She'd always had an intimate relationship with the moon. Waking from her bed at three in the morning, Mollie walked around the house barefoot, looking out every window trying to find where the moon had gone. The neighborhood was dark. Eleanor across the street had died and her lamp no longer shone. Her children were selling the house and a red For Sale sign swung lonely in the night. The round O of the moon flickered across it. "Go find it," she whispered. "It's out there somewhere."
Mollie looked next door where the Kelly family was asleep. She thought of them as the typical all-American family, everything she was not, and attempted joviality when she saw them in the front yard. Their recyclables spilled over with beer bottles and soda cans. Pizza cartons were tied like a seven-tiered cake on trash day. Mollie felt excluded when they built a fence higher than a man between their two backyards. She cranked out a poem on her old Selectric called The Five Stages of Grief for the White Fence. They never read the words, "They walled me out."
There were no smells in the dead of the Philadelphia winter, as she tiptoed around her dark house searching for the moon. Then she saw the light on the dining room windowsill. Her rubber tree arched over like a ballerina trying to catch its light. She put her hand by the winter-cold window and let the moonlight lick her fingers. She inched her bare feet forward so the light would illuminate them in the coffin-shaped streak at her feet.
"God of my fathers," she whispered. "Help me. Help me decide what to do."
Looking down at her glowing white feet she remembered when she was a little girl growing up in Cleveland and how her mother would take her to Mr. Miller's shoe store. Even at this late hour, forty years later, Mollie could summon the delicious smell of leather from the tall shoe boxes lining the shelves and see the silver foot measuring device used by Mr. Miller and his wife. How eagerly she would slip her two tiny feet into the requisite X-ray machine, wiggle her toes, then straighten them out as Mr. Miller pressed a button that quite suddenly caused her feet to light up, bones and all, which would announce itself with great fanfare to the little girl's eyes.
Life had never been better. Or easier. The 1960s. When Mommy and Daddy were king and queen. And orange Creamsicles were a quarter from the ding-a-ling of the ice-cream truck and she sat on the curb letting it melt just so until she brought it to her waiting lips. And she was their Little Mollie with the big brown eyes who recorded her private, personal thoughts in her brown Spiral Notebook, lying across her white canopy bed, a sweet-smelling Schaeffer fountain pen in her hand. No, the ache of responsibility had not yet dawned, nor caused her eyelids to droop, as they did tonight, as if held down by magnets.
The very same X-ray machine that was the star attraction in Mr. Miller's shoe store had evolved over the intervening decades. The coughing chest of her former boyfriend, professor Julius Pulaski, was enclosed inside a newer X-ray machine to determine if his recalcitrant years of cigarette smoking had permanently damaged his breathing apparatus.
Or if his body's constant acts of forgiveness were holding firm in his fifty-fourth year of life. A strange thing had occurred, he told Mollie. The more he ate, the less he weighed. His once sweetly corpulent belly that delighted in fatty Polish delicacies Mollie had learned to pronounce, had begun to shrink.
Sure enough, the humble X-ray machine coughed up a horrible diagnosis. Carcinoma of the lung. Inoperable due to its unhandy location. The same day a second tumor was discovered. This time the grip was in the big man's brain. Julius U. Pulaski, the Sherman A. Scott Professor of Astronomy and physics at the University of Pennsylvania, was given a no-nonsense death sentence. No matter how many questions Pulaski and his family asked, the verdict was always the same: six months to a year. There would be no governor's pardon.
What was worse was he would not let her go. And made upon Mollie an outrageous demand. He solicited her help in what he called "dying with dignity," a code word, she knew, for what Doctor Kevorkian went to prison for: assisted suicide.
"Can I refuse a condemned man?" she asked herself.
As Mollie wandered sleepless through the house, her thoughts were of Julius, the man she once loved. The tumor was taking him away from her inch by inch. It was not that she wanted him as her boyfriend anymore, she had made peace with their apartness -- he still touchingly referred to her as his common-law wife -- but she wanted him in the world where he belonged, not underground with the roots and the voles and the groundhog tunnels. But the silent tumor wanted him more, devouring the man whole, and, as he grew leaner, the tumor grew fatter and fleshier, juicier, squooshier, exuding triumph in its power and unimpeachable grip, massively growing in claw-like formation, and corroding his brilliance like a '56 Chevy left out in the rain.
That he was powerless made Julius weep. That he was powerless made Mollie angry. That was the one torrential difference beween them. She was fire, alive, a stick of kindling that roared into a bonfire. Julius was a soft mattress without any spring.
Looking outside at the silent winter, Mollie whispered, "I simply don't know what to do." She shook her head. "Whatever can I do to help this good man, who never harmed a single soul, to have a good death?" And then she countered with, "Yes, that's exactly what's wrong with him, the wimp. He doesn't fight back. He buries his feelings under a backyard rock." The man was incapable of anger, she knew. Was the tumor simply a bundle of angry fibers?
"Shhhh," she said. "Stop talking nonsense."
In her sweatpants and T-shirt, Mollie traveled through the dark kitchen past the humming refrigerator with its sweet soothing assurance of life and looked out the window over the sink. An altar of sacred things filled the windowsill: a forced red amaryllis that leaned toward a trio of dainty black teacups while an age-tarnished garlic press that once belonged to her deceased mother reclined like a Henry Miller nude.
There it was! The sinking moon, as white and small as a floating pebble, lowering itself over the Kelly family's tool shed. "I've found you!" she whispered, hoping to suck strength from its melancholy light.
She imagined, not for the first time, the happy folly of the triumphant American flag stuck there as if a country could own a moon, or a star, whipped by the lonely winds of time, and wondered how long she, little Mollie Feigenbaum, might survive on its cold exterior. Shivering, she wrapped her arms around her small bony frame, then patted her impossibly curly hair.
"Your signature nervous mannerism," Pulaski had said, after they first met four years ago. And now there was a new man in her bed: Angel Guerrero. She didn't believe her good fortune that she had found such a fascinating man, an Ecuadorean-American who may have lacked Julius's intellectual gifts but possessed the two qualities Julius lacked most: common sense and sensuality. Just the way Angel looked at her, she felt loved. His eager face reminded her of a child who comes into the room to the adoring glances of his parents. Her fear in these beginning stages of their romance was, "When will he get wise and tell me he's found another woman?"
Mollie could land a man but could not keep him.
The moon shone with icy indifference across her backyard. Where were the deer? Were they asleep in the little woods behind her house? How were her rosebushes faring leafless in the garden, their tiny rootlets asleep like the deer. And the hydrangea tree. She could see the dessicated blossoms, once white as pearls, waving long fingers under the moonlight. The squirrels, she knew, were bedded down in their many-chambered nests, as she hoped to be soon, her worries finding answers in her sleep.
"Fill me with strength," she whispered to the moon. "There is so much to be done and I am just one small person."
For the next day, Thursday, she would see Pulaski. Only two years ago he had lived right here under her roof on Cowbell Lane with Mollie. Oh, the hopes she had for their union. He had built her their marriage bed and critiqued all of her many poems. Even when things began to sour, she still brought him her poems and her troubles. No man she ever dated offered such wise counsel as her wise Nestor, as she thought of him. When their relationship proved impossible and he moved out, she cautiously weaned him away from her. The sound of his voice told her how delicate he was. Never ever would he fess up to his feelings, as her years of therapy had taught her to do. Bury them and they erupt like a volcano in the most vulnerable part of your organism. Her mind, it had turned out.
But Pulaski refused to let her go. Friendless and spouseless, all he had were two sons he bragged about in public and derided in private. And now, the diagnosis of cancer. The horror beyond all horrors. Her lonely professor had just moved -- temporarily, he stressed -- into the mansion of his son and daughter-in-law. But was it really just temporary? Or is this where he would end his life? Dying with people he abhorred.
Mollie, the consummate outsider, was the only one who recognized the truth of the prognosis. She had been at the hospital when the verdict was given. A truthseeker, she could not bury it under the same backyard rock where Julius tucked his worldly woes.
No, the professor was not long for this earth. By next Christmas, she knew, the man would be dead.
She stared out the kitchen window at the tall earnest maple tree, its hopeful red buds resistent to the wind and the snow, as her thoughts rowed dirge-like through her mind.
Earlier that evening Pulaski left her an importunate phone message in his new chockfull of cancer voice. It was breathy, nearly inaudiable, so different from the reassuring masculine baritone that soothed her when they lived together for six months. "Miss Mollie," he would comfort her, "ya gotta learn to put your latest female drama to rest."
Yes, she knew she was sensitive. She wondered if all people with her illness were as sensitive as she was. She had no interest in meeting any of them.
Now Julius was begging to see her, to forget their past battles, which erupted a month after he moved in with her, and to remember him, as she once had, as her wise partner. In a voice that was part toothless old Appalachian -- the absent-minded professor would forget to put his teeth in -- part wheezing asthmatic, she flinched at the words, "help me kill myself before the suffering gets worse. I don't wanna go blind."
His words zigzagged through her mind. Combing her white shoulder-length curls with her fingers, she felt herself shaking uncontrollably. "Help me kill myself.... Help me kill myself." From the front closet she took down her mother's moth-eaten cashmere shawl, a relic from her childhood. Wrapping it around her shoulders, she went up to bed where she heard the soft sleeping sounds of the new man she loved. Sometimes, she thought, no matter how much you loved a man, there was no comfort to be found.
Angel lay on his back, his socks poking out from the white eyelet cover. "Welcome back, Sweetness," he mumbled, eyes twittering. "I missed you. Now get some sleep." He patted her place in the bed. Climbing in next to him, shawl tightly wrapped around her, she smoothed his black ponytail spread like a horse tail on the pillow. Still shaking with cold, she rubbed her warm forehead on his arms, feeling for the comfort of his flesh and his bright-colored tattoos. She hadn't told him but should they marry she wanted Mollie and Angel entwined with a lilac blossom on his olive-colored back.
She was drawn to rebels. Men who surprised with their ability to maintain comfort and fearlessness in the country of the ordinary. Men who were the opposite of her stockbroker father and his endless expense-account luncheons and penurious green balance sheets as if life resided in numbers, in plus and minus signs, and graphs that looked like electrocardiograms, all the while everything of merit could be summed up over a dry martini with "Buy low, sell high."
Angel was hopefully the last in a marching column of suitors she earnestly tested out like the king's daughter in the fairy tales.
It could be grim indeed until she found men like Professor Pulaski, or now Angel Guerrero with his steel-tipped workboots, his lunch pail with pistachios inside, a man who swore by unions and saved his money for modest trips to the Jersey shore unlike her own family who vacationed in Paris with other couples from her father's Majestic Securities, the largest brokerage firm in Cleveland.
This tattooed lunch pail man understood her though the two of them were as different as a pine from a willow. The crowd from Cleveland seemed only to care about "When will you marry, dear, and raise a family? And what model Cadillac will it be? Eldorado or Seville?"
She shuddered at such memories and sought to bury them under the backyard rock.
Was it her manic depression, she wondered, that made her seek meaning over materialism? Novelty over safety?
She disclosed her condition to Pulaski after they first made love right here in her peach-colored bedroom with her tan Selectric typewriter waiting for a midnight inspiration under its black plastic tarp. Get them in bed first, she learned, and then tell them the one thing most likely to turn them off. Curiously, other things turned them off more than her illness. Her fine attention to detail, part of her mind as an award-winning journalist, scared off not a few. She seemed to notice everything. The insecure ran away.
After she and Julius made love and lay under the white eyelet cover, she kneaded his big hand in hers.
"Ever hear of manic depression, Julius?"
"Maniac depression?" he said.
"No, silly. Manic depression. The disease of the stars. Of artists. You know, the Gone with the Wind gal, what's her name?
"You mean Sir Laurence's girl?"
"Yes. Vivien Leigh. She had it. Good ole manic depression. And poor Larry Olivier was her caretaker. Dunno if they had lithium in those days. See these scars on my neck?" she said switching on the light.
He craned forward, beard tickling her arm, and saw shiny little marks.
"Mm-hmm," he said tracing his pinkie through the little highways on her neck and shoulder.
"The lithium gave me some sort of acne. Big gigantic pus-filled pimples. Man, did they hurt. My shrink wanted to take me off the lithium but I said, No way! I ain't gonna go crazy again. You don't mind, Julius, that occasionally I go off my fucking rocker, do you?"
It was his favorite expression. Ever so curious. Always digging for answers. She had never been flesh to flesh with a man of such massive intelligence. It was an aphrodisiac. As she drew herself to him, she imagined his brilliance brilliance burning like sunshine into her pores. His intelligence was power. It was love. It was conquering of all enemies when he held her. Don't ever let me go, she mumbled, muffling her words in his bare flesh.
She knew she could trust him when she disclosed her illness. Knew he was man enough and secure enough not to run away like some of them had. "Just a sec," she said, tumbling out of bed and running downstairs. She quickly opened up a kitchen cupboard and slammed it shut.
"Look!" she said running back upstairs. "This is what lithium looks like, you adorable man, you!" She shook the bottle, eyes flashing. "These are my fat little pink pills that let me do my work." She sprinkled some out in her hand. They were indeed pillowy plump, and hard, too, like perfect little pink pebbles.
"Odorless," she said, holding a handful under his nose.
He lifted one up and pretended to take it.
"Oh, you don't wanna do that," she said. "You'd look awful with acne."
"You mean you like the way I look? You don't think I'm some ugly old bearded grouch?"
"You?" she said climbing back in bed. "You don't know how handsome you are, hiding under that big bushy beard." She brushed her lips against its softness and smoothed down each tangled furry caterpillar eyebrow.
"My God!" she said sitting upright. "I know who you remind me of. He's on the cover of my Iliad. I'll show you tomorrow. Too tired now."
"That's fine, Little Darlin'. It can wait. We have all the time in the world," he said, snuggling his large self against her small self.
Or so they thought in the first few halcyon weeks of their romance before Pulaski's Pandora's box of idiosyncrasies chased him from their bed. The slow sweet tranquil music box that was Pulaski in love began in time to evanesce into lonely melodies, a veritable Mahler of profound aloneness with elegiac dreamlike sequences that made both of them weep inside.
"We are two sorrowful rivers," she wrote in a poem, "aching to become one."
As a woman newly in love, Mollie had imagined herself the wife of the brilliant Professor Pulaski, possibly headed for a Nobel Prize. She saw the two of them bowing in formal attire before the King of Sweden. She would have to take heaps of Klonopin to get over her nervousness from the long plane ride to Stockholm but with Julius at her side she could do anything.
She never knew how but she always fell asleep when he was next to her.
"You'll just have to marry me, Miss Mollie," he said. "Otherwise, you'll stay awake for the rest of eternity."
Little did she know that the nicotine-stained mustache, the yellowed fingers and a cough that sounded like spurts of popcorn over the fire would indeed foretell the end of the man.
She'd been right to kick him out and to get rid of the bed he made from oak for the two of them. She never mentioned the handmade bed to Angel Guerrero as they neared their six-month anniversary.
And now Pulaski was back in her life.
"I can tell he's upset you," Angel said, rolling over towards her and patting her face. "I think you should stay away from that man. No good can come from it."
Mollie rolled over and stared at the ceiling, crying inside.
Pulaski tossed a shiny penny into the wishing well outside Daddypop's Diner. Satisfied with the splash on this cloudless spring day, he walked toward his accustomed seat at the counter, arriving plenty early for the individual attention he so needed. He nodded to Charley, who sat in the corner seat in an old barber's chair, the Intelligencer sports page spread out before him. He was a man who had lost the finer workings of his mind due to some mental aberration. "Mice you," Charley wheezed, smiling, when he saw Pulaski.
Pulaski nodded. "Nice to see you too, Charley," he said. Helen, coffee pot in hand, winked at Pulaski. Profoundly distressed after his wife left him, the professor sought refuge the only way he knew how: in the kindness of waitresses. They loved him. He swooned when they called him "honey" or "darling." And idly wondered if he radiated neediness when he alighted from the sanctuary of his truck into the fray that was the world.
"Look who the wind blew in," said Helen, smoothing down her apron. Pulaski beamed like a third-grader who'd pleased his teacher. He took a seat in front of the Frosted Flakes display rack at the counter, removed his straw hat and set it on the empty seat beside him. His thick white hair shone with the bright light of morning. With slightly shaking hands, he drummed on the counter waiting for Helen to finish chatting with "The White Walker," a scruffy-looking toothless older man who wore white all year long, walked through town and mowed lawns for the town's churches and funeral parlors.
"And how is the professor today?" Helen asked, pouring coffee into his mug.
"Well, I guess life can't be all bad now that I'm here." He held the filled coffee cup under his nose, sniffing and watching the bubbles collect on the surface. "I could smell this all the way over from the apartment," he said. "It's what I live for."
"That bad, is it?" said Helen, pulling out a handful of creamers from her pocket. Pulaski began to peel open some Sweet 'n Low packets.
"Would I lie to my favorite waitress?" he smiled, looking around and catching Mollie's eye at the end of the counter.
"You still married, Helen?" He didn't wait for an answer. Everyone seemed to be married. Except, of course, for poor lonely ole Julius.
"Ever tell you, Helen, my wife cuckholded me for a bed full of magazines?" He looked over toward Mollie who glanced up from her plate and wiped her mouth with a napkin.
"I've heard worse," Helen laughed. "Three eggs, scrambled wet, hashed browns with onion, and rye toast."
"Yepper!" he said cupping the mug in his hands. He closed his eyes, inhaled and sipped. "Nothin' like the first time, Helen," he said. Euphoria sank in after a few swallows. He closed his eyes to savor what he knew would be the only few pleasurable moments he'd feel during the day. Grief clung to him like a gluey spider-web impossible to brush away.
He patted his breast pocket where his pens made a familiar clunk and plucked out his pack of Marlboro Lights. Extracting a white monogrammed beauty, he coasted on his burgeoning coffee high and for the moment the world belonged to him again.
"Amanda, light of my life, they should've made you a gentleman's wife," sang the jukebox.
He caught the eye of the slender white-haired woman whose red pocketbook hung across the seat next to her. "Women! Always singing about women."
"Diid I hear you say the word 'cuckhold?' " she asked, holding her fork mid-air.
"Yep, I sure did."
"It's not exactly a diner word."
"Are you a diner woman?"
"I'm a discerning diner woman," she said.
"Mind if I join you?"
On went his hat and he clopped down the floor, cigarette dangling from his lips, coffee cup in hand, in his black cowboy boots.
"Julius is my name," he said sitting beside her and taking a sip.
"I'm Mollie," she said.
"Pretty name for a pretty girl. Bet you weren't ever jilted after thirty-three years of marriage?"
"Nope," she said. "Never been married. It takes them six months to get sick of me and then I'm free as a bird." She toasted him with her glass of orange juice and took a sip.
The waitress set his breakfast in front of him. "More coffee, professor?" He held out his half-full cup for a refill and winked at her. "Why didn't you tell me this charming young lady was in need of a gentlemanly breakfast companion?"
"Seems like you didn't need no introduction."
Mollie gave a forced half-smile as she watched him sip the steaming hot coffee.
"Any kids?" she asked.
"Yepper. Two good-looking boys. Take after me," he said, showing his profile. "Make more money than I ever did. My boys she couldn't take away from me. The house she took, the bank account she took, the house in the Poconos, and all the gorgeous trees I planted in the backyard on Palomino Drive -- big ones, five times as big as you, Little Miss -- elms, oaks, cherry trees with smooth bark and cherries so delicious they explode in your mouth. All I need is a woman to pick them for, to drop down on my knees and say, Come live with me and be my love. Ya know who wrote that?"
"Yes I do big guy, the poet being a marvel of a man with two L's."
"Andrew Marvell? Good guess. Make that Christopher Marlowe," he said, eyeing her breasts.
"Oy veh! I'm so embarrassed," said Mollie, flinging her head into her hands.
"You're embarrassed! Think of how I felt when I got a letter from my wife's lawyer asking for a divorce."
Mollie shook her head and checked herself in the huge mirror behind the counter. The smell of black coffee and hashed brown potatoes lofted through the many-windowed diner. Using her fingers as a comb, Mollie fluffed up her shoulder-length white curls in the mirror and smoothed down her eyebrows. She opened her eyes wide and then shut them.
"Now what was that little facial acrobatic all about?" asked Pulaski.
"Facial acrobat?" she said, looking over and meeting his eyes. "You are certainly not your typical diner guy. In fact, if you continue having a good personality, I may just get to like you."
"I like you already. A beautiful girl like you should be wearing a wedding ring."
She held out her fingers and looked at them. "Lay it on me, Julius. Lay it on thick. I like it." She brushed a crumb of toast from his beard.
Pretending to speak to the waitress he said, "She's just like my wife. Grooming me already."
He was beginning to feel an unaccustomed spark of gaiety. Teenage memories of his South Philadelphia neighborhood danced before his eyes. One girl in particular. What was her name? Oh, what was her name? he thought. A pretty little Jewish girl from down the street. They'd flipped baseball cards on the sidewalk and she'd won them all.
"See this ring?" he said, displaying his hand.
Bravely grabbing hold of his baseball glove-sized hand, Mollie ran her thumb over the hard red stone. "A ruby?"
"A ruby? It figures. You won't talk to me unless I wear diamonds and rubies," he said pretending to pout.
"Oh, no no no. I'm sorry. I just thought..."
"I'm jokin' with you, Little Miss. It's my high school ring. Ever heard of Father Judge?"
"Father Judge? I'm not actually from around here," she said. "Strange name."
"Catholic high school for boys. Not half-bad. 'Educating minds and souls in the tradition of St. Francis de Sales,' " he said, gulping his coffee.
"Stop right there, Julius." She cupped her mouth as if whispering. "I must tell you I don't believe in the immortal soul. Immortal universe, yes. Immortal Bach, yes. Immortal coffee, yes. But immortal souls? Count me out!"
"Aha! A nonbeliever! A heathen!"
"Hey, I like that. A heathen. And you? You're a practicing Catholic?"
"Don't call me names! I'm a practicing nothing! I do my own thinking. Ain't that right, Helen?" He motioned for a refill.
"You better believe it," she said with a wink, sliding him a few more creamers.
"I happen to be Jewish," said Mollie.
"You don't say, Mollie," he said, pointing to her gold Star of David around her neck. "You're a walking commercial. And a commercial for good looks and gentility too."
"Why, thank you."
"And what might your last name be, Miss Mollie? You do have one, don't you?"
"I do indeed," said Mollie, draining the last of her orange juice. "It's one of those fabulous long-winded Jewish names. Mollie Feigenbaum." She stuck out her hand.
"Mizz Feigenbaum, I am Ju-li-us U. Pulaski, PhD," he said enunciating the last three syllables.
"I think the two of us should walk around town and get to know each other," Pulaski said. Mollie nodded. "Just let me finish this white beauty."
"White beauty. Now that's an original."
He tucked some pink Sweet 'n Lows in his breast pocket and picked up Mollie's bill. "No protests allowed," he said and waved goodbye to Charley who was still on the same page of the newspaper. "Gwandout," said Charley, with smiling eyes.
Their love was born at the counter of Daddypops Diner with Helen as the front row witness.
As they walked down the porch stairs of the diner, Pulaski reached into his pocket, fished out some change and tossed it into the wishing well.
"Did you make a wish?" asked Mollie.
"Sure, did. But I can't tell or it won't come true."
"Are you serious?" she asked, grabbing his arm.
"Of course I'm serious. Would I lie to you, Miss Mollie? The fine art of superstition runs deep in my Polish veins. A family trait."
He pulled out a cigarette, lit it one-handed with his lighter, leaned his head toward the cloudless sky and blew smoke rings in the air as he once did to his growing sons. The two of them tottered in their coffee highs down York Road, past the trophy shop, past the lingerie shop, she in her jeans and sandals, he in his cowboy boots and straw hat. He was a head taller. She tucked her head into his warm shoulder as they walked down the streets of Hatboro, Pennsylvania, toward the unnamed destination called love.
It began well, as it always does. They made love in her big creaky bed, with Bach's Goldberg Variations on low. Glenn Gould supplied timely moans.
Afterward, Pulaski pulled on his striped boxers and moved around the pale peach bedroom with a familiarity Mollie liked. He poked around her stacks of books and a tall red tower of diaries she'd kept since she was eleven. "Hope you don't mind me disturbing the spiders," he said.
"Not at all," she answered under the sheets. "You know what I like about you, Julius?"
"My big kielbasa?"
"Well, I do like your big kielbasa. But I was thinking how nice it is spending time with you.
"I feel relaxed. I don't have to show off or be smart or rich or beautiful."
"That's cause you're all those things, Miss Mollie," he said, pointing to her photo on the wall. "You're much prettier in person."
"That's an award they gave me at the newspaper for an expose I did on nursing homes. Taken by our top photographer Tommy Forstater who they finally canned for the ultimate sin: laziness."
"He couldn't have been lazier than me," said Pulaski.
"You can't be lazy and be a full professor."
"Wanna bet?" he winked.
He walked over to the window. It was twilight. The dimming sun lit up his see-through mound of shoulder-length white hair.
"Your view isn't half bad," he said. "Mind if I have a cigarette?"
Mollie shot out of bed and opened up the window. "Blow it out there," she said. "I'm deathly afraid of cancer."
He retrieved his pack in his shirt and blew smooth streams of smoke through the window.
To Mollie, a lifetime non-smoker, the act of sucking on the expensive, highly-processed, tightly-wrapped white stalk, and using your breath to control the small pockets of heat and fire which rhythmically went in and out of your body, was nothing short of a magical dexterity known only to the smoking sophisticates. She knew that voicing this opinion would bring incredulity so she kept it to herself as Julius closed his eyes a moment and blew through the window screen with great delicacy and obvious pleasure.
"You should've seen my backyard on Palomino Drive."
"Ah, the one with all the trees. The cherry trees with cherries so delicious they explode in your mouth."
"Planted from seedlings. Every one of them. Watered, staked up, and fertilized with Pulaski's own backyard compost. Half my lifespan planted in trees on Palomino."
"I can see you outside in your straw hat, your fingers digging like little shovels in the dirt."
"That wife of mine never helped me. Not once. Never even looked my way. Give me your hand, Mollie," he said. He took it and began to carefully stroke her fingernails.
"If that woman got one little crackola in her painted nails she screamed bloody murder."
He went over to the window again, shaking his head.
"And she threw me out. She had the nerve after the kids were grown to toss me into the garbage heap. A man my age isn't supposed to live in a goddamn apartment. I should be sitting on my deck contemplating my trees and tomatoes and solving the riddles of the universe."
"Do you miss her?"
"I ain't gonna lie to you, Mollie. If she'd have me back I'd crawl home on my hands and knees."
Mollie shook her head at this wizard with no pride.
"I don't understand. She didn't seem to be interested in you at all. What's the attraction?"
"Beats me. I think it's more the routine I miss. The personality of the house and the yard. Every morning when I woke up, I'd go out back and say hello to the trees. Not my wife," he laughed.
"Do you still talk to her?"
"She'll call me if my check is late or if something goes wrong with the house like the ice cube dispenser not working. She's a totally incompetent human being except for spending my money."
"Do you think she's found someone else?"
"Colleen? With another man?" He erupted in the strongest emotion she'd yet seen from the man: a burst of raucous laughter, followed by a coughing fit that necessitated her vaulting out of bed and patting him on his back.
"Take it easy, Julius. I'll go get you some water. Put that nasty cigarette out so you don't choke to death."
When she returned with a glass of water, she saw his pile of clothes lying in a heap on the chair. How she loved seeing men's clothes in her bedroom. His straw hat rested on her dresser, his cowboy boots were tucked demurely under her bed like slippers. A man to come home to was her one seemingly unattainable dream.
Julius, restored, pointed to a framed watercolor of Lady with a Watering Can.
"What you need in here, Mollie," he said, lighting up another cigarette, "is a Hubble poster of the galaxy. Saturn and his glittering white rings will do you. Do you realize those rings are only a mile wide?" he said, spreading out his arms.
"Your students must love you. Can you see me waving my hand in your class?" she said waving under the sheet.
"And you'd be the teacher's pet," he said. "Take a guess what book I teach from."
"Let's see. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams."
"Close but not correct. I teach from the number one astronomy text in the whole country. Pulaski's Guide to the Universe: Fourth Edition. Six-hundred sixty-seven pages not including index. As big a rip-off as the sky is long."
"I thought you said you were lazy! Now you're planting trees and writing textbooks on the side."
"Look, when you're tenured at Penn you gotta do shit like this to keep your job. Bunch of stinking politics. Let's see, we're on chapter one, History of the Female Body and what makes her a magnet for ole rejects like Professor Pulaski. But you can call me Julius."
"I don't know what I like most about you, Julius, your conversation or your body," she laughed.
He had the body of a very tall, three-month pregnant woman. Underneath his girth were the same muscles he'd once used to plant his backyard trees and to put in tomatoes and stroke his wife's body, the body that wanted him no more.
Mollie felt a sudden swelling of love.
"How could that woman kick you out?" she cried. "We're gonna forget all about her. From now on, she doesn't exist."
He strode over on his storklike legs, took her face in his hands and brushed her lips with his. She grabbed his hands and looked up at him. His eyes gleamed like black granite.
She patted the place beside her and he lay back down.
"You know, Julius," she said, "when I was a little girl, one of my favorite books was...let me think..."
She tilted her head back on the pillow. Julius lay beside her and stroked her thigh.
She looked toward him, with smiling eyes. "Something about the stars. The Stars for Dan? The Stars for..."
"The Stars for Sam," he said with his low train rumble of a voice. "The very book that convinced me I could become a man of the stars."
"No kidding," she said.
"R. Maxwell Reed wrote a series of books for his nephew Sam. Taught at Princeton Uni-ver-sigh-ay. Every single little boy -- and little girl, too, I imagine --thought that book was written just for them," he said.
He looked up at her ceiling fan. "If you lived in a noisy Polish household like I did, you had to hide your library books where no one else would find them. I had a secret hiding place on the roof. Only the stars and the pigeons knew where they were."
"Take me there, will you Julius?"
"Wish I could, darling, wish I could. A distant land as far away as the North Star. The kingdom of childhood."
His voice trailed off, his eyes closed and he was asleep.
They saw each other several times a week. If neither had worked, they would have honeymooned in the peach bedroom where the ascent of the sunlight traveled from one window to the next, followed by the slower mounting of the moon.
Mollie asked to visit his apartment. With a trail of boyfriends as long as a monkey's tail, she vowed to be more careful next time. At last it had come, as it always did, to next time. Knowing Julius was like finding an underground cave lined with gleaming jewels. What would the interior hold? It would be unwise, she told herself, to let him know she would investigate him with the thoroughness of her award-winning mind, which resided beside her award-losing choice of beaux. She could not allow these weekend liaisons to unfold into her latest ill-fated fiasco. "Other people have learned. Why can't I?" she thought. She simply could not afford to break her heart again the way Jake did. He had once been the great love of her life, Philadelphia's most famous sculptor, a reluctant media darling, or so he claimed, who made the cover of The New York Times magazine, leaning in his jeans and plaid flannel jacket on one of his backyard sculptures, a Mona Lisa smile on his lips. "The man who never laughs," she'd said to herself.
After he crushed her two years ago like a golden locket stomped underfoot, she needed to take more lithium so she wouldn't fantasize about killing herself. How quickly the tiger of manic depression, usually sunning itself inside her, now bared it teeth and began to snarl. The pain was so intense suicide was all she could think of to squash her feelings of self-loathing and unworthiness and the most awful feeling in the world, "I can't go on without Jacob Ray in my life. I must die for I can't stand the pain."
Anything was better than what she felt. Give her tooth pain, a bellyache, chemotherapy, mangle her fingers under a hammer, she'd trade any of them for the mental anguish that sought to destroy her. Gratefully, she increased her lithium under her doctor's tender care. She watched as every morning became easier to bear. In her red diary, she wrote in black ink, half in Gregg shorthand, "The first month was the worst, especially in the morning when we had our coffees together, he in his carriage house in Germantown, me on the backyard deck watching the view. How I loved that man who wanted nothing more to do with me. I realized at last why he dumped me. The abortion. I killed his seed. But you know what? I ain't no man's incubator. I'll take the punishment."
No, she would not let Pulaski or any other man do that to her again. Or so she thought, as she watched the big man's chest go up and down in slumber. He needed her, too, she thought. Never would she forget that look of terror in his eyes when he walked through the door of Daddypops, a man suddenly alone in the world. Lying next to Julius, Mollie realized how peaceful she felt. "I only hope this feeling lasts," she thought. "Please, let it last."
A week later, when she mentioned her desire to see him again, he made excuses. He was working on a new edition of his book. He was dog tired after a day with the students. His sons were taking him out for pizza. Maybe another time.
Why hadn't he wanted to see her? Certainly it was not her imagination that he cared deeply about her. Why wait then? she thought. When the uncertainty proved intolerable, Mollie decided to visit him at his apartment complex, Village Green by the Creek. She knew it well, better even, than some of its tenants.
Pulling into the complex, she cruised around searching for his blue and white Suburban. No, she was no stranger to Village Gangrene, as some of its tenants bitterly called it due to its propensity to attract tragedy.
A grease fire over a stove was the latest calamity she'd read about in the paper. Contingents of cop cars, ambulances and fire engines regularly shuttled in and out of its city-like streets tending folks from infancy to old age. But it was Buildings A and B that sealed the notoriety of the thirty-three-building complex. The two buildings had once stood at regal attention, assuring tenants all was well under God and the sky. Scarcely anyone, except perhaps the James D. Scully Company, who owned apartment complexes along the northeast corridor, remembered the truth: Village Green had been built on a flood plain. Once every five or six years, the quiet and barely visible tributary of the Pennypack Creek, that flowed just beyond the playground, overflowed its banks.
The rains of 2001 were the worst. Never before had anyone died, until Hurricane Allison spun like a howitzer through the quiet neighborhood. Mollie's heart pounded with excitement when her editor called her at home and asked her to cover the story. Little did she know the horrors that awaited her storytelling arm.
No, it was not enough that the creek waters drowned out the three-leaf clovers, the wild violets and the tiny blue forget-me-nots. But the waters were unstoppable. They churned like roaring dragons and came galloping straight into Buildings A and B. The water was fast, angry and merciless. Once it was let loose there was little time to flee. Especially if you were old or blind or in a wheelchair like ninety-seven-year-old Angelina DeLuca or her blind son, Vinnie, the former first violinist in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mollie knew them well though she had never met them. Both had perished while waiting to be rescued from Building A. They were among six elderly people who watched at their second-story windows as rescue boats rowed toward them. But as the hapless tenants waited and prayed to God for mercy another drama was transpiring in the basement.
There, on the gray cement floor where they did their laundry, the dryer was rattling wildly against the wall, tossing and turning as if trying to break the bonds that held it to the wall. A bolt loosened and broke. Flood water seeped into the gas main. No one saw. No one suspected. Boom! The explosion was fast and so loud it could be heard half a mile away. The roof of Building A blew up into the sky. The six hapless tenants were dispersed like Hiroshima victims.
All this Mollie learned after the fact in the hastily set-up shelter in the high school gymnasium. Tenants cried to her in despair and shook their fists. Mollie dictated the story over the phone while her editor Dave Briggs typed up every word. The headline "Six Dead in Watery Explosion" scooped the leading paper, the Philadelphia Inquirer.
The year was now 2005. Buildings A and B were never rebuilt. Had the Scullys actually learned a lesson? Doubtful, Mollie thought.
Where was his blue and white Suburban? There was certainly no trace of the Angel of Death. Life had moved stoically forward. The Pennypack Creek flowed docile as tap water off to her right, a tow-headed boy in red boots tossing rocks into it while his mother stared blankly at Mollie's car.
If people's dogs look like their owners, did their cars also resemble them? Catching sight of his lordly Suburban, she thought it looked like the man. The huge covered back could hide so many wonderful things, just as his own body hid the contents of his noble, learned soul, she thought. She parked her car by the pool. Her heart pounded the way it did when she was given a choice assignment. Pulaski would have a commanding view of the parking lot -- and her -- if indeed his windows faced the parking lot and not Surrey Lane, whose two-story houses were like "leaking houseboats" she had written in her article. Alighting from her car, she heard the ka-boom ka-boom of the cars on the Pennsylvania Turnpike just beyond the pool house and the playground.
Why hadn't Pulaski called, she asked herself as she walked toward H Building. What if he had no intention of seeing her again and she had just been a plaything, a pleasant diversion? "Hush up," she told herself as she entered H Building and listened for sounds within.
The odor of mildew snaked up from the basement. "Forget apartment living," she thought, remembering her own efficiency in San Francisco and the Murphy bed that pulled out of the wall. And, yes, imagine what Julius, once a homeowner in silks, must think. A wall of mailboxes gleamed on her left. In the overflow section was a Scientific American and Physics Today addressed to Pulaski. Good. She was in the right place. She heard a few cars pulling into the lot for coming-home time.
She climbed up a flight of stairs. Now a new smell assailed her. Sweet as pastry, the hallway smelled like a Jewish bakery from her childhood in Cleveland. She searched her memory to see if this were a Jewish holiday. Maybe poppyseed hamantaschens were baking in the oven waiting just for her, Mollie Annette Feigenbaum, or knishes, filled with mashed potatoes or better yet, chopped chicken livers.
She rapped her rhythmic shave-and-a haircut knock on number six. Clearing her throat, she sniffed the pine-cone wreath on the door. She turned her head and listened for movement inside.
An old lady no bigger than a large child answered the door. Her eyeglasses magnified her eyes so they looked like a bottleneck fly. Her apron was smudged with flour and grease.
"State your business," said the old woman looking sharply at her. "I ain't got all day. I've got baking to do. And then I've got to pickle some dandelion greens."
"Oh, I, I, I'm looking for a man. Julius. Julius Pulaski."
The old woman cupped her ear. "I can't hear you!" she shouted. "I ain't as young as I used to be."
"Julius. Julius Pulaski," Mollie stammered. "Do you know him?"
"Why, come in, dear," she said. "I'll be glad to give you one of my pizelles."
Mollie checked the hallway to see if Pulaski may have emerged but there was no sign of him. She entered the apartment and lowered her red pocketbook onto the stained beige carpet. Photos hung on the walls and crowded the table tops. From the far wall, a huge wooden cross stared straight at her.
The smell of pastry was overpowering. Mollie's head turned instinctively toward the kitchen when a queer noise rang out, a high-pitched piercing sound that made Mollie cover her ears.
"That's my hearing aid, dear," the woman said. "Six hundred dollars on the budget plan and it still don't work right. My daughter's got to take it back."
She put her arm on Mollie's and led her into the tiny kitchen. A window opened onto a view of trees sloping close by. A squirrel puttered on a branch, seeming to peek inside. Newly baked food and ingredients were everywhere. A cooling rack held delicacies Mollie had never seen before. They looked like thin embossed waffles.
"Taste this," she said, lifting a golden-colored pizelle from a paper towel and practically feeding it to her. Mollie took a bite. "This is delicious," she said. "What do you call it?"
"Mary. Mary Pasorini. Pleased to meet you," said the old woman nodding her head. "You like it?"
"I do. I do," said Mollie. Mary's hearing aid seemed to twitter with joy.
A loud thumping sound resounded on the stairway. Mollie ran to the living room, pizelle in hand, and opened the door. A large man in dungarees and cowboy boots, hidden from view by a pile of laundry, was opening the door across the hall.
"Yoo hoo!" called Mollie.
Pulaski peeked out from behind his bursting clothes pile and turned around. "Well look who's here!" he said. "My own sweet lady. As you can see, there's nothing sadder than a grown man doing his own laundry."
"Or feeling sorry for himself. Do you know your neighbor Mary? Maybe she'll adopt you, you poor thing."
"After you're finished eating up all her pizelles, why don't you knock on my door? And bring me some."
In the kitchen, Mary had slipped a stack of pizelles into a plastic bag. She handed them to Molie with instructions not to crush them. "Don't be a stranger now," she said in her high-pitched voice. "Come visit me sometime. Maybe you can take me shopping. That daughter of mine forgets she has a mother."
"Oh, I certainly will if I can," said Mollie, giving the old woman a hug and inhaling the unmistakable smell of old age, its flaky dry skin tingling her nostrils. As she attempted to move out into the hall, Mary held onto her hand. "Are you saved, dear?"
"Am I...what?" Mary's earnest face with her big eyes and flour and rouge on her cheeks looked at Mollie as if she were the savior incarnate, so great was her need for company, especially people to feed.
"I have something just for you," she said, gesturing that Mollie should follow her.
Her gnarled walking stick, a limb from a tree, rested near a back closet. Mary sashayed like a bowlegged prizefighter to a pile of Catholic Digest magazines, their Reader's Digest-like covers stacked on an end table next to a sagging purple hyacinth with an Easter card stuck in the soil.
"This is for you," she said giving Mollie the magazine. "God loves you. And don't be a stranger now."
Mollie wondered if she would ever see the old woman again. Kissing her again on her soft rouged cheek, she took one final look at Mary with her sturdy legs and orthopedic black shoes and walked, blinking, into the hallway. She could be my grandmother," thought Mollie. "A nice one."
Her heart began to pound. She was going to meet the next greatest love of her life.
Holding a paper bag of golden pizelles in one hand and a Catholic Digest in the other, Mollie rapped on Pulaski's door. Unlike the three other apartments on the second floor, his was devoid of the requisite door wreath while his frizzy welcome mat looked like he'd pulled it out of the trash.
Clearly he needs a woman, thought Mollie, not realizing as she would later on, that his most abiding relationships were with things, not people.
The man himself poked his nose out the door. "Well, look who's here? Miss Mollie," he said, towering over her. She knew she was in love.
He held the door open as she stepped inside. His keen gaze rested upon her like a caress as she walked across the threshold. She blinked in disbelief. And longed to flee. Yet was fascinated by the spectacle. She'd never seen anything like it. She felt herself entering a dreamlike state, sort of a trance. She shook her head and looked up at him, eyebrows lifted.
"Anything wrong?" he asked.
"Well, it's just that...I thought the professor of astronomy and physics would have a more organized abode."
"What's not organized?" he smiled, putting his arm around her shoulder. "I'm in transition, Mollie, like the rest of the world."
"I suppose so," she said, feeling like she'd just trespassed badly, into someone's attic, a place she wasn't supposed to be. It was a violation of their dignity -- or of hers, perhaps - like being caught in your underwear.
All possible floor space was crammed willy-nilly with his things. They weren't even beautiful. They were aging, chipped, peeling. Islands of furniture stood in the center of the room. A tall dresser seemed to link arms with a shorter unmatching desk, both standing awkwardly as if bidding her a tremulous "Good day, madam." A flurry of lamps with shades askew huddled in a corner while a Hoover vacuum cleaner with black bag faced an ancient victrola. Piles and piles of books and magazines bordered the three walls of the living room. Standing on tiptoe, she looked to see the rooms beyond. Sure enough, the back bedroom contained more furniture, standing upright like maiden aunts waiting to be asked to dance.
Could her Pulaski be a hoarder, she wondered. No, that was impossible. What she knew of hoarders was encapsulated in the Mayles Brothers documentary Grey Gardens. Little Edie and her mother Edith, both Bouviers -- the cousin and aunt of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis -- lived in utter filth in their 23-room mansion in the Hamptons. It was disgraceful, though amusing. Both women were recluses who bickered endlessly with one another. Their strangeness and mental instability told her Pulaski was definitely not in their league.
In fact, his things began to beguile her. Repulsion, first. And then this other feeling, she'd be hard-pressed to name it, but it overtook her like fine wine filling her with appreciation. Here, on the second floor of Village Green by the Creek, his aged, chipped and peeling things from his fifty-two years of exuberant living, seemed curiously alive. All they needed was a sprinkling of pixie dust to revoke their silence and let them roam the floor and dosey-do with one another. She could almost see it. She turned and moved slowly forward, mesmerized by the odd collection. "I just can't get over it," she mumbled, petting a hurricane lamp, then switching it on.
"It's not plugged in," he said. "It's the only thing I have left from my mother."
"Want one of these waffle-like things?" she asked.
"It's called a pizelle. I've got a stack of them in the fridge," he said.
She blew the dust off the top of the lamp and looked it over.
"She was a discerning woman, your mother."
"Of course, she was. Her fifth-born was a genius."
From the window Mollie could see the cars on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, each one gleaming like a flashing diamond in the sun, moving along at a snail's pace from this distant view.
"Julius, are you what's called a hoarder?" She learned from her newspaper interviews not to mince words but to be tactfully blunt. She figured a man who'd written a textbook and survived the ignominy of his wife leaving him could handle her probing.
He gave a big belly laugh. "Julius Pulaski a hoarder? You didn't tell me you were related to my wife. Now follow me, young lady," he said wearing the same pair of rumpled dungarees as had lain on her bedroom chair a week earlier. On the kitchen table sat a loaf of Wonder Bread, its cheerful wrapper the same as in her childhood days in Cleveland, the yellow, blue and red balloons guaranteed to evoke optimism.
"Does it still build muscles eight different ways?" she asked.
"I think they've upped it to twelve. Reminds me of my childhood," he said. "Have a seat."
A grown man, she thought, sitting down, not only eating food fit for a ten-year-old but so inordinately tasteless and devoid of nutrition. She would fix all that when he moved in with her. An open jar of half-used Hellmann's mayonnaise sat on the table, a knife poised on top. Though she hated even the concept of white bread, she had to admit it looked strangely appetizing. When Julius was near, everything looked appealing. Even his hordes began to look less forbidding as they assumed their own personality.
"This kitchen set, Moll," he said, tapping his knuckles on the orange formica, "was down the basement at our house on Palomino Drive. The missus took pity on me and gave it to me when she threw me out. Our first kitchen set." An empty tuna can rested on the table with three butts crushed out and a fresh one simmering with its twirling smoke headed in disappearing waves toward the ceiling.
"I don't want you to get the wrong impression of me, Moll," he said. "A hoarder is someone who can't throw out useless things. Old newspapers. Broken things. Garbage. You see any of that stuff around here?"
She looked around and saw framed photos of his two sons in their high school graduation gowns, a high bookshelf with astronomy books and art books, huge piles of classical music LPs on the floor, and a white telescope branded Meade facing out the window toward the parking lot. It bore no resemblance to the Grey Gardens mansion.
"Do you promise you're not a hoarder?" she asked.
He touched the tip of her nose with his finger, "I promise, if you'll promise never to mention that ugly word again."
"Je promais,"' she said, proferring her hand and staring adoringly at him.
It was settled, then. He was not a hoarder. All these things served a purpose. She looked around again, searching for the telltale newspapers or God forbid, rotting garbage. None were to be found. No, this was decidedly not Grey Gardens.
"Julius, I once read an article about hoarders. And no, you are not a hoarder. I read that some hoarders, if you'll excuse that ugly word, live in homes that only have one aisle you can walk in. The rest is crammed with their hoards."
"How do you suppose I'd get around?" he laughed. "Fly? Nothing to worry about, little miss. Now let me show you my prized possession." He wiped his hands on a Dunkin' Donuts napkin, and led her through the living room, walking sideways
through the thicket of furniture, and over to the telescope, its head a'tilt toward the heavens. Pulaski stroked the cold white metal tubing. "You know what Howard Carter said when he saw King Tut's tomb?"
She shook her head.
"I see won-der-ful things, he said. So do we when we look beyond the clouds," he said, pointing out the window. "Sometimes, Moll, I wish I could fly away to escape the sad realities of human existence."
The sky shone bright blue as the cars on the turnpike sped onward, noiselessly, from the second floor window, but for the throbbing heartbeat of their wheels ringing across the waning afternoon.
"Julius, why don't you come and live with me? We could be sad together and happy together. I have an extra bedroom for your office."
"And my treasures?" Pulaski said, with that look of terror she recognized in his face.
"Your treasures, too."
In less than a week, his blue and white Suburban transported the contents of his two-bedroom apartment to Mollie's yellow split-level house a mile away on Cowbell Lane. She watched him maneuver a red dolly with the cleverness of a piano mover so the dolly took the brunt of the weight. When the last piece of furniture was moved in and stowed away in her basement, she looked with satisfaction at his blue and white Suburban, the colors of the Israeli flag, parked in her driveway. Their driveway. "I've got a man," she told herself. "Thank you, God, if you can hear me."
She triumphantly entered the occasion in her green silk-covered address book following the Y-Z section. She listed each boyfriend, keeping them distinct from her one-night affairs when she was learning what it meant to be an attractive and sexual woman.
After JR (Jacob Ray), she printed JUP. She marveled at her lack of anguish when she viewed Jake's initials. She hoped that JUP would be the last set of initials till death do them part.
Within a week, like unexpected weeds popping up in the garden, the first quirks shot to the surface. His cigarette smoking was constant. It stung her eyes. She banished his smoking to his upstairs office and insisted the window be cranked open day and night. He walked around half-naked all day, his pregnant belly hanging out like a drunk's, his footsteps booming like thunder. Was this man the same professor who had charmed her with his wit and fond attention at Daddypop's Diner?
He subscribed to a dozen magazines, which fought for territory in her outside mailbox. Arriving in clusters were Field and Stream, even though he never fished; Hot Rod, though he no longer raced; and Boys' Life, though his scouting days were long gone. He confessed to never opening a single issue of any of them. Each magazine seemed to beget more magazines. The house became awash in them, cellophane wrappers gathering dust, spreading across the floor in every room like an untamed virus. She feared they would drown out her very being. She felt claustrophobic in her own home.
A month after he moved in, their lovemaking ceased entirely. Using the excuse that he wanted to watch television in the living room, he left her bed for good, the bed he made with his own hands from white oak. Instead he watched television downstairs on her antique living room sofa until he fell asleep. She would find him loudly snoring on his back in the morning, covered in a blanket, white-socked feet poking out the side, as Sesame Street and Big Bird blasted through the room, seeming to rebuke her for losing her man. His crushed cigarettes in an ashtray on the floor were like grace notes to her discomfiture.
How had it all happened? She had been so sure, so sure.
She made excuses for his inattention. True, as a tenured professor he only taught a few classes, but it was downright depressing to watch someone sleep as she got ready for a busy day in the newsroom. And the way she talked to him! She had never in her life been as mean to anyone as she was to Professor Pulaski. She reminded herself of her awful Gramma Lily.
After six months, she scheduled an appointment with a marriage counselor. She and a reluctant Pulaski drove over in her lime-green Nissan station wagon. He asked if he could smoke.
"I figured you'd ask me that," she snapped. "It's a fifteen-minute drive. If you can't hold out for fifteen goddamn minutes then go ahead. Go ahead and get cancer like your brother did. See if I'll visit you when you're vomiting from chemotherapy. And hold the goddamn cigarette out the window."
"You don't have to be so mean, Miss Mollie."
"Tell it to the marriage counselor."
Her name was Pearl Goldstein. Doctor Pearl Goldstein. Mollie's psychiatrist had recommended her. One of Mollie's reporter friends who wrote the "What's On Your Mind" mental health column told Mollie, "Sweetie, I don't want to discourage you, but by the time the marriage is in arrears and you get into counseling, the relationship is like a fish dying on the end of a hook."
Dr. Goldstein lived in one of the huge turreted houses of Elkins Park, once a wealthy suburb of Philadelphia but now in partial decline. The Nissan inched up the long driveway crunching on fall acorns and unswept maple leaves. A small white sign read "Pearl A. Goldstein, PhD, 625 Harrison Avenue."
Mollie knew that every little thing Pulaski said made her snap. She knew that irritability was a symptom of the "manic phase" of manic depression. She had even snapped at her psychiatrist once when she was manic, calling Irv a "fucking moron." But Pulaski would drive anyone crazy, she thought. His ex-wife, after all, didn't have manic depression and threw him out after the kids were grown. How could Colleen -- and herself -- have lived with the man for so long?
She wondered if they could get out of the car without his saying something that would provoke her. She and Jake had never bickered. Each relationship had its own sense of rules and fair play. When oh when would it be as easy as two lovebirds cooing on the branch.
"What time is it, Julius?" she said softly, trying to redeem herself.
"It's early yet. We have seven minutes," he said. "I'm going to sit here and smoke."
"I don't want you to stink up my car. Would you please get out?"
"I was just testing you, Mollie. Of course I'll get out."
She was not amused. She slammed the car door and walked into the waiting room without a backward glance.
She was curious to see how Pearl decorated her office. Since being diagnosed with manic depression at age twenty, she was no stranger to paid helpers or "providers" as current managed care terminology worded it. Providers. Such a cold, nonvisual word for such an important person, thought Mollie. She'd been seeing her current psychiatrist, not provider, for five years, a record. She viewed their visits like being with a wise rabbi. Major topics included boyfriends, God, what if there were a God, lowering her medication, theories on why she had her illness, and Turner Classic Films. She told her psychiatrist Irwin Kravitz, MD, "I'm having a mental affair with you, Irv." He liked that phrase and said, "Some people say they keep me in their back pocket and take me out when necessary."
Pearl's waiting room was filled with pictures of cats on the wall and cat magazines on the tables. The wall pictures looked so real they might have been patients. One in particular caught her eye and seemed to be following her wherever she went. Chaz read the caption of this charcoal gray cat with brilliant green eyes. She remembered her paranoia, her excessive fear, when she'd get psychotic or out of reality. This cat certainly would have haunted her and made her think he knew all of her secrets. No wonder Poe chose the cat for his horrific tale of the inexorable unraveling of a man's sanity.
Mollie took a seat. She glanced out the window at her man smoking near the car. "Funny," she thought. "I'm enjoying the feeling of being alone. I wonder if it's possible for me to enjoy the feeling of 'being single?' Can it all be an illusion, the need to 'pair up'? I'll bring it up with Irv."
The room was dimly lit. It seemed a trait of Elkins Park houses. They were somber and serious, tall fortresses given to brooding about life's vicissitudes, tree-flanked and acorn-studded. Giant elms and maples leaned protectively toward Pearl's office, blocking the light. She hoped the inner office was brighter. Dim light, she was aware, could make her taste the bitter fruit of melancholy.
Beyond the elms and maples, leaning on her car, Julius, in her favorite shirt of his, the blue denim with an assortment of colorful pens in the pocket, was blissfully blowing smoke rings toward the sky.
"What an innocent!" she thought, feeling herself melting again with love now that their relationship was teetering near the end. How she hated the petty accusations that tumbled in anger from her lips. He was such a good man, a kind man. Pearl was their only hope. Their savior. Mollie was certainly strong enough to live by herself, again. She prepared herself in case the "What's on Your Mind" columnist was right: the relationship was impossible to save.
Mollie opened the door and waved him over.
"Can you forgive me for being a beast? I do love you, you know."
"Not half as much as I love you," he called. He stomped out the cigarette and bent down to retrieve it, putting it in his shirt pocket to finish later.
By the stroke of three, Mollie and Julius had carefully arranged themselves on the loveseat in the dimly-lit waiting room of Pearl Goldstein, PhD. They looked, thought Mollie, like a happily married couple, he, jovial, with his arm around her, she, absent-mindedly stroking his arm as they awaited the emergence of the woman they hoped would save them from their misery.
Pearl Goldstein wasn't exactly what Mollie expected, though she was neither disappointed nor alarmed. She had imagined the marriage counselor to be the female counterpart of her beloved Irwin Kravitz, MD, suave in his black turtleneck and khaki pants. Dr. Goldstein, emerged sideways from her doorway with the grace of a cat. She wore long earrings which hung like tea saucers beneath her short dyed-blond, frizzy hair. Her Alice in Wonderland white stockings were smoothed inside toeless and backless Birkenstocks. Mollie approved of her attractive but not ostentatious look and thought of her new psychologist as a standing proud hippie, out of place in the largely gentile suburbs where women wore polyester pants and hid their wrinkly necks behind well-positioned scarves. Should she get the opportunity, Mollie thought she might just impress Pearl -- she hated addressing people as doctor -- by telling her she would fit in well with the hippe culture in Eugene, Oregon.
Bowing her head toward the couple with a profound seriousness that troubled Mollie, Pearl invited them into her office. Her stare seemed to penetrate their thoughts like laser beam. Mollie and Julius glanced at one another with mild alarm.
Eager to continue her delusion about her man, Mollie still held out hope that her feelings of detestation would magically disappear as she and Pulaski walked through the door into Pearl's office.
Like Irv's book-lined study, her office seemed the embodiment of both Pearl Goldstein and of psychology itself. The room smelled of old books and dried roses. It reminded her of Alistair Cooke's study on Masterpiece Theatre with the feeling that something dramatic was about to take place, like sitting in a movie theater, with lights dimmed, awaiting the great spectacle about to unfold on stage.
If nothing else, the room was tidy and clean, its hardwood floors shining. It radiated reassurance, the hope of tidying up one's insurmountable problems. Mollie was glad she was here. A huge unabridged dictionary lay open on a high table. Mollie sidled up to it and saw the page was turned to the word "tautology." Puzzled, she looked over to the psychologist who gave her a tiny smile that seemed all-knowing. Hadn't Irv said to her, "The patient thinks we're mind-readers."
Black-framed diplomas lined her wall. Mollie was impressed. Wasn't that why doctors hung them up in full view? But what was Pulaski doing now? He went over to a framed diploma, knocked on the glass with a knuckle, undoubtedly leaving fingerprints, and said, "Ithaca! Same college as my wife's nephew Peter."
Mollie shot him a look.
"What's that mean look?" he said, as Mollie watched him lower himself into the most comfortable chair in the room, and crossed a satisfied leg.
"Who gives a damn about your wife's nephew?" Then she looked apologetically at the psychologist. "He has an incessant need to make stupid comments, Dr. Goldstein. I'm sorry. I have an incessant need to put him down."
Dr. Goldstein, smoothing down her skirt from her swivel chair opposite them, looked over with sad eyes. "Tell me when things began to get bad."
The couple looked at one another. Pulaski had the same look of terror, Mollie thought, as when she first met him at the diner. It was his among-the-wolves look, a tall strong man who'd planted trees and looked out at the beauty of the universe but who, underneath, was like little Red Riding Hood when confronted with the vicious wolf of his interior life.
Despair overwhelmed her. How could she ever explain the horror of the situation? Well, not true horror. Everything was measured by the true horror of contracting her manic depression or the death of her youthful mother when Mollie was fourteen. And then of course there was the Holocaust, the horror of which all things must be measured.
"Dr. Goldstein," Mollie began. "I thought living together would be easy. It's been six months now. Aren't couples supposed to grow together? We never did. We only grew apart."
"Now, now, Mollie, let's not exaggerate," said Julius, his eyes growing wide and patting her arm.
She put her head in her hands and looked down. "Julius built me a beautiful bed out of white oak. Queen size. He hasn't slept in the damn thing in over five months. Not that I'm counting."
"Pure and simple character assassination," he said, pointing a finger at Mollie. "Maybe I missed a night or two lately."
"Five months, Dr. Goldstein. There's absolutely no sex."
"Was there ever?" asked the psychologist looking at Julius.
"Well, we haven't fooled around in a while, I guess. I've been tired."
"Tell her what you do all day long," said Mollie.
His face brightened. "I have a nice little business on eBay selling my treasures I buy at flea markets."
Pearl nodded. "Is that what you do for a living, Mr. Pulaski?"
"I'm a retired astronomy teacher."
"The man sitting next to me, Dr. Goldstein, was a revered professor at the University of Pennsylvania...."
"Sherman A. Scott chair," he interjected.
"And he took it into his head that because he moved in with me, he could just hang up his hat and retire. The man is only fifty-four years old!"
To Mollie's everlasting consternation, Julius, without consulting her, had announced his early retirement to the astonished Penn faculty. They accepted it, no questions asked. And feted him handsomely in a regal downtown hotel ballroom with glimmering chandeliers. During his retirement ceremony, with Mollie in a purple velvet gown at his side, he gave an ecstatic champagne toast, "to spend the latter half of my years solving some of God's great mysteries in the time he allots me."
"Oh, the unctuousness of it all," she thought now, gritting her teeth in remembrance of the misplaced pride she'd had in her unconventional professor with cowboy boots and bow tie.
Pearl Goldstein concentrated on each of them like a honeybee going from flower to flower, sucking the nectar, with tremulous concentration.
"This brilliant man, Dr. Goldstein, does fucking nothing all day long. He sleeps, eats, makes mayonnaise sandwiches at 2 a.m. -- on white bread yet -- leaves crumbs on the floor, earns pennies a day on eBay, and works on useless equations thinking he's Einstein's cousin. Not to mention his anathema to sex."
She stood up and twirled around to display herself before the psychologist. "I'm not a bad-looking woman," said Mollie, with a cringing remembrance that Irv told her, "in the fifty-minute hour, the patient uses the entire repertoire of his dramatic personna to convince the therapist of the unassailable certitude of his position."
Pulaski smiled and patted her ass. She swiped at his hand.
"Oh, and he never puts in his false teeth. Says it's because he can't taste food."
"All right, all right. I'm sorry. I'll change."
"Yes and the moon will fall to the earth and you can use it as a bowling ball."
"She's clever, ain't she?" said Pulaski grinning. His hair was tied back in a white ponytail. His straw hat rested in his lap. He rarely put his teeth in anymore. As their relationship declined, so did the state of his denture-wearing.
Mollie turned her head away in disgust. "Dr. Goldstein this is a good man. Oh, the hopes I had when he moved in." She hadn't decided whether to humiliate Pulaski and tell Pearl she discovered her retired University of Pennsylvania boyfriend hard at work on his computer watching Internet nudes like Candida Can-Do or Undress-me Ursula. She met her Internet rivals purely by chance one day in the blue office he worked in.
Her three-bedroom split-level stood atop a hill fed by equal portions of sun and moon, wind and stars, while far below the vista turned with the seasons. The Chuck Myers Little League Park, named after the deceased eight-year-old who'd once streaked to first base before muscular dystrophy killed him, went emerald green in the spring. A hilly meadow preserved in perpetuity by Pennypack Ecological Trust turned cereal color with waving grasses in the fall, while a crumbling southern-style mansion with pillars, decaying ever since Mollie moved in, looked white and desolate under the stars in the long winter nights.
Only one room in her house gave onto this view. The blue bedroom. She gave it with love to Pulaski. It was the only room with a sweeping view of the stars. The stars for Pulaski.
Onto the office door Mollie taped up signs from his days at the university: a blank sign-up sheet divided into half-hour time blocks. Mollie printed her name in the 10 to 10:30 block and put a heart next to it. The gray nameplate from his desk was taped up next to it. The important words always thrilled her:
Julius U. Pulaski, PhD
Sherman A. Scott Professor of Astronomy and Physics
On that particular night, Mollie was simply passing down the hall on her way to the bathroom. His usual music was blasting. She loved when he arose from his desk chair to conduct it and shout out Polish words of encouragement to the orchestra -- "Zwawy! zwawy! zwawy!" But this time she heard a sound unlike anything she ever heard from the man.
She had gotten used to his belches and his farts which brought him the great glee of a five-year-old. She knew the sound of his voice with his teeth in and his teeth out. She heard his exclamations of "Gotcha!" when he trumped his rivals on eBay by cents or when, on rare occasions, he splurged on a Jenssen miniature steam engine, explaining, when they arrived in a small shoebox-sized package, "These beauties are made in a garage in Jeannette, Pennsylvania, fifteen miles north of Pittsburgh."
But now, as she walked down the hallway, she heard a new sound, something from his depths like a bull expiring in the ring, "Ahhhhhh!" he moaned.
Peeking into the office, she found a Pulaski she never knew. His large form, encased in striped pajamas, sat slumped in his desk chair, head tilted back, hands between his legs. The computer monitor -- he had the largest one she'd ever seen, a 30-inch -- proclaimed in large black letters at the top, "Candida Can-Do" -- while exhibiting the back of a woman, a naked kneeling woman, her red brassiere unhooked, as her enormous buttocks waited for someone to screw the living bejeezus out of her.
Pulaski just did.
"Oh my God!" screamed Mollie. "I don't believe it. You horrid, horrid bastard. I hate you!"
All he could do was offer a sheepish grin and mumble, "I didn't know the door was open."
They didn't talk for two days. It was never mentioned again. Mollie, the woman who could talk to anybody and mine their secrets, had once again been at a loss for what to do in the real world of relationships. She certainly couldn't call her editor, Dave, to say she was stuck and ask how to proceed. Six full months had elapsed and she wondered how they could end up so hopeless and miserable, limping for help to a marriage counseler.
Pulaski's tryst with his computer mistress was too painful to bring up to Pearl.
Hands clasped together, Pearl Goldstein suddenly stood up, shook the sleeves of her yellow blouse and smoothed down her paisley skirt. She turned around and looked toward her inner office. Mollie thought perhaps the two of them had so repulsed the psychologist she was going into the other room to vomit. Or perhaps call Irv Kravitz to report their abhorrent behavior. And Mollie had barely scratched the surface of her complaint list.
Pearl Goldstein looked at the couple with eyes even sadder than when they first came in.
"I'm going to leave the two of you alone together for five minutes," said the doctor. "I'd like you to discuss how you felt when you first met. What attracted you to one another." She patted her short frizzy hair and her saucer earrings swung gaily back and forth. "Then I want the two of you to think what you can do to preserve that pristine feeling now that the realities of personal habits and lifestyles have settled in, as they always do."
She smiled her all-knowing smile.
Was she chiding them? Would she immediately tattle to Irv? No, thought Mollie, that would be unprofessional. She has a proven strategy, a technique. It had worked for hundreds and hundreds of unhappy couples -- hadn't it? -- and now this distinguished psychologist with diplomas from Ithaca, Pacific Graduate Institute of Marriage Counseling, and Bard College for hippies in Annandale-on-Hudson in New York would bring her wisdom home to the Pulaski-Feigenbaums.
They watched as Pearl crossed the room and let herself out, sideways again, into what must be her home. A charcoal-gray cat waited for his mistress on the other side. Could that be Chaz the green-eyed cat whose charcoal likeness hung on the waiting room wall? "Hello," said Dr. Goldstein in a baby voice to the stretched-out animal as she shut the door. Perhaps alone together, Mollie thought, Chaz would assume the proportions of a sexy male human. Yes, cats were incredibly sexual if you could get over the ah-choo factor. Perhaps she and Chaz were locked in a passionate embrace right now, Pearl assuming the form of a cuddly little tiger cat.
"I think she's gone out to confer with the cat," said Mollie. "She has no idea what to do with us." A chill of terror ran through her.
"Maybe she's listening to us?" Pulaski grinned. "Or maybe she just had to go to the bathroom and take a shit."
"Julius, sweetheart, why on earth didn't you wear your teeth? You look like a homeless alcoholic! I'm embarrassed to be seen with you."
"Look at you!" he said with unaccustomed vigor. "You have a stain on your shirt!"
She looked down at her gray silk shirt with long sleeves. "There's nothing there, you idiot!"
"Made you look, made you look," he said, sticking out his tongue.
"There is absolutely no hope for you," she said getting up to knock on Pearl's door.
"The thing that most attracted me to you, Moll," he said, "was the way you pushed your eggs and grits into one big pile on the plate. And the way you sipped your coffee with your pinkie out."
"Daddypop's Diner. You actually remember that?" she said sitting back down and grabbing his wrist.
"Of course I do. And always will. And you?"
"Well, I thought you dressed very well for a man without a woman. I always liked your clothes. They were soooo you. And of course all your marvelous books. I look at them sometimes, did you know that? Your Letters of Emily Dickinson. Or that marvelous Michaelangelo book you bought when you were in Florence."
"They're yours. I'll inscribe them. And what about my theorems? You do believe in my theorems, don't you, my leetle Princess Zydowka? The formula that will bring us to Stockholm?"
"Yes, I do believe in them, Julius," said Mollie, summoning her firmest voice.
"Even though you think they're a bunch of shit."
"Yes, even though I think they're a bunch of shit," she said.
"When she's good, she's very very good," he said.
"Hey, you stole my line."
They both looked toward Pearl's door.
"And another thing I love about you, Julius, is when you show me the stars. The stars for Mollie. I remember the first time we stood outside on the driveway..."
"Yes, we trained the Meade onto the moon and I showed you the delicate finery of God's afterthought, the tiny halfbaked moon."
""Blink twice,' you said, 'dominant eye on the eye piece, inhale, and greet the cosmos, greet ourselves.'"
"Bet you'll never forget those words, Moll. I teach them to all my students and my best girl who I want to be my wife."
Mollie smiled sweetly at him.
They heard the door open and Pearl Goldstein and her swinging earrings slipped out sideways. The gray cat stretched lazily on top of her desk behind her. She sat down, smoothed out her skirt, and raised her eyebrows. "The two of you have calmed down, I see. Relationships have their ups and downs." The cat began scratching behind the closed door. Pearl smiled her little closed-lip smile. "The two of you look like you belong together. Your bodies are positioned like the yin and the yang."
"The yin and the yang!" Mollie laughed and clapped her hands. She would never forget that statement. She glanced at Pulaski. He was beaming. Such a wonderful wise observation. But was it true? Pulaski lacked any of those social graces of couple togetherness. They could easily attend a party together and people would believe they'd come alone. Even at his nephew's wedding he was off in a corner, a racehorse out of the starting gate, stuffing himself with olives and fried calamari as if his girlfriend had forgotton to feed him.
"She seemed to know what she was talking about," Mollie said as they walked to the car. Climbing in, Pulaski grinned at her. "See that?" he said. "You can't throw me out. The doc says we're meant for each other. The yin and the yang."
"Well, she forgot one thing," she said, slamming the door as she pulled out of the circular driveway. "I work all day and you took early retirement so you could sit on your ass all day and fiddle with your goddam theorems like you're Einstein's cousin. Okay, maybe your theorems will amount to something. But you had no business retiring, Julius, and you know that. Do you know what happens to men when they retire?"
She switched on the radio to low as she exited onto the street.
"Go ahead, tell me. Rub it in. Be mean. Tell me I'm a grouchy old man."
"Retired men die!" she shouted. "They wither up and die. They've lost their purpose in life. Your students were your life."
"Well, you're my life now, Miss Mollie, not my students."
"I am not Mrs. Julius Pulaski. If I wanted to be, I'd have married you when you proposed on the canoe ride, the one where you could barely paddle because you were so out of breath!"
"Now, calm down, little lady, calm down. Bet you'll marry me when I win the Nobel Prize."
"What? The Nobel Prize for Time Wasted on eBay?"
"For physics, Darlin," he said, tapping out a Marlboro Light and rolling down the passenger window. "You think Richard Feynman's wife abandoned him when he won the prize?"
"Hah! Do you think Feynman was up all night wolfing down Lebanon bologna sandwiches with enough mayo to clog up every artery in his body? Do you think he had his hoards spread out like gold doubloons all over the house?"
"Off with my head!" he laughed.
"Not till I'm finished. Ya know what my worst fear is when I come home from work?"
"I'll be lying dead on the bathroom floor."
"Oh. You knew!"
"I may not look smart," he said blowing smoke out the window, "but the truth is, I'm not smart. I'm a genius."
"You probably are," she mumbled. "A genius who loves everybody but himself. I do love you, Julius. I just can't live with you."
"How 'bout we go to Daddypop's, my treat."
"I was thinking of a nicer place."
"Anywhere you want, Miss Mollie, anywhere. I'm putty in your..."
She had stopped listening. She was thinking about moving on to the next stage of their relationship: ousting him from her premises. She was like a woman on a see-saw. Up and down. Up and down. Tilting this way and that. Hadn't Irv told her that getting out of a relationship is a hundred times harder than getting in? Like the galaxies Julius talked about to his students, they had reached the white hot implosion phase. They had peaked like twin stars colliding and all they could do was tumble down helplessly, Jack and Jill freefalling through the cosmos.
They finished the drive home in silence, exhausted by their insatiable bickering. But Mollie's mind was far from silenced. Her mind rang with replays of their session with Pearl. Kicking him out was inevitable. Why wait? The see-saw motion began again. Maybe he would change, as he promised in Pearl's office. It wasn't impossible. Only unlikely. And what about those damn theorems? "Don't think about the lack of evidence," she chided herself and then began to think about them nonstop. Wouldn't he have bragged about them if indeed he were working on them? Wouldn't there be scads of discarded papers lying around? While Mollie was at work in the newsroom he presumably worked on his formulas. Rather than taking advantage of his newfound freedom, he rarely left home, preferring to sleep late and putter around on his collection of computers.
"If only you knew, Mollie," he would say when she questioned him, "if only you knew how close I am to being the next Einstein. This is physics we're talking about. String theory. Fractels from fellow Pole and Jew, Benoit Mandelbrot. There's only a handful of people, Moll, to comprehend the shimmering beauty and simplicity of these equations and your ever-lovin' toothsome husband is one of them."
She trained herself not to roll her eyes anymore by these ludicrous pronouncements that just might be true. On the odd occasions when she'd walk into his office she found nothing that would indicate his interest in higher mathematics, only the lower mathematics of eBay.
A life utterly devoid of meaning. And he was all hers.
As he puffed out the window, she thought about how hard she had tried. The thought of asking him to leave meant living alone again. For six months she had played therapist. She talked about opening up the ceiling in the blue office to create a home observatory. Possbily it would attract Pulaski's two estranged sons, Zachary and Nelson, to bring them closer to their father. "Don't count on it," said Pulaski. "The knuckleheads have the attention span of a grasshopper."
As they turned onto the hill that was Cowbell Lane, Julius asked about going out to eat.
"My car wasn't in the mood," said Mollie.
Pulling up the driveway in the newly darkening night, he asked, "I'd like to visit your bed tonight, if you let me."
"That'll be fine," she said, parking next to his Suburban. She knew she'd never feel his body next to hers again.
"I'll be just a moment," he said. "Gotta check a download I've been running."
She heard his three computers purring in the blue room. Every night, she had listened to their soothing rhythm as she fell asleep alone in her bed, mechanical surrogates for the man who once sang her Polish lullabyes as he lay
holding her hand while she fell asleep. Her friends, both married and single, couldn't get over such an adoring couple.
After leaving her bed, Pulaski had moved from the reality of her living flesh to the steel and plastic firmament of his machines. They seemed alive, each with their own personalities and quirks, their tiny lights -- red and blue and yellow --blinking on and off like eternal Christmas trees. And walking among them were the ghosts of Ursula Undress-Me and Rhonda Remove-My Panties, ready for Pulaski at the flick of the mouse.
"Meet you in bed, Sweetheart," she said, pressing herself against his chest and belly and enjoying the warmth of his calm masculine presence for the first time in months.
"Be there in a sec," he said, kissing her cheek as he did in the beginning of their love eons ago. She watched him padding down the carpet and disappearing into his blue office where she heard him sink down into his desk chair. She thought she'd rest in bed a few minutes before making some bedtime toast with jelly, but the drone of his computers plus the tumult of the counseling session lulled her into an instantanous all-night slumber. When she woke up alone in the morning, she kicked him out for good.
A no-frills motel on Route 1 was Pulaski's new home. He'd remembered driving by the two-story red and white building whenever he got off Exit 28 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, followed by an urgent pit stop at Krispy Kreme Doughnuts next door. The same counter girl was always there. He wondered about people whose life's ambition was to wear aprons with smudges on them.
"The perfect food," he would say as she handed him two hot glazed doughnuts, "but not as perfect as your smile." And his eyes would glide across her body. The girl would force a smile as he smacked his lips over the doughnuts and the fantasy of screwing her brains out.
From the Patio Motel, he telephoned a realtor friend of his former wife. "I'm looking for a modest-sized house with a garage and basement," he said from his room at the motel. "One twenty is my limit. If there's a sexy redhead that comes with it, I'll up it another grand!"
The search commenced.
A day later, Pulaski drove his blue and white Suburban to a blue split-level bungalow on Virginia Avenue in Bensalem. A tired-looking for-sale sign swung in the wind. Price just reduced hung at the bottom like a perky kangaroo joey. The realtor waited in her car in the drive talking on her cell phone. Pulaski, cigarette in hand, waved as he parked in front of the next-door neighbor, a plumbing supply company housed in a trailer on cinder blocks. Pulaski got out of his truck and eyed the company's muddy ground, no grass, wooden planks leading to the doorway. A van with ladders on top was parked on boards. If he got the house, he thought, he'd ask the owner for some of the small rocks heaped up in several piles across the wet ground.
As if one eyesore wasn't enough, directly across the street was the back of Popeye's Fried Chicken, a bastion of sweet-smelling greasy food that enveloped him like his wife's Chanel No. 5.
He watched as Marcia Silvestri emerged from her Cadillac Cimarron. She stretched out her hand as Pulaski approached. "We may just get lucky," she said, guiding him toward the front door. He watched her assured quick walk to the door. "I have a feeling," she said, turning around, black hair swaying, "that we may just hit a hole in one."
"I sure hope so," he said. "Living in the Patio Motel is no picnic."
The blue bungalow, she told him, had stood vacant for more than a year. He felt a kinship with the womanless eighty-nine-year-old widower who had lived there and whose name Travis was inscribed on the door knocker.
"It's not half bad," said Pulaski as he stepped across the threshold. "Mind if I look around?"
"That's why we're here, Professor," said Marcia. "I'm here to answer all of your questions."
She stood aside as he strode into the light-filled house brightened by a woman's touch: lace curtains in the living room and bedroom, a kitchen with shiny tiles of fruit, and even a silver wastebasket with a pedal that opened the lid.
So far, so good, he thought. He was tempted to say, "I'll take it," but knew better. If it was games they wanted, he could play a few. The two bedrooms had windows, one looking out at Popeye's across the street, the other into what appeared to be a huge backyard. "Half an acre," the specs read on the Internet. He walked across the blue carpet, imagining this to be the home where he'd spend the rest of his life, the place where his theorems would spin from his brain and onto the computer. Yes, he thought, this house will do me just fine.
"This must be the basement," he said, opening a door in the hall and giving an audible sniff.
"Yes," said Marcia. "A little problem with flooding in the past. Once every ten years or so the property floods."
Pulaski walked carefully down the skeletal steps in his black cowboy boots and walked around. "Plenty of room," he said when he returned. "I'll build shelves down there for my tools and put in a special light so I can grow orchids like I did at my wife's house."
"Yes," said Marcia. "Colleen showed me your collection. Those green orchids were really something."
"A hybrid I created -- Epidendroideae cymbidium zachnelson."
"Reminded me of the wicked queen in Snow White," she laughed.
"Orchids are like the Rohrschach test. We give them human traits. We anthropomorphize them."
"Colleen did say you were pretty smart."
"I'm a genius," he grinned. He realized he'd left his teeth in a glass back at the motel.
They walked out the side door onto the cracked driveway sprouting crabgrass. Marcia unlocked the garage door. Pulaski grabbed the handle and pulled it up.
"Travis's tools!" he said, looking at the orderly display of tall shelves with paint cans and oil cans and all sorts of finely-shaped instruments hanging from a corkboard.
"No problem, Professor. We'll get rid of them for you," said Marcia.
"They'll stay," said Pulaski inhaling the smell of paint and varnish. "Ole Travis's spirit is here. I like tools. They'll keep me company."
He closed the garage door and headed to the back yard. It was surprisingly large, at least twice as big as Palomino Drive. "Good," he thought. "I'll show that fickle bitch." They walked through the damp yard, Marcia bravely planting her black high-heels into the wet, squishy earth, while Pulaski walked up to some trees to examine them.
"Nice healthy oak," he said, fondling a leaf. "Quercus robur, for the record. And look over there. A purple lilac bush like we had on Van Kirk Street."
"I hadn't noticed that, Professor. Another good selling point."
"What kind of neighbors do we have, other than the plumbers who live on the mud flats and the eyesore chicken cookers and their dumpster across the street?"
"Won-derful neighbors, Professor. A family of four, the McCartys, two houses down." A swingset and red two-wheeler with training wheels proclaimed their presence.
"And," offered Pulaski, "a trucker next door," pointing to the royal-blue cab of a tractor trailer backed into the drive.
"Yes, that's Dominic. Very fine gentleman. They all came over when we put the house on the market."
"Where's ole man Travis?" he asked.
"Moved in with his daughter up in the Poconos."
"Good place to die," mumbled Pulaski, as he walked around the backyard, touching each of the many trees, fondling the bark and gazing upward at the nests of birds and squirrels. There was no question, he thought, that every single one of his treasures would fit snugly in the house, the garage and, if need be, could spill over into the large back yard.
"Don't forget to look at the deck, Mr. Pulaski. No American home should be without one."
"Nice treated wood," he said as he walked up the deck stairs. "A good place for my telescope, away from the madding crowd."
"It's a lovely little home, Mr. Pulaski. I can picture you living here."
"You're a good sales woman, Marcia. Your husband is lucky to have a smart beautiful woman like you. You better not let him go like some women do when they have a so-called mid-life crisis."
"I'm very lucky, Mr. Pulaski. And I hope your luck will change when you buy the house."
"I'll let you know my decision," he said as he walked her to her car. He watched as she climbed into the maroon Cimarron, a compact car that was the "Edsel" of Cadillacs. "I'll put the iris over here," he said to himself, "and lay down those nice big rocks from the plumber as ground cover. I'll also get me a dog from the pound to keep me company." His wife, of course, had kept the chihuahua. He would get a real dog, not a show-off dog who didn't know how to bark right.
Back at the motel, he called Mollie in the newsroom. "I think I've found me a winner," he said.
"Should I come over and see it?" she asked.
He knew how much she loved houses. Just for kicks, they used to visit new condos, new housing developments, assisted living facilities, practically anything with a for-sale sign in front. When he told her, "It won't be necessary," he wondered if he were being intentionally cruel.
"I'm gonna offer her 98."
"From a hundred twenty? Isn't that a bit chintzy?"
"She's dying to unload it. Ya gotta be nuts to live there."
Pulaski, with his eBay trading experience, knew how to close a deal. "Marcia, we've got some problems here," he said over the phone. "The old guy never put in a sump pump. The yard's a mud-filled swamp minus the alligators. I hope your shoes came clean. The driveway is as cracked as an overcooked cheesecake. Not to mention the hideous location. With a view like that, it might as well be in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Ninety-eight tops!"
He waited only a day until the bedside phone rang in the motel room he rented by the week. "It's yours if you want it, Professor," Marcia said.
"Yippeeeee!" he yelled into the phone. This would be the last he'd see of the cheerless white room that smelled of Dial soap.
He moved to Virginia Avenue with the help of his sons, Zach and Nelson, for whom he had little patience. Why had the boys turned out so much like their mother, he wondered. Okay, okay, so when they were young he was often at school until late at night. Still, he was their Cub Scout leader, took them hunting in the autumn, and read over their homework assignments at Wharton. Like many estranged family members, Pulaski Pere and Pulaski Fils were duty-bound to one another like inseparable electrons going round and round, bound forever. Mollie was a latecomer to that same strange bond of attachment and scorn, securely and irreversibly locked together.
He lived like a pauper in his Bensalem bungalow. A man of my intelligence and sensibilities, he told himself day after day, shouldn't have to bear the indignity of living alone in the latter half of my life. After Colleen threw him out after thirty-three years of marriage and two grown sons, he had no idea how to conduct his life. He'd never lived alone. Never. There had always been noise in the house, commotion, the bustle of his wife flouncing around in her finery, putting on her make-up and perfume, talking on the phone to her sisters, sipping wine while she read her romance novels before going to bed. He'd never paid any attention to it, that was just Colleen, but now he realized how much he missed it, the hustle-bustle of her womanly way of doing nothing all day long.
When he found Mollie, he felt avenged. God had given him a second chance. He was not abandoned. This reprieve from heaven mandated he not squander his time on earth but devote himself to the theorem he'd been working on since he pushed his two young sons in the tire-swing hanging on the peeling-bark cherry tree on Palomino Drive.
Why then hadn't Mollie believed in him? Why had she thrown him out? She was such a smart girl, unlike Colleen. She should have known better, the honor of housing a genius. A line from Arthur Miler's "After the Fall" taunted him: "How can two women have made the same accusations toward me?" He remained ever in the dark.
He hoped his loneliness, that of a child without a parent, would be somewhat abated when his sons took him for "Dad's night out" every Wednesday. Now that he was retired perhaps he would learn to like them more. But the opposite seemed to be happening. The more time he spent with them, the more they displeased him. Their intolerable lack of culture, for example. Certainly there was nothing too terrible about rooting for the Philadelphia Phillies, a commonplace waste of time, but flying down to Florida every March to attend spring training camp and scrambling to get players' autographs seemed so childish to Pulaski. To cap it off, the boys and their wives made a quick stop to Disney World bringing back expensive souvenirs like a mug they gave him with Tinkerbell sprinkling pixie dust on the blue background. Had his sons forgotten they were scions of a genius? That their brains were made for great ideas, not great escapes?
Well, he certainly wouldn't give up on them. Or on himself. Guilt gnawed at his bones for neglecting them when he was making his mark as a hellbent young scientist, working his way up the tenure ladder, while publishing what he considered his "minor opuses" while the work of a lifetime consumed him with an unquenchableness that surprised even him. "If it weren't any good," he thought, "the fire would've gone out long ago."
Now, alone and lonely in his Bensalem kitchen over a dinner of microwaved frozen Salisbury steak, he took out a typewritten letter he had asked Mollie to mail him for his scrapbook.
He loved the look of her typewriten note on elegant ivory-colored stationery with her initials "MAF" embossed in a heart at the top. "Dearest Julius," it began. "Never have I met a man such as you, and never will I again. The old Philosopher in the Sky must have laughed when he sent you my way."
It reminded him of the man he used to be before his retirement. As the Sherman A. Scott Professor of Astronomy and Physics, whose student ratings were higher than anyone else on the faculty, no one knew his heart was one big black hole. Was that why he studied the stars? So that the unfathomable expanse of the night sky might funnel its way into his heart?
After reading the letter, he carefully folded it and tucked it into his shirt pocket, close to his heart. The steaming hot Salisbury steak reminded him of his childhood. He spooned the gravy over the buttered mashed potatoes and licked the spoon.
He picked up another letter.
Dear Professor Pulaski, read a hand-written note he'd produced from a large manila envelope filled with letters. I thought all teachers were alike until I met you. The moment you began to lecture I was hooked, catapulted into a world without end, the tales of the stars. I will never forget when you read us "The Nature Hymn" from the Book of Job explaining this was the ancients' conception of life, not too different from our own. I hope your retirement finds you looking out your telescope -- dominant eye on the eyepiece, inhale, and greet the cosmos, greet ourselves. Maybe some day you'll discover a distant Planet Julius. Forever yours, Sarah Iverson.
Tarzan, a Jack Russell terrier he adopted from the pound, began whining for some dinner. "You'll get yours in just a minute," he said, finishing the pitifully small amount of cranberry sauce, and drinking the last of his iced tea. Then, tethering Tarzan to the side porch railing, he gave him the aluminum plate to lick clean. "See ya later, doggie," he said. "Gotta sell my treasures but I'll never sell you."
Entering his office, he turned the CD player on high as he always did to chase away the emptiness of the long, lonely days. He hadn't planned on such endless stretches of time when he took early retirement. Back then, of course, he had lived with Mollie. The presence of a woman had been a bracing necessary tonic for the man who had never lived by himself.
"Let's see how my treasures are doing," he said out loud from his swivel chair. "Holy cow!" he shouted. "I got the full $7.99 for the luggage scale with tape measure." He stood up and cheered in the empty room. Small victories like this, the convening of strangers from all over the world on the borrowed ground of his eBay site, called for raucous celebration. He put on a half-broken, crackling CD he bargained for at the flea market and began to conduct the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a breathtaking version of the William Tell Overture. The crackling sounds were well worth it, he thought. Mollie had made fun of him saying, "Everything you own is broken." He knew the implication was that he was broken as well.
While checking the price of an expensive London-made Mamod miniature steamroller he planned to bid on, asking price an outrageous $299, he glanced out his Popeye's window and met the eye of a stranger outside who was peering into his office.
"Holy Mother of God!" he cried, clutching his chest with both hands after seeing the stranger's face at the window. He felt his heart flutter and palpitate. Holding up a "just a moment finger" to the man, who he recognized as the mayor, he reached into his desk drawer to suck on a nitroglycerin tablet. His doctor prescribed them after his first and only mild heart attack at fifty-two, a month after his wife took him by surprise and filed for divorce. He nearly had another one when he realized his heart condition was not going to bring her back, the pitiless harridan.
Pulaski in boxers slipped on a pair of dungarees. A white beauty dangling from his lips, he let the mayor in through the front door.
"Well, I'll be damned," said Julius. "You look to me like the mayor of Bensalem himself!"
"That I am, sir, Joseph Langhella, pleased to meet you," he said, shaking his hand.
"Now I'm imagining," said Pulaski, "you've come to accept my warm hospitality. Can I get you a glass of iced tea?" He knew the mayor didn't pay house calls. He wondered what the politically astute popular Republican mayor wanted.
Langhella peeked through the door. The room was as full as a mince meat pie. Every seat, every table was piled high with stuff. The floor grew towers of colorful items, from as recent as today's mail through the long-ago of faded comic books from Pulaski's teenage years. Magazines, boxes, unopened Christmas gifts still tied with golden bows, stacks of photos from his Port Richmond childhood, stood five feet high. Strategically-placed tuna cans were filled with cigarette ashes. It was all as necessary, thought Pulaski, as the air he breathed, despite what his nasty sons said.
"Won't you come in, your honor?"
"Thank you, Mr. Pulaski."
"Call me Julius. I was named after a Roman Catholic pope whose tenure lasted only ten years. As Julius the Second, I had the great pleasure of hiring Michaelangelo who was kind enough to paint the Sistine Chapel for me. Ah, the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. How I miss it!" said Pulaski, ushering in the mayor.
"The wife and I visited there last summer," said the mayor. "This time we took our seven grandchildren."
"Lucky you. I haven't a single grandchild, although my sons could pass for children. Now have a seat, Mr. Mayor." He removed a stack of Cabela's catalogs from a chair and motioned the mayor to sit down.
"Iced tea, sir?" said Pulaski moving toward the kitchen.
"Sure. Mr. Pulaski, you've been living on this property for three months. I meant to pay you a visit sooner but I've been so busy fixing potholes and approving plans for the new junior high school, I haven't had a chance to congratulate you on your fine taste in community living."
"Sugar?" he yelled in from the kitchen.
Stirring in a restaurant sugar packet with a large spoon, he carried in a TV table from the kitchen and set it down before the mayor, with a Dunkin' Donut napkin.
The mayor smiled. "You are a most unusual man, Julius. My treasurer tells me you don't pay for our trash collection." Julius watched as the mayor looked around. Always defensive about his collections, he figured the mayor was smart enough to know he certainly was not a hoarder, that everything in the house served a purpose, including the new television console he found in the trash at the flea market, brought home and put on his repair to-do list. It reminded him of his childhood days in Port Richmond when his family won the raffle at Our Lady of the Annunciation and carried home a 1953 RCA color console reminiscent of this one.
"Me? Pay for trash collection?" He gave a bellowing harrumph. "Twenty dollars a month is outrageous! I have better ways of spending my money, sir. But," he said wagging his cigarette-holding finger, "I want you to know my trash is disposed of correctly, not burned or buried in the backyard. That would be too easy. I don't like easy."
He paused to take a puff.
"See that eyesore across the street?"
"Popeye's Fried Chicken."
"Yessir. See that dumpster they have out back?"
The mayor leaned forward in his chair. "I see it."
"That, sir, is where my trash goes. I made a deal with the owner."
"Mr. Afzali," the mayor said.
"Afzali, one and the same, the turbaned Farid Afzali. I sweep up my side of the parking lot and in goes my trash. F-R-E-E, the sweetest word outside of homemade pierogis."
"Ingenius, Pulaski, ingenius."
"And now I have a question for you, your honor," he said pointing his finger directly at his chest.
"Kindly accompany me out back."
He led the mayor out the side door and down the steps. Tarzan, tethered to the railing, the TV dinner container off to the side, leaped up in the air barking with joy. Pulaski's treasures sprouted in the back of the driveway near the garage and out onto the lawn. Tarps of different colors sprang up like huge toadstools, draping over innumerable mysterious objects known only to Pulaski. As they threaded their way through the different geometries of items, Pulaski led the mayor to every homeowners dream: the backyard lawn. This lawn, however, contained mud-spattered planks. Holding his arms out for balance, Pulaski asked the mayor to follow him. "Stay steady on these boards, Mayor," he said as he walked one foot in front of the other on a series of beams so he wouldn't fall into the deep mud.
"They don't build houses the way they did when we were growing up," he called back to the mayor who was steadying himself on the boards.
"I haven't had as much fun walking the plank as when I take the grandkids to the carnival at Our Lady of Fatima on Street Road."
They walked past an old red wagon filled with cinder blocks and a long boat trailer, looking forlorn without its boat. His sons bet him he'd never use it. Julius stood barrelchested in his jeans and pointed at the white backyard fence thickly lined with dark three-leaved foliage. Langhella stood beside him, holding his hat in hand.
"Why would ole man Travis want to cultivate poison ivy in his backyard? It'll snuff out my yellow flags I planted in memory of my dear departed mother, the sainted Genevieve," he winked at the mayor. "I gotta go out here dressed like a goddamn beekeeper to protect myself."
Yellow iris were in full bloom. They stood like proud queens among the disarray of junk, seeming to nod to the many young fruit trees Pulaski planted, nearly identical to the ones he had on Palomino Drive.
"You'll like this, Mr. Mayor," said Pulaski, pointing next door. "Look what Dominic's got."
Three small graceful trees arched toward the sky.
"By God, they're fig trees," said the mayor. "I didn't think the young whippersnapper had it in him."
"'Unto each man his own vine and fig tree,' Mr. Mayor. Dominic's rightfully proud of his trees. Stop by in a couple months and he'll give you a bagful. Tells me the birds love them."
They turned back to the poison ivy.
"I'm not afraid for myself, it's the dog I worry about. He's got a nose for trouble. I'm guessing Travis was too old or too sick to mow this stuff down."
"Travis was one of our more interesting characters," said the mayor. "I often wonder, if a house could talk if it would it choose its inhabitants. In other words, who is choosing whom?"
"I like that, Mr. Mayor. You're a thinking man."
The mayor laughed. "I sure haven't served five terms on my good looks or ability to grow hair," he said patting his bald head.
"All right. Now you're gonna tell me the only way to get rid of the ivy is to spray it. Cancer-causing herbicides."
"I'm afraid that's the best way. Go down to Wankler's. Tell them I sent you."
"Listen, Pulaski," said Langhella raising his voice. "Here in Bensalem we patronize our local businesses. It's called community pride. This is a growing town. They come here next step outa Philadelphia. We aim to please everybody, P.T. Barnum to the contrary. And we do a good job. No strikes. Good garbage pick-up. For most people, anyway. Good schools. Roads where potholes don't knock off too many hubcaps. You've got a nice vehicle out there, Pulaski," said the mayor walking the planks toward the driveway.
"Needs some work," said Julius, looking at his side window held in place with an ice scraper."
"Everything needs work," said the mayor.
The little dog Tarzan yapped from the driveway, sensing the mayor's departure.
"My alter ego," said Pulaski, shooting a glance at the excited dog. "Don't be a stranger, Mr. Mayor. Come back and see me sometime."
"A pleasure," said Langhella, with a quick handshake as he headed toward his official car with the municipal seal on the door.
Julius laughed to himself. If the mayor only knew how he saved on his water bill. It would be fine if you lived in a tribe in Africa. But in this country, he might be arrested when he went in his backyard nude when the rains came down. Why waste good water? Nothing like the smell of Irish Spring lathering up in a shower as big as the whole backyard. Best not to get too close to the poison ivy.
Mollie stood in her green Starbucks apron giving a final stir to her home-made applesauce. It had been nearly a year since Julius was gone. She regretted not a moment of their relationship, only that she hadn't kicked him out sooner. She still had feelings for the man. But she didn't know how to name them.
She heard Angel's Ford pick-up from afar. She loved the look of it. More a thing of beauty to her artistic senses than a vehicle, she thought of it as a galloping thoroghbred, a veritable rearing prancing stallion who carried her own brave rider home for dinner.
She stood, head tilted toward the door, and listened to the sounds of his arrival: the far away masculine purr of the truck making its way up their hilly road, the sharp turn into the driveway, the downturn of the engine into idle, meaning, "I'm almost in your arms." Looking out the door at him, she listened to the melodic jingling of his car keys as he made his athletic descent from the Ford, followed by the bird-like whop-whopping of the electronic locking mechanism of the door.
No matter what the weather, Mollie left the outer door open, storm door closed, whenever she was home. She liked to see and feel the outside air and had a mystical belief that what she thought of as the "high-pitched tinkling energies of the universe" would course through her open door in waves of light and energy. Hadn't Julius told her she was right "on the mark" with this belief? She also needed to glimpse the spectacular vista high on the hill she regarded as "my hill" and was one of the main reasons she bought the house. A hand-made sign in her garden read, "Almost Fallingwater."
Raindrops bounced from the metal toolbox on the back of Angel's pick-up. She watched him push his N.Y. Yankees' cap over his forehead as he strode up the sidewalk and into the front door.
He was small and muscular. His head and cheekbones were finely shaped, wide and large. It would not be inaccurate, thought Mollie, to say his head was shaped like the hard case of a coconut. He was born in Ecuador, scion of generations of warlike people whose defeats came in waves like the Pacific Ocean they rarely saw, overwhelmed finally by the savage Inca. A people who had known no peace were soon trounced by the cannon-bearing Spaniards who decimated the indigenous population with their diseases as much as their brutality and treachery.
"Trust no Spaniard" became the battle cry of the natives who in spite of themselves reproduced with perfection not only the tongue of the Spaniards but their babies as well.
Angel, just a boy of four when he came to America, easily absorbed English from playing street hockey with the neighboring children in the Lower Manhattan neighborhood where he first lived.
"Couldn't do much today, Sweetheart," he said, putting his lunchbox on the kitchen counter. "Bloomingdale's parking lot was a lake. They'll just have to cool their heels until we finish."
"You are a little lake yourself, Sweetie," said Mollie, removing his cap and shaking off the water into the sink. "Where's my kiss?" she pouted, puckering up her lips.
"Hey, sexy!" he said kissing her on the lips. "Food smells great. Be back after I de-grease," he said, undressing for the shower.
Mollie laughed as she thought of Julius showering in his backyard, Irish Spring soap bubbling in the mud.
The table was set with white Mikasa dinnerware, square shape, bought at a dinnerware outlet an hour away in Flemington, New Jersey. She lit the candles at the white linened-dinner table, and filled the blue goblets with lemon ice water. Her memories of her mother centered around elegant small dinner parties and Jewish holidays, back in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and the smell of her mom's homemade challah twists topped with aromatic poppyseed.
Angel padded back into the kitchen in his blue robe which showed his bare hairless chest. His wet shoulder-length black hair was pushed behind his ears.
"Mother would have loved you," said Mollie as she served him linguine with white clamsauce.
"Who me? A South American Catholic from wild Inca stock living in sin with her Jewish daughter?"
"Absolutely," said Mollie. "What do you think Hungarian Jews are? Part wild Magyars, grrrr!"
"We're all mutts," said Angel, twirling the linguine on his fork. "Even the Bloomie shoppers with their arms full of bags that could feed the hungry in Quito."
"Yes, it's called the Spoiled American syndrome. Don't mind us."
The phone rang. Angel turned around to see who was calling on the Caller ID.
"Julius," he said.
"Oh, he can wait," she said. "So you almost done at the Willow Grove Mall?"
"One more day if it pleases the Good Lord not to rain again tomorrow. Manuel screwed up again today. I may have to let him go. The paisano refuses to learn the language."
"What he needs is an English tutor," said Mollie, taking a huge drink of the lemon ice water. Her lithium made her thirsty. "Have him take one of those free ESL classes at the library. Maybe he'll fall in love with his tutor and get his papers."
"Always thinking, Mollie, always thinking. You know, Babe, I wouldn't mind spending a little time with you tonight. My boy is getting lonely," he said looking down at his lap.
"Do you believe I spent six months with that man and he never touched me!"
"Overdeveloped brain, underdeveloped gonads. Do you realize, Moll, you talk about Pulaski as if he's still your man?"
"Oh! I'm sorry. I didn't know you felt that way."
"Of course I do. How would you like it if I talked about every woman I screwed or wanted to or fantasized about. I got feelings!"
She dropped her fork on the plate and put her head in her hands.
"Angel, I don't want to lose you."
"Let the man go. Stop talking about him every two seconds, for Chrissakes."
They sat in silence with Mollie excruciatingly aware of the noise of their chewing, the forks tap-dancing over the food and the candles flickering on their darkened faces.
"Have I ruined things again?" she wondered as her mind flicked back to Jake, her once greatest love, Jacob Ray, the sculptor who had appeared on the cover of the New York Times magazine.
As she ate her linguine, she began tormenting herself about Jake. How she had loved the flannel-jacketed artist with the sculptures in his backyard. Why, she wondered, had he never offered her a single one? The Hirshhorn and the Museum of Modern Art were his real paramours, not Mollie. Nor would he acknowledge that she was the inspiration of the "Madonna of Germantown," a towering hammered steel creation of a delicate kneeling nude clothed only in curled hair, a featureless face with long Modigliani-like nose and small skyward-pointing breasts which looked for all the world like her own.
"Mollie," said Angel. "You're going far away."
"Yes, I was feeling terribly sorry for myself."
"Look, I love you a lot. You're my woman. I think of you during the day even when I'm mixing up the paint."
She looked up at him.
He blew her a kiss. "I'm grateful for being in America, the country of the second chance. Look at me. From peasant to business owner. With enough money to send to my mother in New York and the aunts and cousins in Quito."
"Will I meet them someday?"
"Of course you will. An American wife is a status symbol, you know."
He'd said the word, she thought. The cherished and the frightening word: wife. She hadn't made a mess of things. For sure she would never see Julius again. She would explain it gently to her former lover. That Angel's desires were her desires.
"You liked the applesauce? I added a cinnamon stick."
"Muy bien, of course! Everything you cook, Mollie, esa tarta estaba absolutamente deliciosa."
"You're so sweet. Is our date still on for after dinner? I promise I'll just be a second on the phone."
"Do what you gotta do, Mollie. But I won't share you with anyone."
He kissed her on the cheek and cleared away the dishes while Mollie took the phone and sat on the ottoman in the living room.
All she could see from the front window was the reflection of herself and her crown of white hair, telephone poised mid-air. Pulaski's cell phone number reposed in familiar italics on the telephone screen.
She turned around and called into the kitchen, "This is it, Angel. My last call to Julius. He'll be forever out of my mind."
It would be hard but Julius had his children now, not her. He had been her "comfort doctor," the one person more than any other she went to when her illness was upon her. Despite being on lithium, breakthrough episodes of mania assaulted her fragile nervous system four times a year. "A rapid cycler," Irv called her. The lithium helped, he said, and kept the episodes mercifully brief, as her mind mounted inevitably toward out-of-control mania where her thoughts became delusions. "I'm the long-lost cousin of Paul Simon" was a recurring theme. If she hummed "Bridge Over Troubled Water" it was only a matter of time before Paul Simon would call and propose they get together. She would laugh about it afterwards as she explained it to Irv or Julius, but at the time, it was as real as the sky was blue. Somehow she would have to transfer allegiance of her need to be taken care of to Angel. Would it scare him away, she wondered? No matter, it would get done. There was so much to teach Angel about her illness. She remembered the last call she had placed to Julius.
Quietly she would walk out the back door of the newsroom, cell phone in hand and dial his number. As it rang, she would ground herself by studying the cars in the parking lot and the crabgrass spiking up through the cracks in the pavement. A small street with a too-short red light jutted out on the left. By now, her mind was producing its rapid-fire thoughts and she was certain she had detected a conspiracy she must report to Julius. He was the only one she could trust. She knew not how far the conspiracy spread its net but certainly her father and grandmother in Shaker Heights were part of it.
"I know this sounds strange, Julius," she'd said that last time, "but Dave just asked me to do a story on the John Wanamaker organ downtown. The man's phone number ends in 0711 just like yours! I think I'm the victim of a conspiracy."
Patterns had begun to appear as they always did in her psychosis. The white and blue Pennsylvania license plates became minefields of code words that were waiting to remind her what an awful person she was. Right in front of her on her lime-green Nissan the letters A-S-N became asinine, a word in her altered state she believed described her perfectly. Her editor's car had the menacing letters of D-R-D which, of course, meant she was a dreadful human being or even a reincarnated druid. When she was lucid, she and Julius would remark on the moral and ethical implications of her psychoses -- the themes, located deep in her brain cells, seemed always about good and evil. "What was that all about?" they mused together.
Julius, in his low train rumble of a voice, would tell her, "It's your illness, Mollie. Take your Navane. You've got it in your red pocketbook. Take the pill right now."
With those words, reality would return, she'd quickly obey, and within forty minutes her racing delusional brain would calm down and she would be nearly herself again. That Julius would no longer be her comfort doctor was disappointing but it was not insurmountable.
Mollie dialed his phone number one last time. It was unlike Julius to call at dinnertime. The cell phone rang and rang until the answering machine finally came on. She debated whether or not to leave a message and decided against it. "I promised Angel," she thought.
Angel was in bed, long black hair spread on the pillow, sheet pulled up to his chin. He watched her come in. She slipped off all her clothes, except for her beige camisole and panties. Eyes on Angel, she sat on the bed and began to kiss him. Raindrops tinkled like reindeer on the roof. After the long drought that was life with Julius, she at last found comfort in this sweet man's arms.
"I missed you so much, my darling," she said. "My leetle line painter at last comes home to me."
"I think of your pussy during the day," he said. "Your hot little pussy."
The sounds of the night fell away as they made love. The world had constricted to their two entwined bodies with their smells and their gasps and their warmth.
After a while Angel asked, "Can I come now?" Drops of sweat poured from his neck and head.
"Go ahead," she said, pressing her lips to his cheek.
Her own breathing was changing, getting faster and faster.
"Okay," she said in a breathy voice. "You can come now." He sped up his thrusting while Mollie began pushing harder and harder, straining her body against his, creating friction, pressing her groin hard against his until at last she began to moan -- "Ah Ah Ah" -- and he let himself loose and, kissing her hard on her lips, he climaxed with a soft exhalation of "Ahhhhh." All the while she was orgasming against him, over and over again, one fast spasm followed by two, three, four, while her insides contracted.
They lay spent in each others' arms. A few cars whooshed far away in the rain. A dog barked in the distance. And there was the freight train -- or was it the passenger train? -- cruising into the Willow Grove train station.
"Was it good?" asked Mollie.
"Of course it was good. It was great. It's always great," he ran his finger over her nose and each slightly freckled cheek. "All chochas are the same, Mollita. But if you love a woman, their chocha is forever."
He combed her curly white hair, now damp, with his fingers. She rubbed her leg against his.
"Can you ever forgive me?" she asked.
"For what?" he said yawning.
"You're tired, baby," she said putting her hand over his eyes.
"Sooo tired. Do you mind if I go to sleep?"
"Not at all. Go to sleep, my little business tycoon."
She picked up his hand and felt the callouses on the bottom and rubbed his hand against her cheek. This was the hand of a working man. The hands that founded America. That built the railroads and then the cars. And he was hers. All hers if she didn't blow it.
Getting out ot bed, she put on Angel's blue robe and walked downstairs into the kitchen. Like her mother before her, she kept a bowl of peanuts, dates and oranges on the dining room table. After slicing open an orange, the telephone rang.
It was from Abington Memorial Hospital.
"I'm in the hospital," said Julius.
"In the hospital? What're you doing there at this time of night? Besides, it's Dad's Night Out, isn't it? Pizza and pinball?"
"The kids drove me. My chest was hurting. I couldn't breathe. I'm stuck here all night."
"Did you have another heart attack?"
"They said no. I'm gonna have some tests tomorrow."
"The kids have your dog?"
"Yepper. I want to get out of here. Nothing is wrong with me."
She thought she heard his voice breaking. That was not like Julius.
"You'll leave tomorrow, Julius, after the tests. You got a TV in your room?"
"Yeah, some dumbass program is on."
Truth was, thought Mollie, Pulaski had no one. No one in the world. His sons were only physically present in his life. They made no attempt to connect emotionally with him. And apparently he and his wife had been as distant as two locomotives chugging down different tracks.
"This goddamn body of mine," he said to Mollie from his hospital bed.
"You should talk nicely about your body," she said. "Isn't that one of the Ten Commandments? Honor thy father and thy mother and thy mortal coil?"
"If only that wife of mine had let me live with her and let me decay in peace while I did my work. How could she be so mean after I bought her every goddam Byer's choice Christmas angel her merciless heart desired. And every kitchen gadget advertised on television. The George Foreman burger maker. You know how many times she used it?"
For some reason, he never blamed Mollie. She was an afterthought in his life. A surprising undreamt of coda in a life unfinished, a life begging for time to complete his life's work. He lived in his mind not his flesh. But the flesh was exacting retribution at last, tribute, tired of being ignored, pissed on, the race was heading toward the finish line, he was taken by rolling drumbeat to the top of the stairs and forced to look down on the long road of self-abuse he had taken to get on top. Instead of beaming down like Moses on the mountaintop on a life completed, Pulaski gazed over a stairway rickety and broken.
Was this the final act, they both wondered. And what about Mollie's promise to Angel? She had meant every word of it until the phone rang.
There was no longer a main entrance to Abington Memorial Hospital. The four elegant Greek columns with grand stairway were still there, opening up to the smoothly carpeted interior where a stately grandfather clock ticktocked its paternal reassurance that all was well. But who, really, came up the grand stairway anymore?
Time was when the hospital was considered a thing of beauty. No longer. The new and constantly expanding complex was something of a monstrosity that crawled out onto York Road like a segmented caterpillar. Bulldozers razed garden apartments, rosebushes and family-owned shops in the relentless manifest destiny of the suburban hospital, whose competititve philanthropists vied to have their names writ large on the huge shoeboxy new buildings: Pennock Trauma Unit (his wife's father had the fortune, though certainly Liddon was no slouch); Lenfest Pavilion (Gerry and Marguerite were in their late seventies so why shouldn't the media magnate have a building to call his own?) and the Zipley Parking Garage ("Call me Joe" from the roofing supply business solidified his reputation as a nouveau riche by becoming a major Republican donor).
At least a dozen portals beckoned to the uninitiated. The weary traveler was heartened by sliding glass doors that opened at a footstep, valet parking performed by attendants in smart navy blazers, hidden cameras poised to track escaping baby snatchers and more glass doors behind which a receptionist kindly looked up from her book as if to offer safe passage.
Confronted by the plethora of entrance-ways and an ambulance screeching ahead of cars caught in the noon pile-up, Mollie, her compassion roused for the first time in two years, chose to visit her former boyfriend Julius Pulaski through the Wunderle Lobby. Its common-sense circular drive, embraced by colorful flower plantings by the Ladies' Auxiliary, was a perfect place to stow her lime-green Nissan illegally, placing her media pass on the dashboard. She avoided the eyes of the receptionist and walked quickly through the corridor as if she knew where she was going. She didn't and began to feel a hint of heartbeating panic. Stopping by the pharmacy, she looked at her notepad and asked, "Do you know where Room 3H321 is?"
"Third Floor Highland Building," said the woman behind the counter. "You know where to go?"
"No, but I'll find it. Thanks."
She swung around the corner and asked at every turn, "Do you know how to find the Highland Building?" They pointed and agreed the hospital was a labyrinth as Mollie forged onward, waiting for the Highland Building to distinguish itself from the Price Building or the Rorer Building, all joined together by long corridors where deadly dull paintings, that tried hard to be genuine works of art, winked hopefully over an endless handrail to grasp should your travels exhaust you.
After taking the proper elevator to the third floor, Mollie checked in with the nursing station to make certain Pulaski was indeed there. A nurse in a flowered schmatta (Yiddish for "rag") pointed down a long shiny corridor. Mollie tried to read information on the nurse's face -- Was Pulaski going to die? Was he being difficult? -- but her face was impassive.
When she entered the one-person room a stranger in a light blue gown lay on his back staring at the ceiling. She walked out of the room and looked at the chart at the side of the door. "Pulaski, Julius U.," it read. There must be some mistake, she thought, gazing into the room again.
And then she recognized him. Toothless, he breathed heavily with a familiar wheeze from his smoking. Instead of his ubiquitous white beauty, two plastic breathing tubes spiked out from each nostril. She could hear its hissing noise from where she stood, tentatively, with hesitation.
Taking a deep breath as inaudibly as she could, she walked in and put her red pocketbook on a chair. He heard her. "It's about time," he said. "Come over here and give me a kiss."
"Julius, please. Let me get settled." She stood at the foot of his bed and gazed at the man. He looked aged and sick. He looked ninety years old. When they had parted company two years ago, he may not have been happy about it but he had been his usual vigorously inappropriate self. Their random phone calls indicated he was well on his way to accepting his independence. But she had been fooled. His years of living alone without a woman had shrunk his body and his soul and made him susceptible to disease. Weren't there scientific studies about the need for companionship to maintain optimal functioning?
His body's rebellion was like a stern rebuke to her for a moment. After all, she could have kept him with her in the protective womb of her house. But then she roused herself from these thoughts. She was not a Catholic martyr and was too much the hedonist to play the role of savior. She closed her eyes, massaged his feet for awhile, as she steadied herself for the new and worsened Pulaski with tubes up his nostrils. And a breathing machine for his new companion. Visions of their disastrous trip to Pearl A. Goldstein, PhD, floated before her eyes.
"Ouch!" he cried. "What are you trying to do? Decapitate my big toe?"
"Sorry, Swee.... Julius."
"Go on, call me Sweetie. You still love me, I know."
"It's true, I do. I can't deny that.
"Now come over and give me my kiss."
She walked up to the head of the bed where his large bearded face was covered with sweat. She took a tissue from his bedside tray to towel off his face.
"Be careful with those tissues," he said. "They cost $11,000, the price of admission to the Highland Building."
"You're worse than a goddamn Jew," she mumbled, holding up the flimsy box of tissues. "Not even two-ply."
"Where's my kiss?" he asked solemnly.
Mollie kissed his damp forehead. "I don't suppose they found anything yet, did they?"
"Give me that cup there."
When Mollie was a child, with a mother inching toward death from cancer, she had learned to interpret a person's silences and tone of voice. Excluded from deep adult conversations even though she was nearly twelve, she would lie upstairs in her white canopy bed and hear the grownups talk, matching the tenor of their voices with her mother's slow decline or the occasional plateaus in her losing battle with ovarian cancer.
Pulaski's voice was enough to tell Mollie, rightly or wrongly, that the tests revealed dire news. And with cancer, the unspoken question was always, "When? When is the next treatment? When will the side effects begin? When will the cancer stop spreading? And When will death appear at the door?" Mollie guessed the man she spent six months with, alternately hating and loving him, her professor in cowboy boots, had less than a year to live.
How could she possibly know, yet did with certainty, merely from his voice, that today was the beginning of the final chapter of his life.
A styrofoam cup with straw rested on the bedside table, a firm impermanent witness, thought Mollie, to the life and death struggles of the sick. Mollie slowly peeled off the paper at the end of the Flex-Straw. After jiggling the cup to hear the crackling of the ice, she took a tiny sip of the freezing cold water before surrendering it into Pulaski's big hands.
She watched them shake. She wished for a moment Pearl Goldstein were here to tell them they looked like the yin and the yang. And that he was not going to die. That their undying devotion to one another was stronger than death. Mollie closed her eyes and envisioned Pearl slipping sideways into her office, blowing them a goodbye kiss. Pulaski sipped through the straw and looked up at her.
"Not good, Mollie. Not good. There's two of them. Two spots."
"Spots? I don't understand."
"They scanned me. They put me in two machines. An X-ray and a CAT Scan."
Mollie stood there and hugged herself. She felt cold and slipped her coat back on.
"The X-ray showed a tumor on the lung. The CAT Scan showed one on the brain. Inoperable."
"Oh," said Mollie, putting her head in her hands.
She looked at his face. So handsome with his noble Polish nose and huge granite eyes. This was the man she3 had loved. She longed to lay her hands on him the way a Reiki master would, or a yogi, and pump her deep life energy into his afflicted veins.
"Two of them? For sure? There's no mistake?"
"Maxwell showed me the pictures. He brought in the films and illuminated them. I saw the little knots. Little black spots.
"Do your kids know?"
"Not yet. I wanted to tell my girl first."
She nodded. "I'll stay with you, Julius, I'll stay as long as you want me to," she said squeezing his hand.
"I was hoping you'd say that. You're my girl."
She knew that friends of the sick had no power. She thought for a tiny moment of marrying the man so she could oversee his treatment. But flashbacks of their tumultuous relationship rescued her from her thoughts of martyrdom, though she couldn't help but think of the comeuppance it would provide to his two sons and their wives. And that awful Colleen. Revenge always had a sweet edge for her, satisfying as chewing on a stick of licorice.
She walked over to the window and put her hand on the cold window pane. Not much of a view. The sky was blue with a skittering of clouds. Their faraway nonchalant beauty made Mollie feel alone in the world. People walked the sidewalk of busy Highland Avenue. A couple of nurses. A man walking two dogs. A mother pushing a baby carriage. Someone on crutches. Life hurried on. None of these good people knew of Pulaski or of Mollie. Their terror must be borne alone. She looked up at the clouds for consolation. None was to be found. No, neither the clouds nor the sky paid condolence calls. Nor did they send greeting cards wishing a speedy recovery. Moments like this revealed the true meaning of existence, the thud of nothingness only a few brave souls were able to feel when death or loss entered the room like a hawk suddenly appearing in the blue sky. Only ten minutes ago she was driving in traffic with the radio on. Unappreciative of what the Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton called "the gift of life" for which there was only one solution: eternal gratitude. She was grateful for nothing right now except that she had been spared. Thus far.
Selfish thoughts assailed her as she stared at rows and rows of windows in another hospital building. Were they offices? Or did the sick lay there wondering if they too were dying. "Better him than me," she thought. "I'm too young to die. Besides I'm too valuable to the world. God would never let this happen to me, would he? Besides God and I have a pact. At least I think we do. I can't quite remember."
She turned to Pulaski with a sad face.
"A penny for your thoughts," he said.
"Nothing. This is a world I've gotta get used to."
"I was kind of expecting it, Moll," he said.
"I felt like shit for a couple of months. I had trouble breathing in the middle of the night. Used to walk around in the dark, Tarzan in tow. And then came the ocean waves in my head. No need to go to the Jersey shore," he laughed.
She imagined the big man all alone in his Bensalem bungalow. Friendless. Spouseless. With only his hoards to comfort him. And of course that formula he was allegedly working on that would place his name in lights. Who knows? she thought. Maybe he learned during that time of physical decline the futility of ownership of those horrid things.
"Why is it," she thought, "that in times like these I become such a moral reprobate, casting myself in the role of judge and jury? I hate myself."
"Well," she said aloud, skirting the use of the word 'cancer,' "a diagnosis is certainly a good way to quit smoking."
"Who says I quit?" he said, beaming at her. "I'll tell you why I got those spots in the first place." He took a sip of water.
"It's from those cheap-ass cigarettes I buy from the Indian reservation."
"What do you mean? You buy Marlboro Lights at the Wawa."
He shook his head. "Did, until the price went up. Then I went online and bought cartons of Vantage from an Indian reservation in upstate New York. Half the price."
"Your cheapness killed you," Mollie said.
"How many times do I have to tell you? I'm not cheap, I'm frugal."
"You're fucking cheap and now your cheapness is killing you," Mollie said. "Showering in the backyard like a goddamn wild animal."
Suddenly he smiled for the first time, his big toothless smile. "If you're willing, I can sneak a puff right now."
She gave a quick laugh. "Have you no pride at all, Julius? Where are those fuckers anyway?"
He directed her to the closet where his clothes were stuffed in a white plastic bag with large happy letters reading Abington Memorial Hospital.
Reaching into his shirt pocket she withdrew a pack of Vantage cigarettes. "Look at these ugly motherfuckers. At least if you'd gone down with a classy brand like your macho-man Marlboros." She held up the simple white carton. "They're not even pretty, Julius. Where's your aesthetic sense? My mom smoked Luckies. They were beautiful. Red and white. Lucky Strikes mean fine tobacco."
She looked up to see his reaction.
Nothing. Maybe it was sinking in, she thought. If only he could hate the thing that was killing him. Spineless wimp.
She walked over to the wastebasket. "If you don't mind," she said holding them over the top.
"What'll I smoke when I get out of here?"
"Have your kids buy you some real cigarettes." She dropped them in the wastebasket. "Now maybe you'll have a chance to live."
"My oncologist said that only thirty percent of smokers actually get cancer. I ain't dead yet."
"Did they give you a....."
"You mean when am I gonna croak?"
She grabbed his hand. "Well, they do try things, Julius. This is the twenty-first century after all. They've made strides haven't they?"
Gazing at his frightened eyes, she heard a firm knock on the door.
"Come in, come in!" Pulaski called.
In walked a tall man in a white coat and stethoscope. Robert P. Maxwell, MD, was embroidered in dark blue thread on his starched white coat.
"It's about time," said Pulaski. "I thought you'd forgotten about me."
"We've been analyzing your test results, Mr. Pulaski," said the doctor without blinking.
"High marks, I presume."
"I wish they were, Mr. Pulaski. We've got some serious issues here."
He pulled over a heavy chair and sat down.
Mollie sat head in hand on Pulaski's bed as the oncologist leaned back in his chair, spiral notepad on his lap.
"We don't have much wiggle room here. The good news is the cancer hasn't spread beyond the lung and the brain. But both tumors are beyond the reach of the best surgeon in the world."
Mouth pursed, he looked at Mollie and Julius. "We'll want to begin radiation treatments next week. Mrs. Pulaski can you bring him in for three treatments a week?"
"I'm not his wife. I'm a friend. Mollie."
"Common-law," growled Pulaski.
"He has two sons. Dr. Maxwell, who will be happy to help out."
The doctor nodded and handed Mollie a business card. "This is the radiation department of the hospital. Rosenfeld Cancer Unit. Right here on Highland Avenue. They do a good job. We like our patients to remain optimistic and in good spirits."
Mollie was grinding her Jewish star necklace into the soft pads of her fingers while Julius stared at the doctor.
"Rest easy, Mr. Pulaski," said the doctor. "I'll be back tomorrow to see to your discharge." He stood up, patted Pulaski on the shoulder, nodded to Molie and left the room.
"And that's it? For 11 grand?"
Mollie roused herself and ran after the doctor. She called his name and he turned around and looked at her with kindness.
"Dr. Maxwell, I need to ask you something. What are his chances of survival?"
"I'm awfully sorry, but no one survives this," he said. "I'm sorry."
"No one survives? How long does he have then?"
"Six months to a year. The radiation will slow its growth."
"Should we get a second opinion?"
"You can go up to Sloan-Kettering in New York where I did my residency thirty years ago. They'll tell you the same thing."
"I need to know how he'll end up. How will he actually die?"
"He'll go to sleep. Except he won't wake up."
She nodded and went back to the room. She was the only one who knew.
He'll go to sleep but he won't wake up, she murmured as she drove home down Terwood Road. How sad it was leaving Julius alone in the hospital room guarded only by his styrofoam cup of water, a pint-size can of ginger ale, some Saltines and none of his beloved classical music unless you counted the muted sounds of the voices and footsteps from the hallway and the tap-tap-tap of keyboards at various stations down the long shiny linoleum corridor.
As she drove mechanically down the two-mile back road that was Terwood Road, Mollie felt a strange tug of emptiness inside and idly wondered at this eerie feeling that seemed to creep up from her childhood. It began to scare her as she drove the familiar narrow road with its antiquated set of stop signs and rights-of-way that only the regulars knew how to navigate, a road with breathtaking vistas almost as spectacular as the cypress-filled meadows of Tuscany she remembered from traveling as a teenager with her parents.
As she passed the horse farm on the right and looked without thinking for the small cluster of horses that grazed on the gently sloping hills, she remembered what had scared her. It was the unknown. The unknown prognosis of her own mother's cancer. Mollie had lived with the doubt and uncertainty for four long years starting when she was eleven years old. Unbeknownst to her, it was the end of her childhood. Gone were the long walks with her laughing mother to the public library, stopping off on the way home at Unger's Kosher Bakery for coconut squares or a miniature pecan tart. No more strolling into Cain Park for throat-scorchingly delicious cold water at the Halsey-Taylor water fountain or sitting sentry-like atop the picnic table while her glamorous mother, Laura Feigenbaum, pulled out her Luckies and blew long streams of smoke into the air. It was the end of her childhood. Laura Feigenbaum, drained by the long slow arc of her disease, spent more and more time in bed and Mollie refused to go outside without her. A horrid social worker was dispatched from the synagogue to pry Mollie from the house and out with her friends. It did no good. Mollie was not the least bit interested in her friends. Her tomboy days of building forts in the backyard trees or playing blindman's bluff or kickball held no appeal. Mollie wished only to be her mother's bedside companion, vying with Gramma Lily for her mother's favors. After school, she reported to the brown settee in her parents' bedroom to do her reading and her homework. For privacy, she locked herself in her bedroom of comforting things: a white canopy bed that served as writing desk, a set of World Book encyclopedias whose gold binding shone in the light and a jade-colored porcelain lamp shaped like a Chinese lady that Mollie still confided in when no one was listening. And, occasionally, to placate her parents, she would sleep over Mary Truby's house and indulge in foods that weren't allowed in her own home: fizzy Coca-Cola in slender bottles that looked like a woman's body and bowlfuls of Frito's Corn Chips that didn't quite taste like food but left her always wanting to eat more.
She turned the car radio down as her thoughts rambled to the burgeoning problem that was her father. The man was rarely home. Oh, the times she waited up for him, waiting for him to come kiss her goodnight, waiting, just waiting for the sound of his car to pull in the drive.
She'd know that sound anywhere: the low rumble of her dad's station wagon in the dark and the way the headlights flickered across her bedroom, a waterfall of white lights that made her heart beat fast. Daddy's home.
Did he really come to her bedside to kiss her good night the way he told her he did? She supposed so. But why couldn't she stay awake, she loved him so. And so wanted to please him. Wrote little reports for him, for Daddy. The one on Haym Saloman. She barely knew how to spell his name, Saloman, financier of the American Revolution. Daddy was so proud of the Jews. And, oh, what were the other reports she did, all typed up on the Remington Rand he brought home from the office? He would read them in the living room, she remembered, sitting on the blue and white checkered loveseat, feet elevated on the matching ottoman, while she sat nearby on the floor, watching that handsome high-cheekboned face with the noble crest of black wavy hair.
"Truth is," she thought, as the big houses of Terwood Road passed her by, "I stopped waiting because he was always late." One excuse after another. And where was he? Out making money. Or out with the latest high-heeled secretary employed by his brokerage firm. When she was falling asleep, her mother and Gramma Lily's near-hysterical voices jangled up the stairs and into her bedroom like a Slinky toy. How could he? How could it be that her very own father sought solace in other women's arms even as his wife faced deadly ovarian cancer?
Mollie shut off the car radio so she could pay more attention to her own thoughts. She realized, with a snap of her fingers, her inner voice was uncharacteristically haranguing her, unstoppable now, having moved from a whisper to a chattering clamor of thoughts. Was this her illness, her supposedly lithium-controlled manic depression, breaking free and barking now like a wild dog inside her head? Then the clatter of fast unstoppable thoughts resumed. "How I waited up nights for you to walk through the door," she began to sob. "I missed you so. A girl needs her dad."
He had done well. His only complaint was that "Mama" didn't live long enough to see him become one of the most successful Jewish entrepreneurs in Cleveland and a patron of the arts. Mollie barely remembered Bubby Yetta and certainly not with fondness. She was an old lady when she was fifty, having arrived in the new world from Hungary at thirteen, working in a cigar factory for pennies a day, skinny and blond, best friends always with the Old Testament and the High Holy Day prayer books. No, Bubby Yetta never saw the glorious Tudor house with the circular drive and duck pond out back that he bought for his young family. "Artie's Pleasure Dome" rang out from a sign on the mailbox. Nor did his mother read his name in the Cleveland Jewish News extolling his philanthropic gifts to the community including a classroom -- "gift of Arthur J. Feigenbaum" -- in the nation's first all-black theater, The Karamu House of Cleveland.
His generosity, however, did not please everyone. Gramma Lily was an untiring gadfly, an exquisitely raucous critic who shrillingly bit the generous hand that fed and clothed her, insisting he only gave away money to see his name in the paper. "When is your husband going to learn the value of a dollar," she would rail to her daughter after Artie's latest triumphant give-away. "His family needs the money more than the Jewish Federation." Mollie's mother rarely stood up for her husband, a fact Mollie failed to notice until she was older and talked about it with her psychiatrist.
"Is every family that bad?" Mollie wondered as she drove past the big houses on Terwood Road. "Well, at least I've escaped," she thought.
But now her thoughts were booming, galloping like race horses through her brain. She watched helplessly as the corridors of her mind expanded, like a pupil dilating, letting in too much light, blinding her.
"It's happening again," she thought. "I've got to pull over and take a pill."
She checked her rearview mirror. This was the stretch of Terwood Road where there was not only no shoulder but the road was maddeningly narrow; one wrong eyeblink and she'd end up down the ditch like she had one winter evening when her Nissan slid on black ice and rolled gracefully into the ditch. Ever mindful, as the lead car in a flurry of five, she spoke aloud to calm herself from her loud thoughts, "Easy does it, Moll. Easy does it. You'll be fine." She knew that once her chattering mind began to spill over with thoughts there was no way to stop them except by taking a pill.
But her rapid-fire thoughts were only the beginning of the temporary coup d'etat in her brain. Right before her eyes, the landscape began to change. Trees that hung so gently on the roadside now whisked with the wind into menacing fingers that pointed straight toward her, mocking her, screeching words she could not hear but were a Greek chorus of reproach for every misstep she'd made since she was three years old and lied to Gramma Lily. The torments paraded before her, a Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade of clowns and floats, balloons and celebrities, all constructed from the stuff of her dreams but more real than dreams. They were a living dream. A nightmare. And she wore the dunce cap of shame.
The pointing fingers of the trees excoriated her for a summer she spent in San Francisco, a high school graduation present from her father, where she worked as an intern at an arts center. In addition to being asked to stay full time for churning out irresistible press releases, she learned she had the power to attract men. And that she very much liked to sleep with them. Not just one or two. But many. As wide a variety as possible. She went hunting for men the way some people look for antiques or good restaurants, bed partners, whom she met in parks and on buses and in railway stations. She remembered the man she met from Ogden, Utah. They met at the candy counter of a San Francisco movie theater and made passionate love during the film, never to see one another again. She would take nearly anyone back then, anyone to ease a hunger that had no name. She had never heard of such behavior before -- oh, if it only had a name, she thought -- but found herself roaming the streets like a derelict searching for men.
She would roll with them in the bushes, lifting up her dress so they could get inside and bring her to a rushing climax that would satisfy her for days until the next urge would rise again in her loins. What is this? she asked herself. Why must I do this? She was barely twenty and only knew it was great beyond measure but could not be talked about. It was her glory. And her shame.
Her apartment was on California Street in San Francisco. Edward would knock on her door on nights when it pleased him. She would open it and peek through her chain lock. Without a word, she would let him in. He silently undressed her while she allowed herself to be loved by this accountant who lived on the first floor. She didn't want to know anything about him. He'd leave his dark tailored clothes and black gloves on her coffee table, as she led him to the unmade Murphy bed where she felt his mouth and his tongue move itself from one soft place on her body to another. And moaned with pleasure.
This was her secret life. Her secret haunted life. She told nobody, not even her psychiatrist. Kafkaesque, she thought. If he could write a book about her, what would the title be? The Bed? The Wanton Woman?
She did her best to choke down these memories which always arrived when she was in this heightened state, even twenty-five years later. Would they never go away? She could never hear the words "whore" or "slut" or "call girl" without flinching and attempting to snuff them out like the last embers of a flame lest they begin to terrorize her again. Why, she could have died, all the chances she took. These men could have murdered her. Was that what she was looking for? To die in their hands the way she wished to die when her mother had disappeared from her life?
Terwood Road, so beautiful with its horse farm spilling over with a dozen horses, some wearing little green jackets, romping up and down the hills like in her childhood books, now took on the dark mystical light of twilight. Mollie knew she had entered another world, an altered world, solely by the power of her untamed mind, the mind that could not bear reality and made it into a child's garden of terrors. "I'm manic," she whispered aloud. "Manic, I've crossed the threshold."
She checked her rearview mirror again. This time she had left the other cars behind. A small street with a big farmhouse came out to her right. She turned her lime-green Nissan onto the road, slowed down and parked off to the side. Running her fingers through her hair she searched through her windows to see if she was being followed -- by whom she did not know -- her father, perhaps, her grandmother, though they lived in Ohio and this was Pennsylvania on purpose -- she did not want to be near them -- and reaching into her purse, found a bottle of emergency pills. She opened up her back door, knelt on the pebbly ground, and looked under the backseat. A glass bottle of water was lodged underneath, waiting, just in case. Opening her pill bottle, she extracted a small white and green capsule plus a pale yellow side-effect pill.
"Bring me back, Navane," she thought as she glanced at it in her hand.
She drank down the pills and tucked the water bottle back under the seat.
"I must call Irv," she thought. "I need him." She imagined her head spinning off her body and rolling down Terwood Road. No, that wasn't right. She imagined her entire body launching itself in the air and flying toward the horses and the barn and floating over the high hill. She nearly laughed except for her terror. I am that girl in the Chagall painting, she thought. I am that girl.
Her terror was intense. At twenty, in her first year at Goddard College in Vermont, she wandered the campus one night telling everyone she met she was Helen of Troy, then Persephone, goddess of the underworld, and in constant communication with Beethoven who sent her messages encoded in the sounds of the night. A security guard finally interceded in her otherworldly travels and assisted her into his office where the Plainfield Police Department was called. They drove her an hour away to the nearest psychiatric facility where she was drugged insensate. The only good thing that came of it was a poem, "Ah, Mania!" She told Irv, years later, that the reason she took her medicine religiously was because her first manic-psychotic episode had so traumatized her that "you couldn't pay me a billion dollars to repeat one moment of it."
Now, however, she was on the cusp of the very same experience. But, as always in the intervening twenty-some years, she had caught it before it burgeoned out of control. Well-practiced in stopping the mania before it got started, she sat in the back seat and locked all the doors. Sleep should make it disappear. Lying down, she elevated her head on her pocketbook and looked out the window. A flock of geese flew overhead, but she couldn't trust her eyes. In her maddened state, ordinary objects would assume strange proportions. For all she knew, the geese might be rain drops on the window. She closed her eyes to wait for sleep. Even this simple act brought her fright. Designs floated on the inside of her eyelids now. As a child she saw designs but they were pretty, different colors that delighted her. But with madness the swirls on her eyelids were squooshy alive things, three-dimensional organisms that sought to eat her eyeballs and then her brain. She tried not to think about worms eating her brain. If only sleep would come the worms would be destroyed. The pill, she knew, would begin to work in as soon as twenty minutes. Its flat grainy taste lingered in the back of her throat. Andromeda tied to the rock, she thought. Where is Perseus? Hurry my Perseus, this is no way for a lady to spend the afternoon.
. . .
Her left arm was asleep when she woke up half an hour later. The worms were gone. There was no sign of the breaking and entering that had occurred in her mind. "Lord," she said as she climbed into the driver's seat, "you are so good to me. I cannot believe I deserve your mercy." Dutifully, she drove home, and entered the experience into her red diary, while noting that the last such transient psychotic event had occurred six months earlier when Angel said he loved her.
She sat in the living room and dialed Irv's number. His cheerful voice played on the answering machine.
"Hi Irv, Mollie here. Just took some Navane and Cogentin. Yeah, it happened again. Brief psychotic episode. The demons were routed very quickly, thank God. I'm having a piece of challah and butter now. Psychosis makes me hungry. Please call when you get a chance."
She put on some Mozart, and cut into a half-eaten braided challah twist. She kept the butter on the table at room temperature. She laughed as she spread the soft butter on the bread. "People think I'm crazy keeping it out all year 'round," she thought. "They have no idea what crazy is."
Psychosis is best tolerated alone. Mollie was grateful Angel and his crew were spending the night ninety miles away in Harrisburg, while they striped the parking lot of the capital buildings and slept along with the conventioneers in the Holiday Inn. She stared at herself in the mirror. Amazing that nothing looked amiss. Still the same face, not too many age lines at forty-five, a face that reminded her of her father's: the same relaxed lips, high cheek bones, and freckles. She turned her head to the side. The psychosis was slipping away unseen. Even though she'd had the illness more than half her life and thought of herself as a whole, if flawed, individual, it was still hard to believe she suffered from it. Such a dramatic name: manic depression. Was she worthy of carrying on the tradition imposed by such luminaries as Vivien Leigh or Virginia Woolf? No matter. She would simply try to live up to their legacy but positively not kill herself like Virginia did when she was fifty-nine.
When the phone rang in the kitchen, it was Irv. "I hope you don't mind my bothering you, but I need to hear the sound of your voice after my little trip to the far beyond and back," she said.
They talked a few minutes, with Irv concluding with his usual, "Call me anytime, day or night."
Mollie walked around her house allowing her mind to dry out like clothes on the line. Her Navane, she knew, was working. It made her feel tired and dopey, but her mind needed boundaries and Navane was like the emergency brake on a car.
Irv had recently moved to a new office on the ground floor of the eight-story Briar House in Elkins Park. His previous office had no windows which, he told her, was tough on him, especially in the dreary Philadelphia winters. She'd tried out almost as many psychiatrists as she did boyfriends. Irv stuck. She could tell him anything without fear of judgment. One psychiatrist, Pauline Grossman, had called and asked her, "Would you like to make another appointment? Are you afraid of your aggression?" Irv laughed when Mollie told him. "A classic case of aggression and projection," he said. Another, June Heller, asked Mollie how to spell Klonopin and advised her that therapy was a viable substitute for medication.
She liked Irv immediately, liked the way he moved, as if he was both walking and thinking at the same time. He was solicitous. During their very first session, when she said she'd forgotten to eat lunch, he went into a closet in his office, pulled down a bag of pretzels and insisted she munch on them. At the end of each session, he would affectionately shake her hand and tell her wonderful things about herself, all believable and true, that settled inside her like fine wine filling her veins.
He was as endearing as a wise rabbi and a Jewish mother combined. Even though twenty years had elapsed since her first breakdown, she got more pleasure in describing it to Irv than anyone else. You could see him listening, almost as if a hum or an aura emanated from his body. He listened not with titillation like some people, or with shock, or embarrassment -- she had, after all, disrobed when she was wandering around the dark campus in the belief she was Helen of Troy telling no one in particular, "These are the hips that launched ten thousand ships."
"It seemed so fitting," she had told Irv, who used the term "disinhibition" to describe her manic behavior.
He explained, leaning back in his swivel chair, autumn leaves glowing through the windows in his new office, that her freshman year at Goddard was the perfect time for the illness to make its appearance. Gone was the comfort of family and friends, the daily routines and familiar landscapes. Enter territory unknown. The bipolar brain -- the modern term for manic depression -- doesn't take kindly to change.
"But, Irv," she protested. "I was so looking forward to college!"
"Of course you were," he said. "But some little processing center in your brain was rebelling. Think of a car driving up hill which can't make it into second gear."
"Oh," said Mollie. "What can I do to help this poor beleaguered brain of mine?"
"It's a good brain, Mollie. Believe it or not, just the act of talking to me is helpful. Talk about your problems. Don't bury them. Leave me messages on my answering machine. Talk to Julius who seems to be a good listener. Plus your 600 mg of lithium a day. You're one patient I don't have to worry is going to go off her medication and mess up her life."
When they got to talking about the causes of her illness, Irv mentioned the work of British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott and his concept that a child needs a "good enough" parent. The death of her mother was a severe trauma to her malleable still-developing brain. He presented her one day with a signed copy of Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child. "You'll like this," he said. "I met the author at a conference in Zurich when I was new to the field."
Mollie kept the slender volume on her bedroom bookshelf next to her red diaries, promising herself to read it some day. Manic depression was not among her favorite topics.
There was only one other person who could comfort her with the facility of an Irv Kravitz and that was her former boyfriend Julius. While they lived together, his ability to comfort her allowed him to get away with his cardinal sins of abstaining from her bed and taking over huge areas of her house with his hoards. Somehow, though, the man kept his kindness and his patience and never failed to comfort her when her illness railed. It was Julius she went to when the condition was upon her: its terrifying bouts of paranoia such as the car that was parked across the street, which she thought had come to arrest her for some unknown crime; or her alarm when she was caught up in a spider web of unexplainable coincidences, or the less frequent urges to swallow all her pills at once. Almost as soon as she would dial Julius's number from the newsroom she would breathe a sigh of relief that her "comfort doctor" was there to rescue her. It was not so much the words he spoke as that slow train rumble of a voice that calmed her.
What would Julius say to her about Angel's edict not to see her comfort man anymore. "It's your life, Little Girl. Who's in charge of it? Your new boyfriend or yourself?"
She drove out to Julius's home in Bensalem on her lunch hour. Now that the cancer resided like an invading army in two theaters inside his body, Mollie was determined to comfort him the way he had comforted her. And to inquire about their pact. Even though his sons drove him to radiation three times a week, he was very much alone. No deep subjects ever passed between Pulaski and his family members. Did Julius know he was doomed? That the treatments would only slow the progress of the disease, not kill it?
Reporters were always on their honor as long as they got the story in. Mollie was working on a feature about a Pennsylvania congressman who was called up for active duty to serve in Iraq. He was a handsome man of forty-four who told her the sound of helicopters made him jump, bringing this laid-back college instructor right back to his rifle-wielding days in Sadr City before returning home safely to his wife and three children.
She drove down busy Street Road this windy April afternoon, directions on the passenger seat. She steeled herself for the mess that would undoubtedly assault her eyes when she entered his new house. She tried not to think about Angel's reaction when she told him of the visit. Should she keep it to herself so as not to upset him? That was impossible. So, too, was it impossible to stay away from Julius. She remembered how he'd saved her life during one of her transient suicidal episodes. It was a month after she kicked him out. She'd made a tiny, inconspicuous error in one of her newspaper stories and the man she wrote about tattled to her editor lambasting her for her carelessness. Unfortunately, it had come on the heels of a poetry contest she'd entered and lost -- the Montgomery County Poet Laureate -- and the double loss was too much for her poor beleaguered brain. She began to experience urges to kill herself.
It had been a weekend, the most vulnerable time, a day without work. Pulaski was just learning to live on his own when she called him, desperate, and he agreed to pick her up --she was afraid if she drove herself she might drive into an abutment -- everything loomed as a potential lethal weapon -- her pills, most definitely, a bottle of Clorox in the laundry room, plastic bags from the supermarket, a length of rope in the garage. They drove in his blue and white Suburban, with Mollie absentmindedly fondling his tiny crystal pyramids and pine cones on his dashboard, while he held his cigarette out the window and drove to one of his awful flea markets. Her brain felt cut in half. While one part cawed like a bluejay, "Kill yourself, kill yourself, you whore, you slut," the other was a keen observer, her reporter self -- or, as Irv called it, her "observing ego" -- witnessing in all its glory the sprawling terrain known as the Tacony-Palmyra flea market. This former drive-in movie theater, just over the bridge and on into New Jersey, still retained the painted directional arrows from its moviegoing past. On this beautiful Saturday, the flea market was flooded with cars and trucks and a sea of market goers who fairly bounced with joy as if they were at a religious convention. She marveled at her man in action, walking jauntily along in his cowboy hat, nearly the tallest man there, stopping to talk with vendor friends he'd made over the years, purveyors of fresh farm eggs, fragrant cantalopes he smelled for freshness, huge rockers he sat down in, computer chips he lingered over, all the while looking back to see where Mollie had got to. She, in her great slough of despondency, dragged herself along, and found a navy and red Cleveland Indians cap. She paid a dollar fifty for it and wore it the rest of the day hopeful it would confer magical powers to chase away her wicked thoughts.
And Angel wanted her to banish this good man from her life. She was prepared to lose Angel if she must. But she would work hard to keep him, she thought, as she turned onto Virginia Avenue and watched for Pulaski's new house.
The driveway called out his name. She laughed as she saw flea market items sprouting like vegetation for the whole neighborhood to see. A silver tarp, high as a man, was draped over various piles of unnamed stuff and resembled, as it flapped in the wind, a huge mirrored stainless steel mobile. White plastic lawn chairs dotted the driveway as did a chairless old dining room table, its leaves hanging down, and several piles of small black rocks. Mollie shuddered at the thought that the man who owned this unremittingly embarrassingly ugly parcel of mismatched goods once shared her bed. Other than his tulips and trees, there wasn't an ounce of beauty to be found.
Instinctively she looked around for signs of disrepair. As she well knew, once a house is up, it is forever falling down, sort of like a person. Repairs must be constantly made through small surgeries or large. Julius's mailbox, which stood lopsided at the curb, portended further injuries. Perhaps, thought Mollie, his truck had hit it. The hulking blue and white Suburban rested in the drive, its back window held shut with duct tape. He didn't believe in fixing things, whether objects or relationships. Easier to just let things die and add to the stash of unclaimed goods. As she walked up the drive, she peered into his truck. She'd ridden with him when he first bought it, when it was fresh and clean. The dashboard held his altar of sacred things: tiny pine cones, black and white dice, and small see-through crystal pyramids, a farewell gift from one of his students. On the left, snuggled against the window was a Marlboro Lights cigarette pack brimming with coins for the tolls.
The dog sensed her approach from inside the kitchen and began his zap of warning. Or was it joy? As she walked up the side stairway she could see his head leaping up in the air to see who the visitor was. "Hey, Tarzan," she called and awaited the appearance of his master who came lumbering outside in his pajamas.
"Welcome to my palace," he said, holding the door open. "I was packing some of my iris rhizomes to ship to Montana."
He was in his fifth week of radiation treatments.
"You like my goofy hairdo?" he said, caressing his bald head with both hands. The last time she'd seen him his shoulder-length white pageboy was swept back in a ponytail. Now asymmetrical tufts of hair sprouted like grass waiting for water.
"To be really cute," said Mollie, "you might wanna shave it all off."
"I'm already cute," he said clearing off a high ladderback chair in the living room. "Have a seat."
"I'll stand if you don't mind," she said, "I'm tied to my chair all day in the newsroom."
There wasn't an ounce of room on the floor to walk on. His living room was a warehouse of furniture, of boxes, packing material, broken computers he would fix and sell any day now, and of course the symphony of clocks against the wall which, within fifteen minutes, would begin their hiccupping chimes. She heard them every time she talked to him over the phone. Now she would have the great pleasure of hearing the symphony from a front row seat. She girded her loins.
"Did you see my new boat trailer in the backyard?"
"Boat trailer? You mean the perfect thing for the man who never sails?"
"Oh, c'mon on, Mollie. You and I used to go canoeing on Lake Galena. I told you I was a seaman."
"Dare I ask what boat you'll pull in the trailer?"
"It's at my wife's house. In the garage. After I pick it up, I'll serenade you while we cross the Delaware."
Clearly, she thought, he was in denial like Kubler-Ross wrote about. And who wouldn't be? In a year, most likely, his treasure-filled blue bungalow, surely the most unique domicile in Bensalem, would float a For Sale sign on the lawn while Popeye's Fried Chicken across the street wafted its undying aroma over the neighborhood.
She sat down and watched as he took out a pack of Vantage cigarettes. "Please, don't," she said. "Not while I'm here. We're going to talk about serious things. End of life matters as they're popularly referred to."
"Let me make some iced tea."
She followed him into the kitchen where the table was filled to the brim. A chalkboard on the wall read, "Clean up this shit!"
"Amazing," she said. "You actually wrote a note to clean up?"
"Oh, not me," he laughed. "That was Zach."
His hands shook as he stirred the iced tea mix into an old jelly jar, licking off the spoon which she had once found so annoyingly childlike when they lived together. Now it made her smile.
"I'll just have a glass of cold water," said Mollie, going over to the sink where a weeks' full of dirty dishes lay in a basin of water.
"I gave the maid the day off," said Julius, finding her an empty jar of Nestea to drink from.
She gulped it down and wiped the corners of her mouth with her sleeve. "Delicious water!" she exclaimed.
A loud moan bellowed from Julius.
"Moll," he said, his large frame leaning against the table. "I'm having one of my exhaustion attacks. I've gotta get to bed."
Exhaustion, she thought. She hadn't known about this. She was out of touch. She must remain more vigilant. She closed her eyes a moment picturing the cancer nibbling its way into his deep locomotive of energy. Memories quickly came of her beautiful dying mother, growing thinner and weaker every day, as she lay under three duchinas as they called "comforters" in Yiddish. Mollie would lie down next to her, hoping to protect her from the inevitable.
Julius led the way on tottering legs into his gaily wallpapered bedroom. These were the legs, Mollie thought, that once carried him home to Colleen and her collection of Hummel figurines or to the Rittenhouse Building at Penn to lecture to his spellbound students from Pulaski's Guide to the Universe. How could lung cancer and brain cancer, she wondered, affect his ability to walk? He wove himself through his piles of junk, tilting this way and that, steadying himself on strategically placed pieces of furniture.
The bedroom was surprisingly uncluttered. On the wall next to his bed hung two huge posters Mollie did not remember. One was titled Arches Star Cluster, the other Where will you be when the Andromeda Galaxy kisses the Milky Way Goodbye? Julius stumbled to the bed, using his hands to break his fall, and collapsed onto his stomach with his feet sticking off the bed.
Mollie was not prepared for the man's transformation. This was the new and worsened Julius. She must get used to his latest incarnation. It was true what the doctor said, what was his name? A regular name, an unadorned name. Ah, Maxwell. Robert Maxwell. Bob, she laughed to herself. Patients didn't dare call them by their first name. Six months to a year. Pulaski would end up sleeping, he'd said. Sleeping to death. Was this new exhaustion symptom a preview of what was to come? She dismissed the thought. No way. He was shipping rhizomes on eBay. He was getting out. Okay, so his outings were to the post office or to radiation treatments but certainly that took energy, didn't it? The boys took their father. She had offered to be on standby but they made it clear they did not want her involved. What else did the boys do to help? Did they do his dirty dishes? Did they keep him company and hold his hand? This was the new Pulaski. The one orbiting toward death. Tired at a moment's notice. A sense of outrage swelled in her breast. That this man, a kind man, a good man, was dying alone. It simply wasn't fair. Certainly there must be someone to blame for this blasphemy. His ex-wife? Yes, blame it on Colleen who cared more for her sunken living room with custom-made draperies than for the father of her two children. But maybe it was the children's fault? Couldn't they love him more? Maybe the cancer was a defensive feint, like a boxer protecting himself, its little knobs crying out, "Love me! Love me!"
Mollie looked over at his posters, which she imagined as huge windows opening up to the sky and revealing the heavens themselves. Perhaps Pulaski did, too.
"Andromeda Galaxy kissing the Milky Way goodbye?" she mumbled.
Julius roused himself and turned slowly over onto his back. "Mihos and Hemquist figured that one out. I couldn't get Penn to buy into a proper telescope so my students could see it. Get me my tea."
She walked quickly from the room and out along the treacherous one-aisle path toward the kitchen. In her haste, she knocked over a gold-rimmed cigar box with her elbow. "Darn," she thought as she picked up the heavy box from the floor, suppressing an urge to look inside.
Pulaski was gazing at the ceiling when she returned.
"See, Moll, it was no use working at Penn anymore." He yawned loudly. "I lost my political battles. They gave me the Sherman A. Scott Chair to shut me up." He sipped the cold tea and stared at her. "Cover me up, would you mind?" he said, nodding to a blanket at the foot of his bed.
"I could've brought the university to a new level in astronomy but you can't do it without political allies. Dave Kipnis, the chairman, was against me. Selfish little kike bastard, sorry, Mollie. Fought me to the death. Everyone knew I was right but ..."
"I remember Kipnis from your retirement party at the Bellevue. Remember? He came up and kissed my hand."
"Is that why you retired?"
"That's why I retired," he said. "The old man goes out in a whimper. He'll be sorry when I finish my formula."
"Yes, the famous non-existent formula."
"Pulaski's Space Travel for the Milennia," he said. "The Hubble allows us to glimpse the beginning of time."
Julius was fading in and out, his energy blinking on and off. If only she had known why he had taken early retirement, she wouldn't have been so hard on him. Why had he kept it a secret? The protector of the perpetrator, she thought, like in sexual abuse cases. Always the perpetrator gets off scot-free and the victim churns and dies inside. Had she known about the evil Kipnis would she have allowed him to stay? Of course not, she reassured herself. This fifty-four year-old man was as set in his ways as one of the moons of Jupiter.
No, she definitely didn't want him. She wanted Angel. She imagined herself stroking his face right now instead of leaning over the bed of a dying man whose cancer seemed to be laughing in exultation in its march to victory: kill the entire organism. Take the man down. What for? Mollie wondered. It was suicide, for once the cancer killed the man, it had nowhere to go. Its juicy battle was finished. It couldn't eat the bedsheets or the coffin. Where was its joy?
The clocks began to chime in the living room. Ca-ckoo, ca-ckoo went the lead clock like the first violinist out of tune. Mollie held her ears. She felt like going in the other room and smashing them to the ground. Instead, she paced back and forth, awash in morbid thoughts. Wasn't it Mahler she remembered reading about who said that after his parents would argue, he would hear the jingle of the ice-cream wagon outside his Vienna home?
The dissonance of the cuckoo made Pulaski's life seem like the tragedy Mollie envisioned it, especially after hearing the latest installment about Kipnis. Now the clocks were surely mocking him. "It's only a matter of time, only a matter of time," they repeated, "until the clock strikes you!"
She heard him mumble something and ran to his side. "I'm so tired, Mollie. How much longer is this going to go on?"
"I came over Julius to talk about our pact."
"I know. I'm not ready to die yet. I've still got more work to do."
His face stared at his posters without expression.
"Well, at least your pain is under control, isn't it?"
"Come over here," he whispered. She stood over him once again. So many times she had stood over him and looked down at this face. A month ago at Abington Memorial Hospital. And now here in his home. How many more times would she stand thus --one more time? three? none? -- watching those bright, curious but always terrified black eyes, before the cancer killed him, crawling like a tapeworm through the softness of his lungs and his brain, as insistent as the clocks ticking in the living room, as silent as the clocks were noisy, as stealthy and unstoppable as the clocks were proud and joyous. The enemy within proved far deadlier than the Kipnis-enemy without.
She rubbed his blue-pajamaed shoulder while remembering their first meeting at the counter of Daddypops Diner when they held warm mugs of just average coffee while their above average minds played with one another.
"The pain, Mollie," he said between breaths and pointing to his chest, "is con-stant."
His eyes closed. Covered over by a blue quilt Mollie had pulled up to his chest, he fell asleep. This is how he would look, she thought, when he was dead. They hadn't talked about the serious things that must be talked about when cancer takes center stage. They hadn't talked about the pact. About how to accomplish it when he was ready. Glancing at him, she walked out of his bedroom and into the computer room, tripping on a cord as she went in. If it wasn't cigar boxes, it was cords, she thought. His huge computer monitor flashed with its screen-saver, a flashy red and gold view of a distant galaxy. Moving closer, she accidentally brushed against his black keyboard, littered with ashes and bits of food. The distant galaxy suddenly disappeared and switched to a screen filled with numbers. Equations, seemingly. They were dazzlingly beautiful but utterly unintelligible to her. Next to the computer she saw a new white eraserboard standing on wooden legs. It, too, was filled with similar mathematical symbols. The entire board was like the canvas of an abstract painting, she thought. Not exactly a Jackson Pollock but certainly the curious eye traveled across the white roadway spattered with perfectly written black numerals, written in Magic Marker, and lingered on the jumping-with-joy red circles that ran like hearts around certain numbers, while royal-blue exclamation points sung like grace notes throughout the painting, or, formula, as the case might be.
"Color coded," she said under her breath. "I wonder what it all means. Is this the formula he claims to be working on? I wouldn't be surprised. Unless, it's a formula to get the most money for his products on eBay."
His loud snores assured her he was still alive. She went in and pulled the covers over his chest again. The little dog had hopped up on the bed and snuggled next to his master. He looked up at Mollie with sad eyes. Did the dog know?
Letting herself out the side door, she felt hot tears pelting down her cheeks. It was all so sad. So terribly sad. He was not ready to put their plan in place. Good. She was terrified of it.
From the dying Julius Pulaski she must return to the news room to finish up Tom Murt's death-defying tour of duty in Iraq. Too much sadness, she thought. Too much tragedy. Where is my Angel?
She leaned against her car and dialed Angel's cell phone not expecting him to answer but needing to hear the sound of his voice. "You have reached Angel Guerrero of Stars and Stripes. Leave a message and I will return your call."
She closed her phone as the smell of Popeye's fried chicken lofted across the street and she realized she was hungry. There, it was decided. She'd bake a chicken for dinner, her mother's old recipe. Low heat so the juices came spilling out. Maybe baste it with Canadian maple syrup. She needed sweetness in her life.
Mollie bought her boneless chicken thighs from a grocery store off Terwood Road. It was just down the street from the Bryn Athyn post office and a huge estate owned by a Delta Airline pilot and his family who also sponsored weekly Terwood Road litter clean-ups. "The Blavier-Quinn families" proclaimed the bright blue sign from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation which hopefully did not encourage clandestine late-night bottle tossers to chuck their cans on the roadway, for the saintly Blavier-Quinns would properly dispose of them for you. The two mile expanse of hills and valleys that was Terwood Road held its share of memories for her. When her car had softly and slowly fallen into the ditch in the year of the blizzard, Mollie had no choice but to walk that whole hilly mile home in her dress pumps and stockings. What she feared most was not ruining her shoes but that her toes would cramp up from walking in the cold.
A dozen years earlier, said the old lady who lived across the street and was the voice of history, a series of Burma-Shave signs appeared on the mile-long expanse reading:
is like life itself
it has its
ups and downs.
Mollie sometimes watched for the signs to reappear as she traversed this most efficacious of all back streets.
Mitchell's Shop 'n Bag was a small family-owned grocery store next to Lee's Dry-Cleaning and Custom-Tailoring and a CVS that Mollie boycotted for awhile because it reminded her of a careless mistake she'd made. When she attempted to return a pair of sunglasses, all tags attached, because they were too dark, they refused to give her a refund since she'd lost the receipt. "That'll learn you," she told herself.
Entering Mitchell's with her own canvas bag for groceries, she scanned the newspaper stand. Yes, the Intelligencer was there, along with its rival papers, and then walked back to the meat counter. Harry Mitchell, in his white apron, was slicing Dietz and Watson bologna for a customer. There was nothing as delicious as eating cold cuts on rye as a kid in Cleveland. Never though was she allowed to drink soda with it except on the High Holy Days when Canada Dry Cherry Soda appeared on the dining room table. In Cleveland, they referred to carbonated drinks the correct way: "pop," a midwestern word. The "soda" enjoyed by the rest of the country was, Mollie believed, a lacklustre word lacking the sizzle and jazz of the elegantly simple "pop."
Although Mollie was loath to disclose her manic depression to anyone, she found herself confiding one day to Harry Mitchell about her condition. As often happened on these rare occasions, the other person had a story of his own. Harry's younger brother, Gene, a former high school football star, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia while on a football scholarship to Syracuse. Gene's fall from grace was as fast as a falling star. Everything that once was his -- a cheerleader girlfriend, good grades, loyal friends -- all came tumbling down when his illness took possession of the young man's brain. He was left with nothing but a bottle of Thorazine, that in hushing his constant voices, made his body shake like a baby rattle inside and was more intolerable than the voices telling him to hang himself. It was better, he told Harry, not to take them at all.
And so Gene Mitchell, broad-shouldered football star, traveled around the country, a vagabond without a home. He became one of those park bench sleepers and subway dwellers, wandering for no purpose at all other than to outrun his voices. When his burden was too heavy, he would hitchhike back to Pennsylvania and land on Harry's doorstep, filthy and exhausted, smelling to high heaven, and nearly unrecognizable except for his closed-mouth grin and bright blue eyes.
Harry tried employing him at the store but Gene had very little patience and would wander off, sitting outside on the park bench or traveling to the baseball park down the street. He had no sense of time and mumbled always, answering and arguing with his voices who called him names, he told Harry, and urged him to sit on the train tracks or in the middle of the road.
Finally Harry found respite for his brother at the cheerfully-named Rainbow Home in the Germantown section of Philadelphia. Harry visited one Saturday a month bearing gifts of cheese and bread and fruit, plus bright blue cans of Maxwell House coffee. The residents would flock downstairs like deprived children whenever Harry arrived. They would make a fresh pot of coffee and would visibily perk up as the caffeine raced through their veins and elevated their sunken spirits. For they knew they were society's forgotten and abandoned. They gazed upon the living world through their windows, as dog walkers or schoolchildren or hand-holding couples passed by on the sidewalk, a world banned to them on account of their disordered brains. There were men in their seventies who lived at Rainbow and as young as forty. A prison all their own, devoid of work and lovers, where their lives would be crossed off day after day on the Sierra calendar that hung on the wall.
Mollie shuddered as Harry told her the story. But today Mollie had chicken on her mind. "Know any good recipes, Harry? I was thinking of baking the chicken with some sweet maple syrup."
"I do, in fact," he said from behind the counter. "My wife makes a delicious sweet marinated chicken with, let me see," he said, leaning his elbows on the high counter, "balsamic vinegar, olive oil, spicy mustard, a couple of garlic cloves and maple syrup. I don't know the exact proportions."
"Oh, that's okay, Harry, I'll figure it out,"
"You'll want to use a good virgin olive oil, of course. The maple syrup is in aisle seven; you can use honey if you want. I think that'll do it."
"Fantastic, Harry. You're a darling."
"Darling Harry," he laughed. "I like that."
"Harry, can you also give me a quarter pound of bologna? I wanna relive my childhood."
She picked up a loaf of their homemade French bread that Angel loved and drove home.
It was nearly dark when dinner was ready. "What's for dinner, Sweetheart?" Angel said upon entering the candlelit dining room. "Smells incredible!"
"Oh, it's a surprise. You know how I love to surprise you."
The feast was in view. Mollie removed her green Starbucks apron, and sat down. She closed her eyes a moment.
"A bad day?" Angel asked.
"Bad? More like indescribable, I'd say. I saw Julius today."
"You what? I told you never to see that man again," he said, throwing his napkin on the table and walking out of the room.
"I know. I know," she called. She sat a moment, rubbing her face and her hair, wondering what to do. Should she go to him and beg his forgiveness? Forgive her for what? She hadn't done anything wrong.
Picking up a piece of chicken she began to eat. She tried to concentrate on its delicious juicy flavor. Then she scooped up some mashed sweet potatoes. When she couldn't stand it anymore, she got up to look for Angel.
He was sitting slumped over on the living room sofa, staring out the window at the dark street.
"You're really taking my visit hard," she said. "You're attaching all sorts of meanings to it that aren't there. What do you think? Julius and I were screwing?"
"I have no idea what the two of you were doing. I don't know about you anymore. You swore to me you wouldn't see him again."
"I did. I broke my promise. I'm sorry. The man needs my help and I can't abandon him now. Did you ever hear of assisted suicide?"
"Of course I've heard of it. Do you think I'm some dumb spic? You treat me like I have no brains at all, just because I work with my hands."
"Sometimes, Angel, I think you don't understand how good I am to you. How much I love you and think you're so wonderful just because you do work with your hands. You're a genius with your hands. My God, when I first met you at the Intell I was amazed at the way you handled all that machinery!"
"You know what? Go visit your Julius all you want. Just don't tell me about it."
"You're my best friend, Angel. I tell you everything. I need to talk about Julius with you. I need to talk to you about him tonight. Over dinner. He's a poor, sick, dying man who will be out of both our lives in less than a year. Who else do I have but you to tell? Isn't that part of why we're together?"
"Moll, I don't want to lose you either. I like my smart, sexy, Jewish girl. But you really go overboard with your devotion to that man.. How would you like it if I flew down to Quito every week to visit a former girlfriend who was dying?"
"All I can say is, I'll try to hang in there," he said, getting up. "If it doesn't work out, we'll both be better off if I pack my..."
"Please. Don't say it. Don't say you'll leave. We'll both try. We'll try hard."
She knew the stereotype about South American men and their machismo. But she wouldn't say a word about machismo to Angel. One of the Intelligencer reporters covered a story about the murder-suicide of a young Mexican married couple with small children after the husband saw his wife laughing in the parking lot of their condo with a neighbor. Laughing, mind you. Mollie thought the man was probably mentally ill. Not that Angel would ever do a thing like that.
They had met at the Intelligencer. Angel's company, Stars and Stripes Line Striping, had been hired by the Calkins family to paint all seven parking lots of their Pennsylvania newspaper chain and one just over the bridge in New Jersey. From the huge front window of the Intelligencer, Mollie had looked up from her desk just in time to watch a parade of his trucks file into the front parking lot and then into the back lot. A few minutes later, a short, pony-tailed man in jeans and a blue sweatshirt reading "New York Nets" came in, cap in hand, looking for Lou Chessman.
"You must mean Lou Sessinger," she said.
Angel nodded his head and smiled at her.
"Follow me, sir," Mollie said. She led him into another part of the building where Sessinger sat typing at his computer in one of the few enclosed offices. He looked up through the glass as Mollie drew near. A former Marine and Vietnam veteran who walked with a limp, Sessinger had his right foot blown off by a grenade in Vietnam. His daily columns were a favorite of the readers and he was a pet of the Calkins family.
Angel thanked Mollie and disappeared into Sessinger's office for instructions.
Later that day Mollie stepped out back for some fresh air. A truck that read "Stars and Stripes" had a ramp on the back in which one of Angel's men was carrying out some orange hazard cones. A bevy of striping machines sat in the parking lot as the smell of fresh paint floated in the air. Busy Easton Road rang with the sound of passing cars. Freed for a moment from her work, Mollie had a chance to look at Angel. He and his men had set up the picnic table with their Igloo lunch buckets and Thermoses of liquid.
"What's in your Thermos?" Mollie called out, pointing to the table under the trees.
"Tequila!" he said with a grin. "We Ecuadoreans can't work if we don't get a buzz on. That's why the lines might be a little wavy." He pointed to the newly striped white lines on the black asphalt.
"I am gullible," said Mollie. "But I don't believe you."
"Would I lie to a reporter?" he said, crossing his heart and smiling broadly, showing perfect white teeth.
"Politicians can lie with a straight face. You must've run for office somewhere."
She looked for a wedding band on his finger but saw nothing, only bright-colored tattoos on his arms.
"Were you in the army?" she asked.
"Look at you, asking all these questions, senorita. Impolitic. But if you call me, I might consent to be interviewed at Tortillas Restaurant."
"Oh, Tortillas on York Road? I've never been there."
"Great food. Not as good as mother Maria's from Quito, but we can't live in the past."
After Angel moved in with Mollie and took over Julius's old room for his office, they drank their coffees together each morning before they went to work. They settled into a comfortable routine that Mollie thought would never end. She was deliriously happy. Until tonight.
"Dinner is getting cold," she said. "Shall I heat it up again?"
"I'm used to eating cold food. I'm a lunch box man, remember?"
They sat back down and Mollie gave him a big helping of the yellow Spanish rice he loved.
"I saw something amazing at Julius's house," she ventured.
"Not his dick, I hope."
She laughed. "First of all, the man's house is a landmine of useless things. Every ounce of space is taken up by his crap."
"I had an aunt like that in Quito. An international disease."
"Remember how Julius was always talking about his damn formula that was going to make him famous?"
"Well, what I saw today, Angel, may indeed be the formula. He's so secretive, though."
"And what did the inquisitive reporter see?" he said munching on the chicken.
By now Mollie, her mind constantly calibrating, had breathed an internal sigh of relief, believing their relationship had been patched up.
"I saw scads of numbers. On his monitor and on the eraser board. If those numbers were literature, I could appreciate them. Except they're exceptionally beautifully written." She stopped herself, realizing it was best not to elaborate about his beautiful loop-filled handwriting that made her feel happy whenever she looked at it. She stowed away his signature and that of her mother's in her green file cabinet.
"I'm gonna take a guess and say your Julius is not a fraud."
"Please don't call him, 'my Julius.' He is certainly not mine anymore. You know who he belongs to now?"
Angel looked up from his linguine.
"He belongs to his kids. If his kids have anything to do with it, they'd erase every goddamn thing their father wrote. They have no respect for the man."
"Maybe he doesn't deserve their respect."
"Well, he is trying to make up for his lost years of being at work all the time instead of home."
"My father is out in Los Angeles. I haven't seen him since I was five and I don't give a crap about him."
"Yeah, you told me. He's a Spanish radio announcer. Some day we're going out to meet him. You and I both. I want to see what he looks like."
Angel laughed and shook his head. "Maybe I will move out."
"Please, don't even joke about it, Angel."
"Okay, senorita, so what's your next brilliant move?"
"I'll be entirely out of the picture if he moves in with Zach. That's the son with the big house in Huntingdon Valley. Lives near some famous person's estate. Either Bill Cosby or Harold Katz, who owned some sports team."
"Yeah, Harold Katz. The lousy 76ers. Basketball, baby."
"Believe it or not, I was a good basketball player back in Shaker Heights. Played defense. I'd run around in my blue uniform."
She playfully slapped his hand.
"What'll you do when I turn into an old lady? When I'm sixty-four?"
"You'll still be sexy. The way you move turns me on. The Spanish people move with a rhythm and grace unknown to uptight Americans."
"Did you think I'd be good in bed?"
"Yeah, I can usually tell. The way she carries herself. And the way she speaks. You have a lazy drawl. Means you're not in a hurry."
He broke off a piece of crusty French bread and spread it with butter.
"So. How are we doing as a couple. Still mad at me?"
"You wooed me back with your food."
"Any way I can, sweetheart. Any way I can."
They ate in silence. Then Angel spoke. "Choose your enemies," he said. "People. The weather. Or time. You know what I often think when I'm working?"
"All the forces that got me to America from Ecuador. I still remember my country when I'm out in some parking lot mixing the paint. Scenes from my childhood come floating by -- who knows where they come from? Who knows if they're even true?"
"What do you see, Angel?"
He talked about Quito. Memories of the city -- its skyscrapers, museums, churches, and huge plazas buzzing with fountains and automobiles -- filled the dining room like a visiting chamber orchestra playing Vivaldi. He spoke about his father, who he barely remembered, who took off for Los Angeles, promising to send money and airplane tickets, but never came back. He was rumored to have found another woman and fathered five children by her.
The Guerreros had lived in the countryside. Their house had a dirt floor and falling-down gutters he saw from his bedroom where they slept three to a bed. Out back were iguanas and orange trees, the sweetest fruit he had ever tasted, a gift from the saints. His mother had done sewing for rich people and saved enough money to move to the land of Manhattan.
They had finally made it to America, living in a sixth-story walk-up on Sullivan Street in Soho. The tub was in the kitchen, the toilet in the hall. "You'd love the flusher, Mollie," said Angel. "A hanging chain from the ceiling you pull like the whistle on a train. You'd want to write an article about it."
Mornings were her time. The writer's time. She arrived in the newsroom before anyone else, savoring being alone. The huge room was filled with desks and computers and calendars and telephones. There was no privacy unless you were an editor and had your own glassed-in office. The room had a distinctive smell: ripe bananas on the kitchen table, yesterday's cigarette smoke still visible in the early morning light, and stale coffee in the mugs of the reporters and sitting on the kitchen table. The coffee cried out for a cleaning and a fresh pot to be made nearly as often as the Dunkin' Donuts down the street. Because of her manic depression, Mollie monitored her caffeine content. A drop too much and she'd be on shaky ground. Her energy level would soar, her thoughts let loose like a river spilling over the dam. She was careful, always, and knew when to push it away. She avoided only one person in the newsroom. Mildred, the receptionist, was a lovely woman. Her husband was a salesman at Johnson Wax, headquartered in Racine, Wisconsin, in the Frank Lloyd Wright Building on stilts. Yes, she told Mollie, Mildred had seen it. Quite remarkable with the red signature tile of Lloyd Wright on the outside. And that is where the conversation should have concluded, except that Mildred had a problem. She could not stop talking. Extricating oneself from her perseverations occasioned great tact and delicacy which few reporters possessed, so Mildred was a loner in the chatty newsroom.
When Mollie entered, it looked as if the reporters had just stepped out for a moment. Their sweaters and jackets hung on the backs of their swivel chairs waiting for their owners to pump them back to life. She was sorry when Jay Nachman left to pursue a career in public relations. With his movie-star good looks and flirtatious ways, Mollie had an unreciprocated crush on this man who excelled in boring the reader in the very first sentence. After he left, her heart soared when she saw he left his sweatshirt on the coat rack -- maroon with hood and zipper down the front -- and swiped it before anyone else could, wearing it when she took her life in her hands to run across the street for Chinese takeout.
It had been a week since Mollie had visited her exhausted, out-of-breath former boyfriend who had fallen asleep in the middle of their deliberations on end-of-life matters. Without telling him, Mollie steeled herself and called his self-important son, Zach, and left him a message on his answering machine. Naturally, he didn't have the decency to call her back and thank her for her concern. "It is detrimental to his health," she said in the message, "for your father to be left home alone."
Mollie waited to hear from Julius, who rarely called her except if he needed something. Though she could not abandon him, she realized he was most likely abandoning her. What choice did the dying have? But she wanted to stay in for the kill. For her own sake. For the drama and the end of the story. She could no more leave him than she could leave her mother's side in the last days of her mother's life nearly thirty-one years ago that were simply yesterday.
Before Julius got terribly sick, his sister Stella paid him a visit. Statuesque six-foot-two Stella drove over, he told Mollie, and presented him with a bottle of holy water from the gift shop at the shrine of Bernadette of Lourdes in France. The bottle was small, he told her, resembling one of those tiny wax bottles of sweetened liquid you drank out of as a kid, except it was all glass and you could see through it. How should he apply this holy water emanating from the grotto where the fourteen-year-old miller's daughter saw eighteen visions of the Virgin Mary? Mollie advised him to mix it with his iced tea.
He held out hope that it would rout the cancer, the hand of God performing a miracle on his beloved child.
Pulaski could never shake his Catholic education and the lovely stories he learned which -- who knows? he said -- just might be true. Why else had his parents named the children after saints? To foster blessings in their precarious travels through life. True, being named after a saint hadn't helped him in his fight against Kipnis, but Kipnis was not a disease. It was also true that many of his siblings died young, but didn't they say God called you when he needed you for special assignments east of Eden? Some of the Pulaskis had a habit of dying young like the saints did. Mollie still remembered their names and their causes of death like the do-re-mi of the alphabet. There was John the eldest, dead of cancer at forty. Andrew, the twin of Vincent, hadn't made it beyond thirty-five, and was buried in Resurrection Cemetery a mile from Julius's Bensalem bungalow. Eustace, called Euey by everyone, skipped over the cancers and died of a massive heart attack, which Julius learned about after the funeral, since Euey's socialite wife couldn't bear the pony-tailed brother who often went toothless. That left a strong Dorothy, with her remaining breast, who called occasionally, and of course, Anthony, Jr., who had expired once on his kitchen floor but his wife revived him mouth to mouth, though he'd lost some brain function and couldn't sit still for very long.
She and Julius had visited all of the still-living Pulaskis and Mollie had dutifully cranked out several poems including her favorite, "Wade in the Water Dry," about a visit to Dorothy and Ron and their cat Miss Suze they rescued from a turnpike rest stop, the year Ron put in the elms.
Her phone finally rang. She saw his familiar name on the Caller ID.
"Julius! It's about time," she said.
"This is Zach," said the self-important voice. "Dad is staying with me."
"Oh!" she said, in shock. "That's good. Very good. How is he?"
"He's fine. He's just too weak to talk."
He was no longer hers. His sons now claimed possession of his body. If his sons had failed to accept her when he lived with her on Cowbell Lane, they would never accept her now that he lived in the "mansion for two" as Pulaski had called it in ritzy Huntingdon Valley. He'd always been openly critical of his eldest son who ridiculed his father's satchelfull of eccentricities and refused to be impressed by the man's talents. He and his mother had formed a household alliance against the breadwinner when the young family was establishing itself on Palomino Drive. The younger son Nelson was caught in the middle and when his grades fell in junior high, he was sent to a counselor at Holy Redeemer Counseling Center.
"Zach is the spitting image of his mother," Julius had told Mollie early in their relationship when she complained of Zach's unfriendliness. "The bigger that boy's head, the bigger his house. Worst of all, he's turned into a goddamn Republican."
Zachary Pulaski, "Zip" for short, was a professional vice president, hopscotching across the green Philadelphia landscape from one financial institution to another. Often he was on the verge of being made president at a bank or small savings and loan company, but something always went wrong, and he failed to catch the bridal bouquet of promotion and fell back into the pit of the eternal number two man. Always, though, he maintained his huge home in the prized zipcode with his wife and childhood sweetheart, Lizzie.
Was it her imagination or were his children banning her from seeing their dying father? Were their attention spans so short they forgot she saved him from the shudder of divorce? That she gave him succor and shelter? She often discussed these horrid children with her psychiatrist. "It's impossible to understand all the different egos that crisscross our lives," he said patiently. "Perhaps they are good to one another. That's all we can hope for."
Well, she certainly wasn't going to grovel, but she would see the man she had made a lasting pact with. If needs be, she could sleuth her way into the neighborhood and find the mansion for two. She had done far harder things.
One day when she dared to call the home of Pulaski fils, he surprised her and invited her over, with the caveat, to show who was in control, she thought, that she must be there at one o'clock on the dot. He divulged their precious address on Corn Crib Drive, a corner property, it turned out, with a fleet of vehicles in the drive as if they owned a car dealership. Since Cerberus was not guarding the gate when she pulled up, she parked, rather boldly, she thought, directly in front of the house, as if she were a trusted friend. She harrumphed when she saw the mailbox on the street shaped like a piggie bank. "Ostentatious bastards," she thought, hating them more. Walking to the door, she couldn't help but admire an island of rosebushes in the midst of the lawn. Perhaps they were sensitive, after all. Perhaps, as Irv said, they were good to one another.
She peeked in through the double doors and looked directly out back to what appeared to be a swimming pool with Greek-like statues and a low white building that looked like cabanas. At least Julius would be surrounded by beauty in his new home. She rang the doorbell. A merry sound echoed through what seemed to be an empty house. She stood, eyes closed, listening for the vibration of feet inside. Nothing. She rang again needing to break the lonely silence with music. A quick thought came unbidden. Were they fooling her? What if Julius had already died and they lured her to the house so she wouldn't attend the funeral?
She remembered how they had dodged her invitations. "Why don't your kids like me?" Mollie had asked Julius time after time. "Are they antisemitic? You didn't tell them, did you, I have manic depression? They'd shun me for sure, their dad running around with a crazy woman."
At first he pooh-poohed her feelings. "You're too sensitive. It's your paranoia," he would say.
"Julius," she would say in exasperation. "Do not buy into the fact that I get true paranoia when I'm ill. But when I'm not ill, like now, goddamit, I am not imagining things." And she'd pound the dinner table for emphasis.
"All right, all right," he'd say quickly, panicking at the idea of confrontation. Then he'd tell her how disappointed he was in his children.
"Those kids of mine are not what I'd expected. Do you remember those little Weeble toys?"
"Sure," Mollie said. "Weebles wobble but they don't fall down."
"Well, my kids are Weebles. Little robots. Two in a row. Never had an original idea in their heads. They're smart but they're afraid to think."
"What I don't like is they're not nice to you."
"Nelson's not as bad. Zachary was always hard on me. Like a cranky old lady."
Nelson not only looked like his older brother with his jut of an Irish chin and mane of Elvis-like black hair, but seemed to be on an invisible leash behind him. Both were magna cum laude graduates of the prestigious Wharton School of Business and paid not a penny for their Ivy League education. As children of a University of Pennsylvania faculty member, the high-rise tuition had been mercifully waived. Nelson, the younger, who only dated large-sized clingy women -- preferably with emotional disturbances or better yet former addicts he could attend meetings with -- followed his big brother to whatever banking institution hired Zach. It was often embarassing when his elder brother was let go or downsized, or whatever the politically protective term was, and Nelson still set his alarm for work the next morning.
A feeling of peace spread through Mollie as she stood on the porch. She peered through the door, with cupped eyes, and saw the living room with its large-screen television, a monstrosity, she thought. Was she seeing things or did the glass coffee table hold fresh bags from Burger King and huge styrofoam cups with erect black straws. She hoped they weren't feeding him any of that crap. She'd told Julius about the BRAT diet for cancer patients -- bananas, rice, apples and toast. She'd learned about it when she covered the cancer-survivor and poet Carolyn Forche who came to town to present the Poet Laureate award. But telling Pulaski about the diet was like suggesting he give up smoking. He'd eat what he wanted and feed the greedy insatiable virus.
She rang the bell a third time and stepped away from the door. Did Pulaski realize he would never return home? Or would he? How emaciated he must look by now. What if his mind was affected, that vast brilliant mind on which he was so proud. Her mother's mind had remained intact. It was her appearance that was so dastardly altered, an almost unrecognizable concentration camp victim, aged and unmoving, though she was only thirty-eight years old. Mollie's dreary thoughts sailed over the beautiful fall landscape of shapely brick houses with colorful shutters and spectacular lawns and gardens. Signs proclaimed that Russell the Roofer had been here, Joe the Electrician paid a call, Father and Son Exterminators had routed hairy little beasts, and one house with an ornamental yew tree asked passersby to Save Darfur.
Her reverie was disturbed when the wooden spiral staircase stirred with movement. Sure enough, Zach and Lizzie both came slowly down the stairs. The little terrier Tarzan was in Zach's arms. Mollie felt an unmistakable twinge of pity for the two of them. They looked as stunned as if they were suddenly shorned of everything that once brought them joy. Anyone who could look like they did, an expression she would never forget -- rather like they'd seen a ghost and turned white -- deserved all of Mollie's compassion.
Standing on the stairs, they were oblivious to Molie's presence. She tapped on the French glass door. They looked over. "May I come in?" she mouthed.
They snapped to attention and opened the door. Tarzan cocked his head and barked as she bent down to scratch under his chin. She could never think straight when she was in the presence of Zach and Lizzie. She clutched her red pocketbook hard and asked if she could see Julius.
Zach avoided her eyes and said, "He's upstairs in the room on the right. Gerry's with him."
"What's your dad's status? How much longer does he have?"
"No one knows," said Zach who had gone into the living room and was noisily unwrapping the bag from Burger King. Certainly, thought Mollie, nothing could taste better to a Weeble than a Whopper and fries when you were caring for the dying.
Ascending the stairs she caught a glimpse of a mirrored bedroom on the left and a canary-yellow bathroom straight ahead with handrails circling the toilet. Oh, that her professor in cowboy boots had come to this!
And there he was, sitting upright in an office chair in clean pajamas and white socks. She breathed a sigh of relief. He was not yet supine as was her mother in the final months. There was still time. Time for what? For the plan? The pact?
"Hi Miss Mollie," said Julius with a new sluggishness and difficulty of speech. "I dropped one of my fries. Would you mind picking it up?"
He was a man in slow motion.
Putting her pocketbook in a corner, she picked up the fry and tossed it into a wastebasket. Out the window was a view of the enormous fenced-in backyard with huge pine trees circling the property. A hawk circled high in the air while clouds tumbled across the bluest of skies. And Pulaski was dying. And eating French fries.
Seated in a chair opposite Pulaski was Gerry. "Hello, Gerry," said Mollie, "I'm a good friend of Julius. Mollie Feigenbaum." As she spoke, she heard the sadness in her voice.
"Gerry Vincent," said the man with the Dali-like mustache offering his hand. "Julius has told me a lot about you."
"So you've moved in with your son," Mollie said.
"Just temporarily," said Julius explaining between breaths it was more convenient to take him to radiation if he stayed with them. He'd be back in his own place in another week after the treatments were finished.
Julius sat in front of a computer. "You're still on eBay?" Mollie asked.
His reply was slow, as were his hand motions. "Of course. Still on eBay. Cancer can't keep the ole man down. Did you know our bodies produce cancer viruses twenty-four seven?" he was slurring his words now but she was learning to understand him. "Our bodies surround the little bastards and eat them up."
He put a french fry into his mouth and gummed it, toothless, of course.
"Did your doctor tell you that?"
"No. I'm a genius, remember!"
She closed her eyes.
"Gotta go potty," he said winking at her. Gerry, dressed in a navy sweater and pants, rose from his chair and in a well-practiced motion helped Pulaski out of his seat. It was not easy. Pulaski grabbed Gerry's forearms and Gerry pulled the newly-stiffened man out of his chair.
"I'm okay now, Gerry. I'll take it from here." And he walked bent forward and shuffled across the floor. Mollie followed and watched their progression across the champagne-colored carpet into the bathroom. Pulaski went in himself and closed the door.
She exhaled a very deep breath and shook her head.
"Tell me the truth, Gerry. How's he doing?"
They moved away from the bathroom door.
"As far as I can tell, and I've worked with a lot of patients, he'll be gone by Thanksgiving."
"What about his pain? Is that why he slurs his words?"
"He should be on a morphine drip. He's not getting enough pain medication. Once every six hours is a drop in the bucket with pain like this."
"And Julius of course says nothing?"
"No, he's told them, and so have I."
Mollie told Gerry she would mention it to Zach. Gerry told her it would do no good.
"They must like seeing him suffer!" she cried.
"No. They're afraid of killing him."
"Bastards... does he realize the end is near?"
Gerry nodded. He told her that only yesterday, Zach sat on his father's bed and Julius asked him if he were dying.
"I think so, Dad," said Zach.
Mollie rubbed her face with her hands and thanked Gerry. "Is there any way I can reach you?" she asked.
He gave her his email address.
"By the way," he said. "They've got a sound monitor in his room so they can hear him at all times. Be careful what you say."
"I want them to hear me. It's criminal for someone to suffer such agony, absolutely criminal."
The bathroom door opened and Julius emerged. She stared hard at him as he raised up his arms for Gerry to guide him to his chair. This might be the last time she would see her former lover.
The dying Pulski had been stowed temporarily at a nursing home while his sons and their wives took a quick trip to their Poconos mountain retreat. And why not, Mollie thought wryly. Make dying as difficult as you can for the sick man. Deprive him of enough morphine so that every ounce of his flesh cries out with pain, feed him a diet rich in french fries and salt, and when the end is approaching upset his bones by having him spend a weekend with the walkered and enfeebled elderly, a taste of what he would never experience.
Thank goodness for her alliance with Gerry Vincent. It was his email that informed her Julius had gone to Chandler Hall and that he was calling for her.
Mollie relished the idea of seeing her former lover without the presence of his family members although she had to admit their "mansion for two" was equipped with the best of accoutrements for the dying. They did their father proud housing the rented hospital bed upstairs, one story above Zach's home office with its thousand-dollar swivel chair and a computer that glowed in the darkened office. The chair arms, Mollie noticed on her brief visit, had pockets stocked with bottled water and pens, everything a busy banker needs to make the world run. Julius told Mollie his son worked eighteen hours a day and always had a penchant for obese women who went braless.
Lizzie was an easy choice. She cooked for him. Not quite as fat as the others, she wore long pigtails and skirts to hide her voluptuous oversized curves. Pulaski almost liked her. Certainly liked her better than his son. She made Julius his favorite Polish dishes on "Dad's Night Out." Pierogies fried in butter, meatloaf with mashed potatoes inside like his mother made, and cabbage borscht with a thick dollop of sour cream. He told Mollie he imagined Liz straddling his son at night over the banker's loud protests.
The radio alarm went off in the morning. Mollie blinked and ran her fingers through her hair. Angel snored on his back next to her. She kissed his cheek. "Time to wake up, Sweetie!" she mumbled. "I'm seeing Julius today at the nursing home."
"Nursing home?" he said, stretching.
"Yep. Remember I told you his kids put him in Chandler Hall while they go partying in the Pokies?"
"I didn't know he was in Chandler Hall," he said, grabbing his clothes. "We did their parking lot last year."
"Wow. What a coincidence!"
"Ain't no coincidences, Moll. Ain't no coincidence that me and you are shacked up together and you're my woman."
She breathed a sigh of relief that Angel had forgiven her unbending loyalty toward Julius.
"All those handicap zones. Man, what a pain in the butt," he said, putting on his pants. "Had to get the blue formula just so. Blue makes a frigging mess. Ergo, my rainbow-colored work boots."
Angel Guerrero had bought his Ford pick-up when Stars and Stripes went into the black after securing the contract for Bucks County Community College, "the million dollar parking lot," he called it. There was no stopping him now. It was the big break his Quito-born family had hoped for him. His mother still scrubbed office buildings in New York and cleaned for rich ladies on Park Avenue, but hier son's undeniable success lowered their collective blood pressure and gave them more confidence when people looked askance at their different bodies: decendents of the Incans with their olive-colored skins, coconut-sized heads and small, lean South American bodies uncorrupted as yet by Twinkies or Tastycakes.
As Angel lathered up in the bathroom he called out, "Sure you'll be all right, Moll? I know you care about that man. Shame he's gotta go through all this misery."
"I'll be fine, Angel. At least I think I will," she said, squeezing past him to the second sink to brush her teeth. "The tough thing will be seeing what he looks like. Each time I see him a little more of him disappears."
"Maybe you'll write an article about it," he said, looking at her in the mirror.
"You read my thoughts," she said, turning on her electric vibrating toothbrush and squeezing out a dab of mint toothpaste. "Do you think I should feel guilty? Writing about a dying man?"
"Mother Mary, no! Should I feel guilty painting the parking lot of a place where they carry out dead people while me and my guys listen to the Gypsy Kings?"
"Thanks. You're such a dear. You're the best boyfriend I ever had."
"Why thank you, sexy mama!" he said patting her butt as he left.
At forty-five, Mollie was a good seven years older than Angel. It bothered her in the beginning but Angel reassured her. "You think I care about your age, baby?" he would tell her. "Love knows no boundaries."
He was also fine with her not wanting any children. "One suffering manic depressive is enough for this earth," she told him. "I don't want to bear the risk of having little manic-depressive babies."
They held each other a few moments before Mollie drove off to Chandler Hall.
Backing out of the drive, she cast a lingering glance at her yellow house with the birdbath in front. Before proceeding on her way, no matter if she was running late, she stared at her house and gardens. Painting them with a protective gloss, it seemed that neither high winds nor torrential rains nor disease could penetrate the pristine interior, its rooms painted with vivid pinks and purples and greens, and that its occupants would be forever safe from the woes of the world.
After her silent meditation on her house, she flipped on the car radio to hear what song WRTI-FM, the classical music station, would present at this landmark moment of visiting Julius in the nursing home. Once he had been her Julius, but, alas, no more. He was now owned by his sons. She turned the radio off. She needed time to think. No distractions allowed. She must prepare, clear her mind. Perhaps, she thought, I can gain strength by thinking of Mother when she was dying. But her memory refused to cooperate and no image produced itself. Instead she remembered her parents walking hand in hand when they took her to their ancestral homeland in Budapest, white-haired Gramma Lily in tow. Her father Artie was in an expansive mood. His brokerage firm had gotten a luminous new sign outside his downtown Cleveland office that read: Majestic Brokerage: Our Specialty Becomes Your Passport to Wealth. As they walked across a bridge over the once faraway Danube River, which now flowed beside them in silken gray waves, her father sang in his pleasant but nasal voice, "Oh, what a beautiful morning," followed by humming the famous Strauss Blue Danube waltz. How lovely her mother looked in her shoulder-length brown hair and lilac-colored dress with padded shoulders. Though Gramma Lily made a face when her son-in-law began to sing, Mollie joined in and linked arms with her father. How she loved him back then.
Chandler Hall was tucked away in the famously beautiful green hills of Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The land on which nearly two hundred very old people spent their last days was once inhabited by the Lenni Lenape tribe. They grew golden maize and buttenut squash. They hunted deer and boar and turkey, and fished for shad, herring and shrimp from the river-gifted region. The Lenapes would have lived in peace forever had not the rattle of yearning sounded across the ocean. In came the good Quaker, William Penn, appointed governor of the Indian's land, by none other than King George the First. That Penn was friends with the natives was unheard of. In fact, soon to be beheaded King George had ordered him to "drive the savages off the land." Since the Quaker Penn was an egalitarian, it wasn't until a century after his death that the Indians were in fact forcibly evicted and wandered like the Jews all the way to Oklahoma.
Their lush lands, borrowed from the Great Spirit, now devolved to hardy farmers, men who pulled on their overalls before the sun crept across the horizon, and tilled the land with calloused hands as they did in Germany, Holland, Ireland, England and Scotland. Years and the generations passed. Farm by farm finally succumbed to real estate developers and the lure of easy money. These most disciplined, vigorous and sensible of men, who could tell the time by closing their eyes and feeling the light on their skin, went gladly off their land. No regrets. Their grandchildren could go to the university. Their wives could lollygag about town without needing to hurry home to put up tomatoes or make mint jelly for the leg of lamb or when nighttime came, sit in the living room and patch up pants and socks. And the farmers could live like English lords. They could play poker till two in the morning, could see what the ruckus was all about on late-night television and sleep until six in the morning instead of two or three.
Once again the precious land that had once flowered with silky-tassled corn and thick-leaved soybeans to feed the cattle now fell back into the hands of the Quakers. No more than three-hundred thousand of these "inner-light" seekers populated the entire world, but their largesse was rich. They built their model nursing home in Chandler Hall. It was embraced by the community and applauded by none other than the visiting First Lady Hillary Clinton who pronounced it a model environment -- Chandler Hall eschewed the word "facility" -- to the nation whose youth culture made aging and wrinkles a crime to be covered up by plastic surgery or turtlenecks to hide wrinkly necks.
When Mollie pulled into the parking lot, she reminded herself to take a look at the line striping. If ever there was an overlooked part of the landscape it was surely that. But in the land of America, with its Darwinian niche philosophy of discover a need and do it first or do it better -- like the sale of Julius's automobile fans on eBay for $2.88 plus shipping -- Angel's Stars and Stripes had found a hole in the market that was finally bringing him the security he craved.
Mollie was greeted by a fleet of nursing home buses, resembling small recreational vehicles, offering the hope that another day awaited the Chandler Hall residents. The five stages of grief, or was it six -- Mollie could never remember --had not as yet been unveiled for the remaining residents, though when that sad or happy day would arrive, the families of Chandler residents would certainly be comforted if the website was to be believed. The words "Aging is not a disease" or "Aging is a creative and meaningful process," were centered on a page bordered by reassuring long-stemmed flowers.
As her brown boots clopped merrily toward the building known as Hicks, she watched the handicapped zones pass underfoot like small blue lakes encircled by badlands of asphalt. Walking directly on the handicap symbol, she noted it was nothing more than a filled-in white circle, a half circle, and some angular high-stepping zigzag lines. Who, she wondered, had designed this little stick figure? Perhaps a committee of city planners in Arizona, she thought, as she walked through the sliding glass doors that swallowed her up.
A receptionist with a laminated nametag greeted her. She also served as an unarmed guard to make sure none of the residents forgot what stage of life they were in and attempted to go home. This was home. A Ziegfield follies of oldsters smiled at Mollie, starring a walkered woman nearly bent over double. At least my own mother never got old, she thought. The smell of heavy-gravied food wafted like baby bottles of warm milk throughout the carpeted building.
It was imposible to believe that someday old age would gobble up everyone, Mollie thought. At forty-five, she was for the first time able to identify with the elderly while fearing and disliking them. She was considering coloring her hair.
Mollie had long ago moved through her drizzle of denial about Pulaski's unshakable illness. To comfort herself about his impending death, she would open her Old Testament. "Here shall your proud waves be stayed," Mollie would read from the book of Job, the melancholic's bible. She knew many passages by heart and wondered at a god who no longer walked the earth.
The cafeteria food smelled strangely inviting, cloyingly so. She walked down the carpeted hallway. How would he look? How was his speech? His mobility? His mind? His door was shut. Two charts hung on the wall in see-through plastic shelves. She read the name Simon Baniewicz and Julius Pulaski. Two Poles.
She knocked loudly. Why couldn't they use regular doorknobs, she wondered, as she turned the institutional L-shaped latch and walked in. Her man did not see her. But Gerry Vincent did and gave a little wave of hello. Mollie nodded and turned her attention to the television. She was not ready to face her former lover. The television was eye-level and not hung from the ceiling like when she'd visited Julius at Abington Hospital. Over its incoherent bland blare, the man in the next bed with the unpronounceable Polish surname stared at the television as if he were watching Jesus deliver the Sermon on the Mount.
"Did you bring me my cigarettes?" Julius mumbled in a low voice.
"A chocolate bar," she said, removing a Hershey bar from her jacket pocket and flashing it toward him.
She walked across the small room and leaned over his bed, glancing briefly at his face. She touched the cold metal bedrail.
"Yeah, a cage," said the toothless Pulaski.
"A crib," she thought. And Pulaski undoubtedly in diapers. Just in case.
His pajama bottoms hid his emaciated legs. She noted the fixed expression on his face, as if frozen in horror of his imminent death. His mouth gaped open. She dared not ask why it wouldn't close. She would observe it for herself and glare, when his gaze was averted, at the way the carnivore virus inside him had taken its next victim like a hawk's talons tearing into a rabbit's throat.
Her thoughts began rapidly. They were not the racing thoughts of mania, she reassured herself. Thy were simply: thoughts. This is the man I used to sleep with. This is the man who sang Polish lullabyes to me while I drifted off to sleep. And helped me into the canoe when we rowed across Lake Galena. And walked with me into the deep woods. And was a deerhunter. And an astronomer. And a father. And who quieted my nerves when the demons shrieked. And who I visited after I kicked him out. I used to be his girl. But I had to kick him out, didn't I? And visited him in his blue bungalow in Bensalem across the street from Popeye's. And he took me next door to Dominic's so we could pick figs off the tree and persimmons, too. The figs were full in your hand and with a little twist they were yours. And we ate them, the two of us, standing in Dominic's sunny backyard sucking the plump juiciness of the fruit instead of having sex: we knew it, too, he knew everything, Pulaski did, and said it all when he said, I'm a genius. True. A genius with a wasted life. Who is wasting away, wasting away.
"Can he eat the chocolate bar?" she asked Gerry.
"Put it on the bed table," Julius said.
Despite every good intention, the room smelled of urine. Even the Cordon Bleu smell was barred entry. Urine was king in the nursing home. Gerry stood arms folded over Pulaski's bed gazing at his charge. A retired accountant, he was courtly and fancily mustachioed -- did he know the works of Dali? -- and charged handsomely for his services, said Pulaski, who despised him for the first month. Told Mollie he was "stupid" to her protests of "he just has a different type of intelligence than ours."
"Yeah, a parakeet's," complained Pulaski. Like an arranged marriage that got off to a rocky start, Gerry had finally won his way into Pulaski's heart. He did all the things a good wife should.
Mollie knew Pulaski couldn't enjoy the chocolate bar. Everything tasted "like sand" he had told her. The only time he was capable of feeling pleasure was when he was asleep. While the world moved around him in the jolly cacophany that was life, Pulaski lay in in his own private hell. He told no one about it but Mollie. What was the sense in worrying anyone? Besides, he told her, they could never understand his pain. With no pleasure left, with no purpose other than to make other people wait on him and rack up exorbitant medical bills, Pulaski resolved to leave the world when he'd had enough of his deterioration and his pain. The one thing he could do in the cancers' Rommel-like march through his interior was to deprive it of ultimate victory.
It was not to be. The opportunity had passed. Mollie and he had discussed these deep desires in the early days of his illness but never again. Perhaps he wished to see life to its natural conclusion. Nothing wrong with that, she thought. It would be a tremendous relief. Her role as guilty accomplice was averted.
She remembered now, as she stood over the man ensconced in bedrails, the time he called her during an eclipse of the moon. It was one of those much-heralded events that would not occur again in their lifetime. As he spoke to her over the phone it was if they were the only two people on earth. She stared toward the moon from her dining room window watching the high-up moon next to her arching rubber tree while Julius was fifteen miles west gazing through his telescope on his deck. She didn't ask if he were in the nude as she preferred to picture him in his blue denim shirt with Marlboro Lites and a Cross pen in his pocket and his white beauty dangling from his lips. Tarzan would be at his side.
"The uncaused cause," he'd said over the phone.
Had she heard him right?
"Are you talking about God?" she asked. She loved God talk.
"Yepper. God. What made him do it?"
"You mean...create the whole shebang?"
"Yeah, the eternal question. What made him do it?"
"I never thought about the 'why' question, though my science teacher in Shaker Heights, Mr. Siciliano, had a huge poster of the word WHY on the wall."
"Lucky for me I had a good Catholic education."
"What made it so good?"
"The Jesuits," he said. "The greatest teachers outside of third century BC Athens. The Jesuits made sure all Catholic students learned about Saint Thomas Aquinas. I sure did. You're not staring directly at the moon are you, little girl?"
"I'm averting my eyes and taking tiny peeks."
"Good girl. He called it the uncaused cause, the idea that God created the universe for the sole purpose union with God and procreation. Remind me to tell you later about His Five Principles known as the Cinque Danky as we called them in high school."
"Oh," she thought, "if only Julius hadn't botched up his life and had slept with her, this wise man could answer all of her questions."
She was glad the sun was shining brightly onto Chandler Hall. She needed its unbending strength and power and certitude in these last tenuous times of Julius's shortening tenure on the earth. She looked out the window for the blue handicap zones to remind her of life. And of Angel. But she felt beaten. She felt like she was melting along with him toward death.
"Nice place," she murmured, trying to get herself out of her funk.
"I hate it," he said. "It stinks. Take me home."
What a small victory it would be if she and Gerry could take Julius on a scenic drive. Would the nursing home permit it? Doubtful. When her mother was dying at home, few people had heard of the term "hospice." Yet that's what their home in Shaker Heights turned into with its constant flurry of aunts and cousins and lifelong tennis-playing friends of her mother who came bearing gifts of fruit baskets, knitted afghans, home-made chocolate kuchen, books on art and Judaica, all orchestrated by Mollie's energetic Gramma Lily. Mollie's grandmother was tiny and shapely, a widow, who was rumored to have been so critical of her unsuccessful salesman husband, he went down the basement and hung himself. Her grandmother's blighted personality made it difficult to appreciate the love she bore her daughter or her great beauty of form and face. From as soon as Mollie was able to walk she toddled about the house in Gramma Lily's specially-made size 4 high heels and applied her bright-red lipstick to her baby lips.
The Feigenbaum's green and white Tudor house became a sanctuary devoted to Mollie's dying mother. Like most people facing death, Laura Feigenbaum surrendered to the inevitable with the grace of a Buddhist. Towards the end, there was no planning ahead for drives in the country. The cancer had its say. And must be obeyed.
Mollie remembered the very last scenic drive.
"Mollie," said her mother one day from her afghan-covered bed, "I think I'm up for a drive in the country today. Call Daddy at the office and see if he'll drive us." It had been a Saturday and he said yes, he'd leave right away, get the wheelchair ready.
She pushed her mother to the front door. The smell of springtime was in the air, of lilacs and a coming rain. From the vestibule, Mollie began to lower her mother down the three steps that led to the driveway. Suddenly, she realized the wheelchair must be lowered down backward. Positioning the Hoveround facing the house, she stood before it on the top step and gently tried to lower it down onto the step. The combined weight of her emaciated mother and the sturdy steel of the wheelchair came crashing down into Mollie's chest and belly. Her left leg stumbled onto the second stair but miraculously she was able to contain her mother's fall with an unexpected surge of Superwoman-like adrenaline and bounced the wheelchair down onto the waiting circular driveway. There was her father, cruising to a halt in his black and tan Ford Country Squire Station Wagon, license plates DAYTRDR1. If her mother ever knew of the near-calamity, she never said a word.
On these good days, the three of them would drive out to Chagrin Falls on the Chagrin River, followed by a vanilla soft custard at the brightly-lit Isalay's custard stand. Her mother, the once glamorous Laura Feigenbaum, whose yearbook photo Mollie looked at over and over again, loved nothing more than the sight of the splashing falls and the sound of the rolling little Niagara forty-minutes from home.
Scenic drives were essential to the dying to let them review the living world before their final confinement.
"Julius, would you like a change of scenery today?" Mollie asked. "We could ask your keepers for permission."
"Don't ask, Just do it," said Julius, becoming suddenly animated.
Mollie looked over to the Polish gentleman in the next bed. Was he listening? Did he have dementia? A styrofoam cup with a straw that looked like the ones at Abington Hospital adorned his bedside table as did a strawberry-colored pill box.
Speaking softly in his new and breathy voice, Julius explained that Simon was the retired president of the American Numismatic Society. "He'll give you a penny for your thoughts, right Sy?"
The old man nodded but kept his eyes on the television.
"Julius, my goal is to make you happy. Gerry, shall we take him out for a drive?"
"We'll need to contact his kids in the Poconos."
Mollie, fearing the worst and knowing the sea of bureaucracy that awaited any spontaneous ideas that would benefit a patient, went out to talk to the authorities.
Within half an hour a woman knocked on the door with the good news. Zach had given his permission for a scenic drive. Mollie pulled up her lime-green Nissan wagon, opened the passenger door in the front, and waited while three helpers in gaily-flowered smocks escorted Julius to the car.
"What's this mess on the floor?" he mumbled before being lowered inside.
"Oh, sorry!" she said, gathering up two dried apple cores and tossing them into a bright green trash can nearby.
The last time he'd been in her car, she thought, was at their disastrous trip to the illustrious Pearl A. Goldstein, PhD. Oh, if only she could see them now. The happy couple. Together till the end.
"I wanna go home," said Julius. "Take me home."
"We'll go home, Julius. We'll go home."
She wondered, and would until the end came, if Julius was lucid. Going home seemed a reasonable request.
The outdoors always takes on a new significance after captivity of any sort, even if, like Mollie, it was visiting a captor. The blue sky and the silent slice of moon over the gently sloping countryside was particularly lovely even though they were ensconced in another form of captivity, the car. Always encased in something, either a house or a tent or a hut or a jail or a department store. Only in nature was one truly free. Only when she and Julius had canoed on Lake Galena with her fingers trailing in the cold water while he carefully steered the boat, had she felt the smile of freedom.
"Feast your eyes, Julius. We're going home to Bensalem," she said, entering the always crowded highways of suburban Philadelphia.
There was no downtown Bensalem. Instead, always busy Street Road, speed limit 45 mph, straddled the town with mile upon mile of small shops whose garish signs blurred into a colorful cacophonic diorama, an outdoor museum flashing with a jazz of colors: Mattress Giant, Bombay Video, Top Dollar Paid for Gold, Mr. Tux, Dollar Zone.
Though the silent dissonant shrill of the shop signs demanded attention, Julius remained strangely quiet, eyes staring straight ahead, as if seeing nothing, mouth fixedly open. His white beauty was conspicuously absent from his lips.
"Ever been out here, Gerry?" asked Mollie.
"Not to his house; but I live nearby in Levittown."
"Levittown!" roused Julius. "Not in one of those ticky-tacky houses, I hope."
Gerry laughed and leaned forward in the back seat. "Yes, I suppose it is. But it is mine."
"Julius, your speech is so much better than the last time I talked to you. Who knows? Maybe the radiation is working."
Gerry explained that Julius had his good days and bad days. Chandler Hall had also given him a new type of morphine. The whole debacle of his sons' banishing him to a nursing home proved surprisingly beneficial.
Pulaski's mail was stuffed into his tilted-over mailbox at the curb, a flyer from Staples hanging out like a tail. The wind whisked his address shingle 2144 to and fro on the lamppost. But the weather was fine. Julius pointed at the moon as Gerry and Mollie helped him from the car for the long journey into the house. Mollie watched Gerry as his head turned to view the backyard hoards. The old familiar boat trailer sat lonely without its boat. Did Julius realize there would never be a boat? She thought he did. A wooden ladder leaned against the garage wall, ready to obey a command to help pick ripe apples off a tree or rescue a cat from a limb or patch a leaky roof. What would become of that ladder, she wondered.
"My chair is in the front room," Pulaski said. "Get me in there."
He was so winded from climbing up the side porch stairs that he announced he'd sit at the kitchen table and rest. He fell into the chair and huffed and puffed as if he'd run a marathon instead of having climbed three steps. Mollie and Gerry looked at one another. "He'll be all right," said Gerry.
"Of course I'll be all right!" Julius said, summoning his strength. Then, "Get me my cigarettes."
"I don't think that's such a..."
"Gerry," said Mollie. "Why don't we?"
Following Julius's instructions, Mollie went to the high shelf in the kitchen cupboard and pulled down a carton of Vantage cigarettes. Holding it, she dug out a pack. So this was the brand he ordered from an Indian reservation in upstate New York and believed had poisoned him. She extracted a filtered cigarette from the white package with blue bullseye. Never a smoker, she held it up so she could see the little writing beneath the filter tip and then put it in her mouth. She sucked in. "Do I taste cinnamon and spices? Do I taste rosemary and thyme?" she asked, surrendering it to Julius's outstretched shaking hand. A plastic see-through lighter sat on the kitchen table.
"Allow me," said Mollie. "This is your day. Whatever you want."
They watched as Julius leaned back in his chair, a man learning to be at peace with himself. In a month or so the man they saw sitting there blowing smoke rings toward the window would undoubtedly be confined to his bed, no longer able to walk. Inexorable as the dawn. But the "secretary of his private parts," as Pulaski referred to Gerry, would be at his side like a doting wife.
Mollie and Gerry settled themselves at the kitchen table. Mollie knocked on the orange formica and looked at Julius. "From the early days of your marriage when you lived in South Philly. It followed you everywhere you went."
"It loves me," said Julius.
Mollie pointed to the "Clean up this shit" writing on the blackboard and showed it to Gerry. "His kids," she said.
"Well, it's his house; he's over the age of eighteen."
"They're not such bad kids," said Julius. "Takes some people longer than others to grow up. I hope I was a good example to them."
They sat awhile in silence. A sparrow perched on the outside window ledge and pecked at the glass.
"See! He loves me."
Mollie went over to have a look and he flew away.
"I love you, too, Julius. You know that, I hope." She wondered if he and his children ever shared those words.
"Who's that man over there?" asked Julius, pointing.
At first, Mollie thought Julius was hallucinating. But, no. Mollie and Gerry looked out the window on the side door. The plumbing company was still housed in its trailer. A worker had come over to the fence and was peering intently at the side door.
"I think that's Walt," said Pulaski. "Tell him I want to talk to him."
"What for?" asked Mollie.
"Just get him," said Pulaski.
Mollie got up and called through the door. "Are you Walt?" And then, "Can you come over a sec to talk to Julius?"
The man tipped his baseball cap and walked around and came up the driveway. He poked his head in the door. "How ya doing, Julius? Haven't seen you for quite some time."
"Been staying with my son. I wanted to know if I could have another load of rocks for my garden. My secretary here will pick them up if he's allowed to in his contract. I wanna line the other side of my driveway with them."
"Anytime you want, Julius," said the man. "Take them tonight if you want."
"Will do, Walt. Thank ye."
The iris and the tulips, thought Mollie, would come up without Julius and without his rocks. Dominic's fig trees and orange persimmons would bloom next door, while his tractor-trailer cab gleamed blue out front. The grass and the trailing ivy and even some Big Boy tomatoes that reseeded themselves would blossom and thrive in the absence of Pulaski. And so would his former wife and the two rascals he had for children. Gerry Vincent would pack his bags and move out of the mansion for two and present himself to the next frail human being, and Mollie too, she knew, would continue with her life, her life without Pulaski.
"I'm ready," he said.
Mollie looked at him. He put out the cigarette in a lidless sardine can he pulled from somewhere unseen. Under his direction they walked in choo-choo fashion to his office, his arms on Mollie's shoulder with Gerry in the rear. His wall of a baker's dozen of talking clocks -- cuckoos, music-playing anniversary clocks, a grandfather with its guts open to the public -- paid him a "Hail to the Chief" as he passed by, hiccupping and sneezing and chiming at his lurching unsteady gait as he navigated the treacherous narrow one-aisle path that was the hallmark of the perfect hoarder.
The sun streamed into the office window at half mast, lighting up his keyboard which flashed with cigarette ashes and a light flaking of toast crumbs and popcorn. He bounced into his office chair with its worn arms. For the first time, he smiled. "A life too short," he said with something resembling a sob. "I need a cigarette." Mollie went to get the pack and lit it for him.
The smoke spiraled upward in the sunlight, a gray twisty ribbon whose shapes vanished as soon as they appeared, like endless ocean waves, filling the stuffy airless room with a warm scent. "My hands are too weak to type, Moll. Sit on my lap," he said, "and I'll tell you what I want you to do."
Mollie pulled over a chair and sat next to him, her leg rubbing his. "Don't get fresh," he said. "There's an envelope in the bottom drawer," he paused, out of breath, "Get it out for me." He watched as she opened the very bottom drawer in which the contents were neatly arranged. She pulled out a white envelope where he'd written A. Hotchkiss in his unmistakable loop-filled blue handwriting. The envelope was unsealed.
"Call Albert and make sure I've got his correct address." He took another deep breath. "Phone number in the envelope. And don't lose the damn thing."
"I promise," she said. "Look, I'm putting it right here in my front pocket." She stood up and put it in the pocket of her jeans.
"I know you won't, little girl."
He pointed to the computer with his chin. "I want you to open that yellow document marked 'Eagle.' Where's Gerry? Stealing some of my treasures?"
"Back here, Julius. Just looking at your magazines. I see you published something in Physics Today."
"Well, watch what Mollie's doing. In another year my yellow document will be the talk of the physics nation."
He puffed on his cigarette and they watched the ashes fall onto his lap.
"He never learns," Mollie said, looking over at Gerry. "It's amazing he hasn't gone up in flames like a Buddhist monk." She remembered the burn marks he'd left on her carpet back home on Cowbell. Something to remember him by. As if she could ever forget him.
"I do love you, Julius," she said touching his arm. She thought briefly about Angel's reaction if he heard her words.
Mollie opened the document marked "Eagle" and eleven sub-folders jumped out across the screen like little yellow ducklings. "Now you go ahead and email them to yourself at home. Then mail them to your work address as a double-check. What else did I tell you to do?"
"Find out where Hotchkiss can be reached."
"Good girl. And don't kiss him," said Julius.
Mollie emailed the documents to her home on Cowbell Lane and to the Intelligencer.
Relieved, she stood up and looked out his office window. There were always cars in Popeye's Fried Chicken across the street. But Pulaski no longer took his trash to their Dumpster. Did Farid Afzali miss him, she wondered. Did he even think about Pulaski? How his life had narrowed down, his once wide world vanishing. The province of the dying. If only the radiation had worked. But Dr. Maxwell had told her it would not. It would only slow the growth of The Insidious. And now he was like an orchid, head drooping on the stem, waiting until the last petal fell to the earth.
"If you don't mind," said Julius, "I'd like to be alone with my thoughts. Give me five or ten minutes. Mollie, go out back and show Gerry a picnic table Farid gave me from across the street. I'll leave it to you in my will."
They laughed and started to leave his office.
"One more cigarette, if you don't mind, Miss Mollie. And how 'bout some music? I'd like to conduct the Cleveland Orchestra and Beethoven's Ninth before I leave."
It was good to be away from Julius.
"How do you do it, Gerry?" Mollie asked as they descended the side stairway into the clean-smelling fresh air of the suburbs. "Be around a dying man and be so patient, so loving?"
He explained that when he and his wife lost a daughter after a head-on collision with a drunk driver, it shook them to their very roots. They could never shake the memory of their beautiful college-bound daughter dying at Johns Hopkins University Hospital of massive internal injuries. Everything in the area reminded them of their talented, oboe-playing Clarissa. Finally, his wife Teresa suggested they move back to Levittown, Pennsylvania, where they had spent the early days of their marriage. Gerry closed up his accounting practice, said goodbye to Rosemarie, his secretary, and they never looked back. His business acumen helped him start his own home health care service. They joked about calling it Mother Teresa's, considered other names such as Your Home Visitor, Your Good Shepherd, Gerry's Choice, Teresa's Choice and decided on Gerry's Home Health Care Service. Gerry got his certificate which taught him how to help a patient with personal hygiene and bathing, get out of bed, and use the toilet or commode, in addition to a smattering of psychological advice such as "never probe but let the patient tell."
"Best job I ever had," he told Mollie.
The two of them stood on the driveway by Julius's truck. They could hear the plumbers next door pull in and out of the unpaved driveway, tires squooshing in the mud. The smell of mud was strong, as was Popeye's Fried Chicken. "Julius loved to take home the fried chicken," laughed Mollie. "Anything that was bad for him. He told me once that eating brought him such immense pleasure he decided to become a Rabalesian glutton. I have half a mind to pick him up some fried chicken."
She looked at Gerry who was shaking his head and looking around the yard.
"It won't be long now," said Gerry. "A month at the most."
She was silent a moment.
"Do you think he knows?"
"Hard to say. Not if you listen to him planning for the future."
"I miss his little dog Tarzan. Tarzan the barker. The liveliest little animal. Such a contrast to Julius."
"Yes, Tarzan is doing well in Huntingdon Valley."
"Do you sleep at their house?"
Gerry explained his unusually long hours at the house, wanting to keep Julius company as much as possible until the end.
"I'm guessing," said Mollie, "and you certainly don't need to answer me, but I'm guessing you put in long hours because you are so good to him and other nameless people are not."
"They're learning," said Gerry. "They're young and inexperienced."
Mollie relished telling him that Julius called his sons Weebles. Gerry gave a hearty laugh and gave his mustache a little twist.
"I have a great view of the swimming pool from my bedroom," he said. "Plus, I can hear Julius when he rings the cowbells."
"Cowbells? That's the name of my street."
"He'd bought some cowbells on eBay so that he could call for anyone in the huge house and they'd hear him."
"Ah! Smart man," said Mollie. "Did you know Julius has a license plate with a bald eagle on it?" They walked to the front of his long blue and white Suburban where the front license plate had a picture of a profile view of a bald eagle. Unlike other states, Pennsylvania required only one plate, on the rear of the car.
"I think he likes them cause they soar so close to the skies."
"It's also his moniker on eBay," said Gerry. "The bald eagle."
They walked around the yard, as if his hoards were calling to them. Mollie walked the wooden plank to the backyard, the boards protecting her from the muds that came after the rains, while Gerry lifted up some of the blue tarps to see what lay underneath.
"This is pretty neat!" Mollie called to Gerry. "Come take a look at this statue."
In the middle of the yard was a three-foot high statue, chipped and broken, of what appeared to be some sort of cherub with one wing. His eyes were peering out intensely, they were holes actually, and someone, most likely Pulaski, had put a pebble in one of the sockets, and some berries in the other. Wet leaves clung to his ancient body. Mollie walked around him to glimpse his back. She fondled the cherub's one wing with its engraved scallops. Her sculptor boyfriend had taught her the attributes of a sculpture: its dimensionality hides nothing the way a painting does. All is revealed.
"This is the only thing of all his hoards that I actually like," laughed Mollie. "What do you think, Gerry?"
"It reminds me of something Teresa and I saw in Greece. Our Clarissa was with us, too, and took a photo of the little guy."
They stood in silence admiring the chipped and broken angel.
Then Mollie smelled something odd, a distinct new smell arising into the mix of neighborhood smells. From the backyard, she looked at the back of his house and saw a halo of pale yellow air coursing around the Pulaski bungalow. Then an angry army of smoke began to appear from the top of the house, dense clouds of thick curling smoke, heading silently and forcibly toward the sky, tumbling like Chinese acrobats from the roof at ever increasing speeds. Mollie and Gerry ran toward the house as the smoke continued its relentless encirclement of the bungalow. When they opened the side door, clouds of thick gray smoke escaped, stinging their eyes and their nostrils and bathing their bodies in an inferno of heat, barring entry.
"The front door," said Gerry.
"It's always locked," Mollie said running toward the front door. "Unless there's a miracle, he'll be dead before the fire department gets here."
A man in a dark suit and umbrella directed a steady stream of cars into the parking lot of Wetzel and Son Funeral Directors in Willow Grove. The town, with the alluring name of Willow Grove, was once a mecca for Philadelphia families who escaped the heat of the concrete city by riding the trolley out to the once farm-laden countryside where a huge amusement park, the grandest in the land, awaited them. Willow Grove Amusement Park hosted as many as thirty-thousand people a day in the scorching-hot Philadelphia summers where the temperatures climbed above ninety degrees. Families scarcely noticed the heat as they immersed themselves in the turn-of-the-century pageantry of the park: four fearsome roller coasters and a carousel of magical prancing beauty infused with the sounds of a toccata-pumping organ. On hot summer nights they would gather in the band shell to hear John Philip Sousa and his marching band perform live music while they cooled off with an assortment of colorful ices and seltzer drinks.
After the era of the amusement park ended, Willow Grove lost its identity. Now it was simply one of many suburban Philadelphia towns, indistinguishable from Abington or Warminster or Jenkintown, with its predictable array of Starbucks and Staples, Rite-Aids and McDonalds, and a downtown that struggled hard to be called a downtown. The township commissioners hoped a newly built splashing fountain would seal its claim to be "downtown" rather than the previous downtown symbol: a Burger King that smelled of bathroom deodorizer.
Still, the mere mention of "Willow Grove" brought replies of, "Oh, the home of the Willow Grove Mall!" The mall, very few people under forty knew, was built on the ruins of the amusement park.
Mollie backed her lime-green Nissan wagon into a parking space at Wetzel and Son, noting as she did so whether the lines were straight or crooked and whether or not they needed to be repainted. The funeral home passed muster.
Photos of Julius Pulaski and his large family of origin greeted the visitors who arrived in surprisingly large numbers. Mollie knew few of them. She saw a scattering of his siblings standing like awkward chess pieces against the wall. She dreaded facing Zach and Lizzie and clutched her pocketbook hard as she entered the reception room. After all, she thought of herself as Pulaski's killer. He had died while on her watch. No one, of course, blamed her. When she told Irv the horrible story he comforted her and reminded her no one knows what the next moment will bring; it was certainly a possibility that Pulaski had orchestrated the whole fiery event. "Do you need additional Klonopin to help you sleep?" he'd asked her. Mollie said no, she didn't want to stifle her feelings. If sleep wouldn't come, it was probably best she walk around the house remembering Julius.
"Oh, if only he could be here to see all these people who love him," she thought. His former wife Colleen stood near her children. Mollie thought her a beautiful woman. It was certainly hard to imagine a more opposite couple; Pulaski in his long white ponytail, bowtie and cowboy boots, and Colleen straight from the pages of Architectural Digest in her red and white neckerchief, knee-length black dress that showed off her curves, large uplifted breasts and glittering diamond necklace and matching earrings. Her Irish face was finely sculpted with the jutting chin she bequeathed to Zach and Nelson. Her green eyes glanced at the man with the salt and pepper hair who stood next to her, his arm protectively circling her shoulders. "I'll be damned," thought Mollie. "The wife found herself a boyfriend. Pulaski would die if he knew." She was only kidding when she thought to herself, "Maybe that's why he set himself on fire. It's certainly a good way to be remembered and have people feel eternally sorry for you."
Mollie wandered over to the foyer and stood by the easel of photographs. There was Julius as a young boy in their Port Richmond rowhouse living room. He sat on his mother's lap and smiled for the camera. Did it look like him? Yes, but you had to look hard to find who this earlier incarnation was beneath the mop of thick black hair swept back in a pompadour. Now, of course, he was nothing but a heap of ashes. Or was he? Mollie wanted to know what was left of the man.
Few people would care, she knew. Angel would tell her to move forward and think about her Thomas Murt in Iraq article. Irv would tell her the same thing. What would Julius say? "Do whatever you put your mind to, Little Girl." Okay, it was settled. She would find out. She would ask Wetzel or Son, the funeral directors. But now Pulaski was talking to her. "What?" he said. "Why is it always funeral directors and son? How about Wetzel and Daughters? Wetzel and Lovers? Wetzel and Pretzels?"
"All right, Julius, relax and stop asking so many questions," she demanded.
Beside the easel of family photographs stood a high marble-topped table. An imposing magenta-colored vase sat on top. Mollie went over and fondled it, cupping the cool granite with her hands, letting its smoothness and coolness sink into her palms and fingers. "Ahhh!" she thought she heard. She looked around but no one was there. And then she realized the vase was an urn and inside the urn was her Julius.
"Oh, you absolute nincompoop," she whispered. "I hope it didn't hurt too much. The immolation of the saint. Look at all these people who came to see you, you recalcitrant genius, you." Zach and Lizzie would undoubtedly take the urn home and do what with it? Put it on Zach's desk? Over the large-screen television set? Maybe even on a bookshelf except that the Pulaski fils didn't own any literature.
Her mother had been buried in a plain pine coffin, according to Jewish tradition, in the hills of Mount Zion Cemetery in Cleveland. "Beloved mother and wife," her black granite stone read, fringed with Hebrew letters proclaiming, "Blessed art Thou, Adonai, Ruler of the universe, Who has created everything for your glory." She would be in her sixties today had she lived, with the same white hair as mine, thought Mollie.
"Hi Mollie," said a woman interrupting her reverie. Mollie could not remember who she was.
"It's good to see you," said the heavyset young woman with short blond hair swept back with a rhinestone headband. Mollie knew that the name would come to her in a moment. "The family is grateful for your devotion to Julius."
Ah, this was Nelson's lovely new chubby girlfriend, the only paramour who was not a recovering addict. Nelson was gaining confidence and growing up. Pulaski had told her he'd recently moved into the girlfriend's apartment in Hatboro where she was the chef at an Italian restaurant.
"That's sweet of you to say," said Mollie, still at a loss to remember her name.
"The funeral home divided the ashes into several containers," she said. "If you like, you can have a box of his remains," said the woman.
"Oh! I would love to have it."
"Good. Expect it to arrive in the mail. A plain brown wrapper and all that," she laughed.
Mollie knew she had not only been forgiven for his death but honored as well for her loyalty. Could she have been too hard on his sons?
Nelson walked over and put his arm around his girlfriend's shoulder. He held out his hand to Mollie. "Thanks for coming," he said.
"Oh, I had to be here. May I ask you something about your father?"
"Sure," he said.
When he looked at her, Mollie thought she detected more than a hint of great intelligence behind his eyes. Now that he was freed from the burden and embarassment of being his father's son, perhaps he could release some of that intellect.
"When they found him, how did your father look?"
Nelson explained his father had died of smoke inhalation. Although his body was badly burned, it was quite recognizable. He and his brother had driven over to the morgue in Bucks County and identified the remains. In fact, said Nelson, his father's pockets contained a stash of Sweet 'n Low packets and tiny creamers."
"For his next iced tea," said Mollie.
Nelson nodded. "Ready to start, Sugar?" he said to his girlfriend.
"Let's go, Nelson," she said. They walked up front to begin the service. Nice Weebles, after all, Mollie thought.
Mollie sat in the back so she could watch the ceremony and keep her eye on his family, his wife in particular, and the awkward chess pieces that were his brothers and sisters and their families. After Pachelbel's Canon in D sounded through the speakers, she heard a door open in the rear. Rain pattered in the parking lot. It smelled fresh, delicious. She imagined it raining on Pulaski's trees, both on Palomino Drive and on Virginia Avenue, the raindrops dancing atop his blue tarps and silver tarps that covered his darlings, and washing off the wet leaves on the little cherub in the backyard. Perhaps the pebble and the holly berries would stay put.
Gerry Vincent walked in from the rear and sat down beside her. She gave a broad smile and Gerry shook her hand. "Do you believe all these people turned out to see him?"
"Yeah, but where were they when he was dying? Not a one came to visit."
"I think people are afraid of getting too close to death. They may think it's contagious," Mollie whispered.
Young people were in the audience. College-age kids. Just the age when Clarissa Vincent met the most important person in her life, the driver of the death car, and died shortly after impact. Could these frisky young people be Pulaski's students? Mollie wondered. They must be. A half-page obituary notice appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer about the tragic death of the Sherman A. Scott Professor of Astronomy and Physics at Penn. Families undoubtedly told their children, "This sounds like the wonderful teacher you had for astronomy." And there they were. In profusion. Sitting in the padded chairs of Wetzel and Son. Pulaski's legacy.
And then they came forward to speak their words of remembrance and of praise. One after another. Dressed for the occasion. He would have loved it. Mollie looked over at Colleen who was dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief. Mollie herself was sobbing silently into a Dunkin' Donuts napkin. Then his colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania came up. "Look at those asshole bastards," Mollie heard Julius say. "Glad to get rid of me."
Mollie looked them over, all scrubbed clean today, ties in place, belt buckles straight, zippers hooked up all the way, nostril and ear hairs trimmed, eyebrows smoothed down. She watched them come to the podium and speak about their former colleague, his "brilliance," his "ineluctable search for the truth," his devotion to "the rigors of science," a life "tragically cut short before his theorems gained currency in the scientific arena which is our playground of adulthood."
What bullshit, Mollie thought, now that she knew the truth about Dave Kipnis, the department chair who had jealously thwarted Pulaski's career. She looked for the little Jewish bastard and found him, stroking his goatee that made him look important. She glared at him hoping his crotch would start to itch.
On and on they spoke. Pulaski would have been flabbergasted, stupefied. He would have pulled out his cigarettes, leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes and savored the moment, petting his little dog Tarzan. Maybe someone, perhaps even herself, could serve him a mayonnaise sandwich on Wonder Bread with the requisite cup of iced tea, sweetened with stolen packets of sugar from the diner. Mollie felt a tinge of superiority that of all the people present in the room she was the only one who truly had known the entirety of the man. Glimpsed his soul.
Recorded organ music signaled it was time to disperse. Then the music stopped. There came a drum roll and a full orchestra. Music blasted throughout the windowless room. A baritone sang out in German, as if a god had suddenly landed in Wetzels:
Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken
The audience twittered in bemusement. Mollie laughed and clapped her hands as the last movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony somehow marked the end of the life of Julius Pulaski.
Mollie turned to Gerry. "The very song he had us put on before he immolated himself," she said.
They walked out to the parking lot together. The rain had let up and the asphalt shone with water. The sun was peering behind a gray cloud.
"I'll miss you, Gerry," she said as she walked him to his car. "Can I send you an occasional email?"
"Of course," he said. "Maybe sometime you'll come out to Levittown and my wife will make you her special chicken pot pie."
"I'd love that," she said. They hugged goodbye and she watched him drive away.
Mollie was not quite ready to leave. She leaned against her car and surveyed the grounds. So this is what the funeral home looked like that she had driven by day after day. It was right next door to the All-Nite Deli that stayed open until two a.m. and where she would order an occasional egg salad on rye. The Willow Grove Post Office was just down the street where her Mailman Bob counted down the days until his retirement. This was her country. And once Julius had been her man. And now he was no one's man. He'd have to enter Heaven alone, if there was one. He'd meet his creator face to face, maybe even Jesus, though he was not a believer. Who knew what lay in the vast beyond? The thought of eternity terrified Mollie. Being on the earth for forty-five years was a long time. But multiplied to infinity was unthinkingly long. Whatever would she do to occupy herself?
Something fluttered in the bushes. Mollie believed in signs. She believed in signs when she was manic and when she was not manic. She had been waiting for the perfect time to leave the funeral home and knew the commotion in the bushes signaled the finale. "Thank you," she said softly and walked over to a deep green privet hedge whose branches spiked out like fireworks. "Who's in there?" she called, expecting to find a rabbit perhaps or a fat woodchuck munching the ground cover. Instead two golden finches were chasing one another through the thick foliage, dipping and darting, pecking at one another and muttering quick bursts of "cheee cheee cheee." Their movement, like tiny dancers, was so fast Mollie could barely make out their full bodies, seeing only what looked like two yellow birds sewing up the hedges with yellow stitches.
"It's us," she whispered. "I know it is. It's us." And headed back to the office.
It was three o'clock when Mollie walked into the bright fluorescent lights of the newsroom. She waved to Dave and turned on her computer. A cup of coffee would taste good, she thought, and picked up her rinsed-out coffee mug and went into the lunch room. Two inches of morning coffee resided at the bottom of the glass carafe. She rinsed it out and made a fresh pot which brought a few reporters in with their empty cups.
She didn't feel like talking to anyone, so she took her cup to her desk and sat and read yesterday's Intelligencer. Her feature story "Guthrie letters bring area man riches" told the tale of one ninety-year-old Walter Straus living in a Willow Grove high rise who owned a collection of letters from Woody Guthrie. Mollie had sat at his dining room table while the old man scurried about putting letter after letter in front of her amazed fingers. Then he played "This Land is Your Land" and some other '45s that were personally inscribed by Guthrie. He gave her a bagfull of tomatoes to take home from his balcony garden.
"Good writing," thought Mollie as she folded up the paper. Stace Leichliter had taken a color photo of the old man who had huge black glasses and little hair left but apparently most of his mind. Mollie began to rise in her chair to find the photographer when her extension rang.
"Newsroom, this is Mollie... Al Hotchkiss?... Sure, I know who you are. A friend of Julius Pulaski. I emailed you his documents a month ago. He died, you know. I just came from his funeral."
Holding the phone against her shoulder, she sipped her coffee and listened while he spoke. Then she stood up, still listening intently, and held one ear to hear better. Albert Hotchkiss, Pulaski failed to mention, had a British accent. He sounded like someone on the BBC, but of course he worked at the State University of New York in Stonybrook where he was editor of a physics and astronomy journal. Mollie looked out the window at the cars speeding down Easton Road. The highway, known as Route 611, led all the way to Easton, Pennsylvania, home of the Crayola crayon factory, and on across the Delaware River into Philipsburg, New Jersey, famous for being on the other side of Easton, Pennsylvania.
Mollie tried to discern from the sound of Hotchkiss's voice what he thought of the theorems. This was the phone call Pulaski had been waiting for his entire life. Could he possibly be listening in, the man who was once a boy in teddy-bear pajamas sitting on the roof in Port Richmond, and now simply a sprinkle of cinders soon to be gracing various mantelpieces in the Philadelphia area, including hers? Did he hear the news that the Academy was publishing his findings in its next issue? That, instead of waiting the usual eight months, they would rush the study immediately into print?
"That's wonderful, Al," she said to Hotchkiss. "Thank you so much for calling. If you were here, I'd give you a great big kiss!"
She walked out back to the same spot where she used to call Pulaski when she felt her illness overwhelm her, the same place where she watched Angel and his crew sip their so-called tequila at the picnic bench. "You are too much," she said to the sky and the trees and the beautifully striped parking lot. "You knew all along, didn't you? I will never forget you, you toothless old bastard."
Maybe, just maybe, she would get up her nerve and ask Zach and Lizzie if she could have the one-winged cherub in his backyard. Where would she put it? Certainly it would look fine outside Julius's old office against the gently sloping hills of Willow Grove. Or maybe she'd put it in her front yard. Over by the orange daylilies for everyone to see. Before she lost her nerve, she walked back into the newsroom and dialed their number.