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Authors: James Salter

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BOOK: A Sport and a Pastime
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Mornings with clouds. Windy mornings. Mornings with black wind rushing like water. The trees quiver, the windows are creaking like a ship. It’s going to rain. After a while the first silent drops appear on the glass. Slowly they increase, cover it, begin to run. All of Autun beneath the cool, morning rain, the sculptures on the Roman gates streaking and then turning dark, the slate roofs gleaming now, the cemetery, the bridges across the Arroux. Every once in a while the wind returns, the rain moves sideways, beats against the windows like sand. Rain falling everywhere, on all the avenues and enterprises, the ancient glories of the town. Rain on the plate glass of the Librairie Lucotte, rain on les Arcades, on au Cygne de Montjeu. A long, even rain that makes me quite content.

[5]

H
E ARRIVES IN THE
late afternoon. It’s the first week of October and the weather has been mild–pulled up before the gate in a splendid old car which yields nothing to popular taste is Phillip Dean. Of course, it’s a complete surprise, perhaps I show it.

“Listen, I hope I’m not disturbing you,” he says, almost shyly.

“No, not at all.”

“I just thought I’d drive down.”

“Well, I’m glad you did.” After a moment I add, rather foolishly, “Is this your car?”

Yes, he insists I admire it, a convertible standing low and journey-dark in the dusk. We walk around to the front. There’s an enameled nameplate with letters of blue: Delage.

“Oh, this is a famous make. I thought they’d gone out of business.”

“They have,” he says. “This is a 1952.”

We circle it slowly.

“I fell in love with it right away,” he says.

It
is
a marvelous looking machine. Dean trails behind me, pointing out details. The headlights are like washbasins.

“I’ve only had it four days.”

It belongs to a friend of his who isn’t able to drive it enough. Dean is just using it.

“Do you want to take a ride?” he asks. “Come on. You have to get in the other side.”

Cool, October evening. The seats are chilled and smell of leather. The doors shut with a heavy, unequivocal sound. He inserts the key and starts it up. All the needles leap.

“It’s a dream to drive,” he says. “It goes like the wind.”

“I can imagine.”

“No, really, it does.”

“How fast?”

“I don’t know yet,” he says. “I’m creeping up on it.”

We drive along the curving, mysterious streets. The shutters are already closed throughout town. People are coming home from work, some on bicycles, most of them walking. I can see the pale of their faces as they turn to look at the car. It has Paris plates. They have no idea whose it is, of course.

We cross the square and go down the long, open street that runs to the station, bicycles swimming beside us, their faint headlights quivering on the road. The line of dark trees continues the entire length and then, turning, leads to the open space in front of the station, the hotels across the way, the bus terminal to one side with its lighted booth that takes four photos for a franc. There are two taxis waiting. The drivers–one is a fat woman with glasses–are in the hotel bar, wrapped in the congenial odor of tobacco and wine. They have nothing to do until the train arrives.

We stop for a moment and look back up towards town. Sitting in the car makes it all very privileged. The air is melancholy and dark. People walk by bent on their errands. Behind us the river flows.

It’s getting cold in the car. As we drive back, I ask if there’s any heat.

“It doesn’t work,” he says, “but I think I can fix it.”

We park at the Foy and he lifts the hood.

“Look at that,” he announces.

It’s a distillery of ducts and hoses.

“I used to work on motorcycles,” he says. “Of course, this…”

“…is a little more challenging.”

“We must think of it as three motorcycles,” he says. “Everything becomes simple.”

He touches the hoses, searching for the one which leads to the heater.

“Can you find it?”

“Oh, eventually,” he says, rising up.

We go into the café. There are booths on each side and a row of tables in the middle. A small bar. A small dance floor. Towards the back they’re playing cards. The place is almost empty, though. They all come later and sit in white silence before the television. We take a booth near the front. Dean’s already decided to stay over. I told him there was the whole house.

“I’m going to drive all around tomorrow,” he says. “I’d like to explore the countryside.”

Through the doorway I can see people looking at the Delage.

“Your car’s creating a sensation.”

“In Paris,” he says, “they figured I was at least a duke. At the hotels, you know, the doormen would open the door. Salute.
Bonjour
,
monsieur
. I’d give them a little nod.”

“You didn’t speak.”

“A few words of Spanish,” he says modestly. “Can you eat here?”

“Are you hungry?”

“A little. I can wait.”

“We’ll have dinner at the hotel.”

After a pause, he says,

“Uh, I don’t have much money with me…”

“Don’t worry.”

“I’m supposed to get a check,” he says. “I should have had it two days ago.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I reassure him.

“Do you know many people in town?” he asks.

“Oh, a few,” I say. “It’s pretty quiet.”

“Quiet,” he says. The idea seems to settle in. “Well, I mean, how quiet?”

“It’s quiet,” I tell him. “Shall we have one more?”

We arrive at the hotel about eight. The dining room is well lit, it seems even brighter than usual. Perhaps it’s my mood. After all, it is an event, I’ve been eating alone. We open the menus. Our heads lower a bit to consider things. Around us are the soft, reassuring sounds of dining. In the center of the room a table gleams with fruit. Beside it is a tray of cheeses: bleu de Bresse, heavy and rich, pungent as a woman’s armpits; roquefort, veined like marble; the small, wrapped chèvres; gruyère… And now I notice for the first time, near the entrance, a party that includes Mme. Picquet and her little girl. They’re all talking agreeably. I don’t know who the others are. They’re much older. They could be relatives. Anyway, I’ve found out a little about her. She’s been divorced. Her husband fell in love with another woman. Claude was too abundant for him, perhaps, too sumptuous. She’s always carefully made up, her hair arranged and laid across her brow. Bracelets on each wrist. Big rings, one of them on her left index finger. She even wears it when she types. She might be twenty-eight, Claude, or twenty-nine. When she walks, she leaves me weak. A hobbled, feminine step. Full hips. Small waist. Her legs are a little thin. I see her in the Hôtel de Ville, where she works. She leans over the typewriter, erasing. There’s a glint of white slip where her sweater parts slightly at the bosom. My eyes keep going there in quick, helpless glances.

Her divorce was very expensive, she told me. I noticed the mole painted on her cheekbone. It cost four hundred dollars, she said, and her husband four hundred, too, and besides that, she had to give him almost all the furniture, this vanished husband who was an eyeglasses salesman and had to travel a lot. She makes a little gesture of resignation.

Her daughter sits beside her, attentive, composed. She’s eight years old and already as marvelously slow of movement as her mother. Quite a pretty child. She eats with a fork that is too big for her. She glances up at Claude from time to time.

Dean has a healthy appetite, but after the second glass of wine there’s a tendency for things to fall from his fork. He casually eats them right from the tablecloth. We’re having
quenelles
made from river pike,
quenelles de brochet
. He keeps asking me what they’re called.

His French is better already. Of course, the waiter pretends not to understand him. Dean doesn’t care.

“They’re all like that,” he says. “
Quenelles
. Is that right? What did you tell me?”

Long, unhurried hours of evening, the car parked outside where light from the entrance falls on it, people pausing to look, the winter coming on. Plates being silently removed, the taste of foods lingering. The immortal procession of a French meal. We’ve finished the wine. Dean is pouring Perrier water into his glass. He’s thirsty as a horse, he says.

“They always tell you drink wine to be safe.”

“Yes, but I drink the water.”

“Everywhere, so do I,” he says. “You know where the cleanest water in the world is?”

“No.”

“The Yale swimming pool,” he says. His voice is fading. “Anyway, that’s what they always told us.”

“When did you get out of Yale?”

“I didn’t,” he says. “I quit.”

“Oh.”

He describes it casually, without stooping to explain, but the authority of the act overwhelms me. If I had been an underclassman he would have become my hero, the rebel who, if I had only had the courage, I might have also become. Instead I did everything properly. I had good marks. I took care of my books. My clothes were right. Now, looking at him, I am convinced of all I missed. I am envious. Somehow his life seems more truthful than mine, stronger, even able to draw mine to it like the pull of a dark star.

He quit. It was too easy for him, his sister told me, and so he refused it. He had always been extraordinary in math. He had a scholarship. He knew he was exceptional. Once he took the anthropology final when he hadn’t taken the course. He wrote that at the top of the page. His paper was so brilliant the professor fell in love with him. Dean was disappointed, of course. It only proved how ridiculous everything was. He’d already been given a leave in his freshman year, now he took another. He went to see a psychiatrist. He lived with various friends in New York and began to develop a style. It lasted a whole year, but the university was very understanding. Finally he went back and did another year, but in the end he quit altogether. Then he began educating himself.

[6]

D
EAN AT THE WASHBASIN
, shaving. Standing there half-naked, he seems very thin. He has bony shoulders. I am trying to create details. Narrow, white feet. I am trying to make him real, the darling of his father’s friends. He visited their houses. He drove their cars.

The bathroom is enormous with a window crossed by low shelves bearing Cristina’s bottles, many of them filled with color, bath salts, toilet water, apothecary jars. The razor scrapes like a barber’s, short, even strokes and then a pause. He cleans it with occasional bursts of water. His beard isn’t heavy. It’s mostly around his chin. In the outer room, fully dressed, I sit waiting. He inspects himself hastily in the mirror.

“You ready?” he asks innocently.

Those first, early weeks with the cold skies of Europe covering them, weeks that seem now never to have been, that later events washed out of existence, almost out of memory. In October we went–I am taking these from a list–to Châlons-sur-Seine, to Beaune, Dijon (three times), and even to Nancy.

Over the crown of western hills we sail beneath a brilliant sky of clouds shot through with sunlight and begin the descent to town, the road cutting back and forth in deep, blind turns. And then those great, lineal runs through neighborhoods I knew nothing of, making straight for the perfect square which marked the city like a signet. Nancy. How could I know? Streets that later would become as sacred to me as those of my childhood. Boulevard Georges Clemenceau. We pass it and are gone.

It’s Saturday. The streets are crowded. Men are roasting chestnuts on the corners. We sit near the window of the Café du Commerce. Four in the afternoon. The blue sky of France flooding with clouds. The last of the year upon us, the cold coming on–one can feel it every day. Dean is studying the guidebook. I stare out the window. Around the square cars turn, slow as oxen. Occasionally a Jaguar or Mercedes goes past, one of those great, ghosting machines and sometimes a lovely face inside. The shops are jammed with shoes, gold ornaments, suedes, beautiful cheeses.

I see it at dawn now, when the light is chalky and then the palest blue. The streets are absolutely still. The huge
portes
are silent–Place Carnot, its long regiment of trees. I wander this city like a somnambulist. The blue cigarette smoke is rising, the odor of reminiscences, in the Bar de la Division de Fer. Avenue du XXme Corps. The veterans sit hunched in their sweaters, their blue suit-coats, surrounded by the relics of a glory now spent, gone to rust, the white hand of mould staining it, the smell of dampness. Dawn comes in the flat windows of the cafés. They walk home alone, along the canal, their shoes scuffing the grey sidewalk.

Autumn nights. We stroll in the early darkness, deciding where to eat, and start for home in the first flurries of snow, bundled up and breathing vapor in the old Delage. The heater is still no good. Snow is streaming into the headlights, pouring against us, exploding on the glass. The gear box is grinding away. Taking a curve, we begin to snake wildly.

“Oh, watch it, Dean,” he says.

Across the road a river of snow is flowing, spilling sideways, shifting, rushing away. We begin to drive slower. The snow beats white against us, making no sound. We are lost in a whirling whiteness, in the rich voice of the car.

“Did you see that sign? What did it say?”

“Langres, I think.”

“Langres,” he says.

“Yes. We’re on the right road.”

It takes hours. After a while, there’s no other traffic. We’re sailing along roads as deserted as the steppes. The villages are dark.

When we finally arrive, we stop in at the Foy. It’s nice to enter, to be inside. The wood of the floor feels good. We sit down in one of the booths. There are some couples scattered around. It’s all very cosy. The waitress brings us tea. She’s a girl from the country who works here on weekends, I’ve seen her before. She wears a turtleneck sweater, black skirt, a leather belt cinched tightly around her waist dividing her into two erotic zones. Behind the bar the radio is going softly. Outside, the snow is falling, covering the car like the statue of a hero, filling the tracks that lead to where it is parked. Dean watches as she removes the things from her tray and sets them on the table: cups, saucers, the silver pot. His eyes follow her as she walks away.

BOOK: A Sport and a Pastime
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