NOTE: I’m really into Dada and Surrealism and this story’s hero is none other than Tristan Tzara, whose birth name was Samuel (‘Samy’ – that’s right, one ‘m’) Rosenstock. My favourite Surrealist, Max Ernst, also makes an appearance.
Call him Samy. Everyone does. He’s a clerk. It’s his birthday. April 16th, 1923. He’s been living in Paris for a few years now. No one at his office knows it’s his birthday. No one at his office cares about his birthday, and therefore the fact that they don’t know it’s today is irrelevant. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Samy wishes that at least Mademoiselle Martin, his employer’s secretary, cared, but he doesn’t like to waste his time on regrets and daydreams. He goes through the papers on his desk, judging them quite enough to keep him busy for the entire workday. He’s about to get started when he feels himself inexplicably seized by a feeling of slight discomfort.
Samy frowns. He realises he is being watched. He looks up to see a man of about his age and height, with neatly-combed hair, sporting a monocle over his left eye. The man looks strangely familiar. Samy decides he doesn’t like him very much.
The man says, ‘Mr. Rosenstock?’.
Samy nods. He replies, ‘May I help you?’
‘Are you a Jew?’ the stranger asks, conversationally.
Samy picks up a sheet of paper and holds it between himself and the stranger, like a shield.
‘I beg your pardon?’ Samy says.
‘Beg all you want but my pardon doesn’t care all that much. It was a simple question. I’m a Jew too, you know. I’m also a Hindu, an African tribesman, an anarchist, and a boiling kettle.’
Samy is running out of patience. He doesn’t like fooling around.
‘Who are you?’ he asks the man with the monocle.
‘A lion tamer.’
“I think you’re mad,’ Samy concludes.
‘I’m not mad, because being mad is way too common. I’m saner than you are.’
Samy has heard enough and doesn’t want to argue. He’s a serious man and he has a lot of work on his hands.
‘Look, whoever you are, I don’t want to argue,’ Samy says. ‘I’m a serious man and I have a lot of work on my hands.’
‘Oh, I can help you with work,’ says the stranger with the monocle. He reaches out and grabs the papers on Samy’s desk, then, with a flourish, throws them into the air. Samy’s mouth gapes as the papers fly.
‘There, that was easy!’ the man says.
Samy jumps out of his chair and shouts, ‘Are you trying to get me fired?’
‘Your mind is spying on you, Samy,’ says the man with the monocle, shaking his head. ‘We’re out of here.’
The next thing Samy knows is that they’re standing right at the foot of the Eiffel Tower. That is, right at one of the feet of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a warm and sunny day. The man with the monocle knocks on the pedestal and says, ‘Hey! Let us in!’. Samy feels embarrassed and hopes no one has heard that. The slabs move to reveal a winding staircase, leading down.
‘This has to be a joke,’ Samy says. ‘There’s nothing under the Eiffel Tower.’
‘That’s right,’ the stranger agrees. ‘There’s nothing under the Sphinx either’. He seizes Samy by one arm and drags him down the stairs. They enter a well-lit room where a few people are talking and smoking cigarettes among piles of metal and old newspapers, while others examine some broken frames on the walls. Samy stumbles against something that turns out to be an old bicycle wheel.
‘So, there’s rubbish under the Eiffel Tower?’ Samy asks.
The man offers him an exasperated shake of his head. ‘You don’t know how to look,’ he says. ‘Here, watch me.’ The stranger turns around slowly, facing the group of talking people. One of those people is a tall blond man.
‘Oh, there’s Max!’, the stranger with the monocle exclaims. ‘Hey, Max!’
The tall blond man turns around. His hair looks like it was stolen from a newly-hatched chick. He likes birds, by the way. Samy doesn’t know how he knows this.
‘What?’ asks Max.
‘I don’t like those people you’re beginning to hang out with,’ the man with the monocle declares.
‘They said they’d make me Pope. By the way, who’s this?’ he asks, pointing his cigarette at Samy.
‘He’s me,’ says the man with the monocle.
‘That makes sense,’ Max remarks.
‘Say “Happy birthday,” Max!’
‘Happy birthday, Max!’ the blond man obliges.
‘I meant say it to Samy. It’s his birthday. He’s me, you know.’
The tall blond man approaches them.
‘Happy birthday, Max, to Samy!’ he says, without looking at Samy. ‘And you didn’t say it, by the way.’
‘Didn’t say what?’
‘“Happy birthday, Max.” It was exactly two weeks ago.’
‘I thought it was two days ago and I was only being fashionably late.’
The man with the monocle holds out his hand and the tall blond man named Max takes it. Hand in hand, they walk up to another man, who is fat and bald and closely examining a portrait on the wall. The portrait is not really a portrait. It’s an old mirror with a cracked frame. The top of the frame bears an inscription that reads ‘Portrait of an imbecile’. So it is a portrait after all. The fat and bald man frowns. The portrait also frowns.
‘This face looks familiar,’ says the man.
‘Hello,’ says Max. ‘I’m an ugly stove who forgets people’s birthdays.’
‘And I’m Max,’ says the man with the monocle. ‘I just laid an egg.’
‘Fuck you,’ says Max.
‘That’s why I laid an egg,’ says the man with the monocle.
The fat and bald man shakes his head and so does his portrait. He then walks away. The frame is now empty. Samy is still standing at the bottom of the staircase. The fat and bald man walks by him and begins to climb the stairs. Samy turns around.
‘Sir, I’m terribly sorry’, he says, ‘I’ve never seen these people in my life.’
‘LIAR!’ shouts the man with the monocle. This time, he is the only person in the room. Max is nowhere to be seen. Instead, a giant lion approaches Samy, stepping through the piles of rubbish. The lion is growling.
‘Is that thing yours?’ Samy asks. ‘Call it back!’
‘I can’t help you’, the man says, ‘you’re an impostor.’
‘No, I’m not! I’m just Samy!’
He tries to back away, but stumbles and falls against the stairs. He realises it doesn’t hurt. The lion is upon him, pinning him down with one huge paw. This doesn’t hurt either.
‘A lion tamer always remembers,’ comes the voice of the man with the monocle. He’s right. Samy now knows what this is. He knows who he is and he’s not Samy. He looks up at the lion and smiles. The lion opens its mouth and lets out a sound very much like the loud ringing of an alarm clock.
* * *
He wakes up from a dream where he was an office clerk named Samy. His name is Tristan now. He is many things. His monocle is inside a glass of water on the bedside table. It’s his birthday. April 16th, 1923.