The Phantom of the Opera's Friend
by Donald Barthelme
I have never visited him in his sumptuous quarters five levels below the Opera, across the dark lake.

But he has described them. Rich divans, exquisitely carved tables, amazing silk and satin draperies. The large, superbly embellished mantelpiece, on which rest two curious boxes, one containing the figure of a grasshopper, the other the figure of a scorpion...

He can, in discoursing upon his domestic arrangements, become almost merry. For example, speaking of the wine he has stolen from the private cellar of the Opera's Board of Directors:

"A very adequate Montrachet! Four bottles! Each director accusing every other director! I tell you, it made me feel like a director myself! As if I were worth two or three millions and had a fat, ugly wife! And the trout was admirable. You know what the Poles say---fish, to taste right, must swim three times: in water, butter, and wine. All in all, a splendid evening!"

But he immediately alters the mood by making some gloomy observation. "Our behavior is mocked by the behavior of dogs."

It is not often that the accents of joy issue from beneath that mask.

Monday. I am standing at the place I sometimes encounter him, a little door at the rear of the Opera (the building has 2, 531 doors to which there are 7, 593 keys). He always appears "suddenly"---a coup de theatre that is, to tell the truth, more annoying than anything else. We enact a little comedy of surprise.

"It' s you!"

"Yes. "

"What are you doing here?"

"Waiting. "

But today no one appears, although I wait for half an hour. I have wasted my time. Except---

Faintly, through many layers of stone, I hear organ music. The music is attenuated but unmistakable. It is his great work Don Juan Triumphant. A communication of a kind.

I rejoice in his immense, buried talent.

But I know that he is not happy.

His situation is simple and terrible. He must decide whether to risk life aboveground or to remain forever in hiding, in the cellars of the Opera.

His tentative, testing explorations in the city (always at night) have not persuaded him to one course or the other. Too, the city is no longer the city he knew as a young man. Its meaning has changed.

At a cafe table, in a place where the light from the streetlamps is broken by a large tree, we sit silently over our drinks.

Everything that can be said has been said many times.

I have no new observations to make. The decision he faces has been tormenting him for decades.

"If after all I---"

But he cannot finish the sentence. We both know what is meant.

I am distracted, a bit angry. How many nights have I spent this way, waiting upon his sighs?

In the early years of our friendship I proposed vigorous measures. A new life! Advances in surgery, I told him, had made a normal existence possible for him. New techniques in---

"I'm too old."

One is never too old, I said. There were still many satisfactions open to him, not the least the possibility of service to others. His music! A home, even marriage and children were not out of the question. What was required was boldness, the will to break out of old patterns...

Now as these thoughts flicker through our brains, he smiles ironically.

Sometimes he speaks of Christine:

"That voice!

"But I was perhaps overdazzled by the circumstances...

"A range from low C to the F above high C!

"Flawed, of course...

"Liszt heard her. 'Que, c'est beau!' he cried out.

"Possibly somewhat deficient in temperament. But I had temperament enough for two."

Such goodness! Such gentleness! "I would pull down the very doors of heaven for a---''

Tuesday. A few slashes of lightning in the sky...

Is one man entitled to fix himself at the center of a cosmos of hatred, and remain there?

The acid...

The lost love...

Yet all of this is generations cold. There have been wars, inventions, assassinations, discoveries...

Perhaps practical affairs have assumed, in his mind, a towering importance. Does he fear the loss of the stipend (20,000 francs per month) that he has not ceased to extort from the directors of the Opera?

But I have given him assurances. He shall want for nothing.

Occasionally he is overtaken by what can only be called fits of grandiosity

"One hundred million cells in the brain! All intent on being the Phantom of the Opera!"

"Between three and four thousand human languages! And I am the Phantom of the Opera in every one of them!"

This is quickly followed by the deepest despair. He sinks into a chair, passes a hand over his mask.

"Forty years of it!"

Why must I have him for a friend?

I wanted a friend with whom one could be seen abroad. With whom one could exchange country weekends, on our respective estates!

I put these unworthy reflections behind me...

Gaston Leroux was tired of writing The Phantom of the Opera. He replaced his pen in its penholder.

"I can always work on The Phantom of the Opera later---in the fall, perhaps. Right now I feel like writing The Secret of the Yellow Room."

Gaston Leroux took the manuscript of The Phantom of the Opera and put it on a shelf in the closet.

Then, seating himself once more at his desk, he drew toward him a clean sheet of foolscap. At the top he wrote the words The Secret of the Yellow Room.

Wednesday. I receive a note urgently requesting a meeting.

"All men that are ruined are ruined on the side of their natural propensities," the note concludes.

This is surely true. Yet the vivacity with which he embraces ruin is unexampled, in my experience.

When we meet he is pacing nervously in an ill-lit corridor just off the room where the tympani are stored.

I notice that his dress, always so immaculate, is disordered, slept-in-looking. A button hangs by a thread from his waistcoat.

"I have brought you a newspaper," I say.

"Thank you. I wanted to tell you...that I have made up my mind. "

His hands are trembling. I hold my breath.

"I have decided to take your advice. Sixty-five is not after all the end of one's life! I place myself in your hands. Make whatever arrangements you wish. Tomorrow night at this time I quit the Opera forever."

Blind with emotion, I can think of nothing to say.

A firm handclasp, and he is gone.

A room is prepared. I tell my servants that I am anticipating a visitor who will be with us for an indefinite period.

I choose for him a room with a splendid window, a view of the Seine; but I am careful also to have installed heavy velvet curtains, so that the light, with which the room is plentifully supplied, will not come as an assault.

The degree of light he wishes.

And when I am satisfied that the accommodations are all that could be desired, I set off to interview the doctor I have selected.

"You understand that the operation, if he consents to it, will have specific...psychological consequences?"

I nod.

And he shows me in a book pictures of faces with terrible burns, before and after having been reconstructed by his science. It is indeed an album of magical transformations.

"I would wish first to have him examined by my colleague Dr. W., a qualified alienist."

"This is possible. But I remind you that he has had no intercourse with his fellow men, myself excepted, for---"

"But was it not the case that originally, the violent emotions of revenge and jealousy---"

"Yes. But replaced now, I believe, by a melancholy so deep, so all-pervading---"

Dr. Mirabeau assumes a mock-sternness.

"Melancholy, sir, is an ailment with which I have had some slight acquaintance. We shall see if his distemper can resist a little miracle. "

And he extends, into the neutral space between us, a shining scalpel.

But when I call for the Phantom on Thursday, at the appointed hour, he is not there.

What vexation!

Am I not slightly relieved?

Can it be that he doesn't like me?

I sit down on the kerb, outside the Opera. People passing look at me. I will wait here for a hundred years. Or until the hot meat of romance is cooled by the dull gravy of common sense once more.

"The Phantom of the Opera's Friend"
is from City Life. New York: Pocket, 1972.

Copyright (c) 1996-2004 The Estate of Donald Barthelme, reprinted with permission