In The Footsteps of Iskandar
Chapter One: Of Lice and Men
Chapter One: Of Lice and Men
As dysentery cramps tormented my guts, I stood and scratched absently at the lice crawling in my long matted hair and filthy clothes. I hindered the purposeful scurrying of well-dressed, cologne-smelling, pink-faced passengers like a clog in a sewer pipe, forcing them to flow around me as they hurried to the luggage carousels at the far end of the Orly air terminal.
I noticed a six-foot-two, darkly tanned, black-bearded emaciated stranger staring at me. It took me longer than it should have to realize that I was looking at my reflection in the floor-to-ceiling windows. My sunken, bloodshot, brown eyes looked dazed and shocked as my befuddled brain attempted to process the facts: I was back in Paris. I felt ill and for a nineteen-year old, I looked like shit.
The sterile atmosphere of the terminal had the faint grassy scent of industrial freshener and made the smells of Bombay emanating from my unwashed body and clothes almost tangible. My clothing, a frayed, faded red cotton tunic, filthy, once-white pajama pants and Indian sandals made of tire-rubber soles with leather straps was well-worn, almost never laundered and retained the malodorous reek of car exhaust fumes, hot dust, urine and fecal matter. I thought wryly that I resembled the ubiquitous holy men of Maharashtra in Bombay, a city I had left scant hours ago, although even wearing these sad rags, I was still better dressed than the mostly-naked Sadhus. What little I owned fit into a beat-up hemp shoulder satchel.
A sudden disorienting sense of alienation and vertigo overwhelmed and I staggered up to a French notion of a bench - an assemblage of chrome tubes and white leather straps – and sat down with my eyes closed until the surge of dislocation receded. Six hours ago was in Bombay, a city, which took me an eventful year-long, overland odyssey to reach. And now, with almost no transition I sat in these air-freshened, climate-controlled, quiet glass-and-chrome surroundings. Instead of the clamor of innumerable rickshaws’ put-put engines, the unceasing honking of horns, the cacophony of merchants hawking wares at the top of their voices and the constant din of countless transistor radios blaring Indian music all I heard was the occasional announcements on the PA system and the muted conversations of passengers.
By using deep breathing techniques, I regained a modicum of inner balance and rose to follow the luggage-totting herd moving towards the double glass doors leading to the main concourse. Cousin David leaned casually against the wall as he waited by the doors scanning the arriving travelers. I’d lost almost forty pounds and looked like a derelict, filthy hobo, so I was unsurprised when his gaze slid over me without recognition.
“Er... Bonjour, cousin,” I said stopping in front of him.
David, a stocky, balding Frenchman in his mid-forties peered at me, his eyes widening in disbelief. He straightened up and squeaked, “Danny?” Clearing his throat he repeated in his normal voice, “I mean, is that you, Danny?” He scrutinized me, astonished and took shallow breaths as my distinctive - Eau-de-Bombay - stench hit his nose.
David was about five-foot-six-inches tall, had a healthy glow and was always impeccably dressed. He was wearing sharply creased grey slacks, suede hush-puppies shoes and a sport jacket over a pale shirt matching his lively blue eyes. His sparse sandy hair - combed from side to side in a futile effort to hide his balding pate - framed a tanned face with an easy smile.
“You have any luggage? No, I guess not.” He glanced at the satchel and I followed him to the parking lot where we retrieved his gleaming Peugeot sedan. I sat in the car and stared through the windshield, racking my stalled brain trying to come up with small talk.
“How are you?”
“Oh, fine thanks. Before I forget, your mom is very worried about you. Please call her first thing tomorrow.”
“Um... David.” I stammered, looking at the floor mat. “Thanks a lot for paying for the flight. I’ll repay you as soon as I can.”
“Tut, tut. Don’t mention it. Did you get checked out by a doctor at the embassy before you left?”
“Yea, I did. He said I have dysentery and gave me some pills. He also suggested a visit to a clinic as soon as possible.”
“I’ll book you an appointment with Doc Roche,” David said, as he maneuvered the sedan with skillful competence into the busy stream of traffic on the freeway.
“Thanks David. Um... One other thing; I sort of have lice in my hair and need to see a barber.” I hastily grabbed a handhold as David threw the car into a steep left turn in his reflexive attempt to put as much space as possible between us. He recovered immediately and, accompanied by strident, angry horns, steered the Peugeot back into our lane.
I fell asleep on the way to the apartment and the last thing I remember from that bewildering first day was having a long, hot shower, that couldn’t cleanse me completely of India, before crashing on the guestroom bed at David’s place.
* * *
The next morning I awoke bewildered in unfamiliar surroundings. The sensation of luxuriating on a soft mattress on a firm spring box for the first time in months seemed almost decadent. I noticed a louse crawling on the pillow and absently crushed it between my fingernails, as memories of last night flooded in. I was back in Paris, staying at David’s apartment, check. A wave of despair engulfed me as I remembered the horrific events that preceded my flight from India. I calmed myself by inventorying the room. The guest bedroom with its distinctive large Persian carpet and the queen-sized bed was pretty much as it was when last I stayed here. A tall, mirrored double-door armoire flanked by dressers lined one wall while a couple of red upholstered Louis-something chairs, on either side of a small, graceful round table, completed the room’s furnishing.
I stood up, padded to the window and pulled the curtains aside. As I scratched at bites on my neck, I gazed out upon a sea of steeply angled slate-shingled roofs interspersed with a multitude of TV antennae and terracotta-colored chimneys like a bizarre alien forest extending as far as the eye could see. The sun, high in the morning sky, shone from a bright blue dome dotted with a few white, fluffy clouds. By craning my neck to the right, I could just see the Eifel tower seemingly wreathed in diamonds, its second-floor restaurant’s windows sparkling as they reflected the early sun.
I searched for the filthy rags I’d thrown on the floor the previous night as I undressed and found instead a neat pile of folded clean clothing on one of the chairs. I donned a pair of jeans that fit lengthwise though much too wide in the waist and left the room in search of David.
Did I mention that my cousin was loaded? He owned a number of stores in the heart of the fashion district and lived in a huge penthouse-apartment in the sixteenth arrondissement, one of the more exclusive Parisian quarters.
I found an old acquaintance, Asunción, the Spanish maid, polishing silverware in the dining room.
“Hola, Asunción,” I smiled, happy to spot a familiar face. “Come va, me Corazon?”
She shook her head and gave me a patronizing glance. “I told you many times before, you’re no speaking Spanish. That’s spaghetti western talk!” Asunción was a short, thin energetic woman of undetermined age who applied little makeup and kept her gray-black hair in a tight bun. She had been with David’s family since he was a small boy - I remembered her from my own childhood when we lived in Paris - and was one of thousands of Spanish refugees who fled after Franco and his fascists took over their country.
“You look terrible! Go wash up, Danny. Then I make you breakfast.”
“Sure, man. What happened to my old clothes?”
“Ayee. They were full of bugs. Yuck! I threw them for burning. I loan you Ari’s stuff.” She shooed me to the guest bathroom. I showered, again, soaping and scrubbing with the luffa until the water sluicing down the drain changed from a grayish-brown color to just murky. I repeatedly shampooed and watched impassively as lice writhed on the shower’s tiled floor on their way to Paris’ sewers, Shiva the destroyer, me!
After the shower, I shaved off my scraggly, wispy beard with a safety razor I found in a cabinet over the sink. I examined the scrawny naked body reflected in the tall mirror with a critical eye. The ribs, collarbones and hipbones protruded clearly, stretching the skin. My stomach had shrunk, clearly showing the outline of vertebrae and my limbs resembled long, thin sticks. Overall, I looked like one of the starving people photographed for the Concert for Bangladesh album. Clean and dressed, I rejoined Asunción in the kitchen and perched on a stool at the center-aisle counter.
She poured me a coffee, handed me a sheet of paper wrapped around a few currency notes and said that David left them for me. The message confirmed an appointment with the hairdresser and the address of the salon, while the bills - about twenty bucks worth of Francs - were a loan to buy clothing. I ate a light meal of dry toast and weak black coffee, mindful of the microbial parasites plaguing my guts and headed out.
* * *
Paris is at its most beautiful in early spring when shy new-growth peek from the sun-kissed wakening gardens. Flowers bloom everywhere, filling the air with sweet fragrances and the trees wear faint emerald halos as new leaves emerge.
Christophe’s Unisex Salon occupied the ground floor of a building at the corner of two busy avenues. The long and narrow shop, shaped like a V contained a dozen barber’s chairs facing the floor-to-ceiling windows and the sidewalk. Behind each chair, a wheeled cabinet supported a high mirror from which hung an assortment of electric clippers and hair dryers. Black, thin, combs and gleaming stainless steel scissors stuck out of tall jars full of pink fluid, a nightmarish bouquet of sinister, stabby flowers.
“May I help you?” asked the languid receptionist without looking up from the fashion magazine propped on a small desk. He wore a fishnet shirt showing more of his pigeon chest than I wanted to see; his coifed dark hair cascaded to his shoulders in waves and he reeked of strong, spicy cologne.
“I’m Daniel. David made an appointment for me...”
“Oh, yes. Davy. He’s a dear, let me check...” The man scanned the page of a book-sized planner and raised his eyes to me. He squeaked in shocked surprise, scrambled backwards in his wheeled chair hitting the back counter loudly and caromed back toward the desk. The place went quiet as everyone stared at us. A chubby man wearing tight colorful clothes waddled in a semi-run towards us.
“What’s going on Mario?” he shouted, waving his hands in agitation.
“This. Er, that...Person has an appointment, Christophe.” Mario pointed with a shaky manicured finger. The owner of the salon scanned the planner and confirmed the sad fact.
“Monsieur David is one of our best clients. And, when he called for a slot, even though there was nothing available for three weeks… God help me.” He studied me for a moment and, still muttering under his breath, led me to the hair-washing stations ranged along the wall.
“Go on. Get back to work,” Christophe urged the dozen hairdressers and their customers who, eyes wide, stared mutely at me. Activity resumed as I sat in a chair and leaned backward into a sink. I should have guessed that David would only frequent a top-notch, fashionable and expensive hair salon. Well, I thought, they are going to earn their money this time. Christophe ran his fingers through my matted curls, shook his head and mumbled in despair. Suddenly, he jerked his hand away, cursing in an utterly non-fashionable gutter French.
“Ah, merde alors. What the fuck is this?” he swore peering in horror as one of the Bombay hitchhikers crawled up his wrist. He paled and I feared he was having a coronary, but he recovered and rinsed off the offending louse with a jet of water. He patted his hands dry with a small towel, gave me a long calculating look, most likely deciding whether David was indeed worth the indignity to his chic salon and came to a decision.
“Martin. Yoo-hoo, Martin, where are you?” He searched the back of the salon.
A slim young man about five-feet-five tall and wearing a blue tunic over bell-bottomed jeans slouched towards us through a bead curtain at the back of the salon.
“Oui, mon oncle?” he replied. The youth, I figured he was about seventeen, projected an indefinable androgynous image underlined by a couple of earrings in each ear, wrist bracelets and rings on the fingers of both hands, and his long, black hair hid most of his slim face.
Christophe slammed the edge of the counter. “Stand up straight, Martin. Nom de Dieu.” He pointed imperiously at my curls. “This man has lice. I want you to wash his hair with the special shampoo. Do it three times, you understand?” Martin, unfazed, repeated the instructions. Christophe, shaking his head, left to rejoin the receptionist at the front of the salon.
“What’s your name?” Martin asked, turning the water on and adjusting the taps for the perfect temperature.
“Call me Danny,” I said as he ran the nozzle over my hair.
“Where did you catch lice?” He snapped on a pair of thick rubber gloves, the kind you use for handling toxic materials and poured a measure of viscous liquid reeking of industrial chemicals from a plastic bottle. I noted a bright orange skull-and-crossbones warning on the upper part of the label. He spread the shampoo throughout my curls and massaged it deeply. The chemical tingled coldly as it penetrated to the scalp and stank of DDT overlaid with a hint of fake citrus fragrance.
“I just got back from India,” I said.
“India, wow! How long were you there?”
“I was in Bombay for about three months but it took about a year to get there from London. And six hours to get back,” I replied bitterly.
“I’d love to travel!” He rinsed my hair, running his fingers through the tangled curls, teasing the strands apart. “Go to India, see Nepal, you know?”
“Good for you,” I nodded. The continuous, maddening itching and crawling I’d felt since the lice first colonized my head stopped abruptly and the relief was almost orgasmic. Martin racked the water nozzle and repeated the shampooing procedure a second time.
“How much money does it take to get to India?”
“Well, the way I traveled was cheap. But, you can’t be in a hurry.” I listed some of the methods we use to drift: Earn money by doing odd jobs, make and sell sidewalk jewelry, panhandle and busk if you had a musical talent.
“Smuggle dope too?” he whispered.
“No!” I replied. “Too dangerous these days. You can smoke locally as much as you want but you must never cross borders with contraband. Have you ever heard of an American named Billy Hayes? Three years ago, in nineteen-seventy, he taped bricks of hash to his torso and tried to smuggle the stuff out of Turkey. They caught him at the airport and threw his ass in jail. In fact, as we speak, the poor shmuck is still rotting in prison.”
Suitably impressed, Martin completed the third and final soaping. He rinsed and wrung the sopping mass of curls, wrapped a large fluffy towel around my head and led me to a barber’s chair. Christophe walked over, pulled at a wet strand, checked the scalp, nodded and directed Martin to give me a haircut. He also instructed me to repeat the shampooing every day for a week because the poison only killed hatched lice and not the eggs.
I left the salon looking, if not good, at least presentable, I bought a pair of jeans, a shirt and no-name trainers at a discount store, asked the clerk to remove all the tags, changed into the new clothes and returned to David’s flat. Sitting at a desk in the library, I pulled out my tattered journal, a dog-eared diary I’d carried for a year, and removed the fat elastic band that kept photos, postcards and loose notes between the covers. I flipped through the bulging notebook, noting how the edge of the leather binding had worn thin and peeled back in spots. Salty sweat stains marked the book’s spine, scraps of paper, postcards and ticket stubs fell. A few photos sticking to the pages and each other would require careful steaming. A train ticket, torn in half, reminded me of the long ride to Karachi and I could almost smell the spicy fragrance of chicken curry.
I wrote about the previous two days while the memories were still fresh and raw and when I finished that task, I returned to page one and, reading from the beginning, recollections of my year-long journey came back.