I left late Wednesday afternoon for the South. Carrick scoffed at me for missing my Thursday snack. I rebutted that I was late for my job at the Colonie. It was south toward Tender is the Night, The Moveable Feast, and Fanny and besides, as I punched him on the arm, nobody summers in Paris. As for the tart I was too afraid – much like Monsieur Raymond. Better to lie in bed as I had yesterday afternoon, close my eyes and bring her to life on the inside of my lids. After that, what with my anxieties surfacing and my resentment at the minor role I was playing in cafe life, I put my belongings together and got the front desk girl to check the trains to Limoges.
It was a vast iron-ribbed shell with dirty glass slats across the sky and a great opening toward the suburbs and the south. I pushed my suitcase up into the rack and returned to the aisle where I could stand and lean out the window. Even the shabby parts charmed me. Maurice Thorez was dead. I couldn’t pin it down. If I examined the streets I was rolling past no one cobblestone was a heart stopper but my affection was there, without explanation. Stupid, I supposed, like `ain’t the French precious the way they speak’. And that `no spitting’ was in four languages and that the cabins were built so that you looked at each other. Knees touched. We were running by cottages now and I opened my mouth into the wind. It was as lush as Suffield. But without the money and behind the times. Stone walls, red tile roofs, vines crawling up the chimney’s. Weeds and wildflowers. The blue overalls. The unlit Gitanes. I didn’t move from the window until long after sunset. My face had become wind whipped, the hair sooty and the nostrils caked. A couple had installed themselves near the window. The sideboard was down and a napkin spread. They were eating a casse-croute and red wine. They kept eating, without acknowledging me, tearing away soft bread and washing it down with wine. I tried not to stare. In front of me there was castle sponsored by SNCF and to my left oblique a stocking rolled down to beneath the knee. Knees apart. Blubber. White crumbs on her black dress. The man had on his suit. A shrub of black and white hair coming out of his ear and nose, both of which looked as if they had just been boiled. The castle was in black and while each time Napoleon came back they dug deeper for more sons. And now they’re stuck in third class. A fucking peasant with more spunk in him then all the modern generations.
I thought of how I was the descendent of victims. Highland tribes marched on the gentle meandering Tweed while empire sent garrisons out to stop them short. Brigands, as much as I knew, lived in that castle. Shat out windows into a fetid moat. Was it only the Lacedaemonians that rose at dawn to comb their hair, oil their skin and stretch their limbs before they died. Now, one haphazard mortar would send them all home as cripples to stew in decay. The woman rose to brush the crumbs off. She corked the wine and stuck it in a straw basket. She brought out two oranges and a knife and handed them to the man who proceeded to quarter and peel them. Don’t they know who pulls the strings. They had cardboard suitcases. Mine still had the B.C.P.A. sticker on it. They had given me a plaque with Neptune commissioning me as a commander of the skies. They stuffed the rinds in the bin under the sideboard. I congratulated myself for avoiding the tryst with the tart. Likely as not get my head bashed in. The man got up turned off the light and then pulled the shade. I was grateful for the resulting cover, broken only when we ran through small stations. Hands between my legs, I nodded off.
Afterward, I remembered the night as strange and miraculous. The door had been opened abruptly and someone had tripped on my leg. I had seen soldiers hefting duffel bags up in the rack. Blue berets in their epaulettes. They went right down and the room was dozing again as the train left town. There were other stops in the night. The clickety-clack ceased and I could hear the cabin sniffle and snort and then the screeching sound and we were off. The place opposite me went and I was forced to pull in my legs and later still the seat next to me was taken which forced me to sit straight. Now there was just random snatches of sleep until my chin would hit my collarbone and I was momentarily jerked back to life. My legs were scrunched up and the knees hurt. She, too, was moaning, her head knocking against the seat divider. As the train wound around turns we settled toward one another. Finally, she stayed on my shoulder. Her thick black hair against my face. I put my arm around her shoulders and pulled her head against my chest. I straggled past the old man and woman hauling hay, slipped off my mount, accepted the salute of my soldiers but refused their help. She was in the Donjon. Long black hair falling against the rise of her chalk white breasts. I began to shed my armor. I was ashamed of being disfigured by scars. She responded that the scars were something to behold. I found her mouth and then our legs twined. We pressed against each other in the dark.
This was rudely stopped when my legs were thrust away. I pulled them back still clinging to my lover. Then my feet were knocked again. Yellow replaced black on the inside of my lids. Someone was intruding upon me. I squinted. I saw the back of the conductor moving down the aisle. Across from me was a soldier with his legs sprawled apart. A shop girl’s head was in his lap. Bobbed red hair and a face like penny candy. The soldiers head was back against the castle, his mouth agape, the Adam’s apple sticking up like the rock of Gibraltar. The peasant woman was awake, unmussed, having dozed easily in the comfort of her fat. She was giving me a hard stare. My love next to me shifted. Her hair had been longer, less coiled. Her trousers were stained. The shoes laced with a bit of wire. My cheeks burned. I dislodged myself and lay the Arab’s face in his place and left the cabin. It was early morning. I lowered the window to stick my crimson face into the cold. It had been too real for a dream. I had felt her breathe on my face, the heart beating, the hair in my hands. The way our mouths had groped for each other. The wonderful feel of love in my whole body. I had seen her so clearly by the flicker of the passing stations. Chalk white skin and long black hair. There had been no talk. That part was in the dream. But the embrace was real. I was positive. And I was positive it was not with the black toothed Arab. God could sort out the mysteries. I had spent the night with a most lovely woman whom I still loved.
At Limoges I watched everyone get off but she was not among them. Eventually I connected to a little train that rolled across the countryside on a narrow-gage rail toward the town specified on my papers. I had missed her but I was still a boy in love rolling through Dordogne in the spring without a thought of the work ahead. Further away with each kilometer from the shine and click of America, entering rural France of before the war. A horse drawn buckboard, hot bread, evening promenades. This was straw in the hair, mud between the toes. Here the main streets of the villages were mud. Cow plops baking among the wildflowers and flowering weeds. Full rivers and tall leafy poplars. My stop was nowhere in particular. The conductor had pointed to the spire of a chateau in the distance. I began the task of lugging my bags, commander of the skies notwithstanding. Across the furrowed fields. The surviving issue, I thought, of thousands of years of war and pestilence. Always conscripted, always taxed. Burning lepers and Jews with glee. Far off a lumbering man in blue was yelling at me. I made a detour off the fields and onto a footpath and the hollering stopped. It was getting on midday. My arms began to feel like rubber that with the bags weight and the heat were being stretched down to the point that my arms were now more like ropes pulling a load. I sat down and thought about parking my bags under some tree and refreshing myself in one of the clear water streams I had seen from the train. Letting the soot and the sweat float downstream while I anchored myself to a branch and let the water tumble over the boulder behind me onto my head, down my ribs and over my cock while I prayed over the recent wonder on the train to Limoges. When up over the rise came a small boy who immediately stopped and stared at me. He darted back down and I lost sight of him. A minute later he reappeared as one of a band of small boys who came down and circled me, tentatively at first, with the stare curious, until one bright child broke the silence, stepped up, and asked me if I was the American.
I offered I was and the reserve dissolved. The boys squeezed in to try to relieve me of my luggage which was ludicrous since it weighed more than they did but by dint of a variety of maneuvers and tactics including applying four or five pairs of hands to each piece of luggage they moved it forward as ants would a stick while another several boys danced out in front heralding the advance of L’Americain. I felt both exalted and awkward before such a reception, ashamed at first that small boys were carrying my bags but as I neared the chateau and the crowd of spectators grew I assimilated into the role of America’s envoy from the golden dream.
BIO: David Holdridge served in the Vietnam War in 1969 as an infantry platoon leader outside of Chu Lai. He was wounded and spent eighteen months getting repaired at various hospitals in the United States, culminating with operations at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut where neurosurgeon, Dr. Benjamin Whitcomb managed to free him from his trauma. Subsequently, he spent thirty-five years working with humanitarian organizations amidst populations suffering from war, exploitation, and impoverishment, including assignments in West Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Currently, he lives on a tree farm in Vermont with his wife, Annie. His daughter Hank was born in Beirut; his son, Alex, in Tunis.
He is the recipient of Prize Americana in 2015 for his memoir, The Avant Garde of Western Civ.
You have before you the FOURTH chapter of his third book–Rutherford Travels