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The Poured Sweet and Clear

Drunkard Gear

sweetMy name is Pepe Le Moko. I live in the Casbah. Each morning from my balcony overlooking the marketplace I sing, “For Every Man There’s A Woman.”

An enologist of love, my wines have been la femme in all of her complex glory. What wonders she possesses, what joys and wisdom she has brought me!

With you, I will share my visions and tales of amour, gathered over the four winds and the seven seas, gathered before my exile to the Casbah, before my world of pleasure was purloined, my passionate pursuits fettered by Interpol and American politics. Oui, weapons were sold, women were enjoyed, but all sales were legal, all moments of love consensual, all allegations about teenage girls in Minneapolis untrue. For I am Pepe Le Moko and live in the Casbah. Each morning from my balcony overlooking the marketplace I sing, “For Every Man There’s A Woman.”

 

My discourse begins in Paris, 1945, the Huns defeated, my life in the French underground a surrealistic nightmare with no exit. Truce, cessation of hostilities, could not return the world to its former focus. Five absurd years resisting Nazi barbarism had created an old man not yet twenty-two. Like my brethren who’d lived with the specter of death every moment of every day, I’d lost a raison d’être; the war’s end, when joy should have flourished, only magnified Paris’ collective emptiness. Suicide found its way into every conversation, oblivion the only option explored with intensity

A part of me recoiled at the malaise and nothingness infecting everyone to whom I turned; my soul stared at the bottom of every empty wine glass and searched for purpose. My mentor, Camus, seemed more lost than the rest of us. He responded to each question I asked with a raised wine glass. After weeks of silence, I tried to shake him out of his paralysis with what I thought was a call to action: “Maurice Chevalier or Jerry Lewis will lead the new Republic!” I yelled in his face. Camus shrugged, stared vacantly into oblivion and handed me the keys to his car: “You go first.”

Sartre, Simone de Beavuoir and I shared wine and long, numbing conversations. Surely, I reasoned, his wisdom and her beauty could forge a path for me to pursue. I craved meaning, something more than mere survival. For I am Pepe Le Moko and live in the Casbah. Each morning from my balcony overlooking the marketplace I sing, “For Every Man There’s A Woman.”

 

At the close of our last Olympian debauchery, for seven days philosophizing while drinking wine until one or more of us passed out, then coming to and continuing into the indistinguishable hours of the next day, a breakthrough occurred when my inspiration challenged Sartre’s genius: “You argue existence is meaningless,” I started, “that all is nothing, but when people are gone, nothing is still there, so nothing must be something!”   Sartre blinked, Simone crossed her lovely legs, viewed me with renewed interest, and surrendered a petite smile with her pouting lips.   “I will give you something to live for, cheri,” she purred. Before I summoned a response, Sartre’s jutting chin made sharper by his menacing eyes froze my tongue. Never a hero, I retreated, more unfulfilled than ever.

My decision to persevere created demands. Francs damned me, required travail.   Contacts from the resistance led me into the morally murky world of international weapons sales.   I bartered instruments of death to emerging factions who planned to rid themselves of imperialistic bonds and forge new chains for their countries’ deluded masses. I cared nothing about ideologies. If they had the money, I had the merchandise.

The consequences of my new occupation epitomized one of the war’s major lessons: life’s ironies have no bounds. My loathsome enterprise, the sale of tools for killing, led me to a means to nourish my ravished soul. My livelihood took me around the world and into the arms of women from almost every continent. Like fine wines, these exotic creatures intoxicated, lent joy and euphoria to my existence, no matter how transitory the assignations. Depending on locale, they mimicked Sauvignon Blancs, clear, light, refreshing; petite syrahs, spicy, beginning depth, intrigue; an occasional nouveau Beaujolais, emerging fruit for my palate;   pinot grigios, from lush Italian hills soon to explode into great mountains of delight with every excitement imaginable. Everywhere I tasted the bouquets were fragrant, the legs perfect, my corkscrew in perpetual motion. For I am Pepe Le Moko and live in the Casbah. Each morning from my balcony overlooking the marketplace I sing, “For Every Man There’s A Woman.”

 

Not concerned about the essence of mature, sophisticated whites or the complexities and nuances of aged reds, I’d scoff if older vintages were recommended and rejoiced in the crisp new grapes yet to be harvested, blended, nurtured, and consumed. When chided that older women were like fine wines, I’d agree and suggest keeping them in cellars.

Through the late 1940s and the entire decade of the ‘50s, I savored all available young varietals and created imaginary visions of perfection, ideals that guided my desires, learned from the cinema and from the new, ubiquitous invention, television. Americans, those coy innocents who’d dominate the last half of the century, fueled my fantasies: the leggy Cyd Charisse, the throaty Rosemary Clooney, the golden Faye Emerson.

Caught in a maelstrom of sensations, I hardly noticed impetuous spring turn into raging summer, blazing heat into the balanced temperature of fall. I ostensibly shrugged off turning forty years of age: “Better than ever,” my shibboleth.

This façade could not delude my inner voice, could not disguise certain activities that suggested another story. Amid all the experiment and change of the 1960s, I tacitly craved permanence, stability.   The Burgundies and Bordeaux of my native land found their way to my lips, creating growing pleasures that included reverie and contemplation.   I savored merlots, cabernets too. If I ventured from the reds, Chardonnays replaced the lighter, less fulfilling whites. My women complemented this new perspective, this increased yearning for form and ceremony. As before, my fantasies focused on Americans: the witty Kitty Carlyle made me smile, the sultry Bess Meyerson aroused me; and each night, in Technicolor dreams, the urbane Betty Furness defrosted my refrigerator.

Internally, the fire of desire for these beauties raged: Exquisite creatures brought into my living room electronically, but never to my touch, to my taste!   Exasperated, I could stand it no more! Action became being. In fall of 1968, I traveled to La Grand Pomme to experience these masterpieces in the flesh.

Outside television studios, lurking for days, I glimpsed each of the wonders I desired. Seeing them inspired me to venture inside and audition for “To Tell The Truth” and “I’ve Got A Secret.” My labors, alas, did not produce the bacchanal I’d planned.   The NYPD warned me about a trespass called “stalking,” while attorneys for Kitty and Bess presented me with a joint TRO. I did not despair; they’d noticed me and sensed a force with which they’d have to reckon. For I am Pepe Le Moko and live in the Casbah.   Each morning from my balcony overlooking the marketplace I sing, “For Every Man There’s A Woman.”

 

My setback required that I plot a new strategy, but problems from my actions required immediate evasive action. I learned Interpol had met with American authorities to discuss my activities here and abroad. All movement required extreme discretion. With international travel closely monitored, my leaving the country would be difficult if not impossible. Using an alias, I secluded myself in a Secaucus motel and watched television every waking moment. Once more, an American goddess captured my heart.

Muriel, the wife of Hubert Humphrey, the American Vice President and Democratic nominee for President, embodied every vision of perfection I’d ever dreamed, an American pinot noir rivaling any European burgundy ever produced.   (Her husband ran against the future president, Richard Nixon, his wife, Pat, at best a pallid white zinfandel.) Destiny directed me to Minnesota to find Muriel, sensing she would be the American vintage through which I’d experience the perfect blending of nature and nurture, the knowledge of the past, the joy of the present, and the hope of the future.

My years in the underground and in the sale of arms served me well. After little more than a week, I arrived in Minneapolis two days before the Vice President and his wife.   With little trouble, I found the hotel in which they would stay and secured a room.

Through well placed remuneration, I arranged a dinner reservation and accommodations as near to them as security allowed. The Secret Service examined the credentials of everyone who would be in the room that evening, but my knowledge of such exercises assured I raised no suspicions.   For I am Pepe Le Moko and live in the Casbah.   Each morning from my balcony overlooking the marketplace I sing, “For Every Man There’s A Woman.”

 

My evening of destiny arrived without fanfare. Early, I found my table and waited for fate to unfold. Upon entering the dining room, the Vice President and his wife, surrounded by guards and companions, soon passed within a few feet of me. Her eyes and mine met; a spark of desire from her heart to mine joined us for a precious nanosecond. Throughout dinner, we exchanged furtive glances, small smiles. Only we, in our separate, exclusive universe, knew the magic being created.

After the Vice President’s entourage had left the room, I experienced no surprise when presented with a short, unsigned note: “Meet me at seven tomorrow night in the sixth floor foyer. Your path will be clear.”

The next evening, expectation overwhelmingly delicious, I gained unrestricted passage to the vacant floor directly below the one on which the Vice President resided. My eyes fixed on the elevator, I did not hear small foot falls behind me and jumped when her tender fingers tapped my shoulder: “Darling, it is I.”

Without hesitation I took her into my arms, knowing too much time had already been wasted. “I knew you’d come; you did feel the fire of my passion.”

“Yes, but we must hurry. Hubert and I have a suite we use for privacy.   He’ll return in little more than an hour.”

Before she unlocked the door to our soon-to-be bower of bliss, we embraced and kissed. In seconds, I’d expertly unraveled most of the material that kept her bosom from my being. Like two enormous, drooping grapes, this fruit from heaven’s vineyard found my mouth and inner being.   The tawny flavor of Port pleased my puzzled palate. As I suckled, moans of passion swelled from deep within her, echoes of desire that I savored by placing a breast in each of my ears.

Desire erupting, we burst through the door, the noise from our pounding hearts blocking out all other sound. The chaos we encountered assured my path to exile.   Clad in a diaper made grotesque by his considerable paunch, Hubert frolicked on a huge bed with two naked teenaged nymphs.

Our collective gasps and screams instantly produced his Secret Service contingent. Before I could mutter, “Menage-a-cinq,” they’d handcuffed and blindfolded me. In minutes, these barbarians pushed and prodded me out of the hotel and into a vehicle.

I laughed to myself: After enduring the Huns, Interpol, and New York bartenders, how could these amateurs intimidate me? We drove for hours before I dozed off. The bumpy ride and lack of comfort did not deter my dreams. In them, I revisited the fine fruit I’d tasted and the vintage that had almost been mine. Perhaps she, too, at that very moment dreamed about what had almost been, the blending of American vitality with European savior faire. For I am Pepe Le Moko and live in the Casbah. Each morning from my balcony overlooking the marketplace, I sing, “For every man there’s a woman.”

 

Rudely wakened and pulled from the vehicle, I felt the first rays of morning sun on my face, but just for an instant. Unceremoniously, some number of thugs dragged me into an edifice and roughly seated me in a slight wooden chair. A door to the room I occupied opened and closed numerous times, people came and left, whispers and pieces of conversation accompanied and followed them, but nothing made sense, time and all else a blur.

When they finally removed the blindfold and my eyes could focus, I discerned the three men in the room were some combination of CIA and FBI. One, a heavy man in his mid-forties with sad, sagging eyes, sat on the other side of a small table directly in front of me.

“Mr. Le Moko, you are a very busy man,” he started slowly. “Now you have yourself in a difficult situation.”

“How so, monsieur?”

“Have some water, Mr. Le Moko,” he offered and pushed a filled glass toward me.

One of his henchmen unlocked my handcuffs, but remained four or five feet behind me, his message clear. Although suspicious, I drank heartily, parched from hours in captivity.

“Your activities,” the man seated behind the table continued, “have come to the attention of Interpol and other authorities.”

“Interpol is interested in a wife’s dalliances? Are they also interested in the Vice President’s playmates?”

“Mr. Le Moko, I’m talking about your arms dealings. In your hotel room, we found lists of available weapons and the countries to whom you’d planned to sell them: China, Syria, Vietnam, etc. The American judicial system will treat such behavior severely. Of course, Interpol also wants to talk with you about certain transactions you’ve been involved in on the Continent.”

“There were no lists,” I protested. “You created them!”

He looked at me coldly, “What difference does it make?”

In that instant, I knew where this charade would lead. “What do you have in mind?” I asked, resigned to dealing with these hooligans and to facing a fate I’d not anticipated.

My lifetime confinement in the Casbah, an inadequate stipend, and silence about what happened in Minneapolis were the terms of our negotiated agreement. I can tell this story now only because I’m an old man and all principals but moi are no more.

Nearly blind, hearing deteriorated, I nevertheless harbor hope of escaping exile. I’m kept alive by dreams of the American beauties of yesterday, Kitty, Bess, Betty. I also view the recent vintages on my television and yearn for one more visit to La Grande Pomme, one last taste of American’s fine offerings.

Who knows?   Time heals most wounds; people forgive, forget. A new identity, a forged passport, a few well-placed bribes, and my new ideal, the flaming American Rose I see each weekday night on ABC News, Petra Jennings, will be mine! For I am Pepe Le Moko and live in the Casbah. Each morning from my balcony overlooking the marketplace I sing, “For Every Man There’s A Woman.”

Ken Kottka