Thursday, March 31, 2016

GHOULS OF PERE LA CHAISE by Peter Nolan Smith

The 1980s are thirty years in the past and when I tell stories, the listeners suspect that I’m lying about jumping off the Quincy Quarries cliffs or nearly making love with Darryl Hannah in Jamaica or watching bears eat garbage at a dump in Maine.

Sometimes I wonder if they are right, but my memory is spot on about many things like how a Paris friend and his girlfriend would leave the Bains-Douches nightclub high on heroin to sleep in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise.

Guilhomme was a cold-wave musician. His lead singer Eric was squeamish at the sight of blood and tolerated Guilhomme for his keyboard play. Their crow-black band never possessed a name, although a model/friend from LA suggested Les Mortes D'Aube.

"I love The Dead of Dawn," Guilhomme trilled, since he resembled an unburied cadaver. His chubby copine was a Pigalle dancer with orange hair and skin as white as chalk. Sex had nothing to do with their relationship. He was gay and Claudine was asexual. Their first love was drugs.

Neither junkie had money for a room, so every night they scaled the high stone walls of the Pere LaChaise Cemetery to squat in a tomb not far from Jim Morrison's grave. Guilhomme painted his fingernails black to hint that he might have frantically clawed his escape from the depths of the dirt.

"How's living in a grave?" I asked him one night at the Bar Helium.

"It's not a grave. It's a tomb."

“As big as a two-bedroom apartment. The only problem is that Mssr. Les Doors' mourners wake us in the morning with their crying. Boohoo, Jim." Claudine hated hippies.

"And he isn't even dead. The cemetery workers tell me that the grave is empty."

"Ouais, Jim Le Grosse is eating cheeseburgers in Marbella." Claudine didn't like American pop stars either.

"But it's close to the plinth of Jean-François Champollion," Guilhomme told me one night at the Bar Helium in the Marais.

"Who?"

“Champollion deciphered the Egyptian hieroglyphics.” Guilhomme pffffed at my ignorance of the great linguist. “The Khedive of Egypt gave him the obelisks from the Luxor Temple, which now stand in Place de Concorde.”

“A smaller version marks his grave.” Claudine had dropped out of school at age 14, but Guilhomme tutored her in all things living and dead.

"So who's the famous Frog buried in your crypt?" I asked with anger, since I loved the Doors' CRYSTAL SHIP.

They shared a blank expression about the word 'frog' and Guilhomme looked to Claudine to ask, "Who is buried there?" .

"A rich bougie family. A lot of them are buried there, but none since 1919, so they must have been wiped out with the Spanish Flu." Guilhomme put on his leather jacket. It was the end of the night and the American barman had shouted out 'last call'. "Neglect tends to their remains and allows us to live in stone splendor."

"It's quiet in our crypt at night, but it is not peaceful in the cemetery,"declared Claudine. "Grave robbers roamed Pete Lachaise to plunder the bodies of the newly dead. Normally they only take the head, since it’s easier to hide in a bag than a corpse."

"And heads are 3000 new francs, while bodies are 5000 francs. Heads are easy to transport," Claudine said, then stop seeing Guilhomme's glare.

"We only go there to sleep."

"Like Dracula."

"No, more like the dead. I love my sleep."

As would any junkie.

“The grave robbers are quieter than the devil worshippers on the full moons.”

"Satanists?"."

"Ouais, they hold rites on the full moon, gathering at special graves and dance to a music from another time. They ask us to join them. Naked. Sweating. Pagan. Ugly. A knife slipping into a dog. I don't like them.” Guilhomme painted a tapestry of horror, tainted by the French people's love for their dogs.

“They scare me.” Claudine's clothing was in tatters. Her breasts slipped in and out of sight. She sometimes worked the streets of Pigalle and Guilhomme liked to think of himself as her pimp.

“Do not worry.” He brandished a long stiletto. A cutlery shop sold them near Notre-Dame. “I will cut them first before they touch you.”

“They are no fools.” Claudine knew the limits of Guilhomme’s protection. "The devil worshippers are many and the ghouls are even more."

"Enough with scary stories. Let's go." Guilhomme spotted his Moroccan dealer on the sidewalk. Ali worked all hours and Guilhomme said, "Come visit us one night and we'll show you the sights."

"Thanks." I had no interest in joining them. The stone walls of Pere Lachaise were fifteen feet high.

Guilhomme's sojourn in Pere Lachaise lasted a summer and the crypt offered cool comfort during the hot season. Autumn brought the damp and junkies hate the wet. The two broke up and Guilhomme went back to live with his parents in Versailles.

They were haute-class. His eccentricities were a family trait. He quit drugs and became a businessman, although Guilhomme disappeared over the weekends. Eric, his singer, said, "He frequents Pere Lachaise with the ghouls.

“I hope he grows out of it. It is so perverse.”

My 90s and 00s were spent in Asia, but in 2011 I hadn’t been in Paris my benefactor invited me to come down from my writing residence in Luxembourg to act as a translator for his trip to City of Lights.

We stayed at a four-star hotel on the Rue de Rivoli. Our meals were epicurean adventures. Days were spent in galleries and museums. I called on old friends. Most of them were busy with work. A few met us for dinner. My benefactor ordered vintage wines and picked up the check. I had very little time to myself, but one morning I escaped to wander through the Marais.

The old Jewish quarter had changed in my absence. Old stores were now trendy boutiques and my old hotel particular had become a townhouse. By midday I wanted a drink and headed over to Rue Vielle du Temple, hoping that the Le Petit Fer à Cheval was in business.

I was in luck. The small bar was a monument to the unchanging character of Paris. The bartender was old enough to have been serving ‘pression‘ thirty years ago and he greeted me with a nod, indicating I was not a stranger.

Neither was the man in the black suit across the bar.

It was Guilhomme.

He hadn’t aged a day in thirty years and I checked for a reflection in the mirror before calling out his name.

He lifted off his sunglasses to grin with green teeth.

“L’Américain.”

“Good to see you.”

We exchanged fingernail stretches of our lives over the last decades. He was working for a bank. He laughed to hear that I was writer in residence in Luxembourg.

“A boring town.”

“Boring is good at my age.” I had stolen too many people's share of excitement over the years.

“Tu a raison.” Guilhomme wore his years with a studied heaviness.

He ordered an absinthe.

I asked for a demi.

The other patrons of the bar sniffed the air.

Guilhomme’s dirty black suit smelled of the grave.

“Did you go to work today?”

“Are you with the tax man?” Nothing frightened a Frenchman more that an audit.

“No, just that you seem a little dusty.”

“Ah.” He lifted his sleeve to his nose. “You know it wasn’t me that liked the tomb. It was Claudine. She liked sleeping with the dead. She would take off their clothes to fondle their cold flesh. I think she even made love to some of them, but I never watched. Sex was not my thing.”

“And what happened to her?” I feared the worst.

“Claudine” He touched a tooth like he was searching for a morsel of yesterday’s meal stuck in a gap.

“She turned out like all women. She married a lesbian transvestite farmer and moved to the Haute Savoy to be a peasant. They had three enfants. I send them Christmas cards.”

“And you?” I didn't question any of the oddities of his last statement. Everything was within the bounds of normal with Guilhomme.

“Moi, I don’t sleep in Pere Lachaise anymore, but I like to lay on the ground before closing to remind me that we will all sleep in the dirt one of these days.”

“But not today.” I toasted the truth of his prediction, but Guilhomme wore too much of the fragrance of death on him to be healthy and I drank down my beer fast. I didn't bother to say 'plus tard' and walked out of the cafe, my heart beating with life.

Later that evening at dinner I entertained my benefactor with a tale of the walking dead. My friends were thrilled by my encounter, but I neglected to mention Claudine’s love of the dead.

Some secrets are better left to the grave.

Especially about those about the living, because some secrets are better left dead.

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