Monday – March 11, 2013

Book Daily has been running a promotion of No Commitments this month that includes a sample chapter called Sirocco. I thought I would share it with you.

The summer of 1970 was a harsh, dry summer on the Cote d’Azur. A burning sirocco – that peculiar quirk of nature created when strange wind currents lift waves of brutally hot gritty air out of the Sahara and carry them gently across the Mediterranean to blast the south coast of France with a dust-hazed, suffocating heat – had lasted for two weeks. Siroccos were not uncommon to the Cote. A severe one occurred every three or four years. But this particular sirocco was the longest, driest, hottest, and most severe in more than two decades. It drove the mosquitoes from the coast and up into the mountains and dried up the Var River to a trickle. The lush fields of lavender and carnations wilted, the cork oak leaves parched and turned brown, and the needles on the evergreen pines scorched and fell to the ground in huge brittle piles that ignited in the sun causing forest fires to erupt with such alarming frequency that they started filling the valleys with gray billowing smoke. Unable to rise and penetrate the hot hazy layer of air, the smoke clouds grew thicker as the days passed, blanketing the hillsides and giving the entire countryside the appearance that it had been blitzed by an aircraft attack from a thousand B-17 bombers.

On top of the highest peak overlooking the valley, the atmosphere was oppressive. The air was heavy, dry and still, and the walls and rooftops of the houses in the village were caked with an orangish dust so thick that it could be scooped up in handfuls. A raging fire on the mountainside had blocked the road leading down to the coast. The inhabitants of the village had been marooned on the mountain for three days.

On the patio of the most resplendent villa in the village a young couple was picking over the remains of their lunch. There were two empty bottles of wine on the table. They were drinking from a third, and they were having an argument. The young man sat hunched over the table, somber and subdued. Having just turned thirty, his tanned and weathered face was already starting to show the early signs of age. His face was still lean and taut, but he had not shaved in three days and his beard had a blondish salt and peppery look. Flecks of gray tipped the ends of his hair, especially behind his ears, and deep creases in his forehead spoiled the smoothness of his tan. It was his eyes that belied his age mostly, though. When they met hers they peered straight through her, dull-like, oozing with a tired and lifeless indifference.

She looked at him, her hand on the table, her glass raised, eyes smoldering. Still lithe and delicately beautiful, she, too, bore the marks of time. Tiny wrinkles around her eyes were starting to betray her. Underneath her fresh sunburn her complexion betrayed a sallow pallor, a result of too many late nights in smoky nightclubs and too many days pent up in lonely hotel rooms in faraway dreary cities. Standing upright, hands on her hips, Marianna Haizet screamed at him.“What the hell do you have to leave in the morning for?”

“What the hell do you care?” Clay Stoner snapped back at her.

“Because I’ve been gone for months! We haven’t even had time to talk since I’ve been back!”

Without looking up, Clay poured a glass of wine and drank it down. “I told you,” he said, “I have to fly Howie to Amsterdam tomorrow. Then to London. After that, who knows? We should be back in three or four days.”

“Why don’t you tell him to get someone else?”

“Because I’m Howie’s chief pilot. And he pays me good money for flying him around. That’s why.”

“He owns you, you know that?”

“You’re a fine one to talk. You don’t think he owns you? That little party in London…”

“You’ll never forgive me for that, will you?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I got over you and Cat.”

“That was different. We didn’t have children then.”

She slammed her glass down on the table, spilling what was left of the wine. “I’m not putting up with this bullshit anymore!” she shouted at him, and she whirled and stalked across the patio to the edge that hung out over the cliff, rested her hands on the wall for a moment and calmed herself, and then came back to the table. “I explained it all to you before. Nothing happened in London,” she said, trying to make him look at her. “I don’t care if you believe me anymore, but…but I’m warning you, if you don’t forget about it and stop making me miserable, I’m leaving you, and I’m not coming back.”

“So leave,” he said coldly. “We’re not married. You know as well as I do the only reason we’re still together is because of the twins.”

“And if I leave, they’re coming with me Clay. That’s something you’d better not forget.”

“Then do it, Marianna! I can forget you in a snap. All of you. Just like that!” he said with a click of his fingers. He stood up and left her sitting there and walked into the house. He returned in a short while with a full bottle of liquor, opened it, and poured it into a glass of ice and added a tumbler of water. The liquid turned a milky, yellowish color. She watched him drain half the glass in one long gulp.“Here, try it,” he said. “It’s Pernod. It’s very good. It tastes like licorice.”

“That’s all it is with you, isn’t it? Some new drinks. Some more haps. You’re a drunk. Clay.”

“So? You’re a lousy fucking mother.”

She started to slap him and he grabbed her wrist. She could not believe what he had said. Four years ago she would have hated him and attacked him and hit him. She knew him better now, and she calmed. She reached over and touched his hand. “You don’t mean that,” she said gently.“I…I know I’ve been away too much with the band, and that we’ve had our differences. But that doesn’t mean we have to destroy everything. Doesn’t it say something for us the way our relationship has persevered? There were good times. We’ve got Cassie and Cody, our little twin bears, and they’re happy and healthy. Our life together hasn’t been that bad.” He just sat there, bleary-eyed, until she shook him.“Goddamnit! Will you look at me?”

“Maybe not bad,” he said finally, “but is that good enough?”

“I…I know what you mean,” she said haltingly. “Maybe it’s not as intense with us as it used to be. But you can’t expect a relationship to stay that way forever.”

“I did. You used to,” he said accusingly.

She stared deep into his eyes. There was something odd in them that troubled her – something tired and old and wise and sad. She reached over and touched his hand. “What’s wrong, Clay?”

He sat there a moment, a little high and unable to look away. Then he answered her. “I’m not happy, Marianna.”

She stood up, walked around the table, and placed her hand on his shoulder. “You shouldn’t feel that way fella’,” she said fondly.“Look around. We don’t have it so bad here. Jean Pierre lets us rent this place for practically nothing. Every morning we can get up and breathe the air and look out and have the whole Riviera at our feet. And we finally have enough money to be able to enjoy it. Be realistic. I can think of a lot of men who’d be happy to trade places with you.”

“Maybe so. But I’m tired of it all, Marianna. I admit it was exciting at first, being in this beautiful spot and flying to all kinds of different places, going to the parties and meeting interesting people. But I’m bored with that now. I guess as I get older I sense life starting to pass me by. You’ve become a big success. Me…I feel like I’ve sold out. I’m nothing but Howie’s flunky.”

“Everyone sells out some of the time. That’s part of growing up,”she said, and she laughed for an instant, trying to humor him, until she saw the look in his eyes. She saw them narrow and saw that she had said the wrong thing, and her mind started flooding with the desperate sense of a crumbling affair.

“You think I’m soused, don’t you?” he said, looking at her drunkenly,

“I don’t think you’re very sober.”

“Maybe I’m sober enough to know I’m wasting my life, Marianna. You don’t know what I have to put up with flying for Howie.”

“That’s not fair, Clay. I know Howie can be disgusting at times, but he’s been very kind to us. He’s done a hell of a job promoting the band – getting us tours and record contracts. He promoted you to chief pilot before you were thirty. What do you think you can expect from him?”

“Howie’s a scumbag, Marianna. And Utopia’s a corrupt, slimy organization. If you only knew half the things I see flying him around. Things I’m not supposed to talk about. I need to get out before it’s too late. I want to go home – and soon.”

She stared at him in disbelief. “You’re talking crazy, Clay. You’d end up in prison.”

“They’d have to catch me first.”

She started pacing frantically around the table and waving her arms.“You know, I’m beginning to think you’re really dumb, fella’! You’d be a fool to throw away what we have here to take that kind of chance.”

He looked up at her, his eyes a dim blur. “I know the worst could happen. But I want to go home, to Creekwood, and take Cassie and Cody with me. I want to walk down Main Street and show them off and shake everyone’s hand, and go rabbit hunting with my dad, and skinny dipping again at the lake with my mom. She doesn’t even know she’s a grandmother, Marianna. I want her to have a chance to see her grandchildren…I just found out she has cancer.”

“Oh, my God!” Marianna’s abrasiveness wilted. She stopped her frantic pacing and walked over to him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t know it myself until ten days ago,” he said a little dazedly. “I’ve been meaning to tell you. I called my dad the last time I was in London, and he started crying on the phone? It was strange…I’d never heard him cry in all my life.”

“Did he give you any idea – how bad?

“Maybe a year.”

She leaned over and placed her arms around his neck, her enormous dark eyes gushing at him with a sad, devoted look. “Clay,” I’m sorry,”she said. “I didn’t know. In fact, I think I’m beginning to understand a lot of things I didn’t know before. Like why you’ve been so edgy since I’ve been back. Why you drink so much. Maybe even why you haven’t been interested in sex. I understand how important it is for you to go see your mother. It’s just that I’m so afraid you’d be arrested.”

“I think my passport would get me back into the States safely,” he said, raising a fist to muffle a hiccup,

“But then what?” she said quickly. “You’re still a wanted fugitive. You’d have to hide out in the States for the rest of your life. That’s no future. Surely you realize that?”

Clay got up a little unsteadily. He ambled over to the edge of the terrace and looked out over the valley. The air was shimmering from the dry, furnace-hot heat of the sirocco. “It’s hot, he said. “Fires are breaking out in the pines again. If we don’t get some rain soon, this whole mountain may go up in smoke. I’m not even sure I’ll be able to get down the road to the airport in the morning.”

“That would be fantastic!” Marianna said, as she walked over beside him, slipped under his arm, and gave him a little squeeze around his waist. “We could spend the whole day in bed, just like we used to in Cagnes. Remember?” He looked down at her with a smile that told her that he loved her. “You do remember those days in Cagnes, don’t you Clay; our squalid little flat; you tending bar and hustling your ass off for a lousy couple a hundred francs a week? We were happy then. Everything was so simple. Life was fun. I don’t know how we let ourselves get so messed up. Or why things have to be so complicated. It seems so much has happened these past few years I can hardly remember how it all began.”

He looked out over the valley again. Out ahead of him, as far as he could see, the grain fields were scorched and yellow. Below him the pine trees were smoldering and burning their way toward the range of mountains far off to his left. He looked toward the jutting peninsula of Antibes, only faintly visible in the haze, and he pointed beyond, toward Nice and the sea. “It began right out there,” he said quietly.“Remember…I was low on gas and had to land? It’ll be five years ago tomorrow – Bastille Day.

Thanks for stopping by. – VS



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