A Castle for Simone

Simone knows trash from way back when, from before it was renamed litter so decent people would not throw it on the ground. And she knows litter from way back, from before it became trendy -- recyclables. 

  It’s the usual, run of the mill family; mother is stitched to the couch and father has glow-in-the-dark teeth. If mother ever gives her daughter’s garbage compulsion attention, she says, “Bag ladies aren’t made, they’re born. I swear when Simone came squirting out of me that child was holding onto her placenta! And let me tell you she would not let go, in no way could we pry open that little grip. It finally dried and shriveled up. MY GOD! That’s when I saw that the unfortunate child has three - three! eyeballs. Can you imagine my pain? And let me tell you – she wailed and wailed for a year until she finally found a scrap of paper on the floor. Since then, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard an additional peep out of that queer-looking child.”

  But you are a lucky person to have never had the misfortune of meeting father. He’s a squareish man, as wide as he is tall, with a handsome face and as you know now, glow-in the-dark teeth. How Simone knows he has glow-in-the-dark teeth, it is best not to say.

  Other than the birthmark that resembles a price stamp smack dab in the middle of her forehead and long stringy ears, Simone has vein-shot eyelids, which begrudgingly spread themselves over her three teeny tiny eyeballs. Growing up, thank goodness she was tall for her age with monstrously large hands and arms that came down to her knees -- all of which kept other children at bay. Never once, not once as a child, was she made fun of . . . not that she knew about anyway. And I ask you, please do not ever tell her any different.

  122 rue St. Vincent is her family’s ancestral home. You’ve probably noticed it on your walks through Montmartre? It sits on the corner of rue St. Vincent and rue Mt. Cenis. Beautiful? Yes, yes you’ve seen it, the one with carved limestone festoons of flowers with gilded details underneath each of its five storey windows. 

  It was there in the eighteenth arrondissement where Simone honed her obsession with garbage and the compulsion to pick up stray pieces. As a youngster she thought litter was mysterious: What was it? How did it get there? Had it blown in from some interesting destination, or had it been left there by someone important, like a countess? Yes, Simone put her childhood to good use creeping along the alleys collecting bag after bag of litter.

  Late at night, she hid under her bed covers with the day’s fresh catch of trash and carefully examined each object d’arte by flashlight. Old sheets of newspaper, egg cartoons, food wrappers—you name it—Simone found virtue with it all, and was unwilling to part with a single scrap. At first she plumped her sagging mattress with her treasures and then filled the attic and cellar. Running out of empty spaces, she crammed fistful after fistful under the furniture. Soon, all the furniture was raised a foot off the ground, teetering on the garbage pile beneath.

  Can you imagine the stately, respectable home at 122 rue St. Vincent was only clever camouflage concealing a garbage dump? Why didn’t neighbors notice its foul smell? Occasionally a tourist passing by would pinch their nose, gag, and race out of sight. Watching them through the window Simone’s mother would raise her head up off the couch cushions just long enough to shout out at them, “Idiots!” Simone always whispered under her breath, “Normal.” 

  At nineteen years old, she escaped the clutches of her father’s glowing teeth and took to the streets of Paris to hunt garbage full time. By twenty-three she had tons of garbage stuffed into secret caches throughout the city, until she met Sara. Having lived most of her life on the streets, Sara is a cardboard origami genius.

  “Paper has the best memory,” Sara told Simone during her first origami lesson. “It does not matter what you do -- open it, stretch it or even iron it -- once paper is folded it never forgets that fold. Kinda like people, we never forget our folds do we?”

  I am certain Simone blushed when she confessed that she’d always had a thing for paper too – but liked it best second hand.

  With Simone’s debris-hunting talents and Sara’s cardboard origami secrets, they built a considerable three-storey cardboard castle for a home at the end of avenue Rachel, secreted away in the Montmartre cemetery. Remember, you and I’ve been in that cemetery -- you spat on the bust of Edgar Degas. Why? Oh yeah, because he would poke his models with hat pins. You’re silly really; I mean, everyone is allowed some eccentricities -- aren’t they?

  Anyway, it took months to fold and stack hundreds of cardboard boxes –- enough to build a castle. I saw it from a distance once; it was massive, with four turrets complete with armed battlements. Sara even made all the proper origami castle accoutrements: a whole regiment of life-sized soldiers, several ladies in waiting, a moat full of angry snapping alligators, and a slew of hardworking peasants. Sara said there were alligators to protect them, and peasants to tax! She called it a “respectable castle.” Simone baulked at that, she actually said out loud, “I grew up in respectable, and it was a pile of crap.”

  For a time they lived a blissful yet not very respectable castle life, until the rains came. Remember when it poured and poured? Well, the water collapsed their splendid castle. Like boats, hundreds of paper soldiers, peasants and alligators floated down into the cemetery, flooding the tombstones. But, worst of all, the rains washed away Sara’s love. What Simone found out was that sweet cardboard Sara had the habit of finding salvation in a different girl every couple of years. On the day it rained, Sara told Simone that it had become obvious to her that some woman named Mutt offered the only true way.

  The day I finally found my sister she was sitting in the driving rain, crying on top of a three-storey heap of wet cardboard. I carried her through the rain, three metro stops, and heaved her up those two flights of stairs. If I had known then that she was going to stitch herself to my couch, I might never have brought her here. To make matters worse, Simone won’t admit it, but I think father, with his glow-in-the-dark teeth, is coming over here at night while I’m at work.
Strangers in Paris, Tightrope Books, Copyright © the contributors, 2011, All rights reserved.