Louis patted his pockets, gave me a stupid grin, and went out the door again to bum a cigarette from Desnos. As I approached the corner table, Artaud looked up and his face showed visible relief. “Good! It’s you,” he said, sounding so glad I suppressed the urge to look behind me. “Do me a favor, Geoff, would you please? Get rid of Desnos when he comes in here.” He turned back to his manuscript and continued scribbling madly while he talked. “The man is so persistently cheerful these days it makes my head throb just to be around him. He’s worse than any matchmaker aunt. I’ve wanted to clout him lately, haven’t you?”
I smiled, automatically preparing myself for the customary bang and rattle that always accompanied Desnos’s entrance. It came, along with the shouted greetings from his many friends. “Yes, I have.”
Artaud was looking at his left palm and copying the words there into his notebook. Evidently whatever he had to say could not have waited until he found a flat surface. “Well, stall him, will you? I’m following a train of thought.”
Obligingly I turned and arrested with my hand the motion of a squawking chair that Desnos was already dragging to our table. “Sorry, Rob. Go sit elsewhere. You’re a train-wreck of thought.”
“What?” he demanded, incredulous. He started for the table again and I placed my hand over his face and leaned into him, forcing him to paddle in place. Laughter erupted around us and we were both laughing too.
I pointed to the empty table beside ours. “You’re banished. Sit there instead.” I gave him a shove and he backed away, imitating that pompous I-thought-of-it-first expression of Breton’s. “It’s for your own good. Someday you’ll thank us.” I pulled up a chair at Artaud’s table.
“And you sit with him, unless you can be quiet!” Artaud barked at me without looking up.
Without a sound I slipped into the chair opposite Artaud and pulled out my journal. “Oh, I get it,” Desnos sneered. “They don’t think I’ll let them work.” Deliberately making the legs squeal on the floor, he pulled forward his chair and presented his back to us. Muttering to himself he pulled out a pen, stole some loose pages from Louis, and began to write. His pen worked the paper and Artaud’s pen danced over his notebook, and somewhere behind me Louis’s charcoal made soft paintbrush sounds as he drew the three of us.
Desnos filled a sheet of paper then lifted it with exaggerated ceremony, noisily crumpled it and tossed it over his head and behind him, toward me. It landed in front of me on the table. Mumbling, Desnos scribbled on another page and theatrically crumpled it, and an attentive Paul Éluard stepped from the counter. Éluard shoved himself between us to bounce the tossed paper off the top of his head like a soccer ball. It landed in front of me, too. Louis snickered and the girls at the counter giggled, and Éluard stood back to watch the situation play out. Soon crumpled sheets of paper littered the tabletop between Artaud and me. Artaud ignored this, though I caught a snide stretching of his lips. I only tried to open one sheet and was rebuked by Desnos, who twisted around in his chair with a finger to his lips: “Shhhhh!” Louis and Éluard chuckled and there was a merciless snigger too from Artaud. He straightened up now and contemplated the pile.
“The last one barely missed his head,” said the traitor at my table to Desnos. “Aim a little more to the left, and you’ll hit the Jesuit.” Artaud smiled at me with his familiar, sarcastic gleam. Éluard leered at me and Louis laughed.
“I thought you were trying to concentrate,” sniffed Desnos. Haughtily he crumpled a new page and, with a flourish, turned to whip it at my face. As he did so his elbow swiped his stack and dislodged another sheet, which sailed from the table top and beneath his arm to float under our table. Artaud expertly caught it with his toe and leaned down to pick up the nearly-blank piece of paper. Desnos waved his hand for it and almost smacked me in the cheek but Artaud, relishing his distance, lifted it. Éluard stepped forward to look over his shoulder but he had to retreat quickly when Desnos next flapped his arm at Artaud. The two men flailed at each other, Desnos making grabbing motions for the paper while Artaud slapped at his hand and held the stolen poem out of reach. People around us laughed. Louis shook so with laughter that he made an errant swipe with his charcoal and had to erase it.
Victorious, Artaud leaned back in his chair and read what was there on the paper with Éluard spying over his shoulder. They seemed to read it again and again, while Desnos shrugged and waited, smiling at them. Then, with an upraised eyebrow, Artaud passed the paper to me.
This heart that hated war now pounds for war and struggle
this heart that once beat only to the tidal surge, the seasons, the hours of day and night,
this heart now swells with saltpeter and rage throbbing in the veins
striking the jaw so that the ears whistle…
“You’re writing a poem about war?” I asked. “A pro-war poem?”
When I looked up at him, Desnos said, “It’s just something I’m toying with,” but it was not an apology, nor was it an excuse. He said it not to me but almost to no one, in a manner that reminded me of, well, of Geoffrey. Other Geoffrey. I’m toying with the idea of breaking your nose. My words to a man who had ribaldly harassed Marianne as she struggled with a heavy basket of eggs up the path to my father’s house. I’m not toying with Marianne, Father. She and I are married. These were serious words.