Book 3: Desnos Meets Aube

Author’s note: Many scenes and situations in this series are fictionalized to bring out certain facts and themes. There is no evidence that Robert Desnos ever met Andre Breton’s infant daughter Aube.

It is October, 1936 and Artaud is still in Mexico. Jacqueline Lamba and her husband have quarreled and Jacqueline left for a time. Breton, so poor he cannot turn on the lights, is left home with Aube while he tries to eke out some kind of living. Introductory scene here.

            Every morning, Yvonne and I went to the rue Fontaine to collect Aube. Yvonne’s presence reassured Breton, so he did not ask where we went and I did not tell him. Most of the time I took Aube to visit Catherine, or Kiki, or even Sonia, but one afternoon I took her somewhere else. “Now, remember,” I warned Yvonne that afternoon as we walked up the rue Mazarine, “This is a secret. You don’t mention this to Aube’s Papa or your Papa or anyone, not ever.” And Yvonne, who loved secrets, nodded enthusiastically. I handed her our wrapped present for our hostess and she clutched it against her chest.

            We stopped at the ornate black door with its huge rounded transom, and I pressed the doorbell. “Hello, hello!” sang Desnos from the other side. He pushed the door open with a smile and stood quietly there, staring at the blond child in my arms. “Well—come in, don’t just stand there,” he said, stepping back. “Who’s this?”

            “Guess,” I told him.

            “Dess,” chimed Aube. Desnos put out a finger to the girl and she gripped it, then shoved it into her mouth. “Ung-ung-ung.”

            “We only have her until nightfall,” I said. “Then I have to take her home.”

            Desnos laughed and led us to the door of his new apartment. “Why, does this pumpkin have a glass slipper?”

            He opened the door and Breton’s ex-wife Simone looked up from her place next to Youki on the sofa. Lee Miller was standing with a stranger by the window, a tall man with heavy-framed glasses and sleek black hair. He had the largest ears I had ever seen, and they stuck out with dignity. “Geoff and Yvonne, this is Roland Penrose, a painter and collagist,” Desnos told us. I shook hands with Penrose. “And you remember Simone, of course.” When I turned to her, Simone puckered her lips and flopped her arms and legs at me. Laughing, Youki bent in half next to her and Lee smirked. “Very pretty, Simone. I guess she’s being a starfish!”

            “I saw your underwear,” gloated my niece.

            “Yvonne,” I warned.

Then another man stepped forward, and I took his hand too. He was heavy-set, with a round, jovial face and flat straight hair like a book on his head. “This is Michel Collinet, Simone’s friend. A professor,” Desnos intoned in mock horror. “Everyone, this is Geoff’s niece Yvonne, and—” He turned back to the baby. “Would you please introduce me to this charming young poet?”

            “Po-wet,” corrected Aube, and Desnos chuckled. She put the end of his tie in her mouth. “Ung-ung-ung.”

            Yvonne was jumping up and down as usual. “You’re supposed to guess! You’ll never guess!”

            “Oh, my God,” guessed Simone. “You didn’t, Geoffrey. Give her to me. I want to see her!” She held out her arms and I placed the baby in them. Simone’s dark eyes laughed at the child from beneath her short black hair. Aube reached for the woman’s face and Simone closed her lips around the tiny fingers. “Ung-ung-ung, yourself. You’re delicious.” The child gurgled with delight and kicked her legs. Simone turned Aube on her lap for Youki to greet. Lee was indifferent to the baby, but Penrose strode to the sofa to gaze down at her.

            “Delicious with roast,” said Lee.

            “Jesus!” Incredulous, Desnos whirled to her.

            “What?” demanded Lee.

            “How can something so cute come from that moron?” asked Youki, clasping Aube’s hands. “And where the hell is her mother? I’d could throttle the bitch.”

            “Bwetch,” repeated Aube. With mouth open, my tattletale niece pointed a finger at an unrepentant Youki. Simone laughed and Lee smiled.

            “Will someone tell me who she is!” flared Desnos. Everyone turned to look at him and he lifted his hands. “I can’t guess. I can’t guess, all right?”

            Lee exhaled in disgust and swirled the ice cubes in her glass. “If you don’t guess, you don’t get to eat roast.”

            Desnos tossed back, “I get to eat roast because I’m cooking roast.”

            Simone said, “You’re being roasted, dingaling.”

            “Which reminds me!” I said. I signaled Yvonne to hand the present to Youki. Youki, hefting it, passed the package to her husband.

Pour MOI?” Beaming now, he ripped open the paper. Penrose picked up Aube and held her over his head, smiling up at her and making cooing noises. Lee drowned her glass and leaned back against the window, wrinkling her brow at him. “The Futurist Cookbook,” Desnos announced. He flipped through the pages eagerly, and stopped to read aloud: “‘The Tummy Tickler. A slice of pineapple on which sardines are laid out in rays. The centre of the pineapple is covered with a layer of tuna on which sits half a nut.’ My love, do we have any sardines?”

            “Dear of my heart, a proper host would have shown our guests to their chairs and poured them drinks.” Youki leaned back on the sofa and lazily waved me toward the bar. I dropped a handful of ice cubes into a glass and reached for a bottle of cola. Lee was leaning down to Yvonne and whispering into her ear.

            “I want scotch,” Yvonne repeated.

            “Kotch!” demanded Aube also.

            I turned and pressed the glass of cola into my niece’s hand. “Sorry. Just hop-scotch for you, you hooligan.” Yvonne screwed up her face at me and flounced over to a chair. I gave Lee Miller a shake of my head. “You’re as maternal as a stone, Lee.”

            “Thank you,” she replied.

            I poured myself a whiskey and turned to see Desnos, who had finally arrived at the title page, reading the inscription. When he was finished, he handed the book to Youki and held out his arms for the child. Desnos sat down with her and touched her face gently, smiling down at her with admiration and sadness. “Poet,” he said to her. “May you never give your father a moment’s peace!” Youki read the inscription out loud for everyone.

In poetry’s cave
You’re my slave,
So be brave.
                             —Aube Breton.

            What had been planned as an early supper was delayed because Desnos insisted upon trying one of the recipes in the book. Penrose and I hung around the kitchen as Desnos, with Yvonne standing on a chair to help him, dumped tuna, tomatoes, metal washers, vinegar, toilet paper, and sunflower seeds into a large saucepan on the stove. “Now stir carefully, or it will burn,” Desnos told Yvonne. Aube sat propped up on the counter, watching it all with delight, while Penrose and I threw back glasses of whiskey until we weren’t hungry at all. He and I leaned companionably on each other, watching the drama and exchanging stupid remarks, and laughing hysterically. “Dear, do we have any light bulbs for the garnish?” yelled Desnos.

            Youki’s voice from the front room was strained. “You wasted them all, replacing the burnt-out ones in the hallway. Let that be a lesson to you.”

            “I’m starving!” bellowed Lee. “Come on, you men. This is bullshit.”

            Yvonne clamped her hands to her ears. “No swearing!” She sounded so much like Catherine. Desnos and I shared a grin.

            “Shit!” Desnos encouraged little Aube. He pressed some baking soda into her crab-like hand. Yvonne whined and stamped the chair.

            Aube smiled and wriggled and waved her fistful. “Ssit!” She opened her fingers but the particles fell short. Desnos picked her up and held her close with one hand over hers so she could help dump part of the box into the concoction.

            “Hey! It’s bubbling over!” he exclaimed in delight.

            Simone’s voice burst in from the other room. “Youki, do you have any food to eat around this place?”

            “Is there someplace where we could get take-away?” growled Lee.

            “I thought somebody had to go home,” added Youki. “Robert, I’m giving you five more minutes and then we’re heading for the Flore.”            

“All right,” sighed Desnos. He removed the pan and set it in the sink. Penrose leaned over to get of whiff and stood up again quickly, waving his face. My knees were wobbly, so I sat down on the counter next to Aube and pulled her away from the hot stove. Yvonne dragged her chair back from the burner, and Desnos grabbed a pair of hot pads and opened the oven. The smell of roast brought a grudging cheer from the front room.

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