Day-Old Baby Rats

TAGGED AUTHORS

Julie Hayden

TAGGED BOOKS

The Lists of the Past




Day-Old Baby Rats by Julie Hayden

The late 'New Yorker' writer's short story masterpiece

August 26th, 2012 reset - +

The following short story is an excerpt from The Lists of the Past
To read "Walking with Charlie," click here

 

DOWN NEAR THE RIVER a door slams; somebody wakes up, immediately flips over onto her back. She dreamed she went fishing, which is odd because she’s never fished in her life. She thought someone was calling her “baby.”

         There’s a lot of January light crawling from beneath room-darkener shades, casting mobile shadows on walls and ceiling. The mobile is composed of hundreds of white plastic circles the size of Communion wafers. As they spin they wax and wane, swell and vanish like little moons. Their shadows are like summer, like leaves, the leaves of the plane tree at the window, which hasn’t any, right now, being in hibernation.

            Though the crack between window and sill, air that tomorrow’s papers will designate Unsatisfactory flows over one exposed arm, making the hairs stand up like sentries. Long trailer trucks continue to grind along the one-way street, tag end of a procession that began at 4 a.m. with the clank and whistle of trains on dead-end sidings, as melancholy as though they were the victims they had carried across the Hudson. The trucks carry meat for the Village butcher shops, the city’s restaurants—pink sides of prime beef that you cannot purchase at the supermarket, U.S.D.A. choice or commercial, pigs, lambs, chickens, rabbits, helped off the trucks by shivering men who warm their hands over trash-basket fires.

In the apartment across the hall the baby is bawling, “I want my milk.”

         It’s cold and bloody in the refrigerated warehouses where the meat is stored prior to distribution. It’s pretty cold in here, too. On her feet now, naked, she looks under the shade, which snaps smartly to the top of the window, disclosing a day: very clear for January. And colorful: stained-glass sky over a row of nineteenth-century houses pained pink and lime and lilac and beige, topped by clusters of chimney stacks, one of which emits a tornado of oily black smoke, fast dispersing. She ought to report it.

            “I am sorry. The Office of Air Resources is closed till Monday. Please state the nature of the offense and the name and address of the violator and we will take action upon it when the office is open. This is a recording.”

            A pair of eyes on the fire escape, the golden gaze of the fat seven-toed tom from the next apartment; she hasn’t a stitch on, backs away. Next thing, she’s in the middle of the kitchen, bare and green as a guppy, trembling from head to toe, so much that it is difficult to open the door to the lower cabinet, which turns out to house a sizable bottle collection. On her knees she pours into a glass an ounce of scotch, part of which sloshes over the linoleum in an amber puddle, fast dispersing. She gets the glass between her teeth. One, two, three, wait—the tremor peaks, subsides. She yawns and wipes the sleep from her eyes.

            Getting dressed now, the radio going, the listener-sponsored radio. Don’t speak his name. He is everywhere, like spring. His eyes are leaves.

            She can find only one shoe and digs desperately in the welter of footwear like a retreat of mercenaries in the bottom of the closet; how did she get so many shoes? She tends to lose things that go in pairs. “Where’s my other glove? My new earring—who took it?” she will wonder helplessly, too old to pray to St. Anthony, patron of lost objects.

            His eyes are leaves, the birds his messengers.

            Certainly somebody took her wallet last week while she was shopping for pants on Eighth Street. It was lifted, rather than absentmindedly abandoned in a restaurant, or on top of a cigarette machine. Later than evening a thin, limping man showed up on the doorstep with one half of her driver’s license. He explained he found it in a litter basket in Washington Square.

            Look, flickering in the thicket, at the heart of the thorn tree. Cold as wind— Half shod, she switches to an all-news program: It is after ten o’clock; utilities are unchanged. The other shoe is in the bathroom; she spies it—spitting out a mouthful of toothpaste—under the radiator.

            The shadow of a black man, the ripple of a war.

            She wraps herself in a white rabbit-fur coat and goes out without locking the door, fumbling for her huge polarized sunglasses in her leather shoulder pouch, down two flights of stairs and onto the sidewalk. Now, here is the big brown United Parcel Service truck lumbering illegally up onto the curb and halting just short of the plane tree, which bears two deep gouges where the same truck wounded it last Monday morning. The driver hustles out and starts up the steps with a brown parcel, whistling.

            In the vestibule he rings her bell, which of course nobody answers, since the apartment occupant is beside the truck, copying the license plate and other relevant numbers into a little spiral notebook.

            Still whistling, the young man with the brown uniform and small brown mustache comes back out with his parcel. The woman in the furry coat leans against the tree, glaring through her dark lenses.

            “Lady.” He stops in mid-trill. “Be nice. I can’t go through this again. Just sign the little slip, I give you the package, and everybody’s happy.”

            Through clenched teeth she says, “This time I am really going to report you. Do you know that tree cost one hundred dollars to plant? And people like you, people like you—” But the last words emerge with difficulty, and tears fuzz the sharp outlines, her polarized vision of the sunny world. He cannot see the tears.

            She’s dying to know what is in the package. With rage the driver throws it back into the truck, This Side Up down. “You’re bad news, lady,” he yells, hurtling into the driver’s seat; revs the motor. Afraid he’s going to take out his temper on the tree, she gets in front of it, and now he cannot move the truck. “If you Don’t. Get. Out. Of my. Way. I’m. Going. To Run. You. Down.” His voice changes. “What do you want from me, lady?” he implores, unanswerably.

            He gets his truck away without a mishap after all.

            On the next block the drunk man starts out of the doorway where he has lain all night, stumbling toward her, clawing at his stained clothes. “Hey, don’t I know you from somewheres?” His eyes look like pebbles, yellow and veined. “I know you. I know you a nice lady. Won’tcha gimme something, please? Fourteen cents, all I need’s like fourteen cents.” Smiling brilliantly, dancing around her: “I know you, I watches you comings and you goings.”

            Finally she digs up from the depths of her pocketbook some change, which falls to the sidewalk; he goes after it, fumbling and muttering in the gutter. All fall he was a worry to her, sleeping so still in his doorway, a crumpled overcoat, and a bottle still in its paper bag at his head like a candle. He has lost the overcoat but acquired some mittens. How does he know her? How has he managed to fight the cold this long, into January?

Back in the apartment with the newspapers and their interesting headlines:

4 CHAIN-STORES
FIRE-BOMBED

7 L.I. CHILDREN
DIE IN BUS CRASH

FEAR TEN SLAIN
IN RACKETS WAR

GRAVEDIGGERS
CALL STRIKE

 

Drug Girl, 12, Tells of Freakout

A HUNGRY BABY
DIES; JAIL MOM

                                                                                    Army Dismisses Charge of
                                                                                       War Crimes by General

FOE ATTACKS...

                                                                                         POPE BLESSES...

Actual Tests Used to Perpare
Pupils for Reading Exams
 

At the table, with a cup of tea and a cigarette, she gets the gist of the day’s news and what the department stores are featuring, since she has errands to run, things to buy. Fidgeting, tongue between her teeth. (“Don’t do that,” her mother used to say watchfully, “you’ll ruin your occlusion.”) Reaching for the weather report (occluded front), she looks warily around, as though she were being watched. But there is nobody in the house, which is suddenly so quiet the only sound is her own, her heartbeat.

            There are no clocks in the apartment. What time has it gotten to be? She rushes to the telephone to dial the time, and when she lifts the receiver a voice is immediately in her ear. “Washington operator here. I have a person-to-person call for Mmm. Blur. Hello, New York, will you accept the call, please, New York?” Superimposed on the operator’s voice is another, tinny and distant—a woman’s?—but she cannot make out the words.

            Who does she know in Washington?

            No, she will not accept the call, she will not accept the charges. It must be past noon; the sun will be setting before too long. Before 4:37, according to the newspaper.

            She has not lost her wristwatch, but she cannot seem to extricate it from the repair shop; it’s been there for three weeks with a shattered crystal and a broken hand that she suspects they’re keeping in traction. She turns her own hands palms up; the creases gleam with sweat—snail tracks.

            Steadier now, tongue emergent, she’s refilling a pocket flash from the kitchen liquor supply. It’s a four-ounce hip-hugger model with a cute red leather jacket that can be unbuttoned for cleaning; she carries it everywhere in case of emergency, of entrapment in subway or elevator. Its predecessor fell on the floor of the ladies’ room at the Art Students League, where she was waiting for the perennial art student to finish his life-studies class so they could go out to dinner and drinks or vice versa; how sorry she was to lose it! But she quickly replaced it with an identical model from Hoffritz.

            With him she went to an island remote from the city and from everything else. Ten miles out in the Atlantic, off the coast of Maine, where the foghorn cries all night long, once a minute, “It hurts,” warning ships off the rocks where lobsters lie low (skittering anyway into the baited traps) and the brightest thing by night is the eye of the lighthouse, since the island is without community electricity. The wind blew constantly on the headlands several hundred feet over the sea. When the fog lifted, the ocean was the color of melted blue wax. Way down on the rocks, seals grazed, polychromatic as pigeons: blue, gray, brown, and spotted. Once, they thought they saw far out the spout of a whale.

            Some sportsmen that week harpooned a small whale, a blackfish, and towed it into the harbor, stranding it on Fish Beach. All afternoon they worked to extract their three spearheads, up to the armpits in blubber, till the sand was read and sticky and thick with flies.

            She and he walked in the woods, when he wasn’t painting, watched birds and the sunset, ate lobster with slippery fingers. Then she had an appetite, and used to collect leftover oranges or bananas from other tables to devour thoughtfully at night while the lighthouse spun and the foghorn ached. Having gone through her fruit and her library books, she got into bed at last; he sighed, set on by his own bad dreams. It wasn’t a success, that holiday. Making love in a blueberry patch, they reached up for berries and ate them where they lay. The days seemed very long. On the rocky cliffs they fought, wind whipping their barbed words out to sea. Back on the mainland, at the bus terminal, early in the morning: “You’ll be all right?” he asked, peering into her face as though it were a steamed-up mirror.

            On the river, a ship leaving for Valparaiso when the shipping page said it would sounds its plangent departure whistle—music for bones. Three times, as if it would never end, then ends for that particular voyage. It makes her eyes water.

            Tropical fish in the living room move around in their tank, weaving gaudily through the underwater foliage, striped golden angelfish, jewel-like neon tetras, gouramis, a fat molly. The one-eyed catfish oozes along the bottom of the aquarium as though vacuuming a rug. As she bends over them they rise, expecting a shower of ant eggs, frantically kissing the surface. She has forgotten to feed them. Again.
 

Somebody leaves the house for the second and final time that day. A fire siren evokes the noise of every dog on the block. There has been a fire in the Chinese laundry. An old Italian lady in a greasy black dress giggles at the snakes in the pet-shop window, her week’s groceries piled in her grocery cart, and her cat on top of them. He spreads like fire—don’t smile.

            The Goodwill Exterminators have a new exhibit: among the pickled bugs and childishly hand-lettered signs, a jar of milk-white shrimps with tails, labeled “Day-old baby Rats, caught in a Vokswagon on Perry Street by Leon.” She digs her nails into her gloveless palms. Don’t smile; he hates it. Pretend not to tremble. She checks her left wrist to see what time it is.

            The sign over the bank spells out time and temperature in yellow dots:

12:57
79°

            Very warm for January.

            Near the subway entrance she buys the afternoon paper, and a man pushes her change over the papers with his hook.
 

The train stops just outside of the Fourteenth Street station and refuses to budge for several minutes. At Twenty-third Street, for some reason, a mob storms the cars, hustling for seats. A very small woman gets jammed in the half-open door—a midget, really, but still an ordinary-looking middle-aged woman in an out-of-style tweed coat and an out-of-town hat with a little veil, which is looped rakishly, accidentally, over one ear. She appears so helpless that somebody offers her a seat. “Hurry up, Daddy! Over here!” The other half of the door shuts, and she screams. The door opens. Her husband, who is taller, but only by an inch, rushes in, swinging a tiny child over the edge of the platform. They plop him onto the seat she gave up and stand guard, protectively.

            “I need a lollipop,” the baby shouts over the shriek of the train; no larger than a year-old infant, an achondroplastic dwarf without his parents’ good proportions, with very short plump baby arms and no legs to speak of. His forehead bulges above a big, perplexed face, mouth turned down at the corners. Like any child he squirms petulantly in his seat, under a sign which reads “Little enough to ride for free? Little enough to ride your knee!” Daddy midget gives him a lemon lollipop.

            She has to cook dinner for eight people next Thursday. She picks out a five-quart casserole in Macy’s basement, tries to charge it, discovers that all her credit cards are missing, buys it anyway, orders it sent. “Jeez, Miss, didn’t you inform Credit yet?” It stops at every floor, and by the eighth she has recalled that she has no charge account with Macy’s.

            (The U.P.S. man will make a real effort to deliver the dish in time, nicking off more of the bark of the plane tree; ringing and ringing but nobody’s home.)

            Sweating in her fur coat, she proceeds down the maze that leads to the subway platform, through a crowd of people eating ice-cream cones and asking which way to the Port Authority Bus Terminal; nearly bumps into a soldier who has taken a post by a gum machine. Not an ordinary G.I. but someone on his way to a revolution. Leaf-patterned trousers tucked into combat boots, combat jacket of a different green, green beret pulled down nearly over his eyebrows—even his canteen is in camouflage. Only his gun is not. He holds his rifle butt end down between his boots like a walking stick. He stares impassively over the crowd, as though he thinks he is invisible. And perhaps he is.

            She has reached the last staircase where there is a voice at her back, a whisper: “Hey lady, you need help with your packages?” But her hands are empty.

            She is holding very tightly to the railing. Another voice: Middle-aged lady who inquires kindly, “Are you sick, Miss? Do you need some help!”

            She shakes her head no, but the lady helps her down anyway, talking cozily. “You know, I had a friend once was so scared of the subway she’d get nauseous when the train came in. It’s called claustrophobia? Well, finally the husband made her see the doctor. Well, it turned out that her brother locked her in a closet once when she was a bitty thing, and she’d forgotten all about it. But her heart remembered.” A leap of the heart. “You know, it was a funny thing. After she got well and rode subways without thinking twice about it, she had one of those freak accidents and almost lost an arm on a Flushing train. I bet the operations cost her more than the psychiatrist did. Well, honey, here’s your train.”

            Tottering onto the lit car, she supports herself against a post, breaths easier until the door have closed and the train starts down the dark passage. With a felt-tip pen, someone has lettered on the L&M ad, “God is a Sadist.”
 

Quickly tiring of her own reflection in the dressing-room mirrors, she buys the first dress she tried on, a silky blue Ban-Lon number that makes her look thin as a doll. There is a delay when she tries to charge it. Shifting from foot to foot with impatience, says yes, she will report the loss.

            (She will be extremely surprised when next tenth of the month a bill arrives from this department store for $600 worth of merchandise she never purchased. But perhaps she will have notified Credit Service in time to avoid the liability.)

            A very young girl with a face like an angel’s sits in an armchair in the ladies’ lounge, breast bare to her infant daughter; the baby nurses with an expression of concentration, pink palm closing and unclosing rhythmically like a sea anemone. The mother’s knees are spread in fatigue. Assorted clothes, diapers, bottles, and magazines are falling out of the department-store shopping bags beside her chair. She looks as though she has been traveling a long time. She has just gone to sleep; eyelashes hover like black spiders over her cheekbones. She snores.

            Baby loses the soda fountain and wails angrily. Her mother automatically readjusts the small head and closes her eyes upon the world once more, breathing onto it the syllables, like prayer, “Goddamn son-of-a-bitch bastards.”

            “Breathe in,” the nurse instructed. “Pant. Harder.” She tried to, like a good girl, sobbing obediently. “It won’t hurt so much this way.” Actually, it hurt very little. “It works like a vacuum cleaner.” Nature, she said, abhors a vacuum. “I usually have a cleaning woman,” she told the fluorescent ceiling lights.

            Outside on Fifth Avenue, asbestos flakes eddy in spiral air currents like snow, the carcinogenic emission from the new skyscraper. Something blows into her eyes before she can get out her dark glasses. She blinks to tear it away.

            Bells jangle. The saffron robes, the shaven-head Hindu followers chanting “Hare Krishna” surround her, offering their literature with gentle words. Under their sleazy peach-tinted rayon saris they wear sweaters and sweatshirts, and sneakers instead of sandals. Surely they’re in the wrong climate. They sing, “Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare,” snapping their belled fingers and jouncing to ward off the cold.

            The literature is called “Back to Godhead,” and shows a circle of girls with pleated skirts like fans dancing beneath stylized Indian flowers, a round moon. “Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare,” the hectic singers chant.

            “Oh my God, isn’t that Al Silberstang from Fire Island?” says a passer-by, nudging her companion to a halt. Al Silberstang does not cease from his dance. His eyes dwell on inner secrets. She searches for money so she can escape their circle. “Peace, peace, lady,” says Al Silberstang, whirling away from her money. But there is no peace from the Hindus, no peace from the chestnut and pretzel sellers, one at each corner, warming their hands over the braziers and reiterating their spiel.

            Escaping across the street, she looks up to see where she is—a mistake; her head begins to spin. What did she eat for breakfast?

            Here she is, the rival sect’s headquarters, St. Patrick’s Cathedral. A man on the steps brandishes a sign, “annoying sick h-bomb dictator will be punished,” at an old lady in an old mink, in a walker, going up the steps with the aid of a younger female, daughter or niece, who looks put-upon and old in her short cloth coat. The old lady’s arm is grasped on the other side by a nun. You can tell it is a nun from the navy-blue tailored outfit, like an airline stewardess’s, and the truncated veil, revealing a steel-gray curly bang. Nuns never used to have gray hair. Or calves. The nuns of her youth floated like blackbirds. Step. By step. By step, the old lady is guided through a small door set into the heavily ornamented bronze ones. Around the corner is the aftermath of a Filipino wedding, the small white bride shivering and smiling for the photographers.

            The nuns with their pale faces taught them myths about eternity and how to walk in processions. “ ’Tis the month of our Mother, the blessed and beautiful days,” the parochial schoolchildren sang in May, carrying their sheaves of wheat down suburban sidewalks, under the magnolias. A pretty sight. Though she’d never really cottoned to Our Lady; she much preferred the Holy Ghost, perhaps because he was a bird.

            Heaven, hello, purgatory, limbo, where little unbaptized children lived pleasantly in a garden, crawling on the green grass, and it never snowed. Purgatory was where they melted your sins away; hell was very hot. (A little boy died and a saint revived him. “Oh Mother,” he cried, “I have been in such a terrible place!”) She is cold. And hungry: the smell of burning chestnuts rises like incense. “Getcha hot chestnuts! Getcha pretzels!”

            He scatters a handful of raw nuts over the coals, extends a bagful with a hand that is a burnt pretzel, grins brilliantly. “I bet you hungry, pretty lady; I know you—”
 

Tugging at the door to the Cathedral, where she’s never been. He eats terror, gulps tears, and spits catastrophes. The smell of incense, dazzling banks of red votive candles, the purple light from high stained-glass windows decorated with suffering saints. Tourists move chattily around the gloom of the nave; in the side aisles kneel the reverent few. She looks dizzily at the vaulted ceiling, light-years away. She steadies herself on a granite basin. Then, to show she’s all right, dabbles holy water from the font and blesses herself like the tourists just ahead. The basin has specks floating in it and a layer of silt.

            Her heart beats as though it were trying to get out. Looking for a place to sit down, she travels along an enormous aisle, toward where she sees people as at the small end of the telescope her father gave her once when she was thirteen and infatuated with science. It has been years since she was in church. And what a church! Are you supposed to cover your head these days? She has no cover, not even a handkerchief to pin to her hair.

            At a side pew occupied mostly by women her knees signal no farther, and she slides in. Her uncovered scalp prickles dangerously. She thinks, with longing, of her flask.

            As she plans about getting back down the aisle, or at least behind a stone pillar, the women begin trickling out the other side of the pew. An elbow in the ribs: it is the niece or daughter of the woman in the walker. “Miss, could you please move along, or are you asleep, dope?”

            Unable to reply, she shies into the aisle, abandoning (she will remember later, in a crowded room) a brown-and-white box from Saks Fifth Avenue to the niece or the H-bomb man or St. Patrick. Or him, the god of fear. There’s a convenient pillar, and—what is this?—a curtained cubicle behind a brass gate, private, hidden, a good place to take stock and think her way out, back to the right door. Sneaking a backward glance, she parts the white curtain, ducks in, groping for familiar leathery corners. Just as she has the cap off and is tilting the flask back, there is a hair-raising creak. Somebody else is only a breath away. And listening. And murmuring, through a grille, “Ja, mein, Kind?” Fallen into the hands of the Nazis. “Yes, my child,” he says impatiently.

            Good heavens, somebody is answering. It is her own high parochial-school voice, her very tongue snapping out the appropriate response. “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been fifteen years since my last confession.” At last she gets the bottleneck in her mouth. Alcohol is instantly absorbed through the stomach lining into the bloodstream. At once the molecules are joined up, spreading the cheerful news.

            Anticipatory silence. Perhaps she only understands German. She racks her brain—she has no wish to go spilling the secrets of her life to a stranger. First you confessed sins against the Church, then against God. She remembers a sin against the Church: “I have missed Mass.”

            “How many times?”

            “Every time.” Quick swallow. A rush of confidence. “I used God’s name in vain five times. I disobeyed my parents three times. I was rude to a nun once. I slapped my little sister. I was untruthful—” Running out of sins, she adds, desperately, “I smoked marijuana.”

            “On how many occasions?”

            “I don’t remember.”

            He clears his throat, beginning to sound like a Viennese psychiatrist. “So, is that all that you wish to tell me?”

            “Well, not quite,” she stalls (once more should do the trick). Then she realizes that now there are three of them in the confessional; someone else is waiting on the other side, behind the priest, making a priest sandwich, getting restless. She shifts heavily to assert her presence—probably the niece woman who called her “dope.”

            “Oh no, Father,” she says, tilting the flask back for another round. Not all of it reaches her mouth, there’s spillage; the booth fills with the odor of alcohol in addition to that of Listerine. She is tempted to offer him a nip through the grille, for his stomach’s sake. “But it’s been such a long time.” A weak giggle. Her time, and the jig, is up.

            The Big Ear is no longer fooled. “My daughter, I suspect you are spoofing me. There are penitents waiting; you are wasting my time. Why are you here? What do you want?” No answer. “Do you want absolution? If you are in some kind of trouble, we shall discuss it in the rectory at two-forty next Wednesday. Father Kleinhardt is the name.”

            “Father Kleinhardt, I am frightened.”

            “For your penance say three Hail Marys. Now make an Act of Contrition.” Switching tongues, he begins to absolve her in Latin.

            “I am frightened to death, Father.” But he chooses not to hear.

            She begins, “O my God, I am heartily sorry,” and slips out, leaving him committed to the end of his Latin prayer, noticing a sign taped to the side altar: “Father Kleinhardt: English-Deutsch.” At the altar of St. Anthony a prayer is posted in mock parchment, promising the reciter forty days’ indulgence. She has got away with it, she is outside, she is free.

            The morning she left the northern island a young deer escaped from it, the only one of the herd imported from Boothbay Harbor who couldn’t settle down but rampaged through the woods like a crazy thing and ate roses out of village gardens. After they found hoofprints on the beach, they put out salt for him in the woods. He passed her boat swimming in a small horned seal in a mainland direction; it was too late and too foggy for the lobster smacks to find him. By the time she reached the city he was fathoms deep, and the fish ere grazing off his antlers. “Taxi, lady?” said a cabdriver outside the Port Authority Bus Terminal. The man drove demoniacally, hunched like a jockey over the wheel; only when they reached her apartment did she observe that it was because he couldn’t straighten his back. In the full glare of the street lamp his features leaped at her: the thrust chin, the snub nose, the furrowed forehead with its huge wen, the maimed, cleft, two-fingered hoof of a congenitally deformed right hand. Smiling hilariously, he scratched at the wen. “Take it easy now, lady,” he told her.

            “The dead deer lies among the rocks, nibbled bare by sea worms and crustaceans, far from home; barnacles have attached themselves to his skeleton; when spring comes, a fisherman will draw up with his catch its alien skull, and think it is something new.”

            Once you have seen him, he will never let you get away with anything.
 

Now it is time, definitely time, to start uptown, taking it easy and crossing with the lights. The sun has gone down, leaving a stain in the west. At a store window she acknowledges with a slight smile her reflection: a thin woman in a white coat and big black glasses, soon to be middle-aged, puzzled because the years went so fast and the days so slowly. And, someday, old.

            Killing time, she stops to light a cigarette and is nearly swept over by an energetic group of tiny children, chattering in the half-light by Central Park. There are about eight of them, fat as chickadees in their snowsuits. Isn’t it late for them to be out? “I’m cold,” complains one grumpy mite with thick glasses and a circle of mustard around his mouth to one of the two teachers, long-haired girls in furry coats like her own. They seem to have lassoed her. Then she realizes it’s a rope; they’re clinging to a rope, with a teacher at each end, and she has got in the middle. What a good idea; little children will hold on if you tell them to.

            The teachers untangle her and say, “Come along now,” jerking the children briskly down the sidewalk. A small spectacled girl has a pink balloon floating from the end of her little finger. There are a lot of pairs of spectacles for such a small group of kindergarten-aged children.

            The children are blind. These are blind children, with their teachers, sightless among the seeing, though she can’t see any too well herself, in her dark glasses with the sun gone down, hurrying toward an uptown appointment.

            The hot light. An egg, a shiny egg dancing in a glass. (Sunday morning she will burn the bacon and spill the scrambled eggs on the floor trying to stamp out the fire in her bedroom slippers.) Lying on a table, somebody cried, “Hey that hurts, it hurts,” and yet it didn’t hurt that much.

            “Relax. Don’t fight it,” said the nurse. “Would you care for a cigarette? I’m afraid all I’ve got is Salems”—putting it between dry lips.

            An involvement of the inner space, a truly savage pain. Slurp, water whizzing in the basin. Will it travel down the sewers like an abandoned pet, eyeless, lost to the gene pool, never to breed?

            Doctor having left the room, his assistant matter-of-factly sprinkled water over what was in the basin, saying, “I baptize thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”

            “You are baptizing a newt,” she said reproachfully.

            The nurse looked ashamed. “Sorry, but I just have to do this. Say, you know, I keep newts.”

            “I have tropical fish, myself.”

            Let’s go to bed and tell lies—almost there now. Committing our murders decently, in private. Punching the moon-white elevator button. The elevator boxes her into a private space; she rises with it, shaking in silence. I don’t know that he’s you. You haven’t heard he is me.

            He greets her at the door, waving a martini glass, reeling her into the party. “Oh my God, am I glad to see you,” she says.

¤

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