4 – The Nightmare Carnival

Announcements cackled as they finally pulled in.  They could see Gare du Nord through the cracked vent.  Suddenly the brakes slammed and Rupert’s head rammed into the mirror.  There was a huge commotion outside and Diogenes suggested they run for it after he opened the door.

Widows protested on the tracks just before the platforms: “Rendez-nous nos morts!” chanting: “Give us back our dead!”  They were dressed in jet black, blandishing steel crosses, demanding a theocracy.

Hooligans shouted at the widows, poking them with stale baguettes.  Behind them a mob of Moroccan women in djelabas, hannah writ on hands, clapped to Ecuadorian mountain singers.  A suitcase exploded.  The band of Ecuadorians ran for the splayed contents — Gitanes packed in hay.

The three of them slipped out of the door and jumped onto the tracks and into the crowd.  A beggar with a tasseled cap walked on his knees up to Undine and began grabbing at her carton of cigarettes. He pulled off his beret and spread out his arms like a suppliant but kept snatching at the carton.  Diogenes gave him a swift rib-kick and after tumbling, the beggar shouted: “Vous serez un mendiant un de ces jours!”

Then he stood on his feet and asked Diogenes: “English?”

“I speak it. ” Diogenes replied.

“Saumdaie yoo be un beggaire!”

“What’s your name?” Diogenes asked looking at him as they walked away.

“Je suis un mystère  –  un mystère d’Eleusis!” He glowered.

“What a nut!” Rupert breathed as they moved clear of the train and the mob.

“Maybe not.”  Diogenes replied, wiping his foot with a handkerchief.

“There’s Jack and Trotsky from the barge!” Undine ran up to the two of them.

They all three swung around and Trotsky and Jack were indeed smuggling crates off the train, sneaking past the apparently bribed contrôleur, unloading with real zest the sausages, watches, condoms etc. and guarding them against the beggars, widows and singers.

“That’s strange!”  Diogenes exclaimed, mystified. “But we can’t wait now.  Let them go … we could be stopped.”

The streets swarmed with vendors, selling peanuts or crêpes or old photographs, worthless strips of leather, soiled T-shirts — one man ran up to them in a big huff with an automobile bumper, gesturing wildly.  Then through a cloud of dust, Paris appeared.

As they left the vendors and merchants and picked their way through streets with uprooted fountains, shattered friezes, fallen building ledges, there was still a shabby hint of the Paris of beige architecture and black iron-gratings.  Above their heads, flew a noontime break of cloud.  They could smell freshly baked bread as they kicked along through deserted sidestreets.  In abandoned lots men in iron chairs conversed with café noir in their hands.  Flags and sprayed flowers blew from the top and at the base of broken lamp posts.  Two families burnt a cabinet and roasted a lamb among fallen bricks. In the alleyways, shrines to the Virgin Mary were lit with cheap candles.  Mild-eyed maniacs mindlessly stared at children running back and forth.  An hypnotic hollow-eyed girl in a torn green dress and bare feet followed them then stole away.

They passed an old lady staring at a man-hole cover as if it had randomly landed at her feet.  They heard an off-key steel-drum and sliding trombone version of the Marseillaise through cement dust haze.  Beggars who had the shit kicked out of them smiled wretchedly in the recess of a gutted dry-cleaning shop with their hands outheld but without the courage to scale the broken-glass barrier.  There were shouts rising from a cellar and a dog tied to a pole with a tinsel party-hat wrapped over floppy ears barked at them as they passed.

It seemed like an open-air Père Lachaise, a huge cemetery or fairy-tale kingdom laid to waste.  Ivy still slid down the Seine, and Notre Dame still spired above it.  And though its slates swarmed with squatters, and soot clogged fountains and hot stale air exhaled from the dead Métro with its signs and maps intact as epitaphs– they were still part of a world with ivy, fountains and maps — a mad gentility, an insane delicacy survived.  A screen seemed to have lifted between this and an older, infinitely senile culture.  Yet only a specter remained, a dissolving blueprint under a smoggy sky.

In untying a ribbon from a blindfolded statue — Rupert seemed to echo the inverted denial of decline. Paris seemed like a bowl held out in dust or shadow for a ray of light with nothing but illusion to fill it.  All the dried wood and kerosene of Civil War had been laid out but the streets never exploded as they had in New York.  The conflagration never came.  Only the substance caved in.  Only the will to acknowledge and act.

They finally reached the Seine through a long, circuitous Right Bank walk, and peered at the thousands who flanked the river.  Entire families spent their evenings outside vying for a fragment of pavement on which to lay their heads.  The children played, tying stray boards together to make rafts or chanted songs, preserving, with their parents, the fading elements of France as it ground into silence and anarchy.

Languor spread from the crowd who waited with absurd patience in their mutual poverty.  Diogenes, struggling with the  mass hypnosis clouding his mind, disciplined himself into foraging for a place where they could safely spend the night.  Yet there was a soporific appeal, a land of Lotus-Eaters-feel, a poetry to this mirage of urbane starvation.  He had to remind himself to concentrate just on their necessity to eat and to remain awake.

“It’s eerie and lovely!”  Undine sighed.

“It’s like they are suppliants in a street Mass!”  Rupert thought aloud.

“A requiem.”  Diogenes added, lifting a crayon drawing from a pile of rubbish.

“Hey you!”  A man shimmied up to them on the pavement. “What are you? Americans?”

“We’ve lived there.”  Diogenes equivocated.

“Tell the other Americans to stay home!”  He demanded in English. “They export the Mafia, Le Cartel — they’ve ripped-off our art. The Louvre has been looted.”

Rupert and Undine deferred to Diogenes for an explanation.

“You can shop around inside … there’s nothing left.”  The man cried.

Rupert and Undine couldn’t gage why it was significant.  Diogenes had seen the Louvre, gorgeous, unrifled, stuffed with masterpieces and crowded with overblown court-commissions.  He vaguely re-pictured the opulence and lacunas of taste where huge canvases were mounted.

“The Louvre is empty!” The man declared, shaking Rupert.

Diogenes overcame his memory of clutter and recalled the Houdons, Davids, Delacroix, and da Vinci’s Two mothers, and it finally dawned on him how monstrous the theft was for France.

“There are people inside, relief offices, vigilantes guarding the few things left.  But, when you haven’t eaten or slept in a quiet place or had medical care for awhile — one is easily bribed.  They tried to lock it up, but that made it even easier to plunder.  Some high French officials started it — the French started it themselves — and the first of them were executed at the Hôtel de Ville.  There was talk of a second Terror, of a Revolution just over the first stolen masterpieces.”  It occurred to Diogenes that this putty-faced, prematurely old man with sunken eyes was probably an expatriate Australian or New Zealander.

“You sleep there now! Everyone can!  There are so many people in this world, so many without a crumb!  And so much confusion!  And you can go up to Châtelet — to the street carnivals and drool all night — walking through Pigalle.  That’s Paris’ only tourist attraction now,”  he said with even greater bitterness, “… you can wallow in filth and see the end result of La Misère — or stroll through the squatted Louvre!”

“Can we sleep there?”  Undine asked.

“Bien sûr! Be my guest!” He said, getting up. “You can eat, sleep, fuck, die there.  No one has nothing left to hide!”  He was shaking with anger and then wandered off, swallowed by a crowd which had surrounded a dying old man.

“Let’s move on.”  Diogenes suggested.

While they walked a crowd trailed them, though they didn’t seem malicious.  Perhaps they were simply curious after they had heard English spoken.  Their vacant eyes followed Undine closely, and Rupert held her protectively.  Eventually they were almost jogging from the banks of the Seine until Rupert stopped short at a poster on a pharmacy wall.  The cheap ink had drained down on the faces in the poster but it’s message — the names on it — were clear enough.

“There’s a famous poet in town!”

“So what?”

“He’s an American”

“So?”

“It seems, if I read this correctly — I can’t understand all of it — he’s performing tonight.  I had a friend who once traveled with him. I wonder what’s become of him.”  Rupert stood more closely.

Diogenes barely listened to him: “These people!  The look in their eyes.  You can almost touch it in the air.”

“What?” asked Undine.

“They’re somnambulists.  They have a walking sickness.”

Rupert waited for them to acknowledge what he had said about the American poet.

I’m still glad we escaped Grabmaler”.  Undine said, hugging Diogenes, “I can’t believe we made it! You know, this is first time in my life I’ve acted with conscience.”

“And courage.” Diogenes answered, “But there are so many memories without transition here … and I can’t help thinking that our safety is an illusion.”

“Don’t worry, we’ve made it.  At least we can hope now.”  Rupert let fly, distracted by the poster.

“Hope? Hope! Hope is the shitheap upon which human suffering is raised to heaven!”  Diogenes shot back, feeling his age and Rupert’s youth.

“Yes, but when you give up — hope — you’re emotionally dead.   It’s sentimental, but true.”  Undine insisted, directing her gaze toward the crowd.

“Hope replaces honesty just as belief replaces experience.  Yes, look at this city!  At the walking dead!  Our trip isn’t overkiddies.”  Diogenes spat back.

Just as they caught up with a crowd swarming toward Châtelet they stopped and shopped at a bookstall.  Diogenes was delighted, leafing through heavily-thumbed French psychological novels and philosophy.  Rupert grabbed a shabby book of poetry and began to bargain in pigeon French with the salesman.  Undine was torn between a history of political economy and a current bestseller about a new folk hero who conquers evil in the world by playing a flute — bringing children with him like the Pied Piper — and raising the dead.

“But neither of you speak French!”  Diogenes admonished.

“What does it matter you old sourpuss — they’re books aren’t they?” Undine laughed back.

She handed the book salesman a carton of cigarettes and they left, books in arm, to follow the crowd into the street carnival.

A scorched-faced fire-eater spewing dirty oil and a smoky flame nearly vomited on them as they reached the edge of the carnival. They slipped down a sidestreet and a girl stood naked in the middle of the block selling erotic drawings.  Rupert stared at her.  She was lithe and bold in her glances, luring him over.  Undine didn’t seem to mind.  She followed behind as Rupert examined one of the girl’s drawings.  The artist spoke to him in English with a German accent.

She outrightly gave him a sketch folded over with an inscription in Spanish on it and advised them to enjoy the puppet show and return soon thereafter.  She stood there every day, naked, she admitted, hawking her drawings.  Diogenes was drawn over to inspect her work — sketches of sex acts with an ironic message to chauvinists — but graphic nonetheless.  Rupert thanked her, then they took her advice and pursued a winding street to the puppet theater.

Rupert felt entranced as they drifted by red-lit windows with newspaper blinds.  The boys and women licked their lips or stuck out their tongues at them as they passed.  Some of the prostitutes were badly beaten with broken noses, scabbed cheekbones and pupils staring through glaucoma’d retinas.  Patrons could be seen through ripped newspapers or broken glass.  Diogenes shrugged off the lachrymose eyeballings as slavery and laughed derisively at the “talkies” or “Parlant” booths, where one could pay for verbal abuse or sexual insults or garrulous logic-twisting.

They plied through a crowd surrounding a puppet play.  The main puppet was Death — a cut-out black frock draped over a paper maché skeleton.  He stood in the living room of a cardboard house with a weeping mother mourning her dead husband and children, who lay in three caskets.  Death forced a wad of bills into the mother’s palm, and twice she turned him down.  He then shook her, until she accepted the money he forced on her a third time.   Death pulled the three caskets past the weeping mother from the house with three strings, prancing.  The crowd boo’d and whistled as he danced and a storm followed him as the cast, joined by equipped members of the audience, clattered pots and pans.  An aluminum lightning bolt landed by string on the house and whooshes were mouthed by the puppeteers to represent a cyclonic wind.

Death walked to a second home and hissed into a father’s ear.  His children and wife cringed in a corner.  The parents engaged in argument while Death drank sacramental wine before their door.  The mother tucked her son and daughter into bed.  Then Death whispered to the father through the cut-out window.  Death took a string noose and slung it from a tree and hung the father when he was fool enough to run out to battle Death.  Death slung the body high, secured the rope around the father’s neck, and then lunged into the house to rape the mother.  The mother resisted Death and his money, and after she violently repulsed him, the crowd cheered.

Death then revealed a Pandora’s box of Plague ominously pointing to the children as the mother kissed his bony fingers, pleading for mercy.  He yanked the boy and girl from their beds, and hauled them away to his Kingdom.  This necessitated a shifting of scenes with much fuss and string entanglements, until the curtain rose before a black pyramid.  The black pyramid yawned open to expose a blaspheming upside down priest.   Death dragged the children under the head of the blasphemous priest and into the pyramid’s mouth as slaves, tugging along caskets with figurine corpses inside.

The scene then shifted back to the mother weeping in her kitchen consoled by a white-haired grandfather, an old shepherd with an old dog.  The crowd was very sad and a few wept, “MON DIEU!” and several widows howled.  The old man, in a tither and braving the mother’s protestations, left the house. The set shifted to reveal the old man with his dog stealing up to the black pyramid.

He wept bitterly when he espied his grandchildren loading caskets.  He found a taxidermist and paid for a rat cloak disguise,  put it on, hiding until the black pyramid opened and Death slinked up to mock the upside down, foaming priest.  The old man, meanwhile, collected the unguarded children, loaded them in a cart, and wheeled them across a blasted forest, depicted by one leafless tree.

Death, irate, outraced them via broomstick to their home and hauled their mother away, and murdered her.  The crowd groaned or cried out and even the seediest onlookers waxed teary-eyed.  Then the grandfather appeared with the two children where they waited in great sorrow for years.  The black curtain lowered and with its rising the grandfather sported a beard twice its original length and the children were nearly grown.  They had managed alone until, to their horror, Death, this time with the priest, showed up at their door.  The old man tackled the priest and ran him through with a crucifix.  The son, then, struggled manfully with Death and his sister picked up a ladle of holy water, dripping it on his eyes, paralyzing him. The son then heroically finished him off with the sword.

The crowd cheered, automatically, having memorized the victory and cheers swelled louder with the falling curtain as everyone stood up to sing the Marseillaise.

As they were lowering a sun onto the stage over the little house and Death was vanquished, Rupert and Diogenes began to fight their way back through the cheering and weeping ragamuffin mob. Undine then pulled them back.  The two were terribly reluctant to watch a second Morality Play, but she assured them it would be a comedy and begged them to stay at least for the beginning.

Go-Go the clown appeared, bumping into a sign entitled: “The Story of an Exhibitionist”.

The fat clown kept pulling his pants down when the policeman and judge would turn their back.  When a newspaper reporter — a mock American — encouraged him, however, he couldn’t keep himself from pulling his pants down for a photographer — even as the judge and policeman dragged him away to jail.

In jail Go-Go cried and wrote a sad poem about a fellow prisoner — a handsome young man.  Go-Go sweet-talked the young man and read his poem and was about to pull his pants down when another prisoner, an angular, dominant black man, entered the cell.  Go-go began to sing about his mother and the black man told him to shut up.

The crowd was laughing and whistling lasciviously at Go-Go while he waived a handkerchief when Rupert and Diogenes finally persuaded Undine to leave.  As they walked away Go-Go was being brought to trial, pulling his pants down for the courtroom cameraman.

Rupert sat down at a dry fountain and unwrapped the sketch handed him by the naked German girl.  Echoes of laughter filled the quarter from Go-go’s antics.  Undine tried to decipher the graffiti on the fountain, kicking away dead leaves.  Suddenly they heard a commotion on the next block.  Diogenes and Undine left to investigate while Rupert stared dully at the sketch.

In a dusty lot, a hut of clay and brick had been demolished by a group of men with a huge wooden pole in their hands.  The hut’s weeping tenants were threatened by the men, who prepared to ram a larger building to the right.  Around them the fissured apartments of old Paris, now teetering, revealed the issue which inspired the argument.  The families were building from the ruins and the wreckers saw it as a symbol of defeat — that the French were moving backward in time.  The clay vats where water had been collected were smashed or kicked out of the way.  The skillets, blankets, the children’s toys  — all the humble possessions of a poor household — were covered in dust and rubble.

Diogenes didn’t know what to make of it.  Both sides were right.  The wreckers had a point — this meant the beginning of the end for old Paris, a kind of Neanderthal regress in housing.  Yet the screams of the children, the ragtag families who cared enough to make a shelter for themselves, even if it be in windowless mounds of clay, also staked their rights.  They were working on the problem, trying to help themselves.  Undine, suddenly, jumped in on the argument. She ran up to the group of angry men with their hands on the pole and the family near the last standing hut and screamed: “No! No!” This is the beginning of your Civil War!”

The crowd was taken aback.  It was mad because she shouted in English.  The men with the pole looked uneasy.  They were not beasts but men acting on principle.  One shouted: “Sortez-vous de là!”  Sortez-vous de là!”.  Another added: “Ou sinon on vous rentre dedans!”

“You are going to ruin France!”  Undine defied them.

“What do you know?”  A young man from the back who spoke English lurched forward.

Diogenes watched in amazement: “Undine!  Get out of there!  What are you doing?”

“Shut up Diogenes!  Something is happening here!”  She shot back.

“I tell you!  If you act against each other you will ruin France!”  Undine shouted.

“Get out of the way while you have a chance!”  Diogenes yelled.

The families stood mute, flabbergasted.

“Who are you anyway?”  The man inquired.

“No one special.”

“You’ll be less than that if you don’t get out of our way!”

“I’m not moving!”

“You don’t know the issue!  This is for the future of France!”

“It’s bigger than that!  It’s about humanity!”

“If we let mud huts go up – soon all of Paris will be living like cavemen.”

“It’s cavemen or animals!  I say you are animals – animaux! — driving a family out.  Have you ever given a family a place to live?”

The young man couldn’t reply.  It seemed that the conscience of the self-righteous wreckers had been momentarily piqued.

Diogenes finally towed Undine away leaving the protagonists to stare at each other: the fathers and mothers with bricks in their hands — and the men with a ramming pole in theirs.  They walked back to Rupert who sat in the same place they left him.  The once naked German street-artist — now sporting a Japanese print gown — withdrew as they approached.  Rupert, bewildered, sat still, gaping at the sketch.

Diogenes extracted the sketch from Rupert’s fingers.  Undine stooped to stroke his hair and monitor his mood.  Diogenes scanned the sketch — a dramatic, dark work of draftsmanship on very old paper. It had a Spanish inscription and a barely legible signature.

“I’m not an expert — but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a Goya.  From his series on War!”

Rupert rose from his haunches to assess it again himself.

“And look  — read the inscription!”

“Where?”

“At the bottom!”

As well as they could conclude Rupert had been handed a priceless work of art.

“And what did she expect in return?”  Diogenes asked.

“Nothing!  She merely told me to visit her again.”   He said, peering guiltily at Undine.

Diogenes carefully re-rolled the drawing like a scroll and advised Rupert not to show or mention it to anyone.  Diogenes and Undine watched Rupert as he concealed the sketch beneath his shirt.

There he is!” Rupert then said, squinting.

“Who?”

Rupert looked again, unsure.

“I think it’s him.  The American poet.  With his boys — and my friend!”

“So what?” Undine taunted.

“The guy on the poster… “

“Go-go the clown?” Diogenes asked.

“No.  Bedlamsburg.  Let’s go up and introduce ourselves.”

“Introduce yourself.”

“What?  O.K.  But let’s go together.”

“Merde!” Diogenes mumbled, hobbling after Rupert.  Undine restively tagged along.

“Hi!  I’m Rupert.”  He said, shaking the poet’s hand.

“So?”  The poet eyed him quickly.

“My friend behind you … I’ve known him since we lived in New Jersey.”

“Which one?  We’re all friends.”

“That one!  Hello!”

A thin, pasty-faced young lad came forward and greeted Rupert with a faded British accent.  He held himself back but seemed to know him.

Phillip! I can’t believe you’re here?  How are you?”  Rupert asked, gushing.

“Fine.”  He replied, shaking hands politely, eyes averted behind his glasses.

“Oh, excuse me.  This is Diogenes!   He used to write essays on philosophy.”

Bedlamsburg squinted at the book in Diogenes’ hand then grunted, bored.  He turned to Phillip who stood staring at his shoes and said, “Phillip.  How about here?  I think we can sing a song right here.”

“O.K.”  And he took his guitar out of its case.

Then Bedlamsburg started to jangle little finger-cymbals.  One side of his face was constricted, perhaps palsied.  He slobbered a “love” lyric from the left side of his mouth, slaver dripping on the bronze cymbals.  As he sang his assistants put out a hat and sign.  Bedlamsburg motioned for Diogenes and Rupert to step back as he launched into an admiring song about one of his assistants, perhaps Phillip.

“The melody!  I’ve heard it before.”  Diogenes remarked.

“Yes — it’s based on black Chicago blues.”

“Oh.”

Phillip added credible, tinny harmonies.  A crowd began to collect as the assistants clapped their hands, Bedlamsburg began a kind of dance, holding his hands prophetically above his head.

Diogenes was reminded of the street preacher who turned out to be an actor, when he first met Rupert.

“Gimmie your thang!” The fat, bearded poet sputtered and the crowd applauded.

“Gimmie that pink, floppy thang in my mowt!” Bedlamsburg whined, triumphant.

“I hate this!”  Diogenes said, nauseated.

“Rupert is entranced by his fame.”  Undine added derisively.

“He’s an anarchist.” Rupert explained.

One of Bedlamburg’s assistants strode over to them and told them to step back as the crowd grew.

“Don’t get in Bedlam’s way.”  He demanded bluntly.

“Rupert, let’s go!”  Undine pleaded.

“Rupert,”  Diogenes said paternally, “We need food and somewhere to sleep tonight.”

“But we might be able to get food or a bed with these guys — we know them – they’re American and they know Paris!”  Rupert replied into Diogenes’ ear.

A young man then came up and dumped an armful of old francs in the hat.  The crowd roared.  Diogenes watched as the man picked his way back slowly through the crowd and seated himself at a table besides a well-groomed, graying man.  For a moment Diogenes thought it was Grabmaler.  He shivered as he thought he saw the man raise a finger from his temple in acknowledgment.  A number of people stood in his way for a few moments and he began prying through the crowd in the direction of the table.  Frantically, he yanked bodies out of his way, jostling, shoving, not bothering to return insults until he broke free from the thick of the crowd to arrive within yards of the table.  The two men had disappeared.

Meanwhile, Bedlamsburg had stopped singing and the hat, after being emptied, made a last round.  Androgynous Phillip conferred quietly with Rupert.  Diogenes returned, anxious to describe the apparition to Rupert.

Bedlamsburg smiled, surrounded by admirers.  Undine caught up to Rupert while Bedlamsburg strode up slowly to Phillip.

“How was my intonation … on the beat?”  Bedlamsburg asked Phillip, ignoring Rupert.

“Can we come along?”  Rupert asked.

“Can they?”  Phillip echoed, meekly.

Bedlamsburg finally appraised Rupert, seeing how handsome he was, and decided in his favor.

“Are they with you?” The poet glanced sidelong at Undine and Diogenes.

“Yes.”

“O.K.  All right,”  he added, impatiently. “You know,” Bedlamsburg began to talk as they all walked, his entourage forming around him, “That chant, that poem has been translated into fourteen languages?” He glared over to Rupert. “The Collapse, I prophesied it!”

They walked up a flight of stairs to a top floor apartment.  Posters for Bedlamburg’s upcoming performance were tacked on the door which he opened, unlocked.  They all piled into the living room.

“Can I fix you something?”  He pulled out a jar of jelly with spoon already in it and began to eat.

“It’s good! Here!”

Rupert accepted.

“Rupert!” Undine whispered into his ear, “If you eat that — I’ll never kiss you again.”

Rupert lowered the spoon.  A long-haired man with a huge pot belly emerged clad only in a G-string.  His cigarette dripped ashes into the salad he had made.

“It’s a cream salad!  I jerked off in it!”  He mumbled, bunching up his lips while his cigarette swayed up and down, making a lascivious, moist sound.

“He’s just kidding — eat it.”  Phillip interpreted.

Diogenes felt hungry enough but wouldn’t taste it.

“So!” Bedlamsburg said, turning toward Diogenes, “What is it that you’re reading? Philosophy?”

“Yes.”

“Are you some kind of unemployed academic?”

“He used to write short essays — before working for Tombstone Internationale.”  Rupert offered, recalling a conversation they had on the barge.

“Little essays, eh?”  A red-haired young man said, mockingly.

“And how do you countenance that?”  Bedlamsburg  glowered with beady, dark eyes. “Tombstone was involved with falsifying the currency.”

Rupert squirmed, embarrassed.  Diogenes felt a moment of shame then countered:

“That’s when I existed as you do now.”

“And how is that?”

“Enslaved — having to please … whether it be an audience, the public, a Grabmaler, or a young boy.”

The poet immediately lost his patience.  Oddly enough he seemed to understand the reference to Grabmaler.

“And what do you live for now?” Bedlamsburg asked, exasperated.

Diogenes paused.  He seemed to give it real thought.  The young men sat around, waiting for this anonymous old guy to stop beleaguering their beloved, and famous, Bedlamsburg.

“For independence of character.”  Diogenes finally replied.

“That’s just a concept!”

“No.”  Diogenes barked, holding ground.

“Then what does it mean?”

“It means that there’s a difference between personality — behavioral style — and character, the self that one chooses.  The self one invents from one’s own values.  You can say an animal has personality.  An animal can behave with a certain novelty, a certain behavioral style.  Most of us, however, have no character — bought off as we often are by money or sex.”

Meanwhile the salad-maker, chewing on a moldy hambone, thrust his face into Diogenes’ and asked, “And which animal has the worst bite?”   The young men chuckled.

“Of the wild animals,  a snake.  Of the tame ones” Diogenes looked over to Phillip ” — a flatterer, a sycophant.”

This stirred up much resentment among Bedlamsburg’s followers.

“Why bring up flattery?”  Rupert pleaded, desperate to mend things.  “A musician or a poet pleases an audience because they love music and poetry — it’s wonderful.”

“Anyone who flatters a flatterer is twice removed from his independence.”  Diogenes responded coldly.

Rupert felt he was listening to Diogenes destroy his relationship to Phillip and jeopardize their night’s lodging.  Phillip passively tuned a guitar in the corner.

“If you preach self-sufficiency, why don’t you go it alone?”  Phillip spoke up spitefully.

The poet ignored them wholly by now.  Undine observed the scene from the couch, enchanted by Diogenes’ ironic hardline.  Sensing Rupert’s anxiety, though, she decided to get to the core of their visit, as politely and as efficiently as she could:

“Mr. or should I say Monsieur Bedlamsburg, Rupert, I and Diogenes are hard up for a place to stay tonight.  Quite frankly, we have nowhere to sleep, and we wanted to know if it would be possible to bed-down here.”

Phillip stood up: “Tonight will be impossible.  We have these guests tonight but tomorrow would be fine.”

Bedlamsburg and his entourage now spoke among themselves, unequivocally ignoring Diogenes and Undine. Phillip was polite enough to say goodbye to Rupert.

When they reached the street, the crowd had grown louder and rowdier. It was as if they were entering a nightmarish carnival.  As they turned the corner a woman with gray streaks in her hair and huge, sagging breasts was copulating with a dim-eyed adolescent.  She gaped around, her oily dress up over her shoulders assuming everyone ought to think her lucky, and as for the boy, he didn’t care, he wanted “it” dirty, right there in the street.  People applauded or turned away in disgust.  An idiot giggled hideously and covered his mouth jumping up and down in army boots several sizes too big for him.   Rupert led Undine and Diogenes slinking along the sidewalk.  An old couple covered the two lovers with a soggy newspaper they salvaged from beneath a pile of electric wires and fruit boxes.

They passed the lot where the hut families and the patriots of French architecture had confronted each other.  The walls Undine defended had been knocked down.

In the next block an electric guitarist in black played loudly, accompanied by a drummer thrashing ox bones.  A priest was leading a procession of people, who all carried plywood caskets on their shoulders.  The priest rummaged through a box of syringes until he found a pistol and a single bullet.  The suppliants received a syringe apiece.  The priest raised the pistol and clicked thrice against his skull without engaging a bullet.  A second man accepted the pistol, pulled the trigger, and passed it on.  When the third man positioned the gun, the very first squeeze blew a red fountain of blood through the other side of his head.  Rupert shrank away, sick.  Undine had shielded her eyes before the shot rang out.  Diogenes coldly looked on.

They coaxed Rupert toward the Seine, hoping to sleep there or in the Louvre.  Fumbling into the case of flares he had been carrying since Calais, Rupert chose to light one out of curiosity.  He set it up, while Rupert and Undine rested on the crumbling ledge that surveyed the highway, which once paralleled the Seine.  It never occurred to Rupert that it may prove difficult to find matches – allumettes — but a young man tending a fire on the river’s edge saw what Rupert needed and brought him, gingerly, a flaming stick.

Undine approached Rupert to try and comfort him but he was consumed by anger and needed to distract himself.  When he lit the flare, however, it shot sideways across the walls and then burst — blasting green and yellow sparks all over the street and sidewalk.  The young man from the river came running back, eyes lit up, beside himself with excitement.  Rupert shouted with delight for the box of flares turned out to be fireworks.

Hundreds witnessed the trail of sparks and immediately the edge of the Seine buzzed with cheers for more.  The young guy, dressed in ragged jeans with a bandanna pulling his dirty blond hair from his forehead, gathered a pile of wood on which to prop the fireworks and launch them into the misty night air.  Rupert lined them up carefully, in ascending order of width and length, until they were ready to explode the whole bunch.  Undine asked to light the first few, appearing like an angel with the bundle of flaming sticks — her torch to the powdery, faded sky.

The first sailed horizontally and burst only yards above their heads, cresting pink in the violet dusk.  Slowly the families came to their feet — kids leaping up, adults still bent.  Blam! the second went, sprinkling yellow from flying white arrows of light.  Whooomp! crashed the next with a low rumbling firecracker core.  A fourth illumined the sky with red splashes rocketing, echoing from buildingtops and was followed by “ahhhh! ” and “que c’est beau!” and “super!” and “fantastique!” Fluorescent greens busted apart, whistled, tailing themselves in meteoric arcs, as the formerly dour Parisian crowd, stared up, and cheered, the rumbles and bombs sending shivers through the children’s limbs.  Jets of glowing purples and white supernoval missiles blasted high above La Misère.  The ignited shadows of children and grandmas waved, showered by glowing sparks and tinted spectral shadows, ripping open the curtain of nightmare sky, rending their Misère.

Then the melancholy washed back.  The crowds tittered into silence and shrunk into their niches, though some brought gifts of stale bread, runny cheese, lenseless spectacles and, significantly a half-empty bottle of potent rum, which Diogenes, Rupert and Undine shared as they walked on to the Louvre.

Reaching the Museum, they picked through a sea of cardboard bedding clogging their path to the crumbling building and stepped over its caved-in iron fence.  They cajoled, pandered, then rammed their way indoors.

Blank spots soiled by smoke replaced the spots where canvases once hung in baroque frames. Whispers and idiot’s laughter echoed and swirled beneath the high ceilings.  Through stagnant air, thick with sweat and a rancid mix of urine and vomited wine, one could hear the shiftings of thousands sprawled in the dark.  As they squeezed in, nudging up the first flight of stairs, vigilant not to step on legs or arms or grind fingers with their shoes, they stalked the flicker of candles beneath a sagging hallway ceiling.  They could faintly see piles of coats or torn canvases heaped up for privacy and tents pitched of loosely sown rags weighted down by cinder blocks or plaster-filled bottles.

They approached another stairwell, its underhangs housing squatters jealously guarding their niches, who threatened with stone fragments or the steel of old handrails. An old man, fumbling with a crucifix, grabbed for Undine’s shoes and attempted to tear one off her feet before Rupert pried his hand from her ankle.  They slowly threaded their way up without a handrail into the clammy air and up the balconies stripped of marble, their legs buckling.  On Diogenes’ signal they decided to descend again lest they suffocate drawing a sharper protest as they had to gruffly kick or jostle the shadowy stair dwellers so as not to be shoved over the side.

They finally settled into a cranny, passing a man praying under a plastic trash bag.  A transvestite tossed a dried rat’s pelt from the balcony which flopped onto Rupert’s hand.

Diogenes lay down and stared up into the empty depths of the ceiling.  A claustrophobic fear of contagion gripped him.  He remembered his mother long ago, warning him about drinking from another’s glass or using another man’s razor.  He wished he had X-ray vision which would reveal microbiologic infestation — the Plague — or whatever floated in the air he nervously inhaled.  He heard scratching, wondering if it was a live rat or simply a man fiddling with his beard.  Lazarus died of the Plague.  Yet he could not remember him appearing sick.  Nor his wife.  This made it only more insidious.  He remembered Lazarus’ wife, whom he once kissed socially.  He tried to remember Lazarus’ kind but austere white face.  He recalled him when arriving for work, haggard, worried but not sick, not dying.  The last time he saw him the slight red ring around his pale blue eyes sunk only a shade darker.

Cream salad!  Rupert nearly ate it.  How mysterious the Plague seemed!  It was at first reported as related to AIDS, then it seemed to dislodge itself both from something sexually or blood-transmitted and from the images of the Plague one had from Greek or Medieval sources.  One waited for sores, parching thirst, hallucinating victims diving into wells, the stripping of corpses, the desertion of the cities, rancid feasts of debauchery, ulcerous victims crying from quarantined homes — but one only heard rumors.  And unreliable reports. Threats from propaganda leaflets.

Undine and Rupert had already fallen asleep.  Diogenes gazed fondly at their smooth faces in flickering silhouette.  Casting over to the candle Diogenes debated whether to investigate.  He could scarcely see the frame of an old woman worshipping it, in reverie.  He would risk waking scores of sleepers.  He tried to doze.  But the flickering light irritated him.  He began to thread his way cautiously, over the unconscious bodies, as one might tiptoe through a mine-field.

He finally reached the woman.  Her silver, wiry hair tumbled over her enshadowed face, tucked into her collared black robe.  Her hands flitted over her crystal ball, enslaved by the vanity of magic.  He caught the corner of her eye as he eased down before her.  Her right hand twitched slightly.  He couldn’t remember how to ask for his fortune in French.  She seemed to respect his silence, however, as if he respected her gift of prophecy.  He decided to make the most of it, wearing a penitent’s pious face.  Eventually, her lips quivered. “Je vois …” She whispered slowly, then paused. “Je vois …” lowering her head further, melodramatically.  Diogenes waited as she rolled her eyes to the ceiling and returned to the crystal and her trance.  “Je vois …” She whispered, phlegm fluttering in her tiny throat.  Diogenes feared she may have fallen asleep as the long moment spread with her wavering candle.  Eventually, she raised her brow and he examined her bloodless eyes, then she pouted her thin lips and tensed her parchment cheeks into a perfectly stubborn mask: “Rien!“  Diogenes echoed “Rien? Rien?” She rattled back, malignantly: “No ting!”

Diogenes began tiptoeing his way back through the crowd.  The air, thick with stale exhalations from hungry, miserable mouths, hung like a shroud.  He could see Rupert and Undine’s supple bodies entwined, Rupert’s shirt undone, the scroll wedged between his and Undine’s chest.  A snoring old man, who had a hanky over his upturned face yanked it away as Diogenes stepped over him.  He gave him a if-looks-could-kill grimace, breaking the saliva crust cementing his lips.  While Diogenes kneeled down beside Undine, he could feel the old man’s yellow eye follow him.  He stuffed the scroll back into Rupert’s shirt and tapped Undine’s shoulder.  She awoke, not at all frightened, and he signaled to her to follow him outdoors.

She rubbed her eyes and carefully disentangled herself from Rupert.  The two of them padded through the bodies, followed all the time by the yellow-eyed man staring maliciously at them, until they found themselves in the night and walked past the squatters on cardboard to the Seine.

“What is it?”  Undine asked, mockingly, as if Diogenes were a restless child.

“Thanks for following me out.”  Diogenes looked fondly at her young face softened from an hour’s sleep. “I will miss you.”

“What?”

“I’m leaving.”

“What about us?  What about Bedlamsburg’s invite?”

“It’s fine for you and Rupert, but I’ve no interest in him, nor in Paris.”

“Why should we separate now?  We make a good team!” Undine said, pouting.

“You and Rupert are fine together.  Paris is for lovers”  He added, wrenching his mouth, attempting a joke.

Undine only looked away.

“We’ll not be apart forever.  Berlin attracts me …  I want to keep traveling.  You don’t need me, really,”  he added pathetically.

He realized he nearly loved Undine.

“I’ll miss you too.”  She sighed, crossing her arms across her chest for warmth.

“I’m sorry.  I’m walking to the outskirts and from there I’ll hitch a ride.  Listen, if anything happens — I mean if Grabmaler finds you … or you get in trouble … come to Berlin by yourself or send me a message.  I’ll leave one behind if I travel farther. “  He studied her and decided not to tell her about what he saw on the barge nor through the crowd during Go-Go’s performance.

“Do you think Grabmaler’ll come hunting for Rupert?  It’s Rupert he wants, he depends on him somehow.”  She thought again.  “And how will you find your way?  How will I find you in Berlin?”

“If anything goes wrong, hitch to Berlin yourself.  I’ll be there.  I got directions on how to walk out of town to the highway from Trotsky.  It’s a long hike and I want to start now.  Say Goodbye to Rupert for me and take care of him.  And, take care of yourself.”

She hugged him and then withdrew.

As he walked away he added: “You know the barge we rode on … they traded phony Euros, the rest of the cargo might have been just for show.”

Undine called to him, “I’ll meet you in Berlin. On my word…” Then turned back.