Hazards of Autobiography
I was sitting quietly in a small café off the
Champs-Elysées. From time to time a cricket would chirrup pickup,
pickup, pickup, and groups of people would walk by the café
singing. I was out of cigarettes, patience and sorts. Michele in the
dark of that very night had gone off to Switzerland with the owner
of a German brewery. She informed me of this in a note written with
lipstick on our bathroom mirror. My skis were also missing.
A young man at the next table watches a girl who
has just come in and now is being greeted by several of the
Who's she, he asks his companion.
They call her Crow Jane. Supposedly she has some
rare blood disease. Written up in all the journals, they say.
Fame. He peers at the cocoon of smoke enshrouding
his friend. What are you writing.
Looks more like a letter.
No, it's a poem. I'll break up the lines later.
When I have more time.
It's content that matters. You know that. Voice.
You could say that everything we write is a
letter, in a manner of speaking.
At another table:
See, I come back to the house at night and I try
to read what he's written during the day. He leaves it behind there
on the desk. And it's getting stranger all the time; almost
impossible to follow. I think he may be forgetting English again.
What do you mean.
Well it happened once before. Last year. We had to
start all over again. Wawa, tee-tee and so on. Christ he's thirty
years old. And yesterday he wrote the immigration bureau, applying
for an extension of my visa, don't you think that's strange.
Quite the contrary. Seems eminently reasonable to
But I'm French.
Yes. You do have a point there. Still one can't be
too cautious. Sticklers for detail, these French.
I have to admit he did some of his best writing
At another table a man just dropped a bottle of
pills. They rattled like maracas as they struck the floor and
rolled. The man is becoming a deep and rather lovely shade of blue,
weakly waving his arm in the air to summon the waiter. His fingers
filled with gold wedding bands.
But the waiter has stopped at a table closer to
me. He shrugs his shoulders in my direction and says to the man and
woman seated there, He's listening you know.
I picked up my book and left.
I had just returned from adventures in London and
New York, Bretagne and Lodz. My beard was long, corners of my
moustache caught in corners of my mouth, my hair bore burrs and
briars from Camden Town, Notting Hall, Park Avenue and the lower
East Side. These included one particularly fine example, like a
perfect sphere of gold corral, or the ball of a mace, from Meshed.
Now the nose of the plane dips once, gently, and I
touch (my hand on the window) the edge of America.
I wore embroidered silk. My left hand was adorned
with rings, bracelets, the watch you gave me, the right bare save
for a childhood scar that crosses my fingers diagonally through the
knuckles, a healed knife wound. I hold my hand out before me and the
blood fills my palm for hours.
Guilt expires, even as air congeals away from the
mouths of the jets.
But I returned. To you. Offered my passport to the
man at the lectern there. For you. He was reluctant; at last
took it. It came apart like a newspaper in his hands. You're
Have you visited Pennsylvania before?
And New Jersey? You'll have to pass through there
Yes. Yes I know.
How much money do you have on you sir? And I
search silk pockets. Assorted quarters, dimes, pennies of two sizes,
a Churchill crown, a florin, francs, zlotny (several of these), one
of the new tenpence pieces. Geometrical coins, coins without
centers, coins with empty crosses for centers, milled, unmilled.
They collect on the counter before him. With the side of his hand he
slides them into a scoop and from there into a kind of plastic ant
farm. Numbers accumulate beneath a red needle. Telephones ring.
Lights flicker and dim.
I receive a handful of suspicious-looking
currency, invitations to contribute to charities, subscribe at
fantastic one-time-only rates to magazines and join various
societies, tax forms, overdue bills. Home at last.
And the purpose of your visit sir?
When I fail to answer he says, I have to put
something down you see.
Would it be possible for me to get back to you on
that? I ask. Because this is today who I am: the man who gets back,
the man who returns.
No problem. Absolutely, he says. Take this along
with you, fill it out at your convenience. Drop it in any mailbox.
He hands me an envelope. Good luck sir.
He waves his hand towards the doors. America is
out there. A wildness.
We can't be much help after this, I'm afraid.
You've been away a long time sir. Things have changed.
And an escalator bears me lumpily towards the top
You are there, above, behind the glass. With
fishnet stockings and a dress of green sequins. I have nothing to
declare. The remains of London, the beautiful white ruins of
America. And now through escalators, electric doors, walkways,
hallways and people we rush forward together, our mouths opening
round like those of fish, and we try, we clutch and move our hands
slowly in the suddenly stale air, to embrace.
Behind glass the others applaud.
This day, it's bright and with streamers. Big
machines go over our heads. And bundles up ramps on backs. These men
like barrels with beer on their breath. A Rolls at the end of the
pier with bankers in grey. How long does it take them to get that
look about them, they all have it. While clouds roll like seals at
play. Sun and blue clouds, a solitary gull.
Some of them wonder who I might be. I watch as
faces find mine, watch as thoughts flare behind eyes and eyes move
on. Like myself: the man who moves on.
Four of them mount a makeshift platform, as for
parades. Grand hurried speeches are made. Phrases are dropped like
coins into slots of cameras and microphones. When the crowd parts,
I'm there. I gave her that dress. Strange she should wear it now.
So, she says.
Wait for the cry of a tug to die off harbor. That
man with a clipboard under his arm in clothes like mine nods. Knows
who I am. Remembers.
So you're off again, I say.
I won't stop trying. I can't.
Even now that you're no longer a believer.
Hold out the book and wait for her hand to find
it. And her mouth to wonder if it's what it is.
Yes. It's the only copy.
Light catches on the stone in her ring as she
opens the book, runs her fingers over pages. As though she can soak
up its substance by touch alone.
So much noise here, so many feet and faces. People
climbing the ramps now smiling. Flashbulbs and banners. It was quiet
the day we left, no blue clouds like these. So long ago.
I didn't think you would come. Thank you, she
says. And is gone.
Up here there is wind and my coat and the
aloneness of harbors. Questions from the press, who have got on to
me, that I ignore. As she goes up the ramp with the others, turning
at the last moment. Sun and blue clouds in her glasses. Sun and blue
This morning when it has light and four men at the
top of the hill there. Stand with rain running off their hats. Then
descend, the container between them, bumping their legs. While
clouds rumble grey bellies and people below look up expectantly.
New-dug hole filling with water.
I can hear him from in here. He has found
something to say after all. After much shuffling and scuttling about
in his books, I should think. While his wife so patiently waited.
Thank you for his wife. His voice sounds far off and soft. And while
I am certain he says good things, he just goes on and on, like the
Finally I rap at the bottom of the lid. Fine wood.
Thank you for this wood. He leans close. Yes?
Father could I have one last look.
He swings up the lid and I open my eyes. Rain runs
Are there many here Father?
A few, he says. Not at all a bad turnout for so
poor and rainy a day.
I smell the brandy on his breath.
Thank you Father.
Rain strikes and slides over my eyes but I cannot
feel it. I close them now. My last sight the onyx ring on his index
finger as he eases the lid shut. For a time as he resumes I try to
concentrate on what he says.
And finally this.
Yes my son. He leans close.
That's very nice. Thank you.
Yes my son.
But can't we just get on with it.
Yes my son.
Another sound replaces his voice now, a sound just
as soft and distant and welcome, a sound like the rain. And that's
the dirt coming down.
James Sallis has a biography of Chester Himes,
collections of poetry and essays, and a two-volume Collected
Stories all coming out within the year, as well as a new edition
of his book on noir writers, Difficult Lives, a paperback of
his translation of Raymond Queneau's Saint Glinglin, and
paperbacks of two recent novels.