There Is No Comte de St. Germain For I Am He
by Brendan Byrne
Imagine an endless bar, perhaps a shot in a film, a tracking shot, with the camera slowly moving down an uneven, warped surface of different wood grains tacked together, moving past a constant progression of old drinkers, the kind you see in any boozing establishment anywhere in the world. They are wizard-like in their silence, their questing glances around the room, their reserve towards those they meet, their acknowledgment of each other, their amazing thinness of body and of spirit, and the empty shells of their minds which are devoted to: this place, this drink, this me, this is all there is, this is all I want. They drink stout they drink grappa they drink whiskey they drink rice wine they smoke hookah they smoke cigarettes they drink small dark coffees they scratch at their thin beards they read the paper they pretend to the read the paper they treat the bartenders like their grandchildren, sweet and reserved, thin thin thin, their emotion is thin, it is all gone. Eighty years? Seventy-five? And it is all gone. You look at them and you say it is the drink? You’d be wrong to think that.
The Bar. It is every bar, pub, tavern, private club, cocktail lounge I have visited, and that is almost all of them. They are all invariably the same. Watch: your camera-eye, your well-trained cinematographer in his waking-dream, your lens, moves slowly down the palimpsest of dead trees, and we observe the faces of these thin men, and perhaps some of them are mumbling into each others ears like old lovers, talking of the horses of the dogs of the news of the bartender’s tits or rank breath or maybe even of another ancient patron, absent or finally fucking dead, and some of them, they hold the edges of the bar, standing despite the adjacent stool, they are red in the face, their eyes are shut, they croon softly to themselves, perhaps not so softly, you can tell they are next, ready for that final fucking death. The bartender is nowhere to be seen; what are we to do when this old thin one finally has the heart attack stroke kidney failure syphilitic brain burst that we are imagining, just looking at the poor bastard? Let him flop around on the floor like an orgasmic fish? Watch as his legs kick and skitter across the ground? Do we remain silent in observance of his particular problem, his own particular final fucking death? Or do we laugh, knowing that we’re next? I, of course, would not laugh.
And so, finally, we come to the end of The Bar. It curves around to the side, meets the wall. Perhaps there is a little hatch that can be brought up and down for the bartenders to come in and out. And there I rest, slightly hunched over myself, though not so much as I must be careful with my back, it has lasted me this long and I don’t wish to enrage it. I drink seltzer or orange juice and I am quiet and not so thin, though I am not stout, I am tall and I fill my tallness well, though am I not so tall, I walk with a slope forward, I am powerful but you wouldn’t know it, shaking my hand. I stand and watch the old men drink, and I watch them do the things that old men have always done; old men have always done the same things. I no longer drink alcohol. I no longer smoke hashish or tobacco. I no longer fuck. It is not that these things exert me. I do not think that exerting myself is bad, I have been known to climb, though that has become boring to me in recent years as I am no longer am terrified by it, for whatever reason. I have lived at every level of society, I have taken up every profession not barred to me by my life-long aversion to the open sea, I have taught and I have learnt everything there is to know, at least what is not hidden by the haar of time. I have felt every kind of pain; that too has ceased to interest me.
You’re probably wondering why I’m still dancing around the statement of the obvious. Well then, let me be obvious: I have been alive at least since the invention of agriculture. I do not remember hunting and gathering, but then there is quite a bit that I don’t remember that took place at times when I am quite certain I was alive. The sixteenth century for example: not even a blur. Just gone. I don’t remember what continent I was born on; there is a significant chance that I am Mediterranean, however, perhaps Egyptian, because my skin darkens under harsh sunlight and grows paler in the North. One would expect, I suppose, that like these old men here, I would live in my memories, forever hanging upon each lost moment as if it had been supremely important, my life now nothing but a hollow shell. But I am not that deluded. Life is now as it ever has been. The world is as it ever has been. Humanity, the same. It has not changed; I have changed. There is one other thing that gives me pleasure, though it may be considered something more of a minor self-imposed task. A hobby perhaps. It is, unlike most hobbies, not born of intellectual curiosity (that died 1812 or maybe 1845) or of meaningless obsession or of devotion to aesthetic pleasure.
Now. It is here, not in The Bar, but in a bar, in New York City, just off the Brooklyn Bridge, Manhattan side, in the aptly named Bridge Bar, that I have come to indulge myself. Whorehouse, grocery store, pub, now restaurant, the Bridge Bar claims to be the oldest bar in New York City. I suppose the old men of The Bar would sneer at the usual lunch and dinner crowd here: they would call them yuppies and tourists. I cannot use these terms; they would be disingenuous. Everyone to me is a yuppie, and I am everywhere a tourist. Now, however, is the post-lunch lull, and I am alone. The withered, sick-liver yellow light of The Bar bathes the place. I chuckle; the light is inescapable.
A waitress with dark red hair and a terrifying nose marring an otherwise pleasing visage sits in the corner folding pristine whale-bone white napkins. Another, squat and calm, smokes cheap menthols outside, gazing dumbly at glimpses of automobiles through the slats in the great bridge. The bartender’s name is Alexandra; she cleans the martini triangles and whiskey scoops slowly and carefully, dancing her fingers along the gleaming bar to the Spanish-gypsy rattle-tune. I’ve been here lunch-times these last three days, waiting for a man currently called Lazlo.
I have spent, in my roundabout way, more than three years following his movements. He’s been around for far longer than that, but there was some business that was pressing most exhaustingly on me, and then I had to take time to recover. There are no photographs of this Lazlo; I wonder at that. Not allowing one to take your picture is the opposite of prudent; it draws far too much attention. From description and gossip and a few bloggers’ rants, however, I know what this Lazlo looks like. Short stature, long tangled black hair, grey-white beard, open melony smile, large hands rough with work and nicotine, roving ocean green eyes, creased face. People revert to mediocre prose-poems when they talk about Lazlo. He sold mescaline in New Mexico in the ‘50s, he started one of the first organic food shops in San Francisco in the ‘60s. He’s played the tin-whistle with the Pogues and made millions running one of the first MMA betting parlors in Brasilia. You walk down the street with him in Amsterdam and politicians want to shake his hand; bums embrace him in Oslo; he has a child in Tokyo, the mother dead in her birth throes. What does he do for money? He does everything for money. What does he do for pleasure? He does everything for pleasure.
It is falsely claimed that he is the Comte de St. Germain—and this I take issue with. Do you know the legend of the Comte? I’ll make it brief. For a very brief period of time in the early 1700s, I convinced myself that I was uniquely suited to being a natural philosopher, as I appeared to be immortal and thought myself far wiser than any other living being. So, for the space of approximately eighty years, I paraded about high society, conducting experiments with potions and elixirs, perfecting the art of being very mysterious, and dispensing wealth from a great store I had set up over the millennia. I never told anyone I was immortal or that I could, pheh , levitate. I was not in France, I was in Austria, and I certainly never met Casanova, though I heard he occasionally enjoyed being on the receiving end of a bukkake, though it was called something rather less Japanese at the time. Various bullshit artists and basket cases wove the legend of the inventor/magickian/composer/dandy Comte, quite obviously using me as a base. The most ridiculous kind of lies, propagated by the most bathetic simians.
One day, at my own hand most probably, I will depart this fetid life, and due to my own rather reticent views towards history and power, the title of the Comte de St. Germain remains the only hint towards anything like my true nature that exists in the collected knowledge of this world. It is my only legacy. As a result, I become extremely irritated when others lay claim to it. Now, this Lazlo has never called himself the Comte de St. Germain; that makes him a special kind of pretender. The ones who give themselves the name, who entrance occultist dime-store novelists and rich post-hippies with flowery titles and nonsensical mumblings are shams easily dispatched. The kind who veil themselves, create an aura that others give name to, these are the truly dangerous ones. For, if there was a true Comte, he would never tell anyone his true name. This Lazlo tells stories that no mortal man, or at least no man of average life-span, could tell. He’s talked to NYU freshman in decrepit Irish bars on Canal Street about the way cannon-mist stung your eyes so fiercely it brought tears at Waterloo. To coked-out gonzo journalists in the back of campaign buses, he’s mentioned smoking opium with Tom Paine in Paris, hearing the deluded democrat’s teen-dreams of going on the account and seizing ships, bullion, and freedom with the same aplomb.
It’s been over a hundred years since I encountered an imposter so well-known, a man so well-loved, a deception so deeply ingrained. I will actually enjoy killing him, I think. Why? you ask. Why don’t I believe that there could be another like me, another model for the legend of the Comte? Why must the true Comte absolutely be me? Do I think I’m the spawn of angels? A trained dog of demons? Am I Cain, wandering forever East? Oh come the fuck off it. I’m alive because I haven’t learned how to die. Why else?
Lazlo is a man of passions. Extraordinary passions. His wife Lucinda drowned in the Ganges in the early 1970s; he wept bitterly at her funeral, keened actually. Went into seclusion in a small cabin in the Appalachians for almost a year. He’s taken a new wife since then, a Filipino poetess, actually; the Japanese girl was a mistress. He’s currently a baptized Roman Catholic, converted in ‘98; he attends church twice a week, no matter where his business takes him. And businesses. He’s on the boards of several flailing internet start-ups, he always maintains a restaurant of some kind (right now: Japanese-inspired nouveau-American noodle shops in Cleveland), and he occasionally DJs in the lower-rent Johannesburg night-clubs. The man described by his associates, by my informants, by the authorities, is a man of outstanding energy, a man who takes a special joy in life.
How do I know that he could not possibly be the Comte? Take a fucking guess. I know what it is like to live for four centuries. There is no joy left. There is no love left. I’d understand a decade long heroin addiction. I’d understand a disciplined athlete. I’d understand a serial rapist. That long alive, one descends into the most primal pleasures, pleasures that one’s moral code has told one to ignore. One tests oneself against the world, against one’s physical nature. It is some time indeed before all that dies out, granted. Thousands of years. But joy, joy has no place in a life even that long-lived. I know. I am sure. So I drink my seltzer and bathe in the still-yellow light, tending my possibilities, waiting for this Lazlo. This is a well-known haunt of his, and I have patience. I order a salad with cheese and walnuts and balsamic vinaigrette. The after-work crowd arrive. I watch them and lose myself for a small time. Not in their movements or speech. Those hold no interest for me anymore. No, I lose myself in memory. Or rather, in the sheer act of memory. I remember shapes, like colors in dreams. I remember hair, tousled raven black hair. I remember the smell of the sea, which one? Just glimpses. They are enough for me.
“Another?” Alexandra asks. I raise my eyebrows. I must have been further away than I realized; it’s the first word she’s said all day to me. I nod; she brings it, I tip. What a fucking meaningless exchange. I drink half the seltzer up, and she titters. “Thirsty?” she says.
“No,” I say far too coldly, and one of her eyebrows droops.
She waits for my joke, but I have none, and so she backs off, walks down to the far end. A young man with an over-developed black beard and dangling rat-tail is taking off his watch, getting ready for the shift. She nudges him, and I look away. She’s telling him to serve me from now on. The quiet guy with a lot to say down there is getting a little much. So this little shit’ll do his bravado on me, try and get me pissed off, out of here. I bite my lower lip, turn my face away, brow burning, thinking I must leave, leave and not come back. They know me now; I’m not just the pathetic old man with time to kill who’s a bit off. I’m a creep, and they’ll remember me. No good when you’re about to commit a murder. I finish the seltzer and turn to the door, and standing just a pace away from me is a stubby-small man with wild tangly coal-black hair, a white beard, and glinting green eyes, his mouth slightly open like he’s post-orgasm. I squint. He sees me he knows me there’s no possible fucking way he knows me I know him there’s no possible fucking way I know him. Lazlo, and surely it must be, bird-cocks his head down, then draws it up with the strength of his whole body. His smile splits like a brick in the face. “Well,” he says, extending his hand with such warmth and assurance and gentlemanly calm, and I am thinking surely I met this man last year surely I met this man five years ago surely ten surely twenty he’s aged hasn’t he he’s aged, this is not not not what he looked like when we last met. “The oldest bar in New York City,” he says, giving my hand a light squeeze which I return in kind. “That’s what they call irony, isn’t it?” He narrows his eyes, comically. “When was it, exactly?”
And just hearing him say that, I remember. A cafe in Catalonia. Early nineteenth century. We talked about the Agraviados, we played dice; he lost. Short of money, he tried to give me his woman for the night, though she didn’t seem too pleased about it. When I wouldn’t accept, my own copulatory needs having become extremely precise by this point, he proceeded to tell my future, tracing tributaries on my palm. He made up such utter nonsense: I would marry a rich ex-beggar with the keys to the secret gold reserves of Carlos V; I would eat of roots that had been crushed in Babba Yaga’s mortar and I would be made so sexually potent that any woman who lay with me would explode. The man was a masterful story-teller; he wove such intricacies around me that I allowed his debt to disappear, not my usual M.O. He was called something excessively Spanish then, Beto or Lencho. But none of these was his true name.
He shrugs now, curling out a lower lip. “Doesn’t matter, does it?” His voice is tinged with old-world grime but is sharp as a butcher’s knife. He turns his eyes back to mine. “I see you’re speechless. Me too, well, hell, I mean I should be. This has never happened to me before. I mean, I’ve assumed there were others out there. But... But hell, sorry, I do this when I’m caught unawares.” He spirals his hands around like a pair of wafting doves. “Talk and talk and talk. But you remember. I told stories then. Whenever it was, whatever they were about.” His gaze rests on my collar and stays there for a moment, vacant as his smile. “I’ve given that up long ago, of course.” He gives another small shrug and looks back up to me. “And you? Did you come here to meet me? It’s well known that I love this bar.” He holds up a finger to Alexandra, who grins large at him, begins making a Manhattan. “This city.” He sucks his lower lip. “It makes me forget, it makes me remember. I can’t get away from this fucking city.” He says it with so much gusto, so much vigor, I almost physically back away from him.
Alexandra brings the whiskey and bitters over and he takes a first bracing sip of it, makes a guttural sound of slurping joy. Alexandra is so taken with the small man’s spirit that she smiles at me, even after the recent outburst.
“No more for me,” I say, forcing a weak smile, then look back down upon the so-called Lazlo, still trying to remember his original name.
“You won’t have a drink?” he asks, shock running through his face like it might run through the visage of an infant left abandoned.
I shake my head. “Liver,” I say, my voice a hasty croak.
He nods sagely. “So,” he says. “You did not come here to meet me. A coincidence then.” He smiles sweet-bread. “This city, my friend. It is like the world in miniature. There are always surprises. Certainly not all as pleasant as this one, but...” His hands spiral up again, and I am seized with a moment of heavy nausea.
I clutch the bar with one hand, wince forward. His fingers meet my shoulder, support me for the briefest of moments. I recoil, lean heavily against the wooden wall, panting, staring down at my shoes. I must get out. At all costs I must get out.
“Are you alright?” says the little man. “Here, let me get a stool.” Though I still feel weak and spindly, I hold up a hand, steady myself with the other.
“No,” I say. “Medication. You understand.” He nods. “I must leave,” I say through a sick small smile. “Tomorrow though? We will meet here tomorrow and you will tell me stories?”
Lazlo nods slowly, joy beaming from his small, broken face. “Yes,” he says. “A thousand times yes! But you are still ill. Shall I hail you a cab?” I shake my head no, but he insists on helping me to the door. I can feel the intense thrill of him through my car-coat sleeve. A compatriot. A comrade. A contemporary. He pats me on the shoulder. “Tomorrow,” he says, as I slip headlong away from him into the evening shade. “Not such a long time, eh?” He turns and totters back into the bar, sucking up the last of his brown drink.
I rush across a street revealed as empty by a defaced dull coin of a moon. There is a small collection of cars underneath the bridge. I duck behind a red Toyota, breathing heavily. Slouch to the ground, clutching my roiling, acidic stomach. My eyes go white; I see the top of my head. My heart is beating with the slam of wheels on the boards above me. My head is moving with the crash of the equinox wind. My fingers dance along my ribs, nuzzling at arm-pits. I am surely going insane. I slouch down further, shoulder to the ground, staring up above me at the undercarriage of the bridge, split by light, wracked by sound, and for some long time, as the dark deepens and the voices of the whoevers spill as one, I am nothing more than a human being, breathing and clutching myself, my mind poisoned by the terrible unreality of what has occurred. But soon, or perhaps not so soon, I begin to sit up. I close my eyes. I straighten my spine. I breathe normally once more. The very last thing: my hands relax, no longer claws. I open my eyes and stand.
I look to the Bridge Bar. Packed now. Feasters. Fuckers. All of them. The world in Manhattan and Manhattan in a bar. I want to go in. Even if he’s not there. Even if he’s gone. I want to go in and be among them, even if I am not one of them, even if I can never hope to be. How can he still be one of them? How can he still be engaged? How can he still be happy? How can he still feel pain and joy and suffering and take lovers? Could I possibly have been wrong? There are so many questions I need to ask him. I must go in. I must find him. I must. But I do not. I stand rooted to the spot. The cars pass above my head. The drinkers inside carry on. Smokers stand on the edge of the sidewalk, chatting into cell phones. The world is the same as it had been before. As it has always been. I am the same. This is no trick. The man before me hours ago was the same man before me hundreds of years ago. And it is no trick that he is joyful. I have seen enough human-animals to recognize a forced or false emotion. But these things change nothing. I breathe. Time passes.
He exits after some time. Weaving a little. A finger up in a air, delineating one last point for a pair of friends. Two blonde-haired young things. Woman and man. He embraces the man heartily. Kisses the woman on the cheek. They call, “Lazlo, Lazlo.” His name, that’s not his true name, nor is Beto. I know his true name. It is somewhere in me, squeezed and stuffed deep inside.
He turns from them, reeling off down the street. His smile is that a drunken pedophile, of a sainted virgin pierced by scimitars and ungainly verbs, of some chubby child, indolent in the crib, wet and wicked and ready for a lifetime. I cross the street, my hand moving beneath my car-coat, seeking the name, seeking the handle of my knife.
About the Author
Brendan Byrne was born in the District of Columbia in 1982. He has a bachelor in Russian Studies from Hunter College, CUNY. He's also the editor of The Orphan a webzine of otherwise unpublishable prose and art.
Post a comment!
Please mention the author or this piece's name in your comment.
Back To Flurb Home Page...