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Authors: James Salter

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BOOK: A Sport and a Pastime
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“It’s lucky I don’t speak French that well,” he says, forcing a laugh.


Oui
,” she says.

All the way to Dijon she is somewhat disinterested in him. They ride in an unbroken silence, the cold leaking in on them, the whole day blue with it, people, objects, the very light. He pulls up before the Hôtel de la Cloche.

“What do you think of it?”

She doesn’t reply.

It’s only when the door of the room is opened that she suddenly changes.


Ah!
” she cries, “
c’est très jolie!

Dean is suspicious. It’s ridiculously modern. The corridors they walked along were built to grand dimensions, suitably gloomy, and now this: loud colors and the bareness of new furniture. The floor has been scraped and varnished. The yellow wallpaper is printed with hundreds of small, colored balls. He wonders if she’s being sarcastic, but no, she begins to unpack happily. She looks into the bathroom. She finds it perfect. Dean is annoyed. A wave of uncertainty comes over him. The afternoon begins to seem ominous. It has an emptiness he suddenly cannot think how to fill.

“Do we go out?” she says.

“Jesus, it’s bitter cold.”


Pardon?

“It’s too cold,” he says. “Where do you want to go?”

She shrugs. To see the stores.

“It’s freezing,” he says.


Non
,” she complains.

The streets are crowded, cold weather or not. They walk around until six, looking in windows, and before one good shop stand a long time admiring a black pullover. Suddenly he decides to buy it for her. They go inside. It costs forty francs. It’s more than he thought. The
vendeuse
waits, her face expressionless. It seems they are all listening. The pullover lies limp, a fine label gleaming within its throat. Forty francs. Finally he nods.

“All right,” he says. It’s like throwing away the oars.

She clings to his arm as they walk along afterwards, and he sees their reflection in the chilly glass. They look like a working couple. He is thin, tough, no necktie. It’s evening. He imagines he looks like a boxer.

The faint warmth of the hotel room restores him. She begins to strip off her clothes like a roommate and climb into bed. Dean undresses, too. He takes off his shoes. He unbuttons his shirt slowly, with the assurance of an athlete.

It is almost dark. Her arms are caught beneath her. He feels her hesitate, then begin to surrender. In the dusk, her desperate spasms fill him with the deepest, the most profound joy.

They have dinner on the rue Michelet, in a restaurant filled with the soft clatter of plates, a long dinner that seems almost a reminiscence they are so pleased, so content to eat in silence. They look up to find themselves exchanging smiles. At the end they become sleepy. They stuff themselves with cheese,
époisses
,
citeaux
, specialties of a region known for its food.

She cannot be satisfied. She will not let him alone. She removes her clothes and calls to him. Once that night and twice the next morning he complies and in the darkness between lies awake, the lights of Dijon faint on the ceiling, the boulevards still. It’s a bitter night. Flats of rain are passing. Heavy drops ring in the gutter outside their window, but they are in a dovecote, they are pigeons beneath the eaves. The rain is falling all around them. Deep in feathers, breathing softly, they lie. His sperm swims slowly inside her, oozing out between her legs.

The wine has made him thirsty. At about three in the morning he gets up for water. She turns her head sleepily and asks for some, too. She rises on one elbow to drink it. His hand supports her back. Afterwards he opens the window wider. The rain is steady, hard as pellets. He can hear it falling on the roofs of Dijon, shifting, moving then in a different direction, across the avenues, down the black streets. He would like to kiss her behind the knees. At last he sleeps.

He will never awaken, not from this dream, that much I know. He is already too deep. He has reached the nadir. He cannot move. In the morning, in the clear, holy light he moves like an affectionate father, drawing her to him and pulling the pillows down.

[15]

S
HE WAS CONCEIVED AFTER
much difficulty–I do not know if this is significant–and born in the fall of 1944, the last autumn of the war. Her father had already been gone for two months. Her mother, whom I shall never see, had a poor, unhappy life, even though she eventually married again. There is a winter in which her child is sick, a depressing winter. She struggles through it alone. The restaurants are lighted. Behind the flat, steamy windows of the Café du Commerce businessmen are talking. The pale, neon script of the dance hall sign illuminates a narrow court–as she passes, coming home from the hospital in the evening darkness, she can see the couples enter. Her fingers are cold, her feet. Her life has no solution. It is like a crime that cannot be undone.

I don’t know how to think of this mother, this uncomplaining woman I am so inclined to like. I picture her as a little plain and fond of gossip. I’m not even sure where she was born, in Metz, I think, one with Toul and Verdun of the three old bishoprics. There’s no reason to say Metz, but one must place it somewhere.

Edouard, the father, was something of a dandy, although as he grew older he became stout. He was born in Belgium. Anne-Marie sees him from time to time. He lives in the sunshine of later years (he was considerably older than her mother) with a young wife north of Paris. She has a job as he’s not able to work too much any more. He has a few investments, and they’re able to get by. He’s very careful with his money, even more than most French, which is in itself quite something. They have a little boy eleven years old. The surprising thing is that Anne-Marie and her mother both think fondly of this villain. The mother has even gone so far as to keep the little boy for a few weeks while Edouard and his wife were off in Scandinavia. Of course, she was paid something, but still it seems extraordinary. As for her present husband, I know nothing about him, nothing at all. He’s saved her from a lonely life; that’s it.

There’s a photograph of Annie and her father and stepbrother, the three of them looking directly at the camera. She is sixteen but seems younger. Behind them is what appears to be the railroad station, large windows, distinguished façade. It’s one of those ordinary little snapshots which illustrate the life of almost everybody. It was taken in the sunshine. Their faces are blazing white, their eyes are narrowed. The only exceptional thing about it is her presence which makes one pick it up and look closely to see if she had already become anything at that age, if there is something in her face… She keeps it in the
armoire
, propped up so it can be seen when the door is opened. Just behind it is a small, cardboard box and in that, two or three hundred francs, her savings. Dean knows the money is there. He’s seen her put some in. She sends part of her pay to her mother, but the existence of that thin sheaf of bank notes, a couple of months’ rent is all it amounts to, is somehow touching. I see it there like the motive for a betrayal, but of course, it’s just the opposite. Still, it’s remarkable that it should be there, so lightly hidden. She is careful about money. She is humorless about it. She never spends any when she is with him. Perhaps she might buy some postage stamps, nothing more. She has never bought him a gift of any kind, at least not that I know of. And still, with the stale taste of poverty all around her, I am certain Dean could have those two hundred francs if he asked for them. I am terrified that he could. It seems she is ready to give too much–I am haunted by the idea–and like a fool hastening to introduce all the tedious concerns of his own life into hers, I want to warn her. On the other hand, I know there’s not the slightest chance he could ever be made to take it. Or perhaps he would do so without a qualm, as if he were entitled to it just as he is to her person, her thoughts, her very dreams. I am sure of one of the two things, but I can’t decide which. The money distracts me. That small, tea-colored box about the size a wristwatch might come in, with the photograph leaning against it–I can actually see it through walls of stone. Objects have their shape and weight, their color, and beyond this a dimension for which there is no scale, their importance, and her room, her life about which I really know so little, are furnished with articles that have gradually become surreal. They appear wherever I look. They steal the identity of things that actually surround me. There is her clock which has luminous hands, which runs a little slow, a clock she had in Orléans, perhaps, in Contrex, the alarm going off early, shrill. No, there she was awakened by another girl. Summer mornings. She has been out late and is sleepy. On the floor her shoes have fallen over. Her dress has been tossed on a chair… There is her washcloth, sewn in the shape of a glove. Her cosmetics. Her comb. The box where her savings lie hidden. Oh, Anne-Marie, your existence is so pure. You have your poor childhood, postcards from boys in St. Léger, your stepfather, your despair. Nothing can affect you, no revelation, no crime. You are like a sad story, like leaves in the street. You repeat yourself like a song.

Dean sees her almost every night. Sometimes they don’t bother to eat. An orange. A cup of tea. They drive around in the cold. In the room she undresses him and puts him to bed. He submits like a huge child. She pours a glass of wine and sets it near him. Then leisurely, as if alone, she removes her clothing and puts on a robe. She washes. She begins to brush her hair. The cloth clings to her body, Dean can make out her hips, her round buttocks. She wants a room that has carpets and mirrors, she tells him. Dean is silent. She slips out of the robe and stands naked before the mirror. And a large bed, she adds, looking at herself. He barely listens. His eyes are drifting slowly between substance and reflection. She turns to see if he is awake.

“Phillip?”

There is no answer. She approaches the bed. His hands rise silently in the dark to receive her, to draw her down.

“Pretending you are asleep,” she says. “You are a naughty child.”

“No.”

He has turned her over to admire her, those pale cheeks, firm as calves. He caresses her, slips his hand between her legs.

“It’s nourishing,” he says.


Comment?


Je t’aime
,” he says.

They lie on their sides. The clock is ticking. The metal of the heater cracks like glass. Downstairs the Corsicans are talking. Their passionate voices echo through the stairwell. The street door closes.

“Wait a minute,” he whispers.

She is on top of him.

“I don’t have anything.”

“It’s all right,” she says.

“Are you sure?”

She is struggling. He is in agony.

“Anne-Marie?”


Si!
” she insists. He half releases her, half guides.

It begins slowly, his hands on her waist. It seems he is crowning his life.

[16]

P
AST AND HAUNTING IMAGES
of France, reflected over and over again like facets of an inexhaustible stone. I walk through the silent house, the tall rooms chilled with winter light, the furnishings crossed by it, the windows. The quality of stillness is everywhere. There is no single detail that provides it. It exists like a veiled face.

Images of the towns. Sens. The famous cathedral which is reflected in the splendor of Canterbury itself rises over the icy river, over the still streets. One sees it in the distance, St. Etienne: the centuries have bleached its stone like powder and the heads are all missing from statues of the blessed, but still it appears from far off to warn travelers of the presence of God. Built as one of the first of a great, Gothic family that rose throughout France, it endures like a white myth. The little shops have grown close around it, cinemas, restaurants. Still, it cannot be touched. Beneath the noon sun the roof, which is typically Burgundian, gleams in the strange design of snakeskin, banded into diamonds, black and green, ocher, red. The sun splashes it like water. The brilliance seems to spread.

Sens. They have fallen asleep. Dean wakes first, in the early afternoon. He unfastens her stockings and slowly rolls them off. Her skirt is next and then her underpants. She opens her eyes. The garter belt he leaves on, to confirm her nakedness. He rests his head there. After a while, finding a more comfortable position, he lies between her legs, her pelvis for a pillow, her knees within his grasp. He listens to the traffic. He turns his head a little to see if she is asleep. She is looking down at him calmly. Beneath his ear it is wet.

He has money, everything is changed. There are close to nine hundred francs in immaculate bills from the sale of his return ticket on the airlines, the beauty of bank notes being counted made him weak. He didn’t fold them. He carried them out flat, in the stiff packets of ten pinned at the corner. He can speak the language suddenly with them in his possession. He can see himself clearly, he can think of many things. They are important, these inexhaustible ten-franc notes. They are the essence of invention. They are the warrants of his life.

In the restaurant they arrive a little early. The tables are empty, the headwaiter is standing alone. They are led past a fireplace where a huge log is slowly burning, the flames no bigger than one’s hand. On a broad table, great hams reveal their rich interiors, plates of cooked fishes, mushrooms, adornings of fruit. They are seated in a booth across from one another. She is touching a fever blister on her chin.

“Do we take the
prix-fixe?
” she asks.

“I don’t know,” he says. He is reading.

She keeps touching herself.

“Stop that.”

She obeys.

In the next booth an elegant trio is arriving: a man with silvery hair, a perfectly groomed, well-born man and two women, his wife and mother probably. Dean can see them behind her head, they are accepting the menus. The headwaiter talks to them. They smile. He looks down again.

BOOK: A Sport and a Pastime
5.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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