Michel Bulteau, Rue de Téhéran, Paris, January 1978.
I don’t know how he got my phone number, but one night, it must have been after midnight, he called me at home. He asked for Michel Bulteau. I said: this is Michel Bulteau. He said: this is Ulises Lima. Silence. I said: yes?
He said: I’m glad I caught you at home, I hope you weren’t asleep. I said: no, no I wasn’t asleep. Silence. He said: I’d like to see you. I said: now? He said: all right, yes, now, I can come to your place if you want.
I said: where are you? but he misunderstood me, and said: I’m Mexican.
Then I remembered, very vaguely, that I had received a magazine from Mexico. Still, the name Ulises Lima didn’t ring any bells.
I said: have you ever heard of the Question Marks? He said: no, I’ve never heard them.
I said: I think they’re Mexican. He said: the Question Marks? Who are the Question Marks?
I said: a rock group, of course.
He said: do they wear masks when they play? At first I didn’t understand what he’d said.
Masks? No, of course they don’t wear masks. Why would they? Are there rock groups in Mexico that perform in masks?
He said: sometimes. I said: it sounds ridiculous, but it might be interesting. Where are you calling me from? Your hotel? He said: no, from the street.
I said: do you know how to get to the metro station Miromesnil? He said: sure, no problem. I said: twenty minutes.
He said: I’m on my way, and hung up.
As I was putting on my jacket I thought: but I don’t know what he looks like! What do Mexican poets look like? I don’t know a single one! All I’ve seen is a picture of Octavio Paz! But this poet, I sensed, would definitely not look like Octavio Paz.
Then I thought about the Question Marks, and Elliot Murphie, and something Elliot had told me when I was in New York, about the Mexican Death’s-Head, a guy they called the Mexican Death’s-Head, who I only saw from a distance at a bar on Franklin Street and Broadway.
The Mexican Death’s-Head was a musician but all I saw was a shadow, and I asked Elliot what it was about the guy he wanted to show me, and Elliot said: he’s a kind of worm, he has worm eyes and he talks like a worm.
How do worms talk? In doublespeak, said Elliot. All right. Clear enough. And why is he called the Mexican Death’s-Head? I asked. But Elliot wasn’t listening to me anymore or he was talking to someone else, so I just assumed this guy must be Mexican or have spent time in Mexico at some point in his life, in addition to being as thin as a rail.
But I didn’t see his face, just his shadow as it crossed the bar. A shadow empty of metaphor, evoking nothing, a shadow that was only a shadow with no wish to be anything else.
So I put on my black jacket, combed my hair, and went out thinking about the stranger who had called me and the Mexican Death’s-Head I’d seen in New York.
It’s only a few minutes from Rue Téhéran to the Miromesnil metro station, walking fairly quickly, but you have to cross Boulevard Haussmann and then head along Avenue Percier and part of Rue la Boétie, streets that at that time of night are mostly lifeless, as if starting at ten they were bombarded with X-rays,
and then I thought that it might have been better to meet the stranger at the Monceau metro station, so that I would’ve had to walk in the opposite direction, from Rue Téhéran to Rue de Monceau, on to Avenue Ruysdaël and then Avenue Ferdousi, which crosses the Parc de Monceau, because at that time of night it’s full of junkies and dealers and sad policemen beamed in from other worlds,
the languid gloom of the park leading up to the Place de la République Dominicaine, an auspicious place for a meeting with the Mexican Death’s-Head.
But I’d chosen my path and I followed it to the steps of the Rue de Miromesnil station, which was deserted and immaculate.
I confess that the metro steps had never seemed so suggestive, and at the same time so inscrutable. And yet they looked the same as ever.
I realized immediately that this was an aura I’d conjured up myself by agreeing to meet a stranger at such an ungodly hour, which isn’t something I’d normally do.
And yet I’m not in the habit of ignoring the call of fate.
There I was and that was all that mattered. But except for a clerk who was reading a book and must have been waiting for someone, there was no one on the stairs.
So I started down. I’d made up my mind to wait five minutes, then leave and forget the whole thing.
At the first turn I came upon an old woman wrapped in rags and cardboard, sleeping or pretending to sleep.
A few feet farther on, watching the old woman as if she were a snake, I saw a man with long black hair whose features may have been what you’d call Mexican, though I really wouldn’t know.
I stopped and took a good look at him.
He was shorter than me and he was wearing a worn leather jacket, carrying four or five books under his arm.
All at once he seemed to awake and he fixed me with his gaze. It was him, beyond a doubt.
He came up and offered me his hand. His grip was peculiar. As if, as we shook, he threw in Masonic code and signals from the Mexican underworld.
A tickling and morphologically peculiar handshake, in any case, as if the hand shaking mine had no skin or were only a sheath, a tattooed sheath.
But never mind his hand. I said that it was a beautiful night and we should go outside and walk. It’s as if it were still summer, I said.
He followed me in silence. For a moment I was afraid he wouldn’t say a word the entire time we were together. I looked at his books.
One of them was my Ether-Mouth, another was by Claude Pelieu, and the rest might have been by Mexican authors I’d never heard of.
I asked him how long he’d been in Paris. A long time, he said.
His French was terrible. I suggested that we speak in English and he agreed.
We walked along the Rue de Miromesnil to the Faubourg St. Honoré. Our strides were long and rapid, as if we were late to an important meeting.
I’m not the kind of person who likes to walk. And yet that night we walked nonstop, at top speed,
along the Faubourg St. Honoré to the Rue Boissy d’Anglas and on to the Champs-Élyseés, where we turned right again, continuing on to the Avenue Churchill and turning left, the vague shadow of the Grand Palais behind us, making straight for the Pont Alexandre III, our pace never slackening, while in occasionally unintelligible English the Mexican reeled off a story that I had trouble following,
a story of lost poets and lost magazines and works no one had ever heard of, in the middle of a landscape that might have been California or Arizona or some Mexican region bordering those states, a real or imaginary place, bleached by the sun and lost in the past, forgotten, or at least no longer of the slightest importance here, in Paris, in the 1970s.
A story from the edge of civilization, I said.
And he said yes, yes, I guess so, yes. And then I said to him: so you’ve never heard the Question Marks?
And he said no, he’d never heard them. And then I said that he had to hear them someday, because they were very good, but really I only said that because I didn’t know what else to say