Authors: Keir Alexander
Constable & Robinson Ltd
55–56 Russell Square
London WC1B 4HP
First published in the UK by Corsair,
an imprint of Constable & Robinson Ltd., 2014
Copyright © Keir Alexander, 2014
The right of Keir Alexander to be identified as the author of this
work has been asserted by him in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out or otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A copy of the British Library Cataloguing in
Publication Data is available from the British Library
ISBN: 978-1-4721-0807-4 (paperback)
ISBN: 978-1-47210-811-1 (ebook)
Printed and bound in the UK
1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
Cover copyright Gray 318
stinks. It has to be said. Stinks to high heaven.
No, worse, stinks like death. This is not just a smell, an unpleasant odour to be carried away on the next breeze, it’s a stench, a pestilence that violates the space she enters and damns the air where she has been. The rest of her spells death, too: the funeral-dark clothes, head to foot, and the dry knot of hair which has surely been borrowed from a corpse, not to mention the skinny marbled wrists sticking out of her black shell, making her look like some great wounded bug dragging itself away somewhere to die.
She has the dog for company, of course. His name is Barrell – another great black thing, padding ahead of her. If you see him coming along the street, get away and downwind pronto before Old Rosa arrives. Why he puts up with her is a real mystery. She has never petted him, or made him stand on his hind legs for treats, or tickled his tummy. He has never known the restraint of a leash, so how come he never ran barking for the hills? Maybe he likes the smell and wears it with pride, like a doggy badge. All the same, you don’t see too many other mutts running up to sniff his old balls. Even animals seem to give Old Rosa a wide berth.
Why the authorities have not taken it upon themselves to
about the woman is another mystery. They could surely take her in, scrub her down, and dress her up and perch her on a floral chair in some nice old folks’ home. But they don’t. Maybe the neighbourhood possesses an unconscious collective wisdom and somehow they need Old Rosa to walk among them. This creeping intimation of mortality, accompanied by the dog and the once-tartan shopping cart, with its squeaking wheel so simply and eloquently mocking all the vanities that flesh is heir to. Memento mori.
So she is free to roam. Here she is coming along 98
towards Fifth. The dog is there at the kerb, mooning for the grass in the Park, slavishly looking back over his shoulder for the next intervention. With barely a nod, Rosa sends him on and steps straight off after him, looking neither right nor left. She’s canny enough to know the police have already blocked off the traffic from the Avenue. People are out already – happy families and a few early-worm Paddies-for-all-occasions, huddling, flapping and stamping against the cold before the sun gets up. As Rosa hauls the cart up the far kerb, a little girl holding a green flag leans over to pat the dog. Rosa walks on, wilfully oblivious. She does not see when the child doubles over, retching, and she escapes the dagger of a look that the mother hurls at her back. Rosa has conditioned herself never to look back or to take account of the reactions of others. She just walks on, never turning to confront the chaos churning in her wake.
But all of these awful things about Rosa are far from the whole story. For within the cavern of her spirit, Old Rosa, the bag lady, carries a thing of infinite beauty. A secret, shining treasure.
■ ♦ ■
Michael Marcinkus shuffles out of the shop door, carrying a long pole with a brass hook, which he uses to draw down the tired striped awning from its recess. Rain or shine he does this; the weather is not the point. What matters is that these things are done and that they are
to be done. It’s the same with the striped canvas apron that he wears round his tubby waist. It’s the same with the lettering, which makes a tarnished dawn across the window: Sunrise Deli and Grocery Store. It’s the same with the open/closed sign that must at all times give the correct message. And it’s the same with the polishing and priming of the ‘ridiculous’ old weighing machine that, as his wife Grace has complained every day for the last forty years, takes up so much space in the doorway.
A small man shouldering big burdens, Michael straightens the chairs at the outside table, squints up at the cold slice of sun peeping out from behind the block and throws a glance in the direction of Fifth. Trade will be brisk today. In days gone by, the thought would have made him happy, but now that he is older and tireder it means the day will drag all the more. He flips the sign to open, wipes his feet, goes back inside to see that all is as it should be in a deli store preserved exactly as it was in the Twenties. Faded marble counters, big swishing slicers, grinders and ranks of knives. The stock itself – myriad meats, cheeses and fruits – all laid out on trays, set out on stands, hanging on hooks. Then there are the invisible but equally important things that give the promise of things: the cool, sad aromas of olives, garlic and anchovies; the warm, seductive invitation of coffee, oranges and spices. And all these items to be in their places at their appointed hours. Bread, bagels and bakery goods – in and arranged in their cases by five thirty. Ham, poultry, sides of beef – up from the cold room by six; pared, sliced and under the glass by seven. Cans, bottles and cartons – up from the cellar, tagged and onto the shelves by seven thirty. All of these separate things are part of the whole, and the whole must be preserved each day in the same way, because that’s how it has been and how it shall continue to be. Articles of faith.
A blemished piece of fruit leers at him from an otherwise spotless battalion of apples on a stand. Michael stoops and studies it from all angles, his head twitching like a canary contemplating a seed. He tuts: the boy should have spotted that. He walks back into the store, ruefully holding out the apple for Grace to see as she mops the floor. Imperiously, he calls out, ‘Benjy!’ and looks towards the cellar door, where he knows he will emerge. Grace squeezes out the mop and sighs. She is less religious about these things. She’s tired, too; she’s been doing this for a lifetime now, and all she would like to do is lie on a beach in Hawaii for a month and watch her toenails grow. Fat chance. She watches blearily as Benjy clunks up the stairs and inches through the door, juggling a box of Wesseltoft’s Luxury Cat Litter. Michael holds out the apple like it’s Exhibit A. ‘Would you care to explain?’
Benjy looks at the inadequate apple, shocked, as if it’s a dead rat, then sticks out his bottom lip as if he’s going to cry, which is the signal for soft-hearted Michael to back-pedal. Grace knows that once Michael is off his back, Benjy will go round behind the racks and laugh himself silly, and she doesn’t blame him for this; he’s a nice boy. She herself so often feels the same way about her husband. Why must he persist in being such a funny little man?
Michael continues, half-hearted now, to berate the boy. ‘You have to be on the lookout for these things, young man. The devil is in the detail.’
Grace rolls her eyes. My God, so now we have St Michael the Evangelist! Why does he have to be so damn right and proper all the time? All these rules and regs on top of the crippling day. What do they gain by it? It’s an issue, a real issue. Grace shakes herself out of her daydream monologue but already he has marched off to find the next abomination – some item wrongly shelved, or particle of dust gathering where particles of dust are forbidden to gather.
A brown-haired, dapper-looking man of forty or so walks in the door and waits meekly at the counter. With the turned-up collar and his mackintosh belt tied just so, he looks stylish, jaunty even. But look close enough and you’d see that his keen blue eyes are drawn tight and shuttered against the day. Grace, who has gone back to mopping the floor, looks up and calls out, ‘A moment, please.’ And then she yells for her old man to get up front. For the past five years and just about every day, this same nice polite man has been coming to the deli to have a coffee or buy some choice thing to eat. He has become a friendly regular, but still Grace does not address him by his name, which is James, and still James does not have many words for her, either, though each of them has nothing but kind thoughts for the other. Instead, he smiles and stands there until Mr Marcinkus comes shuffling up, wiping his hands on his apron. ‘James, James, how are you? Macchiato, yes?’
James sits down at one of three stools just inside the door, while Michael busies himself at the espresso machine, a magician conjuring aromatic delights in a swirl of steam. He was in here only yesterday, and shadows have gathered inside James even since then, but the Sunrise always gives him such pleasure. Delis like this are rare now, so many of the smaller places having been gutted and ruined in the eighties and nineties, and the big downtown ones made over all fake and flashy. He takes it all in: the old-fashioned letters across the window, so beautifully crafted, and the mouldings, tired now and in need of TLC but retaining their Twenties charm. He adores the old weighing machine in the doorway, and above all he loves the whole mysterious interior – light in creamy marble counters; dark in mahogany, with curved glass cases held in flowing chromium and the vast array of products so abundant with their shapes, colours and aromas. More than once, it has occurred to him that the shelves here mirror in a more sensual way the shelves in his own workplace, the New York Public Library, both endeavouring to connect people with offerings from other places, to bring them closer to a bygone age. Yes, here time can pass, here he can be something more like himself.
As if to underline the fact, Michael strikes up, friendly and comforting, ‘So, James, up and about early. Out to see the Parade?’
‘I was on my way to the hospital.’
‘Ah, yes, of course . . .’ Michael can see by the new lines on James’s honest face that it’s a subject best steered away from. He brings over a steaming cup and sets it down, saying, ‘I’m sorry, I should have realized.’
‘It’s OK,’ is as much as James can say. How could he explain to this kindly old man that at this very moment all of his thoughts are calcified around one simple, horrible proposition? That as soon as he has finished his coffee he will turn out of this place along East 99
. Turn left across from the Park and walk two blocks along to Fifth and 97
. That he will then crane his neck to look up at the dark tower of the hospital, will take an elevator to the fourteenth floor and there enter an unnervingly pleasant room. And lying in this room he will find the beloved person who, as is the way of things, is likely this very day to die. This unspeakable knowledge slides round his guts like a blade. Death will soon come roaring for Paolo, his partner, and inside James burns to scream out at the wickedness of it. It would be so glorious to take hold of his dying lover, rip him from the web of tubes that have softened him for the end and crash with him through the glass into the blazing corona of the sun.