Last words & epigraphs
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A Change in Circumstances
All that winter Winnie made the long train ride from Brooklyn into the city, sharing a wicker seat with a man who worked on the stock exchange, or a girl who was a day-boarder at a school for the arts, a jeweler dealing in uncut gems from Africa, a housekeeper on her way uptown to minister to someone else's silver, wood, cut flowers; meeting Winnie's gaze, she acknowledged by her look that these things were past saving.
Winnie was in New York to study music, passing over the more common route of conservatory to study with Louise Riddle. Louise had a house in Soho, and the neighborhood had passed in and out of fashion several times while she had lived there. At present both Louise and the neighborhood were enjoying a period of rediscovery. Coffeeshops and galleries sprang up in basements and vacant buildings; Louise bought new drapes. You never knew how long a thing like this would last. It was best to invest in durable goods when you could.
The whole of the first year she studied with Louise, Winnie saw only the music room where she had her lesson twice a week, and a wedge-shaped view of the hall as Djuna, Louise's secretary and housekeeper, slipped in and out with trays of phone messages, the mail, and tall glasses of iced coffee marbled with sickly-sweet evaporated milk. Winnie worked like a dervish that year, holding down jobs as a music copyist and organist for a small church, and mostly trying to solve the puzzle of Louise.
Had she been an actress Louise Riddle would have been cast as an expatriate White Russian taking in hand sewing, or a dame of English letters come down in the world. Louise had been married and, though she never talked about it, Winnie knew from the shadow puppets on the wall and the ever-present Djuna that she had lived in Indonesia for some years. Possibly her years in Asia had given Louise an imperial air, so that while she had no accent except a lack of one she was often taken for British. And she did exude a conviction of her own divine authority, at least in the music room. With her high, ivory forehead and a corona of pale red hair, she was a twentieth-century Elizabeth Regina.
If, that is, you could imagine a monarch
who wore cheap brocade suits and chainsmoked Newports. Still, there was
something about the dowdiness of her clothes that achieved a kind of chic.
Once when Winnie had come in from the icy, sooty street wrapped in a huge
purple muffler, Louise had looked at her critically and announced the color
suited her. The scarf was the only thing Louise saw fit to praise that
Like its owner, the music room exhaled seediness and wealth. This is not to say that it was shabbily genteel; rather, the room had been decorated with a bald indifference to upholstery but a keen eye for certain objects. Beside a wood and leather folding screen from Scotland a hideous green velvet sofa sagged on aluminum ankles like an octogenarian flapper. A collection of animal salt and pepper shakers faced off against primitive sculptures from North Africa like some strange chess set. An old friend who worked at Sotheby's periodically pleaded with Louise to have the good things insured, which she refused to do, though she loaned them readily enough to exhibitions in Chicago and Munich.
On a threadbare Oriental carpet pink and mottled as an elephant's ear stood an ugly painted table with a hotplate and half a dozen chipped and cracked cups, everything covered with a film of cocoa. In the winter there would be a fire; the andirons were broken, so Winnie's lesson was unfailingly punctuated by a log rolling smoking into the middle of the room. Louise would leap up to roll it back into the fireplace with a poker: this was the signal for them to stop and have their break. She always gave Winnie the same cup, milky glassware with a curlicue pattern of olive green. It leaked; Winnie hated that cup the way that you can only hate inanimate things. One day when she came for her lesson she noticed the table had been wiped of cocoa dust. A set of bright Danish mugs had been set out, and the cups were nowhere in sight. But when time came for their break Louise produced the loathed mug with a smile.
"Djuna went on the rampage in here the other day, but see, I saved your favorite for you."
A minute later, quite by accident, Winnie's elbow hit the cup and knocked it off the table. With a horrified laugh she watched it break into pieces. Then she realized Louise was smiling, and that the cup, as much as the lesson, was a test.
"Don't bother," Louise said as Winnie bent to pick up the pieces. "It was an ugly cup, and you hated it. Why didn't you ever ask for another one? Or did you hate my cocoa? Well, next time we'll have coffee. Let's finish this up--I have a Scriabin sonata I want you to have a whack at. Third measure on seven.
Winnie related all this to Helen and Carlotta, old classmates from St. Steve's. Helen was at Juilliard; Carlotta had taken a train in from Connecticut, where she was studying at Hartt. Privately, both thought Winnie was doing it the hard way, living in a walk-up, holding down two jobs. Louise Riddle might be highly regarded, but Winnie wasn't getting the stimulation of a university environment, the challenge and contact with other students.
"I mean, the apartment is darling and everything, and it's great that you're so determined, but it just seems like so much extra work. And you can't be meeting very many men, Win."
Helen agreed. "Honestly, a church and a music store? Ministers, married men, stockboys, and hobos keeping warm."
"You'd be surprised. I meet a lot of interesting people on the train."
Carlotta and Helen traded a look. "It
just seems silly for your music and your social life to suffer. After all,
you're not at St. Steve's any more!"
"No, that's very true." This was the first thing they had said since removing their coats with which Winnie could wholeheartedly agree. Perrin was studying in Italy, a graduation present from her parents. She hadn't wanted to go unless Winnie went, too. They had fought about it all summer, but in the end Winnie had made Perrin see sense. She had left in August, and would not return until April.
As Helen and Carlotta talked, Winnie poured
water over the grounds in a ceramic coffeemaker: a present from Perrin,
hidden for her to find. The note was flip with terror and misgiving: "Don't
eat out of automats and fall asleep over your work too much. I'll throw
some coins in the Trevi fountain for luck. Love, P."
* * *
The little church--Peace-New Bethany--was
in a neighborhood that was coming back. The hyphenated name was appropriate;
the neighborhood around the church was a new shoot of more affluent families
grafted onto the old neighborhood of craftsmen and office workers. The
congregation was a jumble of university couples, saleswomen in bridal shops
and uniform stores, underwriters and an undertaker, an electrician, an
economist, a piano tuner, a florist.
The university wives planned potluck suppers to aid the Indo-Chinese; the saleswomen formed a sewing circle to embroider stoles for the Rev. Harry Howells. They invited her to join them, though she was younger than the youngest of them, but Winnie demurred; she had to practice, to work.
But Winnie often stayed after when she knew no one else would be there, stayed to play the organ: it was a good one, willed to the church by an old man everyone had thought was a widower with a modest pension. It seemed he had patented a method for applying glue to the flaps of envelopes, or perhaps the glue itself. He knew a surprising amount about music. In addition to the organ he had left the little church a vast collection of scores of sacred music.
Winnie found the book one Saturday when she came in to practice some Britten. She was rummaging around in the bench, to see what might have been left there, when she came across a household ledger. Its gingham cover was stamped with the date "1933." The pages were printed with headings to prompt the disorganized housewife: Butcher, they said, Grocer, Dairy. The pages were covered with newspaper clippings: Hail Ravages Crops in Corn Belt, Siamese Twins Born to Memphis Woman. Someone had captioned the clippings in an accountant's careful script: "Plague of a Righteous God," "Inseminated by Satan."
Winnie turned the page. A drawing torn from a marriage manual had been altered, a goat's head from a children's storybook pasted over the man's head, his penis grossly enlarged. A nun's habit cut from blue paper had been glued to the woman; a balloon issued from her mouth, swollen with obscenities.
Winnie shut the book and hid it under the music in the bench. Her heart was racing. Who could have written it--not the minister? Jerry, the head organist? Or the glue-man, the one who had donated all this heavenly music? Maybe someone had found the book, she thought suddenly, maybe they think I did it. All of a sudden she got up and ran into the bathroom. The old heating pipes and mildewed music had seemed to give off a smell sour with the sweat and musk of an old man's pitiful erotica. Washing herself anywhere the bench might have touched her, using the harsh soap and rough brown paper towels, Winnie shook with fright and horror, at the book, at her own reaction: "God! You pathetic prude--" she said to the mirror.
When she had calmed down, Winnie forced herself to get the book out of the bench. Hunting around in the tiny church kitchen she found an economy-sized box that had once held tea bags. She wrapped the cardboard around the book and tied it with twine. She could leave it for the garbage men, but she wanted to see it destroyed, so she could know it was gone.
"Miss Axels ?"
She jumped and turned around. It was the Rev. Howells.
"Gracious, you frightened me!" she said.
"I'm awfully sorry. I didn't know you were here. I didn't hear the organ."
"Oh--I was looking through some music. I used the last tea-bag, and thought I might as well bag up the trash for Monday."
"That's very kind of you, but you can let Frank get that. Well, I have a cold, I'm afraid." He took out a handkerchief clotted with yellow. "I'll be going on home. Will you turn out the lights when you leave?"
When she got home Winnie dropped the bundle down the incinerator chute in the hall, camouflaged in a paper sack of grapefruit peels and coffee grounds. She leaned against the door of the trash room, suddenly tired. A hand-lettered notice over the chute admonished her silently: Please do not deposit trash between the hours of 10 pm and 7 am. Your cooperation is appreciated.
* * *
Just before Christmas the weather turned freakishly warm, even hot. Bumper crops of fruit from California were rushed to market before then could rot on the trees. Djuna brought a plate of nectarine slices to Louise where she sat at her desk going over her accounts. She had stopped working, and had unwrapped a new set of salt and pepper shakers she had found earlier that day at a fleamarket. Djuna set the plate down, raising an eyebrow.
Louise threw down her pencil and stretched. "Ah, fruit. It's such a luxury not to have to have the plastic-greenhouse kind. Though we'll pay for it later, I suppose."
"We pay for everything, sooner or later," said Djuna.
Louise made a face; she considered herself a rationalist, and was annoyed by others' attempts to assign significance to random events.
Djuna knew the look. "I only meant that if fruits are cheap in winter, they will be dear in summer."
Louise put down the slice she had just selected. "Oh, why do you have to spoil things? Can't we just enjoy the damn fruit?"
Djuna smiled. "Do you want your letters?"
"Please." Louise glanced quickly through the stack, selecting one she had evidently been watching for. "Holloway," she said to Djuna. Her eyes skimmed over the lines, and she looked up with a triumphant grimace. "He's agreed to come Thursday."
Djuna nodded. If Louise was like Elizabeth I, then Djuna was like a Balinese Pocahontas brought back to court, wearing Western clothes with an expression of perpetual amusement. On the outside she seemed to have assimilated into this modern Camelot very satisfactorily. She had a Catholic education, read Latin impeccably, and could calculate figures in her head to three decimal places. She found it impossible to find employment in America except as a domestic. For this reason Djuna elected to stay at home, where she did light housekeeping for appearances, in addition to the bookkeeping and Louise's taxes.
"How good is she?" Djuna asked.
"Who, our Miss Axels? Who knows--If she'd started earlier, she would have been among the best. As it is, I'd only put her in the top twenty of her age in this hemisphere. There's an Australian boy I'm told is extraordinary. But I haven't heard him for myself."
Djuna nodded to herself, gathering up a coffee cup automatically with one hand, the other coming to rest on the back of Louise's chair. "Leave the accounts; I'll finish them later. Will you be wanting a massage tonight?"
Louise bent closer to her mail. "Yes," she said crisply.
"I'll look in around eight, then."
* * *
Winnie looked askance at the music on the rack.
"The Governess scherzo?"
"I advise you to erase that prejudice from your mind. It is Chopin's scherzo in B flat minor, and I never want to hear you call it by any other name. Now--begin."
Winnie sighed, shifted her weight on the bench and began to play. As she listened Louise held her breath, gripped with misgiving: she shouldn't have given her this piece. But no: if Winnie wasn't good enough it was better to find out now. Even as she thought it she heard the music Winnie was playing with relief and delight. You strange, wonderful child, she thought.
Winnie had forgotten all about Louise. Leaning into the piece as into oars, she imagined a governess in black Victorian dress, standing in the middle of a riding ring, breaking Lippizaners.
In the next room Malcolm Holloway listened, to all appearances asleep. Djuna stood behind him, staring at the pattern the condensed milk was making in the glasses of iced coffee she held before her on a tray. In the music room the piano fell silent, the last notes ringing and fading into the wallpaper. They could hear voices but not what was being said. The door opened, and Louise came into the room.
Holloway cleared his throat. "Where did you find her, Lou?"
"In an ivory bayou. Well? What do you think?"
"I think we can make arrangements."
* * *
Winnie set down her cup. "What?"
"I said, I've set up a recital for you. March 11th, in the Cloisters."
"But that's so soon!"
"It is. That's why I want you to quit one of your jobs. You'll need more time to practice."
Winnie fell silent, calculating her monthly expenses. If she quit New Beth she could manage, but just barely. "I can swing it -unless I need shoes."
"What on earth are you babbling about?"
"If I have to wear concert black I'll need new shoes. I wear a 9 narrow, and they cost a lot."
Louise killed the smile before it could form on her lips. "I'm sure we'll work something out."
That night Winnie celebrated with Helen and her Juilliard beau. They ordered Peking duck and plum wine, "though it should be champagne, really," Helen said. "For more reasons than one," said the beau.
"Why?" Winnie looked from one to the other. She had forgotten his name. It was Jerry, or maybe Jim. Helen's beaux looked reasonably identical.
"Joe!" Helen said. "I told you not to tell."
"Tell what ?"
"I told him not to tell you--it's your night, after all-but--we're engaged to be married."
"Helen, that's fantastic! Does Carlie know?"
"I haven't had a chance to tell her. He only proposed tonight."
"Helen, are you nuts? What are you doing with me, eating raw onions and duck ?"
They both protested--nothing could persuade them to spend the evening any other way. Later Helen often thought it was one of her better moments. She even thought of asking Winnie to be a bridesmaid, but then there were Joe's sisters, and her own 14-year-old cousin.
Helen's fortune was the requisite one about the tall dark stranger, which caused great hilarity since Joe was a tow-head. His own fortune foretold a journey over water. "See," Helen said. "we honeymoon in Hawaii."
Winnie opened her own. "Rats, it's a dud." She showed them the shards of almond cookie. "No fortune."
When she got home there was a letter in her mailbox. It was in a familiar pale blue envelope, with a postmark of Vienna, Virginia. Winnie frowned. She put the letter on a chair, took a bath, dried her hair by the radiator, and went to bed. Ten minutes later she had put on the light and opened the letter. It was the same as the rest of them:
It rambled on for another few pages, but Winnie didn't read them. The letters arrived steadily, about three weeks apart. They were by turns pitying, angry, cajoling, threatening legal action or offering Freudian analysis. For some fastidious reason all were typed and signed: "Hilary Grove Imbrie." Perrin knew nothing of the letters.
That night, after she had thrown the letter away, Winnie lay in bed, a phrase forming on her eyelids like the broken type on a Chinese fortune: maybe you can't help being what you are.
And what was that?
The store where Winnie worked as a copyist was next door to one that sold models. Sometimes on her lunch hour, if it was too cold to walk to a museum but too dull to eat lunch at her desk, Winnie would go in.
She liked the store. It smelled of glue and balsa and cork and varnish: these weren't cheap kits of airplanes for boys to assemble during a week of enforced bedrest. Here you could buy the material to reconstruct anything: an Egyptian tomb, a primeval swamp, the surface of the moon, a Hopi village. There were tiny paintbrushes of no more than six camel hairs; magnifying glasses that fit around the neck on something like a drafthorse's collar; all kinds of plaster of Paris and paint and modelling clay.
A strange assortment of people was always standing around, discussing how to get the effect of frozen mud on the bow of a Viking ship or which thickness of thread was best for the lashings of a Chautauqua tent. One man was making a model of the Scopes trial; another, Galileo before the priests. Winnie liked them because there was no way of knowing whether the first man was a judge or a janitor, the second a planetarium projectionist or a theologian.
Winnie had always been impatient with dolls' houses: so often they were an attempt to indoctrinate the young in sewing skills. But she couldn't help wishing she'd owned a model of Atlantis like the one in the back of the store, with its porches overgrown with starfish and a circular staircase cut from a chambered Nautilus. It had been made, the store owner told her, by a 9-year-old boy born with webbed hands and feet.
Before Christmas Winnie went in looking for something to give her father. She couldn't afford to do any of her better ideas: a model of her father fishing along the Mississippi, pulling ashore a coelacanth. A few weeks before she had purchased a little nail brush. It was probably only dog-ivory, as her mother would say, but her father would like it. He was particular about his hands. Still, she wanted to get him something more.
Prowling around the back she found it: a kit of cellophane and slender balsa strips, for making models of stained glass windows. It would leave her enough money to get Dulcie a small closet sachet, instead of the cologne that smelled more like witch hazel than lily of the valley.
By the spools of hair-fine wire and sheets of gold foil a man was staring at Winnie. He was a chemist for a cosmetic company; he spent his days studying the components of cold cream in suspension, his evenings assembling models of the great passenger ships of the past.
Richard Gress was in search of wire for the chandeliers of the Andrea Doria when he looked up and saw her. Her hair was hidden by her hood and scarf, so that all he saw was the half-moon of her cheek against the dark wool, the purple muffler around her neck like a vestment for a service. Her hands, carefully holding the delicate package of cellophane and balsawood, might almost have been curved in prayer.
The chemist turned away, blood pounding in his ears. He shouldn't have skipped lunch; when he closed his eyes gold and purple circles swam on the lids. He was surprised at himself, at the quick leap of his blood. It wasn't as if he didn't give himself regular release: on the fire escape on hot summer evenings, in the steam after his shower--and, too, the couple of girls he knew. He didn't often fantasize about girls in hobby shops. So why did he suddenly need to press his thigh hard against the case of miniature hardware?
Why did his heart rise up, this time, when he walked out and saw she had dropped her purple scarf? Her face, turning blankly to face him against the black cave marked ALL TRAINS, WAS REASON ENOUGH.
* * *
Winnie unlocked the door to her walk-up only three days after Christmas. There was a piano at her parents', but also the attendant thousand-and-one distractions--and no Louise. Ten weeks! She made coffee, let it go cold reading the stack of her mail (no blue letter from Virginia--Clytaemnestra takes a holiday! Winnie thought), brewed a fresh pot. There was a package from Perrin: Venetian lace.
Winnie blanched: she would have to write and say she couldn't get away; she still hadn't told Perrin about the letters. God! How could Perrin dream of asking her mother to send Winnie to Italy? Still, from what she had seen of Perrin's mother, Winnie suspected she avoided discord in favor of white-gloved machinations. A letter from Perrin asking for a plane ticket to Italy might drive her to more direct methods. Winnie shook her head; she would write Perrin today.
She rang the bell of Louise's apartment guiltily; standing at the mirror, holding the Christmas lace to her concert dress had made her ten minutes late for her lesson. She hadn't even changed; under her coat she shivered in the short-sleeved black crepe dress. She was looking away, down the street, thinking about the excuse she would make when the door was opened. Winnie turned and gaped.
Djuna stood in the doorway in a Chanel suit of shocking chartreuse Thai silk. She had rimmed her eyes with black pencil and colored her lips a shade of orange that made her wide mouth look like a luscious slice of fruit.
"Come in. Riddle is not yet ready." This always threw Winnie: it was the servant who was called by her last name wasn't it? "Will you have a small coffee while you wait?"
"Uh--yes, but hot, please, no sugar or cream."
Djuna nodded and vanished. Winnie sat on the sagging sofa so shocked that she didn't even take off her coat. She only looked up when her coffee was set down beside her. Louise was standing there, pulling on gloves, regal in royal blue and pearls.
"Now of course we have to wait for Djuna--she swears her stockings are crooked. Didn't I tell you we were taking a field trip today? We have tickets to a recital, a pianist I particularly want you to hear."
Mysteries continued to present themselves. Louise produced an aging, two-tone Peugeot with a bright, laminated Mass card swinging from the rearview mirror.
"In Manila the taxis have so many of those things hanging off them the drivers can't see a thing--there are accidents everywhere," Louise said, steering the car along the streets.
Djuna was silent, smoking and looking out
the window. She turned and gazed at Winnie thoughtfully, sleepily, until
Winnie became quite nervous.
"Oh, Riddle, look!" she said, sitting up straight and pointing to their left. At the back of a truck parked outside a fishmarket a man was talking to the owner of the store about politics or the weather or some other thing equally uncontrollable, incidental. In his arms he held a swordfish in a negligent caress. Djuna faced front laughing, and blew a smoke ring.
They got there just in time, no sooner having settled in their seats before the pianist was led on stage. At first Winnie thought the young man was blind, but his intense interest in a woman wearing a stole with a fox head made it clear his vision was keen to the third row at least. The woman who had led him onstage sat him at the piano, putting the flats of her palms to the side of his head, for all the world as if she were calming a horse before putting it into the starting gate. His tongue protruding, the boy scratched himself briefly and started to play.
Djuna sat ramrod straight, looking at the stage. Louise stared at her feet. Winnie's own gaze wandered over the others in the audience, lingering on the fox head on the woman's stole, the pointed jaws a little agape, the glass eyes fixed. When the boy stopped there was a crashing dambreaking roar of applause, but one that produced no encore: the incontinent Mozart had wet his pants, and was led hiccoughing from the stage. The audience lingered, and began to break up.
In the car no one said a thing. Djuna lit a cigarette and put it out in the ashtray.
"Will you stay to dinner?" Louise asked, when they had taken their coats off.
"No," Winnie said vehemently. "No, thank you."
"I'm not hungry either. Come on, we'll all have a stiff drink."
The inner sanctum of the apartment was obviously Djuna's domain. Salt and pepper shakers were banished, the records stacked by the hi-fi were Mel Torme and George Shearing. Djuna produced martinis and they sat silently drinking the first pitcher until Winnie burst out
"Damn it, why did you take me there?"
"Sorry. It doesn't seem like such a good idea in retrospect, I'm afraid."
"Jesus! I'll have to kill myself to play half as good as that."
"You don't have to agree with me so readily!"
They fell silent.
"Music, mathematics, mimicry, and memorization," said Winnie suddenly.
"Idiot-savantes. They most often display prodigy in the 4-Ms. We learned it in psychology class." Winnie's Louisiana accent faded when she was drunk, and her vocabulary expanded.
"It was really tragic, you know," she went on. "Because the professor had a retarded son himself. His wife was on the faculty, too, in the religion department. The whole week we spent discussing intelligence and retardation no one in the class could look him in the eye. One day," --Winnie took a sip from her drink-- "I was out walking. It was a really beautiful day, in the fall, and there he was, all by himself in the woods, crying his heart out. I mean, I thought he was alone, but then I saw his wife standing a few yards away, smoking. And the look on her face: she was completely impassive, completely ignoring him, this man who was crying for her child. This theologian. It was so tragic."
"Nothing's tragic," Djuna said.
"You're wrong," Louise said, "it's just that everything is. It becomes banal. Oh, come, don't look at us like that. Save it for the piano. Yes, the piano! You don't think I'd let you escape entirely? Besides, I want to hear how you play after three martinis."
* * *
A week and a half later Winnie stood in the museum, looking up at the underside of the huge blue whale. How had these things come to pass? She hardly knew. Looking back, there was no one thing, no one day that stood out, particularly, from the rest as a day of decision. It had simply been a mounting feeling that things could not go on the way they had been, that they could not go on like this forever. The blue letters from Vienna, double rehearsals and long hours at work, and canned beans and tuna fish until she wanted to scream at the sight of them. And a letter from Perrin, asking when she would be able to come, breaking the news that she had decided to stay on another year.
Richard Gress came up and took her arm, still having to quell the part of him, the thrilled kid that wanted to shout to the world that she was at the Natural History Museum with him, and no other man.
"Come look at these over here," was all he said.
They stood side by side over a case of fossils, spiraled chambered Nautili, or some Cambrian equivalent. Some secret process during its centuries in the mud had changed the animal's shell and soft parts to a silvery mineral. That was what had happened to the woman in the woods, Winnie thought. It made her feel better, knowing it wasn't cruelty, but self-preservation. She looked out of the corner of her eye at Gress. From time to time, even with people we love well, the illusion of humanity fades, so that looking at someone you suddenly see whiskers on the cleft lip, the lemur's wide eyes, the clever paws, see that tragedy is necessity we have never outdistanced.
Gress's fingertips touched her arm lightly as they would a Ouija board. Later, it would all fade into an improbable dream, the stripes on the pillow, her hair spread out on the bed like a coral fan, the polished wood of the Lusitania on the nightstand, a sinking with no survivors but a safeful of jewels.
As he held her arm, Gress anticipated all of this, but slightly differently. He was wrong about many things. All his life he would think he had only three children.