From the desk of William H. Riordan. To the files: I would like to tell the truth. I am in my office on Rector Street, looking out at the cemetery of Trinity Church, pretending to work, in this sort of trance just short of being asleep. It's a form of mental break, but to make partner around here you can never look like you're taking a break, you have to look like you're billing time, so I have a deposition open in front of me and my head's down over it, as if I'm reading it. You get into an intensity of work that is like exercise, a zone; time attenuates, you're inside the thing; then you're out again and you rest. My head lowered, my eyes cast to the left, toward the window, watching the light on the blackened stone walls and gray slate roof of the church, I can hear the rapid, soft pock pock pock of Anna, my secretary, inputting this morning's draft of a motion I'm supposed to have on Jack's desk by tomorrow night; it's a matrimonial case.
* Contrary to the specious, self-serving assertions in Wife's Answer to Husband's Motion to Order Compliance, Husband 1) never hit, struck, or slapped, or physically or verbally or in any other manner abused or attacked Wife, 2) never hit, struck, or slapped, or physically or verbally or in any other manner abused or attacked his children, 3) never addressed his children and/or appeared in their rooms either in the nude, in unusual garments, or in any other unseemly manner or condition, either while they were sleeping or while they were awake. The introduction into the proceeding before the Court at this late date of these reckless and false allegations, when Husband merely seeks compliance with an existing order of the Court rendered four months prior to this proceeding and well after all due opportunity was given to Wife to present arguments against Husband's parental suitability, deeply undermines the credibility of the allegations.
* Husband did not, as claimed by Wife, arrive home drunk on "a regular basis"; Husband became inebriated on no more than ten occasions during his sixteen-year Marriage to Wife, each of those in relation to business-oriented social events such as dinners, dinner-dances, banquets, shows, and other forms of business-related entertainment.
* Because at the appropriate time, when custody was under valid examination by the Court, no arguments were made against Husband's suitability, nor was such evidence presented, the argument is, inherently, without standing and merit before this Court, as fully described in Part 1, §1 et seq.
* For these and the reasons above stated in Parts I and II, with special emphasis on Part I, Section C, Paragraph 5, Wife's Morion for Summary Dismissal of Claim should be rejected, and immediate compliance with existing, legally valid and proclaimed custody agreements should be ordered...
Below me, in the whitening summer light, the gravestones in the churchyard look like scattered teeth. A woman's voice comes over Anna's intercom: "Anna, can you please ask Will to see me in my office when he has the chance? Tell him to bring his Day-Timer. Thanks." It's Sue Williamson, one of the partners. She refuses to buzz me directly, insists on using an intermediary; not only as a proper formal exercise of her authority, but because then she avoids the risk of buzzing me, finding me not there or on a call, and then having to buzz Anna -- five seconds or so of otherwise billable fucking time.
"Did you get that?" Anna calls out.
"Yeah," I say. "Thanks."
"Hey, glad to help, anytime," Anna says, still typing. "Do you want some pages?"
"Give me some pages," I say. "Give me some precious pages."
"I'm, like, on sixteen or something," she says.
"Fine, whatever you have."
Anna says, "I'm sending it to the printing station."
"Why can't you use the printer you have there?" I say. She always avoids the smaller dedicated printer on her credenza, I've noticed.
"I don't want to be responsible for loading the paper," she says. "There's a right way and a wrong way; where it jams, and I can never figure it out."
"That's ridiculous. Just put it in, see what happens." I look up at her from my desk. "Take some risks, for chrissakes."
"That's easy for you to say," she says. "What risks do you ever take?"
"Okay, fine," I say.
"I'm shooting it to the laser."
"Fine," I say. "Whatever." I'm shooting it to the laser. I'm setting it on fire and catapulting it over the church spire.
"Sue?" I say; arriving at Sue's office.
"Will," she says. "How are you on Thursday? I have a client coming in for a preliminary discussion at three-thirty."
"Fine," I say.
"Where's your Day-Timer?" she says.
"I don't use a Day-Timer," I say.
"Are you sure about Thursday? I want to confirm with the client."
"Thursday's fine," I say. "Friday I'm getting a haircut."
"I tell you what," Sue says. "Come to lunch with me tomorrow. I'll fill you in on background."
"I'm kind of tied up writing this motion for Jack," I say.
Sue's face undergoes a series of changes, a surface darkening with underlying tectonic shifts. In law firms, superiors rarely give you shit directly; so finely tuned are the nuances of authority that the mere threat of giving you shit is enough. "I'm not going to be free between now and Thursday," Sue says. This means, if I want to work on the case, or any others she has anything to do with in the furore, I have to go to lunch with her.
"I guess I can slip out," I say.
"Good," Sue says. The face as instrument of power: hers softens now; she is warm with rectitude and approval. "It's an interesting case. Very desirable if we can get something going. Deep-pocket defendant, possible press, the whole bit. It's a name case when it comes to partnership."
I'm up for partner in December. Broad hints are now regularly dropped. Offers dangle, bribes and extortions hang in the air flaccid as yesterday's balloons. "Thanks, Sue," I say.
She lowers her voice. "Actually, Jack wanted me to use Carol but I insisted on you."
"Carol's a putz. She's smart, I guess, but she's a putz."
"So lunch, tomorrow, one?"
"Sure." I turn. "And thanks again, Sue."
"Fine." Sue snaps down the flap on her Filofax. It sounds like small-arms fire in a distant field.
At four-fifteen Sue's secretary, Jeannie, delivers to Anna a Redweld file containing Sue's correspondence and notes so far on the Murray case, the case she's invited me to work on. On the outside of the folder, a little yellow stick-on note from Sue: "Will -- please review this material before tomorrow's lunch. S." I put the folder on the floor next to my desk, and don't pick it up again until seven, when I've finished revising today's draft of Jack's motion. It is a rape case. Two men broke into the client's apartment, beat her, raped her, and eventually robbed her before they left several hours later. They were never apprehended. It is obvious that we will propose she make a case of negligence and loss of contracted service against the building, an east side high-rise. According to the police report, there were three security people scheduled to be on duty, but only two had reported for work, and at the rime of the attack, one of those was on break. The video equipment, a camera mount in the hall-way, had been in disrepair for three weeks. No one was overseeing the displays for the surveillance system at that rime anyway, because of the shorthanded shift. The police are pleased to include these details because they like to see the guilt radiate and hum, especially without a suspect in hand.
The file includes a psychiatrist's letter, which describes our client as suffering from "chronic clinical levels of depression, hostility, alienation, and aggravated sexual dysfunction. She has been unable to conduct normal relations, sexual and across her personal life, since the trauma. There is little reason to expect any notable level of recovery in the foreseeable future." It also points out that she was a sexually active bisexual before the rape and that now, though she cannot become intimate with men, she continues to have sporadic, "though not entirely conjugal," relationships with women. I wonder what this means. My take is that this evidence can be suppressed, but that with a New York jury, it need not be; we can manage it to our benefit. Sue's notes are in a jaunty hand.
I get home at eight-thirty, neither early nor late for me these days. The entire front of Ellie's blouse is soaked from giving Henry his bath. Henry is almost two and a half; Sam, our second son, is brand-new, fourteen weeks. Ellie's mother was here for a while helping out, but now she's back at her place on West End. She comes once or twice a week for a couple of hours. Ellie mostly has been trying to take care of things alone -- I keep telling her to hire someone, but she doesn't do it.
"What's for dinner?" I say.
"It's eight-thirty," Ellie says. "Cookies are for dinner."
"I like the wet T-shirt look," I say.
"Don't even think about it," Ellie says.
"Touch me and I'll kill you," she says.
I reach out for the front of her blouse and she drives a fist into my rib cage. "I haven't had a moment to myself all day, mister," she says, a little too loudly. She goes into the bedroom and I make a tuna sandwich.
Later that night we stretch out on the couch together, me propped up and Ellie lying between my legs, with her head resting on my chest, watching television. Television scares us. ER scares us, the news scares us, the wildly exuberant weatherman scares us. Jay Leno commences, with the stupid grins of the lawn-jockey bandleader and Jay's tonnage of false cheer. "Let's try Letterman. He's sure to be depressed and easier to take," I say. Ellie does not reply. The desperate, idiotic faces, Jay looking around after each middling joke, a comedian without a trace of spontaneity left in him. All of it drains our lives of meaning, throws into question the reality of who we are, where we are, our high-ceilinged, slightly crumbly apartment, our chairs from Ellie's mother, our plain white Wedgwood china, our nervous days and windless nights -- for a moment our existences seem to be staggering at a cliff's edge of unreality. Letterman has some sort of scene from the street, a Pakistani guy with a thick accent stopping people on Seventh Avenue and asking them how much cash they're carrying. I hand Ellie the remote and she switches to Charlie Rose: he's with a painter turned film director who's just published a memoir. Charlie is in a frenzy of interest. The painter's face screams substance abuse. I'm still back with Jay, my mind's eye tracking him throughout his day, all the caution of a middle-aged man in jeans and white sneakers, meetings in the morning, teams of Californians helping craft tonight's jokes. The extinction of personality that is television. Ellie burrows into my chest. I hold her. A slight trembling, it's hard to tell which of us it is. Her head feels like it's trying to push straight through to my heart. She is mumbling something into my chest cavity, I can feel words resonating in my lungs.
"Excuse me?" I say.
"Please turn off the television," she says.
"Are you crying?" I say.
"No, just turn off the television," she says.
"Where did you put the remote?" I say.
"I don't know," she murmers.
I feel around underneath us, look down at the floor. Nothing. I make a small motion to disengage and get up.
"Don't leave!" she says. She pins me with arms and legs, her head up under my chin. I stroke her hair. The top of her head has a smell I think I would recognize anywhere. "See if you can turn it off with your foot," she says. I extend my leg, probe with my big toe. It is a big Sony color set, eight or nine years old, that a cousin passed on to us after we were married and I was just out of law school, doing a clerkship; we've never replaced it or upgraded, we employ a guarded laziness in the face of new technologies.
"I need the remote control," I say, unable to reach the little buttons on the bottom, which are so small and invisible a toe probably can't manipulate them anyway. Finally I rise, turn the volume all the way down, glance around for the remote, don't see it, get under Ellie again on the couch. I am sitting, she is lying. The set flickers in silence, like a flame.
"This is why normal people always have the remote control," I say.
"We're not normal," Ellie says. "And we're not even remotely in control." We stay like that for a while, her on top, rising and falling as I breathe. We pass our different brands of tiredness back and forth to each other through the skin. She shifts, then I shift, and then we are pressed together in a familiar and unmistakable way, we click into place like two pieces that fit. A faint rhythm. My hands are in the area between her ribs and hips, the soft concavity of her waist. I pull up her blouse, still damp, she never bothered to change it, and I put my hands on her skin, cold from the moisture. She kisses my neck; her face is wet and slithery, a mermaid's face. She arches up and our lips meet. Moisture. Salt.
"Henry was conceived on tiffs couch," I say.
Ellie pulls back and eyes me. "Henry," she says, "was conceived on the red chair."
"That's right," I say. "I forgot. We were so wild in those days."
"It was just three years ago," she says.
"Our lost youth," I say.
"I'll show you lost youth," Ellie says. We undress. The sadness of clothes on furniture and floor; the hint of missing human forms. Naked, she stands fiat-footed; a child at the beach. We touch again, and I know instantly that the small flame that was in her has gone out; her enthusiasm is quieted now, she is tense and shy, her body and her psyche have endured a three-year battering at the hands of the human sex act and she doesn't know what to do with this. She is at the stage of I'll-submit. I don't want her to submit, I want her to want. Or that's not true -- if she truly wanted to submit, we would have that kind of relationship, I would physically overwhelm her, and we would both affirm my power in the act. But this is not what she wants at all -- I'll-submit passes into I-resent-submitting. Hard muscles, rubbery skin. My advances come back, no forwarding address. Then we wait. She waits to see if I can reignite her, I wait for her to ignite. I try various things, and they have all the awkward, one-way feeling of trying. With my fingers, my lips, my tongue and arms and shoulders and legs, I'm pressing, dusting, leaning, and appealing. I'm in court to argue a case I haven't prepared. It's a weak case, in any event. Her body is the jury, slack, unbelieving, diverse, impenetrable, And so we reach a settlement, she and I, because I know I cannot win, and she knows she doesn't want to prove it. Not now. Next time. All politeness.
Over onion soup, in a slightly upmarket version of an Irish pub, new wood and cut glass, Sue gives me more details about the Murray case. This distinctly unfashionable, stock-and-bond-trader-type restaurant is a place Sue would never take anyone else, having chosen it as a reminder to me of where both of us are coming from (she's Long Island Irish, I'm Queens). Sue runs down the case. This is the gossipy voyeuristic side of the law, the personal swamp gases you live in so that you can represent someone else in the eyes of the state, so that you can become the person on behalf of the person. The client, when she works, is a "freelance" writer. As far as we can tell, this amounts to some poetry and a few short story/essay-type things published in small magazines, spread out over the last few years. She is black. When she was younger, she had a couple of years as a dancer. Her father is a wealthy and influential friend of mayors and borough presidents and a force in the Harlem political machine; he owns a black cosmetics corporation that gave rise to a media enterprise: three magazines, a newspaper, a radio station, and two underperforming cable operations upstate, that are on the block. The client grew up in Westchester, studied at a prep school, and attended an all-black woman's college in Georgia, majoring in dance and then switching to literature. Two years of graduate work at Yale and a year at the Sorbonne, all in literature and drama, no degrees. A little over nine months ago, two intruders broke into her apartment on the fourteenth floor of a high-rent building on East Eighty-sixth Street, with intent to rob, held the client captive for six and a half hours, raped her, sodomized her, and threatened her with a knife and with various blunt objects such as a club, the telephone receiver, etc. We sit at ninety-degree angles to each other at the square table, and Sue's leg brushes against mine; her hand ventures down, touches my leg. I put my hand on her dress then, which is a slippery material like rayon or silk. This is how we talk, an old routine with us, a game that never goes anywhere. Neither of us would be able to sustain an interest in the other for long enough to take it anywhere, not she in me because I am intriguing but not in any material sense important; not I in her because my small, odd fondness for her is regularly scorched by disgust. She finds this game entertaining; she needs to be titillated at a fairly constant level and good associate that I am, I accomodate. Then I stop.
"They did everything to this poor woman," Sue says, working her spoon against the side of her bowl to free a hunk of melted cheese. I bring my hand back to my own dining quadrant. "If you can think of it, they did it to her," she says. "You've seen the psychologist's report. Frankly, I'm embarrassed to talk about it. God knows how she's going to testify." She breaks a pumpernickel roll and peels open a foil-wrapped pat of butter.
"How did you ever make partner, Sue?" I ask. She looks at me over her raised butter knife.
"Ninety-hour weeks and a hint of cruelty," she says. She examines me like a piece of evidence. "Will," she says then, "you're a smart lawyer and a nice guy. But you've got an attitude problem. Major. All the partners have seen it. 'Nice guy, smart lawyer, bad attitude.' That's the rap on you. I strongly recommend you straighten up and fly right, if you catch my drift."
On Thursday the client, or the victim, as I keep wanting to call her, arrives half an hour late and bristling with hostility, a short, muscular, light-skinned black woman with light brown, almost hazel eyes, thirty-four years old, we have seen the age documented, though she just as well might be an old twenty-five or a young forty-three. She's attractive in a blunt way; mostly through the eyes, but so visibly pissed off you don't notice the good looks right away. Her name is Ursula Murray. Sue brings her into the conference room and introduces me.
"Ursula, this is Will Riordan, he's going to be the associate on the case. Why don't we sit over here." Sue directs us to seats at either side of hers at the head of the long table. Ursula glares at me and sits. In her face the kind of rage that builds cities in the wilderness. She seems to rub herself into her chair, as if it is molded to a shape she doesn't quite fit.
Sue picks up Some folders. "Ursula, let me just start by saying --"
"Actually, Sue, I have something I'd like to say," Ursula interjects. "I'd like to say that as I recall, there are a number of women attorneys at this law firm and I wonder why, given the circumstances, a man has been assigned. It borders on the insensitive. It borders on the insulting. It's stupid."
We sit in silence. Ursula and I are looking at Sue. "Well, Ursula, let me just say I'm fully cognizant of your concerns," Sue says. Obviously she has thought of this objection already. "We will go to any length to make you feel as comfortable as possible with the representation we provide on this very sensitive case. I think it's obvious in response to what you've indicated that we gave a lot of thought as to who should assist on this case, male, female, whatever, and there are several reasons why Will is the best choice. First and foremost, he is our best associate, a fine legal mind and a superb litigator. Second, we felt having a man work with you becomes important when you realize that this case, because of the extensive size of the damages we will seek if you choose to have us represent you, is more likely than most to go to trial. The defense attorneys will most likely be males. We will request a jury, and they will likely seek to put as many men as possible on it. This is to keep in mind, in the eventuality. The judge also will likely be male. Our case will hinge on your testimony. Your ability to deal with the issues of this lawsuit in front of men will be very useful to you at that time. So that's our thinking. Will is a man. He can't help that. We all deplore the tragedy that has occurred here. I suggest you go through with this meeting, think about these issues, and we can talk about it" -- Sue looks at her calendar here -- "tomorrow is bad, but how about Monday?"
Ursula looks at me. I look back at her: hazel eyes crowded with conflicting messages. Male. Female. Whatever.
"Why don't you get us some coffee then, Mr. Riordan?" she says. Do I detect a smile?
"That's a good idea, Will," Sue says. She fans open her folders across the conference table.
There was a memo from Sue to attorneys possibly concerned with the Murray case on my desk this morning: "For purposes of today's meeting, meetings in the future, and all memoranda and correspondence, unless otherwise indicated, what we might typically in conversation have referred to as 'the rape' will be referred to as 'the attack.'"
Although she has, since "the attack," hardly worked, Ursula, it turns out, still writes; she is collecting her thoughts on paper; she is hoarding bits and scraps of language, taping things up, shoring a few fragments.
This she tells me by letter a week after our initial meeting. We are already preparing the lawsuit; we have, in the case of negligence in the building, until the end of September, twelve months after the tort, to file a case. Ursula's initial reaction to my presence, an ideological position much enhanced by certain maladies of the day, seems to have modified; she now prefers a kind of assaultive intimacy, judging by her prose.
Dear Mr Riordan: Well, I was not in the best of moods when we met the other day and I was startled by your face. It resides on the unhealthy side of skeptical, that face of yours. In any case I do believe I am a kind of "neccessary participant" in the construction of a legal narrative of my attack. What effect my own thoughts might have on your strategies I do not know or really care much about, but I cannot see you there making something of the incident entirely on your own...You have a psychologist's report, do you not? I see myself as adding color and hue to the picture, certain "values" as is said in the world of the painter...
Ursula has, she says, been writing down the scenes in her head against her will, or against a significant portion of her will, and as a result their form is ambiguous. At first she wrote notes on napkins, deposit slips, the backs of drugstore coupon sheets and podiatrist handouts. Old habits die hard and for a time she was entering these jottings in longer versions on her computer (file name: flowers), but she soon discovered that this activity, expansive and probing, left her feeling paralyzed, speechless, and finally annihilated; at a certain point, though she continued producing her scraps, she let them remain as scraps, dumping them in a large bowl on a side counter in her kitchen -- thoughts, images, electric memories. Added to these were clippings that she found, some relating obviously to what had happened to her, some relating hardly at all. From the bowl all the scraps and notes made their way into a shopping bag. Eventually the shopping bag was filled. The loaves-and-fishes miracle of words. Ursula has been a prolific writer, of half sentences, brief paragraphs. She no longer knows what narrative is; or if she knows, doesn't believe in it. What happened to her was not a narrative, it was a flashing dark sword, a horrifying truth in the present tense.
The shopping bag is delivered to Sue by messenger the next day, a Friday. Sue arrives at my office followed by a clerk carting the bag. "On a Friday," she says. "Can you believe it? I want you to go through these and arrange them and have someone type them up so I can read them next week. Bill your time to legal research, I don't want her to know you've seen these."
I don't tell her that Ursula has written to me about them already, knowing that Sue won't read them: "That woman," Ursula said in her letter, "probably can't get through a capsule movie review, so she will be handing these papers over to you. I will be happy to be shut of them, submit them to the process, such as it is. Do you have an e-mail address, for future correspondence?" She has softened toward me in so far as she believes that whatever I am, Sue is worse. I pull out a few ripped pieces of paper: "Hair," the first one says. Underneath that a list:
Who put this pubic hair in my Coke?
Who put this pubic hair in my Cristal?
Who put this pubic hair in my antifreeze?
Who put this pubic hair between pages 76 and 77 of my Remembrance of Things Past?
Who put this pubic hair in my Crest? In my bed? In my eyes? In my mouth?
Then another piece: A man tosses a child in the air -- brute strength. Next, typed, across the top of an index card, it says, The Angry Father, a Tale. Below it three sentences:
This is a story about rape. This is a story about insemination. This is a story about fatherhood.
On a folded sheet of spiral notebook paper: In the bedroom. Peach-colored sheets. Hair smelling of Rock Sheen. Rock Sheen: paid for the schools, the house, Mother's Oldsmobile that drove me to swimming lessons, skating, the whole suburban trick, all the places where I was the black girl.
Inside the fold, written in careful, small, block print: At first tried, struggled. Every time I pushed away he hit me. Neck, ribs, side of head, face. Arms like iron, hands like iron...Those of us not used to being hit can't fight. To fight one must always have fought. Start early, never stop. Fight dad, fight brother, fight the neighbor taunting in the yard. Strike mother, strike sister, flail granny, hit teacher. Be struck in return. A discipline of taking blows. His willingness to hit and intimidate may be greater than mine. My desire to kill may be greater than his. When his tactic works, mine is subverted. Learn to get hit, and learn to kill.
Uh uh uh uh uh uh uh, jackhammer. Uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh uh --
My words in your brain, like a cock in a cunt.
On the gray, mottled back of a panel torn from a box of Total it says: Kitchen recipe book. Recipe 1. Cut a swatch of cheap brown vinyl, from a cheap pencil case, say. Set aside. Snip little bits of curly steel wool, make pile, and set aside. Spread glue onto vinyl swatch in rough triangular pattern. Gather the steel wool snippets and distribute them over the glue, applying as much of the steel wool as the glue will hold. Carve cock from brown wood. Attach.
Ursula's papers in my hand, heaps of them like a very sloppy person would deliver to his accountant the day before his taxes are due; I'm not reading them anymore, I can't say exactly what I'm doing. Just sort of holding them, in the break mode. I hear a noise outside on Broadway, which at first I don't pay attention to, but it builds and makes itself known as an event of some kind, a beating of tom-toms and rasping of horns. People shouting. I hear a chant take shape. I can't make out what it is. It sounds like a large crowd, something rare, a big demonstration -- a throwback, a seascape of nostalgic memories. I'm excited at the prospect of chaos, anarchy, freedom. I press up against the window, looking for television cameras. My office is a little too far down on Rector Street to see Broadway. All I can catch are fragmented reflections in the angled window panels of the art deco building on the other side of Broadway, figures moving upside down across the glass segments, Eisenstein cinema or magic lantern show. Corners of banners, a sense of hats. I go to my door and peek out into the hall. The secretaries have stopped working, waiting for some signal from their bosses that it will be all right to go into the offices and look out the windows. No such signal comes. Anna looks at me. "What is that?" she mouths. I nod for her to come in -- she passes me and I shut the door.
"I can't see out this window," she says, pressed hard up against it. A shelf runs the entire length of the wall under the window, full of papers and transcripts, squared-off mountains of documents. Anna kicks her shoes off and climbs up from my chair onto the stacks of papers. I'm standing behind her, ready to catch her if it all slides out from under her, looking at the backs of her brown, bare knees.
"Careful there," I say. I put a hand on her calf.
"It's the health and hospital workers," Anna says happily. She's leaning forward up there, holding on to the window frame. My head is practically under her skirt. I'm bending backward a little, looking at her thighs, trying with some misgivings to insert at least a symbolic distance between my face and the healthy backs of her legs. The strike had been in the paper and on last night's news. "They've filled up Broadway," she says. "I wonder if my cousin is there. It looks like they're turning into Wall. There are thousands of them. Hey, there's Jesse Jackson. I love Jesse Jackson. Hey, Jesse! Hey, Jesse!"
"Shhh!" I say. One hand on each calf. Her feet are planted on the briefs and motions, red-dot toes gripping, like gibbons' feet in the trees. "Why do you paint your toenails?" I say.
"I want them to look like little jewels," Anna says. "You wouldn't believe how big this crowd is. They could take over. I mean, if it were a riot."
"Can you make out what they're saying?" We listen for a bit. The chant echoes in the canyon of Broadway, booming a deep bass. My hands move down Anna's shins and onto the tops of her feet. Delicate, curving bones.
"It sounds like 'Let's be fair, we give the care,'" Anna says.
"How old are you, Anna?" I ask.
"Twenty-five," she says.
"I knew that," I say. The chant winds down, there is some independent shouting, and then another chant starts up.
"'Hey, hey, where's our pay,'" Anna says. Her feet wriggle and shift under my hands. You never can really keep in mind how alive other people are until you touch them, smell them, listen to their breath or their muffled drum-beating pulse; you get electric impulses from the skin -- organism-with-hope-and-fear. Identity without language. An absolute and dynamic mystery.
"'Aw shucks, Wall Street sucks,'" Anna says.
Second week of July, height of summer. Heat seems to generate up from the subway platforms, blasts from beneath the air-conditioned train cars as they pull into the stations. It is a mystery to me why as you go underground in this city, it gets so much hotter. I've been led to believe the opposite will occur; in other cities, the opposite does occur. Just one more special brutality in New York.
I get home in time to take Henry to the playground after his supper. Other fathers are there in shirts and ties. Exhausted mothers sit alone on the benches. One kid runs crazily back and forth while his father, in a glen-plaid summer suit, follows with one of those drinking mugs with the straw built in, saying, "Nick, are you thirsty? Do you want a drink, Nick?" Nick doesn't want a drink. He wants to exorcize the demons of his parentless days. Henry is cautious, aware of the other children as predators. I unsnap him from his stroller and he just sits there. I pick him up, stand him on the ground. He looks around, wide-eyed. He grips his shovel in a small fist and begins to move slowly toward the sandbox. He builds a tiny momentum. Older children, gigantic-looking three- and four-year-olds, dash around him. He slants across their path unperturbed, like a blind prophet. At the opening to the sandbox, he waits for me to come and help him take the step down to get inside. I bring him his pail and find him a place away from the entrance. For a while he ignores the pail and sits dumping sand onto his legs. I squat, fill the pail, turn it over, tap it on bottom and sides, and pull it away to reveal a solid-looking cylinder of sand. Henry smiles and attacks it with his shovel. I slip out of the sandbox and find a place on the nearest bench. Children are running around frantically, eyes wide, hair wet and matted to foreheads. We all pause to watch as one mother, in a red silk dress and expensive-looking flats, carries her warrior, howling in frustration and defeat, off the playground proper and out onto the park's promenade, where she can comfort him in private and ready him again for the fray. The intensity of the place comes from its packaging -- a very urban experience this, a rectangle about the size of two living rooms, one hour a day in which a child can play with its parents. For many of the children, all the tiredness and heat and longing to show off for Mommy and Daddy are squeezed down to an alarming density, a black hole of toddler energy and will. The sky reddens over the Palisades, the river is molten silver-gray. One by one parents load their children into strollers, where they sit panting and dazed. Henry gets up, stands at the step out of the sandbox, puts his hand in the air and squeals -- let me out. I go and give him the hand he's looking for and then follow him to the slide, at the base of which he stands, banging. I hoist him and try to put him at the top but he squirms and cries -- that's not what he wanted. He wants to go back to the base of the slide and bang. So be it. Then his hand comes up again. He wants to climb up onto the slide, try to crawl up it, so I help him do that. I push him up by his behind, huffing and puffing to make a joke about how hard it is. He laughs at the top, flops onto his belly, and slides down backward. Every time I go to the playground with him I have to learn his new routines. The ones I know from the last time are old already, rarely of interest to him. He shouts at dogs and birds and buses and trucks. Other than that, he is in a world of his own. His jaw tight, his eyes flaming, he hits most of the kids who come near him.
"Henry, don't hit the other boy," I say. "He's allowed to use the slide too. Now it's his turn." The words as units of meaning have little visible effect on a two-year-old; what we know intuitively, however, is that we must disapprove of these things, strongly, so that he will in his relentless emulation of us build a moral order in which this behavior is wrong and suppressed. The other boy looks on with mild curiosity as I lecture. Much larger, he is not disturbed when Henry reaches around to hit him again.
"Okay, that's it," I say, and I lift Henry off the slide. He kicks for a moment, then wails, head thrown back, eyes shut tight, mouth open wide. Albrecht Dürer's Self-Portrait at the Playground, in the popular show "Dürer: The Early Work." As I strap him into his stroller he arches and squirms, until he knows the struggle is over and, relieved, he can calm down. As we wheel onto the promenade, a man passes walking two Great Danes. They stand almost four feet high. I expect to hear "Doggie" -- but Henry surprises me.
"HORSEY!" he shouts. "Horsey horsey!"
When Ellie and I were first married, I was in law school and we had an apartment on Claremont Avenue, a big one-bedroom looking north toward the tower of Riverside Church and, beyond it, a square patch of the Hudson. I remember the feeling of having so much room in those days; Ellie was at work during the day, I was in the library at night. We'd come together for meals, at bedtime, odd afternoons or evenings when one of us happened to break schedule and be there. We went to movies all the time, movies and then a beer or two in a local bar, where often we'd run into friends; that was what we did, we were never big on restaurants or clubs or theaters or parties. In those days there were still revival houses on the West Side. Double features: Ozu and Mizoguchi, Capra and Sturges, a Wim Wenders or Joshua Logan series. It seems now, in certain rosy memories, almost perfect, a quiet and comfortable form of dating. But we weren't committed to each other then, or devoted may be the old-fashioned and proper word, not without two children and the glue of household and routine holding us together. We've grown into a collection of phrases and clichés from our own childhoods: "we never go the movies anymore...," "the kids had a good day..." Dinners of bottled spaghetti sauce, frozen vegetables. Power, space, domain. Lately I'm there and not there, I look at the tableau set before me, Henry dirty from supper, the deep moss green of pureed spinach across his face and shirtfront, Sam looking damp in his rocker seat; or both of them, clean and sparkling out of the bath, going gooey as I change them (or more often, Ellie changes them), the powder falling like confectioner's sugar over their genitals and small rounded behinds before you pin them in. It has the quality of cinema, of a documentary film before the sound track has been laid on. Raw footage. Nothing is explained. It seems as if it will go on forever. There's a person there, two people, and small children; the apartment they're in looks nice, spacious enough for now, getting a little down at the heels, in need of some freshening up. The light's not particularly good. Soon there will be a voice, titles, something to tell me what's going on. There are pots on the stove. They don't match. The two people, the couple, look tired. They're doing the usual things.
The next day, mid-afternoon, an e-mail arrives from Ursula. Our in-house networks e-mail software puts the name associated with the e-mail address in quotes, as if all of us are concepts, still in the development stage:
To: "William Riordan"
From: "Ursula Murray"
Subject: the truth in black and white
i say to him, he's undoing his pants, notice you're second on a line of two brother? what are you doing taking orders from a white man? what are you messing with a sister so a white man can get his rocks off? haven't you had enough of that shit? he slaps me across the face. he likes that, i feel his pleasure in it, something rising up like vomit, and so he does it again, lifting me up under the knees and turning my body toward him a little so he could slap my ass and my face, my face and my ass. and then he took out the knife, and i'd known the sister line was bullshit when i'd said it, but i tried it anyway, relying on this orthodoxy, this thing i'd believed in until the moment i'd walked into the apartment and saw the two of them standing there, and they saw me and their faces kind of lit up in tandem, joy and the desire to kill, a couple of dogs on a tree'd coon. i'd understood right then, it was these two against me. that's all there is black and white don't mean shit. my whole life i thought it meant something but it was nothing cock and pussy, cock and pussy is everything, cock and pussy all the time. has always been and will always be.
I read it; I reread it. What do I do with it? Print it and put it through the incoming document drill? The words on my screen, their presence there, cock and pussy, cock and pussy, cock and pussy, every time I look up that's what I see; isn't there some system administrator, paid to search out and destroy such words on the network? Expose and punish the recipient? They make me nervous; or that's not it: they cause a kind of panic. I hit delete.
Coming home on the subway, almost seven, I am beside an old Caribbean woman with a kerchief tied around her head. She is standing against the door. I am on the end of the row, right next to her. The dusty smell of her. High cheekbones, cheeks sucked in over what must be toothless gums. A cheap blue T-shirt from some cheap hopeless place. She smells like old cardboard. Two shopping bags, one atop the other, jammed into a space between her and what is, essentially, my rib cage, filling the space under the bar. She's mumbling something, praying maybe. The broad toes and painted nails of the other women on the train. Cute clothes, jewelry, all the women look comfortable despite the heat; women like heat, and suffer more in winter. Beside me, this woman in kerchief, mumbling, her arms long and muscular from lugging these bags of terrible, useless things, but hers, her things, around with her. We make such severe judgments, so arbitrary and complete. The city, the proximity and danger of contact, force them from us. Observations are too close, too detailed, we know too much about each other in too short a time. The way this woman stands, the way she rocks her head from side to side, a certain intensity and lack of control, suggest madness. I don't know her and never will. Yet for me she is revealed, identified and forgotten. She exists forever now, without hope of mercy, as a mad-woman on the train.
At home, almost in time for supper with Ellie, close enough that she has waited for me, I am overcome with that feeling of strangeness. It starts in the bathroom -- the shampoo is a brand I don't recognize, there's a baby rattle on the sink that I've never seen before. I glance around and suddenly everything looks unfamiliar -- nothing suspicious, just everything looks new to my eye, indications of a life I'm not a part of. It's something like what happens when you stare at a simple word you've seen thousands of times before and suddenly don't recognize it. I feel like a visitor, awkward, careful, in the way.
I find Henry in front of the TV, watching footage of a propane gas fire on the news. "This invisible but deadly gas," the announcer croons. Large-bellied policemen direct traffic, which isn't moving much in any case, as people evacuate the town, emergency vehicles on the side of the road. Henry is standing inches from the screen, a tiny figure before a flickering world. The images change and change and change, they still him.
"Horsey," Henry says.
"There are no horseys there," I say.
"CAR!" he shouts. "Car car!"
"That's right, those are cars."
"Car car," he says, marching into the kitchen, where Ellie is making us two pieces of sole, butter, a little bit of shallot, she'll throw in a few capers after the white wine cooks down. She has Sam in the pouch, his head lolling, stupefied by steam, by his mother's intense odor, by the motion of her swinging body, its warmth and the tight canvas grip of the papoose. The air-conditioning is obliterated in here. I look on from the doorway.
"CAR!" shrieks Henry.
"Do you have a car?" Ellie asks him. "Yeeees," she answers for him. He slowly begins to nod. "Did you go to the playground this morning? Yeeees, daddy. Were you very bad at the playground? Yeeees, daddy, I got into a fight on the slide and I was very bad, I slapped a little girl who was trying to use the slide at the same time I was. Did mommy yell at you and make you come off the slide right away? Yeeees, daddy, and I cried and cried and made a scene until mommy took me away."
"Sounds familiar," I say.
Fishy, shallotty, winey steam rises from the pan; Ellie gently moves the fish. Small potatoes are boiling. Some lettuce and fresh tomatoes are laid out. "Nice-looking supper," I say.
"Yeah," Ellie says. "I thought I'd experiment with some of the upper-middle-class elegance you're always going on about. Don't get used to it." The ventilator fan whirs above the stove, laboring to pull out the moisture and heat. On top of the refrigerator, the most expensive clock radio in history plays something fashionably Cuban -- music not far from the Dominican meringue that, I don't bother pointing out, when it was blasted loudly out the back windows through long weekend nights in years gone by, we used to call the police about. That was before poor people were removed from most of Manhattan, while their music and clothes became popular.
"Oh hot," Henry says. "Is hot, Mommy? Is hot, Mommy? Hot. Hot."
"Very hot," Ellie says. "Oh so hot."
"Hot," he says again, smiling. Over the past year or so, language has come to him in two stages: the first thing was the word, tactile, musical, a familiar and thrilling sound. No! he might say, or Car!, in an appropriate moment, the word born into his vocabulary because of its meaning, but once his mouth has mastered the mechanics of it he is often likely to use it anywhere, anytime, broaden its connotations until it applies to everything. No might mean yes or no or now or I want it. Car means car, or truck, or horse, or Father, or everything-I-feel. He does the same with gestures. Handing you a plastic bag from the trash might mean pick me up. Gradually, as words have lost their newness and become less like toys in his mouth, he has narrowed them down again to within range of their original uses. Ellie and I cling to the real meaning of the words, and affirm them as much as possible: right! we might say, that's a car, or the stove is very hot, you're right!, and in this way we mean to instruct him, convince him that yes, words have meaning, strings of meaning can be made and followed over time, certain linear relationships are suggested, life can be controlled, a larger meaning can direct it. Yes. We do not question this.
Copyright © 2002 by Vince Passaro