|Excerpts > Summer 2004|
New York, 1958
He will ask her tonight. She knows this. Not only because the sky is full of auguries—a full-blown blossom on the spindly Magnolia at the corner of Grove and Bleeker, a shooting star last night over Washington Square—but because she knows him, his rhythms, his way of ordering and bunching things. He will disguise it with an ironic look and a negative construction: Not that this is particularly sudden, or I don’t suppose you’d have any interest in…and then it will be there, and done, and the future laid out before them.
Everything is happening as she planned—no, as she willed. (I want it all!) Even the date, May 8, 1958, is an elegant symmetry, and in the European form would be a palindrome: 8-5-58. Also the anniversary of V-E day, as he has pointed out. (The thirteenth anniversary, true; you can carry these games too far. On the other hand, thirteen is the sum of five and eight). He will meet her in front of Zabar’s and they’ll have supper with Mrs. Puig, even though that will rush them (why should they go to his mother’s before a show if it’s not a statement of intent?). The show is called “Nickels in May,” which must be a musical though she hasn’t heard of it. She can see the stage, bare boards full of young people in primary colors and bobby socks, a full-blooded, full-throated American belting out. Yes, and a counter-chorus of young Negroes with great bubbles of black hair, like Kuli Moyala from his lab at Columbia, who wears bangles above the elbow and batik robes of sass-reds and blood-browns. All the Negroes Simone has met till now have their hair ironed into waves or page-boys, but Kuli wears a narrow band of beaded stuff around a sprouting of charred oak, so defiantly beautiful that Simone feels like a Miss Milquetoast in her presence.
She has actually eaten milk toast. She didn’t believe it existed, but Mrs. Puig—she must learn to call her Hester now, or even Mom?— served it on a Sunday night, a bowl of warm milk with a slice of buttered white toast drowning in it. An amazing thing. Simone had thought a dozen years in England showed her all there was for mush and bland.
That she hasn’t heard of the show is not surprising. Marvin knows about off-Broadway things, quirky Village things, loft-shoestring productions. He knows the starving avant-garde. She nips back through the Square, sweating a little because she needs all six of these books this weekend, and they’re heavy. The Kitto alone—Form and Meaning in Drama—weighs two pounds in its library binding. Her brain, too, is a little top-heavy with Aeschylus, all those bird-portents and the ravings of Cassandra. She turns into Eighth Street, past Julia’s Gems, not pausing and not turning her head because if the ring is still there (the slender circle with the single bend, like a golden scribble; the single black pearl at its zenith) she doesn’t want to know. And if it isn’t there, what, all the same, would it prove for certain?
She hurries down the half-flight to the Grove Street basement and lets herself in. She kicks off her loafers and peddle pushers and stands in her panties pouring a handful of seed in the cage—shaped like a wicker wedding cake—where a Javanese Temple bird called Ginsberg scolds from side to side. The advantage of this one room, a half-story underground, is that if you adjust the blinds at an upward angle nobody can see in. The disadvantage, apart from ninety dollars a month, is that car exhaust and passing feet and the slightest breeze sift in the airborne detritus of New York. The guy she sublet from said, “It’s a fact you get more air below street level than higher up.” How can you buy such a line? Nevertheless she still believes it, and that the air in question contains body ash, glass, concrete, alcohol, carbon dioxide, sweat-impregnated lint and pulverized dog doo. Simone sweeps twice a day. Everything she owns is overlaid with a layer of wasteland.
Not her clothes. She has tacked a sheet over the skimpy burlap curtain at the closet. She takes the sheet down when she entertains. Now she slings it over her shoulder to dig into the shallow cavity and spread out the Merry Widow bra, a pair of pale beige stockings, the new drop-waisted linen on which she spent the weekend and over twelve dollars if you count the zipper. Never mind.
She showers in the grubby cubicle, leans into the Merry Widow (another extravagance, but also a necessity, like armor), and reaches back to hook all thirty five miniature fish hooks from wingblade to base of spine. This is a heady time she knows to be heady at the time--the first time in her life she has had cleavage, for instance, thanks to the Merry Widow. Putting it on lets you know what it feels like to have your hands tied behind you while being hoisted onto a beam. But when the hooks are done, when she bends and shakes, settles her breasts into the underwires and straightens up, she has a handspan of waist and lifted globes between which you could pinch a finger. Gow, they call it in the paperbacks. It’s hard to breathe.
The dress is pale bone Irish Moygashel, the real thing, bought from Art-Max discount fabrics on 38th. She has cut the top princess line and the skirt in six gores flaring from just the height of her hip joints, all the seams top-stitched in gunmetal grey. She has also laid out for mid-heel linen pumps, which will probably not survive six blocks of New York streets, but she can’t wear her stilettos with Marvin; he’s too short. She back-combs her hair (not much; it’s so thick it takes on volume at once) and brushes the top layer smooth.
When she looks at herself, it’ll do. It’s good. Hair bouffant, eyes clear, stance solid on her own two feet. He likes forceful women; he praises her for poise. She looks to make sure she has a dime for the subway, slings a cardigan over her arm and drives home the key.
In just this hour the air has changed color. Twi-light, a word she loves, from the Old English two-light; double light. It is day and night at once; the opposites meet, and New York energy rises in the clash of them. Stone takes on a steel sheen, mica in the concrete gives off sparks. Everyone is charging away from work or off to play. Everyone’s a Crusader. She not least, clattering down the subway stairs, breathing shallow against the metal stays.
She loves the city, the urgency, the challenge. But (a question of double light?) she does not see herself and Marvin living in the city. On the contrary, New Hampshire or Vermont. A small college town and a small cottage-y sort of house, a garden although to tell the truth neither of them is a gardener. She sees them in the kitchen rather, he with a dish towel in hand, holding forth on his latest experiments in Skinnerism while toddlers and a dog dawdle on the floor in the twilight. This makes her laugh.
She spots him a block away, sucking on a cigarette under the Z in Zabar’s. Marvin Carlo Puig runs everywhere, his compact body a fist of energy. But when—as often happens because he concentrates as hard as he runs—she spots him first, what comes off him is a melancholy of that same intensity. Unaware he is being watched, Marvin sinks into himself, to some place that draws you like a labyrinth. Some people find Marvin remote—Kuli Moyala calls him iceman—but Simone understands his secret grief, and when the dark mood takes him she wants to thread into his sorrow, track to the core of it, find the string to pull him out.
When Marvin was seventeen, his father—having first made sure that Marvin would arrive at his apartment at a given hour—had steadied a pistol at his palate and blown off the back of his head, precisely in the white-carpeted vestibule. For Marvin this memory, the cruelty of it, is an obsession; and for Simone absorbing it has become a way of life. They don’t talk about her father. Marvin accepts that she has scarcely any memory of that formal man, and is as content to focus on his loss as she is to let him. It is what is meant by complementary in a couple; the gift of his grief completes her, as if the repetition of the awful moment were a mantra: don’t go away, don’t go away.
Now, though, Marvin merely grinds the butt under his heel. “Jesus. Gorgeous,” he very satisfactorily says. “It’s not Sardi’s, you know.” But he himself, a dapper dresser, is in a blazer and a slice of oxblood tie. He has muscular dark hair, broad brow, thick neck and shoulders, a fighter’s body though he’s a philosopher-scholar in psychology. Marvin’s patrilineage represents a marital journey northward, from a Spanish great-great-grandfather who married a Basque, all the way up Europe, across the Atlantic to New England and to Marvin, who is set to carry on this tradition (via Simone) in the direction of ethnic pallor. The Mediterranean strain survives in him: the name, the darkness, the fierce pride. He might as well be Greek, Simone thinks. Hellenic. His power thrills her, a man with authority enough to want a strong woman. A runner’s thighs, and that interior dark space no one can invade.
“M’sieur le Puig,” she says and pecks him at the temple. He smells of citrus and nicotine. “How come we’re meeting here?”
“I thought we’d get some decent coffee and a stinky cheese. I can’t stand that stuff she lays out. Maybe we could take some garlic and toss it in the soup.”
“It would hurt her feelings.”
“How would anybody know?”
His contempt for his mother causes her a flicker of unease, although she shares it, or because she shares it. She forms her face into a conspiratorial smile. They pick a loaf of rye, a brie, a bottle of Bordeaux. They will shop this way in the country, Simone foresees, always together, making a celebration of sustenance, making an aesthetic out of need.
Mrs. Puig has the glamorous address of 100 Riverside Drive, though her apartment is on the wrong, no-river-view, side, so they cross Eighty-fifth for a minute to look at the Hudson in twilight, the shining sludge of it and the bone-bright rise of the Palisades across. He lights another cigarette and gives her one. There’s a little chill, and she wills him to put his arm around her, but Marvin is not susceptible to telepathy. In the bald mud at their feet a brown bird is pulling on a worm. Like a worm in a cartoon, the fat elastic stretches and snaps back, and the bird pulls again until the worm slips free. The clawed feet wheel back and clutch for purchase. A cartoon, but also the stuff of bird-signs, grist for an oracle.
She raises her eyes beyond the bird to the slow water, and she says, without any premonition that she will say this, “We lived on the river in Liege.”
Her own voice surprises her, as if she were a ventriloquist of herself. She remembers a balustrade of concrete or stone, the band of slow water narrower than the Hudson, the line of buildings—houses?—on the bank beyond.
Marvin replies, “We’ll travel as soon as we have money. We’ll go all over Europe. We’ll go back there.”
She says nothing. On the ground in front of them the bird has won this time; another time the worm, another time the mud. She would like to say: How could I regret the war? How would I have got here otherwise? How would I ever have met you? She would like to say: O my America! my new-found-land.
Instead of which she cartwheels her cardigan over her shoulders and recites in the direction of the river: “‘The sea is there, and who shall drain its yield? It breeds / precious as silver, ever of itself renewed, / The purple ooze wherein our garments shall be dipped.’”
Marvin laughs. “You’re not planning a swim, I hope?”
“It’s Clytaemnestra. She just means that purple dye comes from sea plants—anemones or something. But of course she’s also planning to stab him in his robes.”
“Ah, subtext,” Marvin says with a leer, and then, now, wheels her around with an arm on her shoulder. Marvin approves of her doing the Greeks, because those old dramas concerned themselves with action, not with mentalism like so much modern stuff. By the same token, he’s unwilling to deal in anomaly and paradox. It’s their only serious quarrel.
“‘Lord of the ways, my ruin!’” she cries. “‘You have undone me once again, and utterly,’” and they wave to the doorman and step into the bronze Deco cage of the elevator.
Mrs. Puig opens the door at once. “Marvin-Simone?” She peers and beckons. She is a tiny woman, fragile-seeming but aggressively so, like an antique windup toy, all grind and clatter. Sometimes she seems not to see well or hear well, though at other times she’s razor-sharp. She’s only fifty-five. A smell of poached fish wafts from behind her—“Come, come”—and she manages to convey that they are wasting heat by standing in the hall, although God knows it’s too hot inside. She closes the door and offers each of them a paper cheek.
Vast, by New York standards and by Simone’s, apartment 11E opens off both sides of one long hall: kitchen, dining, living, bedrooms; ending in a generous suite with a dressing alcove. It’s a solid turn-of-the-century building, but this apartment is done in a style it would be impossible to understand if you didn’t know that Marvin’s father was a Bashaus architect. He was at one time one of the few Americans acknowledged in the European circle, though his reputation declined somewhat between the time he left his family in ’38 and his suicide in ’49.
His widow now houses here a collection of memorial chrome and canvas. The table is a concrete slab on pillars. The rugs are hard and plain. The only comfortable chair in the living room is a bent-pipe chaise you can’t get up out of in a Merry Widow bra. Form follows function Simone admires in a theoretical way, but it strikes her as a dubious goal unless a chair serves the function of comfortable to sit on.
The friendliest piece of furniture is the blondwood cabinet housing the TV set that Mr. Puig did not live to see. Crowded on top of it—as if Mrs. Puig dares to clutter only this one space—are a hodge-podge of family photographs in dime store frames, several of Marvin as a boy, in sailor suit, cowboy hat, graduation gown. Simone wonders if there ever were such a picture of herself. Perhaps with her mother or her father, perhaps on the mantelpiece in Liege?
The only thing in the apartment that could be called décor is a photomontage of a woman’s head, teal and sand and silver-gray. The images are severed and recombined, a movie still of a French film actress as Joan of Arc, overlaid with a fragment of an African mask, crowned with knives and spoons half-wrapped in foil. The actress’ single eye is closed in sleep or grief or ecstasy. The eye of the mask is open in that blind openness of stone, the mouth askew in either a grimace or serenity. One teaspoon balances on the half-moon of an ear, a knife ascending from the forehead, the neck emerging from what might be a shawl or a desert dune. The montage is called “Indische Tänzirin,” Indian Dancer, though there’s no dancing in it, and nothing Indian. The parts don’t fit together in any way that makes sense. And yet this cobbled-together thing is breathtakingly itself. Its haphazardness, its brokenness, makes it whole. The elements go together for no other reason than that they inhabit the same physical space. Is that what we are? A role behind a mask, slapped together in the colors of flesh and sky? Simone touches the lower right corner with the initials “H.H.” and the date “1930,” which was the date of her birth.
“It’s nearly ready,” says Mrs. Puig, hovering at the table, brushing at the concrete. “I know you have to go, but these potatoes will not get done.” Anxious, anxiety-producing as a way of life, she wrings her hands over the perfidy of the potatoes, and Simone turns, feeling herself expand with amusement and good will and competence.
“Let me speak to them,” she says. “They probably don’t understand the assignment.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Marvin says. We don’t have to be there till nine.”
That’s odd. What sort of show doesn’t start till nine? She follows Mrs. Puig to the kitchen while Marvin goes to check what mail has come here for him.
The kitchen is chrome and some shiny white composition stuff, a clinic for the evisceration of pits and bones. Simone dons an apron, and the two of them fall easily into poking, draining, decanting together, even though Mrs. Puig follows Simone’s least movement with a wipe-up cloth.
“How have you been…Mrs. Puig?”
“I can’t complain.” This belied by a flinch of the face, a tucked chin. Subtext. “I’m not altogether sure I’m eating right.”
“You should have a big Porterhouse and a double ice cream sundae now and again.”
Mrs. Puig does not get teasing. ‘No, no, no. It wouldn’t suit me. I’m not like you youngsters. Marvin and his cast-iron constitution…!” She dishes up the fish—skate, by the look of it, snowy meat on a fan of cartilage. And, as rarely but occasionally happens, she launches into speech, a little whirring and clanking of the mechanism behind the wind-up voice. “You know, people have to work at it to find out what suits them. Try out this and that. For years I followed Gaylord Hauser’s regime, and it suited me very well, but my husband, now, it didn’t suit him at all. Some people are not meant to be vegetarians. He wasted on it. He lost muscle.”
“It’s a long time ago,” Simone says gently, who has heard this before.
“A long time ago,” she agrees at once. Still, clearly not long enough. Mrs. Puig pats the edges of the serving dish with the hot pads, quieting the fish. She does not look at Simone and even turns her back, but she directs a rolling of her spine backward. She’s confiding in me, Simone recognizes. Marvin calls it a momologue.
“My husband was not a large man, but he had large needs. He liked to work with the heaviest materials—steel, concrete. Not that he lifted those himself, but he had to motivate his men. He used to say it was like being a football coach, you didn’t have to tackle anybody, but you had to convince dumb guys to do it for you.” Simone laughs, although this has been said without humor, perhaps with reverence. Mrs. Puig shoves at the fish with the spatula. “My husband’s voice could carry clear across the site. Although, it was the disappointment of his life he hardly ever got the big jobs, not the really big ones. He’d lose the commission just by a hair’s breadth, time after time.
“And then the Department of Transportation,” she concludes. She must know Simone already knows all this, because she makes no move to explain how it was a new government building in Albany where Mr. Puig had run afoul of the building inspectors, been judged liable for a million dollar overrun and begun his professional slide. “That’s why I had to leave the house in Montauk, I couldn’t keep it up after he passed away.”
“Perhaps it’s just as well. You have more distractions in the city.”
“One thing my husband and I had in common,” Mrs. Puig says. “We both wanted things to be perfect! But what was perfect for him was not always the same for me.” And Simone has a sudden insight into that marriage, the swarthy bender of pipes and caster of concrete, arms outflung—“I want things to be perfect!”—locked in with this little metal-spatter of a woman who is now tearing parsley heads into equal bits and arranging them on each half-moon of potato.
“I was not meant to have these things happen to me,” says Mrs. Puig. (Hester. Mom.) “I was meant to have a quiet life.”
“I’m sorry,” Simone says.
“Oh, well. My mother used to say, the memory’s all very well, but where would we be without our forgettery?”
Simone sees the number of poached fish in the years ahead, one after another on platters, as if on a conveyor belt. With brief dismay she sees the hours spent in this kitchen, twisting ice cubes out of a metal tray and filling the tray again (a quintessentially American task), listening to the same complaints, decanting apologetically a gift cheese so ripe that Mrs. Puig’s nostrils flare. She shakes this portent from her head. “You’re too much alone,” she says.
“Oh, no, that isn’t it. I have my lectures and my interests. Though I wish my sister was alive. Do you know what happened to my sister?”
Simone puts on a quizzical face. She does know, but to know from Marvin might transgress some unknown rule. You can never be sure when you’re going to make Mrs. Puig draw damaged breath.
“They gave her the wrong medicine, the exactly wrong, the opposite. And she heard one doctor accuse the other one of it, and she died with her fist in the air, cursing them both!" The little woman demonstrates, surprising sinew in her upraised forearm. “She was twenty-four years old, her whole life ahead of her!”
“I’m so sorry,” Simone says.
“Fist in the air!”
She is sorry. Also a little exasperated by this melodrama, out of tone with the expectation of the evening. She remembers what Marvin told her once: in purely evolutionary terms, the only function of memory is prediction. Her impulse was to protest this—what about identity, history?—but she can see that if you don’t have any future to speak of, too much past just drags you down. There is so little substance in this woman’s life that the few great events have telescoped into all-there-is. Mrs. P. squares a tea towel on the tiles. Such a mousy way of being in the world. No sense of the Order of Things except in stacking and straightening. Simone makes a quick, implicit vow never to let her vision narrow. The sea is there! And who shall drain its yield!
“Well,” sighs Mrs. Puig. “Well, that’s all water over the dam.”
“It seems to me,” Simone says, “the gods of Olympus are your perfect example of intermittent reinforcement.”
“Well, you never know if Athena or Venus or whoever is on your side.”
They are showing off for Marvin’s mother, scintillating and arch. There’s no harm in it. It’s a form of making love. They can send little messages of appreciation, wit, exploring in this public way how their minds entwine, complement, diverge. On their white plates sit the white fish and the white potatoes and mayonnaise and a mound of oozing pickled beets. The contrast is startling, the root more visceral-seeming than the fish.
“You sacrifice your goat and get the seer to read the entrails, and you never know exactly why the god or goddess gives you the winds or the strength in your arm, or whether the same thing will get you the same result next time.”
Chewing, chin on hand, he regards her appreciatively. Foreplay is the part of lovemaking at which she’s best, so far. It’s the banter that arouses her, and the hunger in his gaze. According to Introduction to Psychoanalysis she is sexually immature, so when they are in the act, she works at willing her orgasm backwards into her vagina, which would be a tribute to him (Marvin, not Freud), but which usually only makes her anxious and stops her coming altogether. Then she fakes, which makes her feel corrupt, which makes her wary of the whole transaction. At the moment she is wary of the beets, their proximity to new linen. She edges around them with her fork and picks at the fish.
“I think you’re onto something,” Marvin says. “So naturally they have to keep carving up the goats.”
Mrs. Puig wears a tentative, attentive smile, as if she understands maternal awe may be required. “Has Marvin told you about intermittent reinforcement, Mrs. Puig?”
“It’s training the rats, isn’t it?”
“Or mice or dogs. If you reward them every time for doing something, that isn’t as effective as if you just reward now and then. It’s an unexpected finding. The frustration leads to doubled effort.”
“The only problem with your analogy,” Marvin says, “is the seer.”
“Yes, I knew you’d say that. The seer represents some kind of magical control you sensible scientists won’t have anything to do with.”
“Sense-ible being the scientific point.”
“The scientist as god, the artist as oracle.”
It’s not only showing off. They are also practicing, the way children practice playing house. They are trying out dinner conversation against the time they will entertain colleagues at their own table. Simone leans far over her plate and pokes two small whole beets in her mouth. Thin red tang floods her jaw. She remembers with a jolt that Marvin’s father shot himself on a white carpet. It comes to her—a preposterous notion—that Mrs. Puig has chosen this color scheme on purpose. She chews without straightening and, still bending over her plate, brings her napkin to her mouth. There’s a small flower of brilliant vinegar on the napkin, but her dress is safe.
“There’s another problem,” Simone admits. “The Gods are always quarreling among themselves. It’s as if you were teaching the rat to ring a bell for food, and every time it rang the bell your lab assistant was giving it a shock.”
“We don’t shock them,” Marvin says severely. “We use positive reinforcement only.”
“Marvin,” Mrs. Puig asks suddenly, “do you have any use for those old Hardy Boys?”
Marvin and Simone exchange a rueful glance. Simone says lightly, “You can’t be much of a behaviorist if you can’t train your mother.”
“I don’t get the connection,” Marvin says.
“Between Hardy Boys and rats. Or bells? Or shocks?”
“I was only saying.”
“I was only wondering what concatenation you had in mind.” Marvin describes a mock-professorial spiral in the air. “The conversational transition? A logical bridge? Some sop to sequence.”
“Only I was going through some boxes, and I was thinking I might give them to the Goodwill.”
“What’s the matter with you? Those books are practically antiques. Besides.” Here he lifts a grin to Simone that takes her breath away, a look as clear and meaningful as the passing of an eclipse, “What if I have a boy of my own? You wouldn’t want to deprive him, would you?”
Restlessness and joy war in her, a desire to be out of here. To be clattering along a Village street, belting out rhythms, Nickels in May! and then melting into the sweetsome future. So much of life is patience, tight little reins on the imperfect moment, a compromise with the clear sweep of what’s to come.
“Have you been mucking around in my room again?” Marvin asks.
“I try to keep it clean.”
“Just leave it, can’t you? I’ll clear it out when I have a place of my own.”
A place of their own, a cottage with a peaked roof. (She sees it as thatch, but she knows that’s nonsense, censors the roof, and only glances underneath to see his old tennis rackets, dumbbells, Hardy Boys in storage under the beams. What would she put there of her own, if any souvenir of her childhood had survived? All that comes to mind is the string bag her mother used to take to market before the war, a limp nothing-in-itself, but which would magically fill with paper packets, marzipan, beets and turnips with their tops still burgeoning.)
Mrs. Puig has taken on her self-belittling air, her don’t-mind-me. She has a mouthful of fish, and meticulously sets herself to chewing it. When she’s done, she says in a tight voice, “You say so, but it’s me that has to live with all this memorabilia. That coin collection fell all over the closet floor last week.”
“What are you talking about?”
“My Indian heads?” says Marvin.
“You know what I think? I think there must be rats in the space between the walls.”
“There are no rats. It’s vibrations from the pipes.”
“You say. But Mrs. Delphine has a flea infestation.”
“Non sequitur, Mother.” Marvin’s jaw has hardened. “What did you do with my coins?”
“She had to get the fumigation people in. They stopped up all her doors and she had to wash every smidgeon of kitchenware.”
“Mrs. Delphine has fleas because of that Pan-Asian yapper. What did you do with my coins?”
“It’s just a little dog,” Mrs. Puig appeals defensively to Simone. “A Lhasa. Called Paramour.”
Simone says, “Maybe Paramour got loose in the walls.”
You can feel how unwanted a joke is, how wrong it sits in the souring atmosphere. There must be a scientific explanation for this. People thought radio waves were magic before they could explain them in mathematical terms; some thought the radio itself was a voodoo-box. Some day they will find that anger waves, danger waves, dance in the air in atomic particles called glupons or gideads. You have sensors in the follicles of your facial hair to read them; they make the air around your eyes feel hot.
“How long do we have to allow to get to the Village?” Simone asks quickly.
“In not in the Village, it’s at Down in the Depths, on Madison.”
“Oh!” Simone laughs at herself. “I thought it was a musical!”
“Mike Nichols and Elaine May, the new social satire. They’re terrific,” he says irritably. “I thought you’d’ve heard of them.”
“I count on you to keep me au courant,” Simone says lightly, placatingly. But she’s disappointed. She’d been hoping for something rousing and romantic. Social satire. A bit of a downer. But that doesn’t matter. Marvin has the boiled look of somebody stifling anger. What matters is to ignore it in a convincing way. The trick is to be intent on passing an ashtray, or handing around the cheese. As in diplomacy, you focus on procedure, protocol.
“I thought it was ‘Nickels in May!’” she says, making a joke of herself. “Would you like me to get the coffee, Mrs. Puig?”
But it doesn’t work. Mrs. Puig is rocking her fishknife on the tablecloth. Marvin still fixes his mother in his sights. “What did you do with the Flying Eagle?”
“I don’t know. It took me half the afternoon to stick them back in those cardboard things.”
The muscles go rigid in his maxilla, and (like radio waves, like acupuncture, inexplicably transferred through the medium of blood or air) the spasm takes up its place in Simone’s diaphragm.
“You did what?”
“You haven’t looked at those coins for years.”
“What are those cardboard things?”
Mrs. Puig pinches her mouth.
“What about: Official Whitmac Coin Folders?”
“If you say.” She drops her eyes, smooths the tablecloth over the concrete slab.
“No, I’m serious. Does the term numismatic ring a bell? Do you remember ever hearing about the 1914 LincolnD?”
One side of his mouth pulls awry. Simone would like to touch it, to realign the pads of flesh. It hurts to see him wax sarcastic—because why, really, should his mother care about his coin collection?—though she knows he is operating on some hurt just out of sight.
“Go on, give it shot. When was the last silver dollar minted? What was on the peace dollar of 1921?”
“It was your hobby, dear. I never claimed it was mine.”
“Right. But that’s not the point, is it? The point is that my father gave me those coins.”
Mrs. Puig flinches and a silence falls. Marvin has a vindicated look from which Simone averts her eyes.
“Maybe you’d like to give the coin collection to Goodwill, too. Oh, I get it! Is that what you did with his old blueprints, and the drawings?”
“Throw out the Hardy boys, throw out the drafting tools. “You should have seen,” he turns to Simone. “The T-square, the slide rule, compasses, French curve—anything a boy might have kept to hang onto his dead father.”
Marvin has often described how he used to stare out the window down eighty-fifth—from which direction it’s unlikely his father would have come, but that was the only window he could see from—and make magical bargains with God or Captain Marvel. When he tells her about that, she feels a rush of love to the soles of her feet. Yet now the silence fills up in a self-important way.
“This house,” Mrs. Puig says—a strangled voice—“this house is a…monument to your father.” Marvin says nothing. “I gave the blueprints to the Architectural Institute,” she falters.
“Right.” He wheels back to Simone, so fiercely that her lungs clench. “Do you get a picture of what it was like growing up with this? The arch nay-sayer of New York, the Queen of Mean—not in the sense of cruel, which would at least have some energy about it—I mean squeezing the life out of anything that gave you pleasure. Never allowed to come in contact with a germ or a lick of sugar or God-forbid a dog.”
He should stop now, Simone thinks. Intense people, brilliant people often put themselves in the wrong by the sheer force of their personalities. She says, “Honey, I’m sure your Mom meant no harm.”
“Do you know I was the only kid in the first grade who came to school in a tie? Day after desperate day trying to squash it in my pocket between the sidewalk and the hall, begging her to understand, nobody wears a tie, nobody wears a tie!”
The mechanism of Mrs. Puig’s torso is slowing down. A cube of potato fails to reach her mouth, retraces its staccato rhythm to the plate. Simone finds this reaction exasperating. Marvin always goes on and on. It’s a performance, it’s engendered out of fluency, it doesn’t warrant this martyred breakdown. Buck up! Simone wants to tell her. Fight back! He’ll admire you for it! Yet she herself is experiencing tremolos in her thighs.
Mrs. Puig says in a small voice, “Your father wanted you to wear a tie.”
“And then I’d come home, she’d be labeling leftovers, she’d be clipping coupons, she’d be combing the fringe on the rug—until Dad threw the damn rugs out altogether. And then got out himself; you can make a wild stab at why.”
Marvin has worked himself up till his voice is throttled. Simone thinks: maybe she threw out the drawings because he threw out the rugs. Then is struck with shame at her disloyalty. Mrs. Puig sits so still, eyes locked on the garbage on her plate, that she has begun to vibrate with the effort.
Marvin leans to Simone. “It’s very interesting, really, what goes into the formation of such pettiness. It’d make a good research project: round up a hundred and fifty women who spend their days scratching at the gunk around their faucets. Work backwards to figure out what pattern of reinforcement made their minds so goddam fucking small.”
He scrapes his chair back, a metal gouging sound on the parquet, and wads his napkin down, striding off toward his old room. Simone reaches out a hand to keep the napkin from unfurling into the beets. She can distinguish the place in her stomach where the chewed fish sits, and the vinegar. Mrs. Puig holds her back stiff against the canvas sling, training her gaze brightly on her empty plate, and Simone notices the arbitrary grace of the clean-picked bones; a translucent fan, beet juice coagulating in the gelatin.
“Mrs. Puig,” she says. “You mustn’t mind. He doesn’t mean it, he’s under pressure, trying to teach two labs and carry on his own research. He just sounds off sometimes. He does the same thing to me.”
“Oh, no.” Mrs. Puig bends her head this way and that. She wipes her mouth and looks up with her withered smile. “You see,” she says. “for my son you have to be somebody. And for him you are somebody. And I’m not.”
Mrs. Puig has never astonished her before. Who would have guessed the little woman could take her own measure? Simone reaches forward and covers the sinewy hand. “Really…Hester. He’s just overworked and overtired.”
But she sits amazed—at the insight, the unsuspected self-knowledge. And the implicit complement. I am somebody.
The glamour of Marvin’s social circle comes into her head: the bohemians who aren’t married but have children, the babyfaced boy working his way up the ladder at NBC, the Party member who makes no bones about it. Kuli Moyala from Sierra Leone, dark as Marmite, who moves like Cassandra arrogant among the Greeks. Joyce Glassman, who seemed friendly and modest—but turned out to be Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend. Somebody, then.
“Marvin’s just like his father,” says Mrs. Puig into her plate.
Simone feels tender toward this stunted person who will be her mother-in-law. She leaves her hand for the moment over the age-spotted, fragile hand, the bones and sinews prominent under her own smooth palm. She even dares a gentle stroke, which Mrs. Puig allows. Simone’s eyes fall on her own ring finger, where she projects as clear as day the golden circle and its black—gray, really—precious pearl.
It will be all right with Marvin. Satire is the thing to mend his mood. Nichols and May!—what foolishness. They will laugh about it later. And about the essentials she is right. Clairvoyant, even. He will ask her tonight. He will be drained of anger, penitent. He will cling to her.
I want everything to be perfect! She is washed over with well-being. And she wonders how from such unpromising beginnings she herself has arrived at this richly blessed place, a woman with cleavage, and a thesis topic, and the love of a complicated man.