[A first draft]
The exterminator was supposed to arrive at eleven. I stayed in my apartment to let him in. I suppose I could have left this duty to the concierge but I don’t trust strangers in my place. When after an hour the exterminator still hadn’t arrived, I went downstairs to complain.
The concierge, Philippe, lived in a tiny room of his own. Inside the air was thick with cigarette smoke, so I didn’t stay long, but apparently it was long enough to irritate him.
“If he’s late, that’s between you and him,” he said.
The act of lighting one cigarette off the end of the other seemed vastly more interesting to him than dealing with me.
“He’s not just late,” I said, tapping the face of my watch. “It’s past twelve. He’s not coming. I think you need to call him again.”
Philippe sucked the first kiss of life out of the fresh cigarette. He squinted his eyes at me.
“I don’t get involved. If I take responsibility for everything that goes wrong, everyone will be mad at me, won’t they?”
I wasn’t about to argue. He was irritated; I was irritated. One of us had to keep our manners.
I returned to my room. I had previously pushed the furniture into the centre so that the exterminator would be able to get at the skirting board and the walls. I sat on the chair, which had been turned around so that its back was against the desk.
I considered taking matters into my own hands. I contemplated killing several dozen of the cockroaches and making a line of them across the floorboards beside the skirting board. That would be a warning for the others. Let them watch the little legs of their brothers and sisters twitch and shake uselessly, and then eventually stop. Let them think about whether their invasion of my room was such a good idea after all.
That afternoon I had my long-awaited date with Annabella. Finally, the dip in temperature had given the city some overdue relief. You could feel a breath of wind in the air. It was so pleasant for our walk. On the line of trees along the avenue, in the wake of the morning thunderstorm, the leaves were heavy with rain. A few drops fell on us. I suddenly kissed one from her nose. I had never kissed her before.
We came back to my room, and at last I had her where I wanted her. That’s when she saw it. A big fat grand-daddy cockroach crawling up the wall above the bed. She screamed.
I killed the cockroach, but the cockroach succeeded in killing the mood. Annabella pulled on her T-shirt again. She asked for a glass of water. I walked down the hallway to the lavatory and filled up the glass. When I returned, she had straightened her hair and clipped it back.
“I’ve heard of slumming it,” she said. “But this is too much, no?”
It took us a while to get over that. For the next few days, whenever I saw her in the cafeteria of l’Alliance Française where she took classes, she would give me a smile and turn away. Every time I approached her, there was always some place she had to go. I got sick of the patronizing smiles of her friends and various hangers-on so I stopped going to the cafeteria. Instead, I waited across the street from the entrance of the school. Sometimes I’d wait an hour or more before she appeared. Sometimes I’d lose patience and go home.
One evening I prepared my usual dinner of a baguette filled with cheese and spinach and left it on the plate while I went down the hallway to the bathroom. When I returned, I found a cockroach had taken an active interest in my meal, poking his head in around the crumbs. He tried scuttling away to safety but I was too fast for him. It made me queasy to have to kill him the way I did – stomping on his back with only a sock between my skin and his exoskeleton – but after his twitching stopped, I felt proud of my decisive act. I put the corpse into an envelope, wrote Philippe on it, and left it in the appropriate mailbox on my way out to work.
While I was in the kitchen that evening it occurred to me that I hated almost everyone in the world. Starting from my immediate surroundings and moving outward, there was hardly a single human being who deserved my favourable opinion. Andre, my fellow dish-pig, pushed laden trays of dishes in my direction, always cracking off-colour jokes while fooling himself that one day he might work in the dining room, which was absurd, because his pock-marked skin would have turned all the guests off their food. Some of the various line-cooks were almost as delusional. Many of them pretended to have interesting outside lives, striving for attention in the theatre or film industry; one claimed to be on the verge of a major publishing deal for his first volume of poetry. I listened to all the various bullshit stories, glad of the huge hosepipe in my hands with its powerful jet-spray nozzle, which I could crank up whenever I needed to cover the sound of my derisive tittering. Then there was the hierarchy of chefs, all of them needing to abuse somebody or another just to feel OK about themselves; the same pattern of behaviour manifesting itself right up to the head chef, who was an outright psychopath. A line cook came back from a holiday in Normandy one evening having failed to stop at his apartment for a shave. The head chef grabbed him, held his face between the lobster-like pincers of his giant red hands, and produced a rusty pair of tweezers that apparently he’d been saving for just this opportunity. He started ripping out the offensive stubble strand by strand while the line cook screamed for mercy.
Venturing beyond the kitchen, one found specimens of humans that, while outwardly appearing more civilized, were nonetheless equally contemptible. The waiters were a breed you didn’t want to approach, especially not while covered in sweat and grease. They liked to joke that we kitchen staff were filthier than sewer rats. As for the paying customers. Let’s not talk about the customers! With their fat jowls wobbling over their soup and their thin noses sniffing at the edges of their wine glasses, filling the dining room with a din worse than seagulls at a rubbish tip, it was a wonder anyone maintained an appetite for eating at all. If you exited the restaurant, the spectacle of humanity was just as repellent, from the businessmen in their suits, all of them strutting around stiff like so many erect penises; to the tourists, squinting stupidly at buildings, bumbling along, their pasty thighs chafing together, shouting at their hysterical children; to the artists, smirking and kissing each other’s cheeks every two minutes and pouring all their energies into ridiculous new poses; to the university professors, stroking their chins ponderously and dropping a bunch of obscure names and looking very smug about the whole act. And forget about turning on the television or going to the cinema. Every famous person was just as predictable and forgettable as the next. This actress was the talk of the town for her recent breast augmentation in the wake of her second divorce from the actor who was caught forcing his maid to blow him; this politician claimed he’d wage a tireless campaign to force all the lowlife scum into employment but then was distracted when he took the lead role in organizing an aerial bombardment of some Arabic country that until yesterday had been our ally; this television pundit had lost a ton of weight and so became the ad-spokesperson for one of those therapeutic-style groups where people sit around and flap their gums about weight-loss goals, and for this privilege pay twenty-nine euro a month – a sale price, apparently!
So little humanity among the seething scores of humans. It sickened me.
I’d taken to wandering around the neighbourhood of l’Alliance Française, not only because the neighbourhood was much nicer than my own, and not only because it gave me a chance to check in on Annabella, but also because I liked to take a book with me to the Jardin du Luxembourg and sit on one of those green, metal chairs beside the fountain, and there I would pass time comfortably and with a sense of purpose. Books, unlike humans, rarely let me down.
I was at that time making swift progress through The Cossacks, by Tolstoy.
The sky had clouded over by four o’clock. I went to go check in on Annabella but then the rain started up. I hadn’t brought an umbrella; I was completely unprepared. I stood staring at the entrance of the school and watched a couple of girls exit and shriek when the rain hit them. The light was fading to a premature dusk. I gave up my vigil. If Annabella found me waiting as a drenched dog, I wouldn’t exactly raise my stature in her eyes. I ran the few streets to the metro and scurried underground like a mole.
Back in my own neighbourhood, where there was broken glass on the pavement, where we had to contend with dog messes everywhere with no poop-mobiles ever coming to help us, I entered my building and suddenly saw the back-end of Philippe poking out of a doorway. He was pulling on an industrial-sized pail on wheels. I hoped to tiptoe past and avoid him. Of all the people I hated, which as I’ve explained, included pretty much everybody, I hated him most of all. But he turned around, spotted me, and flagged me down, so I was forced to contend with him.
“Those friends of yours made a flood of shit,” he announced. “And now we can’t find them.”
I had no idea who he was talking about. Friends? What motivated such baseless accusations? I didn’t know anybody in the building that merited even a nod of my head, let alone enduring friendship.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
“The Slavs,” he replied, having temporarily given up on his pail and moving close enough to me I could smell his stench. “The Lithuanian in 204.”
A thug named Jonas had moved into the building six months previously, purportedly to be close to the university, but it was only the female students he ever intended to be close to. A kindred spirit, you might think. But I’d be flattering Jonas to take the comparison any further.
One night, while one of his many parties was raging, Jonas lurched out into the hallway and found me waiting agitatedly for the elevator. He insisted that I join the merriment. He claimed that his party offered “a very special assortment of girls looking for superior penis skills.” He laughed louder than a hydraulic drill.
In his apartment I quickly noticed evidence of his dissolute lifestyle. There were piles of pizza boxes and uneaten crusts going stale in the sink, a wall of empty beer cans, clothes strewn about, and in the bathroom, most of the previously white surfaces had turned grey.
After insisting that I do some shots with him, Jonas went back to wooing a Russian girl called Sonia. She was far too beautiful for him. As he plied her with more and more gin, those perfect eyes became watery smudges. Jonas eventually disappeared with her into his bedroom. He reappeared about thirty minutes later wearing a triumphant grin that gave the whole game away. He truly disgusted me.
At that moment, Philippe suddenly showed up at the party brandishing a French chef’s knife. Jonas’ smile was wiped clean off his oafish face.
“I’m an old man,” Philippe raged. “I couldn’t care less about the consequences if I murdered every last one of you. Now get the hell out!”
The mean age of the partygoers was about twenty one. They were terrified. All of us obeyed Philippe immediately.
Ever since that night, Philippe had assumed I was pals with the Lithuanian and his entourage. He now grabbed my arm and insisted that I follow him so I could see what “my friends” had done.
Being the restaurant’s resident garbage handler had given me a strong stomach for filth. During the stickiest days of summer, I had witnessed bags of refuse literally move down the alleyway propelled only by the maggots inside. But even for me, the scene I witnessed that day was difficult to behold.
Philippe told me that several days ago, the toilet in Jonas’ apartment had become blocked, but this had not deterred the “subhuman Lithuanian” or his friends from using it many times over. A shower composed of water and shit had rained down into the apartment below – Apartment 104. At the time, the occupants, a Moroccan woman and her young daughter, had been away in Casablanca. They never had a chance to protect themselves against the fecal floodwaters.
“Look at what your friend did,” said Philippe. “Not even an animal does something like this. Then he ran away. If you know where he is hiding, you better tell me now.”
He had not loosened his grip on my wrist for a second.
“I tell you, I hardly know him,” I replied. “I saw him a handful of times and he never made a good impression.”
“He invited you to that party,” Philippe pointed out.
“He would have invited an escaped convict to that party,” I said
“I will slit his throat if I see him,” said Philippe. “Tell him that.”
“I won’t tell him because I won’t see him,” I insisted.
Philippe let go of my hand. He reached for his usual consolation, the packet of cigarettes that perennially made his shirt pocket bulge. A thick cloud of smoke enveloped us.
“I don’t know where the world is headed,” he said. “Everyone one has lost their mind. Did I tell you somebody put a dead cockroach in my mailbox?”
I could hardly leave an old man with a weak heart and an unreliable back to clean up two apartments singlehandedly. So I fetched the industrial-sized pail from downstairs and started mopping. This was the kind of chore that in a fair world would have been performed by Jonas armed only with a toothbrush.
After an hour of mopping, I received a reminder of why Philippe was so loathsome to me. I stepped into the hallway for a breath of fresh air and there I found him sitting on an upturned milk crate, smoking another cigarette.
“Is this your idea of team work?” I said.
“I need a minute,” he replied, not in the slightest bit ashamed. “The doctor said to not overtax myself.”
“Did the doctor also tell you to smoke two packs of Gitannes every day?”
Philippe looked back at me with the most doleful eyes.
“One little pleasure in my life,” he said. “Is that too much to ask?”
It was hard to decide which was the most distressing spectacle. Was it Apartment 104, which had been meticulously maintained by the Moroccans, and was therefore all the more tragically undone by the flood? Or was it Apartment 204? In the kitchen closet were piles of garbage bags whose contents were liquefying and spreading out in a small sea of slime. In the living room, behind the entertainment centre, we discovered the corpse of a mouse. It was suspended in a nest of electric cables, its jaws open in an apparent final squeak for help. Moving to the bedroom, Philippe and I uncovered fresh outrages. Under the bed were about a dozen discarded plates and bowls, encrusted with food and layers of flowering mold. But that wasn’t quite as unsettling as what we found underneath his mattress: a collection of Eastern European pornography, chiefly specializing in sado-masochism, but not your commonplace cloths-pegs and ball-gags variety. That kind of S&M wouldn’t have stirred as cynical a man as Jonas. In this collection, most of the acts of torture had been carried out in a mock-up Nazi concentration camp.
Philippe puffed away on a Gitanne as he pronounced on our latest discovery.
“Now I can die having seen everything,” he said, grinning.
Cleaning up the mess took all the patience I had. After three hours of that filth, I brought my frayed temper and flagging energy with me to the restaurant, where I rested against the sink. My fellow dish-pig Andre noticed my exhaustion. He asked me if I was worn out from entertaining some lady-friend
I said, “This is the only friend I entertained today,” and then lunged at him, pushing my hand in his face. This provoked the anticipated squeal of outrage. We started wrestling, me keeping my hand resolutely pressed against ugly mug.
Suddenly the head chef loomed up out of nowhere.
“That looks like a fun game,” he said. “Grab-a-fool-by-the-face!”
He turned his giant mitt on me, his palm almost crushing my nose as he manhandled me back to the sink.
“Get to work!” he roared.
I had never been so humiliated in my life. Once I’d overcome the shock of his sudden attack, I revolted.
“It’s not enough for you that we’re paid so miserably that we can barely afford a room even in the filthiest neighbourhoods of Paris,” I shouted. “To be fully satisfied, you have to use your unquestioned power for the express purpose of abusing everybody, don’t you? I am glad you made the decision to withdraw my labour power so easy for me. I quit.”
I grabbed the hosepipe and let him have a generous burst of the scalding spray straight in the face. Then I bolted. The rear door provided the best exit. Out in the alleyway, I ran as fast as my legs could take me, not once looking back. I reached the street, swerved left, hit the dinner hour parade of morons looking for overpriced food, damn near trampled a toddler underfoot, and finally made it into the Metro, where a train was just departing.
I wanted to see Annabella and I knew it would be too late to catch her at l’Alliance Française so I travelled all the way to the Bois de Boulogne. Her host family lived in the leafy neighbourhood just adjacent to the woods. I had never visited before, but on her birthday she had permitted me to send her flowers, and ever since then I’d kept her street address on a scrap of paper.
It was a white building that looked rather like a Spanish villa, with several large chestnut trees out front. To get to the entrance meant passing through an ornamented arched gateway, but I didn’t venture this far. I held back, contemplating the scene from the opposite side of the road.
I played a game in which I’d stare at an object – the stone lion at the gateway, for example – and during the passage of five, ten, even fifteen minutes, I tried to see if I could discern the dusk closing in. After one particularly long stint of staring, I turned my head, and the change of light was abrupt; suddenly it was night-time.
A few passerby by had eyed me suspiciously and I wondered if somebody would call the police. It was nine o’clock, and still no one had either entered or exited the white building. I was hungry and my legs hurt from standing the whole time. It was crazy to invite such suffering onto my own shoulders for Annabella’s sake. I’d fallen in love with an idea: that she, a rich girl, could end up “slumming it” with a man like me. I think I was more in love with the idea than the actual person.
Walking back to the Metro, I told myself that this would be the last effort I made for her sake. And then, wouldn’t you know it, I suddenly spotted her stepping out of a pharmacy, pushing a recent purchase into her purse.
“Remember me?” I said.
She looked up and seemed nervous.
“Where did you come from?”
“I’ve been looking for you,” I said.
“Where were you looking?”
“Where else? Your house.”
The smile she’d been trying to arrange on her face immediately vanished.
“You were at my family’s house? What happened?”
“Nothing happened, Annabella. I know better than to just knock on the door and introduce myself.”
This news visibly brought her considerable relief. She tossed her head a little one side, in that habit she had, so that it looked like she was sizing you up.
“OK,” she said. “What are you doing now?”
“Nothing,” I said. “We should have a drink together.”
We found a café that was half-deserted and as soon as we entered you could tell the waiter had been wanting to close up, but when Annabella fully emerged from beside me, and asked if there was any food left, the waiter suddenly found new motivation for his job.
Café food is excruciatingly boring – the same croques monsieurs and salades niçoises almost everywhere you go – and so it was particularly painful to me that our orders were going to cost me fifty euro. One of the wearying things about poverty is the incessant mental gymnastics you have to perform with numbers. But while Annabella was talking, the features of her face fell into the exact configuration that made me so crazy for her, and I stopped thinking about mathematics, and started thinking like a madman again.
“Bring us a bottle of wine if you could,” I said to the waiter, and turned my gaze to the golden ringlets of Annabella’s hair.
“Right away, monsieur,” said the waiter.
“Are you sure?” Annabella asked me.
“I’m sure,” I said.
“You’re very spontaneous,” she said.
This was encouraging, even if I rationally knew that for the most part, it was only the attention that Annabella craved, nothing more serious.
I told her about having quit the restaurant. She loved the story and even clapped her hands. We got talking about other things for a while, films and books – she was in the middle of reading Anna Karenina – and then the waiter stealthily crept up with the bill. A little panic must have showed behind my eyes.
Annabella said, “Are you one hundred percent sure you should be paying for everything?”
“One hundred and ten percent,” I said. “Jobs come and go.”
After I had paid, there was still half a bottle of wine left. That’s when she announced she would be going home because her host family would be worried about her.
“You’re twenty-three,” I said. “It seems a bit odd, don’t you think, to have a curfew?”
“I know, I know,” she sighed. “It’s not their fault. It’s my family. They call every night at eleven o’clock to see if I’m home. My host family feels very responsible.”
“Don’t you think it’s a bit odd to have your own family following up on you?”
“I know,” she sighed again. “It’s just that they don’t really trust Paris. If I were back in my town, it would be different.”
“I think you need to be in charge of your own destiny,” I said.
“I know,” said Annabella. Her repeating of the same sentence was irritating me. “It’s also that I shouldn’t really keep drinking. Tomorrow my host family wants to introduce me to—”
She stopped. She had said something she shouldn’t have.
“Who are they introducing you too?” I asked.
“It’s one hundred percent their idea,” she said. “I’m going along out of obligation.”
“Who are they introducing you to?”
“Just some guy from Lyon,” she said. “He’s moving here to open up a new branch of the family business. It’s something to do with fibre-optics.” She smiled at me and squeezed my hand. “I’m sure he’ll be a very boring guy.”
She stood up. There were at least four glasses of wine left in the bottle – the bottle that had cost me over sixty euro!
“It’s been such a nice evening,” she said. “I always enjoy our time together.”
She kissed my cheek. Then she darted out of the door. The waiter looked at me.
“I bet that didn’t end the way you wanted,” he said, and then he laughed.
I got very drunk that night. After finishing the expensive bottle of wine, I bought a cheap one to chase it. Then I passed out in my bed. When I woke up, it was noon. An ambulance siren blaring away had disturbed my sleep. I staggered up the hallway to the toilet and found it occupied. I cursed my miserable building. Even that bastard Lithuanian had enjoyed a toilet and shower of his own. Not to mention a proper bedroom.
I walked all the way around the circular hallway to the other bathroom. This one didn’t even have a window. When I flicked on the light, I saw a cockroach skitter away into his hiding hole. That very moment, I decided that my move to Paris had been an abject failure. More than eight months in the so-called City of Light, and no one had resolved the seventh floor’s cockroach problem. I still had enough money for a train ticket south. I would get out of town that very same day; renege on my lease and leave Philippe to sort out yet another mess.
After a long and painful session on the toilet, a strong appetite gripped me. I descended to the main floor, meaning to head out to the local bakery, which sold quite passable croissants, brioche and salads in plastic take-out bowls. But I never made it that far. There was a small crowd of people hanging around the foyer. I spotted the Moroccan woman and her young daughter. I approached them and found out what had happened. Only half an hour ago, Philippe had been discovered lying inert on the floor of Apartment 204. An ambulance had come and rushed him to the hospital.
“He’s almost seventy,” said the Moroccan. “He shouldn’t have been working so hard.”
“Philippe is seventy?” I said.
“I’d never have given him such grief about my apartment if I’d known about his heart,” she continued. “I heard you were the only one who helped him.”
I nodded my head.
“It was a mountain of work,” I said.
“You did more than anybody,” she said, appearing quite choked up about the whole thing. Her daughter was tugging on her arm. “I do so hope he will be OK.”
She hurried away with her daughter. I felt uncertain about what to do next.
Later that afternoon, I was still in Paris – to be precise, I was in the café around the corner, fighting my hangover with coffee and trying to focus on my book. All of a sudden I saw the building owner walk in. I recognized him from a high-decibel argument he’d once had with Philippe. In the late-day heat he didn’t look like trouble. He was just a middle-aged man with a paunch and too many worries. I approached him. He remembered me, the only Western European tenant in the entire block. I asked him about Philippe.
“Philippe has gone,” he said. “The ambulance might as well have taken him to the morgue. There was nothing they could do for him in hospital.”
I should have been prepared for this, but even so I was shocked. It jolts you to see someone, smell someone, talk to someone, and then twenty-four hours later know that you’ll never see that person again, even if that person if Philippe. I tried to remember the last words he had said. What really stood out from the previous day’s activities was the discovery of the Nazi-porn collection, and how it seemed to amuse him.
“Philippe was a good man,” I said.
The owner seemed to appreciate my thoughtfulness.
“He was a soldier,” he said. “I didn’t imagine him leaving us, ever. He never complained about his health. He never complained about anything.”
I wondered what version of Philippe the owner had been dealing with all these years.
“You helped him out with that nasty flood,” he continued.
“You heard about that?”
Suddenly his face became animated. “I’ve got an idea. The building needs someone to take his place. I don’t know if you’re interested. Probably not. Got bigger fish to fry.”
But I didn’t have any bigger fish to fry. I said I would think about his offer. He insisted that I consider it very seriously. I think the last thing he wanted was to deal with any of the building’s current problems singlehandedly.
“You know, the room Philippe had probably wouldn’t be big enough for a younger man like you, someone who is likely to have a girlfriend. Why don’t you take Apartment 204?”
And so the next day I moved in to the Lithuanian’s old lodgings. Several weeks passed. I received an advance on my monthly concierge fee of two hundred euro. It was a pittance but I was happy with it. My new job consisted of hours of nothing punctuated by irritating requests. The old woman in Apartment 509 swore that the neighbours’ new satellite dish was interfering with her television’s reception. I adjusted the aerial and everything was fine. “Ah, it works for you but not for me,” she said. “Just as soon as you’re gone it will be snow.” In Apartment 301, there was a minor mouse infestation. It wasn’t hard to see why. The residents, two perennially-drunk men in their forties, left the window open all day for a row of pigeons who sat on the ledge, waiting to be fed, and not waiting in vain, I should add. Mice enjoyed the breadcrumbs just as much as the pigeons did. I laid down a mousetrap and departed, sure that one of the drunks would end up with the mousetrap stuck to his big toe.
One day, as I was hauling out the garbage, I found Annabella standing on the front step looking distraught. I took her into my apartment and asked her what was the matter. She was disconcerted, at first, to find out about my change of lodgings.
“You had a cosy little room on the top floor,” she said.
“I’m moving up in the world,” I said. “As you can see.”
“At least one of us is,” she replied, and then burst into tears.
It turned out that she had actually been dating the fibre-optics businessman from Lyon. Against the wishes of both her host family and her own family, she had more or less moved in with him. Mere days later, she came home early from her classes and found him snorting cocaine with a couple of half-naked escort girls. She fled for the safety of her host family, but now she couldn’t stand the constant surveillance and second-guessing of her every action. By tomorrow, her father would be arriving in Paris and was threatening to take her back to Portugal.
This is what had prompted her to see me. She needed somewhere she could disappear.
“I see, I see,” I said, and handed her another tissue.
Quite a pickle she had gotten herself into!
I was in a position to be magnanimous. My former home on the top floor was still unoccupied and so I offered it to her on a temporary basis. This shocked her. I think she had come all this way expecting to move in with me. But she didn’t have the luxury of being choosy.
We took the elevator to the seventh floor and arrived at the apartment. There was the tell-tale stain on the door where I’d squashed a wasp last summer. We went inside. Places smell different after you move out of them. My smell still lingered there, but it was an old smell now, like part of me that had gone into archives.
“Here’s the key,” I said. “You know where to find me if you need anything.”
Just as I was moving back into the hallway, she reached out and grabbed my wrist. Her apprehension made her look much younger.
“There aren’t cockroaches are there?” she said.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think that problem was sorted out weeks ago.”
“I won’t be able to sleep if there are cockroaches,” she said.
In that moment, I brought my clear advantage into view, where it was a very ugly thing. But I no longer cared.
“Well you could sleep with me,” I said.
“I would much rather sleep with you,” she replied, visibly relieved.