Spring/Summer 1996, Volume 13.2
Paul Michel Baepler
With Jim Morrison
Death is the Beginning of Something.
Paul Michel Baepler (B.A., Carleton College) is currently completing his Ph.D. in American Literature at the University of Minnesota. His fiction has appeared in Weber Studies, Wayne Literary Review, and others. See other work by Paul Michel Baepler published in Weber Studies: Vol. 10.2.
During World War II, while the Allies rained bombs around Bibiche's house in Bordeaux, mistaking it for a German submarine base, my great uncle Jules huddled in the stone-vaulted wine cellar with my mother and tante Alice. Since my grandfather refused to retreat—certain that a direct hit could just as easily kill him in the basement as in his own bed—Bibiche bribed Jules to the cellar with cups of ersatz coffee she brewed from burnt orange rind. In return Jules lectured the girls, remaking the history of the world into an unbroken string of French triumphs. The battle at Trafalgar became known as Nelson's defeat. Waterloo, Napoleon's greatest victory. Even the Nazis who had stormed into town and commandeered Jules's small villa were only there because the French army had lured the dirty Boches off their home soil. This way, France could wage war on her own terms, on horseback. No German Panzer division, no matter how many tanks, was any match for De Gaulle's nobly-studded cavalry! The French, Jules pointed out over great droning air raid sirens, still knew the immense tactical advantage of a well-marshalled steed in modern warfare.
Now, as they sat drinking kir in Alice's over-stuffed apartment in Epinay near Paris, Alice and Mom ranged deep into their memories, inventing new details the other couldn't remember. Alice recalled Jules's mania for umbrellas. He had seven, one for each day of the week, and he hung them sequentially on the hearth, moving them like beads on an abacus as each day flicked by. She remembered all the handles were splendid animal heads, and each had a name that she would recall if you just gave her a moment. Mom, who had a flair for the grotesque, didn't remember the umbrella handles, but vividly described Jules's lisp and the webbing between his fingers. According to Bibiche, there had been a violent explosion in the pesticide factory where he had worked as a chemist. The fingers on his left hand had literally fused together and surgeons had replaced his bitten off tongue with muscle from his armpit.
Of course there was never agreement between them at first, and they clashed vigorously. "Mais non!" "Ah si!" "C'est pas vrai?" "Bah, dis donc, ma Poule!" until it all settled, and a new benchmark of fact was agreed upon, awaiting even greater lavishes.
* * *
Tante Alice adored television. She watched "La Roue de la Fortune" religiously at 7:30, and she was good. She got the film, "La Dame de Shanghaï," with only three letters. Although I'd try to solve puzzles with tante Alice and Mom, I'd mostly sit on the carpet like a dog waiting for a familiar word to drop through the mash of French syllables. I could probably have done better, but I found myself principally concerned with how Annie Pujol—the French Vanna—dressed each evening. I wondered who thought to match Annie's gown to the color of the letter boxes she turned, and more significantly, why that almost-subliminal detail was so important to translate.
After the news at 8:00, Alice watched videos, sometimes until 3:00 in the morning. Mom had asked to see any film with Bourvil, the famous actor. Tante Alice had "La Jument Verte" but Mom chose "Le Corniaud" because in one famous episode, Louis de Funès drives his Mercedes into Bourvil's Deux Chevaux, virtually shattering it into a thousand pieces. An insurance company uses the scene for a television ad, and for that reason, and because Mom once sat three tables down from Bourvil at La Coupole in Montparnasse, she wanted to watch that film.
As the tape was rewinding, Alice recalled several of the showpeople she had seen in person. There was a very ancient looking Ionesco who lived near La Coupole and the much grown-up Brigitte Fossey who had played the little girl in Les Jeux Interdits. She remembered Georges Brassens, sweating as he played guitar and sang his poems in a small cabaret in Montmartre, "His hair was so wiry, and that long mustache!"
Not to be outdone, Mom remembered seeing Jeanne Moreau in her first starring role in "The Shining Hour" when the actress she was understudying took ill. Moreau got rave reviews and it was the performance that sprung her career.
"Of course I saw Charles Trenet when we still lived in Bordeaux," Alice added nonchalantly. "And after the war, Papa took me to see Jacques Brel at the Olympia."
"Yes, but ma pauvre poulette, you were ill when Papa and I saw Edith Piaf at the Olympia."
Alice feigned surprise, as if she would have remembered an event of such magnitude.
"No microphone, black dress, gold cross, and short," mom recalled. "So short. A bird of a woman." "You know Piaf wasn't her real name," Alice interjected. "It's the name of a small bird, a sparrow."
"But she had a gargantuan voice," Mom continued, not about to let Alice take over her story. "Such an immense voice out of this tiny body. You'd think it funny if she hadn't been so overwhelming. She was so frail by then. The drinking, the pills the men."
"She used to knit sweaters for all her lovers," Alice interrupted. "She never finished them before she quit the man."
"There was one guy who died in a plane wreck," Mom went on, "A boxer, I think. Quite famous. She used to talk with him on the Ouija board. She was terrified of dying. She was always in massive car wrecks. It wasn't long after I saw her that she did die."
"Cocteau, you know, was very close to her," Alice added. "He died the same day, or the day of the funeral, I can't remember. Paris Match said he died of sorrow."
Alice pinched the black remote control and the Bourvil tape began.
"She's buried with Bibiche," Mom said.
Bibiche was my grandmother.
* * *
It was June and a cold spring had slipped into a cool summer. Tante Alice's neighborhood had experienced a rash of burglaries and now she locked the apartment tight as a nut. I didn't dare use the downstairs toilet during the night for fear of setting off the motion detector's claxon. But against Alice's will, Mom and I kept the shutters open all the time. We had the south bedroom and most evenings at 10:50 we could see the Concorde streak across the sky if we reached the window before its thrumbling reached us.
The last time I had been in France, when I was 14, we had stayed in a hotel room near my grandfather's apartment on Rue de la Convention in Paris. This trip would have been impossible had he still been alive since he was a ferociously proud and terrifying man, and I was there strictly on the Mom-plan, as a sort of reward for not quitting my job. I never finished college, though I went seven years to the Open University where you define your own program. I was interested in languages for a while—which is why my pidgin-French keeps me afloat, though it gets fretted into my pidgin-Spanish at times. I studied Child Psychology for a while, until I realized most everyone in the department secretly despised children. My last major—should I say latest?—was Alternative Technologies. I built a bicycle-powered grain mill for use in the sub-Sahara and a working steam engine from throw-aways. In fact I have a lot of different talents that aren't easily recognized. So I was glad to hear that my great uncle Jean was an inventor who built his own television set in the `30's. It actually intercepted a few British broadcasts. But he made his money as an engineer, like Jules, and wrote THE book on sugar beet processing for a company in Normandy. (Great beet country, Normandy, like Utah.) I could see myself researching beets. Just about anything would be better than what I'm doing now. I mean it's difficult to explain—I guess I mean it's humiliating to explain—why I'm 33, working at a video store and living in my mother's basement.
Mom was eager to point to similarities between uncle Jean's enthusiasms and my own, just as she liked to remark how much I resembled her father: the spreading nose, the long crooked fingers, the popping jaw. It was her silent theory that I was born in the wrong country. If I had been born in Paris like her, people would have understood me the way she thinks she understands me. So she likes me to ask questions about the old days, about the family, about her. My theory is she likes my questions because it makes those days significant again, worth the remembering… only you don't remember, do you? You invent. My theory is we're reinventing each other.
My cousin Bruno, who is two years younger than me, owns his own hair styling parlour, "Atmosp'hair." He lives next door to tante Alice and comes over every evening to peck four kisses on her cheeks: bise, bise, bise, bise. In the States it would be: buss, buss, buss, buss.
I'm not used to all the kissing I have to do. When guests come over I'm never sure if it's a handshake or kisses. Bruno knows. Sometimes I catch Mom as she casts a designing eye on the two of us, and I remember the incredible frustration I felt with the two mismatched erector sets I had as a boy—the American Electrix and the French Meccano—and I wonder what kind of son my Franco-mother would build.
Besides the kisses, I'm having food trouble. Alice thinks I eat junk and has pledged to introduce me to my gastronomical heritage, so I end up eating rabbit farci, blood sausage, sea urchins, tripe, calves' brains. The pig snout that arrived at the table was suspended in aspic—I counted the hairs. One night we had the delicacy known as "friture d'éperlans." It resembled a school of smelt instantly welded together in the deep fryer. On my plate it made a crispy modern sculpture, like a globe of swimming fish with neither bowl nor water.
Once in Normandy when I was very young, Mom threatened to make me eat sea spiders if I didn't finish the lonely snail on my plate or the two hideous-looking black and orange mussels. I reminded her of this when we were in bed in our room after the "éperlans" meal, and she said she couldn't remember anything about sea spiders but that it was probably true. I made a mental note that she had accepted the sea spiders. Next time I told the story I would trump up to "pig's lungs."
* * *
I first became acquainted with spiders at the Open University where they truly cultivate lateral thinking and weird tangential projects. At the time, I was sort of a petty street psychopharmacologist, whipping up sets of Diorden and codeine in 4cc rigs as a type of syntho-endorphin maxi-boost for my friends. So my interest was spiked when I read about the use of tarantula venom in ancient Dionysian rituals. Actually, there were rumors that quite a few experimentalists—Rimbaud, Dali, Lennon, Warhol, Dylan, Morrison, Hendrix—re-discovered tarantula venom. But nobody I knew had actually shot it. You just couldn't score tarantula. You had to raise it yourself. So I proposed to study tarantula hispanica, a common Mediterranean variety, and my advisor thought it was a wonderful, multi-disciplinary project.
I had two aquarium tanks with a total of five tarantulas. It was strictly recreational science—I was never comfortable with them as pets. It's irrational, I know. They're really docile, but my paranoia levels were fairly elevated in those years. I used to collect venom by goading them to attack a blue rubber glove and then harvest the toxin from the fingertips. They learned to hate the glove and the color blue. I could press my nose right against the aquarium, even tap on their screens and they wouldn't move. That's what I mean about being docile. But if I brought anything blue to the tank they went lunatic trying to climb the glass walls.
As a liquid, the venom itself was so much less disturbing than the actual tarantula. Yet injected in sub-toxic levels it produced such spine-wrenching ecstatic seizures—better than elavil, haldol, nardil, mixed jive, opium tuss; better than a hundred million orgasms. Psychotropic nirvana!
But that's not my bag anymore. Not that living in my mother's basement is really my thing either. I mean I just don't say "recovered." It sounds too twelve-steppish; no, too judgmental. No regrets that it happened or that I stopped. That was just a different time. Besides, how do you ever recover from feeling spider in your veins?
* * *
Tante Alice wanted no part of it. She didn't want to visit Bibiche's grave. She never had wanted to. She had been there all those years when Bibiche had been so terribly ill. She had no guilt. What morbid purpose was served visiting a can of ashes? Bibiche hated waste, and this was a waste of time. Alice would go to Fontainebleau with us if we liked. So few people went to Fontainebleau anymore. But she would not go to the cemetery.
Mom had never seen the bodies of her dead parents, nor their ashes, nor even the spot where her mother was interred. She had been in Milwaukee in 1979 when Bibiche had died. Papa had Bibiche cremated and interred before contacting Mom in America, and Mom felt betrayed by her sister who might have circumvented Papa with a simple phone call. She never mentioned the betrayal to Alice nor the intense guilt she felt for leaving her sister to take care of first Bibiche and then Papa four years later. Later I discovered that Mom had never mentioned to Alice how she had betrayed Bibiche.
* * *
Bibiche's marriage to Papa had been arranged shortly after her own father died. Papa had clawed his way out of poverty after World War I, and eventually owned a small pharmaceutical company and was looking for a wife who might advance his social position. The marriage worked on some level. The business grew and Papa provided an apartment across from Les Invalides, only a half block from his office. From there he could keep an eye on the girls as they played on the sidewalk. Bibiche had a Spanish maid, there were horseback lessons for the children, and they took vacations three times a year: twice to the sea, once to the mountains. Papa raised Alice and Mom at least as much as Bibiche, who settled into a life of comfortable boredom, reading Simenon novels, doing petit point, and retreating into lonesome headache spells when she was upset with Papa.
They moved to Bordeaux during World War II to escape the Nazis, though Mom never understood why Papa chose a port town, so obviously a target for both sides. They managed well under the circumstances. Papa scavenged what he could for the lab and made ersatz anything, naming it after his first daughter. He bought recycled oil on the black market and changed it into "Ali-mousse," a dish detergent and shampoo. "Ali-sap" was a scouring powder he made from a heap of ashes. He bought the Germans' garbage, burned it, transformed it and sold it back to the Nazis at outrageous prices. This, he boasted, was his modest contribution to the Resistance.
Bibiche spent the war scaring up food and worrying over the stars. She had learned astrology when she was twelve from an old Serb who came to do the mending at her parents house in Dijon. Neighbors came to Bibiche regularly for analysis and reassurance. Papa scoffed at her "nonsense" but was all too glad to eat the tomatoes and turnips that people had brought in payment. Much later after the war, when Papa began travelling the world for amusement, he occasionally scoured the witch markets to find cures. He said it was part of his job as a medical man. Of course this hardly explained why he smuggled a llama fetus out of Bolivia, freeze-dried it in the lab, and hung it over his pillow in hopes of restoring his eyesight. He also said he didn't believe in God but was absolutely certain that his mother was watching him in heaven. He called himself a rationalist, but Mom said it was Bibiche who found food in the stars.
* * *
Bibiche had kept good company. Simone Signoret, Oscar Wilde, Colette, Chopin, Balzac, Seurat, Modigliani and even Proust—all of them are buried at Père-Lachaise. The biggest draw was Jim Morrison of "the doors." His headstone used to read "Jim Douglas," and went as unnoticed as Bibiche, but thousands tracked him down and now graffitied arrows pointed the way to his grave.
The cemetery resembles a small walled city with wrought iron street signs marking the avenues with park benches along the cobbled streets. Everything seems clenched together, the graves as tight as puzzle pieces. A few family chapels stand sentinel over ancestors—those left untended are littered with broken glass, condoms, trash. Pigeon shit drips over everything.
The grade to the colombarium is steep, and Mom walked slowly. She wore a black skirt with a navy blazer and heeled-pumps that clicked on the stones. Around her neck she wore a Huguenot cross. When Mom spoke of the cross she spoke reverently, but not religiously. She was nine and living in Bordeaux when Bibiche, who was a Huguenot, had given it to her. The Gestapo had mistaken Papa for a Jew, and for two weeks, until the appropriate papers arrived from Paris, the entire family was threatened with deportation. That event terrified Bibiche who was convinced that the family would be separated some time during the war, and she warned Alice and Mom never to lose track of each other. To Mom, the cross symbolized more than the persecution of Christ and Jews and Huguenots, it stood for the loyalty of family in and out of war, over time and beyond life.
Mom wanted me to see Bibiche's vault, though she'd never seen it herself. She was nervous and we both knew it. She hadn't worn the Huguenot cross since her mother died eleven years ago.
"Have you noticed all the oak trees?" she asked.
"I know," I said. "They mean death."
"Your great uncle…."
"Lucien. He used to collect leaves from the trees near the poets he loved and keep them in their books. Leaves in the leaves."
"A sentimentalist, hunh?"
"No," Mom sighed. "A faddist. You know he learned Sanskrit so he could read the predictions of Nostradamus in the original."
"Nostradamus wrote in Sanskrit?" I asked.
She paused to sit on a bench, "You know I never understood that story."
As we sat, we watched an old bourgeois woman—what Mom calls une vieille schnock—tend a grave with a diamond-shaped trowel. She was dressed in gray, a pill box hat, with surgical gloves and a mask.
"You know they stack them here," Mom said.
"One on top the other?"
"Un-hmm. We're just seeing the tip. I bet there are two million bodies here. All the Paris dead. That's history."
"Hardly all," I said. "Just the ones who could afford the parking space."
"Oh, I don't believe that," I said.
"It's true. It's very common. It's almost unheard of not to have a family plot. It's just done."
"Well, where's ours? Why aren't we visiting Papa?"
She stood to leave, mashing her cigarette into the pavement with the tip of her shoe. "There's nothing to visit. He made very sure of that. I don't even know where he's scattered."
"It's as if he erased every trace of himself," she said.
"Except for you and Alice."
She turned. "And you, mon poulet." She said it lovingly, but the gravity of the cemetery made it weird, as if she meant that Papa was somehow buried alive inside me.
* * *
The colombarium is a cross between a blast furnace and the Taj Mahal: three alabaster domes and two soot-choked smokestacks. A free-standing portico runs around the perimeter of the building, studded with engraved tablets.
"How are we going to find Bibiche?" Mom asked.
"They have to have a map inside."
We entered the office of the colombarium. Two mafiosi in shark skin suits looked us over. A third man, older, in a gendarme's uniform said, "pas pour les touristes." Mom quickly explained that we were searching for her mother.
The guard, looking at me, said, "ah, pardon, mais…" and smiled. The mafiosi in the corner mumbled as the guard led us to his desk. He asked us what year Bibiche had been cremated and Mom wasn't prepared. She fumbled a moment and eventually told him "1979."
The guard smiled and pulled a ledger off the window sill. There were nine black leather volumes. Mom watched closely as he opened up the over-sized book and smoothed down the pages. The ledger was full of entries, each written in the same neat handwriting: name, address, death date, next of kin, location, payment. It was elegant, a trifle sad. It also wasn't helpful. The entire book was arranged by the date of cremation and there was no other way to locate her. Mom couldn't even remember the exact day Bibiche died, much less her cremation day. Depending on strikes and slow downs, these things can take place weeks after a death. Even when things run smoothly, there simply aren't enough ovens in Paris to meet demand. But our St. Peter was patient and pulled his bony finger slowly down each page for the months of January and February, searching for Bibiche.
The guard suggested another year, perhaps, and even though Mom was certain, we looked at the next ledger and found her in 1980.
"Copy this number down," she told me. "186,454."
The number seemed so meagre and so important. Her coordinates.
After consulting his map, he told us to take the West staircase to the third sub-basement and locate Alley "R." She would be mid-way along the south wall.
"Merci, Monsieur," Mom said.
The guard lowered his eyes politely in the direction of a small dish where Mom deposited a ten franc piece.
* * *
The air in the third sub-basement was worm temperature. I took hold of Mom's hand as we made our way down the slate steps. The chamber we entered was massive, filled with alleys and doorways to other rooms. It gave the impression of a maze and the number we were given seemed a great "X" on a treasure map. I began to feel a sick urgency to find Bibiche.
Our shoes crunched on cement debris as we walked the stacks. They must have been remodeling because the only dim light we had came from bare bulbs dangling out of holes in the wall. Each alley had numbers corresponding to the vault addresses, and as we walked along the side, I could see many of the walls had open spaces. Occasionally we saw other wanderers gazing down the long corridors, but mostly my impression was stillness and disquieting silence. My mind picked that moment to remember how the Chinese buried slaves in the Great Wall. Mom let go my hand when we found Alley "R." The wall was honeycombed with vaults six high and maybe half of them sealed. She held out the scrap of paper with Bibiche's address and my eyes flicked across the stenciled numbers above the rectangular cells.
After a few moments I realized Mom had stopped. I had gone too far.
"She should be here," she said, resting her hand near one of the empty cavities. "This is it. This is her number." Her voice seemed far away.
I came back. It was the right address.
"Maybe we're on the wrong floor," I suggested.
"No, there's only one number. It's here."
"Let's go back. Maybe I copied it down wrong."
She shook her head slowly. "No. It's Papa. He never put her here."
"What are you talking about?"
"He threw her out," she said softly.
"Mom, her name was in the book. Let's just go back."
"He threw her out like he always wanted to. It was just never this convenient."
I turned toward her. "Let's go back."
A short mustached man was talking with one of the mafiosi when we returned to the office. He too had lost a relative, a distant cousin. He wanted to send some of the ashes to Canada for a ten year anniversary ceremony, but couldn't find the vault. The mafioso remained blasé and glanced past the short man. He spoke in annoyed bursts.
"You get six years in the colombarium," the mafioso said. "It's like any rental property; if you don't pay, you lose your space. Next of kin would have been sent a letter."
The little man said he couldn't remember a letter, but all he wanted was the ashes.
"If you don't have them, then they were distributed," the dark man said beginning to walk away.
"What does that mean?" the man asked, following his explanation out the door.
"A common grave," the answer came back.
The little man seemed undisturbed by the response. Where would that be, he wanted to know. "I just need ashes."
By this time the mafioso was well down the hall. "You can't just . Call the city," he said, brushing him off.
"Merci, Monsieur," the little man yelled politely.
At that moment the gendarme returned to his desk with a cup of coffee. Recognizing us from before, he asked if we had found Bibiche. Mom was a little stunned from the mafioso's explanation and quickly told the gendarme that we had found her.
Then we would want a memorial, he assumed, turning toward an old armoire draped in black velvet. I looked at Mom. She gave me a helpless shrug to tell me she had to play along now. The guard pulled aside the curtains and beckoned us to examine the case.
"How pretty," Mom said pointing to the onyx Bible behind the glass.
The case was full of "eternal remembrances." Pink marble Jesus heads, pewter roses, flower urns, stone scrolls. He had barely opened the case when Mom told the guard she would have the pewter Praying Hands. The clasped pair of hands dangled on a silver chain and the guard explained how to suspend the chain so it hung over Bibiche's tablet.
There was a light sprinkle when we walked outside, but it was nice to be in the open air.
"Well?" I said, once we were no longer in hearing distance.
"I don't know," Mom said laughing. "Here, you take it."
"Oh no. You bought it."
"I don't know why I'm laughing. I just lost my mother." She held the hands out in front of her. "It really is junk, isn't it?"
On our way back we passed Isadora Duncan, Sarah Bernhardt and Molière. A woman in a wheelchair struggled to do a rubbing on one of the raised graves.
"So Papa had been dead two years when the letter was sent," I said.
"We won't tell Alice," Mom said. "She wouldn't understand any of this. She never has."
"What do you mean?"
She was quiet for a moment. "And what I said about Papa "
"I won't say a thing."
"No, of course not. But it's true. Papa was a businessman. He knew what eventually would happen to her."
I turned my head, "Oh, I don't know."
She stopped. "Don't defend him. You never knew him. Nobody did. Alice didn't. Bibiche certainly didn't."
"Yes. Well, not entirely. No. I mean it's not what you think. Nothing sexual. Papa would never. He could be cruel, but ." She shook her head, flustered.
A couple pushing a double stroller with twins passed beside us. The young man walked in front with an umbrella over part of the carriage.
She started over. "Papa's ashes were never scattered." "What?"
"Oh, I don't know where they are. Probably Claudette has them, if she's still alive." She looked at me, "And you can probably guess who Claudette is."
I thought for a moment, "His lover?"
She nodded. "They met during the Occupation in Bordeaux, but I didn't know that until about 1967. He was drunk and he told me. He was drunk a year later when he gloated to Bibiche that he had been with Claudette for twenty-five years. Twenty-five years! That was the time of her first suicide attempt."
"Was that why she had to take all those pills for her stomach?"
Mom held up her finger for me to wait. "The second attempt, the overdose that destroyed her pancreas and liver and insured her pain for the rest of her life, came six months later when Papa brought to his defense the fact that her own, Bibiche's youngest daughter, had known of the affair."
"Oh, but you can't take the blame."
"This happened when I was in Paris. You were just an infant then. She called me into her room and asked me. I didn't have to say a word. She told me I had betrayed her, and even though I knew it was the predicament Papa had placed me in, I couldn't not believe her. I really believed I had betrayed my own mother."
"And now she's gone."
"What? Yes, and now she's gone."
I put my arm around her and she burrowed her head in my shoulder. "At least you have the praying hands," I said, trying to be light.
"Not a word of this to Alice, eh. She knows none of this."
"Papa never told her?"
"Are you kidding?" She pulled a cigarette from her purse and lit it. "We told her nothing. She's always been the soft egg. I was the hard. Papa said so, and he was right. She's threatened suicide, you know."
"No, I didn't."
"You're learning all the secrets, mon pauvre poulet. Suicides run in the family."
We started walking again. All this talk about concealment and hard eggs had restored her. I imagined this is how she must see herself, as a guardian or a double agent. To me, as we walked among the dead, she seemed more confident, even proud, like a secret orphan.
We wandered silently along the Avenue Casimir Périer. Several tombs had stone busts or reclining figures along the length of the grave. Near the sites of Héloïse and Abélard, we found a photographer directing a woman in a satin bridal gown.
Two girls done up in leather and short-cropped tights came toward us giggling, arm in arm. The one with blood red hair was whispering in the other's ear. As they came closer, Mom noticed them too. They seemed delighted with the world.
"Pardon, Monsieur," the one nearest me said.
Her eyes were bright black, and just as I noticed this, she darted out and kissed my cheek.
"Jeem Moreeson eez ov-air zere," she said, twisting around and pointing.
They kept moving, they had hardly stopped. My kisser was still watching me over her shoulder, her smile tight and astounding.
"Merci," I said stupidly and laughed.
The two clipped away and Mom said, "See, there are advantages to travelling with your old mother."
"What do you mean?"
"You don't possibly think they'd kiss a lone man in a cemetery do you?"
"It happens to me all the time," I said.
"You should take me to bars. I'd have them clawing at your pants in no time."
"Jesus, Mom," I said.
Even though he was married, my cousin always talked about chasing women, and I think Mom wished I would too. I guess it's more romantic to think you have a son with a frustrated soul than one who's just a bit fucked up.
"Well, now we've got to find this Jim Morrison," Mom said, looking in the direction the girls had pointed.
"You don't want to go home?" I asked.
"Go home? After this?"
"I just thought…"
"First I find my mother has been thrown God knows where—an ash heap?—then two leather goddesses ravish my son and point us to some poor boy's grave. Really, chéri, what else can we do?"
She was right, of course. It seemed absurd to take my mother to Morrison's tomb, but less so than just returning home straight away.
Searching for Morrison was almost more of a project than finding Bibiche. We couldn't exactly return to the office and ask our way, and Mom wasn't about to scramble over graves in the direction the girls had pointed. I half-hoped we'd just drift about without finding him until Mom got tired. But it wasn't long before we stumbled upon clues: "Jim" with an arrow pointing down the avenue, another arrow with "The Doors are never closed," "C'mon Baby," etc. Mom, who had a penchant for mystery novels, relished the hunt, and didn't seem to mind the graffiti which in other settings she usually deplored.
Before too long, the traffic thickened. People passing gave us knowing smiles and Mom smiled back unknowingly.
"That must be it," she said, looking down the avenue. But there were only eight or nine people straggled around tombstones, smoking, laughing.
When we got a little further we noticed quite a few more people actually among the graves. The graffiti became more severe and rapturous while the usual graveyard silence broke with a growing tangle of voices. When it became clear that we would have to pick our way over several graves to find Morrison, Mom took my arm, uncertain whether this was still a good idea. By this time I could tell she was getting tired and a little apprehensive. She didn't like scrabbling over tombs.
People circled the grave from every direction as if they were drawn there magnetically. The grave itself was plain and open—just a stone frame filled with dirt—but fans had dropped mementos: flowers, notes, a 45 single, candles, dog tags, purple panties, a microphone, a picture of Roy Orbison, one alligator shoe, a caged gerbil. One blond man, maybe forty and speaking in furious German, waved a liter bottle of beer in the air, drinking from it and periodically dribbling it onto the grave. Some people had Walkmans, others had cameras and took turns at the foot of the plot. A few kept their distance, lounging on nearby stones, smoking and drinking. We were fairly close, Mom wanted to see what there was to see as long as we came this far.
The tombstone was chipped and gouged; people had scrawled all over it, but you could still see: "Jim Morrison 1943-1971," a " " sign scratched in the "O" of Morrison.
"He was only 27," Mom said, her volume a little too conspicuous for my ease. "How did he die?"
"In a bathtub."
"No, it was heroin."
The German with the beer bottle switched to French, telling the crowd this was all a farce. Morrison was alive.
"What's he talking about?" Mom asked.
"It's just that no one saw Morrison dead except his wife, and she died a couple years later in a car accident. He used to say he would stage his own death and come back years later. He was fascinated with death."
"Piaf was too, you know, but not in the same way." Mom fiddled in her purse for a cigarette. "Bibiche used to be terrified of being buried alive. I don't know where she got that. She made Alice and me promise to make sure she was dead before we buried her, but then Papa had her cremated before we even knew she was dead. That did the trick, of course."
The German had produced another beer and was doing some weird David Lynch dance.
"So do you blame Papa for the nightmares you had after her death," I asked.
Her eyes followed the German blankly. "I didn't think I did." She smiled, dismissing it all. "Ah, mon pauvre poulet, this was supposed to be your trip."
It was clear she didn't want to talk about Bibiche any longer. She had switched subjects.
"Have you done heroin," she asked, catching the attention of several people near us.
"No," I told her.
"What drugs have you tried?"
One guy a few stones down from Mom smiled and waved his joint, silently offering us a hit. Our ringmaster with the beer asked everyone why the fuck we were here.
"Acid, dope, …amyl nitrate, crystal meth, your valium, Lysol a few others."
"Why the fuck would anyone look up a dead freak who wasn't dead? Who the fuck are you people anyway? You don't even know his songs."
Mom's attention was divided. "Lysol?" she said, watching the blond man kicking up dirt in the grave.
"It was cheap. One can and a gallon of water."
"Why the fuck you come here? Fucking Elvis geeks."
People were laughing at him. Someone told her friend in French, "This guy comes here all the time."
"What a creep," Mom said.
"Christ, who brought a fucking gerbil? Is that supposed to mean something? I mean you're all on this little pilgrimage and it's supposed to mean something? You'll all go home waving your fucking Kodaks and tell all your envious little fuck friends how cool it was, how great it was being around so many necrophyliacs like yourself…."
"Shut up, man," some guy in a jean jacket yelled.
"…How fucking spiritual it was because you could feel Jim was there." He switched to English to piss off his heckler. "And it was like being close to God, only it was Jim. And you had this fucking revelation that `Horse Latitudes' is really a spiritual and you never noticed until you were there how Jim looked a lot like the Jesus they have in cartoons."
"Arrête!" a woman moaned, sounding annoyed.
"I think I'm just going to take out the Little Jesus and say my own prayer," he said, grabbing his cock. He tipped back the beer, letting it spew around his mouth. "A nice long wet one," he said, smashing the bottle on the headstone and starting to piss.
"Ah, merde!" the woman yelled, moving to stop him. She hadn't noticed the jagged bottle neck he still had hold of.
He turned toward her, still gushing, and said, "Don't get wet, ma chérie."
I looked to Mom.
"What a performer," she said.
He reverted to German, yelling something I didn't understand. His piss lasted forever it seemed, and people who wanted to stop him appeared more afraid of his stream than the broken bottle. And when he was through, he left, hurling the bottle neck in an arc over his head.
The small group seemed at loose ends. A few laughed as if they had expected as much from their visit. Several left. Someone passed around a Polaroid of the man pissing. Things were returning to the way they had been when we first arrived.
Mom began again. "So you stole my valium?"
I didn't want to talk about this. Too much had happened. A little weird is ok, but I felt over-weird now.
"Why didn't I know about this?" she asked. She appeared troubled.
"What do you mean? Of course you wouldn't know. You weren't supposed to find out."
"But I should have."
"Just leave it, will you."
"The thought of finding you in a bath tub, mon poulet."
"Stop it!" I said. "That's past."
"What's wrong with us? This family?"
"What family?" I said. "There's you and there's me. Sometimes we barely have that."
She looked hurt. "I can't stay here."
She stood up to leave. I thought she meant to go, but she began walking to Morrison's grave. She seemed ungainly, picking her way over the uneven stone slabs, and I was conscious of people watching her. She stooped a moment, and I thought she had hurt her ankle, but she was only picking up a burger bag wedged among the stones. When I caught up to her I told her to give it to me. I knew what she wanted to do.
Someone's flash went off as I squat picking up shards of glass. Mom stood over me pointing: "there… there… over there." The gerbil's gray nose pushed through the bars. I could hear someone laughing, someone shutting them up. The urine was briny and someone offered me a a plastic bag to replace the soaked burger one.
Mom came around to my side and put a hand on my shoulder to help herself down. "Burty this," she said, carefully putting something in my hand so no one could see.
I looked at her to make sure she wanted to do this.
"Do it," she said, a little annoyed.
Another flash strobed. I could see the pictures. Mom and me kneeling at the side of Jim Morrison's grave in the mud and beer and glass and piss. Clutching the Huguenot cross. Digging a hole. Filling it in.