In line at the Aldi, her phone vibed twice. She removed it from her Herschel hip pack, an accessory Harry had claimed to love. Am I too old for it? she’d asked him, the first time she’d worn it in his presence. You will never be old enough, he’d said, kissing the top of her head. And ruffling her hair, or what remained of it.
She opened her email application and there it was: RE: [The Moorehead Foundation] Noni Lemm. Dear Ms. Lemm, Thank you for your submission to the Moorehead Documentarian Grant. While we lalalala, we regret to inform you that you are not a recipient of the grant this year. Please know that it was an extremely competitive lalalala.
The second note was from the March of Dimes. She’d donated twenty dollars once, on a fair day of her life, and they kept now coming back for more, and always in her darkest hours.
Fuck you, she said aloud. Fuck you, and you, and you, and yoo-hoo.
The lady behind Noni was over ninety, engaged with a change purse. The cashier before her was multiply pierced and purple-lidded. In short, nothing Noni said or did mattered out here. Torrington, Connecticut. Close enough to the bellezza of the country, Washington Depot and Roxbury, the fine towns with the shampooed cows, but far enough that it could not be easily said that she’d moved out there to be closer to Harry. Anyway, Harry’s estate on Painter Ridge Road was only a weekend home. Marian, his second wife, kept a horse in a stable down the road, and she liked to ride him on the trails when the leaves burned gold. But her interest had waned in recent years. Marian’s sister had purchased a home in Sagaponack and so Harry and Marian had started going there, packing up their old but rich Saab with city treats, cheeses and lemony liqueurs. Marian’s sister also had an eighteen-month-old son, huge-headed and timorous. Harry disliked beaches and children so over scones in the city Noni said, Your personal hell, sandy diapers. Harry had smiled, nodded, folded his hands and surveyed the little cafe they were in, which reminded Noni of Paris, when he’d been her teacher, when she’d had beet-colored hair that she dyed with hibiscus and wore velvet pants and smoked clove cigarettes. It’s not so bad, he’d said. He couldn’t know, of course, how a little nothing line like that was a stake in her gut.
Not receiving the Moorehead grant was a blow but not a surprise. Noni had long ago resigned herself to not being one that glittered. She was respected in the community, she held posts in all the right groups and had several visiting professorships, one of which provided on-campus housing, for which she’d thanked the dean profusely and he’d cut her off like she was a much younger person: Because you’re single, because you have no family, it’s easy. It’s only an apartment. She was respected, but not celebrated. She was a member of the court but by no means a monarch.
Harry, on the other hand, had been a king. One of the few that bridged the chasm between critical acclaim and mainstream relevance. A celebrity, if the field could be said to have them. Plus, he had the accoutrements. The pipe, the womanizing. ‘The Hemingway of poetic documentarians,’ the Guardian had christened him, in a piece for which they’d interviewed Noni.
The reporter, young and attractive, had come to Noni’s studio when she’d still lived in the city. Noni brewed oolong and they sat on the floor, against the plump but threadbare Moroccan pillows. The reporter wore mustard stockings and riding boots. She had long legs and knew precisely how to fold them. She asked what the most important thing was that Harry had taught her. The two women gazed for a long while into each other’s eyes. Noni took in the angle of her face, the smooth fur of her pink cheek. The reporter’s eye, glinting and alluring, with no eyeliner, perhaps a tender scrape of mascara, perhaps nothing at all.
How to build a fire, Noni said, at last, and the reporter took the line down dutifully, and also with ease. Of course, Noni realized, he’d fucked her.
At the time she hadn’t thought to care how she’d be presented in the story. She hadn’t thought she’d appear much at all. But she should have known. The young reporter had been cruel, in her way. She wrote that Noni was the type to say she loved the smell of old books. That her hair was light brown and unassuming (by which of course she meant homely) and the bitch had also said the thing that Noni knew was public record and yet she couldn’t believe the way her words had been used. The second time the reporter saw Noni was at a soirée for Harry, during which the faux-intellectual minx had been shadowing him. Noni was holding court with a few lesser-thans, in a corner with some Fernet and twinge. One of them, a man who’d been trying to get in her pants for ages, asked Noni if she and Harry had ever been an item. Simply, she hadn’t thought. The reporter had been circulating, swishing her mane, sedately taking notes on her mobile phone.
In the article that came out the next month, the reporter had written that when she, when Noni publicly used the word, fuck, as in, If you mean did we fuck then yes we fucked, ages ago, you could divide the room into the half who were charmed and the half who were somewhat repelled. The reporter devoted an entire paragraph to the idea that, to many, a woman Noni’s age was rather old to have fucked. Mind you, she was not old. But she was the type of fifty-six to sixty-four who some people think should always wear turtlenecks, hide their sex, expose only the noblesse of their mortality. The reporter used this notion in contrast with Harry, nearly a decade older than Noni, but depicted swaggering around the room, vivacious, grand, an objet all his own.
When the story broke, Noni wrote to Harry right away. I’m so sorry, she said, I didn’t know that woman was around me, and. Shit. Marian knew, though, yes?
A message came through a few minutes later: She knew, yes. She didn’t love to see it in print that way. But she’ll calm down.
After checking out of the Aldi with her grapes and her flaxseed bread, her knobbly avocadoes and her frozen salmon portions, Noni stopped by the post office to get her mail. It had been an adjustment, moving to the country from the city. The dirt roads, the Trump voters. Every blue-collar worker with corrugated skin, you couldn’t be sure what darkness might lie beneath the tawny exterior. The postmaster general, a round-faced woman named Bernadette, smiled brightly at Noni when she walked in. Noni smiled back. She was blindingly polite but uninviting. She kept to herself even more so in the country than she had in the city. She crossed the chilly room and opened her brass box. It was full, mostly with flyers, trade magazines, the usual waste she would pile in a picnic basket and use to stoke a fire come winter. Then she saw it. A thin business envelope, from a lawyer’s office in the city. Inside, a cornflower slip of paper. At first the words didn’t make sense, and she merely felt his loss all over again, like a great submerging. Noni was grateful for the solitude in the post office, only herself and Bernadette. She read the words again; a slender paragraph, plus a time, date and location at which her presence was requested. She clutched the paper to her heart and gasped.
It was true that Harry taught her how to build a fire. She’d been twenty-one, in his furnished rental on the Île Saint-Louis. There’d been a blackened fire pit, so cavernous and ill-defined it could have been a room all its own. He sat on his armchair in the otherwise bare room and instructed her on how to form a nest. She’d been trembling. Terrified of disappointing him. He was her teacher then, and already a small god. Think of the fire as something that should not be given a moment of pause. It should be like that in any story you tell. There should never be a moment when the audience can get up to take a piss. You see? You must run them, keep running them, until they die. The same with a fire. All the logs should join, they should all rise up, and the fire should climb and mount until it can’t breathe anymore, and begins to descend. You lay the groundwork in the beginning, and you won’t have to do anything in the middle. The key is to build the fire that does not need watching. We should be able to lie here all night, and never get up. Now, come here.
This night, she made a fire. It was only October but it had been cool throughout the county since Labor Day. She changed from her street clothes into a slip and a bouclé sweater. She fed the flames her Republican Americans, that were free in most of the stores and delis of Litchfield County. She was sure nobody read them. They just liked to display the little yellow mailboxes outside their homes. The flames licked the grainy image of a local councilman.
The fireplace in this rented house was in the dining room, which Noni had turned into her editing space. She was a frugal worker. Two screens and a filing cabinet comprised her bay. The fireplace was staid, with a brass grate and a slate floor. The whole house was very workmanlike. In a county full of farms and barns and rusty silos vandalized into artists’ studios, Noni’s rental was a bare bones 1920s carriage house, renovated in the eighties and anodyne. There was one large bedroom and a little anteroom that Noni used as storage. The anteroom had a wallpaper border of a stork holding a blue satchel of baby, replicated in perpetuity. Before she rented it, a childless couple had begun to build a nursery. Noni didn’t know any further details, only that they’d left before their lease was up, fortuitously for her, who’d decided at the same time not to renew in the city. By then, Harry and Marian had owned the house in Roxbury for a year. Noni had taken the train up three times to visit. He’d pick her up in New Milford, and mostly they would drive around. She loved the roads that dipped down into valleys of farmland, then up past old airplane hangars and little woodsheds full of corn for sale.
The project she was currently working on was called The Republican American – like the paper. She was interviewing people in the county, people like Bernadette, who voted Republican but only thought they knew why.
Good, Harry said. But what’s the goal?
The goal? What are your goals?
Noni. You’re not curieux enough, still. You have good ideas and a brilliant little engine, what is your end game?
Once again, they were seated before a fireplace. This one in his Roxbury home. A converted barn they had trucked in from Stone Arabia, with cypress floors on seven hilly acres. Marian was in Los Angeles for a film premiere. They hadn’t been alone in a house together since Helene, his first wife, had come home early from the symphony – it was a second-string cellist and she hadn’t been able to bear it – and found Noni and Harry on the couch, laughing, seated too close.
But Marian was different. She was self-possessed, and also far younger than Helene, and younger than Noni, too. Besides all that, she was thousands of miles away.
Nothing happened that night, nothing if you didn’t count the looks they shared, their eyeballs like lasers on one another. It was as though they’d both been acting like their audio were being recorded, but not visual. They talked shop, they talked about old friends, they talked about nothing at all and yet the whole night was full of thirst. They drank too much Bordeaux. Too much for Noni, anyhow. She fell asleep on the couch. He’d covered her with an antique pink gauze blanket, one of Marian’s beauties. Everything the woman owned was over five hundred dollars.
In the morning Harry was even more tender. He’d gotten up before her, driven to procure lox and bagels and glorious red onions. Coffee, and cream from one of the dairy farms with the splendid Holstein cows. While he was gone, Noni rinsed in the outdoor shower, used Marian’s jewel soap that smelled of vacation, used Marian’s waffle-knit bathrobe that weighed more than Noni’s whole life.
She emerged to find a breakfast laid out by the slate pool. Harry swimming naked, this great beast with thatches of kingly hair. Noni said,
The watch goes underwater?
The watch goes everywhere, he said, emerging, as she handed him a towel. His penis, which she hadn’t seen in ages, looked smaller than she remembered, fatherly almost. She blinked away a tear, missing all the men she’d lost. The idea of men, really.
Then he took the watch off, and placed it around her wrist. And her entire body coursed with the touch of his hand, and the bright metal of his most prized possession.
It fits, he said. It becomes you.
It is, it is, he said, and she felt she was losing him to the only god he knew, the god of men who had come before him.
But then he looked her in the eyes. It was one of those moments, Noni could have charted her whole life by the fire of moments like those. He loved her, he loved her not, he loved her.
Harry, she said, cutting off the moment. It was too much and she had learned over the years, it was better to cut it off before he did. She couldn’t survive otherwise.
Yes, my dear?
It came to me, maybe overnight, but it dawned on me in the shower. I have an end game.
Oh, your film?
The end game is to turn it blue. You see? This county.
The county, he repeated. These ghosts, he said.
She nodded and then he blinked, and he nodded. It was amazing to behold. When Harry approved, it made one feel like a champion.
Since then she’d been working hard on the project. It had been coming along beautifully. None of the townspeople would know what hit them, and of course she would have to move when the movie came out, but for now it was the work part, the easy part for her, the anonymity and the grace. Now, of course, she had even more space, she had all the time in the world to make it great. She’d always had time, though.
Her friend Susanna was mother to a precocious four-year-old. Su was always scraping for minutes, patching them together into some semblance of a career. She is very fast, and very fearless, Su said of her daughter. Her skill outpaces her brain so I have always to watch her. I have to watch her and let her be at the same time. My mother-in-law hates the parts of her that are me. You don’t need to say cheese every time you take a picture, like your mother. I heard her say this.
Noni would smile. Everyone in the world had children. Even though Noni had no experience of her own, she intimately understood what Susanna meant about scraping the minutes. She was a keen observer of others’ routines. She absorbed their stories. Harry had said that was the kind of thing that would make her a workhorse in the field but never a genius.
Susanna was forty. Now that she was fifty-six, Noni found herself drawn to women younger than herself. Her age group was withered, allowing their intelligence to slough off, and make way for comfort. When Noni had been in her early twenties, she’d also hung around forty-year-olds. Such as Harry, who was forty, when she met him. Noni herself was perennially forty, much like Harry had been perennially sixty. He’d been sixty when he was forty and he was sixty at the end, at seventy-four, in his casket. Glowering, impressive. She’d wanted him still, his cool body. She’d touched her finger to his big wrist, she dared touch nothing else for Marian was lurking, as the widows of womanizers must.
But now there was this envelope in her possession, with the cornflower slip inside, that was like a lottery ticket. It would be the end of Marian, Noni guessed. It would be the end of whatever fairy tale women like her had been allowed to dream. Their whole crystal lives. Their navy jackets, their frequent travels with big leather boxes. Noni spoke French, her native Lithuanian, some Italian, she’d had residencies in Sydney, Croatia. She’d shot a film in the bowels of Paraguay. She’d lived in a tent for a month in the Arctic. She was worldly and because of her skills in absorption she could talk for hours with almost anyone from any walk of life, from any corner of the world. But women like Marian woke up gleaming. They had messages waiting for them at hotels in Venice.
It had taken Noni many years to stop wishing she’d been a woman like that. The same kind of woman as his first wife. The kind of woman Harry would have seen fit to marry. As it happened Noni was neither the type he married nor the type he recklessly fucked, like the reporter from the Guardian,any number of barmaids, students, mordant fellow-alcoholics at his AA meetings. No, Noni was different. Neither gleaming nor wrecked. She was broken but enduringly glued together. A case study of a survivalist. Poor, immigrant parents, a chain-link childhood in Newark, New Jersey. Her father, a self-loathing giant who worked eighteen hours a day unloading container ships and butchering pigs. Her mother, too prim for her station, enraged by the life that had swallowed her whole, who’d withheld affection in such a blockbuster way that it took Noni far too long to call it abuse; that, even now, all these years later, with all the accompanying psychoanalysis, she could still recall how her mother would say, My little lady, now and again when Noni emerged freshly-showered before bed. There’s my little lady, in her special bathrobe. Come here, mommy’s little lady. How, she wondered, could that epithet coexist with a woman who had been, by all other accounts, unable to love?
And now as she spliced some footage, of Luke the brawny crane operator and Elda the horse-queen of Woodville, Noni kept glancing out of the corner of her eye to the envelope on the butcher block. It looked bursting, like a tornado in a frame, like something she both deserved and could not imagine meriting. All her blank life she’d waited on a gift like this one, but now that she had it, she felt it was too much. It wasn’t right. After years of eating at bars alone, wishing after something she wanted more than her own continued health, now she felt flagrant, hot-faced. Irrationally blessed.
When Noni was sixteen, she’d entered the Guinness Win Your Own Pub in Ireland contest a fantastic number of times. Each entry was fifty words or less about why Guinness was the perfect pint. She had always been good with language, impressive even. There were star writers and thinkers at her school, but Noni was never counted among them. Her intelligence was not showy. It was the kind best suited to emails. To contests. If she won, then everyone at school, plus her mother and her father, they would all find out who she was. This quiet girl – who knew nothing about drinking beer, but who could craft so many unique fifty-word essays on the subject that she’d win her very own bar in the spilling countryside of Co. Kerry – was bigger than their approximations. She didn’t want to be superlative so much as she wanted her world to feel small, myopic.
She didn’t win the contest, and what happened was almost worse than losing, the way it seemed to inform much of her future. One of her entries placed in the top twenty-five, when only the top 10 advanced, had their names printed up in the local papers, etcetera. She received a form letter letting her know she’d impressed the judges and should try again next year. The same thing happened with every fellowship she went up for, every award, every visiting scholarship. She always impressed the judges, but it was always a very competitive field. Much the same thing could be true of the men she’d dated. She had three times been the woman a man dated before the woman he actually married. It was as though she were a marriage fluffer, priming them for the big show.
Susanna, who thought she knew Noni very well, said that the reason none of the men stuck was because Noni had never come unstuck from Harry. With Su, at her kitchen table in Harlem with her daughter’s face smudged with avocado and her little fingers greased with cheap cheese, Noni balked, got pissed or silent or laughed it off, depending on whether or not they were drinking wine. But privately, Noni had to agree. She might take it even further, in her most transparent hours, and admit that the reason she was not a famous documentarian was because of Harry, too. Noni gave up being an ingénue to be something like dryer lint. She remembered nearly every day, the heady, misty mornings in Paris. Instead of focusing on her work, instead of giving all of herself to her vision, she lived in the shadows of the past. A year, was it? A year of being his quiet piece. A year of venison and wine and his naked heft, the hips of an elephant he said himself. There had ever been the feeling of coming from a cold place into a warm one, from the stone cold of Paris in winter to his fire-baked room, from a bracing shower in his naked bathroom to a funnel cake of sweating flesh in his king-sized bed.
By the time they’d both made it back to Manhattan, Harry’d gotten married to Helene and made four more films, each more celebrated than the last. His best work from that humming period, entitled Buskers, not so much about buskers themselves but the economics of specific blocks in Paris, Cleveland and Dubai, had been so lauded that even Noni, for all her admiration of him, became frustrated with the business, with the way of men, who could have multiple children by several wives and still churn out copious product, never having to answer along the way for the time they spent away from their progeny, or divulge the reason they never had them at all.
It was during that time, the fifteen years when Harry was married to Helene, that Noni dated the three near-grooms. And the reason, one might posit, that none of those suitors stuck, was not so much because Noni was pining after Harry, not because she was so much in pain; the more accurate fact was that those years were largely analgesic. Noni knew from the start that Helene was not going to last, and so she meandered about, staying just close enough. If she were destined to be a runner-up, to have to try again next year, then so she would wait until Harry’s thin marriage to his Bergdorf blonde wasted away to nothing, as almost everyone expected it to. And along the way Helene tried to shut Noni out, and Harry saw less of her when it was required but mostly they kept up their ways, their banter, their scones, their walks through the park, their occasional spicy glasses of wine in the subterranean Japanese bar near his studio.
So truth be told, Noni hadn’t lost Harry to Helene. And it wasn’t any of the tarts during his first marriage, or the little breakaways that came after. Noni knew very well, she’d lost Harry to Marian.
This new woman I’ve been seeing, her name is Marian, she likes rear entry, Harry told Noni at the swollen wood bar top of their Japanese cellar.
Are you serious?
Oh, yes. She is a very classic WASP. Like Helene without the banality. Pearls and pink silk slips. But she loves the back door. She opens up to it. Like a flower.
Noni had been forty-four then. And Harry, sixty-four. His hair completely gray, patrician. At the height of his relevance. In his fly-fisherman’s vest and his roomy pants. His watch, glinting in the starlight of his eyes. His great beard stunk of gravy, leftover juices, as he sipped his plum wine mere inches from her lips. She’d been biding her time, waiting out the slew of whores that had followed the divorce, waiting for him to grow tired, as she knew he would, of the young students with their black eyes and dumb theories, of the barmaids and their ignorant lust, of the worshipful and the indifferent, of all the wrong women who were not Noni, who did not understand him, who were not his equals, who couldn’t look over his work and make deft suggestions for improvement while coherently praising his inimitable style.
But now, this. Something about his tone, the way he dropped his voice, the way he stroked his beard. Noni knew. She felt her heart tear itself away from its moorings. It made her feel young, in truth – as young as she had never been – that it was the first time she’d felt the woe of love. She felt stupid and impaled. And the stake came through the other end, out her back, a mere week later, when Harry insisted Noni come out to meet Marian. She dressed in a white tee and a pair of expensive blue jeans she’d purchased for the occasion. All her life she’d been dressed too formally to meet other women. And Noni had historically felt overreaching. This time, she thought, this time, I will be the déshabillé.
She entered the bar, a long corridor of mirrors and lights, and from far off saw Harry in a suit, and his new woman in an off-the-shoulder black gown, scalloped emerald heels. As she drew closer, Noni saw that her red hair was vivid, natural. Plush lips. Sensual eyes, so slinky as to appear deceitful. A WASP, yes, but not run of the mill. Thirty-six, a tiger age, ripened and wise. Marian was a match for him, Noni knew it right away. The whole evening he kept his giant hand on her hip. They participated in the sort of conversational fucking that Noni had only experienced the very first night with Harry, at an outdoor café in Montmartre where some fellow students could not help but feel uncomfortable by the sooty liaison that was budding before their eyes.
Within a year they were married at City Hall, a reception followed in the bready basement of Harry’s favorite restaurant in the West Village, a private dining room by the ovens at a table that fit their thirty closest friends. Noni was invited, of course, but she made an excuse about a teaching engagement and took the weekend to visit Paris. She’d somewhat planned on killing herself, and then the usual happened. One wakes up, and it isn’t so bad, and the illusion follows that the progression of days will rise up from bankrupt to decent. Anyway the truth is the night one makes a suicide pact with oneself is not as bad as the days that precede it, and the ones that follow. When the pact is metabolized by the surviving hours.
And so Noni returned to New York to wait out this union, too. But this time she was too déprimé to date. She could only find the words in French to describe her conditions. L’appel du vide.
She remained as close to Harry as ever. Perhaps closer yet. She began a strict Pilates regimen, five days a week. On the weekends she walked the streets of lower Manhattan, seeking out inspiration for the next project, as well as rangy thighs. Noni did not have a body like Marian’s, or like any of the tall horses Harry went for – she was compact, like a jockey – but she could become the best version of herself. She would lengthen and tone and achieve until he was ready for her again. Helen Gurley Brown had said that she didn’t mind waiting a long while before meeting the man of her dreams. She was, in fact, becoming the woman of his dreams in the meanwhile. For this tumultuous, desperate period, Noni lived under the debrided warmth of aspirational quotes like these.
One of her other strategies was to get close to Marian, herself. But whereas Helene was troubled by Noni’s existence, Marian appeared largely indifferent. She cocked her neck in such a way, like Noni was something she could barely see down there. And nothing Noni did could charm her. Sometimes Noni spoke highly of herself and Marian would cock her neck and glitter her eyes and Noni would feel like a boorish failure, or they would both arrive at an event in the same general outfit – a tunic dress for one Southampton affair – and Noni would feel like an old slob. She would, in fact, think: What would Marian wear to this event? And then she would try to dress in something more evolved.
Yes, Marian was formidable. Raised in a five-bedroom Greek colonial in Savannah, Georgia, the daughter of a man who would have at one time been a plantation owner. They had much black domestic help, that would have at one time been slaves. Noni suggested to Harry a documentary about his wife’s family, entitled Modern Planters. Harry shook his head, laughed.
The truth was, Noni was terrified of Marian. Not only of her hold over Harry, but of her hold over Noni herself. Marian was not brilliant by any means, but she was able. Perfect in almost every way. Glowing skin, no errant black hairs on the chin. It boggled Noni’s mind that women like these not only grew up rich but their faces and bodies appeared to know they were being born into noblesse. Women like Marian made Noni believe in caste systems. In her own decrepitude. But, just like the little girl who entered the contest, it didn’t make Noni any less motivated.
The ignorant aspects of Marian, even those could fell Noni. Women like Marian recycled old narratives; if, for example, you said you had once taken the wrong route to the home in Roxbury, even if you were only lying, having been late to a dinner because you were obsessing over your makeup, you would forever after be Noni who did not know direction.
At the party in Southampton, Marian had been standing around with her friends, other women who skied Chamonix and played golf in Evian. Speaking of one of their acquaintances, Marian said, She has skin like a February pumpkin.
Noni had stood there, on a lawn so neat. Her stomach rumbled with the green wine sloshing in her empty belly, and shivered to imagine what they might say about her.
Eventually, Marian and Harry’s union did lose its veneer, as all unions do. It took a good five years but he returned to fucking around. Yet this time he retained his allegiance to the woman at home. Propriety. He fucked one-offs and foreigners. The occasional runway model. But he always came home to Marian. Perhaps, he told Noni, winking, it’s the back door that I come home to.
He continued to hold Noni’s ovaries in his fist. Gradually his eyes returned to her, as well, to the way he waited for her to love his new works. And she felt okay again, enough to keep breathing. But every minute of her life was filled with a thought of Marian, in the background, with her long toes. Tall, and Pentecostal.
But now, but now. Noni had this slip of paper.
In her kitchen the morning of the reading, Noni fried herself a blue farm egg and mopped up the warm yolk with a slice of whole-grain bread. The kitchen was a small square with linoleum floor and white cabinets with pine trim, sad and inefficient, a kitchen where disaster was bound to happen.
She showered and shaved. Trimmed her graying pubic hair. Harry liked bushes and nearly every man Noni had been with since had wanted the opposite. Wimpled, bare, tiny. She wondered what Marian was like down there. Roaring or demure, perhaps a fleur-de-lis braided with curling vines of thyme.
When Noni walked outside to her car she saw a truck there, laying hay down where the rains had scalped the grass from the perimeter of the drive. This was one of the troubles of renting homes from those who owned them. Maintenance workers came at any time they wanted, you were never given notice. The workers themselves had no respect for you, you were not the one paying them, and yet they saw you as an extension of their employer, a douchebag all the same with your car that was yet nicer than theirs.
Good morning, Noni called out to the man who seemed in charge. A bull-faced man with the same heft of Harry, but without the wealth to his clothing and demeanor.
I’ll move my truck, he said.
It’s not your truck, Noni thought. He was angry at her presence, her need to get out of the driveway and teach her class or whatever useless thing he imagined her doing, it meant he was garbage. It made Noni feel like she should be late to her appointments. At the same time, she thought, Why didn’t you just move your truck sooner? Why not park it out of the way, just in case the resident needs to leave.
As she drove over the apron, she smiled and waved and he did not wave back.
The day was bright, stony. Harry had died, a month ago to the day, on a morning that foretold of more mornings like these. That day had begun much this way for Noni, leaving her house to teach a class, driving past the blue-collar workers who cut hedges with limp Winstons hanging from their dark lips. She’d known, from miles away, that it was over. He’d been sick for six months, the liver of course, his condition worsening, it seemed, by the day. But she did not actually hear until that night, from social media, from friends of Marian’s, and then the following morning, the obituary in the Times and the Post and the more familial ones on the documentary websites, and none of them, not one, mentioned Noni.
She drove the country roads that would lead her onto the Merritt and then into the city. A beautiful drive on any morning, but certainly in the fall, when the leaves ferment. She passed the Bethlehem Fairgrounds and remembered with stinging clarity the day Harry had taken her to the State Fair. Roasted nuts. Lambs. Jesus Christ, the best. They arrived early in the day and stayed through the evening. At night it turned chilly so he bought her a baja from a Mexican woman with plaited eyebrows. They watched a Civil War re-enactment, four men gathered around a coal fire, warming their hands and acting desperate. The hope of the State Fair, Harry said to Noni, the fucking American hope! All around them, girls in belly shirts and black Nikes, tractor pulls, the heartbreaking pony pulls, young boys in overalls roping steer, Noni unsure of which was sadder – the boys or the cows – golden blue-ribbon tomatoes, ears of corn so long and imposing, elephant rides, camel rides, ponies led on a swivel by men who had been born to die. Harry and Noni watched all of it with the detached intellectualism that was the birthright of people like themselves. Where had Marian been that day? San Francisco, yes. Kentfield, to be exact. Women like her were always in the right places you hadn’t even heard of yet. Just when you thought Paris in the spring was right, there was someplace else to go in March.
They ate Hummel hot dogs and lascivious corn on the cob and apple fritters. Noni’s chin was yellow with four different types of oleic acid. Harry’s beard was a map of his evening. They did not go back to his house and fuck. Noni felt so good that she was able to play it coy. She felt he loved her that night, that the pendulum had begun to swing. She took the last train home into the city, saying she had to work. But that was the day she decided to move to the country.
There was always a day like that, when you fall in love with a place and you think that this was all along the only thing missing. The place you belonged. The sun will always fall this way. The people will always smile, they will be Native American and American American and I won’t ever question who they are inside their big boots and behind their smiles.
Now as she passed the fairgrounds, she felt for the first time in the two years since the fair, as good, as strong, as powerful, as self-actualized, as she had felt that day. The power over her own life. It was a lie, of course, the power still came from somewhere outside of her. It came, now, from this slip of paper, from this meeting to which she was driving.
Noni would walk into the lawyer’s office, staid and smelling of nothing that needed. Marian would walk in after, like her kind did. She would be dressed in cream wool and riding boots. The two women, having never been rivals in any real sense, would suddenly be something more deeply polar than either could have imagined. Gladiators, in the postprandial, post-apocalyptic catacombs of Manhattan – a Manhattan that had suffered the death of one of its glitterati – Manhattan, of course, would return to itself, but not for another widowing month. And Noni would look at Marian and Marian would look at Noni and they would be seated and the lawyer would state the thing they both already knew:
Harry had left Noni his watch. The Rolex, with its blue hands and its counting down of the world. Four-hundred thousand dollars, but the money was immaterial. It was his prized possession. It had been his father’s, and his father’s father’s before him. He wore it during lovemaking, during infrequent showers, and naked night swims. He stopped just short of claiming it had magical powers.
And today, in his lawyer’s Madison Avenue office, Marian would have to look at Noni, and Noni would feel a tremendous guilt, that this man they had both loved, who Noni had loved exponentially more, had loved the right woman back. All along, and finally, and forevermore. After decades of being second, third, fourth runner-up, Noni was at last number one. The blue ribbon girl. All of the polite, subtle rejections of her life would evaporate. This was her pub in Ireland, it was her sunshine-colored tomato. Her mother, for whom she was never truly a little lady, would have to recognize, down in the gray of her grave – Noni was somebody’s now, at last. It was too late in only the simplest way, the most corporeal way. In fact, the greatest freedom had come from this gift. Noni, now, did not love Harry as much as she had in life. She’d been liberated from her obsession by his final gift. This was the freedom women like Marian had known their whole lives and now Noni would know it, too. And Marian would know what it was like to be indentured to your own limitations. The ancillary gift, perhaps the best of all, was the most bittersweet: Noni was freed to feel pity for Marian. Sympathy for the woman who stood six inches above her. Her stomach churned with it.
Marian, who lived mere blocks from the offices of Spar, Worth and Lenstein, wouldn’t need to leave for the reading for another two hours, and so she sat in her chair, that had once been Harry’s chair, that she had hated, like she hated nearly all of the garish pieces he purchased. The Louis XIV settee, for example. The end-of-days end tables.
Not the actual last day, but a few days before it, the famous documentarian sat in the very same chair – lying in it, nearly – and said to his stately wife, But what does it do to you, Marian, really?
Marian sat opposite him, in a canvas dress she wore because it made her feel like she was in the afterworld already. She smoked, because she had begun smoking since the diagnosis; it truly felt, ironically, the only healthy thing to do. She took a long Marian-drag and said, Nothing, Harry; I suppose, that it does nothing.
In French, Harry began, we have a word for –
The French have a saying, for letting a woman win a cold dish.
Yes, I am familiar.
Marian? Harry said, in his lover’s voice, and he sent his eyes to her. In this state, finally, she could see him as the man that he was. It had taken a complete decimation of his body for her to not see all the women in his eyes, all the whores, that buzzed like flies around his dung. All the childish praise he’d sought his whole life, from tiny people, hangers-on. Finally, she saw only Harry, the man she had always known, the man she knew he would always be. She was raised by women who understood how to live with the X-ray of the man. It was the only feminist thing to do, if you were not a lesbian.
Yes, Harry, she said, and her voice was bored, her manner detachedly conciliatory. The cigarette was blissful, the day was magnificent. She had not cried yet, not in the past six months, but she could tell today was the day it would come.
Let the poor creature think it, Marian. She needs it, don’t you see? It is just one thing.
And Marian looked at his wrist, at the metal that was a part of him. And she looked at the dog on the floor, blue-gray and handsome. She’d never owned a bad dog in her life, they were all like this creature – healthy, divine and dutiful. Marian hadn’t asked to be born this way, the sort of woman for whom life was comprised more of decisions than of reactions. In the days to come there would be a hundred thousand things. Questions and cards and invitations and unsolicited, extraordinary love. The end of Harry would be the beginning of many other lines and paths, and her grief would be the only lonely thing she would tend to, in peaceful moments, in dressing gowns – a fern in her bedroom, rising from the blonde loam to greet the penitent sun.
Photograph © Janice Parker Architects