At the back of the store’s window display, a narrow, concave door, nestled flush in its concave wall, silently yawns and a window-dresser enters, steps up onto her platform. The swinging door and her ascent are highly noticeable disruptions of her cramped, posed world, but across the street and one story beneath her, Whit hasn’t yet noticed her arrival. He is strategically considering his unwieldy sandwich (here bulging like a bluffing toad, there collapsing and retreating from its doom), and so seconds still remain before he is destined to see her for the fateful first time, a few more seconds corralling slippery, sheepish lettuce before — tickled by a silent blur in their periphery — his eyes rise.
Her back is to him when he first sees her.
She floats overhead, one story up, across the street, through two panes of glass, her image staticky through the intervening, mammoth, spinning tops of snow. She stands alone (but for a half-dozen headless dwarves) in a semi-cylinder of pale yellow light on the far side of the gray-green gloaming that backdrops evening snow in this city. Whit’s helium eyes tug up his bowed head, though his lower jaw remains open, sandwich-magnetized. Through 30-degree air, he gazes skyward, 30 degrees up, as at a low-streaking comet spraying omens like spores from an airborne seed-pod in April, or at a condemned building squatting into a time-lapse cloud of consuming black dust. Her back is still to him; he has not yet seen her face. She twists and tiptoes gingerly among headless children in athletic or playful poses. Around her they catch balls or jauntily plump their stubby fingers into denim back pockets or leap into a wire-suspended caper of permajoy or perform headless headstands. She kneels in front of one cloth tot, its arms akimbo, and begins to strip the sexless toddler, working from its velcro’d boots up to a goofy hat suspended atop no head. She balances the frilly, horned cap on her own (relatively Neanderthal) head, and Whit smiles, open-mouthed, as her hat slowly slides to one side.
The sandwich untasted, his palms settle onto the cool copper of the restaurant’s window-front counter. He leans slightly forward on the tippy wicker stool and, her front still unrevealed, something remarkable happens: he does not superimpose upon her the features of another. Until she turns, she will have no face. A minor accomplishment, to be sure. But for Whit, for the first time in 25 months, vicious memory dozes at its post, and a particular reflex of hope and sorrow is not triggered: he is not imagining that the window-dresser about to turn and face him will be his wife, returned to earth, burbling loving, laughing apologies for the evil misunderstanding (it’s over, Whitty, God has agreed to set everything right again).
She squats, tilting her head to balance the falling cap. She wears some fashionable variety of jeans that stop short where the belt loops should be, and so her blue denim waistline drops and rises again to reveal an arc segment of smooth gray cotton and a thin knobbed strip of winter-pale spine, before modesty lowers the dark red curtain of her sweater. And still Whit’s imagination is held in check by some bright, wise angel.
The window-dresser stands, the cap finally drops, and her light brown hair falls only so far and no farther, and he feels no disappointment that it is not Claire’s hair. The girl fiddles with a dummy. She waves her fist at it when the new cap won’t stay in place, and this threat does the trick. She steps backward toward Whit, half a step to examine her work, puts her arm behind her and touches the tips of her fingers against the store’s window. And at last she turns and he squints away the snow. She is not Claire and he does not notice, does not deflate with old, familiar nausea. She is years younger than him. Unseen below her and across the street his palms are wet against the window-front bar of the sandwich shop he found this evening entirely by accident. She checks her hair in the reflective glass, does not focus past it, and so to Whit her eyes have a distant, lovely cast, far removed from the dish-racket and chatter of his surroundings.
She is watching something far over Whit’s head. In her window, he catches the last reflected winking triangle of an airplane rising above and behind where he sit, and he watches her eyes follow its invisible ascent, through the whirl of ivory dust against jade air.
Corner-of-the-eye shenanigans, his sub-conscious’ twisted fingers casting shadow-puppets against the back of his cornea: since that evening when the wind blew the snow sideways (until the window-dresser turned towards him, and the wind held its breath and the flakes fell suddenly vertical in dazed slow motion), he has begun to see apparitions of old girlfriends. The window-dresser kindly unlatched a gate for them. Just outside confirmable distance, in precisely the crowded, unreachable spots Claire used to haunt after death, Whit sees familiar faces from a dozen and more years ago. The young women ride the next car of the subway, deigning to visibility only at the peak curvature of banking turns. They rise then quickly vanish on the disorientingly mirrored department store escalator that forms an X with his descent. On the far side of the semi-frozen pond in the park, Sandy Carlin tosses bread crumbs to a rising convention of flapping pigeons and furiously rivalrous ducks. Whit steps towards her and at once a tipped bucket of stampeding field-tripping children swarms bellowing around his legs. He looks down and then up: more than enough time for Sandy to transform herself into someone else.
In these hurried holographs, the ex’s have not aged since he knew them. In her various appearances, Sandy (freshman and again junior year) holds steady at 21, though she must be 39 if standard math and time apply to those he once slept with. Marnie — his final and masterful tutor in insecurity before he met Claire and found peace — has been spectrally stalking and electrically startling him for nearly a week now, unaged and displaying a characteristic creativity in her technique. Today, for example, while he lunched out with two co-workers (bottomless, boiling fonts of pedophile-priest jokes), Marnie, in a chef’s toque, periodically shimmered behind the steam clouds which screened the fashionably open kitchen. Closer examination, however (he lied to his lunchmates, wandered around in a sham quest for a bathroom) yielded a cooking staff composed solely of Asian men. Now, irrepressible from her lunchtime victory, Marnie twinkles in and out of a crowd of extras in tragic Belfast, clamoring for a glimpse of a street-corner brawl in the Irish historical drama on the high-numbered channel that seemed the most promising soporific after the late-night monologuists failed either to amuse or snooze him.
Since they seem to be asking for his attention, Whit thinks, thumbing the remote and watching his distorted face faintly form on the blank brown screen, perhaps he is ready to find them in the flesh. He must be ready. Still alert, he strides nervously into the study (previously guest bed, née prospective nursery), and lumbers around cyberspace, peering here and there in the digital murk, asking after his old girlfriends. National phone directories evenly disperse two dozen Cassandra Carlins across the country, not even considering the Cassandra Anything’s she might be by now. A sluggish search engine listlessly, hopelessly offers him family trees for two Marnie Sterlings, one born a century too early, one a decade too late.
It is brigadoonishly difficult to find that sandwich shop again. (The first time was by chance: he was playing a lonely snow-fall game designed to achieve maximum disorientation: one may only walk on streets or sidewalks where the snow is pristine. When, with a single step from a quiet side street onto a busy boulevard, the game ended, Whit was hungry and the sandwich shop ingratiatingly materialized.) Late this afternoon, though, it plays the coquette. It slips away, masquerades as a cobbler, a tea bar, a computer repair. He excitedly understands why he is lost: he was not aware of his surroundings, was not registering new memories at all until he saw the window-dresser amidst her headless wards, and some mechanism he had assumed was permanently destroyed gently whirred and clicked.
In his circular odyssey this afternoon, holding possible names for the window-girl up to his recollection of her face, he approaches a building blanketed in scaffolding, and he instinctively slows to look out for errant bricks or speeding nails shot from the wind-swollen tarps and monstrous-worm garbage chutes. “Fire, baby, fire, baby,” yells a hard-hatted man on the ground, calling up through cig-cradling teeth. Whit stops and enjoys the sight: an orange translucent lighter tumbles slowly from a downturned palm, accelerates into waiting hands below, flickers its function, and then the film is reversed without a glitch, the orange and bubbled tool sails back up, decelerates upward into the original palm above.
Finally, Whit is able to find the restaurant only by deducing its position in relation to her store across the street. The eatery has whimsically shrunk and wandered a block closer to the Square in the last week. He holds out for the occupied window perches which flank the door, declines open tables deeper inside the noisy hall. “Suit yourself, Chief,” sighs a staff goatee, over-taxed by just such customer whimsy.
Having given her a temporary name that seems to fit his glimpse of her, Whit engages in provocative ritual: he orders the same sandwich, looks down at its arrival, allows it to come apart in his hands, wrestles with its devolving form. He slowly looks up. No luck, even after several efforts. He contemplates the well-dressed and jolly decapitated children. Outside her window the snow rests on a fluted glass awning in smooth parallel tubes of peerless white, tilted cylindrical clouds lined up for inspection.
He lingers over his meal, orders an inedible dessert and indelible coffee. He wonders if he could smolder for her, if she could gently kindle a fire of romance. Someone drops a loaded tray, but the noise does not bring her to her window. No, romance cannot be. Not for lack of physical desire: that has not seemed impossible for many months now; it returned not long after Claire’s death with firm morning tenderness, offensively indifferent to recent events, and has religiously never bothered to mourn since. (Except once, when desire held itself priggishly aloof while well-meaning colleagues laughed too loudly and cheered unconvincingly and ordered pricey rounds and rounds and rounds and the round, hard breasts of a racoon-faced stripper chafed Whit’s eyelids and nose.) Rather, it is romance that seems impossible, he reminds himself as he fingers the toothy, chipped edge of his stained coffee cup, because romance demands from its congregation an effortless, thoughtless faith in unknowable outcomes and mysterious possibilities. This faith is — like a boy’s soprano — an unrecoverable knack, Whit has learned these past 25 months. At whatever age it goes, it goes for good. He knows this as a regrettable fact that all men must someday accept. No, it is gone and a future with any woman is unmysteriously knowable: a spell of avid affection, followed soon by awkward conversations about commitment, pursued immediately by debates about money, then routines more or less comfortable and comforting, the puzzling shock of random childlessness, and all at once fat, guffawing cancer arrives on a sparkling summer day, peels off his shoes to pick between his toes, smacks his gourmand lips at the promise of a fine meal: he takes first one bite then another of her lovely chest, proceeds to savor with slow epicurean skill the rest of her, lingering over his whimpering banquet as long as he can, irritated but not hastened by the hapless cuckold’s futile tears.
Contrary to countless pamphlets scattered like rose petals in front of him by everyone he knew (as if her death had created a community of social workers), he did not travel along 12 discrete stations of grieving. His mind did not heal in progression, like lucky, logical flesh, flushing, sealing, numbing, scabbing, scarring. Rage and denial came and went on unpredictable schedules, and a kind of exhausted acceptance sometimes chilled him in early mornings: life was once better, in the past, and would never be so good again. The end. This was a sort of stabilizing force, not comfort exactly, but sufficiently calming. Unfortunately it, too, visited then abandoned him at random.
Basketball, for example. The first time he went back to pick-up night, a year and some ago, only a few of the guys knew where he had been for the previous several months. Those who understood were clumsily gentle with him, which he found embarrassing — gentle passes, gentle compliments on his game, gentle blocking, even bizarrely gentle trash talk (“Okay, here I come, big Whit, you’re not as fast as you think you are”). The well-meaning stupidity spread rapidly and efficiently: he never saw anyone say “Lay off, his wife just died,” but one after another player did suddenly grow tentative and soothing with him. This irritated him; he needed to play. He called them pussies, laughed at the feeble defense, scored and fouled freely and with a real lust for violent impact. They just took it, marveled at his moves, absorbed his insults and his hits with a shrug and a laugh, yeah, yeah, Whit, you the man.
Walking home after that game, energized and scorning their unnecessary pity, he declared himself fine. He examined his recovery under the passing streetlights, turning it this way and that, admiring the sheen of his manly resilience. An instant later, a motion-activated streetlight perversely shut off as he walked under it and that same smooth and admirable agate seemed flinty, cold, shamefully callous. But either way, he was getting better, he told himself. He was sleeping better at last, without any help and with only occasional fear. Shameful or not, there could be no question: he would live, would even be okay.
Thirteen months seemed an appropriate sentence of pain and mourning. And yet the very next night he was standing in front of the convenience store near his apartment, and an instant later he was inside it, rocking from heel to toe in front of the feminine hygiene products, holding a pack of supers in one hand and maxis in the other, straining to remember the specifications of her occasional urgent requests for a nocturnal errand, shouted out from the bathroom as he went out for nicotine gum. That night he bought the maxis from a pierced and snickering kid who, new to this job and the world, could not imagine what circumstances would make a dude buy such products. He walked home over the uneven ice and snow, clutching the brown paper bag in his numb fingers, tears freezing on his sticky lashes and stinging his contorted cheeks, and he was soon stuffing his uncomforting parcel into the wedge of open space in a street-corner trash-can overflowing with donut boxes and dog shit in plastic sacks.
He is a pleasant, mildly pathetic joke to himself the fourth and fifth times he sits for that same evening sandwich at the same giant window with the arch of inverted emerald letters, and does not see her. Faint pedestrians roll silently by. Evening six, some teenagers press their noses and mouths to the window and make goggle-eyed, lip-licking faces at his food, drive themselves insane with hilarity before stumbling off, their spit freezing in bubbled tracks on his window.
Winter struts at its bullying coldest for sandwich seven but, directly in front of Whit’s window, a relentless street magician refuses to step aside. He performs with his back to the restaurant’s glass, displaying a genius’s faith in what appears to be only mediocre talent. Back-lit by the restaurant’s glow, the bundled, obese prestidigitator fumbles his barely vanishing half-cigarettes and slippery coins. His stinging, fat fingers jut blue from fraying sleeves.
Braving that icy night air, a very small and child-heavy spectatorship arranges itself around the frigid trickster while Whit eats over his shoulder, behind the glass and, without seeing the tricks themselves, learns how nearly every illusion is accomplished: the extra half-cigarette wedged in a plump palm, the spare coin rolling from a sleeve at an angle only Whit can see. He can only guess when a trick has climaxed by the expressions on the faces of marveling children trembling on impatient fathers’ knotted shoulders. Although Whit receives none of the usual payoff of seeing the tricks from the front, it is an oddly satisfying performance — no magic, just the relaxing rhythm of the swaying fat back, pivoting slightly for surprise or secrecy (indistinguishable from Whit’s angle), the props which drop or hide, indifferent to their rear-window witness.
A jumpy college kid joins the audience then catches Whit’s eye, visibly realizes what the window signifies. He enters the restaurant with a cold waft of alcohol and stands next to the counter, examines events from Whit’s point-of-view. “How ’bout that? Dude, he’s got an extra cigarette. That’s how the hell…” and the young man opens the door and yells out his discovery to no one, everyone: “Yo, he’s got an extra cigarette! That’s how he does it, look, look, right there he’s got — there — see? That’s not the same ciga–FUCK!” Whit has slammed the door on the kid’s hand, and it waves frantically, pulling its grunting owner back into the restaurant. “What the hell, dude?!”
“Don’t do that. That’s not good,” Whit says very quietly. Whit is a large man, with a stage-two-male-pattern-balding crewcut. He can be effortlessly menacing, in the style of ex-military men (though he is not one).
Beyond the audience’s mitten-muffled applause, the brown corner of her building has that permanently stained look of concrete in mid-winter. And — voilà! That was all it took to conjure her. She looks bored up there this evening, works with less diligence. She pulls a cap off a child’s head frame, but just leans against the white wall, stares absently at her reflection, then through it, down onto the passing car roofs, the quivering radio antennae, the crystal-cystic windshields and striped back windows, the jumbo magic-man. Her eyes sweep the shops directly across from her, glide twenty feet over Whit’s impassioned impatience. Her eyes descend to the ground floor several stores to his left. He watches her eyes approaching him. He knows well by now what she is seeing as she moves towards him: now the post-holiday discounted soaps, lotions, rough scrubbers, now the pâtés in gleaming aspic, wicker baskets of jarred marmalades suspending spiral rinds, cut-glass petri dishes spotlit and glistening with black sturgeon eggs, now she is entering his restaurant, scanning the unoccupied window-front counter just on the other side of the door, a mere thought away, less than a second, her eyes will meet his over magic-man’s head, she will see him and pause, will notice him and promise only some possibility, some reservoir of untapped mystery, new memories he can scarcely even believe in, her eyes rest on the magic show, don’t yet penetrate the chubby illusionist…and she is cut loose, turns away from her reverie, tosses high in her yellow air the child’s cap she has been twirling and fingering, and, her eyes white and her jaw open, gamely tries and laughingly fails to catch it on her head.
She gets back to work. She unfurls and tacks a pink and yellow banner to the back wall: THINK SPRING!! She strips the tiny shirts from her male colleagues, allowing the canvas toddlers to revel in their fast-forwarded world’s seasonable thaw. She checks her reflected hair and is too soon out of view.
He chews again, slowly and open-mouthed. He is stunned by the race of his heart, by the rush of feeling for this out-of-focus stranger. To be clear: he is not an idiot or a mumbling stalker: he knows she is just a stranger, but that is rare enough. She is not a screen to invert and make appealing his projected troubles. She persistently refuses to be a mannequin for his memories. She is just a good-looking stranger, with a certain grace and humor in her actions and approach to her job. She wears lightly a stranger’s possibilities and unpredictable uniquenesses, which he did not know until this evening (if he even knows it now) he has been craving.
On the restaurant’s wall to his right, he studies her yellow aerie reflected in the glass front of a framed poster. Here her imperative banner reads backwards while the emerald arch of O.B. LEARY’S is double-inverted to clarity.
Bleary Irishmen worked their magic on Claire’s clothes one day, transforming them into a single blank receipt (“You can fill in wh’tever amount suits your fancy,” sang the larger one, a red-bearded giant in plaid overalls who had been, he informed Whit over Guinness in the kitchen, a funeral home director before dedicating himself to this particular charity). For some weeks after, homeless women — stinking and filthy in Claire’s dresses — visited Whit’s dreams and slurred important messages which he could not quite hear.
In a frenzied period of strength five months after she died, Whit took days off work and began divesting of her belongings. After the clothes, he sold her few jewels. Her car and bike and rowing machine went without much struggle. Hauling, giving, selling, burning. Papers and old letters he was smart enough not even to read. Framed dusty diplomas. Books in which he had no interest.
Her mail perversely persisted, the postal service not offering a sufficiently expansive forwarding option. Charities unaccustomed to their friend’s sudden chintziness started reminding her of her previous generosity and their urgently mounting need for her renewed attentions. “Miss Berners,” they misspelled, “are you aware that the leading cause of death in women aged 30-50 is…” She was easily survived by her medical bills and protracted negotiations with a grudging insurer. The mail was predictable, cruel: “Hey, ’81s!!! It’s going to be an eighty-’onederful’ reunion!!! The kick-off event will be on the patio of the Canyon Café on June 4 at 5 pm, sharp!!! Oh, yes, June is coming, no matter what this snow makes you think!!!”
Paperwork. Phone calls with the apologetic or obtuse. She is no longer taxable. She will no longer be contributing to her 401k. Please stop charging $1.50 for the extra calling card. Please stop sending dental reminders. No, she will not be renewing her membership, but thank you for your call. Because she’s dead. That’s all right.
He had intended to keep the CDs, but discovered to his surprise that most of them were so memory-logged as to be practically inaudible. He stood and flipped through New Arrivals while a young woman spangled with metallic rings and bars deftly arranged his offering into stacks of $.25, $.50, $.75, $1.00, $1.75, and $2.00 each. He took his $25.25, after showing proper identification, and when he returned home, the bookcase was alarmingly empty. A lot of things were empty. Her chest of drawers could go now, and with it the knick-knacks that had washed onto its top: a tarnishing bowl that once held aromatic petals and golden pinecones, a brain-teaser made of a magnetic base and tiny snowflakes of interlocking metal. Whit realized he would soon have divested himself so well that he would be living in a brand-new boy-bachelor’s condo again, sparsely furnished, without any personality at all: a TV and sports-heavy cable, some pans, a computer, sweat pants, scattered spring-loaded hand-exercisers. Without her there was no interesting trace of himself. He scrambled that day to save anything remaining that was sufficiently sexless. The resulting apartment was peculiarly decorated.
Drowsy in his ergonomic workspace, he reflects that Sandy and Marnie and their small spectral sorority have appeared less frequently in recent days. Most recently, Sandy, still 21, wore a long coat, scarf, sunglasses, and a winter beret of some sort. A crowded block ahead of him, she turned a corner just as he stepped off the escalator from the subway. A sliver of her right profile flashed in and out of view. He could, he thinks, batting his mouse around its slick pad, try to track her down through the alumni office. If she’s not married with children. If she still lives here. If she doesn’t recall him with shudders or embarrassment.
He was “fiery” then, in college. He used to ache to see Sandy. No hour was immune to the sudden, feverish need to be with her, preferably in bed. And unpredictable, clammy jealousy: of her friends, teaching assistants, ex-boyfriends, strangers, even her female roommates. He would interrogate her — not kindly — for long nights when they could have been happy instead. Once he had grown so angry (over something she had admitted or something she had denied?) that he wanted to hit her, felt he could hit her, thought he would hit her. Instead he put his foot through the wicker back of a white rocking chair and threw a framed picture of them (four vertical snapshots from a train station photo booth: blink, kiss, forced laugh, kiss) against a wall, managing to scare himself out her door. The next morning, sleepless to the point of nausea, slow-basted with self-loathing, he presented himself unwashed and groggy to a rhythmically rocking, unlit-pipe-gnawing campus counselor, and he talked aimlessly about his dad, among other things. “I see,” he was told. He never wanted to see her again, for fear he would find this rotten version of himself waiting in her room. Sandy, however, thought it all very dark and alluring and francofilmic. She pleaded with him to forgive her (so apparently she had admitted to some actual violation). He couldn’t forgive her for still liking him after his display and they broke up again and again and again, until their smoking dialogues grew too boring to repeat.
A future with Sandy Carlin seems unlikely.
He was never jealous of Claire, shouted when she shouted, they each gave as good as they got, but he never felt violent; it never even occurred to him as a possibility. Such extremes were unimaginable; they suffered no aches or scalding, although once, in a fight, she admitted…Oh, God, is there no statute of limitations for these offenses? Evidently not, so Whit just tries to rush through the recollection as quickly as possible, the branches of it whipping his face and stinging his eyes, and he sprints to reach the far side, bruised but with limited exposure to the poisonous leaves of regret and self-reproach: he and Claire fought (topic since forgotten). A week later, a tenuous Mid-East peace was restored, although occasional deniable rockets were still being launched while both of them posed as victim or wise peacemaker. One such bomb: she admitted that she found attractive a particular co-worker of hers, a younger man. Whit felt smugly wise, knew she was only trying to hurt him. “Yeah, well, nobody wants to die,” he said calmly, almost supportively, meaning that she only wanted this younger guy because she was afraid of getting old. The very next day in the shower she found a peculiar lump that merited a second look.
And Marnie? No alumni office can help him; it would be like hunting one individual butterfly last seen some years ago in the middle of a forest since razed for low-income housing. And if he found her? To pick up where they left off? She was too groovy for him; that was the tacitly agreed upon essence of their time together. “My high-tech lover,” she used to call him, ambiguously, with a sweet, cruel giggle of pity at someone who would consent to corporate life or computer life or whatever compromise it was that he bent over and took. She made fun of his friends to their faces, and they admired him for it, since he must have been groovier than them if she was with him. Her existence of auditions, demo tapes, friends of friends who promised a shot at this or that, frequent and hurried changes of apartments, the looming threat of eviction, staying with some people I know for a while: all of this was alluring to him twelve years ago, perhaps not very different from the allure Sandy had found in his barely contained violence. But even when he and Marnie were at their weirdly happiest, he knew he could not keep up with her, tantamount as that admission was to executing a potential personality, a Whit who never was and never would be. Most of all, he can still taste that unbanishable flavor of their time together: that he was doing something wrong, something essential and intangible that he simply could not do correctly in her eyes.
She would never explain it, would only shake her head when he failed. An attitude about life. A mode of emotional expression. An intricate, righteous interlacing of libertinism and strict standards. He strove to keep up, stiff and sore from the exertion.
He recalls now that he was relieved — greatly relieved — when she went to Paris to work on a film in some unlikely capacity (thanks to the favors of the old girlfriend of an old boyfriend), and that was the end, never-declared, never-ratified. Her multiply zippered leather jacket. Her long dark lashes fringing curiously pale eyes, virtually iris-less in profile. Her pricey binges on this or that, except when she was trying to save money to attend some ashram where high spirituality and low sensuality met and mingled in the brain of a lascivious guru.
And now, what might she make of someone as burlap brown as this middle-aged widower/Java programmer? He would have even less energy for her today. If she is not an entirely different person, it will be hopeless. If she is an entirely different person, why bother? But still she appears in dreams, in crowds, in clouds. Where she belongs.
Compared to Sandy and Marnie, meeting Claire was like being heli-lifted to safety, lowered into a very well protected harbor with a spacious shopping arcade boasting a good Thai restaurant and a movie theater. He can recall very little spoken passion with her. Oh, but malicious recollections are so easily triggered: he was lying in a bathtub with her, their hiking honeymoon near Banff. He informed her that he loved her so much he would die for her. “Thank you.” She sponged his back. “But that shouldn’t be necessary if we play our cards right. Of course, I will certainly keep you informed should I need your life for anything.”
But he did mean it. She refused to take his passion too seriously, her skepticism a healthy byproduct of their calm love. But whether she believed him or not, he would always be that kind of shield for her. He would die for her.
Which claim did not much impress the fat, oily lover who came and carried her off.
She was very sleepy, still somewhat drugged, but still smiling for him as he stroked her forehead. “I was just thinking,” he said. “Since it’s essentially construction work, why don’t we save a few bucks and have the same Dominican guys do it who are working on the roof of our building?”
“Whitty, they’ll put the damn thing on my back.”
“True. If they don’t just keep putting it off indefinitely: ‘Señora Claire, Señora Claire, we make build the breast tomorrow, sí? No today good, no today good.’ Or, you know, I was thinking: everyone else has the reconstruction just like the original, but that doesn’t mean you have to. Could try something new.”
“Let me guess: bigger?”
“No, just different. Like an udder. Or something with more colors. Or a pyramid instead of the traditional dome.”
Late one evening Whit sits in the study and types an e-mail to the sports columnist Mike Sziemaszko (email@example.com), questioning the completeness of Mike’s recent “Best Athletes of the ’90′s” article. He berates the weekly opiner for omitting a particular Los Angeles Clipper. Whit’s first two paragraphs, outlining the underrated guard’s accomplishments, are easy, but then he doubts his letter will be printed because there will surely be a lot of correspondents with similar gripes. He sits for a while, staring through the window, past the snow-blanketed plastic patio furniture that lean against each other in wind-blown repose on the condo’s balcony. The snow is clean but the white furniture is dirty. Beyond the furniture, the black rails. Beyond the rails, the fifteen-story drop to the river. Bare treetops and stars. “Admittedly he made his share of errors, unforced errors,” Whit types, still looking out the sliding patio doors. He sits another moment or two, thinking nothing at all, before typing a very long, unfeasibly serpentine sentence, apologizing to Claire for everything he can recall ever doing that bothered, angered, inconvenienced, or hurt her, whether she knew of it or not, types without hesitation or pause or punctuation for fifteen minutes, sometimes leaving his crimes half-typed because new ones are occurring to him faster than he can put them into words, swears at himself, sometimes saying aloud a word or two of what he types, sorry, so so sorry. He sits back, only half-satisfied because he has not figured out — despite the long catalogue of sins petty and grand–precisely what it is that he wants to apologize for. He deletes the e-mail, and falls asleep that night with far less difficulty than usual.
A slender, circling shadow pivots across his sports magazine and sandwich, a window washer’s blade swooping and rotating, lapping up streaks of winter grit from O.B. LEARY’S front. And when the aproned, stocking-capped cleaner moves to the other window on the far side of the door, she has appeared. She wears a plain white T-shirt and unbuttons a tiny dummy’s pants from behind. Seven sandwiches have been eaten since her last sighting, and she is now an almost overwhelming beauty. He wants to speak to her, to see her face from a reasonable distance, to hear her voice and be surprised by its unpredictable tone. He wants her to surprise him. He could do it today.
The noon sun is transforming icicles into faulty water faucets, and her snowy awning into a prankster’s perch for sliding, thumping attacks on unwary pedestrians. What can he possibly say to a woman at least 10 years younger than him? Fifteen. He has only seen her in a display case. He knows this. He has no experience with this, no scripts or technique, no recollections to fall back on, and this is good. He does not know what he will say when she eventually descends to street level and walks out that door just across from him. He will emerge from behind his copper bar and newly sparkling window, and he will say something which will occur to him only just then, triggered by no woman but her.
He watches her undress and redress her wards, strip their winter boots and distribute sundresses, baseball caps, T-shirts emblazoned with hearts and puppies. She issues badminton racquets and frisbees, stiff leashes attached to invisible doggies, a bunch of plastic wildflowers. She seems to be speaking to the mannequins, some mock familiarity with old workmates (or she is talking to someone out of view behind the concave white wall). She has a gesture that he recognizes today from a previous sandwich, something he has never seen elsewhere. This unique gesture is hers, and now a little bit his, should they become friends. She has surprised him already, in something as small as this. Just a drumming of her hands on the sides of her thighs as she considers the placement of a frisbee, but it is new. Surprises are still possible. More than one thing can be inevitable.
He does not want to force things. He will not sit here for six hours creepily awaiting the end of her shift. He will not come back tonight to find her. If it is inevitable, then a solution will be obvious. She leaves her window. He feels happy. One of the children’s bunched-sleeve sweatshirts bears a crimson H.
He turns over his shoulder and signals for his check. When he turns back, he has to blink against the sun, newly emerged from a cloud and electrifying her awning’s blinding white tubes of snow that break and fall and powder the sidewalk with the muffled sound of artillery three towns away. And, after one of these frosty chutes, in the subsequent cloud of golden white dust, standing across the street is — her?
Not her? He has never seen her down on his plane before, he needs an instant. It is her. She stands coatless outside her store’s entrance, on the corner. She drums the sides of her thighs (like she does). And his check arrives. This seems sufficiently inevitable. He will do it. He drops too much money on the scribbled check, grabs his coat, opens the door, but then must step back inside for the inevitable crowd of German tourists who hesitate then decide to enter then hesitate again halfway through the door he holds for them. Passing traffic swells into the brown cube of a UPS truck and she vanishes behind it as he bites his lips at the vacillating tourists. “If I could just…please,” and they shuffle and struggle to let him pass. The truck passes. She is still there. He turns his head to check the traffic: a yellow VW bug creeps by with the murderous deliberation of a parking spot hunter. Across the street, she is still there. And he watches her kiss a boy in an open tweed overcoat. The boy holds her upturned face in his palms and kisses her mouth, and one of the glass awning’s last half-tubes of snow swishes from under her mannequins and dusts her lover’s back and slaps at his feet and she wraps her arms around his waist inside his coat, and she presses her cheek against his chest. The two of them turn and walk down the little street perpendicular to Whit’s once-favorite boulevard.
There is a certain inevitability in this ending, too, one that is not only painful. The boy was her age, after all, though oddly conservative and retro-collegiate to her hipster look. They were nice together. They may not last, not many do. Her eyes squeezed shut and her temple pressed to his chest after a real kiss — Claire did that from time to time, her warmest moments in a way, a gesture of vibrating, urgent, more-than-I-can-say intimacy laced with dumb jokes (“I’ve been miserable and Whitless all day”). Her hands inside his tweed coat, meeting at the small of his back. Whit is happy for her, his friend with the cloth children.
He also breathes shallowly, his lips twisted to one side. He chews the inside of the lower one. This girl’s not so entirely unique after all: this is how tears used to begin for Claire’s sufferings, and how he used to stifle them. But if that sorrow was a pressing, grinding weight, stone after stone laid on his chest, this is a series of sharp kicks from the side, shoves from gremlins, bruising the ribs and jarring the breath.
Perhaps it is different after all. He doesn’t want this to happen ever again, but it is new.
“THINK SPRING!!” advises the banner across the street and over his head. He turns back and sees through the sparkling clean window his 150% tip being acknowledged with raised eyebrows and a jutted-out lower lip. Of all the things it occurs to him to do–go inside and snatch his tip from the happy waiter, pursue and punish the boy in the tweed coat, fall to his knees and howl in the slush and sand, curse God again, vow again never to — he crosses the street and joins the semi-circle forming around the fat conjuror. The plump wizard has learned: he performs in front of windows behind which no humans can spy on him, as they are instead occupied by the stiff, silver parents of the stuffed kids upstairs. The magician is not at all bad from this angle. His facial expression is odd — a fixed vaguely bovine smile, mechanically constructed as if from schematics, and at each pay-off (the coin is gone, the rope is intact, the raspberry is a lime), his short black eyebrows sleepily rise and drop the same small distance.
Despite what he knows, Whit is duly amazed by the sleight-of-hand. He recalls his illicit angle on the magic some weeks ago, but today he can’t figure out how the awkward man is doing it. From this better view, a half-cigarette just effortlessly escapes from a closed fist and emerges feet away underneath an overturned coffee cup. That is the better way to see it and Whit applauds with everyone else, even a little longer. Each trick is an increasingly flabbergasting marvel, and he cheers louder than the loudest of the little boys. At the end, he drops an extravagant amount of cash into the magician’s passed hat.