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My Son the Philosopher

a short story by Stephen Poleskie

RIDING ON THE EARLY TRAIN, Jean-Paul Riposte, a wine merchant from a fashionable section of Paris, was traveling to the southern town of Toulouse to visit his mother. Never married, Monsieur Riposte spent his holidays with the woman who had raised him, his father having died when Jean-Paul was only three. Monday was Bastille Day; his shop closed, Jean-Paul would spend the extra day in Toulouse, and return home in the evening.

Dressed in her Sunday-best dark blue dress, Madame Riposte was on her way to meet her son. She planned to take a bus to the center, where she would hear mass at the cathedral, and then have a pleasant stroll past the shops to the station. Leaving her building, Mme. Riposte stopped to chat with the wife of the concierge, showing the woman the same photograph she had displayed many times in the past.

“This is my son, Jean-Paul,” Mme. Riposte said, pointing to a large man in the center of a well-worn photograph, “he owns a wine shop in Paris, he’s such a clever fellow, he makes a lot of money, and he’s a philosopher too, he always knows what to do. . . .”

M. Riposte had taken the TGV, the Train de Grande Vitesse, or very fast train. This streamlined express was the pride of France, capable of roaring along at speeds in excess of 290 kilometers per hour.

Sitting comfortably, as the landscape flew by at such a rate as to make the telephone poles lining the tracks seem invisible, Jean-Paul opened the book he had brought. Nibbling at cheese and sipping mineral water, he began reading a text by the French philosopher Michel Foucault. Although M. Riposte did not have a glass of wine, as the wine served on trains did not measure up to his standards, he was at this moment content. Jean-Paul loved reading the modern French deconstructionist philosophers. He was especially fond of Foucault, with his emphasis on sex: The penis thus appears at the intersection of all these games of mastery ... since it is by means of the penis that the penetration is carried out ... since it signifies the whole field of kinship and activity.

M. Riposte considered himself a deconstructionist wine merchant. He engaged in the practice of changing the labels on his bottles of cheap wine to those of more expensive brands: shifting attention from the signified to the signifier and the system of signification. Jean-Paul was a philosopher then, avoiding, in his mind at least, committing what was in France a serious crime. Also, he only sold these simulacrum wines to American tourists, whom he felt did not know anything about wine anyway, and only bought by the label and the price.

While otherwise quite healthy, M. Riposte had reached that age where fluids consumed needed to be expelled with increasing frequency, a problem that took him to his doctor to have his prostate prodded quite regularly. Jean-Paul took pills for his condition. Nevertheless, his bottle of mineral water finished, he soon found himself in need of the toilet.

After waiting by the door to the WC for about three minutes, Jean-Paul, a shy person despite his ponderous size, finally decided to knock.


Jean-Paul knew when the train was crowded people sometimes sat in the toilets. He waited three more minutes and knocked again.

“Occupied!” The words were again grunted through the door by an apparently angry voice.

M. Riposte’s need was becoming urgent. Moving between the cars, especially at the speed the TGV traveled always made Jean-Paul nervous. He opened the door and stepped onto the swaying platform.

Finding an empty WC in the next car, M. Riposte hurried in and latched the door. As the train was rocking considerably, making it difficult to keep his balance, Jean-Paul decided to sit down to perform a function that was normally performed standing up. This posture sent a confused signal to his brain, causing his body to begin the process of a function that was normally accomplished sitting down. He would need to sit there for a while.

Seeking something to pass the time—in his own toilet Jean-Paul kept a volume of Derrida handy—M. Riposte took his wallet from his coat pocket, removed the most recent letter from his mother, which he had folded there, and began to reread it. For reasons unknown, and which he would later regret, M. Riposte did not return his wallet to his coat pocket, but placed it on the sink next to him.

Finished with his bowel movement M. Riposte studied the results, analyzing the general condition of his health, like many of the great philosophers, by the color and composition of his stools. His diagnosis completed, he stepped on the pedal that opened the metal lid and allowed the matter to be flushed down the toilet. The feces disappeared with a great rushing of air, accompanied by a colorful splashing of blue water—water bluer than actual water, which was not really blue. A simulacrum, Jean-Paul mused; doubtless the water had been dyed that unreal color as a signifier of purity. Signs taken for wonders.

Turning to wash his hands, Jean-Paul noticed his wallet still lying on the edge of the sink, and reached for it. The TGV chose that exact moment to enter a curving tunnel. Lurching in the darkness, M. Riposte simultaneously grasped for the black leather billfold with one hand and for the handrail with the other. Shifting his feet to retain his balance, he involuntarily stepped on the pedal, flushing the toilet one more time.

When the train exited the tunnel, M. Riposte’s left hand was firmly gripping the handrail; however, his right hand was empty, and his wallet was not where it had been. Jean-Paul bent over and looked down, not an easy task as he was a man of overindulgent pudginess. His wallet was not on the floor. Frantically, his eyes searched the small room; the wallet was there, at the bottom of the stainless steel toilet bowl.

Reaching into the toilet to retrieve his billfold, M. Riposte discovered it wedged securely beneath the round steel lid at the bottom of the bowl. His hand felt the blast of cold air from underneath the rocketing train. Carefully working his fingers below the lid, Jean-Paul attempted to lift the steel disk enough to free his wallet, but found he could not.

M. Riposte considered his options. Leaving his wallet there while he went for help was not a possibility; the black billfold contained a considerable sum of money, all of Saturday’s receipts from his wine shop. He was afraid that while he was away searching for a porter, someone might come and either flush his wallet all the way down, or retrieve it and claim the francs for themselves.

Forming a plan, M. Riposte kneeled over the bowl, working his fingers around until he had a firm grip on the wallet. He would hit the pedal with his knee, flushing the toilet, causing the steel disk to open, allowing him to quickly retract his wallet before the disk closed again.

Woooosh! . . .glug, glug, glug. . . .

It was a good plan, but one that contained circumstances M. Riposte had not foreseen. The force of the flushing took Jean-Paul by complete surprise; he felt the wallet slipping from his fingers, but held on as the suction drew the object further inside the drain. The steel disk had then quickly sprung shut—trapping his hand.


M. Riposte struggled to remove his hand, which was now in considerable pain. He also attempted to move his substantial bulk into a more comfortable position. Crammed between the sink and the toilet, Jean-Paul could not pivot his body sufficiently to allow his free hand to be of any use.

Crouching on the floor, sweat pouring down his forehead, his rotund physique swaying in rhythm with the train, M. Riposte realized the hopelessness of his situation. If he did not move his trapped hand the pain was somewhat bearable. Waiting until someone came to use the WC was now his only option. The door latch, which he could not reach, was locked from the inside, he would yell to the next passerby.

Minutes passed in agony, then the latch rattled a sound of hope, M. Riposte began to shout: “Attention! Attention! I am trapped in here . . . my hand is caught in the toilet bowl. Please go for help. . . .”

Speaking English, the voice of the potential rescuer filtered through the door:

“Hey dude, stay cool man. Like I don’t know what your problem is but hang loose . . . like there’s no need to get all up-tight and yell. Like don’t rush yourself dude, if you know what I mean . . . like I’ll use a different bathroom.” The voice padded away down the hall.

A tourist, a stupid foreign tourist, Jean-Paul fumed; how can they travel in a country and not know a single word of its language? An American tourist, they were the worst. Waiting for another person was all M. Riposte could do. He inched his ponderous figure a little to the left; his legs were beginning to cramp.

M. Riposte did not know that besides the three American students in this car, all the rest of the seats were occupied by a group of Catholic nuns on a pilgrimage. It is a fact that women have larger bladders than men; therefore they need to urinate less frequently. This was especially true of nuns, who rarely visited train toilets.

Clattering along, the TGV was nearing its top speed; it was an express and had no intention of stopping for some time. People standing on station platforms at secondary towns it passed by were almost swept up in its vortex. Overhead a small airplane, its strobe lights flashing in the hazy sunshine, attempted a race, but the train soon pulled away.

Numbness was creeping into Jean-Paul’s arm, beginning at his trapped hand, which still maintained its grasp on his wallet as if it were part of him. Was his arm rotting, he wondered, would it need to be amputated? He also had a violent need to pass water.

Looking up, M. Riposte spotted the emergency cord, to pull this would stop the train; he would be saved. But dare he stop the train? The Train de Grande Vitesse was the pride of France; it did not stop for nothing, especially for someone as insignificant as Jean-Paul Riposte. He imagined the ribald comments of his friends when they read the headline in the newspaper: Hand Stuck In Toilet Paris Wine Merchant Halts TGV.

M. Riposte had forgotten any other existence before now. He had lost all sensation in his arm. He felt as if he would never stand up again. He was nauseous and covered in sweat. And unable to control his pinched and distorted bladder, he had wet his trousers. Jean-Paul came to a decision; he must pull the emergency cord.

Pulling the cord would not be an easy task, as it hung from the wall at a height not designed to be reached by a person who had one hand trapped in the bottom of the toilet bowl. Painfully, Jean-Paul squeezed his bulk from between the sink, pivoting so he could reach the cord with his free hand. Stretched to his full extension, he still lacked the distance of his finger tips. With all his strength, he lunged at the cord.

Looking up in astonishment, the newspaper vendor at the small station at Saint-Pierre-des-Corps saw the express TGV pulling up to the platform. Normally the train would have clattered rapidly by on the way to its next stop at Tours.

Klaxons screaming, officials shouting, rubber boots clomping: a cacophony of sounds accompanied the firemen running with their metal- cutting tools toward the now halted TGV.

“This way, please . . . he is in here!” shouted one of the train’s conductors clearing a path through the crowd of curious passengers assembled around the door of a WC.

Wielding his axe, a fireman took down the door, revealing Jean-Paul Riposte wedged between the sink and the toilet, his hand still firmly trapped in the bowl. Grateful to be rescued, but somewhat in a state of shock, all that Jean-Paul could do to greet his rescuers was to fart.

“Please, you must get him out of here quickly.” The chief engineer had come back from the locomotive. “This is the TGV. We are already behind schedule one half hour, which is unheard of. . . .”

After several attempts at prying up the steel disk, during which M. Riposte screamed loudly, although he was not really being hurt, the fire chief ordered his men to use their cutters to remove the toilet.

His hand still wedged in the bowl; M. Riposte was carried from the train and laid on the station platform, a towel wrapped around his arm to catch any draining water. The other passengers were also exiting the coaches, as the train’s braking mechanism had become jammed and the TGV could not continue.

Lying on the station platform, blinded by glaring camera lights, Jean-Paul Riposte, a Paris wine merchant on holiday, was interviewed by a reporter from French National Television.

“Can you tell us, Monsieur Riposte, what circumstances caused you to stop the famous express train the TGV?”

“As you can see . . . my hand is stuck in this toilet.”

“Yes, certainly a very curious problem. . . .” The camera zoomed in on the toilet, Jean-Paul’s numb fingers still firmly clutching his billfold.

“But of course,” M. Riposte went on, “my predicament clearly illustrates Foucault’s postulate that the formation of oneself as the ethical subject of ones own actions has become more problematic.”

The press also interviewed a number of the other passengers, who were not as philosophical about M. Riposte’s plight:

“What a stupid fool. How can one get his hand caught in a toilet?”

“He was so concerned for the few francs in his wallet. Now we are all delayed for hours.”

“This is horrible! I took the TGV so I would get home in time for my daughter’s First Holy Communion, and now I will miss it completely.”

Waiting at the station in Toulouse, Mme. Riposte learned of the delay of the TGV, and that passengers from it would be coming on the next local, arriving in three hours. This was not a problem, she would wait. Mme. Riposte was old and had nothing else to do; besides, she was having such a nice conversation with the woman sitting next to her, who was also waiting for someone traveling on the TGV.

“This is my son, Jean-Paul,” Mme. Riposte said, pointing to a large man in the center of a well-worn photograph, “he owns a wine shop in Paris, he’s such a clever fellow, he makes a lot of money, and he’s a philosopher too, he always knows what to do. . .”