awoke from a dream of her dying mother to the sound of New York. They
had been booked into a hotel on Lexington Avenue; it was twenty-four
storys tall, faced in red brick, and the howl of the avenue was conducted
up its sheer sides. It had been chosen for its proximity to the Consulate,
a short walk away on Park Avenue between 39th and 40th Streets, where,
to Charlie's delight, it was housed in the National Distillers Building.
By the time Mary returned from the bathroom, the bellboy had called
with breakfast and the newspapers. Charlie read rapidly through them,
occasionally grunting or exclaiming, and passing them over to Mary as
he finished. The bedside telephone rang and Charlie, saying "I'm not
here," handed the heavy, bleating instrument across the bed, its flex
tangling in the remains of scrambled egg and brittle strips of bacon.
"May I speak with Mary van der Linden?" She half recognized the voice.
"This is Frank Renzo."
"Hello, Frank. How are you?"
"I'm sorry to call so early. A colleague of mine was at your consulate
yesterday and heard you were in town. I wondered if I could repay your
hospitality, show you something of the city."
"The guided tour?" Mary tried to think of a way of stalling him; she
had been planning to spend the day alone, shopping in the morning, lunch
downtown, then a gallery. "That's very nice of you. I'd better check
with Charlie what his plans--"
Charlie waved his hand dismissively, in an accommodating, don't-mind-me
gesture that was the opposite of helpful.
"Well, I...I suppose... That would be very nice." She handed the telephone
back to Charlie. "Thanks a lot."
Charlie laughed. "You getting the tour? It might be fun. I've got meetings
at the Distillery all day anyway."
After Charlie had gone, Mary dressed with some care. She wore a suit
with a tailored jacket and a skirt which, though a little tight at the
knee, would not prevent her walking with ease if it turned into a long
day of sightseeing. Most of the women on Fifth Avenue, she had noticed
the day before, were wearing hats, but she had never felt comfortable
with anything on her head and resented having to wear proper hats to
weddings or to the parties on the Embassy lawns. She put a scarf into
her purse, next to the small leather photograph wallet with a picture
of the children, checked her makeup in the bathroom mirror and set off.
Frank was waiting for her in the lobby. He looked distracted, as though
the enterprise had been someone else's idea. He was wearing the suit
with the nailhead pattern he had worn on the first evening he had arrived
at the van der Lindens' party, Mary noticed, and his tie was already
beginning to sink down from the top button of his pale blue shirt.
He held out his hand.
"This is very kind of you," she said.
"Do you have an idea what you'd like to do?"
"No. I rather hoped you'd have a plan. Perhaps we could go and see some
pictures--whatever's on at the Met, for instance."
Frank, who was carrying a felt hat and had a raincoat over his arm,
looked worried for a moment as he inspected Mary; but he swallowed whatever
misgiving he might have had and took her by the elbow through the revolving
doors onto Lexington Avenue, where he hailed a cab.
"Aren't you working?" said Mary, straightening her skirt over her knees
as she settled onto the slippery seat.
"No, I have a few days' vacation."
"And you're not going away anywhere?"
"Oh no. You never know what might turn up."
Frank barked an instruction to the driver and sat back. "Guy just arrived
from Puerto Rico. Doesn't know where the hell he's going."
The morning followed no logical itinerary. Frank's version of the city
was less influenced by architecture or appearance than by stories he
had written and people he had met. It began with an hour among the rows
of secondhand bookstores on Fourth Avenue, round Tenth Street, then
went over to Tompkins Square--an interesting district, he explained,
because the New York City Housing Authority had built its first project
on Avenue A at Third Street. Mary could not see what was noteworthy
in the depressed and menacing blocks, with resentful-looking youths
playing softball behind wire mesh.
They walked up to Tompkins Square Park, where he showed her a small
monument of two children, carved in relief on a stone background, looking
at a flowering tree. The girl was seated, the boy carried a hoop; an
engraved caption read: "They were earth's purest children, young and
"It commemorates the loss of a steamboat," said Frank. "Over a thousand
people from this neighborhood died on it, mostly Germans. Their families
couldn't bear to stay in these streets afterward, so they moved out
and it was taken over by Russians. Around here you can still feel that
sense of loss. Don't you think?"
The children reminded Mary of her own, and for a moment she lost track
of what Frank was saying, as her mind turned over thoughts of family
"You can hear them talk Russian in the stores and cafés."
"Is that so?" She rallied. "And what do they think of Sputnik?"
"I guess they'd be pretty divided. Most of them came before the Revolution
and they're not so crazy about Communism."
Frank took her back to the Bowery and on to the end of Bleecker Street,
where he pointed to a handsome, ornamented building.
"Know who designed that? It's Louis H. Sullivan, his only building in
New York. You ever go to Chicago, you'll see his best stuff there. We're
pretty proud of him back where I come from." He smiled. "Is any of this
interesting to you?"
Taken aback by his directness, Mary stammered slightly. "Yes, of course.
Yes, it's very interesting."
"So, do I just keep on talking?"
"Yes. Yes. You do that."
"We'll walk down to Chatham Square, where two El tracks used to meet.
You got to imagine what it was like, the people in the dark beneath
all that ironwork."
Frank walked quickly, and Mary found herself struggling a little to
keep up; she wished she had accepted an earlier invitation to take a
break in some Russian, or possibly Greek, café. The lower reaches
of the Bowery were lined with discount liquor stores, flophouses, pawnshops
and hotels whose imposing names--the Grand Windsor, the Palace, the
Crystal--were set in context by their modest claim to offer "Clean Rooms."
Frank strode on, apparently unaware of the fallen men stretched across
the doorways, talking of the movements of people and how he felt that,
although the city was a thousand neighborhoods, it had a single character
"And what's that single character?" Mary asked.
"Search me. Jewish, I guess. You find Jewish stores and theaters, you're
pretty close to the real thing."
He took her suddenly by the elbow and steered her to the right, down
Grand Street. "You gotta see this."
After a few blocks, he stopped in front of an Italian general store,
so un-American it might have been transported whole from Verona.
"Louis Sullivan, Little Italy. Another home for you," said Mary.
They went into the store, which sold straw ponies from Positano, devices
for making lasagne, plastic gondolas, plaster saints and arlecchinos,
colored drinking glasses and 78 rpm shellac recordings of Caruso in
brown paper covers. By the cash desk, there was a Grammatica Accelerata
Italiana-Inglese. A woman in widow's black smiled at them from behind
a wooden counter; the homesickness was almost palpable.
"Breaks your heart, doesn't it?" Frank said.
"Yours, I think," said Mary.
They went back onto the Bowery and continued walking south, where the
street widened for the approach to Manhattan Bridge, a square triumphal
arch that might have been commissioned by Trajan or Tiberius. A traffic
cop stood in the middle of the road, his blue serge jacket double-buttoned
beneath his chin, waving his white-gloved hands at the streams of arriving
and departing traffic. He was yelling at the cars and trucks, his body
a frenzy of agitation as though he was about to dance. Mary thought
his wild gestures were those of anger, until he pointed at a truck driver
and mimed a festive pulling of the klaxon; she saw the smile of gratification
spread across his face as the driver noisily obliged.
Eventually, they reached Chatham Square, a confluence of nine streets,
whose buildings still looked unused to the sunlight admitted by the
slum clearance of the neighboring Green and the removal of its elevated
train tracks. One street led west to the financial district, another
north into the belly of Chinatown.
"Imagine the view you'd get on the train," said Frank. "You could look
into people's front rooms in Harlem or Brooklyn. You could see them
working, women in sweatshops, men in factories, the guy alone in the
office at night, fiddling the books. Then you'd see the East River or
maybe the sun setting on the Chrysler Building. And right here underneath,
almost in the dark, there'd be movie theaters and newspaper sellers,
florists, bums. And up on the platforms there were little frame houses,
you know a hundred years old with gables, kind of like England, I guess."
Mary had begun to laugh. "I'm sorry," she said.
"Maybe you had to be here."
"I think maybe I did." She touched his arm lest he should take offense
"But it does sound charming."
Frank looked at his watch. "Listen. I'll take you to lunch. Do you like
fish? Ever had shad roe? Or a kippered herring?"
"Kippers? We used to have them every Friday breakfast when I was a child."
"Come on, then."
"But I didn't really like them."
"Me neither. Too many bones."
"Do we ever take a taxi in this tour?"
"No, it's just down on South Street, by the market. Maybe after lunch."
Frank took her beneath Brooklyn Bridge to a building near the waterfront.
While he organized a table and went to make a telephone call, she walked
through to the women's room at the back, which was down an unplastered
brick corridor. The door handle was missing, though the tiled surfaces
inside seemed clean enough, and she took some minutes to comb her hair
and fix her makeup.
When she returned, she found that Frank had ordered her a glass of water
and a dry martini. Across the street, they could see the huge open sheds
of Fulton Market which disappeared off the edge of the island, their
outer parts supported by piles deep in the East River. It was almost
one o'clock, and activity was beginning to dwindle; the porters were
pushing empty trolleys and men in rubber aprons were starting to hose
down the floor.
"You like clams?" said Frank, looking at a board on the wall where the
menu was chalked.
"What's good here?" said Mary, avoiding the clam question.
"Anything's fine, so long as it's fish. Why don't we get some crab?"
Mary was relieved to be sitting down at last, and surreptitiously eased
Off her shoes beneath the table: the giant square paving slabs of Manhattan
had drained the life from her calves and heels. She lit a cigarette
and offered the pack to Frank, who was stirring his drink with the end
of his fork, since the restaurant had not run to swizzle sticks; he
managed to make the same rapid sequence of sounds she had noticed in
There was a change in the atmosphere as the table required them, for
the first time that day, to look one another in the eye. Mary was worried
that, without the life of the streets to comment on, Frank might become
bored by her company.
"So," she said, "tell me about your work. Why aren't you traveling somewhere
if you're on holiday?"
"I don't care much for vacations. I travel a good deal for work, so
if I get the chance I like to stay in New York." He drained the glass
and put it back on the table. "Also, I don't want to miss anything.
I think I told you I'm trying to get onto the election. Time's running
out and I don't want to miss a break if it comes along."
"I see. And were you reporting on politics before you did whatever it
was you did wrong?"
"Yeah, pretty much. I did the Eisenhower-Stevenson election in '52.
I guess that was the beginning of the problem. Eisenhower did this terrible
thing in Milwaukee right at the end of the campaign. He rewrote his
speech to please McCarthy. The local governor, a guy named Kohler, was
frightened that if Eisenhower said good things about General Marshall,
who McCarthy was trying to make out as some sort of Red, then McCarthy
would make trouble for him. So Kohler got Ike to cut all the Marshall
stuff out and Ike embraced McCarthy on the platform. But Marshall was
not only a fine man, he had virtually created Ike as a politician, and
here was Eisenhower crawling to this toad McCarthy who was trying to
ruin Marshall. It was a terrible moment."
"But why on earth would Eisenhower be so frightened of McCarthy?"
"He was trying to please Kohler, the local Republican. But everyone
was frightened of McCarthy, all the politicians. He showed he could
get them beaten at the polls if he backed the other candidate. In the
end it was as simple as that. They were scared of losing their seats.
No one really believed all those Communist accusations. Not even Nixon."
"Did you meet McCarthy?"
"Sure, he was a very friendly guy. He loved journalists. The press made
him, by reporting his fantasies, so he was always buying drinks. I mean,
really a lot of drinks. You know he died of cirrhosis? But it wasn't
just trying to buy our friendship, he liked being one of the guys. He
liked getting drunk with other men. I remember he ran a tab at the Pfister
Hotel in Milwaukee. Unbelievable."
"So he was an alcoholic?"
"I guess so. He was kind of amusing to be with, to pass an hour with.
I think he didn't like women. He preferred men, if you see what I mean."
"Yes, I think so."
"That's where we parted company. That and the question of these Communists."
"So what happened? You said that was where the problem began."
While Frank was explaining, the waiter brought the crabs with a bowl
of mayonnaise and some ketchup in small paper cups. Frank told her that
the FBI had helped to create the fog of distrust in which McCarthy had
worked; knowing people were ready to spy on their neighbors, the Bureau
had been able to accumulate files on individuals who had only the most
circumstantial connection with any left-wing activity--a foreign name,
the purchase of a magazine, a wrong friend. Hardly any were believing
Communists, but all were afraid of being reported, denounced and barred
from work, knowing that they would not be offered a chance to defend
"They mounted a big attack on the press," said Frank. "Agents would
just turn up at an office and tell the editor who to fire. I wrote a
story about Eisenhower's speech. I'd been told by one of his aides how
he'd cut out the pro-Marshall stuff. Even his own staff was appalled.
My editor got a call a week or so later from the FBI. I was one of half
a dozen reporters he was told to keep an eye on. He just told them to
get lost, so I was okay for the time being."
"The FBI came to your paper just because you'd been rude about McCarthy?"
"Pretty much. They could turn up at a newspaper or even a women's magazine
and tell the editor to fire someone and that was it. McCarthy and the
FBI worked hand in glove. Hoover fed McCarthy a lot of material. McCarthy
had this famous sidekick, Roy Cohn, a revolting man, and Hoover was
right up his ass. Pardon me."
Frank looked momentarily embarrassed, and Mary found herself smiling
at his attack of decorum.
"I remember Cohn," she said. "But if your editor stood up for you, what
finally went wrong?"
"I'll tell you about it another time."
"But you weren't a sympathizer in any way?"
"Christ, no, Mary. I'm a reporter, I'm not a political guy. I mean,
sometimes I don't vote, or maybe I'll have met one of the candidates
and vote for him. The first time I ever went to the polls I voted Republican.
I was sixteen years old and they came to my part of Chicago and handed
out voting cards. All the kids on my block voted for Landon, not Roosevelt.
They'd enfranchised us. So why not?"
As Frank continued to talk, waving a crab leg, then cracking it at the
joint, Mary watched his face in an absent sort of way. She had never,
she thought, met anyone with eyes of quite his color: they were pale
blue, but round the edges of the irises were splinters of brown, like
shards of cracked cobnut. Beneath the eyes, where the skin was discolored
with fatigue, she could just make out a handful of faded freckles of
the same pale brown. She wondered what he had looked like as a boy,
whether the freckles had bloomed then in soft skin, like Richard's.
The other thing she kept noticing was that, however much he disavowed
any political belief, there seemed to be a sinewy sense in his conversation
of right and wrong; he appeared indignant about certain things, committed
to others. She wondered if he had inherited a Catholic morality from
his family, but it didn't seem to be a spiritual quality; she had the
feeling that, however droll and dismissive his way of concealing it,
there were a number of things he wanted to see done, by himself or others.
After lunch they took a taxi uptown to the Met, and at about four o'clock
Mary was overcome by a desire to sleep. Frank took her back to the hotel.
"Well, thank you," said Mary, as he went round the cab and opened her
door. "I enjoyed the tour."
There was a moment of unease.
"Good," said Frank.
"You know, we could do the second part of the tour tomorrow."
"It has two parts?"
"It has a number of parts."
"I'd better see what Charlie's doing."
"Are you certain it wouldn't be a nuisance for you?"
Frank's answer was lost beneath the driver's shouted question: "You
"I'll call you," said Frank, walking round the back of the car.
Mary went through the swing doors. It was pleasant to have some company
when sightseeing, she thought; you could go into bars and cafés
without being stared at as a lone woman; it was good to have this fallback
for the next day if nothing else was required of her.
Up in the room, she took off her shoes and skirt and curled up on the
bed. She began to read her book, then found herself drifting off: the
traffic noise from the street became part of an almost-dream, a pleasing
soundtrack to the static images of no particular significance that were
for her always the gateway to sleep: a tree, a gate, the corner of a
house. The half-slip she was wearing could not prevent a draft reaching
her legs and she pulled a cover over her, as, with her dark hair loose
over the hotel pillow, she fell asleep.
She awoke when Charlie came back into the room. He leaned over to kiss
her and lost his footing, so that he collapsed beside her on the bed,
leaking fumes of alcohol. Mary sat up and stroked the hair back from
"Are you all right, darling?"
"Boring bloody day. Christ, it's so bloody boring.
It was an art, knowing whether Charlie should be indulged, rebuked or
put to bed, but it was one in which Mary was practiced. It was a failure
to her if he could not be made to have dinner, but would only curl up
with a bottle, rebuffing her attempts at friendliness. She decided to
leave him where he was while she took a bath; sometimes a short sleep
could pull him back onto the main line of the day, especially if followed
by a shower and a large scotch on the rocks.
Mary sat in the deep tub, moving the hot water up between her legs and
round her sides. She felt reinvigorated by her rest and wanted to go
out to Chinatown, or Little Italy, or the Village: she didn't mind what
they ate provided she could experience some more of the city. After
twenty minutes she climbed out and wrapped herself in a towel. Charlie
was where she had left him, snoring softly; Mary put on a robe she found
in the bathroom and took him by the shoulder.
"Get off, leave me alone."
"No, darling, you're coming out. Come on."
She gauged that if she could withstand some abuse, Charlie was not so
drunk that he could not be persuaded to cooperate.
"You have a shower and I'll ring for some ice. When you've finished
I'll have clean clothes and a nice drink ready for you."
Half an hour later, they were ready to go out, Charlie with hair still
damp, but his mood somewhat restored by two large drinks and a cigarette.
On Lexington Avenue he hailed a taxi.
"Where to, bud?" The driver craned round in his seat.
"Ask the lady."
"I don't know. Greenwich Village. Anywhere down there."
They pulled out into the middle lane, where they hit a run of green
lights as the cab went loudly downtown, bouncing on the potholes, sounding
its horn as it swung from lane to lane to avoid the dithering schmucks,
jerks and assholes identified by the driver.
"This good enough for you?" he said, as they pulled up in Washington
"Just let me out," said Charlie.
"Thank you," said Mary. "This is fine."
As they walked through the square, they noticed a group of young men
lined up with their arms entwined through the double-barred iron railing,
smoking, watching the people pass by. Although the night had turned
cool, they wore only T-shirts, some of them rolled up over biceps; they
hung forward from the rail as though captive, yet with a hungry impatience.
"What are those men doing?" said Mary.
"Not something that concerns a woman. Where are we going?"
Mary led him down Sullivan Street for a couple of blocks, then turned
left, where the sidewalks glowed under the light of neon signs. There
were bakeries and greengrocers still open, bookstores and a low brick
building with a circular sign announcing it as the Circle in the Square
Theatre. Colored awnings led into various restaurants and bars, and
they eventually settled on a corner building with scrubbed wooden floorboards
and tables set in candlelit booths.
As Mary ate her appetizer and looked across the table at his glazed
but no longer hostile expression, she found her eyes sting with sorrow.
She seldom allowed herself to remember Charlie as he had been when they
first met: ebullient, clear-eyed, certain that he could reinvent the
world or at least convert it to the invigorating plan he had for it.
Nothing in her sorrow affected the love she felt for him or her devotion
to their joint cause, the children, their domestic life together in
their Washington street--the things he referred to as "1064 and All
That." She felt only an anguished sympathy for what he seemed to suffer
and, periodically, a fear that it might have some awful outcome. When
she had once confided her anxiety to Katy Renshaw, however, Katy had
told her that there was nothing to worry about. Charlie drank only a
little more than most men they knew. So what if he went to see a psychoanalyst?
Everyone did, particularly in New York. Katy made it sound as though
the sky over midtown was a jam of uninterpreted dreams, the drains below
the fuming manhole covers a network of suppressed desires. Anyway, Katy
said, men like Charlie and Edward were creative, unusually clever guys
who needed to be allowed their foibles and their games, like when they
tried to catch each other out with lines of poetry they pretended to
have read but might instead have made up. Had Mary seen the pleasure
in Charlie's eyes when he had passed off a line of his to Edward as
one of Wallace Stevens's? It was a game; it was all just a game.
Such was Mary's temperament that she was inclined to believe her. All
would be well, because all usually was well, more or less; and anyway,
they were locked together in a common endeavor: dealing with Charlie
was part of her life and she would have it no other way.
"I have to go to Chicago," said Charlie, pushing a piece of chicken
round his plate. "Tomorrow. I have to take a plane from La Guardia at
"Don't ask. It's this bloody election. Trouble is, I don't think I can
manage it. The flying."
"You'll be all right, darling. You'll be fine. Have you got some of
your pills with you?"
"Yes, I have. But I have to take so many that then I can't perform at
the other end."
Mary put her hand on his. "Would you like me to come with you?"
"No, I'd hate that. You stay here."
"All right. How long will you be gone?"
"Two nights. I'll be back on Thursday. Will you be all right? You can
go back to Washington if you like."
"I'll be fine. It's you I'm worried about."
Charlie lit a cigarette and pushed his plate away. He held his head
in his hands. For a moment Mary thought he was crying. Then he wrenched
his hands away and pushed back the chair noisily, losing his balance
for a moment as he stood up.
The next morning, in the taxi on the way to La Guardia, Charlie looked
pale, and there was a tremor in his hand; but he was also quiet and
resigned. Mary suspected that he owed his mood to one of the pills Weissman
had prescribed, but knew he would be irritated if she asked. She stood
with him on the ramp outside the departure building, checking that he
had everything he needed. As she kissed him, she did up the middle button
of his jacket, and patted his ribs, as though he were a child. She felt
the little death of departure.
He licked his dry lips, turned, bag in hand, and made off through the
Mary climbed back into the waiting taxi and told the driver to return,
to the hotel. She wondered how Charlie would manage the flight; she
hoped he would not be so doped by the time they landed that he would
be incapable of getting off the plane.
Back inside the hotel, she went to the front desk to collect the key.
"Mrs. van der Linden?"
"Message for you. A Mr. Renzo called."
"Oh. I see. Did he leave a number?"
"Sure did, ma'am." The desk clerk held out a piece of paper along with
Up in the room Mary paused before telephoning. She could perfectly easily
spend the day alone, doing what she wanted to do. This would entail
some of the things for which New York was more obviously well known:
going to the Frick Collection and looking in some of the shops on Madison
Avenue behind it; a light lunch overlooking the park and then, one of
her particular pleasures, a film in the afternoon, emerging while it
was still light for a cocktail at the top of a midtown skyscraper, and
the self-indulgence of a room-service dinner alone with her book.
Did she really want to be taken on another random and exhausting trek
through low-rent neighborhoods, plague areas, secondhand bookstores,
streets with "interesting" ethnic history, fish and garment markets,
pausing infrequently to be presented with a glassful of stupefying iced
liquor and a lecture on recent American politics?
It would be company, at least. She lifted the receiver and dialed. It
was arranged that he would stop by the hotel at midday; Mary calculated
that this would give them only an hour before lunch, and this time she
would have some say over the venue. As a precaution, she invented a
call from Charlie which she would expect at five o'clock; in fact, he
seldom rang when he was away, but she wanted to have an escape route.
Frank called up from the front desk at ten to twelve.
"I'm a little early. I took the subway. I can wait if you like."
"No, no. I'm ready."
The elevator sank eighteen floors and the uniformed attendant hauled
open the rolling accordion doors. Frank was standing by the desk, turning
his hat slowly round in his hands. Mary moved swiftly across the lobby.
"Hi." Frank took her by the arm and moved her toward the door.
Mary paused at the curb, expecting him to hail a cab, but he set off
on foot, down 45th Street, then right onto Third Avenue.
"How's Charlie?" Frank said loudly above the traffic noise, as they
waited to cross the street.
"He's fine. He's had to go to Chicago. Where's the tour taking us today?"
"I haven't decided. I like it down here, though. Toward Murray Hill.
It's kind of blank."
"You like that?"
"I like the fact that it's impersonal. No one troubles you. That's what
cities are for. Frankfurters, cabs, you know. Loud noises. Come on."
Frank walked more slowly than the previous day so that they could continue
their conversation. He guided her over to Madison, past the J.P. Morgan
home, back onto clamorous Lexington with its long blocks of furniture
stores, then over again onto Third, where they walked down past the
old gin mills. Despite the proximity of many skyscrapers, the city was
less overpowering than in the seething boxes further west; there was
a sense of the island sloping downhill to the East River and of the
tight grid beginning to shake loose.
"When I first came to New York I had a room in a railroad flat way uptown
on 95th, and I used to take the train down Third every morning."
"Is that when you got the habit of looking into people's windows?"
"I guess so. They took it down a few years ago. I never imagined how
pretty Third Avenue would be beneath the tracks."
"Pretty?" It seemed to Mary a strange word for the blur of commerce,
the undistinguished tenements, where a police siren had begun to shriek
in front of a clothing store.
At lunchtime they took a cab back uptown to a chophouse on Lexington
of which Frank spoke warmly. Most of the clients seemed to be businessmen
in suits, sitting at a long mahogany bar or gathered at tables with
blue checked cloths, speaking with low urgency over their powerful drinks.
"So what's Charlie doing in Chicago?"
"I don't know. I've learned not to ask over the years."
"Why? Is it confidential?"
"No, not really. Charlie's job really is to follow the election. We'd
been in London for a bit and we were expecting to go to Paris. Charlie
was Assistant Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary at a very young
age. They made him a counsellor when he was only thirty-six."
"So he's what they call a high flyer?"
"It's an awful expression, but I suppose that's it. With the election
coming up the Embassy political staff in Washington needed someone extra,
and Charlie'd done a doctorate on American politics, so he was asked
to come for a couple of years. He'd met Senator Kennedy when his father
was Ambassador in London and it was thought he had some kind of special
line to him."
"And does he?" said Frank.
"I think so. He claims he remembers nothing about their meeting at all.
He says he was drunk at the time. In fact he does have some kind of
access. I don't quite know how it works, but I've seen the results.
It's all a bit of a gamble, because at the moment it doesn't look as
though Kennedy'll even get the nomination. But Charlie does other things
as well. When someone's on leave or off sick, he'll cover for them,
then you have to take over their speciality, which might be the Soviet
Union or Indochina or something. And he's supposed to liaise with the
American press as well. They all are, to some extent."
"So why don't you ask what he's doing?"
"Because he gets so cross with me." Mary pulled a pack of cigarettes
from her bag and offered one to Frank. "Charlie's not a very happy man.
He doesn't like the work. Or maybe he doesn't mind the work, he just
doesn't like being alive. It's a kind of illness." She paused. "I shouldn't
tell you these things."
"We're still off the record, aren't we? Does he see a doctor?"
"Yes, two, but it doesn't do any good. One of them gives him pills and
the other one, the analyst, just makes him talk. He's fuming when he
comes back. The man never says anything, apparently, just sits there
with his arms folded and hands him the bill at the end."
"And what do you think the problem is?"
Mary sighed. "I don't know. I doubt whether there's a single thing you
could just identify and cure. I think the world has disappointed him,
that's one thing. He can't bear to be bored. He's impatient. He drinks
so much to try to drown out his need for stimulation, to stifle the
clamoring in his brain. I think. I also think he feels the futility
of everything more than most people. I mean, I know it's all pointless,
that I 11 just go on for a few years, then die--but I like it. I'm happy.
This drink, this bar, my conversation with you. The thought of my children.
I can't help it, I just feel uplifted by them. But I know that that's
dishonest in some way, that I ought to take more account of the tragedy
of existence, or whatever you might call it. Occasionally I feel frightened
that in some way I'll get found out. That something will come along
and I won't be ready for it. Or that when I die, God will say, 'Well,
you had a good time, didn't you? Too busy to stop and think, were you?'
Charlie's got it right, probably, but it makes him so unhappy."
She was looking into Frank's eyes, which met hers without blinking.
"He's a nice guy, Charlie."
"Oh yes. He's certainly that. He's a wonderful man." Mary smiled. She
hesitated for a moment, then said, "Would you like to see a photograph
of my children?"
The waiter arrived to tell them about the specials, and Frank questioned
him about their provenance and whether he personally would recommend
them; Mary had noticed that he thought it a point of politeness always
to engage the waiter in this way. She rummaged in her purse and came
up with a folding leather wallet which she handed across the table.
Frank made admiring noises. "Tell me about them," he said.
Mary had the broiled snapper and a green salad, Frank had the chops
with gravy and mashed potatoes. At her request he ordered her some white
wine to go with her fish, after which she had a slice of key lime pie
and a cup of black coffee. All the time, she spoke of the passion she
felt for the children, and it warmed her even to mention their names.
As she replaced her cup in the saucer, she said, "I'm sorry. I seem
to have gone on rather. It's your fault. You shouldn't have asked me."
Frank handed back the photographs. "It's my fault. But they sound like
"They are. But don't get me started again. Tell me something about you."
Frank pulled out a cigarette. "You ever been to Indochina?"
"No. But Charlie has. When we were in Japan."
"I know. That's where I met him. He didn't seem to remember."
Mary laughed. "He was probably drunk. He certainly was at the party."
Frank smiled. "Me too. Should've switched to highballs earlier on."
"Anyway. Tell me something about yourself. I'm embarrassed to have gone
on so much about Richard and Louisa. It's a thing you should never do--bore
people about how sweet your children are. Charlie goes mad when people
do it to us."
"Okay. I'll tell you something." Frank sat back and lit his cigarette
from a book of matches on the table. His face was for a moment shadowed
and illuminated against the dark wood paneling behind him. "I have this
plan. One day I'm going to build a house. Maybe in the Adirondacks,
or the Catskills. It would have to be somewhere mountainous, with woods
and a river nearby. But it would also have to be near a town with bars,
bookstores, that kind of thing. I'd find an architect and we'd make
the plans together. It would be large, but it wouldn't be pretentious,
not like a Hollywood mansion. It would be in a simple kind of style--pitched
roof, clapboard, pretty traditional, I guess. But inside, there'd be
three staircases, a lot of different passageways and corridors so that
strangers could easily get lost."
"It's important that your visitors get confused?"
"That's pretty central to the plan. It would have a lot of big storerooms
for fuel and liquor and household things so they could be kept right
out of the picture. And there'd be a hall in the middle with a gallery
running around above it."
"Sure, we'd have bedrooms, with long views down the Hudson valley. And
the bathrooms would have stone floors and plain walls. No tiles like
you have in New York with roaches in the grout."
"And who would live there?"
"Me. A few other people maybe."
"And what would you do there?"
"Fish in the river. Shoot deer. Play pool in the poolroom."
"But you'd be bored. You like the city and newspapers. You haven't even
got any country clothes."
"Don't you think you could live somewhere like that without driving
pickup and wearing a fur-trimmed hat?"
"You'd think so, wouldn't you? But it seems to be impossible."
She said, "Do you know, that's the first time I've seen you laugh."
"Is it?" Frank ground out his cigarette. "That's curious, because since
we met at noon I don't think you've stopped."
"Haven't I?" Mary found her cheeks burning. "You haven't said anything
funny, have you?"
Mary regathered her composure. She said, "I think maybe you've just
got a ridiculous face."
When they went outside, a cab sounded its horn loudly next to the curb;
Mary looked up and down the avenue and saw that although the light had
begun to fade, the frenzy of the street had not diminished. She had
the feeling of how inessential she was to the life of the city; and,
with her mother dying, her children and husband absent, how insubstantial
was her existence.
Back at the hotel there was a message from Charlie to say that he would
have to spend another night in Chicago and would not now be back until
midday on Friday. He left a telephone number, which Mary called as soon
as she reached the room: the invented excuse for her early return to
the hotel had in fact materialized.
He was not drunk, but he was unhappy. Over the years, Mary had grown
used to the sound of his voice, lonely and uncertain, trembling, sometimes
breaking on the long-distance wires. She found it compellingly strange
that someone so confident was capable of so completely unraveling.
She wondered what he did when he was away. He liked to disappear, to
leave no trace, yet she knew that his need for human company was such
that he would not be alone in whatever city he was staying. He would
find a bar and inveigle himself into some sort of friendly exchange;
even a conversation that bored him would be better than the terrible
emptiness of his own company. The problem seemed to be that without
other people there he was unable to shut out the clamor of the world's
atomic pointlessness; it overwhelmed him.
She reassured him on the telephone as best she could, spoke to him of
their children, told him about her day and said it would not be long
before he saw her again. He was pacified when he eventually rang off.
Mary loved him more for his bewildering weakness than for any of his
explicable strengths and felt invigorated when she could be helpful
Frank had said he would call the next day and, with the evening free,
she had a cocktail in the hotel bar. As she sipped the drink, she read
a magazine article about the Democratic primary in Wisconsin, where
Muriel Humphrey's blackbean soup had not been enough to sway the voters
to get behind her man. There was a photograph of Hubert Humphrey standing
by a chrome-covered Greyhound bus and one of the improbably young Mrs.
Kennedy looking startled and lovely in a sleeveless dress with a heavy
bead necklace. Senator Kennedy had pitched camp on the third floor of
the Pfister Hotel in Milwaukee, the article said, and she remembered
Frank telling her about McCarthy's bar bill at the same hotel. The next
contest, in West Virginia, would decide the nomination: if an overwhelmingly
Protestant state could elect Kennedy as its candidate, the problem of
his being a Catholic was buried and he could win.
Mary began to feel excited by the idea, not so much of a Catholic or
a Democrat being president, but by the process itself; she could understand
how passionately Frank must long to be part of it, to see firsthand
what was happening.
Reluctantly she retired from the bar and went back to the room. At about
nine she asked for a Caesar salad and a bottle of beer to be sent up,
watched the Arthur Murray Dance Party and Alcoa Presents
on television, then read her book until she was tired. She opened the
window for a moment onto the howl and thud of Lexington, then decided
to forgo fresh air and switch the air conditioner to a cooler setting
instead. In the clean sheets, she fell almost at once into a bottomless,
but not dreamless, sleep.
Meanwhile, down in the Village, on the top floor of his apartment building,
Frank lay back on the bed and lit a cigarette. The door through to the
sitting room was open to allow him to hear the Lester Young record that
was playing there.
He was finding sleep elusive, as he often did.