Authors: Jessie Prichard Hunter
AÂ Â Â Â TÂ Â HÂ Â RÂ Â IÂ Â LÂ Â LÂ Â EÂ Â R
Jessie Prichard Hunter
To my mother, Lois Hartley
he air was very still. If you sang a “fa,” say, in the key of Aâthat would be a Dâif you sang a D it would simply hang there on the air, without an echo, for as long as it took to slide the knife in.
The young woman was kneeling in the grass with her back to the man, playing with a baby. The baby was just learning to walk. The man couldn't tell whether it was a boy baby or a girl baby. It would walk two or three steps and fall down, on its butt, on its knees. The young woman was laughing.
The man would play a game: If the woman turned around and saw him he would kill her. Not do what he usually didânot with the baby thereâbut just use the knife. If she didn't turn around he wouldn't kill her.
He looked at his watch. If it was a game there had to be rules; there had to be a time limit. The woman was playing with the baby about thirty feet away from the manicured hedge around the president's house. This was a secluded part of the campus, overlooking the river. A lot of students didn't even know about it. Even though it was one of those March days that are an early taste of spring to come, there weren't any young couples half-hidden in the grass or looking out at Manhattan across the river. Ten forty-eight. If the woman didn't turn around and see him in three minutes he wouldn't kill her.
The woman turned her head. He could see the slope of her cheekbone, her downturned mouth. Her face was calm but her mouth turned down anyway, she had a pout like somebody, some old black-and-white actress. She seemed to be listening. The knife handle was sweaty; he didn't like that. He couldn't afford to lose his grip.
The baby mewed like a cat and the woman turned away without seeing him. Blond hair. He'd always loved blond hair. An image rose in his mind: blond hair matted with blood. Long blond hair matted with blood.
The Circle Line tour boat was going by, sightseers on the river. Why had he thought of that? It seemed almost like a memory, but he had no such memory. Not of hair just that color. The memory seemed sepia-tinted. The woman was pointing at the Circle Line, showing it to the baby. The skyline of Manhattan shimmered like a mirage in the morning sun. Two minutes and forty seconds to go.
The baby was looking at something, it had picked up a rock. It looked at it as though it had never seen such a thing in its life. For some reason that struck the man as funny. He wiped the handle of the knife along his pants leg while he laughed silently, holding the blade carefully so he wouldn't cut himself. He couldn't bear the sight of his own blood.
Two minutes and fifteen seconds. The baby was sitting quietly, looking at its rock. The Circle Line was gone. The woman was looking out toward the water, at the sunlight shimmering on the water. He could image what she looked like full-face, the pouty mouth.
Bloody blond hair matted across an open mouth. He roused himself, he was dreaming under the warm sun. One minute and forty-two seconds. He saw the woman's back tense, a fine light shiver like a ripple across the coat of an animal. She knew somebody was watching her. It was funny how women knew. Stare at them long enough and they always know it, as if sight were a weapon, a burning beam.
The woman reached out and touched the baby, a light caress down its back. To make sure it was okay. One minute five seconds. The baby looked up and chortled: a butterfly. The woman's stiff back relaxedâa butterfly. Small and yellow, they were called cabbage butterflies. The Finnish say that if the first butterfly of the season is yellow that means it's going to be a good summer. He remembered that from books he'd read as a child, they were called the Moomintroll books. One minute even.
The butterfly fluttered above the baby's head. Maybe it was the white ones that were called cabbage butterflies. He didn't know what the yellow ones were called. Bette Davis. A mouth like Bette Davis's.
The baby was delighted. The man could see part of the woman's face again, the fine line of her nose, her mouth widening in a smile as she looked from the baby to the butterfly and back to the baby. He couldn't see what color her eyes were; he wondered what color her eyes were.
One blood-spattered blue eye, staring at the low ceiling. Forty-five seconds. The woman turned her head; she saw him. She had a pretty face.
The man tightened the muscles around his jaw: a smile. Her own smile was like the beat of a butterfly's wing, tenuous, afraid. Then broader, because she was with the baby and she expected indulgence. He bared his teeth. He hoped that was an indulgent smile. He would have liked to spring, like a leopard, to show her his true essence. To come at her like a bolt of clawed lightning out of the clear blue sky.
Her eyes were blue. He walked toward her; what would be the last thing that she saw? “Little bookus,” she was saying to the baby. She had already forgotten him. “Little bookus.” The leaves of the tree above her head, in a pattern against the sky, a white cloud. That would be the last thing.
He walked behind her and she didn't see the knife in his hand. It was so easy. He jerked her head back so fast she didn't have time to cry out, and he slit her throat. The green leaves, a white cloud.
The blood flew out in a perfect arc and he laughed aloud. The baby watched but made no sound. That was good. That had been a risk.
The woman gurgled, once. He felt it, like always, like love. There was blood in her blue eyes. Just that one small sound, a trapped cry, an unfinished note. He walked away without looking back. When he got a little way away he started to whistle.
The baby was looking at its mother. The butterfly had come back. The baby put out a tiny hand. The butterfly dipped for a moment to the blood at the woman's neck. The baby reached up to touch the butterfly; its hand was covered with blood. The baby laughed. The melody, hanging on the air without an echo, of Schubert's Quartetsatz.
oboken is haunted by its waterfront. Forty years ago the waterfront breathed like an anthill, it heaved and pulsated with working men. The boys went off to World War II from the Hoboken waterfront, and to its dirty grandeur they came home. Marlon Brando filmed
On the Waterfront
here, down by the Hudson River, by the Maxwell House plant. The Maxwell House sign is famous. It can be seen from across the water:
GOOD TO THE LAST DROP
Hoboken is without grace; it is a very friendly dog with mange. It is the proud hometown of Frank Sinatra. All the Italian restaurants (and there are many) boast little shrines to Frankie, walls full of pictures signed, “To my favorite chef.” The two cappuccino cafÃ©s on Washington Street play Sinatra music all the time. Hoboken is made up largely of three- and four-story tenement row houses; there is always garbage in the street. West of Washington the streets have flowery names: Bloomfield, Garden, Park. Where the old Italians and young couples from across the river give way to Hispanics and Indians and blacks, where the one project is, the streets have presidents' names: Jefferson, Madison, Monroe.
The tiny parks are full of dog droppings. There are many, many children and new babies. For two weeks in April the short oval poplar trees bloom, and the town is almost pretty. White flowers cover the trees like a mist, and then they fall off and blow through the streets, collecting in milky puddles in the gutters.
The whole spread of the Manhattan skyline lies across the river from Hoboken, a gentle, taunting, undulating curve of beauty and success. Stevens Institute of Technology lies along a promontory above the river. Couples come to Castle Point Overlook on the weekends, often with baby carriages. They can see the World Trade Centers at Battery Park, and all the way south to the Verrazano Bridge, which shimmers like distant medieval battlements. From farther up the campus they can see north to the George Washington Bridge.
In spring, when the temperature sometimes goes to ninety, people come out of their apartments like prairie dogs; they head up to Stevens and lie on the grass in their bathing suits, watching tour boats from the Circle Line go by.
Many of the Stevens students live in dorms on campus or in the beautiful Victorian homes that line the streets directly around the grounds. These the college has converted into frat houses. There are great hundred-year-old stone houses with bedrooms enough for twelve children. There are stone towers, flights of stone steps up to front doors, stone lions guarding the front doors, bay windows. Inside there are fancy moldings on the living room ceilings, and big, overheavy chandeliers.
Zelly Wyche liked to go walking in that part of town, liked to look in the windows and think about other people's lives. She and her husband, Pat, liked to take the baby up to the Stevens campus on the weekends and look at the river. Zelly had grown up on one of those streets, in her mother's house, a great big rambling warren with five cherry trees in the backyard.
One weekday morning in late April, Zelly was sitting at the dining room table reading
The New York Times.
She wished she were sitting at a table in a big, airy kitchen, looking out the windows at the fruit trees in the backyard. But there was no table in the kitchen, and no window, and no backyard. There wasn't even a dining room; the table was in the living room, in front of the bookcases. Pat's books, mostly. And she'd really rather be reading the
it was a rag but it was more fun than the
Pat had the
delivered so Zelly could read it in the mornings the rare moments she wasn't tending to the baby, but by afternoon she usually gave in and bought the