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Authors: Lisa Alther

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Five Minutes in Heaven

BOOK: Five Minutes in Heaven
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Five Minutes in Heaven

Lisa Alther

For Jody,
and Dill

The only victory in love is flight.






























, hooves wrapped with rope, from the trunk of a blue sedan. As they carried him across the tiled courtyard below, his bearded mouth fell open and he began to pant, eyes rolling wildly.

The French would eat anything that couldn't outrun them, Jude reflected, recalling the weekend market, on rue Mouffetard, near her apartment during her junior year abroad from Vanderbilt. It had featured rows of glistening kidneys, livers, hearts, and tongues in graduated sizes. An entire aviary of birds had hung by their wrung necks, feathered wings limp by their sides. Rabbits still bearing fur had been slit down their bellies and laid open for inspection. But as Simon once said of his fellow Englishmen, no nation that loves animals will ever have a great cuisine.

Jude lit a cigarette and sank into a cushioned wicker chair in the sunlight coming through the glass doors of her sixth-floor walk-up. Still, Paris had a lot going for it. For one thing, it wasn't New York. And having spent the past several months spooning crushed Popsicles into Anna's mouth in her hospital bed at the Roosevelt, she welcomed the change.

It had all begun that night on Simon's deck near Provincetown when the wind shifted to the north, swirling the sand and frothing the surf. Anna had just died. Jude had spent the afternoon pacing the beach, studying how the hue of the sea altered in response to the sky, just as Anna's eyes had altered according to her moods and her surroundings.

When Jude got tired of walking, she scrambled up a dune, scooped out a hollow in the sand, and lay facedown, fitting her frame into its yielding contours as though it were Anna's body. She lay like that for several hours, eyes shut, hands beneath her thighs, listening to the breakers crash, and the foam hiss on the damp sand, and the seagulls shriek, and the dune grasses clash like a knife fight. And remembering the time she and Anna sneaked away from a conference in Boston to race horses down the beach, pounding through the surf, then sliding off their backs to watch from atop a dune as gleaming black whales dove and spouted against the far horizon.

As the sky turned to gore, she wandered home to Simon's tactful chatter and fortifying supper of roast chicken and mashed potatoes. They spread the dishes across the outside table and sat facing the darkening sea. As the tepid night air stirred Simon's black curls, they reminisced about Sandy and his operas, Anna and her poems, the delights of love, and the longing that won't quit when it's taken away.

Then Jasmine arrived, wearing a turban and gold ear hoops, en route to Paris. She strode across the deck, trailed by three young assistants, two women and a man, each dressed in gleaming white trousers and Mondrian tops, as though about to board a yacht at Cannes. Jasmine was wearing a batik lavalava that made her resemble one of the exquisitely petite stewardesses on Singapore Airlines during Jude's interminable flight to Australia a few months earlier to speak on a panel about feminist editing at the Adelaide Festival.

While Jude subdued her urge to grab a beach towel from the railing and cover up her dingy gray gym shorts and Whale Watch T-shirt, Simon and Jasmine pressed alternate cheeks several times and gazed into each other's eyes as though they had only ten minutes left to live. Jasmine's father had fought with the French Resistance, and Simon's father had been his liaison officer at British intelligence. After the war, their families had visited back and forth across the Channel, and now Simon and Jasmine sold each other translation rights to their respective firms' books. Jude had first met Jasmine with Simon at the Frankfurt Book Fair. Since then, she'd run into her at the American Booksellers Association in Atlanta and the Feminist Book Fair in London and had spoken on a panel with her in Adelaide. She admired Jasmine's accessories, to say nothing of her intelligence and her élan.

Everyone sat down around Simon's glass-topped table to drink the Veuve Clicquot Jasmine had brought and to nibble Godiva chocolates. Alternating between Jasmine's basic English and Jude's and Simon's basic French, they discussed the Frenchwoman's gift for accessorizing, whether it was innate or acquired. Jude described her own bafflement when faced with a scarf. How did Jasmine know what size to pick for which location? Did French mothers give their daughters knot-tying lessons? And what about shoes? Jude had never seen Jasmine wear the same pair twice. Either their color matched or complemented her clothing, or they had some arresting feature like silver heels or straps that crisscrossed her ankles. At that moment, she was wearing golden stack-heeled sandals with thongs between the toes.

“Look at me,” demanded Jude, holding up her sandy bare feet with their unpainted toenails. “I'm even underdressed tonight.”

“But my dear Jude,” said Jasmine, watching her with dark liquid eyes like melted chocolate chips, “you are famous for that. It is your trademark.”

Jude blinked. “It is?” Her goal had always been to dress so appropriately as to pass unnoticed.

“Yes, one admires so deeply your indifference to fashion.” Jasmine's gaze appeared ingenuous, but her eyes wrinkled slightly at the corners with a certain ironic amusement.

Simon was struggling to hide a smile.

“Thank you,” said Jude uncertainly.

The soft sea breeze had mounted to a moaning gale, and the beach towels on the railing were whipping and snapping like flags in a windstorm. They moved inside. As Simon built a fire in his fieldstone fireplace, Jude showed the others through the house, with its walls of glass looking out on the dunes and its giant hand-hewn beams from an old barn in Vermont. The guests seemed a bit embarrassed as they peered into Simon's bathroom with its giant whirlpool tub, reminding Jude that house tours were an American phenomenon.

As Jasmine and her entourage were about to depart in a fog of Eau de Quelquechose for their guest house in Provincetown, she rested her magenta fingertips on Jude's forearm and offered her a job in Paris picking foreign fiction for translation. Jude was too bewildered to reply.

“So what do you think about my going to Paris?” Jude asked Simon as they propped their feet up on the fireplace ledge to commence a postmortem. The orange flames were dancing in Simon's neon-green eyes, converting the irises into small flaring kaleidoscopes.

“Go, Jude,” said Simon as he munched a mousse-filled chocolate seashell. “Simon says go. But leave your corpse collection at home. Life is for the living.”

This seemed generous of him, since Jude had been living with him and working for him in Manhattan for over a decade. But maybe he was as sick of her grief over Anna as she was.

“What was that nasty crack concerning my wardrobe all about?” she asked.

Simon smiled. “It means she likes you.”

Jude gave an astonished laugh.

“If people bore her, she ignores them. When they intrigue her, she provokes them. Like a cat toying with a mouse.”

“Charming. And exactly why is it you think I should work for her?”

“A change of venue would do you good. Some new faces and new neuroses might take your mind off the old ones.”

, here she was now, trapped in the middle of a Kodachrome postcard, the city spread out below her from the dark high-rises of La Défense to the domed Panthéon, the Seine snaking through the center, side-winding past the feet of the Eiffel Tower. Despite her year here during college, she'd never before seen this astonishing view, having passed her days in dusty classrooms on the Left Bank listening to lectures on European history and continental philosophy, and her nights in movie theaters working on her fluency.

In his letters to her mother during the war, which Jude had perused as a child, her father had described seeing this panorama from the square before Sacré Coeur. He had also described being driven by his sergeant through the streets of Pigalle, at the base of the butte where Jude now sat. He had been in the grip of pneumonia, lost and feverish and searching for a hospital. Gaunt women and children clamored around the jeep when his driver stopped to ask for directions. A young woman bared her breast and held it out to them in the icy wind. An urchin perched on the running board and began to scrub their combat boots with a filthy rag. Jude's father handed them all his francs and cigarettes before desperately speeding away.

The sun was hot. Sweat popping out at her hairline, Jude stubbed out her cigarette and threw open the glass doors, shivering in the breeze that was stirring the creamy chestnut blossoms below. She plopped back down in her chair.

On the horizon, the Smokies formed a rolling blue rim notched with knobs like the knuckles on a fist. Down in the valley, the lazy ocher river drifted toward the mountains, carrying a leafy poplar branch on which perched five cawing crows. Wisps of cloud were floating across the summer sky, furling like breaking waves. Gradually, they assembled themselves into Molly's features, bits of cerulean becoming her irises. She said in her voice that had always been too husky for such a small person, “You may think I'm dead, Jude, but I'm not.

Jude jerked alert. Molly's features were still there, projected against the silver-blue haze above the Bois de Boulogne. Apparently, Jude couldn't escape her, even by crossing the ocean two decades later.

“Fine,” snapped Jude. “But where the hell are you?”

As Molly's face evaporated, Jude groped for another cigarette.



on her purple tricycle to inspect the new cellar hole. Careening down the mound of orange clay, training wheels spinning, dark braids lashing like reins on a runaway horse, came a bare-chested girl in shorts. Her bicycle flipped halfway down, hurling her headfirst to the bottom. She jumped up, laughing, chest and cheek streaked with clay like Indian war paint. Righting her bicycle, she stroked its saddle, murmuring, “Easy, boy. It's okay.”

“Are you all right?” asked Jude. She had never met another girl who didn't wear a shirt. Her chest was really tan, too, as though she never wore one. Whereas Jude had pale patches from the top her father made her wear at the golf club pool.

“This is my stallion,” she replied. “I call him Stormy because he runs like the wind. What's yours called?”

Looking down at her tricycle, Jude said, “I don't know really.” She felt embarrassed that she'd never thought of her tricycle as a horse. She could hear Ace Kilgore barking commands to the Commie Killers in the field across the street. They all rode bicycles, too, making them rear up on their hind wheels to mount curbs. Ace could even balance like that and then twirl around in midair and race off in the opposite direction. Jude was the only kid in the neighborhood who still rode a tricycle. But her father had promised her a bicycle with training wheels for her upcoming birthday.

BOOK: Five Minutes in Heaven
12.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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