Download All My Friends Excerpt
Excerpt from All My Friends
By Marie NDiaye
Translated by Jordan Stump
Available from Two Lines Press
When a woman who called herself E. Blaye showed up at the neighbors’ farm, the neighbors—the four Mours—were still eating their lunch.
René watched them eat. From the dark kitchen corner, he looked on as the father’s and mother’s and two Mour boys’ little violet mouths primly, ruefully opened to admit the pieces of eggplant their relentless forks were thrusting inside, leaving only the handles visible between the wary, unwilling, pried-open lips of the Mours and their two boys, who all glanced up together to look at the woman. Sometimes René slid over on his chair and bent his head to one side to watch the Mours’ legs moving gently beneath the table, their long legs, their dainty feet in identical blue espadrilles. The Mours’ eight lower limbs undulated dreamily, and all the while, up above, a battle was being waged between the stubborn mouths and the forks plunging into those mouths’ most secret depths.
The Mours’ four gray gazes landed as one on the visitor.
René straightened up in his seat, although no one was looking his way. It was for that very reason, he knew, because no one felt obliged to pay him any mind, that they let him stay in the kitchen at lunchtime. René was hungry, but they never offered him their leftovers. He sensed that, had one of the Mours cared enough to invite him to share, he would lose his right to stay in that dark corner, nearly every day, swaying in his seat as he watched the little plum-colored mouths straining to fight off the food. Surprised and impatient, they would have said:
“Well, René? Time to go home!”
And could poor René have told them that he felt a kinship with each of those mouths, so fiercely determined to defend its purity against the perfidious temptations of meat, of any food at all? The Mours didn’t realize that their lips opened only because they were forced to, only René could see that, just as he saw, tilting his head, that the Mours’ consciences sided with their placid, swaying legs. René, on the other hand, knew that his whole body and mind struggled against the desire to eat, that weakness, and then that remorse. He knew more about that than the Mours.
Now the woman was explaining that she’d found the door half-open onto the heat of the farmyard, and thought there was no need to knock. She dropped a calling card onto the table and Madame Mour eagerly snatched it up to read it aloud, thereby, without seeking to, without even thinking of it, informing René that the woman’s name was E. Blaye.
“We weren’t expecting you so early,”said Madame Mour.
“I don’t have much time,” said the woman. “I’ve got to get back to work. Let’s try and make this quick.”
A sort of squeal burst from the lips of the younger, handsomer, cleverer of the two Mour sons, the same age as René. He looked down at his plate and the shadow of his eyelashes veiled his cheeks, which, to his deep surprise, René had seen blushing violently. A heavy pall of discomfort filled the kitchen. But it had no effect on the woman, and René could feel her impatience, her irritation. Her gaze darted from brother to brother. It settled on Anthony, the younger, handsomer one.
“This must be him,” she said, placated.
“Yes, that’s him,” said Madame Mour. “Did you hear? Come on, go get your bag.”
And, as Anthony slowly pushed back his chair and rose without a glance at the others, the lower half of his face still dimmed by the blue shadow of his thick black eyelashes, the woman, pleased to see herself obeyed, absent-mindedly turned her attention to the rest of the room, the Mours’ oldfashioned little kitchen, whose décor and amenities they’d been vowing to update for twenty years, never finding the money to do it, and which, René realized, E. Blaye was now seeing in all its clutter of yellowed furniture, brown housewares, pitiful, valiant utensils.
How Anthony was trembling on his way out of the kitchen, René said to himself.
Young and curly-headed, the Mour father sat perfectly still. He stared at his empty plate, breathing heavily.
The woman had briefly but carefully studied Anthony Mour’s lithe physique, confined in an undersized pair of pants and a tank top bearing the crest of an American basketball team, she’d watched him walk away, dragging his espadrilles with a sort of shambling haste, she’d seen, René told himself, heart pounding, Anthony Mour’s grace through his fear and unease, his languidly supple movements, the nudity of his muscular arms, golden and rippling, she’d shivered with pleasure, René told himself, perhaps with relief (had she feared she might end up with the brother?). And then she’d fixed a cold eye on each of the Mours, and then on René, not seeing him, so perfectly did he blend in with the dim wall, the shabby chiaroscuro of the far end of the room.
Now she was pacing, with measured steps. Eager to be done with all this, she cast a glance out at the white, blazing farmyard each time she came to the open door, as if she needed to fill herself with fresh air or the thought of a hot, dazzling freedom before she could plunge back into the Mours’ dim, rancid kitchen, or as if, René thought, the idea of fleeing crossed her mind whenever her footsteps passed from shadowed to sunlit floor tiles. She paced in her flat sandals, indiscreetly checking her watch. Across the farmyard, René saw the oblong form of a car.
“Hurry up!” Madame Mour shouted irritably.
She was yelling up toward the room Anthony had vanished into. She stood, then sat down again, indecisive, ashamed, her thin face deep crimson. The Mour father’s perfect immobility and reproachful, humiliated silence undermined her assurance. Stumbling over her words, she ordered Anthony’s brother to go get him. When they returned, the homelier brother was walking behind, as if to prevent Anthony from backing out, snickering a little, soundlessly, his face contorted—much like Anthony in the muscular slenderness of his limbs, the swinging indolence of his gait, the grimy old American-sports-star jersey, the espadrilles slapping his feet, the tight pants worn very low on his pelvis, but Anthony’s exact opposite, and almost his antagonist, in the form of his face: shapeless, hesitant, blunt, as if seeking to parody the impeccable sharpness of Anthony’s features, and managing only to make itself pathetic and vindictive.
The brother led Anthony to the woman. He laid Anthony’s bag at his feet, then stood close by, keeping a discreet but vigilant watch.
Poor guy, poor guy, thought René, horrified. For the juxtaposition of those two faces, so comparable in their unlikeness, made it abundantly clear that Anthony had been chosen because he’d turned out well, while the other was an inferior product, deeply and irreparably disgraced. Devoid of commercial value, he seemed of no use, and relegated to lowly and inessential tasks: bringing his brother to the woman, remembering the bag, keeping an eye on his brother. And all this with the insincere simpering of one who strives to anticipate authority’s needs, who seeks only to please that authority, and who knows that it never even sees him.
“All right, off we go,” said E. Blaye, gaily.
And to Madame Mour alone, in a clear but quiet voice:
“I’ll write you to arrange the payments.”
The brother acknowledged this with a snort. Unable to answer, Madame Mour half closed her eyes. But René sat in the clutches of an agonizing jealousy. He looked at the Mour father in hopes of convincing himself that Anthony’s situation was in no way desirable, in no way meritorious, the Mour father who sat petrified with disgust at the dishonor being done to his household, but what’s the use, René asked himself, what’s the use, since he wasn’t the one now disappearing into the sun-drenched farmyard, no doubt leaving forever, putting the Mours’ wretched kitchen behind him, since it wasn’t him but handsome Anthony that a woman named E. Blaye, a woman from the city, the same age as Madame Mour but younger-looking, was closely tailing through the dusty farmyard, surely gazing at his tanned nape, his soft shoulders, enveloping Anthony’s neck with the eager warmth of her breath.
“He’s gone,” Madame Mour murmured, coming in from the front step.
“You see how old she was?” said the brother.
And he raised his voice to a scandalized, indignant pitch, but in vain, for, René thought, he had no idea what a true scandal was.
“So?” said Madame Mour. “What difference does that make?”
Neither opening his mouth nor raising his eyes, the Mour father declared:
“You’ll never talk about him again. You’ll never speak his name in my house. He’s dead. He’s gone. We don’t know who he is, where he’s buried, we don’t honor his memory.”
* * *
That evening, René said to his mother:
“The Mours sold Anthony to a lady from town.”
“For how much?”
“They didn’t say.”
“Good for him. He’ll be happier there.”
Slightly eased by the exhausting walk home on a sun-blistered road, that insistent itch of envy and spite now flooded back with new vigor, irritating every fiber of René’s body and soul. He looked at his mother and realized that the mute, outraged question he was asking her (And why shouldn’t you find the same sort of lady for me?) was being answered in kind, by her unhappy, resigned, realistic glance, by a small, dubious shake of the head (What have you got to sell, my son?). He couldn’t help blurting out:
“I’m young, after all.”
It was true, he had that, all that, but was youth without beauty, without money, without talent, emaciated youth in a tin-roofed hut hemmed in almost to the threshold by endless fields of corn that did not belong to René’s mother, was youth unnoticed by all not the equivalent of the grimmest and loneliest old age? René had thought of that, he thought about it unendingly. His youth was purely theoretical. It had neither importance nor weight nor anything he might turn to his benefit. At least Anthony’s brother, the homely Mour, radiated irrefutable youth from his hard, brutal body. René’s own body was feeble, scrawny, and misshapen.
He watched his mother’s hand slide something he didn’t want to look at across the table.
“Have some. You like it”—her voice weary, hopeless, vaguely indifferent.
He gently pushed back his chair and stood up. Lightheaded, he felt his knees buckling. He seized a piece of bread, stuffed it whole into his mouth, and left the house, chewing with difficulty, painfully and despairingly. My God, my God, my God. Outside the doorway, he stumbled over a mangled tricycle, his footsteps crushed pieces of plastic dishware, clothespins, fragments of dirty, rusting scrap metal.
The cool of night was finally coming. Although the sky was still light, the shadows of the cornstalks, taller than René, had already shrouded the house in a squalling violet darkness, insects, mysterious vermin. Through the invisible creatures’ gratings and tiny cries, René could hear the tortured breathing and restive snores of his young brothers and sisters, sleeping together upstairs in the loft, dulled by the heat beneath the tin roof, unpacified, he could picture their little bodies, so absurdly numerous, scattered every which way on the mattresses, freckled with mosquito bites.
René thought about the bread he’d just swallowed. He hopped from foot to foot in the dim light of the cornfields, spitting out tiny crumbs as his tongue dug them out of his cheeks. A bitter self-loathing stopped him from going back inside and up to bed. How feckless he was! What a coward! Had he only, a few moments before, risen from the table brusquely and decisively, his legs would have supported the pitifully slight weight of his bones as they usually did, and he could easily have forbidden his hand to reach out for the bread. Whereas. . . Oh God, oh God. Was it to console his mother? Was it gluttony? Had the bread not literally leapt into his fingers? The memory of that bread strangled his stomach. He thought he could feel himself swelling up monstrously in the dark, inflated by his own cowardice. And was his mother consolable, was gluttony permissible? There was no reason, no excuse, for. . . René clenched his fist and hammered cruel little blows on his forehead, his ears.
He heard the sound of slinking footsteps from the path that led down to their house—for, in a spirit of solidarity, this hovel rented from the cornfields’ owner could just as well become his house, their house, whenever one of those dispiriting men who sometimes and too often turned out to be the father of one of the little forms groaning upstairs in the heat, whenever one of those types in grimy polo shirts, yellow-toenailed in their plastic flipflops, decided to approach it, timidly, as if obeying some unknown convention, some etiquette, some requirement for courtliness and restraint, to pay René’s mother a call that might sometimes last days, or months.
“Yeah? Who’s there?” René shouted, his irritation taking his mind off himself and the memory of the bread.
His voice quavered a little, for it sometimes happened that this very question, barked out dozens of times toward the pitch-black path, met with the reply “It’s your father,” spoken calmly, coldly, objectively, and then the appearance of a man exactly like all the rest, in a tattered t-shirt and old khakis cut off at the knees.
Clenched and ashamed, René would see him glance quickly his way, the faint glimmer of interest in his eyes dimming at once.
And so René could never hear cracking twigs on the path without dread, fearing his father might show up again, smirking and remote, scarcely troubling to conceal his disdain for René, or at least for the René he’d just laid eyes on.
* * *
He continued to haunt the Mour’s farmyard.
Every morning, after walking those of his brothers and sisters who still went to school as far as the bus stop and leaving them on the narrow strip of grass between the road and the cornstalks, he hurried onward down that same road, already hot and dry, soon seeing the bus pass him by, glimpsing his brothers’ and sisters’ faces pressed to the windows, their noses flattened, their eyes too close together, and raised one hand toward those unlovely faces in an attempt at a jaunty wave, thinking “They look just like me,” with pity and disgust, for how was it that such varied progenitors had each time produced this same sort of child, without spark, without strength, without qualities? There was some kind of…something in that…a cruel trick, an injustice? Or else…
He stopped to rest. His head spun, his vision paled. When he finally reached the Mours’ vast, tidy farmyard, his breath came heavy and rough, he was exhausted. Sometimes Madame Mour spotted him and assigned him some chore, which he took his time with, so that he could stay a while longer and try to understand what was eluding him. He refilled the four dogs’ food bowl in the corner of the yard where they were chained up, or opened the old car’s trunk to carry in the bags of food bought at the distant supermarket for the week to come, and meanwhile he focused all his faculties, straining to pick up any sign of a change, of a metamorphosis…of…what? What must the Mour household be like, with handsome Anthony gone? Like the surface of a still, silent water once the stone of humiliation and regret has been swallowed and forgotten? Like the surface of a water more silent than ever before?
Madame Mour would be waiting for him on the front step, arms crossed, distant and benevolent. She watched him intently, arrowing her eyes. She tucked her shoulder-length hair behind her ears and tapped the ground with the toe of her espadrille, unconcerned by the dust she kicked up.
Soon he helped Madame Mour bring in a computer and set it up on a little table in one corner of the kitchen. And when he came the next day, there was Anthony on the screen, against a background of blue sky and glass towers, amid which René thought he could make out the smiling face of the woman named E. Blaye, Anthony so handsome, so glowing, that René couldn’t repress a brief groan.
“You see?” said Madame Mour, triumphant. “You see, you see?”
Had René ever doubted it? Doubted what? The spectacular radiance, the prosperity, the new ecstasy that shone in Anthony’s eyes, that strewed even the sky behind him with sparkles? And the woman’s face was shining as well, splashed with Anthony’s magnificence.
“He sent us some money,” said Madame Mour. “A lot of money, already. And I have the computer and the internet and it’s just like he was here. Isn’t it?”
“Oh yes,” said René.
For there was no denying that Anthony seemed to be there, more than he ever had. Strangely expert, Madame Mour set a string of images flipping by on the screen, showing Anthony’s face at various moments of his consecration, his triumph, in varied locales, or rather, René thought, against various backdrops, for René didn’t quite believe in those American megalopolises, those Florentine villas, those Parisian restaurants against which Anthony’s multiple wonderful faces stood out like illuminations, with an almost naïve sheen, always him, Anthony Mour, but more glorious in each image, more assured—still himself, to be sure, but by the end so remade that René scarcely recognized him. It seemed to him that Anthony’s mouth, chin, and nose had been slightly reshaped. But he must have been wrong, because none of this surprised Madame Mour, whose eyes were crinkling with delight.
“How handsome he is, how handsome—don’t you think?” she murmured.
“Yes,” said René, despairing.
She passed over the next pictures more hurriedly, some of them showing Anthony fully nude, and then some of Anthony and E. Blaye as a couple, also nude, in a whitepainted bedroom. René felt like he’d been punched hard in the chest. Distraught, he glanced at Madame Mour. But, bent over the screen, intent, she only stroked the backs of her ears, where her hair stayed obediently tucked. Her lower lip was slightly curled under—was she at least puzzled? René wondered. Or cautiously refraining from judgment, for the moment?
Did she want to gather all the necessary elements for an explanation, and then an excuse, for… In a neutral tone, René asked her what had happened to Anthony. Then:
“Are you sure it’s him?”
“Don’t you recognize him?” she said, arching her eyebrows, incredulous and mocking.
And, at full speed, she replayed that extraordinary archive of Anthony’s nudity. Beside him, E. Blaye looked short and drab. Her skin seemed to be made of wax, her hair of wool. She smiled tightly, lips pressed together, while Anthony seemed to take every opportunity to exhibit his teeth, whiter and more regular than René remembered.
“René doesn’t recognize our Anthony,” said Madame Mour indulgently, turning toward Anthony’s brother, who’d just come in.
The Mour brother grunted, amused. He glanced vaguely at the screen, gave René a slap on the back. Then Madame Mour turned off the computer, explaining that the Mour father would be home any minute, and there was no way he…
“He can’t stand this, God knows why,” said Madame Mour.
She gave a dry little laugh. She asked René what was so terrible about it. René was trembling all over. He couldn’t come up with an answer. Madame Mour shook her head and made an indignant face.
“Here we are, finally digging out from our troubles, and my husband wants to quibble about the methods. Anthony’s a success, someone was willing to take him in, he helps out his parents, it’s only natural. Isn’t that natural? Wouldn’t you follow a woman, any woman, René, to rescue your mother from hardship?”
“Help me,” René murmured.
“I’m for sale, same as Anthony. Find someone who wants to buy me. Please.”
Madame Mour sat back, crossed her arms. She studied René, reflecting. Snug in a new pair of pants, her long legs shifted gently from one side of the chair to the other.
“It won’t be easy, my little René,” she said. “But I’ll try.”