From Book One: Fernand

            Outside the train station Marseilles greeted me with her heat and her noise and her dirt, so frightening to me as a child. Now I welcomed the jostling crowd, the colorful frocks, the flash of bright eyes and teeth, the smell of sweat and of perfume, the many swaggering languages. Palm trees and moldering cornices and sand and a sea like a beacon, that was Marseilles. I thought of Artaud growing up here, skulking in dark alleys with his slight frame and that intense face, getting knifed in the back by some pimp when he was nineteen years old, and I laughed to myself. Hanging around brothels, no doubt—he hadn’t mentioned that!

            Naïve, self-absorbed, high-minded, serious little bourgeois.

            Just like you, said a voice in my head, at that age.

            Delaying my arrival at my aunt’s house, I wandered around near the zoo and came upon an outdoor festival, the park crowded with carts of food and tents and summer suits and bright frocks. I saw several stages where various kinds of theatre were being performed. I stopped to watch a troupe of Japanese actors, their white faces frozen above their bright, exaggerated costumes that whirled about their bodies, their movements abstract and graceful. They angled and surpentined to the abrupt music, the knockings and the silences and the wailing that stretched itself across its own space like a spider’s web. A profile with black hair leaned into my view on my left, and I recognized Artaud who was sitting on a bench and watching the dancers intently, seemingly in awe.

            Beside him fidgeted a boy about twelve years old with the same dark hair and deep-set blue eyes, a youngster who glanced repeatedly at the older man with a sort of sulking admiration. Suddenly this boy stood up to deliberately block Artaud’s view. “Sit down and let me watch!” Artaud growled. The boy clamped his arms to his sides as if trying not to revert to an earlier habit of tugging at his older brother’s hands. For a minute Artaud listened coolly to the boy moan his impatience, and then Artaud lit a cigarette and ignored him. The boy tried to take the cigarette out of his fingers and Artaud held it beyond his reach, glaring his annoyance.

            I watched, chuckling, as the boy lunged for the cigarette, making Artaud cuff him, playfully, but hard enough to land the youngster on his seat in the grass. His adult saunter ruined, the boy complained from the ground while Artaud wagged his head mockingly. Then the boy fell silent, haughtily brushed himself off, and sat on the bench again. They watched the Kabuki players, the boy restlessly shifting his legs.

I started toward them.

            “Shut up, or I’ll send you back to your mother,” Artaud snapped in response to more complaints. He imitated a female whine. “Ferna-and! Fernand!” They both laughed.

            “She’s your mother, too,” Fernand pointed out.

            “Only by coincidence,” Artaud muttered. “I did not choose her.”

            “We’re supposed to meet her at the church.”

            “We’ll get there,” Artaud said as he pulled out his pocket watch. He rarely looked it, but I knew it was his grandfather’s and always in his pocket. I paused a few steps near them.

            “But we’re supposed to be there now!”

            Artaud turned to the boy with a hostile look. “Would you rather be kneeling at that casket and diddling your rosary at this moment?”

            Fernand shook his head.

            “And do you relish the idea of standing around like a half-wit in that cemetery for two hours before the funeral?”

            “No,” murmured the boy.

            “Then be grateful I managed your escape as well.” Artaud turned to watch the Japanese troupe again.

            “This is boring,” sighed Fernand. He looked meaningfully at his brother, and Artaud braced himself for another interruption. “Are you sorry Father is dead?”

            Artaud turned his face away so I could not see his expression. His shoulders slumped; he almost seemed to wilt. I stood there guiltily, watching Fernand wait for an answer from his brother who was now looking at the ground.

            Abruptly, Artaud turned and, raising an eyebrow, stuck his cigarette in the boy’s fingers. Fernand eagerly filled his mouth with smoke and blew it out, looking at his brother for approval. “It makes me look older.”

            “It makes you look younger!” Artaud declared, snatching the butt from him and grounding it under his heel. “Only a child wants to be an adult. Father died wanting to be your age again. Damn—” His voice was hoarse.

            “Mother’s talking about moving to Paris to be near you.”

            “Yes, I’m delighted,” Artaud groaned.

            “But you’re the one who asked her to come to Paris with you in the fall.”

            “No, I did not, momo.”

            “Momo, you did.” Fernand raised his chin. “You’re not sorry Father is dead—and neither am I! Free at last.” He grinned defiantly as his brother sat unmoving. “Now I can breathe. Now I can go to Paris, too—or see the world. To hell with the old man. Whoopee!” The boy was standing again, flailing about in nervous excitement while Artaud, aghast, looked on. The boy was like a dervish, dancing to forget, or a like spinning top that would eventually wind down and crash at the sight of that grave.

            Silently I walked away.

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