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Authors: James Salter

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BOOK: A Sport and a Pastime
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“She likes you,” I tell him.

His gaze jumps to me, hesitates.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I can tell,” I say.

He looks at me and then glances at her. She’s leaning against the bar, paying no attention. Dean smiles then, tired and lonely.

“That’s right,” I tell him.

“I know. She’s been dreaming about me for weeks,” he says.

[7]

M
ADAME JOB, PASSIONATELY THIN
, bony as a boy, thinks he looks like an actor: Eddie Constantine. When I tell Dean this, he says,

“Who?”

I explain that it’s somebody who appears in cheap films.

“I’ve never heard of him,” he says.

“You’ll see him. I don’t think you look like him, but anyway…”

“It’s wild,” he says.

Madame Job is smiling. She doesn’t speak any English. She follows the conversation from mouth to mouth, like a dog.

The room has a bare, modern look. Somehow inexpensive, too. Rugs are scattered over a floor of polished wood. There are a few magazines on a table. The furniture almost seems to be there on loan. I don’t know if there’s a reason. Henri Job works at the glove factory. He’s a manager, quite important. Billy wrote a letter to him for me. When I called, they were very friendly. Of course, this isn’t his house, it belongs to her father. It’s just next door to her father’s house in fact–not an unusual situation.

Henri doesn’t come from here. He’s from Lyon. Ah, that second greatest city of France, beside its wide river. He holds this over her like a title. Her father has done very well in
chauffage–
he has the biggest shop in town–but, after all, Lyon. One can see it all in her face. Besides that, he’s quite strict. He doesn’t permit her to dance, a thing she loves madly she confided to me. It’s he who has the bad heart, but nevertheless…

A bitter, foggy week in November. We drove along the Boulevard Mazagran without seeing another pair of headlights. The lime trees were black as iron in the dark. We turned off on the street where the Jobs live in a newer section of town. Blank walls. Everything looks abandoned, even the cars parked along the curb. I’ve already warned Dean that the evening will probably be boring. Many of the houses along here are recent. It’s like a new planting, they simply haven’t become anything yet. There are embarrassing spaces between them, bare trees.

The Jobs have a wire gate, a green gate which I close behind me. The sound of our feet seems very loud in the neighborhood silence.

“Are you sure this is the night?” Dean says. No lights are visible.

We walk on flat stones set in the gravel, past a concrete fishpond that has only a few dead weeds in it. I ring. A light comes on overhead, and Madame Job appears. She greets us warmly. I introduce Dean there, in the narrow hallway, with an inconvenient shaking of hands, and we walk in to the sitting room, Madame Job behind us, turning off lights.

After dinner there are slides of Austria, taken on their last trip. Henri holds them up like coins before he projects them. Distant views of mountains. Hotels that are slightly askew. Madame Job took that one, he explains in English. She hears her name. She smiles.

“It’s one of her best,” Henri says.

Dean sits silently in the darkness. It was quite a good dinner–roast chicken, endive,
mousse au chocolat
. Her desserts are marvelous. I have the feeling she is glancing at him unseen.

“Innsbruck,” Henri says.

I look back at the screen. A vast, ocher city materializes in a sequence of fragments like hints of a great image which has been shattered. We are confronted with the brilliant parts. Corners of streets. Trollies. Splendid fronts of buildings too far distant to really see. I sit there receiving occasional draughts of Madame Job’s perfume. I’m surprised at its strength. There’s not much flesh for it to draw warmth from–those skinny arms. She has marvelous skin, though. Her face seems very clean.

“Ahh,” she breathes, admiring one of the slides. She says to me,


Ça c’est joli
,
n’est-ce pas?


Formidable
,” I say.

Dean sits there like a superior child. He says nothing. Of course, it’s the monotony of the whole evening that he finds incredible, that there really can be a couple like this. (Henri is forty, perhaps. Juliette about twenty-nine. But Dean has read Radiguet. Twenty-nine isn’t old.) His silence, his self-removal seem almost visible. He lights a cigarette. In that closed room with its central shaft of light, the smoke leaves his mouth with a dense brilliance. He breathes a long plume of it, bluer than ice. Henri holds another slide up to the light. We are moving east now. It seems they stopped every ten kilometers to take pictures of something.

Dean would never go on a trip this way, I’m certain. I’m a little jealous of what he might do, I feel he’s just coasting at the moment. I imagine him on a journey to the south of France in the spring. I’m not certain who’s with him. I know he isn’t alone. They are traveling cheaply, with that touch of indolence and occasional luxury that comes only from having real resources. They live in Levi’s and sunlight. Sometimes they brush their teeth in streams. Perhaps she’s the young whore he met in Paris he found so easy to get along with. No, that’s a banal idea. I’ve had it myself: teaching her how to dress, wear her hair, behave, speak, and all the while abusing her like a convict morning and night, some of the instruction being offered whilst in union, so to speak. Yes, she finds it amusing. She takes off her clothes with a smile. They have a relationship like the beginning of
Manon Lescaut
. They wander through the cities. They vanish into hotel rooms–one cannot follow. There are long silences filled with things I ache to know…

Afterwards, sitting in the car, the leather icy, the windows opaque from the fine, endless rain, he wants to drive somewhere.

“Where?”

“Let’s go to Dijon,” he says.

“Are you serious?”

“It’s not that far.”

I feel a little guilty, as if somehow they can sense our joy at being outside at last. It’s after eleven, but he’s completely awake. He devours my weariness.

“Come on,” he says.

We make our way slowly back to the main street, the wipers moving in discord, groaning as they cross the glass. It’s an absolutely dark, abandoned town at this hour, only a few cafés still open. As for the rest of it, every building is black.

“He’s really nasty to her,” Dean says.

“What do you mean?”

“He’s got her right there in his hand,” he says, “and he’s just, you know, breaking her bones.”

“I don’t think it’s that bad.”

“I feel sorry for her,” he says.

“Why? She’s all right. She made a good marriage. They have children, her husband’s doing well. It’s all important. I mean, you have to understand things. They have their own pleasures.”

“She’s starved,” Dean says.

“A little, probably. It’s because you were there tonight.”

“Maybe.” He smiles.

“Listen, when someone thinks you look like a movie actor, that’s something right there.”

“Yes.”

“Especially when you don’t even resemble him.”

Dean laughs.

Dijon is hung in mist. We drive along empty streets. He knows the way perfectly. In front of us the blue neon of the Rotonde appears. We park and walk to the door. Now we can hear music, out of place in the fog, the silence. When we step inside, the darkness shatters like glass. On a little stage rimmed with light a band is playing. Couples are dancing, everything is very loud.

The waiter wants us to order champagne. Dean shakes his head: no, no. He knows the routine. We sit there watching it all.

“What music,” he says.

“Do you think it’s good?”

“Christ, no,” he says.

In the middle of the crowd is a girl with an African–I’m certain he’s a student–in a cheap grey suit. They have their arms around each other. As they dance it’s like a playing card revolving. The jack of spades vanishes slowly, the queen of diamonds is revealed. Their mouths come together in the dark.

Across from us there are more Negroes, but these are Americans. Soldiers. One can see it immediately in their faces, their clothes. They have thick mouths, a certain crudity. And they’re big. They have great hands, broad shoulders. They seem ready to burst out of their clothes. There are Coke bottles on the table–for their French girls, of course. One of them sits in a skimpy, plaid dress, green I make it to be. Short-sleeved, though the night is cold. She turns her head a little. She’s very young. Pure, expressionless features. Suddenly I am in anguish, I don’t know why–she obviously cares nothing–but somehow because of her predicament. She looks sixteen. Her young arms flash softly in the gloom.

Now one of them begins talking to her in that rich, melodious under-language. She doesn’t understand him–perhaps it’s the noise of the band. He leans closer. His mouth is moving just next to her ear. She nods her head then. She looks at him calmly and nods. The others are sitting with their huge forearms on the table, listening to the music, occasionally passing a word. I can’t see the other girl very well. Her hair is quite long. The music is crashing around us. The drummer’s face is wet.

We have traveled from Innsbruck to bedlam. It’s no longer possible to talk. I’m very sleepy and suddenly a little depressed. I keep looking across to their table. When they leave, I am sure I know exactly how it will be. They’ll go out to a big, green Pontiac at least five years old, maybe a Ford. The muffler is broken. The sound of the engine is powerful and raw. She sits between two of them in the back. That means… I don’t really know what it means, what low, graceful phrases are offered in the dark. As Rilke says, there are no classes for beginners in life, the most difficult thing is always asked of one right away. Still, they are not so bad, these black men. They are very sweet, I have heard, they are very tender. They will spend every penny they have on a girl, absolutely everything. They are foolishly generous. I envy them for that.

We drive in silence through a dense fog which swallows the headlights of the car. The yellow beams are smoking before us. Nothing can be seen. La Rotonde is very distant. The doors have closed behind us, the music has disappeared. We crawl down invisible roads, barely faster than a walk. The drive home will take hours, the last hours of a night which we have left behind. We’ve given it to the soldiers. They possess nothing. They withhold nothing. When the bill comes they reach in their pockets vaguely and ask each other for coins.

I have the window partly open. The damp air leaks on my face.

“I have to learn more French,” Dean says.

“Well, that’ll come. I see you writing down words all the time.”

“The trouble is it’s all food,” he says. “That’s the only thing I can talk about. You can’t just keep talking about food.”

“You’re right. You should read the newspapers.”

“I’m going to start.”

We are sneaking past the outskirts of Dijon, only occasionally passing anything we recognize, an intersection, a particular sign.

“I’ll tell you what’s great about this country,” he says suddenly. “The air. Everything smells good.

“It’s the real France,” he says. “You were right. I’d never have discovered it if it weren’t for you.”

“Oh, you would have.”

“No, I’d just be hanging around Paris like everybody else. It’s easy to do that. But who goes to Dijon?”

“Not too many people.”

“Or Autun?” he says.

“Fewer.”

“Nobody,” he says. “That’s what makes it.”

[8]

T
HE MORNINGS ARE GROWING
colder, I enter them unprepared. Icy mornings. The streets are still dark. The bicycles go past me, their parts creaking, the riders miserable as beggars.

I have a coffee in the Café St. Louis. It’s as quiet as a doctor’s office. The tables have chairs still upturned on them. Beyond the thin curtains, a splitting cold. Perhaps it will snow. I glance at the sky. Heavy as wet rags. France is herself only in the winter, her naked self, without manners. In the fine weather, all the world can love her. Still, it’s depressing. One feels like a fugitive from half a dozen lives.

These dismal mornings. I stand near the radiator, trying to warm my hands over iron that’s cold as glass. The French have a nice feeling for simplicity. They merely wear sweaters indoors and sometimes hats as well. They believe in light, yes, but only as the heavens provide it. Most of their rooms are dark as the poorhouse. There’s an odor of tobacco, sweat and perfume, all combined. A dispirited atmosphere in which every sound seems cruel and isolated–the closing of a door, footsteps beneath which one can detect the thin complaint of grit, hoarse
bonjours
. One feels pan of a vast servitude, anonymous and unending, all of it vanishing unexpectedly with the passing image of Madame Picquet behind the glass of her office, that faintly vulgar, thrilling profile. As I think of it, there’s an ache in my chest. I cannot control these dreams in which she seems to lie in my future like a whole season of extravagant meals if only I knew how to arrange it. I see her almost daily. I can always go down there on some pretext, but it’s difficult to talk while she’s working. Oh, Claude, Claude, my hands are tingling. They want to touch you. In her elaborately done hair there is a band which she keeps feeling for nervously. Then she touches the top button of her sweater as if it were a jewel. Around her neck there are festoons of glass beads the color of nightclub kisses. A green stone on her index finger. And she wears several wedding bands, three, it seems. I’m too nervous to count.

“You’re not from here, are you?” I had asked her.

“Oh, no. I am from Paris.”

“I thought so.”

She smiles.

“But do you like it here?” I said.

“Oh,” she shrugs helplessly.

When I am near her I can almost experience the feel of her flesh, taste it, like a starving man, like a sailor smelling vegetation far out of sight of shore.

She opened her purse and took out photographs of herself made in the salons of hotels. It happened too quickly, I wanted to look at them longer. She had been a mannequin, she said. She traveled around to do shows in those days. It was very nice. Weekends in Vichy, she told me… weekends in Megève.

BOOK: A Sport and a Pastime
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