But his favorite story by far was that of Hector Coquille, a young vagabond Paw knew as a child in the old Fauburgh-Marigny district. The mere mention of his name would set Jake and his sister howling. One of the worst insults they could levy against someone was “You’re just like Hector Coquille!” Sometimes when Achille came home from work, he lingered in the doorway and daintily flapped down one hand; he puffed out his lips and waited for Ruthie and Jake as they blitzed through the house to greet him. They knew instantly by his pose what he was going to say, and Achille played along by dragging it out until the last possible moment as they wriggled and almost exploded with frustration. “Guess who I saw today,” he finally taunted them in falsetto singsong, vibrating his eyebrows and grinning goofily, which gratified every ounce of their patience. “Hector Coquille!” they roared, not realizing that by then Hector would have been very old indeed, probably even dead. In their minds Hector never changed; stranded in the resinous glamour of myth, he evoked a perpetual past that not only defied but annulled the present. Such was the magical effects of Paw’s stories. The invisible gentleman grew silent and transfixed whenever he listened to Jake retell them, though Jake could never match Paw’s vigor or self-assurance. Not a molecule of ambivalence or doubt clouded Paw’s soul; he knew what he believed and no armada of contrary evidence could expel him from the ocean of illusions that constituted his life. Once he told Jake that the difference between real men and “fruits” was that fruits never got hardons. And Jake assumed it was true for a long time.
“He was not putting you on,” the invisible gentleman assured him, “he really believed it. And remember when he told you that sperm was only thick pee that looked white? But how could you remember? You haven’t reached puberty yet. Forgive me for getting ahead of myself, that is, ahead of you. For me time is not a series of integers each succeeding the other like beads on an unhooked necklace; it’s an entire calculus envisioned at once, a peacock’s tail in full array. Einstein said something similar. Your grandfather did not know the difference between urine and sperm! He lived in a simpler world, Jake, a crude but innocent place devoid of mystery, or perhaps so replete with it that reality became obsolete, or at any rate, negligible. Nymphs in his beloved sycamores. Today we grope for bits of mystery the way we dive for ten-dollar bills on the sidewalk. Or sometimes it sneaks up on us, takes us unaware as when you and the others stop briefly to behold an unusual configuration of light on your way to Meme’s house. You have no choice; something extraordinary calls to you. Anyway, don’t expect Paw to understand your distress at the onset of puberty, the torment you’ll suffer as that explosive rush of hormones quakes your body. He never suffered himself because he could explain everything to his own satisfaction. He lived unconsciously, so to speak, as they say entire civilizations once lived. Like the Sumerians and Egyptians. If the facts didn’t fit, he changed the facts. He was the last lucky man in America, an absolute tyrant beloved by his subjects—though not by Violet of course, even if she too acquiesced in the end. But why? Why did they love him? What did he do to earn such devotion?”
“Maybe he was just always there,” Jake suggested. “We knew he would be there. Or maybe the stories.”
“Oh, I see,” the gentleman smirked, “tell a good story, receive the diadem. I think not, however much I too love the one about Hector Coquille. And you only heard the ludicrous bicycle episode, a mere smidgen of the whole!”
Hector Coquille had breezed in and out of Paw’s childhood on his quest for the perfect remoulade. He deified Paw’s mother, whom everyone called old lady Piaggia despite her married surname, as the finest and most original cook in New Orleans, and he hoped not merely to imitate but surpass her wizardry. His unabashed fawning blinded her to most of the vices which assured him routine thrashings from anonymous shadowy thugs, and he would show up disheveled and forlorn in her kitchen at any odd hour of day or night. Paw said he never saw Hector Coquille without a black eye or nasty bruise or welt. He was probably about twenty-five at the time and had acquired a sordid reputation for frequenting licentious dives in the Vieux Carre. Sometimes he hawked pastel drawings on Jackson Square or made a few dollars playing clarinet in Dixieland bands on Bourbon Street, but mostly he sold his own body in exchange for whatever money he could get, which often amounted to only a few coins since Hector was not, to his own unrelieved dismay, an even remotely attractive man. His lips were far too florid and bloated in proportion to the rest of his sullen, angular face; his cheeks had sunken into dark foggy caverns because, as he explained to old lady Piaggia who in time had become both a trusted confidante and tutor in the culinary arts, he wept bitterly every night over the endless misfortunes that beset him. Hector’s waxen yellow hair arranged itself on its own accord into helical strands that resembled the snakes of Medusa and made him seem to possess far less hair than he actually had. And, alas, he looked old. (Rumor had it that Hector had aged an entire decade in one instant when, during his eleventh birthday party – the other children belting out a raucous “Happy Birthday to You” – he instantly discovered desire, which raced through his body like twisted barbs of voltage.) He was so petite and emaciated that a tormentor had once spat and swaggered away mumbling that beating him would be like swatting a fly. Yet despite his homeliness, Hector never really envied any other man, no matter how spartanly chiseled or cherubically beautiful, for the sole reason that nature had endowed him with the most magnificent sexual organ imaginable. He spent so much time measuring and fondling the extraordinary appendage that he had worn off the inked scale markings on his tape measure. If someone challenged his boast that the nether limb, even when flaccid, approached twenty solid inches, he instantly arranged a demonstration in exchange for a few more coins.
“It hangs down to my knees!” he would gasp, beside himself with delight. Moreover, the organ seemed indestructible as if constituted of cypress rather than human flesh. To make a little more money he would allow Paw and his friends to roll over it with the tires of their bicycles as he lay on his hip on the sidewalk, the thick, muscular shaft stretched out full length. “Hector,” they would cry when in the mood, “let us roll over your weenie again!”
“How much money do you have, little boys?” Hector would snarl, glancing down at the urchins along the sizeable arch of his nose.
Hector’s devotion to this remarkable facet of anatomy could hardly fail to acquire religious significance in his own mind. He loathed the word “penis” and came to call it, and all other male organs, flambeaux, after the flaming cruciform torches borne by Negroes during Mardi Gras parades. “My flambeau doesn’t feel well,” he might sulk on gloomy overcast days, or, in better times, “My flambeau will rise above this slough of despond.” He became so intoxicated with himself that he could induce trances and envision the organ as a literal flambeau, fiery at the tip and expanding brazenly above city streets and crowds of bacchic devotees. He saw flambeaux everywhere, in a direct line of vision or out of the corners of his eyes, even behind his head. “The whole world,” he gushed with hungry excitement, “is a bon fire of sacred flambeaux. Flambeaux have acquired the attributes of God. I can tell you the race and creed of a person by merely glancing at the contour, plasticity, hue and magnitude of his flambeau. The Italians far exceed, say, the Egyptians to my own personal taste, yet this is not to say that Egyptian flambeaux are any less worthy of respect. Then you have your rather limpid Swiss flambeaux, the volatile flambeaux of the French, the pale Scandinavian schlongs (so apropos a term in their case), the Korean sausages, the English dildoes, the remarkable curvature of the Portuguese, and oh, the Semitic torque. Let us pray. Our Flambeau, that art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.”
Routine weeping aside, Hector refused to allow circumstances to defeat him entirely; to this end he adhered to a ritual of benefaction every night, expressing gratitude to the Creator for the few trinkets he did in fact possess. With the methodical precision of an accountant, he apprized and caressed every object in the one greasy shoebox of a room above the Sicilian grocery where he lived, puckered his abundant lips and kissed the possessions with feverish reverence. “Thank you, my keys,” he would chant while passionately kissing each key on his key ring, “for opening so many doors otherwise closed to me. Thank you, my candle,” he continued, suffering burns from molten wax dripping from the flame, “for spreading, like India ink in a glass of water, this droplet of hopeful light into an overwhelming darkness. Thank you, my alligator skin billfold . . . my sturdy Italian boots . . . my precious bottle of Bay Rum (oh, how could I survive without inhaling your precious essence?) . . . my cracked Bavarian platter on which I have served Mrs. Piaggia’s divine ravioli . . . my celluloid comb and hair receiver, for I too lose a little every day . . . my little brass lamp with its etched glass shade which I am told belonged to my Cyprian grandfather, whom alas the yellow fever ravaged before I was born . . . my battered Victrola which magically generates the ethereal melodies of Schubert and Verdi, without which I would summarily expire . . . my two books, the Collected Works of Rabelais and <em, both having taught me gaiety and tolerance . . . .” And on it went until finally he reached the summit of his ecstasy and thanked the flambeau which had impatiently awaited the moment by becoming engorged with more and more blood. “Thank you, O Steadfast Flambeau, my Ziggurat of Ur, my Halley’s Comet, Washington Monument and Proboscis of Rare Pleasure,” he gasped with excitement close to delirium as he bent over and sucked the rush of fire into his mouth between moist, ravenous lips.</em
Paw, of course, eliminated most of the lurid details but he could not resist relating the amazing fact that he and his friends had rolled over Hector Coquille’s sexual organ with their bicycles. “It was impossible,” he would exclaim with dumbfounded pleasure, “the thing resisted pain and disfigurement. He just put it back in his pants and walked down the street!”
Old Lady Piaggia knew nothing about the antics of her son, and Hector was wise enough to keep his own more unsavory adventures to himself. She looked upon him as a lost soul and as such he stirred her compassion, much as she stirred the omnipresent cauldrons of tomato sauce always simmering on the burners of her stove.
“But what do you add to give the sauce that almost Mephistophelian flavor?” he begged to know.
“Hector,” the old woman replied, “it’s only thyme, garlic, parsley and salt. I don’t know what flavor you mean. Wait, I add a little marjoram. Maybe that’s it.”
So Hector would rush to the French market and buy a handful of freshly picked marjoram to add to his own kettle. But it was never quite right, always flat and unmemorable, unlike the druidic creations of his mentor, and he despaired of discussing proportions with an old lady who cooked by instinct, not science. “And what about that linguini? It looks as if you scoop it out of the colander and simply plop it on a plate, wet and glistening, like a heap of pale worms. But then, again, that taste. What could it be? It’s not the cheese, though the Romano certainly participates. I think it’s sweet basil this time. But how remarkable . . . the sauce looks invisible! I love the deception. When that mysterious flavor seduces my tongue, I could stuff myself like those gluttonous Roman senators whose stomachs exploded at their own banquets.”
But Hector’s mission remained above all to master the occult properties of the perfect remoulade. “Most are either nasty old ketchup or some viscous cream sauce. Forget the creams, they are defilements which rarely compliment the shrimp. If there’s one thing I can’t stand it’s white remoulade. No, it’s got to be red . . . and, of course, spiked with tabasco. But the secret I believe lies in the horseradish. A remoulade without horseradish is a crime against nature. But how do you grind it properly? How long can you wait before mixing the ingredients? Should the horseradish cause pain or be more subtle?”
Old lady Piaggia could not help Hector with remoulade because she dismissed it as a Gallic abomination. She excelled at only Italian food, and north Italian at that. “The Sicilians and Sardinians have simple, callous tongues,” she reminded her student. “They are like those Negroes who always choose the brightest, boldest colors for their attire. I am from Genoa myself, and the Genoese rely upon scent before taste. So the trick is to subdue flavor with the help of your nostrils until it releases itself on the palate. This is what you miss, Hector, you’re too impetuous.”
Invariably Hector would sob and swear to her that he would hang himself from a live oak in Audubon Park before nightfall because at this rate he would die anyway – before discovering the hermetic properties of an immaculate remoulade, the sauce, he wailed, of Plotinus and Moses de Leon.
“There, there,” the old lady consoled, “you shouldn’t kill yourself over remoulade. What do the French know? They were still barbarians when Marcus Aurelius composed his memoirs and refined the tenets of Stoicism. Or when Diocletian, that humble Illyrian peasant, separated east and west. Stop that whimpering. And what’s this I hear about your carousing on Decatur Street at three in the morning? What could possibly keep one awake at three in the morning?”
Hector would then launch into another intricate, contrite confession to himself and promise to reform before Greek mariners at the Acropolis Bar bludgeoned him with crowbars in some dark alley. But such a death was so unthinkable he soon returned, with the instinct of a homing pigeon, to the origin of his misery, the unattainable remoulade of his dreams and appetite. “Do you think sage might work? I’ve heard that North American indians used it to purify both themselves and their possessions because they believed it contained benevolent spirits. I want my remoulade to exude spirituality so that people who taste it will experience religious mortification, then redemption.”
“No,” old lady Piaggia would grunt as she began to slice the one cow brain that she added to her ravioli filling to achieve consistency, destroying Hector once again, “sage is too harsh. It would be like adding alum to the most delicate meringue.” Her reprimand smote him like the broadside of a cutlass; frustrated beyond consolation, he skulked away into the night to seek out the most depraved joint in the Quarter. He burst through the door like a rambunctious cowpoke, unzipped his pants, clutched the flambeau at its base and swung it around like a lariat. “Hello, everybody!” he cried as his hips slowly gyrated, and the lariat, because of its neutronic density, began to engrave glowing afterimages of its own parabolas into the nearly opaque smoke saturated air.
The Chicken Market
They crossed the street at St. Rosa’s to explore the sprawling chicken market erected on a triangle of median that forked Bayou Road in two. Spices and coffee beans from every country in the world were lugged from barges on the river wharves and heaped in burlap bags ripped open at the top. Nothing was labeled; customers relied solely on their sense of smell. Demand for Italian garlic so excelled expectations that suppliers in Naples didn’t bother to pluck it from the soil; they dug up the earth in chunks, crammed it into barrels and assumed American shoppers would root out their own bulbs. Customers hacked at prodigious stacks of sugar cane, still attached to their roots, with small axes provided for that purpose. Best of all, you could select chickens from any number of coops and point out your choice to one of the aproned clerks, who would seize it by the nape and turn it over to a haggard seven-foot Negro stationed behind a discarded lacquer drum flaky with rust.
The Negro had originated in French Equatorial Africa, where his own family had sold him to a syndicate of pirates operating from a base in the Persian Gulf. He wound up slicing chicken heads for a minor sultan in Arabia and might have remained there the rest of his life save for a grave indiscretion on the part of one of the sultan’s wives. She took a fatal glance at the seven-foot man, whom she assumed had been carved out of ebony, and swooned. She could not contain her lust; lost her mind with desire; drooled shamelessly in the sultan’s presence. Rather than have his youngest and prettiest wife decapitated, he apologized to The Negro and booked him passage on the next steamer bound for America. “You are the best slicer of chicken heads I have ever known,” said the sultan, “and I regret losing you. But you grasp how it is here. I could have sent you to the Canadian Territories or the steppes of Russia, where you would certainly freeze to death, but in America you will either thrive or be lynched. It’s a compromise on my part for the difficulty you have caused. Good luck and bon voyage.”
The Negro explored his luck in a number of American cities and liked Manhattan best, but he headed straight for New Orleans after some Village hipsters told him about Chicken Man, the voo doo Big Daddy who chewed off the heads of live chickens during illegal religious rituals. After much time and travail, Chicken Man lackeys admitted The Negro into their priest’s secret chambers for an interview. Chicken Man scowled when he saw The Negro face to face. “You ain’t from Nawlins,” he hissed. “Git out my sight, imposta!”
Destitute, homeless, The Negro drove a rag and bottle cart for a while, begged on Bourbon Street, cleaned toilets at the Jung Hotel, but nothing suited him because his sole talent was slicing chicken heads. When he found employment on Bayou Road at the market, he thanked god profusely and promised to donate whatever savings he could manage to the church. Decades later, on his deathbed, The Negro would summon a lawyer, have the proper papers drawn up, gasp for breath and have a vision of St. Rosa the second before he died, one radiant moment worth more than his entire life and which seemed of greater duration. The passion of the saint revealed itself to him in a succession of ecstasies and mortifications. He witnessed her birth in Lima in 1586 as Isabel de Flores y Del Olivia, watched as the infant’s face transformed into a rose before the eyes of her startled family. She grew into such a beautiful woman her impoverished father urged her to marry one of the rich suitors who pursued her, but Rosa, who had by this point abandoned the name Isabel, refused. Distracted from her natural piety by the lascivious stares of men, she rubbed red pepper into her face to disfigure it permanently. She sunk her exquisite hands into lye to make them look old and reptilian. She fasted three or four days of the week, consuming only bitter herbs and coarse bread, forsaking meat altogether. She stapled a crown of roses to her forehead for penance against the sin of desolation. The Negro felt her exquisite pain in his temples. He looked on as she received the habit of St. Dominic at twenty years old, grieved to witness her adorn a spiked metal crown and wrap iron chains around her waist. His skin also bled as the saint writhed on a bed of broken glass and thorns. He accompanied her into the stone hut behind her parents’ house to which she retreated as a recluse for ten years, emerging only toward the end of her life because of chronic illness. When she died at thirty, he too finally lost consciousness and his memory of the past abruptly ceased to exist. But before this ultimate finality, he also shared her sublime visions of Christ and the cataclysmic upheavals of light and joy that jolted her soul and annulled all suffering.
He had shrunken two feet by then and had lost all the pigment in his skin. St. Rosa’s emissaries arrived with a truck and hauled away half a million dollars in small change that he had buried in paint cans in the back yard. They arranged his burial in a remote, abandoned cemetery owned by the church. The original lawyer had no idea what the man’s name was for he had signed documents with an X, so The Negro’s modest tombstone read “Tomb of the Unknown Albino, Benefactor to the Church.” When the lawyer discovered that it was money buried in all those cans rather than shrunken heads from Haiti, as The Negro had told him, his delayed greed assumed such proportion that he sued the Pope for damages. One night he tried to dig up The Negro with the intent of desecrating his corpse, but before his spade touched the ground he was mugged and left for dead himself. A band of grave robbers found him sprawled in a massive rose bush, gutted clean by swarms of ants, rats, nutria and worms.
The invisible gentleman had once roared with bitter laughter over the story of St. Rose of Lima, Peru. “Imagine!” he declared, “The first saint to be canonized in America! A sick twisted psychopath who chronically mutilated herself!”
Then he softened with pity: “And yet I believe her visions were sincere, as real as this paper cup–“ he held up the container of Community coffee that never left his hands—“perhaps more real. She was indeed a saint. It’s what she had to do to find God. Most people don’t bother. They stay in Sunday school all their lives. Call me arrogant. I’m no saint. Easier just to say God doesn’t exist and let his absence infect your soul.”
No one ever saw The Negro without the curved knife he cradled in his left hand, a weapon which had in effect become part of his body. He grasped the squawking birds by their skinny scaled legs, pressed the necks against the rim of the drum and severed their heads in clean deft strokes and with such alacrity that Jake was never sure he actually saw blade and chicken neck meet. Sometimes a few of the headless and already dead birds lurched from their executioner’s grip in spastic, insane attempts to flutter into the safety of mid-air, a grisly trajectory always to the same illusory altitude, though soon enough the carcasses ceased flapping and sank heavily to the floor. Most remained exactly where they fell, but some defied death, scrambled to their feet and rushed about the market like aimless projectiles, blood gushing from their pristine stumps. Such a decapitated beast once headed straight for Jake as he stood wide-eyed and speechless beholding the spectacle. At that moment his only thought was escape, and he leapt from his spot and zigzagged wildly in any direction his bony legs would carry him. In his panic he collided head-on with the rusted drum, grasped its sides and hoisted himself up and would have jumped in had he not first spotted the countless chicken heads, all of which seemed to stare at and beckon him in. He shrieked and fled from the market and was found two blocks away huddled and trembling on the front steps of an old black lady’s house.
“He jis won’t stop bawling,” the lady exclaimed to Violet, “keeps raving bout some dead chicken.”
On their way home later Dougie could not stop nagging. “You looked like the chicken!” he laughed, slapping his cousin’s back.
“It’s not funny,” Jake sulked.
“Do they bury the heads?” he asked Violet later that night. He did not want to believe they wound up in a trash can for good. It seemed too terrible to imagine.
“They probably do,” Violet said.
“How can they be alive without heads?”
“It’s just a reaction like when you jerk in your sleep. It was ok to be scared.”
“I wasn’t scared,” Jake said.
That night he dreamed about the Negro. He watched him slice the heads off not chickens but people. They scrambled in a jitterbug of dismay, like the chickens, and rushed for Jake. He screamed but no one heard him because everyone had gone deaf. Mr. Luccia sneaked up behind him, pushed a brown paper bag over his head and popped it with his hands. The bag exploded and when Jake removed it his head had disappeared. The Negro tossed it into the drum atop all the other heads. When he opened his eyes he saw a familiar, distinct face. The two heads peered into each other’s eyes. Deceased Uncle Warren smiled serenely, “It’s not so bad, Jake, really.”
When Paw finished eating the children could hardly wait for his consummate belch, for it signaled not only the end of another splendid meal together but also what would follow. He worked up to it by swallowing air and swaying uncomfortably in his seat. Everyone remained as silent as a congregation at the mercy of some petulant minister. A guilty smile soon spread across his face, he parted his lips and . . . BRKKKKKKKKHHHH . . . the prolonged cataclysmic release of a satiated animal. The children waited almost as impatiently for Meme’s response, her accusatory “Cochon! Nasty old man!” which to them constituted not a separate entity but more of a cadenza to her husband’s grand finale. They knew that epic belches followed by Meme’s Cochon! meant that Paw was ready to tell another story, and that he would begin before the rest of the family finished eating. They heard the same tales repeatedly, like spectators in a Greek amphitheater, and they never got enough. Paw told his stories identically each time so that no anticipation went unfulfilled and no surprises or twists would fling his listeners into a state of confusion or disappointment. Months passed before he needed to begin the cycle anew because he knew hundreds of stories, and by the time he returned to the first, everyone listened intently again, except Violet whose face flushed at their often lewd or scatological nature.
Some of the stories about Paw’s adventures as a Navy telegraph operator during World War I spooked Ruth and Jake, especially the one about a fist fight he had witnessed when his ship was anchored in the Persian Gulf. Hastening along deck to find a latrine, Paw came upon two men in the process of killing each other. They tore at each other’s throats, groins, whatever could be grabbed and twisted; they kicked and bit each other, and blood spattered all over Paw’s freshly starched uniform. The fiercer sailor then slugged his opponent with a blow so jolting he knocked the man’s eyeball out of its socket. Paw said the eyeball dangled down the sailor’s cheek by the optic nerve, and the sailor wailed like a child. Since he was the only other person around, Paw offered to push the glistening orb back into his skull. The whimpering sailor assented and Paw clutched the eyeball with his fingertips and pushed it in. The sailor blinked wildly as his face contorted with adjustment, then he squinted, rotated his neck on its axis and opened wide his eyes.
“Blessed Infant Jesus of Prague! I can see better than ever!” he abruptly cried. “I have x-ray vision now! Do you know how beautiful your ribs are, kind sir?”
“Yuck, what do eyeballs feel like?” Jake always wanted to know.
“Like hard-boiled eggs,” Paw grinned. “The sailor’s name was Penley, an Anglo from Chicago. He still sends postcards every year. He loves me. Working down at customs on the Mexican border all this time. They use him to inspect suitcases.”
Weeks later, when German mines ripped the ship apart, Paw and every other crew member scrambled into life boats and survived a day or so at sea before rescue (“We ate the air,” he liked to joke). There was not a single casualty except for the haggard, lonely figure Paw and those in his boat saw gripping the deck rail as the ship went down. The old man, “older than Methuselah” Paw said, smoked a cigarette and waved goodbye serenely to the sailors rowing away. Paw said he was a stowaway since no one could identify him and according to records the entire crew got out alive. Jake watched Paw’s face carefully whenever he said “stowaway,” for in his mind the word had come to acquire a macabre resonance, and he noticed a brief but deep sadness in his grandfather’s eyes. He assumed that Paw too, like himself, thought a lot about the unlucky man late at night when it was time for bed. It crossed Jake’s mind that the man was not a stowaway but an angel or ghost, though he kept such creepy musings to himself.
But Paw’s encounter with the unfortunate stowaway amounted to a cat’s whisker in the fullness of that historical intersection, which required the meddling of neither ghost nor angel. How could Paw have known that he and the doomed stranger had once walked the same streets? On that dismal night the stowaway watched as glorified skiffs passing for lifeboats receded into darkness, nodded at the men still waving, flicked his Picayune into an agitated brine. He had fixed a keen eye on Paw and mumbled to himself, “That one’s from the accursed city of New Orleans. I can spot them leagues away—the provincial smugness, the haughty ignorance and irreverence verging on license, the primitive grandiosity.” Sea water had already saturated his boots, and he knew that the now swirling vessel would soon plummet to the bottom and all would be lost. “Lydia,” he whispered, a forlorn smile forming on his lips.
The man was, in fact, no stowaway; he had bribed the captain to smuggle him aboard. And in similar manner he had spent the last few decades roaming land and sea in permanent, self-imposed and clandestine exile from his homeland, since 1872 to be exact, the year he visited New Orleans, the city that destroyed him. His name was Alexis Romanov Alesandrovitch, titular grand duke of the Russian Empire and, given his youth at the time of the American tour, a lieutenant in the Imperial Navy. Tall, debonair, afflicted with wanderlust, Alexis had early acquired the reputation of an incorrigible bon vivant and ladies’ man. His conquests were notorious throughout Europe and Asia Minor, but he longed for some new preoccupation, something unique, some novel thrill that defied categorization — a passion which gradually took the form of American buffalo. He had to kill one. He hastily assembled a crew and set sail on the frigate Svetland, arriving in New York in 1871 where mobs of screeching women gathered to greet him. The same screeching women clamored after him in every port and city he subsequently visited, to the severe dismay of their husbands and paramours. The visit of a Russian dignitary created such a stir that even President Grant felt obliged to confer with him in the White House.
Grant took one look at the suave foreigner and felt nauseous. The man’s fingers were long ivory tendrils next to his stumpy sausages. “God help me,” Grant sighed within, “he will attempt to recite poetry. I’ve never heard of Pushkin.”
“I was a marvelous general,” he confessed to the Duke, “despite the migraines. But I’m a lousy president. Politics has used me up before my time. Have a cigar.”
Alexis nodded in deference, his mind set on slaughter. “And what do you think of buffalo?” he inquired of Grant through an interpreter in his entourage.
“What is buffalo?” the President asked.
Alexis concluded he was dealing with an imbecile. “Ah, allow me to recite a lovely lyric by our immortal Pushkin . . . .”
He moved on to St. Louis where he met Buffalo Bill, General Custer and a young Indian princess named “Spotted Tail’s Sister,” with whom he dallied all the way to Denver. Outside Omaha, with the help of Buffalo Bill, he finally shot a buffalo—but the anticipated joy eluded him because he could not stop thinking about a woman he had met in New York, the actress Lydia Thompson, a seductress so revered in New Orleans that the city named a baseball team after her. He had heard her sing a rendition of the song “If Ever I Cease To Love” (which composer Louis Gottschalk once called the most vapid scrap of tripe ever composed) at a theatrical event, and nearly swooned with desire. He rearranged his tour of American cities to follow her company’s itinerary and found himself stranded in outposts like Jefferson City and Louisville, each sodden with more ennui than the other. His steamer finally docked at the Gravier Street wharf in New Orleans, and once again, besieged by frenzied women, rather than leave the boat, he secluded himself in his room, pining with love. Some wealthy businessmen speedily formed a new Mardi Gras krewe in honor of the Duke, the Krewe of Rex, its first parade to roll in the year 1872, only a few days after Alexis’ arrival. The city had constructed a throne atop bleachers on then St. Charles Street so “his highness” could preside over the festivities, but Alexis staunchly refused this makeshift coronation, commenting to reporters that America was a democracy, and democracies had no business trifling with royalty. And Lydia, where was Lydia? The actress’s scrupulous avoidance of her admirer plunged Alexis into the blackest agitation.
On Fat Tuesday, as he stood aloof on the bleacher, what he saw passing in the streets below disturbed him profoundly. Louis Salomon, merchant and first king of Rex, pranced by on a sad bony horse, and Alexis would later swear that the king gestured obscenely at him. “He raised his middle finger into the air right before my eyes,” he reported to a confidante. Countless decorated wagons rolled by, one containing a menagerie of trained reptiles (the iguanas smoked cigarettes), another, a group of dwarfs singing Dixie in falsetto. A carriage of wildly costumed Chinese grocers passed. The Ku Klux Klan on horseback—maskers depicting grotesque simulacra of President Grant and Robert E. Lee—swarthy Arab snake charmers, drunken Choctows from the bayous, Negro dandies dressed in the manner of the Duke himself!—wagons advertising the Singer Sewing Machine, Old Gem Saloon, Mephisto Bitters, Dr. Tichenor’s Antiseptic, Barataria shrimp, Lydia Pinkham’s Ladies Tonic, Hood’s Sasparilla, Hoyt’s German Cologne (advertised by a single marcher in frog costume), Emerson’s Albumenoid Food (for “Nursing Mothers, Weak and Enfeebled Infants, Old People, the Over-worked and Exhausted . . . for Cholera Infantum, Cholera Morbus, Dyspepsia, Constipation and Weak Stomachs”), Acme Soap, Dr. Grosvenor’s Liveraid, The Great American Tea Company (marchers with tea leaves glued to certain scandalous areas of their otherwise naked bodies), a wagon bearing a giant papier-mache cockroach equipped with crown and scepter.
“This is not democracy,” the Duke whispered into the ear of his interpreter, “this is anarchy, madness.”
But what chilled his blood to the limit was the ragamuffin Leper Marching Band that stopped in front of the grandstand, and in honor of the Duke played “If Ever I Cease To Love.” The singers parodied the lines: “If Ever I Cease to Love . . . May the Grand Duke ride a buffalo/In a Texas Rodeo.” Spectators claimed Alexis stiffened into a pale effigy of himself. Shortly thereafter he and his party forsook the streets and retreated to their boat. That night, at a carnival ball given in his honor, Alexis refused to speak to anyone, to shake hands or dance with any of the breathless ladies beseeching his attention. He accepted no further invitations, not even a perfumed missive from Lydia Thompson, and was seen the next night at a theater wooing the lead actress, a scantily dressed, tubercular blond. A few days later he left New Orleans, never to return. Nor would he return to his native land. He had secured the employment of one of the Negroes mimicking him during the parade, instructed his translators to teach the man Russian in three weeks or suffer his wrath, and, anchoring off the coast of Cuba, parted ways with his delegation. The Negro would take his place back home. Who would know the difference
—or dare acknowledge it? And he, Alexis, would detach himself from the world invisibly for the rest of his life. He had foreseen the future of his and all countries in the ribald, motley, frenzied, drunken debauchery of Mardi Gras. The political ferment in his homeland could only worsen, and anyone with the name Romanov would be annihilated by fanatical ideologues, bearded zealots whose only mission was to nullify history. Worse, he had already satiated himself on all worldly pleasures. After buffalo, what? Aardvarks? The brown pelicans he’d seen swoop over Lake Pontchartrain? His only good memory of New Orleans would be the dizzying taste of a dish previously unknown to him, a simple plate of ravioli from the Neapolitan Grocery, which he and his party had stumbled upon during a walking tour of the French Quarter.
“Was it human or angel who devised this, this . . . glorious sustenance?” he inquired.
The clerk shrugged. “Just old lady Piaggia,” he rasped, “though she ain’t old. Bakes it over in Genoa. I shipped a cousin of mine over there to break inna house and steal the recipe, but it ain’t da real one. She plants fake recipes because of us thieves.”
The Duke pursed his lips, nodded thoughtfully. “Nevertheless,” he cooed through the ubiquitous translator, “I shall never forget the taste of this fake . . . what do you call it?”
“Ravioli,” the clerk belched. Spidery black hair coiled out of the soiled undershirt he wore. He was awash with sweat, drops of which Alexis noted dropped into the plates of food he served over the counter. “You oughta try owa mufalettas too, chief. Out of dis woild. And swimp po-boys. Dat caviar youse eat over in Russia. Tastes like shit.”
Ordinarily Alexis might have challenged the insolent, squalid clerk, but he rightly assumed that the man was impervious to insult, a hairy tree trunk, the proletariat loosened upon the world. His unchecked existence only hastened the degradation of tradition, breeding and le ancien regime. Better to become a ghost, a rambler, observe the decline with detachment, savor small unexpected pleasures here and there, expect nothing.