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The Future of Electricity

2006-09-08 14:09

    "Molly," I say, "what are you doing out on the stoop?" She won't look at me, pretends to watch the neighbors walk by. At least that's what she wants me to think. Who knows what goes on inside her head? Judging by the magazines she reads - not Cosmopolitan or Vogue but computer and electronics magazines - I don't have a clue anymore. "Molly," I say, "you don't own a computer. You don't even own a television set. I ask you to watch a program I've taped on my VCR and you just shake y-" "Joanie," she says. "It's Emmett. I do it for Emmett."

    Really. That boy came by twice. Okay, maybe three or four times. I'm sorry I introduced the two - I've known Emmett's mother for years, though we're not exactly friends - a chance meeting on the street. And why should Molly fall for someone like him? A scrawny little guy with not very good teeth who comes from a family not much better off than her own. Not that Molly talks much about them, but I think I've learned a thing or two as her next door neighbor and closest friend.

    "Emmett's studying to be an electrical engineer," she says, "and I want to be his helpmate."

    "Helpmate! What are you gonna do, read him questions while he's studying?"

    "That's the idea."

    Emmett goes to City College, which is not nearly as good as State University. That's where Tom Beasely goes, a law student who used to be crazy about Molly and who still calls, I know for certain, because I heard her pick up the phone yesterday and tell him she was busy.

    "Why are you pining?" I ask Molly.

    "I'm not pining, Emmett has exams and can't see me."

    See? She contradicts herself! She prides herself on her logic, on her interest in science, despite not owning a VCR, a TV or even a microwave.

    Carrie, my nine-year-old daughter, joins us on the stoop. She climbs onto Molly's lap; Molly pets her absentmindedly as if she were a cat.

    "I like Emmett," Carrie says.

    "You haven't exchanged two words with that boy," I say. "You just want me to buy you a computer."

    ***

    I decide to see Emmett myself. Return his magazines to him. This is after Molly leaves for a pottery class and Carrie runs off to the playground. Despite my conviction that Molly is too good for Emmett, I want to ask him if he realizes what he's doing, snubbing a great girl like her? What a heart she has! How many times has she babysit for my Carrie, getting paid a lot less than the going rate? Molly answers she gets paid plenty, as a stenographer for Brophy & Sons, one of the top

    Maybe so, but she's been working there for less than a year. I walk up and enter her apartment. Scattered about I see are not only magazines and textbooks on electronics but on neurology, chemistry, biology. Why she's taken them out I have no idea; it's been two years since she's left college, I know for a fact.

    I gather Emmett's magazines and begin to walk the six blocks to his apartment. No buses are in sight, and my varicose veins begin to swell like a street vendor's balloons.

    I sit on a bench to rest. There are no shade trees, and the tenement windows catch the sun's glare like lenses. Children, barefoot and in cutoffs or less, race up and down the street, dodging traffic, screaming back at their mothers and at the irate drivers.

    I get up again and walk the remaining two blocks. What a building Emmett lives in! A third-floor walkup he shares, Molly tells me, with three other students, a place as rundown as they get before the city gets around to condemn them.

    The doorbell doesn't work, surprise. "Is Emmett home?" I yell toward the third-floor window, where I see signs of life.

    "No, he isn't." A boy, looking sleepy or ill, sticks his head out the window.

    "Where is Emmett?" I recognize this roommate, someone I see all the time, one of those boys who comes from elsewhere to ogle the local girls, too ashamed to do it in his own neighborhood.

    "Try the library," he says. "I think he's studying there." The branch is just down the street, which is fortunate because my varicose veins are beginning to sing like a Greek tragic chorus now.

    I enter the library. Emmett - I swear! - sees me and ducks down an alcove. I come after him and say, "Let's talk outside, I don't want a scene."

    After we reach the street, he says, "Mrs. Zherinovsky——"

    "Call me Joanie."

    "Uh - what've you got there?" He stares at the mailing labels of the magazines I'm holding. "My Popular Electronics? My Computer World?"

    "Molly had them."

    "Molly?" he says in disbelief. "She asked you to return them? But I love Molly," he then says and begins to sob.

    "You have a fine way of showing it. Molly thinks you're so smart. But even I understand the nature of electricity, the need for proper grounding. I want you to come talk to her right now."

    ***

    If I knew he was going to propose to her, I would have dropped off the magazines with his roommate and that would have been the end of it. "And what are you gonna live on?" I ask Molly. This is a couple of hours later, after Emmett returns to the library.

    My job will support us both," Molly says. "Besides, he graduates this spring after he passes his exams."

    The next morning she knocks on my door and asks if I will give her away at the wedding. I knew she might ask me to, and was thinking about what to say all night. Emmett, I decided, isn't a bad kid; he's never been in trouble with the law (as far as I know) and is hard working and ambitious. So what if he isn't good looking or his mother is an alcoholic?

    "Of course I'll give you away," I reply, "and help you plan the wedding as well, if you want me to."

    As we begin to make up a guest list, Molly tells me about Emmett's family on his father's side. They live on the north end, a good neighborhood. I tell her, "I thought all of Emmett's family are poor."

    "He doesn't get along with his father so they haven't been much help, as far as his education is concerned."

    "They should pay for the wedding, at least half."

    "I want to do it, I have the money, and that's that."

    The guest list includes none of Molly's relatives, though I know she has several living in the city (most of her childhood has been spent in foster homes, she has told me)。 But with so many neighbors and friends invited, not to mention Emmett's family, we decide to hold the wedding at St. Anthony's, the neighborhood church. Emmett's Catholic and Molly's Jewish (I, by the way, am agnostic), but she says she doesn't mind. Besides, for its use Father Cara will charge us next to nothing, I call a meeting of everyone in the building. This is after Molly goes to her figure modeling class. "Okay" I say, "I don't have to draw a picture. Molly doesn't have much money but she's also proud. I don't think she'll complain if we all pitch in, though."

    About ten people have shown up. They fill my living room, and Carrie runs to get extra folding chairs from the super. Everyone looks about in surprise, so used are they to seeing each other just one and two at a time.

    But all are in solidarity, all nod in agreement. Betty, my other next door neighbor, says, "I can do the catering, Joanie, and I'm sure my husband will do the printing and stationery at cost where he works."

    Most of the other neighbors also volunteer. The Langer sisters will help with the baking; Frank Dobbs, the super's son who also plays in a jazz band, will provide the music; and Jim Yardley, the photographer, will photograph the wedding.

    My Carrie will double as bridesmaid and flower girl. I, of course, will supervise everybody.

    After the others leave Betty says, "I'm glad to help, Joanie, you know that, but I thought you'd be against their marrying."

    "Molly's old enough to make up her own mind."

    "What do we know about her? She's only been in the building a couple of years."

    Okay, I'm not the suspicious type, I tend to welcome strangers with open arms. Sure, Molly's different, and doesn't gossip, cook or watch soap operas. I tell Betty, "Didn't she stay with you when you were bedridden with the flu last winter? And how many other kindnesses——"

    "I'm only saying, Joanie," Betty says gently, "to be careful where you place your own heart. The neighbors are helping mostly because you want them to."

    ***

    Well, it isn't as if my life's not full enough. My ex-husband, Frank, is pretty good with the child support payments, but I still have to wait tables at the Ruby Slipper. And Jack, the night manager, who I like and is no longer my boss since I've begun working days, has been asking me out a lot. I haven't told him yes or no yet.

    A couple weeks after the neighbors' meeting Molly enters the restaurant and sits at the counter. She is carrying, I see, textbooks on radiology and electron medicine - whatever that is. She orders coffee, and tuna on a foccacia roll.

    I ask, "You're pretty far from uptown today, aren't you, Molly? Did you want to talk to me or are you just here for the cuisine?" I know I don't have to ask about the books.

    "I have the afternoon off." She pauses. "I'm thinking of taking classes at the University. Emmett says I have a good understanding of electromagnetism and wave theory. I don't want to become a physicist, that's too abstract. But with electron medicine - neuroradiology, tomography - I can really help people." She then says slowly, "Joanie, I need to tell you something. I never thought I could love someone as much as Emmett, even if we are so much alike. I've always been spoiled a Spoiled? In foster homes? "Everyone changes," I say, though more than a little confused.

    Her hand rests on my arm despite my holding a pot of decaf. "I just want you to know that no matter what happens, how grateful I am - how grateful I'll always be."

    When she leaves, I take a break. My varicose veins have begun to throb, a regular Gene Krupa drum roll.

    ***

    Summer ends and Indian summer begins: there is no let up to the heat. Molly comes by with an air conditioner that Emmett's father has given them.

    "We'd've refused it outright," she says, "but decided to let you have it. It's too late for him to make amends."

    Several coworkers at Brophy & Sons - her girlfriends, I thought - host a bridal shower. Also invited are me, the Langer sisters, Betty, and Carrie. Molly tries to be polite, but she comes late, says little, and leaves after an hour.

    I catch her in the hallway and ask what's wrong. She says, "I didn't want a bridal shower, Joanie. I thought I told you that."

    "The girls seem nice."

    "Do you think it's okay if I return the dishware and other gifts?"

    "But why? Even if you didn't like the air conditioner——"

    "Emmett and I don't want to be beholden to anyone - I'm sorry, Joanie. I don't mean you."

    I return inside. Carrie, who these days is affectionate with everyone but me, sits beside me. "How come Molly's acting so weird?" she whispers.

    "All the attention is just embarrassing her. You know how Molly is."

    I don't tell the others what Molly has said - I'm hoping I can get her to change her mind. It's one thing to be angry about Emmett's father, but why so upset over a bridal shower?

    ***

    A week before the wedding Father Cara from Saint Anthony's calls. I think, now what?

    Father Cara says, "Mrs. Zherinovsky, as you know I've been coaching Molly in the faith, and I've become, well, troubled——"

    As I said earlier, Molly is Jewish and Emmett Catholic. "It isn't the first time, father, that a person's changed religions more out of love than conviction."

    "That's true, Mrs. Zherinovsky, and usually I'd be more understanding, but this case is a little different."

    I go see him. It's midmorning and the church is empty. When Father Cara appears I follow him into his office. Its one window overlooks the garden and sacristy. The children's chorus is practicing, and the organ music, a little off key, vibrates through the walls.

    Father Cara says, "I think it's very good, your wanting to help Molly and Emmett. Your own daughter now is how old?"

    "Just cut to the chase, father, and tell me what this is about."

    He clears his throat. "When you and Molly first came to me, I was struck by her passion and intelligence——"

    "Molly's good heart."

    "Yes. That too."

    "You know she's studying to be a doctor."

    "A medical technician, I thought. Anyway, it wasn't until I spoke with Molly and Emmett alone that I learned that Molly was Jewish." He frowns. "In fact it was she who insisted on a church wedding. Emmett just seemed willing to go along."

    "I thought Emmett was firmly in your camp?"

    He stares at me. "I told Molly all right, and that while she needed instruction in the faith, she didn't have to convert. But her children would have to be baptized. She said she and Emmett didn't want children. Now I'm liberal minded, Mrs. Z. But I began to wonder: why a church wedding?"

    "Well, I suggested it. Because of the space."

    "The space." He nods. He drums his fingers in time to the organ music. "Of course, I asked her what her family thought."

    "Molly's an orphan, more or less."

    He stares at me. "Her mother's a pediatrician and her father a psychoanalyst, right here in town. I didn't find out myself until the other day. Molly's mother called me - nearly in hysterics, she didn't even have the presence of mind to tell me how she found out about the wedding. Anyway, Mrs. Z., please talk to Molly. Urge her to invite her parents, to work out their differences. Otherwise I can't in good conscience marry them at St. Anthony's."

    I excuse myself and leave the church. I splurge and take a taxi: my veins are like wires gouging my flesh. The rest of me doesn't feel so good either.

    I find both Molly and Emmett in her apartment. Books, suitcases and boxes are strewn everywhere. Molly is in the living room packing and Emmett is in the kitchen cleaning.

    "We've got wonderful news!" says Molly. "I've received a scholarship to the University of Washington Medical School. I'm going to study electron medicine and radiology."

    "What about your marriage, the wedding?"

    "Oh, we still plan to, only later."

    Emmett enters the living room and takes Molly's hand. They kiss. "Of course I'm going too. The world's greatest hydro powered dams are in the Pacific Northwest. They need plenty of engineers out there." He winks. "Electricity has always had a great future."

    For once I am speechless. I return to my apartment and join Carrie on the couch. I see she has been crying and I take her in my arms.

    "Molly and Emmett are leaving," she says, "aren't they?" Carrie glowers, knows I am the reason - the conduit - for bringing them together.

    ***

    I remember the summer Molly moved in right after college graduation, the nights she, Carrie and I spent on the stoop or on the roof of the building. Though the street lamps kept the stars from view, Molly knew many of them by heart. That's Alpha Centauri, she would say as if we were out in the country, and that's the Great Nebula in Andromeda. There's also a steady faint glow bathing the entire sky. That, she would say, is what's left of the Big Bang, before matter and energy separate

    Then Molly found a job at Brophy and Sons, and we stopped going to the roof. We watched TV instead, and talked about the neighbors and each other's love lives. But I guess I've always known something important was missing in her life, and things Molly wouldn't or couldn't tell me.

    What else can I say? I know how dangerous electricity can be. Doctors can get cancer from radiology machines - at Madame Curie. And I've seen a power company worker electrocuted, right in the building. It's fine to be on the receiving end, to enjoy TV and electric lighting (though I would never give up my gas stove), as well as the latest advances in medical science. But I guess I will leave it to younger people to figure how it's done, to ferret all it's secrets.

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