Maurico walked with a limp. That’s the second thing you notice about the man from Corsica. The first thing you notice is a pink scar dividing his eye in half. The third is his black teeth, and last, when he gets to know you well enough, the gun he carries, loaded, in the front of his jeans.
Turns out Maurico runs with a limp, too, and not very fast, which is the only reason I’m here, in the beautiful Provence in the South of France, enjoying paella and sun, instead of being locked up in some dark hole in Avignon.
Let me start from the beginning.
My third day on the road I sent out a dispatch – it was about how I was leaving the autoroute, so soon, after taking her lessons to heart. But minutes after posting my farewell, I had a fit of nostalgia. “But I can’t leave her,” I thought. “No not yet. There’s too much writing left to be done. Too much solitude left to enjoy. No. I can’t. And I won’t.” I thought of yet another week, beneath those stars, another week in that rumbling, 700-kilometre long snake, and I knew it was in my best interests to carry on, instead of abandon ship.
So I was going to stay on the A7 and camp all the way to Marseille. Civilization be damned. I was staying in Parklingland. But the Autoroute – easily offended, and full of vengeance, like any beautiful woman – had different plans. I should have never doubted her, for as soon as I did, she conspired to prove to me just how precious she is, just how much I’d miss her.
It all started as I got back onto the highway. After a complicated scene at full speed, where a truck drove in front of me, blocking my view, I was tricked into taking the exit to Avignon, instead of the straight ahead path to Marseille. Immediately I knew what was going on. I laughed, shaking my head. The autoroute was out to prove a point. “Leave me?” she seemed to say. “I leave you!”
Then everything started to go the way it went. When I got to Avignon, I was immediately pulled over by two angry policemen for entering the sacred walled city going in the wrong direction. I tried to Canadian my way out of the ordeal – but they wouldn’t hear anything of it. They directed me to go park down one small alley, since I was blocking traffic, then to come back and “chat” (certainly an Avignon code for bribe.) But as soon as I pulled down this dark path, Sofia wouldn’t let me stop. She knew, she must have known, something was wrong with those policemen. I tried to reverse into a parking spot, but she rumbled, and wouldn’t cooperate. Then, a large truck pulled up behind me, and as I was struggling for the hundredth time with a stalled engine, the truck started to honk maniacally, and tap my bumper. I had no choice then but to flee from the police, and it’s not as if I even could have turned around and found them again if I wanted to. Avignon is plate of spaghetti when it comes to road planning – everything one direction, everything curved. I was hopelessly lost, and returning to the cops was simply not possible.
Finally I found a hotel, with hidden parking, and a nice clerk. Had my first real shower in days, saw my first real bed, and powered up all my resources. Pure luxury. But I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to see this city at night, so I went out on an expedition. First stop was the picturesque front steps to the Pope’s old castle, where a place of worship has evolved into a place of making out, McDonalds and teenagers getting wasted on cheap rum and cigarettes. I actually had a pretty good time with those kids, tell you the truth, but things got boring after the fifth drink, and I couldn’t stand all the couples kissing on the steps, so clearly in love and enjoying themselves, so I had to keep moving.
I was directed by my new friends to a huge outdoor patio, with hundreds of young and attractive people drinking pastis and beer, under the moonlight and white stone walls of the ancient city. Strolling around, I wanted new friends, but every table, again, was full of lovers, and I had no desire to intrude.
Then, my patient readers, I saw them. I saw the two princesses of Avignon, as if light had been sucked down from heaven to illuminate their table. Their names, Geraldine and – damned humour of the gods – Julietta. But I would soon find out that my charm and forthcomingness had no effect in this place. I was Superman with a necktie of kryptonite.
“Bonjour madammeoiselles,” I said, walking up to the table, hands politely crossed behind my back. “My name is Tobin. A writer from Canada. Here writing a book about love. I would like to buy you both a drink, perhaps a beer or pastis, to talk with you, and see, hopefully, how it is you beautiful creatures love in Avignon.”
“Monsieur,” said the blonde haired Geraldine, pointing at me with her finger nails the length of pencils. “We do not take kindly to writers here.
“And besides,” jumped in the Moroccan-blooded Julietta – hair longer than shower curtains, blacker than oil. “We only accept champagne of the highest quality. You can take your beers to those bums hanging out in the Pope’s square.”
They laughed together, as they shoed me away. But no matter. I was relieved I had tried at least, and walked on my way, giving the ladies a curt bow and flourish of the hands. I went inside the bar to use the WC and plot my next step. And as I was washing my hands, there in the mirror, I saw that behind me was a wallet. Not my wallet. But someone else’s.
Inside there’s 180 euros. I take the cash, and put the rest back where I found it. This was my salvo, this was the universe saying sorry for all the crap it put me through, I foolishly thought. Then I walked straight to the bar man.
“Monsieur,” I say, slapping down the wad on the bar in one momentous gesture. “Champagne!”
So I got to know Geraldine and Julietta quite well. They told me about the men they were sucking dry, their words not mine, and about all the broken lovers they’d left in their wakes since 13 years old (they were only 20). They were like vampires relishing their deadly deeds, and, despite their uncontrollable beauty, I found myself quickly regretting the decision to sit with them. When Julietta told me about the family doctor she had just caused to be divorced, I had had enough. I stood up, clinging what was left of my champagne, spat on the ground, and walked away. Who needs them, thought I.
This was when I met Maurico. I was hungry. I found a good looking Falafel place and sat down. Maurico was there smoking. The scar on his left eye glistened in the moonlight. He smiled at me with his black teeth, stood up, came and sat beside me. “Drinking that all to yourself, monsieur,” he said, already having his hand held out. How could I say no. So I pass him the bottle. The food comes and I eat, and we finish the bottle, and pleased, Maurico orders us a few beers and we get to talking. I ask him about love, too, but he has nothing to say but jokes, about twins he had dated, about his wife’s girth, and so on. But no matter, soon we are friendly enough, and Maurico lights a hash joint, and then he is letting me hold his hand gun. It feels too heavy, and I don’t like it, so I hand it back to him.
Well, he says, let’s go to a party.
I tell him it’s late, that I have to be on the road in the morning. But he ignores me. “Let’s go to a party,” he says, that scarred eye piercing into my heart. I don’t think he was asking me at all.
So we stroll through all the twisting streets of Avignon, where you can’t see ten feet ahead without the path being completely bent from sight, with all the fountains spewing water out of angel mouths, and street dogs scurrying like rats, everywhere. Maurico and I take it slow, because he walks with a terrible hobble — a motorcycle accident in Corse, he tells me, while he was “preparing for war.” I thought nothing of the comment at the time and kept moving. We cross one bend, entering a small courtyard, with a monument in the middle, and there they are. The same two policemen as before, headed right for us.
“Jesus,” I said. “Let me walk behind you.”
“Are you crazy?” he said. “Keep walking.”
So we pass the officers and I do my best to keep my face in the shadows.
“Bon soiree,” the officers say.
“Bon soiree,” I say, in my worst French accent. Stupid fool, I think, why did I do that?”
The cops stopped walking. I wasn’t looking back, but their footsteps had stopped. Then they called to us: “Hey, les gars, come over here a second.”
Maurico and I look at each other. He puts his hand where his gun is. I shake my head, no. We turn around. The cops say: “Ah there’s out little friend.”
I’m wondering what the hells going to happen next – but I don’t have much time. Maurico, spooked by this sudden interest of the police, had made up my next move for me. He places his hand on my chest, looks me in the eye, winks the scarred one, then shouts: “Run!”
So we bolt down one alley. We are running and the police are yelling and telling us to stop. But there is no stopping. How could I stop? But Maurico, he’s slowly falling behind me. He can’t run at all with that damn limp. And just as we’re about to turn down another twisting passage way, Maurico falls. I don’t look back. All I hear is his shouting: “Vive le Corse!” and then gun fire. Pow pow pow.
I make my way, hours later, and with much difficulty back to my hotel. I sit on the desk, computer charged for the first time in days, and rush out a stupid little story. In the morning I will wake up, and the train will rumble through the tiny little room where I sleep, and I will not have time to think of Maurico, or the police, as I get back into Sofia, and back on the road. Returning, once again, to the Autoroute A7, on the way, again, to Marseille. Stopping at the first rest stop, to get coffee, to take a siesta, to listen to the highway moans. It was good to be home.