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These Short Dark Days
FEBRUARY 3 WAS A DARK AND DANK DAY altogether: cold spitting rain in the morning and a low, steel-gray sky the rest of the afternoon.
At four, Jim convinced his wife to go out to do her shopping before full darkness fell. He closed the door on her with a gentle wave. His hair was thinning and he was missing a canine on the right side, but he was nevertheless a handsome man who, at thirty-two, might still have passed for twenty. Heavy brows and deep-set, dark-lashed eyes that had been making women catch their breath since he was sixteen. Even if he had grown bald and toothless, as he seemed fated to do, the eyes would have served him long into old age.
His overcoat was on the hall tree beside the door. He lifted it and rolled it lengthwise against his thighs. Then he fitted it over the threshold, tucking the cloth of the sleeves and the hem as well as he could into the space beneath the door. Theirs was a railroad flat: kitchen in the back, dining room, living room, bedroom in the front. He needed only to push the heavy couch a few feet farther along the wall to block his wife’s return. He stood on the seat to check that the glass transom above the door was tightly closed. Then he stepped down. He straightened the lace on the back of the couch and brushed away the shallow impression his foot had made on the horsehair cushion.
In the kitchen, he pressed his cheek to the cold enamel of the stove and slid his hand into the tight space between it and the yellow wall. He groped a bit. They kept a baited mousetrap back there, or had in the past, and it made him careful. He found the rubber hose that connected the oven to the gas tap and pulled at it as vigorously as he could, given the confined space. There was a satisfying pop, and a hiss that quickly faded. He straightened up with the hose in his hand. The kitchen window looked into the gray courtyard where, on better days, there would be lines of clothes baking in the sun, although the floor of the deep courtyard, even in the prettiest weather, was a junkyard and a jungle. There were rats and bedsprings and broken crates. A tangle of city-bred vegetation: a sickly tree, black vines, a long-abandoned attempt at a garden. From rag-and-bone man to wayward drunk, any voice that ever rose out of its depths was the voice of someone up to no good. Once, Annie, sitting on the windowsill with a clothespin in her mouth and a basket of wet linen at her feet, saw a man drag a small child through the muck and tie him to the rough pole that held the line. She watched the man take off his belt, and, with the first crack of it against the child’s bare calves, she began to yell. She threw the clothespins at him, a potted ivy plant, and then the metal washbasin still filled with soapy water. Leaning halfway out the window herself, she threatened to call the police, the fire department, the Gerrity Society. The man, as if pursued only by a change in the weather, a sudden rain, glanced up briefly, shrugged, and then untied the sobbing child and dragged him away. “I know who you are,” Annie cried. Although she didn’t. She was an easy liar. She paced the street for an hour that afternoon, waiting for the man and the boy to reappear.
When Jim ran into the kitchen at the sound of her shouting, she was from head to waist out the window, with only one toe on the kitchen floor. He’d had to put his hands on her hips to ease her out of danger. Just one more of what had turned out to be too many days he hadn’t gone in to work or had arrived too late for his shift.
His trouble was with time. Bad luck for a trainman, even on the BRT. His trouble was, he liked to refuse time. He delighted in refusing it. He would come to the end of a long night, to the inevitability of 5 a.m.—that boundary, that abrupt wall toward which all the night’s pleasures ran (drink, talk, sleep, or Annie’s warm flesh)—and while other men, poor sheep, gave in every morning, turned like lambs in the chute from the pleasures of sleep or drink or talk or love to the duties of the day, he had been aware since his childhood that with the easiest refusal, eyes shut, he could continue as he willed. I’m not going, he’d only have to murmur. I won’t be constrained. Of course, it didn’t always require refusing the whole day. Sometimes just the pleasure of being an hour or two late was enough to remind him that he, at least, was his own man, that the hours of his life—and what more precious commodity did he own?—belonged to himself alone.
Two weeks ago they had discharged him for unreliability and insubordination. Inside the shell of his flesh, the man he was—not the blushing, humiliated boy who stood ham-handed before them—simply shook off the blow and turned away, indifferent, free. But Annie wept when he told her, and then said angrily, through her tears, that there was a baby coming, knowing even as she said it that to break the news to him in this way was to condemn the child to a life of trouble.
He took the tea towels she had left to dry on the sink, wound them into ropes, and placed them along the sill of the kitchen window.
He carried the length of rubber tubing through the living room and into the bedroom. He slipped off his shoes, put the tube to his mouth, as if to pull smoke. He had seen this in a picture book back home: a fat sultan on a red pillow doing much the same. He sat on the edge of the bed. He bowed his head and prayed: Now and at the hour of our death. He lay back on the bed. The room had gotten dimmer still. Hour of our. Our hour. At home, his mother, the picture book spread out on her wide lap, would reach behind him to turn the clock face to the wall.
Within this very hour he would put his head on her shoulder once again. Or would he? There were moments when his faith fell out from under him like a trapdoor. He stood up. Found his nightshirt underneath his pillow and twisted it, too. Then placed it along the edge of the one window, again pushing the material into the narrow crevice where the frame met the sill, knowing all the while that the gesture was both ineffectual and unnecessary.
Down in the street, there was a good deal of movement—women mostly, because the shops were open late and the office workers had not yet begun to file home. Dark coats and hats. A baby buggy or two, the wheels turning up a pale spray. He watched two nuns in black cloaks and white wimples, their heads bent together, skim over the gray sidewalk. He watched until they were gone, his cheek now pressed to the cool window glass. When he turned back into the room, the light had failed in every corner and he had to put out his hand as he walked around the pale bed, back to his own side.
He stretched out once again. Playfully lifted the hose to one eye, as if he would see along its length the black corridor of a subway tunnel, lit gold at the farthest end by the station ahead. Then he placed the hose in his mouth and breathed deeply once more. He felt the nausea, the sudden vertigo, he had been expecting all along but had forgotten he was expecting. He closed his eyes and swallowed. Outside, a mother called to a child. There was the slow clopping of a horse-drawn cart. The feathered sound of wheels turning in street water. Something dropped to the floor in the apartment just above him—a sewing basket, perhaps—there was a thud and then a scratchy chorus of wooden spools spinning. Or maybe it was coins, spilled from a fallen purse.
* * *
AT SIX, the streetlamps against the wet dark gave a polish to the air. There was the polish of lamplight, too, on streetcar tracks and windowpanes and across the gleaming surface of the scattered black puddles in the street. Reflection of lamplight as well on the rump of the remaining fire truck and on the pale faces of the gathered crowd, with an extra gold sparkle and glint on anyone among them who wore glasses. Sister St. Saviour, for instance, a Little Nursing Sister of the Sick Poor, who had spent the afternoon in the vestibule of the Woolworth’s at Borough Hall, her alms basket in her lap. She was now on her way back to the convent, her bladder full, her ankles swollen, her round glasses turned toward the lamplight and the terrible scent of doused fire on the winter air.
The pouch with the money she had collected today was tied to her belt; the small basket she used was tucked under her cloak and under her arm. The house where the fire had been looked startled: the windows of all four floors were wide open, shade cords and thin curtains flailing in the cold air. Although the rest of the building was dark, the vestibule at the top of the stone stoop was weirdly lit, crowded with policemen and firemen carrying lamps. The front door was open, as, it appeared, was the door to the apartment on the parlor floor. Sister St. Saviour wanted only to walk on, to get to her own convent, her own room, her own toilet—her fingers were cold and her ankles swollen and her thin basket was crushed awkwardly under her arm—but still she brushed through the crowd and climbed the steps. There was a limp fire hose running along the shadowy base of the stone banister. Two of the officers in the hallway, turning to see her, tipped their hats and then put out their hands as if she had been summoned. “Sister,” one of them said. He was flushed and perspiring, and even in the dull light, she could see that the cuffs of his jacket were singed. “Right in here.”
The apartment was crowded with people, perhaps every tenant in the place. The smell of smoke and wet ash, burned wool, burned hair, was part and parcel of the thick pools of candlelight in the room, and of the heavy drone of whispered conversation. There were two groups: one was gathered around a middle-aged man in shirtsleeves and carpet slippers who was sitting in a chair by the window, his face in his hands. The other, across the room, hovered beside a woman stretched out on a dark couch, under a fringed lamp that was not lit. She had a cloth applied to her head, but she seemed to be speaking sensibly to the thin young man who leaned over her. When she saw the nun, the woman raised a limp hand and said, “She’s in the bedroom, Sister.” Her arm from wrist to elbow was glistening with a shiny salve—butter, perhaps.
“You might leave off with that grease,” Sister said. “Unless you’re determined to be basted.” The young man turned at this, laughing. He wore a gray fedora and had a milk tooth in his grin. “Have the courtesy to doff your hat,” she told him.
It was Sister St. Saviour’s vocation to enter the homes of strangers, mostly the sick and the elderly, to breeze into their apartments and to sail comfortably through their rooms, to open their linen closets or china cabinets or bureau drawers—to peer into their toilets or the soiled handkerchiefs clutched in their hands—but the frequency with which she inserted herself into the homes of strangers had not diminished over the years, her initial impulse to stand back, to shade her eyes. She dipped her head as she passed through the parlor, into a narrow corridor, but she saw enough to conclude that a Jewish woman lived here—the woman on the couch, she was certain, a Jewish woman, she only guessed, because of the fringed lampshade, the upright piano against the far wall, the dark oil paintings in the narrow hallway that seemed to depict two ordinary peasants, not saints. A place unprepared for visitors, arrested, as things so often were by crisis and tragedy, in the midst of what should have been a private hour. She saw as she passed by that there was a plate on the small table in the tiny kitchen, that it contained a half piece of bread, well bitten and stained with a dark gravy. A glass of tea on the edge of a folded newspaper.
In the candlelit bedroom, where two more policemen were conferring in the far corner, there were black stockings hung over the back of a chair, a mess of hairbrushes and handkerchiefs on the low dresser, a gray corset on the threadbare carpet at the foot of the bed. There was a girl on the bed, sideways, her dark skirt spread around her, as if she had fallen there from some height. Her back was to the room and her face to the wall. Another woman leaned over her, a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
The policemen nodded to see the nun, and the shorter one took off his cap as he moved toward her. He, too, was singed about the cuffs. He had a heavy face, stale breath, and bad dentures, but there was compassion in the way he gestured with his short arms toward the girl on the bed, toward the ceiling and the upstairs apartment where the fire had been, a compassion that seemed to weigh down his limbs. Softhearted, Sister thought, one of us. The girl, he said, had come in from her shopping and found the door to her place blocked from the inside. She went to her neighbors, the man next door and the woman who lived here. They helped her push the door open, and then the man lit a match to hold against the darkness. There was an explosion. Luckily, the policeman said, he himself was just at the corner and was able to put the fire out while neighbors carried the three of them down here. Inside, in the bedroom, he found a young man on the bed. Asphyxiated. The girl’s husband.
Sister St. Saviour drew in her breath, blessed herself. “He fell asleep, poor man,” she said softly. “The pilot light must have gone out.”
The officer glanced over his shoulder, toward the bed, and then took the Sister’s elbow. He walked her out to the narrow hall. Now they stood in the kitchen doorway; the arrested tableau: the bitten bread, the dark gravy, the glass of reddish tea on a small wooden table, the chair pushed back (there had been an urgent knock on the door), the newspaper with its crooked lines of black ink.
“He killed himself,” the officer whispered, his breath sour, as if in reaction to the situation he was obliged to report. “Turned on the gas. Lucky he didn’t take everyone else with him.”
Accustomed as she was to breezing into the lives of strangers, Sister accepted the information with only a discreet nod, but in the space of it, in the time it took her merely to turn her cheek and bow her head, her eyes disappeared behind the stiff edge of her bonnet. When she looked up again—her eyes behind the glasses were small and brown and caught the little bit of light the way only a hard surface could, marble or black tin, nothing watery—the truth of the suicide was both acknowledged and put away. She had pried handkerchiefs from the tight fists of young women, opened them to see the blood mixed with phlegm, and then balled them up again, nodding in just such a way. She had breezed into the homes of strangers and seen the bottles in the bin, the poor contents of a cupboard, the bruise in a hidden place, seen as well, once, a pale, thumb-sized infant in a basin filled with blood and, saying nothing at all, had bowed her head and nodded in just such a way.
“What’s the girl’s name?” she asked.
The officer frowned. “Mc-something. Annie, they called her. Irish extraction,” he added. “That’s why I thought to call for you.”
Sister smiled. Those button eyes had dark depths. “Is that so?” she said. They both knew no one had called for her. She had been on her way home, merely passing by. She dipped her head again, forgiving him his vanity—didn’t he say, too, that he’d put out the fire himself? “I’ll go to her, then,” she said.
As she stepped away she saw the milk-toothed young man, still in his hat, approach the officer. “Hey, O’Neil,” the man shouted. No courtesy in him.
Inside the shadowed bedroom, the neighbor woman who stood at the bedside had her eyes elsewhere, on the gloaming at the far side of the cluttered room. She was a stout woman, about forty. No doubt there were children waiting to be put to bed, a husband to be placated. A woman with a family of her own, with troubles of her own, could not be expected to attend to the sorrows of another indefinitely.
The nun only nodded as the two exchanged places. At the door of the room, the woman looked over her shoulder and whispered, “Can I do anything for you, Sister?”
Sister St. Saviour recalled a joke she had once made, when a young nun asked her the same, in the midst of a busy morning. “Yes. Can you go tinkle for me?”
But she said, “We’ll be fine.” It was what she wanted this Annie Mc-something to hear.
When the woman was gone, Sister reached inside her cloak and took the small basket from under her arm. It was a flimsy thing, woven of unblessed palms, and much worse the wear for being crushed against her body so long. She straightened and reshaped it a bit, catching as she did the green scent that the warmth of her own flesh and the work of her hands could sometimes coax from the dried reeds. She placed the basket on the table beside the bed and untied the money pouch from her belt. It was all coins today, mostly pennies. She placed the pouch in the basket and then sat carefully on the side of the bed, her kidneys aching, her feet throbbing inside her shoes. She looked at the girl’s form, the length of her back and the curve of her young hip, her thin legs beneath the wide skirt. Suddenly the girl turned in the bed and threw herself into Sister’s lap, weeping.
Sister St. Saviour put her hand to the girl’s dark hair. It was thick, and soft as silk. A thing of luxurious beauty. Sister lifted the heavy knot of it that was coming undone at the nape of her neck and brushed a strand from her cheek.
This much the nun was certain of: the husband had cherished this girl with the beautiful hair. Love was not the trouble. Money, more likely. Alcohol. Madness. The day and time itself: late afternoon in early February, was there a moment of the year better suited for despair? Sister herself had had the very same thought earlier today, during her long hours of begging in the drafty vestibule. We’re all feeling it, she’d thought—we being all who passed along the street and in and out of the store, wet-shouldered, stooped, all who saw her and pretended not to, all who scowled and all (though not very many on this dank day) who reached into a pocket or a purse as they approached—we’re all feeling it, she’d thought, in this vale of tears: the weight of the low sky and the listless rain and the damp depths of this endless winter, the sour smell of the vestibule, the brimstone breath of the subway, of the copper coins, the cold that slips in behind your spine and hollows you out at the core. Six and a half hours she’d sat begging today, so weighted by the weather and the time of year that she’d been unable to stir herself from her perch to face the daily humiliation of making use of the store’s public stalls. And so she had left her chair an hour earlier than usual.
“What we must do,” she said at last, “is to put one foot in front of the other.” It was her regular introductory phrase. “Have you had your dinner?” she said. The girl shook her head against the nun’s thigh. “Are there relations we can call for you?” Again she shook her head. “No one,” she whispered. “Just Jim and me.” Sister had the impulse to lift the girl’s shoulder a bit, take the pressure of it off her own aching bladder, but resisted. She could endure it a little longer. “You’ll need a place to stay,” she said. “For tonight, anyway.”
Now the girl pulled away and raised her face to the dim light. She was neither as young nor as pretty as Sister had imagined. It was a plain, round face, swollen with tears, streaked with wet strands of the lovely hair. “Where will I bury him?” she asked. In her eyes the nun saw the determination—no result of the Sister’s admonition, but rather what the woman herself was made of—to put one foot in front of the other. “We’ve got a plot in Calvary,” she said. “We got it when we were married. But the Church will never allow it now.”
“Have you got the deed?” she asked, and the girl nodded.
“Upstairs,” she said. “In the sideboard.”
Gently, Sister touched the girl’s cheek. Not as young or as pretty as she had first imagined, but already the face was familiar: the arch of the heavy eyebrows, the slight protrusion of the upper lip, the line of beauty marks along the cheek. Despair had weighted the day. God Himself was helpless against it—Sister St. Saviour believed this. She believed that God held His head in His hands all the while a young man in the apartment above slipped off this gray life—collar and yoke—not for lack of love, but for the utter inability to go on, to climb, once again, out of the depths of a cold February day, a dark and waning afternoon. God wept, she believed this, even as she had gotten off her chair in the lobby of Woolworth’s an hour before her usual time, had turned onto the street where there was a fire truck, a dispersing crowd, the lamplight caught in shallow puddles, even as she had climbed the stone steps—footsore and weary and needing a toilet, but going up anyway, although no one had sent for her.
There had been the shadow of the slackened fire hose along the balustrade, like the sloughed skin of a great snake, which should have told her then that the worst was already done.
Once, when she was a younger nun, she’d been sent to a squalid apartment filled with wretched children where a skeletal woman, made old, discolored, barely human, by pain, was in the last throes of her disease. “There’s nothing to be done,” Sister Miriam had advised before they opened the door. And then as they entered—there was the tremendous animal odor of decay, the woman’s hoarse moans, the famished children’s fraught silence—she added, “Do what you can.”
“Your man fell asleep,” Sister St. Saviour whispered now. “The flame went out. It was a wet and unfortunate day.” She paused to make sure the girl had heard. “He belongs in Calvary,” she said. “You paid for the plot, didn’t you?” The girl nodded slowly. “Well, that’s where he’ll go.”
In her thirty-seven years of living in this city, Sister had collected any number of acquaintances who could surmount the many rules and regulations—Church rules and city rules and what Sister Miriam called the rules of polite society—that complicated the lives of women: Catholic women in particular and poor women in general. Her own little Tammany, Sister Miriam called it.
She could get this woman’s husband buried in Calvary. If it was all done quickly enough, she could manage it.
“How long were you and Jim married?” the nun asked her. She understood that there was some small resurrection in just speaking the man’s name.
“Two years,” the girl said to the ceiling. And then she brushed her fingertips over her belly. “I’ve got a baby coming in summer.”
Sister nodded. All right. God had His head out of His hands now, at least. He knew the future. “All right,” she said out loud. There would be a baby to care for in the summer. For once, she would not foist the diapering and the spitting up onto one of the younger nuns. She nearly smiled. Out of the depths—the phrase came to her like a fresh scent on the air—the promise of a baby this summer. A green scent coaxed out of dried reeds.
The girl raised one hand from her stomach and clutched the crown of her hair. “He lost his job,” she said. “They let him go. The BRT. He was at odd ends.”
Gently, Sister moved Annie’s hand from out of her hair—it was a mad, dramatic gesture that would lead to mad, dramatic speech—and placed her fingertips once again on her middle, where her thoughts should be. “It might be best,” Sister said, “if you don’t move tonight. I’ll speak to the lady of the house. We’ll get something arranged.”
In the parlor, they all turned to Sister St. Saviour as if she had indeed been summoned to direct the proceedings. It was agreed that the lady of the house, Gertler was her name, would spend the night with her sister-in-law across the street. Since the gas had been turned off and would not be turned on again until tomorrow, most of the building’s occupants were clearing out for the evening. In the vestibule, neighbors were coming down the dark staircase with bedding and small satchels in their arms. Sister sent word with one of them to the owner of a boardinghouse nearby: the man in the carpet slippers would go there. The rude young man in the hat had already left, so she asked Officer O’Neil to knock on the door of one Dr. Hannigan. “Mention my name,” she said. “He’ll roll his eyes, but he’ll come.”
It wasn’t until they’d all cleared out, and well before Dr. Hannigan arrived, that Sister allowed herself to use the toilet. She was sixty-four that year, but the stiffness in her back and her knees and the arthritis in her hands on these damp days, not to mention the more recent, arbitrary swelling of her ankles and her feet, had begun to limit her usefulness. More and more she was sent out with her basket to beg rather than to nurse. She kept her dissatisfaction with the arrangement to herself, which meant she complained only to God, who knew how she felt. Who had sent her here.
She helped Annie undress and get comfortable in Mrs. Gertler’s bed. And held a candle over his shoulder while Dr. Hannigan examined the girl, put a stethoscope to her belly and her rising chest.
As he was leaving, she asked him to go by the convent to tell them where she was—“So they don’t think I’ve been murdered.” And to please, as well, go by the morgue to tell them Sheen and Sons Funeral Home would be making the arrangements. She bent her head back to see him better, to make sure her small black eyes were right on his own. There were some details, she added, she’d ask him to keep to himself.
Later, two Sisters from the convent arrived with more blankets and two hot water bottles wrapped in rags, and a dinner of biscuits and cheese and hot tea, which Sister St. Saviour ate in the chair she had pulled up to the side of the bed.
She dozed with her rosary in her gloved hands and dreamed, because of the cold, no doubt, and the familiar, icy ache of it in her toes, that she was on her stool in the vestibule of Woolworth’s. She startled awake twice, because in her dream the woven basket, full of coins, was sliding off her lap.
When the darkness had lifted a bit—there was a whiteness to the dawn that made her believe the day would be something more promising than gray—she stood and walked into the parlor. The two Sisters who had brought the supplies, Sister Lucy and a young nun whose name she couldn’t recall, were still there, sitting side by side on the couch, asleep, puffed into their black cloaks like gulls on a pier. Slowly, Sister climbed first one flight, then the second, until she found the apartment that had burned. In the growing light it was difficult to say what had been ignited in the blast, although the smell of smoke and burned wool was strong. And then she saw on the floor a man’s overcoat and the sodden cushions of a high-backed couch and the black traces of a large burn across the waterlogged rug. In the kitchen, there were the charred remains of a pair of muslin curtains and an arc of soot all along the oven wall. She ran her finger through it, only to confirm that it would be easily removed. What would be difficult to remove, she knew, was this terrible odor, which she was certain the night air had sharpened. It was the smell of wet cinders. The smell of doused peat, of damp stone and swollen wood. Fire, shipwreck, the turned earth of graveyards. She went to the single window in the narrow kitchen. The courtyard below was full of deep shadow and the movements of some small gray birds, but looking down into it disheartened her in a way she had not been prepared for. She sat on the sill, lifted the twisted tea towel that had been left there.
Outside, most of the facing windows were still dark, only a small light here and there: an early worker, a mother with an infant, a bedside vigil. Reluctantly, she cast her eyes down into the courtyard again. The sun would have to be well up in the sky to light that dark tangle, but even at this hour there was a variation in the shadows that caught her attention. It was, no doubt, the movement of the birds, or of a stalking cat, or of a patch of puddled rainwater briefly reflecting the coming dawn, but for just a moment she thought it was a man, crawling, cowering was the word, beneath the black tangle of junk and dead leaves, the new, vague light just catching the perspiration on his wide brow, his shining forehead, the gleam of a tooth or an eye.
She shivered, flexed her stiff fingers. She smoothed the towel on her lap and then folded it neatly.
She could tell herself that the illusion was purposeful: God showing her an image of the young man, the suicide, trapped in his bitter purgatory, but she refused the notion. It was superstition. It was without mercy. It was the devil himself who drew her eyes into that tangle, who tempted her toward despair. That was the truth of it.
In the dining room, the sideboard was as big as a boat. She found the lease and the marriage license before she put her hand on the narrow blue folder on which someone had written—it was a man’s severe script—Deed for Calvary. She slipped it into her pocket.
In the bedroom, the windows were wide open, the shades rolled up, and an ashen cord pull moved slowly in what must have been a dawn breeze. The bed was made, the blankets smoothed, no trace of fire in here, although there was more soot along the far wall. No trace, either, of where the husband might have lain on the bed. She knew immediately—it was the sympathy in his gestures, toward the girl on the bed, toward the apartment above—that it was the short officer who had come back after the body had been removed, to smooth and straighten the counterpane. One of us.
Sister lifted the two pillows, slipped off their covers, and shook them good—a few white feathers falling through the air—then piled the pillows in the open window. She pulled off the sheets and the blankets, pausing for a moment to remove her glasses and look closely at the bit of mending she felt beneath her hand—small stitches, she saw, neatly made—and said to God, “As You made us,” at the familiar sight of the rusty stains here and there on the blue ticking of the mattress. She pushed the sheets into one of the pillowcases and wrapped the blanket around them.
As she stepped away with the linens in her arms, she kicked something with her toe and looked over her shoulder to see what it was. A man’s shoe, broad brown leather, well worn. There were two of them at the foot of the bed. Gaping and forlorn, with the black laces wildly trailing. She nudged them with her toe until they were safely out of the way.
She carried the pile of bedding down the narrow stairs. Sister Lucy was still sunk into herself, breathing deeply. Sister St. Saviour dropped the linen on the couch beside her, and when that didn’t get her to stir, she touched the Sister’s black shoe with her own—and felt the keenness of the repeated motion, the man’s empty shoe upstairs and Sister Lucy’s here, still filled with its owner’s mortal foot. “I’d like you to sit with the lady,” she said.
In the bedroom, the young nun—Sister Jeanne was her name—had her rosary in her hand and her eyes on the pile of blankets and coats under which the girl slept. Sister St. Saviour signaled to her from the door, and she and Sister Lucy changed places. In the parlor, Sister St. Saviour told Sister Jeanne that she was to bring the bedclothes to the convent for washing and return with a bucket and broom. The two of them were going to scrub the apartment upstairs from head to foot, roll up the wet rug, dry the floors, repair what they could, soften the blow of the woman’s return to the place where the accident had occurred, the pilot gone out, because return she would, with nowhere else to go and a baby on the way come summer.
Sister Jeanne’s eyes grew teary at this news. The tears suited her face, which was dewy with youth, moist-looking, the clay still wet. Obediently, the young nun gathered the linens from the couch. Sister St. Saviour went with her to the vestibule and then watched her walk delicately down the stone stairs, the bundle held to one side so she could see her tiny feet as she descended. The sky was colorless, as was the sidewalk and the street. The cold fresh air was still tinged with the smell of smoke, or maybe the smell of smoke only lingered in the nostrils. There were a few snowflakes in the air. Sister Jeanne was very small and slight, even in her black cloak, but there was a firmness about her, a buoyancy perhaps, as she hurried away, the bundle in her arms, so much to do. She was of an age, Sister St. Saviour understood, when tragedy was no less thrilling than romance.
Sister St. Saviour turned back into the apartment, peeked into the bedroom to whisper that she would return shortly, and then headed down the steps herself. Sheen’s funeral parlor was only eight blocks over.
* * *
SISTER JEANNE FELT THE COLD on her hands—her gloves were in her pockets, too late to reach them now—but she felt as well the blood drumming in her wrists and in her temples. She felt her heart in her chest beating against the gathered bed linens as if she were running away with them. Last night’s grief had made the new day profound, true, but for Sister Jeanne the first hour of any day, the hour of Lauds, was always the holiest. It was the hour she felt closest to God, saw Him in the gathering light, in the new air, in the stillness of the street—shades were drawn and the shops shuttered—but also in the first stirrings of life. There was the pleasant sound of a milk cart, tinkle of glass and clop of hooves, the sound of a few chirping songbirds, the call of distant gulls, of a streetcar down the avenue, a tugboat on the river, everything waking, beginning again. Deep night frightened her beyond reason; she knew herself to be a heretic of superstitions and weird imaginings, but knowing this didn’t stop the terror she could brew for herself when she woke to pray at 3 a.m. And the busy, crowded sunlight hours, filled with casework, hardly gave her a moment to raise her eyes. Suppertime, ever since she’d come to the convent, was a calm that God need not enter, since the bread and the soup were always good and the company of the other women, tired from a long day of nursing, was sufficient to itself.
But it was at this hour, when the sun was a humming gold at the horizon, or a pale peach, or even just, as now, a gray pearl, that she felt the breath of God warm on her neck. It was at this hour that the whole city smelled to her like the inside of a cathedral—damp stone and cold water and candle wax—and the sound of her steps on the sidewalk and over the five cross streets made her think of a priest approaching the altar in shined shoes. Or of a bridegroom, perhaps, out of one of the romances she had read as a girl, all love and anticipation.
Sister Jeanne maneuvered her bundle through the wrought-iron gate at the front of the convent and climbed the steps to the front door. The other nuns were just coming out of the chapel, and their stillness as they walked through the dark corridor, which was untouched, as yet, by the outside light, made her feel even more buoyantly aware of the life in her veins. It was the feeling she’d had as a young child, coming from the sunshine into the solemn, shaded house and being warned, day after day, to keep her voice low because her mother, an invalid, was sleeping. She fell in line behind the other Sisters and then turned with her bundle as they passed the basement stairs. She went down. Sister Illuminata, the laundress, followed on her heels. The cellar was dark, full of shadows, although the pale morning was pressed against the small windows. The basement at this hour smelled only faintly of soap, more profoundly of dirt and brick, the cold underground. Somewhat breathlessly, Sister Jeanne told the story of the death and the fire and the baby coming, and the request Sister St. Saviour had made. Unsmiling, Sister Illuminata took the sheets and blanket and counterpane from her arms. She sent Sister Jeanne back up the stairs with the thrust of her chin. “Bring Sister her breakfast,” she said. “And tell her it will be tomorrow, at best, before these things are dry. Even if I hang them by the furnace.”
* * *
WHEN SISTER JEANNE RETURNED, the snow had become steady and the sidewalk was somewhat slick with it. She carried a broom and a bucket that contained both a scrub brush and the breakfast: a jar of tea, buttered bread, jam, all wrapped in a towel but rattling nevertheless inside the metal pail, a sound that added a quickness to her step and made some of the people she passed—the men mostly, who tipped their hats and said, “Sister”—smile to see her: a little nun with a pail and a broom and a determined walk. As she reached the building, Sister Lucy was just coming down the steps, wrapping her cloak around her hips and pulling down the corners of her mouth, as if the two motions were somehow connected—some necessary accommodation to what Sister Jeanne saw immediately was her ferocious anger.
“She’s got the body coming back tonight,” Sister Lucy said, and added for emphasis, “This evening. For the wake. And buried first thing tomorrow morning.” She shook her jowls. She was a mannish, ugly woman, humorless, severe, but an excellent nurse. Among the many helpful things she’d already taught Sister Jeanne was to notice the earlobes of the dying, first indication that the hour had come.
“Tomorrow!” Sister Lucy said again. “Calvary—she’s got it all arranged.” She shivered a bit, wrapped her cloak around her more tightly, and dropped her mouth into a longer frown. “And why is she rushing him into the ground?”
There was a yellow tint to her pupils, which were darting back and forth as they took in the rooftops and the icy snowflakes. “I’ll say only this,” Sister Lucy declared. “You can’t pull strings with God.” She leveled her gaze and pulled again at her cloak. Sister Jeanne thought of a painting she had seen, maybe in the courthouse or a post office, of a square-jawed general in the snow—was it George Washington?—his cloak drawn about him just so.
“You can’t pull the wool over God’s eyes,” Sister Lucy said.
Sister Jeanne, the bucket in one hand and the broom in another, and the cold, for the first time this morning, whipping into her open cloak, turned somewhat gratefully to a woman who was passing on the sidewalk and saying, “Good morning, Sisters.” She was a young woman bundled against the weather, a dark blue shawl wrapped around her broad hat, another thrown over her shoulders. She was pushing a baby carriage. A thin line of snow had gathered on the hood of the carriage, and there was a frosting of snow on the knuckles of her black gloves as well. She was pregnant under her man’s overcoat. The nuns said, “Good morning,” with a bow, and Sister Jeanne moved to peer into the carriage. She felt Sister Lucy, reluctantly, bending to look as well. The baby inside was so swaddled in plaid wool there were only two placid eyes and a tiny nose and the dash of a pursed, thoughtful mouth. “Oh, lovely!” Sister Jeanne cried. “Snug as a bug in a rug.”
“He likes the snow,” the mother replied. She was rosy-cheeked herself.
“He’s watching it come down, isn’t he?” Sister Jeanne said.
Sister Lucy also smiled. It was only a small, tight smile, but mighty, considering the weight of the anger it had worked itself out from under. She turned the smile toward the child and then the mother. Once more, the snowflakes began to gather in her yellow lashes, and she narrowed her eyes against them. “Is your husband good to you?” she asked.
Sister Jeanne briefly closed her eyes. Her cheeks grew warm. The young mother gave a short, startled laugh. “Yes, Sister,” she said. “He is.”
Sister Lucy raised her bare hand, one red finger in the air, and Sister Jeanne thought of General Washington again—or perhaps it was Napoleon. “Has he got a good job?”
“He does,” the mother said. She straightened her spine. “He’s a doorman at the St. Francis Hotel.”
Sister nodded, barely placated. “Do you live nearby?” she asked.
“Yes, Sister,” she said. She nodded over her shoulder. “Just at 314. Since last Saturday.”
Now Sister Lucy turned the finger toward the woman’s heart. “You come to see me,” she said, “if ever he’s not good to you.”
“He’s good to me,” the girl said again, laughing.
“We’re in the convent on Fourth. I’m Sister Lucy.” She swung her hand. “This is Sister Jeanne. You come see us if need be.”
The woman gave a little curtsy, but began to move the carriage nonetheless. “I will,” she said. “Good morning, Sisters.”
The woman was only a few feet away when Sister Lucy said, “If he was good to her, he might let her catch her breath before starting another child.” She blinked at the snowflakes that were trying to cover her eyes. “He might think of her health instead of his pleasure.”
All joy was thin ice to Sister Lucy.
Sister Jeanne bowed her head and studied for a minute the tips of their identical shoes. Under the skim of cold on her cheeks she could still feel the rising heat.
“I’ll go in, then,” Sister Jeanne whispered, and turned to the steps.
“I’ll try to get the word out,” Sister Lucy called after her. “I’ll talk to Mr. Hennessey, who knows all the motormen. But there’s hardly time to gather a decent crowd, the way she’s rushing things. And only one night for the wake.”
Sister Jeanne nodded without turning, going up the steps. She had quite forgotten God was in the snow around her, in the cold and the wide sky; she had quite forgotten her pleasure in the day’s work ahead. She was thinking instead that they were well rid of Sister Lucy.
* * *
A POLICEMAN AND A FIREMAN were conferring with another gentleman in the hallway by the stairs. They all turned and nodded to the young nun as she came through the vestibule. The door to the apartment was ajar and she let herself in. In full, if weak, daylight, the room seemed nicer than it had last night, if only because now, with the curtains in the big picture window opened, it had the view of the snow to make it cheerful. There was still the smell of smoke, but the smell of cleaning ammonia was now cut into it—the smell of the day going on. She crossed the living room and entered the narrow corridor that was lined with two portraits of dour peasants and found Sister St. Saviour in the tiny kitchen. Sister Jeanne placed the broom against the door and carried the bucket to the table where the old nun sat. The kitchen had been well scrubbed, the only trace of the lady’s interrupted dinner was the newspaper that had been folded beside her plate. Sister St. Saviour now had it wide open before her.
Sister Jeanne poured the milky tea into a cup she borrowed from the cabinet and set it down. “It’s still awfully cold in here, Sister,” she said.
Sister St. Saviour moved the cup closer without raising it. “The men have just been in to turn on the gas,” she said. “I asked them to carry out a few things that were damaged in the fire. They’re going to wash the walls for me as well. So we’ve made some progress.”
Sister Jeanne took a plate from the cupboard, set out the buttered bread and jam.
“Mr. Sheen will get the body from the morgue this morning,” Sister St. Saviour went on. “First thing the lady wakes, she’ll have to pick out his clothes. You can run them over for me. We’ve got a mass set for six tomorrow morning. Then the cemetery. The ground, praise God, isn’t frozen. It’ll all be finished before the new day’s begun.”
“That’s quick,” Sister Jeanne said. She hesitated and then added, “Sister Lucy wonders why it’s such a rush.”
Sister St. Saviour only raised her eyes to the top of the newspaper. “Sister Lucy,” she said casually, “has a big mouth.”
She turned the opened newspaper over, to the front page, straightening the edges. Then she touched her glasses. “Here’s a story,” she said, and put her fingertip to the page. “Mr. Sheen mentioned it to me this morning. A man over in Jersey, playing billiards in his home, accidentally opened the gas tap in the room, with the pole they use, the cue, it says, and asphyxiated himself.” She raised her chin. “His poor wife called him for dinner and found him gone.” The glasses made her dark eyes sparkle. “Day before yesterday. Mr. Sheen mentioned it to me this morning. He was pointing out how common these things are. These accidents with the gas.”
Sister St. Saviour moved her finger up the page. “And now here’s a story of a suicide,” she continued. “On the same page. Over on Wards Island. A man being treated at the hospital over there, for madness. It seems he was doing well enough, but then he threw himself into the water and disappeared. At Hell Gate. It says the water covered him up at Hell Gate.” She clucked her tongue. “As if the devil needed to put a fine point on his work.” She moved her arm once again. She might have been signing a blessing over the page. “And here’s another story of a Wall Street man gone insane. Same day. Throwing bottles into the street, bellowing. Carted off to the hospital.” She leaned forward, reading, her finger on the page, “‘Where he demanded to see J. P. Morgan and Colonel Roosevelt.’”
Sister Jeanne leaned forward as well. “Is it true?” she asked.
Sister St. Saviour laughed. “True enough.” Her smile was as smooth as paint. “The devil loves these short, dark days.”
Sister Jeanne straightened her spine. She sometimes feared that Sister St. Saviour was wobbly in her ways. Hadn’t she once said, on Sister Jeanne’s first day in the convent, “Could you go tinkle for me?”
“Mr. Sheen told me,” Sister St. Saviour went on, “that he could show the article about the billiard man to anyone in the Church, or at the cemetery, in case there was a question. To show how common these sorts of accidents are. And how easily they could be misinterpreted. This New Jersey man, after all, had come home early from work. And closed the door. Had he been a poor man, not a man with a billiard table at all, they might have made a different report out of it. The rich can get whatever they want put into the papers.”
* * *
BY THE TIME MRS. GERTLER RETURNED to reclaim her apartment, Annie was up and dressed and sitting in a chair by the window with one of Sister Jeanne’s handkerchiefs clutched in both hands.
The two nuns walked up the stairs with her, Sister Jeanne ahead and Sister St. Saviour just behind, her swollen ankles weighting each step with pain. At the apartment door, it was Sister St. Saviour who stepped back so the girl could enter with the young nun at her side.
At four o’clock, the black hearse pulled up. The three women watched from the bedroom window. Mr. Sheen, elegant in his long overcoat, left the cab first and was the first to appear upstairs. He was a tall man with the sharp nose and high cheekbones of an Indian chief, a pair of large, heavy-lidded eyes that couldn’t have been better suited to his profession. He swept off his hat and took the widow’s two hands into his own and, with a quick look around the sparsely furnished room, suggested the lady and the two nuns might want to wait in the bedroom while he made his preparations. Annie and Sister Jeanne sat together at the foot of the bed while Sister St. Saviour stood at the door. They could hear Mr. Sheen giving instructions. And then the unmistakable sound of the coffin being carried up the stairs, a bit of labored breathing, and the touch of the wooden casket against the doorframe. And then Mr. Sheen rapped on the bedroom door to say all was ready.
The husband’s face was pale and waxen, but it was, nevertheless, a lovely face. Boyish and solemn above the starched white collar, with a kind of youthful stubbornness about it as well. The look of a child, Sister St. Saviour thought, when met with the spoon of castor oil.
While Annie and Sister Jeanne knelt, Sister St. Saviour blessed herself and considered the sin of her deception, slipping a suicide into hallowed ground. A man who had rejected his life, the love of this brokenhearted girl, the child coming to them in the summer. She said to God, who knew her thoughts, Hold it against me if You will. He could put this day on the side of the ledger where all her sins were listed: the hatred she felt for certain politicians, the money she stole from her own basket to give out as she pleased—to a girl with a raging clap, to the bruised wife of a drunk, to the mother of the thumb-sized infant she had wrapped in a clean handkerchief, baptized, and then buried in the convent garden. All the moments of how many days when her compassion failed, her patience failed, when her love for God’s people could not outrun the girlish alacrity of her scorn for their stupidity, their petty sins.
She wanted him buried in Calvary to give comfort to his poor wife, true. To get the girl what she’d paid for. But she also wanted to prove herself something more than a beggar, to test the connections she’d forged in this neighborhood, forged over a lifetime. She wanted him buried in Calvary because the power of the Church wanted him kept out and she, who had spent her life in the Church’s service, wanted him in.
Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed. We’ll sort it out when I see You.
Only a few neighbors came to call, every one of them a little restrained in sympathy, given the unspoken notion that the son of a bitch could have taken them all with him. A trio of red-faced motormen stopped by, but stayed only a minute when no drink was offered. Later, the two nuns walked Mr. Sheen downstairs in order to give the girl some time alone with her husband. At the curb, he reached into the cab of the hearse and pulled out the day’s newspaper. He folded back a page and tapped a narrow article. Sister St. Saviour leaned forward to read, Sister Jeanne at her elbow. In the descending light of the cold evening, the blur of a misting rain and a rising fog, the two could just make out the headline: SUICIDE ENDANGERS OTHERS. It was followed by the full report of the fire and the man’s death by his own hand. “There’s nothing to be done, Sister,” Mr. Sheen whispered. “Now that it’s in the paper, there’s not a Catholic cemetery that will have him. I’ll have my head handed to me on a plate if I try to bring him into the church.”
To Sister Jeanne’s eyes, the black newsprint, especially the bold headline that seemed to swell and blur under the blow of each raindrop, briefly transformed the world itself into a thing made of paper, pocked by tears.
But Sister St. Saviour pushed the undertaker’s hand away. She thought of the rude young man with the milk tooth and the gray fedora. Her glasses flashed under the just-illuminated lamplight. “The New York Times,” she said, “has a big mouth.”
* * *
THE TWO NUNS climbed the stairs again. Sister St. Saviour was aware of how patiently little Sister Jeanne paused with her on each step, a hand raised to offer aid. Inside, they coaxed the sobbing girl up off her knees and into the bed. It was Sister Jeanne who took over then—no weariness in her narrow shoulders, no indication at all that she felt the tedium of too much sympathy for a stranger. With Annie settled, Sister Jeanne told Sister St. Saviour to go back to the convent to rest. She whispered that she would keep vigil through the long night and have the lady ready first thing in the morning.
“Ready for what?” Sister St. Saviour asked her, attempting to gauge how much the young nun understood—suspecting not much. “There will be no mass.” Her pain, her bone-through fatigue, made her voice sharper than she knew.
Young Sister Jeanne looked up at the nun, moisture once more gathering in her pretty eyes. She said, with childish determination, “I’ll have her ready for whatever’s to come.”
Sister St. Saviour left the two of them murmuring in the bedroom. At the casket, she paused again to look at the young man’s still face. She went to the window in the kitchen and looked down into that purgatory of the backyards. At this hour, there was nothing to be seen. All movement, all life, was in the lighted windows above: a man at a table, a child with a bedside lamp, a young woman walking an infant to and fro.
Of course, it was Sister Jeanne who would be here when the baby arrived come summer.
It was Sister Jeanne who had been sent for.
The old nun felt a beggar’s envy rise to her throat. She envied little Jeanne, true enough—a new sin for her side of the ledger—envied her faith and her determination and her easy tears. But she envied as well the coming dawn, Lauds, still so many hours away. She envied the very daylight, envied every woman who would walk out into it, bustling, bustling, one foot in front of the other, no pain weighting her steps, so much to do.
Confident of heaven—God knew her failings—Sister St. Saviour was, nevertheless, even now, jealous of life.
She turned from the cold glass, turned as well a cold shoulder to the God who had brought her here so that Jeanne would follow. It was the way a bitter old wife might turn her back on a faithless husband.
* * *
THE BABY, a daughter, was born in August, just three weeks after the old nun died. She was called Sally, but baptized St. Saviour in honor of the Sister’s kindness that sad afternoon. That damp and gray afternoon when the pilot went out. When our young grandfather, a motorman for the BRT whose grave we have never found, sent his wife to do her shopping while he had himself a little nap.
Copyright © 2017 by Alice McDermott