From Book 1: Teacher's Pet

“How can you keep track of so many people?” I asked. I was already thinking how I could devise a deck of cards to remember them all. Soupault, with his lamppost, was the ace, and Desnos was the joker, of course. I figured Artaud for the king, Péret for the knave, and this Simone could be the queen, but that left out Breton.

Desnos laughed. “The most important person to remember is me! If you don’t mind my saying,” he added, “don’t get 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.”

            “What?” I asked, looking back at the restaurant. “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 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 the night before 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 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 look at themselves? It’s incestuous—it’s absurd.” I swept my hand in front of me.

            “Well, of course,” 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.

            “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. “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?”

            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 probably needed special papers first. Franz could undoubtedly help with that, but the thought of him 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 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 a briefcase with an air of defensive dignity. Other men came out, some solitary, some in pairs, chatting and making genteel grimaces.

Desnos looked 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. “…What else? Oh, ‘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 that had they not been taken in by me, every time.” He mugged the most disarming, innocent face to illustrate this.

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

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 orderliness than out of curiosity; a classroom was a classroom. Desnos, though, riffled 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. 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. “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 wielding a ruler had done that to my class one year. Not a drop on any desk from the inkwells, either. The walls and windows greyed with the sky as dark clouds 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 down the switch and turned to 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. He 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. The door to the classroom opened and Desnos threw his weight against it, and I ran over to help him. Someone on the other side lunged against us as we held the door 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 come to 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 another desk.

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