A Tree In Saint Quentin

The wind howled across France. The pastures of Normandy rumbled like thunder outside the window shields of the Chambre d’hôtes. The gentle couple Lucette and Jean Louis slept down the hall from me. I remember checking my phone at 3 AM, then I let the distant sounds of a violent ocean rock me to sleep.

Something jerked me awake at 9:01 AM, at breakfast time. As usual, I slipped on my black shirt, my sweater, and my joggers and looked out my bedside window at a brilliant red glow in a background of green. In a field of unchanging trees, there is one that is bright like a beacon. It reminds me of my dad because we used to see a deep red tree standing alone in the forest on the way to school in Hoover, Alabama. I loved that tree because it foretold the end of school and the coming of Christmas. Days at school were easier on the days my dad pointed out his tree to me.

Dad taught me to ride a bike. I stopped riding it soon after learning because I wasn’t allowed to leave the cul-de-sac. Riding in circles wasn’t exciting. I spent my childhood with video games as they offered a better escape. 20 years later I’d forget how to ride a bike. What they say about never forgetting is only half true.

I ate my usual breakfast of bread and butter, two slices of ham, a croissant filled with sweet confiture d’abricots and five glasses of water. Then I went upstairs and began preparing for the day’s mission – to ride the Dahon Mariner D8, my new foldable bike.

Lucette and Jean Louis were hosting her daughters in the living room. I can’t eat the bakery’s ham & cheese sandwiches or dine at the Poivre Rouge every night. I need to eat vegetables and to save money so the trip to the grocery store was eminent.

I walked out the front door as Lucette, her grown daughters, and Jean Louis watched me unfold my bike. I was hoping to slip away unnoticed. They prompted me to wear my fluorescent vest and my helmet while I worked. As I looked back through the door I saw the whole family gathering at the door to prepare me for the journey. The older daughter of Lucette, told me that it’s the law to wear a helmet and a vest. I had seen people without them and wasn’t too concerned about being seen by cars in broad daylight. Jean Louis had left and returned with a vest and a helmet. They kindly strapped me into both. Though I was wearing more than before I felt like an exposed, cornered squirrel. Jean Louis strapped the helmet to my head with some trouble and I couldn’t help but laugh as they all stood staring at me.

When I escaped the safety of their overwhelming kindness, I quickly sat down on the bike and pedaled away. I hadn’t rode but a few feet when the seat dropped all the way down to the metal. I was now hunched forward like a folded fluorescent bowling ball. I quickly hopped off the bike and tightened the seat catch’s screw as the daughters cane walking up to me. The eldest smacked and shook the seat with her hand to make sure it was secure for me before getting into her car.

Bon, she said.

I thanked her. With the bike finally in order, I raced down the hill and for a moment I wondered if the wind would be as powerful as it was in the night. Maybe it would shove me off the bike.

My ride to the grocery store was hard. It was a short, 15 minute ride of 3.6 kilometers. The hills in southern Manches are deceptively exhausting. After a few minutes I started swearing like a lunatic as I shit my weight down on top of the pedals and fucked the bike upward. The end of my jacket was a little too long, so it kept catching the seat. The absurdity of the situation got to me and I began to laugh. Knowing that I looked ridiculous only made it funnier. It was the first real exercise I’ve had since I left home so the endorphin rush made me manic. I laughed hard as I road through the fresh-air country and cow-dropping roads. I had forgotten how much I actually enjoyed riding a bike from when I was younger. This time I have so much more freedom. I feel as if I can go anywhere.

As I rode up the difficult hills, I realized there was no way I’d get up the hill to Avranches when I eventually needed to make the trip to the larger city nearby. The hills I struggled on appeared to be normal, level roads. The way to Avranches is a steep climb.

I arrived at Intersport and set off the metal detector as I entered. I apologized and the girl at the desk said “C’est pas grave”. I made the decision to leave my bike by the door. I waited for her to finish working with a customer and asked, “Est-ce que ça va si je laisse mon vélo là?”

She walked over and looked at my bike folded by the door, as if to verify that it wasn’t a time bomb. She puckered her lips and said “Oui”, to me the way Jerry Seinfeld would say “Yeah…” That was good enough for me so I began shopping.

I needed my own helmet, a light for the front the bike, a bike pump, and then this week’s groceries.

I didn’t know what my bike’s tires required, so I did what all great planners do – I took a wild guess as to what would fulfill my needs. I bought a Mimi-pump the size of a flashlight that puts out 11 bar and 160 PSI, whatever that means. It also has both Schrader and presta heads, so my wild in-calculation paid off I think. It came with a bolt plate Velcroed to it so I don’t even have to pack it in my luggage, it can attach to my bike.

I bought my things from them then hauled my shopping bag and bike across the street to Carrefour. There I hid my bike and helmet and yellow vest behind a sign covering the service nook for the fire extinguisher. I grabbed my reusable Mont Saint Michel grocery bag and began hunting down microwaveable meals and ingredients for salads.

I succeeded and rewarded myself with the final purchase of a case of German blonde beer, Leffe. I’m not a fan of blondes but I’ve missed beer and besides I thought I’d try it. My trip to the store was 30€ for the rest of this week in meals, which is a great improvement from 15€ a meal plus tax.

Leaving was difficult. I dawned my gear and unfolded my cool bike. A boy came up to me and tried to sell me something, I said « Non merci » and tried to continue working. He asked me if my bicycle was electric. I told him it’s a foldable bike. He liked it. I tried to strap my full bag of groceries to the bar on the back but the bag was too thick. I had to haul my groceries home as they hung from the handlebars.

The hills were a lot more difficult as I my knee smacked the swinging bottles of beer and vegetables. I hauled ass through the shit smell until I was slowly rolling forward with powerful presses of my legs. I swore loudly and laughed. I looked and felt ridiculous and I was loving it.

When I arrived home, I cracked open my beer with a wide spoon because the frightened dog was locked in the kitchen with the bottle opener. I shoved the rest of my things into the mini fridge upstairs and sat on the comfortable couch. I was exhausted.

I looked out the window at my father’s tree. It had fewer leaves. The wind had shook them free. That night I did not fall asleep until early in the morning. The night wind was calm and the stars showed themselves. I miss my dad.

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