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JOKER’S WILD (SLIGHT RETURN)

By Jean Malaquais (words excerpted from Le Gaffeur (1953). Cuts, bridges, arrangement and retune of original translation (Herma Briffault) by Dominiqiue Malaquais.
Artwork by Jimmy Rage

1 – LOSING HOME

It was close to seven when I put the key in the lock of my apartment and the key refused to turn. It fitted, but the lock wouldn’t budge. No damage was visible, it was my usual key, yet I just could not get it to work. The idea crossed my mind that Catherine might have stuffed up the keyhole for fun. I bent down to take a look – what an ass I was:  it was a safety lock, no opening on the other side. I was struggling with the key and rattling the door-knob, when the door half-opened and a man appeared on the threshold, a bald giant with a Russian moustache.

Without a word, we stared at each other. The man was in his shirtsleeves. His eyes were what impressed me most, or rather his eyelashes: they were long and black and curved like those of a professional beauty queen. He examined me from head to toe, surveyed the key in my hand, and the suitcase full of cosmetics I sold door-to-door, which I had set down on the floor beside me; then, putting a large paw to the back of his neck, he propped his elbow against the doorjamb.

“Well, don’t stand on ceremony,” he said.

I gave a glance at the number on the door; it was definitely my apartment. If the man was a burglar ransacking my drawers, he was a cool customer.

“Who are you?” I asked.

He shook his head gravely, as if wondering about himself. 

“I’m me,” he said. “Who are you?”

“What are you doing in my apartment?” I said. “Let me pass, please.”

“He’s asking what I’m doing in his apartment,” said the man, as though addressing an invisible witness. “And he asks me to let him pass. And supposing I don’t want to?”

I tried to look over his shoulder, but he was too big and his body blocked off the entrance. I had the fleeting notion that some misfortune had befallen Catherine; she was in one of the rooms, bound and gagged, or worse still, cut into pieces and jammed into a trunk.

“Stop joking,” I said. “What are you doing in my house? Where is my wife? I know she’s in there.”

“That’s different,” said the man with the moustache. “Now he’s making sense.  Kouka!” he called out, without budging. “Kouka, you’re wanted!”

“Catherine!” I called.

“Catherine my eye,” said the man.

A woman slipped under the giant’s elbow and planted herself between him and me.  She was as squat as he was tall. She had a rosy, doll-like face with pink warts. Her flesh, squeezed into a whalebone corset, overflowed the edges of the armature in pneumatic bulges. She seemed, like the man, to be over fifty.

“And what does he want?” she asked, surveying me with a bright little eye.

“He says it’s his apartment,” the man informed her.

“That’s what he says?” asked the woman placidly. “And where did he get that idea?”

“Where do you expect him to get it? In his head, of course. And he says you’re his wife.” He gave her a nudge in the back with his stomach, without otherwise moving. “She’s yours,” he said. “You won’t find a better one than Kouka. A jewel. And light too, like a real balloon. Reserved for connoisseurs.”

The woman did not seem to take offence. She clasped ring-covered hands over her generous bosom and peered intently at me.

“Maybe he’s mistaken the door?”

“Catherine!” I called. “Catherine! Enough: tell them to let me in!”

The woman tilted her head back as much as she could to look up at the man.  “Bomba,” she said, “do you suppose he’s drunk?”

That was just too much… I pushed my suitcase through the half-open door and strode off.

I stumbled into the first bar and ordered a stiff drink. I needed it. The alcohol flowed down my throat and, on the way, took my tongue with it. I stood there ramrod straight, feeling a thousand ants crawling over my scalp. I plunked my forearm down on the bar and rested my head in the crook of my elbow, expecting the whole of me to go off like fireworks. I called for a glass of water and the barman scornfully shoved a pitcher my way. I swallowed three glasses, one after the other, feeling my tongue return to its usual place. In my mind’s eye, I saw the couple of clowns putting on their show in my apartment, what a pair they were, and how Catherine must be laughing her head off. I wondered where she had dug them up.

Poor Catherine! Not seeing me come home, she must be sorry for having carried the joke a little too far. Supposing I call her and tell her to dress up? We could have dinner in town.

2 – LOSING CATHERINE

The ringing on the other end of the line seemed continuous and muffled and when Catherine lifted the receiver her voice came from faraway. “Pierre, is it you, Pierre what’s happened, where are you?” I shouted to her to speak louder, but with every word the distance between us seemed to increase; not that I heard her badly, but a kind of odd acoustic purity enveloped her words, while her voice receded at a dizzying speed.

“Can you hear me, Catho?” I shouted.

“What?… Where are you, listen…”

“I’m coming home in a minute, Catho. Get dressed, we’ll go out to a restaurant for dinner! Can you hear me?”

“Listen… Listen to me… Pierre, I…” Her words broke off one by one, incredibly distant, crystalline clear and at the same time barely audible. “You must… Pierre… Pierre…” There was a perfectly defined silence, a silence of absolute emptiness, then I heard a faint click and the usual humming of a cut-off line filled my ears.

I hung up. I redialed the number. The line was busy. I tried again several times.

I went out. Five minutes later I reached home and tried my key again. It wouldn’t turn. I began to ring, to knock, to shake the doorknob. Footsteps, muttering, and the door opened on the bald giant with the Russian moustache.

We exchanged a speechless look.

“Kouka,” he said, still looking at me, “Kouka, get ready, he’s come back to get you. Then, motioning with his head: “Come in, come in.”

I heard him close the door and follow me. In a room I did not know, under a light fixture I was seeing for the first time, my complete assortment of bottles and jars of cosmetics was lined up on a table at which I had never eaten.

I slumped down in a chair. Mistress Kouka did not pay the least attention to me. She was contemplating my collection, enraptured. I had no wish to inspect the other rooms of the apartment. The giant sat down next to me and held out his hand.

“I’m Bomba,” he said, “and she’s Kouka. What’s your name?”

I took his hand absentmindedly and said nothing. He had an iron grip.

“Have you lived in this… have you lived here long?” I said.

“What’s he asking that for?” Mistress Kouka inquired. “Doesn’t he have to be in the police to ask that?”

“Police my eye,” the giant guffawed. “This man’s a genius.” He pinched my thigh to convince me of his sound judgment. “I’ve seen peddlers before, but never one like him! We ought to go into business together.”

“I have lived in this apartment for two years,” I said. “Only this morning I had breakfast here with my wife. Only ten minutes ago I was talking on the phone with her.”

“He’s a good husband,” Mistress Kouka approved. “He calls home.”

“She answered me from this very apartment.”

“She’s a good wife,” retorted Master Bomba. “She answered him from this apartment on the telephone.”

“Only ten minutes ago…”

“Kouka, he says it was only ten minutes ago, and we’ve never once considered having a phone put in.”

“Last night I paid the superintendent of the building.”

“That’s a fine a thing,” Mistress Kouka approved, coming in from the kitchen with a tray of food. “He pays his rent on the dot.”

“Where is my wife?”

“His wife has left him and he hasn’t any appetite,” Mistress Kouka opined.

From a radio on the mantelpiece the voice of a woman was calling for help.

Master Bomba’s knee touched mine. “You don’t need to go on. I give up. But just tell me: how did you get the idea? All by yourself? To pretend you’ve got the wrong address, stalk off, leave your suitcase in the doorway, then come back when the folks inside have unpacked your goods? Some trick. I’ll bet it works every time. Listen, think up a gimmick for wool socks, that’s what I sell, direct to the customer like you do. You’re in the nick of time, it’s just starting to get really cold. Kouka, think of it, him with my socks, me with his ideas – we’ll make a pile of dough before Easter.”

He pinched my shoulder so hard I winced. “Don’t move, I’m going to show you my merchandise.”

He stood up and I stood up… I turned on my heel and left the room.

“He’s going,” announced Mistress Kouka behind me.

I passed Master Bomba in the entrance. He had his arms full of socks. He was carrying his bundle of goods as if it were a baby.

“Kouka, where’s he off to?” he shouted, staring wide-eyed at me. “When are you coming back? Tonight or tomorrow morning?”

I nodded affirmatively and was again on the landing.

It was past nine o’clock when I reached the street. I walked all around my building, one of several identical, massive parallelepipeds. I examined each entranceway, I searched for myself among the list of tenants, I braved the indifference of the superintendents. At ten o’clock I dashed into the subway, made a fifteen-minute trip, hailed a taxi to bring me back. The cabby showed no surprise when I shouted my address, I had no difficulty recognizing my door.

At eleven o’clock, from a bar, I called Catherine. The telephone made a click. The operator asked what number I was calling. I gave her the number.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “There is no such number. I’ll put you through to Information.”

I was so thirsty, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth and, at first, Information did not understand me. I had to repeat, spell the words. Information, too, was sorry:  there was no such party listed. Surely she was making a mistake, wouldn’t she look again, she had to be wrong, I had called the subscriber’s wife at seven o’clock in the evening and anyway I was the subscriber, she wasn’t going to tell me who I was, after all.

“I will give you the supervisor,” she said.

The supervisor had nothing to tell me that hadn’t already been said: there was no subscriber by this name at that address.

I left the bar and walked a long time.

3 – LOSING I

I eventually ended up looking for a hotel room. But since everyone in our City is supposed to have a dwelling, hotels have almost disappeared. They belong to a long-gone past, when foreign dignitaries paid visits and were lodged luxuriously in hotels. However, those kinds of courtesies have ceased and, guns now having the floor, diplomats as a caste have been decapitated and hotels have become obsolete. Many have been taken over by the government, always short of office space, and some have been turned into public baths. The few that remain are anachronisms; despite appropriate regulations, it occasionally happens that a fire, a marital dispute, or some other calamity throws a citizen onto the street, in which case he takes refuge in a hotel. Sometimes, too, one finds permanent residents in a hotel, old people who have been forgotten there for a generation. 

As I entered, a man who had been dozing on a bench jumped to his feet and positioned himself behind a pulpit. Empty, immense, badly lit by bulbs lost in a crystal chandelier, the lobby echoed under my steps. The man behind the pulpit had opened a register and pretended to be absorbed as he turned the pages. He made me wait before casting an inquiring eye at me.

I said that I wanted a room, upon which he nodded several times, pursed his lips, and presented me with a blank form. Family name, Christian name, address, place of employment, dependants, education, vaccinations, monthly income, military medals, blood group, identifying marks. I filled in the form and passed it back to the man, who began inscribing my replies in his register. He worked without haste, writing with care, his pen scratching the paper, and from time to time looked up at me appreciatively. Without interrupting his writing, he asked if I had any identification papers. I had my birth certificate on me.

“Why do you want a room?” he asked.

“Because I want to sleep.”

“You don’t know much about hotels, I see,” he said. “When you don’t sleep at home you must give reasons. You have a home and you won’t be there. The law requires that every hour of the day and night the whereabouts of everyone be known.”

“I lost the key to my apartment.”

“And your wife? You declared you were married.”

“I have also lost my wife.”

“Oh,” he commented, as if that explained everything. “You should have declared that. Do you have a death certificate?”

I wondered if Catherine had any identification papers on her. Since she was not at home, where else could she be but at a hotel? Maybe she had taken a room in this very one; it was the least distant from our building.

“Has my wife perhaps come here?” I asked.

The man looked at me askance. “Your wife is deceased,” he said.

“You’re the one who’s dead – braindead!” I shouted, banging my hand down on the pulpit.

He seized a ruler and rapped me on the knuckles. “Silence, don’t wake up my tenants!” He blew on the page, smoothed it with his sleeve, then closed the register. 

“All rooms are occupied,” he said.

I left.

Outside it was beginning to drizzle. Beneath the cold glare of the lights the face of the street was a face of stone. I advanced between two banks of masonry – wall upon wall upon wall, honeycombed, perforated with shafts and tunnels and passages, and men and women inside, outside, above, beneath. A hermetically sealed wall, more closed than a ring. But not so long ago, I remembered, that same street opened out onto a lake; a pine forest stretched along white sand; a hamlet clung to a mountain slope. There had been a feeling of space and sand and air and water. Coming to a standstill, I pressed my hand against the wall, as if to test its resistance. If only I could move a slab, slide it aside, make a door appear: a way out that had been walled over by mistake, or on a day of panic. On the other side of the street there was a breach in the concrete canyon. A light shone there, like a night lamp beneath the vaulted roof of catacombs. Perhaps it was there, the glorious way out; it had to be somewhere. A watchman had taken refuge under the light, at the entrance to the breach, as if to deny access. I had the feeling I had never set foot in these parts before, and at the same time of finding myself once again in a yesterday unknown in measures of time, familiar in measures of recollection. I was not surprised. I was used to these rare and brief flashes when I would experience an infinity of possible lives: thoughts that sometimes came to me from nowhere and vanished the moment I attempted to pin them down. Almost anything would trigger this: a child jumping rope, a solitary stroller, an insect fluttering its wing, and I knew that once upon a time I was the child, the rope, the stroller, the insect, as they remain forever set in the lead of days. So it was – and was not – now, my hand on the wall, the echo of heels on the black asphalt, the watchman under the light. I crossed the street and asked him the way. Without looking at me, he jerked his thumb over his shoulder 

I walked through the breach and came out into a lobby even larger than the one before, but just as bare. The dim lighting, instead of shrinking the space, increased it. I filled in the blank form, as at the other hotel, except that here there were more questions, a fact accounted for by the size of the establishment.  Among other things, I had to name the country where the weather is always fine, solve a little math problem – childish questions, for where, if not in our beautiful City, is the weather always fine? And as to the math, it was a division problem; the quotient was supposed to give you the number of military victories won over the enemy in the course of the past three months. The numbers didn’t work out at all, but that was doubtless to avoid fractions. Everything was copied into two registers. I presented my birth certificate, answered a few riddles and signed my name. Whereupon the employee politely explained that he could not accommodate me.

“Why?” I asked. “Are all your rooms occupied?”

“It’s up to you to know why.”

“We owe you no explanations whatsoever,” interjected another employee. “There is no room for you, that’s that.”

“Then why did you make me fill in all these papers, if you didn’t have a room?”

“We never know in advance. The applicant himself informs us. We follow the rules.”

“No doubt those are the rules, and you owe me no explanations, but since this is the second time I’ve been refused a hotel room tonight, I would like, if possible, to know why.”

“Aha! For the second time,” the first employee commented. “Come, come, it’s because it’s not you.”

“Come, come it’s not me what?”

“Don’t act all innocent. Look at your paper. You know perfectly well it’s not you.”

I glanced at my birth certificate. They were making fun of me.

“All the same, supposing I were not I, as you put it, how would you know? You don’t deny the authenticity of this document, I trust?”

They took the paper and held it up to the light.

“No. We are in no position to deny it.”

“Very well, then, one point for me. This being so, admit that you have no way of knowing –”

“We do not say that we know,” interrupted the other employee. “It’s you who know.”

“Know what?”

“That it’s not you, of course.”

“Gentlemen,” I said, “let us be logical. Supposing, to be agreeable, that I consent not to contradict you, how at the bare sight of this certificate, of which you recognize the authenticity –”

“We have recognized no such thing,” the same employee cut in.

“We merely recognized that we are not in a position to deny its authenticity.”

“That’s true,” I said. “And by what sign, pray, do you recognize that I am not I?”

“Listen,” the first employee went on, “you’re the one who’s not being logical. You should certainly understand that it is forbidden to accommodate citizens who are not who they pretend to be.”

“Fine. But how do you know that I am pretending?”

He gave a little disarming smile. “There you go, back where you started. You’re the one who knows.”

I tried to return his smile. “Let’s admit that. Only how do you know that I know?”

The less amiable of the two employees closed the register carefully. “Good night,” he yawned.

“I want a room,” I said. “How much?”

They shook their heads in the same incredulous way. A strange din broke out in my ears.

“Hmm, another one who’s going to pass out,” sighed the first employee.

No, I was not going to pass out.  I looked at the red handle of a fire-fighting axe that hung on the wall and my hands began to twitch.


This piece features in the Chimurenga Magazine 12/13 – Dr Satan’s Echo Chamber (Double-Issue March 2008). To purchase as a PDF head to our online shop.

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