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Authors: Kate Walbert

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BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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. As a little girl, she would fall asleep in her mother’s lap on drives home from adult parties, parties where she had been sequestered in the basement rec room with the older kids, a hodgepodge of blemishes and hairstyles arguing over a Foosball point. She sat by herself on the mildewed sofa, a book in her hand, something advanced and a little shady,
Love Story
Black Like Me
. She was waiting for the adults to be finished, waiting for the moment to go home, again. In the car her father smoked his pipe; her mother smoked her cigarette, her mother’s hand absentmindedly stroking her hair until the eventual bump and stop in the driveway. Then she could open her eyes and sit up to see her father raising the garage door in the headlights, or she could keep her eyes shut, still pretending to sleep, her breathing timed to her mother’s hand.


t starts early, the day. Marie brews tea and watches Roscoe stalk a squirrel. She has put out the bird feeder for the mourning doves and nuthatches but the squirrels are hungry, too; the ground newly thawed, wet. In another landscape, a line of spruce in the distance would appear an inkblot, a punctuation to the endless gray sentence of the morning, but here, on her shortened horizon, only their small back garden: its color in the promise of perennials—daffodils and tulips, the espaliered rose against the back brick wall, the privets in their clay urns wrapped in butcher’s paper, hidden still in the dark of the basement to winter. She should bring them up.

There are always things to do: vegetables from the Twenty-Third Street vendor—something dark and leafy, red-veined, to go with the sole or skinless chicken she’ll broil for her dinner. She doesn’t know the vendor’s name, but his face is familiar. She prefers to pick her own, she tells him, approaching with her string bag. She does not imagine he recalls her daily request. He nods as if he doesn’t. She would guess him to be Mohammad or Raz. He does not look at her. When she has chosen, he counts her change, his fingers inked and raw with morning cold. Then to the butcher around the corner on Ninth.

But first, tea, her habit, in one of the cups Abe’s relatives collected, always on the prowl for what they could, according to Abe, figuratively steal. His great-aunt Eleanor, of the Philadelphia-Greenwich set, best for the bargains—nose like a beagle; stout of frame. Eleanor had bargained for their wedding present, the dragon-spouted teapot worth thousands and the cups to match, gold-leafed, scaly. Sugar bowl, too, even more valuable given its coloring and the quality of the porcelain. Marie pictures the set in the Antoinette cabinet in the foyer, higher than she can reach but still. The foyer! How Abe loved that word. Left the mail in the foyer, he would call. Keys in the cloisonné bowl, foyer! She walks from the back, the yellow kitchen, to the front foyer, blue. French blue. Dark now, sconces of the faux gas variety, unlit, elaborate, brass, fussy. Something Very Grand would find fitting if she looked from her gilded frame. Very Grand rights her hair, her gown, pulls the wrap round her brittle, regal shoulders, military-straight from years of ballet. And so, Marie, she says—she’s learned their names!—time goes by, does it not?

Marie finds the stepladder at the mouth of the basement stairs, there for when the gas or electric man comes to read the meter. Foolish, she thinks, before she climbs, but she can almost reach. She just needs a little height, the dragon-spouted teapot long ago stashed on the highest shelf—she hasn’t thought of it in years!—a gift from Great-Aunt Eleanor, unable to make the wedding for a buying trip to Leningrad.
The teapot arrived weeks after the ceremony wrapped in tea towels in a blue Tiffany box. The box Marie saved for years; the tea towels finally stripped to rags.

Very clever, Abe had said, unwrapping. Clever Eleanor. It even looks a bit like her. “I’m a little teapot, short and stout,” he sang. The spout a dragon’s head, or something similarly mythological, the handle its tail, puckered with scales: a scaly teapot. The entire thing glazed gold. Odd. Unique. Valuable. For a while, on Brooklyn Sunday mornings, when Marie and Abe were childless and young, they would wake and make love, Abe slipping off her nightgown as she slept, or almost slept. She pretended to be sleeping and then she helped him by taking off her panties, his boxers. They were naked beneath the covers and she was both warm and cold as Abe went under to lick her toes, her legs. She pulled the covers up—could he breathe? Her eyes burned, squeezed tight. She arched her back, twisted. She could still remember.

They stayed in bed drinking tea from the dragon pot, the newspaper spread around them, the sun streaming in. Abe called it a dragon encounter, insisting served this way there was luck involved, a difference in the way the tea tasted.

Marie steps on the stepladder a bit shaky. She’s in her nightgown and robe, thin, her face in pots and brushes on the bathroom vanity, eyesight dim, glasses in the pocket of the robe, forgotten, feet slippered, slippery, so that the eventual slip seems almost a question of semantics. That she catches her fall on the corner of the cabinet saves her hip but not her ankle, which turns in a way unnatural, fracturing the bone, a tiny jag so painful she cries out, setting off the movie star’s twins, newly born and sequestered in the renovated maid’s room on the other side of the wall. Their cries mask Marie’s own, so that it’s a good while later before she’s discovered by Sid Morris, who has tracked down Marie’s address from the registration form Simone filled in for both of them months ago, and at least one lifetime.

It is Sid Morris who peers through one of the wavy glass panels beside the old oak front door, its brass knocker decidedly beside the point, his eyes adjusting to the dark foyer, the furnishings. He heard the news and has come around, assuming a service of some sort or another, a way to pay his respects to Simone. It is the least he can do, given their dinner out, that time in Madison Square Park, and so on, and so it is Sid Morris who eventually makes out the form of Marie on the floor, the toppled stepladder beside her. It doesn’t take much to put two and two together. Jesus Christ, his first thought, believing Marie dead and this an unfortunate and perhaps too complicating association, though his conscience, sharpened by age and his lousy performance with Veritas, leads him to the hardware store on Tenth, the locksmith, the police, the rescue, Marie not dead at all, perfectly healthy, she insists, just resting or perhaps she even dozed off. She refuses the ambulance and asks only for the support of the handsome policeman.

“You looked dead,” Sid Morris says.

“I couldn’t get up,” Marie says.

“It’s an orthopedic issue,” the policeman says. “There’s a clinic on Seventh in the Twenties, can you get there?”

“I’ll get her there,” Sid Morris says.

“Are you her husband?” the policeman says.

Marie, propped now on the Queen Anne chair upholstered in maroon velvet, her foot raised, her ankle packed in ice from the Korean deli (she never remembers to fill her trays), is too surprised by Sid Morris’s yes to say no.

“Good then,” the policeman says. He tears off a form he drops in the cloisonné bowl and it is only then, watching the handsome policeman let himself out, that Marie notices the shards of teapot on the foyer floor, the dragon head miraculously intact, severed as if by guillotine from its magic spout.

. Letters and diaries were to be had for a song, the whole place in turmoil—Communists, Trotskyites, Nazis: a lost Chekhov, the notebooks of Gogol or, maybe, Pushkin. Great-Aunt Eleanor couldn’t wait: she had developed a love of ephemera in old age, of saving that which could not be counted on lasting forever. She pawed through attics, wooden chests, string-wrapped bundles stashed beneath loose floorboards. Wasn’t everything worth something? Every sentence? Every sound? She unfolds another square of brittle, inked paper. A confetti of words rains down.


t is quite late when Elizabeth finds her way into Progressive K–8, the hallway lights out, the classroom lights out, the only glow a watery blue fluorescence from the science room aquarium. She talked the keys out of Bernice Stilton, school secretary, on a separate pretext—Ben’s history textbook left beneath his desk and, given his struggles with hypergrandia and so on.

She promises to return the keys quick as a flash.

Bernice Stilton has understood as she will always understand, the keys clammy with understanding as she passes them over to Elizabeth. “Safe travels,” she says; it is cold and her breath comes out in clouds. She stands at the front door to the Penn South building, where she has lived since coming to the City. Rudy Stilton, she would say, by way of explanation. Then, the rest of life: petitioning for Adlai Stevenson, John F. Kennedy, his handsome brother, his poor son. Once, years ago, she stood on the roof of Rockefeller Center dropping dandelions on the passersby. Once she rolled in sweats in a chain of women through Sheep Meadow, Central Park, stopping the bulldozers who were there to bulldoze something she can’t now remember what.

She pulls her robe across her thin chest: Bernice very thin, and myopic: she squints. She has worked at Progressive for nearly forty years and almost half as many administrations, the first the actual grandson of William Winifred Scott, its philosopher founder.

On her relationship with Dr. Constantine she prefers not to comment, and it is for this reason that Elizabeth prefaced her phone call by admitting she knew this was against school policy, but given the
fickle nature of the changing guard
she hoped Bernice might make an exception. This was close to an emergency, she said. This once. Just tonight. She would return the keys first thing, she promised.

“All right,” Bernice had said without a fight.

“I’ll be quick,” Elizabeth said. “I’ll keep the lights out.”

“All right,” Bernice had said.

It is Bernice’s job each morning to raise the flags that hang on the flagpole—U.S. and UN—and to unlock Progressive K–8’s large glass doors and prop them open so the children don’t get swatted as the busy parents race in and out. It is also Bernice’s job to make the coffee in the principal’s office, to pull the blinds in the science lab, and to check to make sure the reptiles are still alive—no one eager to repeat the unfortunate Trisi Watkins incident. It is Bernice’s job to outfit the volunteer crossing guards and the volunteer morning greeters and to make sure that the cluster of mothers, the Early Birders, whose 7:00
Steps! class is now up to twenty-five rotations of the four flights leading to Progressive K–8’s playground roof, know to move it along for the hordes who will descend at 8:30. It is perhaps for this reason and despite Elizabeth’s claim that she’ll drop the keys back off by 6:30 that Bernice keeps watch as Elizabeth moves into the Ninth Avenue traffic, steering her bicycle down one of the new bicycle lanes, the light on her helmet flashing as if Elizabeth were her own ambulance on her way to her own emergency.

But Bernice was once a mother, too, and always a working girl, a professional. She drank gin. On weekends she took a pottery course at the New School. In 1963, at a glamorous club somewhere midtown, Frank Sinatra had asked her to dance.

Charmed, she had said.

Why Bernice remembers Frank Sinatra while watching Elizabeth’s flashing bicycle light disappear into the stream of Ninth Avenue, taxis piling up here and there and delivery boys hell-bent for somewhere sideswiping one another, she could not say, but returning she feels already regretful, a bit undone by the look of it all, or more specific: Elizabeth Fanning lost in traffic. She wonders if she has done the right thing and knows she has not.

Face the music! Rudy used to say. No one wants to face the music! She can see him now, Rudy. Like Fiorello La Guardia, a real firecracker, a spark plug, a pistol. He gave her a tough time sometimes—he couldn’t help it, his own father and so on. You have to consider the tree before you call me a rotten apple, he’d say.

. The
and so on
is a long list, hypergrandia often one in a constellation of learning challenges formerly known as learning differences formerly known as learning disabilities that have dogged Ben for years, resulting in Elizabeth’s purchases of the vitamins B, G, Y, and R3, her consultation with a hypnotist and psychic, and her bedside table loaded with books on various theories and diagnoses. Although Progressive K–8’s submandate to Partner with the Parent and its attendant Circle Rap sessions have keyed her in to the epidemic nature of
and so on,
in her heart of hearts she believes most of it only fashion. Such as melancholia; or hysteria.

. Winifred after his mother, she the Winifred Scott of the Cooperstown Transcendentalists, a woman so legendary for her ability to detect portals to the spirit world she counted Mary Todd Lincoln among her high-paying clients, although Lincoln’s desperation to reach her son also led her to every quack operating along the north-south corridor and finally to a room at Bellevue Place sanitarium. But everyone agreed Winifred Scott was the real McCoy. She stood on the steps of the abandoned Home for Destitute Women her son had found in bankruptcy on Bleecker Street, his dream of an elementary school grounded on the principles of Locke, Rousseau, and everyone else he had read in graduate school almost realized but for the portal his mother divined inside. She urged the spirits to cross back and sealed it as best she could but warned that given the disasters of the coming centuries, disasters she saw in blurry detail out of the corners of her eyes, the portal could open again, and would.


grainy rescue, difficult to see; Sid Morris says Bangladesh or somewhere similarly brokenhearted but Marie thinks Zimbabwe. Surely Africa. Years ago, in the war, men went there to die, Marie says, or to escape, or, she supposed, to win. As far as she could tell they simply pushed one another back and forth across a vast desert. Never mind. She does not know what she is saying: the painkillers.

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
12.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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