V, p.44

V., page 44



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  Near closing time, Stencil approached Profane, who’d been drinking all night but for some reason was still sober.

  “Stencil heard you and Rachel are having difficulties.”

  “Don’t start.”

  “Paola told him.”

  “Rachel told her. Fine. Buy me a beer.”

  “Paola loves you, Profane.”

  “You think that impresses me? What is your act, ace?” Young Stencil sighed. Along came a bartender’s rinkydink, yelling “Time, gentlemen, please.” Anything properly English like that went over well with the Whole Sick Crew.

  “Time for what,” Stencil mused. “More words, more beer. Another party, another girl. In short, no time for anything of importance. Profane. Stencil has a problem. A woman.”

  “Indeed,” said Profane. “That’s unusual. I never heard of anything like that before.”

  “Come. Walk.”

  “I can’t help you.”

  “Be an ear. It’s all he needs.”

  Outside, walking up Hudson Street: “Stencil doesn’t want to go to Malta. He is quite simply afraid. Since 1945, you see, he’s been on a private manhunt. Or womanhunt, no one is sure.”

  “Why?” said Profane.

  “Why not?” said Stencil. “His giving you any clear reason would mean he’d already found her. Why does one decide to pick up one girl in a bar over another. If one knew why, she would never be a problem. Why do wars start: if one knew why there would be eternal peace. So in this search the motive is part of the quarry.

  “Stencil’s father mentioned her in his journals: this was near the turn of the century. Stencil became curious in 1945. Was it boredom, was it that old Sidney had never said anything of use to his son; or was it something buried in the son that needed a mystery, any sense of pursuit to keep active a borderline metabolism? Perhaps he feeds on mystery.

  “But he stayed off Malta. He had pieces of thread: clues. Young Stencil has been in all her cities, chased her down till faulty memories or vanished buildings defeated him. All her cities but Valletta. His father died in Valletta. He tried to tell himself meeting V. and dying were separate and unconnected for Sidney.

  “Not so. Because: all along the first thread, from a young, crude Mata Hari act in Egypt—as always, in no one’s employ but her own—while Fashoda tossed sparks in search of a fuse; until 1913 when she knew she’d done all she could and so took time out for love—all that while, something monstrous had been building. Not the War, nor the socialist tide which brought us Soviet Russia. Those were symptoms, that’s all.”

  They’d turned into Fourteenth Street and were walking east. More bums came roving by the closer they got to Third Avenue. Some nights Fourteenth Street can be the widest street with the tallest wind in the earth.

  “Not even as if she were any cause, any agent. She was only there. But being there was enough, even as a symptom. Of course Stencil could have chosen the War, or Russia to investigate. But he doesn’t have that much time.

  “He is a hunter.”

  “You are expecting to find this chick in Malta?” Profane said. “Or how your father died? Or something? Wha.”

  “How does Stencil know,” Stencil yelled. “How does he know what he’ll do once he finds her. Does he want to find her? They’re all stupid questions. He must go to Malta. Preferably with somebody along. You.”

  “That again.”

  “He is afraid. Because if she went there to wait out one war, a war she’d not started but whose etiology was also her own, a war which came least as a surprise to her, then perhaps too she was there during the first. There to meet old Sidney at its end. Paris for love, Malta for war. If so then now, of all times . . .”

  “You think there’ll be a war.”

  “Perhaps. You’ve been reading the newspapers.” Profane’s newspaper reading was in fact confined to glancing at the front page of the New York Times. If there was no banner headline on that paper then the world was in good enough shape. “The Middle East, cradle of civilization, may yet be its grave.

  “If he must go to Malta, it can’t be only with Paola. He can’t trust her. He needs someone to—occupy her, to serve as buffer zone, if you will.”

  “That could be anybody. You said the Crew was at home anywhere. Why not Raoul, Slab, Melvin.”

  “It’s you she loves. Why not you.”

  “Why not.”

  “You are not of the Crew, Profane. You have stayed out of that machine. All August.”

  “No. No, there was Rachel.”

  “You stayed out of it.” And a sly smile. Profane looked away.

  So they went up Third Avenue, drowned in the Street’s great wind: all flapping and Irish pennants. Stencil yarned. Told Profane of a whorehouse in Nice with mirrors on the ceiling where he thought, once, he’d found his V. Told of his mystical experience before a plaster death-cast of Chopin’s hand in the Celda Museo in Mallorca.

  “There was no difference,” he caroled, causing two strolling bums to laugh along with him: “that was all. Chopin had a plaster hand!” Profane shrugged. The bums tagged along.

  “She stole an airplane: an old Spad, the kind young Godolphin crashed in. God, what a flight it must have been: from Le Havre over the Bay of Biscay to somewhere in the backcountry of Spain. The officer on duty only remembered a fierce—what did he call her—‘hussar,’ who came rushing by in a red field-cape, glaring out of a glass eye in the shape of a clock: ‘as if I’d been fixed by the evil eye of time itself.’

  “Disguise is one of her attributes. In Mallorca she spent at least a year as an old fisherman who, evenings, would smoke dried sea-weed in a pipe and tell the children stories of gun-running in the Red Sea.”

  “Rimbaud,” suggested one of the bums.

  “Did she know Rimbaud as a child? Drift up-country at age three or four through that district and its trees festooned gray and scarlet with crucified English corpses? Act as lucky mascot to the Mahdists? Live in Cairo and take Sir Alastair Wren for a lover when she came of age?

  “Who knows. Stencil would rather depend on the imperfect vision of humans for his history. Somehow government reports, bar graphs, mass movements are too treacherous.”

  “Stencil,” Profane announced, “you are juiced.”

  True. Autumn, coming on, was cold enough to’ve sobered Profane. But Stencil appeared drunk on something else.

  V. in Spain, V. on Crete: V. crippled in Corfu, a partisan in Asia Minor. Giving tango lessons in Rotterdam she had commanded the rain to stop; it had. Dressed in tights adorned with two Chinese dragons she handed swords, balloons and colored handkerchiefs to Ugo Medichevole, a minor magician, for one lustless summer in the Roman Campagna. And, learning quickly, found time to perform a certain magic of her own; for one morning Medichevole was found out in a field, discussing the shadows of clouds with a sheep. His hair had become white, his mental age roughly five. V. had fled.

  It went on like this, all the way up into the Seventies, this progress-of-four; Stencil caught up in a compulsive yarning, the others listening with interest. It wasn’t that Third Avenue was any kind of drunk’s confessional. Did Stencil like his father suffer some private leeriness about Valletta—foresee some submersion, against his will, in a history too old for him, or at least of a different order from what he’d known? Probably not; only that he was on the verge of a major farewell. If it hadn’t been Profane and the two bums it would have been somebody: cop, barkeep, girl. Stencil that way had left pieces of himself—and V.—all over the Western world.

  V. by this time was a remarkably scattered concept.

  “Stencil’s going to Malta like a nervous groom to matrimony. It is a marriage of convenience, arranged by Fortune, father and mother to everyone. Perhaps Fortune even cares about the success of these things: wants one to look after it in its old
age.” Which struck Profane as outright foolish. Somehow they had wandered over by Park Avenue. The two bums, sensing unfamiliar territory, veered away toward the west and the Park. Toward what assignation? Stencil said: “Should one bring a peace-offering?”

  “Wha. Box of candy, flowers, ha, ha.”

  “Stencil knows just the thing,” said Stencil. They were before Eigenvalue’s office building. Intention or accident?

  “Stay here in the street,” Stencil said. “He won’t be but a minute.” And vanished into the lobby of the building. Simultaneously a prowl car appeared a few blocks uptown, turned and headed downtown on Park Avenue. Profane started walking. Car passed him and didn’t stop. Profane got to the corner and turned west. By the time he’d walked all around the block, Stencil was at a top floor window, yelling down.

  “Come on up. You have to help.”

  “I have to—You are out of your head.”

  Impatient: “Come up. Before the police get back.”

  Profane stood outside for a minute, counting floors. Nine. Shrugged, went inside the lobby and took the self-service elevator up.

  “Can you pick a lock,” Stencil asked. Profane laughed.

  “Fine. You will have to go in a window, then.”

  Stencil rummaged in the broom closet and came up with a length of line.

  “Me,” said Profane. They started up to the roof.

  “This is important.” Stencil was pleading. “Suppose you were enemies with someone. But had to see him, her. Wouldn’t you try to make it as painless as you could?”

  They reached a point on the roof directly above Eigenvalue’s office.

  Profane looked down into the street. “You,” with exaggerated gestures, “are going to put me, over that wall, with no fire escape there, to open, that window, right?” Stencil nodded. So. Back to the boatswain’s chair for Profane. Though this time no Pig to save, no good will to cash in on. There’d be no reward from Stencil because there’s no honor among second- (or ninth-) story men. Because Stencil was more a bum than he.

  They looped the line round Profane’s middle. He being so shapeless, it was difficult to locate any center of gravity. Stencil gave the line a few turns round a TV antenna. Profane climbed over the edge and they began to lower away.

  “How is it,” Stencil said after a while.

  “Except for those three cops down there, who are looking at me sort of fishy—”

  The line jerked.

  “Ha, ha,” said Profane. “Made you look.” Not that his mood tonight was suicidal. But with the inanimate line, antenna, building and street nine floors below, what common sense could he have?

  The center of gravity calculation, it turned out, was way off. As Profane inched down toward Eigenvalue’s window, his body’s attitude slowly tilted from nearly vertical to facedown and parallel with the street. Hanging thus in the air, it occurred to him to practice an Australian crawl.

  “Dear God,” muttered Stencil. He tugged at the line, impatient. Soon Profane, a dim figure looking like a quadruply-amputated octopus, stopped flailing around. Then he hung still in the air, pondering.

  “Hey,” he called after a while.

  Stencil said what.

  “Pull me back up. Hurry.” Wheezing, feeling his middle age acutely, Stencil began hauling in line. It took him ten minutes. Profane appeared and hung his nose over the edge of the roof.

  “What’s wrong.”

  “You forgot to tell me what it was I was supposed to do when I got in the window.” Stencil only looked at him. “Oh. Oh you mean I open the door for you—”

  “—and you lock it when you go out,” they recited together.

  Profane flipped a salute. “Carry on.” Stencil began lowering again. Down at the window, Profane called up:

  “Stencil, hey. The window won’t open.”

  Stencil took a few half-hitches round the antenna.

  “Break it,” he gritted. All at once another police car, sirens screaming, lights flashing round and round, came tearing down Park. Stencil ducked behind the roof’s low wall. The car kept going. Stencil waited till it was way downtown, out of earshot. And a minute or so more. Then arose cautiously and looked after Profane.

  Profane was horizontal again. He’d covered his head with his suede jacket and showed no signs of moving.

  “What are you doing,” said Stencil.

  “Hiding,” said Profane. “How about a little torque.” Stencil turned the rope: Profane’s head slowly began to rotate away from the building. When he came around to where he was facing straight out, like a gargoyle, Profane kicked in the window, a crash horrible and deafening in that night.

  “Now the other way.”

  He got the window open, climbed inside and unlocked for Stencil. Wasting no time, Stencil proceeded through a train of rooms to the museum, forced open the case, slipped that set of false teeth wrought from all precious metals into a coat pocket. From another room he heard more glass breaking.

  “What the hell.”

  Profane looked around. “One pane broken is crude,” he explained, “because that looks like a burglary. So I am breaking a few more, is all, so it won’t be too suspicious.”

  Back on the street, scot-free, they followed the bums’ way into Central Park. It was two in the morning.

  In the wilds of that skinny rectangle they found a rock near a stream. Stencil sat down and produced the teeth.

  “The booty,” he announced.

  “It’s yours. What do I need with more teeth.” Especially these, more dead than the half-alive hardware in his mouth now.

  “Decent of you, Profane. Helping Stencil like that.”

  “Yeah,” Profane agreed.

  Part of a moon was out. The teeth, lying on the sloping rock, beamed at their reflection in the water.

  All manner of life moved in the dying shrubbery around them.

  “Is your name Neil?” inquired a male voice.


  “I saw your note. In the men’s room of the Port Authority terminal, third stall in the . . .”

  Oho, thought Profane. That had cop written all over it.

  “With the picture of your sexual organ. Actual size.”

  “There is one thing,” said Neil, “that I like better than having homosexual intercourse. And that is knocking the shit out of a wise cop.”

  There was then a soft clobbering sound followed by the plain-clothesman’s crash into the underbrush.

  “What day is it,” somebody asked. “Say, what day is it?”

  Out there something had happened, probably atmospheric. But the moon shone brighter. The number of objects and shadows in the park seemed to multiply: warm white, warm black.

  A band of juvenile delinquents marched by, singing.

  “Look at the moon,” one of them called.

  A used contraceptive came floating along the stream. A girl, built like a garbage-truck driver and holding in one hand a sodden brassiere which trailed behind her, trudged after the rubber, head down.

  Somewhere else a traveling clock chimed seven. “It is Tuesday,” said an old man’s voice, half-asleep. It was Saturday.

  But about the night-park, near-deserted and cold, was somehow a sense of population and warmth, and high noon. The stream made a curious half cracking, half ringing sound: like the glass of a chandelier, in a wintry drawing room when all the heat is turned off suddenly and forever. The moon shivered, impossibly bright.

  “How quiet,” said Stencil.

  “Quiet. It’s like the shuttle at 5:00 P.M.”

  “No. Nothing at all is happening in here.”

  “So what year is it.”

  “It is 1913,” said Stencil.

  “Why not,” said Profane.

chapter fourteen

  V. in love



  The clock inside the Gare du Nord read 11:17: Paris time minus five minutes, Belgian railway time plus four minutes, mid-Europe time minus fifty-six minutes. To Mélanie, who had forgotten her traveling clock—who had forgotten everything—the hands might have stood anywhere. She hurried through the station behind an Algerian-looking facteur who carried her one embroidered bag lightly on his shoulder, who smiled and joked with customs officials being driven slowly to frenzy by a beseeching mob of English tourists.

  By the cover of Le Soleil, the Orléanist morning paper, it was 24 July 1913. Louis Philippe Robert, duc d’Orléans, was the current Pretender. Certain quarters of Paris raved under the heat of Sirius, were touched by its halo of plague, which is nine light-years from rim to center. Among the upper rooms of a new middle-class home in the Seventeenth arrondissement, Black Mass was held every Sunday.

  Mélanie l’Heuremaudit was driven away down the rue La Fayette in a noisy auto-taxi. She sat in the exact center of the seat, while behind her the three massive arcades and seven allegorical statues of the Gare slowly receded into a lowering, pre-autumn sky. Her eyes were dead, her nose French: the strength there and about the chin and lips made her resemble the classical rendering of Liberty. In all, the face was quite beautiful except for the eyes, which were the color of freezing rain. Mélanie was fifteen.

  Had fled from school in Belgium as soon as she received the letter from her mother, with 1500 francs and the announcement that her support would continue, though all Papa’s possessions had been attached by the court. The mother had gone off to tour Austria-Hungary. She did not expect to see Mélanie in the foreseeable future.

  Mélanie’s head ached, but she didn’t care. Or did, but not where she was, here present as a face and a ballerina’s figure on the bouncing back seat of a taxi. The driver’s neck was soft, white: wisps of white hair straggled from under the blue stocking cap. On reaching the intersection with the Boulevard Haussmann, the car turned right up rue de la Chaussée d’Antin. To her left rose the dome of the Opéra, and tiny Apollo, with his golden lyre . . .


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