They were to meet at the Empire Hotel lounge on West 63rd Street and Broadway, across from Lincoln Center. She told Benton she would be wearing a blue woolen hat shaped like a ball and a lighter blue top coat. “They have a great wine list,” she said. Then, through a small nervous laugh: “I’ll be early, and get us a table away from the piano.” A pause, and then the laugh again. “Believe me, it’s good to be away from the piano.” She sounded good over the telephone. A soft rich alto voice, full grown. She was now twenty-two. Benton was fifty-one. A half-sister he had never had a conversation with in his life. Kate. Katie.
Her letter, last month, said that she was living in New York now, and had made the adult decision to get in touch with him. She had included an address and phone number. He sent her a postcard: Welcome to the big city. I don’t get into town much, but we should get together. He hoped she would leave it at that. But she had called him. Their sister, Alice, had given her the number. “I was kind of worried that you wouldn’t pick up.”
“Don’t be silly,” he told her. He knew Alice would’ve given the number with the air of someone expecting nothing less from him.
That was Alice.
He took the train into the city and spent the night and most of the day in the apartment of a friend on East 86thStreet. The friend had left for work early in the morning. Benton, a high-school teacher, occupied himself with grading papers and reading The Great Gatsby,yet again, to teach. At four o’clock he went out into the rainy street to look for a cab. The rain was cold. There was surprisingly little traffic. He began to walk, hurrying toward Park Avenue. An easterly wind started up. His umbrella shielded only his head, and by the time a cab stopped for him, his front was soaked.
“West Sixty-Third,” he said, shivering. “And Broadway.” The thought occurred to him that this was life in the world: getting yourself drenched even with an umbrella. He had always been inclined to gloomy reflections. Friends remarked on it. With several of them he had formed a casual club that never met, called The Doom Brothers Club.
He sat in the cab and tried to shake the icy rainwater from his coat. The cab was not moving. Horns blew. The rain rushed from the ragged sky, and the windshield wipers made a nerve-racking screech every time they swept across.
He used the newspaper he’d been carrying to absorb some of the water. He was shivering. The cabbie, without being asked, turned the heat up. Benton looked at the back of his head. Dark hair, dark, deeply lined neck. A beetle-browed round little man of fifty or sixty. “I’m soaked.”
The cabbie was silent, shoulders hunched at the wheel. You could hear a Middle Eastern voice singing on the radio, though it was turned so low you wouldn’t be able to distinguish words even if you knew the language. He looked out at the people hurrying along in the windswept rainy street, and murmured the name, “Katie.” She had called herself Katie. “Hi, this is Katie,” she’d said over the telephone. “Thank you for answering.”
He had seen her only once, when she was three years old, in Memphis. He had traveled there alone expressly to meet his father’s new wife and child. His father got a room for him at the Peabody Hotel and they met down in the big lobby that afternoon, shortly after Benton arrived from the airport.
“How’s your sister and brother-in-law, there, Tommy,” the old man said.
“Oh, they seem fine.”
“Haven’t heard a thing from her yet, you know.”
The divorce was done, and though their mother had met someone else—a real-estate man named Eddie—and seemed happy, this was a sundered family, and Alice wanted nothing to do with the old man or his new wife. Alice and her husband were devout Catholics, and in fact this devoutness was a matter Benton himself had been at pains to overlook: Alice had problems with Benton, too. She wanted him to repent. She believed it would bring him true happiness. He had always been fortunate enough to see happiness as one of the forms of emotional weather. It would always change. He had learned this without words when he was very small and knew that something about him was different. His sister was too simple for the world itself, he had told her once, and she answered, “Unless ye be like little children, ye shall not enter.” She actually used the word ye. She actually meant that he would not enter.
Nothing for it.
And that afternoon in Memphis, sitting in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel, seeing the cute little girl with soft blue eyes and black, black hair, he felt his own nearness to this member of the broken family as a shock. He could not quite take in her existence. He discovered an odd reluctance to look at her. The greatest likelihood was that there would never be any close relationship between them.
His father’s young wife appeared tired and worried. When she wasn’t dealing with the baby, she kept wringing her hands in her lap.
Here he was, doing his own kind of judging.
They sat around a low table, and aside from a gentle awkwardness nothing seemed particularly out of order.
His father said, “You think she looks a little like her older sister?”
“Can’t see it.”
“Alice remembers growing up in my house like it was paradise. And she resents that I broke it up.”
Benton said nothing.
As five o’clock neared, the old man decided they should stay and watch the famous Peabody Ducks make their anticlimactic waddle along the red carpet from the fountain to the elevator that would take them up to their penthouse home. They all waited and had more drinks while the crowd gathered. The young wife, Della, wanted to know how he liked teaching, what sort of students he had. She had done some elementary-school teaching, she told him, but then that was different. “High school must be so much more demanding.”
“Well,” he told her, “these days none of them read, and neither do their parents.”
“Not like us,” said the old man. He had spent his working life as a contractor, building houses. He read history.
“You always had something to read.”
“I wasn’t being sarcastic.”
“I read to him sometimes, now,” Della said. “His eyes hurt him.”
“Have you had them examined?” Benton asked him.
“Dry eyes,” said the old man. “But you like reading to me, don’t you, Della.”
“Sure.” She was mostly concerned with the little girl, now. Katie wanted to get into the fountain with the ducks.
The old man had already had something to drink earlier, and while they waited for the ducks he had three whiskeys on ice. He always drank more than you thought he should, and seldom showed any effects from it. Benton looked at the high ceiling, and at the gathering crowd. Finally the fanfare played, and then the march, and the famous ducks were prodded along into the elevator going up. The doors closed. Much of the crowd dispersed. And the three-year-old girl pulled down into herself, wanting the birds to come back. It was a long afternoon and evening, Della trying to manage a cranky child and an increasingly gregarious husband. Benton, watching her, thought of fine crystal: the kind that broke when sound waves got too high. By the time they walked across the street to Automatic Slim’s for dinner, the old man had made friends with several of the barmaids and waiters. At the restaurant, nobody had much appetite. The old man ordered a bottle of Sancerre, and drank most of it alone.
“We don’t go out much,” Della said, wrestling with the girl.
“Must be hard to find the time.”
“We stay home and enjoy this one, mostly.” She kissed the top of the child’s head.
“You don’t need a TV with a kid this age,” said the old man. “All the entertainment you need. It’s a comedy show just watching them move around. Used to get the same kick watching you and Alice.”
The child climbed into her mother’s lap, and whined low about something.
“Past Katie’s bedtime,” the old man said. He got up and made his unsteady way to the restroom.
“He doesn’t usually drink this much,” said Della. “I think he wants to celebrate your being here.”
“I’ve never seen him drunk, but I’ve seen him drink more than this. I wouldn’t worry.” He smiled at her.
“Oh.” She looked down. “I wasn’t—I didn’t mean to say anything.”
“It’s fine,” Benton told her.
She gave him a strange, evaluative look.
“What is it?” he asked her.
“Do you see your coming here as a peace trip?”
He realized that his father’s young, anxious wife had also drunk more than was usual for her. “Not necessarily,” he said. “I think we’re okay. I mean we’ve had the usual troubles, I guess. It’s Alice he must be thinking of.”
“He was surprised—but very happy you wanted to come.” She seemed about to cry. She held the child and nuzzled the little fat neck.
The old man strolled back to the table and pulled out his wallet. “We should get.”
“I’ve already paid,” Benton said.
“Well—if you’re sure.”
He watched them get themselves into the car, with Della behind the wheel. They drove off toward Union Avenue, and he waved, without being able to see whether or not they waved back.
In the lobby bar, he met another young man who was looking. They had some drinks together and then went upstairs. The man, Peter, smiled gently when Benton told him about teaching high school. He said he was a med student at the university. Epidemiology.
“Of course,” Benton said.
“Not what you think,” said Peter. “My interest is influenza.”
He left before light, and Benton slept a little more, and took a Xanax when he woke. His father called. “We’ll have breakfast at the Peabody—pretty good buffet up in the Penthouse. We’ll meet you there in half an hour.”
“I’ve got a flight at three-thirty.”
“Plenty of time.”
You could not argue with the old man.
The Peabody Penthouse had five long tables, each one laden with dozens of foods to choose from. The city looked gray out the windows. Pale with what he said was a little hangover, drinking black coffee and a Bloody Mary, the old man asked Benton about girlfriends. The old man would not let it alone.
“Actually, there are several candidates,” Benton answered, not wanting to quarrel over anything, and hoping he sounded casual enough.
Della looked at him with interest. He wondered what his father had said to her. She was not quite three years older than Benton himself.
Finally, after a shallow hour of avoiding the subject of why his son was not apparently interested in some one woman, the old man drove his wife and daughter away, Della making the little girl wave from her child’s seat in back.
He’d kept that image for a time. The little sister’s uplifted hand in the window of the car. The very heart of possibility. And as the years went by he thought of her now and then, imagining her growing into a teenager, growing up in that house with Benton Sr., with his judgments and his temper, and Della, who had seemed so fragile and worried. But he could never see Katie as anything but that little girl. Alice’s children, two little boys and a girl, were not much older than she. How strange to think that the little girl straining to put her hands in the water of the fountain in the lobby of the Peabody was another sister. And grown now.
Alice lived in Brooklyn. Because he brought the children stuffed toys and performed little magic tricks for them—disappearing coins and multiplying veils—he was a favorite uncle. He loved them, and had learned to discount Alice’s load of sorrow at his life, just as she and her husband had brought themselves to the point of being glad to have him in their home.
Many times when he was with them and the children he felt good. It was a little like throwing something back at the darkness all around. As there were pockets of the Middle East that were still locked in the eighth century, so also many places, most places, in his own country were still mired in 1955. He had said this as a joke at their dinner table one night, and she got up and went into the other room, holding a napkin to her face. Her husband, Lew, a kindly little man with white hands and tufts of furry black hair on the backs of his fingers, shook his head and concentrated on his steak. He worked as a salesman of hospital supplies.
“I thought it was funny,” Benton said. “She knows I’m joking with her.”
“She’s been moody,” said Lew. “Means so much to her. We keep praying for you.”
“I’m just fine,” Benton said. “Really. Just fine. Couldn’t be better.”
“Tell her not to worry.”
Their father and Katie’s mother, as far as heknew, were both alive and well in Memphis. He knew from her letter that Katie had finished her degree at Boston University, and had been in New York now for more than a year. He and his father hadn’t spoken in years—not even to argue anymore. Everything between them had been broken for so long. But she was a grown someone, blood kin, and he was curious and nervous, too. Actually quite nervous. This struck him as having unexpectedly to do with his father. He could not explain it to himself otherwise.
He used to meet a man named Clovis at the Empire Hotel lounge, and sometimes Clovis would already have a room. Benton’s life had been spent going from one to another of these kinds of affairs—his own kind of serial monogamy: everything carefully arranged and brokered for safety. He was all right with it. While you did not have a choice about your sexuality, there were many choices about how you lived the life given to you. He liked living alone. He went out when he wanted to, and he kept his private affairs to himself. It had been close to a year now, since the last. The high school at which he taught English was in Clifton, New Jersey. There was a woman in Clifton he saw platonically. They went to movies together, or to dinner, or just out for drinks in the late afternoons after meetings. They seldom spoke about their personal lives.
At the hotel restaurant, he found a band playing loud, while a woman stood on the piano stool wearing a skirt whose hem came only to the top of her thighs. She bent over to slam the keys, exposing her whole backside in black frill-bordered panties. Her playing was fast, loud, highly skilled, and aggressive. Benton understood that it was not really about the playing, but about the standing on the piano bench in that way, wiggling to the boogie-woogie. He stood in the entrance and looked for the ball-shaped blue woolen hat, and there it was, in the far corner, near the windows looking out on 63rd Street. He went to the table and she stood, tall and slender, with a face that replicated her mother’s. He could not convince himself it wasn’t Della.
“Hi,” she said.
There was a moment of deciding whether or not to embrace. “I’m afraid I got soaked,” he said, and she helped him off with his coat. Finally he took the step toward her and she put her arms out.
“Mom told me to look for a tall man with ocean-blue eyes.”
They sat across from each other. “I could just have looked for your mom.”
“People say that.” The piano player’s antic singing was filling the place, so they had to shout to be heard.
“You see why I wanted to sit away from the piano.”
Katie smiled and took off the hat.
“It’s hard to believe you’re here,” he said.
“I have a vague memory of you, you know. Those Peabody Ducks.”
“You wanted to get right in that water with them.”
The waiter came. He had a faintly sour expression—someone just awakened from a nap. Benton asked if red wine would be all right, and she smiled. He ordered a bottle of Bordeaux, and an appetizer of steamed calamari for himself. She asked for a prawn cocktail. He looked at her hands, the bones of her wrists. She was very thin.
“So, how are your parents?” he asked.
She looked at him. “The same. They never change.”
“Does Dad know you’re seeing me?”
Her smile was quick, and then it was gone. “We don’t talk that often.”
“I haven’t spoken with him in forever. I don’t know how long.”
“We haven’t been much of a family, have we?”
“I’m pretty certain that’s been his choice, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, people make allowances, don’t they?”
“You’d say that of him?”
“I don’t know. He likes things smooth.”
“I meant he never talks about what he feels. Never anything about himself. The world is going to hell—you know.”
“Tell me about yourself.”
She hesitated. The waiter brought the wine and then had some trouble opening it. Benton said, “You want me to do that for you, son?”
But the waiter got it open, thanked him anyway, and poured the taste. The wine was soft and tannic. “Good,” Benton said, nodding.
The waiter poured it, set the bottle down on the table, and walked away. Benton lifted his glass and shouted against the music, “To families everywhere.”
“I’ll drink to that.” There was something barely controlled in her voice, a tension that gave it the faintest tremor. Probably it was having to talk so loud to be heard.
Again, he said, “Tell me about yourself.”
“Not much to tell. I grew up an—an only child. Graduated from Boston. I have a job in public relations at Harper.”
The music stopped, and the singer was talking about taking a break.
“You’re in publishing?” Benton asked, happy about the quiet.
“Well, no. Marketing, really.”
“But in publishing.”
“Lowest of the low rungs on the ladder, you know. I’m just starting.”
“Well, but that’s great. Do you think you might want to get into the editorial side of it?”
“I took a publishing course in Vancouver last summer. So, sure, maybe. I don’t know if I’m smart enough.”
“How did you do in the course?”
“It was fun. I did well.”
“Then there you are.”
“And you teach English, I think?”
He regarded her, taking in the kindly smile.
“Mom said she was pretty sure you teach English.”
“I’ve been at the same school since before you were born. In New Jersey. Clifton.”
“I have a friend from New Jersey. She’s an older woman. Mom’s age. But nice. I met her in Vancouver, if you can believe that.”
“Small, small world,” he said. But he thought about how immense it was, how a man could have a sister he has seen only once in her life.
They were quiet, sipping the wine.
He poured more for them. “So you’re working in publishing, and living in New York.”
“I went and saw Alice in Brooklyn.”
“I wanted to meet her. So I just went over there. And she let me in. She was pretty nice. I met her husband, Lew. I liked him. I liked them both.”
“I don’t see much of them since their children moved out.”
“Alice was stiff but nice.”
“Ridiculous, after all this time. She’s like the Taliban.”
“She is—you’re her sister, for God’s sake.”
She gave him a strained look, then gazed out the window.
“Nothing against Alice,” he said. “Nor any other Christians anywhere, elsewhere.”
“You both hate him.”
“Alice grieves for his soul. Alice is still angry at him. Alice can hold on to anger. Believe me, you’ve never seen anything like it. She’s like a character in a Southern Gothic novel. And me, well, to be absolutely truthful, I never think about him. He—we never could agree on some things. Let’s put it that way.”
“Alice grieves for his soul. And is angry.”
“You see, Alice and Lew are of a particular kind of Christianity. Christ as the celestial cop.”
“She showed me pictures of Dad when he was younger, with your mother. Your mother was very pretty. Alice cried showing it all to me.”
Benton said nothing.
Katie stared into her wine. “She’s just this lonely old Brooklyn lady with a big mole on her neck who wears a scarf to church and shops with a metal wagon.”
“Well,” Benton felt compelled to say, “don’t give her any political power.”
The other shook her head and drank.
“You’d think the divorce just happened.”
She said, “I saw the wagon off the back stoop when I went out there to smoke a cigarette. Lew was so sweet to me but I had the feeling he spends most of his time watching sports and waiting for her to bring him drinks and food. I had dinner with them. There’s a crucifix in every room of the house.”
“Oh, it’s definitely a Catholic house.”
“They seem happy enough together.”
“Does that invalidate it?”
“Not at all. That’s absolutely the truth of it. Habit or no, it’s still a form of domestic bliss.”
“You sound bitter.”
“Maybe I am, a little. Since that form of happy also allows for some pretty terrible habits of thought.”
“Do you still go—”
He shook his head. “Not since I left home for college.”
“Alice and Lew said grace. We held hands and it was like we were a family.”
“You didn’t have that at home.”
“Not once.” She laughed that soft laugh he remembered from her voice on the phone.
“No,” he said. “The old man’s never been much for it. The source of his problems lies elsewhere.”
“I used to wish I had whatever it is that makes them so calm. Did you ever wish you had that?”
“Well, your mother was a pretty woman.”
“She still is. And like I said, she’s happy, too. At seventy-three, with her second husband. And of course Alice didn’t like him at first. Mother was living in sin.”
“The phrase is funny, isn’t it. ‘Living in sin.’ Isn’t everyone living in sin?”
“Living in the weather of the world.” He smiled. And then he caught himself wondering how much she knew about him.
“‘Living in sin.’ It always struck me as a phrase religious women used. Almost exclusively.”
He said. “Someone should do a linguistic study.”
“And you never were like that—that they were living in sin—about him and my mother.”
“Never. Of course not.”
“And Alice is all right with it now.”
“Well, Mom got a dispensation on some technicality, making her marriage to Dad invalid in the church. Which made bastards out of Alice and me. But it saved the whole thing for her and she could accept the old boy—Eddie’s his name—still without really liking him much. Alice is a bit judgmental by nature. Which, of course, she got from Dad. I think Eddie’s all right, really. And he treats her like a queen.”
“Funny.” She took more of the wine. “This is the strangest place.”
“Here?” he said.
“Earth.” She grinned.
“And we walk up and down on it?”
She nodded, looking off. Then: “I didn’t know where to go.”
“Nothing. Tell me about your life, brother of mine.”
The wine was evidently going to her head. She took more of it.
He looked for the waiter. “How long does it take to put steamed calamari and a prawn cocktail together?”
And as if what he had said called her forth, the singer walked over in her tight, brief, black skirt and fishnet stockings. He saw the black bow tie at her neck, the puffed white sleeves of her blouse. “Too early?” she said to Katie.
“This is Lanelle,” Katie said.
Benton offered his hand.
“Too early,” said Lanelle, sitting down.
The waiter came over and gestured. She nodded. He went off. She turned to Benton and grinned. “They know what I like here between sets.”
“You sing and play wonderfully,” Benton said, and tried not to have it sound as empty as it did sound. He couldn’t take his eyes from her face. There was something slack in it, a kind of indolent watchfulness. He added, “I mean that. I’m very impressed.”
“Lanelle’s my roommate,” said Katie. “That’s why I wanted to meet here.”
Benton glanced at her, then regarded Lanelle again. “You in publishing, too?”
She laughed. “Not so’s you’d notice. But it’s a pleasure to meet Katie’s brother, Tommy. Long-lost brother, I should say. I think it’s great.”
“Maybe we’ll all go get something in Chinatown after your last set,” Katie said. She sounded younger, hopeful, and faintly pleading.
“Sounds like fun.” Lanelle gave Benton an appraising look. “You like Chinese?”
“We love Chinese.” She touched Katie’s wrist. “Don’t we.”
“I think I’ve got MSG in my blood,” Benton’s sister said.
He leaned slightly toward her. “Am I to understand something here?”
“Funny,” Katie said, without the slightest inflection.
“Are you—are you on speaking terms with Dad?”
She moved her index finger around the lip of her glass, staring at it. “Like you are, sure.”
“Well, I’ll be,” he said.
Lanelle touched his wrist now. “It’s true, though, isn’t it? You see it on the news now. People talking the wave of the future, and famous people coming out and marriages in some states and you start thinking it really is changing. But there’s always the individual cases. Right?”
He nodded, and drank the wine.
She went on: “People like us still have to map-read.”
“Excuse me. Map-read?”
She looked at Katie. “I’m ten years older than your sister, here.”
“You don’t look it.”
Now she gave him a sweet smile, charming and perfectly empty. “Well. Thanks for the compliment. But really—come on. Haven’t you been reading the maps all these years? From your own kind of closet?”
The waiter brought her a whiskey, neat, with a little cup of espresso. She drank the whiskey in a gulp, then sipped the espresso.
“We live together as husband and wife,” Lanelle said. “Her family—and mine, too—don’t really know what to do with it.”
“So you—you read the maps.”
“We navigate the waters, yeah. But we’re out there in the sunny blue.”
“Yes,” Benton said.
Lanelle repeated it. “For love.”
He said, “I’m with you.”
She finished her espresso, set the cup down, then stood and walked off. Benton saw her stop at another table and lean over to speak to the woman there.
“You teach English,” Katie said to him. “What grade?”
“Do the people you work with know?”
He watched Lanelle go on out of sight beyond the bar. “I’m sorry?”
“Do they know about you.”
After a brief pause, he said, “Some of them, of course. Friends.”
“Crazy, isn’t it.”
“It’s the territory,” he said. “You know. Our schizoid country.”
“You should do something where you don’t have to worry.”
“I’m fine, really.”
“You’re my brother,” she said, and raised her glass. “Here’s to my one brother. And I didn’t know this about you until a couple of years ago.” She smiled, but there were tears lining the lower lids of her eyes.
“You all right?”
“Isn’t it strange to have better treatment from people—just people—than you ever got from your own family?”
“You mean the parents,” he said.
She did not answer. She was pouring more of the wine.
“I think I know what you mean,” he said. “You mean all of us.”
“We should get another bottle.”
“You mean me.”
“I wish I’d known about you, and if you’d called now and then, just to be in touch, if we’d been in touch, I think I might’ve. Because what if you were there when I figured it out? I mean things might not’ve been so hard.”
He nodded helplessly. “Right. That’s absolutely right. I’m sorry.”
“I went through a lot of hell, growing up. An awful lot of—just—you know, hell.” She had turned to the waiter, one hand up. The hand shook slightly, the smallest tremor while she made a little waving motion. It went all the way to the bottom of his heart.
“God,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”
But the music had started up again, and it was clear that she hadn’t heard him. She was watching Lanelle move through the room, languid and sultry, mic in hand, singing “Angel Eyes.”