From Book 3: Schubert and Syphilis

            It had grown quite dark, and the room was warm and close. He turned on the lamp, and there was a knock at the door. Artaud gave me an acid smile, then strode to the door in his bare feet and without my permission opened it. I half-expected him to make his escape then. “Hullo,” beamed Desnos, taking in the scene from the doorframe. “I telephoned you, and your landlady yodeled up for you, but no one answered. Are you playing charades?”

            I sat up irritably on the bed. “Perhaps we’re hiding from my landlady. And how can one play charades in the dark?”

            “You always take his bait,” Artaud chided me, his hand still on the door handle.

            Desnos tripped over the threshold with aplomb. “I never play charades in anything but total darkness. What are you two doing?” He sported a huge trench coat like a spy.

            Artaud turned to me with an arched eyebrow, and I felt myself blush again. “We are hungry,” he told Desnos. “You didn’t bring any food.”

            Desnos pouted and thrust forward from his coat a wine bottle, and Louis popped out from behind him. “I cooked!” he declared, and displayed a covered tray in triumph. “Divine dinner hazard. On impulse we phoned to invite people but no one was available, and your landlady said you were here but not answering, so we decided to come and roust you.”

“Poetry must be puked by all,” teased Artaud. He stood aside and Louis, with a glare, deposited the tray on the long, rickety table I used as a sideboard. Artaud was still looking at me.

Louis then looked at me too for pity and received none. “You don’t believe I extended myself?” he demanded.

“I can hardly believe you can turn on a tap,” Artaud replied. Again, a small smile my way. Oh, he had regained the situation, all right. I was the one who felt like throwing the covers over my head.

“Back to the one-room studio,” Desnos observed, taking in my large room with the bed in it. I stood up, crossed the floor and sat down again on the sofa, then stood up again because I supposed I was the host. I went to the window and opened it. “Except no studio window. Well, and not really a studio! And the suspicious demimondaine guarding the party-line. I think your landlady has a crush on you. She sounded miffed when you didn’t come scampering to the music of her voice.” Desnos lifted his eyebrows to drive home that point.

Artaud, his arms folded and never having taken his eyes off me, smiled outright at me then. “My landlady is a cow!” I retorted, giving his infuriating confidence an answering glower. “Justine retained a room just like this one for when she returns. It’s built for Americans—attached kitchen and a bath, with a tub I can also wash clothes in, central heat, and no concierge doling out keys. Just a caretaker I never see and wish I never heard and a landlady who listens in on phone calls while stuffing her face.” I would have retreated to the kitchen then but Desnos was standing cluelessly in my path. “Where’s Youki? Didn’t she come with you?”

“Ohhh,” he groaned. “She’s in the dumps, but she’ll get over it. She’s learned that Foujita’s in Brazil with Mady Lequeux, the model.”

Artaud and Louis looked at each other. “So what?” asked Artaud. “Why should Youki care who Foujita is with now?”

“Of course she cares; they spent many years together. Women get older, and Youki admits she’s a little jealous. She scared about aging.” Desnos went into my small kitchen for utensils, and I watched in alarm.

“If she loves you, it should not matter,” Artaud declared, trailing him. They continued to bicker in that room, and Desnos did not seem to notice anything so I forced myself to relax and open the wine.

I still had not visited the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Desnos. They were now living in their own apartment. Desnos was busy with his radio projects, his writing, and hanging out with Picasso and Hemingway. I knew I was invited, but since the departure of Justine I had grown less social.

            Louis hung back to whisper, “Artaud looks great. He looks really great! Well, he always manages, but now he seems comfortable in his own skin. I can tell he’s off laudanum, because he no longer looks like a ghost. Has the detox stuck?”

            “I hope so,” I replied.

            “Was it the acupuncture? I’m thinking of going in for that, myself.”

            “It’s a long series of treatments. It’s a commitment.”

            Desnos returned with plates and forks and wine glasses. “Landis, the only thing you need to be cured of is your one-night stands.” He set these on the sideboard as well. I gave Artaud a harried look, but he put up a hand.

            “Rob,” groaned Louis, “I’m not going to listen to one more lecture about domestic bliss. You’ll spoil everyone’s appetite!”

            Louis had not, in fact, cooked. Sitting on the floor with candles like old times, we enjoyed a takeaway dinner from Au Chien Qui Fume, one of the oldest restaurants in Paris. Desnos waved away my offer to defray some of the cost. He was not rich, but he was no longer the threadbare squatter. His radio work had risen his star. His poems had been published in a collection, Corps et biens. This night, Desnos never stopped talking and even Louis barely got a word in. He jokingly called himself “Mr. Youki” and seemed happy. He finally rose and put one of Justine’s long-playing records, the Piano Trio Number 2 in E flat, on the phonograph. I was surprised he chose such a morose melody, but when Artaud asked what it was, Desnos gave him a leer. “Schubert.”

            “Oh?” said Artaud in surprise, and I smiled to think that Desnos needed to win that argument from years ago.

            “He wrote this just before he died,” I said. “He was only thirty-one.”

            “This is quite a different voice. What killed him?” asked Artaud.

            Louis said, “Officially, typhoid fever. Unofficially, syphilis.”

            “Or the mercury used to treat syphilis,” I interjected. “They’re not sure.” Artaud looked from Louis to me with a solemn face.

            “Schubert only performed to acclaim once in his life, the same year he died,” Louis said sadly. “And he was a torchbearer at Beethoven’s funeral just the year before.”

            “I’ve often wondered about that,” I said, answering Louis but looking at Artaud who was staring back at me, “if he also didn’t just follow Beethoven into death.”

            This was not exactly the conversation to distract me from my thumping heart. I wondered if they could see my hands trembling. “Stop glancing at the kitchen,” Artaud hissed in my ear. “There was almost no blood. Don’t worry.”

            I turned to him, confused.

            Dinners with Desnos were never interminable before, but this one became so. After eating with gusto, I felt sick and became exhausted with his jubilant chatter. Louis noticed this and suggested we call it a night. They packed up the few leftovers and soon Artaud and I were alone again.

            “There was a lot of blood at the Loire,” I recalled with a shudder.

            “There was not much at all to clean here,” Artaud replied, “for which I’m grateful, as I do not handle blood well.”

            “You?” I wanted to lie down, but I feared he would leave. Instead I sat on the sofa where Desnos had left a warm spot. “What did you do with—” I stopped.

            “Your neighbor pointed me to the refuse bin in the courtyard. Stop thinking about it.” I nodded, drawing in deep breaths. “No word from Justine?” Artaud asked me suddenly, standing in the center of the room with his hands shoved in his pockets. Because the candles were burning close to the floor he leaned down to blow them out one by one.

            “Oh, yes! She did write to say she might stay until spring. I’m sorry, I—” I seemed to have trouble forming thoughts. “I should have told you.”

            He regarded me soberly in the half-light from the streetlamp outside the window. I was not hearing that teasing tone now. He took a step forward, his eyes large and full of concern. “Perhaps you should rest. Save your strength.”

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