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He was driving a Fiat 500—motor on the way out—but more than powerful enough to heave him to the bottom of the cliff, if he didn’t keep a firm hand on the wheel and eyes open on the road.
Freezing air gushed through the window. The tires screeched on cue at every hairpin curve. Over the years, a lot of idiots had been killed on this road, but that didn’t stop him from braving it.
He’d never been able to bring himself to stay in town, no matter what he’d done or drunk or taken—never. No one had ever been able to keep him from getting into his car and driving home. Not on this road. Not this goddamned road, in any case.
There was a young woman with him, and she seemed tipsy, too. He glanced at her, marveling again that an old prof in a sports jacket, with such a small car, was still lucky enough to attract a student—and take her back to his lair for one full night of fun, at least.
Quite a few years ago, he’d understood that the time had come to take advantage of certain perks that came with his profession—for lack of the better rewards that he had to stop expecting. One day, by a kind of miracle, one of his students began to glow as he looked at her—from the inside out, like a Chinese lantern with a wonderful gleam—but was, despite this, insipid and ordinary, almost devoid of interest, and absolutely incapable of putting two sentences together. Yet, just as he was brutally jeering, in front of the other students, at work she’d turned in, he was blinded by a blast of heat. And this girl turned out to be the first in a fairly long series, as well as one of the most satisfying lays he’d ever had.
When it came down to it, serial relationships with young students were far from fruitless ordeals. There were guys blowing themselves up in the middle of crowds for a lot less than that.
The one with him tonight, whose name escaped him, had just signed up for his writing class, and he hadn’t for a second fought his outrageously strong attraction to her. Why should he? It was promising to be a chilly, lazy weekend, perfect for the fireplace. And for sulky mouths, and the deepness of thighs. He only hoped she’d be ready for it when the time came.
Had she passed out? The seat belt kept her from collapsing to either side. He’d need to make some coffee when they arrived.
The shoulders of the road were white, the undergrowth inky black. Jaw clenched, he held to the center of the road, straddled the white line that twisted under his eyes like a hungry snake in an April moon.
She was twenty-three. At dawn, he noticed she was dead, cold.
He was dumbfounded for a moment; then threw off the sheets, bounded out of bed, and glued his ear to the door. The house was quiet. He listened carefully, before turning back to the bed to study the girl’s body. At least there was no blood. A stroke of luck. Under the strong light flooding the room, she seemed absolutely pristine, smooth, milky.
He wouldn’t wait any longer and got dressed, remembering how he’d almost had to carry her from the car to the bed—about as full of life as a sack of apples and about to be sick any second. Then, suddenly, when they reached the bedroom, she came to. Was thrilled to be there, at his place—finally there. Ripped off her clothes, sending her panties sailing across the room. He had no idea what happened next but was sure of one thing—they’d done it. They had.
Every one of these girls was more incredible than the last—and this one, whom you might call a beauty, despite somewhat short legs, hadn’t broken the rule. Even in this condition, terribly dead and getting colder and colder, she was still a knockout. He lowered his eyes.
Future problems stood out. Big problems. And nothing would bring the poor girl back to life, not in any way at all. Nothing more could be done for her.
The sun was rising. Treetops glistened. A thick carpet of snow covered the ground. At the moment, getting rid of her body seemed the most realistic thing to do. Who wanted to get mixed up with the police in this country? Who still believed being innocent meant you’d be left in peace? He opened the window.
Not a sound coming from the nearby woods. Crows traced circles in the sky; buzzards on the hunt glided in slow-motion. Below them, the lake emerged from shadow, became a mirror on which the first paddle boats—fledged like arrows—were already gliding. His bathrobed sister appeared in the garden for her first cigarette of the day. She looked up at him.
“Hi, Marianne.” He waved. “Nice day, huh?”
“Marc. For God’s sake. You made such a racket last night.”
“You talking about my muffler?”
“There was somebody with you.”
“With me? No, you were dreaming. Must have been the TV.”
A block of snow slid from the roof and landed with the smothered sound of heavy meringue. He shrugged and moved away from the window. They were still a couple of weeks from spring, but for a moment he thought he’d detected a subtle perfume in the air—first flowers that had opened during the night—but maybe he hadn’t. He couldn’t smell anything now. The ice and snow had closed back over them.
The girl was as cold as a ham, nearly gray already. He took a deep breath, began to collect the poor thing’s possessions.
Then he began to dress her, thinking for a second about holding on to the white cotton panties, which released a faint odor of urine. He readjusted the brassiere that she hadn’t taken off, slipped on her stockings. Now he could picture a few scenes from the evening before as they were heading for the cottage, each as drunk, as out of it, as the other, both mostly unaware that they were.
The sun had begun to lap the other bank; the forests were emerging from darkness in blazing strips. The student’s body had been entirely waxed. How sad to see her stretched out like that; stiff and useless, shifted forever into another world. After the time she’d given him.
The beginnings of an erection awarded his work, such thoughts. But there were too many things on the calendar today, and he pushed the young woman’s legs closed. He’d just heard the coffee machine downstairs. The way would be free in about ten minutes. He’d take advantage of that time to swallow a handful of aspirin, before his skull threatened to explode.
He checked that he wasn’t forgetting anything: keys, phone, cards, cash, briefcase, hat, trifocals, then threw his dismal load over one shoulder and walked down with it on tiptoe.
He was lucky he was still in pretty good shape for his age, because she must have weighed about 130 and wasn’t exactly helping—especially on the stairs, where you had to be careful not to miss a step.
Crossing through the kitchen, he grabbed an apple for breakfast. Outside, the sun was shining; snow crunched and pulverized like sugar under his feet. It was a nice day, cold. He leaned the girl against the car door and set about hacking the Fiat out of its ice shell with a scraper he’d gotten from Total. He tried to put his mind on his class, the talk on John Gardner he was planning to give—even if they accused him of being a fanatical ultra-Americanist and betrayer of French literature.
Who were the real traitors? Who was hiding the truth? The difficulties began when he had to get the young woman into the car. The legs were the problem. There was so little room. He had to push hard. Bend her bones. Any second now and Marianne could come back and ask what he was up to. What would he say? At any moment, neighbors might go by on the road, or joggers, who’d stop and ask questions.
By not giving up, by bracing himself and putting his back into it, he made something give way—he refused to dwell on what—and the student was finally inside the Fiat. He glanced at his watch; time to get going. He gave two little beeps of the horn as he started out—one of those pathetic customs Marianne and he had established over the course of time, which both of them regretted equally but endured even though his sister hadn’t appeared at the window for ages and he’d stopped even glancing into his rearview mirror.
For several days he’d been wondering whether he hadn’t lost part of his muffler—the whole thing, in fact. Certainly, the Fiat 500 had never been much when it came to discretion—he’d given up on buying an Audi A8 someday despite everything. But right now you’d have said a tractor, a motorcycle with no muffler, or a jet plane was taking off nearby. He’d have to do something, find a solution. Lately, in town, they were beginning to look up as he drove by; it wouldn’t be long before they had him in their sights for it and nabbed him, maybe even handcuffing him and taking him to the police station with a gun pointed to his temple. A couple of days ago, a professor from the English department had been tackled to the ground and beat up in plain view for a couple of points on his license; and, nowadays, even Human Rights Watch made no stink about such details—nobody paid it much attention anymore. If not that, then sooner or later Marianne was going to make it her business to let him know she’d had it up to here with his nocturnal outings. You could count on that. She wouldn’t stand for it much longer—unless he got himself a bike and greased the chain regularly.
Halfway to the campus, he parked on the shoulder behind a stand of snow-covered trees. The air felt harsh, raw; every breath sent a white stream of vapor swirling in the sunlight. He took his time rolling up his cuffs. His cheeks were red already. He couldn’t say as much for his passenger’s. Before taking care of her, he checked his messages. Verified that a part of the world hadn’t been razed in the night or infested by a virus; there was certainly nothing about it in the papers. Cold, dry, pleasant weather was on the menu. The usual atrocities happening here and there.
He gave it a nod of approval and mentally prepared himself for the climb. The path was steep and narrow, hardly negotiable, and certain parts of it were downright acrobatic. He’d get to the top breathless and drowning in icy sweat, and show up in front of his students a little more rumpled and slovenly than he would have wanted—but fate was deciding otherwise, and every man had to submit to it.
The student had turned bluish gray—not that it was really that cold. What a shame, he thought. He felt a pang of anguish as he bent over her and grabbed her under the arm. What a tragedy, when you thought about it. Kicking the bucket at such a young age. How absurd, sickening. And what a nasty trick to play on him, too. What a very dirty trick to play on him, making that poor girl give up the ghost right under his roof, in his bed. Why hadn’t they put a knife in his hand, for good measure? Boy, was this rough. Grimacing, he hoisted her to his shoulders.
He and Marianne had once discovered this pit by accident, on a day when he’d just missed suddenly sliding into it. He’d stayed there hanging above a void, a deep hole that gaped into a steep, moss-covered slope, hidden from sight. He owed his life entirely to his sister, who’d grabbed hold of him and yanked him up with all her might. When they’d gotten their breath back and shakily returned to the hole, they saw that its open jaws, which were level with the ground, were wide enough to swallow a horse or a cow.
Very quickly, icy sweat began trickling between his shoulder blades. It was obvious he smoked too much. He was going to have to face that problem squarely; no longer any doubt about it. His lungs were on fire. So were his calves. A few years more of this routine and his tongue would be hanging out, his knees scraping the ground.
Nevertheless, the first thing he did after shoving the young woman’s body over the edge—keeping his ears needlessly pricked—was to light one up. His Winstons were on his team one hundred percent. Add fresh air scented with snow-covered grass, and you almost had bliss: he could testify to it. Half smiling, he studied the reddening tip. Right now, the silence around him was so profound that he could hear the faint crackle of the tobacco burning. You could hardly believe the silence of these vibrant winter woods covering the surrounding mountains.
No matter how many times he wore his good Galibier walking shoes, his socks always got drenched, and so were the bottoms of his trousers, which had changed from light beige to dark brown. What’s more, he’d gotten pretty dirty during the climb. He’d slipped twice on sheets of ice, and had to force his way through a difficult passage between blocks of stone and low branches while still weighted down by his burden. There wasn’t enough time to go home and change. How stupid of him. He should have realized he wouldn’t be able to clamber all the way up with that girl on his shoulder and come back down fresh as a lily. (A memory of himself as barely a teenager, in shorts, covered with dust and dried mud passed fleetingly through his mind.) He and Marianne. Ushered directly to the bathtub. Manhandled under the shower by that horrible woman.