Notes of Improvement on Parisian Trains

On Saturday, Mel tucked her red moleskin notebook into her raincoat and took a cab downtown. The sky spat rain in desultory bursts onto the cobblestone sidewalks, painting the sad windows of the skyscrapers and churches and old apartment buildings. Raindrops raced each other on the window of the cab, bubbling the skin of Paris.

Merci,” Mel mouthed to the cab driver. She stepped right into a puddle and danced to the sidewalk to shake the water from her shoes. The city smelled like sweating asphalt. Another cough of rain thundered on the top of her hood, like 100 tiny finger taps, Wake up, Mel.

Wednesday through Saturday, she rode the trains in Paris and scribbled notes of improvement in her red moleskin notebook – Grimy windows with nose smudges, light in the back going off and on, a smell – and when she’d filled her notebook, she bought another one, though always red, because it had been her late husband’s favorite color. It was only part time work, but the pay wasn’t bad. Hers was a very competitive position – she’d been told in the third interview for the job. She should feel very lucky. Welcome to the team.

Her late husband didn’t work for the train company, but his brother Sam did. Sam was her direct superior. “You’ll have to meet my brother,” Sam told her seven years ago, riding their first train together on a snowy morning in February during Mel’s training period. Freezing, freezing, freezing cold he’d written in his notebook to show her how it was done. “You’d love him.”

Mel ducked out of the wet afternoon into the dripping concrete of the metro station and boarded a train on Line 12. She crossed her legs and set her notebook against her knee, popping the cap off her pen. The trains were busiest on Saturdays, stuffy with buskers and freckly tourists. But today, the train was nearly empty. Maybe it was the weather, Mel thought as they took off, or maybe it was that this train was leaving downtown, plunging into the higher arrondissements and the outward spirals of the city.

Empty, she wrote, even though it wasn’t an improvement, because sometimes she just wrote what she saw.

Mel’s phone rang.

“Mel,” she said.

“Mel.” It was Sam. “I think I see you.”

Mel looked up but only saw her own reflection. Grimy windows, she wrote.

“To your left,” said Sam.

Mel turned her head to the left and saw three teenage girls with heavy makeup passing around headphones, a slumped man in a trench coat, a middle-aged couple wearing fanny packs and comfortable walking shoes frowning at one another, and, through the window to the next carriage, a blurry face with glasses.

“Good morning, Sam,” said Mel.

“I’ll come over on the next stop.”

The train slowed and the doors opened. The teenage girls left, and a woman in a wheelchair entered the cabin. Sam appeared after her, wiping his glasses on his sweater, a habit Mel had noted on the day they took their first train ride together seven years ago. He sank into the plastic chair beside her, which issued a long, plaintive creak.

Creaky chair, Mel wrote.

“I have this train today,” Sam said. “You’re on the other side of town.”

“No,” said Mel. She flipped back a page to show her assignment for the day, but the page was blank. “I must not have written it down,” she said. “But I thought for sure…”

The train started up again. It muttered one cold screech. The blue-gray lights of the station drained away to the right, as if the passengers were sinking into deeper, darker water, or rising out of a brightly lit swimming pool into night air. The overhead lights caked the cabin in a thick, yellow glaze.

Strong lights, Mel wrote.

“Stop that,” said Sam. He reached over with his ballpoint pen and tunneled a shaky, black line through Mel’s blue handwriting. “I’m taking notes. You get off at the next stop and find your train. Look, here’s your assignment.”

Sam opened his own notebook, a black composition book, to a page neatly crammed with dates and the names of trains and the names of the train company’s employees. He pointed at Mel’s name, and Saturday, and the name of a train on the other side of town.

Mel looked up at her grimy reflection again and watched her mouth move around the words, “Well, I want to take this train.”

“Hm,” said Sam. “That’s sort of inconsequential. It’s not on the schedule.”

The train on the other side of town, the train Mel should have been on at this exact moment, must have been where all the crowds were. The buskers with accordions and cheesy smiles, the women in long dresses damp at the hem from dirty puddles, the blushing children wide-eyed staring from their mothers’ laps, and the briefcases and purses and scents of urine and rain and newspaper, the debris of people and items that eddied around the city on a Saturday afternoon in Paris, clotting together like a garbage patch in the ocean.

This train was for those leaving the city, maybe against their will, yanked by a rip tide further out to sea.

Rip tides, Mel wrote.

The train stopped at the next station. The teenage girls left.

“Mel, are you listening?” said Sam. “It’s not on the schedule.”

“Let’s both do it, then,” said Mel. “We’ll take twice the notes.”

“That’s a waste of resources. You’ll get off here and transfer.”


 “Mel.” Sam took off his glasses, leaned on his knees with his elbows, and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Can you please just do your job today and we’ll talk about this later?”

Sticky floor, Mel wrote. “I am doing my job.”

“You’re doing someone else’s job.”

“And the value of the job getting done is therefore decreased?” she started to say. “Just because it belongs to someone else?” But she got tired halfway through and didn’t like to debate philosophically. She knew from dinner parties that Sam was much better at it than she was. She and her late husband used to have an eyebrow signal for one another that meant, “Just let him have this one.”

The train took off.

“The next stop, then,” said Sam, the irritation in his voice spiking.

“I can’t,” said Mel, and she truly believed it. The train shot them further out into orbit, leaving behind the beating heart of the city, which Mel could feel faintly on the edges of her body like a palpation keeping her awake when she was lying in bed alone. How had she mistaken the schedule? She’d never boarded the wrong train that she could remember, not in seven years. She’d done it all absolutely correctly, and it was only her surroundings that were incorrect, the dented seat cushions, the vomit stains on the tiles, the lost umbrellas. No one had ever written Mel in a red moleskin notebook, not that she knew of.

 “I wish you’d make this easy on me,” said Sam. “You know that this year has been hard on me too. Didn’t you know that? If you didn’t, you should have guessed.”

“I’m sorry I can’t make it easy on you,” Mel mumbled, her lips tight together so that her reflection barely looked like it was speaking at all.

“Well, I’ll make it easy on you,” said Sam. “Get off at the next step and go back or you’re fired.”

The train screeched again, a long, chilling wail that made the middle-aged couple look out the black windows as if searching for the beast that had uttered the noise.

Second screech, Mel wrote.

The train slumped to a halt.

“Fine,” said Mel. “I’ll get off here, but I’m not going back into the city. Fire me if you like.”

Mel shut her notebook and left the train. She didn’t recognize the station, which was odd, because she knew every station in Paris by heart, every imperfection down to the smallest wall tile scratch, clumsy elevator, shattered overhead light, station name on maps graffitied into crude words in French and English. She looked for a sign, but the station seemed not to have a name. As the train pulled out, Mel realized she was the only one there other than Sam, who had also disembarked.

Mel followed the scent of wet streets. Her footsteps echoed on the pale blue tiles and echoed again with Sam’s footsteps following hers, and then his echoed too so that it sounded like they had a whole ghost parade cautiously exploring the abandoned station. Empty, she scribbled again into her notebook as she walked. She drew a line in her notes to indicate when she’d left the train and noted the time on her watch. “I’m sorry,” she thought she heard Sam say, but it might have just been the sound of his feet.

They found the escalators around the corner, though they were silent and still, blocked by plastic yellow caution barriers. Mel moved one aside so they could walk up the slatted stairs. The escalator was long, and she had to pause halfway through to catch her breath. From above, light and the smell of rain, mud, wet grass, wet shoes, wet ankles and briefcases and new and old puddles, fell on them, lifting the roots of Mel’s hair and cooling her skin.

She took out her pen to note the broken escalators.

“I’ve got this one,” said Sam. He opened his composition book, propping it against the black rubber handrail. Broken escalators, he wrote.

“And someone’s stolen the signs,” Mel said. She breathed deeply. She didn’t know a part of Paris that had those smells. “I didn’t see a single one, did you?”

Missing signs, Sam wrote, and next to it, Missing maps.

“I didn’t even notice the maps,” said Mel. “Come to think of it, no displays either, the ones showing how long until the next train. And it looks like no one has been through to scrape the gum in a long time.”

Missing displays. Missing benches. Old gum on the floor. Trashcans overflowing. Broken tiles by the escalators and along the edge of the tracks. Flickering light somewhere further into the station, didn’t investigate. No other passengers disembarked. No exit signs.

Mel sat on the frozen escalator stairs, still winded. “Yes, no exit signs,” she said, sucking another deep breath into her lungs, overpowered by new smells from wet streets unfamiliar to her. “Where are we?”

 “In the 19th arrondissement, I think,” said Sam. “They must have closed the station a while ago.”

He sat next to her on the stairs. It was a tight squeeze. Mel set her head on his shoulder and cried, still panting from the climb, and Sam cried too, although he kept the notebook open, dutifully noting more needed improvements as he noticed them. That was something Mel had always admired about Sam. He never stopped working, never broke down or screeched to a halt, never fell behind and disappeared.

“There’s some kind of black smudge on the side of the escalators, you see?” said Mel while Sam wrote. “There are beer bottles in the corner.”

“The improvements team will be pleased,” said Sam. “There are weeks of work down here.”

Sam had been right the day they took their first train ride together seven years ago, when it was Freezing, freezing, freezing cold and he told Mel, “You’d love him.” Mel had.

Like a generator spluttering back to life, the escalator trembled beneath their thighs and gave a sudden lurch that nearly sent them toppling over. Mel clung to Sam’s arm to steady herself and he clung to his composition book. The escalator coughed and began to inch upward, humming with hidden mechanics, chugging toward the light. It moved slowly and made a terrible noise, rusted metal grinding on metal.

“Good luck we weren’t on the down escalator,” said Sam.

The nameless station faded away beneath their toes with the new smell of unfamiliar, rainy streets blossoming around them, and good luck, Mel thought, good luck that the escalators had sprung back to life at all, so that moving upward was as easy as leaning her head on Sam’s shoulder, closing her eyes, and saying, “Someone will need to fix that awful screech.”

Graham Marema

Graham Marema is a writer and artist from the blue hills of East Tennessee. She earned her BA in English from Davidson College, where she received the Vereen Bell Award for short fiction, and is currently pursing an MFA in fiction at the University of Wyoming.

Graham Marema is a writer and artist from the blue hills of East Tennessee. She earned her BA in English from Davidson College, where she received the Vereen Bell Award for short fiction, and is currently pursing an MFA in fiction at the University of Wyoming.

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