Bob darling spent the day and the evening on the fastest train in Europe. At first the train lugged slowly through yellow towns, then it began to pull together its force and go. The landscape slid past. In one stroke the train braced and broke through the air into a river of dinning sound. It climaxed at 380 kmh. Darling heard this news from a German across the aisle, but he’d already sensed the speed in a deeper bone. His body was attuned to the subtle flux of high speed, the jazz pulse, the fizz.
He closed his eyes, registered the scrape of the antimacassar against his brittle hairs, and dozed. Dying tired him, so did the drugs he took to keep from urinating on the seat. But he never let himself go that far, to close his eyes, unless the buzz of speed was in him, the drone of engines, the zhzhzh of jets.
On the seat beside him lounged a beautiful young woman named Carla. She was a baby, vague on facts and ahistorical; she talked too much, she pouted when she didn’t get her way, she disliked opera, and she drank. But she had not given him too many terrible disappointments, and overall Darling felt they had been compatible. Paris, coming up, would be the last leg of their trip. Darling planned the Tuileries, the Orangerie, an afternoon at the Louvre, couscous in the Latin Quarter, two nights at the Hôtel Angleterre.
That would be the end of it. Back home he would see her occasionally in the cafés he had first shown her and they would exchange shrill pleasantries. Sometime, perhaps, in the future, he could take her out for dinner and liquor at one of those subterranean French restaurants in Cambridge and afterward press himself on her. But one day she would move, get a job, find a lover, change her life. She would look at her calendar and think she had not seen him in months, or years. But she wouldn’t call him until she was sure that he was dead.
(What would that be like? What if he didn’t know, if the end of it was not-knowing, if not-knowing was the surprise? What if there was nothing afterward? Where would the information go he had put into his head over the years — the names of kings, the taste of food, the memory of his mother and his father, the fact that louvre is early French for “leper,” that lava is mainly water, loose facts, what Thoreau said: “Our molting season, like that of fowls, must be a crisis in our lives,” the names of women, the names of small hotels? Would the contents of his busy head be wasted, lost?) He opened his eyes. A crowd of old men on bicycles crashed by outside the window and were gone. Carla leaned into the Michelin guide; the lemony point of her nose and the book vibrated perceptibly to the motion of the train. Her eyes were puffy, from sleep maybe. She still had on her dress from the evening before — a strapless — and some cosmetic residue sparkled on her neck. Her sharp perfume hung on the air. She could sit for hours that way, a packet of French cigarettes and a bottle of Perrier balanced on the seat beside her, her bare feet crossed in her lap. She read any trash for hours and ignored the view. Travel, Darling thought irritably, was a vacation for her.
“The Train r Grande Vitesse,” she said now, out of nowhere.
“The TGV, yes, that’s the train we’re on now,” he said.
“You called it the Trcs Grande Vitesse,” said Carla, looking up at him, frowning. “Actually it’s the Train r Grande Vitesse — train, not trcs.” “That’s what they call it informally, I guess,” he said, looking across Carla’s lap at the blur of France. “Very Great Speed.” “Informally they call it the TGV. And I know what trcs means, thank you.”
She was a little bantam, round face, skinny as a refugee, knees like knuckles. Long arms, down to her knees. Twenty, twenty-two. He was not an old man, Darling, but compared to her. In her eyes. From that first afternoon he thought he could get her into bed if he remembered to call her Carla, not Paula.
He had found her, funnily enough, unconscious on the T. There were two girls almost exactly alike. It was late afternoon, still hot; the strings of their bathing suits dangled down the backs of their necks, one suit red-checked, the other pale blue. Darling had his leather jacket with him in spite of the heat; he felt a constant chill.
The girls hung from the hand straps, limp as fringe. First, one collapsed. The shoes of interested citizens chattered like sets of teeth around the head. Then the second girl dropped, straight as a rope. They lay there on the floor of the car, completely vulnerable. But two girls fainting stank of conspiracy. No one besides Bob Darling wanted to be taken in.
He hiked his pants so they would not be damaged bby his knees and squatted to greet the girls when they woke. The first one opened her eyes, and he saw a flattening out of her pupils, her vision narrowing to familiar and unimaginative suspicions. “What did I, pass out?” she said.
“You seemed to fall,” Darling said.
The girl blinked at him. “My wallet still here?” Her hands flew up into the air, then lit on a leather pouch fastened at her waist. “Miracle,” she said.
“You want air,” he said, and stood her up.
She shook her head. “I’ve got to go to work.” It was a shame, Darling thought; the first girl had a little more shape to her.
“What do you do? I mean that respectfully,” Darling assured her, because he thought she might be a dancer, and Paula had been the most marvelously uninhibited dancer. His response to her dancing had always been sexual, but in the most respectful sense.
“Medical records,” said the girl.
The second girl opened her eyes and he looked away from the first girl into her face. She was a scrapper, but not bad-looking.
The first girl got off at Charles Street. Darling marveled at how she woke from a dead faint and bussed the other girl’s cheeks, then went off to record the claims of a swollen humanity to life and health. Sand still sparkling on the back of her neck. That pale blue string.
His prize was the second girl, Carla; she let him hold her birdy arm. He liked to think he knew the why and the how of the city. Did she know the Such-and-Such Café? The apple cake was the thing to eat. Did she like apple cake? He guided her down into the café, an empty room underground where all the waiters rushed toward him.
But Carla didn’t want apple cake. She said she was bored without drinks. She sat across a round table, behind a tumbler of booze.
She would not be shocked by the news of his death, or the idea of his illness. “Things break down,” she would think with a shrug. But Darling was still young enough — and the news was fresh enough — that it came to him as a shock, a surprise. Barely two hours before he found her, his doctor and old ally, Carnevali, had sighed deeply and told Darling, The game Is not Quite up But make your plan.
Appalled, Darling buttoned down his shirt, top to bottom, over his heart, his lungs, his appendicitis scar. Though the day was warm, he put on his leather jacket. He was about to hail a taxi when suddenly he wanted to live among as many people as possible. His eyes flailed like arms, grasping at the grays and browns and bricks of the little Puritan city. He went underground, and waited for the Red Line.
His apple cake lay in crumbs before him on a plate. “Let me show you something,” he said, throwing out a spark of spit. He removed a black leather ...