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Roots by Jack Murnighan

I heard them talking about it. Through the wall, I could hear her yelling, saying how if he didn’t like it, he should fuck himself, she shouldn’t have tried anyway. I was hoping against hope; the idea had stuck in my mind that maybe I had a chance. It had been a long time, and I was hungry.


I heard her go into the hallway and down the stairs. I listened for the sound of her lock a few minutes later and knew she was inside again, then I slipped out and tiptoed down the back. The garbage cans for our apartment building were all kept together in the courtyard. In a bag at the top of the third one I found it: the unfinished steak. Overcooked, yes, but in decent shape. I slipped it into the bag I had brought and sneaked back upstairs. I hadn’t eaten meat in months.

I had come to Paris to see what my identity would become if I got no positive feedback. Alone in the most beautiful city in the world, with no school, no grades, no jobs, no social contact, no one telling me how successful I’d be. Solitude, self and the not-unlimited money I had brought with me. I wanted to stay as long as possible, so my life became an exercise in centime-pinching. I rented a maid’s room at the top of an apartment building; the walls were so thin I could hear the African student having sex on one side, the steak couple constantly arguing on the other. My room was exactly six feet by nine, with a sliver of a bed, a child’s chair, a palm-sized yellowed window, a single hotplate with an on/off switch and no temperature control and a sink with no hot water. There was a bathroom down the hall but no shower. To bathe, I had to boil water and pour it into a basin, then fill it with cold till I found the right temperature. I would turn my head over into the steaming water, lather it as best I could, but then I’d always have to rinse it under the cold tap. In winter, I wouldn’t bathe much, and I’d put the hotplate on the chair at the foot of the bed and run it all night long.


Every night I went to the movies. If you are willing to take the metro to the suburbs, you can normally catch a decent flick for a few dollars somewhere around Paris. Or in the cinémateque, or at specials at the museums. By day I would stroll around, through the richest arrondissements, then the Arab quarters, the Chinese, the White Working Class. I saw buildings near the périphérique with demolition orders on the doors and curtains in the windows; I saw spinning rotisseries of sheep’s heads contorted in lurid, comical grimaces. I saw glamorous moms pushing their toddlers in the parks, and I saw drag queens making out on the banks of the Seine. I’d walk its streets and Paris would become my Paris, my eye ever more attuned to the simple miracle of quotidian life. One day I saw a six year old watching some circus performers rehearse. They were right in the middle of a little, everyday neighborhood park; one guy was juggling five balls, another was walking on stilts. The girl had rushed up to the fence and had her face pressed up against the bars, then she turned to her mother and called out, Look! Look! And that’s what I did: I looked; that’s all I did.


The cheapest way to get food was to scrounge. Place D’Aligre and Bellevue, each open six days a week, from morning til mid-afternoon. I would go right at closing. The merchants would be packing up the remainder of their goods, the cleaning crews would be getting ready to sweep up the humus underfoot, and others like me, the homeless and impoverished, would descend to sort through the muck and take away what we could.


For me it was all about roots. As exquisitely as the French are able to prepare foods that grow under the ground, these veggies don’t get much respect in people’s eyes. All these hard, ugly, fibrous tubers sell for next to nothing at the markets, so when a merchant accidentally drops one, he doesn’t bother to pick it up. Or if a potato has a spot, he pushes it to the ground. And thus my livelihood. Strewn about the street gutters amid rotting leaves and butcher’s paper and the accumulated sludge of thousands of passing feet would be a gleaming white and purple turnip here, a carrot half there, a dented potato, a wrinkly parsnip, a mottled rutabaga. After ten or twenty minutes of searching, my bag would be full with such lucre. Add to that a few yellowing leaves of chard and a half-rotten onion, and I’d have the makings of a pot of curry. Buy the spices from the Arabs where they’re cheap, dip into my twenty-pound bag of rice from Chinatown and I was in business. Eventually, I even figured out how to cook rice on the hotplate without burning it.

In French, bag ladies are called clochardes, and, in certain locales, they are very visible — especially at closing time at the markets. I would often see the same ones, and would always be polite as I picked among the refuse. But we never seemed to be competing; they were always after different things than I.


One time, one of the bag ladies who I had seen a number of times saw me leaning over to pick up a half of a potato. She hissed at me in French, Don’t take that, and I let it drop out of my fingers. Then she beckoned me to the wet box she was leaning over and said, You don’t want that. Look what I have here.


Inside the box were a few dozen peaches, aswarm with fruit flies, collapsed in on themselves with decay. The whole thing smelled alcoholic, and my stomach jarred from the stench.


Her weathered fingers sifted through the mush till she would find a partially firm one, then she’d pull it out and stash it away. Finally, she opened her bag and took three of the six mutilated peaches, carefully wrapped them in some newspaper, and handed them to me. I didn’t know what to say, and did my best to hide my distaste, and as I said merci and got up to leave, she touched my arm and kissed me on the cheek.





Her name was Mathilde. I don’t know how old she was (she was probably considerably younger than she appeared), and I never found out why she became homeless. I only knew that if I went to Belleville at 3:30 in the afternoon, I’d find her there, and she’d always beckon me over to what she considered the best discoveries. A box of moldy raspberries, bananas black and mashed flat, mucilaginous pears or chancred apples: these were the treasures the clochardes were after. They would call to each other as she had called to me, and soon I knew the names of a half dozen of them, all speaking a French I could barely recognize. Having no facilities to cook, they lived on the half-rotten fruit they’d take away from the market, wash in the public fountains, and slice with the thin knives they kept secreted among their clothes.


If I was going to see Mathilde, I had to stop picking up roots. She couldn’t know that I could cook, that I had an apartment, a hotplate, a bank account. To her, I was a foreigner washed ashore from a shipwreck; barely literate, helpless, motherless, lost. When she saw me with the potato the first day, she must have thought I was going to eat it raw. From that point on, she would save her best finds for me, always wrapping them neatly in newsprint, and slip them to me when the other women weren’t looking. And when the clean-up crews were forcing us to leave, she would linger a little longer than the others, and subtly encourage me to do the same. Then she’d press her body against mine for my “embrace” and kiss my cheeks with affection.

Until one day, when Mathilde seemed anxious, and hadn’t gathered any food. She was more direct than ever, whispering to me under her breath, Don’t leave. When the other women had gone, she took my arm and started leading me away. Away from the market and up a small street into the Père Lachaise cemetery. She guided me quickly through the interlaced paths and finally to a large ruined mausoleum from some old French family. The door was badly rusted and she reached her hand through one of the holes to open it from the inside. It was empty but for an urn and a stone ledge where she sat me down. Inside, with the door sealed again, her face suddenly became even more serious, and without saying anything, she took one of my hands in hers and spread it out, palm up, and reached out with the other hand to set upon my fingers a small roll of crumpled bills. Then she put a finger to her lips to say, Shh, and leaned in and kissed me on the lips.


Over time, the smell of an unwashed body moves from strong to sour. Beneath her clothes Mathilde was shriveled but strong, her arms thin and tendony, laced with tiny sores. Again and again, I moved to kiss her neck, behind her ears, but Mathilde put both hands behind my head and lowered me down to her breasts. I was stunned by the effluvia, but thankful not to see her face, its yearning, the wrinkles around her eyes. The cement of the ledge was cool, bits of colored glass from the smashed-out Madonna caught the light on the floor, and Mathilde beneath my fingers was like a shoelace unknotting, like the hand of an unsure surgeon, like the slow twitch of a wounded insect that knows it’s going to die.


An older woman’s body is a different thing, and I found myself uncertain among Mathilde’s folds and droop. But the aggression of her desire pushed me forward. My body moved as if it knew what I wanted. And with each impending touch, Mathilde would lift her body to meet it halfway, to have it yet sooner, then let out low, shuddering, animal moans. With her left hand she explored me constantly — up and down my back, the back of my legs, my hair, my neck, into my jeans and down the crack of my ass — and with the right she kept hold of the back of my head. Held it as if to be sure it was there. Held it as a sculptor would, or an archaeologist on a dig. Held it so she could push me, first to a nipple, then to her stomach, then down between her legs. Leaning back on the ledge with her legs spread, she looked like a dining table missing a leaf. Her layered clocharde‘s skirts were pushed up around her waist and I could smell the caustic saprobia rising from between her legs. And yet, with her money still tight in my hot fist, I closed my eyes and decided. Beneath the force of her insistent hand, I dipped my head into the fulcrum of her need and found what would twitter beneath my tongue.


The light was fading and still we hadn’t spoken. Mathilde sat up and arranged her skirts, humming something quietly beneath her breath. Perhaps a minute passed as she stood with her back to me, looking out through what glass remained of the broken Madonna. The tangle of her hair was catching the slanting sun, and I could see the stains on her clothes. “It’s four hundred francs,” she said, and I knew she was fighting off tears. “Enough for you to make it back home?”


There was no way for her to detect my pause. “Yes,” I lied. “Enough for me to make it back.”



Jack Murnighan and