Winter 2000, Volume 17.2
Joseph M. Ditta
Raphael in Brooklyn
Joseph M. Ditta received his Ph.D. from the University of Missouri-Columbia and teaches American literature and creative writing at Dakota Wesleyan University. He has published stories in Weber Studies and Connecticut Review, and has published poems in The Centennial Review, The Missouri Review, The Illinois Review, The Mississippi Valley Review, Chaminade Literary Review, Voices in Italian Americana, Italian Americana, and others.
The world had grown beyond him, and he had grown apart from the world, settling into a comfortable old age among familiar things—his potted plants in the sun porch, his beloved operas, which he listened to on the old stereo everyday, and his cooking. He had learned to cook for himself after his wife died, so many years ago now that he hardly ever thought of her anymore. Every day, he dressed after breakfast and took his daily walk, stopping at the market on his way home to buy fresh whatever he planned to cook in the evening.
He spent his afternoons among his plants in the sun porch, where he kept a canvas on an easel and painted—often scenes from memory of his native Italy, but sometimes he would stop at the library on his way home from his walk and check out color reproductions of the Renaissance masters, and he would sketch these and try to reproduce them in oils. He gave them as gifts to his grandchildren, who always said they appreciated them and did hang them proudly on the walls of their rooms.
He never listened to the news anymore, either on television or the radio and had a long time ago let his subscriptions to newspapers and newsweeklies laps. Far from regarding this disinterest in the affairs of the world as a narrowing of his life, he came to feel, out of touch as he was, that he had never lived so expansively. When he was still young, during those years raising the children after his wife died, he took care for his soul, believing in the efficacy of prayer and in the afterlife, where he often thought of his wife dwelling in bliss. He taught his children the fundamentals of Christianity and took them regularly to church. Now, however, he seldom dwelt on his soul. He was at peace with himself, feeling that a life well lived would have its just rewards.
There was very little in his day-to-day world to disturb him. He could breathe the fresh morning air and feel the invigorating effects of his walks, hum along with Renata Tibaldi, concentrate on his brushwork, admire his plants, and stew his vegetables with complete equanimity. But it was not to remain so.
He lived in Brooklyn, near City Line, in a neighborhood whose complexion had changed over the fifty years of his residence there. When his children were young and his wife still alive, the neighborhood had been largely Irish and Italian—all except for the Weinsteins who lived next door, whose daughter, Ruth, was the same age as his eldest son. Gradually, after the death of the Jewish housewife some years after the death of his own wife, the neighborhood began to turn Hispanic, but now it was occupied by a mix of Greeks, Ukrainians, and Koreans, who got along quite well together. Through all the changes, he had maintained his habits and had become something of a legend on the block. People felt comfortable with him, regarding him as a genial spirit, and looked for him during the time of his walks, and listened to his music float from his open windows during the fine days of spring and summer and fall. They all took pleasure, too, in the care he gave to the immense hydrangea bush in front of his house; they liked his being there and liked saying hello when they could.
When he went for his walks, every crack in the concrete sidewalks was familiar to him; and the morning light filtering through the old maples dappled the asphalt streets and the house fronts in familiar patterns. He knew the alleys and the smells lofting from them and the cats that prowled in their shadows. He remembered how, returning from Germany in 1945, these sidewalks and streets seemed so warm and inviting to him, and how, after his wife died, they seemed so indifferent and cold. The spring rains and the hazy, oppressive summer heat, the leaf fall in late October, the slushy gutters and salt-crunchy sidewalks in winter all altered and varied the moods of his Brooklyn universe. But most of all it was the people—their accents and house smells, their styles of dress and preferred colors, their devotions or lack thereof (all caught up together in the same needs and routines)—who flavored his daily living with the spices of desire and confirmed his most important conviction: that however long or short, however filled with the pains of loss or the bodily sufferings of disease, life was worth living.
This was the world into which his ex-granddaughter-in-law moved. She took the house across the street, two doors down from his own. He regarded that move as something of a mystery, for she was an educated woman, had means of her own, and could easily have lived either in Manhattan, where she worked, or in a suburban home on the Island, out of the congestion of Brooklyn, which often made life difficult for people who still lived in the quick of things. He was pondering her and this odd choice she made moving in across the street as he awaited her first visit.
She came on a Saturday afternoon, after calling on the phone and asking if she might come for a chat. It was a warm summer afternoon in July, and his plants were in bloom—red and pink and white geraniums, gladioli standing upright in their pots and kept from leaning by being tied to old broomsticks pushed into the soil, beautiful red canna, tall and stately, and the lovely annuals that he fussed over every year, gathering their seeds and drying them and planting them in the early spring—snap dragons, dwarf zinnias, black-eyed susans, pansies, and many more, all of which made of his porch something of a cross between a hothouse and an old-world English garden.
He had seen in the Met Raphael's altar piece, Colonna Madonna, and had been thinking about it for several weeks. He was attracted to it for many reasons, most particularly because of its coloring and the positioning of its three central figures, and after several visits to the Met, he decided to look for it in the library and was delighted when he found a volume with a very acceptable color plate of it. He had taken it to the museum to compare it and now had it sitting on a high stool beside his easel and was mixing and testing colors, trying to find the formulas that best matched the colors in the plate. He had sketched it already half a dozen times and felt he had the details of composition well in hand and was ready to start.
And all this while, as he mixed and tested, taking notes and preparing the palette, humming along to Puccini's La Bohème, his nose filled with the smell of turpentine, and the porch ignited by the afternoon sun, he thought of his granddaughter. His ex-granddaughter. He recalled the times he had seen her: the wedding, the visit she and his grandson made upon the return from their honeymoon, the little party at their apartment to celebrate the first year of their marriage. These were the only occasions they had shared socially.
There was talk in the family that his grandson, Victor, had a very high opinion of himself and had been making himself unpleasant recently by remarking upon his parents' working-class status and upon his sisters all too comfortably "settling into obscurity," and chiding them all for their lack of ambition. He was wondering if this attitude wasn't the cause of the failure of his marriage. He didn't quite know what to expect from his ex-granddaughter—why she was calling, what she expected from him. Commiseration and sympathy? Was she just paying her respects? Did she want him to intercede for her? Whatever her intentions, he hoped she wouldn't make a habit of visiting. He treasured his routines and his solitude and tolerated their interruption very badly.
It was just then that he saw her coming up the steps to the front door. Before she could ring the bell, he stepped to the window that looked onto the steps—a double sash window which was up, of course, to allow the summer air to flow through the house—and said, "The door is open, Angela, let yourself in." He stepped back to his easel then and continued working at the palette. He heard her enter the dining room and cross the living room to where the French doors that closed off the porch in the winter were thrown open. She had paused at the threshold, waiting to be invited into his sanctum sanctorum.
When he turned and saw her, he paused in surprise before saying hello. He remembered her as a good-looking woman, but the person who stood there was more than good looking. It had only been a year, but in that time she had matured into a radiant beauty. She was raven-haired and pale complexioned, with large brown eyes and naturally red lips. It was a beauty that needed no helps. And in tune with her naturalness, she was tastefully dressed in white cotton slacks and a pale blue blouse with a white collar, opened enough to reveal a single strand of pearls—indeed, the only ornament that could conceivably add to rather than detract from her natural luster.
"Hello," he said, a little flustered, but feeling himself break into a smile.
"Hello, Grandpapa," she replied. "May I still call you that?" she asked, stepping into the porch and the sunshine, which made her hair glisten blacker and her face glow whiter and her lips redden into a richer hue—all effects of which he was keenly aware.
"Yes, yes, please do," he said. "Whatever makes you feel at ease. Besides, it wasn't us who got divorced, was it?"
He immediately regretted mentioning the divorce and at the same time felt how regrettable it was that she was no longer his granddaughter. His face must have showed his feelings, for she said, "Oh, Grandpapa, don't worry yourself over that. I really believe all things turn out for the best, in the end. Besides, I didn't come to talk about the divorce."
"Oh? Well, good. I'm glad. I mean, Angela, I was the last to know what was happening between you and Victor, and so I would be...."
"Grandpapa, no. Let's not dwell on it, OK? Let's make a pact—whenever we talk, we'll never talk about that."
"Agreed," he said, wondering if there wasn't something strange about what he had agreed to. After all, the marriage and the divorce were just about the only things they had in common, the only things that connected them. But then he realized that she had been in the house not more than two minutes and they had spoken not much more than two words before he mentioned the divorce, blurted it out, in fact, and she was probably only trying to put him at ease with her, both as a presence in the house right now and as a neighbor across the street for the long haul. He paused and looked at her after these reflections, trying to confirm them from her expression, but she was so radiant and she held to her casual smile and look of pleasant interest in him, that he got flustered again and lost his train of thought.
"You have a wonderful life, Grandpapa; I don't know anyone who is more content and untroubled than you." As she spoke, she glided to the front windows, none of which had coverings on them, and put her nose to the canna glowing a rich red in the sunlight.
"Do you have troubles, Angela?" he asked, taking his lead from what she had said.
"Oh, no more than usual. Well, not really; I would say that I have no troubles, for the moment, anyway."
"I'm pleased," he responded, observing how her smile spread and her eyes gleamed upon him.
"You surround yourself with the beautiful. How calming and peaceful. How would life be different if more people did that?"
He didn't answer, for he felt the question was not intended to be. He followed her motions about the porch with interest in the things she noticed. She bent over to sniff and then squatted to get eyelevel with the pots of alyssum on the racks just below the window sills. She touched or rather ran her fingers over their tiny pink, deep purple, and white blossoms which cascaded over the rims of their pots. He noticed how sharply her black hair contrasted with the alyssum and had a vision of the moment as a painting. She rose with an ear to the music swelling in from the living room and, swaying, stepped again into the canna and inhaled.
"Those are among my favorites," he said. "Do you know how long I've had them?"
"I couldn't guess," she replied, running a finger across a velvety blossom.
"I got those when I first retired. I used to keep them in the back yard and dig up the bulbs in the fall and store them in the basement. They've been blooming in here now for…eleven years," he calculated.
"Can plants like these live that long?" she said, genuinely amazed.
"Oh, much longer. See that philodendron?" he said, pointing to a huge pot in the corner beside the French doors. "My wife bought those when we first moved into this house, oh, fifty years ago."
She gave them a serious look, feeling genuinely awed over the fact that they were virtually twice her own age. She looked at him gravely, then, and said, "It's more than just surrounding yourself with the beautiful; it's like—well, it's like magic, isn't it? Fifty years! You've been keeping them alive for fifty years!"
"Oh, they keep themselves alive. Just as I do, and you, too. There's no mystery about it."
"Oh, I think there is Grandpapa. There is a mystery. But it's in you, not in them."
She walked over to the easel and looked at the light pencil sketching on the canvas and then at the beautiful color plate of Raphael's Madonna and then went back to the windows and the canna, silent and thoughtful.
His recording of La Bohème had finished playing and the ancient record player had clicked itself off, leaving them amid a sudden silence. He had put the palette on top of the book on the stool and stepped beside her, looking out the window into the street. They stood side by side for a moment, the silence and her closeness filling him with an unaccustomed sadness, for he felt a liking for this girl, now woman, only child of a divorced, warring couple who never had time for her, and who was now unattached and probably looking for connections, any connections, even to an old man like himself.
"Grandpapa?" she said, turning to him, now, taking up his right hand and looking first into his eyes and then down at the hand again, running her fingers over the wrinkled, stained, and nearly transparent skin, "would I be intruding if I asked a favor of you? Oh," she added hurriedly, "it's nothing of a personal sort, but something you might like if you would spare the time."
He was curious and willing to be of help, for he was touched by the gentleness with which she broached the subject, and he was, he knew, caught in the spell of her beauty. And so he said he would be glad to do a favor for her.
"I don't know anybody else to ask this of," she said, letting go of his hand and looking again into his eyes.
"Well, what is it?" he asked, even more curious.
"You know, I have no education in the arts, especially music. When it comes to music, I am as ignorant as a mole."
"What did you study in college?"
"I was a single-minded business major. Career, career, career. That's all I prepared myself for. And now, through my job, I have these tickets to Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera and I am simply terrified to use them. And I have no one to go with. There is always something at the Lincoln Center, and when the opera season opens, it would be a shame to let those tickets go to waste. So what I'm asking is, would you take me, teach me, be my companion on nights when there is something you would like to go to?"
He was smitten. There was nothing she could have asked of him that he would have been more willing to do. He often went to the opera. It was one of the most costly things he did in his old age—not that he was worried about the money. But when he went, he always went alone. The prospect of going to the opera with her delighted him. He was so delighted, in fact, that he began to show signs of excitement, becoming a little trembly, and certainly he could feel himself coloring. When he gulped his assent, she hugged him and brightened into a cheerfulness that made him want to dance. But he had to sit down instead.
And so they sat together in the living room; and after a while she went to the kitchen and made coffee. They whiled the afternoon away, thus, sitting on the couch, talking about her and her work, and about his favorite operas and symphonies, never once mentioning his grandson, her former husband. And when the sun began to dip to the roofs of the houses across the street, and the long shadows of the trees along the curb darkened the porch, they rose from their cushioned seats, and she hugged him good night.
Thanksgiving had come and gone and the weather had turned cold. The family was gathered, as was its custom, to celebrate the birthday of Anthony Lotti, eldest son, and, therefore, first to be married, whose home became by tradition the "Grand Central Station" of all the siblings and, in time, their spouses and children. The home was located just off the Jericho Turnpike in Northport, only a few minutes by car from the harbor and the beaches at Crab Meadow. All the others, another brother and three sisters, had settled nearby, the furthest being in Smithtown; all, thus, gathered regularly at Anthony's house for family celebrations—all except for Grandpapa, who refused to leave the old home in Brooklyn and who came reluctantly on only the most important occasions. Anthony was the owner-proprietor of a meat-market and Italian grocery combination in Cold Springs Harbor, from which he made a decent enough living to send his son Victor to Yale.
At the moment, everyone was complaining to Victor, who was feigning ignorance—or perhaps not feigning—over the scandal that was besieging the family.
"Just what the hell is that woman up to?" demanded Camille, Victor's aunt. "She's actually dating the old man. They go out together once a week! I'm telling you, Victor, she's up to no good. She's after something. She's scheming. It's not natural."
They had finished supper and were sitting around the living room, already decorated for Christmas—Aunts Camille, Anna, and Elizabeth, with their husbands and older children, and Uncle Henry and his wife, Gloria, and their two sons. After-dinner drinks were being served, and the topic of conversation turned to Victor's ex, whose behavior was shocking everybody's sense of propriety.
"Do you know this is the first time Grandpapa hasn't come to Uncle Tony's birthday!" added his cousin Patricia.
"True," said Mary Ann, another cousin. "He's at the opera. Tra Laaaa!" she intoned in a thin, screechy alto, making an exaggerated tragic gesture, which made everybody laugh. "Given a choice," she went on after bowing, "of coming to his own son's birthday and going out with Angela, he forgets the family. You can't blame Angela. The question to ask is what's Grandpapa up to?"
Victor stood in the living room beside the piano with his hands in his pockets, trying to appear amused, but he wasn't amused at all. News of his grandfather going out with his ex-wife took him by surprise, and he really had no idea what to think of it. He looked at his father, sitting in the wingback chair beside the Christmas tree. He was a beefy, short statured, baldheaded man. He returned his son's glance, offering nothing, but reddening in the face, embarrassed by what was being said.
Victor was the first grandchild, and the first, therefore, to mark all the milestones of growing up in the family—the first in school, the first to make his communion, the first to graduate, go to college, get married. He prided himself, also, on being the first to break with the uneducated, working-class status of his aunts and uncles and father, all of whom just barely completed high school and began immediately to find jobs, marry, and start families. The airs he had been putting on irritated everyone no end, and this irritation was spilling into their complaints about the scandal.
Over the years, however, in spite of his lack of education, his father built up a substantial business in his store. Beginning there as an apprentice butcher hired on at minimum wage, he learned the trade and eventually bought the store, making it into a huge success. In the process, he bought land and built his own home in Northport and was able to buy additional property as an investment, which paid off handsomely when Victor was ready to go to college, for he sold an acre on Jericho Turnpike in that year, which he bought for five thousand dollars, to a Ford retail outlet for over a quarter of a million. Anthony Lotti felt like he had to apologize to no one for the character and quality of his life. He loved his father. He loved his son. Actually, he loved his ex-daughter-in-law. Anthony loved everyone. But this situation embarrassed him to the core.
Anthony was not a very flexible man. His success in life was due to his steadfastness and determination, his stick-to-it-ness, qualities which had become so habitual that he lacked the capacity anymore to change, to grow, even to relax. His father's eccentricities puzzled him, but they were always innocent enough up to now. He couldn't understand why his father wanted to stay in Brooklyn; why he labored over that useless hothouse garden with its expensive rooftop skylights when he could have a real outdoor garden in Northport; why he listened to opera all day long; why he began painting; why he spent so much time in the museums in Manhattan; why he didn't eat meat any more. Why, why, why. He worried about the old man as he did about his own children. He would nag him to come to live in Northport. He would add on to the house, he told him, buy him his own house, rent an apartment in a senior's complex. Nothing availed. His father seemed daft to him, but so long as he was content and happy to go on as he was, Anthony did nothing more than nag. But now, the turn of events seemed to suggest that his father needed counseling, or help of a different sort—perhaps forced placement in a home. He didn't know what to do about his father and looked to his own son, Victor, for advice. But Victor was useless in that regard. With all his Yale education, he was as hopeless to suggest a course of action as anyone else.
Victor was the only one of the children named after the grandfather. Although he did not see him very often in recent years, he rather liked him and felt his so-called eccentricities, which everyone had no patience for, were a mark of distinction for his grandfather not only could speak knowledgeably about Renaissance art and about music, and about many other things besides, he could and did actually put his knowledge to use making his life pleasant. What his ex-wife Angela meant by this relationship with him was a puzzle.
Their relationship turned sour, and it was she who pressed for a divorce, though he had readily consented to it, for his infatuation with her had begun to wane when he realized how socially inept she was, how ignorant, with her Hofstra education in business, and how poor her tastes and judgments were. She had embarrassed him on more than one occasion, and, realizing it, finally decided they were mismatched. Maybe, he thought, the old man was mentoring her, but he dismissed that possibility on the grounds of his grandfather's notorious reputation for hating intrusions into his daily life. No, there was something else. Something that was hidden from them, for he didn't believe, as his father was beginning to, that his grandfather was losing his competence.
"Victor, you're the one who's going to have to go to Brooklyn and speak to Grandpapa," his aunt Elizabeth said. "You're the best qualified to make a judgment. You have to find out if he's aware of what he's doing, even if you can't find out what Angela is up to. Then we can decide what we should do."
"Why should we do anything?" he said. "It's his life, isn't it? If he's not embarrassed to be going out in public with Angela, why should we be? It seems to me the problem here is Angela's, not ours. She's the one who should see a psychiatrist."
"He's our father!" shouted his Aunt Camille, emotionally. "Our father is our responsibility! That woman is going to hurt him, I just know it. She's up to no good. Grandpapa has no money, none to speak of, anyway, so what's she up to? What does she want from him? And don't you play your superior airs on us. Yes, I know that's what you're thinking. I can see it. Aren't you ashamed? Aren't you mad? This is not a `genteel' relationship," she said, overwrought, stretching out the word "genteel" and turning red as she said it. "Grandpapa won't even talk about it. He clamps up whenever we ask him. It's sick. Psycho sick. And we can't take it lightly."
Victor felt like shrinking at this outburst. He had gone to sit on the wingback chair beside the Christmas tree, for his father had left the conversation, going into the kitchen where his mother and sisters were cleaning up after dinner, looking sheepish, as though he knew before hand what they were going to ask him. The tree was glowing garishly, all gussied up with cheap department store ornaments and loaded with lights. It was one of those things he most hated about the holidays. They all put up their trees the weekend after Thanksgiving, and they stacked their presents in the weeks to come on the floor beneath them, making such a prolonged display of largesse that he swore off Christmas for himself. He wondered what his grandfather thought about it.
"All right," he said, "I'll go to Brooklyn tomorrow. There are other things I want to visit Grandpapa about. But don't expect too much. I'll let him tell me what he wants to. I'm not going to ask him about it. I'd be too embarrassed. After all, Angela is my ex. It would appear like I had an interest. And, you know, I really don't."
"Don't be so sensitive," Aunt Camille said. "Just ask him what he thinks he's doing going out with that woman. And make him talk about it, say you won't leave until he does."
"I won't do that," Victor responded politely but firmly.
"But that's the whole point of going," Aunt Elizabeth said. She was the most intelligent and sensitive of his aunts, the youngest and most socially active as well, and the one most prone to personal display—while all the others were dressed casually, she wore a black, closefitting, satin dress, low cut in front and back, with her ears, neck, and chest glinting in gold. She never held back her opinion that Victor was strikingly handsome, and, being childless herself, always showed favoritism towards him, adopting him from his infancy as her personal plaything. He was curious that she didn't appreciate the dilemma they were putting him in.
"We'll see," he said. "We'll see."
The next day being Saturday, Victor called his grandfather early in the morning telling him he wanted to come into Brooklyn for a visit. He expected to have lunch with him and return by late afternoon, but his grandfather nixed that plan and offered to see him, instead, late in the evening—around nine or ten. This was most unusual. Wondering what plans the old man had for the day, he spent the time distractedly, accompanying his father to the store, where he helped him haul beef quarters from the locker to the storage bins in the preparation room, where his father would break them down. It was heavy work, and when they were done, he made his father accompany him to Sag Harbor, where he often went to visit the art galleries. There was one he liked to visit more than the others, less because of the art than because of the young woman who ran the place.
Her name was Rita. When he first met her, he found they had a connection, for she was the daughter of Ruth Weinstein, who had grown up with his father in Brooklyn. It was she who inquired about his family when he first introduced himself and who revealed the connection. Apparently, her mother had had a childhood crush on his father and still kept in touch with his grandfather, their having been neighbors for such a long time. Discovering this history charmed him, and she being very near his own age and managing a career as an artist as well as a business, he was decidedly attracted to her. This afternoon, he wanted very much to ask her to accompany him to his grandfather's, but the intimacy of the purpose of the visit kept him from asking. But also he had not yet approached her with an invitation to go out and wasn't sure how she would respond.
He introduced his father to her upon entering the gallery. His father had not been to the shop, though Victor had told the family of Rita some time ago. Now, his father acted the part of the gallant, sweeping Rita up into conversation and praising her beauty and her shop. He let her tell him about her own work as an artist, and showed interest and pleasure in the things she pointed out.
As he followed along, he watched his father with both amazement and amusement, for his father had never displayed an interest in art before and, actually, had none at all on the walls of his house—none except his own father's paintings, which hung on the walls of his children's bedrooms. Thinking about his grandfather, Victor couldn't help but to feel irritated and distracted by the possibility that Angela would be at his house when he arrived, the one situation which would prevent him from talking to his grandfather about her. And the thought of that irritated him all the more. The merest possibility of her being there sat in the back of his mind all day and was, no doubt, the motive that drove him to want to visit Sag Harbor in the first place. If Angela were there tonight, he thought, looking at Rita, wouldn't he be more comfortable if she was with him? There would be in Rita's presence a ready occasion for conversation and a means to keeping things pleasant. Yet, if he asked her to go with him, he would have to abandon his purpose for going.
The family was depending on him, for his aunts, even his aunt Elizabeth, were getting hysterical over what they saw as an infamous plot on Angela's part—a plot to do what they didn't know but speculated about wildly. He felt the bind of all these concerns; but in the end, looking at Rita, talking to her, watching her charm his father and actually sell him eight hundred dollars worth of acrylics and watercolors—which his father would never have properly mounted and displayed in the house—he felt a calm come over him.
"Rita," he said, feeling relieved that he was actually going to ask, "I'm going to Brooklyn tonight to visit Grandpapa. Would you like to come? When was the last time you were in that neighborhood?" He saw a smile cross her face and felt relieved, for it seemed a welcoming one.
She was placing his father's watercolor purchases between two large, four-by-four pieces of cardboard and taping their edges to keep them from slipping out. She was efficient and assured, projecting an air of competence; pushing a loose lock of black hair hanging over her forehead back into place, she said, "Wouldn't that be nice? Why, Victor, I'd be glad to. I haven't been there in years." Handing the bulky package to his father, she added, "I've met your grandfather before. My mother took me there once when I was little. We were in the neighborhood and stopped to visit. I'll bet he remembers."
She seemed happy with the invitation, and they discussed the details and made arrangements for him to pick her up. When Victor and his father returned home, he felt the burden had been lifted and along with it all his unease and irritation. He liked Rita. Already, he was thinking about other things they might do together.
Since traffic going west on Saturday evenings was very heavy, they left for Brooklyn at seven. Crossing from the north shore to the Belt and then to the Conduit on Saturday evenings is normally a maddening and frustrating affair, but they passed the time pleasantly in conversation. It was nine o'clock when they reached his grandfather's street, and then they had to hunt for a parking space. So it was nearing nine-thirty when he rang the bell of his grandfather's house.
He could see through the windows of the dark porch the shadows of people beyond the French doors in the living room, and he could feel more than hear music playing—not his grandfather's usual operas, but contemporary music, for it was a rap beat he felt pounding in the house. He felt a sudden weakening in his stomach. After a few moments waiting, no one coming to the door, he tried the knob and found it was unlocked, so he let himself and Rita in. Passing through the vestibule into the hallway that opened onto the dining room, he saw a crowd of people, smoking, talking, laughing, dancing—holding drinks in their hands, little plates with mounds of cocktail food piled on them, paper napkins, toothpicks with olives or wedges of cheese—making a din that deafened and bewildered him.
Rita immediately parted from him and went to the table in the dining room. Without even removing her coat, twitching her hips and shoulders in time with the music, she found a glass on the table and fixed herself a drink. Turning to Victor with a smile, she shouted out if he wanted a drink too. He nodded but then began searching for his grandfather. He saw him in the living room near the French doors talking with an Asian woman who was dressed in a black full-body leotard over which she had draped some kind of silken toga, a rich dark blue bordered in gold and hanging over her shoulder and twisting under her arm and around her hip in such a complex way that Victor had to stare at her. Next to her was a short, black-haired man with a heavy blue-black beard shadow, wearing a black turtleneck under a gray sport coat, with a long gold chain from which depended a large gold disk. They were both laughing as though his grandfather were telling them a very funny story. He caught his grandfather's eye as he approached, and the old man broke off his conversation, and, taking the woman and the man by the elbows, stepped towards him to introduce them. That done, the old man took Victor's coat and left his nephew and the couple together and made his way quickly to the dining room. Victor wanted to follow but the Asian woman was raising her voice at him, asking something or other, and he found himself obligated to make her out. He noticed, however, once in the dining room the old man recognized Rita as a stranger and introduced himself. Within a few moments he had taken her coat, shaken both her hands, hugged her warmly, accepted a drink from her, which she made as he deposited their coats in the closet nearby, and then fell into conversation with her.
"Fine," Victor thought, watching them. "Talk with her, but not your own nephew." The Asian woman and her man, seeing a stiff unpleasantness about him, left Victor to himself. A series of guitar chords leaped across the room and just as the drummer began laying down the beat, Victor noticed the Colonna Madonna on the dinning room wall directly across from the living room where he was standing. He was stilled by the sight of it, for it was new to him, strikingly beautiful, and oddly familiar. The beat made him unconsciously tap his hand against his leg as he looked around the walls of both rooms and saw a number of paintings, among them another that was new to him, a scene of the street he was now in in fall colors with an early morning sun: a scene of the row of houses directly across the street as seen from his grandfather's porch. The combination of the paintings on the walls, both the familiar and the new, and the music—he vaguely recognized it, "Devil's Haircut"?—produced a feeling of incongruity, a feeling of propriety violated, of something he felt mildly sacred, associated as it was with his grandfather's eccentricities, suddenly being exposed to the profaneness of hot, irreverent passions.
Just then, someone put a drink in his hand, and he took notice again of who was near him. It was, of course, Angela. He looked around for the Asian woman and her man but didn't see them. He looked at Angela, again, sipped the drink, and thought, "She remembered what I like."
"What's going on?" he shouted at her, for they were standing by the old man's old-fashioned floor-cabinet stereo, which was not what was playing the music. The top of the cabinet was down and resting upon it was a CD player with a pair of speakers attached to it, one of those cheap kind of players one sees in K-Mart or Shopko or Target's.
"It's a party!" she shouted.
"I can see that!" he angrily shot back.
"What do you want to know?" she shouted again, shrugging her shoulders.
"Can't we find a place to talk?" he said close to her ear.
She took his hand and led him to the porch, where she opened the doors and slipped in with him. It was cold in there, and their breath made vapor clouds as they talked. But the noise level was low enough to talk without having to raise their voices and this is what he wanted.
She said impatiently, "You seem annoyed. Don't you think Grandpapa has a right to have a party?"
"I don't question his right," Victor said. "The point is why? I thought we were going to have a quiet evening together. I've never known him to do this sort of thing. Is this your doing?"
He was angry and surprised. The party subverted all his understanding of his grandfather, leaving him not only speechless (literally as well as figuratively) and uncomfortable, but convinced as well of Angela's unwholesome influence on him. His aunts were right, he thought. The party also subverted his reticence about Angela—his fear of embarrassment at finding her here, and his fear of confronting her about her relationship with his grandfather.
"Who are these people?" he asked, his voice as cold as the room. "Your friends?"
"They're neighbors," she retorted, "Grandpapa's friends—people who live on the block. What's it to you? Why are you angry?"
She could still read his moods, he thought, and he knew his anger would spill out on her. He noticed how she prepared herself for it by taking a deep sip of her drink. He hadn't seen her for over a year, since the divorce. But he still felt connected to her, as though the time hadn't reduced their intimacy. He resented that feeling of connection and wondered fleetingly about it.
"Why do you call him `Grandpapa?'" he asked sarcastically, emphasizing the "you."
"What do you mean by that?" she replied.
He could see her tense and suspected she sensed something dangerous in the question and his manner.
"I mean," he said, feeling he might as well get it out, for the night was ruined, as far as he was concerned, "that you two have been seeing a lot of each other. There's talk in the family…"
She had grown alarmed by this and he knew she saw what he was leading to. She turned her back on him, apparently thinking of a response, then turned again to face him, saying, "You, of all people, to think such things! Victor! Do you believe what you're implying? If there's that kind of talk, you should put a stop to it. Oh, you," she said exasperated, squinting her eyes as she said it, "You have such high regard for yourself, but you're just a jerk!"
She turned on him again, opened the doors, and slipped back into the living room. In the rush of sound coming through the doors, Victor felt guilty and sorry. The expression on her face as she left the porch pained him, for it was one of disappointment about to break into tears, and he felt it as a reproach, which he knew he had earned. He stayed in the porch for a few moments to gather his thoughts and calm himself. Finishing the drink, he looked around at the pots, some of them bearing still the withered and dry stalks of the summer's bloom, most of them empty, their soils looking dry and barren in the dim light filtering through the doors. He shrugged, feeling cold and alone, then opened the doors and slipped into the living room, just in time to see Angela, carrying her coat, leave the dining room for the front door. Both his grandfather and Rita, standing beside the dining room table, were looking at him as he stepped through the doors. They had apparently seen him and Angela enter the porch and had seen her leave. He saw his grandfather speak into Rita's ear and felt annoyed, for he was sure the old man was telling her about his marriage and divorce. Explanations would have to follow. He crossed the living room to make himself another drink, but when he neared them, Rita handed him the drink she had made for him, which he took gratefully. He made a gesture to his grandfather about the noise level in the house, and the old man smiled and nodded. Looking at Rita, he shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyes and turned to the table and fixed himself a little plate of finger food, from which Rita helped herself as they stood together, looking around the rooms at the partiers so much enjoying themselves. His grandfather left their side and renewed his conversation with the Asian woman and her man.
There was never a lull in the music, and the people seemed too caught up in the festiveness to want to go home early, so the party went on and on, and Victor had no chance to speak with his grandfather. He danced with Rita, had several more drinks, nibbled on more food, and began to feel finally relaxed enough to party himself. He liked dancing with Rita, he liked holding her, and she seemed to share those feelings. He noticed his grandfather looking at them happily while they danced, and he also noticed, when the old man was standing alone, how a look of sadness came to sit on his face.
Finally, the party showing no signs of abating, he took his grandfather by the arm and led him into the back rooms, away as much as possible from the noise. In the old man's bedroom, he straightened himself up and prepared to ask the question.
But before he could, his grandfather said, "Your aunts, my lovely daughters, have been asking me some pretty fantastic questions. I hope that's not why you came tonight."
"Really?" he said, feigning ignorance. "Like what, Grandpapa?"
"Never mind like what," his grandfather said sharply, "You know very well, Victor. I'm disappointed in you. I saw what happened between you and Angela. I saw in her face what you talked about. We've talked about it, too, you know. What your aunts think."
"I'm sorry," he said. He was embarrassed. This was why he wanted to come with Rita, to avoid exactly what was happening. "What do you want me to say when they ask?"
"Tell them that an old man has a youthful friend and leave it go at that. Why should they even care?"
"I don't understand why Angela moved here," he threw out irritably, "I mean, across the street, Grandpapa. No one does."
"You're a very bright young man, Victor, with a great future. But I think you're naive and self-absorbed and, just possibly, a little stupid."
The old man sat on the edge of the bed and invited Victor to take the chair beside it.
"Your aunts, now. They're not Yale graduates. They're very stupid. So don't feel bad I say that to you. When you become my age, you'll feel the same as I do about many things. Do you like that girl, Rita?" his grandfather asked. "I've known her family since 1945. I attended the funerals of her grandmother and grandfather and went to the hospital when her mother was born. Her mother played with your father when they were growing up, and they went off to school together. I went to the hospital when she was born, too—I saw Rita for the first time the day she was born."
"What's the point, Grandpapa? Why are you telling me this?"
"Because I think you are about to make another mistake, because you are a little stupid, Victor. And I want you to know that I have this personal history with her and her family. I want you to know that life, that your life, is not just a series of disconnected moments. We meet many people in our lives, but our fates connect us to very few. You need to learn how to appreciate those connections and, perhaps, learn to live for them."
He had emphasized the "for," which left a tremendous but vague impression in Victor's mind. His grandfather looked calmly at him, waiting for him to reply. But Victor didn't want to, being intimidated by his grandfather's accusations of stupidity, so he lapsed into a sleepy silence, leaning back into the chair. He thought of Rita and what his grandfather said about appreciating the connections life makes for us with other people.
"Don't get too comfortable, Victor, or you'll fall asleep," his grandfather said, taking him by the hand and gently lifting. "That would be bad, because you have a long drive ahead." Victor, reluctant to get up, sat heavily, letting the old man lean his weight backwards against his grip on his hand. "You need to get Rita home, and it's really quite late," the old man insisted. "My friends are not going to leave soon. But you two should. Now we've had our talk, you can go."
Nostalgia is a powerful feeling, and in its grip, people, especially when they pass their middle years, can do strange and unaccountable things. This was the case with Anthony Lotti. Every individual life moves inexorably towards its omega point, which is woven, so the story goes, into the vast cosmic fabric of existence by the delicate and beautiful Norn, whose sister snips the threads of individual identities. Now nostalgia is, if it is anything, the ultimately irrational, perhaps grand, but nevertheless doomed defiance of this destiny.
Anthony had removed the big mirror-clock which he used to admire so much from the living-room wall opposite the piano, and in its place installed the larger of Rita's acrylic paintings. He had waited impatiently for the framing to be done—he had all her pieces he bought that day framed and now had them sitting on the floors and leaning against the walls beneath where he intended to hang them. He was driven by a gleeful purpose, which he as yet had not revealed to anybody. The wall on which his wife had hung the studio photos of their children, photos which showed them in various stages of their childhood and early adulthood, was now cleared, and Anthony was preparing to find an arrangement for the watercolors, for they were of various sizes, and the puzzle of how to fit them into a pleasing pattern made him feel a little like an artist himself.
His wife, Nina, hovered about him, wide-eyed, a bit worried, but also bemused. His interest in this art was something new in their lives. She didn't want to criticize, but as she stepped back and gazed upon the acrylic, she wondered how she could live with it. It's frame didn't coordinate with anything in the room, and its image was confused, appearing to be either an ocean scene or a stormy sky, or, perhaps, she thought, her finger along her cheek and thumb under her chin, just a bunch of blobs of paint whose patterns were meaningless. She didn't like the piece at all. Its colors were white and gray and ocean blue, sky blue?—she couldn't tell. But a swath of sand-colored paint cutting the plane diagonally, with a strip of green along its edge, made her think of Crab Meadow in the late summer and early fall, when the Sound began to acquire its autumn look—heavily clouded skies with patches of deep clear blue breaking through as the wind swept over the foamy water.
She rolled her eyes but kept silent. Anthony was laying out the watercolors, asking her if they should be grouped, as he originally intended, or hung separately on different walls, for the possibilities of combining them were daunting.
"What else do you want to take down, Anthony?" she said, trying to keep her voice from sounding exasperated. "Do you want to change everything? So much change?"
He looked around, feeling no real attachment to anything she had hung, for he rarely paid attention to the things she put on the walls—fancy souvenir plates, enlarged photos of the family on their various vacations, the old photo of Victor, at sixteen, holding up the forty-nine pound bass he caught on the south shore, his father beaming proudly behind him (Anthony rather liked this one)—and decided that he should have a free hand; after all, this was a first, and everything was bought and paid for.
In the end, he decided to scatter the watercolors around and had them finally hung, each to a wall by itself. Surveying the rooms, he felt pleased and masterful. Then he announced his secret to Nina and his daughters. The following Saturday he was having a party, everything was arranged and the guests were invited. Rita and her mother and father were coming, as was Grandpapa, who wouldn't be kept away if Ruth were coming. His sisters and brother, however, were yet to be informed. Anthony was gleeful, rubbing his hands together as he surveyed the rooms, gleaming at his wife. He wanted, indeed, to go to Brooklyn himself to drive Grandpapa out for the weekend—for this was, for him, to be the beginning of a change: to see the old neighborhood just as he was about to renew his acquaintance with Ruth. He saw her in his mind's eye as he had last seen her, a young woman, for he had met her only once or twice since his wedding, long ago. Rita had jolted him out of a kind of slumber, and he had no idea what was happening to him.
It was the weekend before Christmas, and his father would be staying for the whole week. On his way into Brooklyn, he mused how nice it would be to have the old man stay even longer, stay until after New Years. Perhaps, he thought, they could compromise on the matter of his father living alone in Brooklyn. He would speak to him about it on the way home—coming at Thanksgiving and staying until after New Years. Why not?
He turned off the Conduit and made his way to Liberty Avenue. As he neared the old neighborhood, he felt a pull on his emotions that made what he had been feeling all week seem like shadows. He drove very slowly, looking at each house front; some of the houses, he thought, looked exactly like they did when he and Ruth used to walk passed them on their way to school. Although he came into Brooklyn several times a year, and had done so ever since he moved to eastern Long Island, he was seeing the old neighborhood now as though he were only just returning from a journey of many, many years. He felt an uncomfortable and strange swelling in his throat, his eyes burned, and he shook with anticipation.
Anthony was on the verge of a revelation that, when and if it came, would do irreparable harm, for it was not the neighborhood itself that so filled him with these peculiar emotions, nor the far-off memory of home being awakened with all its associations with mother-love and warmth and family affection; it was Ruth, it was his memory of her slim and dancing figure, of their childhood intimacies, of their early freedoms, when their lives had not yet taken the shapes that would become their destinies. The reminder of Ruth through her daughter, their mother-daughter resemblance, drove him into a frenzy of desire. As he neared the old house, he felt more and more muddled, excited, aroused, and teary eyed.
He climbed the steps almost in a daze. As usual, his father left the door unlocked in anticipation of his arrival. He always argued with the old man about leaving his door unlocked and always told him they would get the news one day that he was murdered in his bed by an intruder. But his father laughed him off, saying that he knew everyone in the neighborhood and no one was a crook. He went straight for the closet when he entered the dining room. As he was hanging up his coat, the smell of the closet made him realize he was an unhappy man, but the realization was fleeting. It came, however, with just enough force to leave him feeling a troubling guilt. Once inside, he found his father sitting with company. Angela was there.
A deep silence greeted him when he entered the living room, and he could see that Angela had been crying. His father was sitting beside her, holding her hand, looking sad.
"Am I interrupting something?" he said indelicately.
"Come in, come in, Anthony. Sit down," his father said.
Angela wore an expression of profound unhappiness. He sat and waited for his father to explain, if he wanted to, and felt uncomfortable.
"Well," the old man said, patting Angela on the knee, and rising with a great deal of difficulty. "I'm all packed and ready to go, Anthony. I have some bundles and packages to take. Everything is in the bedroom with my suitcase. Are you hungry, Anthony? Should we have a bite of lunch before we leave?"
Looking at Angela and then at his father, he realized he had intruded on some intimacy and they both felt uncomfortable. Angela looked so unhappy that he felt his heart wring. Trying to think of what to say or do, he mumbled that maybe he should go to the deli and get a sandwich and come back in a little while.
But Angela said no and got up and leaned over her ex-father-in-law and gave him a hug and a kiss. Anthony tried to return the hug, but it felt clumsy, so he got up too, and they hugged again. She held him tightly for a few moments, and when the embrace loosened, he took her by the shoulders and asked her what was the matter.
But she only stared and held her breath, looking at the old man, who returned her look with a gentle smile.
"Anthony," he said, "Angela is pregnant."
Anthony, for a moment, took the news in dully, but the implications quickly flashed across his face, and he looked at his father and Angela, turned and stepped away from them, facing the porch doors, then turned again to see his father standing beside Angela, with a big smile on his face, holding her hand.
"No!" he shouted, shocked at what he was thinking.
The old man, smiling still, was apparently enjoying his son's dismay. He put his arm around Angela's shoulders and hugged her close.
"Yes," he said, "she's going to have a baby."
"But," Anthony stammered, "p-papa, this can't be! It's t-too terrible! It just can't be!"
In response to his son's stammering, the old man looked offended and, in the face of Anthony's astonishment, leaned over and pecked Angela on the cheek.
The thought of his father sleeping with Angela filled Anthony with shame; he tried to imagine them in the act but quickly suppressed the image as his face reddened. She was, even though divorced from his son, still, in his mind, his daughter-in-law—and the old man's granddaughter! Could he be, at his age, still randy? He was old and spent. He shuddered as the image he suppressed before it leapt back into his mind. He looked at Angela with such an expression of loathing that they both laughed.
"You think this is funny?" he shot out angrily. "Everybody's going to go crazy when they hear. Can you imagine Camille? She'll rip her hair out! She'll rip her clothes off! Papa, how can you come home and look everybody in the face?" He couldn't look Angela in the face just then, for he felt this was all her fault.
He was feeling the shame and the ugliness of it as he went to the chair he had been sitting in and collapsed.
"Anthony," his father said, "if I had the strength, I'd give you a good beating."
"I don't want to talk about it," he said, looking away from them. He had decided that he would return without his father and make an excuse to the family why he couldn't come, for he was not going to be the one to break the news.
"Anthony," the old man said, putting his hand on Anthony's shoulder and turning his face toward him as Anthony resisted. "Look at me, Anthony. I'm trying to tell you something."
Anthony finally gave in and looked at his father.
"I'm disappointed in you. The baby is not mine," he said emphatically. "Why did you think it was? And even if it was, why should you feel such disgust? Aren't old men allowed to have a life? Anthony, Anthony! It was very funny watching you. I'm sorry we led you on. But all that scurrilous talk by your sisters about Angela and me is what made you jump to that conclusion. Anthony, Anthony. I'm ashamed of you and disappointed that you would believe such a thing."
"Who, then?" Anthony replied, confused, exasperated, but calming down.
"Oh," Angela said, looking bereaved, "It didn't work between us. When he found out, he wanted me to abort. And he keeps his distance from me now."
"Angela wants to abort," his father said, "and I was trying to persuade her not to when you came in. That's what's going on, Anthony. Now, we both love Angela, and she needs looking after in her state. What shall we do?"
Anthony had softened and his emotions swung in the other direction; he felt sympathy and pain now for her disappointment—yet again. When Victor and Angela divorced, he knew his son really hadn't given her a chance. He loved his son, but he couldn't deny that Victor had acted unworthily towards her. And now it happened again. He felt really bad.
He knew his father was fishing for an invitation for her to come with them. So he shrugged his shoulders and suggested it.
"Good for you, Anthony," his father said, "That's just the right thing to do. Now I won't hear no from you, Angela. You're coming with us. Just for the weekend."
The old man had an air like he just settled all the world's dilemmas. But Anthony and Angela looked positively doubtful: Angela because of the family gossip and because Victor would be there the whole time; and Anthony because of the folly of having Angela and Rita in the same house with his son. It was all too complex. He had visions of the comfortable world he lived in suddenly tumbling down—and then he thought of Ruth. Sweat broke out in the palms of his hands.
Anthony was the unhappiest man alive! His unhappiness now was not a fleeting revelation; it was a round, gray-haired, heavily made-up woman whose facial creases yawned like canyons beneath the clouds of powder and rouge. His unhappiness could be measured by the weight of her breasts that hung like water balloons from her bodice and caused her legs to bow from the burden. His unhappiness was the little bald spot on the back of her head, and it was devastating; he drank and drank, losing his inhibitions, so that his unhappiness expressed itself in a remote crabbiness.
He looked from mother to daughter, slowly taking them in, unaware of his critical scrutiny. He was contemplating Rita as a woman of her mother's age and the changes time would wring upon her, and he was genuinely mourning the human condition, wishing he had not been so hasty taking down the mirror-clock; for more than anything just now he wished to contemplate his own features, to compare himself with images of his own early manhood, two of which he had in his wallet—a wedding photo, and a family photo taken when Victor and the girls were still very young.
He looked from Ruth and Rita standing by the champagne fountain to Nina, his wife, who, over the years, kept her figure trim and spare, whose complexion was still smooth, and whose hair was full, though dyed, and nicely styled. Nina was a veritable beauty next to Ruth. The thought of Nina as a beauty filled Anthony with the deepest despair he had ever known. A tear actually formed in his eye, and taking out his hanky, he wiped it away. No more champagne he thought, he needed whiskey.
Camille, Anne, and Elizabeth had formed a coven with their sister-in-law in the living room, where the four of them were whispering the most awful calumniations concerning Angela and their father, who was at that very moment busy in one of his own machinations—trying to bring Angela and Victor into a harmonious state of fellow feeling towards each other with the hope that their former feelings could be revived. The two sisters' husbands and brother were nursing their wine in chairs beside the Christmas tree, talking football and the superbowl. The Lotti sisters and their cousins were chic and sleek, appearing sophisticated and jaded as they paraded their boyfriends around the huge house, showing them Rita's acrylics and watercolors, and acting like they were used to living amid the best of the local galleries.
Howard Glidden, Ruth's husband, had come up to Anthony as the host stooped to fish a bottle of scotch from the lower cupboard of the large china closet in the dinning room. Anthony turned with the bottle and almost knocked the glass out of Howard's hand. The glass being empty of champagne, however, there was no mess, and Anthony, feeling a kind of kinship in sorrow with Glidden, offered to pour him a scotch. Howard accepting, Anthony tugged open a door on the china closet and fetched two tumblers.
"Just wait a moment, now, Howard, let me get us some ice. Be right back."
Returning in a few moments with an ice bucket, he filled their glasses with cubes and scotch—at least a triple.
"Here's to the end of the year, Howard, and to the next."
And so, clinking their glasses, they toasted the coming New Year.
"Here's to you, Anthony, and to your family," Howard said, politely, as a well-meaning gesture of thanks for the invitation.
They drank again after clinking.
"Here's to your daughter and her future as an artist," Anthony toasted again, draining his glass.
As he refilled their glasses, Howard thanked him for being so generous toward his daughter, whose career as an artist he was beginning to doubt. He was about to launch into that topic when Anthony, reluctant to dwell on all that had given rise to this party, lifted his glass once more.
"Here's to our wives," he said, changing the subject successfully.
"Yes?" Howard said, as he waited for Anthony to finish his toast, "Here's to our wives, what? Health and happiness? What shall we toast for them, Anthony?"
"Let's wish them the fulfillment of their heart's deepest desire."
"And what's that, Anthony? Do you know what your wife's deepest desire is?"
"Yes," he said confidently, "I do."
"Well, it's not for public consumption, I take it." Howard was a lawyer and thought as one, even when he was drunk. So he added, with a smile, "Don't be hasty, Anthony, not if you treasure your peace of mind and want to protect your bank account."
He was joking, of course, but Anthony took him seriously, and whispered into his ear what he thought their wives' deepest desires were.
Howard stood, swishing the scotch round his glass, thoughtful, wondering if what Anthony said was an insult to his wife or a profound insight into human nature. Deciding to let it go, he raised his glass and said, "To our wives' deepest desires—may they be realized," and he gulped down the rest of the scotch, whereupon Anthony refilled his glass.
"Don't worry about driving home, Howard, my daughters don't drink, and they'd be glad to drive you, or you can stay the night here, we have plenty of room."
"Do you really think that's what our wives want?" he said, still thoughtful, looking across the room at his wife.
"Absolutely," Anthony replied, holding himself steady by leaning on the china closet door. "Why, look at us, Howard," he said, gesturing shakily with the glass in his hand up and down his torso. "What do you think our wives feel when they look at us, huh? Just a twinge of jealousy? Or more than a twinge?"
"Well, I'm not that fit, Anthony. I'm not as fit as you. I look my age, but you do, too. Yet I don't wish what you said. Maybe it's a dream we all dream. Maybe you're right. I don't know. Here's to arthritis and fallen arches and menopause, to dimming eyesight and loss of hearing, here's to the real world, Anthony."
"Sheeit, Howard, you depress me. Here's to twenty more years of horsing around, that's what I want—or maybe just one good year of it," he added under his breath.
They threw back their drinks and had to find chairs to sit in, for they began to lean into each other, and the room began to dance quite apart from their desire to participate.
"Besides," he said, after they sat down, "what's the real world, anyway, Howard, have you ever lived in it?"
And just then a scream rang out in the living room, and Anthony recognized the screamer as his sister Camille. It was an earsplitting scream of dismay. A sudden bustle of women broke out—with Aunt Elizabeth running to fetch a wet cloth from the kitchen.
Aunt Anne and Nina were in the living room, holding Aunt Camille upright in a sitting position on the floor, fanning her with their hands. Grandpapa was standing beside her with his hands in his pockets, looking for all the world like a Buddha with the smile of enlightenment on his face, while Victor was escorting Angela, apparently distraught, upstairs. Rita and her mother had crowded round the swooned woman, asking what had happened, while the younger women, embarrassed, were getting their coats, threatening to leave the party.
"How could they," Anthony heard one of his daughters say disgustedly.
"I know what that's all about, Howard. Pay no attention. It's an old piece of family business that everybody's got wrong. And my father has been making mischief, you can be sure. That's all. Nothing to worry about."
But Howard was beyond worrying. He settled into his chair at the dining room table, held out his scotch glass which still had some ice in it to catch a stream of champagne at the fountain, and sat back, smacking his lips from the slightly scotchy taste of the wine. He looked towards the living room, but everything was registering double, a bleary double at that.
"Do you like cigars?" he asked Anthony. "I have a couple of good ones. Brought them just in case."
"I think I'd love a cigar right now. Let's go out back."
The two men unsteadily made their way to the kitchen, where they slid back the doors that opened onto the patio and stepped into the cold December night, from which they were protected by a considerable amount of antifreeze. Lighting up, they blew billowing clouds of blue smoke and vapor into the air around, plunging their hands into their pockets.
"I'm not angry," Victor said, after he got Angela settled down upstairs. "I don't believe it, anyway. So forget it. I'm not angry."
"You're not?" Angela queried, her face contorted by feelings of shame and embarrassment, tears flowing copiously down her face.
"How could I be? Grandpapa was superb. I've never really known him, you know. He's very different from what I ever imagined. Did you see his face when Aunt Camille collapsed? He looked like St. George defeating the dragon."
"No," she said, laughing a little. "I was so mortified, and Aunt Camille was so dramatic, I never looked at Grandpapa."
"Well, he was laughing such a wicked little laugh, like he had just got even with his worst enemy—he just stood there chuckling while mom and Aunt Anne held her up and fanned her."
"It's not true what he said, Victor, I swear it!" she said, urgently, anxious for him to believe her, dreading that he would say it didn't matter. For it mattered what he thought, and she couldn't believe Grandpapa would play with her life like that to get even with his gossiping daughters.
They were sitting in his bedroom—his old room, which his mother had converted into an upstairs sitting room, with a TV and stereo and several potted plants beside the south window. There was a convertible couch in it so it could double as a bedroom in case of need. And it was on this couch that Victor and Angela were now sitting.
Earlier in the evening, his grandfather had brought him and Angela together, filled them each a glass of champagne, and told them to toast each other. Then he told Victor how much he cared for Angela, and told Angela that his grandson was a good man who needed once in a while to have his values tested to find out what he really wanted in life. Almost like a priest, he put her hand in his, and asked them if they felt comfortable like that. They both admitted that they did, but quickly broke the contact, smiling at each other, knowing what he was trying to do. Neither resented the old man's interfering, and both rather appreciated the opportunity to use him as the occasion to be civil to each other. But strangely, Victor spent most of the evening shuttling back and forth between Rita and Angela and just happened to be with Angela when his grandfather had thrust his sword into Aunt Camille. He hastened her upstairs to get her out of the din and out of reach of his vicious aunts, who were likely to do anything, given the mood that had settled on the party when Aunt Camille fainted.
"I know it's not true," he said, reassuringly. "I'll never believe it, regardless of what anybody says. I just know Grandpapa would never do anything to spoil our lives, even if he surprises me with parties and jousts with Aunt Camille."
"The party was my idea, Victor. We knew why you were coming and were trying to figure out a way to keep you from prying. I thought the party was a great idea, so Grandpapa began calling everyone on the block and asked them to come over. They all knew why you were coming, too."
"Why did you walk out, then, if you knew?"
"Because, Victor, you actually accused me of seducing Grandpapa, like you believed it. I wanted to die. You. And besides," she said after a pause, during which the tears flowed again, "you were there with Rita and I was already two months along."
"I'm sorry. The party threw me. And Aunt Camille and even Aunt Elizabeth were so sure you were `hunting' Grandpapa. I didn't know what to think."
And so they spent the next hour, while everyone downstairs was whispering, and the old man, getting tired and out of sorts, quietly climbed the stairs and went to his own room, shutting the door, feeling sad, as he usually did when he was alone and unable to tend his flowers and enjoy the sun streaming through his skylights and the uncovered windows on the porch. He felt alone, as he always did when he was in Northport, and yearned for his own bed. Oh, how he hated the idea of waking up here in the morning. Of having to say hello to everybody, of being nice to his granddaughters, who never cared two cents about him, and of having to hear his son complain and worry about his living alone in Brooklyn. He felt a powerful yearning to walk up his own block—right now, this moment—slip his key into the lock of his front door, and drop into his own bed.
"I love everyone," he thought as he slipped between the covers, "I wish them all long and happy lives, and wish they would all do the same for me." He thought again about Raphael's Colonna Madonna. Unlike the typical Madonna of the time, Raphael painted this one in three-quarters profile, for she is gazing down and to her left at the young John beside her knee, while the infant on her right knee also faces his cousin, so that even He is in three-quarters profile. The young John, however, hands clasped in prayer, is presented in three-quarters profile from the opposite side, thus showing the left side of his body. The image is deep and multi-layered, and on the surface, the gazes of the three figures make a complex pattern of interactions between them, and the coloring is multi-layered and complex as well; he worked passionately with all his skill to get it right, to get it more than right, to get it as richly original as Raphael himself did.
He had it wrapped and set it beside the tree as a gift for Victor, a special gift which he hoped Victor would accept. For the face of the Madonna was Angela's face, and the face of the child on her knee was Victor's when he was about the age of the Christ child on the Madonna's knee, and the face of the Baptist was that of his own, as he could best reproduce it from a faded and crinkled photograph of himself and his siblings taken when he was about five years old. Each of the figures had a portion of its being turned away, receding thus out of sight, turned toward the invisible, the unknowable, the mystery that Raphael tenderly suggested in his holy family. He worked on it long and hard after the news of Angela's pregnancy, and had it done when Victor arrived on the night of the party. He noticed Victor looking at it and was disappointed he hadn't seen, or if he had, neglecting to say anything. But he did not want to be here now on Christmas day when Victor opened it. He decided, as he felt sleep coming on, to go home in the morning, one way or another, even if he had to call a taxi.