserved to take their time. They turned her onto her back, they separated her knees, and she didn't want any of this but they had her. What little she would remember of the next twelve minutes of her life was the contortions of her tongue, how it worked to form various iterations of a single word—God—though she would never feel certain of the specific phrases she found, or where they had come from, or who she might have believed was listening.
The next few hours passed with her both in the world and out if it, the sliver of moon above sailing silently along its path in direct measure against the length of the alleyway, its light too meager to reach her, blocked by the city lights suffusing Paris in its roman candle glow, until the earth's rotation took the moon from sight behind the Gare du Nord before the sun had even weakened the night. Her mind waded through a drab crepuscular place where bits of conversation and parts of songs looped and faded in snatches and samples, a braid that kept unthreading in her hands. Her body felt apart from her, distanced by natural opiates flooding her bloodstream as rapidly as her body could create them, capillaries dilating to welcome white cells and fluid to her injuries and inflating one side of her face into the shape and color of a plum ready to be plucked. Pain fluttered in like irritable music heard down an otherwise complacent street, save for brief bursts when her body returned and the music surged to excruciating pain screaming down her nerves and sending her out once more. She did not know that the youngest boy finished last and alone, the others having fled as soon as they were done, and she did not feel his touch once he came back after several minutes spent squatting against the opposite wall staring at her unconscious form and glancing at that white gash of moon, where he believed sometimes he could see its darkest part if he looked long enough. She did not feel his swollen hands fix her outfit to cover her again but his hands were there, tugging the dress back over her thighs, lifting the stretchy fabric over her cool breast. It wasn't that the boy was gentle by nature or felt sorry for what he had done so much as he did not know what he felt, aside from it being different than what he was used to, a shaky, agitated fatigue contorted by emotions that refused to settle, wheeling one into another: contempt and release and pity and fear—even gratitude for the relief of his virginity, for resolving finally the great mystery of a woman's body; disgust, too, for much the same reason, and that she should have allowed such a thing to happen to her.
The way things go, it's like the world unfolds as if it has been all written down already; an uncle had given him that. He gnawed a sore on his lip and shook his head as the notion rattled about his mind. He walked up the alleyway with an eye on the moon that hovered like a scythe about to fall and made half an effort to understand how he felt. He wished he could ask someone about it (perhaps that same, if only he knew how to contact the man, but he had disappeared from his bidonville—the plywood and tin encampment where his people lived alongside the A1—years ago), even as he knew the soul he might discuss it with did not exist. It was like a whirlwind had taken possession of him and then dissipated once his companions had fled and his lust had been served. As though he had been a simple vessel used by something greater than himself.
Street cleaners discovered her the next morning, their loud arrival scattering the fat pigeons that had congregated to pick through the strewn trash. At first sight of her bare foot the man who found her assumed she had merely dropped there, too drunk to make it home (he was used to chancing upon such despond on his route). It wasn't until he righted an overturned bin that he understood, when at his touch the girl stirred, and a strange paralysis overtook him as she began to moan, to shake, and to weep. His crew was yelling at him by then, unable to see why he had left his post, angry that the debris they swept down the narrow stream of hydrant water was piling against his rolled mat and spilling back into the street, it meant more work for everyone, they were on a strict schedule and easily fell behind. But the street cleaner, almost thirty and with his wife expecting their first child, could not respond. He only palmed the skin of his shaven head, lips pared back and white teeth shining in the sharp morning gleam, the day's heat already slicking his scalp. Soon the others grew so angry that they too left their posts, eager to scold him to his face—he was the team dreamer, the foolish one—only to stop as well at the sight of the girl shuddering curled against the spattered wall (that was how they saw her; not as a young woman, but a girl). Perhaps because for some time his wife had been teasing him that she could feel she was carrying a girl (she claimed mothers-to-be knew what grew in their bellies, and he never crossed her once a certain framing set to her eyes), he had been contemplating what sort of father might he make for a daughter, it would be different for a son, what sort of world could he bring to a daughter and bring a daughter into . . . or maybe because he was the sort of man who acted on impulse, trusting his body to know what to do before he over-thought the task . . . or perhaps for no other reason than that he was a human being confronted with the suffering of another human being and already he had witnessed much suffering without acting against it—for whatever reason (later he would find no words to express reason to the police, his boss, his wife, for they seemed self-evident, the reasons), once his crew arrived and fell into that same shocked paralysis, he rediscovered his limbs and moved. He pushed his way through and bent to one knee and ignored the high keening sound she made and whispered supplications in his best, most gentle voice—what could he do, mad'selle, where did she hurt most?—and when she answered with nothing other than that sound like a rusty pulley working in her throat, he scooped her into his arms.
He was a tall thin man his comrades had thought frail. They stepped back, surprised, and then burst into exclamations and admonishments at the sight of him swaying with her, this victim of some terrible crime, even they knew not to get involved in that, call the police, an ambulance, what did he think he was doing, have you gone crazy, man? He said something to them, he wouldn't remember what but he knew he said something without looking any in the eye, no, he was looking somewhere over their heads, and in his voice they must have heard his seriousness for they all fell silent. He started with tentative steps, staggering at first before he got the hang of it, and no one spoke another word as he carried her up the allée and past the train station to the Hôpital Lariboisière another block away.
He had done only what humanity demanded—that was how he explained himself to the officers who detained him at the prefecture and during subsequent interviews; how he explained himself to the journalist who visited, and to the crew's manager once he was allowed to inquire whether his job still existed (his position had been filled by an alternate that same day; the entire crew was suspended until the investigation got sorted out). He met with his boss in the company of the American missionary from the Foyer in Aubervilliers, a sensible man who acted as something like a sponsor in whom the street cleaner placed deep trust—the man had helped him gain the work visa after years of undeclared toil, and the small apartment once legal status permitted him to move into a real home with his wife. The missionary insisted that he keep faith. The street cleaner agreed that yes, but in what? The process? It frightened and amazed him to realize the mess he'd made by carrying the girl to a hospital instead of waiting for an ambulance. In fact it was difficult to even believe. But there were procedures to follow in such an event, his friend explained, and the French take procedure very seriously (a characteristic he'd grown familiar with already). Once police informed them that his DNA had been found beneath the girl's fingernails, his uniform soiled with her blood, and once he came to understand how investigators might prefer to connect his immigrant's face to the damage done to hers, the faith he clung to narrowed to what little he found in himself.
The missionary girded him with reminders of the many proofs of God's presence in his life: how else to explain the good fortune that had allowed him to even make it to this moment and suffer this very crisis? Look at how he had fled Togo; he must have been carried in the Lord's hands just as he had carried that young woman. In Lomé he had lain hidden within a stand of trees as he watched his father, a faith healer, hacked to death for supposedly casting spells to protect those who opposed the rule of Eyadema. Later he lost two older brothers, nothing left of them now but the photographs he had kept in an envelope taped to his breast throughout his journey, when he had managed to enter Ghana without papers, tuck himself into a ship in the port of Accra, and be somehow delivered to Marseille, a two-week odyssey without harm or arrest. How else to explain meeting a woman as excellent as his wife, a woman unafraid of work and keeping house even as she prepared to deliver their first child?
The weeks passed. Eventually he was dropped, or set aside, as a suspect—he didn't know if he had been officially cleared or if it was a matter of the incident fading behind more recent crimes with better leads. He returned to work renewed and recommitted to his tasks. The mood of the crew had changed, though he tried to ignore it. They treated him differently than before. They weren't rude or abusive per se, but they left him to himself, they didn't speak to him beyond what the job required. Still he dispatched his duties quickly in order to ease the load on the others. This went unremarked upon but accepted, even as to seem expected; he had to make up somehow the misfortune he had brought upon them, the weeks they went without pay. He considered this a fair deal. Because in truth the street cleaner was a decent man who had passed through many desperate times and who allowed himself few illusions. He took his work seriously. He envisioned himself as a small but necessary cog in a great machine that produced hygiene, order, a home for some twelve million people from every corner of the globe. It was honorable work even if many did not see it that way.
He had much in his mind that he preferred not to pursue. For thirty-eight hours each week he created some small solace by focusing entirely on the activity of his hands. Still there was empty time to pass on the Métro, and on the bus that took him to and from the two small rooms he shared with his wife and new son in Aubervilliers; its single window overlooked the old cemetery behind the United Church of Christ, where he used to rest on a wire cot alongside other men desperate to create a new life and home. His wife forced books on him to read during his commute, either novels she'd enjoyed or else yet another guide to raising children. Rarely did he scan more than a few pages, if he opened them at all.
He didn't wish to think or dwell upon her, but some mornings his mind returned to the girl. Her weight in his arms, the frantic clutch of her hands behind his neck, often set upon him without his wishing it so. The strain within the deep muscles of his back, that wheeling sound in her throat—these blotted out the lines he was trying to follow in some book; they combined and continued within him and in time transformed into a general longing, a kind of sadness about the violence in the world from which there was no perfect escape. When his thoughts strayed too long to such matters he caught himself, and forced in better things: the thoughtfulness of his wife, for one, or his memory of her extended belly's taut warmth as he rubbed in ointments to relieve her anxiety over stretch-marks; the vision of his impossibly tiny son asleep in the bassinet he'd forged from an empty dresser drawer. Only thoughts like these were honestly useful, he believed, and he held to them as he exited the station to start another day. He had to be in the right state of mind for when the rest of the crew arrived (he made certain he was first to get there, always); it was important to be ready, for there was always so much work left to do.
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