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James Sallis

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 customers.

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.

A poem.

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. Style. Approach.


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 me.

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 back then.

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 traveling alone?

Yes sir.

Have you visited Pennsylvania before?


And New Jersey? You'll have to pass through there you see.

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 floors.

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.

He believes.

Hold out the book and wait for her hand to find it. And her mouth to wonder if it's what it is.

You finished.

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 clouds.



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 rain.

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 over them.

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.


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