From Book 1: Scatterbrained

            Finally I entered a small, seedy lunch counter and stood looking around at the crowd, mostly men at the zinc counter, wolfing down eggs. Then I meandered to the back of the place and leaned against the wall next to the small telephone station, where a man with his back to me jabbered into the mouthpiece. I was not really hungry, and not sure of what to do with myself.

            “Hey!” Fingers snapped right beneath my nose.

            I jerked my face back from them, and Robert Desnos laughed at me as he covered the mouthpiece of the telephone. Stay there, he mouthed as he pointed at me, and I obeyed while he turned back to the mouthpiece, picking up again in mid-sentence: “‘—With all the fantastical grace of a mermaid.’ And that’s it. Got all that? Please repeat it back to me from the beginning.” He paused, bobbing his head impatiently to the rhythm of the voice that quacked from the other end of the line. “Yes, fine. Will it make this evening’s paper? Thank you!” He hung up the bell-shaped receiver and, smiling, turned to me. “That moron at the copy desk, can’t trust him even once. How in hell can the misspellings in my copy be my fault, dammit?

            “And why are you doing, moping about again?” he asked as he leaned against the wall next to me and folded his arms. I shrugged, biting back the comment that I was not used to people thrusting themselves into my life. “I’ve been watching you, you know,” Desnos continued. “You withdraw a lot. Are you angry about something?” His attention was momentarily diverted, and mine was too, by a woman who exited the rest room and walked between us. She smiled at Desnos as he raised his eyebrows at her, a sly grin stretching his lips. She kept walking, then looked back, and seemed crestfallen to note that he had turned back to me. “I’ve only one true love,” he stated dramatically. “It’s déjà vu, vous.”

            “I’m not angry—” There it was again, that guilt, as if I were wasting his time. Why should my moods interest him? What did he want to know about me? “It’s just that I’ve spent a lot of time away from people. I’m not used to being sociable. Actually, I’m surprised I still know how to converse at all.”

            “Oh, talking is no problem,” Desnos replied. “Having a point to make is something else again, for certain people at least, if you follow me.” He fiddled with an imaginary monocle and cleared his throat in a loud, haughty harrrauumph that made people at the bar turn and look at us. He laughed and I laughed too. “If you don’t mind my saying so,” he added then, “you shouldn’t act so overwhelmed by our little tribe. I’ve listened to some of them blat out their brains for years without showing as much insight as I heard coming from you in one evening. They’re already gossiping about you, you know.”

            “Who, the Surrealists?” I asked. “About me?”

            He nodded vigorously. “You’ve stung Breton. He’s not used to such mutiny from his fellow revolutionaries. These thrilling audiences with him are by invitation only. You barged in—one rule broken. I didn’t warn you at the time because I wanted to see what would happen. And what happened was, no one threw you out—shades of our old anarchist days. Obviously, that means you have some sort of influence.” Desnos’s protuberant blue eyes widened with his grin. “Then you yawned through Breton’s speech, but that’s a rule everyone breaks. And you left! When you wanted to!” He put a hand to his cheek in mock horror. “Of course, the news that you showed up with Landis at my place later when Artaud was there got back to him. He wants to know exactly who you are, what your game is, and why you’re such a snob.”

            I lifted my hands and let them fall to my sides as Desnos laughed uproariously. “I can’t believe this!” I exclaimed. “I’ve been here only three days, and he’s going through that turmoil about me while I’m worrying about my abandoned turnip crop? Do these people ever walk outside and look at the sky? It’s incestuous—it’s absurd.” I made a sweeping dismissal of the room with my hand.

            “Well, of course it’s ridiculous,” Desnos replied. “That’s why I’m telling you, don’t be so self-depreciating, because it certainly isn’t catching. ‘Incestuous’—the very word for it.” He bobbed his head in affirmation.

            “They needn’t bother. I’m nobody, not an artist—just a hick.”

            “There you go again.” He offered me a cigarette, stuck it in his own mouth when I declined, and began searching his pockets for a match. He nodded toward the exit and we picked our way through the tables. “No one thinks you’re a hick but yourself. Landis likes you and so does Artaud—and so do I.” He cocked his head at me and I smiled back. “Besides, I’m no artist, either. I’m allergic to artists. All the best people are. Where were you going just now?”

            We had reached the sidewalk. I looked up the street and saw a group of yelling schoolboys burst out of an iron gate and spill out into the avenue to go home for luncheon. “Nowhere,” I said. “To find some adventure, I guess. To find some work, maybe,” I added without enthusiasm. I wasn’t a citizen; I didn’t even know if I needed special papers first. Franz could undoubtedly help with that, but the thought of my brother finding me some boring position at his damned bank made me want to camp out in a park myself.

            Desnos groaned. “If it’s adventure you’re after, don’t get a job!” He turned to see what I was looking at and watched the last stragglers leave the school yard, and curled his lips in disdain at the emergence of a man who appeared to be the headmaster. The old boy was smartly dressed and swinging a cane, and clutching his briefcase with an air of defensive dignity. Other men came out, some solitary, some in pairs, chatting and making genteel grimaces.

Desnos glanced at me, raised his eyebrows, then walked up to the gate of the school and peered in. I followed close behind him. Beyond the gate lay a manicured lawn and a large stone building. “I hated school,” I whispered.

            “So did I!” Over his shoulder Desnos beamed me a look of approval. “Artaud was a good student; I was horrid. Let’s see: ‘Talkative, disorganized, disrespectful, lazy, disobedient, and…’” and he paused, ticking off the adjectives with his fingers, his gaze momentarily vague. “…And—what else? Oh, yes: ‘scatterbrained.’” We grinned at each other. “And ‘deceitful!’ I liked that one especially, because it’s not the same as ‘liar.’ They could have called me a liar instead had they not been taken in by me, every single time.” He put on the most disarming, innocent face to illustrate this.

            I scanned the empty schoolyard in silence, not particularly willing to divulge my own teachers’ comments: stupid, ugly, worthless, foul-mouthed, whining, wicked. “Let’s go in!” I suggested instead. The poet motioned for me to go first and I did, stealthily crossing the empty walled yard. Nonchalantly we opened the main door and stole inside the building.

I felt a spasm of the old dread when I stood in the hallway and saw the empty coat hooks lined up beside the classroom doors all neatly closed. I opened a door, more to disrupt this threatening orderliness than out of any curiosity; a classroom was a classroom. Desnos, though, ran into the room eagerly and began riffling through the drawers of the teacher’s desk, and I went up to the blackboard. “Hmm,” he said, shutting the last drawer in disappointment, “nothing of interest here.”

            “He’s one of the discipline freaks,” I said, running my finger along the chalk tray at the base of the board. No dust came off on my finger and I held it up for him to see.

Desnos smiled grimly, in turn holding up a carpet-beater to show me. The thing was old and chipped, and had obviously been used on many little boy bottoms. “He’s a bastard.”

            He swung the thing around as I looked about the room. The desks were in perfect rows—did this man walk down the aisle, examining the placement of the legs along a line drawn on the floor? A particularly sadistic nun had done that to my class one year. Not a drop on any desk from the inkwells, either. The yellowing walls and streaked windows greyed with the sky as dark clouds outside obscured the sun. “Let’s go,” I said, humiliated and angry for having to fight for breath in this place, as if my memories now loomed over me even as my teachers shrank in stature.

            “No, let’s do something mean to him!” Desnos put the switch down and turned to examine the immaculate blackboard. He picked up the chalk and made a dot in the middle of it. Then he went to the desk and inked a pen, and wrote as I watched:

                        You are instructed to surrender your iceberg blue buttocks.
                        AND NO QUESTIONS ASKED! Deliver them onto the
                        tongue of the Marbled Lady’s bejeweled porpoise at midnight
                        tomorrow afternoon. THIS IS AN ORDER!

            “Someone else could get blamed for it,” I said, pointing to the switch. Desnos nodded, then left the note on the desk and walked down the aisle, where he put his hands in the air in the manner of a Spanish dancer and “Ole!” kicked over one of the desks. I silently guffawed as he ground his foot into the spreading puddle of ink and trod toward the door, leaving a man-sized footprint on the dull immaculate floor.

            Footsteps rang in the hall, the footfalls not matching his, and Desnos stopped short. The steps in the hall came closer. As the door to the classroom began to open Desnos threw his weight against it, and I ran over to help him. Someone on the other side lunged against us as we held it fast. “Open this door! Who is there?” demanded a man’s voice.

            “Who is there? Who is there?” mocked Desnos. A boy’s excited shout laughed against the walls behind the intruder.

            “Who are you?” growled the strange voice.

            “Who are you!” Desnos answered.

            The door strained against us, and through the crack I caught a glimpse of the headmaster’s red face. “Open this door!”

            “Teacher’s pet!” shouted Desnos. “I’m the principal now. I’ll beat you for this! Violation number one: how dare you show up for school so early!”

            “Violation number two: how dare you come to school at all!” I chimed in. Our sniggering was echoed by several young voices in the hallway, and the headmaster barked at them to leave. With my foot I hooked the leg of one of the desks and pulled it over to us. We shoved it against the door but it wasn’t high enough to lodge beneath the handle, so I held the door while Desnos grabbed two more desks.             The sound of voices coming around the building to the windows made us give this up. “I thought these idiots had gone! Weidmann, when we go out the gate, turn right, head along the Seine and keep going,” the poet instructed, and we pulled ourselves up onto the sill. Jumping through the open casement, we landed on the muddy ground in a semicircle of exclaiming boys who chased us as we ran for the gate, two of them shouting for the headmaster, and the rest urging us on.

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