The Argentinian Virgin
A NOVEL BY
|Her lips burn with chillies and she smokes a cigar.
Her breath is my narcotic.
Her scent is of cloves, of night fevers and spent seed.
What man could resist the Argentinian Virgin?
What woman could bear her horror?
|This is a love story. This is a murder story. This is an old movie that went out of fashion years ago along with fedoras and stockings with seams and music that people in love really wanted to dance to. I don’t even know if kids feel now how we felt then. I don’t know how we felt then. I never understood any of it.
My Uncle Gerald of infamous memory once said no story is ever complete. When I told my wife I wanted to write about the summer I passed in France, now more than fifty years ago, and about Tom and Ben, Maisie and Hetty, she said I shouldn’t – no, she begged me not to. What’s the point of going there? she said. The past is the past, she said. Why rake over it?
The answer is that the past isn’t past and the story isn’t complete. If it were, there’d be nothing to object to. Unfortunately I remember the past too well, or can imagine those parts I’ve forgotten, which is the curse of a writer. My wife chooses to forget out of love and I choose to remember for the same reason.
The past is where we buried our innocence like the body of a violated child in a forest no one visits.9
|I was sitting by the roadside on the route to Auxerre when a cream-coloured convertible passed me at a crawl. It was the twelfth of June, nineteen forty, Paris was on the point of falling and I was on foot in a crowd of refugees making its way south.
I’ve heard stories of German aircraft attacking such columns, but, if it ever happened, I never saw. Instead I remember sitting in a froth of ox-eye daisies and the shade of a line of poplars, with wheat fields either side and a skylark singing its heart out.
There weren’t many cars or trucks in the column, just plenty of carts and bicycles and sometimes a perambulator with a child, a grandmother or a gramophone on top. The cream-coloured convertible passed me and I thought of a carnival float. It was so bright and gay and the refugees surrounded it like dancers or mummers. Two men were in the front and two women in the back, with piles of baggage strapped to the rear: good leather cases and a steamer trunk with the labels still on. They looked as if they were going on holiday, or maybe finishing one. They had that sparkle of people who are completely relaxed.
The men wore pale tan felts pushed back from the forehead so the sun was on their faces. The women wore white hats with shallow crowns and wide brims, fixed just so. I saw only the hats
and heard the laughter, but they were enough to pull me out of
my doze among the daisies and I picked up my bag and followed
at a trot until I caught them.
‘English?’ I asked. ‘American? Don’t tell me you’re Irish!’
I was on the passenger side, and Tom Rensselaer – they gave
me their names in those first few minutes – turned his head. The11
|blond shank of hair fell forward, and he gave me an open smile
that was glad to see me. He said, ‘American. You, too?’
‘No, the real thing.’
Since no one objected, I hopped on the running board and
tipped my hat at the ladies. Hetty said, ‘Top o’ the mornin’ to
you,’ and giggled. Then we all laughed and Tom handed out
Ben Benedict was driving, though without much eye for the
road. At first I thought he and Tom might be brothers. They both had those fair, well-set good looks, and perfect teeth. When you saw him, you thought here was a good fellow you could pass the time with, having a drink or a talk about girls. It was a narrow difference. More profound was something else, an indefinable fineness Tom had and Ben didn’t: the quality that drew people emotionally to Tom: the one he tried not to notice and hated when he did.
At the time I’d eyes only for the women. We were nudging forward through a herd of pigs with one of them nibbling at my trouser cuffs. Hetty held out a hand that flopped ladylike from the wrist. ‘Hester Novaks,’ she said. ‘Everyone calls me Hetty.’
‘I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.’
Hetty was the youngest and I doubt she was twenty-one, which means she was seventeen when she swapped Pittsburgh for Paris. She was pretty though not beautiful. Her blonde hair was bleached, her nose was a little snub and her eyebrows would have been heavy if they weren’t plucked. The truth is none of it mattered: I liked her smile, that and her generous eroticism. Her looks appealed to painters, and Tom told me later he’d found her working as an artist’s model after some jazz musician brought her to France then dropped her.12
| Maisie leaned across her friend. ‘Margaret Benedict,’ she said. ‘I’m Ben’s wife.’ Her voice was low, slightly husky with a Yankee creak in it. She was a brunette, beautiful, narrow and slender hipped. What I noticed most, however, was her neck. Tom called it a ‘Bronzino’ neck. He meant it had length and elegance, which enabled her to pose her head with an expression that had nothing to do with the face.
It became understood that I’d go along with them a while. This was easy at the walking pace of the refugees. I rode on the running board and, when I got tired of that, strolled alongside. ‘Where are you heading for?’ Tom asked.
‘S. Symphorien la Plage.’
‘I don’t know it.’
‘Along the coast west of Cannes.’
‘Is that convenient for Marseilles?’
‘It depends what you mean. There’s a train.’
‘And why are you going there – I mean what do you do?’
‘I’m a writer.’
‘Really? I’m impressed. Are you any good?’
‘I’m world-famous in Ireland.’
‘Are you world-famous anywhere else? Would I know your stuff?’
‘I don’t think so,’ I said and went on to answer the other part of his question. I was travelling to S. Symphorien because my publisher wanted to put me out of harm’s way at a friend’s house while I completed an overdue second novel. When I began my travels there was no war. Paris had distracted me.
Tom asked, ‘Will you stay if the Germans get that far?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Do you think Ireland will join in the war?’
‘Not if Hitler doesn’t attack us.’
We had some conversation about Cannes. They’d been there
over the winter, grown bored and returned to Paris. I asked
where they’d go now.13
| Tom said, ‘We thought of Biarritz. I haven’t tried painting on
the Atlantic coast.’
‘Will America declare war?’
They laughed at the idea.
That night we camped by the road. Hetty said it was ‘a gas’.
They’d left Paris without needing to, and at first thought of the journey as a tour and they’d dine in restaurants in the evening and sleep at hotels. When it didn’t happen, things might have turned sour, but Tom brought them round to the idea they were undergoing an adventure.
‘I used to go camping on Long Island with my dad,’ Tom told me. We were sitting on the bank of a stream that cut through the wheat fields, pitching stones in the water while the swallows skimmed for flies.
He also told me some things about the others.
‘Ben’s grandfather was T. R. Benedict that you’ve heard of. His father doesn’t do much except clip coupons.’
‘How old is he?’
‘My age. What about you?’
‘That’s young for a writer.’
‘I wouldn’t know. Writers rarely meet other writers. What
‘She’s a Bryan – a relative, not exactly a great niece, of William
Jennings Bryan, the Presidential candidate.’
‘I?’ Tom grinned and shook his head. Later I learned he came from a banking family that had gone down in the Crash, and before that there’d been a patroon fortune and an ancestor who’d sold boots to the Army during the Civil war. Ben also implied that Tom had served a while with the volunteers in Spain against Franco.
We were together for five days. On the last couple we made better progress as the refugee column thinned out and people14
|drifted off. Since the weather held, we camped in the open, living out of the cream convertible under a violet sky, and we kept talking as strangers do, not expecting we’d ever meet again.
When I pressed him, Tom told me more of his reasons for being in France.
‘Ben’s father was over here when he was young – that would be in the ‘nineties, I guess, when Europeans and Americans considered each other a marvel. He wanted Ben to have something of the same. He thought two or three years would do no harm.’
‘You met him here?’
‘God, no. We were at Yale together – college days, gaudeamus igitur and all that. I had no money to come to Europe, but Ben wanted a companion and his dad was willing to pay. We came over in thirty-eight and after a while settled with the arty crowd in Paris. I say”arty”, but they were mostly regular types.’
I’d have asked more, but the truth is I was in awe of someone who spoke so easy about the world.
That night we laid up in a vineyard. It wasn’t harvest time and the vines were straggly because the young men had gone off to war. Hetty was sitting with us, her head on Tom’s shoulder as we sat smoking and dreaming. They looked perfectly happy.
We separated the next day and I went south to S. Symphorien while the others pressed on to Biarritz then drifted into Spain and across Vichy into Italy, four glamorous Americans in their glorious youth.15