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To Rochegude and back from the small village of Laval Saint Roman is my favorite bike ride in France. On small untrafficked roads that are hilly but not mountainous, cutting through vineyards and the occasional field of sunflowers or lavender, I can disappear into the rhythm and simplicity and feel embraced by the landscape. It is rare that I have to click my cycling shoes out of the pedals and stop for anything.
       But I always stop for coffee in Rochegude at the Café du Cours—I call it the Rock and Roll Café, the walls crowded with large, tacky paintings of old rock stars, one after another. Given the nature of rock stars, I have to look closely to be sure who some of them are—Bowie or Iggy? Madonna or Lady Gaga? Dylan (definitely), Marley (definitely), Jagger, or Steven Tyler? Prince, or Little Richard? It’s like I’m at a concert, stoned, squinting from the cheap seats. I admire the possibilities, the lack of certainty. I add sugar to my coffee and stir.
       It looks like the place is hopping at night, given the indoor and outdoor seating, the ambitious dinner menu, the strings of colored lights. Though I am never here at night. A bar/restaurant/café. I always sit alone at the bar. They are often finishing the cleaning from last night, airing out the place, the small, young staff looking hungover themselves. A young tattooed woman serves me a coffee while taking one herself. Sometimes, we flirt a bit, but that too is lazy. My French barely adequate, but she seems not to care where I’m from. I like that too.
       In the tiny bathroom, the red urinal resembles the Rolling Stones mouth, their trademark. It’s like a small altar, a couple of steps up. I rattle up them in my biking shoes. I always use the bathroom to save me peeing by the side of the road, though to be honest, the French don’t seem to take notice one way or the other. I always exchange glances with the rock stars on my way back to the toilets.
       *       If you’re wondering where I do come from, that would be Detroit, Michigan. How I got here is a long, long story, and it doesn’t even make sense to me. It’s like I’m standing on the table of Southwest France, and the four legs of that table just get wobblier whenever I try to explain. I am too old for the bartender. Too old to be riding my bike the forty miles roundtrip, my wife would tell you. Thus, the coffee. Thus, the harmless flirting.
*       Rochegude, a small village on the edge of the pre-Alps, is dominated by an old chateau at the top, which is in a constant state of renovation that shows little progress to my naked eye. I suppose I take comfort in that, imagining my own life to be in constant, but very slow, renovation. The castle is smaller than the church, which is rare in any village that has a castle. It’s the perfect distance from my smaller village further into Middle of Nowhere, France. I ride there, have a coffee, ride home.
       Laval Saint Roman doesn’t even have a café. It’s what they call a dead village. Even the church is not in regular use. I have a small house there. I have a small water leak at the moment, but it’s my problem. Well—it’s now my problem and the village’s problem, since it hasn’t rained in six weeks. The mayor checked in to make sure I was not filling a swimming pool or watering my fallow fields. I just pointed to the rock-hard brown grass, and she nodded and drove away.
*       Some days, I like to imagine my village is some post-apocalyptic landscape that somehow missed the nuclear storm that destroyed the rest of the world. In the drought, it seems even more desolate than usual. It might be the perfect place to live out my days. Or, the worst place imaginable. I am hoping to figure that out before my days are over. In the meantime, I am the American loner with the horrible accent with the beautiful, outgoing wife with the impeccable accent.
*       Another reason I am drawn to Rochegude is that one late morning looping up onto the high road out of the village that looks down onto the terraces and yards of a small cluster of homes, I saw a man and woman making love on a beach recliner on the pale gray cement of their patio. I like to revisit that memory in person from time to time.
*       I wasn’t sure at first—two pale, distant figures—but when they came into focus, she was sprawled on her hands and knees and he was pushing slowly into her from behind. They seemed in no hurry—in fact, I saw no urgency whatsoever, no speeding up, no slowing down, his hands on her hips as he eased forward and she eased back. The sun lit them at a gentle angle, curling beneath the porch roof. The church bells rang.
       Hmm, I said aloud, then stretched that into humming as I slowed to coast above them, then glanced back again to be sure. I thought to stop but did not stop. He had a little belly on him, and so did she. He was balding, the top of his head shining in the sunlight. They were letting it all hang out, as we used to say back in Alma, Michigan, back in the 70s, in the house I lived in with four or five others, depending on who was sleeping with you. It was all fluid until we ran out of water. I’m not sure that metaphor makes sense, really, but in this drought, all roads lead to water, or the lack thereof. I’m thinking about unbridled thirst, and a total lack of self-consciousness, reveling in instinct, giving in to the loosened reins of the times.
*       Living in that old house were the best years of my young life. We were all students, and we were in no hurry not to be. Over Christmas break, Patty, who I was sleeping with off and on—off when we went on break, but I believe we were headed toward on again—was sleeping in the back seat of her cousin’s car in Colorado when it skidded on the icy road and into oncoming traffic.
*       Patty and I used to fill up jugs with cold, metallic spring water out near Elwell, Michigan. A pipe rose up from the ground in the middle of nowhere. I keep saying in the middle of nowhere. Welcome to Nowhere, Michigan, population depending, give or take a few. Wherever Patty was, it was somewhere.
*       At that time, I lived in fear of funerals. I did not attend hers, blaming it on the rituals of church, knowing Patty was a non-believer like me, but I couldn’t bear grieving in that public spotlight. When someone young dies suddenly, it’s like the funeral director stabs you with a knife as you walk in the door. Stabs everyone. The weeping, the howling, the physical pain of grieving. Fuck that, I said, because it was easier. I hid in my dark room and wept.
*       I like that the waitress knows me now, the familiarity in that country where familiarity does not come easy. She starts my coffee as soon as I start clacking those plastic shoes across the floor. I know how much change to put on the bar, and she knows she does not have to count it.
       In the café hangs a painting of a naked woman. Unlike the others, it’s behind the bar. It has plenty of its own space, compared to the rock stars. Like a religious shrine. I got up the courage to ask the waitress who was the model for the painting, and she said, my mother, and laughed. And I laughed.
       I doubt she was telling the truth, but I like not knowing for sure.
*             Dying is the worst drought. All our mouths at Alma went dry in the heat of that loss. Our mouths nearly caught fire with grief. Her best friend Lisa lived in the magic house. I remember how shocked she was to see Patty come out of my bedroom the morning after we’d slept together for the first time. Lisa seemed to think we’d both betrayed her. So, when Patty died, it was like/it was like/it was like—every record in that house, and we had a lot of them then, began skipping. Everything we said to each other had the abrupt jump of a skipping record. Lisa called me a coward/coward/coward.
*       I couldn’t keep up with Patty, which may have been the problem that turned us off and on again. She had a hunger, a craving, her life a headfirst dive into life while I was content to doggy paddle. The plastic milk jugs we’d filled with spring water filled up the back seat. She took a final swig direct from the pipe, then kissed me with it. If I had a picture of her, it would show her wet grin as she turned to pull me to her. It would be the picture behind my memory bar.
       We found a spot further off the road in a small grove of pine trees. She lifted up her long peasant skirt.
*       After I saw the couple, I thought to stop but did not stop. I knew I needed to keep going. Knowing you need to keep going is very different from keeping going. I love biking for the endless near silence of it. The rhythm and repetition. The solitary journey. I like that my shoes click in to the pedals and that the bike and I become one. As long as I keep pedaling.
       I like going slow enough that it’s safe to be doing one thing and looking around at something else at the same time.
*       The cast of characters from the rest of my life are waiting outside for the doors to open so that they can come in and get the best seats, or stand for the entire thing, depending—though I am no rock star. I’m just saying I had a life between then and now.
       But on that one voyeuristic day, I didn’t feel that I did. Everything in between got flattened and sunk below the horizon. Patty dying, then me in France. Having sex outdoors. Quenching that thirst.
*       The last time I saw Patty, she gave me back a few albums she’d borrowed. You don’t have to do that, I told her.
       She said, Oh, you never know.
       I like that we never know. I don’t like that we never know. I wish she would have kept them.
*       The other thing.
       The other thing she gave me was an egg in which she’d made a tiny pinhole. She knew how to blow out eggs, then decorate them for Easter. The egg was not decorated. Or, the shell was its own decoration, the fragility of it. She had rolled up a tiny piece of paper very, very tightly and inserted it into the hole in the egg.
       She told me there was a message inside the egg, and that one day when it felt right, she would tell me to break the egg and read the message.
*       Thinking, or not thinking, when we were off, not on, I threw the egg into an empty freight car passing slowly through town, part of the morning train that sometimes woke us up near the house we’d semi-lived in together. Off and on.
       The train, she’d whisper in my ear. Or, I’d whisper in her ear.
       Sometimes we’d walk the tracks to school in parallel lines.
*       I like and don’t like that I’ll never know what she wrote in that egg.
*       It’d be crazy to say she resembled the naked woman in the painting in the Rock and Roll Café. Long blonde hair, that’s about it. I have no picture of her, clothed or naked. She was the artist, not me. And we thought we’d live forever, so who needed to take photographs. That was something our parents did.   *       The tattooed woman’s husband runs the place. Maybe I imagine she is flirting with me, an American cyclist with white hair and a gaunt face. She opens the place up, and her husband closes it.
*       I’ve been dreaming of symmetry my whole life, so I imagine it in many places of imbalance.
*       In other words, every time I ride that road winding out of to Rochegude, I look down into that yard, imagining I might see the man and the woman again. Imagining that they are still coming, coming, slow, steady.

© Jim Daniels 2023  

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