Authors: Jill Ciment
ALSO BY JILL CIMENT
The Tattoo Artist
Teeth of the Dog
Half a Life
The Law of Falling Bodies
a cognizant original v5 release october 14 2010
The illuminated manuscript series attributed to my character, Alex, is based on
The FBI Files, a Collage Series
by Arnold Mesches.
The cartoon “Kvetch” on page
is by David Sipress.
The John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation provided deeply appreciated financial support.
IT IS THE HOUR WHEN THE LIGHT OVER THE
sink, a fluorescent meant for washing dishes, suddenly usurps the fire of the dying sun and the kitchen window becomes a mirror, the moment every evening when Ruth realizes that her resolves are made of straw and Alex senses his age as a transitory chill.
sun-flooded, eat-in kitchen
is prominently featured in the open house listing their realtor, Lily, is running in
The New York Times
tomorrow. When Lily first appraised their co-op, a five-flight walk-up in the East Village and suggested the asking price of nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, Ruth felt the number bite her, like a needle, and enter her, like an intoxicating drug. As a child of the Depression, the word
still held a magical spell, Fred Astaire dancing in top hat and tails. But the instant they signed Lily’s contract, the headiness vanished. What were they doing selling their home of forty-five years? She didn’t want to leave the city. They never cared about money before. Where would they go? She and Alex, never mind Dorothy, would be lost anywhere but New York.
Ruth looks across the kitchen table at Alex, seventy-eight years old, his white hair thick as a pelt, his white brows and beard stiff as wire, and envisions him mounting the five flights of stairs, the ample cavities of his eyes alive with determination, taking two steps at a time, his weekly test to prove to himself that he can still do it. But how long can he (or she for that matter) keep it up? With nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, surely they can afford an elevator apartment somewhere in Manhattan.
When Alex first heard the asking price, he, too, felt weakened by the pull of the number’s magnetism. His father, an immigrant shoe salesman, idolized millionaires as he had once revered rabbis in the old country, as men close to God. Ruth had initially called Lily just to see what their options were when the stairs became too much for them. But how could they turn down one million dollars? How could he? He had nothing to leave Ruth but his paintings, a legacy that often struck him as more of a burden than an asset. What will she do with all his artwork, fifty years of productivity, the fallout from his compulsion to keep painting no matter what? If she can’t sell the paintings? If she can’t sell the apartment when the time comes? She’ll end up entombed in his work.
As preoccupied as they are with tomorrow’s open house—Ruth has barely touched her chicken dinner, Alex has eaten most of his, but without pleasure or awareness— they still remember to set aside a few choice pieces for Dorothy.
From the doorway, Dorothy watches Ruth pick up Alex’s plate, scrape his contribution into a bowl, add some morsels of her own, and then set the bowl on the tiled
floor between their chairs. At twelve, eating is Dorothy’s last great pleasure. Her dachshund face, mostly snout, is now completely white, whiter even than Alex’s. She is missing two canines and three back molars. At her withers she stands eight inches tall, weighs ten pounds, two ounces. She tries to get up, but nothing happens. Her hind legs have turned to ice, burning ice. Without even knowing that she’s doing it, she relieves herself on the tiles. She only knows that she has done so because of the odor; it smells sour and sick. She lets loose a shrill yelp.
Ruth looks in her direction, blinks for a moment or two, as if Dorothy had roused her from a trance. “Dorothy, have you wet yourself?” she asks, crossing the kitchen and bending over her.
Dorothy searches Ruth’s eyes—mapped in wrinkles, putty-gray and magnified to omnipotence by thick glasses—for instructions. Should she stay put, or try to stand up again? What does Ruth think? If something truly bad had happened to her back half, wouldn’t she see it in Ruth’s stare, smell it on Ruth’s skin? Ruth reeks of fear.
“It’s okay, Dottie, we know you didn’t mean to,” Ruth murmurs. “Alex, something’s terribly wrong with Dorothy.”
Alex joins them on the floor, slips his hand under her belly, another under her chest. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he says, gently lifting her out of her mess. When he sets her down on all fours, she sinks backward again, as if her ice legs had already melted in the fire. She shrieks.
“You’re hurting her,” Ruth says.
“I’m trying to find out what’s wrong. She may have something stuck in her paw.” Leaning closer, Alex examines
her back feet. All she can feel, though, is smoldering numbness. “Walk away, Ruth. Pretend you’re leaving. Open the door and call her.”
“You think it’s something in her paw? Dot can be such a little Sarah Bernhardt when she wants to be.” Ruth unlocks the front door, holds up Dorothy’s leash and collar, and waves them enthusiastically. “You want to go for a walk? Come on, Dottie, we’ll go to the falafel stand.”
Dorothy hears her tags rattling for her, but all she can manage is to scoot herself forward, an inch at a time.
“I’m calling the vet,” Ruth says. Still holding the leash and collar, she hurries back into the kitchen. Dorothy fears she’s coming back to yoke her to that lead, but Ruth steps over her and reaches for the phone.
“It’s past six, no one will be there,” Alex says. “Let’s just go straight to the animal hospital.”
Ruth puts down the phone.
“It may be nothing. Remember last year? Dot acted as if she was dying. Seven hundred dollars later we found out she had gas.”
“Should we wait to see if she’s better in the morning?” Ruth asks.
“I don’t think we should wait.”
“Is it safe to move her? Should I get her pillow?”
“It’s too soft. She’ll need more support.”
“It’s her back, isn’t it?”
Alex looks around the kitchen and picks up the cutting board, while Ruth disappears into the bedroom and returns with Dorothy’s tartan blanket and a couple of overcoats. Ruth swaddles Dorothy in the warm wool, while Alex helps her onto the board. Suddenly, whiffs of
cheese, cow blood, chicken blood, bacon grease, parsley, peanut butter, and garlic permeate Dorothy’s nostrils, but for once the smells bring her no pleasure.
Slipping their fingers under the board, Alex and Ruth lift her into the air and ferry her out the front door and down the hallway. At the precipice of the staircase, Doro thy begins to shake. Even under the best of circumstances, riding safely in Ruth’s big purse or securely buttoned in Alex’s overcoat, she fears the yawning, spiraling stairwell.
“How are we ever going to do this? I hate these stairs,” Ruth says.
“You hold her, I’ll hold the board under her,” Alex says.
Ruth squeezes her with choking compassion, and the three of them start down the steps, Alex first, backward. Dorothy feels her blood swaying within her as Alex struggles to keep the board level. On the first landing, Ruth tightens her grip ever so slightly around Dorothy’s middle, and the pain rages to life again. Dorothy first becomes aware of it as a color: orange. And a shape: sphere. Then the orange sphere explodes and the fire is no longer under her: Dorothy is inside the fire. She now resides in a conflagration so whole and absolute that it is a world unto itself. Nothing from her former existence matters. Her fear of stairs? Flashes away. Her insatiable appetite? Asphyxiates. Even her being caged in a burning body no longer concerns her. All that concerns Dorothy is the little sac of consciousness at the core of the blaze and what she keeps inside that sac: a carbon-hard nugget of trust that Alex and Ruth will know how to help her.
THE CO-OP’S LOBBY WON’T BE A SELLING
point for Lily tomorrow. It’s a narrow affair devoid of ornamentation, a passageway really, looking much as it did when the tenement was erected a hundred and six years ago to house fresh-off-the-boat immigrants, except for the new security system installed last year, a video camera mounted by the vestibule door. Ruth and Alex had voted against having a surveillance camera in their lobby, and not just because the monthly charges would rise. They didn’t want their comings and goings spied on and recorded in the name of security ever again, even if, these days, they mostly ventured out to walk Dorothy. The original wrought-iron gate over the entry glass door, however,
something Lily will make sure every potential buyer notices: it harks back to a time when artisans, no matter how small the job, took pride in their craft.
Holding Dorothy between them, they push open the door. The street noise—sirens, horns, engines, bus brakes, whistles, shouts—is so penetrating, to Ruth at least, that it sounds as if all her tension has been given voice. For Alex, who doesn’t yet realize he’s forgotten his hearing aids in the
rush to help Dorothy, the city’s din, without the high and low notes, isn’t so much piercing as keening. Traffic is frozen in both directions. A police helicopter hovers over the rooftops. A convoy of fire trucks, red lights whirring, is blocking the intersection at St. Mark’s Place and Avenue A, but neither Ruth nor Alex see any fire or smell any smoke. Not even Dorothy smells smoke. Closing the door behind them, they assume it’s another false alarm. Lately, if someone smells his neighbor burning toast, he panics and calls nine-one-one.
They carry Dorothy toward First Avenue hoping traffic will thaw out on the way and they’ll catch a cab to the hospital, but when the signal up ahead changes, traffic only manages to jerk one car length forward despite the gunning rumblings and bullying horns. Standing in his restaurant doorway, facing the stalled procession of headlamps, Mr. Rahim, the falafel stand owner who always has a treat for Dorothy, holds up a hand-lettered cardboard sign:
Sahara Restaurant is Open for Business!!!!
Two Kebabs for the Price of One!!!
United We Stand!
“What happened to Miss Dottie?” he asks, as soon as he sees it’s Dorothy under the blanket.
“We think it’s her back,” Ruth says.
“Oh, poor thing.”
“Is there a fire?” Alex asks.
Without taking his eyes off Dorothy, Mr. Rahim sighs and shrugs, a gesture of such private sorrow and public
skepticism it implies that even if the flames had been licking at his pant cuffs, he could no longer trust what is or isn’t real. “My wife calls to say there’s a helicopter over our roof, I should run home. But an off-duty policeman tells me it’s only a false alarm. Now my delivery boy hears on a customer’s TV that a gasoline truck is stuck in the Mid-town Tunnel.”
“He used the word
“She just sat down and couldn’t get up again,” Ruth says. “We’re taking her to the hospital. She’s freezing. We have to go, Mr. Rahim.”
They start across the icy pavement toward the first available cab.
From his post on the sidewalk, Mr. Rahim watches their slow progress as they thread between the snarled bumpers, the old Jew in his black overcoat and red baseball cap, and his old owl-eyed wife in tears, and their sick little dog. Mr. Rahim understands that they love the animal as if it were their own child, but there’s something sad and pathetic to him about such utter devotion to a beast, though he’s fond of the little dog himself. Mr. Rahim has seven children. To love an animal as he loves his sons and daughters strikes him as a form of blasphemy. The old husband and wife finally reach a taxi. Mr. Rahim can see by the way they protect the poor creature as they climb inside that the tenderness is genuine, even profound, and for a moment, Mr. Rahim’s strict hierarchical laws about which animals are worthy of love and which are only worthy of fondness are forgotten. “Good luck to you,” he calls after them.
In the taxi, Alex gives the driver, an Indian man with a
jackknife-size cross hanging from his rearview mirror, the hospital’s address, fifty-four blocks north, while Ruth looks out her window at the solid lake of traffic. Between them on the backseat, supported by the cutting board and wrapped in the blanket, Dorothy moans. The sound is too faint for Alex to discern without his hearing aids, but Ruth hears it. Despite the trumpeting horns in front and in back of them, it’s the only sound she hears. She and Alex have been responsible for this life since it was eight weeks old. Alex brought Dorothy home the day Ruth retired after three decades as a public school English teacher. Those first few nights tending to Dorothy’s mystifying needs and constant demands had reminded Ruth of a Victorian novel in which the husband acquires an orphan for his graying childless wife to raise. Over the years, though, the dynamics of their threesome changed. For a time, Ruth and Alex were like two exasperated parents dealing with a rebellious toddler. Then, when puppyhood was behind them and Dorothy’s neediness for Ruth turned to infatuation, she and Dorothy were like best girlfriends with a staid father chaperoning. Later, when Dorothy entered middle age and became gray and dignified, but inflexible and slightly hypochondriacal, Alex used to joke that he and Ruth were like illicit lovers with a maiden aunt sleeping in bed beside them. Of late, when Ruth woke in the night and saw the familiar forms sharing her bed—one white-bearded and supine, the other tiny, white-faced, and supine—their sleeping arrangements (Alex in the middle, she and Dorothy on either side) had begun to remind her of two old wives and a tired old polygamist. And now, stuck in traffic, it seems to Ruth that she and Alex are carrying
the defenseless center of their marriage on a cutting board.
“How long has traffic been like this?” Alex asks the driver. “Do you know what’s going on?”
“My last fare said there’s a fire in the Midtown Tunnel, but my dispatcher says there’s no fire.”
“Did he say anything about a gasoline truck being stuck?”
“He says if I want my job I should keep driving.”
Alex looks out his window. Cosmos Laundromat is open: the stout old proprietress is folding sheets. Lulu’s Nails is open: the platinum blond Korean manicurist is smoking in the doorway. A first-story apartment window rises and a young woman’s slender arm reaches through the bars to empty a DustBuster. Alex watches as the leavings fall at the same speed as snow. If something were really wrong, wouldn’t people be panicking?
When Ruth looks out her window, the glass might as well be opaque. She’s thinking about this morning when she and Dorothy had first stepped outside. Overnight, fresh ice had encrusted the stoop, the fire escape, the bricks and the ancient mortar between the bricks, the garbage cans shackled together in chains, the grills of air conditioners, and every branch of every tree growing out of a glistening wrought-iron corral. In the early light, the street looked tooled in silver, and she felt such tenderness for their neighborhood that she had to collect herself or she might start to cry: they were being wrenched away from everything they loved and knew just when their age
demanded stability. She gently closed the ancient entry door behind her (lest the old glass break before the open house tomorrow) and took hold of the railing (lest she slip on the icy steps). You’re acting like a frightened old woman. Why is old age synonymous with stability? Old age is anything but stable. And for the first time since they’d signed Lily’s contract three days ago, the heady intoxication returned. Even if they couldn’t afford Manhattan, with a million dollars, they could afford just about anywhere else—the Jersey shore, or that car-less island in North Carolina she saw advertised in the
, or Fort Myers, close to her sister. But she didn’t want to be banished to South Florida where it was too hot to walk — neither of them had ever learned to drive—or to the Jersey Shore where they knew no one, or to that car-less island in middle of the ocean. How long can you stare at an ocean? And then, the idea that she and Alex, lifelong New Yorkers, were being squeezed out of their city because, even if someone wrote them a check for a million, they still might not be able to afford an elevator apartment large enough for Alex to paint in, had propelled her, like an angry push, down the stoop steps. Tethered to her by the leash, Dorothy had no choice but to clamber down the stairs behind her. Is that how Dorothy hurt her back? Why hadn’t she thought to pick her up?
Alex taps his foot, jiggles his knee, as if anxiousness itself might impel the cab to go faster. For the past ten minutes, they’ve been stuck behind a crosstown bus at the intersection of Thirty-fourth Street and First Avenue. Though
Alex may not be able to hear Dorothy’s moans, he’s aware of them: Dorothy has shifted her weight and is panting heavily against him.
“Do you think Third might be faster?” he asks the driver.
“My dispatcher says I’m not paid to think.”
Alex looks in the direction of Third Avenue. Thirty-fourth Street appears to be welded solid with cars and buses. He looks in the direction of the river. More fire trucks and squad cars are blocking the lanes. Television crews now choke the sidewalks. “Could you turn on the news?” he asks the driver.
The cabbie switches on the radio, but the station he tunes in sounds, to Alex’s ears, as if it’s being broadcast from under the East River. “Could you make it louder?” he asks.
Ruth stares at him. “Did you forget your hearing aids? Not tonight of all nights.”
Alex now realizes that the low sorrowful keening he’s been hearing ever since he stepped outside this evening is just a muted version of the real thing. He is unarmored. He won’t be able tell which direction the sirens are coming from or heading to; he won’t be alert to any alarming increases in the city’s volume, but that’s not all that worries him. He can negotiate New York deaf if he has to. It’s the hospital. What if the nurses speak too softly or too fast? What if the doctor mumbles or has an accent? He’ll have to ask Ruth to repeat what’s wrong with Dorothy over and over again.
a gasoline truck stuck in the Midtown,” Ruth announces.
“At least there’s no fire,” the cabbie says.
“Police are evacuating the tunnel in both directions, people are abandoning their cars and running,” she interprets the radio’s faint mumbles for Alex. “Aren’t we on top of the tunnel now?”
Alex, Ruth, and the driver all look down just as a crosstown bus grinds into motion and a passageway unlocks in the bulwark of cars. The taxi rushes through and once again, albeit slowly, they are rolling up First Avenue.
“The tanker jackknifed; it’s blocking all in-bound lanes,” Ruth continues. “Police don’t know if it was an accident or if the driver swerved on purpose. The mayor is asking everyone to remain calm and to not drive into Manhattan tonight. Who would come into the city tonight?”
Five blocks short of the hospital, they jerk to a standstill again. Tunnel traffic is being detoured onto the Fifty-ninth Street Bridge. The old four-lane structure can’t accommodate the overspill. Up ahead, signals change and change again, and nothing gives. Eventually even horns stop honking. Left and right, fares begin deserting their cabs to continue north on foot. They carry their belongings in their arms: cleaning, groceries, children, strollers, a full-length mirror with the price tag still on it.
“It’s too cold for her,” Ruth says.
“We have no choice.”
Ruth doubles the blanket over Dorothy while Alex pays. Despite the urgency he feels to get Dorothy to the hospital, and the electric panic in the air, and the rumbling of fear under his feet (the low vibrations from thousands
of trapped engines gunning in place), and the adrenaline pumping through his frame, preparing him for flight, Alex can’t help himself, he asks the driver for a receipt.
“Driver’s licenses? Picture IDs,” says the guard, a moonfaced young man posted inside the overheated animal hospital’s lobby, beside a metal detector.
Ruth and Alex are panting from the hurried, five-block journey, tear-blind from the cold. In the first blast of steam heat, Ruth feels Dorothy’s shivering subside and her peculiar rigidity grow loose again. She releases her grip on the blanket, even though she’s worried her grip is all that’s holding Dorothy together, while Alex gently sets the cutting board on a card table near the guard. They produce their picture IDs—a gym membership card for Alex and a twenty-five-year-old teachers’ union card for Ruth (at fifty-two, she had looked like Imogene Coco in thick glasses).
They pick up the board and ferry Dorothy through the metal detector, Alex first, backward. The buzzer sounds. They step back, lower Dorothy onto the card table again, and empty their pockets of keys and coins. They start through the electrified field once more, but the buzzer goes off again. Alex removes his wristwatch, Ruth hands the guard her purse so he can inspect its contents— pencils, a cell phone with two years’ worth of flashing messages (neither Ruth or Alex know how to retrieve the messages), a cellophane bar code that has peeled off the back of her library card, a sandwich bag of dog treats. They pick up Dorothy one more time and try to cross the threshold, but the buzzer rings and rings.
“Can’t you see she’s in pain? Is this necessary?” Ruth asks.
“It’s for security, ma’am.”
“Who would blow up a hospital full of sick cats and dogs?”
Alex touches her sleeve: he’s found the source of the alarm, the metal buckle on Dorothy’s faux leopard collar. Ruth had bought the collar because she though it gave Dorothy a risqué, haughty look, an old dominatrix, say, whose specialty was biting. Ruth watches as Alex unclasps the buckle at the nape of Dorothy’s neck with intimacy and caution, a husband removing his ill wife’s necklace.
The emergency room’s front desk is glassed-in, like an aquarium. The receptionist, a large powdery woman in a pink cardigan mottled with cat hairs, looks up over her half-glasses. “Name? Address? Phone number? Pet’s name?”