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Sins Against Animals


ISSUE:  Autumn 1988

In 1965, a few months before graduation, a man from the Job Corps penetrated to the upper floors of Main, the building at Vassar College where the seniors lived, a presumably impregnable niche. There he found corridors lined with astonished women who were more than willing to go teach remedial English, math, and social studies to high school dropouts: tender long-legged birds bred to serve, stuffed with good intentions and an amazing amount of useless knowledge, eager to fly the coop.

“Lambs to the slaughter,” Diana teased her friend Eleanor. Diana was engaged to a student at Yale Law School and had been accepted as a graduate student in Art History. Her future was assured, but for a moment she felt inadequate, even wrong, because Eleanor, who had no plans at all, had graciously accepted the kind invitation of the man from the Job Corps.

To Diana’s eyes, it was all too typical that Eleanor would fall for this offer. She was forever going off on blind dates with boys who managed to break her heart within six hours, or crying her eyes out over somebody’s brother at Hamilton who hadn’t asked her out for a second date, or mooning around for months over some jerk from home who had never asked her out in the first place. Still, the Job Corps was clearly a worthy cause, a chance to do some real good in the world, and so for a day or two Diana felt guilty that she was too cynical to give it a try.

For a year and a half, Eleanor taught reading and grammar to boys from the ghetto who were getting a second chance— or sometimes a third or a fourth. Eleanor’s family—prosperous Quakers and liberal Democrats, who had named their eldest daughter after their heroine—approved of her job; the boys were by and large appreciative; and at first every small gain counted for a lot. Many of her Vassar friends who were working for the Job Corps seemed to fall in love with the other instructors; they were all the age for marriage. Eleanor fell in love with nobody and, faced with melioration on a day-to-day basis, rapidly grew disenchanted. At the end of the second year, she left the Job Corps to join a project in New York called Neighborhoods Inc.

Neighborhoods (cynics joked about capitalizing the second “h”) was an offshoot of a drug-treatment program called Resurrection, which—flush with hopeful funding—used the relatively new technique of group dynamics to break down the old personality of the drug addict and replace it with a new, nonaddictive self. Although the group therapy was admittedly brutal, the reconstruction was complete, and—in theory—once the addict lost his old destructive defenses in Resurrection, he was free to use his new self to help others in Neighborhoods. And he would do so with the zeal of the converted, which burns by abandoned shame. In practice, Neighborhoods sent the ex-addict out with a conventional social worker to live on a deteriorating street in Harlem. Together, they would gradually rehabilitate the block. They would begin with their own building, for example, by organizing an entry way clean-up. Then they would bully the relevant city agency into picking up the trash or find pro-bono lawyers to sue the landlord. Next, gradually, they would urge people to form tenant associations to do more complex things like neighborhood patrols against drug-trafficking. Along the way, the ex-addict would gain confidence and self-esteem and recruit other addicts into the Resurrection treatment program.

The success of this venture depended heavily on the quality of the social workers, and these were in short supply, perhaps because Neighborhoods demanded that they undergo the same group therapy as the addicts. Soon Neighborhoods had to abandon the requirement of conventional degrees.

Not with alarm, however, because what they really needed were not social workers, but responsible, well-educated, middle-class individuals—like Eleanor, who had, nevertheless, majored in sociology in college.

No one worried about what the self of a reconstructed social worker would amount to. For example, would it continue to be responsible, well-educated, and middle-class? Certainly if Eleanor ever considered this issue, she forgot it in the press of learning how to organize neighborhoods. For three months, she studied in the main Resurrection-/Neighborhoods office in the East Sixties; and then she had her group therapy session. Five quasi social workers and ten ex-addicts locked themselves in a room for 72 hours. No one was allowed to sleep; food was delivered through a crack in the door; the room filled with smoke as each social-worker type was criticized in turn. Nothing was off-limits. In Eleanor’s case, everyone focused on her middle-class background and education, although a few raised their voices against her dowdy clothes, her gently whining voice, and what one ex-addict called her “bourgeois sentimental romantic attitude about fucking.”

Eleanor had always accepted guilt readily, readily deferring to others, especially men. This attitude aided in her speedy self-destruction by the group. Her old personality was obliterated in tears of self-hatred, and after 12 hours of sleep she awoke feeling reborn and thoroughly capable of reforming the –th block of —st Street.

With two ex-addicts, Fred and Goose, Eleanor moved into a run-down building, where, in spite of the ‘68 riots, they enjoyed a productive season. Both the entryway and the alley were cleaned up; a bake-sale earned more than a hundred dollars; an Anti-Rat Day was projected for the fall. And in July Eleanor fell in love with the star of the whole program, Addison, an ex-addict who’d worked his way up the ladder to become one of the directors of Resurrection itself.

Fred and Goose moved into the building next door, and Addison moved in with Eleanor, who walked around all day on the cusp of significance. Her life had achieved its form, and no matter what happened to her in the future, she knew she would always remember this summer: her work was important, this was true love! For the first and last time in her life, she reported her doings to the Vassar Alumnae Magazine.

II

Meanwhile, Diana finished her course work, passed her orals, started her dissertation, and made wedding plans. The two women seldom saw each other, but they occasionally talked on the phone and once in a great while exchanged letters. Even in sporadic context, they were important to each other. They came from the same small industrial city, a grimy ash heap dumped on the green Ohio countryside. Diana’s family was Republican and Presbyterian instead of Democratic and Quaker, significant cause for all sorts of divergences of taste and opinion. Diana, the two women agreed, was in thrall by birth to a sterner vision of humanity; Eleanor, they likewise agreed, was free to improve the human lot. With so much symbolism at hand, they needed just a very little of each other’s actual presence to feel themselves friends for life. Diana loved Eleanor’s easily dejected idealism; Eleanor admired Diana’s free-ranging skepticism. Diana felt a little more solid and real having Eleanor as a friend, while Eleanor felt a little more savvy and energetic knowing that Diana admired her. Neither felt substantially more self-confident and less to blame, but—as they frequently pointed out to each other—there was nothing in either of their backgrounds that encouraged those feelings.

And so, it was not surprising that when the drug dealers murdered Addison in the entry way of the apartment building that Eleanor called Diana to come help her with his funeral.

Diana was so reluctant that it took her almost 24 hours to get herself onto the mid-morning train to New York. The bright sunlight on the dirty windows seemed to point a finger at the misfit who rode the rails outside the dawn-and-dusk structure of commuting. The air had the superfluous metallic aftertaste of vitamin pills with iron. It was early May, yet hot as midsummer, and the dirty plush upholstery of the seats reminded Diana that the last time she’d visited Eleanor she’d broken out in a rash.

During that visit, six months before, Diana had, at first, found Eleanor much the same as ever: a C+ student whose highest goal was to be a wife and mother; a nonjudgmental sort who still believed in good manners as the outward signs of virtue. Her slum apartment featured cloth napkins and a guest bedroom. Soon, however, Diana found herself wondering if Eleanor hadn’t really changed, for as she spoke of her work on the block, of the people she’d met, of the injustice of their lives, she ignored Addison’s antics, which in earlier times would have immediately reduced her to tears.

Eleanor hardly seemed to notice the glass Addison threw at her early in the evening, nor did she seem particularly upset when he called her a rich white bitch and then stormed out to spend the night with an old girl friend. Eleanor seemed not to notice his absence; she continued to talk about the embryonic tenants’ association. Diana eventually concluded that radical political conviction had overtaken Eleanor’s former emotional liberalism. The women sat there all night, smoking, drinking, Eleanor calmly going into some detail about the dynamics of the entry clean-up, Diana scratching and waiting nervously for Addison’s return. She could only wonder at the political wisdom that promoted indifference to such manipulation, an invulnerable wisdom that made her feel utterly inadequate.

Now, on the train, Diana itched in anticipation, as if the dirty plush and the dusty glass were vehicles through which the spirit of history conveyed to a worn-out civilization the gospel of a revolution to come.

III

After the murder, Eleanor decided to stay with some friends on the Upper West Side. Mrs. Berke edited a glossy women’s magazine, while Mr. Berke was legal counsel to an enormous labor union. Their living room was full of objects signifying culture, wealth, and beauty without in the least suggesting the traditional or the exclusive. Diana knew this was no mean feat, and Eleanor sat in the midst of it all, pale, calm, unusually confident. The Berkes were nowhere in sight. Addison hung in the air like the smile of the Cheshire Cat.

Eleanor explained what had happened: she had been lying in bed reading, waiting for Addison, who’d been out at some meeting, she wasn’t sure where. About three in the morning she thought she heard him come in. Since their apartment was on the second floor at the front corner of the building she could hear things in the entry way—but only if she already more or less knew what she was listening to. She thought she’d heard him come in—didn’t she hear her name?—but he didn’t come up, and so, at first, she assumed she’d been mistaken. Then, after ten minutes or so, she decided that the sound she’d heard had most certainly been “Eleanor.” And so she put on her robe and slippers and went down—even though she knew this was not a safe thing to do. The entryway was clean now, but it was still Harlem and three in the morning.

She found Addison dead. In his arm, a hypodermic needle bobbled up and down like the stinger of a gigantic mosquito. She pulled out the needle and tried to revive him. Apparently the murderer had waited in the shadowy entryway and stabbed Addison with the needle as he walked in the door. Unused as Addison now was to the drug, he had died almost immediately of an overdose with just time enough to shout out her name—and now she wasn’t even sure about that.

Diana couldn’t believe it. “It seems so risky. Don’t you have to hit a vein or something?”

“Oh, it happens all the time,” Eleanor assured her. “It’s the way drug dealers handle people who interfere with business. Addison’s death shows we’re having some effect. He’s a real hero.”

Diana resigned herself to this interpretation. “What can I do to help?”

The funeral, it seemed, was already arranged. Addison had been raised by a great aunt, who had firm ideas, to which Eleanor—given the aunt’s age, poverty, and race—felt bound to accede. Only innumerable details remained. Could Diana go back to the apartment and pack? Eleanor had no desire to live there anymore. If Diana could get everything ready tonight, then tomorrow, after the memorial service, the Mass, the burial, and the Resurrection/Neighborhoods party, Eleanor would move into a different apartment on a new block where—all that work gone to waste!—she could start over.

IV

Two hours later, a taxi driver helped Diana carry some empty boxes to the entryway of Eleanor’s apartment building. Outside, the streets of Harlem looked untouched by Neighborhoods. The entryway, however, showed signs of improvement. The 12 mailboxes were still broken; a dangling bare bulb still tenuously provided light; the elevator was still boarded against use—but the tile floor was clean and the walls recently painted. The scene of the crime, and yet it looked no different for that. Was this because places are impervious to the events that take place in them? or because muder is so common that its mark is indistinguishable to the eye? The art historian in Diana considered edifices temporal and sacred, modern and ancient, vernacular and monumental, ugly and beautiful: was any without its crime? Although no drug dealer had reason to murder her, she felt a certain relief when she had locked herself safely in Eleanor’s apartment. The door had two deadbolts and a chain.

As she remembered from her other visit, Eleanor had taken pains to set a good example: lots of paint, new linoleum, curtains—yet it wouldn’t take all that long to dismantle. Brick and board bookcases full of Eleanor’s college paperbacks, the minimum number of dishes, a few old dresses in the closet. Eleanor’s clothes could go into her suitcases; Addison’s things, into a box for the aunt, who could also have the furniture, such as it was. Wouldn’t it just be easier to open the door and commit the contents to the neighborhood? This wasn’t her decision, however, so she started to pack.

Diana had actually cleared one closet before she noticed the cat. Orange and white, pink nose, calm yellow eyes, a young altered male: the quintessential Ohio cat. Back home, he would sleep in the window box among the geraniums. Here, he sat on top of the icebox, patiently waiting for cockroaches? rats? Investigation revealed a litter box in the shower (of all places!) and a box of Friskies. The cat ate with some eagerness and offered a purr to Diana’s caressing hand. After eating, he took up a new position on top of the bookcase.

A call to Eleanor reached Mrs. Berke, who said that the sedative had taken effect and Eleanor was out cold for the night. She had mentioned something about getting rid of the cat. Mrs. Berke suggested the Animal Shelter.

Well, not tonight, thought Diana. She would call him Joe until Eleanor told her his real name. The Animal Shelter. Wasn’t that the same as the Pound?

The apartment was hot and airless, so Diana opened the window onto the fire escape. The window lacked a screen, and as she packed she began to hope that Joe would take this occasion to claim his freedom and his life. The Animal Shelter, indeed! But Joe hunkered down into the shape of a casserole, paws neatly folding in front of him, totally uninterested in escaping into Harlem: I am your responsibility, he seemed to say. She quickly grew used to his presence and, around eight, rather than venture out onto the streets, shared a can of tunafish with him. By midnight, when she was down to the odds and ends, she was sorry to see Joe accept self-determination and disappear through the window and down the fire escape, leaving her alone.

Alone. She thought about where she was and shut and locked the window. If Addison saw Eleanor as a rich white bitch, how would his neighbors see her? Would they be predisposed to mercy on individual grounds? What grounds could these possibly be? Perhaps she had sweated so much that her electrolytes were out of order, for suddenly she was sick with fear. She draped towels over the front windows to protect herself from prying eyes, checked the locks, and almost decided that she was safe, when her anxieties suddenly veered in Joe’s direction.

He was out there on the streets, alone. Wouldn’t he be lost? Freedom was all very well, but who would feed him and take him to the vet when he got sick? This is not reasonable, Diana told herself, but she couldn’t keep herself from wondering if life were worth living for Joe on the streets. Who would love him? Where would he sleep at night? Prey to what dogs and ruthless children, large rats, faceless violence, random cars? How would he feel if he climbed back up the fire escape and found the window locked against him? She unlocked the window and raised it a cat-sized crack.

It was late. Leaving her clothes on, she turned out the light and lay down on the bare mattress, face to the fire escape. Anyone could climb up that fire escape, crawl in that window, murder her. Stomach churning with apprehension, afraid to open her eyes, Diana lay in the darkness until she couldn’t bear it any longer. She jumped up and closed the window.

Then all she could imagine was Joe, his calm yellow eyes staring hopelessly in through the window, abandoned. . . . It was at least three in the morning. She must try to be sensible. She must get control of herself. She got up and opened the window. When her mother had had Diana’s cat Snowball put to sleep—at the vet’s, surely; not the Pound—she had told Diana that Snowball had gone to live in the country. Remembering this, Diana again felt betrayed and sick with helplessness and rage. She thought of the black man who would climb the fire escape, climb through the window, and stand above her bed, looking down on her in a long meditative moment of revenge and uttering a prayer to the hungry god, before he strangled her and dragged her twitching body to the bathtub where he set to work dismembering her and throwing gobbets of her body all over Harlem., like that argument— or was it a poem?—about the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel: divided up so that everyone could have an equal share, it amounted to less than a grain of salt. No matter how much they hated her, no matter how wrong she was, there wasn’t enough to go around. No loaves and fishes, she, and so doomed to be inadequate.

When she woke up just before dawn, she found Joe in her arms like a teddy bear, his head on her shoulder, purring away with all the satisfaction of the prodigal returned. His fur was cold and slightly damp. After an adventure he’d come home to stay. Diana fell back to sleep without a care in the world. She did not bother to get up and close the window, for who in the world would climb through a window after her?

In the morning, she gave Joe the last can of tuna, cleaned out the icebox, assembled the garbage, and watched the rooms—stripped of their trappings—rejoin themselves to the slum that shimmered outside the windows. Joe ate his tunafish, used his pan, and took a prolonged and thorough bath, biting into the spaces between his clear pink toe-pads, chewing down a rough claw, and finally sharpening the whole set on the black and white striped, brown-puddled mattress. Shortly thereafter, Eleanor arrived with Mr. Berke, who loaded up his station wagon with Eleanor’s belongings and drove off, leaving the women to deal with Joe, whose name turned out to be Brahms.

Brahms was a problem because he was Addison’s cat. He slept on Addison’s side of the bed. Addison had loved him. Eleanor had never taken to Brahms, nor he to her. Like Diana, she was not intrinsically fond of cats so that Siamese elegance or black and white wit was necessary to seize her fancy. Eleanor had asked Addison’s great aunt to take Brahms, but she had refused, hinting at darker responsibilities. “You don’t want him, do you?” Eleanor asked with a thoughtlessness that almost made Diana lose her temper.

“I’m going to Italy for a year! He’s not my boyfriend’s cat! Isn’t there anybody at Resurrection who can take him? What about one of your neighbors? Look! why don’t you send him home to Ohio? Your mother can always find room for a cat.” Snowball went to live in the country; why not a real version of an old lie?

“He would always remind me of Addison.”

“You really don’t think you’re going to forget him, do you?” Diana saw, nevertheless, that this was no time to press a point, and so the women took a taxi to the Animal Shelter, which looked unavoidably like a gigantic oven from which Joe/Brahms had but a 72-hour reprieve. Handing him over, Diana couldn’t bring herself to meet his eyes; even so she could feel his purr. A good animal, he made himself easy to dispose of, unlike Addison, who would require the next six hours to make his adieux.

Diana gave in: O. K. , O. K. , I’ll come back. Even though I don’t really like cats. You can stay in Ohio with my mother until I get back from Italy. Then you can live with me.

Finally she could look into his calm yellow eyes and prepare herself for the next ordeal.

V

At eleven, there was an open-casket viewing at the funeral home in the Bronx—round one for the grieving aunt, a wizened sorceress complete with turban and mumbling false teeth. She was accompanied by two small brown boys in little black suits and white shirts, whose overpowering resemblance to Addison spelled trouble. Diana dismissed them with “different mores,” but she could tell that Eleanor was hurt as well as surprised.

A record player, hidden somewhere underneath the casket, played Vivaldi’s Four Seasons over and over and over again as Addison contemplated eternity with smug pleasure, like the cat—Diana unavoidably thought—who had swallowed the canary. For a solid hour the bigwigs of Resurrection praised Addison to the skies. Under Diana’s gaze, his expression turned to one of polite disbelief: this was me? You’ve got to be kidding! Eleanor sat in the front row by the aunt and the little boys, who laughed, squirmed, hit each other, and looked more like Addison by the minute.

At one o’clock, round two for the aunt, an hour-long Mass echoed through a Catholic church half a block from the funeral home. The church dwarfed both coffin and mourners, who had already shrunk in number, about half going off in search of lunch. Had Addison been christened and confirmed here? Certainly none of the mourners were Catholics—not even the aunt, it would seem for she neither rose nor kneeled nor took Communion but sat solidly at Eleanor’s side, while the little boys took a well-deserved nap. Diana herself struggled to stay awake. The priest called Addison Edison.

At two-thirty they left the church for the cemetery, which was far away on Long Island—round three for the aunt.

Eleanor climbed into a silver gray limousine directly behind the hearse. Since she was then joined by the aunt and the boys, Diana abruptly ducked into the next limo, and so near was her escape that it took a few moments before she could calm down and focus on the other passengers, five more or less reformed addicts, one of whom had the shakes. By the time she took them in—braids, elf locks, turbans, beads, dashikis, bells, caftans, and eyes incapable of meeting hers—the cortege was off and they were stuck with each other.

No one uttered a sound, and Diana was struck with the wild impulse to apologize for her shoes. These were plain white pumps with two-inch heels—and Memorial Day was a full three weeks away! They were the only shoes she had that went with the only dress she owned that was long enough to wear to a funeral; everything else was mini. Still, she knew they were wrong; her feet looked enormous; and their whiteness kept catching her eye, and she also wanted to apologize for drinking spirits before dinner unmixed with wine or juice, for wearing nylon underwear, for eating egg salad in restaurants, for loving a man with a mustache, for smoking in public, for chewing gum even in private, for never really loving anyone or anything, for doing all these things her mother had told her never to do, but even though she wished to apologize, she had actually done none of these things, except wear white shoes and fail to love, and so, instead of apologizing, she fell asleep.

As she slept she heard the men talk about what a hero Addison was. She heard because of the translating power of the unconscious, for when she woke up, she couldn’t understand a word they were saying; it was English, but not to her ear. Accustomed to her presence, they talked on among themselves, while she stared out the window at a cemetery so big it threatened to swallow up everyone in the world.

Traffic was heavy. Their cortege passed four funerals, clusters of cars waiting at the side of the road. Two other funerals passed in the opposite direction, going home for the night, funerals no longer. A dark green army truck whizzed past and pulled off to the side of the road. A group of soldiers jumped out, guns at the ready, and ran off toward a hidden ceremony, the bugle player trotting along behind.

Ten minutes later, their cortege pulled over to the side of the road. At the grave, a short walk away, Eleanor stood with Addison’s aunt and the little boys, who stood still for once, quiet in a daze. The ex-addicts and social-worker types arranged themselves in twos and threes. Struck by the sight of the open grave, no one talked.

Diana stood alone on the edge of the mourners and watched the green truck drive up. The troops jumped out and charged up to the grave, late as usual, behind in their work, the bugler still lagging in the rear, a fat boy about 20. The soldiers were all young, with smooth blank faces that suggested boredom. Were they thinking of the battles they were missing and the heroes who were falling in them? They did not look at the bizarre crowd that faced them across the grave: voodoo spirits, the ghosts of ancient tribesmen. Their eyes stuck to the middle distance as the priest rushed through his lines, calling down mercy on Addison, whom he continued to call Edison. The soldiers fired their salute, listened to the final Taps—how many times today?—then ran back to the truck. If they only hurried, might they not catch up with that elusive war halfway around the world?

Eleanor threw a single red rose in the grave, and Diana leaped forward to claim her firmly by the elbow. She steered her back to the gray limo, told the driver to make it snappy, and left the aunt and children to the priest. Never had she been so hungry in her life.

VI

At first the women sat in apprehensive silence as the chauffeur tried to make his way through the worst of rush hour with something passing for speed. At last, Diana told him to slow down, or to feel all right about going so slowly, for they were in fact going almost nowhere, only sitting in the middle of six lanes of cars surrounded by acres of houses that looked like more cars.

When Eleanor said, in a perfectly serious tone, “Wasn’t that beautiful?” Diana raised the window that cut them off from the driver and waited in silence until Eleanor came to her senses. “Actually, I suppose it was pretty ridiculous.” As yellow as the flowers in her dress, Eleanor no longer looked like her old self.

“Well, it’s hard to stage a funeral that pleases everyone. You did a great job, given the aunt and all. We’re probably the only ones who think it was ridiculous. Everybody else probably thinks it was the perfect funeral for a hero. But, really, Eleanor—”

“Weren’t the soldiers a stitch?”

“Does the cemetery just throw them in free?”

“Oh, no. They’re the real thing. Addison’s aunt wants to get benefits for the children. I guess she thought a military funeral would establish her claims. He might have been in the Army, but I’m sure he never actually fought in anything. And he wasn’t a Catholic either. And the little boys don’t even have the same mother. I didn’t know about them. About the children. I knew about the other women.”

“Maybe she’s counting on help from the Church?”

“The whole thing was a fraud.” Eleanor began to cry again.

In disgust the chauffeur turned off the highway. Now around them endlessly stretched something that was not Manhattan. “Now, now. Symbols are everything. Maybe it’s best to think of the whole thing as a sign of good intentions. Addison probably believed in something, and if he didn’t, he probably wished he did.” Twaddle, Diana thought, a language I speak fluently. “And as for his not being a real soldier, he’s a real hero. You should have heard the men in my car.”

“I can’t go to this party.”

“Thank God; let’s not. Why don’t—”

“He wasn’t murdered. He killed himself. Maybe by accident. Maybe not. We had a fight. I told him I was tired of his stunts, tired of him. I wanted him to move out. I told him I’d only put up with him for so long because he loved me more than I loved him and I’ve never had that happen before. He started crying. He said he was a failure at everything. He said he might just as well go back on drugs. I told him I was tired of his threats. He stormed out, and I went to bed. I was so relieved to get rid of him and his . . .his stupidity that I felt I could sleep forever. My whole life, all I’ve wanted was to be loved, and he even made me tired of that.”

“How did he die?”

“The rest of what I said was more or less true. I heard him in the entryway. He woke me up shouting my name. I think. Eleanor, or Dirty Whore. Who knows? Anyway, when I got downstairs he was dead. He’d taken an overdose, I don’t think on purpose. I think it was just to say, see what you made me do. I don’t know. I pulled out the needle and tried to get as many of my fingerprints on it as possible.”

“Stop the car!” Diana demanded. They were probably somewhere in Brooklyn, not that it mattered. They were trapped somewhere in an endless city, and this corner was as good as any. In fact, after they got out, they discovered both a Chinese restaurant and a movie theater.

They decided to see the movie first to calm down. Science fiction, Diana had trouble getting into it: Charleton Heston crashes his space ship onto a planet that turns out to be run by apes; not a thoroughly bad lot, they view the subjected human species with a mixture of pity and disgust. About the time, Diana understood that this was New York City after the nuclear holocaust, she also noticed that the apes bore a strong facial resemblance to the ex-addicts in the limo. It was Eleanor, however, who actually said, “Is this movie as racist as I think it is?”

“I don’t know,” answered Diana, “but it’s certainly antisimian. Perhaps we should leave?”

Next door, at the Chinese restaurant, the menu was elaborate, and the women tried all sorts of strange things, for in the long run what did they have to lose? After two bottles of a wine that tasted of moth balls, Eleanor told Diana that Addison had been wonderful in bed; he’d made her feel that she was the most exciting person in the world. Maybe she had loved him. Maybe he had been murdered—— No, she didn’t love him. He was just a manipulator—always trying to protect a self he didn’t have. He bored her. He betrayed her. All the time. How did he have the nerve to bore her and betray her? She didn’t love him, and, exciting or not, she’d gotten tired of having him love her.

Diana felt relieved. No matter who loved whom, it was just love after all. Not politics, not a new self, just bourgeois sentimental romantic love. If group dynamics had eradicated Eleanor’s personality, Nature had issued a near-perfect duplicate. Diana felt so much better about her friend that she didn’t allow herself the additional luxury of self-disgust. So she had never loved anyone. So what? Instead she suggested that they borrow Mr. Berke’s station wagon and drive home.

Eleanor agreed, and before dawn the next morning, they set out, Diana so elated that she drove all the way, back to Ohio, where the city didn’t go on forever, but stopped at the edge of the country so that you had to drive out through fields of soybeans and corn and hogs just to get to the country club; back to Ohio, where Addison’s ghost could be laid to rest in no time.

VII

Eighteen years later, Eleanor is the head of a progressive school in Chicago. She has had many lovers, but none whom she felt like marrying, although last year she adopted an orphan from El Salvador and is now thinking that the divorced head of a local boys’ school might do as a stepfather. He is wild about her, passion’s eternal response to indifference. Eleanor has fallen into a bad habit.

She thinks about Addison from time to time and wonders what would have happened if she’d managed to love him more than he loved her. Would she have gone on loving all her life? But she hadn’t. And what if he had been murdered? Would she have been frightened enough to marry a dull accountant as soon as possible after his death? Would she have had three children just to be safe? Would she still lie awake at night feeling relieved that Addison died—and feeling guilty that she feels relieved?

Diana is divorced and no longer close to Eleanor—time and distance have intervened—and she never thinks of Addison if she remembers him at all. And yet—as she is fond of telling her students—there is a God in Heaven, and He is a just God, and so Diana has terrible nightmares every year in the late spring, a time of year that is very hard for animals. It is worse than early spring when nameless eggs splash, unidentifiable, on the sidewalk. The young are just as vulnerable in the late spring, but by then everyone has gotten to know one another.

A little starling trembles on the edge of his nest and breaks his neck when he hits the concrete. His brother lands back down, beak upwards. The old Siamese cat remembers better days and eats them both while entertaining the fantasy that he has actually hunted them down. He enjoyed watching the nest from the bedroom window, and all day he feels vaguely dissatisfied: something is coming; what is it?

Paths cross in troubling ways. A mother duck leads her brood across a major thoroughfare in rush hour, heading toward the nearest body of water. She is hit by a taxi, but loses only one duckling and a wing. Mother squirrels dash across the traffic, fetching hidden nuts to their babies in the nest. One is hit in the hindquarters but drags herself across the rest of the street and disappears into the bushes. Is it for the best if she makes it back to the nest? A raccoon lies twitching in the road until a earful of teenagers swerves to hit the body. Blood spurts, parts scatter, crows gather, raccoon flattens. Soon there is only a hairy pelt; then, only a grease spot.

Diana dreams the cat dream and wakes up screaming from something she can’t remember. A grin forgives her, fades away into the hanging fern at the window, not a cat at all. The lights in the bedrooms of the neighboring apartment houses accuse her of betrayal and breach of trust. She sits there in bed, exhausted and weeping, sweating, shaking, trying her best to remember what it is she has forgotten to do.

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John Paul Smith's picture
John Paul Smith · 5 years ago

This is beautifully written.

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