As Kingfishers Catch Fire, SENT, and "Square the Circle"}
"A man is the sum of his misfortunes." William Faulkner
At first I thought they were black — the gloves I mean. They were black on the table: long, black leather gloves. But when she held the front door of her apartment open for me later, the gloves magically had become an impossible early spring bud-green, a little gold at the stitching and fingertips.
The snow was dipping towards the earth, huge flakes, coin-sized, and the afternoon had transformed all: the gloves, my mood.... She was liquid and giddy in the ice-pinned day and I had had no expectations of her — no forethought or fantasy, had not wanted or needed, did not want to need another. Especially her. I wanted a spell of peace, blown-heart peace, a space straddling a cloistered life; no her or them so my selfish cries could mount until I saw the gloves, the hands, the wrists, marble become supple with intent.
We talked, that's all. Strangers overheard and became familiar in our laughter. The tiny coffee shop was grey in our slate winter, wooden, aromatic, and sweet. Properly seated for a lady, across the thick maple table from me, legs crossed and out in the aisle, I beheld the expanse of inner stockinged thigh, and recollected the first time I had seen it, almost a year ago. But that was another story and I attempted concentration upon the thread of the book she was relating to me. She said it was not unlike the one I was currently working on. I felt competitive and demoralised. How many works upon the symbolism of castration in Faulkner could there be? Perhaps women enjoyed the subject more; I initially approached it for the wanton lack of material on it: something new for the ring of scholars.
This line of thought led me back to what I considered before she answered the door: what am I doing visiting a soon-to-be-former student? She ushered me in to her apartment, just as surprised to see me as I was to be there. Bundled up in a heavy terry-cloth robe, hands inside the sleeves, she was the Chinese concubine of cold, for the furnace had failed her and the other tenants early in the morning.
"Dr. Martin," she called from her bedroom, dressing, after I had proposed coffee and warmth elsewhere.
"Jeremy," I said, dripping on her mat, jawing her palpable lightness, jamming my hands by my side.
"Jeremy," she responded, like a student, and my hair shirt scratched my nipples. "Would you like some orange juice? That's sure to be cold."
"No thank you. I've already breakfasted."
"Get me some, will you please?"
I shook the remainder of snow off my shoes, cursing myself for not having worn boots. The kitchen was small, with an oversized refrigerator. It contained but three drink boxes of orange juice, a gnawed carrot, a pint of cream, a plate of sliced and shrivelled lemon and an encrusted bottle of ketchup. I fetched one of the drink boxes from it, was feebly inserting the Lilliputian straw into the top when she appeared, fully dressed and made-up in less than five minutes. I was impressed. She took the box from my clumsy hands and deftly inserted the straw, slurped down the contents, almost burped then thought better of it, and motioned for us to be on our way. Obviously unprepared for the Arctic conditions outside.
The entire of civilisation, or at least our city, was besieged. We were huddled like the citizens of Stalingrad, hunkered down in our root cellars determined to starve or freeze rather than surrender. Before we ventured outside, she asked where I wanted to go. "What about the place on 112th Street?"
"Trifles. They have absolutely the most wonderful cookies."
We started out. "I'm sorry I didn't bring my dogsled," I yelled into the twenty mile-an-hour winds. "Why aren't you wearing a hat or a scarf?"
"I can't believe you brought me out in this weather. And I only wear a hat as a fashion statement." Her indeed fashionable boots skidded in the foot of lumpy new snow. She looked around at me once, grimaced.
"Almost there," I cried, attempting to sound encouraging and funny yet coming off as an old declamatory actor would sound in the high wind. She seemed to plunge her feet purposefully into every snowdrift to illustrate her displeasure at being suddenly driven from lying abed. Nevertheless, one needs to strike while the womb is hot, as a friend of mine used to say.
When we arrived, I helped her off with her anorak; a garment which I never considered stylish as it reminds me of my prep school days. She was girlishly lovely in it, however. There, in the streaming white mid-afternoon, I admitted the chase and the chaos. Those gloves, she pulled off finger by finger, dark against the pink cashmere of her sweater, raised a pitch of sweet melancholia in me to be savoured.
I live by the side of the road, exploding.
"What can I get for you, Miriam?"
"One of those, one of those, and some coffee," she said pointing to the array of cookies arranged in half-moons in the counter-case. For myself, three of the rich cookies striped with chocolate, coffee, too. She did not partake immediately; instead, she chewed the plastic stir stick and cocked her head to one side, regarding me, my intentions. Upon some secret satisfaction, Miriam dropped it into her plate and tasted a cookie.
"So, Dr. Martin ... Jeremy, why are you out in this weather?"
That's when I thought the gloves had changed to black.
"Oh, restless. Tired of my book, sick of hibernating, bored with myself I suppose. The hours of a professor can be just as dull as anyone else's."
"But to be able to inspire, to choose to inspire..."
"To participate in the blunting, you mean." I smiled as I spoke, grooming my moustache, patronising her somewhat and yet voicing a truth I scarcely confessed to myself. "I despise what I do to young minds, like yours — corrupting — not inspiring; literary criticism, another waste of time. Most days I try not to dwell on it. I muddle through."
"I like your English phrases," she broke in as she combed her hair back with her fingers. "Most teachers do bore me; not you. I look forward to your classes. I honestly do."
Finding myself to be shy, I wolfed down my confections, eyed hers, got myself more coffee. I'm continuing to live I thought bravely. I'm not sure why or why that banal notion popped into my head. As I said before, we merely talked. Later we trekked back to her flat and the wind had mercifully died. I had left my book bag there.
"Well, I'm off. Wish me luck!"
"Thanks for stopping. Let me walk you to the door."
And the gloves were different. I settled into my ancient MG, which was into the final stages of rigor mortis, not helped at all by the slush, snow and salt packed tightly around it from the snow plough which passed just as Miriam and I reached the outer door of her apartment complex. As the heater gradually began to work, I saw him. The man who accompanied her to class, who waited patiently outside the room for her; not a man, a dog, tied to a parked car. Like this car; like this man.
He was wearing boots. His mother probably dressed him warm, wrapped the scarf about his bull-neck several times and bussed him on the cheek before he left. 'Call if you're going to be late, dear.' He had a face that was lit from below, bulging his heavy eyebrows and cheeks. He had learned to lie early, charming his simple self through inadequate situations, taking advantage, letting others run interference for him. I know you; you're the student who sits in the back of my class, muttering about your economics degree. You threw spit balls in grade school. I fail you on looks alone. You are not the Good; you are the lesser of two evils.
But he didn't even glance over. He strided to her door, all youth, sex, and confidence, was admitted freely, vanished into her arms. I slid away on the ice, fancying her pearls and her lights; recalling how she would, in class, listen — really listen to me read poetry. I'd peer up over the top of the book and she would be transfixed. I recited to myself on my ride homeward.
'She walks in beauty, like the night
As I sat at home that same evening with the outside temperature hovering around zero, my wood-burning stove bulging and glowing with crackling heat, I thought of Miriam and the first time I had met her. 'Twas in my office last year, almost to the very day. She came, ostensibly, to greet the new counsellor, me, as Ms. Miller began her sabbatical early due to pneumonia.
Miriam plopped down next to my desk in the factory fresh chair issued by the university. I leafed through her files (a B+ student) and my gaze wandered over to her preposterously crossed legs. She was wearing the shortest skirt I had ever seen, black stockings and from what I could gather, an old fashioned garter belt, the kind my grandmother would have worn, an early Twenties accoutrement that recalled blinding bootlegged liquor, Faulkner's Temple Drake or Louise Brooks, the silent film star. Perhaps she was trying to be Brooks. I could come up with no other sound reason for her to dress so oddly in the dead of winter. She pulled her coat down over the back of the chair, arranging herself, waiting for me to speak. Me, the oracle of academia. As though I could tell her something — this woman — something she didn't already know or intuit.
"From what I can deduce, Ms. McCann, oh! Kriesler is your middle name, like the violinist. Any relation?"
"Yeah." She was determinedly uninterested.
"At any rate, you require another Shakespeare course or you could take Renaissance Prose, a Modern American Literature...," and I found myself explaining to myself. She paid no heed to me. Of course, my first reaction was to toss her out on her ear until I apprehended what she was observing in the mean reflection of my window: herself. Rather a Narcissus down on all fours at the primary glimpse: frightened, curious, entranced. In fact it also reminded me of the recording of Fritz Kriesler, her neglected namesake, taking the Brahms Violin Concerto as an eager husband would his bride on their wedding night, all those emotions yet another side made itself known, too. Serenity.
Serenity in her beauty. That happenstantial experience of thirty seconds. It broke over her, lapped her, that irreplaceable image of herself. She studied it with concentration which both fascinated and repelled me. It was as though if she did not pay heed and court to that which was cast back to her by light and sand, she would slip away.
I sat quietly at my desk. Miriam swivelled towards me finally, sacred in her awareness of self. She was one of those rare individuals who had progressed from serious world politics to serious self-politics, without becoming selfish; merely, mostly merely, enchanted.
"What do you teach, Dr. Martin?"
"Oh," I said, awakening from her trance, "dead poets, modern writers."
"Are all the good poets dead?" She eyed me, innocently.
"Yes. One only becomes great when one dies, hopefully, in excess of his or her sins."
"Wondrous sins!" She laughed. "What are you teaching this semester?"
"Great dead poets. The Romantics: Keats, Byron, Shelley, Wordsworth, as many as I can pack in."
"What about the Brownings, Tennyson?"
"That's what I'll take then, your course."
"Excellent, Ms. McCann, I'll look forward to having you."
And I did. She always sat in the first row, dead centre of the barbaric room in which I taught, a windowless, mini-auditorium. I felt sorry for her. Not a looking glass in sight. I also looked forward to her costumes, for that is what she wickedly wore, an inordinate display of the bizarre, the vulgar, the classy. What is more, her friend, a definitely-you-could-not-mistake-me-for-anyone-other-than-Oscar Wilde kind of a guy would occasionally straggle into class in equally, excuse the pun, queer costumes. He wore skirts. He wasn't a drag queen and didn't apply layers of make-up. He simply dressed in skirts and bedroom slippers once in awhile. But he seemed to appreciate my lectures so he was more welcome than the loping spectre of Neanderthal that I understood to be her boyfriend. —Miriam was now in her senior year. In the Autumn term she had taken my Modern American Writers course: Wharton, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway. She fell in love with F. Scott and wrote a splendid paper on Jay and Daisy and how utterly hopeless was romantic love. I confess to being touched by her candour — wondered if she truly felt love to be that desolate and if so, how she came to her conclusion — what had bruised one that young. You see, I feel it also. I control my emotions now.
During March we had a break in the weather. For some unknown reason, I extricated myself from the beleaguered tangle of notes I had ponderously taken and absolved myself of scholarly pursuits. Perhaps it was because I wanted, once again, to enjoy my beloved Faulkner and felt I was doing him a disservice by picking apart his every word. Or I merely held my divining rod out and reverently followed its wisdom to a small restaurant I frequented when I lacked the audacity to cook for myself. Whatever, I walked to Coventry Road, glad of the little blue in the sky that evening.
There she was, another small miracle. Miriam was perusing a shop window next to Sophia's Cafe. The owner, an unscrupulous and corpulent man, was enticing her in. I rescued her.
"Miriam, your Apollo nips at your heels!"
"Jeremy! I'd forgotten you live in this neck of the woods. I was just thinking of you the other day. I even wrote out a note to myself to come and visit you. See?" She produced a wallet-sized day calendar which indeed held my name out in large print on a single page.
"What are you up to?" I asked. We began slowly to walk. I thrust my hands in my pockets, fumbling.
"I auditioned for a play this afternoon. Small production, local playwright; but I've always acted, so I thought to myself, why not? School's almost out and I've absolutely no plans for the summer. So here I am! How about you, what are you up to?"
"Supper. Would you care to join me?" Boldly.
"I'd love to. Were you going here?" She motioned to Sophia's. The gloves were green. "I've never been."
"You have a treat in store for you. By the by, did you get the part?" She shrugged. I opened the door for her this time. I took up my usual table and Sophia herself came over to us.
"Dr. Martin, how nice to see you, and in the company of such a charming young lady," she fawned in her still thick Italian accent. "A bottle of wine?' She held her hands in front of her matronly body, servile, winking me into distraction.
"Miriam, would you care for some wine?"
"God, yes. How about a Chianti?" She asked, opening her menu. "What labels do you have? Let's see, the last great year was, when? Let me think." She chose for us.
"Good choice." I sent Sophia off. "I didn't realise you knew wines." I was pleased.
"My parents are drinkers; actually drunks, but happy, social drunks."
"I see." I pretended to look at the bill of fare. God knows why; I always order the same dish.
"You must come here alone. A lot," she commented.
"Yes, I suppose I do. I'm not a social creature. You are. Say, would your boyfriend mind that you're out with an old goat like me? I'd hate to be the cause of any discord."
"Oh him? Poof! He's out of sight, out of mind."
I quite nearly blurted out 'good!' However I managed to hold my tongue. A tall waiter, his apron folded about his mid-section yet still to his ankles, brought a loaf of hot bread and the wine, then took our orders.
"Darkling I listen; and for many a time I have been half in love with easeful Death." Taken by God, by a woman, as I erase years from the blackboard; I am a young man again, bills of birds rise and dip in Spring at sea-level and her on the beach on the pebbled sand the sizzle of surf as mysterious as life is mourning, pulled out and under the blindness at the bottom of the sea, a bed for lovers
Miriam's shoes echoed blithely in the halls of my apartment building. I opened the door to a blivet of papers and books, the civility of a university professor who refuses to tidy up after himself. She was amused by it, then I became amused.
"Here, let me clear you a place," I said, shuffling folders.
"That would be nice. I should go ahead and call a cab, though. Don't want to be too late."
"I'll take you home," offering, condensed fear.
"I'm not going home. The playwright — you know — whose play I auditioned for today, asked me to come over to his house for another read-through. I think he really liked me. What kind of brandy do you have?"
Searching my cabinet, I found no brandy. There ought to have been. "Sorry, I do have some scotch, the Glenlivet. Is that all right?"
"Yes. I'm going to use your phone."
Miriam dialled the number and asked my street address, which I gave her as I poured two glasses, two fingers apiece. When she put down the receiver, I handed her the scotch and she sat down on the loveseat, folding her legs beneath her. She took a sip.
"Scotch just warms you as it goes down," she said, smiling.
"Yes. This is unblended, the finest whiskey." I took a swallow. "Is today the first time you met the playwright? What's his name?" The phone rang. "Damn. Back in a minute." I looked over my shoulder at her as I went to answer the call. She was staring into the antique oval mirror on the opposite side of the living room. My footfalls were dead in my rooms.
"That was the Cab Company. They had a car around the corner it seems." She stirred.
"Oh. Great. Thanks for the scotch and the dinner. I guess I'll be seeing you."
"Yes. I hope so." And as she left, she pulled two pairs of gloves from her pocket, one pair black, the other green. I don't know why I hadn't considered this possibility before: two different sets of gloves. I guess I just wanted her to have only one.