As I sit down now to write, informed by my eyes of the old, sandy knuckles that lay
suspended over the keys before me, sober in my aspirations and not in the least taken by any delusions of eminence (for I am not formally trained in the object of writing), I am reminded of a certain inauguration set forth by Thomas Mann in a lesser-known novel – his last – and it causes me to assemble in my mind a crushing sense of futility anent a project I have only just begun with all the keen eagerness of an owl with a shrew in its clutches. I admit of a certain defeat in advance, if you will, reflecting certainly that I have been sufficiently disciplined in the uses and misuses of the symbols before you, but also that I lack a certain element of being, an aspect of nature, a thing qualified in part by a mysterious attribute undeniably manifest and yet illusory as the seven heads of a siren drowned at birth and never witnessed by the likes of mankind. It is with such anxieties that I set out presently to begin the fragmented history of my affairs, to impart to the reader who will happen upon me the story of my early life, so as not to let it die in the dark alcoves of my once unwounded heart. Flaubert once said – but perhaps it is not necessary to lend such gravitas to my work. I admit, there is a temptation to quoting from Flaubert when living in France.
In the little street beneath my modest flat on the Rue Brueys, I observe the shiny reflection of recent rain atop the wooden table where Madam Rayand peddles her wares on Saturdays to the tourists. The tourists just adore Aix. Like the tabletop, the stones below me too are glimmering. Not so much as a foot has tread upon them since the clouds opened in the middle of the night. It is a very early hour – not even the bakers are bestirred. And here I am at the window, my little portico of daydreams and castle-building, smoking the first cigarette of the day and giving the keys on this electric machine a patter patter under the soft light of the lamp.
In my youth I was most certainly the most harassed creature on earth. Father beat me dreadfully while mother kept me alive with miserable food and discolored water from the well in the color of seal brown. Father was greatly taxed at his job at the factory – when he arrived home he would puff himself up out of all cognizable dimensions with his rum habit and lay into me. The boys in the slums beat me even worse than my father. They used to laugh ignominiously as they stuck the little tips of their knives into me, decrying me as a homosexual at the tender age of ten and two years. Maximo el maricon, they called me. My older brother was among them. How they stabbed me and got away with it! All father could do was hit me in the face and advise that I would do better than to fall on other people’s knives. And he adopted the appellation the boys had so generously gifted to me. I was el maricon under my father’s roof – may he rest with his worms eternally spiteful.
I was born to the nation-state of Spain, and accepted all the gloomy and wretched sufferings the commonwealth insists on delivering to her people by right of birth. It is a tragic country, far more tragic than the worst of the Balkans, for in Spain there is hope, a devastating hope. Spain – she is an abject whore, a house of centuries built on fire and torture. What does the world expect but that her people would deliver unto others the worst crimes and sins? When the rest of the world was singing, she was ushering in the auto-da-fe with gilded hands. A whole country of rogues and criminals. The people are anything but simple. Some of them make iron, some harvest, some of them even paint, but they are all prepared at a moment’s notice to slit the throats of the passersby, and especially if they share the same tongue. In Spain the devil is always escaping the mouths of the people. While other countries wage wars without, Spain kills off her progeny, leaving in her wake a history of gunpowder and blood-red crosses.
In Spain, it is said that the people get the government they deserve, and they most certainly deserved Franco, the blackguard. It was 1936 when I was twelve years of age and taking my stabbings. And it was the year His Excellency the Caudillo was masturbating himself white as a sheet in the mirror. The camps were already underway. It is a naughty feature of the human condition that we are always finding ways of putting ourselves into camps. It can’t happen in Spain today, they say. And they might be right. After Franco, Spain set up a nice little constitution for itself. If only there had been a fine piece of paper to stop Franco! He was at his liberty to dispatch anyone who happened to befall the misfortune of being on his mind.
It was not long before my moniker – el maricon – made its way to official ears, first at the local level and then up through some mischievous department. Thence went up the hue and cry. At seventeen, I was presented with the choice of fleeing or dying in camp. To lie with a man in Spain meant a death sentence. And they weren’t handing out jury trials before the fall of the axe. I would have fled for France, but the Nazis were putting the knife to everyone not boasting the pearliest skin, and I am swarthy by virtue of a Moroccan lineage. Being a tawny homosexual anti-Franco Jewish émigré, I could not place all of my hopes in befriending a sweetheart like Hitler. So it was the sea for me. I snuck aboard a cargo ship bound for god knows where and wound up at a dock jutting out from the rocks at Malta, where I was discovered, beaten ridiculously, and thrown from a pier. During the ocean passage, I held out hope that the French would resume control of their republic. They seemed awfully better at managing their affairs than having their affairs managed for them by that little mustachioed brat with the grand ideas and the second-rate autobiography. I spent four years in Malta – wandering about Valetta mostly. I read some books and waited for the war to end. To make my bread, I did pantomime in the street. It was the only work available given my circumstances. I made a couple of friends who shared the craft – Raabia, a juggler from Cairo, and Adam, a native Maltese with a gift for sham levitating. Adam was murdered in an alley for a sack of figs on the day the Germans surrendered. I would never go back to Spain.
In 1945, I made a successful passage to Marseille aboard the steamship Kidney Star. There, I opened the bag of ashes I’d been carrying around with me since Adam’s death. I was the only family he’d ever known, poor soul. I sprinkled his cinders at the old port and the wind took him and blessed him and sent him into the hair of a woman on a bicycle. The food and wine in Marseille were of the best on earth. So I was told. I hadn’t the means for any of it, and was happy to find a piece of baguette or crepe not yet playing host to flies. Water and water closets were the hardest to come by, but not having one, I had no need for the other. For a country that drinks so much wine, there is very little space to make pee-pee with dignity. They’ll sell you the best wines and hang you for your daring in asking after the WC. A Frenchman is very possessive of his toilette. It’s right up there with the Seine in terms of national pride.
I was able to rest my head at night in the alleyways and dead ends of that twinkling city on the sea. My landlords, the rats, being jealous of their pride, found it convenient to walk right over me and to check my pockets for fare. This they taxed from me along with a centime or two – the rats in Marseille are as crafty as gangsters and twice as savage. They would scratch and tease me to no end if I came home to our shared space with a pocket empty of vittles. It was not long before they did me the kindness of bleeding my face in the night.
That I could not stand for. My face was everything to me. My ambitions as a pantomime would not allow me to inherit a set of cheeks and nose and lips splintered to bits. When they first attempted to make a supper of my snout, I vowed to secure more agreeable quarters away from those bastard rats. So vowing, it was obvious that I should require a means of paying for my lodging, and I went at my acts in the street with fervor. I was able to dress myself in a torn infantry jacket that I dyed black and bespeckled with strips of gauze I found abandoned in a trash heap left by the American Red Cross. I went hatless, with only a fistful of powder in my hair that I would shake out at times to make the little children laugh. My face I painted in accordance with the custom – some white and some red with bold lines that exaggerated the face my parents never loved.
Harlequins and misfits were saturating Marseille. All kinds and types of street beggars and faux burlesques were popping up everywhere. And everyone knows that too many cooks spoil the broth. I was able to carve out a little niche in Cours Julien by playing the roles of male and female scorned lovers in the time-tested sex-swapping pastiche. I perfected a certain juggling routine carried out at the beginning and end with a set of wooden boules that a stranger lent to me when he wasn’t looking. Fortune favors the bold. I repainted the balls in the hues of the Tricolour. It was not long before I had a small retinue of daily patronage. I had a little sign done up in gilt-colored lettering – Maximo the Magnificent it said, only in the French, and the reader will agree it was an epithet preferable to the one employed against me in the nasty slums of Madrid. There was one fine day when an English lady was passing through and stopped to see me. She was dressed in a blue livery and surrounded by a corps of boys in broad hats and knee socks who were all smiling ridiculously. Into the torn silk of my upturned bowler she tossed a 100 franc note.
One hundred francs! I thanked her in Spanish and wept at her feet. I immediately closed up shop for the day and went straightaway to a bistro, where I ordered lamb’s feet, a steak, a ten-year-old Bordeaux and a tin of Calissons d’Aix in broken French – the kind of shabby French that causes waiters to put on airs. After dinner, I bought a pocket’s worth of cigars and had a smoke or two at the foot of a hill leading up to a shiny statue on top of a building where the Germans had once been hiding. I do not mean to dwell on the war. But it had an impact on more than a handful of people. To wrap up my thoughts on it: I saw first-hand how little men made big problems. Unlike the rest of the world, Europe is particularly interested in watching sausage being made.
In my circumstances, it was impossible to find a lover. I might have tried with more diligence, but looking around, I could not expect to fall into romance. I spoke French as well as the all the carved stone in Marseille. And besides that, I was struck by a sudden malady that put me out of sorts and caused me to thank stars for the charity of the Englishwoman, whose generosity sustained me in those languishing days in bed, which I should mention I had taken to in haste. A fever overwhelmed me, as did the cockroaches. Those vile pests showed their faces from the woodwork at the precise moment when I could not move to chase them. I groaned for many days. After a time the doctor was called, and it was decided that my right foot should be removed from above the ankle. The doctor assured me he had the finest training at the Université de la Santé in Paris. Regarding the foot, I was informed only that it was “infecté” and my suspicion to this day is that the doctor sawed it off, not because it was necessary, but merely because he got a kick out of it. And it’s not as though he stood on ceremony about things. He went to work cruelly, though he did do me the kindness of sharing his whisky, which he gulped during the truncation of my sorry limb. That rascal, he dunned me for the cost of the liquor in the weeks that followed.
There wasn’t such a thing as paid leave from my vocation. In no time at all I was in desperate need of capital in order to keep a roof over my head. My fever had subsided and I had strength enough to smash the occasional cockroach with a broom handle when those bugs came within the dominion of my reach. It was all in vain. They were capable of breeding behind the walls at treble rates. But in all I was on the mend, and soon mended entirely, save for the foot I’d lost to the doctor’s fancy. Walking was difficult, but my landlady gifted me a cane from a dead uncle and I learned to hobble about my room with some assurances of staying upright. At all events, I enjoyed a mobility greater than if the doctor had kept two of my feet in place of the one. But walking had its disadvantages too. I would fall at times, certain that I had broken my head. And there was the night I scared a pigeon resting on the open sill, and it bit into my neck ruthlessly. But I do not mean to dwell on these circumstances. I was restored in time.
My return to pantomime was not effortless. Being not easy of foot, the exaggerated antics basic to the craft were nigh impossible in my condition. But the loss of my foot I did not lament. With my Spanish backbone and a little bit of luck, I regained my ground. A wooden leg cut from a half-burnt chaise served as a peg at the bottom of my leg. Not so many as me were as fortunate to have such a dazzling prosthesis – a stained and polished piece of walnut in the Queen Anne style and a ball and claw for a foot. The thing increased rather than decreased my celebrity in the little lane where I made shop. Juggling the boules was a touch more challenging, but I was thankful, in the end, that the doctor had not taken a hand, or I should not have juggled again all the years in my life.
On the topic of years, I should say that they came and they went. I did not acquire any great wealth but I did succeed at earning my keep. The letters on my sign – Maximo the Magnificent – were never wanting in fresh paint. And the leather of my shoes, though cracked, held together well enough. My career was what it was, to put it best. I grew a nice little paunch above my belt that was perfect for resting my hands on in times of leisure. I knew the name of the grocer and every now and then he’d hand me an orange, gratis. Even my landlady was friendly toward me on all of those days when I paid my rent. Friendships were hard to come by in that city, though I did cultivate friendly terms with some familiar faces in my quarter. I also had a high time some nights in the cafés, where I would occasionally put myself into a good humor on wines, while ignoring the lack of scruple over my purse. There was one night I met a gentleman by the name of Nicolas – a bricklayer on an unannounced caper from his wife , so he told me. He had visited Spain, thought fondly of it, even. He was fond of Spain’s “aloofness” –I think he stole that from a book. But at any rate we got to chuckling and chewing the fat and drinking the little bit of apple whiskey set before us on top of the wine. He was a friendly fellow. A fine fellow. He ended up putting an amount of schnapps into his body that would give a whale a bellyache. And he seemed to have a fondness for me and the simple way that I listened to his stories with bright eyes. I could not understand his fast and fluent French, so it was natural of me to make loving faces. By the end of the night he was deep in liquor. To get him to stand on his feet was a challenge on par with rolling a heavy stone up a never-ending hill.
At my little flat, he pulled a flask from his vest pocket and continued to drink. I crawled into my bed and gave out the occasional murmur to convince him I was intent on listening, before falling fast asleep. Though the memory is vague, I recall him crawling into the bed, to which I did not object. When he awoke in the late morning his arm was around me. He had shifted in the night and I had not protested. Indeed, I was snuggled in, pleased as punch at the warm embrace. But upon learning of his present condition he flew into a rage and knocked my lights out right there in the bed. I awoke from the daze with a sore face and a tooth in the back of my throat, which I then lost to my stomach. Nicolas was gone, as was the only money I had to my name. The men in Marseille could be so barbarous! But that is not to say the females were better. A drunken woman – the bricklayer’s wife – put out my eye with a rock on the same day I celebrated 24 years since birth. Amazingly, the same doctor who had taken my foot left the eye in its place, though it never worked again. When I arrived home on that most terrible of birthdays, I received a telegram explaining how my only companion ever, Arturo, was slayed in a camp at Miranda del Ebro. The news had travelled slow. It was then I left Marseille.
But not in search of Spain. I had no ambitions of sneaking back into a country only to thank a dictator for killing my one and only love. And Franco was busy. He wouldn’t have any time for me, unless it was to fill me with shot. So I headed north and slightly east in quest of Aix. I have italicized the word because that is how everyone pronounces it. I decided on Aix because it was the home of those delicious candies I had savored after the English Lady in the livery gave me 100 francs. And I had seen some pretty pictures by a man they called Cézanne. When I left Marseille I had a smile on my face. And I was able to keep it, at least for the nonce.
I traveled by motorbus. My valise contained only a small wardrobe and my cherished sign, for I intended to continue my line of work at Aix. On the bus I had a bad seat and the air was oppressive. A broken spring in the seat was enough to give me instant lumbago. And a fleshy woman next to me had obviously had a bad run at breakfast. I say “obviously” because the gasses escaping her, though silent in their discharge, were of the foulest redolence – a bad egg perfume that invaded the crammed and stifling cabin. The other passengers fingered me for it, through their dirty looks, for a lady could not possibly be the author of such loathsome stink. Not a few gentlemen kept clearing their throats on account of it. Always blame the one-eyed man – people have known that for centuries. I was like Celine on his voyage to Africa. And all because of that fat woman’s guts! At our destination an old man in a brown waistcoat boxed my ears. I’ll never forget that bastard.
It was a bright, sunny day. A honey bee stung me behind the ear as I stepped off the bus. My Queen Anne foot skated across the smooth stones and I fell to the earth, surrounded by an uproar of laughter. It was then I learned of my allergy to bees. I blew up to the size of a giant peach and almost died in the street. Thus did I make my introduction to the people of Aix.
With the money I’d saved, I found a little place above a butcher’s shop on the Rue
Goyrand. There were two rooms – one to sleep in and one to do everything else in. The smell of the meats below was irresistible. The butcher, a native of Aix by the name of Gilbert, was also my landlord. We got along famously from the start. He made me a gift of the best meats every Saturday for the first four weeks. At the close of the month, he sent up his apprentice with a bill that would have broke the bank at Monte Carlo. I could not believe the man’s insolence in running up a bill against me under a veil of charity. I had no choice but to boycott the payment by fleeing from the apartment, which I did that very night under the color of darkness. In a matter of weeks a sign went up around that part for my arrest. I only went out of doors with my face done up. Sure, the Queen Anne foot was a giveaway, but I somehow avoided capture.
I secured a tenancy in a one-room flat on the Rue du Bon Pasteur. A sign had advertised a garden room to let, and it was the kind of no-questions-asked situation I found necessary at that moment. The rent was cheap and the mould was free. The other boarders in the place kept the strangest hours and passed very little time in conversation. I soon learned the place was thick with thieves. But they did not carry out their deeds where they rested their heads – my meager belongings were safe. In all it was a quiet building. In the whole of the year I lived there only eight people were stabbed to death.
In 1950 I moved into a neighboring building. There were fewer stabbings, but more screams in the night, and most of them sensuous. The floor above me operated mostly as a brothel but also as a kind of clinic. A little man with a hunch and a red mustache would come in from time to time to perform abortions on the more careless prostitutes. To tend to my sanity, I worked. Aix was a beautiful and lively place. No war could stop or slow her. She treated me well and I thanked her handsomely. France has always been penetrated up to its neck with tourists. It is why her people are so hostile to everything that breathes. As the years passed, people on holiday flocked to Aix. English, Italian, Spanish, American – even the Germans came back. And it was incredible that they never begged pardon for shooting and bombing everyone. I did my pantomime routine with spirit and gusto. A franc here, two francs there, I made my way.
Despite the liaison of cupid that is France, I never did find love. I blamed the Queen Anne foot and the hideous eye for scaring off all potential suitors. On top of things, I’ve been told my breath is among the worst. When my back went out at the age of forty, I was a sad scene, treading the flags with a scrape and a wobble – in brief, a pitiful gait. I continued my enterprise, but I was certain people were paying to see a freak, not an acrobat. My little sign grew into perfect satire. The boules were ungovernable in my hands. I gave them away in the same way I came by them – one day they disappeared from under my nose. Twenty and then thirty years went by. It’s something that happens to those who miss the opportunity to die off early by accident or germs. I learned in the papers that on October 30, 1975, Franco wished everyone well and crawled into a coma. It was awfully nice of him. He died on the same day as Tolstoy – he must have had posterity in mind. He sleeps peacefully in a big basilica on a hill. People to this day toss flowers at his grave. I’ve heard there is even a Hollywood actor who writes cheap prose under his name. History is a bastard wrapped up in bandages. But we have to keep track of time some way or other. Despite the flockings of bombs and bastards, my little Aix has remained largely untouched. She is resistant to time. There is a spirit in this city that endures. It is a world class place – every night you can find an American student vomiting in the avenues around the Rotonde.
Adam Todd Johnson is an attorney living in St. Paul, Minnesota. His use of his middle name is not affectation: he had to begin using it once another Adam Johnson went off and won a Pulitzer and went nova with celebrity. His short stories have appeared in Carte Blanche, Euphony Journal, Cerise Press, Hobo Pancakes, Glasschord Magazine and elsewhere.
What inspires him to write:
Every reason for which Bukowski said “don’t do it”.
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