THE GHOST OF HANNAH MENDES (Chapter 1)
New York City, March 1996
The street felt cold after Dr. Emil Weinsweig, Jr.’s elegantly overheated offices on Fifty-fourth Street and the Avenue of the Americas. Catherine da Costa crossed her arms, hugging her coat around her. It was soft, brown suede lined with shearling and very warm. But somehow it did nothing to stop the chills that ran up and down her spine. It was early afternoon. The Manhattan sky was a pale gray mist with no hint of sun. Almost instinctively, she raised her arm to hail a cab, then thought better of it, burrowing her hand into her warm pocket. It clenched into a fist.
It wasn’t fair, she thought, a single tear sliding down her cheek. She dabbed it with her glove, then rubbed the makeup off the black kid.
There was no point in hurrying home. Only the phone was waiting for her, staring with a dozen menacing, insistent demands. Call Janice. Call your lawyer about the will. Call your broker.
Call Suzanne. Call Francesca.
She crossed the street like a dreamer, falling behind the brisk crowd who almost ran across, New York style, like people on their way to pick up long overdue checks. Cars honked at her, pulling up short. One taxi driver, his hair disheveled and matted to his forehead, even leaned out and shouted, “Move it, old bag!”
She hurried then, her heart pounding as she reached the sidewalk, shocked with insult.
She was a woman who for more years than she cared to remember had been spoken to in the deferent, low tones of Harvard-educated retainers, men who wore expensive suits and combed their hair in front of crystal mirrors in the bathrooms of beautiful old houses. Men who flattered her and overruled her only in the most solicitous, charming way.
She reached up and adjusted her warm mink hat, carefully patting down the hairspray-armored gray curls, immovable on her forehead. Old but still rich, she bristled, walking indignantly down Fifth and pushing open the doors of Cartier with a strange defiance. She was met with the delighted smiles of all and a familiar surge of power ran through her, electric, as she sat down and pulled off her gloves. What would it be? A ring, perhaps? Ruby with diamonds? Or maybe a bracelet? Or perhaps that watch she’d had her eye on for some time. What was it called in those lovely ads with the famous opera singer? The “Diamond Flame”? Deciding she was in no rush, she leaned back comfortably and asked to see all three.
The gold was forgiving against the veiny whiteness of her skin. She held up her hand and peered at herself in the mirror. The bejeweled hand of a rich dowager empress, she thought cynically, even a bit amused. The hand of a woman whose expensive doctor has just gently, and with many protestations, informed her that she is going to die.
She stared at herself in the mirror, then thanked the salesman and took off the jewelry, laying it carefully back on the thick velvet tray.
Back outside, she hugged herself against the mannerless wind and walked toward Central Park. A dirtied snow still smeared the pavement, but up ahead, she noted with a faint, hopeful stir, some of the trees were already in early blossom. She walked toward them.
When she got there she stopped a moment, shrugged, then walked inside.
She couldn’t believe it. Catherine da Costa, seasoned New Yorker wearing a mink hat and carrying a purse, risking a walk through Central Park! Might as well wear a sign, “Available for muggings, wildings, and all sorts of other inner-city sports,” she thought, pulling up her glove to hide her watch and shaking her head in amazement and disapproval. But then another wave of feeling washed over her, half bravado, half despair: Do whatever you want. Who really gave a good goddamn now?
Lifting her chin bravely, she continued on her way.
She walked slowly until her toes began to tingle with the cold of the pavement. Stamping her feet, as if in protest against the worthless thin soles of her expensive designer boots, she suddenly felt the pain. It ripped up through her bowels, slicing through her stomach and chest, worse than any mugger’s blow.
She laid her palm against her chest in a gesture that was at once impatient and importunate; a gesture which said: Please, all right, that’s enough now. I get the point.
If only I could bribe it, she thought, groping for the nearest bench. Give it my watch and my wallet and ask it to go away and not bother me anymore. If only I could make it ashamed of itself, and demand it have a little mercy, a little decency for a good, elderly woman who had lived a perfectly respectable, harmless life, who, indeed, had even done some good….
She sat down with dignity, her arms trembling. Far too cold to be sitting, she thought irritably, fumbling in her purse for the green pills that might discourage the rude stranger pressing into her flesh, or at least mollify it. With some difficulty, she swallowed one.
Seventy-four years old. It was a reasonable age, she reminded herself, thinking of her sister, Esperanza, dead of influenza at nineteen, and of Carl, dead of a heart attack at sixty-eight. And even Dr. Emil Weinsweig, Sr. with his decades of exercise and lectures on the evils of smoking, red meat, and sunshine, long gone.
How much easier it would have been to hear the news from Dr. Emil Weinsweig, Sr. than it had been to hear it from his son! There would have been no lowered eyes, no pen tapping nervously against the side of his stethoscope. And no encouraging litany of statistics followed by a recitation of recommendations phrased in such a way as to convince a fabulously rich, spoiled old lady that she would live forever if she spent enough money and endured enough medical tortures. Emil, Sr. would have spared her that, at least.
She had no intention of suffering. None whatsoever. She shook her head adamantly, as if attempting to impress some unseen power with her firm negotiating stance. No operations. No horrible chemical poisons. She touched her hair nervously.
How many months, weeks, days, hours to go, then? she wondered with an odd sense of detachment. And how would she spend them? It was a strange idea. Time had always seemed like those bank accounts she could never seem to empty no matter how much she withdrew. Her father’s and grandfather’s trust funds, Carl’s endless investments, and her bankers and brokers had seen to that. She would leave a great deal behind.
She thought of her daughter, Janice, and her husband, Kenny. They would expect, no doubt, to move into her apartment on Fifth. Not, of course, before turning loose some deranged decorator with instructions to spare no expense (they would assume her money would see they didn’t have to) in making it over into a perfect showcase for their hideous collection of fabulously overpriced, bad modern art. She shuddered, imagining the results.
They’d ask Suzanne to move back in. And her granddaughter would be insolent and stubborn and never agree. Why should she? Janice had never understood Suzanne, even though everything that had happened to the girl, every nuance of her life, had been predictable. Indeed, she herself had predicted it.
She closed her eyes, made breathless for a moment by another stab from the stranger who had moved from rudeness to brutality. Despite the green pill, the pain chopped like a machete through her delicate nerve ends. But this time, it was accompanied by a sensation that, for a woman like Catherine da Costa, was much rarer and even more painful: guilt.
She was not a person to rehash old decisions. Usually, she viewed anything she’d done in the past as not only perfectly correct, but quite inevitable. “What else could I have done…?” was one of her favorite mantras. Seldom did someone come up with an answer that convinced her there had been a viable alternative.
Yet, thinking about Suzanne, she found her confidence shaken. She’d been as responsible as the rest of the family for what had happened to Suzanne, as relentless and wrongheaded. For a moment, she thought impulsively about leaving her granddaugher everything—the apartment on Fifth, the stone country cottage, the bank accounts, the jewels, the rare books and other priceless heirlooms….
Oh, yes. Now the blame. Make it up to her. Let’s not skip that cliché, either, shall we? she thought irritably, taking off her hat and letting her carefully manicured fingernails ruin three hours at the hairdresser’s. In that case, why not give it directly to the rainforest-savers? Or the whale-defenders? Why not send the sables and minks straight to the animal shelters to keep stray cats warm? In fact, might as well turn it all into cash and throw it down from the rooftops of the South Bronx myself. Why burden Suzanne with it? So she could confuse giving away money with living? So she could keep bouncing around trying to find something to believe in?
Well, if not her, then why not her sister? Why not sensible, honest, practical Francesca?
Francesca. She closed her eyes, envisioning the result. The computer printouts of sensible money market funds and stock options. The commodities futures. The thrifty purchase of on-sale designer showroom samples at 50 percent savings. The vacation package tours to the overcrowded beaches on the Costa del Sol. And perhaps, perhaps, a husband, a fellow systems analyst at the bank. Someone just as levelheaded and earthbound as she.
Janice and Kenny would show it off. Suzanne would give it away. And Francesca would probably double it.
But who among them, she wondered, would truly cherish what she had to leave behind and find in it true joy? And who among them would understand that to be an heiress was not just a question of easy money or material possessions to squander or hoard, but a responsibility—burdensome in many ways—that demanded tutelary vigilance?
She sat quietly, feeling suddenly quite drained and ready for sleep. A sound, like the chatting of old ladies at a bingo night, made her raise her eyes to where tiny, fawn-colored birds conversed on a brown branch completely bare of buds. She stared at them. They’ll be here next year, she thought. And I won’t.
For a fraction of a second, the crazy idea of somehow trading with them entered her mind. The idea of giving up everything simply to retain some connection to the world, to still feel the sun, the cold, even the pain. To be part of the only kind of existence she could imagine.
Yes, a bird, she thought. She considered it with all the weight and seriousness of a true option. A small, brown bird on a green branch, soaring with unconscious life, warm in the sun. And then she thought of the heavy, cold earth, and the unproven tales of heaven.
Yes, she nodded, emphatically. Yes, I would trade.
How strange, she realized, studying the tree. Not a single bud, not a hint of green when all the trees around it were bursting with new life. Was it simply a late-blooming species, she wondered, or was it dead?
It was a terrible thought: a large, many-branched tree suddenly dying like that, especially when all the trees around it were budding and full of new leaves, flourishing and young again. And what happened when a tree died? Did you cut it down and turn it into ash in the fireplace? Or simply leave it there among the others until its dead roots gave up and it collapsed of its own weight?
A woman wheeling a shopping cart filled with old canvas bags tied with pieces of filthy string passed by. The smell was overpowering and awful, even on such a cold day. Fat and ungirdled, she wore torn slippers and many sweaters and scarves. Her face, badly wrinkled, was both stoic and cunning.
Where was her family, Catherine wondered. Why was there no one to take her in, to care…? And then she looked again at the brown, bare tree and shuddered.
Suzanne, she thought. Francesca.
THE GHOST OF HANNAH MENDES Copyright © 1998 by Naomi Ragen.