On our way back to Bhavnagar from the ships’ graveyard, Alice repeats her one-word response—“Wonderful”—and asks again, “Where will you take me next?” The dead ships and dying men have been neither enough nor too much. Not enough to prove she could face anything. Not too much to face for a terminal patient in remission. I’d believed one of those responses would send us back home. I was overwhelmed by Alang, sickened and scared by all those young athletes soon to be diseased or crippled or dead, melted down by the sun and their torches and the twelve-hour days. But Alang was somehow too little for Alice, and she wanted to keep going on.
“Alang is the worst place on earth,” I tell her. “I don’t have anything to top that.”
“Okay, so what about the best place on earth?”
“You know how I feel about that.”
“Right, but that’s purely personal, like a player’s irrational attachment to his first court.”
“And his heroic past?”
“I was the Greek Key,” I remind her.
“What do your other clients say is the best?”
“Probably Paris, whether they’ve been there or not.”
“It has a river, just like Cincinnati.”
I’m stalling for time, trying to imagine some objection to Paris other than the French people who live there.
“No mausoleums that I can think of,” I say.
“You know, Michael, I don’t feel I need death as much as I used to,” Alice says, as if she were dismissing a silly habit like drinking carrot juice before every meal. She gestures out the back window of our taxi. “That should hold me for a couple of days, so let’s go to Paris.”
Just like that. That’s how the new Alice likes to decide and move, like an athlete, by whims and darts, fits and starts. I’d picked the Alang graveyard. Now Alice is choosing and heading west, which I hope is a good sign.
In the Delhi airport, I look at the departure board and tell Alice flights are going soon to Washington and New York. Arlington National Cemetery, Grant’s Tomb. I’d be in the same time zone as Sara and Ann. It wouldn’t cost her as much to harangue me about the length and cost of this tour.
“I think it’s healthier outside the United States,” Alice says, overlooking the dying men at Alang while eating her Sbarro’s pizza. It’s hard to argue with the results. The remission mission has become Alice’s tour for the cure, and now she wants croissants and frogs’ legs at the tourist’s axis mundi. She buys a Paris guide in the airport bookshop and starts looking for a hotel. That’s when I realize that Alice could go to Paris, and I can go to Cincinnati. Physically, she is strong enough to carry her own bag, and I’d given her lots of international airport experience. There must be plenty of unescorted women poking around the antique shops and flea markets of Paris. Yet somehow I still feel my presence is necessary. Alice and I are “in the zone” together, like Stockton and Malone of old, the assister and assistee so close they don’t have to--or dare to--speak of the charmed collaboration they are creating. If traveling is saving Alice’s life, I need to go on with her a while longer. After watching and smelling and hearing those poor bastards at Alang, I also feel--more than ever before--that metal may go on and on and on, but that I will end or stop or terminate.
In our hotel near the Bastille, Alice is airplane wired and wants to take a walk before unpacking, so with her holding the map we zig zag through Marais to the Seine near where the canal joins the river.
“Yup,” she says, imitating a Kentucky farmer to mock my attempt to discourage this trip, “just like that there Cincinnati etcept here it’s Paree on both sides.”
“Same boats too,” I say as a bateau-mouche passes by, looking nothing like the fake paddle wheelers that give tourists a ride in Cincinnati.
“And I guess that building over there must be Paul Brown Stadium, not the Museum of the Arab World.”
“You better be thankful about that considering all the Christian-hating Algerians they have in Paris.”
“Michael,” Alice says as if I’ve just arrived at her side, “I want to take a swim.”
“Sorry, the Seine is just as polluted as the Ohio.”
“Not here. On the plane I was reading about the public pools. Tomorrow we buy you a suit and go swimming. That pool at the Best was for kiddies and mosquitoes.”
“Are you sure you’re up to that kind of exercise? It’s a lot more tiring than the walking we’ve been doing.”
I remember my first hydrotherapy session after my hip replacement. I thought I’d drown. It was then I decided I was through with anything athletic.
“I used to swim four times a week. My legs are still in good shape. And I’ll drink a bottle of wine for the sugar before we go.”
I must look shocked because Alice touches my arm and says, “I’m just kidding about the wine, Michael. Come on, we’re in Paris, put away that silly white nurse’s cap. We’ll get you a beret and maybe a pipe so you can look philosophical if you insist on worrying.”
The next morning we take the Metro in from the Bastille to Les Halles, the underground shopping mall where one of Paris’s indoor pools is located. I buy a boxer model, and we walk over to the pool. We pay our two euros each and change in the unisex locker room. When Alice comes out of her booth in her Speedo, I can see she has been exercising herself as well as her patients. A bicyclist’s legs and swimmer’s shoulders. With her short-cut hair under her swim cap, she looks like old photos of Esther Williams, the rounded cheeks of maybe the first bathing beauty. We take a shower and head to the pool. Just as we are walking onto the apron, a young man with a whistle around his neck runs up to me, points at my suit, and says “Non, non, non” along with some other French that I don’t understand. I figure this guy must be the French fashion police and that the bright orange I’d chosen is out this season. “English?” I ask. “Non, non, non.” I hold out my open palms to show I don’t understand. This referee points down at his own suit, a black number about the size of a cocktail napkin--with considerable matching black pubic hair sprouting around the edges. I look at Alice. She shrugs. She is running the point now, but my guide doesn’t speak French and is no help with this native. Again I open my palms. The pubic-proud guy points around the pool at other men, all wearing the same cocktail napkin, though in different colors. “American,” I tell him and point at the suit. He is clearly not a person who has seen any beach movies or Hawaiian travel shows. “Non, non,” he says, “non sanitaire.” “Sanitaire,” he repeats. I understand the word but not its relevance. The suit is brand new, we’ve been in the shower.
Although the lifeguard and “sanitaire” protector is clearly upset, he doesn’t blow his whistle. Instead, he takes me by the arm, leads me back through the locker room, points out an iconic sign that clearly X-es bathing suits like mine, and then shows me to a vending machine in the lobby where, for six euros, I can buy my own waterproof and sanitary cocktail napkin. By the time I’ve tucked all of myself into it and congratulated myself on my blond hair, Alice is tooling freestyle up and down a lane, passing the French women and men. They seem afraid to get their hair wet because they are all doing the breaststroke. I realize why the French are called frogs: they are all kicking like bullfrogs and bellefrogs. I lower my almost exposed privates into the water, but I can’t do that frog kick, not with the artificial hip. After two laps, the former athlete is exhausted and the former trainer is still churning the water. Yes, I think, Alice is definitely strong enough to do whatever she wants.
I won’t bore you with the usual tourist tales, the undiscovered Oberkampf bistros where we can’t get a table or the hideaway Beaubourg cafes where we can’t get a waiter. Every morning we go to a different pool, and every afternoon we go to a park (if sunny) or a café (if rainy). We don’t go to the Montparnasse cemetery near the Luxembourg Gardens when we are there, and we don’t go to the catacombs after we have lunch at La Coupole. After four days, I do get a little superstitious and insist we visit Napoleon’s tomb at the Hotel des Invalides, an old military hospital. Alice stands up on the walkway above the crypt and laughs while other tourists and French guards look at her. “I thought he was a little fellow,” she says, looking down at a casket that could easily have accommodated Shah Jahan and Mumtaz, permanent residents of the Taj Mahal. “Maybe it’s one of those Russian-doll caskets,” I whisper to her, which makes her laugh louder. I’m respectfully silent, but the coffin is grotesque, grandiose not just in size but in its polished surface and overdone surroundings, the statues and paintings that encircle the old Emperor. The tomb is unlike anything we’ve seen, more artificial than the Taj, more strange because more recent, the Museum of Death.
“Enough,” Alice says as we’re leaving. This is the response I was seeking at Alang, but Alice doesn’t mean enough travel, just enough mausoleums. I agree. We are no longer on a terminal tour, at least not the one Alice began. Now it’s a training trip. Alice doesn’t buy any clothes or souvenirs, doesn’t ask me to tape her clowning around with mimes pretending to be dead or statues in front of City Hall. She does more and more laps every day while I sit in my bikini bottom and admire French bodies and the architecture of their pools. A couple are like churches, with vaulted ceilings and high stained-glass windows. One reminds me of a Turkish bath or mosque. Pontoise, the “piscine” in the Latin Quarter, is particularly elegant, maybe even elevating and inspiring. It has three floors of changing rooms and walkways surrounding the pool. Everything is in shades of blue, the painted walls, the pool, the blue sky one can see up through the roof of glass.
Alice set out to refuse religion’s false hope of immortality, but in Paris she is devoted to the religion of swimming. It’s easy to be baptized but difficult to be confirmed, at least for me. I admit I enjoy hanging around pools more than walking through museums, which I don’t understand and where nothing moves. I sit on a bench, type my travel notes on the laptop, watch the bathers. The swimmers are athletes, French athletes doing the frog kick, but still athletes, and they aren’t dying in their chlorinated water the way the “unclean” men and boys at Alang were dying in their polluted sea. No, the pools are “sanitaire,” and I take a quirky pleasure in coming to Paris and bypassing the museums and churches and galleries Ann would have been guiding me through. Instead, Alice the athlete is passing through the water, end to end, around and around like a hoopster on court, on and on, passing the frog-kickers, regaining her strength and wind, preparing for me to be through with her.
A call from Ann while Alice is in the room speeds up the process. She can hear “I know,” “Not yet,” “I can’t,” “I won’t,” and “Well, fuck it, then.” After Ann hangs up on me, I tell Alice the other half or, actually, other nine-tenths of the conversation.
“I have to go back, Alice. You can keep going on. You don’t need me now.”
“Rough back in the U. S., huh?”
I still don’t want to jinx our zone--composed of travel and tombs, if not the two of us—so I use the secret I’ve been carrying since Ann called me in Luxor.
“My wife is worried about money. We’re being sued. And your father told her you don’t have any insurance to pay for this tour.”
“That’s true,” she says, as if it were a well-known fact. “But now I have the rest of my life. Amex may have to wait, but you’ll get your money, Michael. Did you think I’d stiff you the per diem?”
“I don’t know, Alice. People do strange things when they’re desperate.”
“I was desperate to get out of Cincinnati but not now.”
“It’s not just the money. Ann says if I don’t return now, she’ll change the locks and I’ll be living in the security van.”
“Do you believe her?”
“That’s the trouble with Ann. She doesn’t lie.”
“So what did you say?”
“`Well, fuck it, then.’”
“Meaning I was pissed. I’d like to keep going on with you. You know, on and on and on. But I need to go back. I’m going to get a flight tomorrow.”
“Just like that?”
“You must have seen this coming.”
“One more trip, Michael.”
“No, I’m sorry but this is the terminal for us.”
“One more trip, a short one--for you this time.”
“We go to Athens for a few days, and then we’ll fly back to Cincinnati together.”
“Not clever at all. I want to give you this for all you’ve done for me. I’ve got room left on my card. And I want to see your best place. After all, it was reading about your life in Athens that gave me the idea for this tour.”
“So you want to join the athletes of Athens, do you? The Greeks are different from the frogs, you know. You want hustling and pushing and shoving on the sidewalks, dodging and running and jumping in the crosswalks, the heat and sweat? You believe you’re ready for life on the run?”
“There must be pools there.”
“Just at hotels we can’t afford.”
“Doesn’t matter. I want us to go there.”
“Okay,” I say, just like that, just as Alice has been deciding. “I’ll show you around. But only if you promise me one thing.”
“What is it?”
“You lied to me about having life insurance.”
“Now I want you to promise me that we’ll go back to Cincinnati together. I want this tour to end how it began.”
“Yeah, I’ll keep you company going home, Michael. But let’s say it will end where we began, not how I began.”
To read the next installment—Alice in Athens—please email Michael Keever at KeeverUnlimited@gmail.com, and he will email the installment to you. Please be assured that your email address will be confidential and will not be used for advertising or publicity purposes.