It didn’t look like a New York kitchen. It reminded Bern of a Cold War California ranch house, a long, slender space showcasing massive appliances (an old electric Kenmore sheathed in bacon grease), linoleum tile floor and Formica countertops, blind storage corners and a sink cabinet as big as a washtub. Tentatively, he tested the stiff buttons on the soap-encrusted old dishwasher.
Just a week ago, he’d rented this small apartment on Perry Street. The bulky kitchen overwhelmed the rest of the place (actually, a single open area partitioned by bamboo screens); poorly ventilated, it disseminated years of liver and onions, garlic, and black-eyed peas throughout the apartment; and the too-big window above the kitchen sink overlooked a grimy brick wall next door.
Since being forced into early retirement (a casualty of the architectural firm’s cost-conscious restructuring), Bern had been searching for a modest, relatively cheap apartment within the bounds of his pension, knowing he could no longer afford to live in his furnished flat in Chelsea. He had lucked into this place on Perry, in an otherwise high-end neighborhood, because the owner knew it was a bit of a wreck. The guy was desperate for a new tenant and seemed mired in financial tangles Bern wanted no knowledge of as long as the deal worked to his advantage and required nothing illegal on his part: theirs was a typically Byzantine transaction in the enigma of New York real estate.
Perpetual dusk appeared to swamp Bern’s room. No direct sunlight could penetrate its cheerless corners. On moving day, as he hung his clothes in the catch-all closet, including the work suits he’d never wear again, he discovered that a sheet of rickety plywood, rough and unvarnished, was all that separated his room from the apartment next door. Apparently, a previous tenant had kicked a hole in the wood, near the bottom. Someone had tried to seal the gap by stuffing into it a paperback copy of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, so speckled with mold its cover resembled the exotic shell of a rare bird egg.
Bern knew that his neighbor, a young playwright he’d met briefly in the hallway, was moving out in a few days. This pleased Bern. The fellow’s habits were in no way extravagant, but the merest chair scrape next door reverberated mercilessly in Bern’s apartment, especially through the closet.
That first week, he set about trying to feel at home in his new neighborhood. He was also trying to master the Web (this had been a failing of his at work). Wi-Fi mystified him—after the cable man’s third visit, once the guy finally got things working, Bern read online that the street was named for the U. S. naval hero Oliver H. Perry, who said famously during the War of 1812, “We have met the enemy and he is ours.” This statement was altered, even more famously, by Walt Kelly, creator of the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Bern’s grandfather used to read Pogo to Bern when he was a child; the memory warmed him.
From some of his final projects at the firm (remodelings and fixer-uppers in various neighborhoods, including some near Perry) Bern knew how restless the restless city had become. In the last ten years, the artists and avant-gardes of the Lower East Side had decamped to Brooklyn, which was getting too expensive for them now, and the Upper East-Siders were migrating to the West Village, a new oasis for the wealthy. There, just east of the river and south of 14th Street, doctors, Wall Street brokers, and television actors were busy buying up apartments.
The playwright next door was moving out because he could no longer afford to stay in New York.
Occasionally still at Extra Virgin, Sant Ambroeus, or one of the other neighborhood restaurants whose kitchens gave the street air a vaguely fishy smell, you’d overhear some tiresome artist-philosopher wondering “what constitutes the self.”
Mostly, though, young artists had been driven off the island. In Manhattan, what constitutes the self is how much the self keeps in its bank account.
Bern was piercingly aware of this truth whenever he received his monthly pension checks—and on the morning he’d gone shopping to furnish his new place. On the corner of Bleecker and West 11th, he’d popped into a store called Bookmarc, thinking he might buy a small table lamp. The store was run by a famous fashion designer. Its book selection reflected not literary value but “lifestyle choices,” hipness, taste—as signified by the lurid cover layouts and the obvious expense. The idea was to broadcast one’s Election by leaving certain books around the pad. Volumes by and about the Beats; gay and lesbian titles notable for their “transgressive” jackets; cult film tie-ins (Psycho, Badlands, Warhol movies); histories of punk rock; portfolios of bruised and anorexic models.
Cult equaled edgy, stylized violence featuring acres of naked flesh. Everything air-brushed but the price tag. Bern thought, Don’t these guys ever come up with anything new?
In the future, these books would be used to accessorize the home, like Native American pottery displayed under track lighting in a corner of the kitchen where no one was ever allowed to sit, or a handcrafted Persian rug in an unused corner of the den. Restaurant start-ups would scour stores like this for decorative books, the way they sought faux antiques (“old” gas station signs, “original” Coke bottles) to create a funky atmosphere for their eateries.
Bern left Bookmarc, went back to his empty apartment, and pulled The Hunchback of Notre Dame from the hole in his closet. He’d finished the novel once before, in a college English class, but he promised himself he’d reread it cover to cover in the next few days, a private rebellion against the tyranny of e-books, computer screens, and overpriced crap.
The mold on its pages was so pervasive, he fell into an hour-long sneezing fit and stashed the book in an ill-aligned kitchen drawer that wouldn’t close all the way.
The following morning, on the hunt again for furniture, he re-embraced the spirit of nesting. He passed a coffee shop and the sidewalk burned beneath his feet. Roasting, underground? The city and its magic beans! Later in the day, he noticed Chimney Swifts tucking sticks and mud inside niches of brick on a shaded corner of Behune Street. A man who’d stopped to watch the birds with him told him the best time to catch them was while waiting for the M 11 bus at dusk. “They spend so much time in the air, their feet are nearly vestigial,” the man explained, “like the bound feet of Chinese princesses.”
Not even the despair of a CVS Pharmacy, its shoddy merchandise locked behind glass cases, could squelch Bern’s enthusiasm for starting over. Nor was he overly perturbed when a dirty-blonde woman shaped like a microwave shipping box stopped him in his building’s basement when he carried his laundry down there one day.
“Who are you?” she said. The fuck—as in, “Who the fuck are you?”—was silent but understood. Bern introduced himself. She said her name was Marie. The super. She pointed to the building’s one amenity: a small, enclosed garden at the basement’s north end, past a row of dryers, where a door leaning partway off its hinges opened onto an unexpected festival of grass about the width of a standard elevator shaft.
Bern didn’t need amenities. The building fascinated him, plenty. The Fire Safety information posted in the entryway above the mailboxes said it had been built in 1850. Apparently, a few old Jews lived here—kvetchers like his grandpop, maybe. Bern saw packages in the hallway arriving from Israel (faint, almost Alzheimery handwriting). He saw a gray-and-white cat lingering around the basement door in the evenings. He counted four flights of stairs, each consisting of fourteen steps plus a narrow landing separating each flight, between his apartment and the laundry room (this is how a retired architect spent his days!).
He loved the yellow walls and green wooden window trim in his apartment, the small fireplace framed by its honey-brown mantel, especially now that he’d really claimed the place by purchasing a futon to sleep on (instead of the old floor mattress he’d been using) and a blue-green hutch and matching kitchen table. The bathroom doorknob kept coming off in his hand. The shower was a bust: the hot water played hide-and-seek. But these were things he could fix.
He took great pleasure in standing on his stoop of a morning, glancing left and right up the street, and deciding which direction to take for the day. The stoop contained five short concrete steps, surrounded on either side by a stone balustrade and two pots cupping leafy plants. The stoop was neither public (like the sidewalk) nor private (the entryway and the vestibule): it was a transitional space, in a transitional period of Bern’s life, an observational perch offering the temporary illusion of invisibility, as he watched the world march by him before moving to join it . . . one more hesitant instant . . . and then he’d take the plunge . . .
Across the street, a vintage clothing shop; to the left—heading west—restaurants with simple sidewalk seating; to the east, the busy stream of Seventh Avenue traffic.
One evening, at the apex of the building’s stairwell, he discovered a small door leading to the rooftop. A previous tenant had left two aluminum-and-nylon lawn chairs up there and Bern took to sitting on the roof, late nights and early mornings, wearing only his boxer shorts in the sweltering heat. As the sun rose he enjoyed taking a cup of coffee to the roof, peering down at people striding in their painted shoes, aiming their painted faces into the sooty wind, and sliding through the banks’ glass doors to get their money for the day. What did they do after that? Buy more face-paint? He was relieved not to be hustling among them, a dedicated professional, and convinced himself his retirement could be a rebirth—until the day his internist told him, having run his blood counts for a routine six-month check-up, that he had prostate cancer.
He was going to get new neighbors. “Young couple. Be moving in, next two weeks or so,” Marie informed him. Unwelcome news: since the playwright’s departure, the closet had not so much as coughed. Bern’s nights had been blessedly free of foot-shufflings from beyond the plywood, of spoon-stirrings-on-glass-rims and, most appallingly, the little Windows riff whenever the playwright’s computer came on. And now, with a pair of people living next door, the noise factor would double. Clatterings, bumps, skreeks. And voices—oh God.
Plus, their arrival would coincide with his post-surgery recovery, when he’d be mostly bed-ridden and forced to wear a catheter. He’d be helpless, unable to get up to tell them to turn their music down or to stop using the blender for midnight milkshakes. He might even have to depend on these strangers.
He pulled the Hunchback out of his kitchen drawer and tried to stuff it into the closet hole, but the book came apart in his hands. He tossed its three or four pieces into the drawer, which once again failed to close.
Agitated, and panicked by what lay ahead, Bern went walking one day (walking always helped), straight across Gansevoort toward the High Line, the old elevated railroad track turned into a lovely garden walkway. It was one of his favorite spots in the city; it had become everyone’s newest happy find.
Reclamation: one of the nicest words in the language.
Today the High Line was crowded to an unpleasant degree, increasing Bern’s distress, so he just kept walking. He cut through the Meatpacking District: lots of fashion boutiques, faceless mannequins exuding chilly eroticism. Did he imagine a twitch in his prostate? Shit: from here on out, his health care costs were going to split-and-spread like a virus.
For a duplex he’d helped design once, he’d calculated that most New Yorkers, when gathering their basic necessities for the week (food, toiletries, medicines), considered a reasonable amble to be about ten minutes; at an average walking speed of three to four miles per hour, this translated into six to eight short blocks or three to four long ones. A little breathlessly, he realized he didn’t yet know the parameters of his new neighborhood, much less where to find everything he was going to need while recovering from prostate surgery. He’d tried so hard to claim Perry Street as his own, but suddenly it felt like alien territory again. He longed for the familiarity of Chelsea; after all, he’d lived there for nearly thirty years.
He headed up the Avenue of the Americas then angled over toward Fifth and the Flatiron.
In Chelsea’s Madison Square Park, he took a shaded bench seat and watched young families playing with Frisbees and dogs. He supposed his new neighbors would be an energetic couple like one of these, though thank God Marie had mentioned no children. Bern would not be a father now. Of course, kids had never been in the cards for him. His last lover had left him years ago and he’d gotten used to being on his own. Still, it had rankled him a little when his doctor casually assumed Bern was past even the possibility of desiring parenthood: “Good thing fertility’s no longer an issue for you,” the man had muttered.
The doctor had extolled the virtues of “robotic surgery,” unquestionably the best option in Bern’s case. It’s true, he said, the medical establishment had begun to second-guess the validity of certain PSA screenings and it was also true that Bern would never really know if doing nothing at all about the disease might be the best bet. Prostate cancer was so slow growing, Bern might be fine in the long run. But his biopsy had indicated low-to-moderate risk, and at fifty-eight he was just young enough not to take any chances. Radiation treatments couldn’t guarantee no recurrence of the cancer someday. Get rid of the prostate now and just forget about it. Yes, you might lose your erections. Yes, you might experience difficulty controlling your bladder from now on. But potentially you’ll have given yourself many more years to live.
“The robotic thing is fantastic,” the doctor told him. “A series of mechanical arms, so much more precise than the human hand, which is what you want in such a delicate area of the body, with so many important nerve endings. You know, the testes and the anus . . . we’ll go in right beneath your navel . . . in the O. R., I won’t be sitting anywhere near you. I’ll be manning a console clear across the room, controlling the arms from there. For me, it’s kind of like playing a video game. Good fun! Medical technology—it’s just amazing these days!”
Yes, thought Bern. So many ways to ruin a fellow’s hard-on.
Trouble: walking toward him now from the direction of the Flatiron was an elderly man he’d often seen in his days as a resident here, one of the city’s aimless talkers and ubiquitous presences on the street. An old nuisance who’d snag strangers in the park and harangue them with God knew what sort of nonsense. Today he had on a green, short-sleeved shirt with a collar far too big for him: his old man’s neck had shrunk. His black loafers were sloppily polished and his khakis were baggy. As he sauntered into the park, he smiled to himself with the deepest pleasure; his bearing suggested a sly modesty. The small, rounded bones in his shoulders were like a pair of light sconces on either side of his neck. Perhaps because Bern had the mold-smell from the Victor Hugo book on his hands—or he imagined he did; it seemed he could never wash it off—he thought, as he watched the fellow approach in the blue shadow of the slender building across the street, Hunchback of the Flatiron.
Normally, Bern would have moved when he saw the man coming but something paralyzed him now. The weight of his prostate? The desire for familiarity—the reason he’d walked so far—even if it was an annoying form of comfort? An immense weariness resulting from the recent changes in his life, and the prospect of further uncertainty?
Get up! When they removed his prostate, would he become a withered old husk?
But instead of approaching him, the old man veered off to stop a hapless young couple. The pair stood, dismayed, with their backs against a tree. He yelled, “The whole damn city’s a massive con, but my God, you’ve got to admire it! The contractors, the city councilmen, the architects—if it weren’t for them, I would have been a millionaire three or four times over.” Thin white whiskers, unevenly clotted, spiked his face as though a bag of flour had exploded in front of him. His pink chin looked naked and vulnerable beneath the trembling hairs. “Ah, well. I did okay,” he said. “Made and lost several fortunes and had a pretty good time along the way.”
Desperately, the couple picked up the blanket and thermos they’d laid on the grass and began to edge away from him. By now, Bern had found a pinch of energy and was halfway out of the park.
Back in his place on Perry Street, he checked his mailbox—empty except for a Domino’s Pizza flyer, a Chinese take-out menu, and an ad for some new health insurance outfit (how did they know so quickly whatever was going on in our lives?). He paused by the basement door to scratch the gray-and-white cat between the ears. The cat followed him up the four flights of stairs to his apartment. Five or six boxes from UPS and Amazon were stacked against the wall beside the door of the apartment next to his. There was no stopping these people. His peace would soon be broken. “Kitty, you might as well go away,” Bern said to his companion. “I don’t have any cat food or milk.” But the creature just purred and rolled over on its back in the hallway. Bern brought it a bowl of water and that seemed to satisfy it. A couple of hours later, when he went to take out his trash, the cat still sat by his door.
His surgery was scheduled five days from now at Presbyterian. Normally, he’d have booked the procedure at St. Vincent’s, his favorite old hospital, but St. Vincent’s was being demolished to make room for a luxury condo, completely out of scale with its surroundings. What was the old loon nattering about in the park—the whole city’s a con? Well, hard to argue. From what Bern had heard while still at the firm, the hospital board, in collusion with politicians and developers, had conspired to drive St. Vincent’s into bankruptcy. Then they spread rumors that the place had been mismanaged. Later, in public meetings, the developers convinced the Village’s residents that new condos would bring jobs to the neighborhood, offering numerous health care benefits to the community. Delicious! Health care! As they were tearing down the neighborhood’s sole remaining hospital!
Twice in the past Bern had been a patient at St. Vincent’s. Rushing through a project, once, in his office—the redesign of a firehouse, he recalled—he’d accidentally stabbed himself in the wrist with an X-acto knife and wound up in the emergency room. In his early forties, he’d had a double bypass, his tattered heart a genetic gift from his family, he figured, probably just like his cancer. Mostly, he’d been fond of St. Vincent’s for its good works. In the mid-80s, one-third of its beds had been filled with AIDS patients. Just after 9-11, a spontaneous memorial appeared on the building’s brick wall featuring pictures of the missing and flowers pinned to a bulletin board along with tear-stained notes to the dead. Across the street, on a chain-link fence, people from all over the country hung ceramic tiles imprinted with smiley faces, radiant suns, and messages of support for the citizens of New York. The tiles were like cave drawings or ancient prayers etched in stone. Now it was all gone and the hospital lot was just another construction zone. Skateboarders and trick-cyclists had taken to performing daredevil feats on the uneven sidewalks here, imperiling pedestrians. The maw of the dying building, the sparking wires and insulation spilling like intestines to the ground, seemed to have drawn reckless souls to this spot. An infestation of flies.
Beyond the hospital, Bern scoped out his neighborhood for apple juice and Jello, washcloths and tissues. He wound up buying most of his post-surgical supplies at a big chain store called Gourmet Garage over on Seventh, next to several new paint-by-number markets: the United States of Generica.
At home, he put away the Jello and the juice, stripped to his boxers, and went to the roof. Since the other night, the cat had trailed him constantly and followed him up now, where the air was much cooler than inside the building. Bern had bought some milk, leaving it in the mornings in a bowl outside his door. The cat liked Romaine lettuce (Bern discovered this when he’d almost dropped a grocery sack, spilling some of its contents); he sprinkled a few small leaves in the hallway during the day.
He sat in a nylon chair and closed his eyes. Right away, “S’cuse me. You’re not gonna jump, are you?” someone said behind him. He turned in his chair, startling the cat, which scurried to a corner of the brick cornice at the far end of the roof. A young woman with short black hair stood in the doorway, squinting into the sun. She wore jeans and a sleeveless tank top, the color of an overripe avocado. In the glary light, Bern saw her bright physical outline, mildly rounded in the middle and tapered at the top, like a yellow-green squash. Jump? Was his despair that apparent? Then he realized he was nearly naked. He pulled his legs up and tried to cover himself with his arms.
She was smiling. “Norah Sale,” she said. A faint Southern accent.
“Bern? Oh then—we’re going to be moving in next to you. Marie gave us your name. I hope those boxes haven’t been in your way.”
“But about this fella, now.” She pointed at the cat. “What’s his name?”
“I don’t know,” Bern said. He crossed his arms on his chest.
“Well, it’s awful, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to get rid of him. Or we’ll have to work something out. I’m sorry, but I’m terribly allergic and I really can’t have him hanging around the hallway.”
“He’s not my cat.”
She narrowed her eyes.
“It’s true, I’ve been feeding him a little and I’ve given him some milk—”
“Then he’s your cat.”
“He belongs to the building. He was here before I arrived.”
“I don’t know what to say to you. You’ve taken him on, and now I’ve got to ask you to keep him away from our floor, ‘cause this guy and I—we just can’t coexist, okay? I’m sorry.”
Maybe her husband will be more reasonable, Bern thought.
“All right. Well . . . ” She turned and disappeared through the rooftop door.
Bern went to his apartment and dressed. Then he carried the bowl of milk down the four flights of stairs to the basement’s entrance. Thin, brown carpet, worn in places, loose beneath his feet, covered the stairs. In the heat, the winding motion, circling from landing to landing, made him dizzy. He balanced the bowl delicately in his fingers so he wouldn’t spill the milk. When he returned to the fourth floor, the cat still purred by his door.
Not my concern, Bern thought: neither Norah nor the cat. He undressed again and sat at his kitchen table, glancing at a checklist of chores to complete before going under the knife. No, you couldn’t say that anymore. Submitting to the robot?
Pay the utilities, renew MoMA membership (could he keep this, on his pension?), Jello and juice, no he’d got those . . .
Sure enough, the noise began. A thump, a sigh like an old pneumatic drill. What was she doing over there?
He walked to the closet and opened the door. Christ. Did she own a buzz saw? Probably an espresso maker. He pressed his palm against the vibrating plywood then he stepped back, afraid if he pushed too hard he’d knock down this makeshift wall and find himself sprawled on the floor of his neighbors’ apartment.
He set the checklist aside. Mindless tasks, then, until the quiet resumed. Dusting. Straightening the notes and old photographs on the cork board above the kitchen counter.
Sledgehammers? Hockey sticks? It was bad enough staring at the cork board and realizing how barren his life had become, how little he had left to cherish. Did he have to tote up his losses to this racket?
Okay. So it wasn’t really that bad. He was being petulant, mourning the silence. And he was curious. Had her husband arrived to help her unpack? When was their official move-in date? He approached the closet again. Through the hole at the bottom of the backing he noticed a shadow reflected in his floorboards—she seemed to be pacing. Happy? Sad? Worried? Quietly, he dropped to his hands and knees and lowered his head to the hole. Her bare feet. A swift tapping of the heels. Perfect toenails painted purple.
No! He mustn’t do this! A man spread-eagled on the floor, wearing only boxers, spying on the lady next door? He leaped up, pulled on his pants, and turned on his kitchen radio. NPR. All Things Considered. Weighty world matters. He tried to return to his checklist. Books. Yes. He’d need to stockpile some reading material for when he was laid up in bed. That meant finding a real bookstore.
Whatever had made Norah pause seemed to have passed. She was moving around the apartment again, banging, thudding, an enormous caterwauling . . .
He had to get out. Anywhere.
On the street, tank-like police trucks moved past a synagogue known for hosting a bluegrass group each week (Diversity, the neighborhood’s watchword). Marie, of all people—sour, tight-lipped Marie—had told him the band’s rendition of “Oy, Susanna!” was not to be missed: a strange form of grace, she said.
The synagogue was closed, locked tight. No mention of music on the notice board. An apparently homeless man had unrolled a sleeping bag on the building’s top step.
Bern watched bored officers drop steel barriers on sidewalk corners from the beds of the trucks. He realized the cops were preparing the Village for this weekend’s Gay Pride parade. He’d read about it. It was expected to be huge this year in the wake of Supreme Court rulings paving the way for same-sex marriage. Shop owners flew rainbow banners above their doorways.
Across the street from him, hip young couples waving martinis spilled from a boisterous café. They laughed and cooed: the mating cries of the young.
Bern would find no solace tonight (did the Hebrews ever even speak of “grace”?). He would go to bed to an awful clamor and sleep alone with his cancer and his cankered soul.
At Left Bank Books he found a fresh copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame as well as a compendium of Pogo strips, many of which he remembered from Sundays as a child sitting on his grandfather’s lap: talking possums, rats, and alligators, cute little schemers tramping through Okefenokee Swamp. The tiny black-and-white images gave him an immense rush of pleasure. He could almost smell old newsprint and his grandfather’s oil-thick coffee.
Bern tucked the book beneath his arm along with the Hunchback.
Over here, a dusty shelf of Partisan Reviews, arguably the U. S.’s most important intellectual journal at one time. Bern found Winter 1955, the issue that appeared right after his mother gave birth to him. The Cold War was heating up. Already, Richard Nixon smelled of sulfur. The issue’s poetry was a mix of surrealism, modernism, and the primitive. Ladies and gentlemen, for your perusal: the mid-twentieth century. I am a poor child of my time, Bern thought, a time whelped from chaos. And now I may be about to die. You never knew with surgery.
He turned a page. Theodore Roethke: “The spirit moves, but not always upward.”
Absolutely. Just ask the talking rat.
Before leaving the store, he added one more volume to his pile: a report on the effects of global warming on the sea levels in the harbors of New York. The cover had caught his eye; in his last days at the firm, he’d heard his younger colleagues talk about the necessity of planning for such emergencies. If he ever felt like working again, just to keep his mind alive, maybe this could be a starting point.
That night in his apartment, as he was arranging the books in a neat stack by his futon, in preparation for the weeks of his recovery, he heard tap-tap-tapping next door. And music: a lady jazz singer. It almost sounded live. Just his luck: they owned state-of-the-art equipment. He perceived only Norah’s voice but he assumed her husband must be with her for she seemed to be addressing someone: “It’s definitely more meal-y than snack-y,” she said.
He hadn’t seen the cat when he’d come in—had Norah done something to it?—but now he filled the biggest bowl he had with milk and set it in the center of the hallway.
On Sunday morning, the day before he was scheduled to enter the hospital, he stepped off his stoop into a rainbow falderal. The Village was given over to Gay Pride—thousands of exotically dressed young men and women and women-men, ample flesh, firm and tan and not-so-firm-and-tan, on raucous display in the streets in a whirl of feathers and beads and floppy hats. Cops, bored and bemused, at the barricades. The oddly-angled streets—West 4th, Cornelia, Greenwich—were blocked off and hard to negotiate. He just had to go with the flow. He nearly got knocked off his feet by a hairless man bare from the waist up. A painted red heart marked his belly. From a doorway someone yelled at him, “I love your heart!” “Want a hug?” he yelled back, spilling beer from the big plastic cup he’d been waving like a chalice. “Yes! I love hugs!” And here the young man came, shoving Bern aside to share his lugubrious affections.
It had started to rain. Bern ducked into a tiny store to buy a cheap umbrella. He stood in line behind a topless woman with pierced nipples and gold glitter sprinkled across her back.
Would he be sexless after tomorrow? The thought made him fumble his change on the counter.
Back on the wet street, he caught a glimpse of Norah—he was sure it was her, though he’d only seen her once, on the roof (discounting his glimpse of her feet). She pushed her way through a throng of sexy Uncle Sams, shirtless but with top hats and beards and many pairs of Old Glory pants. She rushed up to a tall blonde woman—Bern couldn’t see her face—and kissed her. Then Norah stood hugging the woman on the sidewalk, laughing and watching the street spectacle.
A lesbian couple?
“Marriage? I don’t know,” said an old gentleman slouching next to Bern. He was speaking to another elderly man with whom he was holding hands. “I think I liked it better when we were outlaws.”
It was early in the day but already trash licked the curbs. Young men leaned against plane trees, their faces lit by the sad blue glow of their smart phones. Bern imagined the neighborhood suffering an intense hangover tomorrow, when everyone was over the rainbow. Meanwhile, he’d be at the mercy of a robot.
Later, in his apartment, he filled an overnight bag with items for the hospital. Voices, leaking through his closet. He opened the door. How about that: two women! He hadn’t been listening closely. He’d expected a man so he’d assumed both speakers were Norah.
The hole. Too tempting. He’d have to plug it. An old shoe? A Tupperware container? He bent to measure the gap. The voices got louder. Maybe one more peek. What was the harm? He dropped to his knees. The purple toes. Oh, what was he doing? Stop it! Now another pair of naked feet approached the wall—unpainted but with nails just as perfect—and playfully mashed the first woman’s insteps.
Bern backed quickly out of the closet, still on his hands and knees. He pressed his forehead to the rough wooden floor. A voyeur? Is this what he’d become in his dotage, fearing the loss of his manhood? A picture of him spying would make a splendid cover for one of those novelty volumes sold in Bookmarc. My god. He sat up—a little too fast; his head spun, and he sat against the foot of his bed until he fell asleep.
He woke in the dark. The red digital numbers on the clock beside his head said 3:04. The painkiller must be wearing off. He didn’t want to take too many of the pills because getting a refill would necessitate a trip to a pharmacy, and right now the slightly bruise-colored fluorescent lighting and the talcum smell of a CVS or a Duane Reade would catapult him so deeply into melancholy he’d never crawl out of it.
Something had a hold on him under the covers. He tried to reach whatever it was while squirming for a more comfortable position on the futon. The catheter. Of course. It was like having his penis gripped by an eagle. He remembered nothing, not even the cab ride home with the registered nurse. The last thing he saw was the robot: a giant spider in the shadows of the O. R., its spindly pincers poised above his abdomen.
Good fun. Like a video game.
And what in holy hell was that noise? Were his neighbors at it again in the middle of the night? A little pre-dawn amour? It seemed they never got enough. A scratching sound, a tentative pawing . . .
No. The cat was at his door. He tried to call, “Go away!” but a faint croak emerged from his throat, nothing more. His words wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. Whether he fed the cat or not, it never left him alone. Well, he was awake now. Maybe he’d test his footing. The doctor had told him to try to move a little each day. Naked, with the half-filled cath bag strapped to his ankle (like carrying a sack of sand), he shuffled into the kitchen, bumping his knee on the Kenmore (damn monster!). He filled a plastic bowl with milk. So far, so good. He even managed to unchain his door without spilling the milk. Light-headed, but not too bad, the pain in his trunk more of a stiffness than anything else . . . but when he stepped into the hallway, the cat swiped at the catheter tube, tugging his penis and thus the rest of him to the floor, a lightning-spear piercing his guts. Milk splashed the wall, along with urine from the bag, which had popped partway open, the bowl clattered on the wood, the cat screeched and leaped to the top of the stairs. Slumped against his doorframe, beneath the harsh hallway ceiling bulb, Bern recoiled at the stark vision of the yellow tube drooping from the head of his cock, and when he saw blood right where the tube entered his body, he yowled louder than the cat.
His neighbors’ door flew open. “What in heaven’s name—?” Norah hovered above him, poised for trouble. She waved a baseball bat. She wore a thin, peach-colored nightgown. Tufts of hair sprang from her head like patches of crabgrass. Before almost passing out—or maybe he did go black—Bern noted two things: a mass of blonde hair trembled just behind Norah’s left shoulder, and each time Norah saw him he was pretty much naked.
Somehow he’d got back to his futon, the covers pulled to his waist. He blinked to steady his eyes. A bloody washcloth lay crumpled on the floor next to his clock and—what was that? A baseball bat, propped against a chair.
“Do you need me to call a doctor?” Norah. By now, he knew the voice quite well, though it was usually muffled by plywood.
He blinked again and turned his head. There she was, crouched on the floor in her nightgown. “I think I’m—” His throat still hurt. He lifted the sheet to inspect the catheter. Norah must have cleaned him. Everything was intact. Even the bag had been sealed tight again, about a third less full than before. A bulbous right ankle. Before the surgery, the doctor had told him swollen ankles could indicate blood clotting—not uncommon after so much bed rest; a clot could break away, shoot up his leg, go straight to the heart, and that would be it. Lights out. “Yes,” Bern said. “There’s a card over here, with a number . . . my doctor’s on call . . . ”
Norah started to punch the number into her cell phone but then she sneezed. Prodigiously. She stood. Prowling around Bern’s kitchen, the cat, whining for the milk it had missed. “Oh my god. Dottie!” Norah screamed. “Come get this thing out of here! I’m going to die!”
No, I’m going to die, Bern thought. He lifted his head and saw his door open. Leaning against the frame, silhouetted against the flickering hallway light, a tall woman. “Don’t be so dramatic,” she said: low, smoky music. “I’ve got him.” She stepped past Bern—a yellow halo encircling her in the bright glare from Norah’s gadget—picked up the cat and left with it. Norah sneezed again, three quick ones in succession, and handed Bern the phone.
His doctor was not on call, as promised; instead, Bern reached a young, arrogant man. He told Bern no, blood around the catheter’s entry point was nothing to worry about; he’d see plenty more of it when his nerves woke up and he strained to have a bowel movement. The ankle? Elevate. Just keep an eye on it.
Right. Until my eyesight fails, Bern thought. Or my bodily functions cease. One moment I’m talking to an idiot. The next instant, it’s the void. “Thanks,” he said into the phone. With his dry throat, he couldn’t convey sarcasm.
He handed Norah her cell.
“Okay?” she said.
“Okay,” he said. “Thank you.”
“My father,” she said. “Six years ago.” She ruffled her stiff black hair. “He didn’t make it.”
Mornings in Bern’s apartment were less a reality than an abstract agreement with the clock. Sunlight entered sideways and slant. Always, the light remained the same. Today, morning meant the smell of mint tea. Norah, fully dressed now in jeans and a red cotton shift, sat cross-legged on his floor beside the futon, drinking tea and offering him a warming mug. It tasted splendid.
“You know, I asked you to get rid of that cat,” she said. She’d stayed with him most of the night just to hit him with this, first thing? “Now you’ve seen—I don’t know if you remember—how little proximity it takes for me to have a meltdown.”
“I’m sorry,” Bern said tersely. The tea no longer tasted fine. At least his ankle, propped on a pillow, had resumed its normal shape. “I had things on my mind.”
“I know. I mean, now I know. I wasn’t very . . . gracious. I didn’t take the time to understand the complications in your life. I didn’t know you were sick.”
“I wasn’t sick until they told me I was. I had no symptoms. It was just a blood test.”
“But they did find cancer, yes?”
“Still, it’s only now that I feel like an invalid.”
“You’ll get better.”
“Your father?” he ventured.
“I think, in his case, he just left it too late.” She asked him if she could do anything else for him right now.
“Yeah—keep that cat away from me,” he said, and tried to smile. He thanked her for all she’d done. “Above and beyond,” he said. “Not to mention the ick factor.”
“I got used to it with my dad. Dottie, my partner—you’ll meet her—she’s the one who faints at the sight of, well, just about anything.”
He appreciated the irony: these neighbors he’d been dreading turned out to be a godsend, at least this once.
In the next few days, the city’s heat wave dissipated. The air chilled. Even the lightest clothing added weight to the drag of the catheter, causing Bern to cramp. He had trouble pulling his pant legs past the pee bag. Nude from the waist down, he welcomed his big old kitchen where he could stand near the Kenmore’s open door, absorbing the oven’s broil, and not fear backing into sharp corners. He stood at the kitchen counter eating Jello, using the sugar bowl to hold open the Hunchback. “This will destroy That,” he read aloud—Victor Hugo’s screed against technology. “This” was the printing press and “That” was the Gothic cathedral.
Bern had forgotten this rather strident aspect of the novel: any bomb-throwing madman can print a broadside, Hugo wrote, distribute it in the streets of Paris, lure families away from the Church, and within a matter of hours have the city in flames.
From the book, Bern had remembered only Quasimodo, bent to the ground like a man nursing a sore petselah.
Next door, Norah or Dottie dropped a pan. Someone yelled, “Fuck fuck fuck!”
He was more forgiving now of his neighbors’ bumps-in-the-night. Norah was a very prickly woman, no doubt about that, but she had been an angel during his crisis. He could live with prickly.
On the day he caught a cab to the clinic for the removal of his catheter, he ran into Norah in the hall. She invited him to dinner that night to celebrate his “freedom from the lasso” and to introduce him properly to her partner.
The doctor pumped his bladder full of water to see if he’d learned his Kegels (“You’ve got to make those muscles as strong as a girl’s,” the man said) and then he popped the catheter loose, a pain so startling and raw, Bern thought his penis had shot across the room like an unknotted helium balloon.
That night, he knocked on Norah’s door. Dottie answered wearing a lavender cloth suit which left her marble arms bare. Her smile was sly, assured, even a touch disdainful—not of Bern but of her surroundings in general. His immediate impression was of a young woman completely secure about her future, like a child perched before a toy store window, knowing she could sucker her parents into anything: soon, that giant dollhouse would be sitting in her bedroom. Her confidence was frankly alarming. Bern’s bladder twitched and he felt a cold drop slide down the inner lining of his shorts. He did the Kegel squeeze and glanced at his pants. No leaks. It would be a long evening.
“Dorothy Bower,” the gorgeous woman said and shook Bern’s hand. “Glad to actually meet you. My friends call me Dottie.”
“But her stage name is Dee!” Norah chirped from the stove.
“I’m a singer,” Dottie told him.
“So . . . was that you I heard the other night . . . I thought it was a CD . . . ”
“Me. Sorry to have disturbed you. These walls are so thin.”
“I heard a piano.” He scanned the room: a faded Turkish rug had been cast sleepily across the floor, a long gilt mirror hung on the wall behind the kitchen table, a rainbow flag from the parade the other day was tossed over a small bookshelf, and—miraculously—a window opened onto a view of the sky: a moon as thin as a silver barrette. This side of the plywood formed a wall facing the couple’s bed.
“I used to have a piano, a lovely old Yamaha, in my parents’ house back in Connecticut,” Dottie said. As Bern could have guessed: a trust-fund kid. “I once dreamed of bringing it to New York, but can you imagine? In this stairwell? The groaning ropes, the poor movers lifting it up from below . . . it’s easier with this.” She punched a computer keyboard. Keith Jarrett—as if he had just rolled a Baby Grand into the room.
Bern told her he’d read a sad report, at the firm he used to work for, about the Steinway company: it was going to sell its Beaux-Arts building on West 57th, across the street from Carnegie Hall . . . why, Sergei Rachmaninoff used to practice in that basement . . .
Uninterested, Dottie turned away from him—as if he were as nutty as the Hunchback of the Flatiron. Astonishingly, he felt rightly rebuked rather than angered by her; somehow, she had managed to convey that he was the one being rude. She brought him a glass of Chianti. “Oh, I’m sorry. You’re not sick anymore, are you? You can drink?” She held the glass in the air, slightly out of his reach.
“I’m fine,” Bern said.
She set the glass on the table, next to a spray of lilacs in a chipped blue vase. He sat, moving too quickly: this time, a damp spot spread across his pants. He crossed his legs and folded his hands in his lap.
“Beans and scallopini,” Norah said, stirring a steaming pot. She wore a yellow apron. Bern flushed at a glimpse of her toes. “Hope you like ‘em. There’s this place I like to shop at, over on Houston Street. The Italian woman who runs the store, she’s got something wrong with her eyes, they’re all milky, you know, but she seems to see just fine—”
“Too fine,” Dottie said. “She cheats you, whenever she throws the pork on the scale.”
Norah laughed. “Yeah, but that’s what I like about the place. It’s so old-fashioned.”
“Your nostalgia’s going to run us out of meal money.”
Bern noticed the gaping hole at the bottom of the plywood, looked up, and caught Dottie watching him. Her curled upper lip and half-closed eyes convinced him: she knew he had spied on them. Her comment, earlier, about the thinness of the walls (they didn’t need to spy on him—they’d already seen all there was to see) . . . his face went hot again. He sipped his wine. He pointed at the board and stammered, “I’m wondering if this used to be one big apartment—your room and mine, I mean. Makes sense, given the position of the windows . . . ”
“Yeah, cut them up and double the rent,” Dottie said. “Everybody cheats everybody in New York. You’ve got to find your own scam, to survive. Oh, Nor! That reminds me, before we eat . . . ” She rose, filled a bowl with two-percent milk, and walked to the door.
Over her shoulder, Norah called, “Don’t! Dot, please don’t!”
Dottie smiled at Bern. “I’ve assumed your feline duties. I’ve become quite attached to that little hustler. We bonded the night Norah sat with you.”
“I can’t believe you’d betray me like this!” Norah said, waving a tomato-ey spoon. She was laughing. “Just don’t let him in here.”
“I’ve named him Frank. After Sinatra, of course.”
To the strains of the invisible piano they ate their beans and scallopini with a hot baguette. Bern learned that Dottie—Dee—had been a musical prodigy. Relentlessly, she’d pursued a New York recording career. Since moving to Manhattan three years ago, she’d gotten gigs at the Jazz Standard, the Vanguard, Smalls, the 55 Bar, where she was more or less a regular, and she had a shot at the Blue Note; she was waiting to hear from Mike, her “sort of manager” about “the Note folks.” She loved jazz, but she wasn’t “married” to it. The main thing was to make a name for yourself. She had a big voice, an “orgasmic gasp,” Mike said, so really, all she needed was the right set of songs—jazz, pop, country, whatever—to secure a fan base.
In the end, Compromise was not a dirty word, Mike said—it was just another name for Success. Fuck the purists. Where were they now? In the compost pile.
As for Norah, she worked as a docent in a small art gallery called Paley’s on Christopher Street. She was a superb artist, Dottie said, but she wouldn’t promote herself: “Go on, show him.”
“He doesn’t want to— ”
“Sure I do,” Bern said.
From under the bed Norah pulled a cardboard folder containing several large sheets of sketching paper: in pencil and pen, a series of streamlined forms strained to shed their mechanical exteriors and achieve the softness of flesh—at least this is what Bern saw in them. “Impressive,” he said. “As an architect, you know, I’ve always appreciated the directness of drawing.”
“The computer can generate that sort of thing,” Dottie said. “I’ve urged her to use software to do the actual sketching for her, so she’s free to cultivate her conceptual strengths.”
“Oh,” Bern said. “But if you lost that human touch . . . ”
Norah smiled. “I’m still a beginner.” Her Southern twang thickened: a simmering stew. “These are way too derivative of Leger.”
“She had a chance at real commercial success last year,” Dottie said. “She did some street studies here and some really wonderful pastels of New Mexico, on a trip we took together. A dealer saw them and wanted to include them in a group show, but she wouldn’t let him.”
“They were just . . . doodles,” Norah said. “They weren’t ready.”
“He thought they were. Certainly more viable than these . . . which I love, but I mean, really, sweetie, they’re not going to move, you know?”
Bern sensed this topic was a major source of tension between them, much more serious than the cat. His bladder twitched. “What about Paley’s? Will they show your stuff?”
“Oh no, it’s much too posh. And I’m just a little worker bee.” Did Dottie pay her way? Was that how she stayed in New York? “When you feel up to getting out again, you should come by. We’ve got a great new exhibit—Lorca’s drawings. And maybe you could come with me to hear Dottie sing some night.”
“I’d like that.”
“Yeah, hang with us . . . you never know what you’ll see,” Dottie said—a dig at his furtive impulses? He felt himself leaking.
He was pleased that he and Norah had overcome their initial enmity. Though Dottie’s self-assurance could cut cement, and her careerist talk was grating, it was hard to resist her boldness and beauty. He liked his neighbors.
As the meal ended, he had to bolt for the door, muttering excuses. His pants were soaked. In the hallway, he nearly tripped over the empty milk bowl. When he got to his bathroom—just in the nick of time—his body let go.
A project. As in the old days. Until the stairs no longer troubled him, until his strength returned and he could walk the streets again without leaving a puddle, he needed something to occupy him. This time, he’d be his own boss, set his own deadlines. A proper problem: what would it look like?
He remembered the volume on global warming. He pulled it from the bottom of his book stack. In just a few pages, he saw what his younger colleagues had been talking about: within the next fifty years, as glaciers melted and the world’s ice caps shrank, the waters in the New York-New Jersey Upper Bay would rise at least a foot.
Bern cared little for the politics of climate change—the possible causes, the regulatory debates. But clearly, the flood danger was real and architects had a role to play. The Upper Bay, a large estuarine harbor, was an astonishing meeting of land and water, a powerful interplay of elements.
Interplay might be a key: rather than building walls against the swelling sea (walls that would inevitably topple) perhaps it made better sense to work with the water, invite the water into the land in a productive and innovative fashion.
A pretty little puzzle for an idle old man.
He’d brought home no drafting supplies when he’d cleared out of his office. One afternoon, he popped next door to borrow some sketching paper from Norah.
In the next few days, he made rough drawings of natural systems—wave patterns, whirlpools, reef formations. Notes about ductility: what kinds of structural elements, within a feasible budget, held the most energy-absorbing capabilities?
It felt good to be working again, if only to amuse himself. The hell of it was, his strength flagged quickly and he still had frequent accidents. He rarely reached the bathroom in time. He’d take short breaks, to read the Hunchback or to glance at a Pogo strip.
Norah worked at her gallery on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. Sweetly, she checked on Bern whenever she had a day off. He’d pour them each a glass of wine, and at her insistence tell her what he was up to. “The idea is to create a soft infrastructure for storm defense, maybe using a series of wetlands made from infill, clustered around Lower Manhattan,” he explained to her one afternoon. “I’m sort of out of my league in this area, but I’m wondering if we could use decommissioned subway cars as foundations for artificial reefs. I don’t know. Their windows and doors would let the water flow freely but might deflect the turbulence . . .”
“That’s so cool!”
“I’ve still got lots of thinking to do.”
It amused her that he came originally from Texas. “You seem like such an East Coaster to me.”
“Well, I’m old. And I’ve been here a long time.”
Her family hailed from Baton Rouge. Oil money, though she’d never benefited from it—exiled when she’d declared her sexuality, her love of art, and her intention to head east. She was entirely dependent on Dottie.
One day, holding out her empty wine glass, she asked him, “Do you—it’s none of my business, but you must get lonely.”
“A little,” he admitted. The last thing he wanted was for a young person to pity him. The fact was, Norah’s visits had dispelled his depression. Perhaps unfairly, he changed the subject. “And you must miss your dad. Was he the one who cut you off?”
“He was. When he got really, really sick, I worried he wouldn’t want me at his bedside. And I was furious at him.”
“It’s hard to lose a parent, no matter what.”
She’d gotten a little drunk. She fell silent then she confessed she couldn’t stand Mike Dawson, the fellow Dottie called her manager. “He came up to her one night at the 55 Bar, right after her first set, and completely snowed her,” Norah said. “Claims he used to work at Columbia Records, back in the day when Dylan first recorded for them. But that’s impossible! He’s a young punk.”
“Maybe he’s older than he looks.”
“No, he’s just a fucking liar. And Dottie’s too dazzled to see him.” She said he was trying to convince “Dee” to bypass the small clubs—even though she was starting to make a name for herself in the Village. “‘Cut to the chase,’ he tells her: use social media and MP3s to spread your sound beyond the provincial jazz audience. ‘If you give your music away, at first, then people will beg for it later,’ he says. ‘You have no idea how big you can be once you’ve got them hooked.’ He swears all she needs is the right vehicle and the proper producer. The right technological strategy. ‘You’ll break overnight, babe.’” Norah shivered. “I’m just afraid he’ll abuse her talent, you know? Right now, she’s developing slowly, carefully . . . it’s a beautiful thing to watch. But . . . ”
This was what made her pace the floor whenever she was alone.
One afternoon, when she’d become more agitated than usual, Bern walked her down to the basement and showed her the pocket garden beyond the washers and dryers. “Maybe you could grow your own beans here, for your scallopini dish,” he suggested, and she took him up on it. (It didn’t escape him that he had managed the stairs just fine.) He warned her to flee whenever the cat came close. Mostly, these days, Frank had shifted his loyalties to Dottie, but he seemed to sense Bern’s allegiance to Norah, and no longer begged him for milk.
Bern felt stronger. He worked longer hours on his project. The plans weren’t going anywhere but they looked pretty good on paper. He was especially proud of his barrier islands made of recycled plastic, injected with foam for buoyancy.
Of course, he couldn’t get an erection. Not that he had any use for one. Most of the time, he tried not to think about the wreck of his body. On other days, he’d wake with a desperate desire to reignite his virility. But what would that mean?
He’d never been tempted by online pornography. The hole in his closet . . . God, the very thought repulsed him now. Manhood wasn’t worth it. Time to fill that damn gap, he decided. For now, a wadded-up paper sack would have to do the trick until he could get to a hardware store.
He pulled a grocery bag from his kitchen pantry and opened the closet door. As he knelt, he heard Norah and Dottie arguing. Not a surprise: they fought often these days (as frequently as he used to hear them making love) and he didn’t need to strain to listen. Not every word was clear, but the trouble seemed to be that Norah had ripped up some drawings Dottie had hoped to take to a dealer she’d met in the club last night. “It’s like you want to be a failure!” Dottie yelled. Still gripping the sack, Bern backed out of the closet and quietly closed the door.
On a beautiful Thursday morning, four weeks after Bern’s surgery, his doctor reported that his PSA count had dropped to zero. “You’re cancer-free,” he declared.
God bless the mechanical world.
That afternoon, Norah insisted they go out. “You need some sunshine on your face. And I think you’re strong enough now to walk a few blocks.”
She took him to The Slaughtered Lamb, a kitschy, noisy pub he’d often passed on West 4th. Rubber skeletons lined its Tudor exterior, right above the doorway and the window ledges. One bleached-out fellow wore a dusty pirate hat. Norah raised an ice-cold mug to Bern. “The perfect spot to celebrate your health. Here’s to the cycle of death and life.”
“This is very sweet of you, Norah. Thank you,” Bern said.
“I worry about you, you know.”
“I must have really scared you that night.”
“Well, you did.”
It occurred to him that she doted on him, her elderly neighbor, as a form of Good Works. Instant Karma.
Above the bar, The Wizard of Oz danced across a tiny television screen: the scarecrow in search of a heart.
Norah asked Bern, “Did you read in the paper this morning about the cicada invasion?”
Cicadas? “No,” Bern said.
“Well, these insects, see—” She was nervous, distracted. Avoiding something. “—they dwell in the ground for nearly seventeen years and then they pop up in a frenzied swarm throughout the Hudson Valley, on Staten Island and in all the boroughs. I’m fascinated by them.”
“They’ve got these sleek, bullety bodies, whirling, gumming onto trees . . . ”
“In fact, I did make a few drawings from the pictures.”
“I’d love to see them.”
She tapped the tabletop. “Dottie didn’t like them.” Ah! That’s what this was about. “She thinks I’m deliberately anti-commercial. It actually makes her angry.”
“Norah. Do what you want,” Bern said.
He raised his mug. “Here’s to the cycle of life and death. Draw it, okay? Please. For me.”
Inside a giant glass case beyond the bar, revolving slowly in a corner of the pub, a life-sized plaster maiden wearing a ripped bodice slumped in the arms of a hunched rubber werewolf. He was biting her neck. Blood trickled into her cleavage.
Across the street, in the windows of the Pink Pussycat, mannequins modeled G-strings and teddies.
And this was how Bern emerged again into the world.
He took Norah to see the Chimney Swifts nesting on Behune Street.
He took her to the synagogue, but the bluegrass band didn’t seem to play there anymore. He left a handful of coins on the homeless man’s sleeping bag. The man did not awaken.
“I’m afraid that’s it,” Bern admitted sadly. He hadn’t cheered her. “My tour of the neighborhood. I still have to learn my way around.”
“Well then, how about this? Come to Smalls with us tomorrow night and listen to Dottie sing,” Norah said. “It’s a sweet little club. It’ll make you feel more at home.”
“If you think it’s all right with her,” Bern said. She seemed to need him for moral support.
“Oh, yeah. She likes you a lot.”
“Come on, now. She thinks I’m odd.”
“You are!” Norah laughed. “You know you are! Don’t worry, Wally. I can tell. We’re all just fine together. Gangbusters.”
“Happily ever after?”
She gave him a little hug.
Norah and Dottie called for him about an hour before Dottie’s first set. They both wore sweatshirts and jeans. Dottie carried her stage dress in a clothes bag. The club was a five-minute walk from the apartment. She stopped to admire the sketches Bern had spread on his kitchen counter: models of wetlands made with existing pipes and sewers.
“Pretty elaborate,” she said.
“He’s going to save the island,” Norah told her. “I mean it.”
Bern laughed. “It’s a feeble attempt to duplicate a flexible ecosystem by artificial means. I’m just screwing around.”
“Seriously, though, if these are good ideas, like, to stop a big wave or something, you should show them to somebody, shouldn’t you?” Dottie said.
“Oh, I don’t know. It’s fun, but generally I’m skeptical of technological fixes.”
“You’re not even going to try?”
“I’m just keeping busy, that’s all.” He rolled up the sketches and tossed them into the drawer next to the moldy old Hunchback.
He stepped into his closet for a sweater. Dottie’s eyes went to the paper sack stuffed inside the plywood hole. Disgust curled her upper lip, but this time, Bern thought, it was about his lack of ambition.
Onstage at Smalls, in a sparkling red cocktail dress, “Dee” was stunning. Her blonde hair blazed like helium morphing into hydrogen. She sat on a wooden stool surrounded by faded Persian rugs. Photos of jazz kings lined the walls: Lionel Hampton, Louis Armstrong. Dee sang to the accompaniment of a piano and a stand-up bass—classics from the American songbook. “Magnetic Rag” by Scott Joplin, slow and finely melodic. Duke Ellington. Bern’s favorite tune was Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile,” bluesy and low in the band’s sexy interpretation.
Norah gazed adoringly at her partner. Bern realized they were both in love with Dottie, Norah completely, Bern just a little, with a light fatherly overlay.
Mike arrived. He joined Bern and Norah at the bar, a thin, nervous kid with just-washed hair. He wouldn’t stop talking. Norah was right: if Dottie believed this guy had known the young Bob Dylan, her reasons for doing so were deep and strange. Probably, hustlers like Mike counted on—played upon—such quiet, buried need.
“I’m into digital,” he informed Bern between sets. “You know, voice synthesis, voiceprint applications for banking, and naturally”—he nodded at the stage—“music downloads. I think Bell Labs and the music industry, what’s left of it, have a lot of room for dialogue.”
His swagger was as pronounced as his irritating odor: Old Spice and tobacco.
Dottie walked offstage and kissed Mike’s cheek. He slipped an arm around her waist. Norah scowled. Bern felt a warm drop slither through his shorts. Angry—at the betrayal of his body, at this silly young poseur—he said to Mike, “Of course, since the government is the country’s biggest consumer, eventually any digital advancement you invest in will be militarized, and your values seriously compromised, so you’d better be sure, ahead of time, about your long-range multipliers.”
Mike stared at him, open-mouthed. Dottie’s eyes widened. Norah grinned. Score one for age. With great gusto, Bern motioned to the bartender: “Next round’s on me.”
Feeling better, he took a short walk every day, often to Norah’s gallery and back. With each step he practiced his Kegels.
In the gallery, a small exhibit featured handwritten pages from the manuscript of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Poet in New York, along with surrealist drawings he’d made during his stay here in the 1920s (demons and angels, nuns, snakes, anguished boys). According to the show’s catalog, the city’s social brutalities tormented the young Spaniard.
The drawings delighted Norah (“Of course Dottie hates them. They’re too weird for her”) and it pleased her that Bern liked them too. After his initial visit to the gallery, he found himself recalling lines from the poem at random moments during his walks. (The phrase “Murdered by the sky” entered his head one day when he happened to glance in the direction of the One World Trade Center). Sometimes he and Norah got coffee together at a café around the corner from the gallery, then she’d return to work and he’d walk home to his harbor designs.
One afternoon he felt strong enough to venture all the way over to Madison. He’d remembered a lovely garden bar there, on the roof of the Library Hotel, at 41st, whose walls were lined with vintage books, a sedate and pleasant atmosphere. He had a ham sandwich and a glass of white wine. As he left, he noticed on the sidewalk in front of the hotel entrance, quotes from various authors embedded in thick gold plaques. Willa Cather: “There are only two or three human stories and they keep being repeated as though they had never happened.”
And a passage from Waiting for Godot:
VLADIMIR: What do they say?
ESTRAGON: They talk about their lives.
VLADIMIR: To have lived is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON: They have to talk about it.
VLADIMIR: To be dead is not enough for them.
ESTRAGON: It is not sufficient.
On the day Dottie left Norah, to chase Mike’s digital dream for her future, Norah had purchased an oud for her at a music shop around the corner from Extra Virgin. Later, Norah informed Bern that, when she’d first met Dottie, Dottie had expressed intense interest in medieval folk traditions. She’d bought scads of books on the subject. Back then it had been a toss-up whether she’d pursue modern jazz or Early Music. Norah wasn’t sorry she’d opted for jazz—she had the perfect silken voice for it. But ever since meeting Mike, she’d lost her eclectic tastes. It seemed to Norah she’d severely narrowed her range of melodic passions, and Norah hoped the gift of the oud would tug her back to her center. “The man in the store, real chatty fellow, shared these weird details with me—I thought they’d charm her,” Norah confided to Bern. “He said Spanish oud-makers used to take the wood shavings, left over from carving the instruments, and give them to apothecaries, who’d mix them with powders to make a cure for syphilis. I told Dottie this, and she just said, ‘That’s disgusting!’”
The oud was used but still it cost a pretty penny, Norah said, and she couldn’t afford to throw that kind of money away. When Dottie left, she refused to take the instrument with her. “It’s like owning a pair of wooden shoes!” she’d said. “What the hell can you possibly do with them?”
Norah, sitting barefooted on the building’s stoop, was halfway through her second bottle of wine when she explained all this to Bern. Earlier in the day, he’d heard her arguing with Dottie, but he’d shut the closet door and concentrated on his sketches. At a certain point, after about two hours of silence, he got worried, and that’s when he’d found Norah on the stoop, teary-eyed, drunk.
The trouble hit its high-water mark three nights ago, she said. Mike came by the 55 Bar just as Dee finished her final set. Time to grab that brass ring, babe, he insisted. Success won’t wait. He laid out a “vision” for her: Forget the music. Work at becoming an online celebrity. Get your image out there—everywhere, twenty-four/seven. Surround it with mystery. Make people look at you, look for you, but give them no clues. Create a need. A temptation they can’t resist. Then, in dribs and drabs, you leak a little music on the Internet. An aural striptease. Once you’ve got an audience clamoring for more, you snatch their candy away and start charging them for it. Bingo. You’re the queen.
When Norah tried to persuade Dottie that Mike was full of shit, a cynical young pimp, Dottie exploded at her: Why won’t you support me? Don’t you want me to have a career?
“He’ll destroy your talent!” Norah said.
“He can do for me in three months what ten years of club dates won’t accomplish. Besides, what do you know about success? You run from it, terrified.”
“She even said you and I were alike,” Norah told Bern. The wine bottle slipped from her hand and rolled down the stoop to the curb.
“Filling endless scraps of paper. And for what? For nothing, she said. She thinks we’re both losers. The oud—well, she took it as an insult. Like giving a stone tablet to someone who’s just bought a Kindle.”
“She was always on the fast track. Anyone could see it,” Bern said. “Nothing was going to stop her.”
“And the worst of it is, I’m pretty sure she and Mike are sleeping together.” Norah buried her face in her hands. “I can’t even . . . ”
“Come on.” Bern tugged her shoulders gently. “Let’s get something to eat.”
“I couldn’t . . . ”
“Then at least walk with me a little. Clear your head.” He helped her up.
In the next few days, he brought her tea and coffee, offered to cook for her. She wouldn’t eat much. He didn’t ask about Dottie. He assumed she was staying with Mike. One night, he took Norah to a movie at the IFC, hoping to distract her. The movie was called Museum Hours, about a Viennese museum guard who spent quiet, sometimes tedious days in the Brueghel room of a large museum. One day, a woman from Montreal arrived in the city to care for her cousin, who was lying in a coma in a nearby hospital. The guard met her as she wandered through the museum and he sensed she was lonely and lost. He helped her with logistics—phone numbers, translations, meetings with doctors. The two formed a friendship. But this was a very slender narrative with virtually no development (the woman’s cousin died, no romance occurred between the woman and the guard). Like a Brueghel painting, the movie’s center was almost impossible to locate. Glimpses of the woman and the guard were sandwiched between studies of many other faces (sad-eyed, whiskered), city spaces, lingering observations of rustling leaves, street trash, traffic signals glowing in misty winter hazes, snowflakes falling under lamplights.
After the movie, when Norah and Bern stepped back onto the street, Norah wept. Bern held her gently, leaning against the theater wall watching the street life as though it were just another filmed tableau. “Aesthetic overload,” Norah managed to say.
They recovered over dinner at Las Ramblas, a Spanish tapas place on West 4th, just around the corner from the theater. A nice bottle of Toro wine helped. How privileged we are, Bern thought. Even on a fixed income. They had grilled octopus and purple potatoes, ham bocadillos, asparagus and setas.
Afterwards, back in her apartment, Norah asked him if he’d hold her while she slept. Nothing sexual. Just a cuddle. She slipped off her shoes: her purple toes. “Wally?”
She pointed at the hole in the plywood. “Dottie said you used to spy on us. I didn’t believe her. It’s . . . it’s not true, is it?”
His cheeks burned. “A couple of times, I admit. It was hard to resist.”
“Oh my god! Wally! Why?”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s just that—after my surgery, I went a little— ”
“Jesus, you mean you’re a sick son of a bitch, just like all the rest?”
“Really. I can’t believe it! Oh my god. I hate you. Pimps, assholes, and spies.” She threw up her hands. “And my daddy always wondered why I wanted to live with a woman!”
She shook her head, trying to stifle her tears.
Deeply ashamed, he started to leave. Then he turned back to her. “Well, after all, I showed you mine,” he joked.
“What? What did you say?”
He spread his arms and did a little curtsy: a furry rascal straight out of Okefenokee Swamp.
In spite of herself, Norah laughed. “Oh, fuck. Okay, Wally. Okay. Get over here, you big creep.” She dropped to her bed.
“No, really, you know, maybe I should—”
“Get over here.”
All night—fully clothed—she hugged the stuffing out of him.
“New neighbor. Next month,” Marie told Bern one afternoon in the basement. He pulled his clothes from a washer. “Investment banker. Young kid, just getting started. Maybe class up the place.” She carried her dirty mop up the stairs.
Two weeks earlier, Norah’s postcard (a Louisiana cicada swarm, circa 1937), had said, “It’s true what they say. You can’t go home. It’s horrible living in Baton Rouge again. But I’m starting to save some money and I’m considering new options. Thinking of trying my luck in the Big Easy. They’ve got a pretty good gallery scene.”
He’d tacked the postcard to his cork board, next to a reminder to pay the deductible on his hospital stay.
He shoved his shirts into a dryer. Frank yowled. The cat was sitting just inside the pocket garden, a small clump of bird feathers clamped beneath his tail. Since Dottie’s departure, he’d come loving up Bern again. Shameless little prick.
Bern made a mental note to get more milk. Also, some distilled vinegar to swab down his kitchen. The apartment smelled of mold ever since he’d stored his harbor designs in the drawer along with the ancient Hunchback. It didn’t matter that he’d thrown the sketches away; his space was haunted.
A cleansing. Yes, that’s what he needed.
Vinegar might not be enough for the sort of cleansing he had in mind. And yet who could blame him—of course he’d gone online searching for Dottie’s image. And of course he’d found it. Everywhere. Just as Mike had said it would be. What surprised him was her impact: that wild golden hair, the sly, engaging smile. Lo and behold . . .
Reclamation! A stirring in his lap. Not dead yet.
His reaction wasn’t sexual as much as celebratory. A leap of joy at the sight of something known. Familiar. Loved.
Oh Dee. We hardly knew ye!
But the sketches . . .
Her rebuke, as reported by Norah (“She thinks we’re both losers”) had spurred him, one day, to phone one of his former colleagues, Sam Murphy, and ask for a meeting. Sam was an arrogant little macher (in fact, he had been the one to replace Bern at work), but he had the goods. At a coffee shop near Bern’s old firm, Sam reviewed the plans for the harbors, and (once he’d stopped sneezing—“Are these pages, like, moldy?”) pronounced Bern a genius. “These are brilliant, I mean really brilliant structures, Wally. Visionary. And so necessary, given what lies ahead of us in terms of storm-mitigation. I can’t imagine a more exciting or important project.”
Bern heard a but in his voice.
“For something like this to be successful—you know as well as I—you’d need state and federal moneys, a lobbying effort down in D. C., cooperation among all the city agencies, not to mention buy-ins from the private developers in Lower Manhattan . . . I wouldn’t know where to begin. By the time the politicians got through tweaking the details, porking them up, watering them down . . . ”
Bern knew he was right. But it had been worth a shot, just to hear his reaction, to see if there was any traction at all in the old workplace. A few years ago, when Sam had first showed up, he was fresh out of MIT, thick-haired and thin. Now he carried a tire around his middle. A bald spot topped his pate. The job was putting the zap on him. Bern was obscurely pleased by this. But another part of him grieved for the young man.
“Great ideas,” Sam said. “Really.”
“Yeah. Ain’t it a shame.”
When Sam left a few minutes later, calling from the doorway, “Keep in touch, Wally,” Bern asked the barista behind the counter to throw away the sketches for him. When he got home, he’d jettison the yellowed old Hunchback. The past was toxic; the future shaky.
Okay. He was feeling sorry for himself.
On the street, on the side of a squat brick building, he saw a big blue whale, sea-less, isolated, adrift. The painting—an old ad?—had faded. The whale’s black pupil watched the city. With interest. With humor and sadness.
Madison Square Park teemed with parents and kids. Buskers. Young women circling the little elm trees on roller skates. Bern couldn’t find a place to sit. The neighborhood no longer held a spot for him. (Oh my yes, self-pity had eaten him whole!) But—God bless him—some things never changed: here came the wild old man, the Hunchback, resplendent in a yellow blazer, ranting about America, the city: “Shysters! Con men! And the mayor—don’t get me started!” Swiftly, he high-stepped through the startled crowds. He laughed. Bern laughed with him—why not?—and when a crying child yelled, “Mommy, look at that crazy man!” Bern wasn’t sure, and didn’t really care, which of the two he was talking about.