The Affairs of Others: A Novel (2 page)

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
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I took a moment. I pretended this was something I hadn’t considered. I had always planned on saying yes, but he had to know, as she had to know, that this was my home first, theirs only by concession, and with some formality; a place here had to be earned. I was responsible for the roof, the boiler, the cast-iron plumbing. I had refinished all the floors, had sanded and painted the walls, and re-hung all the doors. This building in all its particulars, even securing the building permits from an unhelpful urban bureaucracy for the renovation of the entrance and windows, readying the old cable elevator for inspection, had given me purpose when I was newly widowed. I’d claimed it with intentions I didn’t even fully understand. Yes, a safe place. Order. For me and others on the other side of walls, of floors, tenants I would and would not know. A city arrangement on my terms for as long as I stayed in the city.

I had hired help of course, but I worked alongside Anton and his wife, Marina, and his brother, sometimes their son, Ukrainians all. They were hardworking and did not complain, at least to me, about my insisting to participate in the work. My muscles remembered every effort still, and I could see my contributions everywhere around me. My mistakes, too, though these weren’t appreciable. I’d been careful, and I believed the building and I had an agreement. We would keep each other well.

I’d extend myself for my tenants but only so far.

I called to Hope, who had moved to the door, her long back to me. “Can you take care of plants? George has so many. You even have an orchid or two, don’t you, George? They’re temperamental.”

George nodded.

“I’ve taken care of George’s watering here and there when he’s gone on shorter trips,” I said.

“She has,” he said. I could see the pleasure welling in him. He was a neat medium-sized man with a broad face that always reminded me of actor James Mason’s; it was soft and hard, gentlemanly but acute, and it colored easily. He was forming a paunch and had begun to belt his pants higher.

“I’ve not killed anything.” Hope gave us her profile first. “Or anyone,” then she turned and smiled with her whole body, “yet.” She laughed low to high, arriving at something like a giggle, and then threw her arms around George. When she released him, she looked at me full in the eyes. She went to touch me but thought better of it this time, out of respect, I suppose, and steadied a look on me so grateful and unshy with relief that I barely heard her “thank you” or listened to the details of her arrival. I’ve only known one person who could focus on a body so completely, with such sincerity, and he was gone.

As they opened the door to go, she ran back to me and grabbed my hand. “Not to worry. I will try to behave myself.” I smelled her then. She wore a perfume or deodorant that was floral and spicy. Rose and rosemary or smells like these, at odds and in sympathy, that bring to mind a versatile garden, and spring. It was light but present, and her hand covering mine was soft and hot. “You have made us so happy.”

 

FERRY CAPTAIN

W
ITHIN A WEEK
her scent filled my building—a week of scuffing and scratching, lugging and rearranging above my head. That was George preparing to go. He moved almost constantly and when he stopped for a bit, there would come a burst, a racing toward some object, I thought—a forgotten piece of clothing. Or maybe he startled himself with the thought of a book and whether it was worth bringing. Hope came and went during this time, carting in bits and pieces of her life, her arms circling a garbage bag of what could have been clothes or her own linens, a plant, a reading lamp, with more to come. I did not always see her during these visits, but I heard her voice, the sound of her feet, lighter but as ungovernable as George’s had become overhead, and I smelled her or I swore I could. Yes, given my responsibility, I was sensitive to my environment, but surely my other tenants had noticed the activity; perhaps George had told them of the change.

The Braunsteins, my tenants in apartment three, were an excitable pair, a modern couple, teeming with plans. Not so Mr. Coughlan, my tenant on the fourth floor. He would not make much of Hope’s arrival, or only briefly. He had been a merchant marine and then a ferry captain all over the Northeast. I usually saw him coming or going on his walks in the morning, when he was full of the new day, his life and its particulars popping in his head, in his body, already. Once he had saved a seven-year-old boy who’d fallen overboard from drowning; he’d kept an epileptic in full fit from swallowing her tongue. Another time a fallen tree branch caught in the boat’s rudder had nearly put his ferry out of commission, but he had prevented that. With me and I’m guessing with others, Mr. Coughlan was often pleading his case; eighty-two is not too old when you know so much or more than most captains today. He did this without aggression. He had too much joy and expanse in his recollections, and he had a great capacity for quiet, for enjoying it, even parsing it. When he was particularly nostalgic and finally at home in my company, and me in his, he’d pause and try to give me some sense of the full fresh air he’d known, of the life growing in an engine, and even of the sounds he missed, without theatricality. “Out there,” he’d say, “you have to be awake,” yes, for the pounding and spraying, the shushing and sluicing—all that energy, motion, and promise around him daily; and the men, their names out of old movies, Gus, Bud, Ike, who were better on boats than anyplace else. Company lost to him now—or almost, because he still lived it, the sounds and voices, here, upstairs, in my building.

When he appeared at my door four years ago, I knew nothing about him and he didn’t offer much. He wore gray wool trousers and a seersucker jacket that was lightly stained on the breast pocket. His clothes were pressed and his salt hair was combed and brilloed into place. He’d shaved too, but on a face so weathered it didn’t do much in the way of brightening or smoothing. He had hazel eyes that squinted from the anticipation of glare. He was no more than five foot eight.

He made his pitch to me in a very considered way. He said he was staying at a place down the road he did not much care for. Family had provided it for him, which was kind, but it was not for him. “Too many people lining up just to park themselves in front of the TV. The food has no flavor, the windows are dirty, and everything is covered in plastic.” He’d passed by my building on his walks and wondered if I had a room. I said I did, though I wasn’t looking for tenants just yet. He nodded at that and offered me six months’ rent, cash up front. “No one has to know,” he said, smiling at me with his eyes, “but us.” I couldn’t make out any alcohol on him and he did not look away from my face once. His body looked sturdy for a man of his years, and his stance on shortish legs was wider than most people’s as if he expected the ground to buck up beneath him. It didn’t seem like he was one to complain if it did; he was simply ready. He breathed through his nose; it was audible but steady. When I hesitated, he stuck his big mottled hand at me. It was alive with blue veins. He let it hang there until I shook it.

He wanted the fourth-floor apartment. It was my smallest, with lower ceilings than the rest, but it wasn’t from modesty that he picked it when I gave him the tour; it was for the view. Out of one western-facing window, to the back of the building, there was a slice of the New York Harbor on offer. Another gave him some uninterrupted sky. He went back and forth between those two windows a few times, gauging to make sure he got the sights right. It was then something told me he would die here, in this one-bedroom apartment, and that was what he was deciding, whether it would be okay. I wanted to take our agreement back then—a seam of panic folded my stomach in two—but I didn’t. I took his money and lied to his daughter, the family to whom he’d referred, when she came round fuming and pointing fingers in my face. Her father and I had an agreement, I told her without hesitating, and I had no intention of going back on it. She’d had him in an assisted living facility. His various pension payments and social security were meant to go there, not to me. I had simply replied, “What a shame.”

I could not explain that I understood better than she did where he really lived, in
Then
—when he was most alive. I also knew that he’d never trouble me, or not intentionally, and whatever my relationship with my other tenants, he and I would never quarrel over hot water or light fixtures.

I climbed the stairs to his apartment now. His door was never locked, though I had cautioned him about that. I knocked, but he had his radio going at a volume that was meant to keep him awake. I knocked again, then went in. He’d tucked himself into his wood-and-leather recliner beside a fragile end table that gave legs to the radio bellowing the tide report. He looked too stony in his sleep until the third or fourth breath, when a snuffing exhale rattled him and made his fingers twitch. He was dressed in worn black boots with rugged soles, work pants, and a wool sweater, a favorite outfit of his and the same one he wore in a photo I’d seen, taken years ago, in which he gave a low, two-finger salute from a ferry wheelhouse. The windows of his apartment were all opened. While it was mild for March, it was not warm. I shut all but one of the windows, and that I left open a crack. I checked to see if there was food in the fridge. I found unspoiled milk, some cheddar cheese, and white bread tied tight into formation. In his cabinet were four cans of soup, two of which I had dated with pen on another visit. I surveyed the kitchen and living room area (which were joined and separated by a granite-topped island I had installed) for signs. There was an unwashed bowl and spoon in the sink. The nautical charts he hung on the walls with tape were crooked, but they’d always been.

I smelled for something rotten or sick or dirty, but there was nothing, or nothing I could smell; then I left, shutting the door I’d oiled and re-oiled quietly behind me. He had reassured me again, by doing so little.

 

PARTY GREETINGS

O
N
S
ATURDAY, THE NIGHT BEFORE
George was to leave, a party formed overhead. Music. Laughing. Protests. Exclamations. More laughing. I counted at least ten or so bodies by way of voices and feet. Edith Piaf cried out for them—strident, demanding—until she was replaced with the bland bass lines of what I took to be house or lounge music. Aromas of garlic and thyme and onions came to me; and I made out lamb and baked cheese, sharp and oily. I had a bottle of Veuve Clicquot for George. Chilled. I had been invited upstairs but had not yet decided to go. I heard my elevator in use—the mechanical effort begun with a shudder and then the hum that comes with its duty, a vibration in the walls. The tenants mostly used it when they had things to carry. Mr. Coughlan used it when he could admit that he was tired. I heard more doors opening and shutting. The entrance door and others. Agitation had its way of spreading. Footfalls tapping, the floors continually adjusting. Hellos hallooing. There’s a certain pitch to party greetings. It aims high; it’s grateful and hopeful. I had an ear for it from years of watching my mother throw parties. No matter how many times she’d been disappointed, she still believed a party could be transformative, could suspend time and place.

I knew I could not pass into the party upstairs unseen, but I could wait until just after the crescendo; a few departures, a slowing or cessation of moving feet, the adjusting of furniture. They might turn down the music at this stage, too, or switch it to a vocalist whose singing went well with port or cognac, but then maybe I was expecting too much of them.

When I judged that moment had arrived, I combed my hair. Dusted my face with some powder. I wore an Irish sweater and jeans. I had not worn a dress or forgone clothes designed for comfort in ages. I was going to be polite, not to impress, though I did search out a Chanel lipstick sent by my mother in a care package of assorted female encouragements. Red; it smelled of sweet clay and roses.

I am just passing through, I told myself, I am a voyager, a ghost, a spy—my mother teased me with this when I used to trail her around.
A spy
. She said it with exasperation and love. The lipstick: Yes, it conjured my mother, who debated every detail before her parties, the food, the glassware, the quality of the light in the rooms of the Victorian in which we lived. At the end of her preparations, she’d dress hastily in an outfit laid out earlier in the day.

I grew up in southern Connecticut, in a bedroom town so pale and post-collegiate you’d think Cheever made it out of whole cloth. The population’s imagination was only big enough to try for variations on normalcy and levels of acceptable wealth. But my mother, who grew up in Northampton, a university town in Massachusetts, went in for clothes that were beaded, flared, or crocheted. She had vivid silks and authentic kimonos. She served canapés and fromage de chèvre. She liked museums and Manhattan at night and dancing till her feet bled. And she had short waves of honey blond hair, cleavage, and big violet eyes given to surprise, to teasing. I inherited none of these things. She was high even before the champagne was opened and then she was flying, not of the earth, certainly not of that town and its family cars and duck shoes, or determined not to be. My father didn’t care for the parties much. That people became more interested in him as he rose in the world of New York finance necessitated that he become more reserved in social situations. He drank a few fingers of scotch and he watched my mother for signs that she’d had too much. When that moment arrived, and it did more often than not, he’d call me from my room or wherever I was holed up, and together we’d begin clearing the plates, offering coffee, washing what we could. We’d turn the music down; we didn’t refill their glasses or their cups. We rushed the party along so that we might have her back, to ourselves. We were cordial, but we hated all those people at a certain point. We hated them for their greed, for the mess they left us, and for the state the night left my mother in. When the house was still again, she fell into belligerence, carping. In part we could thank the wine for that, but more she could not bear the quiet now that she’d been elsewhere.

BOOK: The Affairs of Others: A Novel
4.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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