My mother believed in magic. Saint Anthony and the Virgin stayed with her long after she left Sister Angelina and the convent school in Westwood, California, where she lived for ten years of her adolescence. Though she stopped “practicing” before I was born, those quick little prayers of hers seeped into my childhood memory. Even now, I might call out for a saint to find what is lost and more often than not, the Holy Family’s name is taken not in prayer.
What my mother did observe was spiritual examination from a mystical confluence of numbers and signs. Devoted to astrology, she insisted on sending me alerts of my future from whatever part of the globe she was living. For twenty years, London’s Daily Mail was my regular source of what was going to happen to me next. Little clippings, inserted in the tissue thin airmail letters of correspondence, pointed the way. Once, for Christmas, I received a twenty-page chart with astrological drawings of exactly what each month of the new year held for me.
I can’t deny that there were times in my life that a little magical thinking helped. Just to know that things were “looking up” despite Mercury being in retrograde gave me a positive outlook. I asked her once: how was it that everyone born in October had the same future. Maybe it was after this heart felt query, she spent a small fortune on a chart that was based on my exact time of birth and the longitude and latitude of New York City.
My mother wanted to know the birthday of every boyfriend, and, of course, once I was married my husband’s future was a constant source of revelation.
A stranger would say they are Gemini, and my mother would raise her eyebrows, sigh, and begin a quick assessment, with a little advice tossed in for good measure.
Astrology was always there, but for a while numerology was added. Tarot readings lasted several years. Finally, it was the palm that begged for her devotion.
“The right is what you are born with, the left is what you make of your life,” she always started. She would curl my hand into hers and look for creases below my pinky finger. “You will have two children, she pointed to the folds. Holding my palm open, she looked for mounds and crosses that signified wealth. “There, you see,” she said, as she directed me to one line or another.
I often watched her take the hand of a new acquaintance, turning it over in hers, and begin to read. They were enraptured. No one ever pulled away. Maybe it was her touch as she traced her finger across their palm, or maybe it was that they were getting so much attention and energy from her.
It would be interesting if we, unknowing sleep walkers, have destinies based on the latitude and longitude of where we were born and what stars were in a certain position in the heavens at the hour of our birth.
“Pisces – With a great dose of idealism, you often imagine that the world is in the palm of your hand.
My mother was born on March nineteenth, Pisces on the cusp of Aries or rebirth. She died ten years ago in June at the age of eighty-six. On the first anniversary of her death, a robin crashed into our patio window. Unfazed the bird lingered on a branch and then moved to the railing of our deck. It waited until it was duly noticed. That might have been a coincidence, but the following year, and for two years after that, on the same date, a robin flew against the window and appeared to be expecting me to recognize her.
August was relentless, night provided little relief. Peter tossed off his sheets and stared at the ceiling, a blank canvas for memories. When the morning light finally filtered through the blinds and the insects announced the fourth day of a heat wave, he turned away from the window and thought of the people who had lived in his house. They came and went in such a haphazard pattern that Peter had forgotten most of their names. Only one seemed to endure.
Mr. Hayakawa, the painter who rented the parlor floor was Peter’s original tenant. He wanted the high ceilings and a certain kind of light from the back windows. The message on the bulletin board of the ‘High and Dry’ Laundry read: Artist seeking parlor floor rental. North light wanted. Very clean, very quiet will pay rent in advance.
Paying in advance was all Peter needed to know; money was short in those days—his job at the post office didn’t cover the heating bill and taxes on the house. His sister had gotten married and moved out of the second floor flat with her husband to some place in Ohio. Peter had lost track of her there. A young couple took that apartment and now they had grown to a family of four, squeezing into the small two-bedroom space.
The third floor had cycled through a cast of singles. When the sound of roof top parties shifted to baby showers, Peter knew it was only a matter a time before a new fresh-faced tenant would appear.
He gave his thin frame a push up by holding onto the night table. In the bathroom he looked in the medicine cabinet mirror and shook his head at where the muscles use to be. Peter had been in the infantry during the Battle of the Bulge; he was seventeen then. “Don’t start down that path.” A cold shower focused him on what he needed to do first.
“You’ve reached the Department of Veterans Affairs,” the automated recording began. “Please type your VA number and press the pound button when complete.” Peter put on his glasses and held the phone in front of him. “For information regarding health insurance, press one. For information regarding benefits press two…”
“Damn it,” Peter said into phone as he waited for the recording to reach the final choice, which was to speak to a live representative.
“That check, Mr. Daniels, will be processed in the next two weeks and automatically deposited into the account that you’ve designated.”
“That’s good, because I‘ve been waiting a month for it,” he said. Peter tried not to be offended by the chirpy girl on the end of the line. “Where are you?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Well, I was just curious if it was as hot where you are as it’s here. Maybe that’s why it’s taking so long to process that check. You’re not in Bombay, are you?”
“No, Mr. Daniels. Americans working in the United States staff the VA. I’m in Oklahoma City. Can I be of any further assistance, sir?”
“No, dear, that’s all for today.”
“Well, we are always here for you and we do appreciate your service to the country.”
There was a pause on the other end of the phone.
“Thank you.” Peter pressed the end button. “Bet she doesn’t even know where Belgium is. That was one cold winter.”
Peter looked up when he heard the front door close. “Is that you,John?”
His son came every morning on his way to work. He sometimes had breakfast, but most of the time he was in a rush to get to his job in downtown Brooklyn where he did other people’s taxes. The two men had a pattern: first John would check if his father had taken all of his medicines the day before, next he would look over the apartment to see if everything was in order, and finally he would review the list that was on the refrigerator door.
John was a list maker, and while Peter was annoyed by having to check things off every day, it did save conversation about what he ate and the number of glasses of water he drank.
“I see you didn’t take a walk yesterday.” John stood facing the refrigerator door.
“I went up and down the stairs four times. I think that counts. Here, let me check it off.” He turned to face his balding sixty-year-old son. “Did you take a walk?”
“It’s not about me, Dad,” John said.
“Mrs. Allen called me yesterday about her toilet. I went upstairs and she didn’t even have a plunger, so I came down here to get mine. I’ll be damned if I’m going to call a plumber because her kids keep trying to flush toys,” Peter said.
“Maybe it’s time for you to consider retiring as the super of this building. You could fit everything you have here into a small apartment. Remember the pictures I showed you last week of that apartment in Flatbush? It’s in a better neighborhood, too.”
“This is where I was born, and this is where I’m going to be carried out the front door. I’ve lived on every floor of this house. I know every board and every crack.”
Peter looked across his apartment. Beyond the living area were French doors that opened onto a small garden with a flagstone terrace. “Where could I get an apartment with such a beautiful garden? Rose bushes that my grandmother planted.”
“Well, there’s a park in Flatbush and…”
“Thanks, John, but no thanks. This was your playroom, and we had a swing on that tree in the corner of the yard. Remember?”
There was a loud crash and both men looked up at the ceiling.
“Just Mr. H, he’s working on another masterpiece. I was in his apartment yesterday; we had a long chat about art. His new paintings are very dark: black, brown and blue.”
“Is that what you talk about?”
“No, sometimes we talk about the weather and sometimes we talk about the war. He makes a real good cup of tea.”
“The war?” Peter opened his thermos and took a sip of coffee.
“It took me a while to bring up the subject. It’s uncomfortable for both of us. We have our prejudices.” Peter laughed.
“What’s so funny?” John asked.
“You know he’s been my tenant for almost thirty years, and I wasted ten of them barely speaking to him.”
John shook his head. “So, what’s your plan for today?”
“Well, first I’m going to hose down the front sidewalk, then I’ll water the plants out back. They need special food and some conversation. I thought I’d take my walk today over to the clinic and get my vitals taken. I know how much you like to keep track of my blood pressure. Gotta stop by Sweet Hearts though; you can’t win if you don’t play—right?”
“That’s true. I heard the lottery is now—what, twenty million?” John looked at his watch and picked up his briefcase. “I’ve got to run, I’m glad you’re going to have a busy day.”
Peter followed his son outside. “I really should take the pay-out as one lump sum…don’t you think?” He pulled the hose around the iron-gate next to the stoop.
“Sounds sensible to me. See you tomorrow.” John waved as he walked away.
Peter’s wife, Bea, had always kept red geraniums in pots around the entryway. Now that she was gone, the small, gated area held some ivy and four large black plastic garbage cans that were chained to the fence six days a week. As he bent over to connect the hose to the faucet, Peter felt a dizzy spell coming on, so he sat on the wooden bench next to the garbage cans. The small space outside the garden apartment’s door was still in the morning shade and he could hear but not see the traffic on the street.
Hart Street had changed. Brooklyn had changed, some for the good, and some for the bad. “I sound like an old man. My father was sure to have said that when the Greek family moved into number forty-five, and I bet his father said the same thing when they plowed over the last cornfield on DeKalb Avenue.” He pushed himself up, connected the hose, and started to water down the sidewalk. The fragrance of the wet cement increased as the water splayed across the uneven squares.
“You’re up early.” Peter watched as his neighbor’s granddaughter locked the front door and pause midway down the steps. He tried to continue the conversation, but she ignored him and looked at her phone.
“Everyone has someplace to go. If you’re not a celebrity, well, you might as well be invisible.” Bea had told him he looked like Dick Powell.
Mrs. Kadam was in the store when Peter walked in. She was sitting behind the counter reading a fashion magazine. Peter watched her fold the corner of one of the pages and lick her thumb so that the next page would turn more easily.
“Good morning, Mrs. Kadam, how are you today?”
“Oh, Mr. Daniels, you surprised me. I’m well. And yourself?” She examined his shirt and avoided his eyes.
“Well enough.” Peter smiled and looked around the store for a few things to buy. He would never come in just for the lottery ticket. The purchase of a ticket was intended to look like a causal after thought. Walking to the back of the store, he raised his voice. “Do you have any plant food?”
“It’s in the last aisle, next to the dog biscuits,” she said.
“It’s a wonder how well you’re stocked for any and every possible need.” Peter returned to the counter and had the plant food in one hand and a can of soup in the other. “Here, this will do it for today.” He frowned as he looked above her head at the rows of cigarette cartons. “It’s amazing that people still smoke.” Peter stood staring at the boxes, thinking of Bea rolling her oxygen tank from room to room.
“Can I interest you in anything else, Mr. Daniels? Perhaps a Pick Ten, or a Mega Million, today.”
“How much is it today, Mrs. Kadam? The Mega Millions, that is, the big one.”
He had heard a radio announcement confirm what John had said: it was going to be twenty million by the end of the day.
“Over twenty-million,” she smiled pointing to the sign in the window.
“I’ll take one. Maybe you’ll give me luck.”
“Are you still going to give all the money away?”
“I may buy myself something. And you, Mrs. Kadam, after you buy all the shoes you want, what then?”
“Oh, I never play, Mr. Daniels. Mr. Kadam doesn’t believe in it.”
“Oh, yes, the Lottery. He said it’s a conspiracy of the government, sir, yes. The government is keeping poor people down by selling them lottery tickets and cigarettes.”
“Look at the time. I must excuse myself. I have an appointment.” Peter cleared his throat and took his package.
He had started to walk down DeKalb Avenue when he heard Mrs. Kadam calling his name.
“You left your ticket on the counter, Mr. Daniels.” She was waving it above her head as her orange sari billowed behind her.
“A gift, Mrs. Kadam.”
She protested and tried to push the small rectangular ticket toward him.
“Surely your husband will allow a present from an old customer?”
She looked over her shoulder in the direction of the store. “We will worry about this tomorrow then—when we win.”
“Of course, tomorrow,” Peter said.
When Peter returned home, he glanced up at the bay window of the first floor and saw Mr. Hayakawa staring back at him. He could see that his tenant’s hands were covered in blue paint, and there were streaks of black across the front of his painter’s smock. Mr. Hayakawa tapped on the glass, smiled, and motioned for Peter to come upstairs.
The massive set of front doors still had the original etched glass panels. A second set, across the worn tiled foyer, had several locks. On the floor of the small entry was a musty old umbrella and unwanted restaurant flyers. Peter folded the junk mail into his back pocket and unlocked the door to the hall.
“I saw you leave earlier and thought I would give you a look at how the painting is progressing.” Mr. Hayakawa was standing in his open doorway in the dark hallway.
“Did you come up with a title for it yet?” Peter asked as he walked into the front parlor.
Even though Peter visited with his tenant often, he was always surprised: the twelve- foot ceilings and walls were painted white, the room was pristine and uncluttered. The floors were covered with sisal carpets, and a beige sofa with cushions around a low table completed the furnishing. Peter removed his shoes.
“My grandmother had this room painted red, deep red and my mother tried to paint over it. Yellow, as I recall. You could barely move around all the furniture then. The room over the years turned from orange to yellow. And now…” Peter paused. “Finally, white.”
“So, you’ve told me, Mr. Daniels.”
“How many coats of paint did it take you to get to white?” Peter asked.
“Four coats, the first year. Of course, I’ve repainted several times.” He pointed toward the sliding pocket doors that were shut. “I’d like to tell you about my painting before I show it to you. If that’s all right?”
“The world is filled with obvious things. I applaud your mystery,” Peter said
“I’ll make us some tea first.” He gestured to the seating area in the bay window that overlooked the street. “Please sit down. I’ll be right back.”
A few moments later Mr. Hayakawa returned with a black lacquer tray holding a kettle, and two small gray tea bowls. “I’ll pour,” Mr. Hayakawa said. He stirred the liquid with a small bamboo whisk, surveying the leaves, as they melted in the hot liquid. The scent bloomed from the small containers.
Peter observed his tea bubble in the ceramic cup. He could almost taste the hot bitter liquid.
“First, my title: The Night Watch.”
“Is it permissible to use a title that’s already been taken?” Peter asked.
Mr. Hayakawa smiled and nodded. “It’s a tribute to a painting that was severely criticized in its own time. A painting that had flouted the classical rules of art.
“I’m afraid I need a Rembrandt refresher,” Peter said.
“Well, if this was indeed an image of a night watch, then, as you know, Mr. Daniels, the rules of muster or as we might say mobilization, wouldn’t be so chaotic. Those men almost look like street performers, not soldiers. Here’s a print of the painting.” Mr. Hayakawa handed Peter a photograph.
“It’s so dark,” Peter held the photo closer.
“Yes, that’s also one of its attributes or failings…or perhaps the aging of a canvas with layers of varnish. Rembrandt’s critics wanted more light in the painting.”
“The little girl in the yellow dress seems out of place.” Peter stared at the print in his hand.
“Symbolism. Possibly victory or resurrection. What do you think?”
“I’m not sure, but I’m ready to see your Night Watch.”
Mr. Hayakawa went to the pocket doors, pushing one open with his left hand and the other with his right. In the corner of the studio was a very large canvas; it reached halfway to the ceiling and almost completely across one of the walls. Peter walked up to it and looked at its surface. He carefully stepped backwards.
The canvas was black with three large rectangular shapes. Each of the shapes was dark blue, so close to the black that the edges of the color fields almost disappeared. Within each of the blue forms Peter could see an under-painting, almost erased by the blue, a fleck of a yellow line in one and speck of red in another.
“Well?” said Mr. Hayakawa.
“I’m lost in it. A memory of the sea at night: black, but with a depth of blue, possibly moonlight flickering through waves, possibly a stain of blood from battle.”
“I knew you would see more than just the surface,” said Mr. Hayakawa.
“But you weren’t in the war. Why this subject?”
“There are many kinds of battles. I’ve felt the anguish of war in my own way.”
Peter had learned years ago about the internment camp that Mr. Hayakawa’s family entered in 1942. He first heard of the camps when he returned home from the war, and even then, it was something Peter wasn’t willing to come to terms with—not until Mr. Hayakawa showed him his book of Dorothea Lange photographs.
“You see, Mr. Daniels, Rembrandt’s Night Watch is an enormous painting, much larger than this.” He gestured toward the black and blue canvas in front of them. One needs to stand back from his painting, and it see it from a distance.”
“A distance of time, too, perhaps,” Peter said.
“Yes, wars from a distance melt into one another—don’t you think? We see history as a never-ending cycle. My Night Watch is meant to be seen up close.” The painter smiled. “Our night sky is the same.”
Peter must have look confused.
“It envelops us,” Mr. Hayakawa continued. “It closes in. We sense the enormity of the universe. It pushes on us from a great distance and makes us feel its presence and our smallness.”
“Your night sky from the desert of California was the same as my night sky over Saint Vith in Belgium,” Peter said.
Mr. Hayakawa nodded. “Time and space bring us closer together.” He moved near the canvas, pointing to the red stain and then the yellow line. “We have left our marks on this world.”
This story was a finalist for the Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2020, Short Stories. ADELAIDE BOOKS
The story is dedicated to the memory of Alfred Moskowitz who served during the Battle of the Bulge.
It was a sign; Maria’s brown-eyed mother told the rest of the family that her child, the fifth daughter of a fifth daughter, would be a woman of great importance.
Maria’s father worked at a grand resort in Las Almandas, which was over three hundred miles from Porto San Sebastian. Because of the distance, he only came home twice a year: the month of August and the week of his birthday.
It was in January of Maria’s sixth year that her mother died with the fever, leaving the family adrift. Maria moved in with her grandmother, Sophia, in the small house that overlooked the sea.
“Being successful, Maria,” her grandmother always began her stories, “requires being in the right place at the right time.” As she continued to braid her granddaughter’s hair, she repeated the adventures that led her to Porto San Sebastian.
“My first marriage was arranged, or that is what my husband believed. He was from Madrid and I was from Las Rozas. He had seen me…” Her grandmother went on to describe how, at the age of fifteen, she had used her turquoise eyes for the first time. “I have not always lived in this quiet village,” she said, ending the story the way, she ended all of her stories. “And you will not, either,” she added.
“When you are fourteen, you will leave here. You will go and live with your oldest sister in a faraway place. You will become independent and a woman of great importance.”
Maria leaned against a pillar on the platform of the Christopher Street Subway station and rubbed her belly. She was in her fifth month with her first child and the heat was the one thing that felt familiar. Taking a deep breath, she considered how far in ten years she had come to be in this place so removed from San Sebastian.
That evening she told her husband: “If I close my eyes for a moment, I am transported home: the thick air covers me, and I can almost hear the sound of the waves.”
“Why is that funny?” she said. “That’s not why I laughed it’s just…”
Maria sighed as he kneaded his fingers deep into the arch of her right foot.
“I’m proud of you. Remember when I introduced you to my aunt? We agreed to make her think I was seeking her approval,” he said.
Maria smiled and looked toward a window where the air conditioner hummed relentlessly. A sound so familiar and yet so far away, a steady summer wind rattling her grandmother’s house in Porto San Sebastian before a storm.
“Your aunt took me into her lavender bedroom, she pulled the shades and read my cards by candlelight. I know she whispered the readings to you, mi amor. It was a good thing that you had already proposed marriage, or you might have changed your mind.”
He furrowed his brow.
“You are a beautiful woman,” he said. “When we walk down the street, people stare at you. I don’t think you even notice.”
It was at the age of twelve that her grandmother told Maria about men who were only interested in the superficial.
“We are like this,” she gestured toward the sea with one hand, as they sat in old wicker chairs on the stone patio sipping cold tea. “Men see what they want to. It is useful.”
Maria’s boss, Xavier Batista, was one such man, expecting to get his way with anything and everyone he touched. Xavier moved in all the right circles at Telemundo.
“Brilliant!” He clapped his hands. “But, why just New York, Maria? Think bigger. This country is changing. You have a story to tell, use your biography. Remember my mantra: demographics. Women are our audience; this show will speak to them.
“You have been so generous to me, Xavier.” She turned her eyes toward him and could see the heat rising into his face. “If the network buys my show, how will I repay you for your advice?”
He looked at her, smiled and reached out to touch her arm. “Tell your husband who the father is.” When he began to repeat his dream of how they would move to the city of angels together, Maria moved away. “We are meant to be together—a team.”
“It is too soon to talk of these things. My husband thinks…”
He pulled her toward him. “We will work this out.” His face was now flush with color. For several months Maria let Xavier think what she needed him to.
A scent of bitter fruit infused the air as Maria felt the rumble of the Number 1 train before its lights turned from the tunnel and flooded the tracks ahead. When she entered the crowded subway car, Maria stood in front of a young woman.
“Oh! Sorry,” the woman said jumping up, offering her seat. Maria sat, closed her eyes, and started to review the presentation of her show Háblame: Talk to Me.
Thirty minutes later, when she walked off the elevator onto the twenty-first floor of an office building in mid-town Manhattan, she spotted her secretary, Julia, leave her cubicle and run toward her.
“The presentation has been postponed; something happened this morning.”
Maria let Julia take her briefcase and watched as the woman put her finger to her lips.
“I’ll explain in your office.” Julia twitched like a small sand bird, weaving her way through the maze of gray cubicles.
As she followed Julia, the young employees, heads focused on screens, sat quietly typing. They didn’t look up. It was not their usual morning buzz over prefabricated walls where they stopped to welcome her.
“Xavier has resigned,” Julia said breathlessly as she closed the office door. “I mean he has been fired—resigned is what his memo to the company said.”
Maria took out her phone and saw for the first time the messages, starting twenty minutes earlier from her staff, multiply with every second.
Julia went over to a table where a carafe of coffee waited to be poured. She turned and looked at her boss.
“Are you surprised?” Maria said looking up from her phone. They had never discussed the rumors about Xavier.
“Some of the interns had problems with him,” Julia said. The cup rattled on the saucer as she walked across the office.
Maria flinched. A few years earlier one of the production assistants told her something suggestive Xavier said to her. She remembered laughing. Now the child inside of her rolled and pulled tight against her.
“Talk to me, while I get up to speed.” Maria sat adjusting a pillow on her back and logged into her computer.
“There’s an executive committee meeting in fifteen minutes.” Julia handed Maria a printout of Xavier’s letter to the company. “I told them you would be there,” she said.
“How are you feeling?” her secretary asked.
“About this…or just in general?”
“You work…worked really closely with Xavier. Did he ever…?” Julia’s voice was trembling.
“Of course not, a total professional since the first day I met him. I’m shocked.” She rested her hand over the kicking inside of her. “Give me a few moments.”
“Can we meet?” read the text from Xavier.
Maria waited and when a second text appeared on her phone she read: “Are you there?”
“Can’t. It’s crazy here,” she responded. She was walking toward the Board Room.
“I need to talk to you,” he wrote.
They all will have stories, Maria thought. Even now, on the other side of the building, the President of Telemundo was finishing telling his to the media.
“None of it is true,” Xavier added.
Maria knew he couldn’t possibly know everything everyone was going to say.
Today was Harriet’s birthday. She had no special plans. After all, at her age, seventy, birthdays came and went so fast that to call particular attention to one would have been foolish.
Sometimes, when waiting for the bus, Harriet counted on her fingers how many children she had taken care of. She parsed the numbers by years to make it a more manageable diversion. It was easy enough to lose count.
After Franklin Roosevelt died, Harriet’s mother, who had a succession of children named for important people, was ready and waiting for Franklin Thurgood Baker to be born. “I’m glad I had you instead of another boy,” she later told her daughter. “You’ll see, women outlive men ‒ we outsmart them, too.”
At ten Eleanor Harriet Baker didn’t know enough men to gauge whether her mother was stating a fact. One day she found an old address book with empty pages and started to use it as a diary, a repository for her thoughts so she could keep the facts straight. Her mother suggested that she include some ideas from her namesake, Eleanor Roosevelt.
Her first family, as she called them, changed her name. They thought Eleanor was not a fitting name for a person of her position and class. So in 1959, her middle name, Harriet, became her first, but Eleanor was always with her. Her first family had no idea who Harriet Tubman was, even though they had the paper delivered every day, and, to Harriet’s amazement, one entire room in their apartment was filled with books. The shelves were from floor to ceiling, encasing two large windows overlooking Fifth Avenue and the park beyond. Harriet was not their regular nanny. Her job, as she told her mother, was to clean up after Miss Hecker.
“I’m in training, that’s what Mrs. Benchley told me.”
“I don’t understand, you pick up after someone who was hired to pick up?”
“There are things that Miss Hecker doesn’t do,” Harriet said firmly.
“Well now, I do believe I’ve heard it all.” Her mother shook her head. “Rich people are surely the strangest humans.” Her mother waited for a reply and when none was forthcoming said, “Here’s one for your little book, Eleanor. It is not fair to ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself.”
Harriet took Henry, her first child, as she called him, to the park one morning when Miss Hecker had a doctor’s appointment. There, facing the white nannies sitting on the bench across from the black babysitters, Harriet learned her worth.
“They…” The woman sitting next to her turned, and looked at the nannies with blue capes over their white uniforms, busily laughing with each other. “They make two dollars per hour. That’s not fair. Is it? I make fifty cents.” The woman got up and went over to the sandbox to pick up the toys the boy she was watching had discarded. “How old are you, Harriet?” She asked, returning to the bench with two sandy trucks.
“I’m eighteen, why?” Harriet lied and looked down at Henry, who was sleeping in his stroller.
“No, you’re not; you’re fifteen if you’re a day. Those people are taking advantage of you. How much do you get paid for working six days a week?”
“Mrs. Benchley told me not tell anyone how much I was being paid.”
“And why do you suppose that is?”
Harriet remembered she would have been too afraid to ask for a raise. But it didn’t matter because the Benchley’s were going away for the summer. They were taking Miss Hecker with them, and they didn’t need her anymore. She missed Henry for a while but not deeply.
Harriet tapped her fingers against the side of her cotton dress and started counting slowly. She tried to remember all of the children who came after Henry. The family she worked for now needed her to work nights. They wanted her to be at their apartment when their daytime help left and leave when the help returned in the morning. When Harriet arrived at six she fed the children, gave them a bath and presented them to their parents for an evening story. By this time it was eight and, while the children were being read to, Harriet put away the toys scattered during the day. Mrs. Hall had a few rules; all of Harriet’s families had rules.
The M2 stopped on Madison and 66th street at nine. It was usually on time. Harriet had been taking the same bus for five years. The route through the upper east side of Manhattan passed shiny boutiques and well-dressed people until it reached 110th street. There the neighborhood made a shift to the world where Harriet lived.
“You’re three minutes late, Billy.” She tapped her watch and laughed. The bus driver had become friendly a few years earlier when he realized she was one of his regulars.
“Yeah, Harriet, I know.” He waited for her to pull herself up the first few steps. “Been a busy day.” He looked in his rear-view mirror to check the passengers. “I’ll make it up when we get into the 80’s. I see a seat half way back, move up when you can; I have some good news.”
Harriet smiled, dipped her card into the kiosk, and walked holding on to the backs of each seat until she made her way to the middle of the bus. A slender girl, sitting next to the window, was looking out at two dog walkers.
“Crazy isn’t it? These rich folks buy dogs, and they can’t be bothered to walk them. Too much trouble, I guess; all they want them for is petting.” Harriet lowered herself into the seat next to girl.
The girl smiled but didn’t say anything.
“You work for one them, right?” Harriet asked.
“Well, I don’t know yet.”
“Where you going?”
The girl read from a scrap of paper in her hand, 1105 Park Avenue.
“Ooh, you’ll be working for one of them, all right,” Harriet adjusted her dress.
“I’ve got to get off at 86th Street. I have a job interview,” the girl said.
“I know you didn’t ask for any advice, honey….”
“No, go ahead.”
“Well, just answer their questions, don’t e-lab-o-rate. I’m sure you have references from people who speak their language. You know what I mean, right?” Harriet could tell that the girl was nervous: she kept looking at her watch and touching her hair. Harriet had had a lifetime of jobs: taking care of other people’s houses and families; she wanted to tell the girl about all the lessons she had learned. Instead, they sat next to each other without speaking as the crowd on the bus thinned out.
The young woman shook her head and smiled. “I’m getting off here. Thanks for the advice.”
Harriet held her purse and pushed herself up tentatively. “My pleasure, honey. Maybe I’ll see you on this bus another morning. Good luck.” Harriet sat, opened her purse, and pulled out a well-worn address book held together by two rubber bands. What would Eleanor have said to her, she thought. She thumbed through the pages and found: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Harriet stared out the window and watched the people starting their day. The bus became less crowded at 86th street so she moved up to the front and sat across from the driver. “Going to be another hot one, Billy.”
“Yeah, might top ninety-eight today. Good thing we ride cool, hey, Harriet? I noticed you were making a new friend back there.” He tilted his head.
“Aren’t you supposed to be watching the road?”
“Gotta keep my eyes on the passengers too, this is New York,” he laughed.
“What’s your good news?”
“I just put a deposit down on a condo in Florida.” He continued to talk about how he was going to rent it out until he retired in two years, how he was going to move to Florida and start a new life.
Harriet stopped listening when he said “new life”. She smiled and thought of the young woman who just got off the bus. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do,” Harriet said.
“That’s good advice.” Billy signaled to pull out into traffic.
“Not my advice ‒ Eleanor’s,” she smiled. Harriet often thought about retiring. She was waiting for this last family, as she called them, to tell her she wasn’t needed anymore. When that happened, she would be ready. Looking over at Billy, she noticed his air of confidence as he managed the bus on the crowded streets.
“You got air conditioning in your house?” he asked.
“I sure do.” She paused as Billy put on the brakes for a pedestrian. “Do you ever think about accidents?”
“Nah, you start thinking about all the things that can wrong in one day, and you freeze up. I have a natural instinct for this job,” he tapped his head with his right hand. “After a while everything that can happen has happened ‒ right?”
Harriet smoothed her dress and resettled herself on the plastic seat. “I guess,” she sighed.
That doesn’t mean we can’t have a surprise once in a while,” he laughed. He looked over at her. “But I prefer not to have them.”
“I don’t like too many surprises, either.” Harriet rubbed her right arm. She had felt a pain this morning when she was lifting Jason, the Hall’s son, out of his crib. “A little stiff today, must have slept on the wrong side.”
“Take it easy in this heat. You’re not in a rush to get to another job, are you?”
“No, Lord, today is an easy one.”
Billy pulled into the bus stop on 125th street. Harriet held on to the railing and waited for him to lower the steps. It was ten, and the sun was already glistening off the mica in the pavement. She took a deep breath and started walking home.
Harlem was slowly being gentrified; it seemed that every week there was a new coffee shop replacing an African American store. White faces, once an oddity, had become commonplace.
Amadou was standing in front of his restaurant, Little Dakar. He smiled when he saw her approach. “Morning, Harriet. You should have been at the VOTE people meeting last night. Sally Thuggs was in rare form; she was booed every time she opened her mouth. The queen of Harlem real estate doesn’t give a damn about us ‒ the people. She only cares about the new faces, the white ones. My landlord sent a notice to Omar about raising the rent. I’m sure I’ll be next.”
Harriet was feeling a little dizzy, and the pain in her right arm was stronger than before. “What you got cookin’ in there, Mr. Sow? I could use a sit-down and a little breakfast before I go home. A little water first…please.” Harriet took a handkerchief out of her purse.
“Come in, come in.” Amadou held the door open for Harriet and called to his wife, Awa, “We have an important guest, fix up some mafe for her.” He turned to Harriet and pointed to a table in the window of the restaurant. “Here ‒ the best seat ‒ just waiting for you.”
Harriet dipped the handkerchief into the ice water and dabbed it on her face.
“You okay this morning? You don’t look so good.”
“Just the heat and, I think, the little boy, Jason, is getting too heavy for me to lift.”
Amadou gave her another glass of water. “Are you going to sell your house to those people?” He looked up at a white man staring at the menu in the window.
“No, Amadou, I’m not selling. I’ve told you before: this is where I’ve lived my entire life, and no person on earth, not even Sally Thuggs, is going to make me move. Besides where would I go?” Harriet moved her fork and put the napkin on her lap. Sitting in silence they watched the people outside. “Melting pot,” Harriet said after a long pause.
Amadou sighed, “Not for long.”
Harriet looked at the bowl of fish stew that Amadou’s wife placed in front of her. “This is exactly what I need, honey.”
Awa smiled and retreated to the kitchen.
“I was thinking about quitting my job.” Harriet surprised herself as she confessed what was on her mind. “I was thinking about how I would spend my days if I didn’t have to go downtown.”
“What is the word they use here, the one when you stop working?” Amadou asked.
“Retirement.” Harriet started to laugh along with Amadou.
“No one retires in Senegal ‒ no. You start working as a child, and, before you know it, you die an old man ‒ still working,” Amadou said.
“Well, I don’t believe I want to keep working till then.” Harriet paused and considered dying in the apartment of her current employer. She rubbed her arm. “No, I’d like to die in my own bed…when I’m asleep.” She took a bite of her stew. “My mother lived until ninety-seven.”
“Our people live a long life; we are all from the same tree, Harriet.”
“When I retire I will make some changes,” Harriet said.
“Changing finances is a difficult endeavor, not something to do lightly…” Amadou gave his advice on how to save money and ended with: “After all, I am a businessman, and I know a few things.”
Harriet smiled and took a sip of water.
“That’s all I remember. I took a sip of water, and now I’m here.” She looked up at the emergency room nurse in Mount Sinai Hospital. There was an intravenous tube in her left arm. She felt the wires attached to her chest. “How’d I get here?” she looked around at the drapes pulled on either side of the hospital bed.
“A cab driver brought you in with a Mr. …” the nurse paused.
“Mr. Sow.” Amadou said. “What a surprising morning, hey, Harriet? Nice to see you back on this earth.” He was sitting on the left side of her hospital bed.
“What happened?” Harriet asked.
“We were talking about retirement.” Amadou laughed.
“We think you had a small heart attack; we won’t know until we get the test results.” The nurse put a thermometer in Harriet’s mouth and clipped a small devise to her finger.
Harriet watched the nurse read her temperature. “I can’t remember anything.”
“You may never remember what happened. I need to ask you a few questions, Eleanor.”
Harriet smiled; it was the first time in years that someone called her by her first name.
“How’d you know my real name, honey? Everyone just calls me Harriet.”
“That’s what it said on your registration paper. Should I change it?”
“No ‒ Eleanor will do just fine. Today is my birthday.”
This story was previously published in The Front Porch Review, October 2016
Florence liked routines. On the fortieth floor she had staked out her territory: two conference rooms, four executive suites, and six offices. The other women she worked with didn’t seem to care or notice the spaces they were cleaning.
“Start with the thirty-fourth floor tonight, Flo.” Her supervisor, Anna, marked her name off the assignment list. “The office manager of True North just called. He told Jovack, he wants it done first.” Anna looked up to make sure that the rest of the women were listening. “When you’re finished with thirty-four, you and Sophia can join the others on forty. Work your way down as usual.”
Florence started to take her supplies. Placing them in the caddy attached to the large garbage bin on wheels, she checked her vacuum and made sure that the waste bag was new. Anna handed her the keys to the offices on thirty-four.
“What’s the change for?”
“Big party last night—big mess. They requested special attention.” Anna looked at Sophia and Carmen; they had already put on headphones and were shaking out black plastic garbage bags.
“I’ll page you when I’m finished thirty-four.” Florence told Anna as she pushed her bin to the service elevator where five women were waiting for the doors to open.
“Big mess, big party—damn, these people are spoiled. They can’t even hit the garbage can, let alone recycle.” Sophia said.
“Yeah, it’s a joke to them.” Carmen added.
“They have their minds on other things, important stuff we wouldn’t understand,” Florence said.
“And we, we have our minds on their garbage.” Sophia laughed and pushed her cart into the elevator.
The five women followed her into the massive elevator car that was used for moving furniture and large deliveries. She looked over at Sophia who was assigned to join her.
“How do you want to split the floor up?” Florence said.
Sophia took off her headphones. “What?”
Florence repeated herself.
“I don’t care, Flo. You decide.”
The elevator started to climb and at twenty Florence felt her ears pop.
“Let’s see how bad it is first,” she smiled.
The doors opened on thirty-four and the women going to forty acknowledge the others departure.
“Where do you think they had the party? Anna didn’t say.” Sophia turned to Florence as she held the swinging door of the service entrance open for her.
“Let’s check out the large conference room first and then maybe the reception area.”
“I bet the bathrooms are going to be fill with vómito. Que va a hacer que me enferme.”
Sophia gave Florence a look. “You should know what vómito means, Flo. We are going to be up to our elbows in it tonight.”
“You’re right, mierda too.”
Florence didn’t really mind when some of the women spoke Spanish. To her the language was music; it reminded her of her late husband Nat. A few hours of cleaning and she stopped hearing them.
“I wonder how you say mierda in Serbian?” Sophia said.
Both women started to laugh. Russians owned their company, JVB Cleaning. Anna and Jovack were Serbs; when Anna had her boss on the phone, she never spoke English.
As they pushed their carts along one of the halls the automated lights, programed to sensors slowly lit the corridor ahead of them.
“I think I can smell cigarette smoke.”
“That’s not going to be easy to get out of the air by Monday.” Florence said.
“I think I have some air freshener in here.” Sophia looked inside her bin and pulled out an aerosol can.
Florence picked up some plastic cups and napkins as she walked down the hall. The main conference room was in the center of the thirty-fourth floor. It had a sliding wall. When the wall was pulled open, it enlarged the space by half. The windows faced the Chrysler Building. The mahogany table still held plates of uneaten food. The sideboard had empty bottles of wine, a few were tipped over and there were several stains on the rug.
As Carmen had predicted the empty plastic glasses were on the floor next to the garbage. The empty cans and bottles were mixed in with the paper.
The two women separated and worked at opposite ends of the large room.
“You know they weren’t going to hire you, Flo.” Sophia had finished vacuuming and was watching Florence finish polishing the conference table. “Yeah, now they only hired Latinas with thick accents.”
Florence ran her cloth one last time across the table checking for streaks.
“They assume that we don’t speak English well enough to understand them.”
“And…” Florence stopped and looked up at Sophia.
“Well, they never hire Blacks, too much trouble and they’re always late or never show up.”
“And why are you telling me this, Sophia?” Florence started to pull the sliding wall closed.
“My grandmother always told me that if I had something good to say, I should speak and not hold it in. I like you Flo, and I think you do a good job.”
“You mean for a Black person?”
“No, for any kind of a person. Do you have any kids, Flo?”
Florence took a deep breath. She didn’t want to cut Sophia off. It was hard for people to speak from their heart and when they did it should be appreciated.
“Thanks, Sophia. Yes, I have a daughter. She ran off with a Dominican,” Florence said.
“You don’t see her anymore?”
“She left me her daughter to take care of. I see my daughter everyday in my granddaughter’s face.”
“Oh dios mío, estoy tan triste por ti.” Sophia said.
“Let’s keep up our pace. We just started. We can take a break after we finish this floor. The bathrooms are next. Okay?”
“Ugh…you’re right. Let’s get this over with.”
The two women finished the bathrooms and then went in opposite directions. Sophia took the North side of the floor. It was a maze of grey cubicles. Florence could see her head bobbing up and down as she finished one cubicle and moved on to the next.
Florence had just finished two offices. She could see a light through the opaque glass in the door of the next office. She knocked on the door and twisted the knob; it was locked from the inside. Florence was hunting through her ring of service keys when the door opened and a young woman stood facing her. She was dressed in a navy blue business suit and her face was streaked with mascara.
“Sorry.” She looked away and continued to speak. “I came in to do some work and I guess I fell asleep at my desk. Go ahead and take the garbage, I’ll just get my things and be out of your way in a second.” The woman tucked in her blouse and buttoned her jacket.
Anna had told Florence on her first day that she might run into people working late. This was an advertising agency and they had deadlines. Anna told her not to make eye contact, take the garbage and work around them. If she couldn’t clean the office, she should make a mental note of the number and come back to it before she left for another floor. Florence took the small basket filled with shredded paper and dumped it into the green recycle bags. As she left, she noted the room number under the nameplate: Susan Miller VP, 3410.
Florence moved down the hall to the next office. She looked across the floor and saw Sophia stand up and arch her back. She waved at Florence, took off her headphones and yelled: “twenty minutes and I’m finished.”
Florence had just given the thumbs-up when 3410 walked by her. The woman tried to throw a crumbled piece of paper, but missed the bag.
Florence went back to the office; it was empty, she hadn’t notice before that there was no computer or phone. There were no pictures on the wall, no books.
“Are you finished?” Sophia stuck her head into the room. “What’s this,” she looked around, “it’s empty?”
Anna had instructed Florence on her first night to just put the garbage in the black or green bags. “You want to get home? Right? So do I. You’re on a timer and so am I. Remember that.”
Florence must have looked confused.
“Don’t waste your time being nosey. Remember Flo: we need to keep to the schedule. If you don’t, Jovack will find someone else for the job.”
Florence looked at her watch and then looked at the green recycle bag.
“Yes, the office is empty,” she said to Sophia. “I did it in two minutes. I’m right behind you, let’s go up to forty now.”
Sophia pushed her cart ahead to the service elevators. Florence reached in the green plastic bag, pulling out the paper on top; she smoothed it open, folded it and put it into her pocket.
Once they reached the fortieth floor Sofia turned to Florence. “See you when we clock out.” She smiled and put on her headphones.
Florence went straight to the large office suite. It was usually spotless. All it needed was a little dusting and vacuuming. The first time she saw the bathroom that belonged to this office she thought it was just like one in a fancy magazine. It was usually clean unless he had taken a shower; then there were towels all over the floor and shaving cream on the sink.
When she opened the door she thought she heard someone. The door to the bathroom was slightly open and the light went off.
“Buenas noches señor,” Florence said quietly.
“Buenas noches,” said the man.
His face was pale, almost ashen. The hair near his neck was wet and his shirt had a red stain on the left shoulder. When he saw her staring at him, he took the towel that was in his right hand and covered the mark.
“Afeitar, señora. Afeitar,” he said as he walked over to the leather sofa and picked up his jacket.
Shaving, thought Florence? How do you cut your arm shaving? She turned from him and said: “me clean” in a thick accent.
He walked past her without saying anything. Then he pointed to the blood stained towel on the sofa. “Por favor ponga las toallas en el basura, gracias.”
Florence nodded her head and he smiled.
Florence had learned to speak Spanish from her late husband, Nat, who was Dominican. All his friends and relatives called him Nasterio. Her granddaughter, Claudia, called him Nest. Florence smiled and picked up the towel off the sofa, pushing it into the black plastic bag as the man asked her to.
When she turned on the light in the bathroom, her eyes adjusted to the brightness. First she saw the red footprints on the floor and then the towels that had been thrown all over. The sink was filled with smears of blood. All the cabinet doors were open, bottles had their tops off and there was a box of medical adhesive tape that had unrolled across the toilet tank.
“Anna, you need to get up to forty, corner office right now. That’s right, 4000… that’s the number, something has happened here.” Florence spoke into the crackling pager. “I don’t know there is blood all over the bathroom.” She had backed out of the bathroom without touching anything. She stood in the office, waiting for Anna, staring at her reflection in the wall of glass overlooking the city. She looked transparent, almost invisible, against the lights.
When Anna opened the door to the bathroom she gasped. “Did you see anything?”
“He was still here when I walked in, said he cut himself shaving and told me to throw all the towels in the black bags when I had finished cleaning the bathroom.”
“Was he bleeding?”
“Yes, from his arm, I think we need to call the police, Anna.”
“First Jovack, then the cops, Flo.” She took out her cell phone and called her boss.
Anna started speaking in Serbian while she paced back and forth.
“Jovack said he will call the cops and that you shouldn’t say anything. Just finish the rest of the offices on this floor and then go to thirty-nine.”
“There was an awful lot of blood, Anna. Do you think that someone else was in here with him?”
“I don’t know. It is not up to us to think about anything but cleaning. You saw him and he looked like he was okay? Right?”
“Yes, but all this blood. He was very pale.”
“You spoke to him in Spanish like I told you to?
“Yes, Anna, he spoke to me in Spanish too.”
“Good.” Anna’s phone rang and she started talking to Jovack again. She turned her back to Florence and then looked over her shoulder. “What are you staring at? Do what I just told you to. I’ll call you if we need anything else.”
Florence left the room and wiped down one of the two desks that were in an alcove outside of office 4000. As she was reaching for the trash basket under the desk, she saw a framed photograph of the man with two women. The picture was of a celebration; the three people were raising their glasses in a toast. The frame had an inscription: 2013-Most Valuable Employee.
After another six offices and the conference room on forty. Florence checked her watch. It was almost two. She started toward the service elevator and looked at her pager to make sure it was working.
At the second ten minute break nothing was said about the party mess on thirty-four. The women talked about Sophia’s boyfriend; no one said anything about what Florence saw. By five the next three floors had been cleaned and emptied of trash. Anna never called her.
Florence swiped her electronic key card and turned toward the service doors that led to the street.
“Flo!” Anna called after her.
“I’m glad I caught you before you left. Jovack took care of everything.”
“What did the police say?”
Anna looked down at the floor. “They laughed at him, told him that there wasn’t enough blood for a dead bird in the bathroom. Jovack is really pissed Flo; he told me to keep my eye on you and that there better not be a next time.” Anna looked up. “I had to clean that mess up. Next time, do as you’re told…understand?”
Anna was visible shaken. Maybe she could have been fired for what Florence had gotten her into.
“I’m so sorry, it’s just that I never saw anything like that and….”
“Forget what you saw and who you saw.”
At five thirty the city looked haunted: the light took another hour to fully expose the street and the buildings in Manhattan.
Florence walked past a few early commuters with their ties loosened. The small brown bag and paper cup of hot coffee identified those who would soon fill the offices she had cleaned.
The subway entrance was across the street. As she descended the steps the heat surrounded her and only when the doors to the subway car opened did she feel revived. Maybe she had imagined everything; maybe she had been watching too many stories on television. Yes, his face was pale, she thought…but they all have pale faces.
The subway car held a few people in uniform: nurses and hospital workers. There were the other cleaners, like her; those were the people that looked like they had been up all night; most of them had their eyes closed. The old man in the corner seat near the door was asleep with his mouth open, snoring as loud as a jackhammer. Florence smiled and thought of Nat snoring, her Nasterio. She told Nat when they first met that she had never heard of his name; it sounded like the flower, Nasturtium. He laughed.
Florence looked at the window across from her and saw her fifty-eight year old reflection. It was then that she felt the papers she had stuffed into her pocket the night before. Not going to ruin my day. Rather read today’s message, she thought.
Poetry in Motion was the title on the small turquoise placard above the subway door. Florence got up, held on to the metal pole and read the poem: Grand Central by Billy Collins. It made sense, she thought; she was a part a “moving hive”.
The return trip from Manhattan to Hart Street took almost an hour. After the subway Florence waited for an express bus and then walked the remaining four blocks home. She believed the last blocks were the best part of her routine. By 6:30 in the summer, the sun was rising across the neighborhood. The sealed storefronts and brownstones were quite; most people were still asleep. The peacefulness gave Florence a hint of what this place must have been like in the old days. That’s what Poppy Daniels called them; he had lived in his house longer than anyone else on Hart Street. His mother owned the house before him. One Saturday night they were sitting on the front stoop trying to catch a cool breeze and he told her how cornfields grew on DeKalb Avenue.
“Imagine that…imagine that,” Florence said, as she climbed her steps and opened her front door. Florence put her purse on the front table and walked back to the kitchen. She could hear her granddaughter, Claudia, in the bathroom. She surveyed the kitchen, looking for traces of what Claudia might have made herself for dinner the night before. Florence opened the refrigerator door and took out the last piece of cod, milk, and one egg. The rest of what she needed: flour and spices, for her personal fish fry, as she called her dinner-breakfast, was in the cupboard.
She leaned into the back staircase and shouted up to her granddaughter. “What time is your appointment, hon?”.
Claudia was singing along with a pop tune that her grandmother couldn’t understand.
“I said: What time is your appointment, Claudia.”
The music was lowered and she heard the sounds of small heels click to the top of the stairs.
“Ten-thirty, Grandma Wren. I think it will take me ninety minutes.” Claudia paused, and Florence heard papers being rustled. “Don’t make me a big breakfast—please. Only cereal. I’ll do it myself.”
“That’s not the way to start such an important day, hon. You need to be fortified for that kind of journey.”
Florence poured a half-inch of cooking oil into a black iron skillet and turned the gas up to high. There was no further response from Claudia so she set the table. During the bus ride she had decided not to tell her what happened the night before on the fortieth floor. Florence felt the side of her dress with the papers in her pocket. She turned the flame off on the stove.
“What are you reading?”
“Nothing, child, just some papers I found in an empty office.”
“Why did you take them home? Isn’t that just trash?”
“I guess so, but you know sometimes I get curious. Right? Just like you. You know I’ve always told you that you take after me.”
“And not my mom?”
“No, Lord. You do not take after her. Look at you child, all dressed and polished to get to the city.” Florence looked away.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to mention her. Let’s not ruin the day; it’s going to be a good one for me. I can just feel it.” Claudia looked at her watch. “Oh—it’s already late. I need to do a little reading for my Tuesday night class.” Claudia went back up the stairs. Florence heard her bedroom door close.
“So Susan Miller, 3410, had been fired,” Florence said. She reread the memo addressed to Ms. Miller that stated she had become redundant. Florence went into the living room to find her dictionary. When she returned to the kitchen with the dictionary and her newspaper, she was ready to make her breakfast.
The man’s photo was on page six. He was grinning at the camera and had a young woman on his arm. The caption under the photo read: Donny Palmer, CEO True North, with guest, leaving the Met Gala, in happier times. Florence held the photo closer…the woman was Susan Miller. Florence opened the dictionary and read the definition of redundant: “no longer needed or useful; superfluous. Synonyms: unnecessary, not required, inessential, unessential, needless, unneeded.”
“You be careful out there today, Claudia. The world is complicated and not always what it seems.”
“It’s a job interview, Grandma Wren. Don’t fuss over every little thing, you’ll make yourself sick.” Claudia finished her cereal and rinsed out the bowl.
“Come back to me.” Florence said before the front door closed behind her granddaughter.
Florence’s favorite program The View had started. Starr Jones introduced today’s topic: Sexual Harassment. “When Will It End?” Starr turned to the audience. Behind the five women seated around a table a screen filled with photos of seven young female faces.
“It seems that something happened to Donny Palmer last night.” Meredith almost laughed when a woman in the audience yelled out skewered. “It appears that Donny Palmer…” The screen behind the women changed to a large photo of Palmer, hands in front of his face, trying to hide from the cameras that were blinding him, as he exited the Lenox Hill Hospital. “…may have been stabbed last night. There were no clues and he had no comments on how it might have happened.”
“Shaving.” Florence said as she took a bite of her fish.
This story appeared in – WORK Literary Magazine – in October 217
Johnny Harris was no truth teller. He wasn’t a compulsive liar, it was just that he stretched the facts and embellished the details. He was a storyteller. Maybe a few generations earlier he’d be right at home, sitting on the front porch of a dry-goods store, shooting the breeze with his friends. In those days there was no harm in exaggeration. But now, inflating his importance to the whole world had consequences.
“How would you describe me, Kelley?” He stepped back and let his best friend since sixth grade take a better look at him.
“You’re a guy, whatta you mean, J? You look just like everybody else we know.”
“Yeah, but what makes me different, different than everyone else?”
“Don’t go all metro on me, J. What do you want me to say? What’s this for?”
“I need an edge for my profile. Just to say that I’m five feet ten and weigh one hundred seventy-five, or that I have black hair—that’s boring. I don’t want average.”
“You can’t change the facts, J.”
Johnny’s phone played his ringtone All Day. “It’s my mom.”
“What? She can’t yell down the stairs?”
“Gotta go to work, Kelley. Walk me to the subway.”
“Didn’t you tell me you quit your job two weeks ago?”
“Yeah, I quit, but I didn’t tell her: she’ll go nuts.”
“I’ll say. Mrs. Harris wants her baby boy out of the basement,” Kelley laughed.
“It’s a family room, I don’t live in a cellar.”
“Well, thanks for letting me crash last night in whatever this is.” Kelley glanced across the remnants of cold pizza that Johnny’s golden lab was finishing off. “I have a class at ten, so I’ll walk you to the station. Is your mom still making your breakfast, or is she on strike this week?”
Johnny looked at his phone. “She’s pissed. Let’s stop at Starbucks.”
“Yeah, metro for sure. Sign number two: when Dunkin is no longer good enough. So let me get this straight: you have been pretending to go to work for two weeks?”
“Outside.” Johnny whispered.
“How’s my favorite guy doing at Brooklyn Law School?” Johnny’s Mom looked past her son and walked over to Kelley to give him a hug hello.
“Not bad, Mrs. Harris, and you?”
Mrs. Harris took a deep breath and launched into a list of ‘if onlys’: If only Johnny had studied more in high school. If only Johnny didn’t get caught shoplifting. There were at least twenty ‘if onlys’. Without them Johnny would be at Harvard Law, where his father had graduated.
“Going to be late, Mom,” he pushed Kelley toward the front door.
“At least you have a job,” Mrs. Harris called after him as the two young men left the room.
When they got onto Remsen Street, they joined a dog walker, three nannies with carriages, and a stream of people who looked intent on getting someplace.
“She also has a list of at leasts,” Johnny laughed. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a well-worn paperback. “You see this, Kelley,” he tapped the cover with his left hand, “what do you think it is?”
Kelley kept walking. He was trying to check out the girl who had just passed them. She was wearing a blue sleeveless mini dress.
“Aphrodisiac,” Johnny said as he continued to tap the book.
The girl turned right and they were going left on Hicks.
“What?” Kelley said.
“What do you mean?” Kelley looked at the title. “What’s it about?”
“I didn’t read it, but the cover says…” Johnny read the cover review and then flipped inside and read the rest of the quotes while they waited for the light to turn green. “You know, you don’t really need to read anymore.”
Johnny pulled the door to Starbucks open and got in line to place his order. “Yeah, do you think anyone wants to listen to a regurgitation of every twist and turn in a plot?”
“Well, don’t you want to get something out of the book for yourself, J?”
“Grande ice.” Johnny laughed. “I get something out of it all right. How’d you think I met that girl from the DR on the subway last month?”
“Small black.” Kelley turned toward his friend. “You’ve got to be kidding, man.”
“No, they think I’m a real intellectual. And in this case,” he pointed to the cover, “sensitive and understanding.”
“Well there you are: your profile.” Kelley started to laugh and the coffee almost came out of his nose.
“I’m thinking of trading this one in at the library today, that’s where I’m headed.”
“Got any bigger plans, like a job interview?”
“Thanks for reminding me, Mom. Hey, I’m not worried. I’ve got some great references from that job. Really. “ He could see that Kelley wasn’t buying it. “It was a political shoot out. I lost. I quit. No hard feelings, that’s what they told me at my exit interview. Reilly told me he would definitely write something good,” Johnny smirked. “He doesn’t want to mess with my Dad.”
“Yeah, but your Dad, when he finds out…?” Kelley took a sip of coffee.
“I’ll have something else down by then for sure. I have connections. Going to the Harvard Club later.”
Johnny kept walking, but Kelley stopped. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?”
“How else you think I’m going to find a job.” Johnny raised his hand for a high-five. “Later.” He turned toward the Borough Hall subway entrance, tossed his empty cup in the trash and picked up speed to match the rest of the pedestrians.
The crowd heading for downtown Brooklyn exited and Johnny stepped into the subway car. At 4th Street he pulled out his paperback and followed a young woman off the train and into the Number One going uptown. He couldn’t catch her eye; she was staring at a pregnant woman sitting in front of her. The girl maneuvered around him and got off the train ahead of him at Forty-second Street.
The main branch of the public library was an enormous limestone building filling an entire square block of Fifth Avenue. Two stone lions stood guarding the steps leading to the main door. Johnny pulled one of the doors open and headed for the information desk.
“Got any recommendations this week, Emily? Anything new on the bestseller list? I’m looking for something for my sister.” Johnny grinned at the young woman behind the desk. Emily the librarian, Johnny thought, could she be anymore of a cliché? Her brown shirt matched her hair and helped to make her disappear into the woodwork: invisible until spoken to.
“How did she like the one I suggested to you last week?”
Johnny did have an older sister, but not one he gave books to. His sister had pretty much ignored him for most of his life. She was still useful to him though.
“Very moving,” Johnny quoted the inside flap to Emily. “The writer really understands the female psyche.”
“So true,” Emily sighed. “You read it too?”
“I’m meeting my sister at the Harvard Club for lunch, promised her I would bring her something new to read,” Johnny ignored Emily’s question.
She adjusted her glasses and sat up straight. “You went to Harvard?”
“Loved Cambridge and Boston. Fantastic experience.”
“Well,” Emily cleared her throat, “I know of something she might like.” Emily wrote on the small pad in front of her and gave the top sheet to Johnny. “Take this to the circulation desk. I’ll be curious to see what your sister thinks of this one.”
“Here’s the book.” The man behind the desk pushed a thick hard cover volume across the desk. “This number here, the one you put on your request,” he pointed to the slip Johnny had filled in for the book Emily suggested, “ this is a telephone number.”
Johnny started to laugh as he picked up the book. “Sorry, I think I made a mistake. Is this available in paperback?”
“I guess it’s not the one I want.” He pushed the book away, turned around and went back to the table he had staked out for the morning.
Johnny had bounced around a few private schools before he graduated from high school; he managed to get through Hunter College. His father had gotten him the job as a para-legal with the hopes he would some day “snap out of it”.
Johnny had his laptop open and was staring at his resume. They don’t make it easy for anyone these days. There are too many ways of checking this information, he thought. Searching Google for “what do employers look for in background checks?” he found a list of items on “good-hire.com”.
He went into the lobby and used his cell phone to call the records office of his alma mater.
“We will send you a copy of your candidates dates of attendance and degrees once you send us the required form.”
“I’m interested in the clubs and extra curricular activity during his time at school,” said Johnny.
“Oh, we don’t provide that information, sir. You would have to contact those organizations individually. Is there anything else?”
“No, I’ll fill out the request. Thanks for your help.” Johnny hung up the phone. “Bingo!” he said and went back to the table.
Johnny typed into the search engine: Core skills for being research assistant in publishing.
When he finished adding those skills to his resume, along with various clubs and activities that would indicate his personality and interest in publishing, he closed the laptop.
The Harvard Club had changed their rules a few years ago. There were too many non-Crimson types wandering in off the street. They now required people to have an ID and to sign in at the front desk. Johnny had taken his father’s card, made a copy and erased Class of ’65. He inserted ‘12 and added his own photo. It was a good enough facsimile of the ID to flash to the attendant at the front desk.
“Nice day.” Johnny ran up the steps with his gym bag slung over his shoulder. He had been coming to the Harvard Club for over a year; everyone recognized him.
“Too hot for me, the summer uniform is still not cool enough. Have a good work-out,” the doorman said.
The locker-room was empty. Johnny changed into his shorts and a tee shirt and went into the gym. Bending over to change the weights on the press, he straddled the pole, squatted and took a deep breath before pushing eighty pounds to his shoulder and then over his head. He did twelve reps and took a break to work on his legs.
“I’ve been watching you lift.” An older man approached him.
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“You have a great routine. Yeah, I use to be able to do a drill myself. Then I tore my shoulder and, well, you know how that goes: first one thing and then the other.” He made a deep laugh and stared at Johnny.
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“I’ve seen you here before, a few times. Great facilities, no?”
Now he was waiting for an answer.
“Crimson’s the best,” Johnny said.
The man looked as old as his father, thick grey hair that was matted with sweat. For someone who wasn’t lifting he was trim and chiseled, Johnny thought. He looked away hoping the man would leave him alone.
“How long is your work-out?” the man continued.
“Got another hour at least, just started.”
“I noticed,” he smiled. “What house were you in?”
Johnny didn’t register that he was asking where he lived at Harvard. “…South House,” he said after a pause.
“You mean Cabot, don’t you? It hasn’t been South House since ’85.”
Johnny started to laugh nervously. “Gee, I am turning into my dad. He called Cabot, South House the entire time I was an undergraduate.”
“Got ya.” the man laughed. I won’t interrupt your routine. I’m off to the treadmill. My name is Wallace Merritt, Class of ’65, South House,” he smiled and put out his hand.
Johnny shook his hand. He starting coughing and raised his hand to his mouth as he said John Harris. Then clearly: “Class of ‘2012”.
“Hmmm. My son would have been 2012, but he never made it.” The man turned and walked away.
Johnny went over to the leg press machine and set it for 200 pounds. As he pressed, he knew he would have to avoid Wallace Merritt.
“I thought you might end up in here,” a voice said from the bench on the other side of the steam room.
Johnny couldn’t see who it was, but he got a cold chill as he entered the one hundred degree room. He started to turn around.
“Don’t leave, I want to talk to you,” Wallace Merritt said.
“I…” Johnny started.
“I could get you thrown out of here.” The man snapped his fingers. “But I won’t, I know your dad.” Wallace patted the bench and motioned through the steam for Johnny to sit next to him. “I should say, I knew your dad. How is he? Still alive? Still senior partner at White and Case?” He didn’t let Johnny answer. “Sure he is, and I bet he is still a liar too?”
“What do you mean, liar?”
“Your father got away with a lot when he was in school. That’s what I’m saying. I bet you get away with a lot too. Chip off the old block, right?”
Johnny didn’t answer. His eyes had adjusted to the room. They were alone and he could see Wallace looking at him.
“I won’t bite you, not yet anyway,” he patted the bench next to him.
“Why didn’t your son graduate Harvard?”
“Save it, kid. He died in a car accident on his nineteenth birthday. We could go for a drink and I could tell you all about it, if you really are interested in anything but yourself.”
Johnny turned and faced the door.
“What, I hurt your feelings? Well that’s different. You could never hurt Jack Harris’ feelings, if your Dad had any that is. Don’t go.”
“Why should I stay, your just going to get me kicked out. What’s the point?”
Johnny thought the worst that could happen would be being thrown out of the club. Wallace would never call his father, not with the way he talked about him.
“Maybe we could be useful to each other.”
Johnny sat on the facing bench. “I am looking for a job,” he blurted out nervously.
Wallace got up and stood in front of Johnny. His towel slipped off and fell to the floor; he picked it up and put it around his waste.
“It’s me that is going to get the favor first, kid.” The drink offer still stands. I’ll see you at Twenty-One Club in thirty minutes if you’re curious.”
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“Think about it kid, take a shower and cool off before you go out in the heat…think about it.”
Of course Johnny was curious. Maybe the towel dropping to the floor was just an accident. Maybe he could get me a job. Just going to listen. What’s the harm? I can always leave, he thought.
The Twenty-One Club was eight blocks away, just far enough for Johnny to change his mind a few times. He stopped and checked his phone messages and saw that Kelley had left a text about their plans for later. So he told Kelley what he was doing.
“What do you mean your going for drinks?” Kelley texted.
“He wants to see my resume and talk about my future.”
“Sounds weird, man, gotta go into class.” Kelley ended.
Johnny stopped walking and turned toward Broadway. Maybe I can catch a movie. He looked at the time on his phone. What could I possibly do for this guy? He thought. But he could do something for me, yeah, maybe he’s lonely, maybe I remind him of his son.
He turned around and continued up Sixth Avenue. When he reached the corner of 53th street he saw statues of little white jockeys holding rings, one on each step going up to and across the wrought iron railing that surrounded the second floor terrace of the Twenty-One Club.
He went down three steps to the entrance and opened the door to the restaurant. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness and then he saw the maître-d in front of him.
“Wallace Merritt,” Johnny informed the small man.
Wallace was sitting at the bar with a drink. “Didn’t think you would show, kid.” He turned as Johnny said down next to him.
“Here,” he went into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. “My card, just so you know who I am.”
The card read: Wallace Merritt, CEO, Star Communications, 1200 Avenue of Americas, New York, NY 10019.
Johnny was impressed, but just nodded, and slipped the card into his back pocket.
The bartender approached them and smiled. “Sorry, got to check your ID,” he said to Johnny.
“Yeah, you can’t be too careful these days.” Johnny shot a look at Wallace as he took his driver’s license out and ordered a gin and tonic.
Wallace didn’t say anything for a while. He stirred the ice in his drink with a small plastic straw. Finally he looked at Johnny and said: “I’ve been thinking while I was sitting here nursing this drink. If only my son were alive, well, I wouldn’t have bothered you today.”
Johnny didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath and took another sip of his gin and tonic.
“Life is funny, you expect certain things to happen…” he paused, “you don’t expect your kid to die before you do. That’s not the way it supposed to happen.”
“How did it happen?” Johnny asked.
“You really want to know?” he continued, “late at night, fog, too much liquor, winding road, and a tree. In that order.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Merritt. You must miss him. What is it you want me to do for you?”
“Call me Wallace, son.”
Johnny flinched and waited for him to continue.
“My mother is dying.” He raised his hand to stop Johnny from talking. “Oh, it’s okay, she had a great life, she’s ninety-five. Patrician princess that’s what she is. Now she can’t remember anything,” Wallace took another sip and signaled the bartender for another round.
“Not for me Mr., I mean, Wallace, still working on this one.” Johnny looked at the drink in front of him.
“I want you to come for a ride with me.” He shook his head and made sure the bartender gave Johnny a second drink.
“I don’t know. I have plans tonight.”
“Well, we all have plans, don’t we,” he laughed. “Then life happens,” he kept laughing. “Break them, son. I need you to be by my side today. I want to visit my mother and I don’t want to go alone.”
“I guess I could change my plans. I need to tell my friend what I’m doing.”
“Make it up.”
“Why would you say that?” Johnny asked.
“Why does it matter where you are going, you’ll be with me…and my mother,” Wallace added. “She is in a nursing home near Tarrytown in Westchester, really nice place, about an hour north of here in the country. It has a view of the Hudson.” Wallace continued to talk about his mother and describe the bucolic location of where she lived.
“I don’t know, seems like a long way from here. I live in Brooklyn Heights.”
“The sun sets at eight, you’ll be home before it gets dark if we leave soon.”
“What’s the name of the place, Wallace?”
“Sleepy-Hollow Meadows. Sounds nice and cool on such a hot day, doesn’t it?”
“Well, I guess.” Not such a big favor after all, Johnny thought. I can talk about what kind of job I want on the drive. “Are we leaving now?”
“Sure thing, let me call my driver. Meet me in a few minuets the lobby.”
Johnny went to the men’s room and texted Kelley that he was close to getting a job. “Yeah, the guy I met at the Harvard Club. Right. And guess where I am now? THE—Twenty–One Club. We are talking about my career.”
“Get real, Johnny. Where the hell are you? We’re meeting up with the guys tonight,” Kelley texted back.
“Really. It’s true, I’m not making this up,” Johnny wrote. The second drink kicked in harder than usual and all of a sudden he was dizzy. “LTR” was all he could type back.
When Johnny walked into the bar to get his gym bag, the bartender motioned to him closer.
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mr. Merritt, since your one of his boys, right?
Well, your license it’s no good, not real, but you know that. “
“Wha? Johnny asked holding on tight to the back a bar chair so he wouldn’t fall.
“Yeah, the guy who has been buying your drinks, sonny. Your friend.” He winked.
“The car is here, kid. Let’s get going if you want get home tonight.” Wallace had come back into the bar to look for him.”
“I’m not feeling well. I haven’t eaten today. I shouldn’t have had that second drink; it’s really hitting me hard. Don’t think I can make it.”
Wallace took Johnny’s elbow and led him out of the bar. “The fresh air will do you good. You can take a nap on our way there.”
“The bartender was telling me your….” Johnny couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. His legs felt so heavy he had a hard time lifting them.
When Johnny woke up in the back seat of a limo, Wallace was gone. The sun was setting across the river and they were speeding south on the Westside Highway.
“What time is it?” he yelled to the driver. “Where’s the man I was with?”
“It’s seven-thirty, beats me where he is now. Got out of the car a half an hour ago and told me to take you home. Don’t you remember?”
“What’s his name? “
“You don’t know and you expect me to? I pick up people all day and night, never ask questions, just take them where they want to go?”
“Aren’t you his driver?”
“Nah. This is a limo service kid, we pick people up and deliver them.”
“Didn’t you drive us to Westcester earlier today?” Johnny’s head felt as if it were going to explode.
“Nah, just got a call to pick someone up in Tarrytown and drive them to Brooklyn Heights.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“I don’t pass any judgment either.” The diver let the windows down in the rear of the car. “Don’t mess up the car.”
Johnny was looking at him in driver’s rear view mirror. All he could see were his eyes staring ahead at the traffic.
“Did the man say anything aside from to take me home?”
The driver looked up at him in the mirror. “Yeah, he said you were smart kid, you went to Harvard and…”
“And?” Johnny asked.
“And if only you could have seen your grandmother before she died.”
If Only is part of a linked short story collection: Getting There – The Claudia Stories five of the stories have been published in various journals.
Each generation has a heaviness and this one, as so many others before, is no different.
Those of privilege, the ones who have feasted on the world as it is, seem surprised for what has become of us. How could this be happening, they ask with greater and greater incredulity.
Some who know silence as well as their native tongue claim it is not their story, not their neighborhood, and not their people. The idioms of silence allow for excuses.
These sentiments remind me of the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I read this book twenty-seven years ago, and while the reviews speak to a love story, I felt it was more. For me, it was about the weight of the world and those who feel too deeply. The conceit is that the heaviness, for some, who are lucky enough to feel, is a freedom. Feeling nothing is unbearable.
In an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2015 (reviewed here), the images of women marching for the right to vote remind me of all the women who came before us, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Those women had a voice to raise, just as our voices were heard last month and all the days to follow. The difference is our ability to vote.
I hope that this month, where we celebrate Women’s History (in the U.S.), we will encounter voices both present and past, those we know and especially those that are waiting to be discovered.
Deeds Not Words was the rallying cry of the suffragettes. Women’s Rights is a recurring back-story in my novel, The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light.
In Chapter Three, Sydney, Australia, Maude Anderson reads to her mother, Caroline, from the London Times.
It is the story of Emily Davidson throwing herself under the King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
In Chapter Four, Caroline Light speaks to her suitor, Bernard, about her teacher Ada Wells. Later she invites her mother, Martha, to attend a meeting of the Temperance League with Kate Shepard.
In Chapter Five, Christchurch, New Zealand, Mary Müller speaks to Martha Light about whether she ever thought for herself without first consulting her husband.
Last February, just about now, I found this image.
Creative disruptors change the way we look at the world. Here, an icon is turned around, and our perception of what we thought we saw is something entirely different.
One of my favorite artist disruptors is Louise Bourgeoise.
“One must accept the fact that others don’t see what you do.” – Louise Bourgeoise
Born in Paris in 1911, Louise Bourgeoise was an inspiration, an outlier, and a disruptor throughout her life. Bourgeois died in New York in 2010 at the age of 98. Her images and sculptures may not be everyone’s cup of tea-but that’s what art is about.
I discovered her at the Tate Modern in London, 2002, where art is always disruptive and resistant to the status quo. A massive thirty foot spider standing in the atrium of an old power station startled me and made me want to know more about this woman artist who was then only 92.
As she put it, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” And so it is for me, too.
“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. .”- Louise Bourgeoise
Bourgeois transformed her experiences into a highly personal visual language through the use of mythological and archetypal imagery, adopting objects such as spirals, spiders, cages, medical tools, and sewn appendages to symbolize the feminine psyche, beauty, and psychological pain.(1)
Through the use of abstract form and a wide variety of media, Bourgeois dealt with notions of universal balance, playfully juxtaposing materials conventionally considered male or female. She would, for example, use rough or hard materials most strongly associated with masculinity to sculpt soft biomorphic forms suggestive of femininity. – (1) The Art Story
I never tire of finding life in her face and in her work.
“#ItWasNeverADress is an invitation to shift perceptions and assumptions about women and the audacious, sensitive, and powerful gestures they make every single day. In science, technology, arts, mathematics, politics, houses of worship, on the streets, and in our homes, insightful women are often uninvited, overlooked, or just plain dismissed… When we see women differently… we see the world differently!” – Axosoft
In 1869, almost twenty-five years before the first woman cast her vote in New Zealand, Mary Müller wrote an appeal to the men of New Zealand. Müller’s argument, as so many arguments that followed hers, was that “without political rights women could not make their full contribution to the progress of the nation”. She signed the article in the Nelson Examiner –“Fémmina” because her husband, a local politician, objected to her views. Today we stand together and tomorrow we continue to write our letters, proudly signing our names for all to see. Keep Writing.
Here are the dates by country of universal suffrage:
1893 New Zealand
1902 Australia (1)
1917 Canada (2)
1918 Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia
1920 United States
1928 Britain, Ireland
1947 Argentina, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan
1957 Malaysia, Zimbabwe
1963 Iran, Morocco
1990 Western Samoa
1993 Kazakhstan, Moldova
1994 South Africa
2006 United Arab Emirates
2011 Saudi Arabia (3)
NOTE: One country does not allow their people, male or female, to vote: Brunei.
1. Australian women, with the exception of aboriginal women, won the vote in 1902. Aborigines, male and female, did not have the right to vote until 1962.
2. Canadian women, with the exception of Canadian Indian women, won the vote in 1917. Canadian Indians, male and female, did not win the vote until 1960. Source: The New York Times, May 22, 2005.
3. King Abdullah issued a decree in 2011 ordering that women be allowed to stand as candidates and vote in municipal elections, but their first opportunity did not come until Dec. 2015, almost a year after the king’s death in January.