Margaret strolled the edge of the sidewalk, head tilted back. Office buildings disappeared above, black rectangles and silver corners widening into a yellow cloud ceiling. Set in this scale she felt shrunk down and lightened, as though she might float up along the edges of the building, past the windows, past the ledges with their pigeon-repellent prongs, past the antennas and satellite dishes on the roof and away into the damp of the sky.
A taxi passed and splashed slush against her leg. She sucked in through her teeth. On its return the air became a yelp.
Her sister Gillian stood on the inside of the sidewalk, nose nearly touching a store window. Behind the glass a spectacle of lenses and gadgets sparkled, all tagged with neon prices. A banner read DEALS.
Margaret tugged at Gillian’s coat sleeve. She was ignored.
“What is it dear?” said Gillian finally, her rose-frame eyeglasses frosted by reflected breath.
Margaret pointed at her wet legs and held out a puckered navy pump, balancing shakily as she did so. Bright ice clung to her nylons. She brushed it away with a gloved hand.
“Did you . . . take a tumble?”
“I was slushed by a car,” Margaret said impatiently. “And now my toes are frozen. Solid. They’re going to have to remove them.”
“Boots. I told you. Rubbers at least. Remember?”
“It’s the city, Gill. I don’t get to visit places like this. I wanted to look my best.”
“You look your best now.”
“We have to go back. It starts in twenty minutes and we have to go back immediately so I can change.”
“Did you see all the cameras? Henry would have loved such a place.” And to herself, “Deals . . .”
“One of your compatriots did this to me,” Margaret told the taxi driver. He nodded impassively and checked his side mirrors. From the stereo a Pentecostal sermon was accompanied by clangorous off-key organ playing. A West African voice, stuttering and fierce: “The Devil hides on your windowsill, waiting to be let in. Are you people going to let him in? You sinners who haunt the Lord’s house like ghosts?”
“Let the man alone, Margaret. He didn’t splash you.”
“I want him to tell the other what he did. He should feel bad about it. Ruin-ing our night. Making us late for the show. He should at least have to sleep with that under his pillow.”
“I’m sure he’ll pass the message along.”
“What do you think Reverend Gleasan would say about this music?” whispered Margaret, who sang in the choir of St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Racine, Wisconsin. “It’s strange isn’t it? For religious music. It sounds like Halloween.”
“Truthfully, I haven’t the faintest,” said Gillian. She had stopped attending their family’s church when she got married. Her husband, a lawyer and an atheist, had cited churchgoing as Exhibit A in the case against weak-minded people.
“I was only thinking out loud. I am very aware of how you feel about religion. Though I thought perhaps recent events would have changed your mind.”
“The music does sound rather strange,” Gillian whispered.
At the front desk of their hotel a slight man with slicked-back hair greeted Margaret with surprise: “What happen to the show? Was it cancel?” His Czech accent petrified the softer English vowels. He wore an oversized suit with gold epaulets. Above the knot of his tie, the hollow of his throat gaped at them. “Take me up on my offer then?” he asked.
“I can’t, Mr. Pavel,” said Margaret as they continued to the elevators. Her shoes unevenly click-clumped as one dry and one wet heel met the marble lobby floor. “I forgot the tickets . . . we have to run.”
“It’s only just Pavel,” he said to their backs.
“How embarrassing,” she said when the elevator door had closed. Two burnished copper slabs presented them with a bisected image of two ladies in their sixties with a strong family resemblance in puckered mouths, slitted nostrils, high-arching eyebrows, and the peach-pit shape of their eyes.
Gillian put a hand to her hair, which, now that she had had it colored and styled—splurging $250 at a new place in town that also offered pedicures and a something called shiatsu—contrasted sharply with her sister’s naturally faded blond. “I think I’d like to be a redhead,” she had said to Scopy, who had a crew cut and STEVE tattooed on her forearm. They settled on one called Autumnal Auburn, though when she emerged from the foil and rinse, it looked brighter than advertised, more retired harlot than retired teacher. In the mirror, she caught Scopy catch herself frowning. Now the red of her hair smacked into the red of her glasses, but she hadn’t had time to get new frames before the trip.
Their looks met in the metal.
“What do you care what anyone thinks?” said Gillian.
“He’s been so helpful since we checked in. He carried our bags up and showed us how to work the television and the massage showerhead. He didn’t have to offer to show us around. He can’t do that for everybody.”
“I don’t remember him offering us.”
Gillian waited patiently on the bed while her sister peeled off the offending nylons and pinned them—Gillian traveled with clothespins—to the retracting string over the tub and changed into a pair of herringbone slacks and wool socks.
Margaret selected and rejected three pairs of dress shoes, dropping each pair to the floor so her sister could see them.
“That’s all you brought?”
“Here.” From a side compartment in her Samsonite, Gillian retrieved a spare pair of duck boots and handed them over. “I thought you might forget.”
Muzak alone attended the front desk when they passed it at a brisk double waddle, their rubber soles squeaking in near unison.
The show’s first number was crescendoing as a lost-looking usher flashlighted their front-row seats. Walking bent over so as not to obstruct anyone’s view, a cloud of fake fog enveloped them.
“At half price these tickets are a steal,” whispered Margaret. But Gillian was instantly engrossed in what the lead actress, dressed as a fairy and flitting between boulders, was singing. Margaret twisted around to get a view of the theater behind her. In the red and blue lights bouncing over the crowd, the purple plush of empty seats shone between the upturned faces of the theatergoers: “I wonder if they all paid full price?” she said, and returned her attention to above the stage, where the heroine was flying on mostly invisible wires, with a satisfied sigh.
* * * *
“That one. Beautiful,” Pavel sighed.
Abner, the hotel’s night doorman, rolled his eyes.
They stood under the brightly lit awning of the hotel. The two women had just pulled away in a cab. Pavel was smoking off to the side, behind a cement planter decorated with holiday greenery. Abner, in a green greatcoat with brass buttons spangling the chest and gold braid threading one armpit, kept his arms crossed in front of him and his eyes pointed at Fifty-fourth Street. He shook his head.
“When they come in I give them deluxe introduction to their room. Just as Mr. Spivey want. Just as Mr. Spivey tell me, always.” Pavel held up one finger. “But I give a little extra for her. A look here. A look there. Yes. She is very . . .” He indicated shapeliness with his hands.
“She looks like any other old lady to me,” said Abner.
“You are young man. You seek young women. But. Young women you will find. Pain. Everything happens with them so quickly, you cannot keep up.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, man,” said Abner. “The girlies give me no problems. No problems at all.”
“You will see,” said Pavel. “My friend. Back home. Marry young, beautiful girl from the country. She was the daughter of a farmer. He was disappointed in his career because the Communists say he must be construction, but he wanted to study painting. So. One day he works on building near marketplace where farmers come from the country to sell, you know . . . ,” he groped for the word, pushing on his forehead, “. . . vegetables.”
“Weggie tables? I don’t even want to know what those are.” Abner laughed.
“You know what I am trying to say to you! There is a man and his daughter. They have stand. But in their eyes the city is something big and the construction are something big as well. He go to the farmer, his name is Tomás. He say, ‘Do you grow these cabbage yourself?’ All the while looking at his daughter with meaning. Tomás says, ‘I grow them. And for you, friend, the price is nothing.’ My friend takes a cabbage and eats it for lunch. The cabbage gives him terrible gases. But he sees the farmer every day while they work at that place. More, he sees the daughter, and notices in her eyes. A something. She want to attract his attention, but she want to appear shy also. You know?”
“The women. You know. They will put themselves in front of you for you to take them. Like flowers. Is this not how the world has always worked?”
“Shouldn’t you be watching the desk?”
“Listen to this. The girl. You see. Wanted to get out of the countryside, wanted to be in the city where everything was taking place. There was always the feeling then that soon we would be free, and that in the city we would be free first. She used to say, ‘Ugh, the pigs!’ Or, ‘Ugh, the chickens!’ My friend tells her, at the cinema they show Russian movies of the farmers scything wheat with bold happy expressions. She laughs and says, ‘I have never seen a farmer smile in the field. Only when singing drinking songs!’” Pavel waits for Abner to laugh. He doesn’t. “You do not know farmers. My friend and this girl get married. She redoes his small rooms. Moves bed. Puts sheet over dinner table. Then she moves everything again. When my friend comes home from working construction, he is tired. She is waiting for him, holding purse in her lap, wanting to go out. She makes many friends of young girls, and they go places they are not supposed to. They are out late, beyond curfew. And one day she says to him, ‘Ugh, you are so boring.’ And she has a new man, a younger man who sells American clothing on the black market. She leaves my friend. Like that.”
Pavel, his cigarette complete, smacks his hands together, and looks at Abner as though he has proven his point.
“Sounds to me like your friend couldn’t satisfy his lady,” says Abner, still looking out into the street.
“No!” says Pavel, wine-colored blotches summoned to his cheeks. “She could not be satisfy. My friend good man. Manly man. He know!”
“Whatever you say, man.”
As a taxi slowed, Abner went to the curb and, when it stopped in front of him, opened the door and removed himself from its opening with a practiced turn of heel. Out of the taxi’s rear door, a woman and two tow-haired children. From the front, the father, in a topcoat with a black velvet collar. He slipped a tip into Abner’s white glove, deftly made available to him.
The boy, holding up a plastic airplane, made flying noises over to Pavel. Pavel nodded down at the boy to acknowledge he had seen the plane and now the boy could go away.
“Come along, Bucky,” said the father. “Time to change for dinner.”
The boy ran over to his father and crashed into his leg.
Abner held open the hotel door and the family disappeared inside.
As the glass sheet silently closed, Abner moved close to Pavel and said, “None of them’s ever gonna get wit you. You know that right?”
“You know? You know! You don’t know the women.”
Pavel pushed past Abner and went inside.
* * * *
“Does the London broil come with a potato?” Margaret stretched her neck above the top of a menu so tall and wide that it threatened to blot her out.
“Excuse me?” asked the waiter. While he had been waiting for her order, pen poised at a supercilious angle, his look had drifted to the bartender who was mouthing some message to him. When she spoke, his attention slung back toward Margaret.
She repeated her question, more meekly.
“Yes,” he answered. “All entrees come with a baked potato and dinner salad.”
“And this . . .” In response to his attention, her voice reanimated. “With the scallops. This is a cream sauce? Or did you tell me that already? I lost track. I only ask because I’m lactose intolerant.”
The waiter seemed to feel that, having asked this question once, and been answered, her repetition must be rhetorical.
Gillian, who had placed her order long ago, said, “I think you’ll be very happy with the fillet.”
“Do you think?”
The waiter’s head swiveled again toward the bar. A muscle behind his ear contracted, shifting a gray lump of shaved scalp.
“Excuse me. Yoo-hoo,” she said, “I would like the chef’s salad with no ham, please. And French dressing. No. Make that balsamic vinaigrette.”
Margaret handed over the menu with a look of determination.
Gillian hummed a melody from the show and sipped a Tom Collins, watching her sister with a wry contraction of the eyebrows.
“Look how much nicer that waitress is,” Margaret said. “Do you think she could be ours?”
As the waitress leaned over a patron’s shoulder, answering questions about pointed-to entrees, the neck of her black sweater hung low.
“They’re assigned quadrants.” Gillian added, “It’s a system,” and returned to her humming.
“But if we requested . . . ,” and before her sister could stop her, Margaret had jingled her charm bracelets in the air.
“May I help you?” asked the girl.
“We would prefer to have you serving us,” she said.
The waitress’s blue eyes concentrated upon something interior, withdrawn far from the yeasty, meatsmell maelstrom of the steakhouse. It was hung with green-shaded lamps but dark wood panels soaked up all excess light. Thick, red velour booths were chipped in areas of heavy-bottomed traffic. Tourist families fresh from shows—boys writhing in blazers, girls tap-dancing in patent leather shoes—fought to be heard over the din. Strands of hair floated off her head in the overheated aridity.
“It’s really okay, dear,” said Gillian. “We’re sorry to bother you.”
“The thing is,” Margaret persisted, “our waiter is somewhat rude and you look so nice.”
“I couldn’t take a table from Mario. This is his section.”
“Marge, see. Leave the poor girl alone. She has enough work for tonight.” Gillian gestured to the restaurant.
“Are you from Minnesota?” Margaret asked. Each syllable of the state rose to the next.
The girl’s face brightened in reply. “Iowa. But my mom’s a Minnesotan. She and Dad met at Iowa State. People say I picked up Mom’s accent.” She paused, her glazed look drifted briefly off, and she added, “I’m here to dance.”
A man in a lime green turtleneck signaled to the waitress with a rattle of ice.
“That’s sweet. We’re from Wisconsin. You see, I’m not sure we’re going to stay here unless you agree to our demand.”
“That’s not true,” said Gillian.
“But we’d be happier if you’d help us.” Margaret reached around to pat the waitress’s hand, which was resting on her chair. The girl moved her hand away and rubbed the back of her neck.
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“That was so easy,” Margaret said, and took a sip of her tomato juice. “There’s no reason to suffer.”
“You’re always making the serving girls suffer. You made that stewardess suffer, looking for peanuts, when airlines don’t serve peanuts anymore, they serve carrot sticks and rice cakes. Peanuts are chock-full of saturated fats.”
“She didn’t mind.”
“Everybody minds, dear.”
The harried dancer served them their platters without any additional friendliness.
As they were exiting the restaurant Gillian and Margaret carefully avoided the frozen puddles on either side of the plastic that sheathed the entranceway. Falling temperatures and wan streetlights had thrown a yellow crust over the formerly damp sidewalk. Nearby, two men stood smoking. The bartender prodded their original waiter’s chest with his index finger.
“That guy’s a slime. A fucking slime. And you’re a disgrace. You know that? A disgrace.”
“And you don’t know what you’re talking about,” said their waiter. “You never do.”
The waiter looked at Margaret with studied sang-froid. Gillian pulled her sister along.
With that, he flicked away his cigarette. It bounced once, emitting a few pale sparks, and extinguished in the damp of the gutter.
* * * *
Margaret was kneeling in front of a small refrigerator. “According to the menu, these two cookies dipped in chocolate cost ten dollars. Would you like five dollars’ worth of cookie? I’ll split them with you.”
No response from behind the door. Margaret could hear, however, a hollow drip and the shifting of water as her sister moved. Gillian had heard and was ignoring her deliberately. Well, a lifetime of sisterhood, especially twindom, inured you to casual slights and deliberate insults. She returned the packet of cookies to the minifridge and sat down to a pile of brochures: bus tours, boat rides, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Bronx Zoo.
The hotel was more luxurious than any she had stayed in before. Though the trip had been her idea, Gillian was footing the bill. Her own wage from the pottery store, where she sold local-looking crafts to vacationers visiting the lakeside town of Racine, would never have covered it. This was one thing that could be said for her sister’s Henry: he had provided for Gillian. Now that he was gone, she was comfortable. Pension, investments, property, life insurance. The one thing.
She got up and retrieved the cookies and sat down again, hoping that she could eat both before Gillian emerged. Sisterhood taught you to eat in secret, and quickly, if you preferred not to share.
The table stood next to three windows hidden behind gold curtains. But glass and cloth could not completely muffle the city. As if she were inside a greenhouse set down in a rain forest, the life on the outside was undeniable. As she expanded the accordion folds of a guide, she thought she heard the regular texture of sound broken by someone moaning. Or, not so much a moan. Like a woman who had been so deeply injured that only a uninflected, Ooo could escape her lips. She squelched the instinct to alert her sister, having been so recently rebuffed. The trip was about Gillian; she should be allowed to relax as much as she could. But the sound plucked a fine wire of sympathy and her curiosity hummed along with it.
She cocked her head and held still. Occasionally she blinked and then adjusted her head to a new angle. She moaned to herself, modulating timbre internally, trying to hear pain expressed rather than a distant elevator groaning through its shaft or the too-near copulation of honeymooners. The volume of the sound rose and fell, like a boat at anchor on Lake Michigan. There was a moment when she hit it right, constricted her lips and turned the oowe into an oou, and harmonized the sound outside with that inside her mouth. This vibrated the bones of her skull and ear, a sensation familiar from choir when she and the other sopranos voiced in unison. She put a hand to her chest. Tears gathered behind her eyes.
She got up and pressed her ear against the bathroom door and heard the muffled dripping and the slurp of a leg breaching the surface and getting soaped. No oou. She would have been surprised to find its origin there. Gillian was not one to keen or sigh. Silence, not expression, had carried her through her recent surgery, and her marriage before that. Perhaps Margaret hoped to find her sister letting some of it out, the beginning of what could have been a flood. But no, the sound was definitely coming from the region of the table and windows.
On the street below a siren arrived then passed, echoing between the buildings. The sound stopped. The minifridge shuddered on. A shower was choked off in a room nearby, announcing its former aural presence with abrupt absence. Margaret tilted her head. When she heard the sound again it was so close that it could have been in her lap.
She pulled back the curtain, revealing her reflection and that of the spacious room behind her. She jimmied loose a brass rod resting in the window track.
A blast of air tightened the skin of her face and the amplified sound rushed in, now an avian coo. Margaret covered her eyes as a flapping flurry—she thought it the blown curtain—came at her face. As she struggled to close the window, she put together the cooing with the flapping, and the bird was created in her mind in that instant and born whole into the air. She had sealed it into the room.
“What on earth are you doing?” came her sister’s voice from behind the bathroom door.
“Nothing. Nothing . . . ,” said Margaret. “Relax, take care of yourself.”
The red-rimmed, black-bead eyes of a white-and-gray mottled pigeon stared at her. It perched above the round face of an old-fashioned alarm clock, two feet between two golden bells. The pigeon was silent and moved its head about with the circumspection of a man who, hands in his pockets, had just stepped off of a train.
* * * *
When Gillian heard the refrigerator close she was standing in front of the mirror, water droplets slipping down from the edges of where she had wiped away the steam. She tried not to look at her hair color, muted, at least, by dampness. And she rebuked herself for vanity when it didn’t matter, not really. And she rebuked herself for attributing moral failing to a simple human instinct to want to look good—she shouldn’t have yelled at Margaret about wearing those silly shoes. It was only a residue of how she had learned to be from her husband. Now she could be as vain as she liked, if she liked. But perhaps she didn’t like. She wasn’t yet sure how to be without him.
With her left hand she lifted her breast and with her right applied vitamin E oil to the lumpectomy scar, which had retained a jagged pinkness. She could still taste the buttery grease of steak in her mouth. When she finished rubbing in the oil she wanted to give her teeth a good brushing. Red meat reminded her of Henry, whom she had found on the floor in the basement darkroom a year before, dead of his second heart attack, a strip of negatives clenched in his chalky fist. Henry had loved to eat: surf and turf at the country club on Sunday night was his favorite, his metal cup of melted butter empty by the time the plates were cleared. And she had indulged him with hamburgers and homemade French fries, T-bone steaks from the grill on summer Saturdays with slabs of salted beefsteak tomatoes as a side, potato salad thick with mayo (bacon bits sprinkled on top); all of it after their first warning. To make him lean back and smack his belly—to see what his love might be like. The fillet was the flavor of Henry’s mouth on hers thanking her for a meal, the surge of fats and starches momentarily softening him. She ate steak tonight as a memorial—she’d sworn off red meat after the funeral—and enjoyed it, and hoped that somehow he had been able to enjoy it, too, although she doubted any circumstance (heaven, etc.) in which such sharing might occur: marriage to Henry had eroded her early years of faith. And anyway, maybe he shouldn’t enjoy her steak. All that meat, after all, had done him in.
“What on earth are you doing?” she said to the door, picturing her sister engaged in some foolish project, like examining a decorative vase to see where it had been made, instead of simply enjoying its patterns and colors, and then dropping it.
She reminded herself that her own projects were equally vain: they had come to New York to celebrate her survival, her health, which would not have been necessary if her own abnormal cell division had not collected into a lump in the first place; she applied the oil to make her scar heal better, though no one but her would ever see the scar; she had lived and Henry had died; her existence seemed to matter less without him, though she was sorry this was true. Of course, she wouldn’t, at all, wish she had taken his place. No, she was, all in all, happy to be alive, albeit alone in the big house.
As she screwed the vial closed and washed her hands, she became aware of a muffled commotion on the other side of the door and wondered again what Margaret could be up to. She put on her glasses, retightened the towel around her waist—not wanting to wipe away the cool E before it was absorbed—and opened the door to the sight of her sister and a small man in a large suit standing near one of the beds, a white sheet held wide between them.
* * * *
Pavel and Margaret turned at the sound of Gillian opening the bathroom door and the pigeon that they had been sneaking up on exploded from its resting place, flew across the room, released a milky turd into the combed blue sea of the carpet, and alighted on the dresser.
“We have a visitor!” said Margaret, indicating the bird.
“Good evening,” said Pavel, and turned his head and then his eyes away from Gillian’s chest.
Her sister’s semi-nakedness had not quite registered with Margaret until Mr. Pavel looked away. Gillian had already retreated into the bathroom as quickly as she had emerged. Margaret wanted to go to her, but here was the man, and the bird, and her culpability for them.
The sheet now sagged between them, draping the floor like a fallen backdrop.
“My sister is a breast cancer survivor.”
“The miracles of modern science are truly great,” said Pavel.
“You got more than you bargained for tonight.”
By unspoken agreement they raised the sheet again, higher on Margaret’s end. The pigeon feigned casual ambivalence to their mounting attack by slowly bobbing its head. They caught each other’s eye and, in unison, parachuted the sheet over the bird.
A spasmodically jerking, swaddled, bounding panic unleashed itself under the sheet. Margaret and Pavel held down their corners so it wouldn’t shake loose.
He answered with quick folds of the sheet, and the pigeon was knotted up and secured in his armpit. In the stillness that followed, broken only by the stirring of Pavel’s parcel, he looked at her and blinked dark eyes set in a rosé face.
“You will join me in the bar for a drink?” he said, as insistently as he has asked her to join him for a tour of the city, and with the same admixture of question and command.
Margaret was a handsome woman who had spent her life successfully fending off the approaches of men, but it was harder to deny a man holding a pigeon in the quiet of your hotel room, your twin sister suffering humiliation in the bathroom, than she could have predicted.
“I’ll be down in a minute,” she said. “But you will release the pigeon to the air and then wash your hands first,” she said, and thus retrieved some advantage. “I’ve heard them called flying rats.”
* * * *
Gillian heard herself saying again to Henry that first time, “Do you want to come in?”
As she leaned against the closed bathroom door she noticed the pillowy thickness of two white robes neatly folded above the toilet.
What did she care anyway, at sixty-six? Modesty begins with the training bra and ends in the oncologist’s office with you sitting there as cold as pewter, the doctor saying, as if lining up a putt, “This is going to be an easy one.” Still, it was as impossible to stanch the flow of blood to your cheeks as it was to stop any other biological process. She remembered in sixth grade when they had gone to a lakey summer camp in the UP. There had been a bag of walnuts sent from home and a boy with a nutcracker: Paul or Peter, one of the apostles. Mostly she remembered his ubiquity of freckles, visible even at the corners of eyes and in the creases of knuckles. Margaret had come upon them innocently eating behind a cabin. The moment her sister’s blond hair and mischievous eyes popped out from behind a corner, she swallowed the first sick gulps of adult shame. That night, the girls in their cabin giggling as Margaret embellished her tale, Gillian had lain on a sleeping bag in a hot flood. It was awful that you couldn’t change things about yourself by an act of will. Nothing changes. Not ever. Or that’s how it feels when you try to get away and find yourself back at the origin, like a board game when you make a bad roll: tonight they would sleep side by side in the hotel room as they had at that camp and for the previous eighteen years, four more in college, and never since, though it would feel as familiar as their mother’s face or the smell of Vitalis in Henry’s hair, even more so, even more strongly, almost as if Henry never was, as if their marriage were an inconsequential blip when viewed in retrospect. But, in another way, the gap was an unconquerable void that separated her from her sister and their early life.
She had tried.
When Henry had first arrived to pick her up at their college apartment on State Street in Madison, his face as red as if he had been slapped on both cheeks, she invited him in to meet her sister. It was December and he wore a black parka and a houndstooth scarf. His hair had been carefully oiled and parted, then frozen solid. Gillian’s heart was a tomato so full of juice it had split open and was dripping. At their high school she had been asked on dates but had never gone steady, while for her sister the phone had rung so frequently that the Stutweilers, with whom their family shared a party line, had complained. Margaret had said, “What can I do? I don’t ask them to call. Tell the operator not to connect them if you like.” And that was hard, harder still because Margaret didn’t seem to care. A few boys called for Gillian, but none had stirred her so much as Henry—a man really, a law student, possessing manhood’s apparent absence of affect—and she couldn’t imagine why he had called. They weren’t in a sorority—Margaret had seen to that. He was attractive and from Milwaukee, wealthy enough to own a car, when her own parents shared one. Not that she gave a hoot for wealth, but her experience had been that social life at the University of Wisconsin was organized by rigid barriers: even beatniks maintained closed codes in their bongo-playing quest for openness. She and her sister had always remained a unit outside of other designations. But here was a man, a confident man, who seemed to know what to say, and when—articulate to a degree approaching pedantry—and he wanted her. In response to her invitation, he said, “I’ve left the car running. We should probably go.” Frank and dispassionate they were, but there was nothing from that moment forward that would have stopped Gillian from marrying him, not even Margaret, who did not get to meet him that first night.
After she and Henry had been going together for a few months (Henry, removing his pipe, knocking it against his shoe: “I wonder if you would consider being my steady?”), Margaret said, as they lay in the darkness across the room from each other, “You’ll have to cook for him, you know, and you know what else.”
Gillian pictured herself doing both, and smiled in the darkness.
“And he’s such a cold stick,” said her sister.
“He’s very sharp, actually. Did you think we would live together forever?”
“I thought you might pursue a career at least.”
“I’ll be a certified teacher. And what is it you’re majoring in, exactly? Variety?”
“True callings are difficult to uncover. Nothing feels comfortable to me.”
“This is the last year, you know. Dad’s done paying after May.”
“We can’t all win scholarships. But it doesn’t matter anyway. It won’t matter, if you go off with him.”
But Gillian didn’t hear her sister, or didn’t consider what her words might mean, her thoughts had beat forward through the air into her future with Henry (hope is the thing with feathers, she had read the poem in a class that same year), a man who had pursued her, and, up until the day he died, had been as a part of her definition of herself as Margaret had been for their first twenty-one years. Hopes fly forward, ahead of your readiness, pull you along to the strangest places. But now, where was she? Back at the beginning? By choice or circumstance? Guilt fluttered in her chest: she remembered Henry’s doctor telling her of foods he shouldn’t eat, remembered her hands unwrapping the bacon, the pork chops, unpacking the ice cream from the brown-paper freezer bag. Had her actions brought her here? And where was that? Vacation? New York? Old Age, that chillest land?
Now she was covered up at least, the robe providing a welcome softness and warmth. When she exited the bathroom, the room was empty of Eastern European front-desk attendants, empty of twin sisters, empty of pigeons.
On the table, amid disordered pamphlets, a half-eaten biscotti lay in a ring of crumbs.
* * * *
Pavel waited behind the glass doors until Abner was elbow-lifting an elderly woman from a cab, then passed behind Abner and down the street, keeping before him his well-disguised parcel. He ducked into the mouth of an alley, put the sheet on the ground, and unfolded it.
As he did so he became aware of a group of people watching him from the mouth of the alley. It was the family of four. They were clean, well dressed, and happy, as American as an advertisement for toothpaste, and they were watching him, a dark, misshapen Czech, release a flying rat. They probably are believing that I am a Romanian, he thought bitterly, or Russian, my pathetic father, afraid to lose job, gave me Russian name to curry favor with local political officer. When these Americans returned to their suburb and the country club that awaited them, they would regale friends with the strangeness of the scene. A little man and his pigeon in a garbage-heaped, chicken-broth-and-curdled-milk-smelling alley. Before, to them he was merely a foreigner and a servant; now, another travestied inhabitant of the city, laughable and threatening at once.
He stepped back from the sheet, clamping down his left cuff with his right foot and stumbling; he heard again the woman from Q&R Uniforms saying, “You already got our smallest size.”
The girl asked her mother something; the mother leaned down; the girl nodded solemnly. Their white breath escaped in puffs.
The pigeon sat in the middle of the sheet, motionless and stunned. It looked at Pavel. Pavel looked at it. The fact that the vacationers were watching him made his face burn. He wanted to slice its head off, pluck its feathers, roast it on a spit.
He kicked at it and was surprised to make solid contact. A metallic warble issued from deep within the bird’s throat. He heard the girl’s high-pitched outburst behind him and then a shuffling. The pigeon flew to a nearby fire escape and roosted as if nothing it had ever done had ever affected anyone. Pavel gathered up the sheet with the feeling that anything was possible, a single stroke had dispersed all that was bothering him.
“How you making out there P-man?” Abner’s basso chuckle followed him inside until the doors closed.
* * * *
“I am a dedicated spinster, Mr. Pavel.”
When Margaret had reached the lobby Pavel had eagerly vectored to intercept her. He appeared to have shrunk from his already diminutive size and been inserted into a pair of black jeans and a black T-shirt. The clothing revealed a great deal of wiry ripple. It was impossible not to picture him doing an Eastern Bloc calisthenics routine on a daily basis, squatting with his arms straight out, one-two-three repeat, but the outcome suggested something miniaturized and undernourished. Cologne-smothered cigarette-scent floated through the air like a tossed stone and caught her on the nose, bringing tears to her eyes. Overall, he looked like a licorice jelly bean and smelled like a Duty Free.
He led her to the empty hotel bar. Two spotlights on two bar stools and two martini glasses filled with silver fluid, the olives like drowned frogs at the bottom of swimming pools. The apparent planning that had gone into the tableau had caused her to make her statement, which was a simplified version of the truth, or what she knew about it at least.
Mr. Pavel thought about this for a long time and she was unclear whether it was the word itself that he did not understand or that his mind was scripting verbal stratagems to circumvent the problem it offered.
“This mean, you like woman?”
“I’ve never quite figured it out,” she said. “Ah. There. I’ve shocked you.”
“But you are a mature woman.”
“Gillian would say not. Gillian would say I never grew up.”
“Gillian is . . . ?” Pavel smiled with poorly disguised lasciviousness and pointed up. His lips revealed a brown tooth.
The thought of her sister’s nakedness recalled not twenty minutes but six months ago, sitting in an overheated waiting room, numbly flipping through pages of smiling starlets, insulted by their gloss and mirth, trying to still the trembling in her knees. Waiting there, it had felt like swallowing some tarry paste, cold and indigestible. Now she had left Gill alone . . . and after that scene . . . and what she must be feeling.
“I should go,” she said.
“But you promised one drink.”
“I promised I would join you in the bar. Alcohol has never passed these lips.”
“You do not drink?”
Pavel’s shoulders sunk. “American women are very difficult to please.”
“Thank you for the gesture, however. And thank you for the assistance.” She slipped off the stool. In a hallway nearby a vacuum clicked on. Pavel looked around, confused.
“Then you must . . . continue joining me as I drink my drink,” which he downed in two prodigious gulps, spilling a trickle down one cheek, “and yours.” He split the stem of the second glass with his fingers and pulled it across the wood.
Margaret remained standing.
“How old are you Mr. Pavel?”
“It is just Pavel,” he said.
“You are an adult, correct? Well beyond the middle years?”
He nodded and held the second glass up to his nose and breathed in.
“What must you be thinking?”
“I do not understand you.”
“It occurs to me to wonder what you must be thinking.” She raised her voice to make her meaning clearer.
“I do not understand!”
Silver fluid sloshed over the lip of his glass.
“I mean what you want from me I do not have to give. Romance . . . dancing, lovemaking. Is that what you were thinking?” She twirled a finger in the air to indicate an entire world of human interaction.
“You are very beautiful,” he said. “We capture bird together.”
“God,” she said. “You’re like a starved badger.”
“What is this?”
“A badger will do anything to eat.”
“You do not understand me.”
“I’m afraid I do.”
“My life here is so lonely,” he said, and took a drink. “I work in the nighttime and sleep during the day. I ride train, two hours each way. I was supposed to get a job as a painter but that did not come to be. I send money to my mother and she writes to say, ‘Why is there not more money. In America everyone is wealthy. Why are you not?’ I share apartment with Jamaican man who smokes ganja at all hours and does not wash hair. Do you smoke ganja?”
“I have no idea what that word means,” she answered.
He raised both hands to his nose and made a wafting gesture: “It smells so bad.”
“Are not others from your country?” she said, having picked up Mr. Pavel’s stilted speech.
“The others have family, wives. Or they drive taxis so that they live inside of them.”
“One splashed me today.”
“Those that I see, we have the same problems. How do we get wife? How do we get own apartment? How do we get a little . . . repose?” This was a new word for him, and he paused, unsure if he used it correctly. “But we do nothing. In the morning everything is always the same.”
She consciously tried to register sympathy, though it was hard, with the great gulf between them, to imagine what his life might feel like. What did his words mean to her? Nothing. It wouldn’t matter, really, except that there was someone nearby who meant the world to her.
“You were never married?” she asked.
“Yes. I married a girl. But she went with another man. Then, two years later I get note on paper from her: ‘Please, Pavel, send one hundred koruna to such-and-such a hospital.’ I did not even have the money to send. She died and because I was still her husband I was billed for the burial. I came here rather than pay.”
“My sister, you know, could have died. I don’t know what I would have done.” She wanted to get back upstairs.
“We must live while we can . . . ,” he said, and leaned toward her, his eyes returned to their purpose.
“I should go.”
He reached out for her, clenching his jaw as he did so.
“I’m sorry for your loneliness, but . . .”
He waved a hand through the air in a gesture she didn’t understand.
“Goodnight,” she said more tenderly than she expected. He tried to put his hand on top of hers. She withdrew it. “Thank you for your help with the pigeon.”
* * * *
Betrayal. She would have liked to push the word out before the elevator door closed, but it followed Margaret into the elevator, and stayed with her as she was pulled silently upward. Mr. Pavel had been betrayed by his wife and had run to an inhospitable country. She had betrayed Gillian by letting the bird and the hotel employee into their room. She should have just let everything be. Not touched anything. She wanted to apologize. Put things back where they were. They were together again after many years, no reason to emphasize old divisions, even though—it was impossible to ignore—that she had been betrayed first.
That was it . . . what she always felt. Gillian had left her behind when she got married, left her with nowhere to go, and no one to accompany her. This broke an unspoken promise that had glued them together throughout their young life. She couldn’t even imagine the motivation for it. The attraction to Henry—and Henry himself—supported no empathy . . . his first appearance, when he couldn’t even bring himself to come inside to meet her. And she remembered the stinging sensation that often followed her visits to their house on Fair Lane, that housing development of cultivated homogeneity—when at least Henry was home. She wondered if it had been lucky after all that they all ended up in the same town, for those visits only enforced their distance and reawakened his reticence, his tendency to offer only inconsiderate pat advice, and that gruffly.
If she were talking to her sister about the state of her finances he would intone: “Roth IRA, that’s what someone in your situation really needs.”
If her car wasn’t running well, he would say: “Take it to Bob’s. They’re the only ones in this town who do good work.”
It wasn’t of course what he said but how he said it. To Henry, Margaret was a puzzle that needed solving: once solved she could be ignored, and, eventually, forgotten. Then there wouldn’t be this other person distracting his wife from her dedication to him and his needs. But he was never able to eradicate Margaret to his satisfaction and so attempted to erase her bit by bit.
“What about a correspondence course in library science?”
“A second mortgage will bury you, financially speaking.”
“The best birding in town is in Griffith Park, why don’t you go there?”
She wondered . . . if she had married, or even, just, well, she didn’t quite like to think about what it would have been like, but had she been with April somehow . . . she wondered if Gillian would have felt the same as she always had: that she had been left to bob alone in a rowboat in the middle of the lake. But April would not have treated Gillian as Henry treated her. April would have understood. Henry was a man, and suffered from manhood’s most common affectation: that to him fell the burden of strength and wisdom.
April was a woman.
She should never have let April flower in her mind, should never have let possibility become hope. She was always allowing the wrong thing to happen. Cause-and-effect was the sensation of failing to control your life, familiar to all people, not unreasonable—but really, she’d had enough. All fault lay with her: the idea of the trip—hers—the opening of the window—hers—Mr. Pavel—hers—Gillian’s embarrassment—hers—Mr. Pavel’s continued loneliness—hers, but only partly.
Lake Michigan becomes steelier the first week in September, as if it were alloyed with the autumn sky, brightening later and darkening earlier. The jetties go greasy, and the childless swing sets at the waterfront park sway in the wind. This hit her harder each year, and to counteract this seasonal disaffection she threw herself into activities. Each year St. Thomas sponsored a scarecrow-making contest that had become something of a Thing, drawing Chicagoans north along the lakeshore to see artistic takes on a straw-stuffed shirt with a hanger for shoulders. The contest and fair took place around the traditional harvest time and the entrance fees went to fund Meals On Wheels. For years Margaret had been the director, but that summer April—the former director of a nonprofit—joined the congregation and Reverend Gleasan suggested she help out. In retrospect, Margaret realized that the reverend had been conspiring. He should have kept his wine-red nose out of it.
April wore to their first meeting a purple sweater with a large peacock on it. Her face was tautened by care and moisturizers, and she looked as though she had eaten heartily since birth. Her voice was husky with a playful edge to it, declaring, always, which idea was “far more practical,” and saying, always, “Let’s just go with it.” Margaret found herself desperate to impress this woman, racking her brains in bed at night to find a solution to the overabundance of portfolios they had received that year (due in part to April’s advertisements), and putting together her Sunday outfit with greater care and a busier, more self-critical eye. During coffee hour her orbit never broke free of April’s pleasant gravity. She listened to her opinions on food and wine, art and leisure, worlds of thought with delicious ridges to them, theretofore as remote to Margaret as the Sistine Chapel or Japanese calligraphy.
The only hint of what was to come was April’s answer to her question of why she moved north. “For that you would have to ask Cassandra DeFortino, professor of art history, University of Chicago. But whatever you do, don’t believe her answer. Cassie, you’ll find, is a liar of the first order.”
A few weeks before Halloween, they were in the galley kitchen of the church annex doing the dishes as they had signed up to do. Margaret, soap and brush; April, rinse and dry. Their shoulders bumped as they leaned together for the handoff . . . cup after cup, saucer after saucer. Margaret becoming more and more aware of the contact, her face growing hotter and hotter. She kept checking April through the corner of her eye to see if any change was visible, and saw only her half-closed eyes and a flush that may have come from the steamy water. The moment seemed the denouement of all those previous: already decided, already accepted. Now there was only the quiver of it through her body.
When they reached the end of the cups they stood there in silence, looking at the sink. The church was empty, the parishioners gone to golf or youth soccer, the reverend in the stone rectory around back. It was as if they were molded into a clear Jell-O exactly that far apart from each other. To lean forward was impossible, to pull away equally impossible. Margaret stood still, every action closed to her. Finally, April turned toward her and rolled her eyes and said, “Let’s just do this, shall we?” and Margaret ran from the building, kicking off her high heels to do so, and drove dangerously fast out of the church parking lot.
Betrayal? Perhaps not, but it began then. She couldn’t talk to April after that and left her to handle the contest on her own. She hid out in her little house, avoiding Gillian and Henry, unwilling to display her confusion, her always-again-indecision, believing that they wouldn’t understand, or that he wouldn’t, and she had then to admit, after twenty-five years, that she didn’t have her sister without him anymore.
Now she stood outside their room and wondered why she had never told her sister of April, of any of this. But the answer wasn’t one that would arise in such conditions as these: the long hallway was too much a void, the night too accented with pigeons and Pavels.
* * * *
Finding her sister inexplicably missing after having recently been both present and strangely engaged, with the lump of guilt returned as it hadn’t since before her surgery, Gillian decided to get some fresh air, perhaps return to the camera store that had given her such a powerful memory of Henry, maybe buy herself a pocket-sized instant.
Outside, the collective bustle had been subdued, and the night had grown colder. The gutter slush was solidifying and ghostly sheets had replaced the windshields of parked cars. She checked her watch and was surprised to find it nearly midnight. They had returned from dinner well after ten. How long had she spent in the bath? How long cowering? It would be smarter to turn around and return to the safety of her hotel room. But the room was warm with steam and embarrassment and the night air reminded her of the town along the lake. It couldn’t be dangerous. The hotels in the area all had doormen.
As she turned onto the avenue the wind caught her shoulders and penetrated her coat at the knees. She leaned forward and held the split closed, walking awkwardly on, eyes watering. Yet the sensation was almost pleasant in its familiarity. Passing traffic seemed distant and unreal, from another world, despite the peal of an engine at a newly green light. In the window of a jewelry store, denuded necks waited patiently for morning.
What she took at first to be the camera store was knit inside a steel cage, but its flashy cornucopia remained on display. But there was a crack in the glass and no DEALS, only a yellowed ELECTRONIC REPAIR AND SALES. The other one had been nearer the theater, a long way away, though the block looked the same to her. The confusion of location—combined with alcohol, meat, musical numbers, pigeons—dizzied her and she clung to the cold mesh gate for balance.
Photography had been Henry’s secret from the world, his private face. He rarely showed her the results, but when he did—such as the white duck near a patch of day lilies—he made it silently apparent that comment or critique would not be necessary. But shortly after his first heart attack he decided to do her portrait and asked her to wear her old black velvet dress with the lace collar, and her short string of pearls, and to sit on an ornate chair left to them by Henry’s wealthy grandmother. She wondered as she dressed if this were how he saw her, clad in funereal shades, as some kind of Quaker matron? When she had a heart that dripped like a split tomato for him?
“Chin. Lift your chin up a bit,” he said.
“The hand on your knee needs to go a little this way,” he said.
And he fiddled with the light screens and a reflective umbrella that concealed the flash.
The black cylinder of the camera stared sternly in her direction and he would look down into the back of it and squeeze a kind of syringe between his fingers. The flood of light made her wince.
“Hold still,” he said.
“Is the light too much?” she asked.
“Goddamnit!” he said to the camera. “Just hold still.”
He depressed the syringe again: in that thudding flash of light she believed she had wasted her entire life in service to a man who stood before her with a face wrinkled into hatred, his brown pathetic stance like a vulture looming over her. She wanted to tear the pearls from her neck, scatter them to the floor, like in the movies, but shrank from the drama of that. Instead, she got up, changed back into sensible slacks and a flannel shirt, and began uxorially to prepare his dinner: pork chops stuffed with spinach and bacon, French fries on the side. For herself, a salad with sliced tomatoes.
When her husband was finished with the meal, he leaned back in his chair and smiled at her, offering forgiveness. She stood and began clearing the table.
As she was standing there in front of the camera store a family of four passed behind her and she turned to look. The children were prattling on about pigeons—the birds were inescapable, it seemed—and the father was saying, “But this avenue is going north and we have to go south. If we hail a cab now it’ll have to go around the block.”
Gillian watched the two children and wondered what her life would have been like if she could have had some of her own. Would Henry have softened, been a happier man? Would life with him have been less deserted?
She left the imprisoned cameras to watch the quieting street.
The family wandered on, heading the wrong direction.
* * * *
“There you are,” said Gillian, before the steamy inside air condensed on her glasses.
“There you are,” said Margaret, who was sitting on one of the beds, legs crossed, a boot in one hand.
“I was getting some air.”
“I was getting that man’s life story.”
“I’m so sorry.”
“Oh. It’s fine. It made him feel better.”
“I mean, I shouldn’t have yelled at you about the shoes. After all, you didn’t say anything about my hair.”
“What’s there to say?”
“I’m sorry about the bird. I didn’t know, of course.”
“These things happen.”
“A lot happens,” said Gillian. “My wheels are about to come off.”
“Mine too,” said Margaret.
They applied face cream, brushed their teeth. A miniature domestic routine worked out perfectly, with perfect sharing of the bathroom and the antechamber sink and mirror. They buttoned up their nightgowns and retrieved their mystery novels and placed them on the shared nightstand. They set the alarm clock to get an early start on the next day.
Neither could read, but sleep would not come. Each rubbed her feet together to warm the end of the bed. They smoothed the coverlets free of wrinkles. The mattresses were softer than they were used to and gravity glued them there, books broken open on their chests, sunken and immobile.
A long quiet ensued.
“Perhaps now you can come and live with me,” said Gillian, her words seeming to echo. “It is, after all, such a big house.”
Margaret folded back her sheets in response.
* * * *
In the dark at the bar Pavel rested his head on his knitted fingers, elbows hanging over the edge of the wood. A single bottle stood empty next to him, its metal bar spout removed and lying on its side. He lifted his head drowsily and dropped to the ground. He felt his way through the tables, bumping several with his arm and angrily pushing himself away. In the morning the breakfast crew would find the upturned chairs ready to fall.
His co-worker snored in the office off the front desk as he searched the drawer for the master keycard.
Each step away from the elevator sank and rooted him for a minute before he forced another to come, carrying on an imagined conversation with Abner as he did so: “American women . . . you don’t know . . . they like.”
As he leaned down to insert the keycard, his jeans tightened against the hard ring of a prophylactic in his back pocket, rebuking his former hopes but reanimating his desire. His push unsealed the hush of room 1403. He tried to close the door gently but leaned too hard and slammed it into the molding. Hand flat against the door, his ears peeled back the pithy sheets of silence.
When he adjusted to the darkness his eyes focused on the white smear of the pigeon dropping that he had incompletely wiped up. He moved into the room, kneeled down, ran his fingers over the smear, and brought them to his mouth. It tasted of vinegar.
According to the hotel’s standards manual, two queen beds in a double were separated by six feet. He knew, somehow, that Margaret’s was on the left. He believed he could perform his task without waking her sister, believed that in the moment she would willingly submit, that this would be only the beginning. The future flooded his chest with warmth and security; he imagined her serving him a savory pork chop. The rhythmic rushing of blood quickened in his ears. Deep within there was a steel blade pushing its way out.
He probed the bed with his hand, moving gently up what he thought was a leg. It turned out to be a lifeless fold of cloth. He felt a smooth depression encircled by the sheets and blankets. The warmth and the emptiness and the softness transferred itself into him, and he became suddenly so sleepy that he thought he would drop to the floor. He pulled himself up to the empty bed and curled in the pocket Margaret had left.
As his eyes closed he saw the sisters together in the other bed, one with her arm overtop the other, their breathing a harmony, asleep.
Between the beds, the alarm clock ticked another minute closer to ringing.