A Perfect Drive

Michel Lambert

Translated by: Paul Curtis Daw

Original text: "Une promenade parfaite "


Artwork by Michael O'Toole

*This story was inspired by David Lynch’s lithograph, Sputnik, and by Edward Hopper’s painting, Gas.

        

    We passed a high-voltage transmission line and an isolated building that strangely resembled an early cell phone, with smokestacks as thin as antennas and windows laid out like a keypad--but already Alice had fallen asleep. She'd often drift off in those days, so much so that I would find myself alone, with no one to talk to, no one to look at me. Then the monotony would set in, the brooding. To pass the time, my only diversion was counting the cars for hours at a stretch. As the evening came on, they became increasingly scarce on the highway, which was bordered on both sides by a plain stretching away to the horizon.

    When we pulled up at a gas station, I gestured to an attendant who was leaning against a post in apparent contemplation of the distant sky crossed with wide pink and gray streaks. He was limping slightly as he approached. I asked him to check the tire pressure while I filled the tank. A tall, lanky guy in denim overalls, with tousled hair and the look of a worn-down forty year old. In short, there was nothing noteworthy about him, except that I was struck by how hard it was for him to squat and by a sort of endurance etched on his face all through the task. Then, from the way he stood up, I surmised that he had an artificial leg.   

    After I had slipped him a bill for his trouble, he lit a cigarette and took several drags while facing the horizon, which seemed to fascinate him. Then he turned his back on me and set off toward the dingy building that billed itself as a roadside convenience store. I caught up with him. Overhead, a biplane was flying very low, so low you could even make out the pilot with his brown leather helmet and hear the whine of the laboring engine.

    “That plane is a relic,” I remarked. 

    “Yeah, there’s a private airstrip not far from here. It’s full of vintage plane fanatics.”

    At that, he went quiet. We walked another twenty yards in silence. He pulling on his cigarette, his every step accompanied by a slight wobble, and I watching him out of the corner of my eye. Just outside the door, he took one last puff and tossed his cigarette with its glowing tip into a sand-filled receptacle.  

    “So how did it happen?” I asked point-blank

    “Gangrene. An injury I didn’t take care of in time.”     

     “Oh, I’m sorry.”

    “That’s nice of you, but in a way it gave me a leg up.”

     At first I thought the pun was unintended, but I was quickly disabused by his booming laughter, which my look of embarrassment only prolonged. No doubt it was a defense mechanism he used whenever someone bothered him with questions about his disability. He shrugged, advanced a couple of steps, and a pair of glass doors slid open. Several more steps and he was standing in front of a display cooler.  

    I went to the counter to pay with my credit card. Turning around, I saw that he was sitting at a table near the window, drinking a can of beer. Except for him, the room was deserted. I don’t know why, but I was afraid that evening, terribly afraid. Maybe even more than usual. Instinctively, I decided to imitate him by buying a beer and then sitting down across from him at the same table.  He was so absorbed by the outdoors that he seemed not to notice my presence.  I wondered what could be engrossing him to such an extent, and I turned to look. The horizon with its stripes, which were now almost black and purple, had a poignant quality that affected me deeply. And whatever this quality was, it united the two of us. Of that I was sure, but it was impossible for me to say how.  

    I cracked open my beer can, took a swallow, and sighed contentedly.  He was sipping his beer at regular intervals, his eyes still riveted on the horizontal expanse of the sky.  After tipping his head back for a good while, as if intent on extracting the last drop, he set the can on the table. 

    “Empty?”

    He answered with a nod.

    “Well, then, this is my round,” I said, getting up.  

    When I’d returned and he’d thanked me with a fleeting smile, I couldn’t help looking him straight in the eyes and saying quietly, in sentences punctuated by short pauses:

    “When I first knew my wife, I used to compare our future life to a long drive on a winding road at nightfall. She always found that romantic, and in the beginning it was. In my imagination, I always drove effortlessly, and she was a marvelous passenger. Now we’re driving around for real, wherever our fancy leads us. In the beginning, we did this once or twice a month; now it’s happening more and more often, but it doesn’t solve anything."

    While I was talking, he looked at me attentively, chin in hand, unperturbed by the slowness of my speech. Then he looked out the window again. There it is, I thought.  It’s done.  I had let go of it as much as I could.   A portion of my fear, a small part of myself.  There was nothing else to do but stand up and get back on the road again. The moment I brushed past him, he said goodbye with a quick tap on my arm. And as I was walking away, he called out:

    “An artificial leg can never replace a real one.”

    Outside, the streaks in the sky were merging their blacks and purples into a single shade of bluish violet. Now that night was coming on, the odors of gasoline and motor oil came to the fore, no longer having to compete with scents from the surrounding fields, which the heat had accentuated during the day.

    Alice was still asleep, wedged into her seat.  You’d have sworn she hadn’t moved an inch, but that was a false impression.  During the stop, she had kicked off her sandals.  The untanned areas beneath the straps contrasted with her brown skin.   Leaning over and tracing the white contours with my finger, I was seized by a burning desire. By an almost irresistible craving to substitute my fleshy, beer-coated tongue for the finger that was too bony, too dry, and tainted with the smell of gasoline.  I got up and tapped her lightly on the shoulder.  She opened an eye.

    “I filled it up.”

    She yawned.

    “Where are we going?”

    “No idea.  We can drive a good five hundred miles if it suits us. And even more if I don’t push the pedal too hard. Look!”

    I pointed at the sky, where the horizontal bars had thickened to the point of forming a single long cloud bespeaking a plaintive loneliness. I fervently wished that Alice and I in the car could share with the attendant at the store window, however briefly, the intimate suffering of so much beauty, soon to be erased by the relentlessly advancing darkness. 

    I caressed her cheek.

    “Tell me, Alice.”

    “Tell you what?”

    “Oh, whatever you want. Talk to me, or else I’ll take a nose-dive onto the steering wheel. Tell me about the Hotel Astoria, for instance,”

    Five years earlier, on a lovely autumn evening, we had agreed to meet on the Astoria dining terrace, just a stone’s throw from the opera house and the old factory recast as a shopping center. We knew nothing about each other, aside from the photos we had exchanged. According to the website, our personalities and expectations were highly compatible. 

     I drove off slowly.

    “You were wearing a lightweight sport coat,” said Alice. “You were better-looking than your photo. More relaxed. You were very calm, very nice.  If I’d known then…”

    “If you’d known what?” I asked after a lull, as I passed an eighteen-wheeler lumbering up an incline.  

    “That you were a hard-edged, pitiless guy. That life would not be the long joyride you promised. With no traffic, no roadblocks or red lights. What a joke! That’s exactly what we have now. Roadblocks, red lights!”

    I sighed.

    I thought again of that first meeting. After leaving the Astoria, we had made love in my car, in an out-of-the-way street not far from the wholesale fish market. I hadn’t been afraid, not in the slightest. On the contrary. The fear must have come much later, hidden away in the innermost folds of my brain. That particular evening, I thought I had found the woman who would close my lifeless eyes some far-off day, as distant as possible. And in the evenings that followed, her body had repeatedly sung the same hymn of victory. That had been our heroic era, the age of the biplanes, of our wild folly in risking the skies wearing simple aviator caps.   

    “You are the most devious woman in the world.  That’s right, go back to sleep!”

    I always wondered if she was really sleeping or just pretending so that I’d leave her in peace. And as a way of making war on me. Unless she was as exhausted by all the bickering as I was. Even so, I was driving the car, accelerating, slowing down. I was trying no matter what it cost to hold up my end of the bargain, to carry off the miracle of a perfect drive.  

    My God, how could I make it happen? The attendant was right: an artificial leg would never be as good as a real one.

    The miles clocked up in tens and then in hundreds.  I  switched on the radio. Jazz tunes. Newsflashes. Villages and small cities rolled by. At one of them, I pulled up in front of a nightclub marquee. I was thirsty for a drink, and also eager to see people, to hear them talking, laughing. And who knows, maybe some guy or girl would speak to me.

    Alice was in a deep sleep. A sort of purring sound escaped from her half-parted lips. What could be more normal these days?  It was three in the morning. Then I did something I would never have thought I could: I left the keys on the dash and got out without locking the door. If someone else wants her, I told myself, let him have her. Let him take the car, with her in it. Good for him if he manages to wake her up.  As for me, I no longer had the nerve.

    The bar reeked of tobacco, liquor, and sweat. Not many people were present.  The neighborhood’s inveterate night owls, plus a few young women who’d failed to find romance that night or who just weren’t ready to leave. On the dance floor two or three couples shuffled exhaustedly, almost staggering. The place was about to close--the bartender conveyed that in the sullen glance he threw me from behind the counter. I walked up with a feigned assurance, took a seat at the bar, and ordered a vodka that I didn’t touch.

    Elbows on the counter, I told the bartender:

    “When you’re an amputee, nothing is worse than the phantom pain. Suppose your wife leaves you, or ignores you, which comes down to the same thing. OK, you know how much that hurts. You’ll tell me there are plenty of other women out there...  But those others will never be more than… How can I explain this to you?  It’s so hard! You’d have to ask the guy at the gas station.”

    The man had remained impassive. He must hear tons of these maudlin tales every night. They go in one ear and out the other. All he has to do is nod understandingly, no matter what the topic, and point to the glass on the counter:

    “Drink it. There’s no better pick-me-up.”   

    I knocked back the vodka in one gulp.

    “Give me another.”   

    And I made short work of that one, too.

    “I have to go,” I said as I slid off the seat. “I left my dear child all alone in the street. At this hour, you can imagine what might happen!”

    Through the car window, I saw that Alice was still there, on the seat she had reclined during my absence. Once inside, I made sure that the keys were where I’d left them, and I pulled away as gently as possible so as not to awaken her.

    “Forgive me,” I murmured. “At the Astoria the idea had crossed my mind that you were kind of a wacko. But I loved you the way you were. And no doubt I’m a wacko, too”

    As the dawn was breaking, the sky looked veiled--or temporarily muted, like a faintly audible voice that will acquire a more assured heft as the hours pass. And in fact brighter colors did pierce the sky little by little, powered by a sunlight that became more and more luminous.  

    I stopped the car in front of an isolated country inn on a barely traveled road, turned off the radio and cut the engine. I needed rest. Fatigue was drawing me into a semi-comatose state. The chirping of birds reached us through the car door that I had just opened. The day was already hot, but soon it would be unbearable. I took a few steps to stretch my legs and settled in again behind the steering wheel. Alice woke up. She gave me an astonished look and then scanned our surroundings.

    “Where are we?” 

    “It doesn’t matter. We’re going to treat ourselves to a nice breakfast in the outdoor dining area. Under a patio umbrella. “

    “That wasn’t the deal,” she protested. “The deal was to drive, drive, drive, like in a dream, without ever stopping. We weren’t supposed to stop for gas or food.”

     “Or to sleep all the way through the trip, either.”

    “And what about you? You’re driving. That’s the easy part! You know what you are? A peddler of illusions. A professional liar. I’ve lost everything because of you. I gave you my absolute trust. You’ve ruined my life!”

    “I know,” I replied.

    On the patio, we were soon revelling in the tranquil surroundings, and the steaming coffee was having its effect. I was beginning to feel better. In those days I used to bounce back quickly. Alice, for her part, seemed strangely pale. I would have liked to express a little better my compassion for all the emotional scrapes she’d suffered during our adventures, once pleasure gave way to  reality. And reality was what both of us had been dragging around for such a long time, the product of our prior lives, and it was also what made us highly compatible beings--yes, highly compatible in our disarray, our adversity, and our mutual incomprehension. 

    “I have a friend…” I began.

   “You? A friend?”

    “Mock me if you want, but I have friends like everyone else.”  

    “That’s not true.”

    “You’re right, I have no friends. Except this one. He’s a gas station attendant.  They had to cut off one of his legs because of an untreated injury.”

    “So?”

    “So nothing. I just said that to have something to say.”

    In fact, she knew very well what I wanted to say. She knew that both of us were gravely wounded, that we were amputees, even if neither of us could have put our finger on the emotion, the feeling, that had been removed. And that it was undoubtedly the reason why we were condemned to these incessant car trips.

    I put my hand on her knee, pressed it with my fingers, and kneaded the cartilage.  

    “You know, Alice, it makes me feel better when you talk to me. Even if it’s only to fling insults at me. There’s nothing more terrible than your stubborn silence, your real or pretended dozing. The cell phone you’ve switched off, or set down somewhere, leaving me to speak into the void while I hear you bustling around…  All right.  Let’s go. Where?  That’s another question. Straight ahead. Let’s see where it takes us.”

    We set off again. I had decided to leave it to chance, ignoring the road signs.  The onboard computer was showing an outside temperature of 97 and enough gas for 300 miles. I had put on an oldies station, which was playing hit songs from the time when I was under thirty and Alice was barely twenty.  Had she already been damaged in that era? And me? When you lose a part of yourself, does it happen all at once or little by little through a sort of imperceptible erosion?

    Alice was gazing vaguely at the highway and the  countryside  the car was passing through. Suddenly I knew. How? From the strange nature of the silence, from two or three glances exchanged? I knew this was the moment. Slowly, with my right hand, I lifted up her short skirt, lowered her panties. As I was slipping a finger into her warm abyss, she spread her legs to facilitate the maneuver. She closed her eyes. Her breathing came faster and louder, and soon she was emitting little moans similar to the light snoring that accompanied her naps. Then she began to move her hips and sank deeper into the seat. Suddenly, with a throaty gasp, she slammed her thighs together, and I withdrew my momentarily trapped finger.  Staring straight into her eyes, I said to her:

    “Thank you.”  

    Alice burst into tears.

    I sped up.  The car crushed the asphalt, the tires were squealing through the turns that I was taking too fast.

    “Alice,” I repeated at regular intervals.

    I wanted to console her, but most of all to stop her from dropping out again, from once more crossing the boundary, abandoning me in a country where I felt more and more like a foreigner, with no papers in my possession and without even a certificate of love to produce.

    “Alice, Alice… Alice!” I kept saying, rapping out the words.

    After several minutes of this, I stopped speaking.  She had closed her eyes, gone off to her planet. The only thing left for me was to count the passing cars, the heavy trucks, the RVs heading home from vacation.  

    Late in the afternoon, I stopped at a gas station to fill up the tank. While the fuel hose was running on its own, I bought two Cokes from a vending machine in the convenience shop. Looking out into the distance, I noticed that here, too, the sky was barred with long gray and pink streaks, which--God willing--would coalesce into a single mass of gray cloud that the night would welcome into its plenitude.

    “Here, drink this, it will do you good.”

    We drank our Cokes in silence

    “Your friend,” Alice said to me.

    “My friend?  What friend?”

    “The gas station attendant. I wonder how long it took him to get used to his artificial leg.  Maybe you never get to that point, or maybe it happens someday without you even noticing.

    “Oh, I suppose it’s an unconscious process that goes on constantly. You lose a leg, an arm, a lung, a piece of your heart, half of your soul, but one day you remember that several years ago a young woman, met on the outdoor terrace of the Astoria, smiled at you during a difficult moment, when you were feeling very alone and very abandoned, and that she said to you, ‘Hang in there!’ So each time your mind turns to her, you say to yourself that nothing is truly lost and you fill the tank again and get back on the highway.”

    While I was talking, Alice was studying the ribbons of color adorning the sky.  The evening was coming on, and the sound of my words was dissolving in the freshening air.

    At that moment I felt like killing myself.  I was happy beyond reason and at the same time utterly despondent.  It was unbearable.

    “Let’s go home,” said Alice.   

 

 

The original French version of this story appeared in Quand nous reverrons-nous?, ©2015 by Editions Pierre-Guillaume de Roux, which reserves all rights throughout the world.       

Michel Lambert

Michel Lambert of Belgium is the author of four novels and nine story collections. He has received numerous prizes, including the highest award in Belgian Francophone letters, the Prix Rossel, for Une vie d’oiseau (1988) and the 2006 short story prize of the Société des gens de lettres de France. His latest collection, Quand nous reverrons-nous?, appeared in 2015.    

Paul Curtis Daw

Paul Curtis Daw is a lapsed lawyer who translates from French to English. His translations have been published frequently in Words Without Borders and have also appeared in Best European Fiction 2016, Subtropics, Cimarron Review, K1N, Nowhere, carte blanche, and Indiana Review. His book-length translation of Memory at Bay, by the Haitian novelist Evelyne Trouillot, was released in 2015.