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He always felt so small in this room. Her room. Her space. He felt small and loud. Even his socked feet made too much noise on the wood floor. The piano waited, silent under a layer of dust. He could see the furrows his fingers left on its stained wood, could feel the sandy film of the dust on his finger tips. He wanted to write something on its surface. A love letter perhaps. A suicide note. Something, anything that would get her attention.
He didn’t know what he could write to bring her back. So instead he rubbed the dust from his fingers and it floated in the sunlight. Of course the room was silent. She had taken the baby and gone home to Vietnam. He counted the miles between this American town and her home village by the time zones in the atlas at night, staring at the bright blue expanses between like an indecipherable music score.
He had justified her departure in his mind. It was for the best, really. She was unstable, he told himself, and he could not care for her and the baby too, even if she would let him. Instability happened sometimes, he calculated, as balance to genius.
At home she had her own mother to baby her. Her mother understood when it was best to act as if she were a child and spoil her with her favorite foods and sing to her. At home there was an army of aunts, a grandmother, and legions of widowed neighbors who would all willingly help with the baby. At home in Vietnam the sound of water and tide and insects in the night could replace the music she could no longer reach, buried as it was, under the clutter of noise and voices—buried under his voice too, that he would admit. Buried under all those things she could not silence. Little by little her mother would bring back the string music of the local players, eventually the drum rhythms too, mix them with the harmony of rain, of leaf rustle, of frog song. It would be a kind of retreat. She should return home to him refreshed and happy. Whatever his differences with her, her mother knew best.
It was not as if he hadn’t wanted to learn. He had studied her mother, her way of entering a room silently, her mannerisms and gestures that seemed to say, “I wish nothing. I am here for your bidding.” Watched too the fold of her arms. The disappearance of her hands within her sleeves. The way she anticipated hunger before it arrived so that the food trays seemed to appear as if by a trick of magic. But the best he could seem to do was to follow his wife about the house, linger in doorways in case she wished to talk, sit in the shadows when she was sleeping or studying a score. All he had ever wanted was to worship her. Why wasn’t that enough, he wondered.
Having babysitters in the house—his idea—only made matters worse. And no babysitter had lasted more than a week. He was convinced he had exhausted the entire supply of wiling sixteen year olds this small Connecticut town could offer. She claimed he forced them on her. Their presence only proved he didn’t trust her, she said. He did not know how to care for the baby, how to calm it when it screamed at night. The baby never slept. Weren’t babies supposed to sleep all the time? As much as the baby only meant more time away from her, the babysitters only complicated things still, split him in more directions. They were so loud in the house, stomping, it seemed, on the hardwood floors and laughing with the baby all the time. They were tall and blond and wore loud colors. They were strangers. The first few were children of coworkers, just teenagers looking for spending money, but strangers to him still. He needed to keep tabs on them. And he was forever picking up after them, the scatterings of baby toys, of milk bottles, and pacifiers. “Keep the baby quiet,” he’d hiss, following them about the house. “My wife is upstairs resting.”
Those teenage girls looked at him with such contempt. They acted like they were superior to him, a grown man. They made him nervous. They all seemed so loud, music pouring out of headphones, cell phones ringing from back pockets. They seemed to tower over him, these young girls. True, he was short, just 5’3”, the exact height of his wife, but then even around her he felt small, the way he did in the room with that piano. Maybe it was her pianist hands, so powerful. His own hands were tiny, like a child’s, so small he couldn’t encircle his wife’s wrists. All his features were small and angular. Bony elbows and gaunt cheeks like spearheads under the skin. His coworkers joked with him that he was so thin because he could never sit still, pacing even at his desk when on the phone, always in a rush, that odd shuffle-footed scurry like he was fleeing something. He never did feel comfortable, didn’t like to feel eyes on him, not at all like these teenage girls who babysat in their home, who seemed to dominate every little room they entered. They were interchangeable in his mind, there’d been so many in just a matter of months, a series of blond heads and low-rise jeans and loud voices. Couldn’t his wife see he was just trying to protect her? How dare she accuse him of spying on teenagers?
But if the babysitters had been problematic, they were nothing compared to the two health aids they’d tried. They really couldn’t afford them in the first place, but his wife needed someone experienced and professional. The first provider was a stern German with a deep-throated accent and thick-soled shoes who insisted that sunlight and fresh air were the cures for everything. Each morning she’d set two kitchen chairs and a little tray of food outside on the small lawn, then she would sit in the morning sunshine with his wife while he was left to mind the baby until he had to leave for work. And then, when he’d call home from the office in the afternoon, the nurse answered and would claim his wife was napping. Sometimes no one answered the phone at all. She cooked food he didn’t like. She practically bossed him around in his own home. He’d had no choice but to fire her.
The second nurse was a meek, overweight woman in her fifties. She seemed to try and hide whenever he was in the house, emerging from darkened rooms, retiring for hours to the dark, low-ceilinged basement on the excuse of doing laundry. She would squeeze her ample hips into the narrow space between the commode and the claw-footed tub while his wife bathed, filling the room with her bulk and not affording him entrance, saying his wife needed her privacy. Privacy indeed. A complete stranger watching his wife bathe. Once he found her massaging the little pouch of baby fat his wife carried at the base of her stomach after childbirth. The woman lugged the baby around on her hip like a sack of meal; did she know nothing of an infant’s fragility? And she was filthy, leaving dishes in the sink after meals, only emptying the diaper pail at the end of her shift rather than carrying each soiled diaper outside to the garbage like he did. She was a bitter woman. Resigning, after only eight days, she accused him of being the one in need of mental health care and left in the middle of the day. He was glad to have her out of the house.
But what a lurch she’d left him in. He’d had to call in sick for two days to take over his wife’s care. He spent the morning of the second day on the phone with three different home health agencies trying to explain the uniqueness of their needs. Surely there were reasonable workers available. They’d just have to find the right one. Of course the baby was fussy all morning, and he couldn’t think straight, couldn’t imagine how they would manage the next day, and he couldn’t afford another day off work. His boss was completely unreasonable and couldn’t seem to understand the delicacy of their situation or the hardships of having a baby to care for at all times. His boss accused him of behaving as if no one else in the world had ever had a child. And his wife was apparently angry over the woman’s resignation and would hardly speak with him. She’d said it was his fault.
The baby was hiccupping choked tears from crying too hard when suddenly his wife appeared at the base of the stairs fully dressed and with color in her cheeks. She carried a baby blanket and retrieved the stroller from where it was parked near the front door, unused since the German nurse was let go. “We’re going to walk to the store,” she said matter-of-factly, “to get some things for our trip.”
“I’m going home,” she said. “The airport shuttle will pick me up.” She took the baby from his arms, wrapped it in the blanket and soothed the infant with cooing noises. The baby hiccupped a few times, seeming to catch its breath, and almost immediately settled into sleep against her shoulder.
Everywhere, it seemed, there were small rings on the furniture from wet baby bottles. There was even a circular blemish on the piano top. One of the teenage babysitters, no doubt. How she would cringe at that. He needed to clean the piano, see if he could save the marred surface, but touching the instrument felt to him like touching his wife’s body, something forbidden for months. They were parallel things in some ways, this curving vessel so resonant with sound and the hollow of his wife’s now empty body. In both cases it was a matter of respectful patience necessary on his part, of recognizing this foreign country of things loved by him but strange, ultimately unknown. The obscure potency of pregnancy. The brilliance of sound when keys were struck by expert fingers. The interior workings of complex organs, working within the reach of his touch but beyond the reach of his understanding.
How he longed to hear her play. Although, playing, she frightened him. At the piano she was the woman he loved most and the woman he feared. There he witnessed that part of her he least understood. She approached the piano like it was a wild horse to be broken or a lion she could manipulate into completing tricks, complying as much by the threat of harm as by the want of reward. Her small, soft, rounded features seemed to change at the piano bench. She seemed to become like him—sharp, angular, exacting, and forceful. Oh, but the sounds that emerged, the music that wanted to shake the little house off its cracking foundation. The Rachmoninov. The Bach.
If only he could return the music to her. She’d be all right then. He knew she would. And now that she was away, he entrusted that job to this mother-in-law, imploring her in letters and once, when he’d managed to organize it, by phone. It was a gamble, certainly, for he had long suspected his mother-in-law didn’t care for him, that she approved of the marriage only because it meant a better life for her daughter in America and a place where her musical genius could be appreciated and rewarded. No matter that her career still struggled beyond regional audiences, for like him, her mother knew one day America promised devotion. That was his trump, the music, for her mother would send her daughter across oceans time and again in order to release the music contained within her.
The logistics of speaking with his mother-in-law were nightmarish. Her entire family worked for a wealthy landowner. Since the war the land owner had become a high ranking party official and his holdings had grown. Indeed, there were several families in his employ, now intermarried and intermingled and living together in a kind of compound on his property. Her mother had worked in the main house all of her life, so long that she now walked that vague line between servant and confidant, so familiar a presence that she often joined in high tea with the ladies of the house, though she still did the serving, too. And it was just after high tea that his mother-in-law insisted he call, 3:00 PM her time, such that with a 12 hour time difference he had to set his alarm for 2:00 in the morning and brew coffee so that he was wide awake and at his best. She spoke little English, and he spoke none of her local dialect. Thus they settled on negotiations in French, his rusty and with a Canadian accent, unlike his wife, who spoke three languages gracefully and with almost no discernable accent. All he really asked for was to “Make her play. No matter what, return the music to her,” hoping that the return of music would rekindle her desire for him too.
His communication with his wife was entirely by mail. He wrote impassioned love letters that ran fifteen, seventeen, and finally, twenty three pages. He cried as he wrote, his tears dropping to the page and curling the paper. He described his longing. He testified to his devotion. He offered detailed schemata for how he would change behaviors that he feared irritated her. He spent entire letters demonstrating how well he understood the depression that had taken hold of her. After all, who better than he understood the wet darkness that clung inside her heart, that heaviness that seemed to tie her to the bed for days at a time that made the blandest food seem repulsive and exhausting to consume, that feeling in her head of thoughts wound into such fine and intricate webs they could never unravel? Hadn’t he fallen down that dark well for years? Didn’t he have the scars to prove it? He reminded her that she had saved him, that her presence in his life, her acceptance of his love, had transformed him.
His campaign was working. Gradually her return letters grew longer, more frequent, and more loving. Something rekindled. He was sure of it. Soon she was promising to return at the end of the winter with “the new sun of springtide,” where as she had started out non-committal about a return entirely, then named May 15, his birthday, as a probable date, then April 1. Their letters became a kind of renewed courtship. He planned his lunch hours for late in the afternoon such that he could meet the mail, always anticipating the rice paper feel of her mother’s stationery and the exotic stamps from her homeland. Every day without a letter meant a descent into a dark fog, each appearance a coveted prize. He played games with not opening the letter, prolonging the satisfaction by laying it on her place setting at the dining room table and forcing himself to wait until his meal was prepared, consumed, and the dishes done before opening the envelope.
When a letter arrived stating that she would be home by March 15, he set about the mechanisms for convincing her mother to allow him to talk to her by phone. A day later, a letter from her mother arrived announcing that she was playing again. He could make all the flight arrangements, even hire someone to collect her from the village and transport her to the airport. He’d do it with style, see to all the little details that would remind her she was deserving of so much more than could be offered her in Vietnam, that he could display his love for her in ways unimaginable by those in her homeland. There would be flowers awaiting her at each leg of her trip, flowers and bottled water from France (like she demanded at concerts), a welcome home sign on the house, more new flowers in the garden. He spent his evenings cleaning, scrubbing the out of the way places like the tops of baseboards, vacuuming the heater vents, ironing the curtains. He re-stained the kitchen cabinets and oiled all the hinges. He swept the garage and painted its floor. He scrubbed the tile grout and repainted the bathroom with her favorite peach color. He’d save what was supposed to be the living room, the room full of nothing but sunlight and the piano, for last. Then he would, in the days before her arrival, polish all the wood of the room—the floor, the molding and casework, the piano itself to a glossy shine. He’d work his way up to it.
His mother-in-law agreed to the phone call. Or rather, she agreed to accept his call and to have her daughter present in the house such that, should she be of the mind to allow them to speak, her daughter would be available. Their correspondence had gone so well, had displayed such a renewal of affection, he spent several evenings scripting the call. He could not afford to leave such an important call to chance. Phones were funny instruments, allowing intimacy that wasn’t regulated or controllable. His written correspondence had been deeply personal and yet rather formal, cognizant of a kind of old-fashioned courtship, carefully revised, confident of its rhetoric. He’d need that assurance when talking to her as well. It had been like a renewal of his original courtship, which he had initiated in writing as well from a careful distance, trying to manage to place the best of himself forward, to make sure she understood the uniqueness of his devotion.
Of course in this current campaign he could not ask what he most wanted to know. For that he would have to listen between her words, underneath her sentences, await the silences. “How are you?” It frustrated him that such a phrase was so innocuous in America, so bandied about as a greeting without any intention to hear the answer. Sensitive as he was to her irritations, he had made it a habit not only to listen to other’s responses, but to always answer honestly when the question was asked of him. “Good morning. How are you?” “Terrible,” he would say, or “All right, I guess,” before he’d tell them how his stomach bothered him after eating or how he hadn’t slept well the night before. No one appreciated hearing the truth. Yet truth from her was what he required now.
Of course he couldn’t sleep the night of the arranged phone call, though he set his alarm just the same. He studied his script repeatedly. It was a complex affair, an outline of the course he hoped the conversation would follow, pages of answers for questions she might ask, talking points like he produced at work, alternate schematics for probable directions of inquiry—logical, flexible, rhetorical calculations.
Of course she had to be playing in the background when her mother came to the phone. He could not identify the piece. There was no doubt she was the one playing. That piano where she’d learned. She told him the story once, after a concert during their first year of marriage. She had been seven, and she was supposed to be helping her mother dust the library but she kept disappearing to the parlor where she’d pretend to dust the dark wood of the piano body, anything just to touch it. She spoke of how large the piano had seemed, how it overwhelmed the room. First she let the cloth stray across the keys, startled and then delighted at the sound. Her first fingertip touches were like the footfalls of mice. She tried to see how lightly she could touch the keys and still produce a sound. She found scales almost immediately without understanding their structure. She noticed how one sound slid inside another and how playing some keys together enriched the tone.
“Strike the keys, child,” the mistress of the house shouted in French, appearing suddenly at her side. “You must control the instrument,” she said, taking a seat beside her and playing a brief passage. She repeated the passage twice and then said, “Now you.” This child who would become his wife complied, and within an hour the woman had determined that she would become her first teacher, that this new pupil would prove a prodigy.
Of course when he heard her playing that same piano now, faintly at a distance in the house and across all this distance of phone lines and oceans, he promptly fumbled his script.
At the sound of his wife’s voice, he couldn’t remember anything he wished to say. He felt like he was thirteen again. Thirteen and awkward and the target of other’s abuses, the last child picked for kickball, the boy afraid to speak to a girl. Now he suspected most of his phone conversation with his wife was like talking with a thirteen year old boy, though he couldn’t recall a single thing he’d said. He couldn’t remember her words or the tone of her voice. The only recall he had came at the end of the call when she said to him: “You never even asked about the baby,” and abruptly hung up the phone.
The letter came eight days later. It was written telegram style, as if her English had suddenly failed her. His mind inserted the word “stop” at each period, as if he were narrating a scene in an old movie. “My return postponed. Asian concert tour planned. Schedule to follow. Baby is fine.”
The 3rd late payment notice for the piano arrived in the same day’s mail.
Three days later the phone rang while he ate a dinner of canned soup and a piece of fruit. He couldn’t remember the phone ringing in three months. He didn’t really know anyone outside of work. A man on the phone told him that the piano bill had been turned over to a collection agency. He hung up on him.
He tried calling the number in Vietnam. It would be 6:35 in the morning there. The phone rang for a long time. He was sweating. When someone finally picked up, the voice was unfamiliar. He couldn’t follow any of the words the voice spoke. He struggled to recall Vietnamese phrases and probably said something like, “The soup is hot and very nourishing.” The reply sounded like gibberish to him. He held the phone a long time after the line went dead.
The next day he stopped going to work. He spent a lot of time sitting in the shafts of sunlight cast through the front windows. He sat on the hardwood floor opposite the piano. He hadn’t eaten in two days yet he felt heavy. Staring at the piano he tried to recall a single memory from his own lessons as a child. He hadn’t been any good, and he always fought with his mother over attending lessons, wanting instead to play outside with the other boys even though he was never asked.
One day later that week the doorbell rang. He was sitting in his usual spot. He rose from the floor in a kind of reverse slide, using the wall. He imagined her standing on the little stoop, the baby in her arms, a suitcase on the curb, a purse in the crook of her elbow, and no hands free to work a key. Instead he found two enormous men in bright red shirts filling the stoop. A trailer, painted in a red to match the shirts, was parked in front of the house. “Anderson Piano Moving” was embossed in gold letters on its side.
“We’re here for the piano,” said the shorter of the two men. He was bulky with muscles like a weightlifter. His shirt said his name was “Paul.” His partner was enormously fat, his belly showing above his jeans, hairy and pasty white. He was a giant round man standing six and a half feet tall with a shaved head and a thick dark goatee. His shirt read “Curly.”
“Apparently you’re behind on your payments,” the one named Paul said. “I need you to sign,” he said, placing a heavy metal clipboard in his hands.
“I don’t understand,” he said, signing his name just the same.
“Repossession. Not much to understand,” Paul said, taking the clipboard and handing him a pink copy of an invoice. “If you’ll just show Curly where the piano is, I’ll get the gear. Damn, this will be fun,” he said, eyeing the narrow hall beyond the front door. Paul stepped off the stoop and towards the truck and trailer. Curly waited without moving, holding open the screen door.
“This way,” he stammered. “I really don’t understand this.
There must be someone I should call. Maybe I could write you a check.” He cleared his throat twice, a habit whenever he was nervous. He stood in the arched doorway to the piano room. Curly moved past him and immediately opened the piano top, setting it into position on its hinged brace and ducking his head inside.
“There must be some mistake,” he droned on. He adjusted his glasses and cleared his throat again. “You’ve made an error, you see. My wife has been away. It is her piano. She will need it when she comes back. She’s a pianist,” he said stupidly. “You’ll need to come back and speak with her.”
Paul entered carrying a tool kit and several thick furniture pads.
He repeated his arguments.
“We’re just the movers,” Paul said. “You’ll have to take this up with the piano company.”
Curly emerged from the piano body and moved around it to the bench, where he took a seat. “She’s a beauty,” he said in a voice so small it couldn’t possibly fit his body. Then he began playing a light, delicate melody with his right hand. He brought his left hand to the keyboard and transitioned into a boogie-woogie and then into a dark, low Bach passage the husband immediately recognized.
“Stop. Stop it,” he shouted. “What are you doing?”
“The action is lovely,” Curly said. “The tuning is spot on. Pedal action is good, but a little loose.”
“Stop it now. How dare you,” he screamed, his voice breaking and so loud that Curly abruptly stopped playing. The fading hold from the foot pedal played on briefly. Paul looked up from what he was writing.
“Get out,” he shouted. “Get away from her.” He slammed the keyboard cover closed violently. Curly barely moved his hands in time, and the piano body boomed.
Curly rose from the bench holding his hands before him like defending a blow.
“Get out,” he shouted again and he swung his arm wildly, contacting the music stand with such force that it cracked and a piece of wood skittered across the piano top.
He swung again and clipped the brace hinge closed. The top clapped shut with a boom that seemingly caused the house to shudder. The thundering sound fueled his fury. His face contorted as if in pain and his eyes grew large behind his thick glasses. He grabbed a screwdriver from the open tool bag and drove it into the piano top, gashing an ugly scar.
“Take it easy, man,” Paul said. “We’ll work this out some other time,” he said, bending to grab the tool bag and gathering the moving pads, his eyes fixed on the screwdriver like a man avoiding a rattlesnake. “We’re just going to ease on out of here.” Curly still held his hands before him in a gesture of surrender as he backed out of the room. “Psycho,” Paul muttered, as he cleared the doorway behind Curly.
“Stay away from us,” he shouted after the retreating men. He slumped onto the bench. Tears flooded his cheeks. He raised the cover, exposing the keys. He fingered the keys lightly, tried a failed chord. “Leave us alone,” he said aloud to an empty room, and then he rose from the bench and drove the screwdriver into the keyboard with all of his might. The struck key rang manically and shattered, sending pieces of ivory exploding across the empty room. He lifted the screwdriver and smashed it a second time into the keyboard, contacting ebony this time. He repeated the violence again and again, a man caught inside a mad symphony flailing at the keys, the piano screaming out at each blow like a woman in childbirth or an animal dying. When the last sound eventually faded, he collapsed onto the shattered keys, exhausted and weeping. The dust lingering from his violence drifted about the room, sparkling in the slanted sunlight, mute and indifferent, each particle riding an invisible wind before submitting to the inevitable demands of gravity.
Half a world away a symphony of insects and raindrops harmonized with the melody from a lone piano. A baby lying on its back in an arrangement of blankets on the floor near the piano played contentedly with a rattle and cooed as if in rhythm to the music, which filled the room and then spilled over, returning to the charged air beyond the open windows like a letter slipping from an envelope.
Copyright 2009 by Mark Hummel.
Mark Hummel grew up in Wyoming and now lives in Colorado with his wife and three daughters. His fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, including Fugue, Talking River Review, The Bloomsbury Review, Porcupine, Matter, and Zone 3, among many others. He is currently at work completing a novel, Water Cycle. He teaches writing at the University of Northern Colorado.
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The Night Visitor
Gwendolyn Fouquet (Fookay, she enunciated to strangers) was sprawled on an ornate Victorian ironwork bench in one of the city’s well-kept gardens. There was nothing unusual about that, since it was a summer day, and the warm sun, the white fluffy clouds moving in hypnotic patterns across the brilliant blue sky, and a hearty shot of Jim Beam could make anyone drowsy. But, even at a distance, it struck Sneaky Pete as odd that she would nod off with the naked bottle still clutched in her hand. Just as neat homebodies cringe at toothpaste tube left uncapped, street etiquette—and the ban on public drinking—make it both slovenly and foolhardy not to sheathe a bottle in a brown paper bag. She must have hung on a whingdinger, he thought, and hurried over to conceal the evidence.
—Hey Fruitcake, he barked at her as he drew near, expecting that hated distortion of her last name to make her spring furiously upright, but her inert body gave no evidence that she heard him. (It is true that, during several drinking bouts, Gwendolyn may have slightly slurred her patronym, thus giving rise to wicked variations, of which Fruitcake was the most innocuous, but these casual errors would have yielded to her repeated corrections, if Gwendolyn had not been guilty of giving herself airs.) Her street companions assumed a name so distinctive and mellifluous was invented, along with her affluent antecedents, gentle education, and fastidious tastes. Still, something must account for the pride that was impervious to whatever tragic circumstances had flung her among crude ruffians and mandated her daily commerce with the self-indulgent barbarians who slipped her coins while avoiding her eyes.
Now, with one arm and leg dragging on the ground, her dirty gray hair tumbled over weather-worn features, and the various layers of loose, faded garments twisted in disarray, the Invincible Gwendolyn looked pitifully vulnerable. If Sneaky Pete’s original impulse was to bait her into an entertaining tirade, he now was anxious to coax her back to her usual haughty dignity. Her mouth had fallen open and he saw that the uncapped bottle dangling from her hand had emptied its precious fluid in a wet circle of grass. Clearly, he told his buddies when they gathered around a fire that evening beneath the railroad bridge, this was no ordinary bender. Gwendolyn (he thought it fitter now to speak with respect) would’ve finished that bottle or capped it. .
—She was conked out alright. I shook her shoulder, and said, hey snap out of it, you okay? She half opened her eyes and mumbled a coupla words I couldn’t entirely make out, then she kinda gasped and shuddered and that was it. Curtains.
There was a somber silence, broken only by a few words, “damn shame,” and “I wouldn’a thought such a tough dame’d go so sudden.” “What was her last words?”
—All I could make out were “many mansions.”
—That’s from the Bible, you know? “In my father’s house are many mansions…” And more on that order. You think she got religion?
—Well, maybe so. Just in time. He held up a bottle before he passed it around, To Gwendolyn Fookay, may she rest in peace. Amen, they said, and drank her toast.
That might have been the end of that, were Gwendolyn’s acquaintances only the ragged group of street people with whom she sometimes shared or disputed a grate and a bottle. Many another—rechristened as Grub or Lucky or Sneaky Pete from some incident or characteristic of their street life, and keeping their real names to themselves to resume unscathed when their luck changed—had departed this life unclaimed by next-of-kin and with even less ceremony.
In fact, Gwendolyn was rather widely known, in the world of night watchmen and custodians. While she liked sleeping under the stars during clement weather, and while she vigorously resisted the loss of privacy and intrusive demands of the city’s designated shelters, she saw no virtue in unnecessary discomfort. In fact, whether or not she had once enjoyed the comforts and culture of affluence, she certainly had a taste for them.
She was not a native of this metropolis but either marriage or a job or curiosity had brought her to the city. At some point, some personal catastrophe had apparently destroyed her livelihood or her reputation or both and, for the last decade, she had been living on the street. No one really knew by what inexorable series of steps—a lost job, eviction, exhausted savings, drink or depression—she had ultimately become destitute and homeless.
At some point, she had stopped trying to reenter the conventional world of persons with even minimal resources because it took all her energy simply to survive and to maintain a stubborn flicker of pride. Even in dirty and ragged clothing, she walked with the carriage, and spoke with the precision, of a Person of Consequence.
One cold fall morning, when her coat had become painfully threadbare and her belongings reduced to a plastic trash bag, she woke up shivering and stiff on the steps of a canopied doorway where she had dozed only fitfully, in dread of some lurking psychopath or hormone-hyped gang of delinquents prowling for victims. She made her way to a cafeteria known for its free coffee refills and waited for a customer to leave an emptied mug on a table, which she then picked up quickly and refilled at the urn, spooning in plenty of sugar for energy. Cradling the comforting warmth in her hand, she had an epiphany, much like that of Scarlett O’Hara shaking a handful of carrots at the sky and vowing never to go hungry again.
—I will never sleep in the street again, Gwendolyn vowed.
She was still considering alternatives when a downpour forced her to seek shelter in the most splendid of the city’s numerous art galleries. She had, strangely enough, never entered its colonnaded portico, or that of any of the numerous other museums, although she had found libraries to be an excellent daytime refuge. She had been discouraged by the cold reception of guardians and patrons of the arts. Now, she parked her life’s possessions behind an evergreen shrub, and strode in confidently. At the reference desk, she picked up brochures of the floor plan and the current exhibits, and engaged the receptionist with questions. This forced the woman to acknowledge her as a legitimate patron, and possibly to modify a negative first impression. After all, a well-spoken woman of a certain age might be a widow thrown into genteel poverty, or an underpaid librarian from some one-traffic-light Podunk.
For Gwendolyn, stepping into the high-ceilinged, marble-paneled spaces was an emotional homecoming. Definitely, this is where she belonged. Directly in front of her was the garden court, under a spacious dome, surrounded by carefully tended potted trees and flowers. In its cheerful café, happy people chattered, sheltered from littered sidewalks and annoying wind. Since the posted menu confirmed that her pocket change would not suffice for even a cup of tea, she settled contentedly onto a padded bench, and admired the statuary in the wall niches and the central fountain, where light sparkled on the water falling from horns of plenty held by winged cherubs. Reveling in the warmth, comfort and beauty of her surroundings, Gwendolyn felt a wave of gratitude that such plenitude should be free and available, even to refugees from the sordid mercantile economy. (Rather than an impoverished outcast, she saw herself as a conscientious objector in a world of alien values.)
For hours, she wandered through exhibitions, pausing at the pieces that impressed or intrigued her, returning to study those that touched her heart. She read the brochures and listened attentively at the edge of guided tours. Despite the grumble of her empty stomach—and, really, it would be too gauche to ask for money in this refined ambiance—she was engrossed for hours, until she heard the loudspeaker announce that the building would close for the day.
It would be absurd to go back out into the cold, wet street when this grand mansion had a surfeit of empty space, and could easily shelter a single human being, especially one who so deeply appreciated its solemn majesty. Here, in this colonnaded hall, with its graceful statuary, in this mansion replete with treasures, there surely must be a vacant corner where she could spend the night. The women’s restroom seemed the least likely place for the night watchmen to patrol.
As a precaution, however, she spent the first half hour perilously perched on a toilet lid so her feet would not be visible. She left the door to the stall slightly ajar, since a closed door might attract attention. She congratulated herself on her foresight when a female guard opened the door and leaned in to make a quick visual inspection. A flashlight beam swept the floor of her stall, and then the outer door closed. Compared to her usual accommodations, the dispenser soap might have been scented shampoo and the rough paper toweling soft white terrycloth. Her skin still tingling from the hot water, she sank gratefully into an actual couch and slept as soundly as a child.
She woke at 4 a.m., dreaming that a train was clattering down at her where she lay, inexplicably, on the tracks. Once awake, she recognized the sound as the squeak of a wheeled pail on the tiled floor. This was followed by the cry of a startled cleaning woman. Gwendolyn sat up, still slightly disoriented, but much more rested than after uneasy nights on a heating grate or a dirty cot in some rank and dispiriting shelter.
The cleaning woman eyed her in alarm, clutching a mop as if it were a weapon.
—Oh, dear me, said Gwendolyn, I seem to have fallen asleep.
—You were here all night?
—Thus it appears—Gwendolyn chuckled apologetically, as if she found her presence there equally surprising. —Well, I’ll be off now, and let you do your work. Although I would be extremely grateful if this…incident…remains our secret? It’s rather embarrassing, you know.
Aware that Gwendolyn appeared quite harmless, the woman was sympathetic.
—I’ll let you out, if you go right away. No one will know.
—Thank you, my dear, said Gwendolyn, wiggling her feet into her splayed sneakers, and adjusting her coat. She followed the woman to an employee entrance and found herself once again on the street. She felt refreshed and cheerful as she strode briskly to an all-night café for her morning coffee, her mind busy with plans for exploring the multiple free lodging possibilities she had heretofore overlooked. It would take planning, discretion, quick thinking and, of course, a pinch of bravura…all well within her capabilities.
In the days and weeks that followed, Gwendolyn developed her techniques. In the process, she endured deplorable rudeness, involuntary ejection, threats and even several encounters with the law. But each encounter refined her strategies, and her nerve and dexterity did not go unnoticed. Gradually she began to inspire a reluctant admiration, even a kind of protective sentiment, among the night watchmen and custodians, who were impressed by her ingenuity, her skill at passing unperceived, her gracious way of absolving them of any responsibility for her trespass when she was apprehended. The more she agreed that they were obliged to enforce the rules, the more arbitrary and inhospitable the rules began to seem.
Still, their jobs were at stake, and while they understood the simple logic of Gwendolyn’s pressing need for shelter and their building’s superfluous emptiness, rules were rules. They continued to enforce them to the best of their ability, but even the most vigilant guard might suffer a moment’s inattention. If they failed to detect her in an obscure corner of their night domain, we’re all human and fallible, after all.
In short, Gwendolyn, because of her genius for fabrication, evasion and empathy found herself with a wide variety of acceptable shelters. If a broom closet or a lavatory or a storeroom did not rate five stars, it was safer and cozier than the street. She fancied herself a guest in a hotel whose poor sleeping accommodations were compensated by magnificent lobbies, lounges and galleries where she spent so many waking hours.
To her street companions, she had become a figure of some mystery. Of course, they ran into her when she was cadging money at a street corner, buying Jim Beam at the rundown liquor store they frequented, collecting bottles for refunds, or just soaking up some sun. But, like a figure from a fairy tale, she disappeared at sundown. When they pressed her for an explanation, she answered vaguely, “Oh, friends put me up.”
No one swallowed that. Those who have spent years on the street, and still claim to have friends among the housed, are lying. Sure, some folks may greet you by name, and even hand you a dollar or two on a regular basis. But the friendship they offer stops at their front door.
—Introduce us. Maybe they got space for a few more.
—I wish I could, she murmured, sounding truly regretful, but that was as much as she’d say.
Gwendolyn knew that ordinary friendship was a relic of her past life, but sometimes, now, she longed to be able to share the discoveries that filled so many of her hours. Casing both popular and obscure museums and collections in daylight hours had expanded her knowledge of history, art, archeology, science and artifacts. Her street cronies were her invaluable advisors on freebies, unguarded merchandise, the richest sites for dumpster diving, and all sorts of practical matters. But they dwelled too much on personal comfort and minor larceny. They couldn’t fully satisfy Gwendolyn’s conversational needs.
One night, at a small fabric arts museum, staffed by a single night watchman, she had stretched out a shabby quilt in a dim nook of the exhibit hall and, since there was no light for reading, began to mentally review the art history books she had rescued that day from a dumpster behind one of the galleries.
A voice interrupted her revelry.
—Why pretend I don’t know you’re there?
She sat up abruptly. Did this portend the end of her silent arrangement with Parker, the night watchman?
—I think you know why better than I do, she said, with a rueful laugh. Were his employer to know that he tolerated this intruder, even for an hour, he would be fired immediately.
—Well, I’m bored as hell, and it’s too early for anyone to sleep. Why don’t you come on out to my desk. There’s a pot of coffee on, and more pizza than I can finish.
Parker was too curious to continue their silent agreement that he would neither see nor hear her, and in case she were exposed as a stowaway, she would stoutly deny his complicity. That evening was the beginning of an amiable friendship, although she spaced her visits carefully, because it was only fair to spread the risk that her hosts incurred.
She enjoyed recounting her daily adventures and discoveries, and the pleasures of the museums she haunted. She listened with interest when he talked about his job and family and even his philosophy of life.
Sometimes Parker probed for information about her past life, and then she grew quite eloquent, describing a coddled childhood in her parents’ splendid mansion.
—Our walls were hung with the striking eclectic art collected by my parents during their travels abroad. When they were home, they entertained lavishly. How well I remember the long dinner table lit by candles, casting reflections on the silver and on the bare shoulders of the women, the clink of crystal, the servants gliding silently to and from the kitchen with more delicacies…
She trailed off, her eyes closed dreamily, and Parker’s attention wandered. He didn’t believe a word of Gwendolyn’s scenarios, but they were entertaining. He understood they were the barriers she used to deflect personal questions she preferred not to answer. She had her reasons for reticence, he supposed.
He was not the only one among the fraternity of watchmen who tried, without success, to elicit real information about Gwendolyn’s identity and her past. Her evasions fed their curiosity and speculations, but the mysterious night visitor was also a matter of secret pride. They liked this harmless defiance of peremptory employers who treated them as menials, and of pay that denied respect for their work.
Gwendolyn’s brotherhood of protectors had reached its own sorrowful conclusion: the lady, despite her delicate aesthetic taste and her claim of a fine upbringing, was a slave to booze. Sometimes her clothes smelled of it, sometimes her voice was slurred, and her step unsteady. But, drunk or sober, her observations and adventures amused Parker, and shortened his hours on duty.
Because no one knew when Gwendolyn might sleep overnight in their premises, it was weeks before the night watchmen, comparing notes, realized that she had disappeared. They searched the Internet for an obituary, but found nothing. A feeling of sadness and regret descended over the company. Perhaps they had failed to protect the woman who had somehow become a symbol of their integrity, their willingness to risk reprisal for a simple act of kindness. If she were really gone, a small rebellious spark had been snuffed out. Eventually, someone thought to question one of her street comrades, and learned of her death. No one knew her actual name, no relatives or friends—if such existed—could be contacted. Gwendolyn was cremated, unmourned, by the city, and the cardboard box containing her ashes was reclaimed by the soup kitchen she patronized. In a few months or years, all its volunteer help would have turned over, and the box would likely be tossed out.
Weeks passed and then one night Parker, viewing the empty rooms and corridors of his domain on the television sets above his desk, saw a flash of red fabric disappear around a corner. Gwendolyn favored flowing gowns in bright colors! He sprang from his desk and inspected every room and crevice of the building. He even spoke her name aloud. There was no one there. A weird optical illusion, he concluded.
The next night, at the Museum of Victorian furnishings, a startled custodian swore he had seen a woman about Gwendolyn’s size sleeping in an antique bed. But when he went to investigate, there was nothing there. I’m hallucinating, he told himself.
When he brought up the incident, in a self-mocking way, at the next beer bust of the night watchmen’s club, no one laughed. This spooked a relative newcomer who had his own story to tell:
—Why, something like that happened to me, just last night, he said. I thought I saw this gray-haired woman, kind of ragged and unkempt, standing there in front of a Manet painting. I jumped up, and I think I even called out to her, but then there was no one there. I thought it was a shadow, a trick of light.
More confessions followed: shapes that melted into thin air, light footsteps in an empty corridor, art books misplaced in the souvenir shop, the smell of whiskey where no one dared be caught drinking.
—Well, boys, said Parker, at last. The evidence speaks for itself. Gwendolyn’s still with us, if only in spirit. She’s hanging out where she felt most at home. She won’t do any harm. I guess she’s chosen our ornate buildings for the mansions she always admired.
No one still knows Gwendolyn’s real name, but the Brotherhood of Custodians has adopted her as its Patron Spirit. Her image, artistically enhanced, is on their coat of arms. If the frequency of her ethereal visitations is any indication, she feels welcome in their mansions.
Copyright 2009 by Winifred Scheffler.
Winifred Scheffler has published numerous magazine and newspaper articles during her career, which included work as a U. S. Senate aide, journalist in Mexico City, and public affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As a retiree living in Arlington, Virginia, her current interests are fiction writing and watercolor painting.