Authors: Alice Hoffman
OUT OF THIN AIR
November, the sky slowly began to change color. Although daylight saving had ended a week before, I was still not used to coming home from work in the dark. Now I sat in the parlor of my aunt's house, waiting for the phone to ring. I looked out the window, through the lace curtains, but I wasn't really watching the harbor or the horizon. I was imagining Fishers Cove as it was that first year my parents and I drove out from Manhattan. That summer was so hot that the pavements buckled beneath the tires of our old car. Twenty years ago the harbor was clean, we could see all the way to Connecticut even on hazy days, as we sat on the porch of Aunt Minnie's boarding house surrounded by the odor of sea lavender and clams.
In those days the house was full of boarders every summer. All of them bore the name Lansky, and no two of them looked alike. There were blond Lanskys and brunette ones; Lanskys who had known Aunt Minnie as a girl in Russia and those who had never met her until they stepped off the boat in New York, even though their passage had been paid for by Minnie alone. Some of the Lanskys were directly related to Minnie; others were related to her husband, Alex, himself a Lansky, a cousin twice removed through divorce and death. Even then I was not quite convinced that Minnie and I were kinâI was the only relative who refused to eat the vegetarian meals Minnie cooked for all the summer Lanskys; I was the one who refused to be a part of the Lansky chain lettersâletters petitioning congressmen and governors to vote her way on certain propositions and laws. Still, I had spent as much time as any Lansky in Minnie's house, watching the August constellations through Uncle Alex's telescope set up on the wooden porch; Fishers Cove meant summer and long evenings, squash cooked with wild mushrooms, arguments, chess games, and beaches lined with green rocks.
But now Fishers Cove had been deserted by the summer people; they had begun to move farther eastâto Orient Point, to the Hamptons and Montauk. If Fishers Cove had remained the same, Minnie might not have responded so quickly to my letter requesting a room, no matter how difficult it was for her to resist a correspondence. In other years there had never been a problem finding boarders, even in winter. The wooden floor at Minnie's glowed, the tea brewed at breakfast was a Russian blend sweetened with cinnamon and honey, there was a harbor view from every bedroom window. There had always been nurses from the Veterans Hospital or divorcÃ©es in need of temporary lodgings, there had even been an artist from Manhattan who returned for the deep sunsets in October and May.
When I arrived at Minnie's I found just Beaumont was left. Her sole boarder was the thin old man who had come to Minnie's after his stay at the V.A. Hospital in 1956. Beaumont had refused a bedroom with a harbor view and had moved into the basement, where he collected pots and pans and matchbook covers sent to him by all of the Lanskys who fondly remembered him, the boarder who came out only at night.
No one came to Fishers Cove anymore, not even the Lanskys; even they could afford summer places at Montauk or the Jersey Shore. And just as the town was forgotten by some, it was discovered by others. A series of builders had circled the area; the original port town had been surrounded by housing developments. There were two Fishers Coves nowâthe lower section near the harbor was ringed with the same huge Victorians that rested in the sun like colored lizards; but up above there was Harbor Heights, a line of tract houses which had replaced the marshes and fields. And on Angel Landing, the point jutting out from the far side of the harbor, where there had once been thousands of shells called false angel wings, a nuclear power plant was being built. The metal scales of Angel Landing III now rose into the sky with the terrible force of centuries.
The power plant was the reason I had returned after so many yearsâI had accepted a job at Outreach, a counseling center in town, and rented a room at Minnie's. But if not for that plant on the tip of Angel Landing, I would never have come back. I was here because Carter Sugarland followed nuclear power just as a dove follows olives, and I, in ardor and in haste, had followed Carter. Of course Carter could not make a commitment to me; he had told me that five years before in the hallway outside our seminar in group psychology; he was already committedâto Social Change, to peace, to the earth itself. Still, when I wanted to follow him to Fishers Cove, Carter did not argue. I moved into Minnie's house, and Carter found a place in town. He dragged a mattress up to the apartment, which had become the only regional office of Carter's antinuclear group, Soft Skies. There we would meet weekends and Wednesdays for lovemaking, marijuana, and endless games of hearts.
It was a Wednesday nightâour nightâand like the woman in love I considered myself to be, I waited for his call. My aunt walked into the parlor, and set her cup of tea down on the mahogany table. At seventy-four, Minnie seemed much the same as the first day I met her, nearly twenty years before. She had always worn her fine, long hair wrapped in a bun, and she was still impressively large, five-foot-eleven, tall enough to make heads turn on the street when she walked home from the market with bundles of wheat germ and radishes. Unlike most people, Minnie was not shrinking with age; instead she seemed to be growing, right before my eyesâin the morning, when I walked past her room, I could see Minnie's long feet hanging over the edge of the bed. Now, my aunt straightened her back and sat in the easy chair near the wood-burning stove.
“Tea?” Minnie asked me.
I shook my head. She had once tricked me into trying a cup of golden seal tea; the taste had been foreign, so strong it had stayed with me for days. “Not just now,” I said.
Minnie sighed and lifted her teacup. “You're impossible.”
“Not everyone likes golden seal,” I said. “It's a matter of taste.”
“I'm not talking about tea, Natalie,” Minnie answered. “I'm talking about you. Everything about you. For instance, the telephone. The telephone was made to be used, it was invented to be used. You have to dial.”
“I'm waiting for Carter to call,” I informed my aunt.
“Aren't you always,” Minnie smiled.
“What is that supposed to mean?” I asked. “Exactly what?”
“Why don't you pick it up? Why don't you call him for once?”
“What goes on between Carter and me is private.”
“Women don't sit around waiting for men to call. Nobody does that anymore. Believe me.”
“Carter's busy,” I said. “He has a difficult schedule and his phone can't be tied up.”
“Carter.” Minnie nodded.
“Oh just admit it,” I said in a flurry of anger. “You don't like him. You decided to dislike him the first time you met him.”
“Well, well,” Minnie said, raising an eyebrow.
“You never did,” I said. “From the first time you saw him.”
“Wrong,” Minnie said. “Absolutely wrong. Of course there are things I don't like about him. I was never crazy about blond men.”
“Well, I'm crazy about him,” I said.
“But I do like Carter,” Minnie went on. “Sometimes I even respect him. Though frankly, I, personally, would have never chosen him as a lover.”
“Minnie!” I said.
Now I wondered: Had she heard us? The walls of the house were thin, the floorboards creaked, and twice I had persuaded Carter to spend the night, assuring him that Minnie could not possibly hear us from her bedroom down the hall. She couldn't possibly have known that sometimes, when we were through making love, and Carter fell asleep or left the bed to telephone Soft Skies organizers in New Hampshire or Cambridge, I turned my face to the pillow and wondered what it was that felt like a sob caught somewhere inside.
“You're afraid of honesty,” Minnie told me now. “I've seen that fear in the people at Mercy, but in someone as young as you.â¦ Face the factsâCarter isn't your type.”
“I see,” I said. “Working at that home has given you the background to make an in-depth psychological diagnosis of my relationship with Carter.”
“Did I say that?” Minnie said. “All I said was he isn't your type. Love affairs are like shoesâthey get so comfortable you don't want to throw them away. Throw them away, throw them away; why are you holding on to an old pair of shoes?”
“That's all very interesting,” I said. “Not at all true, but interesting.”
“Listen,” Minnie said confidentially. “Do you want my opinion?”
“I'm sorry,” I said hastily, “but I really am waiting for an important call.”
“Wake up!” Minnie cried. She placed her cup and saucer on the table with enough emphasis to spill tea on the mahogany. “One day you'll wake up and you'll be sixty. Sixty-five. Seventy.”
“Age does happen to everyone,” I agreed.
“It happens faster than you think,” Minnie told me.
“How about dinner?” I said, realizing that Carter's call would be late. “I could fix something for us.”
“Not in my kitchen,” Minnie shook her head.
“I don't see why you won't allow anyone else to cook,” I said. “Not all vegetarians are as obsessive as you. Some of them will actually eat a meal cooked by someone else.”
Minnie refused to answer; she waved her hand in the air and ignored me, just as she had ignored the facts she didn't care for all throughout her life. The Lanskys had all told different stories as they sat on the porch drinking lemonade. But they all agreed on one thing: Minnie had ignored the poverty and pain of her village in Russia. She had ignored American immigration laws and Czarist rulings and had sent for one cousin after another, marrying Alex. After she had transplanted an entire village of Lanskys, Minnie began work on the American system of government. Her personal method of revolution was the chain letter; each Lansky, forced by guilt, spurred on by memory, would write three copies of Minnie's original letter of protestâone copy would be sent to a government official, the others to unsuspecting Lanskys in New Jersey and Queens.
Everyone agreedâMinnie had certainly never asked anyone's advice on her choice of a lover, and she never minded that she was the sole admirer of her husband's poetry. For years, Alex had sat behind an oak desk in the round turreted room on the third floor. All of the Lanskys were wise enough to keep quiet when we walked past Uncle Alex's room; we had better, for Minnie guarded Alex's room like a sentry.
In the evenings, Minnie's long hair was unwound to circle her waist as she walked down the hallways, presiding over her poet's needed solitude. In those summers we did whatever Minnie asked; she was nearly six feet tall, and we children especially feared her anger. She, and not Alex, had organized the boarding house, and Minnie continued to manage the house after Alex's death, a death which came to him as suddenly as a sigh. Uncle Alex had collapsed at his desk, still writing about Minnieâhis lifelong subjectâstill comparing her to a warrior whose armor shone like polished gold, to a rose that grew by the seaâstill searching for words that rhymed with her name as he took his last breath.
Minnie had always believed she had cornered the market on love; she could not have imagined any woman not falling in love with a short Russian poet who longed for silence and the odor of the sea. No one else's love affairs were quite as passionate; no one else really knew the meaning of the word.
“Not everyone is crazy about poets,” I said.
Minnie looked up at me quickly. “Oh,” she said. “I see.”
“I didn't mean it to sound that way.”
Minnie reached for a piece of embroidery she had been working on. “I understand,” she said. “I understand perfectly.”
“No you don't,” I insisted. “I didn't mean anything personal.”
“Nonsense. Everything is personal. How could it not be?” Minnie stuck a needle through her embroidery ferociously.