laughter loud and hearty, exuberant conversation, hugs and backslaps, perspiration
beading faces mobile with food and talk, giddy songs with lyrics garbled,
smoke from an assertive cigarette or two and a farcical brier wielded appropriately
by a college sophomore, through talk of arthritis and blood sugar too high,
of kids in the hospital, of deaths that brought peace, new Phi Beta Kappas,
how overdue this little bread-breaking, with those dog-happy accordions
rollicking in the dining room—“Dardanella,” so well remembered—all those
familiar-faced children struggling upward toward civility, those tomato-ripe
nieces and cousins joyfully preggers and wedded, those mothers emeritae
wafting mouth-prepping aromas from the kitchen, he saw her across the blurring
parlor, the only seated person, wan and gray in a once elegant suit and
veiled black pillbox, alone, coughing into a handkerchief, the blood-chilling
thin tubes in each nostril, the oxygen tank in its little dolly on the floor.
Her. Old. Yet, those same blue eyes, the so-carefully brushed hair,
the still impudent chin. Effortless sense of presence. Expect surprises,
even convulsive, at family reunions, decades compressed into free-falling
minutes: he hadn’t been back since shortly after college and was one of
the announcement flyer’s guests of honor. But her? He hadn’t seen
her arrive; he assumed she was accompanied. She wasn’t really a family member,
merely weightless on the margins for a few years and then he’d lost track.
It was… thirty-two years. She’s, well, only fifty-two… and, come
on, already an old lady, oh my God. Regina. Summer of… whatever
it was. He turned now to an open summer window and let the clatter converge,
after a diffident rain the sun again on duty above the maples, the wobbling
frisbees, authentic happy dogs, parked cars like platelets clogging the
narrow street. Rise, reign, rule, regnant sprite, O race years away,
erase years away, back to Philly in August, then reign Regina in the redundant
rain. The moist Northeast air exhaled listlessly through the gossamer
curtains. Unknown where he lived, rain on a summer day reminded him of childhood.
Playing in the street, not just because it’s miserable inside, but because
there now the indecisive day has an enigmatic air. Put on a swimsuit and
gambol guilt-free in the heavy wet while the skies glower. Through the blackness
of a cloud then a burst of jocund orange. A white one-piece bathing
suit. Long before the time when sex became ubiquitous. Fabric light
enough to gauge the bouncing sinusoid of circumspect young breasts. But
a post-adolescent flare to the hips, made frank by such a narrow waist and
drum-taut belly. A young woman. The thought came with an ambiguous thrill,
sweet and sour. Like the racy smell of the crushed grass where bathers lounged,
cavorted and embraced, choreographed for the swing-tempo PA system. Feeling
the sun-tickle on his back, he stretched like a played-out spaniel on the
pool-issue towel and felt as good as he’d ever felt. Was this bliss, he
wondered, this mindless spun-sugar suspension, his shameful tremor even
now subsiding? Because of her and her unresisting thereness, like
an oven-warm strudel presented to him by a sympathetic baker. This was unique.
He and carnality were passably acquainted from eleventh grade, but in his
sisterless, late-to-the-party student life girls had never been so unguarded,
so noncombative. She smiled inclusively and talked, a working woman, of
office tensions, long-term back-to-school plans, perhaps teaching or real
estate. Him? College, then military imponderables absorbed the foreground,
he said. But his goal was science, how else to find the truth. And what
else mattered. She nodded agreeably. It seemed to her everybody lied to
her too much. Water from their first cursory dip pebbled her forehead, her
lotion-glossy shoulders. Adding newly to the sound track, after the plop
of the record changer, Duke Ellington and “Take the A Train,” under a scratchy
needle on the over-stressed speaker. But arching above the horsehair surface
and combustible summer in the city, Harlem’s eminence on a 78-rpm roll,
silky, gliding, loose, keeping it cool. An apt concerto for piano and full
Municipal Pool. Hurry, get on, now it’s coming. Listen to those rails a-humming.
All aboard, get on the A train. All the way to Sugar Hill in Harlem. Subway
directions from the maestro for a young job-seeking composer, a ticket to
adulthood and fulfillment. But here it was Philly in August, two more years
in halls of ivy if they didn’t rush him off to the latest war. Tropical
August, greenhouse ripe, swept up in an out-of-time bacchanal, flesh, leaf,
water and sky. A soft-focus Eden peopled by naked-limbed exotics, astringent
and red-eyed from chlorine, multiform in magnolia and peach, acorn and raisin.
She leaned against a knotty maple, the glistening white of her arm pressing
the beastly bark, a Kodak moment. “Puts you in a groove, the Duke. Memories—from
my last stop—Pittsburgh.” She spoke with far-gazing eyes and head swaying
to the angular melody. “Am I too young for memories?” Strangely enervated
in her presence, he shrugged and felt stupid. Here incredibly, only inches
away, now jonquil yellowed in sudden sunfroth, Regina O’Chailly! Come on,
twenty years old and living, dear God, at Old Granny’s so familiar, till
now prosaic brick house, this Prize of Serendib. He felt an almost sublime
gaiety, this weight-free closeness arriving so quickly, a thing so new in
still-grappling relations with that heavenly host called girls. Short, home-cut
clover-honey hair, curled limply around her ear. Vivid, care-forsaking blue
eyes, observing him with a candor that held its ground. Vulnerable, persimmony
mouth, now gently upcurving at the corners—amusement, pleasure, affection?
Lips he had never kissed but, of course, others had, her paradox. One raised
in the Roman church expected unchastity to be visible. Yet while the moon
is white we know it bears footsteps. In a dreamspell, he struggled against
chains of ignorance and awe. Ignorance of the fire and awe of the firebird.
So daisy-dainty for one mysteriously misused, misuse requiring, sayeth Gran,
medical intervention. Only old wives’ chatter, protective chicanery? He
had returned from a college cadet encampment. His mother was visiting from
the Coast and meeting him for the return trip. “She’s a nice girl, but she
has a past,” Gran had told his mother, who indelicately relayed the news.
“Don’t let the boy get involved,” he imagined Gran adding. Tiny toes, painted.
White ankles grace incarnate. And now more sultry rain was falling, but
light, playful. Eerily welcome, beside the pool. Raining, and who cares?
Pearls tossed profligately amid the grass on a shimmering knoll. Beyond,
a Philadelphia chainlink fence, border of paradise. She was here with him.
First saw her only this morning in the backyard, under the adoring eyes
of the pre-rain sun in her snowy spandex, her towel over the crabgrass a
queenly divan. But she had seen him arrive yesterday, still in ROTC khaki,
and had first thought, she said with a winking voice, “an ossifer,” but
was soon disabused. “Hey, let’s go to the pool. Mom will let me have the
car.” But he left without asking, minutes after she’d beamed a bright-eyed
“Peachy” and he’d rooted out his aloha trunks from the laundry hamper. Her
exquisite availability! When had a lemme-die babe ever dropped the game
that quick? Of course, grandson of the darling old lady who’d befriended
her, after she’d answered a room-for-rent ad, unemployed and penniless,
clutching a bargain-basement satchel. “Pay me when you can afford to,” Gran,
the dearie, had told her. A swift daunting smile, the rubber bathing cap
tugged tightly on, a dash to the brink, a knife-sharp dive into a rare unpopulated
spot. Airborne, a sculptor’s flash: tight-sheathed buttocks, Petty Girl
legs, scarlet toes. Then bubbling deep into the swelling, sloshing water
as if it were a native element. Aphrodite, his lustrous date, embraced by
Poseidon’s sun-bouncing medium, sluicing like a golden porpoise among base
metals. No match for her crisp Australian crawl, he chose to spectate like
an adoring suburban parent. Midst visions of sugarplums he heard the Duke
wrap it up. He called Gran’s and said he was visiting an old friend at Swarthmore
and that he had no idea where Regina was. Then that night in a moist and
leaf-perfumed grove, beside him in the parked car, she told him there was
another. After she had let him close enough to inhale her summery fragrance,
touch the margins of her modest, stay-stiffened bra, kiss, O alas, her wet-candy
lips… this is it, ol’ buddy! Then she told him. And pulled away.
Never one to hold back verbally, he had been lavish in expressing veneration.
How fitting her name, for he was also impressed with his high-school Latin.
No apprentice, she had genially responded once or twice. But now this bomb.
“He’s forty-something,” she said. Apologetically. “He runs a poker parlor
over to Camden. Not a bad guy really. We’re probably going to get married.
No, Walter. Please. That’s enough. I do like you a lot, I do. I
love your interest in science—in truth, I mean. People tell me
something, I believe it, like religion and all. You’re a wonderful kid.
But you don’t want to get involved with me. Rough life—you can’t imagine—supported
myself from fifteen. I had to have this operation. I don’t think I can have
any children, and you’re Catholic… How old are you, anyway? Let’s drive
some more.” He was eighteen. He said nineteen, to no avail. She didn’t marry
the poker entrepreneur. On a visit to Washington, she met a Brazilian diplomat
from the embassy there and moved to Rio with him. His present wife jettisoned,
they were married. She sent his grandmother a Christmas card every year
until the old girl died several years ago, well into her nineties, and even
visited several times, sometimes sending money despite Gran’s proud Scotch-Irish
protestations. She had five children—surprise—and apparently enjoyed both
affluence and influence—servants, state dinners, vacationing at society-column
places like St. Moritz. Then the guy died, maybe ten years ago, shortly
after his party had fallen from power, leaving more debts than assets and
casting Regina into what she called “shabby gentility.” She went from two
to three packs a day and from a half to a full pint a day. Her holiday notes
to Gran had been frank. First came a radical mastectomy and then emphysema.
Liver problems. And now, evidently, one toke over the line, sweet Jesus.
He turned from the window and saw she was watching him. Holding the gaze,
expressionless, lofty. Horizonless ice-blue eyes. In nests of tiny wrinkles.
Too delicate mouth, but tight-lipped, parenthesized by deep lines. Their
eyes held. The most tormented suggestion of a smile—did he return it? Then,
so languidly he almost missed it, she shook her head. Let it go.
A regal gesture. Take the A train. He had wanted to embrace her. Not a love,
of course. How about crush of a lifetime. For one long day. Time
is so meaningless, the aging know. Obediently, he turned away, his lips
tight, his knees trembling, and went out the creaking front screen-door
and located his wife and children in the backyard of what had been his grandmother’s
house, now an aunt’s. There were cousins galore. A risk-free environment.
Prattling to him how they wanted to come West. But there was the job. How
they hated shoveling snow, summer humidity. But spring and fall were nice.
Did he see movie stars much? Philadelphia was so dull and so run down. At
the center of the chainlink-fenced yard, unrecognized, unvenerated, the
exact spot of lawn where she had sunbathed, occupied now by a galvanized
tub filled with canned soda and local beer. His aunt’s new husband, in an
Eagles cap, introduced himself and inquired enthusiastically about the Chargers.
When the dinner call came and everyone returned inside she had gone.
* * *
Formally now she was Sra. Regina O’Chailly da Mundo, his Aunt Gladys told him that evening. Glad had kept her address in Rio and had sent the invitational flyer with a friendly note, as a courtesy only. Ever busy in the kitchen, Glad had not noticed the senora during her short stay. “Pitcher her showin’ up, not tellin’ anybody, then not stayin’ for the soft crabs,” she said, sitting with him and his wife on the front porch recapitulating the day over slices of oven-warm pecan pie. “Maybe the excitement and all. Poor thing. Reg’lar boy killer, though, Reggie was.” (He gave her an inward touché on that.) “Married some megabucks hustler looked like Valentino with a pencil mustache.” Perhaps daunted by her ghastly equipment, only a few family members had ventured to speak to her. Glad’s gregarious husband Merv, the Eagles fan, had, after introducing himself and bringing her an iced tea. “I was happier in this house than anyplace I ever lived,” she told him. Merv, no master of tact, admitted he was mindlessly holding a cigarette at the time. “Oh, no,” she said blithely when he asked if it were bothering her. “I smoked myself for many years.” No mention of his name apparently, Walter noted. It was, after all, only one day thirty-two years ago in a crowded life, lived mostly on another continent. Having carried gentility to the limits, she left shortly thereafter. Two of the children said she had been driven off in a Lexus with Hertz license frames, driven by a black man in livery, who had given them a dollar each to dry the windows after the rain. Bringing a retainer five-thousand miles to drive your rental car wasn’t too shabby, Walter decided. After his return to California, he fought off the urge to send her a note—impertinent, he thought. His home address had been listed on the flyer—who knows?—but after a few weeks the hope had vanished. Several months later, his letter carrier handed him a carefully twined package with no return address and a Rio de Janeiro postmark. There was a note on floral stationery, unscented, in a gracefully flowing hand:
The package also contained a bubble-wrapped 78-speed Victor vinyl record.
He knew what the A side was even before he looked at it.