Westchester Burning

 1. You Can Be Sure

In 1984 Phillip and I bought a house in Bedford as an investment. We planned to rent the house out. The money we received in rent would almost pay for the mortgage, and the appreciation on the house would, through the years, pay for our children’s college education.

We bought the house from Mrs. Keenan. Her husband had owned a chain of taverns in the Bronx, Erin Forever. He died of a heart attack the day they moved in, leaving her alone to raise their six sons. Her youngest was going to Michigan University on an athletic scholarship and she didn’t need a large house anymore.

We had the eleven rooms painted Navajo White, the downstairs floors refinished, and the upstairs recarpeted in a medium pile, light green. We rented the house to a divorced orthopedic surgeon and his two grown sons. After six months they stopped paying rent. The doctor quit his practice and became a bodybuilder. His sons held part time jobs as landscapers.

“It’s not easy evicting tenants,” a litigation partner told Phillip.
Four months later they were gone.

They took their forty sets of bodybuilding equipment and opened “Bodies by George” in Hartsdale. The business was registered in the doctor’s mother’s name. They left five dogs, two of them dead, eight cats, and two ferrets.

Phillip took a day off from work, got the animals in cages, and brought them to the local ASPCA. The Department of Public Works removed the dogs that had died.

The house was fumigated and the real-estate agent advised us to renovate the house before putting it on the market.

“You have a great investment here. Money you spend on it, you’ll double. It’s in a great location, great family neighborhood, and the house is on five acres. Yes, the land in the back slopes down suddenly, but that’s not a problem. Five acres is still five acres. Bedford zoning law allows one horse per acre. You can have five horses here.”
Phillip told me the house was now my baby, but he would still have to approve all expenditures.

There were three estimates for the work; Phillip went with the middle bid.

“Mrs. Calt,” said the contractor, “you can’t get these urine stains out. No amount of sanding will do it. The whole downstairs. Upstairs? It went right through the carpeting. All the floors. In every room. You’ll have to retile the bathrooms, it went right through the grout. It’s a good thing that the floor in the basement is cement. Cement is pretty indestructible. All we need to do with that is wash it down with a strong chemical solution and then paint it. A nice battleship gray.

“Mrs. Calt, since your husband okayed replacing the floor, why don’t you suggest knocking out the wall between the kitchen and family room to him? There’s a big hole in it anyway. This way you’ll get to see a nice fire burning in the fireplace as you’re making dinner.”

The contractor hired a subcontractor for the kitchen counters and cabinets. The contractor was paid, but instead of paying the sub­contractor, he became ill and moved to Florida, where bankruptcy laws are lenient.

Phillip hired the contractor who had come in with the high­est bid.
“Mrs. Calt, did you know that they laid the new flooring over rotted subflooring? There’s no way you can save what was put down.

Everything will have to be ripped up. If you like, we’ll cut it up for you and you can use it for kindling. We’ll give you a new subflooring and we’ll use wood that’s been kiln dried. This way it won’t buckle up at you. We’ll lay down brand-new oak floors and you can be sure the job will be done right this time.”

The house didn’t sell. It was a problem that most of the five acres were unusable. It was advised to landfill the gully, remove the weeping willows, and create an expansive lawn. I saw the two sons of the doctor on the landscaping crew. One was operating the bulldozer and the other one was driving the truck with the rocks.

It took about a year after the Wall Street crash of l987 for the bottom to fall out of the real-estate market. It was then that Phillip told me I had ruined his life.

Why do I believe, at age fifty-two, that by spraying Yves Saint Laurent’s Rive Gauche near the open window of my attic bed­room, it will replace the smell of my first cigarette of the morn­ing? That the strong, sweet, scent will be enough to mask what I have done? What can he say? Can he hurt me more?

He came home last night after I finally fell asleep. He did come home, because when I came downstairs his door was closed, shut tight by the black sock he uses as a doorjamb.

During the renovation of the house, the doorknobs from all the doors were removed. The doors were stripped of old paint, planed, sanded, primed, and repainted. The doorknobs were placed in two large plastic buckets.

“Mrs. Calt, we can’t find the doorknobs. Someone must have taken them or else they were thrown out by mistake. They’re gone. I don’t even know where to tell you to get them. They’re an odd size. They’d have to be specially made up. It’ll be expensive, since they were solid brass and old.”

Phillip now uses one of his black socks to hold his door shut. The door that opens to the room that was once ours and is now his. He sleeps alone.

He’ll have someone. He takes care of himself. Cycling on weekends, using lite mayonnaise, having one brimming glass of red wine to help clear his arteries and to be safe, a small piece of Belgian chocolate. He uses firming neck cream. He takes vitamins E, A, C (l000 mg.), and B complex, zinc, calcium, folic acid, and selenium. He reads Paramahansa Yogananda. Lying in bed, after taking a cold shower, a large white towel wrapped around his waist, he exercises his gums with a rubber-tipped metal instrument.

It won’t take long for him to have someone. He won’t have to take someone somewhere. That someone can come here and lie next to him on the queen-size bed. Lie. Together. When I leave, I’ll take the dust ruffle. It was specially ordered from England. It cascades, in folds, to the plum-colored carpet. I’ll take it. It’ll remove the softness from the bed.

2. Friends

Her hand moves through her thinning hair. Her eyes focus on mine and then she looks away. “I’m going to stop dyeing my hair as soon as it turns all gray,” she says.

In the fading light of a humid August evening she and I sit on her terrace, waiting for the rain. The roses I brought lie between us on the table. The geraniums in clay pots haven’t been watered and the terrace needs to be swept. Her neighbors tore down the wooden shed that separated their two backyards, replacing it with a chain-link fence. An attempt was made to spray-paint it dark green. “I should have planted ivy there,” she says. “They could have at least told us. Bobby could have built something with the old wood.”

In her right hand she holds a cigarette, in her left, an empty wine glass; her dexterity serves her well. Three bottles of red wine lie in an open cooler several yards behind us. I move to bring the whole thing closer and she says, “Don’t. I need the exercise.” And she gets up and peels away the wrapper from the neck of an un­opened bottle and, calling on years of practice, pushes the cork down with her thumb.

She was a dancer with Martha Graham. Now her waist has thickened, her legs are thin, and the cornflower blue of her dress can’t take away the weariness from her face.

Her mother called me last night. “Katya. It’s terminal. Don’t let her know I told you. Maybe she’ll tell you herself.”

With her glass refilled she moves her chair closer to mine, leans into the cushion, and says, “Why is Brooklyn suddenly on the way for you? Last time you said you were coming I cleaned the house and waited and you never showed up. This time you just drop in. I haven’t seen you in, what? Three years? Next time I won’t be home.”

“I miss you,” I say.

“Bobby made a Greek salad. Let me give you some,” she says.

“How is it that you get husbands who cook for you?” I ask.

“I guess I’m just lucky.” She laughs. “Are you and Phillip still together?”

“Yes.” I recross my legs.

“When are you going to wake up and leave him?” she asks.

“How’s Paul?” I ask.

“My brother is fine. You know he married her. Candy. Now she wants a baby and she makes him take vitamins to help her do it. He told her he had a vasectomy and she told him to reverse it. What? She wants to make a father out of him again at fifty-five? He has two with Ada. You have four with Phillip. And I have none with Bobby. What should that average out to? Two apiece?”

“Let me put the roses in water,” I say.

“No. Don’t. It’ll rain soon and we’ll go in. He’s moved his company to Seattle. Bobby and I spent a few days out there. He’s built this twenty-thousand-square-foot home that suspends over the Pacific. The master bathroom is as big as this house and it has a glass ceiling that if you touch one of the buttons it disappears and you see the stars at night. I asked him if he ever touched the button when there was a storm outside and he said that could never happen. Fourteen people can float around in the Jacuzzi that’s surrounded by calla lilies and he takes the vitamins Candy gives him and throws them into the heads and says to me, ‘Maybe they’ll make them grow.’ They’re coming to New York at the end of the month, but he’s not staying in Brooklyn with me, no, he can’t do that. It’s the penthouse at the Four Seasons.”

“I wish I could see him again.”

“You can’t. She doesn’t leave his side. He’s lucky if he floats in the Jacuzzi by himself. I talk to him about you in front of her just to see her squirm. No. He’s gone. Packaged. Done and gone.” The strap of her dress falls off her shoulder and she doesn’t bother bringing it back. “Did you notice my nose? I finally got it fixed.”

“I never thought anything was wrong with your nose. What do you say to him about me?”

“I make things up.” she says.

We hear the siren of a fire truck.

“I wonder how they maneuver these narrow streets?”

“Just like we all do.”

The rain starts to fall and I reach for the cushions to bring them in.

“Leave everything.”

We walk down the steps to the basement. She pulls out damp sheets from the dryer and I follow her into a room that is now a bedroom. Bobby lies on the unmade bed, their dog, Mookie, beside him.

“Let me help you make the bed,” I tell her.

“No. Let Bobby sleep. Mookie threw up last night and when she did, I did. It was a mess. It took me hours to clean.” And she drops the sheets in a pile on a chair.

We climb the stairs to the room that takes up the entire second floor. The windows are open at both ends and the breeze breaks through the smell of dust and cinnamon. She lights candles that stand on the sideboard, softening the light cast by the chandelier hanging from the sixteen-foot ceiling. She reaches into a cabinet and brings out an opened bottle of white wine; she pours it into a thin crystal glass, not caring that it’s warm. We walk to the far end of the room. I sit on one of the couches that surround the glass table I had given her when Michael started to walk. She stands by the fireplace and from the mantel takes down an icon. She walks over and hands it to me. “I bought it in a village outside of Moscow. An old woman wanted five dollars for it, I gave her five hundred and still got a bargain.”

It’s old and it’s covered by the tarnished silver oklad, allowing only the thin, dark faces of the mother and child to stare through.

“You should hang it,” I say.

“Where should I hang it?” she answers.

“Above your bed,” I say.

“It’s not blessed,” she says.

“I’ll go with you to the synod and we can get it blessed,” I say.

“Should I wait for you to come so we can go together? When did you become religious? Put it back for now.”

On the mantel I see a framed photograph resting against the wall. It was taken the summer the three of us were counselors at a camp in the Catskills. Paul stands between his sister and me with his arm around my waist. We hiked twenty-five miles that day on roads that wove through neck-high corn. A cardinal flew low and I knew how happy I was.

“I didn’t know this picture existed,” I say.

“Paul gave it to me when I saw him,” she says.

“He had it all this time?” I ask.

“Why are you surprised? Remember the dress you let me wear?”

White chiffon with small apricot polka dots. The slightest movement would set it in motion. She asked me if she could wear it to a party. I noticed my dress one Saturday, folded, in a laundry basket beneath a leaking bottle of bleach. Impulsively she cut her hair; she kept the long, thick braid in a box on the top shelf of her closet. I took her braid and wore it until it stopped being anything. She told me it wasn’t an even trade.

“Do you know what I miss most? My hair.”

“I know,” I say.

“You do? How do you know? Your hair didn’t go down to
your waist and you didn’t have a mother who spent an hour
every day brushing it. All you had was a mother who told you
my brother wasn’t good enough for you. Who could amount to something. You threw my brother away like he was nothing. Like
he was nothing. And you got Phillip. What a prize! Are you happy? You can’t be. He can’t make anyone happy. Happiness? And you knew Phillip and I were getting it on and you did nothing.”

When did her eyes become lifeless?

“Say something.”

“Let me have some of that Greek salad Bobby made.”

3. Smile

Madison Avenue was wet and cold. The first snow of the winter disappeared as it hit the pavement.

Martin’s wife said this wasn’t a retrospective, just some photo­graphs Martin put together for a show representing his work through four decades.

As I walk in I see Dooley. He and Leslie still live in the town Phillip and I left two years ago. Dooley tells me that it’s always so won­derful to see me, that Martin and he went to Yale, that they and their wives try to get together at least twice a year, that it’s always so much fun. I smile and say, “That’s wonderful.”

“You’ve lost weight, haven’t you?” Dooley asks. I smile.

“I hear that you and Phillip are moving back to our little town.”

I smile and know if he’s heard this, he’s probably heard the rest. “I guess you and Leslie are still together?”

His eyes quickly leave mine and we move our separate ways.

I stand before a large black-and-white photograph. A dark- haired girl sits, holding onto her cigarette. A boy, his head raised, lies beside her. The Coney Island boardwalk stretches out behind them into a summer haze.

“Isn’t it amazing how close they let him come in?” a stranger beside me says.
“He was probably their age when he took this,” I reply.

“Of course.” The stranger laughs. “May I ask where you were then?”

“I was riding my bicycle to the library to sneak in to read Nancy Drew and the Secret of the Girl Who Couldn’t Remember. And you?”

“Stationed in Germany.”

It’s then that I see him.

He walks by, his hand holding hers; guiding their way through the crowd.
She’s taller than he is, her thick, curly hair held together by pins.

A friend who knows her tells me he’s cleared up her face. The same way he cleared up my weight.

I wonder if he tells her he is in awe of her? Does he serve her tea sweetened with rose-petal jam in his darkened office? And does he tell her, softly, to bend lower as he enters her from behind?

I move to the bar and a young man gives me my vodka with no ice in a wineglass and I make my way back to where I know they might be.
My hand reaches out and touches him on his deep blue cashmered back. “Hello,” I say.

He turns and looks at me with no surprise. “Hi.”

“Martin lives in our building.”

“Who’s Martin?” he asks.

“He’s the photographer. We’re at his show.”

“You’re still in the city?”

I turn and walk away and as I pass the stranger leaning against a pillar of that low-ceilinged room, I smile.

4. Birdseed

There was no birdseed left for the parrots, Lorritta, who we’ve had for eighteen years, and Vanya, who remained with us after my mother died, and I drove the ten miles to the feed store.

I haven’t been to this store in two years, ever since we moved out of our house in Westchester and into an apartment on West Eighty-sixth Street. Phillip said he could no longer afford paying for the house and the apartment and he was tired of paying New York City taxes and he’s finished with trying to make me happy. It hasn’t worked. So a month ago we moved back to the house that’s surrounded by the pines and the quiet.

It was Phillip who had usually done this errand on Saturday mornings, either before or after the garden center, the dry cleaners, and the liquor store, the one that stands at the top of the hill. How many pounds of rabbit food did we buy through the years? Annie loved her bunnies.
As I walked in, the owner, leaning back in his swivel chair, his feet up on a stack of canned dog food, said, “Are you back? It’s not what you thought it’d be. Right?”

I smiled and made my way to the bin where the birdseed was kept. The bin was empty; on the floor beside it stood an open sack of seed. He came over and we each filled a plastic bag.

“You’ve lost weight,” I said.

“Actually I gained a little. I really lost it when my wife left two years ago. She ran off with an old guy she worked with at the electric company. This guy of hers put his wife in a nursing home and had my wife move in with him. Something happens to them, they sort of go nuts.”

“Was your wife going through menopause?”

“Yeah, how did you know? Right. I guess you would.” He laughed. “He died, this guy of hers. A half a year after she moved in. She’s paying for it now though. Big time. She’s taking care of her sick mother. Do you still have dogs?”

He and I walked over to the cash register and I took a wrapped piece of candy from a glass jar that stood by the hamster cages.
“She tried divorcing me, but it was lame and the judge threw it out.”
“You don’t want to give your wife a divorce?”

“No. She’s not getting half of anything. She’s really gotten old looking; she never took anything for it. And she’s gotten to be afraid of things. Now it’s the air bag in her car.”

He followed me out carrying a twenty-five-pound bag of dog food. He put it on the front seat while China barked at him from the back.

“Give your parrots broccoli; it’s full of calcium. That way they’ll live longer. Nice seeing you again. Take care of yourself.”

5. The King Alfreds

Carole called this afternoon. She asked if I’d go to the ballet. She finally has a subscription and no one in her family will go with her. She’ll pick me up, but I will have to drive in. She can’t stand the maniacs on the road.

I know Carole won’t come into the house and I know Phillip will watch her drive up. She avoids Phillip ever since George, her husband, came over and asked Phillip not to move the stone wall that stands between our properties. George and Carole buried both their Irish setters by it. Phillip pulled out the new survey that showed his property going beyond the wall into “land George shouldn’t think is his anymore.” George couldn’t claim it, said Phillip, by using their two dogs as an excuse. And my husband had the stone wall moved. Now, fifteen feet of grass and two dead dogs are on our side of the stone wall.
I walk out of the house into a cold May evening. Spring is late this year, the dogwoods are just coming out. It will probably be a brilliant fall.
I wait for Carole to finish beating her car mat against the corner of the garage.

Carole hasn’t lost her looks or the blonde in her hair. We both worry about our calcium. I eat cottage cheese and sardines. She takes Tums, three rolls a day. She doesn’t smoke or drink coffee or eat any processed meat. She likes her champagne with a splash of raspberry vodka and she’s wearing the black cashmere coat we flipped a quarter for at last month’s St. Anthony’s rummage sale.

She straightens up after putting back the mat and says, “I still miss the King Alfreds.”

Carole is remembering the daffodils. It took us a week of after­noons to plant them. We laid the bulbs in five tight rows along the path leading to the playhouse. They came up stronger every May for fifteen years. When the new well needed to be dug, an underground spring was disturbed and it flooded the whole area where the daffodils grew.
I back Carole’s Suburban to the front. I can’t stop myself from look­ing toward the house and seeing Phillip sitting in his chair by the windows.
Last night, Phillip told me I was irrelevant to him. We stood a few feet apart by the stairs to the attic and he said, “Katherine. Don’t you understand? You are irrelevant to me.”

It takes only a few minutes to leave our country lane and be on the parkway going south. Carole unfastens her seat belt and says, “I don’t want to get wrinkled.”
I glance over to her as she begins to play with her hair. She’ll take a strand and begin twirling it around her finger, using the twisted end, like a paintbrush, to dot her lips. She looks out the side window. “My mother had rosebushes. I wanted to dig them up from her yard and plant them where our tennis court used to be, but that cheap, miserable bastard sold them. She had a bush of blue ones. Roses don’t smell anymore. They’ve strained the smell right out.”

“Roses take so much time. I’ve tried covering them, not cover­ing them. It doesn’t seem to matter,” I reply.
“Her roses grew from May to…November? There were roses on the table at Thanksgiving. Funny, I just remembered that.”
“We always had a bowl of fruit on the table for Thanksgiving.”
“She made the best apple pies. She’d have the kids pick the apples off the ground. She’d make six, seven pies. They’d be gone in two days. I asked her to give me the recipe. She’d say, ‘Watch me.’ I never was in the kitchen long enough to watch.”

I thought of my own mother and all of the questions left unanswered.
“I’d have her out to the house in Shelter Island. She wouldn’t be there two days when she’d say, ‘Take me to the fruit stand. I want to get those peaches to make your father a pie.’ A pie! When I saw the bastard take the bedpost and beat her with it. He kept it unscrewed and ready.”
“Did she ever fight him back?” I ask.

Carole laughs. “Are you still hoping I’ll say yes? I walked in on them once. He had her right on the kitchen table. He was mean. Mean. I’d ask him for a nickel to buy a Good Humor. You know what he’d say? ‘Go earn it.’ I was five years old. The only thing he ever gave me was a radio for my graduation and he bought it at the Salvation Army Thrift Store. And she had to die before him. He left everything, the house, the apartment buildings, everything to the archdiocese. He really thought it would get him to heaven. May his soul rot in hell.”

“Rita Simmons died.”

“I know. Finally,” Carole says.

“They say she went down to sixty pounds. You could see her heart.”

“That’s not possible,” Carole says.

“Yes. They say you could see it beating.”

“Promise me, Katie. If I ever get that way, leave me off somewhere in the desert. Give me a sun reflector and tell me to just keep walking, that you’ll pick me up real soon. Rita held on too long. There’s a point where you’ve got to say, okay, that’s enough. Thank you. Goodbye.”

When is enough enough? Rita was president of the Garden Club. There were eleven of us. We’d pile into two station wagons and go planting around statues. Carole and I are the only ones left. Everyone else has moved away. Rita’s husband was transferred to Keene, New Hampshire.
“I have to tell you the latest,” Carole says. “I get a call from a dealer this morning. There’s a show at the County Center. He tells me he’s got what my husband wants. George has been looking for a BB gun like the one he had when he was twelve. His mother made him sell it. He got four dollars for it. Now, this dealer, how many years later? Has one just like it. In its original box, tissue paper, the whole thing. But now, of course, it’s five hundred dollars. Today is George’s birthday. Funny, he gets his wish on his birthday. He buys the gun, brings it home. By now he’s had a few. I’m in the library, polishing the porridge bowl where I keep the gummi bears and I see him standing in the doorway, pointing the gun at me. He says, ‘Let me just blow away that beaver. It’s not doing me any good.’ I tell him, ‘Go ahead,’” and she laughs. “If only he knew where the beaver was last night, how wet and wild it was. I really cannot stand him. We did nothing for his birthday. I wanted to go to the Kittle House for brunch but he was out buying a gun. None of the kids showed up. Their father’s sixty-fifth birthday. Can you imagine? I’ll blow it away. It’s not doing me any good.” And she laughs.

“One of these days he might just do it.”

“George? You know what he said to me? ‘If I’d killed you when we still lived in Scarsdale I’d be out by now.’ He’s funny.” She laughs. “Katie, what do I have? Maybe another five good years? As soon as we sell the house, I’m out. I’ll get a house in Westport, on the water, close to town, where I can walk to everything. I can take the train to the city. I’ve had it with the driving.”

“I thought you were going to Florida?”

“No. The whole state is one big air conditioner. I told you Frank is buying a house in Captiva. I’ll make him open all the windows when I visit. It was so convenient having him so close by. Now? I’m really going to miss him. He says I’m like a river.”

I wonder why they call it the Saw Mill River Parkway? There had to have been a river here. Once. Large enough to have a saw- mill on it. Where did it go?

“Frank is the same age as George. Incredible. George can’t get it up anymore. It’s the drinking. It’s sad. George was so good. Once. Still, not like Frank. It’s also the genes. George’s father left before George was born, so God knows what he was like. Frank’s father is ninety and they have to restrain him in the nursing home.”
I think how lucky Carole is that her parents died quickly. It wasn’t very quick for my mother. But then she was with me and I held her when she died.

“The only problem with Frank is he repeats himself. He forgets and I don’t want to tell him, ‘Frank, I’ve heard this.’ Listen, as long as he fucks me the way he does, I don’t care. I put a smile on my face and say, ‘Oh, Frank, what an interesting story.’ He’s a great cook, too. George remembers everything, when he’s sober, which is not a lot of the time, and he can’t get it up. Frank remembers close to nothing and can go on for days. Wouldn’t it be great if I could splice them together and throw away what’s not working?”

“With Phillip it’s a mystery.”

“Well, Katie, while you’re trying to figure that one out, climb down those attic stairs of yours and join the world. Find yourself a man. All I have to do is put it out to one of Frank’s brothers and you’re in.”

“I don’t want that.”

“I know. You want love. I was in Barnes & Noble the other day. I was looking through some books and I read something. It said, ‘Love is something you don’t have and you give it to someone who doesn’t want it.’
“That’s not true.”

“Why are you holding on? Are you waiting for him to say, ‘Katie, you’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me?’ He’s never going to say it. Get over it. He’s incapable of it. Leave him.”

“I am.”

“Right. You’ll be up in that attic of yours for a while yet. You’ve made it too cozy. And you won’t let go. You keep your mother’s ashes by your bed, for God’s sake. And where would you go?”

“I’m going to U.C. Berkeley.”
“To do what?’

“I am going to get a degree in archaeology.”

“Being with one dead man is not enough for you? You haven’t said anything to me about this. When did you decide this?”

“Last night.”

“Last night? You’re not serious. You’re not going to do this. Anyway you’re too old.”

“I’m not. I’m doing it.”

“It’s too late to apply.”

“I’m applying to the summer session. I’ll be enrolled by fall.”

“When are you leaving?”

“At the end of May.”

“No you’re not.”

“I am.”

Carole and I sit still watching the New York City Ballet perform Sleeping Beauty. A bar of dark chocolate rests in my lap. I try not to let the rustle of the thin foil be heard as I give Carole and myself a piece.

Carole leans over and whispers, “Isn’t it magical?”

6. By the Railroad Tracks

Thanksgiving Day. Phillip made an omelette for FIve, for himself and the children. I take China for a walk. She won’t leave my side as we walk the old golf course overlooking the Hudson.

Phillip made reservations at the Kittle House for six at four. I’ll sit between my two daughters, and for the first time in thirty years I’ll eat turkey that I haven’t put in the oven. Maybe I won’t have turkey. Maybe I’ll order goose.

I had planned Thanksgiving at home, inviting friends to relieve the tension.

Phillip told me that’s not what the children want.

“Why?” I asked.

“Ask them,” he answered.

I did, and they said he told them there weren’t going to be any more Thanksgivings at home.

I planned to go to the Grand Union to buy eggs and toilet paper and instead I sit on a bench in a small park by the railroad tracks. I give China half my bagel with cream cheese. The car radio mentioned two Macy’s balloons were damaged by high winds, one shredded completely, the other causing a lamppost to fall on a woman.

A black girl walks by in a camel-hair coat with a leopard print bag slung over her shoulder. Is it a mince pie or a plum tart in the plastic bag she’s holding? Below me the New York City–bound train pulls in. The girl starts to run and I hope she makes it.

It’s a blue, cloudless morning. The hardware on the empty flag-pole beats against the metal.

A policeman walks over to where I sit.

“What are you writing?” he asks.

“My life story,” I answer.

“Well, that’s probably better than mine. Are you from around here?”

“The next town over,” and I motion to where I think north is while telling China to sit.

“Where the snotty people live?”

“Yes, the self-important and boring ones.”



“I’m from the Bronx.”

“You know, there’s not a person from the Bronx that I haven’t liked.”

“Yeah, it used to be a great place. They have a bunch of guys that take care of your town. We’re all New York City cops come over.”

“The pay is better here?”

“Nah, it’s less aggravation. It’s the aggravation that gets you. If you finish off your day without anyone getting killed or robbed, you’ve done your job. Anything else is an aggravation. Your first year, you want to help everyone. After twenty, you don’t care if they live or die. It messes up your life. You bring your work home and your relationships suffer.”

“You were married?”
“Yeah. She took off eight years ago.”

“Did she run away with another man?”

“Maybe she did. Who knows? But she ran away with my daughter.” He shoves his hands into the pockets of his sateen jacket. “That’s enough to spoil your day.”

“Have you seen your daughter since?”

“Nope. She took her to Italy.” His eyes vanish as he looks into the sun. “What are you gonna do?”

“Have you remarried?”

From his jacket pocket he pulls out a blue photograph book and hands it to me.

The first picture is of an infant placed in a pumpkin wearing a hat shaped into leaves and the second picture is of the little boy being held in his father’s arms.

“Your wife takes very good care of your son.”

“She does shit. I’m the one who cooks and cleans and she calls me a fanatic. Relationships? Relationships are an aggravation. The holidays are the worst. It’s supposed to be a happy time and all it is is more depressing. You’d think it’d be your family that supports you, but it doesn’t work out that way. It’s the barber or the dry cleaning man or an old lady. They listen to you and give you support. Your father, mother, brother? Nothing. It’s the people you don’t know that give you what you want.”

“Isn’t it wonderful you have the kind of job that lets you be in touch with a lot of different people.”

“Well, it was nice talking to you, I need to check up on the train station, see if they didn’t trash it during the night. Are you married?”


“We’re separating.” And it’s the cold wind that’s just made me shiver.

“Well, be good.”

7. Rats

Phillip is squeezing juice from an orange when I walk into the kitchen and without looking up he says, “Are you aware of the twenty-one-thousand-dollar bill your lawyer sent me? Why don’t you get a job and pay for it?”

“I have a job.”

“Why don’t you get a job that earns money?”

“My job eventually will.”

“Fuck you.”

Using both hands, he brings the glass of juice to his lips. I decide to make a poached egg for myself. Waiting for the water to boil I again tell him to get an exterminator. We have rats in the basement.

“Michael and I put poison down.”

“They’re too smart for poison. Why can’t you just call an exterminator?”
“What do you think an exterminator is going to do?”

The bell rings. The big, bronze ship’s bell that was hung to the right of the front door by the admiral who had the house built in l907. He named his home “The Anchorage.”

“Are you expecting someone?”

Phillip must have c
alled Mr. Kormandy to get an estimate on the damage done to the ceiling and the garden-side wall of the kitchen when the pan he was frying french fries in caught fire.

“Mr. Kormandy, you don’t have to take your shoes off. Nobody else does.”

He smiles and extends his hand and wishes me a happy and healthy new year and continues to untie his laces. He’s not as thin anymore and his dyed hair makes his face look older. The last time he was here seems so long ago.

“It is holding up,” he says, looking at the rooms as he stands by the staircase.

He doesn’t know we had someone else after him. Someone recommended by the contractor. If Mr. Kormandy had done the painting maybe we would still have our doorknobs.

“Mr. Calt. How are you, sir? I was saying to your wife that my job still looks good. How long has it been?”

“Awhile,” replies Phillip, remaining seated. “I take it you’ve been well?”
“Actually, not so good. I married again. A twenty-year-old girl that I got from Hungary.”

This must be his fourth wife.

“She bought fifty-nine pairs of shoes and filled two closets with clothes. In two years she spent twenty-five thousand dollars. I knew she would be a girl with problems; her father was an alcoholic. He told his children he would throw them out of the window so she is a nervous girl. I thought when I brought her to America it would be okay. She bought a six-hundred-dollar dog and she does not pay rent. I have to divorce her. I met a girl in Hungary. She is different, but who knows? Maybe they are all the same. I want to marry her.”

The pot I was boiling water in is burning and I remove it from the stove. I look at Phillip. He sits and eats raw cashews from the bowl I keep filled.
“Does your wife work?"

“Oh yes. She has a very good job cleaning houses, and I got her a green card so she is okay.”

“Did you buy Amazon.com?” asks Phillip.

“No. Did you?” and they laugh. “But do you know what I have been buying? Museum-quality paintings in Budapest for two thou­sand dollars. I have thirty-two paintings. I think it is going to be very, very good.”
“Mr. Kormandy, while you’re here, would you look in the sitting room?”
He interrupts me. “It’s that outside stone wall. I will see how bad it is.” And he leaves Phillip and me alone.

In a lowered voice Phillip says, “I’m on a limited budget. I’m not having any extra work done. You got that?” And his eyes become like two ink spots.

“Get an exterminator. I saw a rat coming out of your room.”

8. By The Clock

I’m to meet my lawyer in Grand Central by the clock. He and I will walk to Phillip’s lawyer’s office. It’s been ten months since the four of us have had a meeting. Nothing’s changed. Phillip and I still live in the same house. It’s now a question of who moves out.

I’m taking the train into the city. I won’t have to deal with the traffic or the expense of midtown parking. I’ve given myself fifteen minutes to walk down the hill to the station.

A light rain has started to fall. On my way to the coat closet to get an umbrella I see part of the ceiling lying on the piano, the Steinway grand Phillip bought Anne when she was eight and asked her father if she could learn how to play. I told Phillip there was a leak in the master bath shower and he said all we had to do was reposition the shower head so that the water would fall right into the drain and wouldn’t collect along the sides where the leak probably was. I guess the ceiling couldn’t take it anymore. The plaster is wet and I’ve got to get it off the piano before it stains it and I’ve got to cover the piano with something that’s waterproof in case the rest of the ceiling falls. Do I have anything large enough? Maybe I should roll the piano out of the way? No. Then the plaster will fall on the wood floor and stain that. What should I do? I’ll move the piano. I’ll lay a couple of blankets that I still keep in the closet from the time the children used them and the cushions from the couches to make teepees.

I barely make the train.

The conductor asks for my ticket.

“I didn’t have time to get a ticket.”

“How much time did you have?

“Five minutes.”

“That was enough time. I won’t charge you the two-dollar penalty. Next time get your ticket at the station.”

I notice a young man sitting diagonally across from me. I had seen him on the platform while I was catching my breath. He’s so clean. He has a new suit on. Everything he’s wearing is new. Does he shave? He must. I’m not near enough to know if he uses cologne. Probably. He’s still talking on his cellular phone.

“I’ll figure it out.” “You know what?” “The truth is.” “Profit.” “You know.” “I’d buy it.” “Sure.” “Exactly.” “No rush.” “As long as it’s in our possession.” “I’ll call you when I get to the office.”

A thick gold band encircles his left ring finger. They probably bought one of those prefab modular homes starting at $790,000 on Hardscrabble Road. Did they choose to have it assembled on level ground or on a knoll? They have two acres to landscape. In the fall they planted fast growing pines to obliterate the view of the neighboring power lines.
I think of Lillian Hellman. Her farm was on Hardscrabble Road and this new development is part of her farm. Her farm, where she grew bleached asparagus and raised poodles. I was in her farmhouse once, now owned by friends of friends. I sat in the library where she wrote and I was shown the linen closet where the shelves have been left labeled Miss Hellman and Mr. Hammett. She sold the farm to pay for Dashiell Hammett’s defense. She didn’t have a choice.

The young man sneezed. A balding man in a pin-striped, white-collared shirt says, “Bless you.”


He’s coming down with a cold. He’s overworked and he goes outside with wet hair.

He stands up and goes to the doors as we pull into l25th Street. The doors open and he gets off.

Of course. He’s one of the ones who is going to make Harlem presentable.

I pretend not to see Phillip in the building’s lobby. We take separate elevators up. We’re all right on time.

“The tuition for the Columbia University course Katherine is taking is completely unaffordable. To the extent that she wishes to pursue adult education, the budget should indicate the cost of classes at Westchester Community College, within reason of course, not Columbia University or a comparable college,” says Phillip’s lawyer. She looks smart wearing a size two beige Calvin Klein suit, ticking off at $350 an hour, Elsa Peretti’s gold misshapen heart dangling from her throat.

I wonder who paid for law school.

“We’ll get to that. First, I’d like to discuss Katherine and Phillip’s living situation. Phillip should move to an apartment in the city. Katherine and Stephen should live in the house while Stephen is still in school, which is for another five years, and then, if Phillip wants the house, he can buy Katherine out.”
“That’s unacceptable. Katherine hates the house. Has always hated the community. She’s stated this time and again. Phillip loves his house. Let Katherine be the one to rent an apartment in the city. She should live where she has always wanted to live. Phillip works in the city and he loves coming home to the fresh air.”

“Stephen is in school here and Katherine stays with her son until he graduates.”

“Let her rent a house.”

“Katherine is not renting a house. If Katherine moves it will be into a house of her own. This is non-negotiable.”

“Katherine is well aware there is no money for her own house.”

“The Nantucket house can be sold.”

“The Nantucket house is for Phillip’s retirement.”

“You know very well, Nancy, if this goes to court there will be a division of property, and aren’t we here trying to avoid court at all costs?”
I wonder if the rest of the ceiling has fallen down.