“What’s early, what’s late in my flip-book of time?” asks Lily, the narrator of Maureen Howard’s “Credenza,” a story that is as much about the effort to remember as it is about the memories themselves. Move through this story first word by word, carefully, taking in its separate parts, some scenes brief and enigmatic, others intricate, all of them vivid, and then absorb the whole as you would a flip-book, and you’ll see how the parts form a unified, dynamic illustration of time.
“Credenza” is about one woman’s efforts to understand the past. Aging adds a special kind of pressure. The time for remembering is running out—Lily must hurry if she’s going to reassemble the fragments of memories. The story begins on the drive uptown after Lily and her husband have visited their friends Elsa and Ken for dinner. This is five years after the destruction of the Twin Towers, and Elsa is ill with a lung disease that might have been brought on by her exposure to pollutants from the devastation of 9/11. Lily’s belief that her old friend is dying causes her to reflect, in conversation with her husband, on the objects that Elsa has kept with her through the years, most notably the bulky credenza, with its sunbursts and pilasters. Her thoughts veer to Elsa’s mother, the original owner of the credenza, and then to Elsa’s father, Morris Lerner, Esq. and “one extraordinary evening in New Haven,” when Lily was a vulnerable young woman looking out for herself.
Memory and imagination are interwoven through many of Maureen Howard’s groundbreaking books. From the “facts” slanted with ironic hindsight in Maureen’s early memoir Facts of Life to the collage of history and fiction in her novel Natural History to the mix of fable, documentary, and essay in her final quartet of novels, this writer has urged us to consider the creative, productive aspects of memory. In her agile hands, memory is nothing less than an art, and art in all forms is a means for remembering.
*A note about the editing: In the fall of 2011, Maureen Howard sent me a rough draft of a story titled “Credenza.” Two years later, in 2013, she sent me an incomplete extension of the same story, incorporating portions of new material. She indicated that the longer version would be the foundation for a book-length work of fiction, tentatively titled Lives of the Saints. Due to family and personal health issues, Maureen has not to date been able to complete the book as intended.
The story printed here is an edited version of the 2011 draft, which was originally intended as a self-contained, stand-alone piece. Following from exchanges Maureen and I had over email and in conversation about the story back in 2011, I have made light adjustments that I hope are in keeping with Maureen’s intentions. In a few key passages, for purposes of clarity, I have included material from the later version.
“It was her mother’s, you see.”
Of course, you never knew the corseted roly-poly, that bundle of goodwill, yet you picked up the thread of her story. How she, the mother, kept track of our studies and the boys who hovered around on weekends—boys, and men on the GI Bill, educating themselves for the good times to come with girls arriving in New Haven full of hope for the weekend. Between main course and salad, I’d recalled that Elsa’s mother bought herself a slim paperback at the Yale Co-op, The Great Philosophers, Vol. I. This didn’t figure as amusing to her daughter.
“She attempted to keep up. … So what, Lil? Better stretch than a rubber of bridge with the girls at the JCC. My mother didn’t know squat about the Dialogues, she just had leisure to leaf through the pages.”
For years you counted dinner at the Kleins a trial. Now my old school friend was a worthy obligation. Driving uptown after our failed attempt at play-it-again, you cursed stoplight to stoplight. The sky wept a torrential rain.
I said: “Imagine transporting that monstrous cabinet, settling claw feet in a cramped apartment. Sunbursts on pilasters?”
Safe home, as though I cared a twig, I opened the dictionary. Pilaster, an upright architectural member …
You offered consoling brandy and soda. “Sunburst?”
“… flash of sunlight, esp. through a break in clouds.” I closed the old Webster. We went on about the carvings that failed to lighten the pilasters of the breakfront, avoiding the news that Elsa was ill, that she had perhaps brought it on herself by insisting they move back to the high rise before the ash of debris was sucked into the vacuum of history.
Five years after the day of infamy, my old school pal was sporting a head scarf over the last tufts of gray hair, hands trembling above the food she could not eat. Kenneth had conjured his veal stew with risotto. When their boys were grown, the Kleins took the culinary route, slapped tortillas in Oaxaca, truffle hunted in damp fields of the Périgord. Ken came clean—“They really do stink, the black diamonds.” Instructed by an impoverished Medici, they popped the peel off garlic cloves with the flat blade of a knife. Now Ken was on his own in the galley kitchen with their polished copper pots, Viking range—two ovens. We sipped a fumé blanc, much too good for us. Elsa, quite content with a weak strain of iced tea, happy to be here at all. We had not known from lively e-mails and upbeat telephone chats that her persistent cough had taken a turn to the prospect of dying.
The salad, presented on the white Pottery Barn plates I still adore, was wild arugula dressed with pear vinaigrette. “Bosc with a bit of grit,” our host said, “not fleshy Comice.”
“I will not have this talk of food. The Great Philosophers lay …” Elsa’s cough silenced our laughter. Through the glass dining table I saw Ken bring her trembling hand down to his knee—there, there.
“… lay by my mother’s reading chair, with Women’s Home Companion, and the crocheted throw to comfort her when my father opened the windows. Fresh air fiend in winter, don’t you know? His cold shoulder to domestic bliss. Better believe she read as far as Pythagoras, who advised her not to eat beans—she underlined that to make fun of my studies, ease my bookish achievement.”
And on Elsa went, faint glisten of sweat on her upper lip. A touch of gravel in her throat. “Normal School, crumbling mortar and brick of my mother’s education, long gone with the trolleys. A teacher, lower grades. Times table, cursive—Palmer Method the strong suit. Never thrilled by our dates, Mona envious of our course books, that’s all. My cross to bear, laboring over. …” punctuation of cough, hacking phlegm, failure to retrieve, then—“War and Peace, renewed every two weeks. Disorder and Early Sorrow on our list, remember? Hear the sound of their silence at night, she’s turning the page, he’s jotting notes on his yellow pad preparing for trial, always preparing—embezzlement, fraud, divorce—most … mostly winning his case. She bought the TV with household money, set it next to the credenza. The Honeymooners constant quibbling drove him out of the room.” Elsa’s chirp of laughter trailing to silence.
Appropriately, the pudding with brandied apricots wept a sugary pool. Ken said, “Should have done peach tart with Saga Blue crust.”
As though I sought knowledge of pies, I asked, “Sticky to roll out?”
That dinner, a sharp memory misted with sentiment? Not at all. Elsa recalled that her father, Morris Lerner Esq., withdrew from the threadbare family scene, set up Hi-Fi equipment in an attic bedroom, the very room where we were invited to stay, girls down from Northampton for the weekend. Twin sets and taffeta finery draped his speakers. Our stockings and garter belts thrown on a stack of records still sealed in their sleeves. I figured An American in Paris was never put on the turntable; the plump lady decked out in a bib of pearls never settled at the keyboard. Treading lightly through this silent stage set I wanted to believe I was not invading his space. Law journals, legal pads stacked out of the way bore witness to our girlish confessions of enchantment and heartbreak, to hangovers and flawed testimony of sexual adventure.
Elsa’s hair came in white as first snow in the parking circle viewed from her window. Snow at daybreak, its false promise of world anew, parked cars tucked in chill blankets, no stir of wind from the river. Time stopped. Then the delivery truck, late in its mission, threw bundle after bundle of the New York Times wrapped in blue plastic, scarring the walkways with news for Battery Park City, her home for how many years? Since Ken left pharmaceuticals, joined his father in the rag trade? For the years when their boys rode the subway to Collegiate, backpacks to scale an Alp?
I lose track. What’s early, what’s late in my flip-book of time? When our girl first ripped holes in her jeans. The sweet smell of weed in her T-shirts. Glossies of James Dean, Campbell’s Soup, JFK posted over her bed. When you switched from the Winston account, put your chips on the low tar market. When Elsa taught, how about that, like her mother, though not exactly—volunteered as her civic duty, teaching New Math to children in Chinatown, adding, subtracting eights to the ones column. When you affected garage-band chic to please that chit in the office, flipped your hair back, I must believe, to see clearly.
A little late in the day I swapped Female Malady for Elsa’s Women on the Margins. Ken brought us a vial of saffron good as gold from the street bazaar in Istanbul—his searching out Turkish moussaka, not the Greek mock-up.
We finally took a trip, seeing America at long last, cruised down the Mississippi after your hip replacement, well before my fibrillations. Our last postcards were of a restaurant famous for sauerbraten and of Sears Tower. We’d had enough, now a sharp need to go home. Can’t compete with the Kleins’ travelogue or their time-out adventure round Paradise Pond, still let’s not admit to love’s lapse of attention, to independent variables, just list the telltale of our medications. Best to discover the route back to their day of reckoning—Elsa bribing her way into the apartment. Her miraculous recovery.
Updating: “It’s me, Elsa. Should we try the new guy at the Philharmonic? Name the night.”
I awarded the conductor a mother’s love beyond the mastery of his baton, graceful, athletic, his Haydn brilliant. You offered tickets for the next round, Mostly Mozart. Ken’s hesitating step as we headed across the plaza for cabs. We stood in the lively spray of the fountain. “Afraid not, we’ll be in Paris soon. Cordon Blue, back to basics.”
Elsa’s indulgent laugh, loyal wife of fifty years, “Refresher course … vin ordinaire.”
Occasionally our daughter (Associate Curator, Photography, National Gallery of Art) lunches with the younger Klein boy (Native American Affairs, Property Management). Gives them a chance to catch up on oldies they’ve left stranded in Manhattan. Though I suppose, just suppose they don’t mention our state of being beyond an initial inquiry: They doing OK? Press on to children invested in soccer, Pokémon, school trips to New York. Radio City, believe it? Grant’s Tomb, ever been there? Tuitions looming to the end of time. She’s out of patience with the endgame of luminous photography; derivative moonlight on water, manipulation of the lens begs stillness and shadow—the camera lies. He’s hostage to tribal law, no posse waiting at the gulch to spring him from the desk job. Eavesdropping, e-mailing. I would have them recall the summer of delight we spent together in a musty house on the Connecticut shore—the waterlogged dinghy stinking of fresh tar, vicious croquet, digging buckets of mussels they would not eat. The tandem didn’t work out, three of them, after all. And what of the older Klein boy, removed himself to a woodworking shop in Seattle? A kind soul, rescuing exhausted Greyhounds from a track in Phoenix. Downloaded from my screen their silver bodies sculpted as on ancient coins, no longer trembling, so it seems. I would direct my girl to order a Virgin Mary, Elsa’s son to recall the survival of his mother, who bribed her way into “my home—my home,” before the Kleins were legally allowed back into their apartment for personal effects—passports, birth certificates, pocket watches. Taking her time, she sifted through cuff links, unstrung pearls, broaches of no sentimental value. Alone, without Ken’s aid or abetment, she loitered on the infested carpet, swept a linen napkin over a coating of pale ash on the cursed credenza, the massive relic of her life as a girl in New Haven. It was her mother’s, after all. Pilasters carved with sunbursts supported the possibility of doom, though mid-day light was brighter than she remembered. Gone, gone, the mighty impediments to a clear view of the South Street Seaport, its ships rigged for safe journey to the city’s past. The human scale of the old Custom House, its Corinthian columns, Vermont granite honored once again, a landmark no longer endangered. Her eyes blurred as she stuffed the shepherdess in with her mother’s immigration papers, 1923. No fool, she wore a mask and would insist, once the story of her transgression was out, that two bedrooms, two baths, dining alcove was the one and only home she ever had. Elsa’s trembling hand on my shoulder, “Lil, you can get hold of that.”
I could get hold of the chill in the Lerners’ shingle colonial, its dreary tidiness, plants struggling in half light, a proper place assigned to every vase, ladle, salt cellar. Nothing seemed used—a silver tray offering coffee cups and spoons for midgets. Of course, I dared no more than a glance at the decorative apparatus displayed behind glass doors of the credenza, though gold-rimmed plates were presented for Sunday morning cream cheese and bagels. I never felt entitled to the single bed, plumped pillow, blanket turned back for my comfort. Still, the attic room was a freebie and there was the pleasant chatter in the kitchen with Mona, Mrs. Lerner, more into our lives than her own.
“French is a gift, Lillian, not a language requirement.”
“Why give a ‘hot damn’ for the fella canceled on you twice?”
Tolstoy’s long story, had I written my paper?
And how grand that Professor Von Klemperer had taken an interest in Elsa. “In her work, mind you.”
If memory, its rewrite and invention serves, I walked back one night to the Lerners’ from a party at one of the residential colleges. The tile floor in the common room of my fella’s entry was slippery with beer. Hello Young Lovers whoever you are called to us from a distance. Somewhere they were dancing, not barfing to the lyrics. My fella prepped out with the Berkley seal on his blazer, dead drunk on a couch spilling its guts, his overseas cap, 106th infantry, at a defiant angle. He called to me—loud, insistent—slurring some other girl’s name. Then didn’t I wish he’d canceled again, that I was safely on the train back to the comfort of my college room, a single. I had wanted something from that man, not a boy, the certainty that his library job—cataloging the lively papers of Samuel Boswell in a culling of dates, names great and small, hero worship and wit which I presumed, never having read the biographer’s tattle—might give him a pint of pleasure. Every clever word, stroke of the life noted by my vet in his tedious work would be embalmed, assigned to archival boxes, the graveyard of control—darkness, delivering that sentence with a pinch to my cheek as to a child, sealed in the vault. I surely invented his pleasure in Boswell’s reckoning of days to the hour, each pound and pence accounted for. Did I believe the biographer’s boozing and philandering might send him, the man who canceled, beyond the immeasurable hurt of his time, that we would share a mistrust of hearth and home, the easy fix? I was not fool enough to suggest an answer, cast him as Bogart—wounded, irresistible.
The night I left him slurring that other girl’s name, I had no notion of the distance to the Lerners’ house on Boulevard, a broad street that dropped the terminal “e.” Unsure of finding my way, I set out across campus—passed Morey’s in full swing (no girls need apply), J. Press where my father ordered his ties, the Co-op, of course, Y, Y, Y on notebooks, mugs, sweat shirts. Leaving the known world of true blue behind, I passed drugstore, dry cleaners, a beauty parlor with blank heads offering pageboy or flip, a hard choice, turned left at a crossing, found my way past double-decker houses, then to a neighborhood of two-car garages, gracious front lawns. Engaged in programmed flirtation, I had been driven through these streets with the destination of party or game. You never knew me trying too hard, breathless with self-presentation. I was on my own that autumn evening, walking the many broad blocks back to the Lerners’ priceless bed and breakfast. I’d taken little notice of the season. Fall, a semester demanding attention. Red and yellow leaves losing their luster shuffled under black pumps I’d worn to the tea dance where the Master and his wife might choose not to notice my fella’s unsteady lurch, his silver flask. We never even made it down to the dining hall for a two-step clutch of each other. Now I tripped over tree roots upending the pavement. A cruiser slowed down, tracking a girl in a party dress with a flimsy stole thrown over her shoulders, their suspect smart enough to turn in at a front path with a welcoming porch light. What might the cops charge me with? Soliciting with a broken heart? My self-deception—that I felt no great loss, no more than a difficult assignment put off till Thanksgiving break.
You may wonder, as I recall the clouds shadowing the moon, the sky countering with a sweep of stars, the park-like expanse along Boulevard, my moonwalk round a tricycle, Bud bottles, an undelivered Register, that my memory of the night is elaborate, detailed as to creaking boards of the grey porch, the intruder unseen. Couched in for the nightly news, the family paid no mind to their dog’s grumble at the door. I was nothing to fear, no more than wind fluttering dead leaves. Or you may not wonder at all, for my return to the dark house on Boulevard was a story never told, then carefully edited when you asked years down the road.
That fella, Lil?
We had been watching a documentary—animated maps, Generals Patton and Ike on the move, a company completely untried, the 106th seen crawling through slush, hoping to secure the troops they relieved—9,000 lost in Hürtgen Forest as of that date—on the screen a black arrow targets the Ardennes, then reconnaissance planes—birds of prey grounded in a blizzard.
“Footage,” you complained, “Voice-over from the pulpit.” Dog tags of the dead in profusion.
The soldier, a student when I knew him, never spoke of the bitter cold, slush, and trench slime of his division’s advance across the Meuse.
“Don’t know,” I said, quite offhand when you asked. I knew more than I cared to say. Ghost or phantom lover, he had not often come to mind. A footnote is where I’d found him, a custodian citing his main man.
Boswell: Then, Sir, we must be content to acknowledge that death is a terrible thing.
Samuel Johnson: Yes Sir, I have made no approaches to a state which can look on it as not terrible.—April 15, 1778
So the fellow who canceled was self-sentenced to cool thoughts in the graveyard of control. How dreary, I thought, turned the page not to remember he was Idol handsome with a pale dent in his chin, the scar of a brother’s sling shot. I wondered if he wore the white cotton gloves assigned to him as a student when he turned acid free page upon page of Boswell’s delightful journals.
In my own classroom, I’d spent some years in promoting an impossible course—honesty in writing of the self, whoever she is.
That evening, we watched to the end of WWII in silence.
“Footage,” you said, “unbearable footage.” Our troops freeing the camps, feeding the starving Belgians. You never asked about the man on the GI Bill again, a keeper of rare books and manuscripts in the vault.
End of a fella’s story, but not of that night in New Haven, cops checking me out, a harvest moon competing with stars. The passage deleted was my return to the Lerners, a solitary light where I was to bed down, not a welcoming view. Elsa had no current attachment to call her home. Side-stepping my humiliation, at best a failed mission, I found my way up the dark flights. Through the doorway of the attic room I saw Morris Lerner positioned before the same long mirror in which I had prepared my healing mission of the night in swing skirt and heels before heading back to campus, reverting to schoolgirl in knee socks and loafers.
Hrumph, hrumph, a comic clearing of throat, a declarative rustle of pages, “Home early?” he asked. It was evident, clear as his confusion gathering the legal pads and books littering the bed, apologizing for butts in an ashtray.
When I turned to go, to go where? Mr. Lerner held me by the arm, the flimsy network of my stole affording no protection from his grasp, his silent direction settling me into the wicker chair where earlier that evening I had aligned the seams of my stockings, tested the clasp of my pearls. I’d seen little of Elsa’s father, who flipped his hand in dismissive greeting, scooted out of our way. He was stocky—broad forehead, pug nose, chin leading with touch of aggression—a blown up image of Elsa, smart talk at the ready. His quick judgment—I was perhaps not dismissible—recalled my first day of college when his daughter looked up from A History of Political Theory, found me worthy of her attention. I would do. Now her father was apologizing again for his intrusion, had presumed I’d be enjoying the frivolities on campus while he took himself out of the way. What solitary way might that be?
“My wife settles to her TV, watches late into the night. You must understand, Lily,” Morris, promoting first names, explained, “my purpose for invading your space grants me leniency.” Considered pause. “I am invited, hrumph, an honor for a hometown attorney, to judge at the law school, Moot Court. Be ready come Monday, question rapid fire as in a courtroom, the student presenting his argument. As in, say, the infamous Plessy.”
A Civics Lesson up in the attic.
“Discrimination in a matter of race.”
At school we might choose to study Government—not me, not yet—head in the clouds, finger in the page where I left off with the sword of Achilles, the trials of Percival, veil of the Virgin in one or another medieval romance. He, Morris, seemed excited by our trial, sole prosecutor assigned to my case.
“Better know his Plessy, fairly and equally did not give petitioners the right to the brotherhood.”
“Flimsy case, could not bear the weight of retrial. Moot is, you understand, hypothetical. Prepare to find fault with plaintiff’s argument.” Morris’ forehead heavily scored with the problem now confronted, a girl on the loose, age of his daughter, “Our roles, both mine and the litigator’s who, one day we presume, will present his case in the public arena.”
Something like that … a rundown of moot, going on in this fashion, his opinion—students must not rely on brilliant delivery. “Not in my judgment. Well written briefs part of the bargain. We pass on, never read them. I need not know who won the last round. A brilliant system, Lily, to consider only the argument of the moment.”
Hindsight: With weight, Brown v. Board of Education would be re-argued within the year. I would not see Mr. Lerner again till graduation day when Elsa collected her cum laude. He was attempting to hitch his daughter’s bike to the roof of a station wagon. My father came to his aid with a lanyard, my Raleigh already secured.
“That’s Lily,” Elsa said. Morris nodded my way.
We were clearing out of there, out of the brick dorm we lived in for four years. Mothers in Spring dresses, husbands in seersucker suits, madras ties bought at the same shop in New Haven. This was not Morris as I knew him in shirt sleeves, collar open revealing the scoop of his undershirt, wiry grey hair, sweat of full engagement in his delivery, brief for the petitioner, his narrow smile above the big chin tilted my way, radiator clanking in the chill attic on Boulevard, nothing easy in his manner. Brief for the respondent: his words weighted heavily, dead on arrival, then his breath charging up, direction of proposal unclear, “Lily?”
Lightening up, he ran his nicotine fingers over my flimsy silk stole. Spittle of hurmph in my ear. Did I fear he’d make a pass? Trust he’d deal me a fatherly pat, a gesture connecting him to the world of the living? For some years I counted my swift move heroic, more than a saving grace. I ducked out of the creaking chair, in a fall back position made a dash round the bed. Morris outwitted, speechless as I positioned his turntable on top of the dresser, shoved speakers out of the closet. Then, didn’t he pitch in, lift the arm of the phonograph, testing for a needle as though an evening of music had been his intention all along. Elsa’s dad scrambling on his belly for an outlet while I tore the wrapping off one album, then another. In quick flips through Ellington, Benny Goodman, Beethoven Sonatas, he chose Gershwin—placing the LP with reverence, setting the arm to play the version from heaven. Carnegie Hall—Lenny Bernstein in his glory. So, we sat primly on the edge of the narrow bed listening to taxi horns and tenor sax of Parisian traffic. I gave in to unearned nostalgia, lure of the oboe calling deep down, an empty note. Who was I to judge Morris Lerner’s hypothetical intentions? We were adrift on an extraordinary evening in New Haven.
Supreme Court Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, judging Moot Court at Columbia Law School (February, 2011), remarked upon moot’s “fictional appeal” as an exercise though not merely a story.
Mona sliced a second bagel, placed it on a gold rimmed plate. Milk in a silver pitcher for my coffee. “You had no supper?”
Fashion note, yet another to cover my shame: I dressed as a good girl, cardigan and kilt skirt, for the next train back to school. She looked a parcel in a stiff wrapper drawn to her barrel body, yet her arms, lifted to pin up bottle blonde hair, were graceful; her feet, tap tapping across the kitchen floor, dainty. Mona, bright brown eyes, Kewpie lips—had she been, in a life before Boulevard, a pretty girl? We whispered as though to wake the dead—Morris. Had I really walked home the many blocks from campus? Home, her smile at the slip of that word. We had minutes at best before a cab would take me to the station. Yes, I had my return ticket, money-in-case, and there by the pantry door, my overnight bag.
“I was reading last night,” Mona said, “often do in the back room meant for a maid, once meant for a maid. Reading Tolstoy, your story. Tell you what—the worst part not when he’s bored with his wife. Not when he’s passed over so—so, he’ll never be a judge in the University town. The worst, not when he dies. Lily, best time of his life, fussing with his new house. Wallpaper makes him happy, antique table, pretty chairs. What’s sad …”
My cab drew up with a gentle peep, not to disturb Sunday Morning on Boulevard. I was sent off with a noisy kiss, dealt a fistful of cookies hidden somewhere in the brown paper bag of her garment. What’s not sad, what Elsa’s mother never told me—Ivan Ilyich was happiest when alone.
My paper was subjected to a terse comment from the professor, something to do with my misreading of gender, her view years ahead of that time. I had misunderstood her assignment: read the writer into the page. Tolstoy’s story revealed the scourge of ambition in a hierarchical society. Women were low on the ladder in a man’s game. I never noted Tolstoy’s cruelty to his wife. In a red pencil: The death of Ivan was brought about by drapery, his weak infatuation with décor. That note I recall truly, but never had a chance to pass the news to Mona Lerner. I moved on from the attic room in New Haven to foreign films, solo each Saturday night.
We are meeting at The Oyster Bar. Ken loved it in June, the short season when the herring were flown in from the North Sea.
“He always ordered Bluepoints to begin with,” Elsa says, “gilding the lily, wouldn’t listen to me.”
She will be moving to Alexandria, elderperson condo, easy access, first floor. “Brick with white pillars at my door, Jeffersonian. Ken would not tolerate the kitchenette.” The principle comfort being her son, not his demanding wife.
“Having it her way, no summer fun for the kids—canoe trips, tribal dances, penny arcade. She prefers Sovereign nation of DC. Ancient Hurtgen blanket, a gift to her husband, thrown to the Salvation Army.”
“Good move,” you say, “avoiding the money-market. What did they give in return?” With a pronged fork you make your way through a dozen oysters—noisily sucking juice from the shell. Fried calamari to follow, herring not to your taste. Still, we have the sense of a fitting memorial. Elsa is frail. We noted the weight loss during her year of mourning, a sharp catch in her throat, flutter of hands. Little lady in a purple suit defiantly cheery, butterfly pinned to the lapel, gift of her late husband. “Georg Jensen,” she says, “silver work of the Fifties. Lovely trip. In Stockholm, there’s your live herring squirming in the nets.”
You backcomb the phantom flop of salt and pepper hair, check your cell for the time, blazer pocket for reading glasses, depart with kisses for the girls. You had arrived from yet another meeting of minds to improve the weary world, having given up on natural gas you opted out, are now free of further reports, free to write copy pro bono for brilliant young men urging us to invest belief in their wind mills. Or just to invest. Slight of hand, you may dodge the coastal tribes’ anger at wind farms, interferes with their fishing.
Back to talk of school, we recall our noble housemother, chin up through a messy divorce, mealy Friday night crab cakes, Cinderella hour of the curfew—but that’s over, so over. Elsa searches through a canvas bag with frayed handles. She brings out the folder of tattered clippings I’ve seen and acknowledged: evidence of microfibers, asbestos all at a distance. A new photo from the Times: view of a troubled survivor shot from above—foreground empty, skyline now at a distance.
“Too many contradictions, Lily, far too many. No certainty given the blinds were drawn, sealed tight. No proof, medical or moral, that I intended harm to myself or by collateral damage, harm to my family.”
I’ve heard the oral presentation on the phone, in a cab on our way to the Courbet show at the Met; read her brief online, a lengthy affair claiming sufficient safety precaution of the mask and plastic gloves, surely admissible as evidence—the blinds, as directed, carefully trashed. Morris Lerner would judge the blink back of tears a poor performance, his daughter’s swift retreat to reasonable cause moot, her brief shaky, fragmented as only her story can be. At the time limit set by dessert and coffee, she falters. We order rice pudding, once comforting when served to us warm, end of supper.
We are under the arches of a lively mosque, a provincial duomo dedicated to seafood in Manhattan, the span of each golden rib illuminated, the better to see the cost of our meal. No view of Grand Central Station above.
It is the window that makes it difficult
To say good-by to the past and to live and to be
In the present state of things as, say, to paint
In the present state of painting and not the state
Of thirty years ago.–Wallace Stevens
We were taught—dipped into Kafka, still new on the block, overdosed on Jane Austen, dressed up for those dances, kissed till our lips were raw, nipples stiff against some fella’s jacket then the slippery silk of his loosened tie to begin, felt our way through translations from the French, moved to the city, typing our way to the top—taught to go on with whatever we had that came in handy, old math, Tolstoy, hearth and home.
“We’ll be coming down,” I say. “Before Spring Break we were at the National Gallery. Our daughter lectured.”
She’s not listening, or not hearing, rummaging in the canvas bag where her clippings, nolo contendere, are in tatters. Elsa’s chin thrust forward, am I worthy? It seems, by the glint of her smile, I’ll do. She hefts a parcel, smaller than a shoe box, bigger than a milk carton. Bubble wrap in brown paper: it must be handled with care to move with her, move on. The credenza. Each sunburst, dainty claw foot particular in all details, pilasters to hold it steady above the credit cards, Elsa’s and mine, thrown down together.
“It’s perfect,” I say, indeed it is, “perfectly beautiful.” Gift of the missing son, craftsman out in Seattle.
“He worked from photos. See the little glass doors for display. The knobs, did you ever notice? With sunbursts.”
We speak of the credenza’s travels from home to home. We speak of her mother, using her mother’s first name.
Show and tell time? I have a picture in mind, an image we might view on my iPad, Ruins of the Parthenon. It is by Sanford Gifford, an American artist—illuminist, Hudson River School. My daughter believes he made use of photography in this last painting, end of his life; that he used an albumen photograph taken by a friend, William Stillman, supposedly to get the monument right, squared away, I might say, though Gifford had measured the girth and curvature of each column, took notes: There is hardly a straight line in the building. The camera just could not get the picture as the artist imagined it. He called it The Portrait of a Day. Well, many days, as our girl made clear in her lecture, with Gifford’s Parthenon gleaming behind her, the architectural rubble rearranged. He set the foreground low, imported a single tower from Genoa to the scene and a fragile colonnade of Greek maidens to face off with the mighty bulk of the temple. She suggested that beyond bright blue water, the mountain range in the distance might be from memory, the Adirondacks as Gifford painted them on a fine day.
I do not speak of Gifford’s picture, or admit that I was somewhat lost in his rejection of halftone and the mechanics of platinum printing, but not in our daughter’s claim for the artist’s tried and true oil on canvas, for the Parthenon he was free to imagine, for his mistrust of moon mist on water and dark shadows of the American Sublime. Beauty of ruins is not a story for Elsa. We can’t lift the broken fragments, arrange them in a field to our liking. And who are they in the picture, at center stage, a Greek guide, a scholar? Two little figures, so out of scale, attempting to translate some message from the past.