9a – The Statues

A crowd gathered around staring at the balloon and the two casualties and began chattering among themselves as Diogenes and Undine experimented with moving their hands, and inspecting their bruises. A young man offered to help Diogenes down from the tree and called for his friends to reach and disentangle him. A circle formed around Undine, cautioning each other to keep their distance as she continued to struggle for breath. When Diogenes was eased down to the grass and supported on his feet by the young man, after a moment of delirious mercis, he found himself being questioned by an old man expounding on the French invention of ballooning. Diogenes could barely hear him, let alone understand his breathless French-exponent’s twitter:
“Connaissez-vous l’histoire des Mongolfiers?” he breathed in Diogenes’ face.
“What is he saying?” Diogenes asked Undine, trying to brush him aside.
“If you know that the Frenchman, Montgolfier, invented the balloon. Here, help me.” Undine reached up wearily.
“Oh, Parlez-vous anglais? Connaissez-vous Blanchard?”
“Oui, je connais Blanchard.” Diogenes replied, squinting at him oddly.
“Let’s get out of here.” Undine suggested, hobbling on her sore legs.
“What does this guy want?” Diogenes examined the old man’s craggy Gaulish eyebrows and crusty mustache.
“He wants to make a point.”
“Don’t we all!”
Diogenes propped up Undine as they walked out of the Jardin du Luxembourg toward the Seine. The crowd behind them picked at the balloon for salvageable silk, peeling the few bills and photographs still clinging to the vase shards. Others fought over the right to possess the shattered generator. Diogenes and Undine walked across the street where a merchant had backed his wagon into the closed Sorbonne courtyard. They wearily threaded their way through the wishful thousands surrounding his empty strawberry wagon and made it past a series of boarded up cafés to the river’s edge. Again, the crowds hung from the bridges and peered from cardboard huts lining the former highway. Few of them took notice of Undine and Diogenes as they discouraged barterers and beggars, tiptoed over family blankets, trying not to step on pots and pans or disturb sleeping children, slinking past old men ruminating with tobacco-less pipes. The same fatigue seemed to rise through the misty-eyed glances and through the movements of mothers bent over their public chores, and through slump-shouldered men in frayed jackets dangling their sooty feet over the water. The dust hovered and smelled of human sweat, even with the fresh April breeze. The Seine itself, littered with boards and plastic containers, excrement, wrappers, undulated as if awaiting a rain to swell and cleanse its concrete banks. The trees left unstripped by hungry Parisians needing to chew leaves or gnaw bark, were feebly in bloom.
They climbed tortuously over several concrete and burnt tire street barricades then painfully hobbled the half-mile to Châtelet, searching for Rupert. The street urchins were just crawling out of their cellars or waking up after a sockless sleep following another evening of prostitute-gazing or fruitless intrigue. Diogenes and Undine, while deciding whether they had strained an ankle or broken a rib or pulled a tendon, rubbed each other’s sore backs, and witnessed the onset of another soporific twilight which culminated in the night’s orgy of sexual bartering, performances and petty assaults.
Undine finally broke their silence and observed: “Rupert began to perform, without Bedlamsburg, backed by his old friend Phillip, when I left to meet you in Berlin.”
“Wonderful, he’s become a street performer besides cozying up to Grabmaler.”
“He was just reading his poetry.”
“Ugh! How disgusting it is! Anything attracts a crowd here. Even the worst kinds of music.” Diogenes spat on the pavement, “When I see that cowardly traitor, I’m going to kick his ass!”
They had nothing now to barter and sat there, watching the light wane, and then evening wear interminably on, when finally, they caught a glimpse of Cacavosky, the cream-salad maker, noticeably scrawnier in a rain coat, begging for “buttermilk”, shaking with delirium tremens. It began to drizzle as he made his way over to them with an outheld hand.
“I need butter-milk!” Cacavosky shouted in English, gaping at Diogenes askew, not seeming to recognize Undine.
“We’re short of butter-milk. Have you seen Rupert?” Undine asked politely.
“Gimme butter milk! Here, I’ll give you some help.” And he started fooling with Diogenes’ zipper.
“Oh! touchy aye?” Cacavosky recoiled, after Diogenes forced him away.
“It’s no use. He’s completely mad.” Diogenes sighed, remarking Cacavosky’s glazed eyes. “But let’s follow him.” Which they did, despite their sore muscles and various cuts.
Cacavosky made his way through back alleys clogged by trash and laundry, walking quickly, darting between overturned cans and outstretched begging cups, past an alley filled with rotting pork for barter, as Undine and Diogenes struggled behind. Finally, Cacavosky stopped, turned to look back at them, giggled maniacally, then entered an old wine shop now plastered with shredded posters where a group of young people had gathered. Diogenes, with a shudder, at once noticed Rupert, waiting his turn near a plywood crate which served as a podium. He was dressed in a crushed velvet suit jacket hand-me-down over a collared white shirt. Beneath his leather pants, which also looked as if they’d seen a better day and a shorter owner, he sported worn-out, laceless track shoes. Rupert held his poetry, mutely reading as he ignored the current speaker. Undine scanned the room for his German girlfriend or Grabmaler or even Bedlamsburg but she could only recognize Phillip and Cacavosky. After having spent so many years with Rupert she could tell from his posture and his shy concentration that he was nervous, but she fought against any sensation of sympathy or warmth. Diogenes, meanwhile, grew impatient, listening to a whiny kid whip himself into an oratorical frenzy of Anglicized French, pounding the crate as if he were auditioning for a lead in a Grammar School play.
Eventually, it was Rupert’s turn. He began to read his poem after an English introduction, claiming that he would do his best to read his own translations into French. Diogenes could tell that his French was far less fluent than Undine’s. Yet Diogenes felt for him, as Rupert exhibited scant ostentation but a workmanlike concern with the content and pronunciation of his text. But this feeling fast faded as Diogenes’ patience thinned and he began to resent the handsome sell-out who could entertain careful drafts of “poetry” as if the world had not suffered enough from finely phrased lies and hyperbolic poseurs. Diogenes stood up, nauseated by all fine art, especially poetry, and began heckling Rupert, who briefly glanced up from his text without realizing who was calling him names and giving him the finger. Several of the members of the small audience turned to Diogenes, urging him to shut up, but Diogenes shouted, this time, at the top of his lungs:
“And can you eat your pretty words, or does your Sugar Daddy enable you to emote poesy about homelessness and poverty?”
Rupert stopped reading. He glared down at his text tensely gathering strength either to answer or continue his reading. Diogenes shouted again:
“Why don’t you read that poem about deserting ‘virtue for crime’. Really, I’m not sure whether she does ‘understand’ or that the ‘monster’s head’ is on your ‘plate’ or up your ass!” Diogenes sneered, referring to the verse-letter Rupert sent him.
Rupert looked up, shocked. He remembered the voice and the verse-letter. He froze with embarrassment:
“You poets would dine with a murderer, if it’d help your career!”
“Shut up, Diogenes!”
“Why should I? Should I endure this bullshit aestheticism from a sycophantic pantywaist?”
Rupert, flushed with shame, steadied himself, thanked the organizer for the reading, then walked with bowed head along the left of the room, quietly excused himself at the door and left the shop. Undine and Diogenes followed him. When they arrived, Rupert’s head was still bowed, and he was nervously wringing his hands, when finally, all three, faced each other again on the pavement.
“What, is the meaning of this?” Rupert ventured.
“You’ve crawled back to Grabmaler!” Diogenes shot back.
Rupert didn’t answer, staring at his shoes, controlling his shame.
“He lured you with that naked Nazi. Talk to me, damn it!” Diogenes waited for a moment, then slugged Rupert hard across the jaw.
Rupert glared back at their familiar shadows, lit only by the oblique neon “fé” left from the original “café noir” sign. He was clearly strong enough to sustain the blow, but felt no inclination to fight Diogenes nor Undine:
“You’re not my conscience, Diogenes.” He muttered stiffly, tears of shame welling in his eyes. Diogenes sensed this and softened his tone of inquiry:
“Why did you betray Undine? And … yourself?”
“I make my own decisions. I assure you.”
“This was a stupid one, Rupert.” Undine rejoined.
“But how are we going to support ourselves? There’s no jobs, no economy in this world we’ve inherited. Are we going to pick scraps and live in garbage dumps like everyone else?” Rupert asked, half-heartedly.
“Are we better? Should we insulate ourselves? Should we hide?” Diogenes replied, astounded.
“That’s not the point, Rupert.” Undine countered.
“Yes it is.” Diogenes interjected. “We are all poor. That’s our bad luck. What separates us, is whether we’ve lost our souls or not. How could any one choose money, or safety, when the only people who have any wealth steal or hoard it? And how could you write poetry, with any conscience, while accepting anything from Grabmaler … ?” He asked.
“No … everything is more complex than that.” Rupert protested.
“… or look in the mirror?” Diogenes continued, maliciously.
“Let’s not overstate the obvious.” Undine interceded. “Rupert.” She stared into his eyes. “How is Grabmaler connected with this German girl?”
“But …. how do you know this?” Rupert asked, dissembling.
“Never mind that!” Undine turned Rupert’s face with a determined hand. “The question is … did he ‘buy’ you back through her?”
“How could you have screwed up like this?” Diogenes mumbled, frustrated.
“The funny thing is … ” Rupert said, not laughing, “I’m just about to leave Paris with Grabmaler.”
“What?” Undine asked.
“We’re flying back tomorrow … on his private jet to New York. Or at least I was … ”
“He has a private jet?” Diogenes asked, incredulously.
“Sure he has a jet.” Undine repeated, exasperated.
“There’s one private air-strip open still at Orly … it’s the old commercial airport on the outskirts. Grabmaler is returning with a ..” Rupert realized that was betraying Grabmaler too by saying this, ” … a shipment of statues, and paintings and then there’ll be a party for my homecoming.”
Undine and Diogenes looked at each other, pondering a decision. Rupert waited for them.
They began to walk slowly through the gnarl of alleyways together, ducking laundry, avoiding beggars, remaining mute, considering their options. A few cones of light from candles and an occasional kerosene lamp helped them pick their way out. When they reached the Seine, the restive crowds murmuring under the few stars squinting through night-time smog unsettled them, as they looked down from the cement fragments of a bridge. Diogenes left Rupert to question Undine as to what she had seen in and since Berlin. While the ex-lovers whispered Diogenes saw Rupert jump back. Undine must have reached the story of her trip to Berlin, or her experience of its government, or her ride with Manfred to Heidelberg, or their successful journey via balloon to Paris. He could see Rupert again feeling respect for Undine, entranced by her intelligence. And he could see Undine’s ambivalent reaction to Rupert. The biological, the cellular tug which she felt having been his lover, her suspicions, curiosities and outraged pride confusedly co-mingled with her understanding of his innocence, and his imagination. Diogenes turned away, trying to sort out his own motives. He had no conscious purpose to pursue but drank it all in passively, metamorphosed by the personages, by Antisthenes, Manfred, Georg, Andrea, and Areté. Perhaps they were all mere traveler’s friendships, wisps, cameos … but he did grieve for Areté.
Hours wore on. Diffuse dawnlight edged along the Seine from the East. Diogenes still felt exhausted but he had reached a desperate conclusion independently of the still chatting Rupert and Undine: either to return to Berlin or New York. Either to work on Georg’s side, despite his disagreements, in the defense of Berlin, or to try, through Rupert, to organize an insider’s sabotage. To fight. Whether anything could be done successfully either way, it didn’t matter. He felt the wheel of fate had finally come around. He realized that without certainty, guarantees, rewards — that he was made to fight, rather than survive or talk, to commit or die. Life isn’t a geriatric endurance contest, he thought. He would choose — and never again crawl.
He watched Undine and Rupert hug in the street. Undine then signaled Diogenes to follow. They re-entered the alleys. This time following a circuitous route North. He felt a mild dejà vu as they passed through an Arab quarter. Then he realized that they were passing through the alleys Undine had described in Heidelberg.
They all stopped, hiding in a niche where prostitutes lingered at night. Undine whispered to Diogenes:
“Do you know where we are?”
“We’re facing the warehouse you described.”
“And what is the plan?”
“Rupert is going to sneak us in. We’re going to stowaway, on Grabmaler’s jet.”
Diogenes scrutinized Rupert. He could never tell whether Rupert would stick with his decisions. Even though his naiveté and adolescent ingenuousness had thinned somewhat, he wished he could plainly see his resolve. Yet even this was problematic, since his features seemed to betray that sincerity for him was constitutional, an almost irksome necessity.
“Don’t fuck up.” Diogenes smiled, as Rupert nodded at him.
“Let us be ever so careful, Diogenes. I’m sorry we didn’t consult you. But we didn’t know we would actually try this before we walked down this alley.”
“Don’t patronize me, Rupert. What should I do?”
“The difficult part is that I don’t know exactly which of these crates will be stored personally on Grabmaler’s jet and which are destined to be left behind. I know that he intends to bring several crates on board because he wants to oversee them personally and safely to the complex and into his collection.”
“Then why aren’t they already at the airport?”
“Grabmaler hasn’t been available to make a choice. He’ll choose at Orly.”
“At the airport.” Undine clarified, concentrating on the warehouse door.
“You mean, we’re supposed to crawl into a crate and wait inside while Grabmaler walks by and discovers us?”
“No. I’m hoping that there’ll be time after the crates are unloaded on the tarmac before Grabmaler inspects them. I’ll smuggle you on board then, and you’ll crawl into the ones which he’s chosen.”
“We may have to switch crates.” Undine confirmed.
“Will any of them be empty? Are we going to squeeze inside with the statues?”
“There may be a few empty crates. He’s in the process of editing his collection, and the plane, without him, is going to fly back … I don’t know!”
“My, there are a lot of contingencies … ” Diogenes glanced around, skeptically.
“How are we going to get back to New York without trying, Diogenes?” Undine smiled at him, with the same wry adventure in her eye as she had in Heidelberg.
“I don’t know … ” He smiled, caught up by her good humor.
“I’m going to distract the guards right now.”
“I’ll ask them to fetch some morphine. They store it separately. They’ll have to busy themselves unlocking the cage where it’s stored.”
“O.K. We got it. Go!” Undine breathed.
The guards greeted him. He spoke in a low voice as they nodded. Rupert raised the key as a signal to Undine and Diogenes then scanned the warehouse to check for any other unoccupied guards. Scanning for herself, Undine sprinted through the door, Diogenes following, and opened the lid of a plywood crate. Too full of styrofoam puffs, which would spread across the floor, she passed to a second containing a huge marble Florentine Madonna, then she eased into a third, closing the lid over her. Diogenes could hear Rupert turning the key and the guards beginning to lift the crates in the rear of the warehouse. He pried open lid after lid and found examples of beautiful statues in each, but no empty crates. Finally, he found one with an undersized Cupid inside and just managed to pull the lid back over him, as the guards arrived. From the rear, with a burst of party chatter then a slamming door, he heard Grabmaler’s voice. The same dark, resonant, confident pitch. Diogenes then heard him greet Rupert. Someone else walked with him. They stepped within inches of Diogenes’ crate; he eased up his lid slightly to listen:
“Ready to fly, Rupert?” Grabmaler asked.
“Sure.” Rupert hesitated. Diogenes suddenly feared that Rupert would make a terrible liar and blow it.
“You look rather pooped. My God, you’re white as a sheet!” Grabmaler said, his shoes kicking Diogenes’ crate as he inched closer to examine Rupert.
“I stayed up all night.” Rupert shrank back, badly playing his part as the prodigal.
“That’s not like you. But it doesn’t matter, we’ll discuss Art with Beuve on the jet home,” he stated, waiting for Rupert’s assent.
Diogenes then anticipated how the plan could go awry. Grabmaler could choose among the crates now and not on the tarmac. Diogenes cursed himself for having handed that pistol to Rupert. He could blow away Grabmaler right now!
“Do you want to choose among the crates sir?” One of the guards asked him cautiously. Diogenes squirmed.
“No.” Grabmaler paused. “I want Monsieur Beuve to view the art with me at Orly. He’s waiting for us there.”
“Since when do you need a consultant?” Rupert asked. Diogenes was utterly aghast at Rupert’s stupidity. Or his sang-froid.
“No, I don’t need anyone to tell me what I like. I have taste.” He slapped Rupert’s back, “But … ” he paused, “I do respect Beuve’s taste, if not his judgment. But … let’s go!” And with this, Rupert and Grabmaler walked out of the warehouse.
The crates were carefully slid into a covered flat-bed truck. Diogenes was second from the top and third from the bottom, worrying about Undine as they bounced on the rutted road out of the center of Paris. Several times the truck had to climb onto grass embankments to avoid places where the highway was squatted by families or where mountains of tires or garbage were piled. The crates, however, were snug enough not to slide, and the hour and a half was made most difficult not by the disintegrated road or the obstructions but by the nudging of the Cupid’s right arm into Diogenes’ left rib. Undine was, unknown to Diogenes, at the very top, two stacks to his left near the truck cabin, struggling to breathe, as there was far less room in her crate. After the truck stopped for some minutes, presumably at the airport’s gate, where bribes forestalled inspection, they could hear the engine of a jet. The truck, then, was unloaded by hand and Diogenes was set down, several crates from Undine, on the cement.
He could hear a series of lids being pried open and braced himself. Suddenly, his own crate’s lid was flung open. Rupert stood over him. Diogenes glanced quickly toward the jet and he could see Undine crouching under the cargo door, open under the tail. He slipped up the hydraulic ramp, into the hold, and crawled with her into the back, hoping that they couldn’t be spotted from the airstrip.
They could hear Rupert shout to the guards. He offered to help load the crates then jumped into the hold and stood there by himself with his back to Diogenes and Undine, making sure that no one would enter while the first of the selected crates were loaded. As he pulled the first up the rollers, he nodded to them to check each as soon as they arrived given that his moments as cargo handler were numbered:
“Choose one now! There’s only a dozen more on the way and the guy whose job this is, will jump up soon. Here! Take this, so you can sleep on the way.” Rupert handed Diogenes a vial of the now familiar morphine. “Now choose!” He nearly shouted, as another crate was shoved up. Grabmaler was now asking him from the tarmac why Rupert was loading when the handlers stood idle watching him. Diogenes began opening the crates. Undine, happily, eased into the same Cupid-crate Diogenes had ridden out in. Diogenes stooped down and could not fit into another, sporting a huge athletic statue of a naked peasant woman. He then pried open yet another crate and swept away the styrofoam puffs only to discover a very human corpse. It resembled Go-Go the clown. It looked exactly like Go-Go, with hints of hastily wiped off make-up on stiff white cheeks, dressed, however, in a rumpled green pin-striped suit.
“Get in it now!” Rupert shot back, “They’re coming in!”
“But, there’s a dead clown in here!” Diogenes cried.
“You can switch later … ” Rupert added, as he jumped down to be replaced by two of the regular cargo-handlers.
Diogenes eased in beside Go-Go just as the last few crates were loaded on top of his. He pressed mightily to crack the lid for air. But as the worker closed the door, and Diogenes could faintly hear the whoosh of the cabin pressurizing, and the engines roar, he was unable to escape. The jet roared, lurched, then taxied down the runway.