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Authors: Maureen Howard

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BOOK: The Rags of Time
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Circles within circles as on that day heading out of the park.
Past five. Five,
you repeated, in case I missed the urgency in your voice. Across Fifth Avenue, the apartment house where I lived as a boy was encased in scaffolding to update its limestone façade. The window where my mother stood with her
love child
(my grandmother’s version of the tale) was draped in netting, misty as the occasion of my birth. As a boy I wanted to be born on Krypton where, by improbable chance, my father lived, but where was the dynamic logo, my soaring flight over Metropolis? Two lapdogs nipping and nosing each other blocked our path. I stopped you crossing as a siren cleared the way for an ambulance racing down from Mount Sinai. A cab jumped the curb, an ordinary mishap in the city. The electronic pedestrian, trapped in the stoplight, raised his arm in a friendly salute. Safe, safely across. Chill coming on, cloudy sky if memory serves. You checked your watch again,
Day is done, gone the sun.
Now, why? Why did I sing that funereal tune?
From the hills, from the lake . . .
To get the laugh,
Oh, Artie.
Speaking of the old woman in the floppy black coat, jeans shredded at the cuffs, I said,
Wasn’t she a funny duck?
We recalled her look of offense when you ordered her to silence the heavy pit-pat of her tread. You suggested the heavy gasp of her breathing put the owl off its kill.
Though she got into the bird . . . and the two of us.
I question the two of us. In the past, our eyes and ears were in accord when birding, specially in the city, my admiration for you on display, the milkmaid walking with a proprietary air through the whole spread of Central Park as though tracking the back acres in Wisconsin. That day we were not in sync. Our argument, could it be called that, had little to do with sighting.
Kind of a washout,
you said,
You’re missing Our Sylvie.
That must have been it, Sylvie, a legacy of my grandfather’s, her love for the old man embracing us beyond blood relation. Our kids’ Frau von Trapp. No need to recall the untidy woman squinting up at the owl, coat stretched across her bum. Same age as Sylvie, give or take a few years, yet in no way like our friend, who is slim and stylish, the cap of white hair carefully sculpted to her head,
Like an angel,
you said,
ageless, one of Fra Angelico’s darlings
. And if Our Sylvie had been home to take care of the children, you would have been free to enjoy a few hours of the Fall migration in the Park. I hustled you by the apartment where I lived with my grandparents, a motherless, fatherless boy. Why fear him?
McBride believed the case—mine and Bertie’s—might be deferred. Have I made it clear that Tim came round now and again for a chat with the professor doing his math? I hadn’t the heart to correct him. He admitted me to the empty room, then went off on his assignments, slapping at his hip, searching for lost authority in the black holster of Security. I’m not dangerous, so left on my own. Or dangerous only to myself, writing not one word in defense of my old friend, but these many words of self-incrimination, backdating my limited options to the incident of birding, recording only personal discoveries of that Columbus Day, avoiding our chance meeting with the accused.
At the bus stop: teenagers comparing test scores in shrill, competitive voices. I can’t forget one sad striver with a mini-tattoo on her wrist, silver stud in her nose, concave chest weighted with schoolbooks. You stepped off the curb to see if the bus was coming while I took measure of the distance I ran from my grandparents’ apartment to the museum. “Take measure” is a Cyril O’Connor phrase, prudent, unlike these pages written for you. I stood at the corner judging the distance I crossed to the Temple of Dendur, ran up the steps of the museum, through the massive door, cut right to the Egyptians. So familiar to the guards they never stopped me for my pass, sharp kid eager to show them my ill-drawn barges to the underworld circa
B.C. Not so strange after all, my obsession with the Pharaohs and their vast company of underlings to serve them in their tombs. Even Bertie, conspiring with me in all plots against the popular faction at school, was not privy to my devotion to Isis. My fix on the goddess was a reasonable accommodation to my mother’s death, a way to believe in the afterlife, not as my grandmother believed in the apparatus of heaven with angels surfing the clouds, saints in cumbersome robes. Reviewing my route to the tombs fitted out for the long run of afterlife with the comforts of home, I maintain it was not the worst idea, writing to my mother in hen-scratch hieroglyphics. So why does it trouble you when my clever tactics for survival are long packed away? True, I wasted time searching for the phantom father, now only the loose end of a story. Never fear, Lou-Lou Belle, the grief of my childhood is not a genetic disease.
The crosstown came toward us. I stepped free of the students, drawn into a circle of noisy flirtation. You called to me, frantic. Waving your cap, hair flying, you stood by the open door of a limousine, its extravagant length blocking the bus stop. Passengers decamped in the middle of the street. Slowly, yet grandly, an emaciated version of Bertram Boyce stepped out of the long black car that established his importance. In the courthouse, I should have been figuring the next problem built on the last, but this business of writing without chalk or computer is rewind—back, I go back in time while Tim McBride stops by, hand automatically patting his missing piece. I replay the scene, Bertie helping a woman with babe in arms to collapse a stroller. He steers her up into the bus. The private school kids observe Mr. Wonderful with teen irony; then the boss, once my boss, takes me in hand, settles me in the beige leather of his limo. The old authority in his order to the driver:
You said,
A ride across the Park will do us.
Something like that, cryptic.
Bert did not introduce us to the girl with a cell plugged in her ear, a spill of mahogany hair veiling her face. We spoke softly, not to interfere with her compelling business.
Bertram Boyce, dry as a pod with a terminal tan. He seemed an endangered species in a fringed . . . serape? Poncho? We watched Bert stroke the girl’s leg up to the black leather skirt that ended far above her knee.
He said,
Long time no see. Better part of a year?
. Ah, the holiday visit. Bert’s family in suburban splendor. You will not forget the extravagant gifts. Bert, dispensing goodwill of the season, offered a priceless claret, Lafite-Rothschild:
Some prefer ’85.
He found ’86 more than OK. A fete out of the nostalgia manual—Dickensian goose, Bud with the girth of St. Nick. Better part of a year for that rotundity to scale down to skin and bones.
You surely remember Heather Boyce flashing Santa’s watch ringed with diamonds. Boyce children, bored with our kids, dismissed to their Game Boys.
So what can you do? The holidays.
Something like that, putting words into her mouth as I’ve put them into yours. Isn’t that the idea of writing it down? Call back the day, things said in passing or by intent, translation from the foreign film of memory into the subtitles of here and now.
Hear her? See her? Heather, who has never shed the yearbook smile of savvy innocence, the pleasant efficiency with which she packed away your offerings to Fern and Bertram III? Sketch pads, Chinese brushes, from ye olde curiosity shoppe with a bell over the door. The Christmas invite, an awkward duty for both parties.
Court dismissed for the day. My keeper, McBride:
See you tomorrow.
Same time? Same cubby?
Cubby brought a scolding. I did not value the privilege, Attorney Sylvan having procured this cell to prepare my schoolroom assignments. Had Thad slipped McBride a gratuity?
Tim ran his hands over the digs and stains of the table.
This room, interrogation room, used to be.
Did money change hands so that I might sit among the ghosts of the guilty? Released for the day, I drew circles within a circle on the Broadway Line. Students will guess a scribbled infinity at one glance, though this simple visual has nothing to do with their progress in Math for Business Dummies, everything to do with my notebooks, with this spill of words written in ballpoint on paper, circles within circles. I could not run word count on the inked page,
that’s only information,
closed up shop on the Broadway Line listening to the muffled beat of my neighbor’s music, having written not one word in defense of my friend.
I am reminded of Einstein’s letter to someone famous in which he confessed that images ran in his head long before the difficult search for language. The notebooks stored in my backpack with their weight of words seemed . . . well, wordplay skirting some image central to the story that is mine as much as Bertie’s, as though we are still competing as we did first day in the schoolyard. Let the image be the soccer ball with its patchwork of pentagons he shot my way, and my penalty kick these many years later, roughing him up in my version of our story. We were tough on each other, always outside the varsity game in progress.
Gina! As though I could forget the fourth party in the limo. Her commanding presence, uncomfortable at best. She swept back the red hair. On second glance, not a girl.
You’re Freeman, the boyhood chum.
Backdating, Bert filled her in on the apartment where I lived with my grandparents.
Where we picked them up, a block from the old homestead. Grandpa was Wall Street, last of the ticker-tape honchos.
Gina stayed in the present.
You’re the guy working on knots.
Your Ghostly Honor, I may have actually joined the prosecution in my estimate of that leathery woman, she of the great legs who tossed off what might, or might not, be the subject of my dissertation when she apparently hadn’t a clue that we, the Freemans, had for some years moved uptown? Why get into it, Lou? She seemed well aware that I was a Boy Scout tangled in a stubborn knot of string theory. This Gina sneaking up on the site in which my theorem depended upon the work of others. She would know that the problem was not mine alone, and further know we broadcast our progress with a sense of camaraderie, as though still low on the ladder, we might settle into a Viennese café, spell our answers out on paper tablecloths, though the acrobatic dream of my climbing a rung up while scribbling through cigarette haze may not work out, not at all. You see how precarious it was, yet how available my various routes to solvation.
Perhaps that Gina was even aware that Ernst Gottschalk, our leader in the quaint Hall of Mathematics, is the man I dodge even when he’s gone a-conferencing, not settled in his endowed Chair, elegantly tailored beyond the three dimensions of the world we inhabit in out-at-elbow Gap, worn student jeans. The door to his office flung open, no appointment needed, as though we play in time gone by—kindly teacher welcoming a confab with befuddled adjunct in need, though mostly unavailable as he publishes the next and the next paper, the only one that counted back in ’78, the dark age of a quantum past. Gott, who still holds with No. 2 pencils, red erasers, an ancient’s belief in
the contemplated mark on the page, the rubber crumbs of correction.
I slouch by his door each day. Idle fear, Louise, as though he might catch me out in a miscalculation. Tut-tut shake of the ponderous head with its unruly ruff of white hair. For now I will call it a touch of paranoia connecting that Gina, Bert’s Munster mom, to Gott, a legendary figure of fun and fear you have never, may never, meet. Our leader does not frolic at math parties, partake of our pizza sweating in the cardboard delivery box, sip our tepid beer.
Gina, this is the professor.
Her bangled arm raised in greeting.
Gina multitasks, nanos, surveillance.
In the past, Bert claimed the title Entrepreneur—telecommunications in Africa, oil in Belarus, gold in Peru—seemed multi enough. At his emporium a job arranged for Artie when in need, so I’d run the books on the screen, always this side of the law, or play pixart, imaging whatever the boss imagined in his climb to the heights. I trust you recall Skylark’s shot at a weather channel, Bertram Boyce controlling the elements.
Make it rain, Freeman. Give us a blustery day.
More often than not, reality echoed my cloud cover or the mist of a Spring morning. Snow fell softly on the tristate area, credit of Arthur Freeman. We marketed the sun, the rain. The atmosphere in the limo that day was heavy with a climate of restraint, a forecast of possible grief.
The 86th Street transverse allotted little time for my sorry tale. I was not and, as you feared, may never gain the dimension of professor. The Park glowered above its stone walls, trees and sky dimmed, blur of a dirty white cloud. Bert scrolled a window down to admit a wave of fossil fumes, then, skeletal hand on your thigh, made his move, the old one-on-one maneuver.
How’s the art business?
You sweetened your answer with a smile.
I’m not in business.
Let it play out, the uncomfortable silence enclosing us at the stoplight.
Then Gina on the wireless canceling out the old friends of Bud Boyce.
I’m on the board,
to whom it may concern,
so I’ll go in that direction.
Feathering her nest?
Fast forward: Bertie is ushered up the courthouse steps, spiffy with a silk handkerchief in his blazer pocket, Heather tottering behind on perilous heels. Cameras that day. I was ordered to keep my distance by the defense, T. Sylvan, Esquire, who does not deserve his arboreal name. I am well aware of the unkind view I’d taken as the case presented itself at the distance of judge’s chambers. My day in court, I’d have said nice things, believe me. Bert, devoted father and husband, simply lost his way in the prevalent culture of greed. Why not skim off the cream? My grandmother, Mae O’Connor, taught me about top o’ the milk when milk came in a bottle, when children were instructed not to skim or backdate, though everyone’s doing it.
Mea culpa,
another of her lessons, came to mind as I opened the new notebook each day. McBride brought me a mug of coffee, a friendly gesture. He sat with me, took the weight off his legs. Phlebitis goes with the job. Forty years he’s been at his post, forty! Knows how they swing, the Scales of Justice. Tim feared a motion to dismiss. He looked with a trained eye at the words covering this page as though to ask,
Where, Professor, are the numbers?
BOOK: The Rags of Time
8.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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