James Salter


A Novel

Remember that the life of this world is but a sport and a pastime…

—Koran, LVII19


SEPTEMBER. IT SEEMS THESE luminous days will never end. The city, which was almost empty during August, now is filling up again. It is being replenished. The restaurants are all reopening, the shops. People are coming back from the country, the sea, from trips on roads all jammed with cars. The station is very crowded. There are children, dogs, families with old pieces of luggage bound by straps. I make my way among them. It’s like being in a tunnel. Finally I emerge onto the brilliance of the quai, beneath a roof of glass panels which seems to magnify the light.

On both sides is a long line of coaches, dark green, the paint blistering with age. I walk along reading the numbers, first and second class. It’s pleasant seeing all the plaques with the numbers printed on them. It’s like counting money. There’s a comfortable feeling of delivering myself into the care of those who run these great, somnolent trains, through the clear glass of which people are staring, as drained, as quiet as invalids. It’s difficult to find an empty compartment, there simply are none. My bags are becoming heavy. Halfway down the platform I board, walk along the corridor and finally slide open a door. No one even looks up. I lift my luggage onto the rack and settle into a seat. Silence. It’s as if we’re waiting to see the doctor. I glance around. There are photographs of tourism on the wall, scenes of Brittany, Provence. Across from me is a girl with birthmarks on her leg, birthmarks the color of grape. My eye keeps falling to them. They’re shaped like channel islands.

At last, with a little grunt, we begin to move. There’s a groaning of metal, the sharp slam of doors. A pleasant jolting over switches. The sky is pale. A Frenchman is sleeping in the corner seat, blue coat, blue pants. The blues do not match. They’re parts of two different suits. His socks are pearl grey.

Soon we are rushing along an alley of departure, the houses of the suburbs flashing by, ordinary streets, apartments, gardens, walls. The secret life of France, into which one cannot penetrate, the life of photograph albums, uncles, names of dogs that have died. And in ten minutes, Paris is gone. The horizon, dense with buildings, vanishes. Already I feel free.

Green, bourgeoise France. We are going at tremendous speed. We cross bridges, the sound short and drumming. The country is opening up. We are on our way to towns where no one goes. There are long, wheat-colored stretches and then green, level land, recumbent and rich. The farms are built of stone. The wisdom of generations knows that land is the only real wealth, a knowledge that need not question itself, need not change. Open country flat as playing fields. Stands of trees.

She has moles on her face, too, and one of her fingers is bandaged. I try to imagine where she works—a pâtisserie, I decide. Yes, I can see her standing behind the glass cases of pastry. Yes. That’s just it. Her shoes are black, a little dusty. And very pointed. The points are absurd. Cheap rings on both hands. She wears a black pullover, a black skirt. She’s a bit heavy. Her brow is furrowed as she reads the love stories in Echo Mode. We seem to be going faster.

We are fleeing through the towns. Cesson, a pale station with an old clock. Rivers with barges. We roar through another place, the people on the quai standing still as cows. Tunnels, now, which press one’s ears. It’s as if a huge deck of images is being shuffled. After this will come a trick. Silence, please. The train itself begins to slow a little as if obeying. Across from me the girl has fallen asleep. She has a narrow mouth, cast down at the corners, weighted there by the sourness of knowledge. Her face is turned towards the sun. She stirs. Her hand slips down; the palm comes to rest on her stomach which is already like a Rubens. Now her eyes open without warning. She sees me. She looks away, out the window. Both hands are crossed on her stomach now. Her eyes close once more. We are leaning into curves.

Canals, rich as jade, pass beneath us, canals in which wide barges lie. The water is green with scum. One could almost write on the surface.

Hayfields in long, rectangular patterns. There are hills now, not very high. Poplars. Empty soccer fields. Montereau—a boy on a bicycle waiting near the station. There are churches with weathervanes. Small streams with row-boats moored beneath the trees. She begins looking for a cigarette. I notice that the clasp of her handbag is broken. We are paralleling a road now, going faster than the cars. They hesitate and drift away. The sun is hitting my face. I fall asleep. The beautiful stone of walls and farms is passing unseen. The pattern of fields is passing, some pale as bread, others sea-dark. Now the train slows and begins to move with a measured, a stately clatter as if of carriages. My eyes open. Off in the distance I can see the skeletal grey of a cathedral, the blue outline of Sens. In the station, where for a few minutes we stop, travelers pass along the broken surface of the quai, the gravel sounding beneath their feet. It’s strangely silent, however. There are whispers and coughs, as if during an intermission. I can hear the tearing of paper on a package of cigarettes. The girl is gone. She has gathered her things and left. Sens is on a curve, and the train is leaning. Travelers stare idly from the open windows.

The hills close in and run beside us as we begin slowly to move away from the city. The windows of houses are open to the warm morning air. Hay is stacked in the shape of boxes, coops, loaves of bread. Above us, the sudden passage of a church. In its walls, cracks wide enough for birds to nest in. I am going to walk these village roads, follow these brilliant streams.

Rose, umber, camel, tan—these are the colors of the towns. There are long, rising pastures with lines of trees. St. Julien du Sault—its hotel seems empty. Shocks of hay now, bundles of it. Great squares of corn. Cezy—the station like scenery in a play that has closed. Pyramids of hay, mansards, barricades. Orchards. Children working in vegetable gardens, JOIGNY is printed in red.

We cross a small river, the Yonne, coming into Laroche. There is a hotel, its roof black with age. Flowers in the window boxes. We stop once more. One changes trains here.

Near baggage carts that seem abandoned we stand around quietly. A cart is selling sandwiches and beer. A pregnant girl walks by and glances towards me as she passes. Sunburnt face. Pale eyes. A serene expression. It seems that people, women especially, have become real again. The elegant creatures of the city, of the grand routes, the resorts, have vanished. I hardly remember them. This is somewhere else. Sheds on the far side of the tracks are filled with bicycles. Workmen in blue sit on sunlit benches, waiting.

From here on the line isn’t electrified. The trip is slower. We pass green waters into which trees have fallen. Bitter whiffs of smoke come into the compartment, that marvelous corrosive smoke that eats steel and turns terminals black as coal.

In the corner, in a trenchcoat, her hair gleaming, sits a silent girl with a face like a bird, one of those hard little faces, the bones close beneath it. A passionate face. The face of a girl who might move to the city. She has large eyes, marked in black. A wide mouth, pale as wax. Around her neck is a band of imitation diamonds. It seems I am seeing everything more clearly. The details of a whole world are being opened to me.

The sky is almost completely covered with clouds now. The light has changed, the colors, too. The trees become blue in the distance. The fields turn dry. There are tunnels of hay, mosques, cupolas, domes. Every house has its vegetable garden. The roads here are empty—a motorcyclist, a truck, nothing more. People are traveling elsewhere. Outside a house two small cages are hung for the canaries to get some air. We are passing bricks of hay, casques. We are laboring along. The acid smell of smoke comes and goes. The long, shrill blasts of the whistle, lost in the distance, fill me with joy.

She has taken a caramel out of her handbag. She unwraps it, puts it in her mouth to ensure her silence. Her fingers play with the paper, rolling it slowly, tightening the roll. Her eyes are pale blue. They can stare right through one. The nose is long but feminine. I am curious to see her teeth.

She touches her hair, first beneath one ear, then the other. Her wedding ring seems to be enameled. An umbrella with a violet canopy is strapped to her luggage. The handle is gold, no thicker than a pencil. No polish on her fingernails. She sits motionless now and stares out the window, her mouth curved in a vague expression of resignation. The little girl who is opposite me cannot take her eyes from her.

I begin to look out the window. We are coming close now. Finally, in the distance, against the streaked sky, a town appears. A single, great spire, stark as a monument: Autun. I take my bags down. I have a sudden, little spell of nervousness as I carry them along the corridor. The whole idea of coming here seems visionary.

Only two or three people get off. It’s not yet noon. There’s a single clock with black hands that jump every half-minute. As I walk along, the train begins to move. Somehow it frightens me to have it go. The last car passes. It reveals empty tracks, another quai, not a soul on it. Yes, I can see it already: on certain mornings, on certain winter mornings this is almost completely hidden in mist; details, objects come forth slowly as one walks. In the afternoons, the sun imprints it all with cold, bodiless light. I pass into the main room of the station. There’s a newsstand with iron shutters. It’s closed. A large scale. Schedules on the wall. The man behind the glass of the ticket window doesn’t look up as I walk by.