Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Miss Eberle and Mr. Sullivan (V)

Matilda spent the month of July at her family's summer cottage in the Adirondacks. Her parents -- separately -- and her brothers, came and went several times while she was there, but for much of the time she was alone except for a cook who seemed very cross, either at having been displaced to what she seemed to regard as untamed wilderness or at Matilda's indifferent appetite. Her mother twice swept her out the door to evening dances, where several young men of their set managed to persuade her to a few waltzes and attempted to engage her in conversation, but she wasn't interested in bantering with them and slipped away as soon as she had the opportunity. During the day, when no one else was around, she found a quiet path along the lake and followed it into a deep stand of towering pines, where there were no birds and no sound other than the light crunching of her sandals on the carpet of fallen needles. When she became tired she lay down in her white dress on a little knoll and slept for an hour or more in the dappled light, entirely undisturbed, and woke in the stillness half convinced that the rest of the world had ended while she reposed, that she would find nothing but endless forest forever in all directions, but of course it was not so. Back at the cabin the cook was more than usually peeved at her late return, and she and Matilda sulked at each other for the remainder of the evening. At the next opportunity Matilda caught a train going south, and after one melancholy night in her old room in New Rochelle -- a room that now seemed small and unfamiliar -- she returned to the familiar moorings of her apartment in the Village.

Isabel and Friedrich had gone off somewhere for a few days, and the summer heat and dust of Manhattan were oppressive, even around Washington Square. After sweeping up a bit and making herself a ham sandwich Matilda went out to the nearest newsstand and collected a supply of the latest magazines, then settled herself into a wicker armchair and read until nightfall. When hunger got the better of her she went out again. Working her way through the crowds on Eighth Street, she peered into eateries and bars until she found a little Italian restaurant that was emptier than the rest. The waiter, who didn't speak English well and seemed, she thought, rather disapproving, showed her to a table by the window. The table was made of cast iron ornamented with curlicues, surmounted with a glass top; its legs were uneven and rocked when she leaned an elbow on it. She ordered a carafe of red wine and a plate of clams on the half-shell cooked in tomato sauce. The waiter brought out a loaf, and when she had finished the clams she scooped up the remains of the sauce with the bread while she took in the flow of pedestrians on the sidewalk outside.

The next morning was Sunday; a steady rain had begun to fall and the wind was billowing through the canyons, swirling up aggregations of dust, old newspapers, and desiccated horse droppings and redistributing them in the gutters or under the oilcloth-covered tables of sidewalk cafés. The park and its environs were deserted. Gripping her umbrella firmly with both hands, she traversed the park and began to head east along Washington Place. When she reached the corner of Greene Street she turned around, tilted her umbrella back, and looked up at the building that had been, a scant few years before, the site of the terrible fire. She stood gazing upwards at its summit for several minutes, oblivious to the rain. She couldn't say why, for she had passed the building any number of times before, but at that moment she found herself unable to stop thinking about the women who had died in the fire, many of them girls younger than herself, about how their stories had simply ended there, on that March afternoon, without a hint of warning. One by one they had leapt into the air to escape the flames and each in turn had fallen to earth, coming to rest -- if rest it could be called -- on the very spot where she stood. When the day was over and the flames were at last extinguished they didn't gather themselves up and go about the rest of their lives; they didn't marry or have children or move out of the city or die of consumption. Matilda felt a cold desolation sink into her bones; she lowered her umbrella to hide the sight, and began to turn away, and just at that moment the umbrella of a passing pedestrian bumped against hers and broke the spell.

She found work a week later, in an art gallery just south of Union Square. The salary was minimal -- in a week she made less than what she had earned in a night of modeling -- but it was outwardly respectable and the work was undemanding. Her mother, who had visited the very gallery once or twice in the past, seemed to approve, and although her brothers appeared to have given her up for lost, her father continued to cover the rent, which, even more so than before, exceeded her monthly earnings by a considerable margin. She was seeing less and less of Isabel, who, in truth, had now largely settled into Friedrich's quarters and maintained her old address only in order to mislead her parents. Matilda thought that they might get married before too long, if Friedrich could somehow be made presentable, which Matilda thought a bit doubtful.

In the interests of economy -- and since cooking for herself seemed too much of a bother -- Matilda limited herself to a roll and some fruit in the morning, and a bowl of soup in a little diner in the evening. The waiters knew her by now and kept an eye out for her, slipping her a biscuit or a piece of cake on the sly and now and again even a glass of wine, and they called her Miss Matilda and gave her the same table every night, one where she could look out through the glass and watch the traffic streaming by. It was there, one night, just as she was finishing her coffee and preparing to leave, that she caught sight of a man in his twenties as he emerged from the crowd and crossed in front of the window. With his brow gravely inclined beneath his fedora as if deep in thought, just before he disappeared from view he turned, though still barely raising his head, and seized hold of the door to enter the diner. She watched him climb the steps, and only when he paused to wait at the counter and removed his hat did she recognize the familiar visage of Mr. T. Sullivan, whom she had not seen again since the night he had accosted her.

Matilda lowered her head and turned slightly away from him as she fumbled in her purse for the price of her soup. She meant to remain thus until the man had been ushered safely to his table, but there was some delay in the appearance of the host and for a moment he was left standing alone. She stole a glance at him and was quite sure that he had not noticed her. Finally a waiter emerged from the kitchen, apologized, and conducted him to a table within, which Mr. Sullivan took without once looking in Matilda's direction. In later years she was never able to convincingly explain to herself why it was, as she set her coins upon the table and gathered her things, that she was suddenly possessed of the unshakable resolve to follow him to his table, to re-introduce herself and shake his hand, and to tell him that if he was still in need of services on the terms he had proposed she would be happy to put herself at his disposal.

To be continued.

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