frankmatter

The Valise, by Michel Lambert. Translated from the French by Paul Curtis Daw

They came by to pick up Bob around four. He lived in a three-room apartment above a pharmacy, across from the high school where they had all known each other and where he was now teaching Latin and Greek. His first name was really Gustave, but the name had always horrified him. He was also horrified by machines and cars, and he didn’t know how to drive.

Like every time when the old gang got together, Bob had invented a new character. This time it involved a strong Russian accent, a polka-dot shirt, and bright yellow artificial flower pinned to a sweater vest over his heart. And he was limping assertively, thrusting his rigid leg ahead of him.

“Very well done,” Marie-Jeanne complimented him. “Hmm, Nicolas? Don’t you agree?”

Nicolas glanced testily at his wife, then nodded politely, distractedly, with a weak smile.

And Bob smiled back, an outrageously forced smile, the smile of a flailing performer desperate to salvage his dignity before an unappreciative audience.

There was a silence, and for several seconds they no longer heard anything but a hubbub coming from the upstairs apartment, which had gone unnoticed until then.

In a voice that sounded false, Nicolas tried to soften the blow.
“You’re more creative with each passing year.”

“The flower is something I would never have thought of,” he added, wiping his brow.

“It will be wonderful to see everyone,” put in Marie-Jeanne in a tone meant to sound cheerful.

“Rrreally?” queried Bob before plodding off, stiff-legged, toward the bathroom.

With its windows closed, the apartment smelled stale, reeking of cigarette smoke and bedlinen changed no more than monthly. It must have been days since the dishes had been washed and an eternity since any rag had freshened up the windowpanes. A ray of sunlight accentuated the layer of dust on the acajou coffee table.

Nicolas took a few hesitant steps and then asked abruptly, “Do you know who Estelle has invited?”

“A magician, I believe.”

“I hope his act won’t be total crap. Do you remember the juggler? An absolute disaster.”

Every year, following the reunion dinner, a performer came to entertain the group. Estelle, who had gone into media relations, was in charge of booking the talent. One year they had the pleasure of seeing a fire eater, another time an impressionist, still another, a stripper…

Marie-Jeanne shrugged in reply. She went off to station herself at one of the windows overlooking the boulevard and very quickly seemed lost in her musings.

“The old school building hasn’t changed,” she murmured a moment later, as if to herself.

While she was contemplating the gray stone edifice where they had spent their youth, Nicolas took it upon himself to air out the room by throwing open the other window. Along with the fresh air, a languid buzz of traffic penetrated the space. It was a lovely August Sunday, hot and dry, and several clouds that resembled cabin cruisers were floating across the sky.

All of a sudden, Nicolas regretted having been such a bad audience for Bob. And so cold toward Marie-Jeanne. He approached her, intending to say that this wasn’t easy for either of them, but she cut him off in a low, calm voice:

“Please, I don’t want to hear it.”

Just then, as if coming to their aid, a barrage of noises invaded the room, the ice cream man’s jingle, the loudspeaker of an excursion boat on the Meuse, a car horn. Then a lame person’s faltering footsteps, followed by a throat-clearing that signaled an entrance.

The next moment, a strong aroma of cologne pervaded the room.
Marie-Jeanne turned around and laughingly exclaimed, “What an old floozy!”

When Nicolas looked around in turn, he saw that Bob was leaning against the door frame and sizing up both of them with a malicious look. His slicked-back hair made his thinning temples look paler than the rest of his face.

“Are you all right?”

“Awaitink your orrrders, sirrr,” replied Bob with a military salute.

It took them an absurdly long time to go down the stairs. In deference to his stiff leg, Bob paused on every step. In the street, a similar drama. Likewise while getting into the car, parked opposite the theater.

And the whole way, he subjected them to his accent, thick enough to cut with a knife. Marie-Jeanne, who’d gotten in next to him in the back seat, defected to his side: she, too, was rolling her “R”s, poking fun at herself, at Bob, and at the romanticized memories they were trying to rekindle.

At the wheel, Nicolas was silent. From time to time, he glanced at the rear view mirror. What he saw seemed to him more and more incongruous, as well as vaguely indecent, a man and a woman intoxicated before they’d even started drinking.

He pitied Marie-Jeanne for her desperate efforts to keep up appearances, just as he’d pitied Bob several minutes earlier.

When they arrived, about ten cars were already parked in the shade of the tall pines in the lot opposite the hotel and its restaurant. The sun was still beating down, but a light wind made the temperature more bearable. The scent of pine resin filled the air, and the ground was thickly strewn with little rust-colored needles that made it feel spongy.

On the terrace, hands were raised in greeting, and for several seconds there was a clamor of welcoming shouts. Marie-Jeanne planted herself between the two men and gave an arm to each of them. Together, they ascended the gently sloping path at a pace dictated by Bob’s gimpy leg.

“Just like Cannes!” joked Bob. “All that’s missing is rred carpet. Hold on, here’s our prrress agent.”

Estelle was coming to meet them. She was a sumptuously beautiful woman with thick black hair, tanned from head to toe. Heavily perfumed. In stiletto heels. She kissed them one after another in her effusively demonstrative manner.

“What superb weather!” she exclaimed. “We’re not expecting anyone else. So, my poor Bob, what happened to you?”

“Grrrave accident. Sidelined for hike. Out of action for dance.”

On the terrace, there were fresh outpourings of camaraderie. And yet, from one year to the next, they were gradually, almost imperceptibly, losing their enthusiasm. Bob carved out a measure of success for himself, but the encores, the exclamations no longer had the same ardor, nor did the faces reflect the same indulgent pleasure they once had.

The cocktail hour, interrupted by their arrival, resumed its course. The terrace was vast, sunlit, and redolent with the aromas of cooking. During each lull in the conversation, the tinkling of a nearby fountain could be heard, along with the twittering of birds.

Nicolas removed his jacket and proceeded toward the buffet, which was laid out beneath a striped canvas awning. A glass of champagne in his hand, he made the rounds of the group, politely asking each one how things were going, the job, the kids…

“And you?” they asked him.

“Oh, me, no problems.”

Soon a knot of people formed, and the conversation turned to those who were absent. Certain ones had moved away, some were on vacation, this one had lost his job, that one was battling cancer. Someone quickly counted the attendees. Including partners, their numbers had fallen by half since the first reunion.

“But where are the snows of yesteryear?” declaimed the bard of the group.

During this time a team of servers busied themselves with rolling up the awning and carrying in the trestle tables. In a matter of minutes, the dinner table was ready.

Bob sat across from Nicolas, Marie-Jeanne beside Bob. Next to Nicolas was Estelle. One strap of her dress was continually slipping off her shoulder. From time to time he took it upon himself to raise it back into place, teasing her all the while about her tanning sessions. Out of the corner of his eye, he surveyed Marie-Jeanne, who, between slightly forced bursts of laughter, glanced furtively at him.

“But where are the snows of yesteryear?” reprised the misty-eyed bard at regular intervals.

Just as regularly, Bob would stand up and make his way around the table, hobbling outlandishly and pausing to banter with one person or another.

“Terrrible!” he exclaimed.

In addition to which, he would slide his hand under his sweater at the level of his heart and mimic an intolerable pain. Seconds later, a jet of water would spurt from the artificial flower, dousing whoever had rushed to his aid.

Nicolas wondered how long his friend would keep up the badly mangled accent, the lurching gait, the yellow plastic flower and the rest — at what moment he would tire of it and pack it all in. He pictured the cramped and badly maintained apartment where Bob lived, the neon pharmacy sign, the boulevard that separated him from the school campus and his lost youth.

“Why are you so sad?” Estelle asked him, putting her hand on his.
Nicolas withdrew her hand, emptied his glass, and poured himself another that he drained in one gulp. He finally turned toward his neighbor and looked directly into her eyes. “I’m thinking of Bob. I’m thinking of Marie-Jeanne. Of everyone here. Of you. Why didn’t you ever marry? …But what am I saying?”

Pinching his cheek between his thumb and his index finger, he said, “It’s made of latex, six hours of make-up work. Really, I’m having insane amounts of fun. You don’t believe me?” He pretended to tear off an imaginary mask and replaced his severe expression with a look of glee.

Estelle let out a hearty laugh that made her breasts quiver, but then she became serious again. She appraised him amicably.
“If I understand correctly, you’re the happiest man in the world.”
“Exactly. The happiest in the world, in fact the happiest of all time. An unbeatable ranking in the Guinness Book of World Records. Your perfume is intoxicating,” he added between whiffs.

Without warning, he pushed his chair back and got up to stretch his legs on the terrace while waiting for the servers to bring out the ornate layer cake. He rested his elbows on the railing, his back to the gathering. Night was falling. The green of the trees was no longer truly green, the blue of the sky no longer truly blue. And none of the colors they had once known, and loved so much, ever came back in quite the same shade.

When Nicolas returned to his place, a guest at the other end of the table had just started singing a Boris Vian song, and several others joined in at the chorus. As he observed the faces that were becoming more cadaverous, more veiny, jowlier or pastier with each passing year, Nicolas killed off what remained of a bottle that was within reach.

His gaze rested on Marie-Jeanne, who was trying valiantly to attune her voice to the chorus. Bob had placed his arm on her shoulder, and the two of them seemed to have a marvelous rapport.
Estelle tried again. “You’re jealous?” she murmured in a maternal voice. “But you know very well he only loves boys!”
Nicolas shrugged.

After coffee, the liqueurs began to circulate, and in imitation of Bob, who was more out of control than ever, the other guests tossed their empty glasses over their shoulders in the Russian manner. Soon there was a frenzy, off went a glass, and it smashed, off went another, and it smashed, then off went another and still another, and smash and smash.

It was almost completely dark when a man in a smoking jacket fetched up on the terrace with an old cardboard valise. The lanterns had been lit. The waiters were mindlessly sweeping up the broken glass. It was the hour when drunkenness devolved into inane laughter, reveries, and whispered confidences. Everyone seemed to be wondering what this guy was going to do.

Estelle got up and introduced him:

“The fabulous Magic John!”

The man saluted the audience and was met with discreet applause. The dining table was removed, and the chairs were arranged in two rows facing the performer.

He clapped his hands to capture everyone’s attention. With an air of great mystery, he withdrew from his pocket a small metallic framework that unfolded into a table, on which he placed his valise. To fresh applause, he affectionately contemplated the valise, suddenly brandished a key produced between his fingers God knows how, and inserted it into the lock.

He could be seen exerting a great effort for a minute or two, putting on a sheepish expression, and soliciting assistance.
Nicolas leaned forward and whispered in Bob’s ear:

“Go down there and squirt him.”

“No morre water, lamebrrain.”

Since no one could manage to open the valise, Magic John shook his head in disgust and tossed the key into the darkness. When mutterings arose, he calmed them with a gesture. Silence restored, he snapped his fingers and, as if miraculously, the lid popped open.

After savoring his success, he removed from the valise a small board on which about ten animals were depicted in a stylized manner. His eyes settled on a timid redheaded woman sitting in the second row. He asked her to choose one of the animals and hold it in her mind.

“Now clap your hands three times,” he ordered.

Once she had done so, he announced to the gathering that the woman had chosen the tortoise.

“How did you know?” she asked in astonishment.

“Ah, well…”

About ten tricks later, Magic John waved to the group one last time, stowed his accessories back in the cardboard valise, and set it in a corner at the top of the staircase leading down to the parking lot.

After a quick rearrangement, the terrace became an improvised dance floor where couples moved in close embrace to the rhythm of slow dances. Nicolas went to sit beside Bob, who handed him a flask of vodka. Nicolas took a swig straight from the flask.

In a kind of fog, he let his eyes follow the movement of the dancers. His gaze met Marie-Jeanne’s and registered the defiant smile she threw back at him.

When the song ended, and as another was beginning, she left her partner and walked briskly toward Nicolas.

“May I have the next one?” she asked in a determined voice.
He stood up and took her in his arms. She pressed against him and leaned her head on his shoulder. Nicolas could not keep from breathing in the scent of her very fine, silky blond hair, just as he had secretly done the very first time, thirty years earlier, when they were still kids.

As the songs followed one another, they continued to glide across the dance floor, tightly enlaced. Nicolas wasn’t thinking of anything in particular, except that this was tougher than he’d anticipated. Just as he had pitied Bob, then Marie-Jeanne, he was now, thanks to the alcohol, pitying himself.

“Kiss me,” whispered Marie-Jeanne feverishly. “Better than that,” she insisted. “Harder. Harder than you’ve ever done.”

Kissing her, he wondered whether she wanted to come to his aid or instead to exploit him in her triumphant way, unless for her, too, this was tougher than she’d expected.

They ended their long Hollywood kiss to cheers and raillery.

“Still madly in love!” came the shouts from all sides.

Nicolas let go of Marie-Jeanne, and they stared at each other for awhile. He stepped out of the circle as another dancing partner took his place.

Unsteady on his feet, he shuffled off toward the stairs, snatching up Magic John’s valise as he went by, as if by inadvertence, and made his way down to the parking lot. Beyond it lay the dark realm of the forest. The air had cooled, but pockets of intense heat persisted here and there. A quasi-religious silence prevailed, and the waves of music rolling off the terrace barely carried beyond the forest edge.

Nicolas sat down on a stump.

After an indeterminate time, he set out again, crossed a clearing, and walked as far as a small pond covered with greenish algae. His breathing grew more and more labored as he advanced, and finally it became so noisy that no other sound reached him.

He began swinging the valise back and forth, preparing to launch it into the stagnant water, when suddenly a hand blocked his movement and made him totter. Losing his balance, he fell to the ground. For a moment, he lay there without stirring, his eyes wide open in the unfathomable night. Someone leaned over him. He recognized Estelle’s perfume.

“What were you doing?” she asked, gasping for breath.

It wasn’t really a question, but rather an amused observation, by a woman as tipsy as he, about an unhinged act at the end of an evening’s celebration.

She helped him to his feet, but she herself was quite unsteady. They had entangled themselves so thoroughly that they ended up on the ground again.

“When I think of that poor devil looking everywhere for it!”

She chortled good-naturedly, and Nicolas joined in her laughter. He took her in his arms, told her she smelled good, and ran his lips over the copper-colored skin of her neck, her shoulders, the swell of her breasts.

“Oh, Bob’s stiff appendage isn’t the only one!” she said in a throaty voice, while he was caressing her and unzipping her dress. “Here’s a little leg that’s gone stiff.” Later, she walked away carrying the valise, her figure perched on her toweringly high heels and fitfully illuminated by the milky moonlight. As he watched her, it seemed to Nicolas that the distant music was beginning to keep time with her pace.

He spotted Bob, who was crossing the clearing without limping, his hands in his pockets. In the end, his friend had not managed to keep up the pretense. Nicolas overtook him. They went on in silence for a hundred yards.

“I have to tell you…” Nicolas began, embarrassed.

“What?”

“Oh, nothing. Nothing important.”

They walked back to the parking lot. His valise in hand, Magic John came down the stairs from the terrace and headed toward an old white Peugeot. Nicolas couldn’t resist teasing him.

“I see you finally found it.”

“Yes, as if by magic,” answered the man, with a thin smile.

On the terrace, it was time for parting hugs. Those who had come a long distance would be staying in the hotel. Others were preparing to take to the road. You could already hear car doors slamming shut. Marie-Jeanne was still dancing, whirling around in solitude. When she saw Nicolas, she went up to him and ostentatiously inclined her head.

“My dear!” she exclaimed. “A last dance?”

“There’s no more music,” said Nicolas patiently.

“Please!”

“There’s no more music,” Nicolas repeated.

He noticed that Estelle was looking at him. Her expression was tinged with complicity and with an emotion he could not have named, something animal-like and joyous, and also a little desperate, the way their embrace had been.

He smiled at her, looked away, and said to Marie-Jeanne, “Let’s go.”

With rapid strides, he reached the parking lot, followed by Bob and Marie-Jeanne. The first cars were pulling away, projecting dazzling shafts of light. Through lowered windows, their friends shouted at them, “See you next year!”

“See you next year!” they replied.

A half hour later, as they entered the slumbering neighborhoods of the city, Marie-Jeanne asked Nicolas, as if discussing a routine domestic matter, “So when are you leaving?”

“We’ll go home and I’ll pack my things.”

In the rear view mirror, he saw her turn slowly toward Bob and hesitate a moment before saying in a ghostly voice:

“Nicolas told me this morning that he’s leaving me.”

Bob’s thunderstruck expression was reflected in the mirror. He posed his very thin, practically nonexistent lips on Marie-Jeanne’s pale cheek, and each of them curled up silently in a corner.

Nicolas mused that Marie-Jeanne had done no better than Bob at staying in character until the end. And that in a year’s time their relationship would have no more substance than the snows of yesteryear. Yes, their love had melted like snow in the sunlight, but there’d been no sun for a long time. Nothing but a persistent little rain that would keep falling for some time to come.

Whatever they did.

Suddenly, as they crossed the last bridge, Nicolas realized that once again he wouldn’t really leave. Out of cowardice? Or inertia? Because of the children? He thought again of the valise, the greenish pond, the magician, Estelle’s perfume, and of this night when she, too, had begun to melt.

He parked the car in front of the theater. The three of them got out, crossed the street and headed toward the boulevard where Bob lived. On the left was the high school of their youth. On the right, the pharmacy sign. In the distance, a couple stepped onto the footbridge that straddled the river.

Marie-Jeanne yawned. “What time is it?” she asked.

“Three a.m.,” said Nicolas.

“Today is another day,” said Bob, and he began to sob.

*

The original version of this story appeared in the author’s collection, Une touche de désastre, (c) 2006 by Editions du Rocher.

Michel Lambert is a Belgian author and journal editor who has published four novels, eight story collections and a novella. He is the recipient of numerous awards, among them the foremost prize in Belgian francophone letters, the Prix Rossel; the 2006 short story prize of the Société des Gens de Lettres de France for Une touche de désastre; and the 2006 triennial prize of the Belgian francophone community, awarded for the best novel published within a three-year span. In 1992 he co-founded the Prix Renaissance de la Nouvelle, which has regularly honored preeminent writers of short fiction in French. His books, or in some cases individual stories, have been translated into fifteen languages. A story of his appears in the anthology, Best European Fiction 2016 (Dalkey Archive Press: London/Dublin/Victoria, TX, 2015). In 2013, his oeuvre was examined at length by Emilie Gäbele in Michel Lambert: les âmes felées (Michel Lambert: Bewildered Souls).

Translator Paul Curtis Daw is a lawyer-turned-translator based in Colorado and London. His translation of Evelyne Trouillot’s novel, Memory at Bay, was released last year by the University of Virginia Press. His translations of stories and other texts from France, Haiti, Belgium, Quebec and Reunion have been published frequently in Words Without Borders and have also appeared in Subtropics, Indiana Review, Cimarron Review, carte blanche, K1N, nowhere, the Asymptote blog, Best European Fiction 2016, and Best European Fiction 2017 (forthcoming, 2016). He serves as an officer and director of the American Literary Translators Association and belongs to the Translators Association (UK).

 

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This entry was posted on June 30, 2016 by in french, story, translation.

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