Right in front of the door, the big puddle was not innocuous water. It was, in other words, olive oil, something that as a food is wonderful, but as a puddle on the floor is rather sinister.
I frantically tried to figure out what to do about cleaning it up. I had opened the apartment. I began looking in all the cupboards and shelves for some kind of cleaning compound. I looked for a mop; I looked for a bucket. Some apartments had had all of these things. This apartment had none of these things.
I had brought two rolls of paper towels with me and there was an additional good supply of rolls in the apartment. I grabbed a large wad and went after the puddle that I had first seen when I had glanced back toward the direction from which I had come. I plunged it into the golden puddle and everything went dark. The lights that are activated by the spirits of the little glowing things are on a timer, or the spirits capriciously turn them off when they think doing so will maximize the disorientation of any humans who might be in their sphere of influence.
I knew that. I got up from the oily mass of matted paper towel and pushed the little glowing thing. The lights came on. I went back to the oily mass of paper and concluded that about all that that mass of paper could handle had been absorbed. It hadn’t even made a dent. I got another wad of towels and repeated the process. More oil was removed, some of course dripped from the towels back to the floor in a completely new location as I carried the recently used ones back into the apartment, but if one had an infinite amount of time to iterate through the process of plunging paper towels into masses of olive oil one could probably adopt the optimistic view that in time the mess could be cleaned up. But time, I was pretty sure, was something of which I had little. And I was pretty sure that what little I had was getting exponentially littler by the moment.
“How does one say stupid? Bêtement, I think means stupidly; that might do. But where is that going to get me? I’ve never known the French to be particularly accepting of statements of the obvious as explanations for incomprehensible occurrences that they encounter.” And a guy on his hands and knees in an intermittently dark hallway, wiping up what would no doubt be a totally unknown – to whomever it would turn out to be who would be my first encounter as I proceeded with my activities – was clearly stupid. “It must be bête” I said to no one in particular.
I briefly considered just abandoning the project as un-doable, and, if asked claiming total ignorance of the whole debacle; but a couple of things made me think better of that course of action, and the thought of both of those things caused even more sweat to pour from my already over-worked glands (stress and hard labor having, in equal amounts, kicked them already into overdrive). The first of those things was, the oil is slippery and it would be very likely that an unsuspecting other resident of my floor, coming upon one of the puddles in the dark, or even in the light provided by the spirits of the little glowing things would slip, fall and incur serious injury. Death, I supposed might even be a possibility. “What an inglorious final chapter that would be to my relationship with France” I thought to myself. I didn’t know anything about the Napoleonic Code, but the term culpable manslaughter came to mind. The second thing was that the fact that there was a great last puddle of the substance in front of my door. My inability to make any significant progress with even the first glob that I had attacked, let alone the one in front of my door meant, I was quite certain, that the rapidly diminishing amount of private time I was going to have in the hallway would present a real problem for me of claiming ignorance: when whoever it was going to be finally appeared, denying that I knew anything about the whole thing, with a big puddle in front of my door and not an inch beyond made, it seemed to me, denying any knowledge of the situation a hard to sell option. Even if I tried the story that I had just concocted, that there must have been some sort of itinerant deviant who had gotten into the building somehow and had maliciously poured olive oil all over everything, I didn’t think it would sell.
Everything that has been written here took almost no time to occur – much less time was consumed in doing it than a reader will have spent reading it. It seemed to me that I was on the brink of an infinitely unpleasant existential balance, and the bad news was that it had barely begun. There was no good news.
So I couldn’t see any alternative except to just continue with the futile course that I had been taking and just waiting for somebody to come and kill me.
As I sopped up oil, carried the dripping paper towels into the apartment, threw them in a greasy pile on the drain board – there was no kitchen garbage can in evidence – grabbed a virgin wad of paper towel and went back to repeat the process, punctuated periodically by the lights going out, I made a real effort to try to assemble one sentence in French with which I could at least explain the high points of the situation. I couldn’t get beyond huile d’olive. “ Actually” I thought to myself “if you yell it at the top of your lungs, they may think you are crazy and get out of the way.” I had a vague memory of a Smothers Brothers routine that ended with Dicky yelling “chocolate” and that took my mind off of the grimness of things for a moment. But only for a moment.
I am the sort of person, my wife and closest friends would be happy to confirm, who, in the face of reasonably minor adversity, becomes a complete irrational, screaming pain in the ass. Those same people would probably hasten to point out that, in fact, the state under the stress of mild adversity is merely a deeper dimension of a fairly consistently static form of behavior. And I would be in total agreement. That is exactly how I act. And it is something which I hate, but can’t seem to exercise very much control over.
What most people don’t know about me, because deep adversity has seldom interfered in my life, is that when I am faced with a situation which I am convinced is utterly hopeless, I get fairly stoic, and with the calmness of the stoic pursue courses of action that often turn out to have been the correct course.
As I greased the knees of my new levis – bought just for the Paris sojourn – and pushed masses of oily paper towel around on a hexagonal brick floor – I was a long way even from the marble landing, much less the stretch of marble between the bottom of the stairs, through the inner sanctum and out to the outer door – leaving behind a perhaps less voluminous mass of sticky slippery substance shining in the light during those intervals when the light was on, I found myself lapsing into that “genuine disaster” form of behavior. And my net conclusion from that lapse was, for better or for worse I was going to be doing what I was doing for – probably – most of the rest of my life, and I might as well get used to it. The calmness that that viewpoint lent to the situation – that I was to become kind of the scullery maid equivalent of Sisyphus– was palpable. I even toyed with the idea if I ever got the rock permanently up the hill, that someday I might make a story of all of what I was thinking and doing, that some day I might even be able to laugh at the whole thing.
“Not very likely” was my reaction to that train of thought.
I really couldn’t see any end to the nightmare in which I found myself. The only question to which there was an unknown answer was how soon would fellow, albeit French speaking, humans come upon me, and how deeply more malignant would my condition become when that – I was absolutely certain – inevitable event occurred?
Otto von Bismarck has been attributed with the quotation “god has a special providence for drunks, little children and the United States of America”. More than once in my life I have felt that he could have added “and Noel McKeehan”.
During one of my trips to the kitchen to add to the alarmingly large accumulation of oily paper towels and to gather yet another supply of non-oily ones I took one more look in the cleaning supplies cupboard for – anything. Something I had briefly looked at and to which I had assigned the status of being useless suddenly presented itself to me in a different light. It was a netoyant de vitrine – glass cleaner.
“Why not?” I said to the pile of oily paper towels.
I had by this time made some progress all the way back to the beginning of the terra cotta floor. What was left was obvious, shiny - when the lights were on - and slippery. But there was a lot less of it. I had a large, full, spray bottle of glass cleaner which I hoped might have some grease and oil fighting characteristics. I sprayed on a generous quantity and vigorously applied a clean wad of paper towels. I rubbed and rubbed and looked at the paper towels to see what seemed to be coming up with them. It looked remarkably hopeful, like what one would expect an oleo-phobic compound to have on a shimmering glaze of olive oil on the floor.
As I kept spraying, wiping and towel replenishing, I found myself harboring a dangerous glimmer of optimistic hope. That was the last thing I wanted to have. Despair and desperation seemed better companions in what I was sure was an unalterably hopeless situation than a fleeting, and probably fickle, shaft of hopeful light. I tried to subdue it. I tried to ignore it. I tried to banish it.
But as I kept on, checking the level of fluid left in the bottle periodically, I could see that I was almost to the tile at the edge of the top of the stairs, and that I had left behind me something that just looked like someone had spilled some water and wiped it up rather than that someone had covered the floor with olive oil. As I came to the stairs and saw the tell tale dark streak from bottom to top I congratulated myself with having made it that far and with not having to even try to do anything to the highly absorbent wool carpet. The streak would be there until the end of time or the arrival of the carpet cleaners – whichever came first.
So all I had left was the trail back to the outer door – there was some indoor/outdoor carpet breaking that task into two segments - a distance of about 100 feet. In most places the oil was a not especially big streak down the center of the marble floor. That was not true where I had stopped to examine my new mail box for a moment. At that point there was another small lake of oil (another piece of evidence for the jury had I opted for the deny-the-whole-thing approach to the problem) but I had already dealt with a couple other lakes and I knew how to handle this one.
As I repeated my now expert spray/wipe/replenish towels routine, I had to ponder why no one had appeared to witness my activity. I will never know the answer to that, but I got the whole mess cleaned up to the point of disguising that it, in its ultimate grim magnificence, had ever even existed, found the building garbage can and disposed of all of the oily paper towels and had exited the building to return to Quai aux Fleurs for another load without ever seeing another person.
And, except for a few – VERY MINOR – little glints of residual oil here and there one would never be aware of the whole disaster that had occurred on my most recent moving day.
WKRP in Cincinnati, one of television’s great sitcoms, had an episode that had as it’s final spoken line, what I think to be the funniest line in the history of American television. “As god is my witness, Travis, I thought turkeys could fly.”
My corollary is “as god is my witness, I never really thought that I was ever going to be anywhere but on the floor of an apartment in Paris trying to absorb an infinite supply of olive oil into a finite quantity of paper towels.” It was an experience which allowed me to transcend the inevitable, knowing, nod of the head with which I had always accompanied consideration of the plight of Sisyphus; for about forty minutes that day I was, in fact, Sisyphus.
And it was no fun at all.