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A Hedge of Rubber Trees

2006-09-08 09:49

    The West Village by then was changing; before long

    the rundown brownstones at its farthest edge

    would have slipped into trendier hands. She lived,

    impervious to trends, behind a potted hedge of

    rubber trees, with three cats, a canary——refuse

    from whose cage kept sifting down and then

    germinating, a yearning seedling choir, around

    the saucers on the windowsill——and an inexorable

    cohort of roaches she was too nearsighted to deal

    with, though she knew they were there, and would

    speak of them, ruefully, as of an affliction that

    might once, long ago, have been prevented.

    Unclassifiable castoffs, misfits, marginal cases:

    when you're one yourself, or close to it, there's

    a reassurance in proving you haven't quite gone

    under by taking up with somebody odder than you are.

    Or trying to. "They're my friends," she'd say of

    her cats——Mollie, Mitzi and Caroline, their names were,

    and she was forever taking one or another in a cab

    to the vet——as though she had no others. The roommate

    who'd become a nun, the one who was Jewish, the couple

    she'd met on a foliage tour, one fall, were all people

    she no longer saw. She worked for a law firm, said all

    the judges were alcoholic, had never voted.

    But would sometimes have me to dinner——breaded veal,

    white wine, strawberry Bavarian——and sometimes, from

    what she didn't know she was saying, I'd snatch a shred

    or two of her threadbare history. Baltic cold. Being

    sent home in a troika when her feet went numb. In

    summer, carriage rides. A swarm of gypsy children

    driven off with whips. An octogenarian father, bishop

    of a dying schismatic sect. A very young mother

    who didn't want her. A half-brother she met just once.

    Cousins in Wisconsin, one of whom phoned her from a candy

    store, out of the blue, while she was living in Chicago.

    What had brought her there, or when, remained unclear.

    As did much else. We'd met in church. I noticed first

    a big, soaring soprano with a wobble in it, then

    the thickly wreathed and braided crimp in the mouse-

    gold coiffure. Old? Young? She was of no age.

    Through rimless lenses she looked out of a child's,

    or a doll's, globular blue. Wore Keds the year round,

    tended otherwise to overdress. Owned a mandolin. Once

    I got her to take it down from the mantel and plink out,

    through a warm fuddle of sauterne, a lot of giddy Italian

    airs from a songbook whose pages had started to crumble.

    The canary fluffed and quivered, and the cats, amazed,

    came out from under the couch and stared.

    What could the offspring of the schismatic age and a

    reluctant child bride expect from life? Not much.

    Less and less. A dream she'd had kept coming back,

    years after. She'd taken a job in Washington with

    some right-wing lobby, and lived in one of those

    bow-windowed mansions that turn into roominghouses,

    and her room there had a full-length mirror: oval,

    with a molding, is the way I picture it. In her dream

    something woke her, she got up to look, and there

    in the glass she'd had was covered over——she gave it

    a wondering emphasis——with gray veils.

    The West Village was changing. I was changing. The last

    time I asked her to dinner, she didn't show. Hours——

    or was it days?——later, she phoned to explain: she hadn't

    been able to find my block; a patrolman had steered her home.

    I spent my evenings canvassing for Gene McCarthy. Passing,

    I'd see her shades drawn, no light behind the rubber trees.

    She wasn't out, she didn't own a TV. She was in there,

    getting gently blotto. What came next, I wasn't brave

    enough to know. Only one day, passing, I saw

    new shades, quick-chic matchstick bamboo, going up where

    the waterstained old ones had been, and where the seedlings——

    O gray veils, gray veils——had risen and gone down.

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