Toulouse on track
by David Finkle
[ fiction - may 08 ]
Just about the last person I expected to see on a Brooklyn-bound F train was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but there he was big as life. Bigger. And I mean that in a totally literal sense. He appeared to be several inches taller than he was when spending - you could never say "when squandering" - his time hanging around the Moulin Rouge with Jane Avril and May Belfort and doing all those gloriously lurid pastels and oils and posters.
(Biographical data has it that he tossed off something approximating 5,000 drawings.)
But it was he, all right - the cartoon face, the dark beard, the thick eyebrows, the pince-nez. It was some nez, too, extended boldly and bulbously, something Cyrano de Bergerac would have considered a kindred honker, a proboscis of the first water.
"You've grown," I had the effrontery to say to him as if we were long-time buddies, which, needless to say, we couldn't have been. Well, given how odd the circumstances were, perhaps we could have been anything, could have run each other on his turf at some inexplicable moment in another dimension.
But we weren't, we hadn't.
"Yes, I have shot up," he said in a thick accent that smacked of both his aristocratic background and his saucier haunts.
(The "Yes, I have shot up" came out as "Yayss, Ah 'ave showt oop," but I'll drop the mimicry from here on out.)
"What happened," I said, "if you don't mind my asking."
"Pas de tout, Paul," he replied and winked. The wink gave a cute lift to his decidedly - how shall I put it? - un-beau face, decidedly not even quite joli laid face.
"You know my name?" I said, shocked that he'd addressed me by it. How could he have known it? As I said, we'd never met. Near as I could calculate, he couldn't have known anyone on the car, on the entire train, since he'd died - reportedly - over one hundred years before we'd all collected randomly on an early Manhattan afternoon that was otherwise like any other.
"L'affichement," he said.
"What affichement?" I asked, momentarily forgetting my question to him and giving my racing mind over to the meaning of 'affichement'.
"That one," he said, pointing at my lapel. "The one that says 'Paul Engler'."
(He pronounced it Poll Englaire, but that's the last of the transliterations. I promise.)
I looked down. Sure enough, there was the name tag I'd put on for the luncheon I'd just been to on a subject I'd already forgotten. I hate those things. Name tags, I mean, not luncheons, although I'm not overly fond of them either. Name tags I'm always forgetting to take off and then walking around with like a ninny. I removed it now and started rolling it around, spiraling it tightly.
Toulouse-Lautrec took that in with his keen artist's gaze and then pointed down at my trousers. He winked again, this time with the other glinting eye.
Damn, I thought, my fly is open. I meet Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and my fly has to be open - not that he hadn't seen undone flies before. They'd have been unbuttoned in his time, of course, not unzipped. He'd undoubtedly unbuttoned his own enough times in the presence of those Pigalle prosties he called pals.
No need to see mine, though. I looked further down. It wasn't open. Well, it might have been, because I couldn't see it. It was covered by the linen napkin I'd also neglected to remove when I'd hurtled out of the Biltmore as if late for a flight.
"Oh," I said and snatched it away to see my fly was blessedly closed. "Thanks, merci." (There will be no more of my prep school French included, either. Actually, I ventured no more. I wisely decided to spare me and him.)
I should say that at the beginning of this exchange Toulouse-Lautrec's face was level with my crotch, as he was seated while I was standing. The idea of him getting a gander at the inartistic pattern of my boxers, had my fly been gaping, wasn't one I wanted to contemplate.
The seat opposite him on the other side of the aisle was available. I quickly sat down on it with a sneaky sense that requiring the fabled Toulouse-Lautrec to crane his short neck upward in conversation with me was impolite.
But even seated, I remained convinced he was taller than he'd been reputed to be. He seemed to read my mind. "You were wondering about my growth," he said.
I nodded enthusiastically - anything to get his mind off my lapel and fly.
"As you might imagine, it's the reason for my unexpected return," he said.
I noticed a few bystanders and -sitters had begun to listen in, but I paid them no mind, and he seemed unaware of them. He never seemed to take note of the stops we made and the swoosh of exiting and entering civilians.
He said, "You might have seen an article in the New York Times awhile ago about a few doctors diagnosing my case retroactively."
I hadn't noticed and said so.
"Alors, there was such an article," he said, "and in case you're interested, we do get the Times where I come from. Those company ads for home delivery have been wildly effective. The only hitch is the blasted celestial newsboy leaves it anywhere but on the stoop. If it's been raining, there's no reading it that day - not until it dries out and even then there are some pages you can't separate. I needn't go on, particularly since there was no rain the day the article appeared. Apparently, they think I had something they call pycnodysostosis, some gene thing. Don't ask me who 'they' are. Some collective 'they,' some medical collective. You can imagine how my heart leapt up, only to learn that about pycnodysostosis, they could do nothing."
With that he gave a series of agitated taps on his drum head. Oh, I haven't mentioned that when I spotted him, he was sitting in his frock coat and bowler hat tapping on a round percussion instrument positioned on his right knee. It looked like a bongo without the bong part - just the top. It looked like a small tambourine with truncated sides and no jangly metal thingamabobs. He'd been amusing himself with it, and when I sidled up to him - Subway Cowboy with Name Tag, that's me - I was interrupting an entertaining pastime he was providing himself and those around him, if they were bothering to pay the least bit of attention.
It was the subway; they weren't.
"But the article set me to thinking," he went on. "If they - there's that word again - could diagnose a genetic malfunction that pertains to me, what else can they do? Why hadn't I thought of it before? That I hadn't is neither here nor there and is definitely neither here nor there in the heavenly realm where no surgery is done, even by surgeons. When surgeons arrive, they're immediately humbled. They've believed themselves God for so long, and now they're somewhere presided over by an actual God. They shut up toute suite.
"En tout cas, what's important is that I began to wonder what else I had wrong with me that they might be able to ameliorate. The first thing that came to mind were my thigh bones. You have no reason to know or remember this, but when I was 13 or 14 - the years blur in my memory - I fractured both femurs. They didn't healed properly, which compounded my height-challenged status, as I've learned to say in your politically correct climate."
I don't know about you, but this disclosure hooked me. "And so you just returned to earth," I said. "To life."
"Why not?" he said and threw his gnomish head back in what I can only describe as a Gallic chortle. "It's easy enough to do."
"It is?" I said, leaning across the aisle even more.
"Oh, yes," he said. "Ouais, ouais, ouais. Nothing to it. You just decide to return and you do. Voila! It's like you might decide to spend a day or two in Rouen or Hoboken or n'importe ou and then go do it."
"Then why don't more people return?" I asked, astonished at this bulletin from the after-life.
"What makes you think more people don't?" he said, chortling Frenchly again.
I had a nonplussed moment, which he cut into by saying, "I'm being glib. There are a couple of answers to that query. One is that many people do return. More than you think." He took a moment to scan the car and then leaned towards me even more than he had. "I count three in this car alone," he said, lowering his bass-baritone voice.
I looked around. I saw no one who resembled Cleopatra or Voltaire or Ulysses Grant and said so.
"They're not all people who were in what you call the public eye," he said.
"Then how can you tell?" I asked.
"The aura," he said. "You can't see it, but we can. The other part of the answer is that although it's easy to do, not that many want to do it."
"Why not?" I heard how naive I sounded the second I spoke.
Toulouse-Lautrec was a homely man, but like so many men and women considered homely, he had a warmth about him that more than compensated for the lack of conventional good looks. But here am I, talking about conventional good looks when his stock-in-trade was not so much glamorizing the unappealing as broadening the definition of what beauty is.
My "why not" elicited an expression of such understanding tolerance I instantly felt less idiotic. "They don't come back, because they don't want to." He waved one of his percussion-playing hands at the immediate surroundings. "They've left all this behind. They've moved on."
"But there must be so many reasons to come back. You found one."
"True enough," he said, "but don't forget I was - if you will pardon the indulgence - a painter of the outcast, an archivist of the unconventional, a poet of the misfit. Why not return to a time and place where everyone looks like a circus act, where suffering is commonplace and humiliation epidemic, where people nervously preoccupy themselves with foolishness?"
He pointed at my hand. I was mindlessly rolling the name tag around. I went to drop it, but it stuck to my right forefinger. With my other hand I pulled it off and stuffed it in a pocket.
We'd come to another stop and passengers were jockeying. We had to straighten up to let them pass, but he continued. "I'm not the only one with my condition or a variation of it. You know who Cole Porter is, don't you?" I nodded that I did. "Then you probably know he also had some debilitating damage to his legs he had to live with. Before I left, I asked if he wanted to come along. He looked at me as if I were crazy and said, 'What, and take time out from playing "Begin the Beguine" for the louche cocktail crowd here?' I didn't give him an argument."
He shook his head. His bowler grabbed some attention. No one wears bowlers on the subway anymore. Therefore, the hat was a novelty, whereas people who look enough like Toulouse-Lautrec to pass for him aren't. Some of them shuffle through car after car asking for hand-outs.
Of course, only Toulouse-Lautrec looks exactly like Toulouse-Lautrec.
Even though taller.
"It worked out for you," I said, indicating his body top to toe.
"Mais oui," he said, "a medical miracle. Nowadays all they had to do was break the bones again and then reset them properly. It was the hospital paperwork that was a pain in the tuchis."
By then we were pulling into the Delancey Street stop, where I was supposed to get off. Well, as I say, it's not every day you get to have a chat with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. So I considered staying on the train. But I was on my way to the weekly shrink session, and if I were late, I'd have to explain why. And I knew Reisenbuehler well enough to know that if I said I'd been delayed because I'd bumped into Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, I'd have to do some mighty fine verbal high-stepping to get him not to interpret my ramblings as evidence I was having hallucinatory side-effects of my beloved Paxil. I didn't want to risk his taking me off it.
"Well, Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec," I said as the train was slowing down, "I have to get off here, but it's certainly been a pleasure talking to you."
"I share the sentiment," he replied and extended his right hand but not before removing the glove. I looked as his bare hand. What I took to be a compound of pastel, charcoal and oil paint was under each fingernail.
"I wonder," I said, noticing the opening doors, "if you have a card. I'd like to keep in touch."
"Quite out of the question," he said. "I'm afraid that for you and me it's not au revoir but goodbye."
There was nothing to do but accept his statement. So I stepped off the train but did linger long enough to watch it pull out. I waved a hearty farewell at Toulouse-Lautrec, but he didn't see it. He'd returned to tapping the weird drum-head.
I know I said it's not every day that you bump into Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, but maybe in my case it is every day that you bump into him. For, lo and behold, I did encounter him again and the very next day. I'd say it was an amazing coincidence, but in the case of Toulouse-Lautrec the fact of running into him two days running was as nothing compared to running into him at all.
Indeed, coming into contact with him was beginning to be commonplace.
I could foresee a time when confronting him in Central Park or at a Clearview Cinemas multiplex or on the first floor of the meat-packing district Apple Store would be just another Gotham ho-hum.
Anyway, on the following frabjous Manhattan day I was walking down Broadway in the upper Eighties, when approaching me at about, oh, say, twenty yards away was what I again took to be Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Most people, I figure, would have thought it was someone who looked like Toulouse-Lautrec but couldn't possibly be and would have just kept going.
I knew better and prepared to say "Allo" again, though my surprise - no longer astonishment - at seeing him again altered somewhat the closer he got. I became aware of something odd about his face. The nearer he drew, the more apparent it was. He was wearing the same outfit he'd been wearing the previous day right up to and including the pince-nez. Behind the pince-nez on the right side, I could see a black-ish-green-ish smudge.
There was no missing it: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had a black eye.
"Hello there," I said as he reached me.
"Mais zut," he said, extracting himself from a reverie. "Encore, c'est vous."
'You've got some shiner there," I said, coming right to the point - as I'd done the previous day when remarking on his added height. His response was bemused. Maybe, I thought, the 'shiner' threw him. "Black eye," I explicated, pointing at it: "bruise."
He raised his gloved hand to his right eye. "Ah, la blessure," he said, "the wound. I am sensitive to it."
I knew he meant he was sensitive about it, but I didn't correct him.
"You want to know how I come by it," he asked.
Pedestrians were passing us. Some looked at him, more, I think, to scope the eye damage than with any kind of famous-painter recognition-glint.
"I have this thanks to - I think you call them - a drag queen." He thought that over. "Yes, a drag queen."
"You got that from a drag queen?" I said.
"Très agressif," he said, making a fist of his right hand and swinging it close enough to my face for me to back away reflexively.
"She - uh - he - uh - she did that to you?" I asked.
"Non, mon ami," he said, "I'm on my way to do that to her." A look of triumph crossing his homely face. "She did this..." He indicated his eye again. "...with her elbow."
I tried to imagine the scene but couldn't quite construct a reenactment. "I'm afraid you've lost me," I said.
He crooked a gloved finger at me and said, "Step into my studio." With that, he moved closer to the shoe-store window in front of which we were standing - so as not to hold up pedestrian traffic. I did as bid. He moved in conspiratorially.
I bent over to listen to him but not as far as I once might have had to.
"Last night, I decided I wanted to do some sketching," he began in his soft, grainy voice, "and went to a drag bar in the West Village.
"That must have been an eye-opener for you," I ventured.
"Not as much as you think," he said. "Remember, I was brought up in 19th-century Paris. I've seen it all. I think the problem was they hadn't seen me. If you know my work..."
Recalling his penchant for beauty-definition broadening, I interrupted him. "Yes, I do and really, really like it." The comment came out sounding as fatuous as it does recollected in tranquility.
He was too caught up in his story to mind, however. "Mille mercis," he said and resumed his account. "If you know my work, you know I like to get close to my subjects." I nodded assent.
"Mais bien sur, proximity has its advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages was that the performers got very sweaty doing what they did, and their costumes weren't regularly laundered. Vous comprenez. You get my gist."
"Oh," I said, "that never occurred to me."
"No," he said, "it's a good thing what I did was strictly a visual art. The prices some of my works go for now would be sufficiently lower were the other senses involved. But as I was saying, in this club I was sitting close, and one of the artistes objected to what I was doing. She, jumped right off the low stage and tried to grab my sketchbook. When I pulled it back, she swung around like this" - he demonstrated - "and hit me in the eye with her elbow. It was a Très fleshy elbow, but the bone still had an impact.
"I was holding the sketchbook with one hand and fending my assailant off with one hand when someone pulled us apart. I decided it was time to leave and stepped quickly through the cheering crowd to the door and out of it. She tried to follow me, but as I was racing away, I heard someone in the club - perhaps the owner or manager - saying to the drag queen that she had an act to finish."
He chuckled Frenchly again and continued. "She probably thinks that's the end of it, but I don't appreciate being assaulted in the pursuit of my art. I have her stage name from the poster outside - Lotta Trash - and spent the morning finding out her real name.
"How did you do that?" I asked.
"Googled it," he said with what was becoming - to me - a Toulouse-Lautrecian gleam in his eye. "And from that I got her - his, Sonny Blalock's address on - ." He consulted a piece of paper he'd pulled from his jacket pocket. " - West Ninety-first Street. I'm on my way there now to - how do you say? - get my licks in."
"I'd certainly like to see that, " I said.
I didn't expect the response I got.
"You can if you want," Lautrec said. "Venez avec moi."
Not an invitation you receive every day, is it? I did some quick time calculations. I'd been on my way to the upper west side Barnes & Noble to find a book for some work I was doing, but the chore was nothing I couldn't delay for a half-hour or so and still be in B&N striking distance.
"If you don't mind," I said.
"Why should I mind?" he said. "I would enjoy the company, and I would be happy to have a witness."
So we set off up Broadway. I made a few unmemorable remarks about the passing scene but mostly kept quiet, because I was thinking, "Here I am, me, Paul Engler, with Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and only he and I know it. To everyone we saw and who say us, I could be just anybody - which I was and am - and he could be just anybody - which he wasn't."
To my few comments he merely said, "Très interessant" or 'très, très interessant." Most of the time he was humming a tune under his breath. Actually, it was more like a mixture of humming and whistling softly. It was a melody I was certain I'd never heard before - not on the radio, not downloadable from iTunes.
I asked him what it was.
He was slightly jarred from whatever his reverie was. "I did not realize I was doing that," he said and thought for a moment, then resumed for another moment. "Oh," he said, "It's one of the songs Aristide Bruant sang all the time."
I knew Bruant was a Pigalle singer-impresario. "Really?" I said, in awe of this completely unforeseeable introduction to a repertoire I figured had been lost entirely to the modern world.
"Yes," Toulouse-Lautrec said, "It's about a man whose mother never knew the identity of his father. Sometimes I wish that had been true of me, but it wasn't. Dommage."
If ever a remark begged a question, that one did, but I could see my new acquaintance would most likely not want to answer it. He'd retreated into his own thought. What I might have done but didn't - due to my concentration on the remark about Toulouse-Lautrec pere - was ask him to finish the Bruant song and maybe even teach it to me. I wouldn't have minded being the first on my block to memorize an old chanson sung on the streets of Pigalle.
By the time the thought crossed my mind, however, we were just about at Ninety-First Street and Broadway. Toulouse-Lautrec had again pulled out the piece of paper on which he'd written the address in the somewhat bold and blocky-y hand I recognized from signatures on his paintings and drawings.
He stopped at the corner and held the paper in front of me. "To which direction do we go?" he asked.
I looked at it again. It said "243 West Ninety-First Street." (Okay, it really read: "243, La Rue 91eme") "We cross to the north side of the street and turn left," I said. "It'll be closer to the other end of the block."
Two-forty-three East Ninety-first street is a five-story yellow-brick structure dividing a row of brownstones. The entrance is at street level. Inside the tiled vestibule - the outer metal-and-glass door was unlocked - Toulouse-Lautrec consulted the directory and, sure enough, there was a listing for "Sonny Blalock" - 5F. No reference to Lotta Trash. Apparently Ms Trash received no mail at this address.
Monsieur was paying no attention to me at this point. He pressed the button next to 5F and looked uncertain about what to do next. He only turned to me when after about fifteen seconds had elapsed there was no response.
"Maybe he's out," I said.
The thought had obviously not occurred to Toulouse-Lautrec, and a look so crest-fallen crossed his face that I was about to offer condolences.
No need, though, for at just that second the intercom came to life and a voice embedded in static said daintily, "Who is it?"
Toulouse-Lautrec was at a loss.
I figured I was here, so I might as well participate. "A delivery for Mr Blalock," I said.
Another two-second silence and the buzzer went. I lunged for the door and pushed it open. Toulouse-Lautrec said something to me under his breath that I took for one or another version of "merci" and preceded me through and started up the stairs.
I said, "Wait a minute, Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec." I had noticed that in his the post-operative condition the artist had surprisingly little trouble walking. There had even been a spring in his step, but perhaps he would find the stairs difficult. I said, "There might be an elevator." I walked down a ringing tiled corridor but found only a door to 1R, the rear ground-floor apartment - no elevator.
I shook my head no, and joined him on the stairs for the four-floor climb, which took about the same out of both of us.
As we reached 5F, I began to detect an unusual odor clogging the air - something both sweet and musty. Toulouse-Lautrec seemed to take it in as well and even gave a small nod of recognition. "Unlaundered costumes," he said, more to himself than to me.
Then he pushed the square doorbell button that he once might have had difficulty reaching. A dull ding resulted. Almost before it concluded its depressing sound, the door swung open and a more intense spray of that aroma hit us.
Standing there in a frilly bathroom and pink mules with pom-poms on the instep was a bruiser needing a shave and a good rinse to remove the vestiges of the previous night's eye make-up. I figured the man looking at us to figure out what the dickens we wanted weighed upwards of two-hundred-fifty pounds. Maybe more than three hundred pounds.
Taking in that neither of us was holding anything that could pass for a package or a bouquet of flowers, he started to say "What do y...?" Then the glaring light of recognition hit him. "Oh, it's you," he said to Toulouse-Lautrec.
"Oui, c'est moi," my new friend said and stepped towards the human sandbag. As he did, he pulled his right arm back in preparation for the planned assault.
When he did that, something got into me. Sizing up the situation, I realized that Toulouse-Lautrec might very well land a punch but that the side of beef in pink ruffles I was looking at wasn't likely just to stand - or flounce - there and take it. He was going to strike back. Toulouse-Lautrec could encounter the sort of fracture comparable to whatever had crippled him in his long-ago childhood.
Hardly analyzing what I was up to, I grabbed Toulouse-Lautrec's arm when it was still poised behind his head. Simultaneously, I said to the glowering Blalock person, "Do you know whose sketchbook you tried to take last night?"
"No, I don't," Blalock said in a voice that was becoming more macho by the moment, "and what's more I don't care."
Toulouse-Lautrec was trying to break free of my grip, but I held on.
"You might care if you knew that it's Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec?"
"Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec," he said.
"Yes," I said, "Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The famous painter."
With that, Blalock looked at me and then at the squirming Toulouse-Lautrec and laughed a basso-profundo laugh. "Oh, sure," he said, "the famous painter who died years ago, whenever."
I was ready for that. "How can he be dead," I asked, "when he's standing right here in front of you? Big as life." With that, I let go of Toulouse-Lautrec, who pulled himself up to his current enhanced height. "Bigger," I added.
Blalock took a closer look at Toulouse-Lautrec. With his two huge paws, he pulled his robe closed. "He does look a lot like Toulouse-Lautrec," he said as if he was on his way to being convinced.
I decided to lay it on thick - in keeping, of course, with Blalock's conspicuous theory of maquillage. "And you objected to having Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec draw you while you were performing. Do you know how many people would give their right arm for the privilege?"
Blalock said, "Well, it's very distracting, you know, when you're trying to entertain and someone is right in front of you with a pad and pencil flying." As he was saying that, the words were coming more and more slowly and floating, helium-like, to a higher register. Under the heavy unshaved morning beard, he was beginning to blush. "How was I to know?" With that, he looked more closely at Toulouse-Lautrec and said, "I'm sorry I thought you were dead."
Toulouse-Lautrec, who'd let his right arm drop to his side said, "You're probably confusing me with George Seurat. He also died in his thirties."
"Oh," Blalock said, thinking that over. "You're probably right." He stroked his chin and winced at the stubble. "Seurat. Right. Well, do you want to come in?" Again, he seemed uncertain how to speak to a famous person. Probably not too many came to watch him perform. Attention from the glitterati ended with the dimming of Ru-Paul's light. "I guess if you want to sketch me know, you could." The proposition excited him. "I could change into a gown."
As he was issuing the verbal invite, he was stepping backward and making a sweeping gesture that served as an invite. I signaled to Toulouse-Lautrec that he should precede me - I thought of it as Gaston yielding to Alphonse - and he stepped over the threshold.
Then I took a step inside the door to inhale what smelled like an explosion at a perfume factory and behold what looked like a chorus-girls' dressing-room. For all I knew, the fabrics making up the curtains and various slip-covers could have come from the same bolt that produced Blalock's floaty robe.
Insulin shots were in order.
So as someone who habitually shies away from inoculations, I said to our host(ess), "I hope you don't mind if I take a rain-check, but I've got some work I need to do. I just came along to assure that Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec found your place easily." I didn't quite want to leave it at that. "He's come such a long way from Paris and parts farther off."
It was plain that Blalock couldn't have cared if I stayed, left or suspended myself by the neck from the hallway lighting-fixture. He acknowledged my beg-off with a curt dip of his head.
As for Toulouse-Lautrec, he was - I could instantly see - already deeply immersed in thought of making the sum of those drawings swell to 5001. It looked to me as if he was scanning the room for the best place to place his latest example of unconventional beauty.
I interrupted his perusal only long enough to say, "Au revoir, Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec."
He turned to me and said in French I understood only too well, "Again I must regret there will be no revoir."
He barely had time to complete his brief, impeccable sentence when Blalock closed the door - more or less in my face.
I stood there for only a moment and then retreated.
And that - right up to the current minute - was the last I saw of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec on the sidewalks of New York. Or on the subway tracks. Or, for that matter, on any sidewalks or subway tracks anywhere.
What I have seen around town every once in a while, though, are posters ballyhooing the imminent appearance of a drag queen billing himself/herself as Too-Loose La Dreck.
They're illustrated with the drawing of a heavy-set man in a dressing-gown sitting on a divan with one leg tucked under him and one arm resting along the divan's back. It's very much in the style of you-can-guess-who, and if you look very closely at the lower right-hand corner, you see the familiar interlocking 'H-T-L" monogram stamp.