The West weeps in pale dew and sighs passing away
For no reason apparent to him, Rick Bauer decided to visit the old neighborhood one day. He took the subway to the Avenue M station and walked up to East 21st Street to admire the house in which he had lived from 1959 until 1976. Nothing had changed, except that Orthodox Jews lived on the block; the old house had the same white aluminum siding, the elm tree was out front, the bushes and flowers were the same, and there was even a pair of the old fashioned clamp-on roller skates on the front steps.
On the corner, Chodosh's candy store was now called Patel's, and he was sure it no longer served egg creams. The Key Food, owned by the angry Churgin brothers, had been replaced by a Chinese restaurant, but that had happened before he left. Estroff's card store was still there on Avenue M. On impulse, he walked over to the old playground, where some mothers were supervising their children on the swings, and his eyes were drawn to a beautiful Italian woman, of the kind he sometimes told his law school friends were "Brooklyn gum-chewing Madonnas". She had long jet-black hair in unruly ringlets and pale skin, and was talking to a petulant and domineering girl of about ten who resembled her. A moment later, he recognized her: it was his friend Lina Griglia, whom he had not seen in almost nine years.
Lina knew him immediately: "Well, Ricky Bauer," she said, with a wonderful smile. The twenty-eight year old woman looked even more interesting to him than she had at nineteen; she had been unformed then, but her face had acquired some strength of character, and some lines, since. He knew what had formed her: she had gotten pregnant, married her high school sweetheart, Brian Hanrahan, and had the baby, only to lose Brian to a gunshot a few months later.
"That must be Kimberleigh," Rick said. He had never before had the experience of seeing a child at six months and at ten years but not in between, and he found it astonishing.
He had known Lina since first grade, had been in love with her all through high school, and felt infatuated now.
They sat and talked for a while; he tried to start a conversation with Kimberleigh, who sat next to her mother but did not seem very interested in him. He told Lina about graduating law school, taking the bar exam, and the job he would be starting in September; that his brother Robin had dropped out of college, and that he himself had been working out daily at the gymn for almost a year now. He made a date to meet Lina at a restaurant in the Village at eight o'clock that evening. When he left, Lina kissed him on the cheek.
Lina and Kimberleigh walked home to her parents' house on East 17th Street, where her mother, Trudi, was waiting. Her father was at the family insurance agency on Kings Highway, where Trudi worked three days a week as a bookkeeper.
"I met Ricky Bauer in the playground," Lina told Trudi. She wasn't sure her mother would remember him, but she did.
"Ricky was the nicest of all the boys you ever brought home," Trudi said.
"I never dated him."
"No, but he was always your friend. That boy loved you." Lina knew it was true; throughout their high school years, Ricky had loved her unobtrusively, never pushing at her, always eager to spend time with her without making demands. Trudi had always been happy to see Ricky at the house. She trusted him to be a good influence on Lina; she made lunch for him sometimes. Lina vaguely remembered that Ricky had sometimes visited Trudi during the brief, tumultuous period when she and Brian had lived away, in Will Hanrahan's apartment.
"I have a date with him tonight." Trudi had a transparent face, and Lina saw all her thoughts and feelings as they succeeded one another: pleasure, concern, and calculation.
"Well, we were all going to visit your aunt in Staten Island tonight, remember? But that will work out fine. Kimberleigh will come with us."
Lina hadn't dated anyone more than twice since Brian Hanrahan died. Some men, too many, were deflected away from her by Kimberleigh, but she had deterred others through what Trudi regarded as a morbid and continuing attachment to the dead husband whom she had married and lost at nineteen.
Trudi had not approved of Brian Hanrahan, though she was not insensible to either his beauty or his possibilities, and so understood exactly what Lina saw in him. But Brian had been immature, irrational and wild; he had stolen money from her pocketbook on several occasions when he and Lina lived in the house. Out of compassion for Lina she had always covered it up, but the last time her husband, Frank Griglia, had caught him. That was when Frank had thrown Brian out of the house and he and Lina had gone to live with his older brother, Will.
She thought that Brian had done drugs, too. There were times when he seemed to be high and wild; Lina, who had probably taken drugs as well in that period of time, had continued all these years to be very vague about this with Trudi. But the boy drank, and he had raided the liquor cabinet; on more than one occasion, she and Lina had bought a bottle of whiskey to replace one he had taken so that Frank wouldn't know.
To Lina the boy had always been a saint. Trudi could understand it in her heart, but she couldn't put it into words. There was no way to explain it to Frank, or to her brother Terry Lazare, the Brooklyn College professor, both of whom were thoroughly nice and decent men, but rationalists rather than men of heart. When you adore someone, Trudi thought, you want only him and nothing else matters. At the time, she had sometimes admired her daughter's monomaniacal dedication to the boy almost everyone else thought was worthless. She herself had married a good, solid, and stable man, whom her mother had first pointed out to her as the one for her to marry.
It was true that there had been some signs of slight improvement in Brian at the very end. He had joined AA and was going to meetings at his brother's church, though he had also slid back twice in that short period. He had a job, pumping gas at the local Shell station. He loved baby Kimberleigh and looked like an angel when he played with her, though he didn't do anything to take care of her, leaving all the work to Lina. But it appeared he had at least been cold sober the night he was shot in Jay Park.
Trudi thought that meeting Ricky in the playground might represent a break in Lina's bad luck. She thought he might be the kind of man who could love Kimberleigh, who might want to acquire a ready-made family. She began asking Lina a series of questions: What was Ricky like now? What did he do?
"He's a law graduate from Cornell. He just took the bar exam and he's starting work at a Wall Street firm in September."
"They live over on 21st Street still?"
"No, mom. They moved to Brooklyn Heights five years ago."
Please God, Trudi thought, let this work out for her. Let the past not kill the present this one time.
"What did you talk with him about?"
"Oh, I don't know. About old times, Midwood High School, faces, friends, places..."
You didn't talk about Brian. Lina read her mother's face and said, "Yes, we talked about Brian."
"Oh, Lina, you didn't."
"Well, he asked me. He knew Brian was gone, but he didn't know the story." Trudi recognized the familiar twist in her daughter's mouth as she said the word "gone."
The story. Brian sat on a bench in Jay Park, where he hung out every evening with friends, even after he was married. If things were going really well, he might come home from there before nine o'clock instead of four in the morning. He might come home for dinner, go out to Jay Park and come back early and sober.
Two men were quarreling. One pulled a gun on the other, and Brian, who thought he could do anything, tried to knock down the man's gun hand and was shot in the right lung. He lived three weeks in the hospital, conscious and in terrible pain and unable to speak because of the tube down his throat. Trudi had spent every day at Downstate Medical Center with the hysterical Lina, and she remembered Brian's eyes. They had the expression of a man who, if he had been able to speak, would have said, "I'm an asshole." He had done a stupid thing, trying to be a hero for no reason. If the gun had been aimed at Lina, the story would have made sense, but she wasn't even there; she never went to Jay Park with him. Trudi believed that Brian was simply feeling good about himself that night, and had little sense of his own mortality.
But, "He did it for me," Trudi had heard Lina say many times in the intervening years. It didn't make sense; "survivor's guilt," was what Trudi's brother called it. "He had stopped living for the day, and started living for me," Lina always said. "He went straight and he got a job and everything he did was because he wanted to be the kind of man I would want him to be. And what he didn't know"--usually she was crying by this point in her ritual-- "was that I just wanted him to be with me, to be alive."
The first time she heard this, Trudi had said, "So you think he threw himself at the gun because he thought you would want him to be a hero?" But Lina had been crying too hard to answer.
They had left a bullet in Brian because it was too dangerous to remove it, and at the end it had shifted. The bullet had flown four feet in an instant, but it hadn't stopped there; it had flown another few millimeters in three weeks, just far enough to end Brian Hanrahan's life before he turned twenty.
Kimberleigh had been playing upstairs with her Barbie dolls but she came down now to the living room with the blue plush carpet, the slip-covered sofa, the blue John F. Kennedy plate on the wall and the little statuettes of the balloon-man and the brush-gathering woman. Trudi adored her grand-daughter, but she knew that she and Lina had spoiled the girl rotten; Kimberleigh soaked up endless amounts of love and attention, and returned disdain and criticism, like a little teenager. She was like a smaller copy of Lina; there had been endless discussions over the years whether she had anything of Brian in her, other than his blue eyes.
Kimberleigh wanted to play spades, and Lina played with her for a half-hour, but could never remember the rules because card games did not interest her. The ten-year old, tired of constantly advising her adversary on how to play her hand, made a sharp comment and slapped the cards down. "Unlucky at cards, lucky at love," said Lina, and felt self-conscious.
She put the cards away in the cheerful blue plastic case, and took Kimberleigh on her knees, but could only keep her a moment; the girl made an exasperated face and escaped outside to look for playmates on the street. As she exited, she let in her uncle Terry and his daughter Samantha, who was a few years younger than Lina. Terry brought a box of canoli from the bakery on Avenue M, and Trudi, who had lost track of time, retreated into the kitchen and heated up a heavy lunch of chicken in parmigian' sauce which she had cooked the night before.
Over their food, Trudi and Terry mainly carried the conversation, while Lina concentrated on taking care of her daughter and Samantha sat silent. Afterwards, Kimberleigh ran outside again, Samantha and Lina went into the backyard with a paper plate-full of canoli and Trudi and Terry sat in the living room.
Lina had always loved canoli, and she closed her eyes for a moment on the first bite, savoring the sweet cheese. When she opened them again, she caught Samantha looking at her strangely, and she froze, holding the pastry in front of her mouth. Finally, she said, "Why don't you like me, Sam?"
Samantha was taken completely by surprise by this, and almost stuttering, responded insincerely, "Of course I like you, Lina. You're my cousin." She was a short woman with black hair straighter and finer than Lina's, and a plain, intelligent face with a high forehead.
Lina said, "I know I'm not educated like you." Samantha had graduated from N.Y.U. the year before and was working on a master's degree in history at Columbia. Lina had married Brian and raised Kimberleigh while all her peers were going to college. She thought about going back to school someday, if only so people wouldn't look down on her, but it was hard to see how to fit it into this life.
Lina knew she should probably shut up, but she continued: "You know what happened to me. If I hadn't gone to college because I was in a serious car accident and lost several years of my life, would you hold that against me?"
"Yes, if you were driving the car," Samantha shot back in her peevish way. She stood up, took the empty plate and said, "I'm going to see how the older generation is doing inside."
With great excitement, Trudi had told Terry about Lina's date. He asked a few questions about Ricky, whom he remembered having met once or twice at his sister's house years ago, and asked, "Why would a lawyer be interested in a girl who never went to college?"
Trudi was crestfallen; she had married Lina off to Ricky in her thoughts already. "Well, that could be a problem. But Lina is so smart and pretty, and Ricky and she were best friends from first grade. Anyway," she said as an afterthought, "she could always go now."
"Being friends is fine, but he's Jewish, so he would probably marry a girl of his own people, don't you think?"
Trudi chose to misunderstand: "Seeing her happy is the most important thing. Frank and I are not that religious, and Ricky is good people."
The only thing negative that Trudi could find about Lina's date with Ricky was that he was not coming to pick her up, but Lina had said he didn't have a car and that she didn't see anything wrong with it.
Samantha had come in and was following the conversation with great interest. Trudi did not trust or understand her niece, and now it was very near the time when Will Hanrahan had said he might visit, so she left them both in the living room and went down the block.
As Trudi reached the corner, she saw Will on his bicycle. He had come from teaching his English as a Second Language class at Brooklyn College. She waved him down and he pulled the bike over to the curb.
She hesitated a moment and then decided to be blunt. "Now's not a good time for you to visit, Will. Lina's got a date tonight with a very nice young man, and frankly I don't want her reminded of Brian right now."
Will had an Abraham Lincoln-like long face which now became sour with disappointment. Trudi felt sorry for him and added, "I can bring Kimmy over to you before dinner, if you want. We'll be on the way to my sister's in Staten Island."
When she was with Brian, Lina had feared Will, who she was convinced hated her. In fact, it was his younger brother Brian whom Will disliked; he had always thought Lina was much too good for him.
After Brian died, Will waited a year and a day, then proposed marriage to Lina. She was astonished and rejected him immediately. Lina said she wasn't certain, and Trudi surely didn't know, whether the proposal had more to do with the fact that he valued her, or because he had an over-developed sense of responsibility. Four months after Lina said no, Will became engaged to a devout girl from his church, and after they were married he had come around again to offer to adopt Kimberleigh. This made Lina rageful; Trudi had never seen her such a hellion; but she and Will both had gotten over it. Now Will came to see his niece, who was all he had left of Brian, every week. He gave Lina money to help out with her, and was constantly worried about the fact that Kimberleigh was not going to church regularly.
Will clearly thought Trudi was being fanciful, but it was not his way to object, so he made an appointment with her for later and turned his bike around.
At three thirty, Trudi, Terry, Samantha and Kimberleigh left in Terry's car, Kimberleigh complaining bitterly about visiting an aunt whom she didn't like. Lina waved goodbye, and decided to take a nap so that she would be fresh and in good spirits when she met Ricky.
She undressed and put a nightgown on, but her room, in which she had grown up and which was still decorated with her stuffed animals and dolls, was very bright and she could hear the breeze in the backyard tree. She looked at the ceiling for a long while, thinking about Ricky. She had never thought him particularly good-looking, but today, with his short haircut and newly muscular build, she had found him handsome. She recalled all of his attentions and kindnesses. The one time Brian had slapped her, she had told Ricky, and he had said almost inaudibly, "I wouldn't treat you like that." He had come with her on the trip to Planned Parenthood to get the birth control pills she had failed to use consistently while seeing Brian. Ricky had been miserable that whole day; he was still a virgin, and he was aiding her to prepare herself to have sex with another man. In earlier years, and during high school, she had been at his house often, though she had never known what to say to his intimidating doctor-parents. His brother Robin, three years younger, had been a sort of mascot or pet to her. Just as there were days when Ricky had intentionally come to visit Trudi in her absence, she had sometimes picked up Robin and taken him out for an afternoon, as a sort of volunteer babysitter.
Her imagination raced ahead and she saw herself as Mrs. Richard Bauer. There was a comfortable feeling to it. You could do worse than to marry someone who had been your absolute best friend for many years. She had always felt secure with Ricky and knew he would never do anything to harm her. She felt more desperate every year, living in her parents' house with her own child; it was like being asleep all the time, or in that fitful state when you are aware that you are waiting to wake up. She did not know how Kimberleigh would do with him (her behavior that morning had not been reassuring) but she knew that Ricky was prepared to love Kimberleigh.
Lina told herself that she was being foolish. She had run into a man whom she hadn't seen in nine years and he had asked her to dinner, all of which was hopeful, but it was a very big stride to imagine he wanted to marry her. She knew she had been overly optimistic before, about Brian most of all, but comforted now by the thought that something very nice was hers if she would just reach to pick it up, she fell asleep.
Lina dreamed that she was walking down Brian's street and that he was twenty feet in front of her. Brian was singing and dancing in his completely charming way, performing for the world, turning to look at her from time to time with the covert, mischievous grin which communicated that he knew that he was irresistible and could get away with anything.
She was distracted by a man shouting from a rooftop across the street. She looked up to see a middle-aged black stranger, dressed in a jacket and a tie, yelling a warning and gesturing angrily. She could not make out his words. Brian meanwhile had climbed the steps and gone into the first floor apartment he shared with Will. Lina turned away from the gesticulating stranger on the roof, followed Brian inside and discovered that he had been transformed into a roomful of flowers.
Lina woke with her heart pounding. She remembered the flowers in her mother's living room on the day of the funeral, when she had overheard her father say confidentially to Terry, "Its for the best." Her eyes darted around the room, finding first the clock--it was six--and then the picture of Brian holding baby Kimberleigh that stood on the dresser. She remembered taking the picture and then putting the cheap camera down to go and kiss them both. She remembered Brian's man smell and Kimberleigh's baby smell.
She stood and almost ran into the bathroom to get ready for her date. She looked in the mirror and froze for the second time that day: she saw dark circles around her eyes in the unsympathetic fluoresecent light, and a knot that formed in the middle of her forehead when she was unhappy. Her lip began to tremble and she thought, its a fools errand, really; he's a lawyer and I don't read an entire book from one year to another. He feels kindly to me, and he always will, but he'll marry a woman with a career, and probably a Jewish one at that. And he's too young to want a ten year old kid in his life. But behind all of that, and more important, was Brian, whom she had never stopped thinking of as her husband. He was simply there, like the large piece of quartz, too heavy for her father to lift, that poked up in the flowerbed out back.
She willed her lip to become stone, her heart to be stone and her trembling hands as well. She went back to bed and watched the flaming sun crashing through the willow, and then out of sight behind the rooftops. When the phone rang, she ignored it, though Ricky let it ring forty times. She couldn't sleep and at first she simply lay on her side replaying Brian on the inside of the white shade. But then she couldn't bear to be shut in and opened the shade and the window. She lay down again, her hand under her right cheek. Against the Brooklyn sky, which was never black, she saw the dark branches of the backyard willow-tree shaking, and light from three sources: the evening star, the flickering blue of a neighbor's television against the venetian blinds of the house behind the backyard fence, and a lone firefly in the azalea bush.