Burning the Days

Burning the Days by James Salter Read Free Book Online

Book: Burning the Days by James Salter Read Free Book Online
Authors: James Salter
Cuba. We went there, the palms, her bare room with shutters, the pale streets at dawn.
    Perhaps it all still exists. I have never been back. We drove to Cuernavaca, then to the sea. The beach was shadowed by the first great hotels. White-legged we walked along it. There was a slender brown woman in a black bikini; she could have been Mexican but was not. We sat and talked. She was a friend of the English playwright John Osborne and had a gold cigarette case with a persuasive inscription engraved in his own hand.
    She may have had some of his money, as well, or perhaps someone else’s. She had bought a motorboat for the Mexican boy with whom she was living, so he could have a water-skiing business. We went to remote inlets in it and ate in beach shacks where there were only three or four plates but from somewhere were produced icy bottles of beer. We met in the evenings as well. The Mexican boy was always silent.
    I caught sight of her several times afterwards in New York, once in the Veau d’Or with the cigarette case on the table near her plate. She appeared very urban and expensive, a long way from barefoot life. That period was ended. I wanted to know more about her, about Osborne and the past, but all of that she declined to reveal.
    My friendship with Wink seemed indestructible and my attachment to his mother grew. It became love, not the love felt for my own mother but something grown-up and apart. It would be truer to say I returned her love, the warmth had first come from her.
    During the war she lived in New York, where I often saw her while my own family was in Washington. Later she moved to an estate in Ossining. I forget the sequence of divorce from her husband and his becoming ill, but he grew gaunt and died. In Ossining she came in from the sunlight with a garden trowel in one gloved hand. There was a swimming pool, a sunken living room, a dog. Had I read Tales of the South Pacific, which had just been published, she asked? I must, she said. The war was over. We’d driven up to Ossining in a new car, perhaps Wink’s. His mother had had difficulty in forming his tastes and was turning her efforts towards me.
    She also had a nephew, her admired sister’s son, Peter, who grew up more or less alongside us, plump and deceivable. His mother hoped he would go into medicine, but he had another ambition. After college he confessed it to Ethel: he wanted to have a gallery, he dreamed of art. She took him to dinner at the house of a famous dealer she knew, where Peter sat silently as the impossibilities of his choice were explained to him in detail, the near certainty of his not succeeding, and the sure disappointment of his mother. At the end he summoned his courage to say, “I’m not Dorothy’s son, I’m Ethel’s. I have the right to fail,” he added.
    There was a moment’s silence and the dealer said, “I’ll sponsor you.”
    I had two prints, a yellow Chagall marked hors commerce, and a Picasso bought from Peter when his gallery, in a town house off Fifth, with pure white walls, was thriving. I longed for a Matisse but hadn’t the money.
    In the summer of 1941 my father, who had been a lieutenant more than twenty years before, was called back into the army as a major. He was stationed in Atlanta in the Office of Engineers. I forget from which field we took off but I had my first airplane flight in a great silver ship with a tailwheel, going down to visit him. We toured munitions factories along the Tennessee River, near Huntsville, and the Coosa River, in Alabama. On a narrow wooden bridge in the country somewhere, a mule lay on its side—it had been pulling a wagon that was hit by an army truck and had a broken leg. It lay there patiently, as patiently as it had lived its life, a worn, gray animal waiting for the lean-faced man who had gone to fetch a gun.
    My alluring image of war had been mainly formed by a book we had with a gray cloth cover on which the title was printed in dignified black

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