Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn

BOOK: Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn
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Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn

A Novel

Alice Mattison

For Lloyd Schwartz

As these elegant silver cars make their way along a curved path above the streets of Brooklyn, they will bring not darkness but periodic infusions of light; and meanwhile, shards and splinters of light will pierce the tracery of their soaring supports, gladdening the beholder's eye.

—Marcus Ogilvy, 1924


Chapter 1

Even when Constance Tepper was a girl, the skeptical, blunt…

Chapter 2

Con reached the lake in Prospect Park. She approved of…

Chapter 3

After Peggy left with the empty lasagna pan, Con wrapped…

Chapter 4

Waiting for the check and fortune cookies with her daughter…

Chapter 5

Before Marlene or anyone else woke up on Saturday morning,…

ven when Constance Tepper was a girl, the skeptical, blunt telephone voice of her mother's friend Marlene Silverman made her happy—uneasy but happy. Marlene knew something about life that Con's mother would never know, but which Constance seemed to have been born suspecting, looking around in her crib for an eye to catch. Their conversations were about other people's foolishness. “I
!” Con would say, pressing herself into her mother's heavy red drapes, her back to the room, eyeing the jagged, crisscrossed Brooklyn sky, which darkened as they spoke. It almost seemed that Marlene had called to speak to Con, not to her mother.

“Did you watch that program about the camps?” Marlene might ask. Con knew which camps Marlene meant.

“No,” she'd have to say. They watched Sid Caesar. They watched Lucille Ball. Then Constance would begin to feel jealous, and
soon—as if jealousy caused what happened next—Marlene would say, “Well, let me talk to Gert.” Con's mother was a little dull, and it puzzled Con that Marlene preferred Gert anyway. Con's father died suddenly when she was twelve, and after that—maybe even before that—Marlene called to be of use: Gert was not a particularly sad or helpless widow, but she worried, and she didn't understand money. Marlene knew what called for worry and what didn't. And Marlene understood money.

Maybe there's always someone whose company is a delight and who can hurt by withholding it. Con grew up, didn't see Marlene for long periods, found new sources of love and pain. She married and moved to Philadelphia; she had a daughter. Marlene's interest and approval still counted. This story takes place at two times in Con's life, fourteen and a half years apart. I want to tell it this way—shifting back and forth in time—for reasons that will become obvious, but also because what interests me most about Con is not exactly that she could remember and learn—who can do that?—but that when she discovered, in middle age, that more than fourteen years earlier she'd failed to pay attention, she tried to find out what she needed to know, even though she didn't want to.


Morning sun—speckled during its passage through a dirty windowpane—laid a parallelogram of brighter color across the stripes of a tablecloth belonging to Gertrude Tepper, who was not home. The parallelogram was observed by her daughter Con, age forty-five, who was spending a week in her mother's
Brooklyn apartment (while Gert visited her old friend Marlene Silverman in Rochester) to look after the cat, a big orange beast—similar in color to one of the stripes on the tablecloth—now heavily asleep, circled by his tail, on the table, which held scatterings of his hairs. The orange stripe—
orange; apricot? mango?—was the color of unhurried time, Con decided. She liked a dark red stripe, too. Con believed—drinking her mother's coffee and eating a bagel—that she had time, time to gaze at the striped tablecloth, trying to remember how long she'd known it. Something almost caught Con's eye, something off to the side on the floor. Without knowing what it was, she preferred not to look at it. Surely it didn't matter.

The parallelogram of sun came to a point on the oak floor. A faded blue rug, fluffy with orange fur, covered the space between table and sofa. Past the table in the other direction was an open kitchen and a back door with an elaborate bolt; it led to a dark staircase. Gert never went down the stairs but she had an agreement with the super: she left her garbage outside that door, and he ascended the three flights and picked it up. In return, Gert tipped him lavishly and often, or thought she did.

Her mother and Marlene had figured out together, Con suspected, that she could stay with the cat, though she'd have to leave both her work and her child—a tall and confident sixteen-year-old daughter. “Joanna's an adult,” Marlene would have said. “And Connie told me her job is flexible.” The work was flexible, but within limits. In truth, Con was glad to be where she was, in her mother's sunny, dusty apartment without her mother. Con would have preferred to live in New York, maybe alone. Her daughter could be her difficult self at home.
Con's husband, Jerry Elias, was on one of his trips. “Oh, fuck you,” Con had said when he announced this one. She'd said it in the past with more energy. Jerry left several times a year, for two or three weeks at a time. He always had. It was not part of his job (he owned a lamp store in downtown Philadelphia) nor was it vacation. He studied historical topics that made him curious. She'd agreed to it when they married, as he sometimes reminded her, and it was hard to explain to her friends why the trips angered her now. Jerry did nothing with the notes he took, which were on yellow three-by-five cards everywhere in their Philadelphia apartment, disarmingly legible and so full of excitement that Con was sure he took these trips in just the way and for the reasons he said he did.

Con's bagel was gone, but a little coffee remained. She pushed her chair back. Later, she'd go for a run. Now as her eye played with the blur of cat into tablecloth and room into room, she allowed her gaze, at last, to shift to the kitchen floor. On the gray tiles was an object that did not belong: a yellow three-by-five index card, one of Jerry's cards. In her purse was just such a card, on which she had written the name and phone number of the director of a house for former women prisoners; she couldn't completely forget work this week. She didn't know how the card could have found its way to the kitchen floor. Con was barefoot, still in her pajamas. She wanted to hold on to her pleasure in the lazy morning; she delayed standing up. She merely had to remember why she might have carried her purse, which was too full, into the kitchen. If she had opened it there, the card could have fallen out.

Con had arrived the previous evening, hours after her
mother had left. The apartment smelled so characteristically of itself—of boiled meat, onions, dust, and cat—that it was hard to imagine it without Gert. Letting herself in, Con couldn't help calling, “Mama?” There was silence, except that she heard water running. The orange cat came toward her. A newspaper was spread on the table, with a mug next to it. A pair of tan lace-up shoes stood near the sofa and another tan lace-up shoe was on a bookcase. Con carried her things into the bedroom, followed by the yowling cat, whose name was Sandy. On the bed was her mother's pink bathrobe, and on the night table were a toothbrush, toothpaste, and a bottle of pills: her mother's cholesterol medication. The cold water in the bathroom basin was on.

Con (who had known Gert was forgetful, but not this forgetful) had poured herself a juice glass of cream sherry from a bottle on the kitchen counter, and drank it sitting on her mother's Danish Modern brown sofa, kicking off her shoes. As she drank, she had an idea about the case she was working on, a second idea; she'd had one on the train, too. She went into the bedroom, took her notebook from her bag, and wrote down the new idea under her earlier note, then replaced the notebook in the bag, which she put on the dresser. There had been no reason to carry the purse into the kitchen. Before sleep—in her mother's bed, which smelled like Johnson's baby powder—she'd read a few pages of
The Satanic Verses
by Salman Rushdie.

Now she looked behind her. The sticky glass still stood on the lamp table, and her own black shoes lay on their sides near her mother's upright tan ones. A crocheted afghan in orange, pink, and dark green was bunched on the sofa. At last
Con stood. As she had known it would, the card read “Mabel Turner,” with a telephone number: the director of the house for former prisoners. She hastily buttoned an undone button on her pajama top, as if someone could see her. Con was five feet one inch tall, with short red hair—something like the cat's—and freckles. She considered that freckles made anyone look like a child, but her voice—her voice was strong, loud, and a little husky, with a Brooklyn accent she didn't try to overcome. She stepped forward, as big as she could be—but feeling stupid and clumsy in her pajamas—and tried the back door. She knew now it would be unlocked, and it was. In a rush, with a cry, she locked it, pushing against it; for a second she thought someone pushed back.

Then she scrambled into the bedroom, where, indeed, her purse was gone from the dresser, gone from anywhere else in the small apartment she might have put it, though she searched again and again, so determined to see it, so used to seeing it, that it seemed she could re-create it—black nylon, shaped like a briefcase but smaller, overstuffed, with “Le Sac” embroidered over and over on the trim. Someone had come into the apartment, and had entered the room in which she slept. She returned to the living room, seized Sandy the cat, and held him to her chest, but he flowed from her arms until his center of gravity shifted and he landed loudly on the floor. Then he leaped to the table and licked his orange fur.

Con looked everywhere in the apartment for an intruder, even where nobody could fit—in the broom closet, the oven. She had fastened the chain on her mother's front door the night before, and it was still in place. She dressed, but couldn't leave:
her train ticket home was in the stolen bag. So were her wallet, the magazine section of yesterday's Sunday
New York Times
—April 16, 1989—a bottle of aspirin, the notebook, a checkbook, photographs of Jerry and Joanna and Con's sister, Barbara. Also lipstick (which she wore only at work), a comb and brush, a light blue plastic case containing two tampons, and her keys—including the key to this apartment. Her address book. In her wallet were forty dollars in cash, her credit card, her driver's license, her Blue Cross card, and her library card.

She phoned the police. A detective would come to the apartment, said the dispatcher. Con should wait. “I can't go out. I can't lock the door!” said Con, but the woman had disconnected.


Fourteen and a half years later, on a Sunday morning in November, 2003, Con was not thinking about the moment when she pushed against her mother's back door and imagined she felt a responsive push back. She was not thinking about that April day at all (and when she happened to think of it, she remembered few of the details) but these days when she closed a door, a trace of the memory of that moment still made her push a little harder than was necessary or even desirable. She was not aware that she pushed too hard, but after a while doors she frequently opened and closed loosened on their hinges. This morning she intended to clean her apartment, starting with the job she liked least, the bathroom. But first she planned to tighten the loose hinges on the bathroom door. She'd tried doing it several times, but the holes were now too loose for the
screws, which went round and round without catching. Con hadn't been able to imagine solving this problem, but eventually had found a home repair Web site that instructed her to fill the holes with golf tees and screw the screws into the tees. This absurd plan appealed to her so strongly that she hadn't minded buying a whole package of golf tees, even though nobody she knew played golf.

She climbed on a chair to remove the upper screws from their hinge. She then sat on the floor to remove the lower ones, loosened the door, and leaned it against the wall. She dipped tees in glue and inserted them into the holes, taking some delight in this activity, which suggested sex. The glue had to dry overnight. Then she'd saw off the part that stuck out. Now she would clean.


Con (in 1989) imagined taking her mother's largest knife from the kitchen drawer and stabbing the burglar, sliding the blade into T-shirt fabric and a fleshy male back. Surely the burglar was a man. To continue this fantasy, it was necessary to imagine a less indifferent cat, who howled and butted his head into her shoulder, so that Con awakened in time to confront the intruder. But he would have been between her and the kitchen before she could have known he was there. And he might have carried a knife, or a gun. For some reason Con didn't imagine the burglar shooting her, but shooting her mother. He shot her mother, her mother lay gasping and bleeding, and Con, having somehow equipped herself with the stainless-steel carving knife, hurtled toward his big back to stab him.

Con didn't know when her mother had put the garbage out, moving in her slow, steady way, bracing an arm on the doorjamb when she lifted the plastic bag from the round metal pail, then pulling it to the landing and walking slowly back in her pink robe to the table, the TV, or the sofa, leaving the door unlocked. Gert might have become the victim. Con examined her conscience to discover whether she wanted this misfortune to have come to her mother instead of her, like the man in
who is finally brought to selfishness by the totalitarians, and begs them to torture his forbidden lover instead of him. Five years had passed since the real 1984, and though things were not good—Reagan followed by Bush; the Iran-Contra scandal; the Democratic Speaker of the House being investigated for ethics violations—they were not as bad as 1984 in the book.

She looked up the number and canceled the credit card, which she shared with Jerry, who would surely be using it for his meals and bed. Jerry was in upstate New York or Vermont, investigating Ethan Allen's attack on Fort Ticonderoga. “Are you going to interview witnesses?” sharp-tongued Con had asked.

“If I can find any,” Jerry said amiably. He'd given her the name of a motel, but it was in the notebook in her purse. She couldn't phone him, but if she could, she realized, it would be to blame him—irrationally, of course—for the burglary, as if it wouldn't have happened if he'd been quietly selling lamps. Friends asked how she knew Jerry didn't take these trips to be with women, and she replied that she figured he didn't because the idea infuriated her less. Now, indeed, if Jerry were in bed with a woman, he'd at least be in
, next to a telephone. Even if he were committing adultery, Jerry would be unable to ignore
a ringing telephone. But he was probably in a boat halfway across Lake Champlain, investigating ways of approaching Fort Ticonderoga from various directions in the dark. If she didn't even try to find out the names of motels near Fort Ticonderoga, it would be to punish Jerry. And this was love, Marlene would say ruefully. Well, she would call Marlene.

BOOK: Nothing Is Quite Forgotten in Brooklyn
5.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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