Readers: last week I posted a short piece from my novel-in-progress. Since I received several encouraging comments and e-mails I thought I'd test drive the first piece of Chapter Two. The setting is New York, 1954. The protagonist in this chapter is my main character's grandmother. If this goes over well, I will post the second half of this chapter next week. Let me know. Comments appreciated.
Meg runs her hand over the bristles of the green mohair couch, back and forth, back and forth. How many years had they sat here, reading the paper, curled up with a book, her head on his chest, his arm around her shoulder? Stiffer than velvet, yet soft and inviting. Quite a remarkable fabric, she thinks.
She sits in the curve where back turns into arm, draped in Gerald’s sweater. His scent is in the wool, his shaving cream, his aftershave, him. She knows this will dissipate, but she doesn’t want to preserve it in a bureau drawer.
Mass cards and late arriving funeral bouquets clutter the house. Just two days ago he was laid out here, where the couch has been returned, under the bay window, drapes pulled closed behind the bier and the casket covered in a blanket of flowers. His head, mostly bald, with silver hair that ran from ear to ear in a partial tonsure flattened and lacquered by the beautician’s craft, lips daubed a pasty pink, wrinkles dusted with heavy powder, and glasses over his closed eyes. Why do they put glasses on a man who can’t see? Did he fall asleep in his best suit in this box, with a satin pillow and a rosary entwined in waxen fingers?
They came and arranged it all. Calls made, by whom, she’s not quite sure, but someone called and someone took care of these things. All done so smoothly, quickly, neatly, and there, her husband is in the living room, laid out for all to see. She answered questions and gave them a suit, she thinks she did, maybe it was Philip or John. A shirt, a tie, cufflinks. All fixed up. So dapper, so right, so wrong.
That night, he came in from work, tired, a bit gray in the cheeks and under his eyes. He tried to eat the chicken Meg had roasted for them. He managed a few bites and said I need to lie down, Meg. I’ll just go the couch. Meg kissed him on the head and squeezed his hand. He was wearing the sweater. It was chilly that night.
Someone sent a large carnation shamrock, sprayed in an odious green paint. It was delivered this morning, but she would let it in no further than the vestibule. It stands on a wire easel draped with a purple ribbon and gold cardboard letters that spell out Friend, adorned with a few cardboard shamrocks for good measure.
Her irritation with this leprechaun schlock gives way to the realization that it was sent with good intent. Someone whose name probably ends in a few vowels thought it would be just the right thing. But no, the card says Condolences from O’Malley’s Pub. Every St. Patrick’s Day they color the beer green and affect some unidentifiable brogue. Gerald held union meetings there. She can’t stand the sight, or the smell, of it. She can’t look at another mass card or read another letter of condolence, a testimonial to what a great man, what a blessing her husband was.
She is alone in the house where they raised their sons, entertained on so many Saturday nights, held meetings that ended with strikes planned and from which riots erupted and other men, maybe not great in the eyes of the world, were hurt, and some killed. Alone in the house where they first heard FDR announce the war which took her sons off. Alone in the house where the commotion in the yard shook her out of sleep the night the Mob goons came looking for Gerald, met him at the back door and left him bloody and bruised. Just a warning, they told him, next time, next time you won’t be so lucky, you stupid Mick.
They were sitting on this couch that other night, the night they came, lights flashing in the black and white outside the door. A detective flipped a badge and entered their home. He may as well have stolen all their silver and china while he was there. He stood on her floral patterned rug, the rug where her sons ran their trucks and built their block castles when they were little boys. He left a muddy foot print on the vines in the pattern. The detective read out some words from the paper he was holding while a uniform put cuffs on her husband, led him out on that cold night, coat draped around his shoulders, his head bare against the wind. Words like embezzlement, misappropriation of funds from the union accounts, were a distant echo, like whispers off stage in someone else’s play. It must all be a misunderstanding, a lie. None of this was possible. Who would have accused him of such a thing? Gone two years. Now gone forever.
All the years this house was filled with life, with tears, with joys, and not yet three days before the body of her husband was laid out in grand fashion. Lines of mourners and gawkers filed through while Meg and her sons took hands and cheeks offered in sympathy. So much chatter filling every corner of the house, guests eating the food that friends and neighbors brought, drinking what the men carried in crates and set up on the kitchen table. Some women took a measure of the quality of the drapes, the furniture, the silver laid out on the table for their use. He did pretty well for himself, didn’t he? Not such a common man as those he blathered about, now, was he? The kinder ones buzzed What a shame, what a shame through their house, their home. After all she’s been through, then he’s taken, leaving her alone again. Poor Meg. Poor Meg.
The doorbell rings. She sees through the blinds that it is the florist, but she will not get up. After a minute he goes, leaving another bouquet, another testimonial. Mail has piled up in the vestibule. How many days has she just let it fall through the slot, not able to touch it? Bills mixed in with sympathy cards, newspapers on the porch. Her sons had to get back to work and their wives are busy with their small children. She doesn’t want them here anyway. She wants to sit, just sit and cry without anyone saying oh dear it will be all right. She wants to scream It won’t be all right and just let me cry, haven’t I the right?
She realizes she has been on the couch for more than two hours. A cup of tea is what she needs. Pushing off the couch Meg goes through the swinging kitchen door, fills the kettle, turns on the gas, lights the stove with a match, then sets up a cup. The kettle whistles just as Millie puts her hand to knock on the back door. Millie is the only one Meg will welcome.
“I’ve taken your papers in, and put the flowers in my cellar. We don’t want anyone thinkin’ the house is empty and come breakin’ in surprising you to your death, now do we?” Meg gives Millie a tired smile and gets out another cup for tea.
“I’m givin’ you one week Meg. And then I’m takin’ you out.” Millie looks for Meg to disagree, to protest, but Meg smiles and says “have your tea, Millie. Oh, can your son take that awful shamrock to a pub on the boulevard? It might sell a few more beers to the thirsty men staying out all night.”
“Sure, Meg. Frank’ll come by after supper. He’ll take it to Woodys.”
Part two next week.