The 1980s are 30 years in the past. Few people remember those years. I tell stories and the listeners think that I’m lying about jumping off cliffs or nearly making love with Darryl Hannah or even watching bears eat garbage at a dump in Maine. I wonder if they are right, but my memory is spot on about many things like how a Paris friend and his girlfriend would leave the Bains-Douches or Helium high on heroin to sleep in the cemetery of Pere Lachise.
Guilhomme was a cold-wave musician. His lead singer Eric was squeamish at the sight of blood and tolerated Guilhomme for his talent at the keyboards. Their crow-black band never possessed a name. A model/friend from LA suggested Les Mortes. Guilhomme loved that, since he resembled a untombed cadaver. His chubby copine was a sex club dancer with orange hair and skin as white as chalk. Sex had nothing to do with their relationship. He was gay and Claudine was asexual. Their love was drugs.
Neither junkie had money for a room, so every night they scaled the high stone walls of the Pere LaChaise Cemetery to squat in a tomb a hundred meters from the grave of Jim Morrison. It was closer to the plinth of Jean-François Champollion.
“He was the man who decipher the Egyptian hieroglyphics.” Guilhomme was enthralled by anything dead. His favorite band was Black Sabbath. “The Khedive of Egypt gave him the obelisks standing in Place de Concorde. It came from the Luxor Temple.”
“A smaller version towers over his grave.” Claudine had dropout of school at age 14. She admired Guilhomme for his brains. He was her tutor and all things good and bad.
“Mssr Les Doors attracts too much of the wrong crowd. It’s quieter at our crypt.” Guilhomme and Claudine shared a subterranean tomb with the remains of a familie bien-connu. Their remains had moldered in the damp stone since the 19th Century. Obscurity allowed the couple to live in relative splendor.
“Bien sur, we have to keep an eye open for grave robbers. They hunt for the bodies of the newly dead. Normally taking only the head, since it’s easier to hide in a bag than a corpse. Bodies are 5000 new francs and heads are 3000. Facile for transport.” Guilhomme loved the macabre atmosphere of the ancient graveyard. He imagined himself the illegitimate son of Dracula and painted his fingernails black to hint at a frantic clawing from the depths of the dirt.
“I hear the ghouls at night.” Claudine shivered at the mention of grave-robbers. She was more down to earth.
“They are quieter than the Satan worshippers.” Guilhomme vocally painted a tapestry of crimson sacrifices surrounded by bones of the long-dead.
“They scare me.” Her clothing was in tatters. Her breasts slipped in and out of sight. She was a tease and sometimes worked for a madam in the 16th arrondisement. Guilhomme liked to think of himself as her pimp.
“Do not worry.” He brandished a long stiletto. A shop sold them near Notre-Dame. “I will cut them first.”
“They are no fools.” Claudine knew the limits of Guilhomme’s protection. The ghouls had the numbers.
Their sojourn in Pere Lachaise lasted a summer. The stone walls of the crypt offered cool comfort during the hot season. Autumn brought the damp and junkies hate the wet. The two broke up and Guilhomme went back to live with his parents in Versailles.
They were haute-class. His eccentricities were a family trait. He quit drugs and became a businessman. Guilhomme disappeared over the weekends. Eric, his singer, said that he frequented Pere Lachise with the ghouls.
“I hope he grows out of it. It is so perverse.”
My 90s were spent in Asia. Most of the next decade too. I hadn’t been in Paris for over twelve years and this September my benefactor invited me to come down from my writing residence in Luxembourg to act as a translator for his trip to City of Lights.
We stayed at a four-star hotel on the Rue de Rivoli. Our meals were epicurean adventures. Our days were spent in galleries and museums. I called old friends. Most of them were busy with work. A few met us for dinner. My benefactor made them very welcome. He ordered vintage wines and picked up the check. I had very little time to myself, but one morning I escaped to wander through the Marias.
The old Jewish quarter had changed in my absence. Stores were boutiques and my old hotel particular had become a townhouse. By midday I wanted a drink and headed over to Rue Vielle du Temple, hoping that the Le Petit Fer à Cheval was in business.
I was in luck. The small bar was a monument to the unchanging character of Paris. The bartender was old enough to have been serving ‘pression‘ thirty years ago and he greeted me with a nod, saying I was not a stranger.
Neither was the man in the black suit across the bar.
It was Guilhomme. He hadn’t aged a day in thirty years. I checked to see if he had a reflection in the mirror before calling out his name. He lifted off his sunglasses and grinned with green teeth.
“Good to see you.”
We exchanged fingernail stretches of the last decades. He was working for a bank. He laughed to hear that i was writer in residence in Luxembourg.
“A boring town.”
“Boring is good at my age.” I had had too many people's share of excitement over the years.
“Tu a raison.” Guilhomme wore his years with a studied heaviness.
He ordered an absinthe. I asked for a demi. The other patrons of the bar sniffed the air. Guilhomme’s black suit was dirty. He smelled of the grave.
“Did you go to work today?”
“Are you with the tax man?” Nothing frightened a Frenchman more that an audit.
“No, just that you seem a little dusty.”
“Ah.” He lifted his sleeve to his nose. “You know it wasn’t me that like the tomb. It was Claudine. She like sleeping with the dead. She would take off their clothes and lie with them. She liked nothing better than to fondle their cold flesh. I think she even made love to some of them, but I never watched. Sex was not my thing.”
“And what happened to her.” I feared the worst.
“Claudine” He touched a tooth like he was searching for a morsel of yesterday’s meal stuck in a gap. “She turned out like all women. She married a lesbian transvestite farmer and moved to the Haut Savoy to be a peasant. They had three enfants. I sent them Christmas cards.”
“And you?” I didn't question any of the oddities of his last statement. Everything was within the bounds of normal with Guilhomme.
“Moi, I don’t sleep in Pere Lachaise anymore, but I like to lay on the ground before closing to remind me that we will all sleep in the dirt one of these days.”
“But not today.” I toasted the truth of his prediction, but Guilhomme had too much of the fragrance of death on him to be healthy and I drank down my beer fast. I didn't bother to say 'plus tard' and walked out of the cafe, my heart beating with life.Later that evening at dinner I entertained my benefactor with a tale of the walking dead. His friends were thrilled by my encounter, but I neglected to mention Claudine’s love of the dead.
Some secrets are better left to the grave.
Especially about those about the living.
Those secrets never die.