Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Murder of Jaurès

          Entering the Chateau de Vincennes metro station, Hippolyte chatted briefly with the conductor, Jacques, who referred to him in private as “that old piss artist who claims to be a painter and who's permanently pissed,” but whom Hippolyte regarded as a rare dévoté, always eager for more wisdom from the great artist’s lips (“ah, Monsieur Jacques may be a mere train conductor, but in his respect for the person of the artist, and in the probing nature of his questions, he reveals a cultured and sensitive spirit.").
“And what will tomorrow bring, maitre?” inquired Jacques the conductor from under his sagging mustache, as he flagged the driver and the train started to move with a lurch that sent Hippolyte flying to the other end of the carriage. 
"Tomorrow?" He grabbed a handrail and collapsed onto a seat. "Great things, M. Jacques, great things," and he wagged a didactic forefinger.                        "Grandeurs et misères, mon cher."
Already sated with the wisdom of the old piss artist, Jacques dislodged a bolus of mucus from his windpipe and hawked it out the window, then unfolded his copy of Paris-Soir and settled down for the ride to Chatelet/Hotel de Ville, where a shift break and a coffee and calva (or two) awaited. 
Hippolyte sat humming one of the summer's popular hits ("oh! Oui, Madame!") and swayed in sympathy with the centrifugal wagging of the train. Ladies dismounted; children embarked. The first tunnel opened out at Père Lachaise. The next was dark and sinister, dimly illuminated by the lights in the carriage. People were dressed in casual clothes; it was the end of July, with the best month of the year coming up, when anyone who could afford it would be on the strand at Arcachon, or Trouville. Hippolyte dozed and dreamed of holidays gone by, in a short rapid-fire and incredibly vivid photomontage; when the train jerked to a halt, he jerked moistly awake from the rock pools on the Channel coast. 
"Your station, maitre," called out M. Jacques, with the hint of a bow. The irony was lost on Hippolyte, who nodded and exited with dignity. He climbed the stairs into the sunset-gilded semi-deserted streets of the Bourse district. There were few customers at Le Croissant: none outside, and only two within. The bistrot was small, intimate, and wood-paneled, with brass rails at the bar and gauzy curtains hanging at the windows. It contained the very essence of a kind of nostalgia Tonnerre couldn't put his finger on; perhaps it was from another era, or too rustic. 
"Where would monsieur like to sit?" inquired the waiter. Hippolyte briefly scanned the man's face for signs of mockery, but saw none.
"Party of M. Jaurès," he said, emphatically. 
"Ah! This way, monsieur."
  The man led Tonnerre over to a long corner table next to a window through which the Rue Montmartre was visible through the half-drawn curtains. 
"Please bring me a pichet of Bourgeuil, my good fellow. And snails."
Comfortably settling himself at the table, Tonnerre admired his reflection in the window, thinking not for the first time what a magnificent bust his head would make in the hands of, say, Rodin, if that old scoundrel ever actually did anything for art's sake and not for money, or reputation, or to get his leg over another demimondaine....
"Merci, mon brave."
He sipped; it was a good honest workingman's Bourgeuil, full and round like a nice girl's bum, and with only the faintest floweriness of finish. The snails were unctuous and buttery and tart with the flavor of garlic. Tonnerre devoured them and sat back for a smoke. He was at the level of the windowsill. It was getting dark, but there was a streetlamp directly outside the cafe. A pale young man with a few days' growth of beard, wearing a brown leather coat, walked by, paused, and stared in at him. Tonnerre gave him a mock-solemn salute. The man turned and slowly walked away, glaring once or twice over his shoulder, as in resentment, or hatred. 
         Tonnerre's sudden unease was not washed away by wine. (More to come when the book's finished.)

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