Waiting for Gertrude
A Graveyard Gothic
By Bill Richardson, Bill Pechet
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2001 Bill Richardson
All rights reserved.
November: Alice's Way
I was born in San Francisco, California. Then again, I was born in Paris, France. Paris, France, is also where I died. If one had to choose two cities in which to be born or in which to die, one could do worse than San Francisco, California, and Paris, France. Both have much to recommend them.
From the moment of my first birth in San Francisco — if something as heaving and as shuddering as a birth can be said to have taken place in "a moment" — and the moment of my dissolution in Paris — which fizzling also did not transpire with the insouciant swiftness of a finger snap — I made my way through the world on two legs.
Now I have four.
After my life on two legs ended and before my life on four began, there was a long stretch of stasis. I inhabited a treacle-coloured dominion, muffled and moist. A republic of indolent floating, with no view to speak of and little to watch or study, save for the slow, incessant leafing of an endless novel whose pages bore only one word:
And then, without warning, the word was made flash. There was an explosion of light, and my accustomed nothingness was no more. The abiding quiet was ruptured by a mew so monumental it might have been the outraged clamour of the unseaming earth; or so it seemed, at least, after that deep and attenuated silence. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the primal squeak that shattered the calm had erupted from my very own throat; to say nothing of how astonished I was to discover that, in the blink of an eye and without ever asking, I again had such a thing as a throat.
First there was light and then there was sound, and then this modest son et lumière blossomed into heady sentience. My new lungs burned with the acid onslaught of oxygen. I felt the aggravated rasp of a tongue that was not my own, passing all up and down my untried flesh; a tongue that, between licks, was the engine of an embittered, plaintive litany.
"Kittens, kittens, kittens."
A voice both coarse and slatternly. My mother's voice.
"Kittens, kittens, kittens."
Anger and agony, mixed in equal measure.
"When will there be an end to these cursed kittens?"
The licking stopped, and I was shoved without ceremony onto a well-chewed teat. Appetite. How long had it been since I had had an appetite? I fastened my freshly minted mouth around the proffered nipple, but the wages of my sucking hardly repaid the effort, so meagre were they. So sour.
"Christ save me, here comes another!"
And as the hissing and moaning redoubled, a distant lamentation of church bells came walloping through the chill air, a tolling that bore on its back the certainty that I had crossed once more into the world of seconds and minutes and hours. Direct from the womb, a new exile from timelessness, I was teetering towards yet another death. And for better or worse, I had been given four legs to carry me there.
This was my mother's plaintive cry as the eighth and final kitten shouldered her way out of the womb and jockeyed for position at the milk bar. Tristesse. Now, I understand that our mother was saluting Lady Sadness, the snaggle-toothed dame who was her midwife at this and all her other accouchements. But then, in my newborn innocence, I believed she was conferring a name on the last of the little mewlers. And so, Tristesse is what I christened her, and Tristesse is what she remains to this very day. To me she owes her name and to me she owes her life, for she had hardly attached herself to the last unclaimed nipple before the air was rent by a low rumble that was made of threat and danger.
I must interrupt the narrative at this thrilling juncture to note that when I was born in Paris, France — which is to say, when I was born with four legs rather than two — I was also born with eyes that were clear and open. There was nothing about them that was squinty or membranous. They were, from the very get go, ready to receive all the available light, primed to usher images from the outside world to the private cache that is my intellect, my memory. Memories, rather, for I have two discrete sets of recollections: one of life on two legs, and one of life on four, and they are layered within me, stratified and marbled, as though in a terrine. I forget nothing, not from that life and not from this, which is a blessing and a burden both. I remember looking up from our mother's arid dugs and reading the oracular inscription on the lofty tomb that cast a shadow over our natal bed:
NAÎTRE MOURIR RENAÎTRE ENCORE ET PROGRESSER SANS CESSE TELLE EST LA LOI.
Here, writ large, was the answer to the riddle of my being, the succinct summation of the universal principle that held me in its thrall. To be born, to die, to be born again, and to be forever moving on. This is the law.
I remember this, just as clearly as I remember our mother's meowling, remember her calling out "Tristesse," and then the throat-born thunder that made me look up and around and directly into the bloodshot eyes of Morrison.
"Well, well," said our mother, "if it isn't the Lizard King himself."
He growled again, but sweet somehow, like honey oozing miraculously from a boulder, a murderous seduction.
"Help yourself, Lizard King," she said, heaving herself up from her bed of pain and dislodging the suckers to whom she gave succour. "Help yourself and welcome to them. Christ knows you'll be doing us all a favour. The last thing the world needs is more damn kittens."
And then she wandered off. She left him to it. He wasted no time laying waste to the litter. It was only because of my eyes that I survived to tell the tale and that I was exempt from his gnashing and devouring. When his eyes and my eyes met, he knew me as one whose birth was crowned with purpose, knew that I had been born to fulfil some manifestation of The Law. He knew that it would be an unpardonable crime to come between me and my mission here. So blunt and so upper case a capper as TELLE EST LA LOI leaves very little room for equivocation.
So I was spared. As for Tristesse, she was saved because some self-preserving instinct made her squirm her blind way into the shelter of my lee, and I could think of no good reason to betray her to Morrison's ravages. Spill of blood, crush of bone, tear of flesh: in the end, only we two remained.
"Lucky for you he's such a picky eater," said our mother, when she returned to survey the carnage. She had just enough grudging maternal instinct left in her to nurse us for the first few critical weeks. Then came the morning that she went out ratting and never returned.
"We're on our own," I said to Tristesse, who trembled so violently at the news of our abandonment that I didn't have the heart to cast her loose. She has clung to me with burr-like tenacity ever since, and every morning when I salute her — "Bonjour, Tristesse" — I greet not only my sister but also my own sadness. Every morning I begin anew the business that has brought me here, which is the patient and pulse-slowing business of merely waiting. Waiting for my joy, my love, my baby. Waiting for my Gertrude.
In one way or another, in one life or another, I have been waiting a very long time. I never imagined, during the gilded days of our protracted co-tenancy, when Gertrude Stein wrote and when I, Alice B. Toklas, stood guard, that it would come to this. I never imagined that she would die first, that I would stay on alone, a widow, for twenty more years, dancing my limping and solitary two-step. I never imagined that, in the immediate aftermath of my own snuffing, the essential, animating part of me — oh, let's just call it a soul — would detach as easily as any breath, divest itself of its flesh and fluid, and float about in a place of muted otherness, like a blinking satellite programmed for eventual re-entry; nor that, in answer to some ineffable imperative, I would come crashing to earth in the body of a cat — a failure of imagining that is perhaps a pardonable lapse — and that I would find myself, once again, alone. Which is not to say that I have been without company. Mercy, no! There are plenty of us four-legged ones here in Père-Lachaise. Wilde. Bernhardt. Callas. Colette. Rossini. Proust. The guest list is glittering. It would be hard to imagine a more cunningly curated community, but a vital component is missing: Gertrude, the one piece I uniquely require to become the whole and real me. Gertrude, the shining alpha to balance my dark omega, who was for forty years my husband.
For months after my advent, while I adapted to whiskers and to tail, I fumed at the injustice of her absence. I stamped. I ranted. Not fair! Not fair! Not fair! I exhausted myself with outrage, tormented myself with untoward fantasies: that she had come and gone, that she had found another, that she had trod a different transmigratory path altogether and had slipped into the flesh of a dung beetle or a donkey.
I teetered on the cusp of madness until the day I was invaded — who can say why — by a fierce and sudden calm. An Old Testament kind of voice boomed in the vault of my skull. "She will come," it said. "She will come." And those three syllables echoed with such lordly authority that I understood, with a shameful clarity, how all my doubting had been wrong, needless, diminishing. Flushed with assurance and pulled from the slough by a green and vibrant confidence, I knew, for certain and all at once, that our love was solid, an immutable force in the ever-expanding universe, and that she, my brave salmon, would fight her way up any stream in order to make her way home to me. My only responsibility was to wait and to refine my waiting; to study forbearance and to believe that, in the fullness of time, my faith would be rewarded.
She will come, she will come, and I will bask in her particular incandescence; for when she comes, she will shine with that selfsame light that illumined my salad days, and her light will not be any the dimmer for all its years of concealment, which cannot be said for most of the writers who are here among us. Many sustained damaged over the period of their storage or during the transfer. They have been spindled, folded and mutilated to such an extent that some, however glorious they might once have been, now belong to a decidedly ersatz rank. La Fontaine is a case in point. He comes to mind because now, as I look from my window, I see him, our versifying tour guide, making his way down the path towards my house, shepherding his flock of four-footed looky-loos, wide-eyed and gullible, spicing his spiel with who knows what lies. Tourists! They are a bane.
Time for me to make myself scarce. Time for me to make myself ready. Soon she will come, my love, my puss. She will come, and my long widowhood will end. She will come and she will find me here, waiting, waiting. Waiting for Gertrude.
La Fontaine's Versified Walking Tour: Welcome
Welcome, cats. I offer thanks —
Tabby, ginger, Persian, Manx,
Tortoiseshell and coal-vein black,
Plump of belly, sleek of back,
Eyes of copper, eyes of green,
Randy tom and preening queen —
Welcome, stray and purest bred,
To this playground of the dead,
Welcome to this yard of bones.
Please turn off all pagers, phones,
Render mute whatever might
Rend our sacred, silent night.
Excellent. Now let's be sure,
As we start this guided tour,
Creeping forth on velvet paws,
Everyone has come because
They've a hunger they must sate
Here among the late and great.
If you tag along with me,
Having paid a modest fee,
You shall, for this evening, bide
Where Parisian greats who died
Came to rest, not knowing that
They would be reborn as cats.
Sages wise have often taught,
When the body starts to rot,
That the soul from flesh is pried,
Then is changed, transmogrified.
And they're right. It happens thus:
Shortly, and with little fuss,
When one's breath has finally failed,
One appears again, be-tailed.
Some will bellow, "That's absurd!
First interred and then be-furred?"
But it's true. Hence, I was born
La Fontaine in feline form.
What, one wonders, would they say,
Bernhardt, Balzac, or Bizet,
Had they known the final score:
Two legs one day, next day four?
How would they have laid their bets,
Chopin, Callas, or Colette,
Had they known their future role
Would entail a taste for vole?
Would they weep or would they laugh,
Proust and Poulenc and Piaf,
At the thought of eating mouse?
Would they grin? Or would they grouse?
Oscar Wilde, Seurat, Molière:
Check the roster, all are there,
Deepening their catlike ways
On the grounds of Père-Lachaise.
Celebrity's a shiny lure,
You shall meet some on this tour —
All save Gertrude. I'm afraid
That grande dame has been delayed.
Gertrude who? Why, Gertrude Stein.
Poor Miss Toklas! How she pines,
Exiled from her land of bliss,
Aching for her husband's kiss.
Questions? Yes, there, on the right.
Ah. You wonder if the night
Is riskless, safe, hazard-free?
This, I cannot guarantee.
By and large, though, not to fret,
Not one tourist's perished yet.
Should the Lizard King arise,
Caution then I might advise.
Ready, then? Fine. Let's begin.
Welcome, cats! Cats, welcome in.
Letter: Oscar Wilde to Jim Morrison
Something is in the air, Jamz. Something is about to happen. Can you sniff its musky imminence? So tense and delicious. So ejaculatory and on the verge. As if the whole of Père-Lachaise is hanging on the cusp of a tremendous sneeze. We are teetering on the dangerous edge of something big, Jamz, and I am bound to say that teetering is not easy for me, given the present tenderness of my paws, which are as pink and shredded as the eraser of some overreaching scribe. And what have I been hoping to rub out? Nothing but your stubborn, lamentable absence, Jamz. Nothing but that.
In heaven's name, where are you? All day long I have searched for you, all day long walked the length and breadth of the cemetery, skirting its margins, navigating its byways, stumping over its coarse brick roadways, but found you not. Up and down I sallied, all along the major arteries and minor capillaries of Père-Lachaise, turning right, turning left on the chemin Gosselin and the chemin d'Ornano, the chemin Errazu and the avenue des Peupliers. And what prize, what merit badge did I earn, for having so painfully subverted my slothful nature and subscribed to these perverted acts of exertion? Not a one. You have been resolute in your invisibility. There was not a single sighting.
Others were out and about. I saw Isadora, that arrested adolescent, trailing her ribbons and chasing her tiger-stripe tail. I saw the one-eyed Rossini, huge and white and ancient, more doddering than ever, sitting all alone, chatting amiably to an imaginary companion. I observed and ignored the harridan Colette, who since her arrival has loved nothing more than to taunt me and who would surely have hurled some barbed jibe my way had she detected my passing. Fortunately, she has taken up yoga and was, quite literally, too wrapped up in herself to pay me any mind. By the time she had solved the Gordian knot of her own limbs, I was out of sight and migrating north.
I walked where the tight ranks of ancient ossuaries are falling into disrepair, leaning precariously, one against the other, like overcrowded teeth. (Indeed, they bear a striking resemblance to the mouth of a boy I knew in another place and another time; one who disappeared without a word, but not before I had taken care of his dental bills.) I walked among lofty mausoleums and merely utilitarian scatters of stones and took note of the various names inscribed on the various tombs. Yilmaz. Guney. Bottelier. Mazaud. Dulac. Perrin. On tiny temples and towering obelisks, on lofty columns and polished whacks of granite, I saw Le Floch, Dufour, Joule, Tissier, Huet, Boulanger. I read the chiselled catalogue of the Parisian dead with no more interest than I might have brought to a perusal of the telephone directory, for there was only one name I wanted to see made flesh. James. Jimmy. Jim-Boy. Jamz. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Waiting for Gertrude by Bill Richardson, Bill Pechet. Copyright © 2001 Bill Richardson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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