Wednesday, August 2, 2017

IN ABSENCE OF AMNESIA - Chapter 5 by Peter Nolan Smith

When a French worker says, “A month.” he usually meant six weeks, so I arrived at Rue Faux, expecting no change after a two week absence. I was pleasantly surprised to see a new wall, the entrance restored to its gaudy glory, liquor bottles over the bar, and the dance floor shining from a new layer of lacquer.

“Where have you been?” Bernard was cuing Willie Bobo’s SPANISH GREASE at the refurbished disc jockey booth.

“The bombs.” I shrugged my excuse.

“Eh, alors?” The new speakers favored the clean sound of the Latino Swing.

“I didn’t expect this much progress.”

“A phone call here. A phone call there.” His brother held office in the socialist government, the club’s liquor came tax-free from a military base, and our new bouncers were off-duty marines. Neither of us deemed these ‘favors’ inappropriate.

“Opening date is in five days.”

“Damn.”

“Problems avec ta copine?” Bernard nodded to the flute hitting a high note.

“Big problems. I promised Candia a trip to Disneyworld.” I rolled my eyes. “Now we’re opening I have to cancel.”

“Ah, quais, Mssr. Mickey et les filles.” Having known Candia since she was 14, Bernard was surprised that I had lasted longer than her other boyfriends and played Maurice Chevalier’s THANK HEAVEN FOR LITTLE GIRLS.

“If you want to go, go. We have one more week at least.”

“Thanks.”

I went upstairs to telephone Candia. She hung up a dozen times. Finally she answered and I blurted out, “I have a surprise for you. We’re going to Disneyworld.”

“I can’t. I have a job in Milan.”

“Then we can go to dinner at La Coupole tonight.”

”My plane leaves this evening.” ADDICTED TO LOVE was playing in the background. She hated Robert Palmer’s hit, since she hadn’t been chosen as an android model for the video. Another man had bought her the record.

“Oh.” I suspected that he was in the apartment and told Bernard that I would see him tomorrow.

“Embrace your chouchette for me.”

I exited from the nightclub to a carless street resembling a scene out of the 1870s. A tent had been erected under a balcony. A young clochard was cutting vegetables into a pot. The thin bum was better clothed than most derelicts sleeping under the Seine bridges, yet a tremor sizzled in my spine, as he lit his stove. It didn’t explode and I flagged a taxi, elated to have survived my fears.

At the atelier Candia was alone. A cigarette lay in the ashtray. The tip was bare of lipstick. Candia threw it in the trash and packed her bag for Italy. Her good-bye kiss was a peck.

Bernard and I worked twenty-hour days. Sleep was our only respite. Five minutes before the doors opened, the electricity blew the fuses. Bernard found the breakers and switched on the lights. We were ready for business.

Fun-loving Parisians flooded into Le Reve. Bernard’s DJing drove the teenagers onto the dance floor and they drank with an apocalyptical abandon. Candia showed up unexpectedly with her father. The old Puerto Rican ran a small boite de nuit in St. Germain. I bought a bottle of champagne. Candia's kiss was warm, but before I could hold her in my arms, Jacques tapped my shoulder.

“Someone to speak with you.”

I accompanied him to the door and Jacques pulled apart the curtains.

The young clouchard was struggling with a lighter.

“He say why?”

“No,” Jacques had only worked breaking and entering before my hiring him. All I had to do was say the word for him to prove his gratitude. “You want I make him go away?”

“No.” Twenty francs would buy the bum a bottle of wine and good luck for le Reve. “I’ll see what he wants.”

Jacques unlatched the ropes for the quartet of well-heeled youths from the 16th Arrondisement and I pulled out a few spare coins.

“Hey, you don’t recognize me?” The bum raised a smiling face.

Squinting I scrapped away the filth and hugged Danny Gordon for a short-lived embrace.

“When was the last time you bathed?”

“I didn’t think the French cared about personal hygiene.”

“Hey, I’m an American.” Parisian men’s one bar of soap per annum didn’t excuse his smelling like week-old garbage and I opened the ropes to the amazement of several customers dressed a la mode. “We have a shower in the basement. I’ll cuff you a couple of drinks afterwards.”

“That’s an offer I can’t refuse,” Danny broke out of his slouch. “I ran into your cousin in New York last year. She said you were here. Didn’t you leave right after Viktor Malenski got killed at the Continental?”

“No, I left about a month before that.” Three years since that deadly night hadn’t lessened the danger of the truth. “My partner and I started this club. I get paid to act rude to the French. Can it get better than that?”

“You’re my new hero.” He nodded to the cashier, who held her nose, as I led the ex-trumpeter to the basement changing room.

“So how about a shower?” I opened the taps of the washing room.

“Be a new man after that.” Danny stripped off his clothes and climbed into the steam-filled shower stall.

“You didn’t see Lisa when you in New York?”

“Ha, I was wondering when you were going to ask that.” Danny soaped his body. “Aren’t you over her yet?”

“Yeah, long ago.”

“Right.” He didn’t believe me either. “I saw her once. She was with Vadim.”

“She ask about me?”

“Didn’t get a chance to speak with her.” He soaped his hair. “Someone said they were living in Russia.”

“Thanks.” I left the washroom with his tattered clothes. They had outlived their usefulness several people ago. I dumped them in the trash bin and rummaged through a backstage closet. I hung a musty suit from the 1950s on the door and went upstairs with two cases of champagne. None of it vintage. Bernard was waiting at the bar.

“You throw Brigitte Bardot out of the club, then you let in a clouchard.” Ordering drinks Bernard asked, “So who is your guest?”

“He’s a friend from New York.” I ordered a whiskey.

“So the Americans are exporting bums to France.” My partner scoffed with the immense pleasure of hearing that an Amerlot had plunged to the bottom. His happiness was short-lived, for a twenty-minute shower and a suit transformed Danny into a modern-day Casanova for Le Reve’s haughty female clientele.

“A new man.” I led him to the bar.

“Same old me, just cleaner.” We toasted the East Village. Candia danced with him twice. Her father knew Danny’s dad. I had another drink. It wasn’t my last.

Candia announced her departure and I gave her a sloppy goodnight kiss.

“You are not so handsome as a drunk.”

“Everyone else is pretty.”

“Fool.”

“Love you.”

“You say those words so easy.”

“I mean it.” I escorted her to a taxi.

“Then what is love?” She shut the taxi door before my reply.

I drank the rest of the night with her father, trying to gather insight into his daughter. Instead he recounted his falling out of plane in the Korean War. “I didn’t die either.”

He had a lot of stories like that. So did Danny and me too. As the night drew to a close, I asked Danny. “You have anything in your ‘room’ you want to keep here?”

“No, ain’t nothing worth stealing.”

“What about your trumpet?”

“I hocked it in Spain.”

“Pawn it? You lived for your music.”

“Like you used to live for your poetry.” Danny chugged his whiskey.

“I couldn’t even write in meter.” The illiterati might have overlooked this fault, however my grammar school nuns had beaten a respect for classical cadence and proper grammar into our knuckles and editors came from the same school.

“Your stopping partially inspired my dumping the horn.”

“Please don’t follow my failures.” My blame plate was full. “You could have been another Chet Baker.”

“I’d rather be Horace Silver.” His band’s deconstructed version of SONGS FOR MY FATHER with Danny’s neophyte trumpet stubbornly orbiting the free-style band’s chaotic non-melody had been a show-stopper at the Mudd Club in the late-70s. "But who was I kidding? We sucked and no one cared if we sucked. We were young and pretty. I don’t regret quitting music and DJing and I bet you don’t regret stopping writing either. “All that ‘art’ shit was a monkey on our back. Now we can live as real men are supposed to live.”

Danny spoke with the coolness of a man who had abandoned a woman he didn’t love after seeing her with another man.

“Better than pretending to be Hemingway.” Ghosts of stories lurked in my skull as half-built ships in dry docks.

"Or Chet Baker." He pushed back his wavy hair.

"But why are you living on the street. You belong to a cult giving away their possessions?”

“I’m waiting for my ship to come in.” The ex-trumpeter nearly swooned off the stool. “The whiskey kinda went to my head. I’ll be fine once I’m out at sea.”

“Your parents bought you a boat?” A 50-foot catamaran was not beyond their means.

“I’m not taking their money anymore.”

“Yeah, fuck money.” I said, while wishing that his parents adopted me.

“I’m talking about fishing and not the rod-and-reel shit either. Nets and trawlers and thousands of hooks capable of tearing the flesh off your bones. And tons of fish on the wild sea.” His voice climbed an octave with an imagined voyage to the North Atlantic. “Fishing ala Captain Courageous for cod on the deep. Hacking fish from a line, as the ship plows into the sea and resurfaces streaming foam. Fishing in the black of night, the wind___”

“Stop already, I’m seasick.”

“Mal de mer has two cures. Land or drowning.” Danny possessed a convert’s devotion for his new profession.

“If you love fishing so much, what are you doing in Paris? I mean hanging a line off a bridge into the Seine isn’t that exciting.”

“No, a long-line boat from Gloucester is supposed to dock in Brest and I’ll fish the Georges Bank.” Danny picked at a front tooth.

“When is that?” I had lived in Gloucester. Fishing was a tough on and off shore.

“Maybe a week. The wait is unimportant, if I’m on a boat in the end.”

“I wish I could offer you a place to stay.” A week was a long time on the street. Even longer at my place.

“Thanks, I’m fine in my humble hovel.” Danny lifted a hand to forestall any extra excuses. “You remember what your cousin said about men wanting a virgin or a whore. Well, I have my girl coming from Madrid. Crazy girl. Young like your girlfriend. Her mother was a flamenco dancer. Likes having sex. Her body is insatiable____” Limb by limb Danny reincarnated an ancient sex cult’s goddess, finally accusing her of nymphomania. “It’s no Roman orgy. It’s hard work. You’ll see. Believe me, you’ll see.”

His prediction was almost a curse and that night as I was having sex with Candia, a super 8mm porno movie flickered in the shadows. The teenager noticed my distraction and asked, “What are you thinking?”

“About how much I want you.” I thrust harder into her vagina.

"Ouais?" She rolled out of bed to vainly examine my clothes for the telltale signs of infidelity without success, since the only traces of another woman were in my mind.

“I’m tired of living with another woman’s ghost.” She lay on the floor, fiercely clutching her Mickey doll. “If it’s not the skinny blonde from America, then it is someone else.”

"There’s no one, but you.” I reached over to Candia. She wasn’t having any of me and I fell asleep on my side of the bed, as dreams of Lisa were replaced by those of Danny’s girlfriend.

She sounded too good to be true, but whenever models, dancers from the Paris Ballet, French actresses, artistes, and svelte students from the Sorbonne tried to seduce Danny, he told them, “I’m saving myself for Elana.”

One night Danny didn’t show at his usual hour and I checked his shack. His canvas sea bag was gone. After the club closed I began to worry, since Paris was as tough a town as New York. When I reported his disappearance to the police on the third night, the gendarme joked that people disappear in Paris all the time.

I didn’t laugh, but should have.

Two nights later Danny approached Le Reve, newly shaven and with his haircut. When he hugged me, I smelled a woman’s perfume. “Let me guess. Your girl came into town.”

“I told you she would.’ He beamed the joy of a sailor on leave.

“I was beginning to believe she was a fragment of your imagination.”

“No, she’s the real thing.”

A slender female in a cotton shift was crossing Rue Faux. Her black hair was disheveled; several buttons had been popped from her dress, and her cheeks were flushed from exertion. She personified the wraith from my dreams and even more so when Danny whispered, “We had sex on top of the Opera house.”

“Good view.” Two bodies atop the art-deco palace.

“I didn’t go there for the view.” Danny introduced us.

“He talks about you.” A serpentine arm encircled his waist.

“What he say?”

“That you’re a genius for not wanting to be a genius.” The two appeared deep in love.

“I specialize at failurology.” I ordered three glasses of champagne at the bar and fended off my jealousy. “Here’s to making Danny happy.”

“To everyone’s happiness." Elana stopped my raising the glass. "Yours, mine, and Danny’s.”

“Watch out, my friend.” Danny slapped my back. “Elana has you in her sights.”

“I have a strict rule about sleeping with friend’s girlfriends or wives.”

“I like a man of principle.” Her body melted into his and I feebly excused myself to count cash in the office.

When I returned, the staff and customers had vanished from the bar. Plastic Bertrand’s JET BOY JET GIRL was playing underneath my feet. I descended the spiral staircase and pushed my way through the bustling crowd to the dance floor.

Danny was in the DJ booth and Elana was writhing against a shining steel pole, then the song segued to The Kingsmen’s raucous MONEY and she stripped off the cotton shift and flung it to a wide-mouthed Bernard. She deftly popped a flimsy bra to bare cupcake breasts and her fingers salaciously beckoned the men to join her in a dance.

My attempt to break through the mob came too late, for Danny leapt into the circle and yanked Elana by the hair. The club-goers were delighted by the impromptu Apache dance. Danny seized the girl like a Roman taking a Sabine woman. I advanced one step to cut in, then the song stopped and the crowd applauded the two dancers.

Bernard segued into Gainsbourg’s LOVE ON THE BEAT and Elana bowed her head. A string of black hair bisected her face. This apparition of a lost Mayan princess paralyzed nearly every man in the room and Danny held up an empty glass. “Hey, man. You’ll break your eyes that way.”

“I liked her dancing.” It had emptied my soul.

“Only liked?” Elana stepped into her dress and stuffed the bra into Danny’s pocket

"He loved it.” Danny laughed hard. “And you owe us a drink for the show.”

“More than one.” I ordered the bartender to give Danny and Elana whatever they wanted and left the nightclub to clear my head. The air was cold and I prayed against any more temptations. God averted his gaze, for a voice said with a Castilian lisp, “I saw your look.”

”What look was that?”

“The devil was trying to buy your soul.”

“What’s the temptation?”

“You and me naked in warm weather so sweat will form on my belly and___”

“You’re Danny’s girl.” I thought he was in love.

“Relationships don’t stop the work of the Devil.” Her hand grasped mine. “I tell you a story. I was born in Madrid. My mother she worked as a flamenco dancer and also took men home too. Una puta. One night she didn’t come back. Where she went, I never found out. My aunt took care of me. We moved to Barcelona and she worked the Ramblas. Men came to her room and I hid in the closet. At first I shut my eyes, thinking they were killing her. After a while I watched. It was better than TV. Sometimes I had to wait in the corridor with the other children. We played the same games as our parents; only it was a joke, then when I’m twelve a man comes to my aunt. He is handsome. He wants me to watch. Nothing more. My aunt tells me to leave. I say I have already seen her do everything. The man gives us both money. I think one day he will take me too. He never does he touches me. Not when I was thirteen fourteen or even fifteen. I watch and he wouldn’t let me touch myself either. Watch. Nothing else and then one day he stopped coming to see my aunt. Maybe she was too old or I was too old. You know what?”

”What?” I was helpless.

“You look a little like him?”

“I've had never been to Spain."

“That shouldn’t stop you from making my dream come true.” She rubbed her body against mine like a stray cat seeking a home and then slinked into the club, murmuring, “Moi et toi.”

I bit my lip and followed her into Le Reve.

Elana pushed a handsome boy off a stool. His frustration was almost audible, as my hand trailed up her thigh hiking the short dress higher.

“You touching me while other men watch thrills every atom in my body." She arched her neck back with eyes searing the ceiling. "They want to be you and I want you in me. Can we go someplace?”

A cheap hotel was across the street. No one would miss me for an hour, however my answer died with Candia’s entrance. She stormed out of the club and I leaped off the barstool in pursuit.

“What about us?” Elana caught me at the door.

“I’ll have to take a rain check.”

“Rain check?” I didn’t waste any time on translations and chased Candia to the corner. Our fight continued on the cab ride and in front of our atelier she tried to hit me with her high heels. I grabbed her arms and begged her forgiveness.

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t do anything wrong. I’ve never been with another woman since I met you and you’re more to me than a warm bed.”

These words granted a temporary absolution and we went upstairs to make love so frantically that our ardor massacred every woman in my life to a first kiss in kindergarten, however in my sleep Elana danced out of the mist, wearing a sheet of sweat. My tongue must have been licking my lips, for Candia punched my arm, “If you dream about other women, sleep in another bed.”

I wandered into the living room. I was trapped by a ghost. This time one in the future.

The next night I constructed a bed of pillows in the nightclub office. My preparations were wasted. Jacques handed a note from Danny. The New Yorker was going down to his ship in Brest. Elana had also left Paris for good. I was staying in Paris. I had no idea what for.

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