Lily Con CarnePublié
A short story by Marc Villard translated from the French by Brad Spurgeon
The woman was almost fifty. Her veiny legs carried her toward room 16 of the building at the corner of the Rue de Charonne.
Muted sounds carried through the thin barrier of the wooden door, just as she was about to bang on it. With her arm suspended in the air, the false blonde held her ear up to the door. Sounds of slapping and punching were interrupted a moment by a nasal voice asking a question sharply. The sound of the voice scared the hell out of her and she tried to calm the sudden pounding of her heart.
“So, Paco, you gonna cough it up? If Vador keeps smashing you across the face we’re not gonna see you back in the hole, but in a hole in the ground. Get it?”
“...left me alone in front of the bank...go...fuck yourself.”
“I had a wounded man, and that security guard was shooting at anything that moved. Had to get out of there. You’d’ve done the same!”
“Listen, I’ve been patient with you, Paco. I’ve been waiting for this moment for five years, and you’re not going to spoil my fun. Carlos is dead, that means we get to split it up three ways. I’ll ask you one more time: where’s the stash?”
Behind the door, the blonde rolled her eyes about and gnawed her ruby lips. The wave of never ending punches drew shivers that she vainly tried to contain by squeezing her arms tightly around her sides. Then a deep angry voice whispered in surprise: “Shit, he’s gone.”
She sucked in the putrid hallway air like a fish in agony and drew back while trying to smother her footsteps in the tiny stairwell.
*** *** ***
The woman sat on the sidewalk, her back pressed against the building running alongside the Balajo club to the right, her feet in the gutter. The door to the dance floor would open to reveal a dude in his Sunday best or a group of menopausal beauties, and she would be struck in the face by a gust of salsas, slow notes or the abandoned rock rhythms of the sixties.
She was packed into a shapeless dress from the rag collection of the Salvation Army, but the fine needlework trim added to the collar and sleeves suggested Lily was going through a kind of second-youth seduction trip.
Some small-time crooks in rigid gray pinstriped suits slowed down as they shuffled by her worn boots, then, ignoring the rotten little pile, turned back to their Havanas, which they lit with an expensive Dupont lighter.
Nobody even thought of helping her, mostly because she was dead drunk. In fact, she’d graduated in that night’s imbibing from the modest role of marathon drinker of cheap red to the enviable condition of diva of the hooch.
She soliloquized to the booming sounds and strobe light of the dance floor.
It was only as the clock struck five in the morning that a man finally stopped in front of the pitiful body. From the top of the Rue de Lappe to the end of the Place d’Aligre he was known as La Bamba, because he’d made the mistake one stormy night in a watering hole for winos of avowing that his mother was of Spanish origin. He would also answer to the name of Pierrot, but no one around the Place de la Bastille used his first name anymore.
He blinked, craned his neck and spoke in a Gitanes-destroyed voice: “Lily...is that you, Lily?”
Her only response was to sputter the same string of incomprehensible sounds that had taken over her mental faculties for the past three hours.
“They iced my man...”
“Hey, pea-brain, you haven’t got a man,” La Bamba said.
“Oh yeah? They let him out of the hole what’ll be three days ago tomorrow...”
She broke out in tears and La Bamba blinked and shook his half-dead paw. He didn’t get it.
“First you say he’s dead. Then you say he just got out of prison. Try and figure that one out.”
Between a couple of rounds of tears, she managed to spurt out: “BOTH...”
La Bamba shrugged his thin shoulders as if to say, “yet another one gone round the bend,” and he looked around for the dregs of a bottle. But Lily practiced the scorched earth policy. So he lost interest in the old drunk and continued on his way while she fell into a balmy snooze that made her look like a doll ravaged by the elements.
*** *** ***
Jimmy was savageness personified. At thirteen years old, he’d seen more than most mortals had their whole life. He took after his dad - who, by the way, was on a nice little holiday in Fresnes prison for stabbing a couple of guys who called Maradona a faggot - he had short arms and legs, a low forehead and evil black eyes. He grew up in Belleville, a part of Paris where the kids’ big ambition was to become ex-dope heads. When his dear father left for Fresnes, he lived with his mother and her Portuguese lover whom he detested with all his might.
At twelve, he’d packed up his trunk, turned his back on Belleville and set himself up at the Bastille.
With no money or shelter, he made a name for himself in the rotten streets of the quarter with his fists and in performing silly heists that placed him regularly before the judge for juvenile delinquents. He also knew how to wield a crowbar and was in the process of giving a little demonstration to Ben Mabrouk - an old fart of 16 - who he’d sucked into robbing this Tunisian grocery shop on the Rue de la Roquette.
The door finally gave way and the two vultures disappeared into the darkness corridors of the shelves of canned food that they’d been dreaming about for the last hour. They loaded their carrying baskets, topped them off with a few bags of potato chips and found their way back to the street at the exact moment that three fat cops climbed out of a cruiser parked by the sidewalk opposite the store. Jimmy deftly stashed his carrying basket behind a Renault 18 and ran towards the law enforcers while pointing to his companion, planted there like a fool in front of the grocery store.
“I’m the one who called you up, officers! Look at the Arab, he just robbed the grocery store!”
Ben Mabrouk turned around in disgust and with the carrying basket slapping against his legs, ran toward the Bastille, panting like a cow. The youngest of the three cops ran after him, while the other two squealed the Citroen cruiser off the sidewalk, its cherry flashing and siren on full.
Jimmy grabbed a couple cans of cassoulet that had slipped into the gutter, scooped up the basket and casually started toward the Rue de Lappe, taking a detour on the Boulevard Richard-Lenoir.
*** *** ***
Blinded by the darkness of the alley, Jimmy caught the toes of his running shoes on Lily’s right leg and smashed his face on the soup cans.
“Fucking bitch, what the hell you doing here?”
Not receiving any response, he bent over and glared lividly at the horrified Our Lady of the Hooch. He listened closely to her stuttering incantation.
“They kill my Paco... The Bastards... my man...”
The kid stood up again thoughtfully.
“It’s Paco’s tub o’lard,” he murmured to himself. “So, the guy gets knocked off the second he gets out of the lock-up...”
Jimmy did a bit of heavy calculating, and then a kind of sneaky smile drew across his face. He pulled out a small airline bottle of Pastis, opened it and passed it under the woman’s nostrils. This went on for another five minutes - Jimmy had all the time in the world - before Lily opened her eyes one after the other.
“Fucking hell,” she groaned.
“You said it, slob,” the kid laughed. “Come on, let’s get going, you’re invited to my studio.”
They arrived in front of number 17 Rue de Lappe just as the hydraulic symphony of the garbage trucks started up at the intersection of Lappe and Charonne. The kid passed by the concierge’s office, rounded the staircase, and freed up a little door with the window broken out of it. Lily followed easily behind. The kid made his way down the crumbling stone stairs with a flashlight, then, having reached the packed earth floor of the cellar, he moved along by guesswork and dragged the woman behind him by the hand. He stopped in front of a rotten storage room door decorated with a Metallica poster. Only a ventilator window at street level lighted the cramped interior of the room beyond. Lily’s eyes adjusted little by little to the half-light, as she sized up the “studio.”
Three broken bistro chairs from a bar on the Place de l’Aligre sat around a board held up by two trestles. The rest of the room consisted mostly of an inexorable regiment of food cans surrounding a shapeless mattress that was hidden under a military blanket. On the blackened walls, the kid had inscribed in red paint a few one liners borrowed from the 1960’s protest movement. To the right of the vent that let the dirty light crawl in from the sidewalk above, Jimmy had tacked up a photo of his father - taken in a bar - raising his arm in a toast to a couple of barflies.
In a corner, a pile of coal with a shovel alongside it drew the false blonde’s attention. She widened her eyes, and said, “Hey, kid, this ain’t no studio, it’s a storage room.”
“It’s a storage room that has been converted into a studio, and I did it all myself,” he said proudly.
“Pretty lousy...lacks the feminine touch.”
“It’s fine the way it is. Women...nothing but trouble...”
“You talking about me, child?”
“Ah, no, Lily, not you. Here, you want some Pastis?”
Jesus, he was really loading it on. He’d just lift his little finger to serve the old hag and she didn’t suspect a thing. She even started getting herself all fixed up nice, adjusting her Playtex 18-hour and asking for water to freshen up. At fifty big ones, she imagined she was still capable of winning over hearts and driving zippers crazy.
Jimmy let her go hard on the Pastis and as she slid backwards, half-corked, he prevented her from hurting herself, softening her fall on the mattress. He then lay down quietly at her side, pulled the cover up over them and without another thought dropped into a deep sleep. It was 6:30 in the morning, that Thursday, 21 June, and the precise time when, over at the medicolegal institute, Paco became acquainted with drawer B4, the last stop before a nameless grave.
*** *** ***
“So you’re saying they killed him, just like that! Well shit, I’d be pretty fucking angry if it was my man,” Jimmy said with shock. That afternoon he wore black pants with holes in the seat and a spanking new pink Lacoste shirt.
Lily raised her eyes: talking about it to a kid, that really hurt.
“I didn’t say I felt great about them knocking off my man. I said that I have to think of the future and watch my back side.”
“So why would these gangsters want to kill you?”
“That’s my business.”
Closed off, was Lily. But the kid understood instantly that he’d drawn the lucky number. He pretended he didn’t care and grabbed a can of fattening cassoulet that he started to try to heat up on a propane burner he’d produced out of nowhere.
“That smells good,” Lily said. “Why do you live in this storage room, you got no parents?”
“That’s my business,” he fired back.
“Just trying to make conversation...”
He got hold of himself again, turned to her and tried to force a bit of a smile, but God, it wasn’t easy.
“My mom disappeared with an asshole from Portugal and my father’s doing time in Fresnes. The minute he gets out, he’ll come and find me and we’ll mount a few jobs, just the two of us, together. My old man, he’s an ace,” he added in a tone that wouldn’t allow for any contradiction.
“So what do you do to eat, buy clothes, and all that?”
“This n’ that.”
She took him at his word and looked him over with interest. Then they dug into the beans and stared out the window at the tanned legs of the young women passing by the vent.
“Talk about going to the movies,” Lily said.
“Yeah, and to top it off, it’s free.”
“Doesn’t it drive you a bit crazy, all these chicks passing by? At your age, it must eat you a little, no?”
He could see what was coming, but he decided to put off the flesh test until later.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Well, anyway, I gotta get going now. I’ve got a job to prepare with a friend. You need anything?”
“I could drink a bit of pink plonk with no problem...”
“Easy. That all?”
“Uh...can you find me a little radio?”
“A radio? To do what with?”
The guy’s thick, thought Lily.
“You see me sitting in your fucking storage room all day? I’ve got to keep myself occupied somehow. A radio will at least provide a bit of agreeable background noise.”
“Okay, okay. Don’t get touchy, I’ll see if I can lift a little transistor thing somewhere.”
“Great, see you later.”
He walked out with his fists clenched. Who did she think she was, the old bag? She must imagine in that dried up brain of hers that he was after her ass. The idea made Jimmy’s face go sour, but he forgot all about his guest as he started off in the direction of the Saint-Paul Metro.
*** *** ***
La Bamba planted himself on the sidewalk, level to number 17, Rue de Lappe. One of his legs was shorter than the other, and he had to rest a lot more often than he’d like. He slid a pack of Gitanes from his jeans and flicked one into the corner of his mouth.
La Bamba jolted. He surveyed every bit of the sidewalk around him. No one visible.
“Bamba, hey, down here, underneath, in the cellar!”
He finally discovered Lily’s moon-shaped face, baring its incisors, level with the pavement.
“What are you doing down there, Lily?”
“It’s my new joint; I’ve been taken in by a kid who’s crazy about me.”
“No sense standing in the way of progress,” shot La Bamba.
“Does he have tattoos?”
“Just ‘To my father,’ on his left arm.”
“You get twenty percent if you send him my way. I’m not getting much business these days.”
“Deal. I’ll speak to him about it. What’s new in the quarter?”
La Bamba took his time to answer. He ran a little tattoo shop on the Rue de la Roquette, but hadn’t foreseen that once the toughs of the quarter got decorated they’d move on to something else. Fortunately, he had worked for the past eight days on the bodies of a couple of guys who, every morning, added the tail of a dragon, a ship’s sail or a low tide in Acapulco Bay to the small of their backs. After each session, excited by their latest bruises, the boys returned quickly to their hotel room and treated themselves to erotic screams of joy, drawing titters from the whole quarter.
“There’s a couple of well-dressed guys looking for you,” La Bamba said.
Lily appeared troubled behind the bars and asked nervously, “Did you hear what their voices are like?”
“The one in a yellow suit has a nasal voice, or, well, speaks through his nose in any case. The other’s some kind of ape, and you get the impression that he smoked ten packs of Celtics before opening his mouth to speak.”
“Shit, it’s them. What are they asking for?”
“They say they want to speak to Lily, Paco’s widow, like as if to give her some money to bury their friend in a respectable way.”
“These are the bastards who knocked him off!” the false blonde choked.
“Anything you say.”
“Man, if they went to your place, they must be stopping in at all the shops.”
“That’s right, and they’re offering a little something for any information,” the shopkeeper said shrewdly.
She pursed her lips, and said, “You going to give me away, Bamba?”
The tattooer didn’t say anything, continued to smoke lightly and fixed his eyes on the road as it shined in the summer sun.
“I’ll give you a hundred euros to keep your mouth shut,”
Lily said. “You haven’t seen me for a century, okay?”
“When you going to give me the hundred?”
“Two days at the latest. I’ll have to arrange it with Jimmy.”
“Okay, I’ll wait.”
With that, he got up with difficulty and started in the direction of the first watering hole he could find. With a hundred euro credit he could guzzle down a few.
*** *** ***
All that was missing now was the transistor radio. As for the plonk, Jimmy had no problem finding some, and had even acquired a good sausage at the deli. All that was left was the radio. He turned his back resolutely on the quarter and, rolling his small shoulders, snaked through the cars until he got to the covered market on the Place d’Aligre. He fixed the eyes of the two attentive Arabs leaning over a small Philips, then he surveyed the storefront window of an electronic household products shop. Just as he started moaning to himself and prepared to return to the Bastille he noticed a beautiful sight in the entrance of a building. A blind guy of about seventy years old had sought refuge on the sidewalk from the undoubted heat and cloistered state of his rooms. Installed on a chair, the sickly guy nodded his head while listening to music on a tiny Sony radio balanced on his knees.
Jimmy positioned himself on the blind guy’s sidewalk, made himself look like an innocent taking a stroll and then, arriving level with the chair, scooped up the radio just as his legs had already started moving in the direction of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine.
He only looked back once he got to the Rue de Charonne, but no one had followed.
“Jimmy, you’re a genius,” he congratulated himself.
He walked back leisurely to his favorite cellar, making sure that Ben Mabrouk was nowhere around, since he was worried the guy might want to get even.
Lily was waiting patiently in the “studio,” her dress pulled up high on her legs. It was just so hot down there, wasn’t it? She was staring at a Hare Krishna reincarnation image.
“I’ve got the radio and the plonk,” Jimmy announced.
“Jimmy, what do you want to be re-incarnated as?”
“Huh....” Christ. Better respond to the bitch. Make her feel good, caress her ego, and especially give her confidence in him. So he made himself look like he was concentrating as hard as any kid with a bit of a brain could. Then he proclaimed proudly: “A dog!”
“Oh yeah? Some kind of masochist huh? Getting kicked in the butt and thrown in the pound?”
“Uh...there’s some pretty vicious dogs, watch it! There’s even some dogs you can’t get near them or they’ll eat you alive.”
Is the guy deranged? Lily wondered. In the end she didn’t care because he had muscle and he obeyed her.
She spun the little dial to Nostalgia Radio and got hit in the face with “The Ranch of My Dreams” by Sheila. Her expression went sad and she reached for the bottle of plonk and produced a corkscrew from under her belt. She popped the cork and, throwing her head back, downed a steady stream of booze.
Jimmy shut himself up. It would take a while for the boozer to hit the first level of drunkenness. The kid concentrated on the sausage, and then recuperated a liter of Negrita rum from behind the mattress and started to set up a lover’s dinner of the great gut stuffers of raviolis and lentils.
Lily had penetrated the first level of Nirvana by 8:30 P.M. She spoke to the table for a while, and then slipped into the guise of an ordinary woman conversing relaxedly in front of the television in the evening.
“Hey kid, I got a problem.”
“Tell me all about it.”
“Not so fast, not so fast...”
Jimmy ground his teeth. All the violence that screamed out of his heart had been concentrating since that morning on this bitch. God, how he hated her.
“Take your time, Lily,” he murmured.
“Well, it’s like this: the two guys who knocked off Paco are after me. I’ve got proof they’ve been asking about me in the quarter.”
“Hey, that’s pretty bad.”
“Sure is. If I want to be left alone, I’ve got to hose down one or two guys in cash, and I haven’t got any. So, there you have it, a money matter...”
At that precise moment she fixed on the bottle of Negrita. A helping hand in a cruel world. She suddenly forgot everything and pounced on the rum. The firewater ravaged her stomach. Off in his little corner Jimmy chewed the skin around his fingernails with his incisors: the woman was killing him.
A little later while he laid her down on the mattress, she forced her lips against the boy’s. Jimmy held back a feeling of revulsion but lifted the old hag’s dress onto her stomach, which was rotating in a way he had seen the sex pros do in the porno films at the Bastille-Palace.
The few experiences Jimmy had with the pros had little to do with lovemaking and they were only very recent. He stuck his engine between the offered legs and Lily’s hand placed the young member in the right place. “She knows how to do it, the old hag,” the kid thought. “He’s going crazy, he’s scared,” Lily said to herself. Then they kissed each other and fought about on the dirty mattress, which projected a fine charcoal dust through the confined space.
Ten minutes later, she raised her hand over the boy.
“Pass me a smoke, cheri.”
He did so and even offered to light it up. She took a few drags, and then blew them out all at once, saying, “The thugs want me because I’m the only one who knows where Paco hid his take...”
“Hey, you’re rich, then?” he said with feigned surprise.
“If you want. I’ve got to recuperate the stuff but I can’t go myself...”
“Of course. You’re being watched.”
“Cheri, will you do it for me?”
“Anything you want, Lily, you’re great!”
“Ah, you’re so nice. Okay, it’s easy: all you have to do is wait until the Balajo closes and then get inside. Would you know how to do that?”
“Okay. There’s a ball that turns around over the dance floor to light the place up. It’s hollow, see, and my Paco hid his dough inside that.”
“We’re talking about, like, about how much?”
“You’re pretty curious, sweetie...well, I guess you have the right to know: a hundred thousand euros.”
“That’s not bad. And how am I supposed to open the ball?”
“I don’t know. My man didn’t explain that but there’s got to be a trick because he was a crazy about clever hiding places, was Paco. You think you can do it?”
Well, there was a problem. The big problem for Jimmy, was now her. Or rather, how he was going to dispose of a monster like her. She stood up to stare out into the street and to get a face-full of the so-called fresh air sent in through the vent. Jimmy thoughtfully contemplated his mistress’s overly white neck and then noticed the big blackened shovel on the pile of coal. Without any show of emotion he grabbed the handle with his rawhide hands and as he yelled, “I love you, Dad” he cut down the anemic mass of flesh. Lily crumpled to the floor. But the two days that he passed with her taking care of him weighed heavily on Jimmy’s heart. So he hit her harder, and harder again and again.
The red clump of a body no longer moved. Trembling a little nevertheless, the boy opened a can of pineapple slices and stuffed half of them down his throat. Then, in order to forget his growing anxiety, he turned on the radio and it had a Fernand Raynaud sketch on it.
He’d done it, Goddammit. For his dad.
Calmed by Fernand’s humor, the kid seized the corpse’s feet, and pulling backwards, drew the body to the back of his studio. Despite appearances to the contrary, he was a very tidy guy. He noticed over to the right a storage room without a lock, and he went into the dark hole and threw his package on the pile of abandoned coal. Then he returned for the shovel and, grunting, set about burying Lily’s corpse under the domestic fuel. Fifteen minutes later he stood back to size up the effect: impeccable.
Jimmy applauded himself thoroughly. Perfect self-control and all that. He then looked at the watch that his father had given him before he was locked up and he decided that three in the morning was the right time to pick the lock of the door to the Balajo.
*** *** ***
A recent rainfall had sent the few remaining stragglers of the late-night crowd into the late bars of the Bastille. The heavy humidity made Jimmy’s Lacoste shirt stick to his skin. Without worrying about such silly little futile details, he planted himself in front of the entrance to the dancehall, and pulled out a ring of passkeys stashed in his pocket and he started working on the Fichet-Bauche lock that flashed its dark eye at him.
At 3:28 he penetrated the interior of the club. Worried about an alarm being connected to the light switch, he tiptoed through the darkness. His eyes fixed the moving reflections on the ceiling as the ball swayed softly. He dragged a monstrous, wet surfaced table underneath the ball, and he placed a chair on that and then climbed up on it to top off the pyramid. His fingers moved avidly around the bits of broken mirror beveled into the globe. As he tried to find a crack, his index finger stumbled onto a thin metal wire. He tugged it hard.
Jimmy’s flight to hell was non-stop, as Paco never did anything in half-measures: when he found a hiding place, he never went easy on the plastique.
La Bamba, deep in an alcohol-induced reverie on the doorstep of number 16, noticed something like an explosion coming from the direction of the dancehall. He raised his glassy eyes and tried to focus on his beautiful Balajo in the center of a column of billowing smoke.
The tattooer snorted, briefly noticed a black tide descend from the sky and then he turned his attention back to the fire: green bills with the image of Europe on them floated in his direction like wild butterflies. Suddenly, he bent over his bottle of red, contemplated it admiringly and mumbled: “Gee, old pal, you’re really high-octane!”