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A Sailor's Tale


He was waiting at the reception desk when I came into work last Thursday. He wore dirty jeans, a rumpled sweatshirt, and a fisherman's cap. He had a shaggy beard and as he shook my hand I noticed his fingernails were dirty.

The receptionist said he had a story for me. This is a line I hear often and it usually makes me duck for cover. But there was something about this guy, something that led me to usher him to my office to hear what he had to say.

"My English, she is not so good," he began, sounding a bit like Inspector Clouseau. "But I have the story, maybe you would like to buy it?"

"A story you've written?" I asked.

"No. I am not the writer, but I tell you my story and maybe you pay me for it." He set a weathered leather valise on my desk.

"We don't really do that sort of thing," I said, looking at the wall clock.

"Oh," he said dejectedly, fingering the valise.

"Tell me the story," I said.

And what a story it was.

Jean-Marie Malbranque left Paris on a bicycle in 1981 with 2,500 francs to his name. He cycled -- with his dog in a pull-cart behind him -- through Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Sudan, and then the length of Africa. After working in South Africa for several months, he caught a freighter to Argentina and then began cycling north through Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil, and into French Guiana, where he met a woman who would become his companion. They remained in Giuana for several years, where Jean-Marie worked as a gold miner and welder.

Jean-Marie laid photo after photo of his adventures on my desk, along with letters from those he had met along the way and articles from newspapers in Africa and South America. They told of crocodile attacks on the Nile, camping with Sudanese bandits, a 600-mile raft voyage on the Zaire River, and the death of his dog, bitten by a snake in Brazil. I began to understand the magnitude of his journey and the measure of the quiet little man who had wandered into my office.

But there was more. A few years later he and his girlfriend bought a sailboat in Guiana and sailed north. They visited nearly every Caribbean island, then proceeded up the coast of the United States, through the St. Lawrence Seaway, through the Great Lakes, and finally down the Mississippi River -- to Memphis. When he arrived here, someone told him the Flyer might want to buy his story, so he bicycled to our office.

After an hour or so, I thanked him for sharing his adventures but told him again we couldn't pay for such information. "I understand" he said, and turned to go.

"How much money do you need?" I asked. He looked at his shoes and said he had $14 and needed money to buy boat fuel.

Wait here," I said. I went to a nearby ATM and got $50. When I got back and gave him the money, he embraced me. "I will put you in my book," he said. "I will not forget this."

"Godspeed," I said, and meant it. Then I watched him bicycle up the trolley tracks and out of sight.

That night over a glass of wine I was telling a couple of friends about my encounter with the mad Frenchman. "Yeah, right," one of them scoffed. "He probably bicycled down from Frayser."

"No, I saw the photos," I said. "He said his boat's down at the harbor. It's probably still there."

"Let's go find him," he replied. "If this guy's real, I want to meet him." And so we grabbed another bottle of wine (the man's a Frenchman, after all) and headed to the harbor.

"We're looking for a Frenchman in a sailboat," I said to the security guard. "I'm a friend." He looked us up and down, decided we were harmless, and pointed to a weathered but sleek-looking sailboat at the end of the dock.

We knocked on the hull and after a long moment Jean-Marie emerged, looking confused. We suddenly felt like intruders, three slightly lit-up Americans standing in the dark with a bottle of wine. Then he recognized me. "BRUCE! Mon ami! Come aboard, come aboard."

We sat in the galley for an hour or so, looking at more photos and souvenirs of Jean-Marie's -- and his girlfriend Beverly's -- travels. We drank more wine, toasted each other, and when Jean-Marie brought out some of his leatherwork to show us we bought barrettes and tool holsters and insisted on paying more than he asked for them.

"No, you are too generous," he said. "You give me too much."

But he was wrong. What Jean-Marie had given us was worth every cent. Besides, if you can't pay for a story one way, you can always try another.

The next morning his boat was gone.

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