Thanks Giving in Paris-1964

THE Atlantic


by Mary McCarthy

A haruspex peering into the entrails of the sacrificed traditional bird would have warned one Peter Levi to beware of divisive controversy on the feast of Thanksgiving. Holidays, as he ought to know, were unlucky for him anyway. Instead of obeying the summons to partake of turkey ‘n’ trimmings with the other waifs assembled by the general’s wife, he would have done better to stay home, with the door bolted, holding no communications. Holidays brought out the worst in everybody; the Last Supper, terminating in the Agony in the Garden, was par for the course. As they struggled out of their coats with the aid of the Spanish maid in the vestibule of the general’s pad in Neuilly, the motley crew viewed each other with a natural suspicion. Besides the male strays, readily identifiable in their unwanted ties and sports jackets, there was a functionary from the Embassy and his family, who had inescapably put the finger on Peter in the close confinement of the elevator (“I guess we all want the fifth, don’t we?”), a tall fresh-faced girl with long American feet, an Air Force wife minus a husband, and some middle-aged French reactionaries, military, with their unattractive daughter, who were supposed to be getting a free glimpse of real American hospitality. After the vast repast, preceded by bourbon and laced with sparkling Vouvray, they all had to go and play softball in the Bois.

There were fourteen at table, which led Peter to speculate that one of their number had been recruited at the last minute to take the jinx off. The general normally was a fairly affable guy, with a white fat baby face, black eyebrows, and a peculiar haircut, shaved on the sides and standing up on top in short black bristles, which made him look like a convict. He was attached to NATO, Peter gleaned today, and was an expert on supply and procurement. His wife, named Letitia (pronounced Leteetia by her husband), was small, Southern, and friendly. “Can I sweeten your drink, honey?” was her usual soft refrain. None of the guests, it appeared, had met each other before, and some were meeting the host for the first time. His daughter led them up. “Dad, this is Jay Williams. Dad, this is Roberta Scott.” “Good to know you, Jay. Good to know you, Roberta. Glad to have you with us.” Peter he greeted by his last name, which perhaps indicated a promotion. “How’s it going, Levi? Have you sold that motor bike yet?”

If this had been an all-American get-together, conversation might have found its natural level, albeit low. But during the cocktail period, just as people were starting to relax, daughter Jean, prodded by the Frenchwoman, initiated a tour of the art in the apartment from which, like lifeboat drill, nobody was excused. Freighted with drinks and cigarettes, searching furtively for ashtrays or frankly using a trouser cuff or the wall-to-wall carpeting, the straggling troops inspected Korean graphics and Puerto Rican oils, Japanese ivories, Taiwan scrolls, Spanish fans, German beer steins, Italian majolica, hanging on the walls or installed in cabinets with interior lighting—the general, needless to say, had served in all those places on the U.S. defense perimeter and enjoyed a perfect recollection of the circumstances of each purchase, with emphasis, naturally, on the haggling.

Then, at table, his wife actually explained the principle of Thanksgiving to the French. “It isn’t a social event with us, you see. It isn’t exactly a family event either, like Christmas, which I always think should be for the children. It’s the day when we Americans—oh, help me, Chuck-as we thank God for our blessings, try to gather under our roof some of our fellow countrymen who might be lonely or homesick. And all over the world, Americans are sitting down to the same meal the Pilgrims ate: turkey and fixings, giblet gravy, creamed onions, mashed turnips or rutabagas . . . Why, I’d feel like a heretic if I served duck or Rock Cornish game hen. Though I was reading the menus in the Herald-Tribune—” “The stranger at the gate,”interrupted the general. “Yes, thank you, Chuck! I was coming to that. We always make sure to have some foreign guests with us. Last year, when we were back home at the Academy, we had this lovely Japanese couple.”“It’s just a harvest festival, isn’t it?” Peter said, tired of feeling like the Hundred Neediest Cases reduced to capsule form. As far as he could see, what was happening was that Americans were giving loud thanks for being Americans, and, as the hostess said, this was going on all over the world concurrently—allowing for the time difference; the orgy had not as yet started in New York.

To Peter, slightly drunk, the meal seemed like a grotesque parody of his mother’s annual bounty. The general’s wife had the same idea as his mother, only his mother was more refined about it. Identifying with the French couple, whom he disliked on sight, he could not help seeing it as a gross and stupid debauch. Yet “Leteetia” was a perfectly nice woman, according to her lights. She had made that awful speech like a nervous recitation; maybe service wives abroad got directives from the Pentagon on what to tell the natives about Thanksgiving. The poor creature looked exhausted, having no doubt spent the morning basting the turkey with her bulb-baster. The rouge stood out on her inflamed cheeks. The work she and daughter Jean, with whom she seemed to have a good relationship, had put into the food and the table setting, down to the last nut cup, was begging pathetically for notice. The art that conceals art, Peter reflected glumly, was not an American specialty. With his thumbnail, unobtrusively, he peeled off the price tag from his handcrafted napkin.

As for Chuck,” he was in a critical mood. He ordered the carving knife back to the kitchen to be sharpened and dismissed the autumnal centerpiece, which was obstructing his view, to the sideboard. Listening to the rasp of the combination can opener and knife sharpener in the pantry, Peter surmised that they had had a family difference this morning. Had the general been issuing the invitations, he suspected, there might have been fewer under-age deadheads on the list.

If you could ignore the commercials, the food was not too bad. Frankly Peter would not have guessed that the turkey was frozen, from the PX, if the hostess had not announced the fact with what he supposed was pride. In her place, he would have omitted the marshmallows from the candied sweet potatoes, but he approved of the hot Parker House rolls Jean had baked herself this morning, and the stuffing spiked with brandy was OK. The dinner plates, with the Air Force Academy coat of arms, were duly warmed in a sort of electric blanket on a tea wagon at the hostess’ left. It was not her fault that, on this of all days, one of the waifs she had collected proved to be a vegetarian.

“Dark or light, Roberta?" queried the general, spearing a slice of breast on the point of his antlered knife. His daughter was holding out a plate destined for the tall girl on Peter’s right. “I won’t take any, General Lammers.” It was as if an infernal machine, quietly ticking, had been planted in the room. The appalled general looked at his wife. He set down the carving knife. “No turkey?” “But honey, you didn’t eat your shrimp cocktail either!” moaned Letitia. It was true, Peter realized: his neighbor had left a neat little pile of shrimps in her monogrammed glass goblet and eaten only the lettuce ribbons and the chili sauce. But the significance of it had escaped him. “Is it Paris tummy, honey? We’ve got just what you need. Jeanie, dear, run and get the Vioform from my medicine cabinet.”"She’s a vegetarian, Mama,”said Jean. “I forgot.” “Oh, come on,” said the general. “This is Thanksgiving!” His white hands, with black hairs on the knuckles, played impatiently with the carving implements. The girl held her ground. “No, thank you. I won’t. Really.” The rest of the company looked away. He essayed playfulness. “I’m in command here. Mess Sergeant Jean, hold that plate where I can reach it.” “She doesn’t want any, Dad. Don’t force her.” “Pshaw!" He laid the slice of breast on the plate, which was already heaped with onions, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, and so on, placed there by his wife at the other end of the table. “Take that to the young lady.”

Now everybody was watching her, some, like Peter, covertly. She had a long nose and short boyish-cut hair that rose in a crest over a “noble” brow. Her eyes were gray, somewhat close together, and she had large appealing ears that reddened easily, as if people were talking about her, which might well be the case. She wore a gray dress made of wool, with a round white collar and a string of pearls, which had been appraised with care by the Frenchwoman, who had eyes like a customs inspector, Peter searched his memory for when or how he had met this dauntless girl before. Maybe in another incarnation. She looked like the title of a book the babbo was fond of recommending— The Protestant Ethic—but with pink cheeks and a shy grin. If he put a tricorn on her head, he could picture her as a revolutionary patriot dumping tea into Boston Harbor. He felt sure he had seen her portrait, maybe in male attire, in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum or in some history textbook.

“The stuffing, Chuck. Give Miss Scott some stuffing.” The girl opened her thin pink lips as if to protest, then bit the lower one and said nothing. Her plate was returned to the head of the table. The general spooned some stuffing onto it, and taking possession of the gravy boat, rapidly ladled giblet gravy onto her mashed potatoes. “There!”

As her desecrated plate came back, she and Peter exchanged a dismal look. Catching the distress signal, he quickly passed her the cranberry jelly and looked around for olives and celery. “Here, have some.” Angry with the general, he gulped down his Vouvray. Nobody would convince him that “Chuck” was just insensitive, incapable of understanding that his own food habits might not be acceptable to the entire human race. Or that he was hurt by the girl’s rejection of the sacred fowl, though that no doubt played a part. Unless Peter had gone stir crazy in his solitary cell on the rue Monsieur le Prince, at the head of the table sat a vicious sadist wearing the jovial mask of hospitality. He had seized that gravy boat like a weapon in hand-to-hand combat. No wonder they had made him a brigadier general — at least that mystery was solved. Peter wished he had the strength to pass up the turkey himself, when his turn came, as an act of solidarity. But there were always others to consider, in this case Letitia, who had been toiling harmlessly in the kitchen.

As an animal-lover, Peter had sometimes wondered whether he ought not to become a vegetarian. In Perugia he had been nauseated by those poor crumpled little birds the Italians loved to serve— the brain, believe it or not, was the choice morsel. Yet whenever he had feebly tried to interest himself in a naturist diet of fruit and raw vegetables, he had come up against his juvenile gluttony. He could live without steak and chicken, he had decided, but he doubted his present ability to forgo lobster and tuna fish. What he had not taken into account was the social pressures he would have to resist. He would need to be a hero, he now saw.

His other neighbor, a blue-eyed leathery lady with long earrings and gray hair cut in a fluffy bang, was waiting to engage him in conversation. During the first course she had been filling him in on the fact that her husband had left her for a German girl he had picked up hitchhiking on the autoroute. She now recaptured the thread. “Letitia thinks I ought to go home to the States. But what the hell? I’ve gone to all the trouble to learn French, why shouldn’t I stay here? He doesn’t own Paris. He wants a divorce, but if I give him a divorce, they’ll take away my PX card and my QC privileges. You can smile, Peter, but to me it’s a tragedy. Twenty years as an Air Force dependent, and tomorrow, if I let him have his so-called freedom, the guards at the PX will tell me, ‘Sorry, ma’am, we can’t let you by. That card has expired.’ Civilians don’t dig what it means to us. Chuck and Letitia can entertain lavishly because, between you and me, they don’t buy a thing on the French market. Not even a stick of celery.”

Ordinarily Peter would have felt sorry for this coarse-grained Donna Elvira. Maybe she loved the guy and was ashamed to mention that; it was odd what people were ashamed of, sometimes the best part of themselves, which they looked on as “weakness,” he guessed. But now, though he kept an ear politely bent in her direction, his eyes slid to his right. Roberta Scott had not succumbed to the appetizing slice of breast in its casing of crisp brown skin. Instead, she was eating carefully around it: the onions, the rutabagas, the sweet potatoes, the Ocean Spray cranberry jelly. She avoided the mashed potatoes polluted with gravy and the stuffing contaminated by animal fat and juices during its stay in the oven. He followed the progress of her fork as it constructed fortifications against the giblet gravy, which ran between the banks of vegetables, lapped at the base of the tottering tower of jelly, divided into rivulets, and finally congealed. Peter was fascinated by these maneuvers. It was like watching a game of jackstraws or a kid on the beach building a sand castle as the tide was coming in. Others were stealing looks too. Only the general, content with his petty tactical victory, disregarded what was happening on her plate.

“Somebody ought to tell her parents!” interjected the gray-haired lady, tracing Peter’s wandering interest to its source. “Did you ever see anything like that? Look how thin she is.” Actually, in Peter’s estimation, Miss Scott was in the pink of condition, compared to the fat sallow French girl in a two-tone taffeta blouse and to Jean, who today had a sty. She might be underweight, but her eyes were clear, and her breasts made two modest rounds under the thin wool of her dress. An image jumped into his mind of a healthy well-cared-for animal. Her long nose, made for sniffing and scenting, would be cool to the touch, and her hair invited stroking, like a shining pelt. She had gone to Bryn Mawr, he ascertained, and was working at the Institut Pasteur. She must be around twenty-three because after Bryn Mawr she had done a year of medical studies in Philadelphia, where her family lived. It was not hard to picture her as an intern, in a white coat, with a stethoscope.

Meanwhile the carnivores lifted forks that appeared to have grown heavy with their cargo of turkey and trimmings. They wiped grease from their mouths, quaffed wine, sought elusive food particles between their teeth with their tongues or a furtive fingernail; the older women’s lipstick smeared. This Roberta did not seem to be wearing lipstick, and she was not drinking her wine. That did not long escape detection. “Don’t you drink either, Miss Scott?” said the hostess, in a voice like the wringing of hands. “I used to sometimes. But I don’t really like it.” “Not even wine? But you’re in France.” “I know.” “A glass of milk then?” It turned out that she did not drink milk either. “For Christ’s sake, Letitia,” said the general. “Let’s hear about something else.”

He got up and filled glasses all around, but since Roberta Scott’s was already full, indeed brimming, there was nothing he could do about it. He sat down heavily in his place and fixed his light-green eyes, like two probes, on the girl, searching out her secret. “Roberta, Roberta,” he chided. It could not be denied that this fasting vestal was putting quite a crimp in the festivities. “Vous etes une trouble-fete, mademoiselle,” the Frenchwoman said with a thin pretense of pleasantry. “What is that in English?” “A wet blanket. I know it,” Roberta said seriously. “I’m really sorry, Mrs. Lammers.” “Don’t give it a second thought, sugar. Just enjoy yourself in your own way. If you’re happy, we’re happy.” That, of course, was a lie. They would not be happy unless she conformed to their definition of enjoyment, which meant that she would have to be miserable to satisfy them.

Yet if she were old and decrepit or dying of stomach cancer or just unattractive, they would leave her in peace. The fact that she was cheerful and appealing, though not everybody’s pinup, was what threw them into disarray. Peter did not except himself. One part of him—he hoped a small fraction-had been backing the general in that contest of wills. He admired her force of character, but why come to Thanksgiving dinner if you were determined not to eat like the rest of the tribe? She could make an exception, just once, to be polite. On the other hand, if she started breaking her rule to please other people, she might as well give up being a vegetarian, he supposed. She had a right to eat and drink whatever she wanted. The trouble was, when she started exercising that right in public, she infringed on the right of the rest of the company to have a good time.

Take him. Like the other castaways, he assumed, he had been looking forward to the occasion, spotcleaning his jacket, shining his shoes, drinking a liter of milk to line his stomach, hesitating over the choice of a tie. As the hostess had indicated, it was no fun to render thanks all by yourself in a crummy restaurant, which was the only kind a student could afford late in the month on his exhausted allowance. Now he felt like a dipsomaniac cannibal.

Her best solution, he meanly concluded, was to become a hermit. The Middle Ages had the right idea; anybody who wanted to mortify his flesh retired from the world to do it solo. She ought to live in a hut in the forest of Fontainebleau, eating wild berries and honey and wearing a shift made of bark. Even there, strangers would come to look at her, probably, and try to feed her, the way they did with animals in the zoo.

“How do you stand on honey?” he said abruptly. She turned her head, puzzled, chin drawn in, like a bird registering interrogation. “I mean,” he said, goading, “it’s cruel, isn’t it, to take honey from bees?” She pondered. “I suppose it is,” she said, knitting her brows. “I never thought about it. I’m not a strict vegetarian, though. With me, it’s not a moral thing. When you study medicine, you learn not to worry too much about the sacredness of life. You have to experiment on animals in the laboratory. Anyway, golly, where do you draw the line? A tree is alive. How do we know it isn’t conscious when we chop it down? It bleeds just like a human. I just know I feel better if I don’t eat meat and some other animal foods.”

On hearing that it was not a “moral thing,” Peter felt immediately relieved, which was odd. He hoped she was telling the truth and not merely trying to make him feel comfortable in his carnivorous soul. The general’s wife broke in. “Is this a health fad or what, honey? What made you decide to take up vegetarianism? I don’t mean to be intrusive, but tell us, do you really think it’s cruel to kill animals?” So it was not only him. Even the general, who was carving seconds, paused with his knife in midair to await the verdict.

The girl repeated, in substance, what she had just been saying to Peter. He wondered how many times a week she had to respond to that query, in short how often she was invited out to meals. In restaurants, did the waiters ask her? He ought to make her a present of his idea of a pocket tape recorder that furnished standard answers to standard questions. But she did not seem to mind explaining herself at length. Unlike most people, she spoke, he noticed, in paragraphs—somewhat breathlessly.

“To answer your other question, Mrs. Lammers, I really don’t know what made me take up being a vegetarian. You could call it a health fad, I guess. But I’ve had a sort of ‘thing’ about meat ever since I was little. They had to coax me to eat it. Then in boarding school I overcame my prejudice. You know how hungry you get in school. The same in camp. And at home I have three younger brothers who aren’t too fond of vegetables. My mother has to plan meals to suit the majority.

“But finally in college I started to think for myself. I got to understand body chemistry, and I realized that I was being poisoned by what I was eating. Literally. I would keep falling asleep in my after-lunch class; they gave us our heavy meal at noon. Senior year I skipped lunch and ate carrots and peanut butter and dried figs in my room, and right away my marks in Latin—that was my twothirty class then—went from C-minus to B-plus. But then I lost weight. I wasn’t getting enough calories. So when I came to Paris this fall, I saw that here was my chance to experiment. They have these terrific vegetables in the markets, and I found an apartment with a kitchen, where I could cook all sorts of messes. For me, that was real independence. Freedom, golly me!”

“Liberty Hall,” said the general. “It’s small, but it’s home. What I’d like to know, is there some theory behind this? Anything to do with cholesterol?” This year, Peter had observed, all the croulants were talking with bated breath about cholesterol, as if it were some new weapon in biological warfare aimed at shortening their lives. The exception was his mother, he was glad to say.

Cholesterol was not really the point, said Roberta. If you eliminated animal foods from your diet, naturally you eliminated animal fats also, thus reducing the cholesterol level in the blood. “But the way vegetarians see it, a low cholesterol diet based on lean meat, poultry, and fish may be almost as harmful to the body as a high cholesterol diet. Man is descended from herbivores. His organs weren’t designed for the absorption of animal flesh. We don’t know when he became a hunter and an omnivore, but we know that the habit isn’t natural to the order of primates, with the exception of some of the baboons. Why, some people actually claim that it’s a flesh diet that’s turned man into a killer of his own kind! He has the tiger’s instincts without the tiger’s taboos. Of course that’s only a hypothesis. One way of testing it would be for humanity to practice vegetarianism for several generations. Maybe we’d find that war and murder would disappear.”

“Do they have vegetarians in Russia?” the general demanded, emerging from a mental tunnel with a cunning look on his face. Nobody could enlighten him. Roberta guessed that most vegetarians in Russia had been Doukhobors and had emigrated to Canada a long time ago. Peter was interested in the Doukhobors. “They were fantastic,” he said. “Completely nonviolent. They not only refused military service, they wouldn’t even take up arms against wolves and bears. I read—” The general, with a chuckle, cut him off. “Say, Roberta, why don’t you go to Russia and make some converts? That’s the place to test your theory. Organize a vegetarian movement.” “Don’t tease her, Dad.” “I’m not teasing. I’m serious. If she has a plan for changing human nature, let her tell this Kosygin about it. He’s her boy. ‘Everybody turn vegetarian or get sent to a slave labor camp.’ ” “Don’t listen to him,” cried Letitia, “Why, if you went there and tried to spread the message, they might arrest you as a spy.” “‘Antisocial element,'” muttered Peter. The general snorted. “‘Might’! You bet they would. They’re not interested in eliminating Ivan’s fighting instinct. But in the States we’ve got a Vegetarian Party on the ballot. That shows the difference, doesn’t it? Did you vote Vegetarian, Roberta?”

“I think you mean the Prohibition Party, General Lammers,” she said mildly. “Actually, if you want to know, I voted for Johnson. I’m not a crank; at least I hope not. I don’t believe you can legislate reforms in people’s habits. It has to be voluntary. Of course, it’s hard not to want to make converts when you see the change in yourself. I feel so much better physically and mentally since I gave up animal foods. It’s amazing. My motor reactions are quicker. I need less sleep.There’s a big improvement in my attention span. It’s not just a subjective thing. Even my French teacher notices a difference. I honestly think my IQ must have gone up by several points.”

“Well!” summed up the hostess. A pall settled again on the banquet, which was looking more and more like a replica of Belshazzar’s Feast or the dream of the great king, his father, who was put out to eat grass. The convives, if Peter was a fair sample, had now started to worry about the damage they had been inflicting on their brains.

He stared at the huge drumstick bone, like a fossil remain, on his plate. A junior from Northwestern offered a ray of hope. “You’ve got to remember evolution. If eating meat was bad for man, he wouldn’t have survived. Or he would have kicked the habit back in the Stone Age. Man evolved as a flesh-eating higher animal. Maybe he’s more intelligent than the apes because he became a meat-eater.”

“Hear, hear!” said the general, “Well, Roberta, you’ve certainly given us food for thought, ha ha. What about booze? Are you going to tell us that monkeys don’t use fermented beverages?” The girl calmly declared that she had given up drinking for pleasure. “You’d be surprised. Truly. I have a much better time now than when I drank cocktails and wine. I like the taste of wine, but just one glass made me sluggish and torpid.” “But you smoke,” loyally prompted Jean. “Oh, yes. And I drink coffee and tea. Lots.”

She had a high cheerful sturdy voice, somewhat childish for her age, as if she had been used to living with deaf people. It was true that her assertions were falling on deaf ears. In this group of skeptics, nobody would buy the idea that her abstemiousness was just an innocent form of hedonism, which was the conclusion you would be driven to if you accepted her explanations. In fact, Peter did not buy it himself. If she smoked and drank coffee, it was just protective coloration—the homage virtue paid to vice. He bet she did not inhale.

On the other hand, he recalled, there was the precedent of Epicurus. “There was Epicurus,” he said, addressing the center of the table. “What about him?” Most people don’t realize he was an ascetic. I did a paper on him for a course in ethics. He lived on barley bread and cheese and water because he thought the simple life was the way to achieve happiness, which he considered the summum bonum. Naturally nobody would believe that. Instead, they believed all the lies the Stoics spread about him being a gourmet and lecherous with women. So now Epicureanism means just the opposite of his teaching. But Roberta”—he stumbled— “I mean, Miss Scott, is a real Epicurean. She puts pleasure ahead of virtue, and nobody believes her because they identify pleasure with gross sensual satisfaction.” Everybody, including Miss Scott, was gazing at him in wonderment. “Epicurus cultivated serenity of mind. He died with great fortitude of the stone,” he concluded.

“The stone!” shrieked the hostess. “Do you mean gallstones? But that’s cholesterol!” Peter was not attending. As when he had delivered a short harangue in class, his own distant words roared in his ears like the pounding of the sea in a conch shell. Then slowly he began to pick up fragments of the surrounding chatter. “But what about your proteins?” “Vitamin A?” “Not even cottage cheese?” “Green noodles.” “But if you eat noodles, you’re eating eggs, aren’t you?” “Don’t you find it hard in the restaurants here? You never see a vegetable except in the markets. I always wonder what they do with them.” Peter recognized the languid voice of a Princetonian major in government studies. The clamor of agreement and laughter betrayed the anti-French sentiment ever ready to be mobilized when Americans in Paris got together. And as happened with anti-Semites merrily fraternizing, nobody at the table seemed to remember that there were French people present. “I mostly eat in Italian restaurants,” the girl said, when the chortles had died down. “They don’t mind if you only take spaghetti with tomato sauce and salad and fruit. At home, when I cook for myself, I use the Yoga cookbook.”

“I use that too!” cried Peter, who had bought his secondhand along the Seine. “It has some great recipes.” “Fantastic. Where in the world did you find yours? At Brentano’s?” Peter told her, “’The guy let me have it for a franc.” “Me too!” she exclaimed, her eyes widening. “Isn’t that funny? Quai des Grands Augustins. I bargained.” “Me Quai Voltaire.” “Do you have a Waring Blendor?” Peter did not have a Waring Blendor. “Golly, you ought to get one. They’re terrific for vegetable soups.”

Peter’s umbilicus registered a tug on the silver cord; his mother disapproved of traffic with blendors and Mixmasters; at that moment, in New York (9 A.M. Eastern Standard Time), she was doubtless pressing chestnuts or something through a sieve, “Jean can get you one at the PX,” the girl went on kindly. “You save a lot that way.” “Thanks. Maybe I’ll do that.” He must be out of his mind. His landlady would never let him have a blendor, even if he were willing to scrap family principles and acquire one, and it would be a hard thing to hide in what passed for his closet. Yet could he ask this glorious crank to dinner and use a food mill? It came to him that he must be falling in love, but would she deign to notice a reedy college junior?

According to his mother, there was no such thing as unreciprocated love. Love was something that happened between two people. It was not a solitary affair. But even if that dictum could be trusted, he was not sure that it applied to him. After adolescence, the fair Rosamund had stipulated. Maybe he had not finished adolescing. He still had that croak in his voice.

Apiece of pumpkin pie had materialized before him. Assuming that egg and milk had gone into its composition, he hardly dared turn his eyes to his right. His own appetite had left him; he shook his head to a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But Roberta Scott was eating the pie. She must be hungry. Her nut cup, he observed, was empty. Silently he exchanged it for his full one, which he had been saving for her—a present.

“Maybe you’d like to come to supper some night at my place. I could make some spaghetti and salad.” She considered this for nearly a minute, putting down her fork and chewing her lower lip; she had a way of looking you steadily in the eyes when you had made a remark, such as he had encountered among very poor people the summer before last in Umbria. “Why, yes, sure, I’d like to. Thanks a lot.” A friendly eager smile replaced the clouds of perplexity on her features. “Next week?” he said boldly. “What about Tuesday?”

But even as he spoke he became aware of a surrounding silence. The general was on his feet and tapping on his glass for attention. He was going to offer a toast. To a character called Benjy, aged about eighteen, who had passed most of the meal in speechless obscurity. Peter had been introduced to him in the elevator. “We’re Leonard and Alice Burnside, from the Embassy, and this is our son, Benjy. Benjy, put that cigarette out and shake hands.” At table his wine intake had been monitored by his mother, a big woman in a magenta wool dress. Now, amid general astonishment, wriggling and pale, he was elevated to star billing. “Is it his birthday?” someone wondered. But it was not Benjy’s birthday. The kid was volunteering to take up arms for his country. That was what the clinking of glasses was about.

Glances of disbelief passed between the other young males at the table, numbering three: Peter, the boy from Northwestern, and the ultra-WASP Princetonian, who bore the curious name of Silvanus Platt. They listed to Benjy’s mother explaining to the French colonel that her son was so sold on the Vietnamese war that he could not wait to be drafted. “Il s’est rallié aux couleurs” “I1 a devancé l’appel,” absently corrected the Frenchman. “Je vous felicite, jeune homme. Et vous surtout, madame.” He raised his glass.

The mother drank to her son. “It was Benjy’s own decision. ‘I’ve got to go, Mom,’ he said. Leonard wanted us to refuse our consent. Though he’s only Benjy’s stepfather. ‘Let him wait till he’s nineteen,’ Leonard said. But I couldn’t say no to Benjy. I never have been able to. I guess I’ve spoiled him. But he’s my only child.” Her face, which might have been pretty when she was young, crinkled and puckered like a wide seersucker bedspread.

During all this, her son had not opened his mouth except to engorge pie and ice cream. Benjy’s worst fear, she went on, giggling, was that he might be sent to Germany, instead of out there, where the fighting was. At that point, the kid gave tongue. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s right.”

Actually Peter felt a revolted pity for Benjy. As transpired somewhat later, the kid was a “problem” who had not been able to get into any college or find a job and had been hanging around Paris collecting traffic tickets while driving the family car—food for cannon, in the words of Falstaff. Yet it would be surprising if he passed his physical, he was so awful and pathetic. His hobby was collecting matchbook folders. On the mental plane, the only message that had got through to him was antiCommunism. He wanted to be able to kill Viet Cong. And his parents, probably, were letting the poor creep volunteer in the hope that the army would make a man of him—passing the buck to the Pentagon where they themselves had failed. Yet that woman must know that she was in line to be a Gold Star mother unless the war stopped.

It came to Peter that, contrary to what you would expect in such a milieu, Benjy’s parents were far from being proud of the patriot they had fledged. Even if he came back covered with medals, he would not get the fatted calf. To hear his mother tell it, she spent most of her time on her knees praying for peace. “Though Benjy doesn’t like me to. He hates it if I go into some little church and light a candle.” “Yeah. I want to get some of those gorillas first.” “Guerrillas, please, Benjy.” She gave the l’s a Spanish pronunciation. “He used to think they were real gorillas,” she explained, with a little gurgle of a laugh. “He got that from listening to the radio.” “I guess a lot of people make that mistake,” the general said easily. “Well, here’s luck to you, Ben.” He handed the boy a large non-Cuban cigar. “Hope you see some action if that’s what you want. In an ‘advisory’ capacity, of course. He chuckled. From Benjy, a strange ack-ack sound issued; like a kid playing machine guns, he crouched in his chair, as if taking aim. “Here they come,” he said, “in a human-wave assault!”

Silence followed. It became obvious that even Chuck was somewhat embarrassed by the potential hero in their midst. “I guess Ben saw too many World War II movies when he was younger,” he suggested. “The little yellow men in the jungle.” “That’s what I used to say to Leonard,” the boy’s mother chimed in. “ ‘I don’t see why the Embassy keeps showing those old war movies. They ought to think of the effect on the children.’ Didn’t I say that, Leonard? And now look at the result. All he can think about is human waves and sharpshooters hiding in coconut palms and assassins in black pajamas.”

“Holy cats, Mom,” said Benjy, puffing on the general’s cigar. “You sound as if I was a freak or something. Isn’t a guy supposed to want to fight for his country?” “Personally I want to stay alive,” said Silvanus Platt. “How about you, Jay?” “Me too,” said the boy from Northwestern. “Me too,” said Peter, though in fact he was not sure that this ought to be his prime aim. “Wouldn’t you rather be dead than red?” said Benjy. “No,” said Peter. “Practically nobody would, when it comes down to it. They just think they would. All those Poles and Hungarians would be committing suicide if that idea was true. Anyway, this war isn’t stopping Communism, so far as I can see. It may even be helping Communism by making people hate Americans.”

To his surprise, the general nodded. “This is the wrong war in the wrong place, the way I look at it. Nothing will suit the world Communist conspiracy better than to have us send a land army to get bogged down in those mangrove swamps. It’s a decoy. We don’t want to commit our manpower out there, and the sooner we wrap it up, the happier all concerned here at NATO will be. We know where the main enemy is located—at the same old address, the Kremlin, Moscow. The day we land ground forces on those Asian beaches, we surrender Western Europe to the Red Army.”

Peter had not thought of it this way. Still he was glad to hear a militarist espouse getting out of Vietnam. “But won’t Johnson have to face some pretty rough domestic criticism if we just pull out our advisers and leave the South Vietnamese to cope? I mean—” “For Christ’s sake, Levi, I said ‘wrap it up.’ Hanoi has to come to its senses. We could knock out that little country with one punch tomorrow. You know that as well as I do. They know it.”

At these words, suddenly, the party got rough. Practically everybody started shouting his opinion. The Frenchwoman was shrilling about Foster Dulles and the chronic “lâcheté” of the Americans. Always too little and too late. The betrayal at Dienbienphu. Suez. Her husband, more tactful, sought to divide the blame. The French had betrayed too. The Left. Mendès-France. Geneva. He barely stopped short of attacking De Gaulle, his own commander in chief. A parliament of fools was in session. Roberta Scott put her hands over her ears. “But what would you have us do now, sir?” said Silvanus Platt smoothly. “Granting that you’re right in your analysis. That’s all water over the dam now. Where do we go from here? How do we persuade Ho Chi Minh to call it quits?”

“Mais la bombe, bien sûr,” the colonel answered, throwing out his hands. “Une seule suffirait.” “Atomic or hydrogen?” Peter inquired coldly, getting in return a pitying look. “Atomique, naturellement. N’exagerons pas.” But the general was not sure that an atomic bomb on Hanoi would do the trick. You had to think of world opinion and what the Russian response would be. If you decided to use the bomb, it might make more sense to drop it on Peking, before the Chinese got theirs. That would give Ho something to think about, and the Russians would scarcely object. “Ces Chinois s’en foutent,” said the Frenchman. With the manpower the Chinese had, an atom bomb would be just a flea-bite.

On the whole, Chuck did not favor dropping atomic hardware on Hanoi. “We can do it with conventional stuff, if we have to.” “But why should it be necessary, sir?” said Silvanus Platt. “Wouldn’t a clear warning suffice? As you say, they know we have the wherewithal to wipe them out tomorrow.” “Yeah,” said Benjy. “But they don’t think we’ll use it. We’ve got to show them.” “Benjy!” “Mais votre fils a raison, madame,” said the Frenchman. Le pauvre papa Khrushchev had been willing to listen to reason; when Kennedy threatened, he understood. But these Orientals were fanatics. . . .

“We can’t bomb Hanoi!” Peter burst out. “I mean, it’s impossible for us to do a thing like that.” “Why not?” said Benjy’s stepfather, a bald man who had something to do with trade or economics. “I don’t say I favor it necessarily. I just want to know, why not? I was in the Air Force. We bombed Germany.” “OK, OK,” said Peter, feeling weary. “I agree, we had to do that. Though maybe I would have been against some of those raids if I’d been alive then. I think you can draw a line between bombing military targets and bombing civilians.” “The Nazis didn’t.” “But they were Nazis! For Christ’s sake, that was the point, wasn’t it?” “What’s so sacred about a civilian?” said the general. “If he’s working in a factory making war goods? Grow up, boy.” “I think Peter’s right, Dad,” said Jean. “We have to be better than our enemy.” “I agree,” said Benjy’s mother. “We are better than our enemy!” shouted the general. “I haven’t finished what I was saying,” objected Peter. “Let him talk, honey.”

Peter started again. “So we bombed Germany. And Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My generation was born with that on its conscience. Actually I was ten months old when Hiroshima happened.” “If it shortened the war, it was worth it,” interrupted the general. “Saved American lives and Japanese lives. And if we hadn’t bombed those dear German civilians, the Nazis would have had the bomb ahead of us. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.” “Chuck!” “Don’t you think Truman could have dropped one teensy atom bomb on a deserted atoll?” said the woman on Peter’s left in dreamy tones. “That would have given the Japanese a chance to surrender when they knew what they were up against. If they didn’t surrender then, it was their own responsibility.” “ ‘His blood be upon us and upon our children,’ ” muttered Peter. “Maybe that might have been the best way, Helen,” said Mrs. Lammers soothingly. “But one man can’t think of everything, you know, especially with a war on. We were certainly all grateful to President Truman when it was over. Now, let’s go into the other room and let Peter Levi have his say.”

“OK, skip Hiroshima. We’ll never agree about that. About Germany, I’ll even concede that maybe our saturation-bombing helped shut down the gas ovens, though my father claims it was the opposite— it stiffened German morale. But anyway the Nazis were bombing England, which was our ally. The North Vietnamese aren’t bombing anybody.” “Just minding their own business, eh?” said the general. “Are they helping the Viet Cong or aren’t they?” put in Benjy’s stepfather, getting excited. “Have you heard about infiltration? And atrocities? Civilians—women and children—ruthlessly murdered. Grenades tossed into theaters and other public places. Assassination of teachers and local officials.” “Standard operating procedure,” said the general, nodding. “Poisoned arrows,” said Benjy. “And those punji stakes dipped in shit that they make traps out of. They don’t abide by the rules of war.” “Beheadings. Kidnappings. Standard operating procedure,” repeated the general. “Do you approve of that kind of stuff, Levi?”

Peter groaned. “No.” He was starting to feel sick. The general followed up. “Maybe you think it’s all U. S. propaganda?” “No, I guess not. I guess those things happen.” “Happen! Somebody does them. Somebody directed from Hanoi. Directed, supplied, and instigated. We have documentary proof and plenty of it. Now, how are you going to put a stop to that?” “I don’t know,” said Peter.

He was getting the worst of the argument. Across the living room, Roberta Scott had her chin sunk in the palm of her hand, like a statue of dejection; no help there. He had been hoping that, coming from Philadelphia, she might be a Quaker. “Go ahead,” insisted the general. “Give us your ideas. We’re listening.” Peter’s head was buzzing. It was like one of those exam nightmares where you suddenly discover you have forgotten to do your class work. He tried to recall things his mother had said, things he himself had said, during the Goldwater campaign, which already seemed so long ago, like a golden age of clarity. And he remembered his father telling his mother that Peter might make a good judge but he could never be an advocate.

Put on the spot, he could not think of a single alternative to the unthinkable, which was bombing those frail little people in conical hats. The persuasive words “land reform” floated into his ken, like a broken slug of printer’s type. Give the South Vietnamese peasants something to fight for—a stake in their government? But even if land distribution was possible, it would take a long time and might not end the war but actually intensify it, assuming both sides became equally determined—had anybody ever considered that?

“We should negotiate,” he said at last. “Great. Hear, hear, said Mr. Burnside. “I couldn’t agree more. But how are we going to get talks going? It takes two to negotiate. We’re ready and willing to sit down and talk, but Hanoi claims there’s nothing to talk about. We just withdraw our support and let the Viet Cong take over. Simple.” Peter licked his lips. But isn’t that what we’re saying ourselves? They should withdraw their support. Why should we have the right to demand that and not them? It’s more their country than ours.” “So you favor a Commie take-over,” said the general. “No! But if I had to choose between that and bombing them, I guess I’d be for that.” “So you favor it. You kids might have the guts to say what you think, instead of pussyfooting. Lay it on the line.” “Maybe there wouldn’t be a take-over,” said Peter, voicing his deepest wish. The general then gave a bark of laughter. “Oh, God, friend, where have you been all my life?”

The other youths, with the exception of Benjy, had been quiet for a long time. It was impossible to tell on whose side they were now, apart from the question of their own personal survival.

Roberta Scott was studying some little ivory chessmen on the table beside her; she looked as if every word spoken were making her unhappy. “It’s inconceivable!” Peter cried. “Don’t you see that? Doesn’t anybody see that?” “What’s inconceivable, honey?” said Letitia. “That we’ll bomb North Vietnam. If we do that, I think I’ll kill myself.” “Is that a promise or a threat?” said Chuck, kidding. “Hey, take it easy.” “Why are you getting so worked up?” said Donna Elvira kindly. “I don’t like the idea myself, but it wouldn’t be the end of the world, would it? What’s so special about bombing Hanoi?” They can’t retaliate,” said Peter, letting his breath out with a long sigh. “And that’s why we’d do it. To prove to them how powerful we are. If we thought they could retaliate, we wouldn’t.”

Roberta raised her eyes and met his. She sighed too. “Yes. Golly, yes.” “Since when is superior weaponry a reason for not using it?” inquired Chuck. “This is war, not a horse race, buddy.” Peter had had enough. Tears rushed to his eyes. “You don’t give a damn about your country, you stupid patriot. You don’t care what it does. Or about its fair name. I love America or what I used to think was America. Listening to you, I don’t recognize it anymore.”

To his amazement, nobody moved to throw him out of the apartment. “I think Peter needs a little fresh air,” Letitia said quickly. “We all do. Let’s get our things on and go out and play softball now. It gets dark so early these days. Though we ought to be grateful to French Daylight Saving . . .” Still chattering, she was guiding him to the bathroom. She turned on the cold-water tap. “You just put this damp washcloth on your eyes and you’ll feel better. We gave you too much bourbon. I always forget that it’s a hundred proof.” “I’d better go home now,” said Peter, applying the cold cloth to his burning face. “I’m sorry I was rude.” “Just a good clean argument, honey. Good for the digestion. You’ll forget all about it when you’ve had some exercise. I know Chuck will. Between you and me, it kind of got under his skin to see that girl refusing to touch her food. I saw that right away. He’s such a wonderful host, loves to entertain.”

Peter nodded. “Tell me the truth, Mrs. Lammers. Are we going to bomb Hanoi?” “I don’t know, Peter. I wouldn’t know a thing like that. Chuck wouldn’t either. He was just talking off the top of his head. Got carried away. And that Benjy upset him too. We’ve known him since he was a toddler, when we served with the Burnsides in Madrid. They’re beside themselves with worry. When you see a boy like that wanting to go out and get killed in that crazy war, it makes you wonder. Underneath, Chuck would a lot rather see him sign up for the Peace Corps. I want you to believe that.”

“OK, I believe you, Mrs. Lammers.” Peter rested his head against the cold tiles of the bathroom wall. “Chuck agrees with you more than you realize. But we just can’t walk away, can we? I mean, we have a commitment. If we walk out, our allies right here in NATO will start wondering whether they can trust us. There would be all these repercussions that the ordinary person doesn’t think about. You are for the NATO shield, aren’t you?” As she took the washcloth from his hands, she darted an anxious glance into his eyes.

“I guess so,” said Peter. His father said NATO was a necessary evil, which you could say about a lot of things without their becoming good. As a deterrent to the Russians, maybe it had served its purpose. Maybe the moment had come for it to fold its tents and silently steal away. But after the workout he had gotten, Peter’s sweaty brain was unequal to arguing about the consequences of an Atlantic Treaty fadeaway. The Red Army at the Rhine? At the Marne? No more PX—that was for sure. Pity and weariness won the day. Let them keep their shield.

Out in the Bois, as Letitia had predicted, he felt somewhat better. He was on Chuck’s team, and though he struck out his first time at bat, in the field he was fairly fast on his feet. The stars were the long-legged Roberta, in the pitcher’s position, and the big Mrs. Burnside at bat. The French colonel, surprisingly, was an agile shortstop and outfielder and fleet on the bases. Benjy was terrible. He would never survive basic training, even if he passed his physical; his nicotine-stained fingers were all thumbs, and he panted noisily, trotting after an easy fly.

A small crowd of French children gathered to watch les Américains and to chase an occasional ball. Peter found he was enjoying himself and even enjoying the sense of being an American, as, waiting his turn at bat, he explained the idea of the game in French to the kids. Yet in the fourth inning, stationed in the outfield, he found he had the hiccups. Taking part in the national sport, on top of the national bird, had been too much. He tried holding his breath and swallowing accumulated saliva, hoping that they would pass before anybody noticed. Instead, they got worse. When Chuck waved him in at the end of the inning, he was hiccuping so loudly, like a drunkard in a play, that the French gosses began to imitate him, whirling around, jerking, and making whistling noises. He could not even get his breath to tell them to foutre le camp.

Various remedies were suggested; drinking from the wrong side of a glass, hanging his head and counting to a hundred, getting a sudden shock. He went in search of a drinking fountain. Needless to say, this being France, none materialized, though he walked for half a mile; the lake where he used to row, polluted naturally, rose before him like a cruel mirage. Chuck was at bat when he reappeared in their midst. “Hic!” The general, making a foul tip, glanced at him with annoyance. Benjy offered to go with him and try to find a café.

When they finally found one and Peter had swallowed four glasses of Évian while holding his breath, the hiccups subsided. But then he had to wait for Benjy to finish a Pernod he had ordered. “Would you like to smoke some grass?” said Benjy, feeling in his pockets. Peter shook his head. “Let’s get back to the ball game.”But it was a long way from the café. By the time they got to the Bois, dusk was falling; the little meadow where they had been playing was empty, and all the players had fled. Peter was bitter. “Wouldn’t you think they would have waited for us? Hiccups can be a serious thing. Christ, there’ve been cases of people who’ve had them for a year and finally croaked!” “Yeah. I read about one of those.” “And that girl is supposed to be a doctor! Well, a medical student anyway.” “But you’re OK now, aren’t you?” “But they don’t know that.” “I see what you mean. You can’t rely on most people, that’s for sure. That’s what appeals to me about the army. The buddy system. Like today. You had it bad in the windpipe, and I stuck by you. You’d do the same for me.”

Just then a voice called “Hi!” Jean had waited for them. She emerged from a sort of copse. “Mother was worried about you. She said to take you to the American Hospital if your hiccups hadn’t stopped.” “I’m OK now, thanks. It was nice of you to wait, though. What happened to the others?” “Benjy’s parents went home. And Roberta had to go to a concert.” “Oh . . . She didn’t leave any message?” “No. But she agreed with Mother that you ought to go to the American Hospital. They could give you an anti-spasmodic, she said.” “She didn’t mention anything about dinner?” “Dinner? Gosh, can you still eat?” “I don’t mean now. I asked her to dinner next week. A vegetarian meal.” “Isn’t that sweet of you, Peter! Do you know how to cook?” “Yes.” “I love cooking myself. What kind of dishes can you make?” “Oh, you know, spaghetti . . .” The three started walking through the landscaped wood. Peter could see that if he were not careful he would be entertaining Jean for dinner soon. And smoking grass with Benjy. Those two seemed to be his real friends. A final hiccup issued from his craw. “Oops!” Jean giggled. “Dad is a card. He thinks you can cure hiccups by willpower. That’s what he said, just now.” “Maybe you can,” muttered Peter. “What did Roberta have to say?” “She claims they’re a medical mystery. Doctors don’t know what causes them or why they go away.” “Like love,” said Benjy, astonishingly. “Something in your chemistry that you can’t control. Yeah.” They continued pensively walking in the direction, they hoped, of a Métro station. For a while they were lost in the wood. □