BETTER LUCKY THAN GOOD by Peter Nolan Smith

A greasy nor-easter ruined Columbus Day weekend for New York. I shut my windows for the first time in months and dressed to leave my apartment for breakfast at the Veselka Diner on 2nd Avenue. The shoes and jacket seemed unnaturally heavy after a season of shorts and sandals. Luckily Global Warming guaranteed that New York would heat up once more before the leaves fell from the trees.

After exiting from my building I dashed along East 10th Street, dodging the raindrops.

Halfway down the block a young man and an attractive older woman walked underneath an umbrella. A pale scarf covered the woman’s head and the long black raincoat acted as a chador for her body.

Her handsome escort made her laugh.

I stopped running.

That laugh belonged to Marie.

As she neared, I almost said hello, but the elegant Quebecoise appeared happy and I sidestepped out of their path.

Marie must have recognized my walk, for she called my name with a touch of disbelief.

“Is that you?”

“Yes, I live on this block.” She had been there once in 1988. “I’m surprised to see you in New York.”

I’m shooting a film here.” Marie tugged off the scarf and unleashed her casually coifed blonde hair. Her beauty remained as intoxicating as our final kiss good-bye in Paris.

“You haven’t aged a day.”

“Most men say that.” The timeworn compliment rang leaden on her ears.

“And it’s the truth.”

Several night ago I had seen her in a film by Claude Lelouch. It had been rented from Kim’s Video.

In one scene Marie had been naked.

Her breasts lay flat against her chest.

Blonde hair hung down her back.

The memory of her body was too familiar to endure the entire sex scene.

“Thanks.” She introduced the handsome young man as the lead actor in the movie. “I’ll hit it big.”

“Only if the camera lets me.” His eyes were Paul Newman blue and his smile shone with a desire for the silver screen.

“The camera never lies,” I opined without conviction. I was a failure as a writer.

“It’s the lighting that helps hide the truth.” The actor started a discourse on acting, but I cut him short with a question to Marie. “How long are you in town?”

“Just another week. Maybe we can meet for lunch.” She stepped closer to the young man for shelter under the umbrella.

I stuck my hands in my pockets.

“I’m at the same number and the same apartment?”

When we had been contemplating of a life together, she had visited the three narrow rooms of 3E. A loft or a hotel room on the park was suitable for her beauty. “I’ve been living there since 1977.”

“Except for when you stayed with me in Paris” The blonde actress lilted her head to the side and a golden curtain slipped across her face.

“And a couple of other places.”

Marie and I might have spent part of a lifetime with each other instead of less than a half-year. It took me a long time to discover that she gave me many more months than other lovers. Wanting it all had been asking too much.

“Your friend, Jeffery, he introduced us.” She touched my hand as a silent apology for our failed romance.

“Jeffery’s dead almost seven years and his girls are almost grown.”

“And he’s not the only one.” Paris and Manhattan were populated by ghosts of both the living and dead. I heard you died in a motorcycle accident.”

“A truck hit me head-on in Burma and killed me instantly.” I lifted my bent left wrist and she shook her head. “You’re joking?”

“I’m too old to lie.” It was easier to remember the truth. “I hit the windshield and flipped over the truck to land on a pile of rice and an old woman. The old lady looked in the air for the airplane from which I had fallen>”

“You were always lucky.”

Her words aged me a hundred years, because I had never been lucky in love and asked, “How’s your pig?”

“Doe-Doe passed away a couple of years ago.” Doe-Doe was a French expression for sleep. Her pig loved a good snooze and it was funny that her pig never snored in its sleep.

“Sorry, you really loved that pig.” Doe-Doe had a sense of humor and danced to Jacques Dutronc like a drunken legionnaire.

“You had a pig?” The young actor understood his role in this scene was as straight man to two old lovers.

“She considered cats and dogs dirty.”

“And pigs are clean?”he chuckled and Marie narrowed her Atlantic green eyes.

I answered for her.

“Pigs only wallow in the mud to stay cool. Her pig was toilet-trained.”

“So you’re a pig-lover.” The actor winged the improvised scene.

“Why not? They saved my life.”

“How?” The actor feigned interest.

“Knowing you it’s a probably a long story and we have to rehearse our lines.” Marie leaned forward to kiss me.

“More than a hundred words.”

I turned my head. The twin pecks on the cheeks were a far cry from making love in the shadows on the Tuileries.

“Another time then.” She pulled away without asking for my phone number.

“Still wearing Chanel.” Marie had been their spokesperson.

“Some things stay the same.”

The tolling from the St. Mark’s steeple broke the spell of the past and she tucked her arm under her escort’s arm.

“Good seeing you. You take care.”

“Don’t worry about me, I’m indestructible.” I walked away to be soaked by the rain.

Once Marie and I had lain naked in bed for days. I had bought her flowers and she had cooked me meals fit for a deposed king. She sang her songs of love with a reedy voice and I played Gene Ammons records on her stereo. I hadn’t been a younger man in 1988, but I had confused lust for love. It was more a talent than a fault.

I turned around and watched the two of them cross the street. They belonged here more than me, for Marie was right about my immortality.

None of my friends, enemies, or family had expected to live long enough to have gray hair.

I had been drowned by a double-overhead wave in Bali, beaten to a pulp with baseball bats on the Lower East Side, drunkenly blown the red-lights on Comm. Ave in Boston, and survived an Olds 88 t-boning my VW in front of the Surf Nantasket.

I missed death on countless other occasions.

A second sooner or later crossing a street and a car might have crushed me on its fender.

A slip in the bath and I drown.

Fitness had no influence on my survival and I believed in luck, which is little protection against the deadliest assassin of all.

Yourself.

In THE COMEDIANS Graham Greene writes, “However great a man’s fear of life, suicide remains a courageous act, for he has judged by the laws of averages that to live will be more miserable than death. His sense of mathematics has to be greater than his sense of survival.”

In 1974 I had gambled in Reno on my twenty-second birthday. I lost everything and woke on the banks of the Truckee River wishing I was dead. It wasn’t the first or last time I challenged my mortality, yet nothing prepared me for a sudden lurch toward the brink of self-destruction in 1988.

The summer had started with my faux-cousin, Olivier Brial, throwing me the keys to his family’s beach home. Carnet-sur-Mer wasn’t the Riviera. Only the Riviera was the Riviera, but I wrote during the day, swam in the Med in the afternoons, and ate with his family in the evening.

The town had no nightlife outside the cafes and by the end of August I had completed my collection of short stories. I thanked the Brials for their hospitality and bid Perpignan farewell, fully confident of my book’s success in Manhattan’s literary world. I hitchhiked along the Autoroute to Avignon and headed into the Luberon, where my friend, Jeffery Kime, was renovating an ancient villa on the outskirts of Menerbes.

Summer ended slowly in Provence and I took a taxi from the national route up an old Roman road. Jeffery’s dog barked out my arrival. His wife and kids shouted warm greetings from the terrace. Lunch was set for ten guests. Jeffery introduced me as an ‘author’.

After a long repast of fresh vegetables, succulent fish, and melons accompanied by countless bottles of red wine, I read them a story of swimming in the Quincy Quarries.

Jeffery’s wife claimed I was the next big writer. Their friends toasted my upcoming success. We ate fresh foods and drank cheap good wine from bottles emblazoned with stars. The day lingered with the regret of a season’s end and I sat at the table, admiring the scenery of ruined towns stretching through the Luberon Valley.

That evening I went to sleep in the attic. I was happy and expected to be happier in the morning, instead I woke in an unexpected state of deep despair.

This depression was not the result of a mere hangover. I was inflicted with a disease and swiftly diagnosed its source by peeking out the attic’s tiny window. Jeffrey’s youngest daughter was holding onto the tail of their Golden Retriever and relieved herself au natural. Her mother joyously declared, “Matilda’s getting toilet-trained by a dog.”

The couples at the breakfast table laughed without restrain. The women were beautiful. The men had successful artistic jobs. Their lives were moving towards a reachable goal and I was going nowhere fast.

I bid them good-night with a faked smile and secluded myself in the attic completely devastated by this flipflop of moods, asking myself, “What next?”

I stood at the window and my eyes crossed the night sky.

Jeffery’s house nestled under an escarpment separating the Luberon from the coast. A dirt trail climbed through the vineyards past a quarry. The centuries of backbreaking work had created a three-hundred foot cliff and the sheer white face murmured a single syllable.

“Jump.”

Not like David Lee Roth sang in Van Halen’s second album.

Simply, “Jump.”

The next morning Jeffrey sensed my dismay and didn’t leave me on my own for several days.

He was a good friend.

His surveillance wavered with the preparations for a Sunday dinner. His wife demanded that he accompany her for shopping in Avignon. His two kids begged me to come along. I smiled and said, “I’m going for a long walk.”

“Will you be here, when we return?” Jeffery opened the door to his Volvo. His wife corralled their two daughters into the rear and said, “Where else can he go?”

“I’ll take a walk in the beautiful French countryside,” I answered with a smile.

As soon as the car disappeared around the curve, I set out for the path skirting the white cliff face. I rested atop the hill.

To the West the River Rhone shimmered as a silvery snake under the late August sun and the northern horizon wore the broken toothed snowy Alps. Not a single cloud spoiled the blazing blue sky and fragrant wildflowers scented the wind. It was too beautiful for any more words and I walked toward the edge, determined to exorcise the word ‘jump’ from my vocabulary.

Only twenty feet from eternity primal snorts shivered the underbrush. The bushes rustled apart for two little pigs. They were unusually hairy and cute.

I took a single step toward them.

The babies squealed in alarm and a louder snort trumpeted from behind a rock.

I turned my head in horror.

A massive boar with two yellow tusks curling from her snout and coarse black hair coating her sinewy spine trotted before the piglets. The black pearl eyes glared a maternal hatred, as the beast scrapped the earth with a cloven hoof before lowering its horrible head to charge me in a slather.

Screaming I fled across the plateau to climb a wizened tree. The boar rammed the trunk several times. Each impact shuddered the trunk.

After its babies scooted into the bushes, the ugly brute vanished from the plateau.

Not sure it wasn’t playing a trick, I swayed in the tree for another minute, realizing my will to survive this boar attack had triumphed over my desire to die.

A priest might have deemed the incident a miracle and I might have offered a prayer in thanks, only I wasn’t sure which saint was the patron of pigs, so I dropped out of the tree and returned down the hill to Jeffrey’s house.

The kids were chasing each other in a squall of shouts, the guests were drinking rose and conversing about a nearby neighbor’s book about life in Province. Jeffrey’s wife was slicing a slab of meat for the barbecue and my friend was peeling potatoes. Relieved by my reappearance, he asked, “Where have you been?”

“Out for a walk.” Explaining my mad dash from suicide was a topic for another day and I helped chop the potatoes with a knife. It was sharp and I was careful not to cut my fingers. “What are we having for dinner?”

“A nice roasted pork.” Jeffery beamed with a lean hunger.

“Pork?” I protested and Jeffery scowled, “You convert to Islam?”

“Not a chance, just a change of heart.” Grateful to the boar’s intercession, if only momentarily, I said, “I”ll stick to the potatoes for today.”

“Suit yourself,” Jeffery shrugged and I drank a glass of wine.

It was good to want to live again.

Later that fall in Paris Jeffery introduced me to Marie.

I was happy for a while and smiled approaching Veselka. Bacon was sizzling on the grill. A greasy breakfast was a good start to the rainy day for a man in his 50s and asking for anything more from life than breakfast became risky, but I can deal with surprises.

I’ve had many, for while pigs can’t fly, they sometimes can save your life.

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