The nightclub was a converted warehouse on the Left Bank, just a block from the river. They had painted the outside a muddy ochre. You went up a winding staircase made of black slats, like a fancy fire escape, to a gap in the side of the second level. You walked into the dark space with a bar running along the front wall roughly parallel with the river and with an empty stage at the other end. Barely discernible forms flitted among the tables, into or out of the mysterious booths lining the east and west walls, up or down the interior stairs between the second and third levels. I ushered my friends Matthew and Piper into the space where they stood gawking, eyes adjusting, for a few minutes before I could persuade them to sit down at a table near the center. I went to get us drinks.
Not long after I sat down, I noticed Matthew looking with his customary interest at the dark svelte forms passing at intervals on all sides of us. Somewhere from age eighteen to twenty-three, wearing black chemises and skirts that hugged and flattered their compact figures, they passed almost noiselessly but not without glimmers of interest. From a few of the other tables there came murmurs, faint snatches of talk.
We laughed and drank our way through a few more rounds. After a couple of hours, I sensed movement in the space behind Piper, who was sitting with his back toward the stage. I saw the outlines of a form on the stage walking in our direction. Yes, I thought I saw one of the weak isolated cones of light fall on a face with angrily arching eyebrows and an absurdly elongated nose, like part of a monster mask put together on the cheap for use in a kids’ play. Behind that nose there must be a string, running around the back of the wearer’s head. After it passed out of that cone of light, I did not see the form again, no matter how diligently I scanned the stage. We went on drinking and talking.
Here is what I had not told my friends. One of the vilest people in the world strolled through the avenues and pavilions of the great city. A superficially charming man named Frank Russo had the most ambitious plan to date to harness the universe of porn and prostitution here in Paris and make it more readily available, through streaming and live feed technologies, to a global clientele. Deeply repelled by the sex trade, I had deliberately sought out places where we might run into Frank Russo. I loathed him.
“So is this what you guys wanted?”
I took their satisfied manner for a yes. Matthew said, “I heard there’s this place, somewhere here in the city, where you can see, like, fifty nude women up on a stage at once, dancing and moving in formation.”
“No way,” said Piper.
“Is that so remarkable?”
“It’s the concept I can’t get my head around. I heard someone say, you know when you see it that it’s not porn. It is so not porn.”
More shapes passed by on all sides. There were accents around me and there could be no doubt that they were American. But as with the people here, so with the words. It was outlines that came now. Meanwhile, Matthew was in conversation with Piper. Now an idea seemed to solidify in their heads at the same time.
“No. Come on, you guys. No.”
“We’re gonna do it,” Piper said.
“Don’t you fucking talk to us like we’re a pair of dogs you give commands to.”
“Guys. The action’s right here. If you do this thing, I can’t be responsible—”
Matthew followed Piper in the direction of the stairs leading up to a landing joined to another flight of stairs rising to a dark hole in the ceiling. I clutched my drink, staring directly ahead. Shapes continued to move past me on either side.
I hung out drinking for a while. In my peripheral vision, I saw three guys come into the place and proceed right to the stairs my friends had just gone up. Then a few more women went the same way. I had to know what was going on up there.
The series of thin black slats felt precarious under my feet, like an ancient fire escape. Down there in the dimness, the head of somebody at one of the tables turned upward as if to follow my progress.
On the tiny landing, I turned and continued up toward the rectangle of dark space. When I reached it and forced myself to walk through, I was on a big floor. There were more booths up here and their layout was elaborate. Here were rows with passages between them. There was a bar up at the front, as below. Doors of booths opened and closed. Forms moved in the dimness. Most were clad in black as below but I thought I saw flashes of bare flesh in motion. Yes, a couple of young women were moving around nude except for black boots and black gloves matching their hair. I could see some of the young men standing outside the booths gawk at these women as they passed. Up here, voices were more audible, accents more unmistakably American.
One of the nearly nude women came up to me. She had jet-black hair combed back into a bun, alert arching brows, and a snub nose. The smoothness and fineness of all her features made her exquisitely pretty. Physically I might have been ready but mentally I was not. Her hurt look barely registered as I continued to scan the dark space for my friends.
When my gaze settled on the center of the room, I saw a young man in a red polo shirt pushing the woman I had spurned toward a booth on the far side of the room. They were within arm’s reach of the door when she broke away from him and moved off. He yelled abuse at her in a distinctly American accent before turning away to find other prey. I lost sight of him when I finally heard a familiar voice. It was Matthew. He was moving away from the bar, toward me, with a lithe form, thin and with short brown hair, clinging to his waist. Straining my eyes, I saw that she was nude from the waist down, and her left arm extended across Matthew’s pudgy belly, her right arm across his back.
“Matthew. You’re disgusting. Keep moving, man, o.k.?” I said, ushering the two of them down toward the murk at the far end, where I knew there were a lot of risqué things for them to join in now.
“Yes master,” he replied, adding under his breath, “Woof woof.”
Their forms receded. Sickened, I got myself another drink. As if it weren’t hard enough to make out things and people, my vision grew a bit blurred. I groped toward the bar and then turned right into a bathroom with a faint lamp over a faucet next to a pair of stalls. Feeling queasy as I thought of all the lines of coke, all the blow jobs those stalls had contained, I downed mouthfuls of water, doused my face, and rubbed my eyes hard.
When I was standing again in front of one of the booths, a few of the Americans near the bar were having some kind of altercation and shoving one another. I watched them. Maybe they were horsing around. Beside me, the door of a booth opened and a girl I had never seen before walked out, fully nude. A few more people trickled in and some of the Americans fanned out from the bar. Doors of booths opened and closed. Forms moved around me and the blurriness was still there. I reached out to one of the passing forms. My hand landed on bare flesh and I pulled it toward me. It was the young woman who had approached me right when I came up here. Now I really looked carefully at the face before me. The pinched eyes, the smoothly curving lips were there. Yes, it was the same woman.
Her name was Élisabeth. At my urging, she shared a bit of information. She had grown up in the slums of Paris and the story of her parents was not worth repeating, she told me. Her brother was on a sub in the South Pacific. She appeared utterly dumbfounded that I should want to know these things. I let her slide both of her feet around until they touched my ankles, feeling the weight of her bare breasts against my chest, picking up an odor on her breath of something that wasn’t mouthwash. She kissed me. She whispered in my right ear, inviting me into a booth with her. But I yearned now to play the role of one of Dostoyevsky’s more tortured narrators. I gently pushed her back a few inches. I told her I hated the sex trade, which demeaned women. I asked her a number of probing questions, about her schooling, her early loves, her work, where she saw herself in a few years. Though amazed at my questions, she got over this reaction quickly enough. Élisabeth’s sexuality had begun to blossom quite early in life. But I was intrigued to find out that reading about “nos ancêtres, les Gaulois” had kindled Élisabeth’s interest in the vivid pageants of history, and the exploits of Asterix and Obelix had fed that interest, but—surprise, surprise!—her awful boyfriends over the years had habits that required her to keep quite busy. In her eyes I saw the restless intelligence of someone whose life was far too small for her. I thought of reasoning with and guiding her in the manner of Dostoyevsky’s narrator in his “Tale of the Falling Sleet.” The keen intelligence I saw in those eyes made claims on me.
I told her how sorry I was for having pushed her away earlier. She must understand that I just was unready for an erotic experience. The young woman told me I had failed to anticipate the ramifications of what I did earlier. I had exposed her to demand after demand. One horny, foul-breathed foreigner after another had come after her, making her duck and hide in the labyrinth of booths.
Worst of all, an American in a red polo shirt had cornered her inside a booth and taken pictures of her privates with a tiny device. All this outraged her sense of dignity. I nodded. I offered to get her a drink and she accepted.
Walking toward the bar, I noticed something strange through the open door of the restroom. Something was happening in one of the stalls and it was too much even for the crowd at this place. People were giving gasps and cries of disgust and moving quickly out of the bathroom, shoving others out of the way. I continued to the bar and got a couple of mixed drinks. But when I got back to where I had been talking with Élisabeth, I made out, in the center of the place, the back of a red polo shirt and a flurry of limbs accompanied by curses and threats. This man had harassed Élisabeth on several prior occasions tonight. I rushed to Élisabeth’s aid, exclaiming and denouncing what the owner of the red shirt was doing. The American spun around and punched me in the jaw. Even in my stupor, it felt like getting hit with a crowbar. I staggered backward and fell to my knees. The guy in the red shirt rushed toward the bar. He moved up beside a man in a black blazer and handed him a tiny recording device. On that device, I knew, was footage of Élisabeth in all kinds of poses that people around the world would soon relish, staring and drooling over every bump and crevice and orifice of her young body.
The man in the blazer was Frank Russo.
Strange noises came from the bathroom on my right. I turned my gaze. People were clearing out of there, gasping and crying, but one person, a man in his twenties with straight dark hair, stood at the door of one of the stalls and looking on, enjoying what he saw. No, the guy who hit me wasn’t in there. I turned again just in time to see Russo, the guy in the red shirt, and a third stranger, a thin man with Mansonesque hair and beard, dart past the booths and through the door. Seconds later, I was on the black stairs again, on the lower floor, and then outside.
A breeze ruffled my hair as I ran toward the river. I dashed across the street and up one block and then stood in a quiet stretch of the Left Bank with shuttered stands and kiosks. But then I saw the three, running west. I thought they all felt stunned at the speed with which I caught up to them. I tackled the guy in the red shirt, grabbed the soft brown hair on the back of his head, and slammed his face into the pavement three times as hard as I could. He screamed. His friends cried out and cursed me in the nasal tones of Suffolk County and began kicking me hard in the head and ribs. I thought, At least I get to die in Paris.
Piper and Matthew ran up on either side of me and engaged with Russo’s friends. The mild side of Piper’s persona was fully absent now. He yelled and swore as he pummeled the guy in the red shirt. Matthew made up in size and brawn for whatever he may have lacked in the experience of and will to violence. He and the Manson figure spun repeatedly as they clawed and wrestled each other. Their bodies moved into the middle of the street before I heard a crunch and realized Matthew must have broken one of his opponent’s bones. Matthew kicked the stranger until he fell to the ground, then slammed his face into the street.
Frank Russo leapt onto the ledge above the river and ran along it. I pursued him. He leapt off the ledge and out of my vision. For a moment, I thought he had chosen to end his life. On reaching the ledge, I saw that he had timed his leap perfectly, targeting the tourist barge moving up the river below. But maybe he had not meant to burst through the glass rectangle covering the barge’s middle third. The impact sent shards and flecks of glass into the hair and skin of guests enjoying steak frites and red wine. They gave horrified cries of a kind that would be familiar in later chapters of Parisian history.
I mounted the ledge, ran along it after the barge, and leapt. Not much of the glass canopy was intact. I landed in the midst of high society in disarray. Here were men in $800 suits and women in designer dresses, crying and cursing and flicking glass off their flesh and hair. Russo managed to stand. The people here might have taken pity on him, given the condition of his blazer. They could not have known whether his landing in the barge was intentional. Still less did they know what had in his pockets.
Nor did I. Besides the recorder, he had a knife whose ten-inch blade fit neatly in its handle. Russo’s hand darted into his right front pocket and came out again with the knife, which he flicked open in a move so fast I barely saw it. I continued to act on impulse and slammed him in the jaw as hard as I could. He tried to stab me in the heart, but he just speared the wallet in my breast pocket, thick with bills and travelers’ checks. I lurched backward and fell, upsetting a table. A bottle of Chateau Lafite slid off but did not break. I grabbed the bottle by the neck, stood up, and dashed it on Russo’s head, making him scream and drop the knife. Shards and splinters and the exquisite red wine covered both of us. He raised a hand reflexively to the gash running from his forehead to his left temple. His brief disorientation was all that I and the four other men inside the cabin needed.
I told them all about the illegal recording, but I wanted no involvement with the police. While they busied themselves with Russo, I leapt right off the barge. Thank God I’m a swimmer.
In my strange traumatized state, I had a vague idea that I was going back to the nightclub, so imagine my surprise when I found myself minutes later in a wide alley. Too disoriented to turn around and look for the street the club was on, I lurched along in a southerly direction, wincing at the pain. I fell down and agony thundered through my body. I got up and fought onward. Then I collapsed. While I was unconscious, a vagrant came and kicked me around and took my wallet.
The next thing I knew, I was looking at the ceiling of a hospital. The owner of one of the kiosks had found a bloody, ragged man lying at the base of it when he showed up for work in the morning.
My ribs and throat and vocal cords had gotten severely damaged, so I could not contradict anything people said. They assumed that I had gone to check out the more risqué parts of the city and had gotten into trouble, stupid American that I was. Piper and Matthew stood over my bed, saying little. A young woman who came from the embassy brought me a copy of Quiet Days in Clichy.