The Salvation Army, of course, had nothing to offer us. If we had had a quarter apiece we might have rented a mattress on the floor. But we hadn't a nickel between us. We went to the park and stretched ourselves out on a bench. It was raining and so we covered ourselves with newspapers. Weren't there more than a half hour, I imagine, when a cop came along and, without a word of warning, gave us such a sound fanning that we were up and on our feet in a jiffy, and dancing a bit too, though we weren't in any mood for dancing. I felt so goddamned sore and miserable, so dejected, so lousy, after being whacked over the ass by that half witted bastard, that I could have blown up the City Hall.
The next morning, in order to get even with these hospitable sons of bitches, we presented ourselves bright and early at the door of a Catholic priest. This time I let Joe do the talking. He was Irish and he had a bit of a brogue. He had very soft, blue eyes, too, and he could make them water a bit when he wanted to. A sister in black opened the door for us; she didn't ask us inside, however. We were to wait in the vestibule until she went and called for the good father. In a few minutes he came, the good father, puffing like a locomotive. And what was it we wanted disturbing his likes at that hour of the morning? Something to eat and a place to flop, we answered innocently. And where did we hail from, the good father wanted to know at once. From New York. From New York, eh? Then ye'd better be gettin' back there as fast as ye kin, me lads, and without another word the big, bloated turnip faced bastard shoved the door in our face.
About an hour later, drifting around helplessly like a couple of drunken schooners, we happened to pass by the rectory again. So help me God if the big, lecherous looking turnip wasn't backing out of the alley in a limousine! As he swung past us he blew a cloud of smoke into our eyes. As though to say – "That for you!" A beautiful limousine it was, with a couple of spare tires in the back, and the good father sitting at the wheel with a big cigar in his mouth. Must have been a Corona Corona, so fat and luscious it was. Sitting pretty he was, and no two ways about it: I couldn't see whether he had skirts on or not. I could only see the gravy trickling from his lips – and the big cigar with that fifty cent aroma.
All the way to Dijon I got to reminiscing about the past. I thought of all the things I might have said and done, which I hadn't said or done, in the bitter, humiliating moments when just to ask for a crust of bread is to make yourself less than a worm. Stone sober as I was, I was still smarting from those old insults and injuries.
I could still feel that whack over the ass which the cop gave me in the park – though that was a mere bagatelle, a little dancing lesson, you might say. All over the States I wandered, and into Canada and Mexico. The same story everywhere. If you want bread you've got to get in harness, get in lock step. Over all the earth a gray desert, a carpet of steel and cement. Production! More nuts and bolts, more barbed wire, more dog biscuits, more lawn mowers, more ball bearings, more high explosives, more tanks, more poison gas, more soap, more toothpaste, more newspapers, more education, more churches, more libraries, more museums. Forward! Time presses. The embryo is pushing through the neck of the womb, and there's not even a gob of spit to ease the passage. A dry, strangulating birth. Not a wail, not a chirp. Salut au monde! Salute of twenty one guns bombinating from the rectum. "I wear my hat as I please, indoors or out," said Walt. That was a time when you could still get a hat to fit your head. But time passes. To get a hat that fits now you have to walk to the electric chair. They give you a skull cap. A tight fit, what? But no matter! It fits.
You have to be in a strange country like France, walking the meridian that separates the hemispheres of life and death, to know what incalculable vistas yawn ahead. The body electric! The democratic soul! Flood tide! Holy Mother of God, what does this crap mean? The earth is parched and cracked. Men and women come together like broods of vultures over a stinking carcass, to mate and fly apart again. Vultures who drop from the clouds like heavy stones. Talons and beak, that's what we are! A huge intestinal apparatus with a nose for dead meat. Forward! Forward without pity, without compassion, without love, without forgiveness. Ask no quarter and give none! More battleships, more poison gas, more high explosives! More gonococci! More streptococci! More bombing machines! More and more of it – until the whole fucking works is blown to smithereens, and the earth with it!
Stepping off the train I knew immediately that I had made a fatal mistake. The Lycée was a little distance from the station; I walked down the main street in the early dusk of winter, feeling my way toward my destination. A light snow was falling, the trees sparkled with frost. Passed a couple of huge, empty cafés that looked like dismal waiting rooms. Silent, empty gloom – that's how it impressed me. A hopeless, jerkwater town where mustard is turned out in carload lots, in vats and tuns and barrels and pots and cute looking little jars.
The first glance at the Lycée sent a shudder through me. I felt so undecided that at the entrance I stopped to debate whether I would go in or not. But as I hadn't the price of a return ticket there wasn't much use debating the question. I thought for a moment of sending a wire to Fillmore, but then I was stumped to know what excuse to make. The only thing to do was to walk in with my eyes shut.
It happened that M. le Proviseur was out – his day off, so they said. A little hunchback came forward and offered to escort me to the office of M. le Censeur, second in charge. I walked a little behind him, fascinated by the grotesque way in which he hobbled along. He was a little monster, such as can be seen on the porch of any half-assed cathedral in Europe.
The office of M. le Censeur was large and bare. I sat down in a stiff chair to wait while the hunchback darted off to search for him. I almost felt at home. The atmosphere of the place reminded me vividly of certain charity bureaus back in the States where I used to sit by the hour waiting for some mealy mouthed bastard to come and cross examine me.
Suddenly the door opened and, with a mincing step, M. le Censeur came prancing in. It was all I could do to suppress a titter. He had on just such a frock coat as Boris used to wear, and over his forehead there hung a bang, a sort of spitcurl such as Smerdyakov might have worn. Grave and brittle, with a lynxlike eye, he wasted no words of cheer on me. At once he brought forth the sheets on which were written the names of the students, the hours, the classes, etc., all in a meticulous hand. He told me how much coal and wood I was allowed and after that he promptly informed me that I was at liberty to do as I pleased in my spare time. This last was the first good thing I had heard him say. It sounded so reassuring that I quickly said a prayer for France – for the army and for the navy, the educational system, the bistros, the whole goddamned works.
This folderol completed, he rang a little bell, whereupon the hunchback promptly appeared to escort me to the office of M. l'Econome. Here the atmosphere was somwhat different. More like a freight station, with bills of lading and rubber stamps everywhere, and pasty-faced clerks scribbling away with broken pens in huge, cumbersome ledgers. My dole of coal and wood portioned out, off we marched, the hunchback and I, with a wheelbarrow, toward the dormitory. I was to have a room on the top floor, in the same wing as the pions. The situation was taking on a humorous aspect. I didn't know what the hell to expect next. Perhaps a spittoon. The whole thing smacked very much of preparation for a campaign; the only things missing were a knapsack and rifle – and a brass slug.
The room assigned me was rather large, with a small stove to which was attached a crooked pipe that made an elbow just over the iron cot. A big chest for the coal and wood stood near the door. The windows gave out on a row of forlorn little houses all made of stone in which lived the grocer, the baker, the shoemaker, the butcher, etc. – all imbecilic-looking clodhoppers. I glanced over the rooftops toward the bare hills where a train was clattering. The whistle of the locomotive screamed mournfully and hysterically.