Lunch with Friends

By Raymond Lee

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I’d spent the morning at the famous Shakespeare and Co. getting lost in the old stacks in the back behind the stairs. George was still kicking around, drinking soup from a bowl and haunting the aisles in a 19th-century sleeping gown. I remembered how years ago he used to tell me dirty jokes and so asked if he’d heard any good ones lately. He gave me a blank stare as if he was trying to picture who I was. He must have come up empty because he wandered away muttering.

The mass of young literati were ever-present. Their faces merged with those I had known back in ought four, all walking around intently, looks of superiority and glory-to-come upon their faces as they brushed by without comment. The amateur volunteers had little time to direct me towards the Roman Gary title I was searching for.

Otherwise, it was a delightful morning. Lost as I was in worlds that don’t properly exist, worlds discovered since childhood between moth-eaten, weather-beaten covers hidden away in obscure corners, physically dug up from piles of the moldering like. I was in the habit lately of spending my life that way, mired in other people’s empires.

My childhood was unfortunate. I was born poor like anybody else and so had to get a job out of high school. That job became a career, and that career became my waking life. It wasn’t incredibly pressing, and so lonely I took up literature to ease through the monotony of the working hours. I got to choose my other life, the dreaming one where time and space were optional to preference, the company at my discretion.

I spent thirty years this way. Working a job I didn’t like, but I made the right investments, selling before busts, after booms. All told I did alright for myself. No one would’ve thought I, among all my bright and eager classmates, would become a millionaire. Few think of me these days, but those who do consider me lucky. Maybe luck does have something to do with it, but for all the money I’ve made I have pitifully little to show of it.

I always wanted a woman. Pure, easy, simple. The guys at work would always joke
about how clever I was for never getting married. But the truth was the envy was all on my side. Of the many fine things placed upon my table over the course of my life the one I wanted most never materialized. I played myself off to friends and the fading remnants of family as a Casanova, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Women came along, there may have been one or two floating around the periphery of my existence, but those relationships were only ever as brief as the first fine week of Spring.

I was still rather young when I retired. At fifty-two I had plenty of money, but was too old to piss it away on anything exciting and too young to become a hermit. So I moved to Italy in the hopes of writing the great American novel. It seemed like a good idea at the time and I was well prepared for it. Marooned by the language and distracted by the stunning peaks from my villa I actually wrote very little. Again I found my days filled with books, the greatest books ever written. And as my library grew, literature came to consume me.

I slipped inside so many minds and explored the depths of innumerable universes so much so they began to become my own. I listened to fine records on vinyl and read with a passion that ruined my eyesight and made my waist expand to a point I barely recognized myself in the mirror. My life was a dream, and it seemed for awhile I was living in another world.

The idea for my lunch with friends came to me through Maria. It bubbled up out of murky, forgotten depths one day. I don’t know, I might have been asleep. “This happen with age,” my physician told me in his stilted and clipped English during a regular check up, “you are fine one moment” and then with the gesticulation Italians are famous for his balled hand turned to a starburst, “next you are in dreams.” He laughed. “No big deal, as you Americans say.”

Some men get to keep their Maria. Not me. I met her at Under the Attic on Superior Avenue, Chicago’s North Side having a drink to myself one night. She’d come in a few times a week in those days. I’d seen her around, the usual admiration from afar type of deal. This one particular night she connects eyes with me. I nod as if to say hello, a little habit I retained from my rural upbringing. Normally it didn’t go so well in the city but she surprised me by coming over to my table drink in hand.

Instead of saying hello, asking my name and all that, she sits down confidently, leans over the table as if imparting a secret and asks through the drone of music: ‘If you could meet any five people living or dead, have lunch and get drunk with them, who would they be?’

I was astounded by the question, but my answer surfaced more quickly than I would have thought. I guess she liked some of the inclusions because we talked for awhile. She told me the question’s design was a personality test. I assumed that meant I passed. She gave me her answers. I can’t recall a single person from her list but she must have chosen some authors for how long we spoke. She was the cozy type one feels inclined to open up towards, and she was a fast drinker. By any right I took her back to my modest apartment that night. She lingered with me a few weeks before moving on. Maybe I bored her? Working steel doesn’t leave much to talk about and we shared little in common outside biological necessity. I saw her around from time to time afterwards. For what it was I think I might have loved her as much as any young man can love a young woman, but after that initial conversation I don’t think we ever spoke, really spoke, again.

Twenty years later in my Italian villa with a well worn copy of Allende’s House of Spirits in my hand Maria and her ridiculous question come to me out of a resounding silence. Again, I might have actually been asleep but given to mania I decided to see the idea through.

I collected my thoughts, got out the nice stationary and wrote a proposal. I sent the invitations out with the evening mail. I chose Paris for the location because it seemed like it could serve as common ground. April because of that old song, you know the one, ‘April in Paris.’ The bar I chose because it had been my favorite when I went backpacking as a young man.

I’ve never really been adept at the Italian post so I wasn’t certain any of my guests would receive their invitations. So imagine my surprise when within the month I received an RSVP from all five. The intervening period I was rather more fraught than I would have suspected. The closer the date came the more I felt somehow unworthy of such an esteemed audience. By the morning of Shakespeare and Co. killing time before our big lunch a pervading the sense of ennui overcame me. It would be the lunch of a lifetime, but my nerves had been shot from weeks of anticipation. Few people are ever so lucky! But then again, people are always calling me lucky.

I found myself wishing I had a date to present as I walked out of the bookshop without buying anything. Almost felt like I was stealing, which I had done in the past from Shakespeare and Co. With the rain falling over the pavement, islanding themselves in pools like the way memories can be made of the same substance but at once so very separated I found myself smiling at my reflection in a shop window. I was the happiest I’d been in the longest time, and the rain reminded me of the first time I’d spent April in Paris. It reminded me that that song was perhaps the least accurate bit of pop culture to ever come along.

April in Paris is miserable, dark, wet, always wet, with something menacing in the cobble, the smell of starvation and consumption in the air. Made me think of Greece and malaria back then, as I hopped over some of the smaller puddles, noticing my step growing stronger, my muscles tightening, my balance accurate to a fine point, hair growing in thicker, the curls of my youth returning to me in the reflection of a cafe window and betraying no trace of gray. The wrinkles on my face disappeared before my eyes and that slow, neutral smile of mine tautened, regained the wickedness it once held.

A glance at my wristwatch revealed the approaching noon hour as I ducked into the glass-paneled entrance of the Bistro D’Artistes. I said hello with a wink and a nod to the proprietor, Michelle. I had come to know him well over the course of that youthful summer of ought four. He would be dead before I ever left, hit by a drunk right outside his own bar. But there he was smiling, greeting me familiarly like once did. How much of what was meant to be a college education did I spend on wine and spirits in his bar? How often back in aught four did he ask me and whatever degenerate group I kept company with to leave because he needed to close shop?

He ushered me past several waiters to the back corner I had specified when I noticed one of my guests had already arrived. He rose to greet me from the carved, burnt cherry bench. I’d recognize that mug anywhere. It might be the most famous face in history. I’d never met the man, but his likeness was unmistakable and I could tell by the withering glance of nearby patrons that his presence was creating unease.

His movements were short and perfunctory as he shook my hand. His grip was light, and I noticed something feminine to his demeanor. He made the briefest eye contact possible and then it appeared as if he were trying to avoid me altogether. Rather than meet my gaze he looked about the room to the other patrons, out the window, or to the door. His gaze floating again and again to the door. It seemed he was fixated.

“I’m glad to see you’ve made it.” I said lacking anything better.

“Punctuality is a virtue.” It was an offhand remark as he continued staring towards the door. He pulled at his shirt to straighten it though it was immaculately pressed and he sat down again.

“Wine?” I asked though I immediately regretted it. He shook his head a single time then looked to his hands. When he noticed me noticing them they were placed below the table out of my line of sight. “That’s right, I know you don’t drink. Excuse me, but I think I will have something.”

He cast a disapproving eye my way but the congeniality had melted along with my age and I couldn’t care less. I called Michelle to the table with a wave of the hand. We exchanged a few words and he walked away laughing. I think my guest may have made him a bit nervous because he usually liked to hang around and chat with the clients. Parisians don’t cater to customers so much as friends.

Michelle returned with a bottle of white that was supposed to be the house best. I’ve never been a connoisseur and couldn’t tell the difference between the fine and plastic liter variety. Still I commented on how good it was after the sample was inspected. Michelle received the gesture with a pleased smile before disappearing again.

I tried to make small talk but Hitler wasn’t much for words. I think it was due to lack of audience though, and was quite relieved when Mr. Brock showed up. I introduced the two immediately.

“Herr Hitler,” The words felt as strange to say as the look on Isaac’s face. “this is Isaac Brock of Oregon on the West Coast of the United States.” Hitler stood to shake hands but Isaac merely slumped into the bench next to him. “You’re August right?”

“I am. Listen I want to tell…”

“You’re a big fan, and I bet you liked the early stuff the best, yeah?” He asked cutting me off. His speech impediment was noticeably competing for attention against the queer glint in his eye. “You prefer August or Auggie? Your invitation didn’t leave much for me to work with. I used to have a friend named Alexander so I think I’ll call you that.”

“That’s fine.” I barely fit in as he began a tirade.

“Where the fuck were you back in the nineties, huh? All you people coming to the shows now screaming for the early stuff! We used to drive eighteen hours just to play to the sound guy at rot-gut bars in places like Des Moines. Where were all of you when we were shoplifting groceries? Where were you then?”

“Sometimes you got to pay your dues before you pay the rent.” I tell him borrowing a phrase.

“Yes,” Hitler added, “The people will respond to the strength of character. They threw me in prison, but in the end we triumphed.”

Mr. Brock laughs, looking straight through Hitler. “Maybe that’s how you see it, but the history books don’t paint it that way.”

“Books!” Hitler pounds both fists on the table.

“Take it easy Adolph, my head’s killing me.” Brock looks to me. “Can you get another bottle? I’m nursing one hell of a hangover here. Spent all night on mescaline chatting into the mirror.”

“A conversation with God?”

“Shut the fuck up.”

“Did you just say mescaline?” Hitler asked dumbfounded.

“I did indeed.”

“Any left?” I asked.

“Back at the room.”

“Michelle!” I called out while pointing towards the bottle. He put a finger up mouthing,

“Une moment.”

“I’ll keep the drinks coming, you line me out later?” I winked to Mr. Brock.

And so it went for a period. Mr. Brock and myself becoming intimate over stories of his early years. He recited off kilter accounts of drug abuse and poor relationships, the venues from high to low and all the towns between. Hitler said little, in fact didn’t express much interest in anything other than his hunger. This complaint was pushed aside as I explained there were guests yet to arrive. Mr. Brock had asked me who, but I decided to keep him in suspense.

About mid-way through the third bottle of wine, with my pathetic attempts to translate Jaeger Bomb into French the third and my most highly anticipated guest appeared. “Herr Hitler, Mr. Brock, I’d like to introduce Mr. Vladimir Nabokov.” Neither rose for the greeting, Mr. Brock in tribute to informality and Hitler a cold clam of refusal, due perhaps to the Russian origin of the author’s name. Mr. Nabokov took more flair than necessary removing his dinner jacket to sit down. It became quickly apparent that neither Hitler nor Brock had any idea who he was.

This didn’t stop me from directing him to the chair next to mine. I nearly forgot anyone else was in the room for how silent Mr. Brock became left to Hitler’s company. (Though I do remember a conversation becoming somewhat animated when the topic of zeppelins arose.) I had a great deal to say to Mr. Nabokov but had learned my lesson concerning idol worship with Mr. Brock. Instead we spoke about Paris.

It was a dream realized to share a glass of wine with the author, however I soon learned how much the man loved the sound of his own voice. What’s worse was when I noticed him deftly remove an index card from an interior pocket while pretending to search for a cigar. I saw fine miniature handwriting scrawled across it in neat rows with delineations of topics where several words had been underlined for emphasis.

This was, as you can imagine, quite amusing if not more than just a little disappointing. The course of our conversation segued flawlessly from Paris itself to Parisian women and I soon came to discover that much like myself Mr. Nabokov lead a conflicted life in respect to the fairer sex. It wasn’t the content of his speech so much as the manner in which it was delivered that enthralled me. It was several minutes after a sidelong glance towards Der Fuehrer that I recognized an unknown presence. The white of his muslin was what originally attracted my eye.

Hitler was mute, his bottom lip stiff as he stared out over the crowd. Mr. Brock began gesticulating wildly, almost screaming (I do believe he was drunk) with an arm leaning on Jesus’ shoulder. I rose when the image became familiar but he motioned for me to sit before I could speak.

Jesus didn’t appear at all how I anticipated. He most closely resembled an Arab, and I couldn’t help but laugh at the image of a bearded Arabian Gandhi. To my mind, after the bottle I’d consumed, an Arab was what he resembled most. An emaciated, hunched Arab! There was nothing beautiful about him, in fact he looked to each speaker in earnestness, a quixotic look of constipation on his face as if he were concentrating deliberately on each word. He rarely spoke, but as opposed to Hitler it didn’t seem he disapproved of what was being said, rather he looked absorbed, transfixed. I was somewhat disappointed to realize he hadn’t said a word to me after the better part of an hour had elapsed. In fact, I couldn’t recall hearing him speak until Hitler began to grumble about the state of his health were he not to eat that very moment.

Thus spake Jesus. “I understand there is someone yet to arrive.”

I didn’t realize until afterward that I had sided with Hitler, but hindsight is 20-20 and I was hungry myself. I called over Michelle to take our order. Disappointingly, Hitler ordered salade verte with no dressing. Understanding the meal was gratis and perhaps in accordance to his struggling artist period Mr. Brock went overboard ordering steak frites, hamburger bleu and foie grass along with a bottle of champagne and another of whiskey. Jesus asked for bread and cheese while Nabokov requested pasta in a white sauce with prawns and clams. As for myself I took a pizza margherita, supposing it to be large enough to share with my final guest.

It was quarter to two and I mistook him for a bus boy when he finally arrived. He stumbled over to my bench, as visibly intoxicated as I’d ever supposed him to be and without a word of greeting. His bloodshot eyes were sunken ships of war and his countenance was quiet as the grave. He needed no introduction and I suspect Mr. Brock was more excited than anyone at the encounter. Nabokov too took a great deal of interest in the man but it seemed Mr. Poe was beyond the ability to answer questions coherently.

He rested his fine head of dense hair on a fist and proceeded to pick off the guest’s plates pell-nell. The food couldn’t have come at a better time and seemed to enliven the crowd. The only problem was Poe refused to speak in anything but French, so Mr. Nabokov had his undivided attention. Unfortunately my French wasn’t of a state to contend.

They were going rounds debating what I could only marvel at, most likely literature because the name Pushkin issued authoritatively from Nabokov’s mouth while Poe was deliberately, fatuously repeating the whole spectrum of the Greeks. It seemed the little nourishment Hitler took invigorated him to the point of soliloquy. Jesus busied himself elbowing Mr. Brock with humorous asides against Hitler’s rambling diatribe that had the musician laughing while the two cheered glasses and drank without pause.

I found myself the odd man out, too far from the heated debate between Hitler and Jesus and floundering amongst the French of Nabokov and Poe. I found something of a bridge in the bottle of whiskey. It made hot laps from Poe on one extreme of the table around to Brock on the other. In-between it made several stops and after two or three rounds I ordered another bottle brought to the table.

At this time Michelle quietly pulled me aside to settle the bill. I was astounded to see it came out to just over 800E. I paid in cash while ordering a bottle of wine and another of whiskey. When I returned to the table Mr. Brock was up in arms concerning something I’d missed, lashing out wildly at Hitler who in turn was taking cover behind Jesus. He didn’t look afraid so much as annoyed but it seemed there was no calming the aggressor. Brock kept screaming for a fight and so I was much astonished that Poe took him up on the offer. It would prove anti-climactic. Despite Poe’s best attempt to stand and square off against Brock he tripped over his own feet and fell to the floor. This sent Nabokov into fits. Jesus picked him up to the cacophony of laughter and shouting that followed.

In a word I was embarrassed. The entire evening was a disappointment. Looking about I noticed the Bistro was nearly empty. The diners had all cleared out except for the bar where a few stragglers remained over demis watching the discordance at my table as if it were a football match. Checking my wrist watch I saw it was nearing four. I was relieved the vacancy had nothing to do with my party but was still somewhat self-conscious about those that remained because a young woman was watching avidly.

Taking a closer look I recognized her quite distinctly. It was Maria! She was engaged in discussion with a gentleman next to her but was clearly looking at me. I motioned her over and without excuse she rose from the stool.

“How’s it working out for ya August?”

I couldn’t really explain the evening in a few sentences and so abandoned the subject altogether to ask of her plans. She took one glance back to her company then shrugged her shoulders. “Nothing doing.”

“Would you care to abuse hard drugs with me and Isaac Brock?”

“Sure,” she said without batting an eye.

“If I can find Loup there’s bound to be some speed involved.”

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friends?”

I showed her around the table. Of the five, only Nabokov and Mr. Brock took any interest in her, and perhaps Brock too much so because he began to recount lurid stories of a sexual nature almost immediately.

It became more than apparent the party was over. Hitler excused himself without
goodbye. He seemingly disappeared while the conversation focused on where to go next. It was clear Poe was in no shape to do much of anything, and so Jesus volunteered to see him off, the genius clinging desperately to the savior’s frame some few stumbled steps to the door. Nabokov appeared nervous, though I couldn’t understand why, and suggested a party he knew of in the first arrondissement at the home of an old White Guard friend. Everyone agreed, none moreso than Mr. Brock, who I then inquired after the dope.

Michelle saw us out, ever the gentleman, agreeing we would settle the rest of the account at my earliest convenience. But then I knew something he didn’t and so in my drunkenness, the alcohol and the sentiment of a lost affair affecting my head, I kissed him on the cheek on the way out. Together we wandered through the dim streets, heads bent into the gusts of wind and rain of Paris in April. From one party to the next all through the night the faces became a slur, the words in every language blurred, becoming one, the want of ever more increasing, the senses dulled and then heightened at maddening intervals until finally a sweet slice of death in a stranger’s bed as Maria’s body curled over mine.

Before the dreams imprisoned me she said. “It’ll all be over when you wake.” I could do little more than nod. “So how was it? Everything you could have wanted?”

I muttered as best I could. “I’d forsake them all for another night with you.”

“Why’s that?” She asked.

“I spent my life in the company of these men, but you…” I trailed off as I fell into dreams trying to describe a feeling I’d been missing for the better part of half a century.

About Raymond Lee

Raymond Lee lives and works in Afghanistan where the combination of political unrest and Sharia law keeps him at once in his natural element yet sober. If you, too, have the misfortune of encountering Raymond Lee, doubtlessly in a bar, in say Manila, Tallinn, or Oklahoma City, be forewarned: he is not to be trusted. His writing is expansive and largely (one could argue rightfully) unpublished.

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