I never much liked the art dealer Robinson when I first knew him in Paris, not for a long spell--until, much later, an astonishing side of his character revealed itself to me. But to paddle back many moons prior to that weird epiphany, I was, from time to time, thrown into Robinson's company. I can't say I detested him, nor even that he unduly annoyed me. He simply possessed a perfection of looks, and enough facile erudition and social finesse, that I never quite believed in him. I could easily have envied Robinson, if he hadn't seemed a touch too phoney for the life he appeared to lead.
He hosted, a few nights each month, smallish dinner parties for his collectors and artists and hangers-on. I was the loose bachelor phoned at the last minute, when someone's husband was down with flu or banging his mistress in a suite at the Lutetia. Robinson dealt privately, in early 20th century drawings and, more rarely, blue chip contemporary paintings, to buyers shy of publicity.
Over time, I developed a flickering hunch that Robinson's flat off the rue de Varennes, in the corner building where Andre Gide ended his days, was in fact a kind of Potemkin maisonette, used only for these rather stiffly regimented bal musettes, if I may call them that. (There was, after all, occasional dancing and live music. But mostly mediocre food, and even drearier conversation.)
This notion, hunch, sneaking intuition, did not entirely derive from the dazed incompetence of Robinson's homme de menage, Panizza, who spilled whatever food he served, dressed the way a gangster dresses for a court appearance, and bore an unnerving resemblance to the late actor Lionel Stander.
An entire year passed before Robinson made his confession, and his pitch. His art business was a front. He really worked in the information business. I had been a war correspondant in Sierre Leone and Burkino Faso and most other lethal, failed and failing states in West Africa. I had information, or rather access to the kinds of information Robinson was after, on behalf of an investment group—specifically, at that time, information about a man named Rafiq Harari and a woman named Valentina Robichaud. He had money, alas, the kind of money I needed. Nothing substantive ever came of this misalliance, but I can tell you a bit about Robinson’s intended prey, and something about Robinson as well.
Valentina dealt blackjack and spun roulette between Tuesdays and Saturdays at Les Beaux Draps, a modest but smartly appointed gambling club near Pigalle. Tissot, who ran surveillance on the monitors upstairs, had imparted the cardinal rule of success for a female croupier the first night she started: never take an inch of shit from anybody.
It probably would have been useful advice in Vegas, which had the cachet of a ten dollar whorehouse despite all the shitty billion dollar architecture, where they treated gambling like the cheesy equivalent of a bowling tournament, but Valentina had quickly discovered that Parisian gamblers, as a rule, weren't remotely interested in sexual harrassment, and the last thing any regular customer wanted to do was throw a club dealer any shit. Dufond, who owned the place, had given her carte blanche to blackball anyone she suspected of counting at blackjack or past-posting at the roulette tables (Arabs, she’d noticed, had a particular wizardry at past-posting—even Tissot, the eye in the sky, had had trouble spotting their moves on the surveillance tapes), and he'd personally guaranteed a prolonged hospital stay to any fool who thought she was there to be interfered with.
The job had its perks. It got her out of the apartment and away from Charles, whose indolence and coke-snorting were both beginning to bore her senseless, and she was learning certain oddities of human nature that would almost certainly prove useful later on. She could pick out the kind of man who would drop his last Euro without any hope of winning, just to get rid of it. She had come to recognize the sort of person who felt naked without a gun tucked under his armpit. She now knew how many carats a diamond was, and could value a jade necklace from a distance of six or seven feet. She thought she now had a fair idea which types ate disappointment like a vitamin and which ones went home and overdosed.
“These people don’t kill themselves over money,” Dufond explained one freezingly rainy night when the club was almost empty.
“What else? Bad luck.”
Dufond had a long sinuous scar that ran from one corner of his mouth halfway across his cheek. It made his mouth look much larger than it was. Valentina tried not to stare at it.
“A guy comes in,” Dufond expounded, “this kind of guy who really ends up doing it, his life’s already shit. Maybe when he was ten years old his mama told him there’s always a chance, no matter how hopeless life gets it can always turn around. So, as a last resort, even though he knows it’s bullshit, he puts what he borrowed from who knows who on 17. Maybe a miracle will happen and he’ll win enough to pay back the loan shark who’s going to break his legs first thing the next morning.”
“Why 17?” Valentina let Dufond buy her a Ricard. Normally they never got to sit, relaxing at a table felt lovely. The tables had pretty, slender lamps of vaguely phallic design, and puce tablecloths. There were big banquettes along the mirrored walls that gave the place an illusion of vastness and architectural complexity. The tables were more intime.
Dufond tapped the end of a Craven A on the tablecloth and seemed about to light it, then stared at it strangely and crumbled it into the ashtray. Their drinks came. It was one of Leonie’s nights waitressing and Valentina could tell she was anxious about the weather spoiling her tips. Leonie had a son in primary school and an ex-husband in jail, ergo no child support, and a grim highrise apartment in Ivry-sur-Seine. She’d lost as much of her looks as a cocktail waitress could afford to lose, that worried her too. She had once told Valentina that she would never go on the game, even if it meant becoming a cashier in a Fnac. Valentina thought Leonie would make out better in a Fnac, but of course she didn’t say so.
Dufond was a hard guy, he had to be, but at least he didn’t pretend to know everything.
“Maybe seventeen was the last time he was ever happy,” he said. “Could be ten different reasons that number looks good to him.”
“I’ve never had a lucky number,” Valentina said. The whole idea of one seemed stupid. The Ricard tasted like mouthwash.
Dufond thoughtfully rubbed the scar beside his mouth.
“His doesn’t turn out lucky for this guy, either. He blows the bet, goes home to wherever on his last Metro ticket, digs his old service revolver out of the bottom of his porn stash, eats the gun.”
“Funny,” Valentina said, getting up from the table. “but I don’t think of this place as a magnet for suicides.”
“Oh, we get our share,” Dufond assured her.
“He loves to tell that shit,” Leonie observed a few minutes later, when Dufond had slipped into his office with one of his “associates” from Damascus, a ruined-looking playboy type everyone called The Lip. They called him that because he couldn’t talk through his mouth, but had to use an electronic amplifier held directly against his vocal cords. If The Lip emitted more than a few words at a time, someone would invariably remark that he was “getting awfully lippy.” The casino generated a very specific type of sick humor among its employees.
Bad weather often washed the trashier element of the Place Pigalle into Les Beaux Draps. Tonight a gaggle of obvious international whores came whooping in attached to three very young black pimps. The pimps had the big teeth and somewhat sneering expressions Valentina associated with the Mole-Dagbane tribe of Ghana. She always knew where people came from, though she had no idea why. These guys wore large furry hats, fur coats, snakeskin boots and snarky-looking jewelry: huge rings, neck chains that spelled their names in blocky gold. The whores wore acetate raincoats over tight, ugly dresses. They were all blonde and had abrasively clicky Eastern European accents. They had the pouting asperity of girls whose pussies were vastly overpriced yet forever in demand. The group colonized a long banquette and began ordering many Antillaise cocktails.
In the bathroom Valentina fooled with her lipstick while dissolving several Listerine Pocket Packs on her tongue to vanquish the aftertaste of Ricard. When she came out she was pleased to find a knot of respectable-looking marks making their way from the bar to a blackjack table.
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” she said, taking her place on the dealer’s side of the semi-circular table. Debrousse, the pit boss, hovered beside her in his wrinkled tuxedo, a stubby, plain-faced man who imagined himself tall and comely as a sportswear model. In seconds Valentina was gathering bets and assembling two fresh decks into the Chemin de Fer shoe in an access of imperturbable elan. She loved the slick feel of the cards, the varicolored chips and coins in the parallel rows of the check rack, the fuzzy edge of red baize at her fingertips. Most of the blackjack tables now had regulation hard surfaces and those had their own crisp appeal, of course, having no ambiguous textures and a bank-like authority, but Valentina liked the one baize-fringed item they’d kept after the last renovation. It looked like something from Deauville in the ‘20s, she imagined.
Play picked up as the evening deepened. By midnight five tables had some action going. Leonie swept past with a tray of cocktails and told her Monsieur Gourmet’s limo had just pulled into the street outside, implying good news for both of them: the man they called Monsieur Gourmet tipped lavishly, and tended to cast an ebullient mood over the often glum waning hours of the night. Everyone knew his real name was Rafiq Harari, he sold guns and shit and a hard guy like Dufond was less than a pimple on this guy’s ass, still Monsieur Gourmet had this bon vivant thing going for him, big as a house and not too steady on his pins but his sense of humor was almost dainty and he carried a colossal amount of weight with dignified panache and that made everybody like him. Valentina thought some people got a little frisson out of knowing he could have them all killed if he felt like it, wipe the whole club out if he hit a sour mood, though as far as Valentina could tell, this didn’t do much for her personally.
She wanted, above all, to survive: survive and sort things out and make something good happen in her life that didn’t involve losers like Charles hanging on her like baggage. She knew how easy it was to fall into holes and lose years of your life digging out of them, how other people could rope you into things you’d regret forever, all she had to do was look around the club and all the ways of losing fanned out in front of her like a poker hand. Keep your eyes and ears open, she reminded herself whenever she felt the fog moving near her. Don’t let them put you under. And don’t ever let them know what you know, never show your cards, never give away the game.
A question of status: Are the remnants of humanity on the planet Mars still really human beings?
Alexander Kluge, Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome
When the scorched odor hit him as Robinson entered his duplex hotel flat, he knew Nadine was burning his green Missoni sweater in the bathtub. It was not his favorite garment. Nadine had never threatened to burn it and had never even noticed it. For that matter, she had never launched any kind of attack on Robinson's belongings. He just knew it was the sweater, and he knew the moment had arrived.
She was, he discovered, sitting placidly on the toilet reading Elle while the crackling cashmere debris shrank into toxic-stinking ash. The contents of his medicine cabinet had been flung in the sink, apparently one item at a time, creating a sort of Arte Povera installation of broken glass, suppository packages, tubes of effervescing vitamins, plastic prescription bottles and assorted toiletries.
Nadine glanced up from her magazine like a patient in a doctor's office waiting for her name to be called, then resumed reading some article, and seemed, really, to expect no reaction from Robinson at all.
He took his cue from her indifference and walked into the kitchen, a bright room decorated in Mexican tiles, mixed a tall gin and tonic for himself--unfortunately, the freezer was bare of ice--drank it quickly. Still carrying the empty glass, Robinson fished a heavy Ginzu carving knife from a messy cutlery drawer he'd been meaning to straighten out. On the grooved draining board beside the double aluminum sink, he had absently placed a heavy glass square chopping block, a more elegant item than the standard wooden variety. It did not belong there, and he'd planned to move it to a formica sideboard where he normally prepared dinner.
A thick sheaf of mail, piled on a fold-out table beside the telephone, revealed nothing of uplifting or disastrous portent. Robinson shifted the glass board to the formica counter. He poured two inches of straight gin into his glass. He didn't bother drinking it. He would have liked, at least, a squeeze of fresh lemon in it. Robinson pictured Nadine on the toilet. She was always on the toilet. He considered replacing the Mexican tiles with a Moorish pattern. Moorish tiles were less expensive in Paris than Mexican ones. As he visualized the placement of these other tiles, he stretched his left hand across the center of the glass cutting board and slammed the Ginzu blade into the base of his pinkie finger, severing it with one blow.
Since Nadine had tossed all the first aid gear in the bathroom, Robinson did the best he could using paper towels to stanch the exsanguinating stump. After that became tiresome, he snatched the finger, mildly amazed that it was no longer attached to him, off the blood-splotched glass, cradling it with the fully numbered digits of his other hand, tenderly, as if it were a stillborn child, walked back into the bathroom with a feeling of infinite weariness, and threw it into Nadine's face. He managed to smack it straight into her left eye. She dropped the copy of Elle, as he rather thought she would. She screamed, but this made little impression on him. A well-known actress, Nadine had had plenty of screaming practice. He lunged. She ducked, but aside from perusing Elle she'd also just taken a shit, which made this manoeuver too complicated for her brain. Robinson punched her in the mouth with his still-gushing hand. Nadine had the pathetically conflicting impulses to wipe her ass and flee the room at the same time. Robinson seized an inspiration to peel off the paper towels, which were sticking painfully to his wound, and pushed them as far down her throat as his fingers could manage.
During that professionally ambiguous period, I developed a desultory, cocktail-hour friendship with Rafiq Harari, a Lebanese "businessman" (as he was generically described on his eleven passports), who did not attend Robinson's soirees and could hardly have been invited to them, even allowing for the moral insouciance that the art world's cognoscenti exhibited as its version of worldliness. Rafiq Harari was someone beyond even their flimsy pale.
I used to encounter Rafiq's flushed, pasty, alarmingly winded enormity in the sedative, onyx-and-ormolu lounge in the Hotel Port-Royale, off the rue du Bac, under the tapered triangular sconces and the small, discreetly placed photographs of Cocteau, Sartre, and other cultural eminences. Rafiq favored the beige leather divan (often to the irritation of entering parties of four), since the lounge's padded wing chairs untenably compressed his astounding bulk.
He was not a pariah at the Port-Royale, though surely the hotel staff and the usually solitary server in the lounge knew who he was, as did everyone in Paris who read newspapers. In everyday life, I believe, Rafiq was perceived as a soft-spoken, mannerly gentleman by most ordinary people he encountered. An object of sardonic gossip, certainly, but so is any stripe of celebrity.
Rafiq was only, and virulently, shunned and vilified by the politically squeamish haute bourgeoisie, and by leftist journalists enduring a sluggish news week. They were often the same individuals, in my experience. I speak here only of the persona Rafiq cultivated in Paris. People elsewhere in the world, along with certain zealots in the French government, had impeccable reasons for wishing him dead. In an abstract state of mind, I might have agreed with them, on what is often misleadingly called principle. I believe, however, as Sartre so cogently observed, that evil is the systematic substitution of the abstract for the concrete. We like whom we like because, in a private place very difficult to reach, or even to believe in by ourselves, two people sometimes meet and recognize each other.
It may, of course, reflect some odious moral vacancy of my own that I never perceived much logic in Rafiq Harari's monstrous image in so many rarefied nests of society. Almost all his commercial dealings proceeded legally, entirely through the admittedly gaping loopholes of international jurisprudence, though he made no secret of the fact that some of them didn't.
Righteous people, I think, idealists whose minds run in well-meaning circles, are rightly, but vainly, appalled that the law itself is contrived to bend around any source of widely generative revenue, and in practicality obeys neither its letter nor its intent. Such was the age we were living in. Perhaps every age squelches its noble ideals in the service of financial effulgence.
As I've indicated, Rafiq was immensely, worryingly fat. He ambulated with inconsistent grace, some days light on his toes, at other times moving with obviously painful difficulty. Occasional cortisone injections sprightened his step on the good days, but I knew his horror of needles kept these spirited times to a minimum.
We met, most often, on those blowy late Paris afternoons when the dreariest streets look busy with secrets, and almost any shop window reminds you that life has many better things in it than loss and sadness. He had a benevolent face that could curdle into a menacing copy of Sydney Greenstreet's, and many goiterously bulging chins, and a thin black mustache that masked a badly basted harelip. He was the only person I ever knew who actually twiddled his thumbs. Cerruti designed all his clothes, no doubt at astronomical cost. He had unusually large hands and very tiny feet. On what would have been a wedding finger, he wore a diamond-cut emerald sightly smaller than a cell phone.
Rafiq was a lonely soul from years of having more power than it could ever be safe to have. We never even spoke about his business. Only once, when I had interviewed him ten years earlier, for PBS. I sometimes read that interview transcript late at night, and as far as I could tell, he hadn't uttered a single lie. Which was very moving and strange. Every other arms dealer we interviewed in that series was a victim of the press, a legitimate exporter of Swedish automobiles, a philanthropist devoted to saving victims of river blindness, a hotelier, a dealer in expensive French wines, or just some fat rich fuck whose blameless life had been destroyed by other people’s malice.
These were entirely idle encounters, and innocent ones, if you can allow that even those of us guilty of everything can be innocent of something. You would not have imagined anything about our lives as a fly on the wall at the Port-Royale. We...talked. We talked about the strange, paradoxical movements of time, the elegance of ancient buildings. We talked of Sumerian sculpture and its peculiarly dissonant relation to the plastic arts of Pharoanic Egypt, the mystery of the Hyksos who conquered Egypt for a hundred years and then vanished without a trace. We loved Webern, and admired Glenn Gould to the point of delirium. Our talks swept back and forth from the prosaically silly to the gravely thoughtful. And the best moments came when two insanely absurd, different images fused between his head and mine.
I liked our afternoons, obviously, not least because the hours I spent with Rafiq deflected the despair and hopelessness I had come to consider my normal condition. Rafiq was not, I hasten to add, inflexibly cheerful, or giddy, or always especially light-hearted. However, he never insisted on his private troubles and treated our time as a respite from worry and an interlude of fun. We did our best to amuse each other, and, except on a few significant occasions, we did.
I have no idea how many thousands of unnecessary, violent deaths Rafiq Harari was responsible for. I am only telling you, for now, and perhaps not telling very well, what it was like between us for a while.
The phone rang as we entered the flat. We being me and my “significant other,” a Cameroonaise named, incredibly, Tom Sawyer (his mother’d been a fan of Mark Twain), who taught at the Institute for Arab Studies. We looked at each other almost accusingly, as people will, knowing we wanted to let it ring, knowing we wouldn’t if it persisted. We were probably the only remaining inhabitants of Europe without an answering machine. To be unavailable and unreachable is a supremely pleasurable condition which only the dead will have in another few years. Tom stepped into the bedroom and stayed there.
I ignored the phone and went to my desk by the window. It was one of those twee antique fold-down desks too fragile for a computer. The previous tenant left it. Some contact sheets were spread on it, pictures of a Senegal refugee center a doctor friend had mailed me in hopes, he wrote, that I might “do something” with them. I picked up my loup to look them over again. I took them over to the long beige leather sofa. The phone still rang. The sofa was the single piece of furniture I had spent real money on. The rest of the flat was strictly flea market. But French flea markets are a whole different world than American ones. Some smaller items came from a flea market in Buenos Aires. They had cost more to ship than what I paid for them.
The phone rang and rang. No yes no yes no yes.
The voice was American and Harvard-educated. I wished, as I often did, that I could be invisible and unknown to all but three or four people who would never ask me for anything.
Robinson implored me to come to his place for dinner that night. His word. And asked if he could “pop by” right then, as he was in the next street.
“I can meet you at a cafe,” I said, before he could say how much he’d love to get a peek at my flat. I gave directions to an atrocious place near the Port Royale metro. I didn’t want Robinson to meet Tom, or even know of Tom’s existence. I didn’t want Tom to meet Robinson. I thought of Robinson as a totally extraneous person, somehow compromising for Tom to imagine, even momentarily, as a close friend of mine.
Robinson looked perfectly turned out, as he generally did. Sky blue cable knit sweater, Brooks Brothers shirt, gray cotton slacks. With a crease. His Nordic blondness had obviously been sculpted that very morning, by a celebrity twerp on the rue de Rennes Robinson had often offered to “recommend” me to. The most irksome element of his appearance was the International Herald Tribune folded beside his elbow. A thick bandage encased the small finger of his left hand.
I ordered a white wine, hoping this would alarm him so early in the day, even though it was Paris. Robinson himself never touched a drop until six in the evening. He had said this so often in my presence, to so many people who must have been utterly indifferent to Robinson’s personal drinking agenda, that I assumed it was a ridiculous lie. He had already bolted an espresso. He now ordered another. We sat at a stupidly tiny round table flush against a big smeary window. Outside, a skinny woman in a torn blue dress was beating a small child with some sort of harness. The woman had an inflamed boil under her jaw. Her face resembled a plate of apple sauce.
“It’s really good of you to see me on such short notice.”
“What notice? You called three minutes ago.”
“I am sorry. You see, I was just over there.”
Robinson pointed down the road towards the Closerie des Lilas.
“Were you having a little Jean Rhys moment?”
“I came round to implore really. I need your help with something.”
“What happened to your finger?”
“My what? Oh. Finger.” He looked at his left hand as though he had never seen it before. Yet now there it was, attached to his wrist.
“Everything’s a big secret with you, isn’t it.”
“Is that what you think? Really? Everything?” Robinson nudged his newspaper back and forth for a moment and stared at the claque of early boozers at the bar.
“Is the wine here any good?”
“It’s very piquant,” I said, swallowing a lot of it. “If you like piss. What happened to your finger, it looks grotesque. You didn’t catch it in a car door, I hope.” I winced at the recollection of slamming a car door on my own finger. Stolen car, actually. Lima Peru, long story.
“If you must know I cut it off.”
“Got tired of it?”
“Ha ha ha.” His voice dropped, faux-confidential. “Wasn’t everyone getting a little tired of it?”
I did not find this amusing but thought it a decent enough try.
“Had a little Van Gogh moment? Missed your ear with the hacksaw or something?”
“You’ll be happy to know they reattached it. With microsurgery.”
“That would be, as opposed to macrosurgery,” I said.
Robinson’s usually imperturbable visage gathered itself in the tight smile he used as a refusal to look hurt, annoyed, puzzled, or angry. My own snipiness was a bit mysterious and offensive to me. I tried to assume I had a good if unconscious reason for it.
“I’m glad they saved it. You wouldn’t want tout Paris calling you Four Fingered Willy behind your back, would you.”
Robinson allowed himself to look mildly and unjustly wounded.
“Three Fingered Willy,” he said. “It was Three Fingered Willy, what you’re referring to, back when we were kids.”
“I always forget you’re a New England boy like me,” I said. I thought: maybe it comes down to something as petty as this. I was about to spill one of my little resentments. And had the strange feeling he wanted me to. “It’s probably because your part of New England sort of owned the part I came from and ran it from a distance as a textile penitentiary.”
“You’re confusing me with people with last names like Rockefeller and Adams.”
I stared at his bandaged finger.
“I suppose I am,” I said neutrally. “What inspired you to chop it off in the first place?”
He studied the brown scum streaks in his espresso cup.
“Do I need to tell you?”
“No,” I said. I felt an onrush of real concern for him. “The two of you are going to end up killing each other some bleary afternoon.”
“Well.” Robinson cocked his head. “I suppose that’ll be our little Jim Thompson moment.”
He grinned at his riposte, which deftly unravelled my own snobbery.
One of the few confidences Robinson shared with me concerned the bizarre relationship he maintained with the film actress Nadine Mercier. This often poisonous folie a deux could, and often did, abruptly detoxify itself following periods of obscene, hysterical aggression, for no apparent reason. Weeks of overwrought emotional warfare would switch into calm, lucid, tender, and, somehow most unbelievably, light-hearted mutual affection. Alcohol and drugs played no apparent role in these transformations. I did not understand it at all. As far as I knew, neither did they.
I watched the woman on the sidewalk beat the child. The woman’s neck boil had purpled brightly. I noticed her dress was not only ripped down a shoulder seam but had a menstrual blotch below her plastic belt.
The child was screaming something and refusing, it appeared, to display the pain or terror the woman expected from him, or her, I couldn’t tell which type of child it was. The leash or harness looked like something you’d put on a small dog and probably didn’t hurt much, so the point, I supposed, was for the child to feel betrayed and rejected, goaded to hysterics simply because it was being beaten by someone who was supposed to love it. I wondered if this child had the fearlessness gene. I suspected it did. One day it would be large and powerful enough to kill Mommy, if that’s who it was. And the grown child would do it in a leisurely fashion that really, really hurt.
“Just think,” I said. “We’re watching the creation of a criminal psychopath.”
“This dinner,” Robinson said, clearing his throat, as if reeling me away to a brighter realm, away from the distasteful scene which he, in fact, was gaping at as avidly as I was. “Why don’t they do something?” he snapped, waving his bandaged hand at the cafe interior.
Oh, I thought. In Robinson’s world, other people are supposed to do something about bad things. Not because they’re bad, but because he’ll have to see them if they don’t stop.
“Ever consider having any kids yourself?” My cheerful tone appalled him. I signalled for another wine. The woman and child now crossed the street, looking almost normal. A clochard dropped into a wicker chair outside. With fingerless gloves he dug in the pocket of a rotting jacket the color of mackerel sashimi. A small drama ensued between clochard and waiter. The waiter relented and brought the man a coffee.
“You’ve never met this Bridley couple have you,” Robinson said. It was not a question. He looked a touch less agité, even a bit mischievous. He was going to ask a favor and now the tension had gone out of that so his sardonic smile surfaced in little bubblelike bursts.
“I’ve heard of them.”
“A modern mariage blanche,” Robinson expanded.
“He’s rich, she’s smart.”
“I heard they were both middle class and rather stupid,” I said. “One hears so many things.”
“I’ll admit,” said Robinson, “I wouldn’t describe them as a sparkling couple.”
“They have something to do with the arts.”
“They write reviews. Little filler. They collect.”
“What about them?”
“They’re going to come,” said Robinson.
“Not with each other, if what you say’s accurate,” I said.
“Tonight. To dinner.”
The bar had a radio blaring and an assortment of local flotsam had collected there, sopping up beers and brandy. I saw the same ravaged mugs whenever I passed the place, faces like tattered masks in an Ensor painting. Sometimes two or three potato-faced youths pressed their scrawny hips into a couple of pinball machines. Some Vichy-era fascists usually hobbled in on weekends for midday snacks of stale ham standwiches. It was the kind of place where you expect to see a schizophrenic episode unfold at every table, an atmosphere that could only be improved by burning the joint to the ground.
“You want me to guess why you invited them, or why a fag and a dyke get married in 2002, or why my being there makes any difference? You can be awfully opaque as a matter of habit, Robinson.”
I now wished I had picked a brighter spot for this meeting, since I could no longer tell if my irritation was genuine, or an effect of the dismal surroundings.
“I realize I’m acting like an asshole today,” Robinson said, shaking his head in depressive wonder at his asshole’s unwanted ascendancy. “I haven’t been sleeping. I just cut my finger off to get some reaction from that...vampire I almost want to call her, but I—plus I just got diagnosed with this thing called Huntington’s chorea, and please not let’s get into that right now, this just isn’t my week....I know we’re not close friends and you probably don’t even like me, but I do like you, and I hoped you’d help me negotiate this ghoul fest tonight and, I don’t know, have a drink and talk.”
Well, I thought, all right. I suddenly liked Robinson a little better than I had ever imagined possible.
“There’s also this complicated old bag coming named Wanda Cloutier,” he said. “She’s the widow of some equestrian statue in the Bois de Boulogne, and she owns a Caillebotte study for The Floor Scrapers.”
A harsh emotion rambled over Robinson’s face.
“The Bridleys are trying to buy it from her.”
I lit a cigarette. A bright day, even in this gray neighborhood.
“The Bridleys are a couple of twits,” Robinson went on. “They just want it because they want everything.”
“Don’t make a face if I order another wine.”
“I have to have that painting.”
I have never understood people’s mania for owning objects of any sort, though I have seen it enough to know what a sincere mania it is.
The cafe was truly disgusting. Yet the service was impeccable. Go figure. I thought about the refugee photos on my desk. What do I want, I wondered. Nobody’s shy telling me what they want, what do I want?
“I’ve been trying to get that picture for years,” Robinson went on, mostly to himself.
“Why would this woman sell it to them instead of you?”
“You have no idea how devious these people are. I think I will have a drink. A gin and tonic.”
Relief softened his handsome face. Robinson suddenly looked dirtier and sneakier than any WASP ever looks. That made him lovely.
“This godawful novelist Megan de Salvo is also coming,” he said, sipping steadily. “She and the Bridleys are both catching the tail end of the Chinese baby adoption craze. The truly au courant shoppers have moved on to Korea, but I guess they already picked out their little victims before they got wind of it. Anyway, I found a new caterer, so the food won’t be as crummy as usual.”
“You can’t possibly be hoping that I’ll charm this Wanda woman,” I said. “You know I have no charm. She sounds a little on the gamy side for me to fuck her, but hey, I’m on your team. Always happy to pitch in.”
“Oh, just show up,” said Robinson, waving a waiter as his gin and tonic disappeared. “I have this intuition that something brilliant will strike you. The mix, your way of finding the weak spots in people’s, you know, stories or whatever. Something’ll happen. I can feel it in my nuts. Honestly. But no pressure on you.”
Robinson’s second wind blew in on his second beverage. He turned fully, almost sloppily friendly. I swallowed a couple xanax when he got up to use the toilet. Reality warmed around me. In my head I heard a bizarre song from A Clockwork Orange: a tinny, thin Betty Boop vocalist singing, “I wanna marry a lighthouse keeper and live by the sight of the sea.”
I had never heard of a writer named Megan de Salvo. I meant to ask Robinson if she could possibly be related to the Boston Strangler, but it slipped my mind.
“Anything interesting in the Tribune?” I asked when he returned to the table.
Robinson shook his head.
“The usual apocalypse. I honestly think the whole shithouse is going to go up any day now.”
As if on cue, we heard an explosion that must have detonated two or three blocks away: that unmistakable pocketing racket of imploded air, solid glass and metal structures shredding into flying scalpels. Followed immediately by waves of sirens, howling ambulances, the morbid accordion wheeze of police vans. In the cafe everyone froze. Every voice went silent, gestures hung suspended. Cars on the roadway braked and stopped dead, and the stupid love song pouring from the radio above the bar filled this instantaneous derangement of time and space with words like always, never, tonight, love me forever, I’ll give you all I’ve got.
I happen to know the gene code for Huntington’s chorea: CAG. The genomic markers of this disease are so precisely mapped that a geneticist can tell in exactly which year in a person’s life the disorder will manifest itself, and how many months after the onset of symptoms the patient will die. The symptoms include motor ataxia, memory loss, aphasia, and a mimetic form of subacute schizophrenia.
The explosion we heard that afternoon resulted from a glob of Semtex attached to an SUV near a power switching station near the Metro. From various charred documents in the SUV, it appeared that the semtex had not yet been removed and properly planted, and the explosive geniuses in the van were carbonized. As it happens, so were the occupants of a passing limousine, who turned out to be Rafiq Harari and Valentina Robichaud. So my first venture at sleuthing for Robinson drew to an explosive climax before it had really begun.
My subsequent employment with Robinson proved much more time-consuming and problematic, not because I have any superlative investigative skills, but because Robinson’s memory began failing and common words inexorably dropped from his vocabulary. Out for a stroll along Saint-Germain, he would find himself in the Fourteenth Arondissement as if whisked there by teleportation, talking to himself in egregiously loud and aggressive tones. Finally he became stark raving mad, and would pump his art clientele for nuclear secrets and all sorts of clandestine information they obviously didn’t possess. Worse still, he would try to sell second-rate Impressionist paintings to his contacts in the espionage business, using his immense charm and salesmanship on people who couldn’t tell a Pissarro from a jar of mustard.
It’s an awful thing to say about a friend, but Robinson’s death was a great relief. I was offered his art business by the investment cartel who financed it as a cover, and gradually gained some expertise. The gallery even turned a handsome profit.