9

Japan

All Burp and his father visited the ladder’s Japanese business suppliers in the 1960‘s, and thanks to them they traveled a whole month through the country, treated as VIP guests.

 

HOMO NIPPONICUS

The Bullet Train zips

by the misty slopes of

Mount Fuji

as he watches stone-faced

It is not so long since

the Octopus

has leapt out of

the Inland Sea

spreading its tentacles

over his parents’ fields

The war factories

have given way

to a quieter revolution

But there is Peace Park

to remind him of

defeat and humiliation

The Octopus,

his ally, knows that

he’s remained

a Samurai at heart

He lets the

European falcon

 and the American eagle

ruffle their feathers

sparing his own energy

and emotions

They used to scorn

his imitative nature

and blame him today

for perfecting their inventions

When he plays the piano

or the violin

the gods acquiesce

and so does Beethoven

It is now drizzling outside

He shuts his eyes

yet even as he dreams

there is no respite

for he has vowed

to make the

21st century his


A TASTE OF SAKE

 then, he was young

and fair

and still quite bashful

and the more audacious among the girls

of Myanoshita

would walk up to him

and stroke his curly blonde hair

as if he were

some sentient

shop window dummy

they would then chuckle away

and retreat with feigned reverence

and he would stare back

ashamed to appear

so unresponsive

the following night, after the banquet

he was accompanied

to his ryokan

by a hostess who looked

barely fifteen

he dared not decline her assistance

lest he should offend his guests

and he let her undress him

and shed his virginity

the only thing he could remember

was the titillation of her fingers

soft as the wings of a dragonfly

and, yes, the dank taste of sake

that lingered throughout his sleep

and in so many of his future dreams

 

I felt a little sad for Tani , just a little, hey I ain’t a cry baby, ok!  She should have listened to her heart, instead of going back to her brother.  Weak-a-ling, ling ling – I know, I know, this sounds Chinese, not Yapaneez, never you mind , anyway YOU don’t know the difference -, is what I say!


 

Japan: Tani told me her story when I was in Kyoto

 

THE DILEMMA

 first appeared in The Island (Sri Lanka)

 

A gentle breeze swept through the drifts of dead leaves strewn over the alleys of the Deer Park like a living mantle.  How manv times had Tani and her brother strolled in this quiet retreat of Nara?  But this Saturday, she vowed, would be unlike any other Saturday.

Ken stared pensively at  the golden splash of the autumn foliage.  Clad in her pink-dotted kimono Tani kept pace with her brother’s steps, her clogs producing a crunching counterpoint to the squeaking of his weather worn shoes.  Her eyes twinkled in the palor of her powdered face and remained glued to the path as if in search of inspiration.

“Ken.” she whispered at last.

“What is it, little sister?”  her brother asked affectionately.  Tani bit her lips then took a deep breath.  Did he remember Shu, the young engineer, who, five years ago, had caused their parent’s car to ride over the curb of the mountain road, tossing it into a ravine?  Well, she had learned to know and to appreciate the young man and now they wished to get married.  Fate was to blame for the terrible accident.  Shu was only its unfortunate instrument.

Tani lifted up her gaze to the cloudless sky, anxiously waiting for her brother to speak.

The reaction came as she had expected.  The tone of his voice was calm only in appearance, she sensed the smouldering voicano within him.

She was however surprised at herself for not being paralysed by his categorical response.  Tani averted her brother’s eyes lest she should yield to a heinous obedience.      Since the death of their parents Ken had been irreprochable, doing his utmost to try and compensate for the void they had left behind.  However, she couldn’t be reconciled with the idea of losing Shu.  True, she had met him through a great misfortune but it was of the kind that binds two souls forever.

Brother and sister walked silently in the direction of the Tahoto and seated themselves on the Pagoda front step.

The weekend crowds were gradually filling the park, small families succeeding each other in disciplined formation, fathers with their cameras slung over their neck, ready for the memorable picture.

How Tani loathed that peaceful sight all of a sudden.  Could these strangers only suspect the turmoil in her heart?

“Let’s go home!”  Ken said icily, “We’ve nothing more to do here.”  The words stung her like the tip of a dagger.

Without so much as exchanging a glance, they passed the singing brook and the

lovely Sarusawa pond.  Each enclosed in solitude, they had become blind to the surrounding beauty.

The walk home, usually so pleasant seemed to last an eternity.  They finally reached the house and removed their footwear.

Tani went into the kitchen while her brother changed clothes.

She prepared an early dinner, composed of sashimi, soba and eggplant tempura, Ken’s favourite dish.

She brought the tray to the dining-room, kneeled on the tatami opposite her brother and served him.

Ken ate with dizzying swiftness, his chopsticks literally flying in and out of his mouth like a pair of crazed insects.

Only when he finished did he notice that Tani hadn’t touched her food.

He pointed his chin toward the empty bowl.  It was in vain and he didn’t insist.

Tani bade him good night and retired to her room.

Several hours went by before Ken fell asleep.  He tossed and turned and had

nightmares.  He got up around 6. a.m. and something – he did not know what – led him to his sister’s room.  It was empty.  On the blanket, neatly folded over the tatami, he found a note with her writing:  “Ken, you have done so much for me, but my heart cries out for Shu.  The choice is too cruel. I’ve decided to close a chapter in my life and am going away to Osaka, where I shall look for a job to sustain myself.  Your ever grateful sister.”

10Rage flushed the young man’s cheeks.  Ken skipped breakfast, got dressed and ran to the railway station.  Tani wasn’t among the waiting passengers.

He walked through the streets of the City and entered several stores at which Tani had the habit of shopping, but no one had seen her.  Ken wandered despondently for two hours.  He hadn’t the courage to go to his office and decided he’d walk back home.

When he slid open the entrance door he let out a yell.  Standing in Front or him with her suitcase at her feet was Tani.  His initial shock gave way to a feeling of exasperation mixed with joy.

His hand flew across Tani’s face and almost simultaneously he embraced her.

Tears filled his eyes as she muttered: “I couldn’t leave you … for us both and for our dear parents’ memory … I just couldn’t.”


 

11

France: In the 1990’s.  All Burp spent three years consecutively, 21 days each time, at the thermal baths of Plombières (that’s the real name of the place), in Lorraine, which lies in the east of the country, just near the German border.  Did I say this before?   Never you mind, coz with the holes in your head, you forget half of what I’ve already told you. 

Now, what follows ain’t for kiddies, you have to be adult poyvoyts to do some of the stuff mentioned here, on account that it’s too libidinudist for words.  I read it under my bloomin blanket, with a torchlamp, which gave me cramps, both in the eyes  – I was even afraid of becoming a permanent squinter – and in my left hand.

All Burp calls himself Jules here, he’d be too ashamed if people recognized him.

 

TWENTY-ONE DAYS IN THE LIFE OF A CURISTE  AT CONSTIPAX-LES-BAINS,

 

appeared in Lettre d’Opinion (Belgium) and Atom Mind Magazine (USA)

 

In spite of the drizzle and the early hour, maman  had insisted on accompanying Jules to the station.  She had given him all the necessary recommendations and made him repeat the timetable lest he should miss the two connections.  She had arisen at the crack of dawn to prepare his lunch-box, filling it with chicken breast and camembert sandwiches, a hard-boiled egg, an artichoke, a jar of apple compote and a loaf of ginger-bread for the afternoon snack, each item carefully wrapped in aluminium foil.  The slender thermos flask contained Bordeaux wine, the squat one, piping hot café-au-lait .

“I shall call you at seven,” maman had said upon embracing him.  As always, when they parted, Jules had felt a knot in his solar plexus.  In the last couple of years however this knot had begun to twist in the most extravagant manner, to the point where maman had to fix an appointment with a gastro-entorologist.  The mere thought of it had scared the wits out of Jules, for he’d not remembered the last time he’d seen a doctor.  Thus it had been that he and maman had presented themselves before the renowned Professor Tailleventre (which in French means ‘tummy ripper’).

Jules had had to undergo a series of tests, including a full colonic, in front of the professor and his students and though the results had proven negative, the whole affair had been quite humiliating – all along he’d been referred to as the subject.  As for maman, she’d faced the situation stoically, for after all, the professor couldn’t have earned his reputation on thin air.

“The diagnosis is clear,” Professor Tailleventre had concluded, “the subject suffers from anxiety.  He claims he often feels bloated and breaks wind, which wakes him up during the night.  It is a typical case of spastic colitis.  Along with the mucilage and the meprobamate, we shall prescribe him the appropriate diet, excluding of course any fried or starchy foods, fermented cheeses, raw fruits and especially alcoholic and sparkling beverages.  We shall furthermore recommend that the subject follow a three-week cure at Constipax-les-Bains.   The water’s high grade of radioactivity is well indicated in this instance”.

Jules had winced at the word ‘radioactivity’ but no one in the amphitheater had given him any notice.  To mask her own unease maman had darted a scolding glance at her son.  Whenever maman made those glassy round eyes, Jules’ mind would turn blank and he’d remain mesmerized as a mongoose by a cobra, dear maman, how perceptive she was and how well she could tame his fears!

From Paris to Nancy Jules traveled second class on the comfortable Corail train, he then took a creaking micheline  car to Onionville and finally boarded a coach with a dozen other passengers whose ages ranged from sixtyish to gaga-genarian.                  –           “Purgatory,” Jules muttered as they climbed the verdant slopes of the Vosges mountains, aiming as it were for the clouds, the sky hung so low.  Before each hairpin bend, the thick-browed driver looked into the cabin mirror, flashing a prankish smile which inevitably triggered a concert of “oh là las” and muffled wails.  Revved up, the engine belched in counterpoint.  Hearts skipped a few beats.  Jules’s neighbor across the aisle let her jaws click intermittently, which made her resemble a long-lashed pouting fish.  It was rather misleading, for every now and again he expected her to speak and each time he held his breath.  At one point she adjusted the crest of her permed hair which sent out glints of electric blue and, deeming that he needed a word of reassurance said, “Don’t worry, he’s never missed one.  Mind you, there aren’t many thrills to be had down here.  As for the climate, last year out of the three weeks, it rained on and off seventeen days.  What wouldn’t one sacrifice for one’s health ?  But the waters of Constipax do work wonders.  It’s my twelfth season.”

“God Almighty!” Jules mumbled, gazing towards the far end of the coach where a patriarch whose tongue flickered in slow motion as if he were revelling in other-worldly bliss, was dozing.  Cold sweat trickled from Jules’ armpits.  In what hole was he going to bury himself?  He’d never even heard of the place until Professor Tailleventre had mentioned it.  Jules suddenly wished his were a benign liver ailment ; they’d have sent him instead to Vichy.  La France profonde , he sighed, closing his eyes.

It was one thirty p.m. when they arrived.  Shrouded in a lambent haze, Constipax looked desolate with its shuttered store-fronts and flowerless balconies.  There was a general air of decay about it which wasn’t totally devoid of charm.  Some of its buildings like the main thermal establishment and the town’s only four-star Hôtel des Bains were built in the lofty Third Empire style.  The spa boasted a casino which also needed to be revamped.

Jules followed the driver’s directions and walked the road uphill, lugging his suitcase with some strain for it was packed with winter garments and books – the few erotic magazines he’d slipped in between the folds of his bathrobe had escaped maman’s vigilance.

He found the Pension Lorraine quite easily.  Overlooking the southern flank of the town and its adjoining park, it had a rather nice view.  If you screwed up your eyes a bit you could pry into the kitchens of the casino restaurant below and also through the fogged window of the employees’ lavatories.

The air felt damp and somewhat colder than in Paris.  Jules shivered and rang the bell.  He insisted but there still was no answer, so he opened the entrance door and asked in a throaty voice if somebody was there.  A key rack hung behind the reception desk.  All but two keys were missing.  Jules looked up at the cuckoo clock and thought “don’t just stare at me you stupid bird.”  Beneath the pine-shaped pendulum was pinned the program of the season headed by a caption that invited the curistes  to join the fun-loving citizens of Constipax-les-Bains in a number of activities.

Jules heard the whoosh of a door swinging open and seconds later a burly mustachioed man appeared wearing a linen apron.

“Monsieur Le Ripoff,” the man greeted jovially, “Are you of Russian origin?”

“Oh no, Breton,” Jules corrected.

“One never knows,” grinned the blotchy faced innkeeper.  “Let me show you to your room, it’s on the first floor.  If you haven’t had lunch yet, there’s some lamb stew left.  Very tasty,” he said, smacking his lips,  “I’ve cooked it myself.  The chef hasn’t showed up this morning.  His wife called saying it’s the flu.  Between you and me,” he whispered confidentially, “he’s had a glass too many last night. It was his birthday, so I’ll close one eye”.

Jules’ was a corner-room.  Though very neat it smelled a bit musty.  Every object in it probably dated back to the turn of the nineteenth century: the brass-framed bed, the wardrobe with its flecked center mirror that stood all askew, the writing desk whose leather-pad had rust-colored ink-stains and the heavy cretonne curtains with their hunting scenes.  Each one of Jules’ steps made the floor-plank creak.  Jules whistled thinking already of ways to jumble this pre-electronic bugging device.  Thanks to maman’s insistence he was lucky to have his own private toilet.  The shower cubicle, of a more recent generation than the WC and the wash-basin, was quite narrow and entirely built of zinc.  Jules turned the hot water on.  It coughed, then clanked, making the plumbing gurgle like the insides of a hippo, then after these terrific noises abated somewhat, the water spouted in crisscrossing jets against the panels, causing a metallic din that muffled all the other sounds.  “At least it works,” Jules concluded indulgently, “I’ll just have to shower earlier in the evening to avoid raising a commotion.”

It was still very nippy outside and the central heat had to be turned on, but since the pension had reopened a few days before, the frigid draughts persisted in their games of hide and seek, twirling around you like a bunch of genies.

Having unpacked, Jules decided he needed a nap.  He took off his pants and slipped between the crisp and freshly laundered sheets.  His legs tingled, then for a moment he forgot about being tired and jumped out of the bed, letting the spring twang in the most indecent fashion.  He retrieved one of the girlie magazines from the bottom of his suitcase and tiptoed back to his squeaking bed.

It was past five in the evening when Jules woke up from his nap.  “Oh là là!”  he exclaimed guiltily as he watched the pallid sun beckon at him through the window behind undulating cloud veils.  Clad in a duffelcoat, he walked out of the pension for his initial inspection of the town.  It must have poured during his sleep, for the gutters of the Grand’Rue rumbled like an overflowing brook.  Not until he’d reached an arcaded mall did he notice any animation.  The Grand’Rue widened into a slightly oblong square graced with a flower-bed and the statue of a Roman patrician whose mutilated ears lent it an air of authenticity.  To the right of the square stood the pump-room pavillion the interior of which was all lit up.  It was a double-storied atrium ceilinged by a glass-dome, with mosaics adorning the floor and lateral columns.  In its center, dominated by a marble obelisk, were the brass fountains around which several curistes had gathered, taking their waters.  Through the tall bay-windows Jules recognized the blue-haired lady of the coach.  She and the elderly man with whom she was conversing raised their glasses toasting each other.

The only other place with a small crowd was the social security office under the arcades.  Occasionally a curiste would knock at the door and each time it happened, an attendant would point at the “closed” sign with a fierce look in his eyes.

“What manners!” an insistent patient bawled as the attendant waved her away.  I shall complain to the mayor!” she said to the first person she came across. ”Why all this favoritism?”

The gentleman she had addressed tried to explain that the curistes still inside had waited for their turn the whole afternoon and that the office had as usual closed at four thirty p.m.  The poor chap got scolded and was told to mind his own business.  “Où va la France ?” she lamented, now ogling at Jules.  Taken to task, the young man blushed and in a non-committal smile flailed his hands cabbage-wise.  That unexpected response made the irate woman grin and ultimately win him over to her.  From then on she would greet Jules with a smile so ingratiating he wondered at first whether she wasn’t making sheep’s eyes at him.  “Old enough to be my grandmother’” Jules had mumbled.

Jules spent the next hour strolling through Constipax’s winding streets and back alleys.  The town appeared gloomier than the illustrations in the brochure.  It was probably a more cheerful place in its heyday.  Everything was still there, the Market Square, the gothic church with its impressive spire, the Promenade des Dames and on the other side of the town, past the casino and the first-class thermal establishment, the Deer Park especially designed for Napoléon III in an idyllic setting of oak and fir trees, cascades and ornate ponds.  The afternoon downpour had turned the paths into a maze of puddles.  Water still dripped down the slopes and trickled from the firs as if in counterpoint to the bubbling streams that fed the river at the bottom of the valley.  Fallen branches and patches of burnt grass bore a sad testimony to the municipality’s neglect.  The shoddy state of the park could not be blamed solely on the late spring frost.  Jules walked toward the high-level deer enclosure.  Outside an abandoned shack stood a stag gazing down at the elderly couple who were luring three of the fawns closer to the net wiring with bread crumbs.  The couple were engaged in a heated discussion regarding the stag’s antlers.

“They’ve been sawed off,” claimed the man.

“And I maintain that he’s shed them,” the wife retorted.

“Just look at the cut, it’s too neat.  When he comes down you’ll notice the blood stains.  Anyway, what am I arguing with you for?”

“You know why,” she said fixing her fox collar as she looked up at him straight in the eyes, “without me you are an invalid, without me you can’t go and boast with your pétanque  (bowling) buddies.  Just pray that I’m not the first one to depart.”

Ah la barbe !” the old man grunted, then having noticed Jules he cleared his throat and said in a jolly tone of voice, “Bonjour Monsieur, you must be new around here.  Would you care to join me and a few of my friends for a game of pétanque tomorrow afternoon?  I’m Schweitzer, like the famous Schweitzer.“

“Henri!” the wife interjected, “you’re bothering the gentleman,” and tugging at his sleeve, she excused him then greeted Jules goodbye.  Jules was heading uphill toward what appeared like another exit of the park when coming in his direction he saw a youngish man wearing a felt coat with a red cashmere scarf elegantly wrapped around his neck.  He had frameless glasses on, which were slightly smoked.

Introducing himself as Michel Picon he offered to show Jules the way back to town.

“It’s my third year here,” he said in a staccato voice,” and I’ve learned not to beat around the bush.  Most people of our age don’t usually arrive before June.  Sooner or later you end up knowing every soul in Constipax.”  Picon was incredibly garrulous and in the twenty-odd minutes that separated the park from Jules’ pension he had told Jules all about the spa, the difference between first and second-class treatment, which attendants to ask for, how the establishments were operated, what cafés and bars were frequentable.  He even touched on the subject of local politics, describing the feuds that opposed the mayor, the casino owner and several of the other town dignitaries.  He gave these details in a casual man-of-the-world tone, a tone which allowed him to pry into other people’s lives without ever seeming to take sides.  Such an abundance of information kept Jules’ ears tingling, to the point where he sounded surprised when maman called him.

“Is anything wrong?” she inquired somewhat puzzled, and as Jules uttered a hesitant “No,“ maman who was not one to let doubts bog her mind said it must be the journey and the altitude.  “Have an early night.  Don’t forget your appointment with the thermal doctor at six tomorrow morning.”  What an ungodly hour to see a physician, Jules thought putting down the receiver.  Everything here seemed so strange and yet so familiar at once, he’d almost deny the fact that he belonged in Paris with maman, that for his age he held an enviable position at Datafig Computers, the American company he worked for, that he’d even grown up in the electronic age.

As the innkeeper seated him in the still chilly dining-room whose wooden beams showed a few genuine cracks, Jules couldn’t refrain from thinking about the remark Picon had made concerning Monsieur Charlot.  “Your innkeeper,” he’d said, “is a bit of a sex maniac; not only does he seduce his maids but he’s always ready to satisfy the more eager among his female guests.  His poor wife is forever having nervous breakdowns. Right now she’s probably locked up in an institution or else crying her eyes out at her folks up in Normandy.”

Besides Jules there were only two other guests.  The man in gray flannel who was eating with his mittens on, looked like an elongated misled cloud and the only feature that gave him a semblance of humanity was his protuberant ashen nose pointing down at his soup.  Jules secretly nicknamed him Long Pif (schnozzle).  Opposite Long Pif, at the far corner of the dining-room and thus concluding the triangle of solitudes, sat a spinster, clad in brown, her hair the color of untreated wool, gathered in a bun.  When she was not holding a fork she clasped her big-knuckled hands tightly.  Behind her round gilt-rimmed spectacles flickered the embers of righteousness.  To Jules she instantly became Sainte Nitouche (goody-goody hypocritic).

The young man sighed with relief when the waitress, a plump brunette in her mid-forties, appeared and announced to him the evening menu, “chervil soup, veal blanquette with roasted potatoes and carrots, tarte-maison and cheese ,” she said, moistening the generous layer of strawberry-red lipstick that coated her lips and sharpened the contrast of her sparkling teeth.

Obviously Sainte Nitouche did not appreciate the sight of her stiletto heels and her close-fitting skirt slit sideways, for the spinster’s eyes rolled wildly up and down until Janine swung open the door that led to the kitchen.  Even Long Pif stole away a glance at Janine’s calves, but soon enough Sainte Nitouche’s hawkish look forced him back into the meditation of his food.  The atmosphere in the dining-room was sepulchral: all you could hear was your own munching, the grating of a knife against a plate, the uncorking of a bottle of wine.  Jules looked forward to the moment the kitchen door would squeak again and give way to Janine.  Thank goodness new guests were expected in the following days.  Anyone ought to be livelier than these two or else the situation would become desperate,” Jules remarked to himself as the waitress bent over to serve him and he suddenly felt his ears pulse as if the thought had pierced the silence.

The young man bade good night as he rose.  Sainte Nitouche nodded without so much as a smirk while Long Pif continued to ruminate.  This last scene prompted Jules to go straight up to his room.  He was too tired anyway to watch television.

A mere eighteen hours had elapsed since Jules’ arrival and already he had seen the thermal doctor, fetched the treatment tickets from the social security office and visited the secretariat of the second-class establishment to fix his weekly appointments.  He’d been prescribed hot bubbling baths followed by water jet sessions on alternate days, poultice applications on the abdomen and underwater massages.  To round it all off he had to drink one hundred grams of soapy water twice a day.

“You’re still in time to get your first treatments,” the rotund secretary said to Jules with a wide smile, “the center closes at twelve forty-five,” and she handed back to him his curiste’s card with the initial set of appointments.  Jules climbed two flights of steps up and crossed a long, overheated corridor lined with benches on each side, some of which were occupied by sweating curistes awaiting their turns.  The young man showed his card to a matron who told him to sit down until Jérôme, one of the bath attendants, called his name.  Jules went to the bench farthest from the radiator, took his windbreaker off and sat facing an hirsute character that looked like a forest mutant and huffed through his missing teeth.

“Always the same story,” the hairy mutant groaned, “wherever you go you wait, that’s what you pay for, to wait, and while you’re waitining, other smart-asses break into your home or run off with your car,” he then uncrossed his legs and shifted his weight and added angrily, half addressing Jules, “if it wasn’t for this farting nuisance I’m plagued with, I’d never set foot in this hole.  Outside it’s freezing cold and raining, inside you suffocate, and in any case you’re soaked.  And this goes on for  three damn weeks.“                       “Monsieur Plouzennec,” the matron hailed in a throaty voice.

“Ah, it isn’t too soon!”  the thickset mutant responded, shuffling his bulk towards the door at the opposite end of the corridor to which the matron motioned him.

“A countryman,” Jules thought with distaste, “a plouc (magpie) of a Breton with whom I want nothing to do.”

Jules was leafing through a hunter’s magazine when someone lisped his name twice.

The bath attendant was a spindle-shanks whose rough tan overall fell down midway between his kneecaps and the rim of his thick-soled rubber boots.  Holding his head slightly tilted, he led Jules to a bathroom hazy with steam.  Though the tub was already full to over-flowing, hot water kept rushing from the sturdy brass faucet.  The excess water swept the tiled floor at least an inch high before it got sucked into a funnel- shaped drain.

“You can hang up your clothes in that closet,” Jérôme lisped, pointing to the left of the door, “there’s a clean bathrobe inside.”

Jules felt somewhat edgy, for it looked as if he’d have to undress in front of the attendant.  Jérôme glanced at him from the comer of his eye and grinned.  The attendant then checked the wood-encased thermometer floating on the surface of the water, turned off the tap and hooked the air hose to a narrow board which he laid in the bottom of the tub.  By now Jules stood stark naked and dumbfounded.

“Well,” Jérôme said, sizing up the young curiste who was trying to shield his private parts with one hand, “get in so that I can adjust the board!”

No sooner had Jules found his position in the tub than the water started bubbling up.  The pressure was so strong that he had to grasp the two edges not to slip underwater.  Jérôme grinned again then lisped “Don’t worry, there’s no danger that you’ll fall asleep.  You’ll soon get used to it.  Now I have other people to take care of.  If you need me pull the bell-cord.”

It took Jules a while before he could settle securely.  The volume of the water and the board’s width did not leave much space for manoeuvre.  So, instead of resting his head against the edge and risking to be submerged,  he decided to sit bolt upright, the way maman had taught him to.  “It’s in one’s table manners,” she’d repeatedly tell him, that the world sees whether you’re a gentleman or a plouc .  The wood-encased thermometer was hurled hither and thither, bobbing like flotsam in a tidal wave.  Jules conjured up visions of a film he’d watched when a little boy: the eruption of the Krakatoa.  He recalled the terrifying scenes with an almost sadistic pleasure.  It was only at that point that he realized how ticklish the hot bubbles made him feel and he began to scratch himself furiously.  In so doing he spread his thighs and got an instant erection. Moments later, unannounced, the bath attendant came in.

“Round one is done,” he said, winking mischievously at the young curiste as if he’d read on Jules’ flushed cheeks the reason for the sudden embarrassment.  He cut off the air and unplugged the hose.  As the bubbles vanished Jules formidable hard-on became apparent.

“You’ll be more at ease if I retrieve the board,” Jérôme lisped.

“Maman!” Jules pleaded secretly, but it was to no avail, for when he arose,his erect penis started beating like a metronome.

“I say”, the attendant exclaimed in a jocular tone which could not altogether conceal the glint of fascination in his eyes.  “This first bubble bath has a whipping effect on you.  Good,” he added, letting the hot water run freely,  “I like to see my patients shape up so quickly.”  Jérôme closed the tap and motioned Jules back into the tub.

“Thank you,” Jules muttered, his face a shade lighter as the attendant made for the door.  Jules uttered a sigh of relief, but the mind being such a trickster, his imagination hopped from a nudist camp to a massage parlor to an orgy, all of which of course kept him very hard.  What was happening to him in this godforsaken place?  His blood was running wild.  Blasphemy: Jules tried to visualize maman’s funeral.  To no avail.  When the bath attendant reappeared with a warm towel on his arm, Jules was shamefully stiff.

“You should relax,” Jérôme lisped, screwing up his eyes.  But Jules grabbed the towel and wrapped it around his waist.  “Tomorrow it’ll be a plain bath followed by a high pressure jet session, in a couple, of days you’ll feel a new person,” the attendant said, clearing his voice.  He then greeted the young man in a mock military salute and walked out again.

Clad in a bathrobe and holding his tote bag wherein he’d shoved all of his garments, Jules walked one flight down for his next treatment.  There were half a dozen gagagenarians all bundled up like himself, waiting for their turn in front of a row of cubicles.

“This looks like a fraternity of eunuchs and mamelukes,” Jules thought.

“Mmmmm Madame Lucette,” a voice bellowed inside one of the cubicles, it’s sooo good, mmmm.”

“Monsieur Lalou, won’t you behave for once?” squawked the female attendant and she came out chuckling.  Madame Lucette was a portly moon-faced woman who appeared to be born with an infectious smile.

Jules felt comfortable with her until, having stretched on the narrow plank-bed, he was asked to unfold the flaps of his bathrobe.

“It’ll prick you slightly in the beginning,” she warned, “but that’s quite normal. Poultices are excellent for the blood circulation,” Madame Lucette added as she applied the scalding pad over Jules’ belly.  The young man winced and went limp almost at once. “There,”  Madame Lucette said cajolingly, “now you’ll be able to rest, just close your eyes.”

Fatigue caught up with Jules and he began to slumber.  In the cubicle next to his a man was snoring, actually the sound was more like the buzz of a bumble bee, and every now and then he’d be awaken by his own vibrations.  This new intimacy with strangers was awkward to Jules.  He wondered how maman would react in a similar situation, she who so cherished her privacy.  Hadn’t she told him when he started dating girls, “Every man has natural urges but these things should be done with discretion and in good taste. What I demand of you though is never to become promiscuous.”

Poor maman, if only she knew what was on her fiston’s  (sonny) mind!  Ever since that first experience in the fields of Provence where he lost his virginity and got raped by a farmer and his wife, Jules had acquired a penchant for domineering females at least ten years his senior.  He was far too shy for those lovely young girls, friends’ daughters, maman hoped he would court.  She had very definite schemes for him: he should marry a BCBG (bon chic bon genre , meaning ‘folk with bourgeois elegance’) with good financial backing, have one child, not more, for children cost the earth nowadays, and the little family would share their nest with her.  After all, it was thanks to her sacrifices and unrelenting devotion that Jules, after graduating from HEC (Hautes Etudes commerciales) landed this wonderful job at Datafig Computers.  Maman had always believed, since the battle of Normandy, that the future lied with the Amerloques (Yanks), even though she had her reservations about these grands enfants  and their permissive society.

“Mamaaan!” Jules exclaimed when, opening his eyes, he saw Madame Lucette take the now luke-warm poulfice away from him.

“I’ll boil it again,” she said and returned a few minutes later for the second application.

By the end of the week, though only two-thirds full, the pension had livened up considerably.  A second waitress had joined the small staff.  Myriam, whose golden wavy hair was not the least of her attributes, delighted her male guests as much as she irritated Janine.  The latter obviously deemed her assistant over-zealous and too quick-paced.  One could hear them bicker in the kitchen, and more than once did a plate go flying across the cook’s sanctuary, drawing the dispute to a crashing parenthesis.

Jules fancied them both, yet he soon learned to temper the exuberance of his smiles, especially when the two happened to be present in the dining-room at the same moment.

Since she could claim job seniority over Myriam, Janine assumed she also had the right to choose which guests she would attend to.

The day Myriam arrived, Jules had the unwise idea to ask the pretty young waitress to present him with the cheese tray.  Piqued at what she considered a disloyalty, Janine walked by Jules’ table and said in a low, cutting voice: “I thought you’d had enough of cheeses for a couple of days, Monsieur Le Ripoff!  Some people do get easily influenced, mon Dieu !”

As if to make her point clearer, a minute or so later, she collided with Myriam, knocking the brie and the camembert off the tray.  “Oops!” Janine interjected then disappeared into the kitchen.

After that incident, fortunately for Jules, the two waitresses came to something of a compromise – it looked more like a truce really – and they took turns in serving him.      Jules did not repeat the error twice and, as a matter of course, he requested to see the plateau de fromages , whether he felt like eating cheese or not.

When Gaston Boule told Jules at the pension’s bar, he had three grandchildren, the young man put down his glass of Pernod on the counter.

“At what age did you get married?” Jules ventured.

“Eighteen,” said the Marseillais, eyes twinkling with pride, “we’re precocious in our family.”

It was Gaston Boule who’d approached Jules, “How about the two of us sharing a table?” he offered in the unmistakable Provençal drawl, “some of the faces in that dining-room would give the jitters even to the abominable snowman.”

As Jules hesitated before the invitation, the Marseillais said good-naturedly, “anytime you need to be alone, just let me know.  With me, there are no obligations.”      Jules went along.  He did not regret his decision, for Gaston Boule proved to be quite affable and didn’t meddle in his affairs like Michel Picon who’d constantly and in a manner that appeared so innocent wheedle out of Jules some very intimate details of his life.  Gaston Boule never seemed to get flurried over anything and Jules wondered whether he should laugh or commiserate when the Marseillais recounted in his cool nasal tone that a fortnight prior to coming to Constipax his home had gone up in flames while he and his wife were out in the Canebière relishing bouillabaisse  (a soup of sea food) and homard à l’armoricaine  (a lobster dish).  “It was a pity for the furniture,” Gaston Boule remarked with a stoic grin, “we’d just bought a beautiful set of leather divans and armchairs to celebrate our wedding anniversary.  My only anxiety was that our cat Mitsi had been caught in the fire.  But the clever girl had escaped to the neighbors’.  Material things can always be replaced,” Gaston Boule said.

Titillated by what he deemed a most extravagant attitude, Jules queried the Marseillais, “Where do you now both stay?  How did your wife take it?  I’d go crazy if something like that occurred to me.»

“We’re opposites and complement each other,” Gaston Boule explained, “Marie takes care of the household and the accounts while I run the errands.  And check the results.  But whatever the circumstances, I sleep like a log.  She worries for the whole family.”  To stress his point, the Marseillais tilted his head joining both hands against his temples, then added with a childlike fascination, as if reenacting the scene, “She screamed so much at the insurance man, he got frightened for his dear life and found us himself a furnished apartment the next morning.”  Had someone else told this story, Jules would have remained incredulous.  “To be so easygoing,” thought the young man, “unless, he’s totally irresponsible.”

“Tell me,” Gaston Boule said, rolling his eyes, “any hint on how to while away one’s time in this place?  There isn’t a cat at that casino, and the movie theater hasn’t opened yet.  I already miss my pétanque (French game of bowls).”

Here, Jules had two definite answers and he couldn’t wait to blurt them out.  The first one he’d gleaned from Michel Picon, “The casino owner who is also the manager of the cinema has vowed not to have any films projected until the dispute between him and the municipality is settled.  Apparently, the mayor’s wife, having lost several thousand francs at the game of roulette last season, in a fit of anger, drove over the flowerbeds and smashed the shrubbery.  The casino owner has filed a lawsuit against her, but of course, he has no chance of winning the case, so he penalizes the whole spa – no movies!  If you’ve noticed, there isn’t a plant left in front of the casino.  It’s only parking space.”

“Ooohhh!” exclaimed the Marseillais with a pout.

Jules felt suddenly ashamed of his excitement – maman despised gossips, and here he was turning into one of them.  After a pause, he regained his composure and said, “I met Monsieur Schweitzer the other day and he’s always eager to have new pétanque partners.  He’s asked me oftentimes to play.  Maybe I could join you once you show me the rules.  I’ll introduce you to him tomorrow afternoon.”

“With the greatest of pleasure,” beamed Gaston Boule, “you know us Provençaux (people native of Provence), a day without pastis (aniseed aperitif) and pétanque is a day without sun.”

Seeing how jolly his table-mate was, in spite of the fact that he’d just lost his home, Jules was tickled with further curiosity, “Why are you at all here?” he interjected.

“It’s that damn amoeba I caught during the Algerian war.  I call it my wadi, like those dry desert brooks to which you pay no attention until there’s a downpour – then they resuscitate and it is total mayhem.  When my wadi awakens, it zigzags through my bowels like a flow of burning lava.”

Jules could hardly imagine Gaston Boule fighting anyone, let alone North Africans.  The Marseillais spoke with nostalgia of the binges he’d had in the night spots of Algiers’ casbah, “A sweet life we had there.  Pity it slipped through our fingers, though I guess they’re entitled to their independence.”

Jules learned from Gaston Boule that at least half of the curistes who sought treatment in Constipax were retired military folk who’d contracted their bugs either in Indochina in the early nineteen fifties or like him out in the Jebel mountains.  He also told Jules that being too young to twiddle his thumbs, he’d accepted a part-time job with the army, driving convoys full of explosives and other ammunition from a factory to an arms depot where they were ready to be shipped for export.  Jules asked him jokingly if he ever thought of smuggling weapons out of the country for his personal benefit.

“Oh!” Gaston Boule said, raising his eyebrows, do I look subversive?  No, I don’t mix with Marseille’s racketeers, since that’s what you’re hinting at.  I prefer chasing women, though I wonder whether it is safer,” and he gave Jules a wink. “If Marie ever so much as suspected me, I’d get strangled,” he said and added almost immediately, clinking his glass of wine with Jules’,  “To our future conquests!”

Jules let ten more minutes run before he rang the bell to call the attendant.  But when Jérôme came in the young man’s hard-on hadn’t diminished.

“I bet girls don’t need lollipops with you,” the attendant lisped, narrowing his eyes, “you’d make a lot of males envious,” he commented swiftly in a softer tone of voice.  Then suddenly looking like a satyr, he ordered Jules to get out of the tub and flatten himself against the wall.

Jérôme literally whipped him with the high pressure water jet from the chest down to the feet, up again, then around the groin, dexterously avoiding the sensitive parts. Needless to say that in a matter of seconds Jules’ impressive penis had turned limp.  The young man gasped, trying to shield his face and genitals at once, failing in his attempts, for Jérôme now lashed at him in all directions with increased vehemence.

“Turn round!”  the attendant barked, but Jules remained transfixed.  “Turn round!” Jérôme repeated, aiming at Jules’ thighs, so close to his genitals that the young curiste finally complied.  At this stage, Jules no longer felt the pain and this, in spite of the stronger pressure of the jet.  It was also hotter.  The attendant spared not an inch of the young and firm body: head, buttocks and calves seemed to be his choice targets.  Pink streaks soon appeared on the back and along the limbs and their sight made Jérôme foam at the mouth.  Then, without warning, he turned off the water.  For a moment Jules believed he’d gone deaf and stuck his fingers in both ears.  He timorously looked up at the attendant whose cheeks were so flushed one would have sworn he was the one to have received the jet.

“You’ve been brave,” Jérôme said, almost listless. “Till tomorrow,” he muttered and left the still dazed young man dripping wet.

Before going down to his massage appointment, Jules in his bathrobe, went to the lavatory and took a long, noisy piss, closing his eyes to savor the voluptuous interlude.  In the haze of his mind, lulled by the splashing echo that reverberated in the closet, Jules pictured himself in a time warp, two thousand years back, on the very same grounds where he now stood.  A Gallo-Roman patrician, he was taking the waters whilst a dozen bare-breasted maidens milled about him, carrying trays of scent phials and ointments, ready to wait on him and to let their expert fingers run over the surface of his skin, igniting his nerve-ends.  Thus daydreaming, the young curiste knocked at the door where the sign ‘massages’ was posted.  He waited a few minutes before it opened, letting out a sudden yet blissful Michel Picon.  “She’s like that!”  he whispered, pointing his thumb upwards,  “but I suggest you go easy on her, she’s a judoka, and a black belt, if you please!”

“Monsieur Le Rippoff?” a clear, resonant voice called.

“Yes … Mademoiselle,” Jules answered somewhat abashed.

“Once you’ve taken off your clothes, come in,” she said, then, on a higher register and without transition, she hummed Memory , the lovely tune from the musical Cats . The young man stood motionless and listened while his heart began to pound loudly and offbeat.  “Maman …” he panicked and fought between his right hand which tried to undo the bathrobe and his left arm which wedged itself athwart, blocking the way.  Jules remained in this awkward position long enough for the masseuse to come and fetch him. Then in a split second he shed his robe and tiptoed behind her like an automaton to the massage room.  She wore a one-piece swimsuit which underlined her firm, harmonious curves.  She had the athletic figure of a valkyrie  and her mid-long blond hair framed a handsome face that betokened a strong-willed temperament.  She gave Jules a frank no-nonsense smile and told him to climb atop what resembled an operating table.  It was narrow and padded with a velveteen-like rubber and above it hung a sprinkling rod.

Afraid of falling off, Jules lied pinned to the table, a prisoner within his own nudity. He stared overhead as the water began to spout, pelting the whole length of his body.

“It’s a brand new device,” the masseuse said as she’d adjusted the pressure of the jets.  “Sorry for that,” she apologized as Jules shifted himself a little to avoid having his face splashed again – he’d have to dry his hair thoroughly.

“The way you groom your hair is as important as the clothes you wear.” maman             felt.

When Jules went to see the musical Hair , he didn’t tell maman that it had more to do with hairs than just hair, and she was glad he’d liked it – for once, the Américains  hadn’t indulged in violence.  At the mere thought of the nude scenes, Jules got horny, he sometimes dreamt he had an abundant mane fluffed up like a punk’s, but his secret fantasy was to have his pubic hair dyed a golden orange with a serpent’s head tattooed above it, perennially staring out.

The masseuse, her name was Marylise, poured some oil into the palm of her left hand then rubbed it against the other.  She must have noticed that the young curiste was getting stiff, for she immediately began to work his belly mercilessly.  Jules wanted to plead her to be more gentle.  This wasn’t a massage, it was a trouncing session.  He felt as if she was going to pull his bowels out.  He gnashed his teeth and his hard-on recoiled.   “It isn’t fair,” he said mentally, “ I’d like to see how she or Jérôme would behave if they were naked.  Blatant usurpation of power!

Lying down in this most vulnerable position, and with the face of Marylise hovering so close above him, Jules found himself compelled to speak.  He thus ventured to ask a few questions concerning her job and what brought her to Constipax.  She told him that after three years of her own practice in Colmar she was happy for this break.

“Working independently has its advantages,” she admitted, “but it is also slavery and does not allow you to have a private life.”

“How so?” Jules pitched, stridently.

“In physiotherapy, to survive you have to work at least ten if not twelve hours per day, not counting all the time spent in your car and the expenses thereof – home calls account for half of my income.  But here I am”,  Marylise added cheerfully, “and having one’s evenings free is marvellous.” she added.

To his astonishment, Jules learned things about himself which Monsieur Picon, ‘his buddy‘, had reported to the masseuse.  That he lived in Paris with his aging mother, that they had ‘fled‘ from their poverty-stricken Brittany, that as a consequence, he, Jules, had been spoilt rotten, but nevertheless had, after repeating his classes several times, managed to get some sort of degree and that he now enjoyed relative prosperity.  The young man, as naked and wet as he was gave free rein to his anger and put a few things straight, insisting on the fact that Picon was just an acquaintance.

“Of all the gall!” Jules exclaimed when Marylise said “I hear you have an excellent job dealing with Arab potentates.  If I’m not mistaken, you also import dried dates and figs from the Middle-East.”

“This is sheer fabrication,” Jules rebuked, “My field is software programming and the company I work for is called Datafig, the famous computer firm.”  Then, suddenly aware of the comicality of the quiproquo, Jules caught himself cackling,  “Dried dates and figs! Some people, really!”

“There’s no need to get so worked up, I’m sure Monsieur Picon didn’t mean any harm,” Marylise said, relaxing her grip on Jules’ belly.

“Maybe not,” the young man conceded, rather miffed, “but he talks through his nose.

“Ok,” the masseuse said, wiping the grease off her hands with a sponge, “you may now dispose.”

His ears ringing with what he’d just heard, Jules forgot to greet Marylise, and when he realized it, she was already busy ministering to another curiste. “Le ridicule tue,”  maman would say, “never let yourself be dragged into a situation where your adversary uses ridicule as his weapon.”

As Jules walked down to the atrium he was struck by the atmosphere of effervescence, compared with the desolation of the previous days.  From the clusters that formed around the buvette (pump room) and along the bay windows arose a hubbub of voices.  He had the impression he was entering a cage of lingurs, those bearded monkeys which he would stare at, fascinated, when, a child, he’d visit with maman the zoo in Vincennes.

He was filling his glass at one of the three fountains when a hand waved at him.  It was Michel Picon leaning against a pillar and talking with two ladies.  Michel Picon motioned him to join them.  The young man did so reluctantly.

“Madame la Duchesse de Lust ,”  Michel Picon announced in a pompous tone as he introduced the older lady, a rotund woman who, in spite of the beige Channel ensemble she was wearing and the precious jewels that decked her pudgy fingers, made Jules think of the bouncing little girl she must have been years ago with her corkscrew curls and mischievous gray eyes.  Now the hair, thick and tightly gathered – undoubtedly her own -, smelled of lacquer and glistened like the nylon wigs of those Italian dolls so popular in the nineteen fifties.  She was a full head shorter than the other lady who, in contrast, stood stiff and upright with the somber elegance of an exiled Slavic princess.

With a flourish, bracelets tinkling, the duchess held out her bejewelled hand for Jules to kiss.  He’d never done that before, but feeling suddenly constrained, the young man brought the proffered hand to his lips and inhaled the dizzying perfume it emanated.

The duchess then resumed her chatting with Michel Picon and inquired about this year’s new faces.  Every now and then she’d ogle at Jules whilst the tall woman – obviously her dame de compagnie  – remained aloof.  That Michel Picon had a knack for whetting people’s curiosity and they both prattled away for another quarter of an hour before the duchess, turning to the high-cheek-boned woman, said  “We’ll go to the pastry shop, Sweetie, and get some of their delicious petits fours. These gentlemen will drop by for the aperitif this evening.  Oh, do we still have champagne in the refrigerator?”

Sweetie nodded, without betraying the shadow of an emotion.

“Ciaio,” greeted the duchess, and the two women left the pump room.

A waggish grin stretched Michel Picon’s mouth, baring his porcelain-white teeth.             “What’s this all about?” Jules asked, somewhat spare.

“It’s the story of the big bad wolf,” Michel Picon said, laughing, “you’ll see, they’re quite special, but fun,” he added, toning down, “this is a monotonous place, man, you couldn’t refuse yourself a thrill or two, especially when they’re presented on a silver platter, would you?  Let’s go,” he concluded, “these massages and steam baths make me ravenous.

They both walked out into the Grand’Rue (Main Street) and headed in the direction of their respective pensions.

“Bon appétit,” Michel Picon said as they parted, “and I advise you to have a good rest this afternoon, you’ll need all your energy.”

Having had his lunch, Jules went up to his room.  But as he readied himself for his masturbation ritual, the shrill sound of the telephone tore into the air, tickling his eardrums in a most unpleasant manner.

“Julot,” maman drawled – she used that endearing soubriquet whenever she thought her son was neglecting his filial duties, – “I’ve been trying to get to you for the past two days.  By the way, that nice colleague of yours called to inquire about your health.  I promised Joséphine I’d invite her for dinner once you’re back.

“But, maman …”

“Tsss, tsss,” maman hushed Julot up, “do you want to remain a bachelor all your life?”

Being reminded of Joséphine made Jules go limp, he didn’t feel like having a snooze any more.  His male colleagues at Datafig would tease him when mentioning her, and the more vicious among the secretaries referred to her as a squint-eyed Bas-cul (low-ass).  Jules thought they pushed too far with her, just because the girl was in the management’s good books.  Nevertheless, every time Bas-cul would knock at his glass-panelled door with the excuse of bringing him a file, he’d start sweating under his armpits, for Bas-cul would always stay longer than he’d wish her to.  He’d stand up to accompany her back to the door and that was when, in her whistling voice, she would ask him very personal questions concerning his digestive problems.  “You’re much too anxious,” she’d say whilst her left eye uncannily stared at his crotch.

It was no secret at Datafig that Bas-cul had a crush on Jules and the mere thought of it exasperated him.

“You’re not like the other guys,” she’d compliment him, “sex is all that’s on their minds.”

He should absolutely have to dissuade maman.

That whole afternoon Jules felt cooped up like a fox in a cage.  It was raining cats and dogs, so he couldn’t even go for a walk.  Monsieur Plouzennec, the faun-looking country-man he regularly met at the baths, was a hundred percent right when he raged and cursed about the weather: this part of France was an abomination.  Too nervous to read, Jules tiptoed down the two flights of stairs and entered the TV room.  It was deserted, he didn’t even bother to switch on the set.  AlI of a sudden, he felt a sense of repulsion toward the screen, realizing for the first time in all the years he’d been working with computers that he played slave to the machine, that it had progressively, unrelentingly numbed his emotions.  Though he fancied not a bit squint-eyed Bas-cul, she probably was reacting in a much more human fashion than he was.  A surge of self-hatred invaded him.  “Jules,” he muttered, “you are a petit-bourgeois and you don’t find anything more stimulating than to jerk off during your leisure time while people are getting killed in the Persian Gulf, in Central America or at your own doorstep (the recent spate of bombings in Paris did scare you a little), while children of the Third World starve or a nuclear plant explodes in Gorby’s backyard.  Datafig has sapped your willpower and turned you into just another micro-chip.  More than once you had the opportunity to embark on the grand American adventure.  Yet, you never did disclose to maman the offer made by Datafig’s top management to send you on a three-year assignment to Silicon Valley.  You turned it down with the excuse that you had to take care of an aging mother (who’s sick, I ask you ?); the truth is you’ve been reading too many articles about San Francisco being the world capital of Aids – why did you bring Camus’ The Plague with you to Constipax?”  Nauseated by such considerations, for Jules was not one to go into the depth of soul-searching, the young man left the TV room intent on braving the elements.  He swiftly changed clothes and put on a pair of rubber boots.  For some odd reason he decided he’d exit the pension through the kitchen.  At this hour, he figured, the staff must be out.  He opened one of the two doors, this one led to the basement.  Prompted by curiosity, Jules nimbly walked down the steep and narrow steps and followed a dark corridor lit by a dimmer bulb.  Then, as he neared a heavy postern he stopped dead.  From behind it came a noise and mutterings.  The postern seemed padlocked but it had a deep crack along its lower part.  Jules stopped and gaped almost instantly at his discovery.  There, in the cellar, was Janine, sitting astride a wine barrel, her skirt tucked up so that he could see the dark bush between her legs.  She was unbuttoning Monsieur Charlot’s pants as he began to fondle her.

But for once, Michel Picon kept mum concerning the evening party.  He showed up, dressed to kill, wearing a domino tuxedo, a silk embroidered shirt and a gray velvet bow-tie.  Jules let out a long whistle of admiration and said: “with my sports jacket and scarf, I’ll pass for a plouc  in comparison.”

“Don’t you worry,” answered Michel Picon who appeared to have just emerged from a pool of Alain Delon perfume.  His face and hair, his hands and even his breath were impregnated with it.  “The duchess de Lust actually finds you rather cute.”

Each with his umbrella, the two young men crossed the Grand’Rue.  It looked eerie in spite of the brightly illuminated lamp-posts.  As they left the Promenade des Dames, Jules ventured half jestingly, “Would you say we could be mistaken for high-road thieves or maybe Dracula and his cousin?” and he guffawed.

Either Michel Picon feigned to ignore the remark or else he was absorbed in a different register of thoughts, for he didn’t open his mouth until they reached the curve of the slope.  “Here we are,” he said, pointing at a chalet on whose small front garden stood a dozen elves and goblins.

Sweetie welcomed them in.  With the satin purple frock she donned and her sad Slavic princess smile, she reminded Jules of Greta Garbo.  They were then led upstairs to a large, sparsely furnished attic.  The alcove contained an expensive suede divan and a pair of matching armchairs with a revolving glass-table in the center of which rested a three-branch candelabrum.  The floor was strewn with fluffy sheepskins and colorful silk cushions.  The dim lighting shed by the corner appliques and the tall candles lent a strange yet cosy atmosphere to the place.

Wafting a scent of lilac, the duchess who wore a pastel-hued gown suddenly appeared, flanked by a very handsome guy in military fatigues.  He had a mass of jet-black hair, brows and a mustache so well defined, they seemed to have been drawn in Indian ink.  A mischievous dimple divided his chin and his eyes were contrastingly pale, smoky green or hazelnut – not quite discernable in the penumbra.  As the duchess made the introductions and invited her guests to take a seat, a thought crossed Jules’ mind, “What an odd company this is!”

The duchess who now insisted to be called by her first name (Josiane), settled on the divan with Michel Picon to her right and Marc, the army hunk on the opposite side. Sweetie disappeared several times from the attic-room to return with a tray of petits fours and rosé champagne; she brought at last, to Jules’ astonishment, a crystal bowl filled with … dried dates and figs… “in honor of our new guest,” said the duchess, prompting Jules to clink glasses with her.  Sweetie served more rosé champagne.

“It has such a marvellous suavity,” Jules commented, letting the sparkling elixir caress his taste buds awhile before he would swallow it.  He soon felt titillated and slightly euphoric.  Only now did he begin to distinguish certain details which had escaped him upon entering the attic-room.  Why, the three candles as the wax slowly melted, revealed the bulbous forms of three penis glandes, so diaphanous, they almost throbbed.  At the base were a pair of clearly shaped testicles.  Was Jules’ mind getting foggy?  Before joining the others on the divan, Sweetie had passed around a small plate of marzipan cookies.  The one which Jules picked out was the perfect reproduction of female genitals.  He hesitated, but seeing that nobody was paying any particular attention to him, he bit into it and savored the fruity almond paste.  He had hardly finished the marzipan and emptied his glass than he became aware of a change in scene.

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