Authors: Ivy Pochoda
“I have to go, Mr. Sprouse.”
The door slams. Jonathan listens to the noises of the school emptying, the voices carrying down the stairs and out onto the street.
Even though he’s sure he’ll be caught in the impending downpour, after school Jonathan walks back to Red Hook.
It’s Friday and the rain brings an end-of-week melancholy. Soon he will be in the bar, wasting time until he goes into the city to accompany Dawn and stay up late and sleep it off tomorrow. But for now, on these blocks between Carroll Gardens and Red Hook, he can cling to the quiet and the calm, the gradual Friday emptying, the slow release before the gearing up. For a few blocks he can pretend that he’s just another commuter walking home at the end of the workweek, ready to settle rather than hurtle into the weekend.
The charmless pedestrian bridge over six lanes of snaking traffic is empty. Before long the expressway will slow to a standstill—traffic chained together like a borough long subway, the whir and splash of motion replaced by a solid, plaintive honk.
At the end of the walkway, Jonathan catches sight of Val. She’s halfway up the street, her kilt plastered to her legs by the wind. At first he considers turning back and taking a different route. He remembers her delicate hand briefly inside his—an innocent gesture so easily transformed.
She’s looking back and slowing her pace so they are now side by side. Jonathan switches his umbrella from one hand to the other, gathering Val under its canopy. She pulls in closer to Jonathan. He looks over his shoulder to see if anyone else is on the block. Their footsteps fall into sync.
“Weren’t you the one who told me to ignore other people?” Val says.
“They weren’t disrupting the class.”
“You know, Mr. Sprouse, now that June’s gone, you probably know me better than anyone.”
“You don’t have to call me Mr. Sprouse outside of school.”
“Okay. But you do know more about me than anyone else does.”
“I’m sure that’s not true,” Jonathan says.
He wonders if Val has spotted him outside her window, watching her from behind the vine-covered gate of the abandoned church, making sure she doesn’t run down to the water or other places he might not be able to reach her.
“You even know about my first kiss,” Val says. “You were there. You saw. Down by the pier. You’re the only person who knows.”
They cross from Carroll Gardens into Red Hook where the wind is making the telephone wires whine. The rain falls fiercely. It’s not even four o’clock, but the sky is the color of carbon steel. The tops of the Red Hook Houses are invisible in the storm. Val draws in closer, huddling under the umbrella.
“June used to tell me everything,” Val says. “Now that I finally have a secret to tell her she isn’t here. It’s not fair.”
“So you want to hear one of my secrets instead?”
“Yes,” Val says. “Tell me something good.”
Jonathan pats his pocket for a cigarette, then thinks better of it. He could tell her about Dawn, the drag queen who he guesses is his best friend. But the girl is an open book and will share the nitty-gritty of her life with the person next to her on the subway. He could tell Val about his father, whom he hasn’t spoken to since his mother’s death, who turned a blind eye to Eden’s flirtations. But these secrets are not his own. In fact, since he has so few friends, secrets are hard to come by. “There’s this bartender that I sleep with once a month.”
“That’s it. Not satisfied?” Jonathan says.
“No,” Val says.
“Okay, okay. I never enjoy it.”
“Really?” Val stops walking.
“You sound happy.”
“No. It’s just that’s a good secret.”
Jonathan’s arm aches from holding the umbrella. His hips and stomach muscles feel tired from the effort of keeping some distance between him and Val. He worries that if he relaxes too much, the accidental collision of their hips will become comfortable.
From down the block, he can make out the neon glow from the Dockyard’s window reflected in the wet sidewalk. The bench outside the bar is empty. They stop outside his door. Val waits before stepping out from under the umbrella. After she goes home, Jonathan knows he will be obliged to check on her. He will stand beneath her window, keeping her safe, until he has to join Dawn.
“If you have homework or anything to do, you can do it here,” Jonathan says, indicating the door to his building.
“Cool … Jonathan.” Val lets his name hang between them, before following him into the entryway.
At the threshold, Jonathan realizes what his apartment must look like to someone unaccustomed to the sight of all-week insomnia—the sticky-bottomed whiskey glasses, the stack of empty jewel cases, the crumpled bedding, the greasy pillow on the couch.
“Nice place,” Val says.
“It’s a hole.” Jonathan collects a few glasses from the coffee table and walks them to the sink.
Val throws the pillow back onto the bed and sits on the couch. “So,” she says. She puts her feet up on the coffee table.
Jonathan walks to the far end of the studio and opens a window onto the fire escape. He lights a cigarette. He takes three deep drags, then flings it to the concrete garden below.
“Don’t worry,” Val says, “my mother smokes.”
“So did mine.”
“No, she drowned.”
Val drops her feet to the floor and sits up straight. Her mouth opens and shuts. “Jesus. Really?”
“She was drunk. She was always an imperious drunk, which made it hard to argue with her. She took out our speedboat and flipped it.”
Jonathan picks up an empty bottle of Jameson and tips it to see if the green glass is hiding anything. “She’d been drinking from long before her five o’clock cocktail hour until after dinner. As usual she was paranoid about being a washed-up singer—which she was. No shame in that. She’d had a long run. But you couldn’t talk sense into her.
Patti LuPone this, Bernadette Peters that
—she was always running her mouth about stars with staying power. She blamed anyone in spitting distance for the end of her career—my father, the housekeeper, our cook.” Jonathan busies himself with his drink so he can ignore Val’s reaction to his admission of wealth. “Most of all she blamed me. You know,
If I didn’t have you to look after I wouldn’t have missed out on this and that role
. Which was bullshit, because by the time I was born her career was coming to an end. Anyway, that night she outdid herself. I wouldn’t take the bait when she needled me, which infuriated her. Eventually she told me I was boring her and she was going to take the speedboat out.
, I thought.
That’ll get rid of her for a little while at least
. I was basically pushing her out the door, daring her to get in that damn boat. Anything to shut her up.”
Eden had laughed as she climbed on board the boat, the keys on their orange key float in one hand, a highball in the other. Whiskey sloshed over the dash of the Chris-Craft. It took her a few minutes to get the key in the ignition. Jonathan came outside to watch her struggle. He enjoyed it, seeing her fumble with the key, get her scarf tangled in the steering wheel. She hadn’t even untied the ropes, so he figured Eden would just run in place, give up, and pass out on board. But she took off and took part of the dock with her.
About a quarter mile out into the sound the boat banked hard. It flipped, then barrel-rolled, and flipped again. Eden crested into the air, her long scarf fluttering like a useless wing. Then she disappeared into the inky sound.
“Did you swim out?”
Eden wasn’t found until the next morning washed ashore on a rocky stretch of beach. As Jonathan watched the paramedics lift her lifeless, frigid body into the ambulance, he knew he wouldn’t come back to Fishers Island. He should have stopped Eden, but he’d wanted her to suffer, if only for a moment. She hadn’t bothered to come into the city to see his jazz quartet. She’d even laughed when he told her they’d been written up in the
. “Don’t get your hopes up, Jonny,” she’d said. “You don’t have the stomach for the business.”
One look at Eden’s rigid, pale form told Jonathan that the brittle noise of the dock shearing off and the whoosh and crash of the splintering boat deep in the sound would replace all the tranquil music summoned by Fishers—the low rush of the grass, the cresting wail of a soaring seabird, the call-and-response of two buoys. He knew he could never cross the sound from the mainland without seeing Eden flying into the water and that the memory of him standing on the dock and letting his mother drown would haunt him if he ever set foot in their seaside home again.
Val picks up a CD from the coffee table and scrapes a nail across the scratched jewel case.
“That’s one of hers.” He points at the recording of
in Val’s hand. “My mother, Eden Farrow, the drowned smoker.”
“You’ve been making us listen to your mother in class?”
Val teases out the liner notes from the case and looks at the photo of Eden in a long red coat with mink collar. She bites her lip, worrying it with her teeth until the flesh turns white. “Can I ask you something, Mr. Sprouse?”
Val takes a deep breath and flops back on the couch, pulling into herself. She turns and looks out the window across Van Brunt. For a moment, Jonathan thinks she’s given up on her question. Then in a distant voice she says, “Are you still mad at her or are you only mad at yourself?”
“What a question.”
“Sorry.” Val tosses the CD back onto the table. “If you have stuff to do, I can do my homework.”
“I have a few things to do,” Jonathan says, looking around.
Propped against the wall are the storyboards for a jingle for a chain of women’s gyms in the tristate area. The drawings show women in a step aerobics class, women on StairMasters, women sipping smoothies at a juice bar. Jonathan’s mind is blank. The images conjure no music. He props them on the windowsill. For two weeks he’s been deleting voice mails from the advertising agency. In a few days they’ll take him off the job.
After a while, he realizes he’s not looking at the storyboards. He’s watching Val’s reflection in the window. She has curled up on the couch, a textbook cradled in her arm. She lifts her head, and their eyes meet in the reflection.
“I’m working,” Jonathan says.
“You’re writing music? Can I hear?”
Jonathan puts down his pen.
“A song? Jazz? Classical?”
It’s been ages since Jonathan wrote anything other than these ridiculous jingles. “A ditty,” he says. “Not worth your time.”
Val sticks the top of her pencil in her mouth and chews the metal below the eraser, then begins writing in her notebook. Jonathan tries to focus on the exercising women, but all he can hear is the scrape of Val’s pencil across paper.
Val drops her pencil and slams her book. “Can I order a pizza? Is that weird?”
Jonathan reaches into his pocket for his wallet.
“No,” Val says. “Let me pay. I
“I owe you my life.”
“I’m flattered,” Jonathan says. He’s surprised by his own sincerity.
He can tell that Val’s not really paying attention to her book while they wait for the deliveryman. Her eyes keep lifting from her work, searching out his in the window.
When the doorbell rings, she leaps from the couch. “Don’t you feel bad for delivery boys in the rain? They have to work so hard so we can stay dry.” Jonathan looks at Val, half expecting a cloud of sarcasm to have swept across her face. But her eyes are wide open, and a considered smile plays on her lips.
Jonathan listens to her rush down the stairs. He hears the sound of the front door opening, then the amplification of the street noises. Soon she is running back. She puts the pizza on the coffee table and lifts the lid. Steam rises toward her face.
Jonathan walks to the foot of his bed and looks out the window onto Van Brunt. The rain has brought the night down with it. The street is dark. The streetlights come up, unsteady behind the downpour.
“Want some?” Val asks.
He sits down next to her. She frees a slice for him, but he lets it sit on the cardboard. While Val eats, he flips through her textbook. Her notes on World War I slide to the floor.
Thunder roars. He is holding Val’s textbook, tapping a lively beat onto the cardboard cover. A lively energetic beat of young legs running to stay young, legs trying never to grow old. He’s thinking of Val running down the stairs to get a pizza, running through the Houses, running down to the pier. A rhythm, a beat, a repetition, a jingle. Now he has something.
Thunder again and the sound of rain beating against his window.
“You’re not going to eat?” Val asks. “Are you one of those people who prefers cold pizza? Or maybe you don’t eat at all.”
The start of the jingle—the first few notes, the pattern that will become the rhythm—is trapped between his mind and his fingers. It’s not quite there. But almost. He turns and watches Val. She’s finishing her slice, smiling as she wipes her mouth.
“Whatcha looking at, Jonathan?” she asks.
“I’m not sure,” he says.
Then her lips are on his, not moving, not opening or closing, neither making room for his tongue nor offering hers. Just still. Waiting. Jonathan lets his lips linger a moment too long and Val draws closer.
“No,” he says, pushing her back. The gesture is too forceful.
For a moment she stares at him, her mouth still shaped around their kiss. Then she leaps to her feet and dashes out the door.
Jonathan is chasing her, trying to catch his breath, trying not to slip on the sidewalk in the rain or get hit by a bus, or splashed by a car. At the end of Visitation, he sees the door to the Marinos’ house open and close.
A trio of smokers from the bar watch him as he walks back, including Dirty Dan who’s wearing Lil’s shot glass around his neck. They see him skulk across the street, shoulders pulled up to his ears.
“Everything cool, Maestro?”
He hears Dirty Dan’s old man cackle. “Looks like she got away.”
Back upstairs, he puts Val’s books in her backpack and walks down Visitation. He rings her bell. He knows from the angle of her curtains that she’s in her room looking down.