I know why I came. I don’t know why I stay.
I was on the point of departure when I began to stay. I made many attempts at leaving afterwards, but I never again got so close that I could honestly say I was on the point of departure.
I sometimes blame the toaster-oven. I really ought to have thrown it out at the very beginning, when I saw it would not turn off automatically and would have to be watched constantly, while there was still hope of getting a new one. I suppose I had scruples. It was not my job to throw out other people’s small appliances. I went on using it instead, but was assiduous about pulling the plug afterward, sometimes returning to the kitchen to double or even triple check.
A bright side to my current situation is that I am now unlikely to leave the house with the toaster on, as I feared for a moment I was about to do.
I mean I am unlikely to leave the house.
I had already opened the front gate. Clutching a suitcase in each hand, I was about to step through to the street, when I remembered the toaster-oven. I stood stock-still, while I tried to recall if I had unplugged it, a mental effort that is sometimes described as “ransacking the mind.” From my experience of other people, including people in films, in similar situations, I assume that my expression at that moment was completely blank.
Imagine a man in his mid-forties, dark hair, of average good looks, though perhaps thinner than is considered healthy, standing in front of an open gate with a small pack on his back, a heavy suitcase in each hand, and a blank look on his face. He is wearing jeans, sandals, Hawaiian shirt. The sun is shining. It is summer.
Standing there, ransacking, I was able to recall almost every instant of the morning—snapping shut the two suitcases I had packed the night before, checking the window locks, sweeping the crumbs of toast from the kitchen table, and after finishing my coffee, rinsing the cup and pouring the remainder of the milk down the drain. But when it came to the toaster-oven I drew a complete blank.
Picture a blackboard covered all over with writing except for a spot near the bottom where there’s a broad whitish smudge made by an eraser.
There was nothing to do but check.
I realize now how absurd that was. Instead of checking I could have just left, stepped right through the gate into the street and on down the slope of departure. I could have caught an afternoon train to Marseille and from there taken a plane back to America. I could have rented a car in Nice, driven to Milan and grabbed a flight to Tokyo. I could have worked my way down to San Rafael and Genoa, taken a room in the latter city, and begun research on a book about Columbus.
That’s easy to see now.
I set down the bags and closed the gate. The latch, it seems to me now, fell with a dull thud. It fell with a small click.
I ran back up the stone stairway that climbed from the gate up through the terraced garden to the front door, pausing on the next-to-top step to bend and retrieve a key from a little crevice underneath, where I had placed it a minute before and where I had found it at the beginning of my visit.
I had expected, when I reached for the key at the start of my visit, a heavy old-fashioned key of a kind that I imagined was still common in France. But it was a Yale key of a type that is found everywhere.
I say visit, but of course as things have turned out it really cannot be considered a visit. A stay, I suppose, or a sojourn.
I bounded through the front room and the dining room and down the hall to the kitchen, which occupies a wing of its own at the rear of the house. The cord lay in neat coils on the counter next to the toaster-oven. I no sooner saw it than I remembered coiling it in just that way.
I was turning back when I noticed a smudge on the little glass door of the appliance. I tried to take it off with my thumb, but that only made it worse. I remember thinking that I would just have to leave it like that, even as I went about dampening a sponge with detergent and scrubbing it clean. I don’t understand why I did that.
I had been late for the bus already, and now instead of racing for the door, I stopped in the front room to gaze out a window. I moved a chair to one side in order to pull open the casements, push out one of the shutters, and look down. I saw the walk and the gate below me, and my suitcases standing side by side in front of the gate. There was something oddly moving, even mysterious, about the arrangement of things: the walkway paved with blue tile and bordered by gray-green dagger-leafed yuccas and yellow-flowering cacti, the white-painted wooden gate, and the two incongruous suitcases. I was reminded of a surrealist painting, by Magritte perhaps, or de Chirico, the way all the elements conspired to evoke the person who ought to be standing there between the suitcases but who was, mysteriously, missing. It was like seeing myself gone.
I heard the bus pulling away from the stop at the corner. I listened while it labored up the hill, the noise of its motor ascending from groan to whine and falling back to groan as it climbed a ladder of gears to vanish suddenly into silence. A silence that began, I suppose, with the driver lifting his foot from the accelerator at the moment the bus topped the ridge and started to coast down the far side, towards the Mediterranean and Nice in the distance. A foot in a regulation black shoe at the base of a blue-uniformed trouser leg, a shoe hinged on its heel, the toe slightly raised: and from there, from that minute motion, the lifting of the toe from the accelerator pedal, it – the silence – came rolling back in a vast cumulating wave over me and the house and the garden.
I recall feeling something very odd and intense. I was acutely aware of myself standing there at the window and looking down at my bags planted side by side on the sunlit tiles, between the rows of desert vegetation, the spiked leaves and spines and the flowers that were too yellow, in front of the closed gate.
I stood there a long time. Dark clouds had begun to float in from the west. Fearing rain, I went down and brought the bags up.
Shortly afterward several drops fell, so few they made scarcely a sound, while dark splotches the size of nickels appeared on the walk. Then, a little later still, the sun came back out.
Sam Savage is the best-selling author of Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife, The Cry of the Sloth, Glass, The Way of the Dog, and It Will End with Us. A native of South Carolina, Savage holds a PhD in philosophy from Yale University. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.