Marvin Krutz sat in the door of his VW combi while his old Lady Carnation was upstairs in the bookstore washing last night's dishes. It was Monday morning, in July, in Paris, and Marvin was strumming his guitar and singing "Sun Gonna Shine in My Back Door Someday." Children ran and squatted in the little park and the Hotel Esmeralda's concierge sluiced her sidewalk. A couple of flics walked past, nodded to the concierge and smiled at Marvin's music. He felt flattered in his trepidation and smiled back at them.
Carnation came back carrying the leather bag that contained their eating utensiles. Marvin offered her a drink of white wine.
"Gonna be a hot day," he said. "Hotter than yesterday. I've just aired out the buggy."
She handed him back the bottle. She was beautiful. He drank again.
"I think we can afford to go somewhere today," he said. "Whenever you're ready."
She bent down and kissed him on the mouth and he could smell her green-eyed smell. People said she looked like Mary Hopkins.
"I just want to wash my hair. Be back soon."
He waited in the front seat with the window closed and got stoned. Carnation returned with her hair wet like a mermaid and they drove to Chartres.
Marvin had the tape deck playing "Blond on Blond." Carnation knitted a bag and the wind blew in her hair. The forenoon traffic out of Paris was light and it wasn't long before they saw the cathedral rising on its rock out of fields of grain. They parked in an empty lot beside the canal in the old part of the Chartres, smoked a joint of grass then walked slowly upwards through the narrow streets.
Inside the cathedral the darkness and color stunned them so they just stood there. Then they walked around and eventually reached the window of the Annunciation. Marvin pointed out that the Annunciation was always portrayed with some object, a plant or a column, a windowsill - like a knowledge, he said eruditely - between the Angel and the Virgin. This was the only scene in the window, the rest of the glass was clear. In one of the side chapels a wedding was taking place and Marvin and some other tourists watched it while Carnation strolled around by herself. He found her sitting in the nave.
Then they went up the spiral stair to the roof. They made their way to the tower and climbed as high as they could, and Marvin climbed even higher. The view was magnificent, but what he was absorbed in looking at was the other tower, the older one. It was dark and heavy, Romanesque, and he thought it looked somehow ominous. He looked down and sighted Carnation sitting on the edge of the copper roof of the cathedral. He called to her.
Bells started bonging and the tower jiggled a little, startling him, and birds flew out with a chorus of caws.
They had lunch at a nearby café, then visited some of the other churches and walked beside the canal. He rolled another joint but she didn't want any, so he smoked it alone and they drove back to Paris.
That evening they had a shower at the public baths in the Rue de Seine, then went to a party at Allan Zion's. There were a lot of guests and the music was good. Carnation danced with a number of guys and Marvin was afraid at first that they could tell she was pregnant. But it was still much too early.
Flutes and bongo drums were playing out in the garden. Marvin went out with the idea of turning them on but Allan was there telling them to cool it on account of the neighbors. Carnation showed up with a French couple who introduced themselves and they all had a nice chat. Allan went back inside and Marvin and Carnation and the French couple went out to the van, got high, and went to another party. Marvin drove up on the curb a few times and almost ran into the back of a truck.
The party was mostly young French kids from the Lycee, well-dressed and good-looking, but suprisingly there wasn't any necking in the corners. An Englishman named John and his French girlfriend Francoise were there; Marvin remembered having met them at the houseboat a couple of days before. They turned some of the kids on, passed out a couple of the joints rolled back in the VW and sold the rest. Marvin danced close with some of the girls.
He and Carnation had met while studying at Rutgers University. They were both from Paterson, New Jersey, and after graduating they worked for a year for the New York City Welfare Department. Their different religious backgrounds didn't say much and they had thought of getting married. That summer they had been in London and Amsterdam, and it was in Copenhagen that they bought the VW van. The guy wanted to sell it cheap, but there was a hassle with the pink slip and the insurance even though it was registered in the States. The interior had two sofas that folded into a double bed, lockers, bookshelves, a rudimentary galley, and Marvin installed a fan that ran off the battery. Carnation's curtains made it feel like home and they were confortable with each other, though Carnation was a little taller than Marvin.
They had tripped on acid together easily and enjoyed travelling together. They washed frequently and their clothes weren't too outrer, and except for touristy strolls they stayed away from flic-infested streets such as rue de la Huchette. Their home base in Paris was George Whitman's bookstore, but their actual operations took place in such better suited locations as Place Contrescarpe and Cité Universitaire. Carnation worked during daylight hours for from fifty to a hundred grams of hashish a turn. She was usually tipped in cash, which she put in a small mason jar. There was the time they did the Champs and Marvin picked up some military custom in Pam Pam. And once they went to Pigalle and Montmartre and were surprised at the notice they attracted. Paris was full of diversions, like riding the rubber tired subways when stoned.
On Tuesday evening there was some heavy dealing upstairs in the bookstore, The Writers' Workshop. Bobby Gemshorn, whom Marvin had met in Copenhagen, was dealing acid and hashish in quantity, and Angel was in and out with smaller scores. They appeared to be operating together. Carnation was in the back room writing poetry and Marvin stayed up front and grooved. Living at the bookstore at the time were an American girl from the west coast, a Canadian, a couple of Austrians, and an American whom Marvin remembered having seen in Amsterdam. His name was Andy, and Marvin always got a contact high in his presence. There were a lot of people up there and Andy was scoring. Marvin heard him ask Angel if he had any gelar, whatever that was. Angel furrowed his brow and shook his head. Andy then asked Gemshorn if he had any, and he said "Not in this town." Instead he sold him two half-kilo blocks of Lebanese red. Andy immediately approached Marvin and carved off a good hundred-gram chunk. They agreed to meet the next day at the houseboat. It was still soft, so fresh it was.
Carnation was reading a French novel and Marvin and English John were playing their guitars. Francoise was making sandwiches. Marvin looked at his watch and sure enough Andy came down the hatch right on the dot. Marvin noticed that he wasn't wearing any watch. He pulled out a G penny whistle and the three of them played for a while. Then Francoise brought the sandwiches and they ate and had some wine. John lighted a pipe, but Andy didn't want any. Marvin toked up and started coughing violently. He managed to look at his watch and nod to Carnation, who went topside followed by Andy.
Marvin felt like he was OD'-ing on hashish. He put the guitar aside and went up on the deck and sat down, got up immediately and stepped off onto the quay. He thought of seasickness, hunkering down under a tree and an iron ring in the river wall. He took off his glasses and massaged his face and eyes, put them on again and tugged his moustache with both hands. When he stood up he almost blacked out. The Seine was full of commerce, tourist boats, freight boats from many countries, barges, small craft. And on the Isle de la Cité the quays were thick with hippies with their sleeping bags. Marvin thought he would go over to the Verte Galante and get a drink of water from the fountain there. The Pont Neuf seemed a long ways off. He walked quickly past the fireboat crews who were performing acrobatics in the sunshine. He thought they were mocking him.
For some reason he decided to cross on the upriver side of the bridge. A Mouche boat passed underneath him and the tourists waved. He had almost reached the island when he noticed the cover of the junction box in the base of the iron lamp post was ajar. He wanted to see what was inside. Among electrical connections was a piece of paper folded into a triangle like a paper hat. He took it out and watched his fingers open it, then read in a male handwriting, I love you. He looked across the bridge and downstream to the place on the quay where Carnation and the American were having amour. Marvin had nothing to fall back on, not even the thought that she was pregnant. His right eye nictated and he took his glasses off again. Suddenly he wanted to cry. He turned and looked for a moment down at some clochards who were building a shanty under an iron stairs. Then he folded the piece of paper again, replaced it in the junction box and walked back to the houseboat.
The next dude, another American, was down there talking science fiction with John. More than an hour and a half had gone by and Carnation still hadn't come back, so Marvin gathered himself together and went up and walked on the quay again. He wondered if the battery was flat and he was going to have to push the van again.
Carnation was in the front seat reading her French novel.
"What's up? he said. "People are waiting."
He glanced in back. The fan was off and she hadn't even lighted any incense. He looked at her and saw her breathe deeply, smile and shake her head.
"I don't feel like it, Marv," she said. "I'm pulling out, that's all."
"What are you going to do?" he said.
She was more beautiful than he had ever seen her before, fresh and rosy, almost flushed under her tan. He wanted to kiss her and touch her breasts. He jerked open the side door and looked around inside. The van was neat, the bed folded up. Then he noticed the two blocks of Lebanese hashish lying over the mouth of her mason jar.
He refused to help her sell it. He had nearly ten kilos of his own accumulated that he'd have to take north and get rid of. He gave her half of their kitty and complained that he really couldn't afford to. Carnation took that and the cash she'd collected in tips and moved with her few belongings into the bookstore. Marvin hung around and watched her sell all of the Lebanese red that evening. The next day, Thursday, she took a bus to American Express and changed her money into traveler's cheques.
There was going to be a poetry reading on Friday afternoon. Marvin had spent the night in the Bois de Boulogne and had almost made up his mind to depart., but decided to come back and listen to the poetry. Carnation was going to be reading.
It was a hot, sultry day. Chairs were being set up in the bookstore and Marvin sat on a bench in the park outside and watched the door. Carnation had been away all day. Bobby Gemshorn arrived early in his Volkswagen and three long-legged American girls, all named Janice, got out with him. Marvin thought they looked like they cashed their checks at Morgan's Bank. Other guests began arriving, and when he saw Xavier Cugat and Abbie Layne and their poodle show up he went inside.
Lawrence Durrell was there, chatting with George Whitman who was drinking his habitual Coke on the rocks. It was hot in the bookstore. In a few minutes George started the proceedings by lighting the gas jet which flamed whooshing spectacularly up from the bottom of the wishing well in the floor. He bade everyone wecome and a Jewish girl named Leanne - Marvin hated her guts - who minded the keys played a tune on the recorder.
The only black poet for once was Ted Joans and he was in good form. Marvin fidgeted. Carnation was not to be seen. At last she came down the stairs as George was introducing her. She was wearing a new dress and new thongs and people applauded. She looked out over the audience with her eyes flashing and recited her poem. It started low and quiet.
As her recitation picked up momentum the heads upstairs in the Writer's Workshop left off toking up and crowded around the grille in the kitchen floor.
All of a sudden it started raining outside and then the thunder and lightning broke out. Over on the Isle St. Louis a young girl was being followed by two American hippies. She was barefoot and wore a thin dress, her hair was loose and the rain made her naked. The hippies whistled at her.
"Merde!" she shouted.
back to the Short Story Page.The House Vehicle, 1 July 1996