The outer office was much the same as she remembered it. The thick neat oak desk of Mrs. Lanahan, a manageable stack of buff folders in the far right corner. A small boy in a blazer likely to be his older brother’s knocked unhappy heels against the chair leg. He’d been waiting for a while, a tear path nearly dry on his freckled cheek. Wide gray eyes skimmed Ann McCleary then let her go, no help. Someone’s grandmother dispatched to pick up a sick child, nothing positive. Nothing that could distract or cajole Sister Mary Arthur to leniency.
Ann McCleary had boys of her own, long grown, boys she’d left to stew in that very chair. Her line: If you got yourself there, you’d done something to deserve it. She’d made a single exception with Terry, age seven, when a polished oxford lace-up went skidding under the desks to catch the attention of a girl he favored. Even younger, even in nursery school, Terry had some tiny thing stilled to contemplation, to watching him. She smiled to think of him, not the handsomest of her boys, but the one, the one who lit up the room.
Terry and his flying shoe, his father just in the grave a month, and he was making trouble. She’d come down to this very office, to Sister Mary Arthur nearly a girl then herself, a young woman with large responsibilities. Ann McCleary had appreciated the good qualities from the start, the kindness, the steely discipline of self that made her a deft judge of the foibles of others. Terry still as a stone, not kicking the edges of the chair leg, face turned down, the brown eye that wandered inward when he was upset wandered now, and Ann gave him the look, then retracted it. She remembered that like something physical, pulling back and seeing the situation for what it was. Dear heart, she’d said, just out of Mrs. Lanahan’s hearing, Let me speak to Sister.
And Mary Arthur needed little enlightenment, they understood each other without much conversation. Just this once, Ann McCleary took one of her children, five in all, the last born only months before she lost her beloved Dan, just this once she’d intervened between cause and effect. Off to the Dairy Queen, then home where he watched One Life To Live while she ironed, and then Dark Shadows with his brothers when they came home from school themselves. His sister, Kathleen, demanded an explanation. Hands on her hips, already the litigator, always fierce for justice. He’s sad, explained Ann to her only daughter.
We’re all sad, said Kathleen.
Give me a kiss, Ann set the iron on its trivet, reached both hands to smooth back the bangs, grown out too long, that blocked her daughter’s blue eyes. What did you hear about your grand project, is it to be Argentina or Brazil?
Mrs. Lanahan never fooled with false color in her hair, like so many of them in Holy Cross parish with frosted bobs, We’re all becoming beach blanket blonds, said Ann McCleary on more than one occasion, but Mrs. Lanahan had given up. Even the nuns, the young ones especially, what young ones there were, did better. And Mary Arthur had always been elegant, her lovely hair, cut by an expensive hand. She was the public face of Holy Cross and no one begrudged her the care, the handsome suits or the good shoes, not the way they did Father’s vintage Karmann Ghia, a disgrace, and an embarrassment.
But not an indecent man, really, and a fancy car was a small thing after all, he knew when to hide it away. And he’d backed her up when she’d said she wanted a funeral, no waiting. I can’t wait, she’d said. And Father Jim Rielly understood, and two Saturdays later pulled down the garage door in the early morning and went in the side porch to the sacristy to make sure his best purple vestments were ready, and of course they were. Monmouth County was especially hard-hit, New Jersey struck almost as if the towers had stood on its side of the river. But only two from Rumson, it turned out, and this was about affluence and influence some said, who with any pull would take an office there. But Terry hadn’t felt that way at all. So Ann McCleary knew influence and affluence were part of the endless chatter that said nothing to her. He came down for Sunday supper, a rare appearance, not like the others with towheads and pregnant wives, girls who’d been so ambitious but now trailed toddlers through her beds and borders, breast-fed on the screened-in porch as if the neighbors were blind and dumb. Terry busy with business and still unsure about settling down, a favorite with his nieces and nephews, gave each a card with his new office address, just moved in. Views to Kansas, he said, to California, even, astonishing. They would all go visit, he said they must, and from his desk survey the world.
The Rumson police, the Little Silver police, the Middletown police especially insisted, they’d already had funerals of their own and knew what to expect. The roads were cordoned off from the Sea Bright Bridge to the Avenue of Two Rivers and cars parked for a mile all the way down Rumson Road, women in black sling-backs climbing the rutted grass along the road, made the shortcut through the tennis club across the school yard to the gray shingle church, capacity four hundred, someone said a thousand stood inside and out to hear Father Jim say no words could gather the force he needed to say his prayer, they would all join him in silence. Kathleen in the choir loft, alone, sang “Danny Boy” for her brother, for her father, and the thousand beyond prayer, beyond tears, shook and trembled now.
Her mother had said, No, not that, meaning the dress of black chiffon. It’s not a cocktail party. At the house, just before, they were all biting each other’s heads off. The toddlers weeping and throwing tantrums on the screened-in porch, before all the figuring out of which car who could manage, and who would drive Mom. In the end she’d ridden with Kathleen, who knew when to be still, unlike the boys, hugging her too hard, clutching at her hand. Boys were the bigger saps, she’d always known. Kathleen could drive without talking and she knew how to get through a police barrier without making the well-intentioned feel like fools.
Sister Mary Arthur must have been there, must have been crucial and efficient, and would have come to the club later, all were invited, encouraged to gather by the water where the boats rocked in the small cove, and cleats on sails knocked a beautiful music across the treetops, last of their dusty green. Early October, soon the leaves would be down and the boats in dry dock, she couldn’t have waited another moment. She wore black, none of this nonsense of color for her. Though many in yellows even, and blues. Sister Mary Arthur would know to wear mourning, but Ann McCleary had no memory of her at all that day. None whatsoever. She saw Kathleen in her cocktail dress, which suited her, truth be told, bare-legged and barefoot in a dinghy with one of the Henderson boys, the one who saw it all, he claimed, from the Staten Island ferry. Long ride, said Ann. Excuse me, Mrs. McCleary? You saw it all, it must have been a very long ride. She was a stickler for exact speech. She was toggled far from sense with grief. Both versions arrived on dinner tables sooner or later. All admired her for going ahead, for deciding to acknowledge the loss when so many were waiting, and for what?
Her daughter Kathleen was thirty-five years old the day her brother likely died. At first they thought if anyone could survive, it would be Terry. They pictured him and the several others he’d no doubt been able to rally, rushing out of the falling ash, rowing to safety. They said it out loud, lifted up with the knowledge of his character, what would surely keep him, and anyone fortunate enough to be in his vicinity, safe. Kathleen had combed the city for the first sign. Not giving up. Even when her mother said, Come home, dear heart. Please. A little girl when she lost her father, Terry nearly seven and never to be a father himself, or a husband. Never had the chance, she’d overheard near the water, over the clang of the boats, the same wine glass still in her hand—Eat something, Mom—she caught the sob. Never wanted to be either, said Ann, he had no example to follow. And whose fault was that. Only her own. Only mine, she said, when asked.
Ann McCleary, said Sister Mary Arthur, smiling, stepping out of her sunny office, arms open by the hips, chest lifted, an unconscious mimicry of the gentle open arms of the Virgin. Come in, I’ve been looking forward to this all day. She gave an even glance to the miscreant in the chair, sighed, Come in, Mrs. McCleary, Ann, please.
She had a job in mind, and Sister heard her out. Didn’t make the old joke about dislodging poor Mrs. Lanahan: Where will we find the solvent to melt that glue, I ask you? No, never her style, her way. She listened and nodded and said, Let me think about this a bit?
Of course, yes, said Ann McCleary, standing. This was quick, and now in her mortification, knew it wasn’t what she was expecting. She’d grown used to a certain deference, people let her ahead of them in any line. And all the rest she didn’t like to believe she noticed, because for so long she hadn’t. Now to perceive her privilege was to have survived, and that was unthinkable.
You were lovely to take the time, she said, nodding.
Please, said Sister Mary Arthur, with the composure to stand quite still, to not glance at her desk or lean toward the side door, toward her next task, Please, she said, let’s speak soon.
What did that mean? Ann McCleary who understood everything, who never needed any human utterance interpreted or explained, was baffled. On her way out, she looked down at the little redhead knocking his heels and thought, at least he knows what he’s doing here.
So she wasn’t waiting for the call that evening. Not a bit. She was nursing a glass of red wine for her heart, and a scrap of cheese on a Triscuit, when the phone rang and it was Sister Mary Arthur explaining her need for a lower school library. A vision, she said. One I’ve harbored for years.
A terrible thought went through Ann McCleary’s mind: Even Sister Mary Arthur was after her imagined millions. And they were imaginary, though the papers went on about them. That, and everything else, the construction nonsense, the bullhorn the president picked up and to her mind never put down and for what. She tuned it all out. She went with Kathleen and the boys, but not their wives or their children, to stand in the frightening pit, to walk through cordons of police and to look up into the empty sky, and she waited. Waited for someone to say something she could listen to. Someone had mentioned the smell. Was it one of her boys? But she couldn’t sense a thing. She was waiting to hear someone who wouldn’t lie to her. But she knew the cost of that kind of speech because she’d seen it happen, once. But first, they’d stood in line at the Armory on Lexington to give up his hairbrush and the business card Terry had been so proud to hand to the babies, who chewed on them, Don’t worry, Mom, they’re engraved! Feel.
They’d gone down into the dark stone underground and waited as the lists were turned again and again, empty pages from the city examiner, from the morgue. Who thought to place them here in the cold stone room, airless. Kathleen unwrapped a protein bar from the checkered basket of a volunteer, Eat, Mom, please.
On the third day, Terry’s company set up a center for the families at a midtown hotel. Black slick elevators coursed up the high tower to the rooms dim lit, a false lemon fragrance in the air. The internet. The phone banks. The food, constantly refreshed, pancakes, steaks, any kind of eggs. Like Easter, said Ann. And Kathleen said, Maybe we should go home. But she wanted to hear what the CEO had to say. So they went with the others, over a hundred, maybe two hundred, who could count. And they sat in a tiered room, round tables with blue tablecloths, pads, and pens. The microphones were difficult to adjust. Men in suits skipped up the sidelines and back and whispered to clumps of other suited men with heads down, hands in pockets.
They’d heard bits and pieces. They all knew about the stairwells now. They all had maps of the area, and diagrams of the buildings, they knew which elevators stopped on which segment and which went to the top. They had a sense of timing and possibility. They’d been tracking these things for days. Two days now. And on the third, the microphone settled finally into a stand, a man grayer than the rest broke free and said, after running a thumb across the mesh and hearing the purr, the crackle, he said, I’m the Chief Executive Officer and I’d like to tell you what I know. He said, Anyone who arrived at work on Tuesday—
Already the hands were in the air, how could they know? How could they know, was there a list somewhere, an attendance list perhaps? Something that could be distributed?
He said, and first he coughed, he said that he would try to find something like that, but this is what they knew so far, that no one, not a single person who arrived at work, who made it above the 72nd floor, who made the change and climbed into the second elevator, not a single person who arrived at work that day had survived. Not one. If they came to work, if they arrived. No one. Not a single one. Not anyone.
All around the ballroom hands shot up, what about Staircase A? And what about the walls that were only Sheetrock, easily penetrated, easily torn through. The man at the microphone pushed down the large black bulb at his mouth and sobbed. And the hands stayed in the air, some polite, all waiting for his composure to reassert itself. She was the only person in the room that believed him. She watched him for another minute. Let’s go, she said to Kathleen. Outside the ballroom she waited, opening her purse to see that she still had her wallet, she’d been so forgetful lately. She waited while Kathleen called the boys who would be in Rumson already, looking for pots and pans. She waited another week then called Father Rielly, and he said, Of course, Ann, of course. She was grateful that he hadn’t felt the least impulse to offer his counsel.
It was a miracle Sister Mary Arthur got through at all, Kathleen monopolized the phone so. Set up in her old bedroom, taking her time to sort out her next move. She’d left the perfectly good law firm behind to think about NGOs. She told her mother, There’s so much I could be doing! So far, the doing involved tying up her mother’s telephone lines and flirting with the Henderson boy. Whose wife everyone knew was a grave disappointment, according to Kathleen. Who says, Ann McCleary asked, what’s to be disappointed about these days? Everything preset, pre-known. No surprises. And her daughter gave her the look she’d grown weary of in herself, the no-point-explaining look. There it is, the family crest, said Ann. She put a hand to her daughter’s cheek, We must learn some new tricks. You and I. And that’s why she’d gone to see Sister Mary Arthur. She needed to expand, she needed new experience or she’d die. Not that dying had been out of the question, she’d realized, after a long while, her own proclivity to slip away. And that understanding might have had something to do with Kathleen and the lovely suits piled up on the twin bed, and the job search that went nowhere.
First the fall, the kind of slip anyone might take, a spill off a high wet slate step. But she’d hit her head and her chest, a bruise spreading over her left side, blue as a sign from God. Something holy. Advil helped and was all she agreed to take, along with a bit of wine past five. That was the first winter. In spring she walked out to pick a flower, a daffodil and was bit by something nearly malarial. High fevers and her gait grew rigid from the inflammation. But she didn’t understand herself until an early frost that third October put down a black ice unexpectedly in the night, and she drove to early Mass, and hit the brakes fast on a curve at the shake of something in her peripheral vision. Her rear wheels froze. She spun out and off the road and raced down the Kittrees’ handsome hill to the decorative pond and sank. Passenger side aimed like an arrow to the muck that held the lilies tight at the bottom. She saw the water rise at her feet, and watched as calm as she might a faucet filling a pitcher. She knew she’d want to go home now, once she stepped out of the car, she’d have to miss Mass this one morning. The water was at her knees when she detached her house key from the ring, when she pushed open with a force she didn’t know she had, the water just beginning to skim up the tipped driver’s side. She jumped then waded, making havoc of Margaret Kittree’s dormant flowers, making a mess, she told Kathleen, how will I ever apologize? That kind of thing takes years to develop and there I am, a lunatic out of nowhere. God forgive me. Everyone forgave her, and suggested Valium, Wellbutrin, Prozac, a grief group. But who could she possibly sit with who might look her in the eye and smile and say, I know you. Besides she had no time for groups, never had.
But then she’d had the idea, and maybe, if she was honest, it came from Kathleen and her endless chatter about doing good for the children in Africa. This was the substitute for romance with the Henderson boy. Or maybe no substitute, what could she really know these days. But why Africa, she thought, why not just here? There was one family in Rumson who’d lost a father. Ann McCleary invited the widow to tea. She used all her kindness, and spoke as she would, as she already had, to any one of her own children. When she left, a pretty girl with a dark bob, whose eyes, Ann hoped, would be less dark in time, when she backed away down the drive with a sweet wave, good-bye, called Ann. Good-bye.
But what about Holy Cross. She knew everything there was to know about children and many times she’d served as chaperone, as helper, someone as agile and as knowledgeable as herself, some use could surely be found.
A library? she said to Sister Mary Arthur. She had no wish to disguise her detachment, detachment was her best friend. Are you thinking of building something then? Maybe take over Father’s precious garage.
No, no, not a bit, Ann, no, not in the least. I thought of something roving. Something that floats a bit, she laughed, and Ann always appreciated that laugh, and wondered how in these years it hadn’t lost its light touch. Ann was listening, waiting to hear the laugh again: that’s how she does it. I know all your tricks, Sister, she said.
It will be a bit of trick and I need a conjurer, a magician, will you help me?
It was a graceless thing, her cart. The wheels squeaked and the wire mesh caught at the pages and grilled them, engraved them with a crisscross. But this was the library Sister had in mind. Ann McCleary could choose her beneficiaries at will, one kindergarten, two first grades, two second grades. Why not Tuesdays, Sister said, Tuesday mornings nine-to-noon, Mrs. Lanahan will keep us in literature, and keep the cart locked safely in the supply closet. And here was her first battle. Mrs. Lanahan thought literature for small first readers involved saints and martyrs. Lurid paintings, the wounds especially crimson, even in her day the illustrations weren’t so gruesome. No, she wouldn’t read them, wouldn’t even carry them. Ann McCleary held her ground and soon had tucked in books of her own, things she’d found on bookshelves kept for the towheads. And she wandered when she didn’t mean to, just popping into the A&P for some radishes, but there she was next-door in Sally Hetzler’s bookstore, who gave her a discount, for the library, and she became a regular customer.
The children weren’t much interested. They had grandmothers of their own, and even Holy Cross had computers in the kindergarten. She never spoke about this to Mary Arthur, never said she wasn’t quite as welcome as she’d hoped. And once when the blank faces greeted her as a stranger, even the teacher couldn’t make her out, she’d wheeled her awkward cart all the way out to Father’s garage and wept beside the Karmann Ghia where no one would think to look for her. She was not a quitter. But now she wondered why that mattered any more, that quality. She’d already held a high head, but maybe life shifted. Maybe the things that sustained you just wore out and new things, new people, needed other qualities, and yours just went to sleep. Sometimes a life just finished, unexpectedly, and it was the ones still wandering around in foolish stiff bodies after they were already done who were the sorry ones. She cried and cried and no one came to comfort her because who could.
Ann McCleary told her children when they were small, when things were hard, if they were sick, or especially for the older ones, for Terry, when their father died and they were too little to lose him, she told them that one day they would realize they were better, and that they’d been better for a while. They hadn’t noticed the shift, it came so quietly and that was God’s grace, she believed it, and she told them it was true. Only Terry gave her a hard time. He dove off the high dive two summers after his father’s death, and by a wicked chance made the inward arc just to the spot where his chin cracked the tile edge. Blood bloomed out into the deep end and she caught him first, unconscious, the concussion a sure thing, and forty stitches in two layers, and black eyes, both, and bruises on the shoulders, a mess, a terrible mess, and she was forced to revise her theory, her theology. Sometimes the pain needs to reverberate for a long time, for longer than even you or anyone else might think necessary or fair. Sometimes that’s how it goes, and God may or may not be a part of that, probably is, she told her boy. But it’s anyone’s guess, she said, surprising herself in the admittance. And later she remembered a smile in him, a long time later, too long she thought, when the others had bounced back, to her credit everyone said, they admired her, everyone did, to her credit her children thrived. And one day, Terry smiled a smile she recognized in her deepest self. He pulled a bit of onion grass out by the root, she just happened to spot him through her kitchen window, he was almost nine, now, and not so tall, beautiful hands, like his father’s, long, someone made for a piano, up came the grass, roots and blades, and he examined it all closely, the whole package clutched in his hand and he smiled at the shape and the sharp stink of the roots, he put his face close then wrenched back and laughed, his face so happy, and then happy to be happy, the double happiness smile she called it, so hard-won, and it never left him after that, it became the way he smiled, the way he lit every room he ever walked into.
There were Tuesdays and more Tuesdays and they got used to her, and didn’t stare when she pushed her squeaky cart into the classroom, and took her time lowering herself into the armchair Sister Mary Arthur had suffered the already over-furnished rooms to accommodate for this purpose, her floating library. More like a falling library, they said, our reader falls asleep! And so she did every once in a while on those warm spring mornings. When the five-year-olds laid out their mats and curled on the floor like kittens, she dozed too, the sound of her own voice putting her to sleep, sometimes first of all. She knew they complained about her. What part of a progressive curriculum did she serve? But Sister Mary Arthur was adamant, and Mrs. Lanahan whispered it was one of her conceptions. It’s a charity case, said Mrs. Kelly, who taught the brighter first grade. It’s fortunate I didn’t quite hear that, Mrs. Kelly. Sister Mary Arthur’s door was open, and even Mrs. Lanahan froze. But nothing more was said about it after that. And Ann McCleary became part of the landscape, along with the candy sales and the beanies worn to Mass.
There was a little boy of course, after a year or two, in the kindergarten, who didn’t entirely dislike a story read out loud. His parents were nostalgic that way, and she let him chew on the covers of the books she wasn’t reading. Still teething are we? A big boy like you? And he smiled at her, and then a sly film of a second smile came too, he had to pull the thick cardboard cover away to accommodate his own full delight. Look at you, she laughed, a double happiness. He dropped the book and tumbled off. His attention snapped away in an instant. But a few weeks later it happened again, though now she knew to watch and wait was death. She’d only catch it by the very quietest chance, she told Kathleen. And only now and then.
Read more in Issue 7
|Essay||Variations on the Right to Remain Silent : Anne Carson contemplates translation|
|Focus||Barren by Saadat Hasan Manto|
|Fiction||Double Happiness by Mary-Beth Hughes|
|Poetry||It Is Daylight by Arda Collins|
|Essay||Sail On, My Little Honey Bee by Amy Leach|
|Fiction||Are You Ready? by John Haskell|
|IYSSSS||A Valentine to Darwin by Jillian Weise|
|IYSSSS||Lincoln in His Grave by Peter Orner|
|Poetry||Outnumbered at 0 by Mary Jo Bang|