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Authors: Kate Walbert

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BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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Marie stares at her canvas: five weeks of work and still almost nothing. She thinks of Jules chalking the entire universe in just days: planets on the front stoop then suns and moons on the sidewalk, forests, magical animals, drawing until dark, when she would open the front door and ask where he had landed. California, he always said, given his interest in Disneyland. Once a late-night rainstorm washed it all away, or most of it, leaving Jules predictably heartbroken. Jules of the pink rain; Jules of the faint of heart. Jules crying, again. He had been planning something, his fierce little face, red-cheeked, pale, the lashes of his eyes wet with tears. Does he have a scraped knee? A gash? She blows on the raw skin, lightly, not even enough to extinguish a candle’s flame, and he closes his beautiful eyes and holds his breath.

“Marie!”

“Yes?” Has she been sleeping? She sits in front of the easel, tackle box now at her feet, the tubes of paint and brushes purchased at the art store on Twenty-Third Street after the first class, a discount for mentioning the famous Sid Morris, who suddenly looms behind her, too close, breathing. She smells the strong tobacco. Let the sonsofbitches arrest me, he had said; let the ghost of Bloomberg kiss my carcinogenic ass.

“Explain,” he says.

“What do you mean?” she says.

“I’d like to hear your thoughts,” he says.

The entire class waits to hear her thoughts.

“These are the suns,” she begins.

“Plural?”

“It’s a universe.”

“Oh.”

“And these are some planets and I skipped them because it got too hard and I’m working on the forest and animals.”

“This is a deer?”

“A rabbit.”

“Right.”

Duane Reade shifts on his stool. Marie understands that he is not so absorbed in his own work—that none of them are—as not to be listening. She looks out at them but they are pretending.

“You said we could do anything,” Marie says.

“I did,” Sid Morris says, touching her shoulder, lightly, quickly. “And you may,” he adds, moving on to Duane Reade.

“Speaking of rabbits,” Helen whispers, leaning toward Marie to take a look, though this, too, is strictly forbidden. “My British granddaughter has a jumping rabbit. She enters it in contests. The craziest thing,” she says. “It’s a new sport, rabbit jumping. They make them go over these tiny poles, like horses.”

“Really?” Marie says.

“God’s truth,” Helen says, turning back to her own canvas, where, it seems, she has decided to introduce magical creatures, or so this one appears, hunched, winged, its beak a weedy orange. It is perched on one of her toppled buildings as if a cormorant on a craggy rock, oblivious to the legions submerged.

I
. Before Marie’s own husband, Abe, had passed, the couples did everything together: vacations with the children, New Year’s Eve dinners, Sunday walks in Brooklyn, where, as the younger versions of themselves, they had lived among tenements and garment factories and untended walk-ups with impoverished front gardens—a statue of the Virgin Mary within a circle of begonia, a lone beach chair next to an American flag. It was in Brooklyn that Marie had first met Simone, in a weedy playground at the end of the boulevard Abe claimed went all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. The two were there every morning speaking French to the children as they pushed them on the swings, Simone’s daughter, Katherine; Marie’s little boy, Jules. French the children learned beautifully and then eventually refused to speak.

II
. Marie finds it almost unbearable that Abe is dead and she is alive. When the telephone rings, she often waits to listen again to his voice on the answering machine explain to the caller that no one is home, and to please leave a message.

III

T
he mothers, dressed for exercise, gather on the steps of Progressive K–8—Stephanie G. at the center, forty-five, give or take, her hair in short braids, dandelions woven into the bands—Elizabeth sees her and sidesteps but too late.

“Elizabeth!” Stephanie G. calls. “Elizabeth!”

How had she agreed to the idea at all? Now Stephanie G. blocks her path, clearly determined to see the vision fulfilled: Who We Are stories line the hallways of Progressive K–8 like so many snowflake cutouts in winter, each sincere and beautiful and excruciatingly heartbreaking for reasons Elizabeth cannot name and does not want to examine. The idea had grown out of the school’s pledge for better communication by way of stronger community, dialoguing through dialogue, something like that, one of those tautologically challenged declarations beloved by their new interim head of school—Dr. Constantine—an elderly woman whose early advocacy of sexual education in pre-K put her on the academic map. If everyone could share their roots, or dig down to their roots, or expose their roots the school might come together in a grand way, or at least in a way that would increase the parent participation in the annual fund drive.

It had all been outlined in an e-mail:
IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT FROM DR. CONSTANTINE
, which Elizabeth opened expecting to read of another outbreak of nits on a fifth grader’s scalp or an additional plea for vigilance when patrolling the City blocks after pickup. This, Elizabeth’s favorite parental responsibility: mothers and the occasional bemused father wandering Bleecker Street in pairs regardless the weather, dressed in bright orange vests and carrying heavy walkie-talkies, a bit over-the-top, yet still: vigilance must be maintained, Dr. Constantine stressed, especially in the event of a What If.
I

Last month Elizabeth had patrol duty with a woman whose son was in first grade, a woman tall and thin with dark, New York hair and glasses suggesting a love of books or at least a graduate degree in the humanities. The two had wandered the block greeting other mothers they knew, nodding to clusters of students and telling them to get along, eyeing any stray man who seemed not to have a destination in mind, their hands gripping the walkie-talkies just in case they needed to call back in to, whom? Dr. Constantine? Central control? The crackle of static had felt comforting, as was the idea of a direct link to someone who might allay her more general fears: Dirty bomb a hoax, the voice would whisper; organic beef as good as grass-fed.

But this e-mail had a different message:

What’s Your Story? it read. We’re asking the Progressive K–8 Community to participate in a 3-E endeavor to Enliven, Engage, and Enlighten with Who We Are stories. Everyone has one: Great-Uncle Vic worked as a tailor for Chiang Kai-shek; Grandmother Sanchez escaped from Castro’s Cuba. Whatever it is, we want to know! And please, include pictures!

*  *  *

“So, who are we?” Ben asked that night at the dinner table.

“What?” Elizabeth said, distracted by the amount of cheese he had stuffed in his taco.

“Dr. Constantine said we were supposed to remind you,” Ben said, negotiating a bite. “I’m reminding you.”

“Oh, that,” she said, turning to her husband, who scooped the meat with a spoon and whose pale, delicate fingers, long and tapered, looked as if he should be playing a musical instrument. “What?” Pete said. “What are we talking about?”

“We’re supposed to write a Who We Are story,” Elizabeth said. “You know, where we come from, how we ended up here. They’re asking everyone to do it. One of those community things.”

Pete looked at her as if not comprehending. She had noticed this more and more about him, these brief synapses—hamster trances, Ben called them—and wondered if it had to do with his not sleeping, or maybe the hours he spent sitting at a desk staring at small numbers moving across a computer screen or on the device held in his palm. Perhaps he was waiting for his wife and son to morph into something else, for the trading feed to begin its loop across the bottom of the page: information, statistics, the rise and fall of the stock exchange; or possibly he hoped the text might offer links to other sites, sites that would explicate his family’s deeper, troubling mysteries—his wife’s increasing restlessness, his son’s unpredictable moods.

“My ancestors were Welsh,” Pete said. “You could write about that. The Welsh are interesting.”

“I thought Holland,” Elizabeth says.

Pete shrugs. “Somebody sailed from Rotterdam before the Revolution, but then there was also something about Wales. Nobody really knows.”

“If you were a girl you could be a member of the DAR,” Elizabeth says to Ben. “That’s kinda cool.”

Ben looks from one to the other then takes a tremendous bite of his taco, tomatoes and cheese and lettuce shreds raining down on his plate, and to the side of the plate onto the good tablecloth.

“Promise me you won’t take your first date out for tacos,” Elizabeth says.

“I promise I won’t take my first date out for tacos,” Ben says, his mouth full. When did he get so large, so ungainly, so hairy? He is all arms and legs, as if he can’t even fit into his chair. They sit on the chairs she and Pete bought in Mexico, right after their wedding. The chairs have rattan seats the cat has destroyed and are grease-stained and worn but when she looks at them she thinks of Pete speaking broken Spanish, attempting to bribe someone at the post office in Oaxaca to mail them freight.

“We could write how we had tacos on our first date,” Elizabeth says to Pete, feeling suddenly expansive, young; she might be twenty-eight; she might be walking on that beach in Mexico, the one where they stayed before leaving for Oaxaca, where the chickens and seagulls followed them for crumbs. They were eating galletas; they were leaving a trail in case they got lost. “We could write that when I took the first bite he wondered if he could have a second date, much less spend the rest of his life with me.”

“I did wonder that,” Pete says.

“First date?” Elizabeth says.

“What did we do?” Pete says.

“Chinese,” Elizabeth says.

“Right,” Pete says. “I was thinking egg roll.”

“Chinatown,” Elizabeth says.

“Right, right. You had the spicy braised fish,” he says, though she didn’t—at the time she refused to eat anything with scales.

“And then we went to hear music,” she says.

“Muddy Waters,” Pete says.

“Willie Dixon,” Elizabeth says. “And ate those little balls with the toothpicks for dessert. They were too sweet. They’re always too sweet.”

“I moved into your mother’s apartment. It was above Sherm’s—” Pete says to Ben.

“Sherman’s was an upscale diner and all day Sunday you smelled all the delicious—” says Elizabeth.

“Sausage.”

“Your father didn’t have a dime. We never ate out again,” Elizabeth says.

“One time your mother found this stray dog and asked the waiters if they had any leftover sausage—”

“Oh God!”

“For the dog,” Pete says. He smiles, remembering.

Ben has his eyes covered, head on the table, or the pretty tablecloth. “Should I be writing this down?” he says.

*  *  *

Two fathers sprint past Stephanie G., their jacket tails flying as if they can’t wait to get the hell to their jobs. Certain days the fathers turn out in impressive numbers, walking their young children to school, looking handsome and freshly showered, many in well-cut suits and a few in jeans and bomber jackets, good shoes, and one or two in grungy clothes. The fathers must exercise at different times, maybe earlier in the morning before they have showered, or possibly at night or possibly not at all, though in general the fathers look more physically fit than the mothers and, truth be told, Elizabeth thinks, younger. How could you account for this? How can you possibly reconcile the great inequities of gender—coupled with the perversions of age and the general randomness of everything? Who could you call to complain? Or is it
whom
?

“Elizabeth?” Stephanie G. is saying. “Are you with me?”

“Oh, sorry,” Elizabeth says, too quickly. “Yes, of course. Absolutely. What?”

“I was saying we’re trying to get one hundred percent participation. It’s part of the General Mandate. I saw you signed up for the Environmental Committee, too,” she says. “Of course there’s no saying you can’t do both.” Stephanie G. cocks her head to one side. She actually looks cute in braids, Elizabeth thinks. Maybe how she looked as a child, eager, happy, always ready to include the third girl or stand up to the bully. She clerked for a Supreme Court justice until she had her second son—now there are four—worked as the editor of the law review, supported her alcoholic mother, et cetera, et cetera. When she had started putting dandelions in her hair Elizabeth can’t quite remember, though it may have been right around the time Stephanie G. cochaired the third-grade flower drive. Those days you would never see her without a potted plant in her hands or a sprig of something behind her ear.

“I mean unless you want to,” Stephanie G. says. “If you want to, that would be terrific.”

“No, I’m good,” Elizabeth says. “That sounds great,” she adds, not quite understanding what she’s agreed or not agreed to. She had joined the Environmental Committee after the e-mail went out that every parent was expected to serve on a volunteer committee or two, given the lackluster response to the all-volunteer volunteer committees. She had a vision of herself with the rest of the committee in gloves and comfortable boots, the sun streaming down as they tended to the delicate morning glories entwining the chain-link fence that guarded the children from running off the roof playground, or clipped a potted hedgerow or two, possibly, or watered a copse of birch, birch mostly foreign to the City, especially downtown, but for a while she could picture it: the kindergartners tricycling through the birch, their little legs turning the wheels as fast as they could, careering around the roof playground as if they had suddenly found themselves in a magic forest. The birch might even mute the sounds of traffic and attract the wildlife from farther north, near Central Park, the families of squirrel and raccoon and even otter.

“Anyway, there’s no rush,” Stephanie G. is saying, “though we do hope to get everything in by the end of the year.”

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
2.86Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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