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Authors: Kate Walbert

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BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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“What I said,” Sid says, chewing. “Brokenhearted.”

They sit side by side at Marie’s kitchen table eating the quiche Marie made yesterday with the intention of a week of meals and here hardly a crumb left in the pie tin, Sid Morris ravenous. In front of them the television looms—a companion half their age, black and white, cracked, a twisted wire hanger antennaed to the left, drooping though better askew. Sid takes enormous, rude bites, the linen napkin Marie provided tucked into his collared shirt like a lobster bib. The people on the screen fade in and out, disintegrating, reappearing: a crowd jostling and pushing their way onto a boat only slightly less shaky than the boat they’re already on; it’s a turbulent, black-and-white sea. A few slip and bob in the waves—who is there to save them? Confusion, a lot of shouting, and then the fallen are pulled back in with great, thick ropes.

“I haven’t seen static in years,” Sid says.

“I only get PBS,” Marie says. “Also something called New York One.”

“I know that,” Sid says. “The old mayors are always on. Giuliani, the pit bull. Never trusted him. My favorite was always Koch. No bullshit. Or just bullshit. Same difference.”

“I watch the
NewsHour,
” Marie says. “More?”

“Thank you,” Sid says. He holds out his glass and Marie pours. A cheerful white, she called it when he asked its origin, from not so cheerful France.

“France!” Sid had said, as if he had only just thought of it. Tell me, he says. She feels loopy, light; her ankle throbbing. There must be more to the story, he says.

She is too fuzzy-brained, she says. Besides, how could she begin? In the end, it takes only one to die but many to be saved, she says. You did what you had to do. You didn’t ask questions.

Understood, Sid Morris says.

She met her husband in Rochester—that’s him, there, she says: Abe among Abes and Juleses and Maries, the youngest Abe in his wedding suit, sleeves too short, pants too short, standing in the garden of a family friend.

The gardens Marie could still remember: the peach and magnolia, the lilies of the valley. But Rochester. Yes, Rochester. Brought over by a second cousin eventually. She met Abe there, in Rochester. Abe her late husband, the American, named for the president.

“Deadly,” Sid Morris says, putting down his empty glass.

“America?”

“Rochester,” he says.

“You’ve been?” she asks.

“God, no,” he says.

She drains her glass, her ankle throbbing. “And you?” she says, changing the subject.

The boys on the street played Ringo-Ringo and stick hockey and the walleyed Eamon, the Irish kid, got a broken jaw from always looking the wrong direction. Those days a lot of crosseyeds, he says. Not like now.

Italians. Irish. The Jews were there already but they came to his neighborhood later. He tells the joke about the Rabbi and the woman from Miami Beach. He says his first and only wife, Gretchen, overdosed on horse in 1967, but he gets the year wrong. Nineteen sixty-seven the year of his daughter’s birth, a year his wife was mostly stoned until she wasn’t, pregnant, so pretty the downtown photographer, the famous one, asked to photograph her in the nude, him standing, Sid Morris could still remember, with his hard-on in his leather pants though later Sid heard he mostly preferred boys, Gretchen on the bed in that place where he lived and worked, charcoal on the walls, a message of some sort, words scrambled in a pattern he didn’t recognize though one,
veritas,
he liked the sound of,
veritas,
and so asked Gretchen if she had seen but she said no, she had blissed out on being adored, she said. I was adored. Gretchen a nice girl from Ohio—
why, oh why, oh why, oh
—with hair to her hips, white blond, blissed out on being adored. But the boys would not leave her alone and so she shaved her head and bought a bus ticket east. She found her way downtown and picked a pocket or two and so on, and by the time he found her she’d stitched love with red thread on her palm so infected he had to carry her to St. Vincent’s.

Poor St. Vincent’s! Marie says. She could still picture Abe flirting with the nurses from his double room with the yellow plastic curtain; picture how she sat in the metal chair and wished him out, staring over the rooftops of the Village to a sunset on the Hudson she described to him in detail, the hearing, the old nurse said in the end, the last to go. The old nurse peeled a grapefruit and offered her a segment. She stared out the window, too. Mount Sinai, the old nurse said, has a special floor, five thousand dollars a day, like a four-star hotel, she said. She’d heard but never been, thank God. Movie stars and politicians, kings who could afford to fly in to die on expensive sheets, can you imagine? the old nurse said, juice on her chin she wiped with dry, chapped hands. She had been from one of the islands—Antigua, Anguilla.

I cannot imagine, Marie had said.

Gretchen always thought it still looked a little like love, Sid Morris is saying, I mean, after the scar healed, hardened a purple red. Doesn’t it look a little like love? she would say, stoned. Just a little? Then the time she left Veritas in her stroller on Avenue B at midnight, corner of Tompkins Square when Tompkins Square was Tompkins Square, remember?

Sid Morris apologizes for saying too much. It has been a day to let the cat out of the bag, as his mother would have said, his mother what he liked to call an idiom savant.

Streams of black-and-white women and children disembark from a shaky bus, joyful. Many carry animals. Others appear shell-shocked. Now a group of women do a complicated dance involving hand clapping and what looks like singing. “I wonder what they’re saying,” Marie says.

Sid reaches out his glass, which Marie quickly refills. He has wiped his plate clean. “Have you always had this problem with the picture?” he asks.

“You get used to it,” Marie says, watching.

“Do you?”

“My son thinks it’s a liability. ‘What if there were an emergency?’ he says. ‘You need a working television,’ he says. ‘For news,’ he says. ‘Why?’ I say. ‘What difference would it make?’ ”

“I would have appreciated a little static with the mayors,” Sid says.

“My son is always talking emergencies,” Marie says.

“Like today,” Sid says. “Today was an emergency.”

Three hours at the doc-in-a-box, a taxi ride to the far East Side, X-rays, strangers—the woman who took her information at radiology strikingly similar to the woman who took her information at geriatrics, and orthopedics, the woman’s fingernails to here, striped, dotted with tiny jewels, diamonds? Marie forgot what she was saying, distracted by the nails. She wanted to ask for a scratch. I itch all over, she might have told the woman. Dry skin. Terrible. You turn to dust before you turn to dust. She remembers Simone’s hands though that isn’t fair. Where is Simone in all this? What has she become? Her cosmetics in a line on her vanity Katherine saying she should toss but her mother would probably come back and rattle her chains.
I

“What?” Marie had said.

“Medicare?” the woman said. “Address?” the woman said. “Nice neighborhood,” the woman said. “The High Line.”

“Yes,” Marie said, though she had never been. She had heard they were having trouble with an exhibitionist—this from the movie star, quite instrumental, apparently, in its creation.

I won’t say exactly, he had said of the exhibitionist’s antics, but it’s really creepy.

“More?” Sid Morris asks. It’s a complicated question, given the trajectory of the conversation, the empty bottle before her.

“In the fridge,” she says.

On the screen a man has replaced the tragedy, the rescue. She has always found this man handsome: his pale eyebrows, vacant hair, endearing somehow. In color she imagines he might be florid, approaching the red of Sid, whom she now sees has found and uncorked the second bottle and is pouring himself a healthy glass.

“Et tu, Brute?” he says, the bottle poised, his shaky hand momentarily steady, accommodating. That Simone had found him so attractive Marie cannot quite understand, though she sees a certain something, or the remnants—the playboy, he had told them during Friendly Break, the raconteur, the Artist of the East Village, when that had meant more than now, before Starbucks, before the glassy tower condos, before everything changed.

“If I must,” Marie says, watching Sid pour.
II

“Knock, knock,” Sid Morris says. “Are you sleeping?”

Marie opens her eyes. The pain branches out and flowers in places where there should be no pain, up her spine, across her shoulders. The doctor called it reflective pain, as if pain were a thing with a face. “It hurts,” she says.

I
. Katherine had given a fine eulogy for her mother. The best she could. Toward the end of it, her voice cracked and her husband had to finish reading, something about elegance in the face of hardship Marie had a hard time following, much less believing, since Simone’s hardship had been fairly brief and for the most part she lived a pampered life, a thought Marie immediately banished from her mind, focusing instead on the enlarged photograph Katherine had set on top of Simone’s coffin, closed, oddly enough, as Marie was fairly sure that Simone would have loved everyone having a last look, Simone buried in her favorite dress—a green silk the same cut and shade of the one she was discovered in all those years ago by Henry, who took it upon himself to have another made for her fiftieth birthday, a bash at which a drunken Abe had revealed Simone’s flirtations.

II
. The woods are cold and the sky is clear and from where she hides in the orchard, Marie has a view of a thousand stars. She will not sleep in the house; she cannot sleep in the house. The light had once been beautiful, the yellow of it lining the trees and the clouds where it caught the edge, the orange-apricot light so sharp she could barely open her eyes.

Tomorrow she will find her way elsewhere, but for right now, she is tired and sick and she sleeps in the retch of rotten fruit. Earlier she watched the neighbors come, St. Claire’s wife from the rectory, her idiot sons, Dudam and Benoit; the neighbors Karwoski and Higgen and Fruchs, and the red-haired woman with her red-haired girls, dragging the cart the pony once pulled, the pony butchered for meat. Everyone knew the story. She watched as her neighbors stepped into her house and stepped out again, carrying the things that belonged to her family, the fiddle and the pot: her mother’s loom. At first she kept track and then she did not. Then she closed her eyes and covered herself in the rank, loose leaves she found beneath the trees and slept, dreaming no dreams.

Who were they to be hunted? Marie had little idea. Perhaps her mother’s eyes were too blue. Perhaps her father was a Communist. Her brother’s spectacles: Was he blind? Crippled? Deaf? She remembers this: The kitchen still warm, fire embers in the stove. Her sisters’ shoes lined against the wall near the umbrella stand, beneath the black-veined mirror framed in gold where she stood and saw the look on her own face: her pale cheeks, black eyebrows her sisters said would be modern if waxed thin, her forehead, too high, she once let on to her best friend. She looks at who she was but she can see nothing but the work boots, the umbrella stand, the mirror that once belonged to her grandparents in Paris, bought on a weekend trip to the Dordogne, to the cottage there beneath the castle. Her grandmother walked her to the view and told her about the days when knights had lived within the castle fortress and how the iron gates they passed through were to keep out the enemies. Her grandmother held her hand and gripped a walking stick for the climb, and when they reached the view it looked to her, she told her grandmother, as if someone had stitched together the land like a big quilt. Maybe God? she guessed, but her grandmother, leaning on her walking stick, did not say yes or no.

The mirror possibly was bought in one of the tiny towns in the Dordogne where her grandparents kept a cottage beneath a castle, the castle dark against the blue, blue sky, or the gray, gray sky. She walked in the village market with her grandmother; she held her grandmother’s old hand and carried a string bag for the cabbages. Her grandfather was wild for cabbages, her grandmother told her, and Brussels sprouts and leeks. She planned a soup. She would need bread. She would need coffee. Do not let me forget the other things, her grandmother said. I always forget something.

Her mother’s books. Latin. She taught the children in town and then she did not; then she stayed at home and made soup. Her father was wild for cabbages and Brussels sprouts and leeks.

Her job to slice the bread. She knew how to hold a knife. This way, her mother said. Her father came through the door to say the horses should be blanketed.

I can, she said, but he had already left.

Her sisters were soon to be brides. They wanted to marry the brothers they had already found, not the boys they might find somewhere else.

We are going, her father said.

Her mother’s books: she taught Latin, history. She said, Prehistoric is before history. It is the age when little is known. She had been a schoolteacher and now she cooked. She was making stone soup in her magic soup pot, she said, wiping her eyes with her sleeve. Voilà, she said.

The Stone Age, she said, refers to the time when people learned how to use stones as tools, the time when they first figured things out, she said.

Her father came through the door to say the cold was bitter and already the dark. So early. A bird followed him in and flapped around the kitchen where her mother made the stone soup. Her father waited for the bird to land and then whispered something that sounded like shh, shh. The bird cocked its head as if listening. It perched on the shelf that held the flour and the sugar though there was no more flour and no more sugar. It cocked its head. Her father held out his hand, raw with cold, flat, toward the bird perched on the empty shelf and everything was still and warm and she knew she loved her father and her mother best and they loved her. She watched her parents waiting for the bird and when the bird hopped onto her father’s palm she closed her eyes and wished for everything.

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
2.13Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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