by L. E. Miller
Years later, Ann saw one of the daughters. She ended up seated beside her on a flight from New York to Chicago, the odds who knows how many million to one.
As strangers will in transit, they began talking. Ann learned that the woman taught high school English and was just now trying her hand at playwriting, that she had never married but had lived with someone off and on for years. After a while, exchanging names seemed beside the point. Ann wondered why this woman seemed familiar, but now that she was seventy-seven, almost everyone she met reminded her of someone she used to know. Still, still there was something about her: an expression that was both discerning and compassionate, those pale eyes of no discernible color, those graying curls poised to spring from their clip. When the flight attendant came by with honey peanuts, Ann’s seatmate slipped her reading glasses onto the tip of her nose and peered at the list of ingredients on the package. Even this gesture echoed that of someone Ann had known years before.
“I think I won’t,” she said and handed the peanuts back to the slightly flustered stewardess.
“By the way, I’m Bianca Sunderlund,” the woman said, an afterthought as the plane angled toward its descent.
Sunderlund. With that name, everything came back in a rush: a lobby in an apartment building, once elegant but fallen into disrepair; a dark painting shot through with streaks of color; the vertigo Ann had felt at twenty-two, living alone for the first time in her life.
Before she quite knew what she was doing, Ann grasped her seatmate’s forearm. “Was your mother Edith Sunderlund? Was your father Hugh Sunderlund, the painter?”
Bianca’s eyes widened, but her long career in the public schools had left her practiced at hiding any shock she might have felt. “Hugh Sunderlund, the painter.” She chortled. “My father spent his whole life waiting for somebody to say that.”
The Sunderlunds had lived in the apartment next door. Bianca and her sister had become in Ann’s memory a tumble of curls and wild races down badly lit hallways. It was their mother, Edith, who shone most brightly in Ann’s consciousness back then, and, later, their father, Hugh.
“I was your neighbor on Columbus Avenue,” Ann exclaimed. “Your mother and I were friends. When I met your parents, I’d never met anyone like them. I always thought of them as the first original bohemians.”
“My parents? That’s rich.”
“I remember you and your sister very well,” Ann pressed on, a gambit to keep the conversation afloat. A skeptical voice bubbled up and queried: you and Edith? Friends? Yes, Ann thought. We were.
She felt Bianca looking at her, taking measure of her thin white hair, held back by two barrettes, her no-iron pantsuit and—her one vanity—her carefully tended hands. Ann knew she looked every inch the faded Connecticut matron; though she had not been born to that life, it had become hers. Bianca had been only ten or eleven when Ann was already a young woman living on her own, but her shrewd gaze cut through the decades. Ann felt anxious, culpable.
There was no reason to feel that way. Nothing had happened. It was all so long ago.
“Hmm,” Bianca said. “I don’t remember you at all.”
* * *
It is such a familiar story it is almost a cliché: a girl comes to the city in the 1930s or ’40s or ’50s with two suitcases and half-formed artistic or vocational or intellectual intentions. There were thousands upon thousands of such girls then, eating lunch at a corner coffee shop, passing through turnstiles in the subway, stretching their typist’s or bank teller’s salary to afford leather gloves or tickets to the opera, but each girl believed she was unique. Each believed she had embarked on a journey that was nothing short of revolutionary. At the time, Ann believed it about herself.
She was from Waverly Falls, Massachusetts, in the western corner of the state, twenty miles from the Vermont border. The Eagle Paper Mill loomed over the steeply pitched streets, employing all the town’s men of working age. The stench that belched from the plant’s brick smokestacks defied description, eluded metaphor. On humid days, the yellowish air clung like a film, stinging the eyes, burning the inside of the nose and throat. Ann coughed and coughed, but she could never rid herself of that smell. Waste dyes poured from open pipes into the river. From the time she was small, Ann was drawn to the river. She was drawn to the jeweled colors that eddied around the rocks and to the stories: the daredevil boys who had gone over the falls in barrels, the desperate pregnant girls who had jumped. She believed in ghosts. Standing at the river’s edge, she heard the drowned whisper, go, go, go.
She was a smart girl; she earned good grades. She won a scholarship to Marymount, and when she graduated, she moved into Manhattan, known to her chiefly from a few tightly budgeted shopping trips she’d made with girls from her dormitory. In dizzying succession, she found a job with Travelers Aid, she rented the apartment on Columbus at Eighty-fourth, and, stunned by her own audacity, she bought a double bed on layaway. With some foreboding, she stopped attending mass and spent lonely Sundays wandering through the corridors of the Metropolitan Museum. She lost her virginity to a man she met at a play-reading group, whose personality was a patchwork of strong opinions. Although the experience fell short for her, she realized the moment she agreed to go to bed with him was the moment she truly left home. Though she continued to answer her mother’s weekly letters, almost everything she wrote was a lie.
She wrote, for example, that the apartment building was “classy,” an adjective her mother assigned half-cynically to things that lay beyond her reach. In truth, whatever grandeur the building had once had was gone; tiles were missing from the vestibule’s mosaic floor; the carved stone grapes over the entrance had turned black with grime. Despite the exterminator’s weekly visits, cockroaches scuttled along the bathroom floor, caught in the sudden light. Back then, in the early 1950s, the neighborhood was like that, rundown in a genteel way. A single girl just starting out could afford to live there, though she’d likely feel she was biding her time until she could live elsewhere: on the East Side or in Westchester if she married well.
Although Ann would have said that marriage was the last thing on her mind, her future seemed nonetheless tied up in men. Therefore, it was Hugh she noticed first of the four Sunderlunds. He was extraordinarily tall; she guessed at least six feet five. He slipped though the hallways with the silent watchfulness of a crow. His tan coveralls were smeared with grease, and Ann thought at first that he was the building super. When she realized that the deep greens and earthy browns on his clothes were oil paint, that Hugh was an artist—and not a Sunday hobbyist—she flushed with an old, provincial embarrassment.
Hugh was the most intriguing of the Sunderlunds, but Edith was the most accessible.
“Tell me your secret. How do you stay so slim?” Edith asked Ann whenever she saw her, giving Ann’s waist a squeeze. “As you can see, my interest is strictly anthropological.”
Or she’d press a worn paperback edition of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams or Ibsen’s A Doll’s House into Ann’s hands. “You must read this. It will change your life,” she’d say.
Ann had never met anyone with so little vanity. Edith’s hems drooped; her heavy-framed reading glasses slid down toward the tip of her nose as she rushed through the hallway, her tread heavy in the boxy leather sandals she wore all year. Her curls, threaded with gray, defied all attempts to rein them in. Every few weeks she came around, collecting for one local family or another that was facing misfortune or for “our Negro brothers and sisters in the South.” Each cause seemed so urgent, Ann always dropped some money in the jar. She really had none to spare, and the petty economies she had to practice for days afterward left her resentful and ashamed of her ungenerous heart.
* * *
“When we married, Hugh and I chose a life of voluntary poverty,” Edith told Ann one day. They were standing near the mailboxes in the vestibule of their building. Ann had just donated a dollar to help send a girl from Harlem to college, and Edith was eating hunks of bread torn from a loaf tucked away in her canvas tote bag. Although the sweet, buttery smell of the bread made Ann’s stomach growl, she shook her head when Edith held out the ragged loaf, shy of making her hunger so visible to the world.
“I was twenty,” Edith continued. “So young, it breaks my heart to think.”
Voluntary poverty, Ann learned, meant the Sunderlunds made one another birthday gifts from fabric scraps, the funny pages, cigar boxes that the man at the tobacco shop put aside for them. Voluntary poverty meant that the girls attended the Ethical Culture school on scholarship. (What was Ethical Culture, exactly? Ann couldn’t bring herself to ask, to reveal her ignorance on yet another topic.) In exchange, Hugh cleaned the school building once a week.
Ann learned that Edith was a social worker in Harlem. “We should hang our heads in shame, the way people live up there.” Edith closed her eyes, as she was liable to do when overcome with strong feeling.
She learned that Hugh was indeed a painter. “A painter, not an artist. He hates being called an artist. He finds the word so . . . effete.”
Ann told Edith about her job with Travelers Aid. She was only a caseworker, the bottom-of-the-barrel position, but she knew she was lucky to have a job beyond the usual typing and filing, a job with a higher purpose. She met the boats at the West Side piers and helped the disembarking passengers find their way to their final destinations. The boats arrived from Trieste and Marseilles and Lisbon and Rotterdam. It was so exciting when a boat came in, families crowding on the pier, the dock workers’ cries for coopers and interpreters and doctors. But each arrival was tinged with sadness, she told Edith. Many arrived with nothing more than a cousin’s friend’s address. They’d lost everything in the war.
As time went on, she told Edith about growing up in Waverly Falls, the fourth of seven children and one of twenty-one first cousins. She told Edith how she and all the others roamed from one apartment to another in the triple-decker for meals and play. But there was no privacy ever, she added defensively, anticipating the usual pieties about how warm her childhood sounded. She described the narrow rooms, left unlit through dusk to save on the electric bill. The only art on the walls, she said, were images of Jesus and Mary. Even in the bathroom, they hung there, witnesses to the basest bodily functions.
Ann didn’t quite feel she was speaking as herself but rather that she was performing, turning a childhood that was no more unhappy than anyone else’s into a grotesquerie for Edith’s amusement. She burned with guilt, but Edith simply clasped her hand. “Metaphorically speaking, it is necessary to kill one’s parents in order to leave home.”
Edith herself had grown up in a German-Jewish family on Central Park West, in a ten-room apartment with a maid. (“I could never enter into that kind of relationship with anybody now,” she told Ann, “to tell someone to do what I can easily do myself.”) When she met Hugh, a gentile from Washington State, her parents made her choose between him and the family into which she’d been born. Edith chose. Her mother, not normally a religious woman, said the Hebrew prayer for the dead.
“When the girls were being born,” Edith told Ann on another occasion, “I had no anesthesia. I wanted to feel it all. It was easier the second time, but you still think you’ll split in two. You just don’t believe your body can open up that way. Motherhood is just the same. It rends you every day the same way, but your love is fierce. It’s irrational.”
Did Edith forget how young Ann was, closer to her daughters’ age than her own? Edith’s candor warmed her, but it also unsettled her. To know such personal things: What might she owe Edith in the way of confidences or allegiance?
Several months into their friendship, Edith invited Ann to dinner. “I can’t cook to save my life, but the conversation’s always lively.”
* * *
“Look at you. You are the spirit of fall.”
It was Hugh Sunderlund who answered the door the night Ann came to dinner. His speech seemed both intimate and staged, lacquered with irony and innuendo. Ann was dressed in her tan skirt and rust-colored blouse. The outfit had stood out as the best choice out of the limited selection in her closet, but now that she was standing beneath Hugh’s appraising gaze, it seemed a desperate grasp at sophistication. She regretted the sugar cookies she’d bought at the bakery—she should have gone for the babas au rhum—but all she could do now was hand him the string-tied box.
Edith appeared beside Hugh in a robe of coarse white cloth. “Oh, Ann. You didn’t have to bring anything.”
Hugh said, “Strictly speaking, it’s ‘take.’ You’d say she didn’t have to take anything to us, since her action is away from herself.”
“Give. Take. It doesn’t matter.”
“Of course it matters. Why be wrong if you can be right?”
Edith surprised Ann with a sharp laugh. “Darling. It doesn’t matter in the slightest. Are you planning to serve Ann her dinner in the hall? Ann, please come in.”
Hugh hit his forehead in mock self-abasement. “Excuse my boorish manners. I was, in fact, brought up in a barn.”
The Sunderlunds’ apartment was a mirror image of Ann’s own. Her bedroom likely shared a wall with Hugh and Edith’s, off the living room behind French doors. Her own place was spartan; she relied on one Rya rug purchased on clearance and Impressionist postcards tacked to the wall to distract visitors from the fact that she owned neither a sofa nor a proper bed frame. The Sunderlunds’ living room resembled all the overstuffed rooms where she’d spent childhood Sundays. Like those rooms, this one was crammed with faded rugs and tables carved with dust-catching knobs. But here at the Sunderlunds’, a woman on the phonograph sang in a mournful foreign language. Here, the bookcases sagged with the weight of double-shelved books.
“When I was a child, we had a Bechstein,” Edith said. “Piano. I was the only one of my siblings who played. I was good. I practiced for hours every day. My sister has it now. She still can’t find middle C.”
Edith’s smile seemed to Ann forged with great effort. As was often the case with Edith, her statement, delivered with such matter-of-factness, flickered with an ever-shifting backdrop of emotions Ann struggled to grasp and name. Did Edith expect a response from her? If so, what was she supposed to say?
She was delivered by Hugh, who boomed out, “Come eat” in his languid basso profundo.
* * *
Ann did her best with the fake meatloaf made from lentils and the gelatinous mushroom gravy. She did her best with a stringy, bitter green vegetable and a chewy brown grain. Two skinny cats skulked around the table, pausing to nose up at the plates. They were Persians with singed-looking fur.
“Quit begging, you mangy beasts!” Bianca, the younger girl, shrieked. She had come to the table in an untucked blouse and rumpled kilt.
“What do you think this is, a welfare state?” Edith picked up one of the cats. Cradling it in her lap, she stroked it behind its enormous ears.
“Ma, do you have to wear that housecoat all the time?” the older girl asked. Her name was Imogene.
“It’s not a housecoat. It’s called a djellaba. It happens to be very comfortable,” Edith replied with what sounded like a practiced patience. She turned to Ann. “A friend of ours brought it back from Tangiers.”
“Our rich, successful friend.” Hugh spoke for the first time since he had sat down at the table.
“Tom sold a painting to Peggy Guggenheim for five hundred dollars,” Edith said. “That hardly makes him rich.”
“That makes him five hundred dollars richer than us. You poor dear. When you married me, your fortunes fell precipitously.”
“But they rose in other ways.” Edith smiled gamely and patted Hugh’s arm. She turned to her daughters. “Ann has a fascinating job, girls. She meets the ships that come in and helps the war refugees get settled. Maybe you’d like to hear about it.”
The daughters exchanged lightning-quick smirks. “We’d like to. Very much!” Imogene said.
Across the table, Hugh added in his unfathomable voice, “Yes. Tell us a story from your job.”
A story? Most of the refugees managed to create a life of one sort or another. Once in a while someone could not, and his life took a terrible turn, but that was not the type of story she could tell to entertain people at the dinner table. There was one incident, the closest thing to a story she had. With the Sunderlunds’ eyes on her, she began. A young German woman had disembarked the month before. After landing in New York, she would travel on to a town called Hastings, Minnesota, to meet up with her fiancé. Ann was supposed to bring (take? she wondered now) the woman to her train. However, the woman did not know that there was also a Hastings, New York, and Ann did not think to clarify which Hastings was the woman’s final destination. She accompanied the woman to Grand Central rather than Pennsylvania Station for the Westchester-bound train she believed the woman wanted.
“Oh, no,” said Edith. “What did you do then?”
When she discovered the mistake, Ann had hailed a cab and gotten the woman across town to Penn Station; she’d managed to shove some bills under the ticket seller’s window and load the woman and her suitcases onto her westbound train just as the whistle started to blow. She hoped in her telling to seem resourceful, heroic. She didn’t tell the Sunderlunds how the woman had hissed, “You stupid, stupid girl,” just before she boarded. How Ann stood on the platform perilously close to tears.
Hugh reached for one of her cookies and munched it, scattering crumbs. “If she’d gone to the other Hastings, she might have married someone else entirely. She might have become a torch singer or a racehorse breeder. Her life could have turned out completely different.” Ann noticed that the skin on Hugh’s face was pitted, perhaps with scars from a childhood illness. A girl with skin like that would never have a chance, she thought. Still, he had a certain rough appeal, with his broad Swedish cheekbones and silvering hair. His other features were surprisingly delicate for a man of his size. His eyes were the color of a frozen lake.
Imogene and Bianca glanced at each other. “May we be excused?” they asked in unison.
“Yes, you may,” Edith said. “And I am going downstairs to give Mrs. Neville her soup. Thank you so much for coming, Ann.”
With more than a little relief, Ann realized there would be no awkward lingering over coffee. She had been released.
* * *
“Perhaps you could settle a dispute.”
Caught in her efforts to free her pocketbook from a tangle of scarves on the table near the front door, Ann startled at Hugh’s voice. Edith had left to see the elderly neighbor. The girls had gone to play a game; their screams and laughter carried over from the next room.
“This will only take a minute. One minute. Scout’s honor.”
“What is it?” Ann longed to slip her left foot from her pinching pump. Edith had eaten dinner barefoot. She’d slipped on her sandals to leave with the soup and then only as an afterthought.
“I’m wondering if you’d look at a painting of mine. It’s been the cause of some dissension here.”
“I . . . really don’t know anything about painting,” Ann stammered.
“But you seem like a perceptive girl. I’d value your opinion.”
It occurred to her that Hugh might try to make some sort of a pass, but she dismissed this thought as soon as it entered her mind. She was not the kind of girl to whom such things happened. And Hugh did not seem stupid enough or desperate enough to attempt it with his wife just downstairs and his daughters not twenty feet away. Ann followed him back into the living room. She waited by the dining table, still littered with the remains of the dinner, while he moved into the darkness and turned on lamps. He reached behind a bookcase and pulled out a large, paper-wrapped canvas. He moved bed pillows and a blanket from the sofa and piled them onto an end table. Hugh and Edith slept on that sofa, Ann realized. The girls shared the room behind the French doors. Hugh hoisted the canvas onto the sofa. He untied the knot and slipped the string off the paper.
“Come here. You can’t see a thing back there.”
At first all she saw was black, the paint so thickly layered, he must have applied it with a knife. But as she looked longer, she began to make out a great, mossy foot and leg, cut off at the knee. Knobbed toes twisted out at the bottom of the canvas, reaching toward the viewer. They were brown, midnight blue, deep forest green. Looking longer still, she saw streaks of gold running through them. She saw blood red.
Hugh pointed at the tunneling limbs. “This is the area under discussion.”
It was a test, she believed, of her perceptiveness, her discrimination. “They’re roots. Roots of a tree,” she finally said. “Aren’t they?”
“Sitka spruce. They grow out West. When I was a boy, I slept out in the woods whenever I could. I never brought a tent. The summer I was fifteen, I read the Oresteia by moonlight. Anyway, my wife thinks they look like phalluses. I’d be interested in your opinion.”
So he was attempting a more subtle ambush: to expose her as the uptight Catholic schoolgirl she feared she might always be. Did he think so little of his work that he’d use it to such cheap ends?
Ann turned from the painting. She forced herself to hold his ice-blue gaze. “I don’t think so. The ones I’ve seen don’t look anything like this.”
* * *
After the dinner, Ann felt anxious every time she saw Edith in the hall. The most basic rules of etiquette dictated that she return the invitation, but dinner for the Sunderlunds was not just dinner; it was feints and parries; it was anger masquerading as jokes. There were practical considerations as well. She didn’t own enough plates to invite the four.
“Please don’t worry about inviting us,” Edith said one day at the mailboxes. “I know we’re a lot to take on.”
But the two continued their hallway conversations. Ann learned that Hugh was working on a new series inspired by the atomic testing in Nevada earlier that year. He was waiting to hear about a commission for which he was in the running, a mural about the march of science for the lobby at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. Ann thought the subject wrong for Hugh, but she said nothing. He would be paid three thousand dollars, Edith told her; enough to keep them from the edge of the cliff for another year.
One wintry night, a few months after she went to the Sunderlunds’ for dinner, Ann heard a knock on her door, a jaunty “shave and a haircut” beat. She was just back from meeting the boat from Trieste. She had bundled her passengers into taxis and onto subways, off to the flophouses and cold-water rooms where each would sleep his lonely, fractured sleep. It was nine-thirty, late for company but not yet the hour when a knock signaled an emergency. When she peered through the one-way mirror in the door, Hugh’s face blinked back, distorted through the lens.
It would have been wise to ignore his knock entirely. It would have been wise to leave the chain on, open the door a crack and find out what he wanted. But to be cautious would have exposed the visceral unease he stirred up in her. It would have kept her just where he expected her to remain.
She opened the door and let him in. “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company?” She meant to sound bold, but her voice trailed off uncertainly.
Hugh swept the air with his arm. “I was in the neighborhood. Just looking for that clean, well-lighted place.” He removed a six-pack of Ballantine’s from a damp paper bag.
Ann took an instinctive step back. “Where’s Edith?”
“Out helping the lame and halt.” In an offhand yet fully intentional way, Hugh looked her over. His gaze was like a touch, much more exciting than any of the maneuvers attempted by the man from the play-reading group. Ann wrapped her bathrobe more tightly around herself.
Hugh shook his finger at her, playfully scolding. “You remind me of someone. There’s a painting at the Modern of a movie usherette. You have something of her self-containment.”
Ann laughed uneasily. “I guess I’ll take that as a compliment.”
Several years later, Ann would see the painting again, a famous Edward Hopper. The usherette, who stood alone in the dark in the corner of the canvas, looked shockingly young. Ann would remember Hugh’s comment with puzzlement. She had nothing in common with this girl. She had recently married. She believed herself protected from such vulnerability.
“Here’s where you say, ‘Hugh, can I take your coat?’”
Ann held out her arm, and Hugh draped his coat over it. The sleet crusted on his collar had begun to melt and drip onto the floor. She hung the coat over the knob of her front door. To hang it anywhere else, she believed, would send an engraved invitation for trouble.
“I don’t have any clean glasses.”
“No clean glasses! Now that’s a catastrophe of the highest order!”
Hugh had been drinking already. His oversized, sloppy gestures gave him away. His coat smelled of it, too. Nonetheless, she had let him come in. When he opened a can of Ballantine’s and handed it to her, she took it. Was Hugh so commanding a personality that she abandoned all common sense? She was feeling homesick that night—the sound of sleet against the windows made her homesick for Waverly Falls, whispering in the dark with her sisters. What made her crave his company, such potentially dangerous company? She couldn’t say. Many years later, she still couldn’t say. She showed Hugh into the living room, to the one upholstered chair. She sat across from him in a straight-backed wooden chair. She felt a thrilling turbulence, sitting so close to him; she could perceive him only in fragments The sliver-moons of paint around his fingernails. His finely chiseled brow and nose. His eyes so light they were almost no color at all.
“Chin chin.” He touched his can to hers.
“What are we drinking to?”
“Pfizer Pharmaceuticals.” He pulled out a rumpled paper from his pocket. “After careful consideration, the Committee has selected an artist whose vision is more consonant with that of the company. . . . So here’s to me. Bottoms up.”
“Oh, gosh. That’s a real blow.”
“The money would have been nice, too.”
“You were really counting on it?”
Hugh laughed bitterly. “That money’s been spent many times over. Christ, I’d do better by my family selling pencils on the IRT.”
Ann took a nervous sip of beer. She thought she knew something of the disappointments of women, but whatever failure or grief men experienced they worked out . . . where? At the bar, perhaps. On the ball field. At the Franco- American Social Club. “What does Edith say?”
Hugh slipped into a higher, mournful register. “Oh, Hugh. Those Pfizer men are philistines! They wouldn’t know art if it hit them in the face!”
He closed his eyes with histrionic empathy. How ugly he was, Ann thought. How cruel. But he looked just like Edith then; he sounded just like her. Ann felt her mouth tug itself into a smile.
She said, “Edith is very kind.”
“Edith is a saint. We mortals are lucky to kiss the hem of her skirt. Tell me this. Any poor slob can pick up a paintbrush and call himself an artist. But if you’re not selling your work and you’re not getting shows, you’re not an artist. You’re a loser. And if that’s the case, what’s all the heartbreak for? What is my fucking, two-bit, son-of-a-sawmill-worker’s life for?”
Ann thought herself a modern girl, but she blushed nonetheless when he said “fucking.” She thought of her father and uncles at the paper mill, who believed they worked good jobs for decent pay. She thought of all the stonemasons and cobblers and butchers who poured off the ships, hoping to take up their old lives or a semblance of them.
“There are many ways to have a meaningful life,” she said.
“How did you get to be so smart?”
“I’m . . . not, really,” she stammered.
“Sure you are.”
He reached across and took her hand. He stroked her fingers, squeezing and releasing, squeezing and releasing. His touch was teasing, tender, hungry.
“I should go,” he said, but he did not let go.
“Yes.” The word stuck in her throat like a fishbone.
“No. I really have to go.” Hugh dropped her hand. As he went to retrieve his coat from her doorknob, Ann told herself it was all for the best. Whatever flimsy spell he had managed to cast was now broken.
* * *
Later that night, Ann awakened to pounding on her door. It was very late. Only someone in desperate straits would show up at that hour. Someone who wished her harm. Hugh again? She lay in bed and pulled the covers up over her head. Maybe if she just lay still, he would go away. But the knocking continued, frantic, impossible to ignore. She padded out to the front room. With trembling fingers, she slid away the brass plate and looked through the peephole. Edith’s face goggled back. In the one-way mirror, she looked pop-eyed, wild.
“Ann? Are you there?”
What were you doing with my husband? If Edith were to ask her that, how would she reply? In a literal sense, the answer was drinking beer. Talking. Nothing.
Edith rapped again. “Are you there?”
Ann felt she had no choice but to open the door.
Edith rushed inside. Her overcoat hung open over her nightgown. Released from their daytime pins, her curls spilled down her back.
“Do you know where Hugh is?”
“No, I don’t.” Ann’s heart raced. In her befuddlement, she had forgotten to put on her bathrobe. She felt naked in her nightgown and her bare feet.
“He hasn’t been home all night. I thought you might know.”
“Well, I don’t.”
Edith’s face crumpled. The right thing to do was make her a cup of milky tea, but all Ann could think was, Leave, just leave. The moment passed, like a skip on a record. Edith’s face was smooth again. She clasped Ann’s hand and said, “I forgive you.”
“My husband is a magnetic creative personality. Girls are drawn to him all the time. I understand and I forgive you.”
Ann slipped her hand free. Could Edith read minds, discern the attraction that had flickered momentarily between her and Hugh? “I’m sorry. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Men are different from us. They think they’re strong, but they’re actually very weak. You go around the block a few times, you learn things. Long ago, I decided I have no room for jealousy in my life.”
Ann’s heart pounded with confusion, with guilt, with anger, with fear. “Nothing happened between me and Hugh. I haven’t even seen him tonight. And I don’t think of him, you know, that way.”
“I see. Well . . . ” Edith buttoned her overcoat, then raked her hand through her hair. “Good night, Ann. Have a good night.”
Much later, Ann heard rising and falling voices through her bedroom wall. She heard a woman weeping.
* * *
“Did your parents stay in that building? Are they still alive?” Ann asked Bianca. They had just touched down in Chicago. Soon she and Bianca would disembark, claim their baggage, part ways.
“Of course they stayed. Even after my father died in 1982, my mother stayed. She fell down the subway stairs a couple of years ago. She won’t say it, but she was really pushed. She lost her pocketbook, so she had to have been pushed. Anyway, she was fine until then, but right after that, things took a downward turn and we moved her out.”
Ann could have asked Bianca a thousand questions, but all she said was that it often happened that way: a fall was the beginning of the end.
“You could go see her. She won’t know you from Adam, but she likes having visitors.”
Ann said she would try. She wished Bianca Sunderlund well. She edged toward the aisle and the line of passengers filing past.
* * *
After that night, whenever he passed her in the hallway, Hugh had greeted Ann with the smoothness of a radio announcer.
Edith, as always, rushed through the hall with her overflowing tote bag, those unflattering glasses perched on the tip of her nose. “We must get together. You must come over for dinner again,” she called to Ann over her shoulder, never waiting for a reply.
Did Edith believe nothing had happened? Did she believe the ugly exchange between them had been a dream?
Edith left things at Ann’s doorstep: a pot of soup; a handmade collage, a whirl of razored bits of wrapping paper, for her birthday. The design was beautiful, terrifying. Ann ended up throwing out the soup and leaving the washed-out pot by Edith’s door. She ended up throwing out the collage. She believed Edith was trying to buy her allegiance, to draw the two of them inside a circle that excluded Hugh. Hugh was right about one thing: after a while, you couldn’t live with someone like Edith. After a while, she exposed everything dark within you. Ann stopped returning Edith’s hurried hellos. She pretended not to see her.
That summer Ann met the man she would marry. She and her husband followed the geographic aspirations of the time, moving first into a larger apartment on the East Side, then to Connecticut. They had their children. Years passed. The poisoned river was implicated in a cancer cluster in Waverly Falls. Rod Arsenault, Davey Daigneault, Gerry Dohr and even Ann’s own brother, Roland, succumbed. Ann and her husband divorced. She forgot about the Sunderlunds until articles appeared in the newspaper about the vanishing forests of the Pacific Northwest.
* * *
After Ann returned home from Chicago, she dropped the paper Bianca had scribbled on into a basket on her desk. Star of David Home Convalescent and Care Center. She did not expect to visit. At seventy-seven, she had seen enough friends threaded with tubes in hospitals and extended-care facilities. She had witnessed enough journeys to death.
But one day in the fall, she went into the city for a concert at the 92nd Street Y. Afterward, on a whim, she decided to take a later train back. She wandered over to Park Avenue, then turned south to browse in the shop windows. Everything she remembered was gone: the cafeterias where meals cost less than a dollar, the apartments that could be rented for a quarter of one’s take-home pay.
She passed a white brick building, one of many such along those blocks. Discrete steel letters announced its business: Star of David Home Convalescent and Care Center. Although she felt a wave of atavistic anxiety as she entered the pastel lobby, she knew she had been graced by the gift of a second chance, and at seventy-seven, she knew how rare a gift this was.
Edith was tiny now, a parched little leaf in her hospital bed. Someone had tied a ribbon in her sparse hair. Her fingers were twisted, knobbed with arthritis, yet someone had painted her fingernails pink. It was a shock to see Edith so diminished, done up like a doll.
“Miss Edith. There’s a lady here to see you.” A round-faced nurse’s aide leaned over and spoke directly into Edith’s ear.
“Ann Beckwith. Ann Cyr,” Ann repeated, using her maiden name. “From the building on Columbus.”
“This ear,” The nurse’s aide said in her precise Caribbean accent. “She only hears out of her left.” The beads in her hair clicked together as she bustled out.
Edith registered neither the aide’s departure nor Ann’s arrival. In profile, her nose was like a beak, hooked and astute. All her softness was gone. She’d been pared down to sinew and bone. Ann leaned toward Edith’s left ear. She told Edith who she was, that they had known each other many years ago. She said she had seen Bianca recently, that she remembered both daughters. Slowly, Edith turned her head toward Ann’s voice. Her eyes were milky with cataracts.
“I’m afraid I can’t. I never cross a picket line.” Her voice came out as clear as it had when she was young—and she had been young back then, not even forty.
On a bulletin board across from the bed, tacked beside a calendar of generic nature scenes, Ann glimpsed a black-and-white photograph. She moved closer to study it. In the picture, a couple stood together on a roof against a backdrop of water towers. The man was fair-haired, his features chiseled and handsome. The woman, short and plump, leaned back against his chest. Her dark curls flared in the breeze. The man’s hand rested under her blouse, just above her breasts, on her skin.
“Is that you and Hugh in the picture over there?” Ann said into Edith’s left ear.
Edith blinked. Her mouth twisted but produced no sound.
“You two look so much in love.”
Again that voice: bubbling like a spring from seemingly dry ground. “I was twenty when we got married. I chose a life of voluntary poverty.”
Ann took Edith’s hand. “Yes,” she said. “I know.”
L.E. Miller has published short stories in The Missouri Review, Scribner’s Best of Fiction Workshops 1999, Ascent, C4, and CALYX. “Kind” was selected as a PEN/O. Henry Prize story for 2009. L.E. Miller holds an M.A. in fiction writing for the University of New Hampshire. She lives in Massachusetts with her husband and son and is completing a collection of short stories.