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Authors: Henry Miller

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I wanted another piece of bread, and I wanted it bad. Maybe I could borrow a hunk from a neighboring tenant. I opened the hall door and tiptoed out. There was a silence as of the grave. I put my ear to one of the doors and listened. A child coughed faintly. No use. Even if someone
was awake it wasn't done. Not in France. Who ever heard of a Frenchman knocking at his neighbor's door in the dead of night to ask for a crust of bread? “Shit!” I muttered to myself, “to think of all the bread we've thrown into the garbage can!” I bit into the Roquefort grimly. It was old and sour; it crumbled to bits, like a piece of plaster that had been soaked in urine. That bitch, Nys! If only I knew her address I would go and beg a few francs of her. I must have been out of my mind not to hold out a little change. To give money to a whore is like throwing it down the sewer. Her great need! An extra chemise, most likely, or a pair of sheer silk hose glimpsed in passing a shop window.

I worked myself into a fine fury. All because there wasn't an extra crust of bread in the house. Idiotic! Thoroughly idiotic! In my delirium I began to dwell on malted milk shakes, and how, in America, there was always an extra glassful waiting for you in the shaker. That extra glassful was tantalizing. In America there was always
more
than you needed, not less. As I peeled my things off I felt my ribs. They stuck out
like the sides of an accordion. That plump little bitch, Nys—she certainly was not dying of malnutrition. Once again, shit!—and to bed.

I had scarcely pulled the covers over me when I began laughing again. This time it was terrifying. I got to laughing so hysterically that I couldn't stop. It was like a thousand Roman candles going off at once. No matter what I thought of, and I tried to think of sad and even terrible things, the laughter continued.
Because of a little crust of bread
! That was the phrase which repeated itself intermittently, and which threw me into renewed fits of laughter.

I was only in bed about an hour when I heard Carl opening the door. He went straight to his room and closed his door. I was sorely tempted to ask him to go out and buy me a sandwich and a bottle of wine. Then I had a better idea. I would get up early, while he was still sound asleep and rifle his pockets. As I was tossing about, I heard him open the door of his room and go to the bathroom. He was giggling and whispering—to some floozy, most
likely, whom he had picked up on the way home.

As he came out of the bathroom I called to him.

“So you're awake?” he said jubilantly. “What's the matter, are you sick?”

I explained that I was hungry, ravenously hungry. Had he any change on him?

“I'm cleaned out,” he said. He said it cheerfully, as though it were nothing of importance.

“Haven't you got a franc at least?” I demanded.

“Don't worry about francs,” he said, sitting on the edge of the bed with the air of a man who is about to confide a piece of important news. “We've got bigger things to worry about now. I brought a girl home with me—a waif. She can't be more than fourteen. I just gave her a lay. Did you hear me? I hope I didn't knock her up. She's a virgin.”

“You mean she
was
,” I put in.

“Listen, Joey,” he said, lowering his voice to make it sound more convincing, “we've got to do something for her. She has
no place to stay . . . she ran away from home. I found her walking about in a trance, half-starved, and a little demented, I thought at first. Don't worry, she's O.K. Not very bright, but a good sort. Probably from a good family. She's just a child . . . you'll see. Maybe I'll marry her when she comes of age. Anyway there's no money. I spent my last cent buying her a meal. Too bad you had to go without dinner. You should have been with
us
. We had oysters, lobster, shrimps—and a wonderful wine. A Chablis, year . . .”

“Fuck the year!” I shouted. “Don't tell me about what you ate. I'm as empty as an ash can. Now we've got three mouths to feed and no money, not a sou.”

“Take it easy, Joey,” he said smilingly, “you know I always keep a few francs in my pocket for an emergency.” He dove into his pocket and pulled out the change. It amounted to three francs sixty altogether. “That'll get you a breakfast,” he said. “Tomorrow's another day.”

At that moment the girl stuck her head through the doorway. Carl jumped up and
brought her to the bed. “Colette,” he said, as I put out my hand to greet her. “What do you think of her?”

Before I had time to answer, the girl turned to him and, almost as if frightened, asked what language we were speaking.

“Don't you know English when you hear it?” said Carl, giving me a glance which said I told you she wasn't very bright.

Blushing with confusion, the girl explained quickly that it sounded at first like German, or perhaps Belgian.

“There is no Belgian!” snorted Carl. Then to me: “She's a little idiot. But look at those breasts! Pretty ripe for fourteen, what? She swears she's seventeen, but I don't believe her.”

Colette stood there listening to the strange language, unable even yet to grasp the fact that Carl could speak anything but French. Finally she demanded to know if he really was French. It seemed quite important to her.

“Sure I'm French,” said Carl blithely. “Can't you tell by my speech? Do I talk like a
Boche
? Want to see my passport?”

“Better not show her that,” I said, remembering that he carried a Czech passport.

“Would you like to come in and look at the sheets?” he said, putting an arm around Colette's waist. “We'll have to throw them away, I guess. I can't take them to the laundry; they'd suspect me of having committed a crime.”

“Get
her
to wash them,” I said jocularly. “There's a lot she can do around here if she wants to keep house for us.”

“So you do want her to stay? You know it's illegal, don't you? We can go to jail for this.”

“Better get her a pair of pajamas, or a nightgown,” I said, “because if she's going to walk around at night in that crazy shift of yours I may forget myself and rape her.”

He looked at Colette and burst out laughing.

“What is it?” she exclaimed. “Are you making fun of me? Why doesn't your friend talk French?”

“You're right,” I said. “From now on we're talking French and nothing but French.
D'accord
?”

A childish grin spread over her face. She bent down and gave me a kiss on both cheeks. As she did so her boobies fell out and brushed my face. The little shift fell open all the way down, revealing an exquisitely full young body.

“Jesus, take her away and keep her locked up in your room,” I said. “I won't be responsible for what happens if she's going to prowl around in that get-up while you're out.”

Carl packed her off to his room and sat down again on the edge of the bed. “We've got a problem on our hands, Joey,” he began, “and you've got to help me. I don't care what you do with her when my back is turned. I'm not jealous, you know that. But you mustn't let her fall into the hands of the police. If they catch her they'll send her away—and they'll probably send us away too. The thing is, what to tell the concierge? I can't lock her up like a dog. Maybe I'll say she's a cousin of mine, here on a visit. Nights, when I go to work, take her to the movies. Or take her for a walk. She's easy to please. Teach her geography or something—she doesn't know a thing. It'll
be good for you, Joey. You'll improve your French . . . And don't knock her up, if you can help it. I can't think about money for abortions now. Besides, I don't know anymore where my Hungarian doctor lives.”

I listened to him in silence. Carl had a genius for getting involved in difficult situations. The trouble was, or perhaps it was a virtue, that he was incapable of saying No. Most people say No immediately, out of a blind preservative instinct. Carl alway said Yes, Sure, Certainly. He would compromise himself for life on the impulse of a moment, knowing deep down, I suppose, that the same preservative instinct which made others say No would become operative at the crucial moment. With all his warm, generous impulses, his instinctive kindliness and tenderness, he was also the most elusive fellow I have ever known. Nobody, no power on earth could pin him down, once he made up his mind to free himself. He was as slippery as an eel, cunning, ingenious, absolutely reckless. He flirted with danger, not out of courage, but because it gave him an opportunity to sharpen his wits, to practice jujitsu. When
drunk he became imprudent and audacious. On a dare he would walk into a police station and shout
Merde
! at the top of his lungs. If he were apprehended he would apologize, saying that he must have been temporarily out of his mind. And he would get away with it! Usually he did these little tricks so fast that, before the astonished guardians of the peace could come to their senses, he would be a block or two away, perhaps sitting on a terrace, sipping a beer and looking as innocent as a lamb.

In a pinch Carl always hocked his typewriter. In the beginning he could get as much as four hundred francs on it, which was no mean sum then. He took extremely good care of his machine because he was frequently obliged to borrow on it. I retain a most vivid image of him dusting and oiling the thing each time he sat down to write, and of carefully putting the cover over it when he had finished writing. I noticed too that he was secretly relieved whenever he put it in hock: it meant that he could declare a holiday without having a guilty conscience. But when he had spent
the money, and had only time on his hands, he would become irritable; it was at such times, he swore, that he always got his most brilliant ideas. If the ideas became really burning and obsessive, he would buy himself a little notebook and go off somewhere to write it out in longhand, using the most handsome Parker pen I have ever seen. He would never admit to me that he was making notes on the sly, not until long afterwards. No, he would come home looking sour and disgruntled, saying that he had been obliged to piss the day away. If I suggested that he go to the newspaper office, where he worked nights, and use one of their machines, he would invent a good reason why such a procedure was impossible.

I mention this business of the machine and his never having it when he needed it, because it was one of his ways of making things difficult for himself. It was an artistic device which, despite all evidences to the contrary, always worked out advantageously for him. If he had not been deprived of the machine at periodic intervals he would have run dry and, through sheer
despondency, remained barren far beyond the normal curve. His ability to remain under water, so to speak, was extraordinary. Most people, observing him under these submerged conditions, usually gave him up as lost. But he was never really in danger of going under for good; if he gave that illusion it was only because he had a more than usual need of sympathy and attention. When he emerged, and began narrating his under-water experiences, it was like a revelation. It proved, for one thing, that he had been very much alive all the while. And not only alive, but extremely observant. As if he had swum about like a fish in a bowl; as if he had seen everything through a magnifying glass.

A strange bird he was, in many ways. One who could, moreover, take his own feelings apart, like the workings of a Swiss watch, and examine them.

For an artist bad situations are just as fertile as good ones, sometimes even more so. For him all experience is fruitful and capable of being converted to credit. Carl was the type of artist who fears to use up his credit. Instead of expanding the realm
of experience, he preferred to safeguard his credit. This he did by reducing his natural flow to a thin trickle.

Life is constantly providing us with new funds, new resources, even when we are reduced to immobility. In life's ledger there is no such thing as frozen assets.

What I am getting at is that Carl, unknown to himself, was cheating himself. He was always endeavoring to hold back instead of giving forth. Thus, when he did break out, whether in life or with the pen, his adventures took on an hallucinating quality. The very things he feared to experience, or to express, were the things which, at the wrong moment, that is to say when least prepared, he was forced to deal with. His audacity, consequently, was bred of desperation. He behaved sometimes like a cornered rat, even in his work. People would wonder whence he derived the courage, or the inventiveness, to do or say certain things. They forgot that he was ever at a point beyond which the ordinary man commits suicide. For Carl suicide offered no solution. If he could die and write about his death, that would be fine. He used to
say on occasion that he couldn't imagine himself ever dying, barring some universal calamity. He said it not in the spirit of a man filled with a superabundance of vitality; he said it as one who refused to waste his energy, who had never allowed the clock to run down.

When I think about this period, when we lived together in Clichy, it seems like a stretch in Paradise. There was only one real problem, and that was food. All other ills were imaginary. I used to tell him so now and then, when he complained about being a slave. He used to say I was an incurable optimist, but it wasn't optimism, it was the deep realization that, even though the world was busy digging its grave, there was still time to enjoy life, to be merry, carefree, to work or not to work.

It lasted a good year, this period, and during this time I wrote
Black Spring
, rode the bike up and down the Seine, made trips to the Midi and to the Châteaux country, and finally went on a mad picnic with Carl to Luxembourg.

It was a period when cunt was in the air. The English girls were at the Casino
de Paris; they ate at a
prix fixe
restaurant near the Place Blanche. We became friends with the whole troupe, pairing off finally with a gorgeously beautiful Scotch girl and her friend from Ceylon who was a Eurasian. The Scotch girl eventually handed Carl a beautiful dose of clap which she contracted from her Negro lover at Melody's Bar. But that's getting ahead of my story. There was also the hat check girl from a little dance place on the Rue Fontaine, where we used to drop in on Carl's night off. She was a nymphomaniac, very gay, very modest in her demands. She introduced us to a flock of girls who hung about the bar and who, when they could get nothing better than us, would take us on for a song at the end of an evening. One of them always insisted on taking us both home with her—she said it excited her. Then there was the girl, at the
épicerie
, whose American husband had deserted her; she liked to be taken to the movies and then to bed, where she would lie awake all night talking broken English. It didn't matter to her which of us she slept with, because we both spoke English. And finally there was
Jeanne, who had been jilted by my friend Fillmore. Jeanne would drop in at odd hours of the day or night, always loaded with bottles of white wine, which she drank like a fish to console herself. She would do everything but go to bed with us. She was an hysterical type, alternating between moods of extreme gayety and blackest melancholy. In her cups she became lascivious and boisterous. You could undress her, stroke her twat, maul her teats, even suck her off, if you wanted to, but the moment you got your prick near her cunt she flew off the handle. One minute she would bite you passionately and pull at your cock with her strong peasant hands, the next minute she would be weeping violently and shoving you away with her feet or striking out blindly with her fists. Usually the place was a wreck when she left. Sometimes, in her precipitate rages, she would run out of the house half naked, to return almost immediately, coy as a kitten and full of apologies. At such moments, if one wanted to, one might have given her a good fuck, but we never did. “You take her,” I can hear Carl say, “I've had enough of that bitch,
she's mad.” I felt the same way about her. Out of friendship I'd give her a dry fuck against the radiator, fill her up with cognac, and pack her off. She seemed extraordinarily grateful, at such moments, for these little attentions. Just like a child.

BOOK: Quiet Days in Clichy
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