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Authors: Kate Walbert

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BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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“I guess Katherine mentioned our class. I’ve told her about Sid. You know how she asks questions. Anyway, you didn’t?”

“What?”

“Our class. You didn’t say anything to Jules?”

“It was going to be a surprise. The painting.”

“Oh that’s right.”

“It has some significance.”

“I remember.”

“And yours?”

“Sid says I am beginning to develop an eye.”

Simone laughs and the pigeons take flight or simply rearrange, as is the case with pigeons.

“So you’re going to say yes?” Marie says.

“To Sid?” Simone says, as if that’s a question. “What have I got to lose?”

I
. Mother had once been a teacher. Rose and Sylvie had once been beauties; Marie had once jump-roped; Ernest had once been a little boy; they had all once gone on the train to the circus in Paris and bought sugar sticks in lemons and sucked the sweet juice and watched as a monkey climbed a man and took off his toupee and put it on his own funny monkey head.

VI

“W
e’re supposed to include a photograph,” Elizabeth says to Ben and Pete. The dishwasher runs in the quiet cycle and they’re sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea. Ben’s pointy elbows rest on either side of his mug and he slouches in his chair. Near him the cat balances on his math book and he scratches her belly, which she turns to him, expectant.

“How about the one from Hawaii?” Pete says.

“Ben wasn’t born,” Elizabeth says.

“No way. He was always born,” Pete says.

“Hah, hah,” Ben says.

“I was thinking one of the ones from California,” Elizabeth says.

“Forget it,” Ben says.

“They’re good,” Elizabeth says.

“They sucked,” Ben says.

“Don’t say
suck,
” Elizabeth says. “Say
they were terrible.

“They were terrible,” Ben says.

The radio alarm switches on, as it will every evening at 7:30 despite their best efforts to undo the setting.

“Let’s write we have a ghost in the house,” Ben says. “The ghost of the Old Lady’s husband.”

“Don’t call her the Old Lady,” Elizabeth says. “Her name is Mrs. Frank. Marie Frank. You can probably call her Marie now. She wouldn’t mind. We’ve lived in her house since you were a baby.”

“Duh,” Ben says.

“Don’t say
duh,
” Elizabeth says.

“Maybe he lives in the radio,” Pete says.

“Who?” Elizabeth says.

“The ghost of Marie’s husband,” Pete says.

“Abe,” Elizabeth says. “Abraham Lincoln Frank. Isn’t that great? She was a refugee and he was a professor: the refugee and the professor. That would be a good story.”

The radio is set to a religious station of some sort, the announcer speaking about one of the gospels.

Elizabeth stomps across the floor to flick it off and the cat jumps to the counter and knocks over a water glass and Ben falls out of his Mexican chair to land with a thud on the floor.

“Enough!” Elizabeth says.

Ben lies there for a while in his soccer shorts and high kneesocks, his legs splayed like a giant sea creature, mottled pink skin and black hair. Elizabeth wouldn’t be surprised if he suddenly sprouted something.

“What’s for dessert?” he finally says, unmoving.

*  *  *

The Mexican chairs were lined in two neat rows, as if expecting company. They were simple, straight-backed chairs, several of them painted bright colors—orange, green, blue, yellow—but others not painted at all, others bare wood. These were the ones Elizabeth liked the best; they had already bought many things in Mexico—tablecloths, candleholders, silver jewelry for relatives—all the things kept in the special bag they had brought with them for purchases. It seemed crass but also okay: the things were beautiful and cheap, and they were young and poor. The Mexican chairs would cost a fortune to ship home, Pete said; they were out of their league.

Pete and Elizabeth had been in Oaxaca for several days, staying at the convent near the center square where every night men and women danced on raised platforms and tourists milled about, eating various desserts made from flan and listening to guitars and drinking tequila. Pete and Elizabeth also drank tequila, as well as some of the other liquor they loved; and they also listened to guitars and watched as the men and women danced on raised platforms. One night, in a restaurant, Elizabeth waited as a little yellow canary hopped off its perch and chose a tiny scroll with her fortune. The old woman who carried the cage with the canary said the bird could tell fortunes, that the bird would hop off its perch and choose a fortune and that the bird would be right. Elizabeth waited and listened as the woman took the little scroll from the bird and read her fortune and Pete translated, as best he could, what the woman said: You will make your own destiny, he said. You will find your own path. Then something I don’t know, he said.

You don’t know? Elizabeth said. That’s a fortune? Elizabeth had said but still, she remembered it.

I want those chairs, she told Pete later in the room. They lay in the bed in the heat unclothed. They were trying to get pregnant and so made love as often as possible, but the flan had not agreed with her on this evening, so on this evening, they lay in bed next to one another but did not touch.

What? Pete said.

Those chairs, she said. Those chairs are my destiny.

Your destiny is chairs? Pete said; he had propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at her, his expression the one she loved most on him, when he seemed unsure whether she was joking or not, his mouth slightly skeptical. Plus, he had his vacation beard, which she also loved, and wore the thin gold necklace she had found at one of the outdoor markets that lined the streets, a necklace with a tiny crown charm Pete said was not a crown but was a symbol that had to do with the Incas; still, she liked the idea of her husband wearing a crown, she said, which by all rights would make her a queen.
I

The canary told me, she said.

Pete touched her then on her stomach; he had slid his hand down the length of her stomach and then felt his way around.

Please, sweetheart, she said. I’m too sick.

*  *  *

The next day they went back to the chairs. Each had been carved out of wood, and on the back of them someone had whittled a sun, its expression different depending on the chair, but a sun on every one, regardless. She preferred the unfinished ones, she said to the woman selling the chairs.

No good, the woman said. They need protection.

I’ll oil them, she said. Tell her I’ll oil them, she said to Pete.

Pete repeated something to the woman, who only shook her head.

She’s pretty clear she wants you to buy a painted one, Pete said. What about the green?

I want the bare ones, Elizabeth said. Tell her we’ll pay.

All right, Pete said. Keep your pants on.

Pete repeated something to the woman. She looked at Elizabeth, her face creased and burnt, a scarf wrapped around her head and knotted.

It was a prophecy, Elizabeth said. It was the prophecy of the yellow bird, she said. The woman smiled, her teeth white and strong. She nodded as if she understood, and Elizabeth, somewhat abruptly, pulled one of the unpainted chairs out of its row and plunked herself down. This one, she said to Pete. We’ll get the set, she said.

*  *  *

That night they line the chairs against the wall of their room in the old convent, the chairs beneath the tiny ivory crucifix, Christ painted on with some kind of vegetable dye, or possibly carved, the artist careful to nick the places where the nails were hammered and dot each with a tiny speck of red. The ceiling is very high, and as Pete thrusts into her, lost, she pictures herself floating above the bed, above the chairs, floating in the dark space between the limits of the light and the ceiling. There are kings and queens in the chairs, and all manner of religious heretics and slaves; there are the martyrs they have read about at every location, the ones whose names Pete can magically recall—Sebastian the Beheaded, Epiphania the Exalted—and the hermits and eunuchs and saints of the early Renaissance, the popes; there are members of her family, too, and the constant ghost of Molly; there is her mother, Doreen, whose love is blue and whose anger turns her a glowing, pulsing, muscle red. There are women she has only heard of—grandmothers and great-grandmothers, some who were carried west against their will, across great oceans they were convinced were inhabited by unfathomable demons, and others who came willingly, if not docilely, their feet too sore to complain, their spirits crushed—wives of clergymen, daughters of patriarchs; she has no idea who they were, or are, though they line up beneath her as if Russians queuing for bread.

She lies in the crux of Pete’s arm, his vacation beard sharp against her, his breathing fast. She knows at this moment they have created a life; she can feel it, she can read it, almost, as if it were written on the tiny scroll, the little canary hopping off its perch to pluck the one scroll from the tight bunch of scrolls it must choose from.

*  *  *

The lights are out by the time Pete comes to bed. She’s been reading, she says. Good night, she says.

Pete turns to kiss her then rolls over on his side. “I thought of one,” Pete says into the dark. “Ben’s swim meet last summer. The championship. It’s of all of us, remember?”

“Okay,” she says.

“I’ll find it tomorrow,” he says.

“Great,” she says.

“You look beautiful in it,” he says. “We all look beautiful.”

“I don’t remember,” she says; then she says nothing, just thinks, listening to Pete and the slowing-down breathing of Pete falling asleep. Maybe this is a night when he has cleared his mind—the tacos, Ben suggesting Scrabble after dinner. She watched as the two of them played and it was simple; for a moment, it was simple and she did not feel the speeding up of urgencies or sense the lengthening shadow of the past; she did not seek the accumulating dark at the limits of the light.

I
. Pete would never be mistaken for a jewelry man: She had met him at college years ago, where he rode a ratty pink bicycle and bought his books used at the Book Exchange. They were in Dostoyevsky together, though he remembered it as Nietzsche, his copy of
The Possessed
so illegible with the previous owner’s comments—irony? metaphor? simile? synecdoche?—that Pete asked if he could borrow hers. She liked the frayed flannel of his collar. She liked how he bit his fingernails to the quick and rolled his own cigarettes. She liked, even, that he worked on Saturday and Sunday at Tech Library, alphabetizing the card catalog.

VII

T
he School of Inspired Arts is closed for the holiday but Sid Morris has agreed to give the Frenchwomen a little private instruction. He stands when they come through the door and bows—an admittedly false gesture, but one he’s found exceptionally successful when working with women of any age. The two shrug off their coats, commenting on the unseasonable cold and the snow—always snow—this winter. The City paralyzed; sidewalks shoveled willy-nilly; everyone exhausted, has he noticed?

This Simone, of course, the talker. At dinner Sid Morris hardly got a word in edgewise and that was simply to ask for the check. He had heard, among other things, the excruciating details of the late Henry, a man who taught at a private school uptown, one of those brownstones with a crimson door where the boys spilled out every afternoon at 3:30, their white shirttails untucked: boys who wore their privilege as lightly as the clip-on ties now stuffed in their pockets. Henry had taught them mathematics and the art of something he called civil living—how to set oneself according to the rules, and there were rules, the boys were made to understand, thanks to Henry. They were never confused for hooligans, the late Henry would say, no matter the generation, because the generations changed as quickly as the boys did, the late Henry understanding himself to be stalwart at his post, a captain on the bow of a sailing ship, his telescope raised to chart the course far beyond those who teemed and cavorted in the waves below, uncouth, aggressive, snot in their noses, greasy hair.

Simone had said none of this but this is what Sid Morris thought, listening or, better, drifting, thinking of his own upbringing, far away from civil living and the men who understood it. He could picture the charming Henry, a Sunday painter who, Simone said, softly and taking Sid’s sleeve, when given the understanding of his impending death, did as his father had done before him: painted bridges. Not the bridges of Paris—it had been years since they lived in that city—but the bridges of New York, beginning with what he called the mighty Washington and then moving from the Verrazano to the Brooklyn.

But you can only do so much with time, she said.

Toward the end, the two had stood somewhere in Chinatown, the crowds of tourists and elderly Chinese pushing at them, bumping into him. The street stank, littered with the remains of some godforsaken parade. All those dead fish packed in ice staring heavenward. Her husband held the box of oils she had given him years ago for his birthday, his skin waxed, unrecognizable. He waved good-bye, heading across Broadway as the light changed—her husband of fifty-eight years, she said.

Fifty-eight years, she said, and there had been a rare pause as Simone withdrew her hand from Sid’s arm and the waiter delivered the third round of drinks.

She had been among the lucky, truly—to meet him, to end up here—given the brutalities of war. Did he know the brutalities of war? And to this Sid Morris understood he was to give no answer. He was simply to nod, which he did, as he thought somewhat pretentiously and of no consequence of
Guernica,
of himself in a younger form standing before the painting’s heavy gilded frame, in that weak light, sketching in the faraway museum black with oil and smoke and red velvet walls or, possibly, burgundy. Everything comes to pass, Simone said, adding, her voice lowered: Marie did not fare as well. Terrible story, she said. He listened to the terrible story and tried to conjure Marie’s face, but he had no clear recollection beyond her eyes, very blue. He preferred Simone’s face anyway: the way she painted it just so, the lipstick outlining her lips, cracked, cracking, much of it on the linen napkin in her lap and a bit on her front tooth, slightly crooked and smaller than a front tooth should be, a baby front tooth, yellow, stained from coffee, teas, smeared in red, her eyes, too, outlined in kohl like Cleopatra or the exotic women of a former time.
I

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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