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Authors: Kate Walbert

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BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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“All right,” Elizabeth says. “We’ll think of something,” she says.

“Wonderful!” Stephanie G. says, striding down the steps and disappearing into the band of suitably stretched women. They will run from here a few blocks north, across Fourteenth Street, then up the West Side Highway bike path as far as they can go, some of them, even, sprinting the GW Bridge to the Palisades, these the most determined, the marathoners, the ones who, heads down, feet sneakered, push and push their tired hearts, as that runner once did to warn the Athenians of the Spartans, or maybe it was the other way around.

I
. What Ifs were favorites of Dr. Constantine’s, who often opened her monthly
Cappuccinos with Constantine
by tossing What Ifs to the crowd: What If an earthquake were to knock out the power grid? What If an outbreak of avian flu occurred during a blizzard? What If I never do my homework? Elizabeth’s son, Ben, newly thirteen, now liked to throw back at her, What If I refuse to get out of bed?

IV

S
imone’s talk turns to Sid Morris, as it will, to the awkward way he holds his hands, to his fingers in particular, slender, pale, as if he has been instructed to keep his wrists up and they’ve been drained of blood, to the way he sniffles when he has something important to say, or what he believes to be important, to his habit of suggesting, before anyone begins, that they sit with their own palms up, fingers up, eyes closed, and relax their toes in a kind of collective meditation.

“Toes!” Simone says, though she’s delighted. He liked the progress of Henry’s Brooklyn Bridge; he liked her sweater; he liked what she had to say about Cézanne’s principle of certainty, something Sid Morris imparted last class during Friendly Break. Over the past few months they have learned much about Sid Morris during Friendly Break, how he worshiped at the altar of the Ashcan School, how he was raised somewhere near Coney Island; how he lived in a studio apartment, an only child, with aged parents; and how, as a boy punk, he would take a nickel subway to the West Side, where the banana boats docked and you had to watch the spiders, big as your fist, tarantulas that would come up from Panama or Brazil or wherever the fuck it was they grew bananas, but you could always earn enough unloading to get in the pinup clubs that have long since closed or the bars of Hell’s Kitchen, which really was, then, Hell. Not like now: before, Sid Morris would say: tenements and immigrants, the teaming masses yearning to be free, fighting like cats in a bag, sonsofbitches most though some good souls who moved among them, administering. No one now knows from poor, he said.

They have learned the things Sid Morris says he cannot forget: that he did nothing when a boy in his gang tormented another into falling from a fourth-floor window, that he cheated on his wife and was a rotten father to his only child, foolishly named Veritas; that he killed not one Communist in the war but shot himself, instead; that he skipped his mother’s funeral for a party.

But he is not alone; there are other old cowards still hanging on in the East Village, in Chelsea, on the Lower East Side, men who frolicked with the likes of Rauschenberg and Warhol, their aged companions—once ingenues—still painting spheres, squares, a circle in their rent-controlled studios, their arthritic hands claw-curled to the brush.

Beauty! Sid Morris said, addressing the dirty windows that looked out to the alley where, on certain Thursdays, the smell up from the Chinese restaurant across the street reached a point you could almost taste. Beauty! he said.

“He
is
talented,” Simone is saying. “I mean, not
hugely
so, but in the way one must be in order to teach.”

“Yes,” Marie says.

“He’s got an interesting way of speaking.”

She hasn’t noticed. “I know,” she says.

“I wonder if he stuttered as a child. I bet he stuttered. So many of them did.”

Time was Marie might have asked Simone what she meant, exactly—so many children stuttered? Boys? Boys named Sidney?—but age has undermined the urgency of these questions, or made them less pressing, somehow; most things unexplainable anyway—words too quickly fall away, disappear; where, she isn’t sure, but they are suddenly gone; language jittery, unsustainable. Connections lost. This is what has plagued her most about Abe’s death—not so much the death of Abe, but the death of all Abe knew: his books, his lifetime of asking, his thoughts, his memories, all this and everything else, their yellow kitchen with each object in its place, carefully mannered, intricate, ornate though not rich, more historical or, rather, well loved—objects inherited from Abe’s relatives in Philadelphia, silver a museum or a library collection would want to catalog though the value never interested him: it was the archaeology of the things, he would say, the history—the watchmaker’s insignia, the fleur-de-lis crest. A fortune sat on these shelves. Even Very Grand on her wire in their bedroom, painted by some somebody known for portraiture, posed against her Victorian wallpaper, arms crossed, challenging, as if she’d rather be anywhere else, a wrap—was it then called a wrap?—around her pale, regal shoulders.
I

“Marie?” Simone says.

“Yes?”

“You’re daydreaming,” Simone says.

“Hmm?”

“I said, the stew was delicious; you used fennel.”

“Cumin.”

“It tastes better than ever.”

“Thank you.”

Marie stands so abruptly the wooden chair wobbles. She gathers the plates and carries them to the sink. Where am I? she thinks: then, the yellow kitchen: the view: the darkening back garden. Beyond young families sleep in the taller building—a dull, white-bricked modern, twenty-some floors of windows in a checkerboard square, their lights a tic-tac-toe or random puzzle although the insomniac on the ninth floor remains as constant as the North Star. In a matter of hours they had torn down Mrs. Stern’s brownstone and the others: the one with the window boxes, the one with the honeysuckle that grew over the roof, the wrecking ball the size of a boulder, and the sound so loud. Marie dries her hands slowly but Simone’s coat is already over her shoulders.

“He asked me to coffee,” Simone says, absently, as if distracted by a small loop of thread at her wrist. No doubt she waits, listening for the sharp intake of breath or whatever else she imagines Marie might do in response, the squeal, the handclap. What does she expect?

“And what did you say?” Marie asks, knowing.

Simone leans into her, her hand cold from the leaky, original windows, dry as dust against Marie’s cheek. “You’re very funny, my friend,” she says. “I’ll call you tomorrow.”

*  *  *

It is difficult for Marie to sleep. She lies in bed with a book, a new one—all the rage—she must read in the large-print edition, the book too heavy to hold. Someone else’s life around her neck, an albatross, someone who neither knows her nor would care to know her; a complete stranger and yet here she reads of the stranger’s education, the stranger’s first loves. There are photographs, too, an album of them in the middle of the book: a little girl clasps her mother’s hand, their eyes similarly dark; a broad father stands behind wearing a bowler hat. Grandparents, she presumes. A horse. A table of smart-looking people, women in thick lipstick and strapless dresses and men in shirtsleeves, a club somewhere in Paris or, possibly, Berlin. History. Records. Refugees. Are the children beneath the table or sleeping on a mountain of furs in the ladies’ room? Survivors all or, maybe, not—they dissolve at the touch, or will, eventually; they burst into flames with a single match. They melt to soap. She could burn this thick volume for warmth, she could eat the paper, make paper soup.

Over the mantel, Very Grand stares out at a distant point, her wrap around her pale shoulders, her elegant ankles cracked, the paint flaking: paint on plywood, perhaps. Difficult to tell: she’s splitting apart, Very Grand: fissures span her skin, a delicate net on her hands, her face. And on her cheeks a new, flushed pink, as if Very Grand might be running a fever.

Marie gets out of bed and walks down the narrow hallway to the kitchen. She sits at her round table facing the back garden and the now-grown cherry, or rather the snow that outlines its bare branches, the snow that weighs it down to almost breaking. Winter and the branches breaking—it is very old for a cherry and they are ornamental, after all; they don’t last forever.

A full moon—perhaps the cause of her restlessness—lights the snow white. Across the way the apartments are black as black, turned off, mostly, except for the ninth floor. The movie star’s cat balances on the high fence that divides his backyard from hers—Roscoe, she remembers. The cat. The movie star bought the brownstone from her friends who moved to Florida after the last storm. She’s had a phone call or two from them since, checking in after new disasters. They listen to Abe’s instructions to leave a message and then they do. Are you okay? Do you need anything? Can we help?

“I survived the Blitz,” she might tell them. “This is only weather,” she might say, though she knows they are being kind.

She watches Roscoe balance on the high fence, his tail quivering, his shadow cast onto the snow like a black cardboard cat against the whiteness. The day the movie star moved in he knocked on her front door and asked if she had seen his cat, Roscoe. “Is he lost?” she had said. He was not so handsome in real life, his skin drawn back by one procedure or another, acne scars from a no doubt troubling adolescence. He wore a paperboy’s hat and a T-shirt that said
BITE ME.

“Obviously,” he said.

Through the narrow gaps in the distant skyscrapers the Empire State Building has been turned off. To save energy, she knows, damn the birds. Now its spire is a dark outline of black; clouds, what clouds there are, wispy, angry, circling it like released Furies in the brightness of the moon.

My word, Marie thinks. What will they talk about?

I
. After Abe’s death she had hauled Very Grand to the basement, impossible to look at, impossible to remember Abe constantly rewriting her biography: a bad match with her first husband—a military man stationed somewhere in Egypt or, possibly, Algeria. She loved the blue of the sea but didn’t like the heat and so left, Abe said, much to the despair of the children, whom she had abandoned without a moment’s hesitation or, rather, only a moment’s: she had been a debutante in Newport and then the wife of a scion; or a woman who dressed as a man to wander the markets of Zanzibar. In less than a day, Marie had hauled Very Grand back up the basement stairs to hang her in her old place, apologizing to the hollow air of the impossibly empty bedroom. “I’m sorry,” she had said. “You can stay.”

V

M
arie serves the leftover stew, better days old, they both agree, and sherry. A sunny afternoon and the snow, still white in the backyard save pigeon scrawls and Roscoe’s paw prints zigzagging in a hunter’s trail, melts and drips from the back gutters, a ping ping ping sound they hear through the open kitchen windows. So bright this noonday light on the yellow walls; Marie never tires of it. As a little girl she dreamt she would live on a rooftop, or perhaps in a greenhouse. Now her bedroom faces south, better for Very Grand, Abe had said, though lousy for traffic. Oh well. There wasn’t so much traffic then, not like now, with the tourists and the tourists. She’s not heard this much French, she joked to Jules, since France!

“It would be easier for both of us,” Jules says. “I wouldn’t worry, you wouldn’t need to look after yourself.”

“I’m fine, darling. I have Simone. I have the butcher around the corner. I’m fine.”

“Are you?” he says.

She would like to sprout wings and fly to him, like in that children’s story where Mother is everywhere. What was that one? She flies to him and in his sleep he will not push her away, complain; she strokes his hair as she would when he felt feverish. She blows on his eyelids, tucks the blankets tight. Tighter, he says, in his sleep or maybe he has waked and sees her. He’s a feverish boy and Mother is here and she will stay until he sleeps, again. Then she flaps home but first she circles the Empire State Building, resting on its spire, balancing as she deciphers the grid of the City to see where Abe has gone. Is this where Abe has gone? He loved it so. Maybe she will find him here. Maybe she will find them all, Mother and Father and Rose and Sylvie. Little Ernest with his spectacles, his pudgy hands and arms too short to reach the family sugar bowl she knew the hiding place of though she would never tell.
I

*  *  *

“A little boy,” Marie says.

“What?” Simone says. She puts down her fork. “Who?”

“I’m sorry,” Marie says. “I was thinking.”

“Were you listening? I was saying about Sid. Did you hear that?”

“What?”

“He’s asked me now to
dinner
.”

“Yes?”

“Dinner.”

“I heard.”

“I said I’d think about it. I didn’t want to seem too eager. I don’t really know anything about him,” Simone says.

“No,” Marie says.

Simone sits back, scrapes her plate. She looks at Marie in the way she will at times, as if Marie is already a ghost, transparent. “Jules called my Katherine. Apparently he’s worried. Thinks you shouldn’t be rambling around this house on your own.”

“Not to mention its property value,” Marie says, immediately wishing she had not. Out back Roscoe stalks one of the pigeons in the flock beneath her bird feeder. Sparrows, too, an occasional brave cardinal, blue jay; once even a Baltimore oriole though Abe said impossible. But she had seen it: a flash of bright orange and black perched high in the neighbor’s mulberry, its call unlike anything she had ever heard before. The bird sang its heart out, she told Abe. You should have heard, she told him. It sang like nothing.

The sun lights a square shadow across the snow, a box to climb down to, to fall into, or perhaps a box in which to hide.

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
6.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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