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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Moni Wayside Blue
Moni Wayside Blue
When I was young and lived in Cambridge, in the early eighties, there was a woman in the neighborhood known as the Lady Who Beats Her Kids. She had even been pointed out to me by the postman. When I first met her at Foods Galore, she accosted me—she had a rather aggressive manner—to set the record straight. I came to believe her when she said that once people knew the facts, they’d realize the children’s cuts and bruises had not been inflicted by her.
She told me her oldest son had jumped off the kitchen counter with cardboard wings (split lip, sprained ankle); the middle boy, only eleven months younger, had tantrums (lump on head). When she told him not to walk on stilts in the house, he would dare her to order him down. The youngest was a girl; there’d been some question about her gender at birth, but chromosome testing revealed she was biologically female. There the Lady was, standing behind her loaded shopping cart, and there I was: she recognized me as a newcomer, someone who took long walks, listening through earphones to the music she clearly preferred to human contact. Who knows what name the neighborhood people had for me?
Her name was Frances, and she was wearing stretch pants, though she did not have the best figure, and a man’s black-and-white wool-lined denim jacket, no makeup, her hair pulled severely into a ponytail. I was holding an apple, a bottle of seltzer clamped under my other arm, and could not easily shake hands. She said: “I know what the other mothers think, but since you don’t have children—” She stopped. “Do you?” she said. I shook my head no. “The mothers bond together any way they can, and since I have more children than any of them, they gossip about me. But I don’t lift a finger to my children. I don’t, and I won’t. The pediatrician himself saw it: my oldest head-butted his watercooler. They’re accident-prone, and none of the boys has a shred of common sense.”
I told her that of course I had no idea what went on inside her house. I added (invoking my grandmother’s wisdom) that no one knew what went on behind closed doors. I had had cause to wonder, though—not so much because of her children, but because one night, while I was returning alone to my apartment, her husband had stopped me and said a few words I tried to instantly forget, and which therefore remained in my mind. If she was strange, her husband was stranger.
An old man passed by us in the aisle with a cart that contained a twelvepack of Budweiser and adult diapers.
“You know,” the Lady Who Beats Her Kids said, “where I grew up, there was a game that involved renaming yourself: the first name was the name of your favorite pet; middle name, the name of the street where you grew up; last name, your favorite color. Before I had the nickname I have today, I was Nippy Chestnut Green.”
I thought for a while. “I would be Monroe Wayside Blue,” I said.
“If a girl has a male pet, the name can be shortened and an i put at the end.”
“Moni Wayside Blue.”
Her younger son darted between the legs of two men stocking the shelves with cans.
“What sort of pet was Nippy?” I asked.
“A turtle who ate dried flies from my fingertips.” Her smile faded. She tried to catch her son’s hand as he pulled her waistband. He backed up, knocking into a display of brooms, which swayed wildly.
In the grocery cart, in her plastic seat, the baby sucked the cap of a tube of Prell.
The Lady Who Beats Her Kids lived across the street from where I lived with my husband, Jack, in the first-floor apartment of a Victorian. We’d moved from Somerville to Cambridge for the last year of his residency. The next time I saw her, the Lady was leaving a dresser curbside, carrying a pile of drawers out separately and stacking them on top of the furniture. It was the perfect size for our little bedroom, so I went out and asked if I could have it. The Lady said that not only was it all right, but she would help me carry the drawers, because she hated waste. Her husband had insisted she get rid of it because their six-year-old had jumped from it and sprained his ankle. (“As if the furniture was to blame!”)
Months later, in the snow, she was at it again. I saw the Lady carry out a large painting in a broken frame—broken wood and glass—and waved and went to say hello. “He climbed up on a chair and pulled it down on his head. We’re lucky it didn’t cut him,” she said. “It’s a hand-me-down anyway, not worth reframing.” It was a portrait of a man with a furrowed brow, wearing a fedora. We talked about how much we were looking forward to spring. I told her the dresser had worked out perfectly, and thanked her again. As she turned to go, she slipped on the ice and fell into a corner of the damaged frame, a shard of glass cutting her.
Just then, the nanny turned the corner—I’d been told by my landlord that they had a stuck-up nanny—holding the boys by the hand. She screamed in Spanish and let go of their hands. Running, she shouted in English: “Seven years’ bad luck!” One child ran ahead of her, but the other slipped, landed on his bottom, and began to cry. I rushed toward him, though the nanny, expressing herself angrily in Spanish, turned back faster than I could. She swooped down and began hissing in his face before helping him up. Meanwhile, the Lady had struggled to her feet and was clasping a glove around her bleeding wrist, her expression more amazement than pain. It had all happened in seconds. Blood dripped onto the snow.
“You need to go to the doctor,” I said. “I’ll take you.” My voice was as level as my husband’s when someone he didn’t know cornered him at a party about an ailment. Both children were wailing.
“All day, problems, problems,” the nanny said. “This one kicked a boy’s snowman and don’t stop kicking.” She looked at the other boy and said: “Ted cries because he likes to cry. Oh, sure it is cold. It’s winter.” More blood fell on the snow. “Moni,” the nanny said, squinting at me; it had obviously just popped into her mind. “Bad boys, they cry for no reason and cause trouble and more trouble.” She held each twisting child firmly by his coat sleeve. “They made you hurt yourself.”
“My sons didn’t make me fall,” the Lady said weakly.
“Too cold, way too cold for long walks. Everybody come inside, I make tea for grown-ups and cocoa for boys.”
“She should go to a doctor,” I said. The snow the Lady had chipped up with the toe of her boot had turned pink.
“Tea, then I’m done,” the nanny said. “Too cold for healthy children walks.” She suddenly noticed the painting. “What happened? Why is this here?”
But instead of answering, the Lady sank to the ground. It took me a moment to realize she’d fainted. Blood spotted new snow; a man ran up and asked what was going on. Both boys, throwing snow at each other, screamed hysterically.
“Come in house, boys, come in house,” the nanny shouted, running toward them.
“She fainted,” I said to the man, who was now kneeling with his ear to her mouth, simultaneously grasping both wrists, the left one cut deeply, I saw, and almost straight across. “You’re a doctor,” I said.
“What’s her name?” he said.
“Frances,” I told him, though the Lady Who Beats Her Kids was so ingrained that I almost blurted that out.
“Frances!” he said loudly. “You can’t lie here. Frances!” Her eyelids raised, then sank. “You’ve fainted, Frances. Here we go,” the doctor said, scooping underneath so that in one quick movement she was standing, blood still dripping to the sidewalk. She panted shallowly, her eyes open wide. For the first time, the doctor sounded conciliatory: “This is a bad cut. We’re going to call an ambulance.” He raised her hand to her chest, his own fingers bloody now. “Who would put broken glass at the curb?” he muttered.
“She did,” I said.
“Well, that wasn’t a good idea, was it?” he said.
A man and a woman, walking in the street, pretended to be deep in conversation as they passed by. Frances leaned heavily on the man, who moved her forward. I ran ahead and opened the door, which the nanny had slammed shut. There was a bright Oriental runner inside the door, and a hall table with hats tossed on it.
“She needs stitches, doesn’t she?” I said.
“Of course,” he snapped, moving her toward the kitchen.
“It’s so good a doctor came along,” I said, trying not to take offense.
“I’m not a doctor, I’m a book distributor,” he said. “Though it doesn’t hurt that I was in the marines.”
“Take boys and put in marines,” the nanny said. “Right now, cocoa for boys, and mother sits down.”
We all crowded into the kitchen, where the younger boy was trying to grab a toy from his brother, who doubled up around it. The man picked up the telephone. I thought: I couldn’t have taken her anyway. My husband has the car.
From upstairs, the baby began to cry. I had forgotten the other child; how strange that they had not taken her with them.
“Yes, we need an ambulance at—what’s the address?” the man said.
The nanny recited it, saying, “O,” instead of zero, placing the cups of cocoa neither boy wanted on a small plastic table. “Okay, everything fine now. I have tonight off. Get well soon,” the nanny said, clomping down the hall, yanking her coat off a hook, scarf trailing from the pocket. Neither boy reacted to the slammed door. One had poured some of his cocoa on the floor; the other pulled the slats of the chair where his mother sat wincing and clasping a kitchen towel around her wrist.
Looking at the Lady slumped in the chair, her coat fallen open, I saw that she was pregnant. I looked over my shoulder at the man, who seemed suddenly shaken, leaning against the door frame. “That woman!” I said, in the echo of the slammed door. Cold air rushed into the kitchen like a gas that immobilized the adults, leaving only the boys wildly stomping through the puddle of cocoa.
I said nothing about it to Jack, but the last few seconds in the Lady’s kitchen, I’d decided never to get pregnant, which made me feel guilty, almost as if I’d cheated on him. A few days later I decided to write a note asking how she was and drop it through her mail slot (she could have come across the street and thanked me, I thought, though thanks were hardly required). But I hesitated. I’d seen no activity at her house since the ambulance left, though by the end of the week more things appeared curbside: a floor lamp missing a shade; a typewriter that disappeared before I could put on my coat; a trash can without a lid, brimming with clothes, on garbage night. I’d looked out the window later, as I was going to bed, and seen a street person throwing clothes in the air like an inept juggler.
How could I have been surprised when the moving truck pulled up and began loading things out? It happened a week or so after the accident. I detested busybodies, but when I saw two moving men carrying out a sofa, I dressed and left the house, calling, “Sorry to bother you. Is the lady of the house in?”
They watched me cross the street. They were dressed in sweat suits, bareheaded in the cold. “All’s I know, we’re doin’ our job,” one of them said. The other stared through me until they turned and went toward the house. I started up the walkway, but they rushed out before I even reached the front steps, carrying big boxes on their shoulders. I jumped off the path. I’d hoped to catch sight of someone inside, but as no one appeared, I started to feel self-conscious, and eventually I returned to our apartment. Something wasn’t right. In the kitchen, I made myself a cheese sandwich and coffee, then flipped through the sports section of the paper, which I usually didn’t bother with unless the Red Sox had gotten into the play-offs. As I stirred sugar into my coffee, I remembered the nanny furiously stirring the powdered cocoa into the cups; the drained look on the ex-marine’s face; the parting of the Lady’s coat, and the realization that she was pregnant.
I put my coat on—I seem to have done that constantly that winter in Cambridge—and took a walk, ignoring the moving men, who were working with increased speed as the light began to wane. Down the street, resting against a bush, was a lamp shade. The shade for the floor lamp I’d seen earlier? But I didn’t want to talk to the moving men again, so I continued—embarrassed that I had no real purpose except to escape watching what was going on—to Harvard Square, where I looked at magazines I didn’t buy (there was never money for magazines). As I wandered through the Coop, I looked at my watch: Jack would be home soon. I went to an expensive grocery store and bought a shepherd’s pie and some Orangina. As if to make up for spending more than necessary, I stopped at the cash machine, punched in my PIN, withdrew forty dollars from fast cash, and folded it in my pocket. Very distinctly, a memory came back: the nanny’s scarf, trailing the floor. I took the long way home, even though that meant I’d arrive after Jack, and I’d left no note. Well: he wasn’t the sort to worry and it would be better if he was there when I got home—his presence would take away any temptation to gawk at the goings-on across the street.
The moving man looked away when he saw me walking down the block. His partner seemed oblivious. The truck was almost full. Just as I was about to hurry inside—it had become bitterly cold—I saw something that drew my attention to the doorway: a hat, blowing outside. Then a man—not the Lady’s husband—ran out. He wore a down vest and scarf, and he bent to pick the hat up.
“Hey!” I heard myself holler, hand raised. I called again, trying to sound friendly: “I didn’t know they were moving.”
The man settled the hat on his head: a black fur hat with earflaps. He leaned out, squinting. I took a step toward him. Both moving men jumped out of the back of the truck and started up the walkway. “Hello,” the man said, in a faint little voice. “You’re a friend, are you?”
“Yes,” I said, not knowing what else to say. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, the house is being emptied,” he said.
Jack’s blue Ford turned into our driveway. He did not see me as I watched the car bump over a layer of ice on top of the snow and disappear into the parking lot. He would go in the back door I rarely used because it swelled shut. “They’re moving?” I said.
“Are you a friend?” he asked again.
“Their neighbor,” I said, pointing over my shoulder.
“Oh, I’m so sorry to tell you this, but don’t you know, all of them are dead?” he said.
I heard it as “Rumpelstiltskin,” or nonsense sounds. He had taken off his hat and held it in front of him. “I’m Frances’s brother,” he said. “John Cray, from Windsor, Ontario. It’s a tragedy too sad to comprehend, but they’re dead, every one.”
I stared at him.
“At their cabin in Utah,” he said. “Carbon monoxide did it.”
My hands, without gloves, were not just cold, but numb. My lips were also numb. I tried to speak, but couldn’t.
“They went for a skiing holiday. They turned on the stove, and it wasn’t vented. They might have thought it was, but the vent was frozen solid. It was supposed to be a last vacation before Frances had the baby.”
The moving man said: “Go inside, Mr. Cray, and sit by the heat.” He glared at me, as if I was responsible for his being outside.
“My only sibling,” Mr. Cray said. “I have a wife named Jean and a son who just turned twenty-two.”
This information seemed incomprehensibly strange. I turned my head toward the spot where the Lady had fallen. By now there had been so much new snow that there would not be a trace of blood. “What about the nanny?” I heard myself say.
“Delores?” he said. “I know people have strange reactions in times of grief, but Delores has been saying they owed her money, though I never knew my sister or brother-in-law not to pay for a service. She says they owe her two thousand dollars.”
“I wouldn’t believe anything that woman said. I only met her once, but . . . should we go inside? You’re shivering.”
“I don’t want to be in their way. They’ve been very helpful. So, tell me: did you know my sister a long time?” He was worrying his earflaps, turning the hat slowly in his hands.
“I hardly knew her, really.”
A moving man exited, carrying folding chairs and a bag. A cat darted across his path, and he spat at it.
“I was coming home one day when she had an accident. She cut her wrist, and I went to help. We’d really only met briefly before. The nanny was there, and she seemed to make everything worse. The La—” I broke off. “Frances had to leave by ambulance to have the cut stitched. I watched for her return, but I didn’t see her. I was going to write a note to see how she was,” I finished lamely.
He looked in the direction of the vanished cat. “Accident?” he finally said.
“She’d cut herself on a piece of glass.”
“She didn’t kill herself,” he said.
“No, no. A piece of glass had broken in a picture frame. She slipped.”
“Carol?” my husband called. He stood on the stoop, across the street. “Carol?”
“Someone calling,” Mr. Cray said. “I’m awfully cold. It’s best to go in now.”
The next morning Mr. Cray and I stood on the Oriental rug, drinking coffee. In the empty house, the rug seemed lovelier than I remembered. Dust swirled around like a dry version of snow.
“My sister loved her morning coffee,” he said. “Sometimes he brought it to her in bed. Growing up in Canada, it’s a special treat if you don’t have to throw off the warm covers until the last possible minute.”
“Mr. Cray, stop me if I’m bringing up things I shouldn’t mention, but she seemed a little overwhelmed the last time I saw her. I don’t think the nanny did a very good job.”
“Well, that’s a problem that’s going to have to sort itself out. Delores getting a lawyer for money owed, that is. Of course, if it’s really owed, we’ll see that she’s paid.”
“You’re quite right not to just believe that woman.”
“It’s kind of you to be here. So many people run in the opposite direction, eh? I wouldn’t be staying, except that I’m waiting for my son so we can put the rugs in his car. He can use them. He’s driving all the way from Bath, Maine.”
“Will you go to your son’s house?”
“Oh no. He’ll drop me at Logan airport to catch my flight to Canada.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Oh, I don’t think so, but if you don’t mind, I’ll give you my card. If anything seems amiss, you might call collect.”
“I don’t have a card—” (Of course I didn’t; I didn’t work, which was a bone of contention between Jack and me, though he was the one who’d begged me at the end of my sophomore year at Columbia to live with him in Massachusetts.) I fished a cash receipt out of my pocket. I picked up a pen from the kitchen counter and wrote my name and number.
“Well, she’s dead and nothing will bring her back,” he said.
“You said yesterday that she didn’t kill herself. I wanted to be sure you understood how the accident happened. It was underneath her wrist.” I gestured to my own wrist, which was shaking slightly. “It got cut when she threw away a painting—”
“I saw the cut,” he said. “I identified the body.”
A car slowed; people looked at the house, then continued.
He said: “If my wife and I had asked them to come to Canada to ski, it would never have happened.”
“I really, really think you shouldn’t blame yourself. I hope we meet again, under more pleasant circumstances,” I said, extending my hand.
He clasped it and said: “What picture was it? Did you see?”
“Yes. It was of a man in a fedora.”
“That was me when I was in my twenties, gone to Toronto to work at the bank. I wondered where that went missing. Frances never liked it, but my wife didn’t either, which I suppose explains why it was hung in her house.”
“You’re the man in the painting?”
“You know, she tossed out their wedding portrait,” he said, without answering, “and that certainly caused a stir. She said she’d always hated the dress and she’d come to think weddings were personal, that there was no reason to involve the state. I think she explained it better to my wife, but that’s the way I understood it.”
“When did she do that?”
“Do what? Toss it? Oh—last year, I think.”
“What did her husband think?”
“We’ll never know, will we?”
A car pulled up outside. “My boy,” Mr. Cray said.
“She must have been very depressed, to throw out her wedding portrait.”
“Aren’t we all, from time to time? A little impulsive, you mean. I have to agree with that.”
The rush of air when he opened the door reminded me of the draft that had blown down the corridor the other time I’d been in the kitchen.
“Ken!” Mr. Cray called.
“Dad.” The young man nodded dully. He had on a brown jacket, square-toed boots. He waited for an introduction, which his father did not make.
Instead, Mr. Cray said: “Your aunt did some housecleaning before she died. That was where her cut came from, I just found out. And guess what she divested herself of. My portrait! Her neighbor here saw it.” He turned to me. “Carol, my son, Ken. Ken, this is Frances’s good friend, Carol.”
“Pleased to meet you,” I said.
“Likewise,” he said. “About ready, Dad?”
“Got to pick up the rugs, then we’re done. Do you think it will do to leave the thermostat at fifty?” he asked as his son brushed past him.
“Will the house be empty long?”
“Depends on who buys it, eh? And when they move in.”
“Fifty should keep the pipes from freezing. Have a safe trip,” I said, following Mr. Cray onto the front porch. We stood there silently until Ken came out and, with a great sigh and several rugs rolled over his shoulder, went down the steps and walked to his car.
“It makes me feel better to know Frances lived in such a nice neighborhood,” Mr. Cray said.
“Dad? We want to stop for coffee.” Ken dumped a jumble of rugs in the trunk and slammed it closed.
“He’s a good boy. He’s got a morbid turn of mind, though. He thinks they died on purpose.” Ken stood jingling the keys. “You look after yourself,” Mr. Cray said.
“I still have the painting,” I blurted. “It’s behind our building. Where the weather won’t get it. On our porch, actually.”
“I sensed that I should keep it. Do you want it, Mr. Cray?”
“Unless it’s small, there’s no way to transport it,” his son said dully.
“I can mail it to you. The broken glass is gone,” I added, then felt stupid for stating the obvious.
“Well, I appreciate that. Thank you.”
“We’ve got each other’s addresses,” Mr. Cray said, patting his pocket. “I do believe I locked your coffee mugs in the house, though. Here’s a key, if you wouldn’t mind getting them. It might come in handy if there’s anything I’ve forgotten.”
“I can return it with the painting,” I said.
“There you go,” he said. “Some things work out.”
Days passed before I went to get my coffee mugs. I’d thought about asking Jack to do it, though that seemed childish. In fact, I thought about telling him everything—though what did everything consist of?—as he sat drinking his mixture of morning milk and coffee, but as always, he was preoccupied with the book he was reading. He also hated bad news, so I knew that saying that the Lady Who Beats Her Kids was dead would have upset him, as all deaths upset him. Or no: they irritated him. It was as if something that might easily have been changed had been overlooked. Jack was also irritated that I’d stopped taking weaving lessons. He’d always thought too much of my talent, or perhaps he’d worshipped artists too much, coming from a family of doctors and lawyers. When I met him, I’d been an aspiring poet. The weaving lessons had been in lieu of enrolling in college again; I’d convinced him that, metaphorically, weaving with wool and weaving with words were much the same thing.
In the cold, empty house, I picked up the mugs—some potter had done a very nice job; the blue glaze was lovely—and looking at the doorway where the marine had leaned, I found that as I clasped the mugs, I was crouching, as if about to pitch to a ghost batter. I looked at the four corners of the room. The Lady and her children were gone. The finality of it had made me weak in the knees. But that nanny . . . sure to make trouble. She’d work for someone else. You always heard the young mothers in their soft wool turtlenecks, their stirrup pants and bright socks and clogs, complaining to each other that good help was hard to find in Cambridge.
Cambridge: the noise, the cramped apartment. I’d had to give away my cat because the landlord wouldn’t allow pets. Jack was never home. Except for that night he’d stood on the front step, early instead of late for once, calling my name, and I had realized: He’s saying it without any real affection. He might as well have been beckoning someone who didn’t exist: Moni Wayside Blue.
I stood shakily and tried the light switch. It seemed very sad that the Lady’s electricity had been turned off. There was not yet any indication the house was for sale.
Days later, I told Jack what had happened, but I downplayed the time I’d spent with her. I said: “It’s so sad. Not just their deaths, the way they lived.”
“How did they live?” he said.
“She had all these children and the nanny was worse than no help.”
“I presume you’re making a point?”
“A point? No.”
We sat in silence.
“Why didn’t you come over, Jack? Why did you only call from the steps?”
“I didn’t know those people,” he said. “You said you’d just met them yourself.”
I went back once more. The floors deeply scratched, the windows smudged, dust-ball nuclei orbited by dust balls. For a while I wondered if eventually I’d run into the marine (though I’d thought hard, I couldn’t remember what he’d said his job was). It was a month before a real estate agent’s sign was posted, and only then did I remember to ship the portrait to Mr. Cray, putting cardboard where the glass had been and surrounding it in bubble wrap. I wondered how the wedding photograph had been discarded, and why I hadn’t had one taken myself. It cost quite a bit to ship the package from UPS, where I had to fill out a declaration form, calling the portrait a “gift.” He’d been so nice, I felt sure he’d reimburse me.
I became convinced our marriage would have broken up whether or not Jack admitted he was smitten with an older woman—a radiologist at the hospital. In the spring, which in Cambridge meant mid-June, we decided on a trial separation. I moved out. It was difficult to call my parents, who had been so opposed to my marriage, and tell them what was happening. I wrote my grandmother, thinking it might ease the shock.
I felt bad about myself and said so when I had lunch with a former college friend who had graduated, whom I ran into in the square.
“I joined Mensa. It’s not a snob thing,” she said. “It’s better to be around people who are a little strange. You were always a little remote, Carol. It might do you good.”
“I don’t join things,” I said, not knowing what else to say.
“Well, you might try it. Maybe it’s time for a transformation. I could pick you up next month for the meeting.”
“What sort of things do you do?” I said, feigning interest.
She said, “Last week we went to an astronomy lab and looked at the stars.”
Some of my grandmother’s other advice had been: Take time to stop and smell the roses. Roses, snowflakes, stars . . . so often there to be considered, but when I looked back on my time in Cambridge, twenty years later, I realized I’d done so little looking. I was myopic in those days, newly married, unsure what my future would be, without good friends. Things seem to have found me in my isolation. The Lady had found me, but I was really extraneous, just a neighbor who had to be acknowledged, someone who’d crossed her path on a day when she had a problem—the only reason I was ever invited into her house. So if I was so unobservant, how was it that I could still see the pattern of the rug, its colors, its slightly rolled corner? The way the light fell in her kitchen.
I thought of her sometimes, merely because I walked into a hotel lobby with a brightly colored rug or because I looked out my car window and saw some child’s snowman. I thought of the husband too, though it was his voice I heard—what surrounded us meant nothing.
At first when I left New England, I lived in a rented house in Virginia, in horse country, though I soon got tired of the isolation and the commute and relocated to Arlington to be nearer the city, where I began tutoring inner-city fifth-graders two times a week and working at a bookstore in Georgetown on the weekends. Through someone I met at the bookstore, I sublet an apartment in Crystal City, and commuted by metro to George Washington, where I’d enrolled the year before to complete my degree in English. I made three good friends at college. One—a professor—had recently died.
This day, I was driving one of my other GW friends, Angie (who
had become an executive secretary to an investment-management company that dealt only with clients who made a minimum of one-million-dollar investments), to a doctor’s appointment I knew she’d been dreading. Being in a doctor’s office reminded me of Jack, and I wondered how he was, whether he’d stayed with the radiologist, if he’d remained—as so many doctors wanted to—in Cambridge. Things turned out better than Angie expected. The second mammogram seemed okay: unambiguous to the chief radiologist. After I treated her to a Starbucks, we hugged and she thanked me for everything before I dropped her off at work. Then I drove through heavy traffic to meet Alan for lunch at the Palm.
In the early stages of a relationship, I tried to be flexible about things I usually didn’t enjoy, but I’d already met Alan twice at the Palm, and it simply wasn’t my kind of place; if the relationship continued, I’d tell him I liked smaller, less expensive restaurants. Still, I’d dressed for the occasion in new Jimmy Choos and a black skirt, white silk blouse, and Ralph Lauren jacket I’d bought while shopping with Angie at an Episcopal-church rummage sale. There was a cologne my former boyfriend had given me (he was a client of the firm Angie worked for; he’d also given me great advice about the stock market) called Acqua di Colonia, Verbena, and as much as I believed anything could bring me luck, I believed in the power of that fragrance. Before leaving the doctor’s office, while Angie had cried discreet tears of relief in the toilet stall, I’d stood in the bathroom and squirted it on my wrist, and on the nape of my neck.
Alan was eighteen years older and a reporter for the Washington Post. I had been seeing him for several months. He had a fifteen-year-old daughter who took Amtrak most weekends from Delaware to visit. Recently the girl’s mother had taken him to court, requesting increased child support for psychotherapy (hers) because the girl had gotten an STD. “Which one?” I’d asked, and Alan blushed before he said, “I didn’t ask.”
The girl’s name was Monica Sue. She would be joining Alan and me for dinner, though right now I was on my way to have lunch with Alan alone. My other close friend, Hawkens, had been the companion of my professor, Gerald, now deceased, a lovely man who’d taught a course on the personal essay, and had operated a B&B outside of Middleburg. When Gerald died, Hawkens moved farther into the county, keeping only his favorite horse. I often went to see him, now that my stockbroker boyfriend whom he couldn’t stand was long gone, or sometimes Hawkens drove into Arlington to see me. The past seemed like a dream, we agreed; I’d briefly been their neighbor, but had moved when my relationship with the stockbroker ended. I was grateful to have been an early investor in Aflac.
I arrived at the restaurant early. The garage had space, and I parked and took the elevator to street level with a Rastafarian and a woman holding a bunch of roses and frowning. I half expected that if I’d looked behind me, she would have thrown them to the ground. Inside, the maître d’ told me my lunch companion had not arrived, but asked if I’d like to be seated. He pivoted to lead me to the table.
Across the way, a heavyset man with both elbows on the table slid farther forward to give his full attention to an attractive woman it took me a few seconds to recognize. It was the nanny, placing her champagne flute on the table—her hair longer, and more purposefully disheveled, a different wardrobe.
The nanny from Cambridge, years later. Well—what was so incredible about that? There could be any number of explanations: she was the man’s children’s nanny (unlikely); they were married (less likely). I used the wine list to cover my face as I considered the possibilities.
I told the waiter that I would like bottled water. Pellegrino, please. No wine, thanks (which meant I had to put the wine list back on the table).
The nanny reached out to squeeze the man’s hand, crossing her legs at the same time. Her high heels came to an extended, fashionable point. Well, was she obliged to spend her life as a servant? And who knew—perhaps she’d become a nice person. There must have been extenuating circumstances back then. Who would want to look after so many children, in such a cold climate? Maybe the Lady had been crazy. Maybe she’d driven her husband crazy, discarding everything. Three children, and another on the way. Of course their deaths had been accidental: this wasn’t some poor bipolar woman prematurely discharged by her HMO, sent back to a trailer full of children to bake in the Texas sun.
The waiter poured the water. Alan was ten minutes late already, which was unusual. At the table next to me, three men expressed amazement at a lobster with the diameter of a football, lowered for their inspection on a tray. I examined my manicure. I looked in the opposite direction, at a table of Asian businessmen. I sipped the Pellegrino, and when my eyes lit momentarily on the nanny’s table, her eyes met mine and her hand froze on the stem of her glass.
This was the moment when I should have adjusted my expression and gone to the table to say hello, but what did it matter that long ago we had met? The brief encounter was so unpleasant, she was so obviously uninvolved in her work . . . but then, as my grandmother would have said, “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw bricks.”
Would the lady like to order an appetizer? No, thank you. My companion would arrive any minute.
Though he did not. What I didn’t yet know was that Alan was at the emergency room with his daughter, who had appendicitis. The maître d’ brought the news: the gentleman had called and explained the situation. Alas (he really said alas), the gentleman’s daughter was going into surgery.
The restaurant was full of men in suits. There were a few women, but it was a male bastion. Suddenly I thought of the Lady’s husband. Though I couldn’t say I’d ever really known him, we’d had a few brief encounters. The first time was when I came upon him kicking a snowman on the front lawn, a barely sculpted, vertical mound of snow with no hat, charcoal briquette eyes, and an inordinate number of sticks for arms. I averted my eyes, but he hollered, “Yeah, I’m killing the snowman. Look at the mean man killing the snowman! Big, mean man!” Instead of hurrying on, I stopped and said that I’d never liked snowmen, and that as far as I was concerned, he should continue. Then there was the time our car got stuck in the driveway and the Lady’s husband appeared with a snow shovel. Turning to leave, he gave me a sign: a raised eyebrow. He was pronounced “a very nice man” by Jack, who later returned the shovel, leaning it against their front door. When he returned, he said that a light had been on in the house, but as he’d come nearer, it had been extinguished. I thought: He saw that it wasn’t me. If I needed further proof, I got it returning to my apartment with groceries soon afterward, when he approached me. Perfectly calmly, he said, “I think if I can’t have you, I’ll die.” I stared at him, frightened, before turning away.
This many years later, I wondered if I’d taken his hand and we had drifted off, whether the Lady and her children might still be alive. Because of course it was perfectly possible that he had meant it, and that he was the one who’d killed them.
I said to Hawkens: “When I was first married and living in Cambridge, a man I hardly knew came up to me one day and said that if he couldn’t have me, he’d die.”
Hawkens looked over the top of his glasses. He was in his favorite chair, tipped back, a tumbler of Scotch on the side table.
“It was a neighbor’s husband. I’d seen him in passing a couple of times, but he seemed to assume there was some connection between us. It scared me more than it flattered me.”
“Well, one day I was walking down the street in New York,” Hawkens said, “and somebody threw a coconut out a window, and the thing just missed hitting me on the head. Then I looked up and saw more stuff falling, and I started to run. The next thing down was a blender.”
I laughed. “It’s not the same,” I said.
“As long as we’re talking about things we don’t usually talk about—would it be okay if I asked a question that was none of my business?”
“Is this guy you’re dating somebody you’re seriously interested in?”
“I didn’t go to the hospital, because he told me it would be best not to,” I said.
Hawkens adjusted the chair upward. He said, “That isn’t what I asked.”
“I’m not in love with him, if that’s what you mean.”
“Then why do you put on clothes like that and meet him at See and Be Seen?” He sipped his drink. “I miss Gerald,” he said. “My parents have been married forty-six years. My father still makes her coffee in the morning with two lumps of sugar, and she shines his shoes.”
“I haven’t done very well having a long-term relationship,” I said.
“Why do you think that is? Are your parents still married? You never talk about them.” He swirled his Scotch.
“Yeah. They’ve been married a long time.”
“The studies all say men are happier when they’re married, and the opposite is true for women.”
“My father tried to kill my mother.”
“We heard her scream. She knocked the lamp off the table, and a clock. It used to be in my room to help me sleep when I was little. I called it Big Mr. Ticktock.”
“My God, are you serious?”
“She got a detached retina. My brother ran in before me. I followed him. He couldn’t topple my father, but he started pulling my mother’s ankles. That distracted him enough that I got the pillow off her face.”
“How old were you?”
“Seven. My brother was twelve.”
“How can you not have told me this?”
“Do you know what my grandmother said when my mother told her? She said, ‘He must have had a bad day at work.’”
“But what happened afterwards? What did your father do?”
“He went into the living room and turned on the TV.”
Hawkens gasped and fell back, overcome with laughter. It surprised me until I realized my deadpan delivery was the reason he was laughing, and I began to laugh with him. My stockbroker boyfriend had had that ability: to say something so casually, with such an uninflected tone, that however odd it was, the person almost always accepted it. “Before we make love,” he’d said to me once, “I want you to promise you’ll buy the stock I tell you to buy.”
“Your brother was a brave fellow,” Hawkens said. “Were there con-
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t remember?”
“No. He disappeared the next day. Or maybe two days later.”
“He was just gone. Years later he wrote my mother from Germany. He’d joined the army.”
There was a long silence.
“But who looked for him?” Hawkens said.
“The police, of course. They didn’t find him. I guess I’m a bad sister, because I still try to put him out of my mind. I’ve never looked for him on the Internet.”
“Gerald would roll over in his grave,” Hawkens said. He picked up his glass.
“To be honest, I once went to a psychic who told me he was in Atlantic City,” I said. “But then the letter came from Germany.”
That night, I went back to the Palm. It seemed clear I had to find out how to get in touch with the nanny, if only to put the past behind me.
One of the lunch waiters, looking very weary, recognized me. “Lose something?” he asked. He listened as I pointed to the table; he hadn’t waited on me, or noticed the couple, but he said he could get the maître d’.
“Senator Greenson of South Carolina!” the maître d’ said, rushing toward me from the kitchen. “Big man, white hair? Very attractive lady?” The waiter smiled and excused himself. “We can’t give out names, but in this case . . . ” He smiled, pleased with himself.
“I was hoping to get in touch with the person he was with,” I said.
“Oh? Call me tomorrow, and I’ll tell you if Senator Greenson is coming. He books by eleven. Whether it would be the same lady, I would have no way of knowing.”
I thanked him, handing him my card, which said I was a consultant. Everyone was, so I’d had that printed above my name and phone number. The maître d’ slid a card from a little silver stand on his desk. Would it be crude to tip him, or was it expected?
“Please, please,” he said, as if reading my mind, his hand placed lightly, for just a second, on my back. “May I call you a taxi?”
“I drove,” I said.
“We’ll be speaking,” he said, searching my eyes to suggest that, yes, there should be a tip when next I saw him.
In the parking garage, I started my car. Should I have fumbled for cash after the maitre d’ spoke? Did I do anything right? Alan had told me he planned to stay at the hospital unless a night nurse could be found—should I join him there, even though he’d told me not to? I was sorry for Monica, but my real curiosity was about the nanny. I drove home, parked in my space in the bright garage, where someone had spray-painted “Dubya Sucks,” and rode alone to my floor.
The next morning, at eleven ten, the maître d’ called to say that the senator had booked a table for two at one o’clock. “You will also be reserving?” he said, and I responded with immediate panic: No, not that, but I wanted to come by with a note. A note he could pass on to the senator’s friend. I had already composed it in my head: Dear Delores, We knew each other in Cambridge. I was too shy to speak the other day. Would you mind calling? I would sign it with just my first name and phone number. I told the maître d’ that I would drop by with what I actually heard myself calling “a little something” for his trouble. I dressed in jeans and a pullover. I wore flats. I did, however, take care to brush my hair and spray myself with Verbena.
Waiting for a reply, I went back and forth: The nanny would call; she wouldn’t. The note was to the point; it wasn’t nice enough. It was an advantage to have the maître d’ subtly pass on the message; it was a disadvantage.
I was not prepared for the response that came from the senator himself. Though the maître d’ called to say that he had slipped the message to the nanny on her way to the ladies’ room, she had apparently turned the note over to the senator.
“Let’s put our cards on the table,” the senator said. “If there’s something you want, tell me.”
“I hoped to speak to her,” I said, trying to muster some indignation.
“That’s a no-go. But tell me this: you saw us, what stopped you from coming over?”
“You seemed deep in conversation. I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Deep in conversation? We were having a casual lunch.”
“Senator, you may think I want to make trouble. I only want to talk to her about something that happened to me years ago. Just to”—I faltered—“get her input.”
What I wanted to ask, woman-to-woman, was about the Lady’s husband. I wanted to know whether he’d propositioned her. Whether what he said to me had been unusual, or habitual, behavior.
“You saw me taking my employee out for lunch, and if ever you see us again, you can assume we’re two people who dearly love to eat,” the senator said.
“I don’t care what’s going on between you,” I said. “I need to talk to her about something in the past.”
“What past, where?” he shot back.
“I can only assume she gave you the note because she knew very well what I wanted to talk to her about.” The indignation I’d tried for earlier was now in my voice. “Do you make it a point of making phone calls for her?” I said.
“You listen: she’s been my employee for years, and she’s going to be having many a lunch with me, and there’s not one of them I want you to interrupt, you understand?”
“Did she tell you about the family she worked for in Cambridge who died?” I said.
“Family?” he said. I could tell I’d startled him. “What the hell! You’re a reporter, and you’re calling to make trouble. Well, there’s not one thing you can tell me, including how many eyebrow hairs Delores plucks, that I don’t know, so you enter that into your computer and when you’ve done that, put one finger on control—which might be a notion you’ve forgotten to consider—and you take your other finger and press delete, and that’s it,” he said, hanging up.
I remembered my stockbroker boyfriend saying, “You don’t have to do anything. Money means freedom. That’s the dirty little secret.” I was as startled as if I’d drawn the joker.
Though I knew Alan had his own problems, I had to call him. How far would I have to backtrack to fill him in? What was the short form of the story?
Thinking better of it, I called Hawkens instead. His answering machine picked up on the second ring: “Thank you for calling, but I’m away from the phone right now. To order mint or watercress, press one. To inquire about dahlia rhizomes, press two. Otherwise, please leave a message at the tone.”
I pulled on my jacket and went to the garage, got in my car, started it, and backed out, narrowly missing a pole. The graffiti had been whitewashed. I put the car in drive and went up the ramp. Whatever had happened in Cambridge, it had been someone else’s problem. I wasn’t implicated. That was what my grandmother had said to me about my father’s temper, his cruelty toward my mother. It was what my mother had said to me over and over about my brother’s disappearance.
I stopped at a gas station, filled the tank, and paid with my credit card (there would be a record, if anyone needed to look for me), then—wishing I had a cell phone—I stopped at a pay phone, putting on my hazard lights and double-parking to call Alan. A woman answered and, not terribly surprised, I hung up.
I drove aimlessly for a while, then went back to the apartment. It was not until the next day that Alan and I spoke, and he agreed to meet me at a coffee shop on Connecticut Avenue.
When I stood to greet him, telling him about Senator Greenson and the nanny at the Palm, he seemed more worried about me than curious. He gave me a kiss on the forehead, and told me to hold on while he ordered coffee. When he returned, he sat across from me and urged me to begin at the beginning. I had no idea where to begin. “Senator Greenson,” he prompted.
“Is it over between us?” I said.
“No,” he said, but his voice wavered. It was happening again: I’d picked a man who was unavailable. I held out my hand as if this received information had weight and shape. He put his hand in mine. The sadness was more in his hand than in his eyes. “It’s difficult,” he said. “Right now she’s only in my apartment because Monica’s in the hospital.”
“Listen,” I said, “I need a favor. I need you to do some research. There was a family that lived across from me in Cambridge in 1983, and they all died of carbon monoxide poisoning. It didn’t happen in Cambridge, though. It happened in Utah. I don’t think anything was in the paper, but maybe there was and I never saw it.”
A woman sitting alone in the corner with her little dog lifted it and touched her nose to the dog’s and cooed. A coffee mug sat on her table. I looked away, remembering going back into the Lady’s house to get my blue mugs. I could remember their color distinctly, but had no idea where they’d gone. Where, in fact, had my furniture gone? I remembered, when I moved out, Jack asking what things I wanted, and I vaguely remembered a midnight ride to my new apartment, my favorite chair strapped to the roof of the car, but what else we might have moved, or what we’d said, was gone.
I said: “This couple, the Cambridge couple, had three children and a nanny, and the other day I saw the nanny at the Palm, having lunch with Senator Greenson.”
“Yes?” he said.
“I wrote a note the next day and took it to the maître d’, and the senator called me, really pissed off. Alan, he thinks I know something, and I don’t know anything. He was warning me off. They’re having an affair, and I think he knows what happened.”
“Why, exactly, did you want to see her?” he said.
“I wanted to ask her if she and the husband had been lovers.”
“And what would it mean if they had been?”
“That maybe he wasn’t in love with me.”
“Wait a minute. He was in love with you, and he might also have been in love with the nanny?”
“Busy man. But tell me: what would this have to do with the carbon monoxide poisoning?”
“I don’t know exactly. But everybody whispered behind her back that the wife was so strange, that she was the Lady Who Beat Her Kids. Her husband came up to me on the street . . . it was winter, and he said if he couldn’t have me he’d die—he just said that—so maybe he was the one who was crazy.”
“Nineteen eighty-three,” he said, after a pause. “Look at it this way: you’ll never know whether the nanny’s telling the truth, though I suppose her expression might give you some indication. But whether he was sleeping with her, or in love with you, or in love with both of you and his wife . . .
what would you end up knowing?”
“He might have killed his pregnant wife and his three children, along with himself, because of some crazy notion about being trapped, being in love with someone else.”
“That someone being you.”
“And it would make you feel better if it wasn’t you, and better yet, it was the nanny.”
“Well, no matter who he was or wasn’t in love with, what happened wasn’t your fault, Carol. This is some guy who just blurted out that he loved you?”
At the next table, the woman tapped her nose against the nose of the little dog.
Alan said: “I have trouble believing that because of any response you made, he went out and gassed everybody. Sure, all those people dead—I can get something on that.”
“Yeah. I’m going back to the office. But do me a favor: don’t confuse me with this Cambridge guy, and don’t hate me. I’m going through a rough time, and I’m a little confused. Hey, this is you and me, right? We’re friends.”
“That’s so strange. That’s what my brother used to say.”
“That you were friends?”
“No. He used to say, ‘This is you and me.’”
In late October I went into Victoria’s Secret to buy pajamas and saw the nanny rummaging through a box of sale items. She narrowed her eyes and pursed her lips. If she’d been a snake, she would have coiled to strike. But the lacy little thing she held made it all absurd: her pout failed her; her shoulders slumped.
“All I want to know is what you were going through back in Cambridge,” I said. “I don’t want to make trouble. I’m not a reporter, I’m not anything. I don’t even have a job. Please. Please.”
The nanny dropped the lacy black brassiere back into the bin. “You’re so concerned about my problems?” she said. “Problems from twenty years ago?”
“Your boyfriend’s a little intimidating. I almost had a paranoid fit after he called,” I said. I’d wanted to talk to her woman-to-woman, after all. What could be gained by pretending? She studied me for a few seconds. “Please have a cup of coffee with me. Just that,” I said.
She shrugged, readjusting the bag on her shoulder. “Everything is underwires now,” she said. She still wore the shoes with the lethal points. We walked out of the store into the mall, across the hallway to a kiosk where we ordered from a bored teenager. “Large skim mocha latte, on my friend,” the nanny said. I asked for a small coffee. We stood in silence while the girl with a pierced nose and a green streak of hair that flopped over her forehead turned nozzles that immediately began hissing. She was expressionless as she put the drinks on the counter. “Four eighty,” she said, and after I had paid and we had gone to a table, Delores said: “Her husband promised he’d pay my tuition to Boston College. He told me no third child, when she was already three months pregnant with the girl. The girl was born with a devil’s tail, you know. They cut it off before they showed her to her mother. I told him it was because of his lie. Then he told me no fourth. When she was pregnant the last time, she found out.”
“That’s why she threw out the furniture.”
“Not theirs, she didn’t. Mine. She put my clothes in the washtub with red dye. I swore at her, and he didn’t pay me for three months. I had a daughter my mother was raising in Guatemala who needed the money I sent home.” She licked foam off the rim of her cup and said: “I scored 780 on the math SAT.”
I looked at her.
“It wasn’t my idea for us to talk,” Delores said, “but if you don’t have a job and this really sets you back, I’m fine for cash.” She nodded at her big shoulder bag.
“No need,” I said.
“Listen, I’ve done a lot better for myself,” she said. “I took two years of conversational English when I came to DC, and he got me a private tutor. What about you? Women like you sitting around the Palm are business big shots, right? Or are you one of those cash-poor trophy wives?”
“I’d be a little old for that, don’t you think?”
She shrugged. She did think.
“I got divorced when I was living in Cambridge. I found my way to the Washington area, somehow. I used to date a stockbroker. I listened to him about how to invest my money.” When she said nothing, I continued: “I do volunteer work. I went back to school, but my favorite professor died, and I never graduated. No matter what I do, I can’t keep a boyfriend.”
“Maybe you’re gay. Everybody’s gay now.”
“I don’t think so,” I said.
“Well, she was, and that complicated things.” Delores sipped her drink and blotted her lips. “Too much caffeine, too late in the day!” she said.
“She had three children, and she was gay?”
“Four. Unless you don’t believe a fetus inside you is a baby.” She pulled a silver cross on a chain out from under her blouse. She tugged the neckline until the cross was visible in her cleavage. “That was the deal,” she said. “She wanted kids. He got off on torturing himself. He had radar for people who were so messed-up, they’d get sucked in. He was always telling her he was attracted to other women. That’s what they talked about.”
“Why didn’t you quit? Wasn’t there anything else you could do?”
“For a while, I thought I could raise other people’s kids, but a lot of the mothers were jealous and undercut me. That was the thing: up until a certain age, the kids loved me. That mattered, because I missed my daughter.”
I sat forward. “Do you know if he killed them?” I said.
A boy with pink hair, eating a hot dog at the next table, stopped chewing to listen. He examined the end of his hot dog as if it might be a burned-out cigar.
“I don’t know. She threatened so many things. I sort of think that if anybody did it, it was her, but he was a real mind fuck. He was always talking about desire. Who talks about desire? You know the poem ‘Fire and Ice’? He’d sit on the kids’ beds at night and read the worst things to them—especially if I was around. He knew that afterwards I’d pick up the book, because I was always trying to understand him. I was twenty years old and very inexperienced. The only other person I’d had sex with was my boyfriend, who got me pregnant when I was fifteen.”
“I don’t know the poem,” I said. It seemed the easiest thing to respond to.
“Frost was a mind fuck too. Always switching the ball from hand to hand, coming right at you. It’s about the end of the world, and he’s choosing between fire and ice, but who gets to choose, right?”
I said, talking more to myself than to her, “I’m sure their relationship was even more complicated than what you understand.”
The pink-haired boy left, the skateboard under his arm painted to look like a shark.
“Do me a favor,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “Don’t say hello if you see us at the Palm again. I don’t want him to know I talked to you.”
“Okay, but I’m not likely to be there again.”
“Well, I am,” Delores said, picking up her shoulder bag with the Chanel logo on the strap. She pushed her chair back, ready to leave.
“Since you’ve been so nice about answering questions, can I ask one more?”
“Maybe,” she said, but she didn’t stand.
“How could she have dismantled the place that way . . . how could she have been so crazy, when her brother was such a nice guy?”
“The brother? The parents left everything to him! They died going up in some hot-air balloon that smacked into a power line. She thought she was getting half. You remember that painting? That was what she got: her brother she couldn’t stand, painted by some famous Canadian who was in all the museums. Good for her, to throw it in the trash.”
“But why would they do that to her?”
The chair scraped as she pushed it back again. “The question thing—questions, answers. What can I say? To me, a math proof is a really beautiful form of communication.”
We looked in a few shop windows, during which time I asked about her daughter. However things had turned out, what could I do? I was also racking my brain, trying to remember the poem by Frost, but while I could recite his most famous poem from memory, I didn’t think I’d ever heard of the one she mentioned. Everything seemed incomplete: my past, my relationships with men, my education.
Outside, Delores twirled a cashmere scarf around her neck, tucking it inside her coat with one elegant twist. This was the moment when one of us had to say good-bye and go in a different direction, even if we’d initially been heading the same way. But I didn’t speak, and she kept in step, hands in her pockets. We crossed the street, and I touched her elbow lightly to hurry her along as the yellow light blinked red. She seemed to be lost in thought, and I was too, remembering the big empty house in Cambridge I’d stood in with the Lady’s brother, wondering what was going to happen to it while giving no thought to what was going to happen to me.
A group of young people pushed past, carrying signs I couldn’t read, running against the light to reach the curb. An SUV honked as another man darted into the street, zigzagging through the traffic that was always confused at Dupont Circle because of the circles within circles and the strangely timed lights. In the park, people—mostly young, but some not—were clustered so tightly they almost blocked the view. A platform—no: a moving box, it looked like, turned upside down—was being readied for a young man with blond hair that had been hacked at with scissors, his ears more silver than skin, even from a distance, they’d been pierced so many times. I watched as coiled wire and what looked like black sheets were handed up to him. Far off, sirens could be heard. Policemen were already trying to disperse the crowd, and several men in suits, wearing earphones, jumped out of a car behind us and ran into the fracas. When next we saw the young man, he was entirely draped in black, standing atop the box and gazing out from holes in the black fabric, which grazed his ankles, the silver buckles of his motorcycle boots catching the light, his arms trailing wires: a hooded Klansman all the more frightening for being draped in black, wired arms jerking not because he was being electrocuted, but because he was trying to keep his balance. It was obvious what image was being reenacted, even without the iraq war no! signs. “U.S. shame, we’re to blame! U.S. shame, we’re to blame!” was chanted beyond the point when voices became shrill, and splintered. In the distance, a woman pushing a stroller broke into a run, heading in the opposite direction. “Hell, no, we won’t go!” a street person shouted, stumbling into the crowd—a man who looked like he’d been pulled from a coal pit. A policeman who galloped up on horseback dismounted and set upon him, and as he did, the box began to collapse, the figure falling as he reached up, grabbing nothing but air. The sirens were deafening. I wrapped my arms around myself, stepping farther and farther back from the pileup of police and toppled signs and bodies without realizing I was retreating, my eye riveted on Delores, who’d stumbled from her shoes as she threw herself in harm’s way, racing to the side of the fallen man.
Ann Beattie has been included in four O. Henry Award Collections and in John Updike’s Best American Short Stories of the Century. In 2000, she received the PEN/Malamud Award for achievement in the short story form. In 2005, she received the Rea Award for the Short Story. She and her husband, Lincoln Perry, live in Key West, Florida, and Charlottesville, Virginia, where she is Edgar Allan Poe Professor of Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Virginia.