sequel to The Only Gift
IRON BEHIND THE VELVET
chapter 34 ~ The Worldless Rose
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
The brass bar was in her hand and reflected in the pane of glass she saw her own gloomy expression, a dour match for the hemming gray limestone walls, the low gray clouds that loomed above her. A sea of gray suits and gray trench coats surged up and over the concourse, parting at the rock she’d become, churning for adjoining doors, muttering and mumbling at the morning and at her. As late as she, they eyed her with exasperation.
A strafe of rain drilled the pavement. She imagined a gray-faced god, his cloud-cheeks puffed with wind, his lips pursed, the streets sluiced with a giant’s bucket of water. She imagined Rosie’s sculpture in place in the churchyard garden, the same rain in intimate rivulets over it. Imagined their chambers below, the inexplicable flicker of storm-light playing into their rooms, across their rumpled ivory bedding …
“You thinking about making a run for it?”
Joe was behind her, a bold-colored umbrella held aloft – steadfast interference with grumbly stragglers forced to queue up for the revolving doors. His black overcoat and his charcoal jacket billowed unbuttoned. His patterned tie, half done-up, flapped in each swoosh of conditioned air from the building.
“Could we?” Joe tipped his head, invitation to a sheltered corner haven.
“So …” he said once they’d removed themselves from the foot traffic. “Who’s the mannequin?”
She felt her brows knit. “Who? The what?”
“You know. Hair guy. Perfect teeth guy. The guy who looked like he wanted to–”
She raised her hand, flapped the words away. “Don’t say it. That’s Harcourt. He lives in my building … unfortunately.”
“Maybe you oughta move,” Joe said, grinning, his own hair wild in the gust and damp.
“Maybe I …” A vision took her, one so strong she had to turn away lest Joe see it played out on her face. Her hand was buried in his perfect golden hair and at that place where her shoulder curved to her neck, his teeth, his perfect teeth, scraped away all inhibition, all decorum …
She blew out a breath. Something at the bottom of her purse demanded her attention.
“You just now getting–”
“To work, too?” She smiled up at him and a blush crept from his collar. You’re so easy, Joe. “And where’d you get the butterfly … ummm … parasol? It’s not exactly lawyerly fashion.”
“The old one’s toast. In a trash can on 8th Avenue. This one …” He put out one hand to test the now-drizzle, tilted the umbrella out, half-closed it, opened it again. The orange and black, striped and spotted Monarch wings fluttered as if in flight. “… I got off a street vendor. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. It’s my new personal statement.” He twirled it, swung it up and over their heads, and at her trill of laughter blushed a deeper red. “Ehhh, it was the only kind the guy had. You take it. My gift.”
“Good idea,” she said, closing her fingers around the handle, raising it higher.
“Wanna get a coffee or something? Not here though.”
“You sure?” She glanced past him to the door and back. “But let’s make it something, because I really shouldn’t have any more coffee.”
Even before they reached Worth Street, the rain ceased its patter, and, though clouds still scudded by, she collapsed the umbrella, clamping it under her arm much as she clamped down on her own feelings, on her longings for elsewhere. There was work to be done, a focus to achieve, an emptiness to fill. What’s this? she wondered, wishing for a free hand to rub at the beginnings of a headache just above her eyes. Must be the weather.
The foot traffic in the Centre Street crosswalk was almost entirely against them, slowing their sure-to-be-brief getaway. She heard a muffled tsk, a sharp intake of breath, a resigned huff. Her sideways glance at Joe caught him working something to the surface.
“Let’s take a little detour,” he suggested, and he stepped off the curb toward Foley Square.
The park’s benches were puddled and empty, but on the small lawn, in the storm’s sudden respite, a lone woman began a dance of meditation, silently calling others to join in the fluid Tai Chi. While they watched, a small group converged to move, as one, gently into the morning. Time, for a moment, slowed … softened …and the pinch of pain between her temples eased.
Bring on the day, she acceded as they ambled on. I’m ready.
But then … behind her – a rumble, an oncoming rush of air. Catherine reached out for Joe’s arm to stop him.
A man in a fedora swooped by on a skateboard, headphones on his ears. His rocker-bottomed crutches he carried like ski poles, leaning left and right in a figure-eight around them. He vaulted the curb, crossing the street in a miraculous break in traffic, overleaped the opposite edging. At the courthouse steps, he kicked away the board, and in spins and twists and freezes made his way to the top on crutches. His descent – a slide down the long railing – deposited him on the sidewalk where his skateboard waited. While they watched, he retraced his path, vaulting the curb again … then again … gliding to a stop before them not even an arm’s length away.
Balanced on one crutch, his legs pedaled air.
“Hi, Billy,” she said.
He came to ground with a slow, sweeping bow, a doff of his hat, a broad smile, and then … gone with a lyrical, twirling, backward-glide away.
“That’s wild – what he does.” Joe stared after the man already threading the plaza and the startled crowd. “I saw him out here last week and I was sure he was wearing trick shoes but–” He turned to her, his brow furrowed. “Hold the phone. You know this guy?” He chuckled and offered his lopsided grin. “Why am I not surprised. I guess you know the lady doing Tai Chi, too. Don’t bother with an answer,” he said when she drew in a breath. “It’s a rhetorical question.”
Joe’s expression was half-amused, half-probing, overcast, she imagined, with a shade of bafflement. She could easily – so easily – explain knowing Mynette Chu. They’d both been shopping for tea at Dr. Wong’s and Lin had introduced her. She could simply skip over their long conversation at the following Winterfest. After all, Mynette, secret-keeper that she was, had acknowledged her just now with only the cast of a glance. But Billy … Billy’s story … was intertwined with her other life, the life she secreted from Joe. As close as they were, Joe and she, this she shouldn’t share.
Oh, she could tell Joe about Billy’s hips, about the congenital defects of both. How, unaided, he could walk only a few steps without pain. That he’d just come back to the city with a Fine Arts degree. That he’d designed an experimental crutch for dance and sport. That he was also a metal artist and would be a teacher at LaGuardia High School in the fall. That he’d married his high-school sweetheart and they were soon expecting their first child. Biographical things one might learn striking up a conversation with someone at a coffee kiosk or a pretzel cart – where, indeed, she had run into him one morning – nothing more.
But she couldn’t tell Joe about Father’s diagnosis when Billy was only five years old – Perthes disease. Or how he’d refused to be sidelined even as a child. How he’d struggled on the stone circles and the steps to the Great Hall, how he’d prevailed against the wind to fall exhausted in a heap at the barred door. How Vincent had righted him, steadied him, and led him in to Winterfest.
She couldn’t tell Joe that his grandfather had scrimped to save for a hip replacement which at the age of ten, Billy had refused and, later, kept refusing. That Peter had found a special physical therapist in Chicago, where, luckily, an aunt lived. Or that it had been sixteen years since Billy left the Tunnels.
She couldn’t tell Joe about that late, late night in Central Park, the lights from the arched arcade a golden glory on the sandstone terrace and the fountain and the Angel of the Waters, when Vincent and Father and she had waited at the appointed time at the foot of the steep stairs for Billy and his grandfather to appear at the top. Or that Father and Sebastien both wept at Billy’s graceful dance down the steps. And she couldn’t share the memory of walking together through the trees to Cherry Hill, of Father, heedless of the uneven ground, enlivened with questions about Billy’s sixteen years away, or of Vincent at the edge of the pavement, of his broad smile when Billy positioned a cassette player at his feet, switched it on, the volume so discreet Father didn’t even blink … and showed them his singular art.
Nor could she tell Joe what Billy said to her that night, not without revising its importance away.
Father and Sebastien were busy clapping each other’s shoulders, beaming with pride, while Vincent toed the skateboard back and forth, planted his boot flat upon it, tested his weight and balance, and sailed off. She’d held her breath, electrified and stunned at once at the sight … Vincent, cloakless, hair free-flying, his arms up and out in embrace of the brilliant moon. She hadn’t sensed Billy at her side until he leaned in close …
Vincent told me once I could bear the pain and the limitation of what I was born with. I had to prove him right.
And she couldn’t say that, like his grandfather, Billy was a Helper. Like his grandfather, a street artist, a master of the slight-of-hand, and that when he’d tipped his hat, when it tumbled down his arm to dangle from his fingers, he’d slipped her a folded note now secreted in the pocket of her jacket, a note she needed to read … and couldn’t yet, not in front of Joe.
Post-rush hour, the coffee shop was quiet, the tables along the one side wall open, the stools empty at the counter. Only the window seats were occupied, the tenants bent over their pastry crumbs and yellow pads. Joe glared at their backs.
“That’s Bertlesmeyer in my seat.” he said, eying their favorite alcove. “Order me a coffee, will you? Giant sized.” He advanced on the taken table. “Better hoof it back, Bertie,” he said to the intern ensconced there, a menacing thumb hooked over his shoulder. “Moreno …”
The young man stuffed his work into his briefcase and hustled off without a word. His companions followed suit. The door swung open and shut, open and shut. Joe grinned at her, rising up on his toes and smoothing his hair. When she laughed he flexed the muscle of one arm, and for a moment she forgot the division of her spirit, the apartness that was her consort.
With a signal to Stavros, she pointed to her choices on the taped-down menu, then pressed her finger to her lips. His stark-white eyebrows arched in question, but he kept her silence and stepped into the kitchen.
“I heard that. Moreno’s not even here this week,” Catherine said, piling her bag on top of Joe’s in the empty chair, wedging the umbrella in against the back. She bent to retrieve a scattering of index cards left in Bertie’s wake. Instead of legal notes, more than one contained finished dot games, initials in the drawn squares. “He’s in Albany, remember?”
“Hey, all I said was Moreno’s name.” Yanking napkins from the dispenser, Joe raked the table’s few remaining crumbs into a tiny haystack. He was, she discerned, still mulling … something. Still … elsewhere.
The delivered message burned in her pocket and she hoped it would be news of Kanin’s safe and reassuring return, that Vincent’s concerns were unfounded – all of them – that it was not Mitch, that nothing and no one threatened their safety, that he would be home sooner than he’d predicted. The words were surely neither urgent nor troubling, she reasoned. In the way of Tunnel couriers, Billy would know something of the contents or the mood of its sender. He wouldn’t deliver dire words to her in such a light-hearted manner …
Would he? Her fingers worried the edges and points of the folded paper.
Joe fidgeted with his chair and turned toward the window. She followed his gaze. People milled in the park, hurried head-down along Worth Street. If she’d been alone, Billy would have waited while she read, waited at least nearby, in case she might compose a reply. She searched the benches, the lampposts, under the awnings of the vendors’ carts parked at the periphery of the Square. He was gone.
The word had taken on new meaning. At a familiar table in a favored diner, she sat with a man more than her friend, a man she knew and … yes, loved … but here with him, alert always to protect the exquisite secret …
She studied Joe’s profile. What was the tell-tale quality that separated those who could know from those who could not … could never. Rosie’s outright question illumined her own long-worried hesitation. How much can you accept? Was it possible? Did Rosie see something in Joe? That something? His heart she didn’t doubt, but this was a separate, harder question.
This was Joe and there were … conflicts.
At the counterman’s call, he lifted his chin in acknowledgement and pushed from his chair. “Be right back.”
Though the message was folded small and tight, it yielded to her determined fingers; she held it in her lap, in the shelter of the table. Grateful now for the buzzing, over-bright lights, she scanned the cryptic sentences, deciphered the abbreviations with a mix of disappointment and relief.
From Aniela …
She’d spoken with Dix. Kanin had returned. But she was called away to another job and she’d not be working in the basement of the shop when Dominic came for him this morning; she didn’t know and wouldn’t be able to ask about Mitch.
Kanin was back. There was this comfort, at least, but in the storm of the new day, in the face all the cruelty and deceit she would battle at her desk, her sureness that Mitch was nowhere near wavered and hung in delicate balance on the fingertip of her faith. Please, please. It cannot be.
Footsteps on the the hard tile floor heralded Joe’s return and the window mirrored his quizzical expression. She crumpled the note in her fist, and though she knew it a bootless plea, that their bond, however it worked, was not telepathic, she closed her eyes and wished for an answer in that rough, sweet voice, for a clear, definitive knowing …
Or for a telephone …
* * *
Her office was a refuge for her, a welcoming place farthest from the classrooms, opposite the residence halls. In the old headmaster’s room, her window, framed in an arch of rough-hewn limestone, looked out onto the remnants of a once-grand lawn. Recently refitted, it opened now. She reached up to turn the latch.
The scent of rain breezed in, taking her to the sea’s rocky edge, to the high stone hill her mother showed her in song and story, the same stony scarp visioned the evening before in the pub, called out by The Blood of Cu Chulainn. But in this morning’s fantasy, the water moiled at the base of the cliff showing its white skirts, the waves crashed upon the strand, and she was alone – no companion in Catherine, no wild rider on a dun horse alongside. The schoolyard shimmered back into solid view. The sounds of the city rose in pitch – a siren, a hiss of brakes, a loud bass beat. Thunder and distant lightning courted each other in the sky, a potent dance of call and answer.
‘Tis a hard day, after all.
Not yet ready to face her desk, Eimear stood at the window. There was clamor to uproot the straggling azaleas, the gnarled lilacs, to remove the mossed and broken cobblestones in favor of a poured concrete courtyard. Already a contingent of ten-year old boys had a standing appointment with her. Every Monday now for more than a month, after lunch, they would crowd her door, jostle for the two chairs, the last-in sprawling on the carpet, and they’d talk at once about the virtues of exercise and hours in the sun, dismissing the television lounge, swearing they’d wear the knee and the elbow pads if only they could skate away their afternoons and weekends on something flat.
She’d let them go on, their arguments honed in huddles on the playground, so adamant, so beseeching, too precious to cut short. Watching them, listening, she was hard-pressed to see the imprint of their shattered starts. Perhaps today she’d tell them she had the promise of a donor, that work would begin as soon as a plan was chosen and a contractor approved. The rough and scraggy yard would remain, however, in all is faded glory. The skate pad, necessarily sparer than she might wish for, would take the back corner near the alley, a little-used plat of grass beyond the swing sets.
The quick rap on her open door startled her and she turned so quickly she felt queasy.
“Whoa!” David said, rubbing what little was left of his hair.
Did I make a noise? Snarl in surprise? She pressed one hand to her throat.
Zivah frowned. “I want your job. That’s no secret,” she said. “But not today, okay? Try to stay among the living.”
Eimear almost laughed out loud. I want your job? Zivah hated asking people for money and she was two years from retirement. “Just having a bit of daydream. What’s up?”
“I’ve got those wish lists you wanted for the library and the gym.” David handed her a sheaf of papers. “Classrooms and cafeteria to come. Tomorrow, I hope. Wednesday at the latest. I know we’re late with it.”
“I can talk to the printer, push the deadline some. Everything else is ready to go,” she said, sitting down at last.
He rubbed his head again. “I hate holding you up, Eimear.”
“‘Tis nothing, David. The campaign won’t truly start till May Day.”
“That’s, what, ten days from now?”
“Shoo,” Zivah said. “We don’t need any help reading the calendar.” Though David had pulled the door closed behind him, she lowered her voice. “We’ve got a problem. A real wrench in the works.”
Eimear took a deep breath, eyeing the stack of mail in Zivah’s hands. There were things she wanted to think about – Catherine’s laundry, for one, the peculiar shirt and the look she gave it – all familiarity, all anticipation.
And Flynn … Flynn.
And things she wanted only to push out of her mind.
Zivah dumped the weekend’s post in her inbox and took one opened envelope from the top of the pile.
“Tell me,” Eimear said, scooting up her chair to the things she could not avoid.
“Ah, no,” Eimear grumbled. Zivah didn’t need to say more. “And I was going to tell the boys today they could all put skates and boards on their wish lists. What happened? Did we lose them?”
“No, no, not lost. Qualified. They’re all enthused about the gift, but they want the pad enclosed with a stone wall to match the neighborhood originals, not a wood fence … and they–”
“And they want us to find a second donor for said wall.” Her guess was confirmed by Zivah’s pinched expression. It’s true, she fumed to herself. One really can see red. “And that means taking yet another set of bids from stonemasons, if I can find them, and locating reclaimed stone that matches no less, like it’s lying about on the roadside, free for the taking. And and since I can’t be sure we’ll find another donor in this century, it means changing the focus of the whole campaign, as I was using the Gunderson Gift on the cover of the flyer!” She twiddled a halting bodhrán’s beat against her desk top with her pencil, then pitched it across the room and folded her arms. “Damn it!”
“You need a cup of tea,” Zivah said, rising to her feet. “A good cup of tea. I’ll be back in a few. That’s the worst of the mail there, by the way. Don’t be afraid to read the rest of it.” At the door, she turned. “Oh, before I forget. I haven’t taken the messages off the machine yet. Want me to? Before the tea? Helen said every time she answered the phone over the weekend, whoever it was hung up. The machine’s full. Probably kids.”
“I’ll do it,” Eimear said. Sure a note of panic had seeped – or would – into her voice, she made a show of rummaging her bottom drawer. I should have known, should have been here early this morning. “Is there any tart, do you think? Pastry?”
“I’ll check,” Zivah said. “And send David to Artuso’s if there’s nothing.”
“Go along with, why don’t you. He’d love your company.” She summoned a convincing smile. “A walk in the spring rain. What could be finer?”
When the tap of footsteps faded away, Eimear crossed the floor to Zivah’s office, closing the door between their rooms, the door to the hallway. She stared at the machine, considered walking the entire apparatus through the woods to Van Cortlandt Park Lake and tossing it in. She stabbed at the playback button, then hurried to adjust the volume to its lowest. Just as Helen had described when she’d called Saturday afternoon. Eimear had listened then with her eye on the garden table, her guests readying for tea, a numbness edging into her consciousness, a tingling detachment. Time after time, Helen told her, she’d answered to nothing save for once … when a man asked specifically for her.
No, he didn’t left a message. He just mumbled your name and waited. When I told him you weren’t in, he just … breathed. It was weird. And the other calls, the hang-ups. I thought you ought to know.
The messages echoed those on the tiny cassette in her pocket – a wheeze of breath, a clattering, and an ominous silence – then the answering machine’s time stamp, like a cold counting-down of hours.
She let the recording play through to the end.
And there it was. The same coarse voice, the same stoney laugh. The same final message.
“Tell him. An eye for an eye.”
* * *
“What’s this?” Joe asked, thumping two tall containers in the middle of the table. “I trusted you, Radcliffe.”
“They’re smoothies. Made with yogurt. They’re good for you.”
He sank into his chair with a groan.
“You can pick, Joe. Either one.”
“And I’m picking between …”
She bent over the cups to hide her smile and removed the lids. “This one’s carrot juice, banana, strawberries and vanilla yogurt with brewer’s yeast and wheat germ, and this one …” She pushed the second cup toward him, his grimace at her first description predicting his preference. “… is raspberries, blueberries, apple juice and yogurt with a dash of protein powder and ginseng.”
“Ginseng? Isn’t that illegal?”
“I didn’t roam the woods for it, Joe. I just asked for it. Drink up. You’ll thank me later.” She stared pointedly at the stacked chair. “Is this your gym bag? Haven’t seen it in a while.”
“Yeah,” he said, patting his stomach. “I need to get back to it. Quick. I hope. I mean, maybe. I mean–” The blush crept from his collar again and he thrust one foot from beneath the table, leaning out as if to assess the shine of his shoe.
Catherine peeled the wrapper from the tip of her straw and compressed the paper to a tight accordion, pulled it off and dropped it in front of him. “Watch this, Joe.” She touched the tube to the condensation pooled on the tabletop, letting a drop fall on the pleats. It squirmed as if alive and fanned open. Joe laughed and blew the paper off his own straw and it lodged in her hair.
“You kids behave,” Stavros boomed from the kitchen pass-through. “Or I’ll send you back to work.”
“Speaking of work …” Catherine said. All she’d ignored over the weekend seemed ready to burst from her bag.
“Yeah. Right.” Joe twitched and twisted in his seat, uttering the same tsk and sigh she’d heard earlier. He drummed his fingers in a staccato rhythm..
She picked up her cup, jiggled the straw up and down. “Something bothering you, Joe?”
“Carrot juice,” he said, changing a subject as yet undisclosed. “That’s, what, good for your eyes? Improves your night vision, right?”
Twilight vision, she almost said. In moonlight, by candlelight.
One evening in the library, she’d struggled to discern the markings of a tunnel map, the lesser-used entrances near her office important to memorize. Though she bent low over the pages, the half-dozen fat, white, reading candles massed on the table shed too pale a light on the diminutive script. She remembered her frustration, how suddenly, the inability to see well, to adjust, seemed symbolic, even prophetic. She remembered the welling of her tears. But Father took her elbow and walked her to the kitchen’s pantry where he mixed a healthy pinch of wheat germ with William’s chilled, fresh-pressed juices – apple and carrot – opened a tin of almonds and lectured her well on the careful addition of more Vitamin A, more riboflavin to her diet. That night, Father’s words, disguised as admonition, comforted her. She heard in them what he didn’t say – there’d been a shift, a step forward – her presence further along the continuum of his esteem between accepted and embraced.
But she could share nothing of that memory, no story of their triumph. So little of our happy life …
“You kinda drifted off. You tired? What’d you do yesterday?”
On a rooftop in the Bronx, at midnight, I experienced … eternity … with the man I love … carried life-changing news to him that healed a desperate hurt. Witnessed coincidence beyond all explanation; felt the great energy swirling nearby. There were moments so exquisite, so crystal …
She shrugged. “Had breakfast with some friends. Went to the grocery. Did laundry. A typical Sunday. What about you?”
“I saw Jenny yesterday. And her friend Ned.”
“You did? Where?”
“At the Cloisters. I was there with Rosie.” Her surprise met with an indignant splutter. “Now look. I’ve had it with the idea I’m light in the culture department. I read! I like history! I like arty stuff!”
You mean you like this artist, she thought, though she answered only with her smile.
“They know each other, it turns out.”
“Who? Ned and Jenny?”
Joe rolled his eyes. “Ned and Rosie.”
“Eimear said they might.”
“Rosie’s working on the stained glass restoration there. Making these big rubbings, numbering the pieces before they take them apart.”
“She does stained glass too?” She looked at her hands, at her fingers splayed against the table. “Suddenly I feel … so uncreative.”
“You and me both,” Joe said, stirring the last of his drink. “But I don’t know about glass. Just … she’s doing the photography and the cataloging.”
I could show her a window …
“So she has to be out of town for a couple of days – a seminar or something up in Rochester – and they’re closing down the first gallery Monday. She needed to do this thing yesterday, and I … ummm … went with her.”
“Joe, why is this so hard? You’ve told me about your dates before.”
“Yeah, I have.” His hand strayed to his loosened tie. If he pulled it free, balled it into his pocket and suggested a Circle Line cruise around Manhattan, she wouldn’t be astonished. “Ned seems like a good guy,” he said instead. “He reminds me of somebody. Can’t put my finger on it, though.”
“I know. He reminds me of someone, too.” She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “If we both think that …”
“Must be somebody from work. Court maybe.”
“Or one of the station houses.”
“Oh, Jenny tried to call you, tried a couple times from the office while Ned and Rosie were talking. Something she wants to ask you, she said. Sounded important.”
There was an odd, sharp pain in her throat as if she’d swallowed a square ice-cube whole. A chill of dismay settled in her stomach. What?
Joe slurped the last of his breakfast, but she pushed hers away unfinished. She probed for the source of the foreboding. Wherever it came from, whatever it meant, in a moment she knew its name.
It was loss.
Chapter title: Richard Wilbur. Advice to a Prophet. Collected Poems, 1943-2004.
Opening Quotation: Christina Rossetti. Up-Hill.
1. Bill Shannon. Paraphrased from his blog – whatiswhat.com
GOOD TO READ
Fan Fiction Sites
ON THESE WALLS
Fan Art Sites