from The Drifting Tower by Jean-Pierre Andrevon (translated by Michael Shreve). Thanks to Le Bélial’ for this post.
Saturday, August 30
A thunderclap woke up Pierre. The rumble was still resounding in his ears when he opened his eyes, propped up on one elbow, heart pounding. The noise was vibrating softly in his eardrums, drowning out, dying out. Pierre blinked several times; the half-light in the room spluttered with the fleeting phosphenes. He sighed, tried to swallow the built-up, almost solid ball of saliva that was blocking his throat. It took him a few tries with this rough, dry gullet. A thunderclap? No, probably not. It had been beautiful the day before and the day before that and even farther back. Truthfully, it had been days on end that the sky above was turquoise blue and as smooth as an enamel board, days on end that they had not seen a wisp of a cloud, not to mention a drop of rain. Heat wave. And the weather had looked like it was going to stay beautiful, oh so “beautiful”, this word used to the point of obscenity, which kept coming back like a leitmotif in the delighted mouths of the weathermen, was really the appropriate term.
Pierre propped himself up a little more, on both his elbows. No thunder, no way. Maybe the echo of a truck barreling down the beltway. Maybe a police helicopter or the civil defense had just skimmed the top of the tower. That happens all the time. He shook his head, like a cat reacting to an annoying flea. A cat, huh? He sighed. He had no cat since Grisou had been run over by a van before his very eyes when he was still living in Saint Mérin, Rue des Angelisses. And there was no question of getting another one in this tiny two-room apartment, in this land of concrete where he had been kicking around for close to three years and that he would end up leaving some day. He arched his back in the vague hope of hearing some crack in his body, which did not come. He was stiff as a board. It would do him good to get a prescription for some physical therapy sessions by Madame Bredin. Later, once he dumped all the back-to-school hassle.
He sat up completely, the bed danced under his butt, so lightly. The room was basted in a gray liquid. He automatically stuck his finger in his right ear, but without disturbing in the least the rumbling that had long ago left the land. A truck, a helicopter? Maybe nothing at all, in fact, just a phantom noise, the blood in his arteries, one last snore just before waking up. Out of his mouth huffed a warm breath whose bitter blandness he realized he did not taste. Hot, it was hot. He wiped his forehead. Wet, his forehead. He had slept naked, covered only with a crumpled sheet, like every night since the beginning of summer. However, even in the early morning this was not enough to give his sweating body a semblance of coolness in the 60ft2 room where he would have given anything in the world to install air conditioning. Not even the wide-open window before the lowered shutters with their inadequately angled slats could deal with the gap that already let in the blinding light and its dozen degrees of mercury. Which promised: a great day, a great blue. What time was it, in fact? 7:00, the green numbers on his digital alarm displayed. He had got up at the usual time, the official time, an old teacher’s habit burned into his hard drive.
A third sigh. He yanked the sheet off his legs and cast a weary eye, devoid of all irony, at the honorable erection that arose between his thighs, standing up out of his ample clump of pubic hair. Celine’s face was drawn hyper-realistically inside his head, her almost green eyes under penciled eyebrows, which she kept well plucked, the almost black lock of hair that curled over her forehead, the starry dimple hollowed out under her left cheek by her drawn out mouth, her pointy right canine that was the only thing that spoiled her otherwise perfect alignment of very white teeth, giving some kind of indefinable roguishness to her smiles. Celine. Where was she now, in the nascent day, at this bright hour? Where and with whom? Meaningless questions because unanswerable. Celine left. Celine walked out. Go fuck yourself, Celine. The once dear face—once and still a little today, in spite of everything—thinned out in his mind, like still fresh graffiti being pressured washed by a janitor.
Pierre stayed rooted to his bed for a moment, cross-legged, leaning slightly forward. Pierre Bonnefoy, thirty-two years old, five feet seven inches, one hundred and fifty pounds or well, maybe, fifty five, social studies teacher (with, mandated by the new regulations, the possibility of a few hours of art as need be) at the Saint-Exupéry junior high school in Mérisieux, less than two miles from here, back-to-school preparations starting next Thursday. And, incidentally, dropped by his girlfriend just before vacation, after three months of free fall. Hence the cancellation of all travel plans for want of going anywhere alone. But there was that horrifying week at mother’s in the Loiret. Horrifying mainly because since dad’s death last year, mom… Okay, stop, enough stewing in this bath of nauseous stagnation—rise and shine! Pierre swung his body around forty five degrees and his bare feet touched the warm parquet where the slightest movement kicked up clouds of dust. As the bed was almost up against the window with only a gap of eight inches to put the books he was reading, he just had to stretch out his arm to pull the cord and raise the shutters. Like always, he caught himself hesitating. What if some guy across from him or worse some girl with binoculars was watching, waiting, with the French windows open, for their morning perk?
No chance… or luck. Pierre lived on the thirteen floor and the closest tower, The Limes, was at least a hundred yards away. As for the supposed perk, the stiffened perk had already gone back to its bushy nests. The slats turned horizontal, driving steel flashes into his eyes, and then the shutters rolled up, struggling into their housing. He kept hold of the cord, its suppository-shaped handle embedded in his palm. He stayed like that, unmoving, for a while, dumbstruck at what he saw, but especially not understanding.
He was expecting a patch of bright blue sky, eaten away in the east by the lemon yellows hints reflected from the sun, which would still be hiding behind the great belt of buildings, to punish his eyes. Instead of this, the entire panorama was choked under a dense, milky layer, an almost solid congestion, a slope of cotton balls that he briefly felt like all he had to do was reach out to touch the surface.
But it was a deceptive impression because he could see, across from him, like a blurry, light gray shadow, the outline of the Limes and behind it, but even hazier, barely floating shadows, two or three other upright boxes. To the left, the row of chestnut trees that separated The Maples from a six-story neighbor was clearly cut out of a flat, white patch, as if the still leafy, vividly green trees had been painted there in a hyper-realist style on a gigantic canvas. Nothing else? Nothing else, at least from his vantage point. Pierre licked his lips. Fog on the 30 August heat wave? That made no sense. Just then he became aware of something else astounding. The silence. The constant, low rumble of vehicles on the off ramp, the aggressive music from all the radios and televisions usually turned on at sunrise, the bursts of neighbors’ voices, the annoying roar of cars leaving the parking lot, all these noises that wove the sonorous web of everyday life… everything had disappeared, switched off. Swallowed by the wad of cotton. Including the shrill voice of birds.
Pierre pried open his hand, letting the cord swing a moment in the still air. In his astonishment, he felt, starting from his neck, a swarm of cold, little feet chase down his spine. Something (completely illogical) like fear.