A Lover's Almanacby Maureen Howard
One of the pre-eminent novelists of our time dazzles readers with a story of two young lovers in New York. Their romance, seemingly shattered on the eve of the millennium, is played out against the tale of an older couple lost to each other for half a century.
- Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
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A WINTER'S TALE
Louise Moffett cries in the ruins. Tears give way to bleating sobs, her sorrow run dry. She shivers out of her stiff silk dress, unhooks her froth of petticoat, throws both costumey garments on the pile of crumpled napkins and tablecloth stained with wine and ashes. At three o'clock in the morning she is quite alone, strutting in stiletto heels across the floor of her loft littered with confetti, streamers, noisemakers, shriveled balloons. Louise (Lou, Lou-Lou) is not to be seen by a soul in her lacy corset that pops her pearly breasts. As she stoops to retrieve a harmless cake knife from the debris of last night's party, garters stretch across her pink butt and swell of white thigh to the top of seamed stockings. No one will blink in disbelief at the scrap of suggestive white silk veiling her mons veneris.
Louise jabs at her wrist, but the blade of the long silver knife is serrated, dull. It would take force and determination to cut her flesh and why should she? The party's over, not her life, though she has been possessed by final thoughts from the moment when she found herself alone and shot the bolt of her door. Her tears for a man, of course, lying to herself that he has been an amusement, a convenience, nothing more. She teeters in those painful shoes to the bathroom, is shocked and saddened to see her scant underwear, her smooth blond page boy, cheery bright lipstick; the retro makeup and costume for a miserable party. Scandalous, so much snowy lace on white flesh, Miss January, a Calendar Girl, one of those saccharine cuties that hung in every feed store and gas station back in Wisconsin, girlie girls offering themselves to the inaccessible grease monkey or farm boy. Yes, she is such a smutty, unenlightened woman, though her little breasts would never cut it as fodder for male fantasy. Pert breasts admired by Artie Freeman whose toothbrush and razor confront her. And then don't the tears fall fast and furious, for he shaved so badly, always a bloody nick or a patch of stubble left by his ears, ridiculous floppy ears. And, having sworn off the man, she's into it again, choking back saltwater sorrow, for can it be that one night can unravel their years, one rotten night of Artie's misdemeanors. The answer is yes. Her Artie will never give up on his lightness. And the years that stretch ahead offer a diminishing view in which he will never change. Lightness is his affliction.
Louise Moffett is an artist, a painter now scrubbing at her lips as though scraping ill-conceived strokes from a canvas. Her hand quivering, she grabs a razor blade, begins to hack off her hair in dangerous swipes. When this disfiguration is accomplished she unhooks the corset, her body scored with red welts from its stays, and runs naked to the back of the loft, where the bed, lamp, rug made it home, sort of home, for her and her lost love, Artie Freeman. Home in the background as it were, hidden, relegated to a corner behind a screen. Lou hitches on overalls, sniffling as she buttons a paint-stained shirt, one of Artie's threadbare at the cuffs. He would be wearing it still had she not, but that thought as to her care and upkeep of the unworldly man turns her weepy. She will never again give in to his nonsense. Will not keep it light: it--the easy irony of their longstanding affair, their arrangement. As she hauls out a canvas, a sniff of wet acrylic revives her and Louise, kicking away paper horns and cheap wooden crackers, begins to work with a putty knife at a ruined painting, well, at one small corner that's all he has destroyed, of a large work. Now to undo the damage, so she paints through what's left of the night until the smudge is restored to a little apple tree in bloom resplendent. With her last stroke of sap green, the party is over.
Louise Moffett came to this city to make art. She is thirty-one years old and could not name the day when she got serious, oh, not about her painting, that's fixed as the stars, about Artie Freeman who has been her lover, nothing more.
Yet her work, her vision we might say, has depended on a correction of perspective. Large: her Botanical Series presents blowups--just one segment of leaf--oak, birch or maple--its veins, hairs, connective tissue in greens and yellow greens of chloroplast, amber palisade cells as seen through a microscope, a jungle growth unavailable to the naked eye. Small: on each canvas she paints an inset, the little "window" of computerese in which the tree is seen whole--bark, trunk, limbs leafed out, the tiny tree reflecting a landscape of memory. Louise has demoted the backyard maple in Wisconsin to mere detail, as though a postcard of the entire Sistine Chapel balanced on one finger of God, as though the habitat--rocky crag, fishy prey--of an Audubon eagle perched on one feather of the mighty bird. Moving from the huge segment of maple leaf, the living tissue, the viewer's eye quickly sought the comfort of the small static tree. This simple reversal of scale, amusing yet unsettling, has made Louise Moffett somewhat famous. The Botanicals had seemed to her a bold statement about desire for the object once valued and lost, lost beyond simple possession, some dumb Eden of the deluded heart and mind. She steps back to look at her reconstructed apple tree which Lou has not set in a cross-section of leaf. No, the mini tree blooms in a dark swirl of heartwood, the dead center of an old malus, and as she inscribes the Latin name where she usually signs her name, the whole enterprise appears sentimental, an impossible yearning for a time before knowledge, the world pieced back together, her little world of a farm in Wisconsin, and for the antics of a clown, Artie Freeman.
There is this: she wears an impressive emerald-cut diamond, third finger, left hand. Louise would have settled for dime-store, for zircon. Genderwise, her aims are no better than the empty promises of that booby, Miss January. With a shudder of self-loathing, she sees herself as a throwback to sweetheart left in the lurch, for she had so shamefully wanted this chip of blue ice; and when at last the ring was offered Artie played it as farce, for he was bound to be clever as though he had sworn in blood against the more revealing emotions. The cold sun rises, its brightness eerily opaque through snow on the skylight. Louise takes off the ring, smears its little blue velvet box with the white acrylic of her apple blossoms, and though her work is held in high regard and she is young, ambitious, talented and strangely more beautiful in spattered overalls and ragamuffin hair, she chokes back a sob, falls on the bed crying. That bastard has broken her heart.
In the Year of Our Lord 2000--is that the year at last?--he wakes with a swollen head, two heads as it were, one twisting him back to the night of debauchery--to the songs, toots, cries and kisses which preceded his disgrace. He remembers the snapped stem of a glass, a busy white fizz of champagne splotching silk, running into a valley of breasts already damp with dancing. Whose breast? She is headless in memory, if memory is this befuddling pain.
There was snow. Of that he is certain, for the second head turns toward the assault of thick white snow plastered to windowsill. Plastered. Looking back, he remembers beating the trunk of a taxi with his fists, then slipping to his knees in supplication, studying the stamp of tire tread and the faint smear of exhaust on the new white world. Without scarf, gloves, overcoat, he had walked alone through Central Park, unpeopled by the storm, closed to traffic, a paper dunce cap dribbling crimson down his forehead. Concerts, fireworks, all outdoor revels had been called off in the city due to a freaky, calamitous storm. He did not consider that the lone cab, under no obligation to pick up a drunk, was driving the serpentine routes in the park illegally or had lost its way.
Yet here Artie Freeman finds himself, naked in his own bed, a bulging pressure behind the eyes, eyes no better closed than open to the excruciating light and to a view of sodden garments on the floor. Strange boots, coat, tie. The coat is an Eisenhower jacket with military emblems and campaign ribbons now stained. He had fallen a second time under a scaffolding, an armature surrounding his crumbling apartment house, a glamorous double tower erected in a year of disaster, 1929. In this shelter he collapsed in slush next to a barrel where street kids had lit a fire to welcome the incredible year. A girl, too young--twelve, thirteen--had propped him up. Soldier, she said, soldier. He remembers touching the wisps of her hair, limp hair of the undernourished, the ill. The spittle of her childish laughter sprayed his mouth in a mocking kiss, and he recalled the shallow wisdom of her eyes and his own wobbly stance, then his marching off with the hilarious rectitude of a drunk. He had thought the girl sickly pale and too young for any man.
Looking back that's not all Artie remembers: loose bolt of pain, a metallic shift in his head signals the coming day in the Year of Our Lord, Christ, it was Lou's dress he had ruined, the fizzle of his champagne sopping the blue silk from stiff pointed breasts down to a wasp waist.
"Forget it!" She had wrested the broken glass from his hand.
He no longer forgets her flouncing off like--like Mom in an old sit-coin--tidy housewife, prim disciplinarian. The New Year's Eve party being costumed and set in the innocuous Fifties--she flounced in petticoats of that era, hooked into her stays--wasp waist she had named it--to flirt with another man, a pudge in tweeds, white bucks, spiffy argyles. The creep had wiped at Lou's breasts with a clean linen handkerchief. Artie swung at him, whamming his little foulard bow tie into his chinless chin. The women, all with bright lips and sleek hair, screeched at the crash of a lamp, drew off from their men, dark-suited men coming toward him in silence.
"See here, guy"--the voice of Artie Freeman's oldest, perhaps now his only friend--"you want to apologize to the lady?"
Yes, the familiar twang of the pal he beat at chess twenty years. They hitchhiked the continent, tripped together at the peak of Mount McKinley. And though they are of an age, that desperately youthful age, their early thirties, Bud Boyce is more or less Freeman's boss. Once boys playing in cyberspace, now Boyce is a magisterial nerd, space salesman to galaxies, purveyor of time in the stratosphere, adman to corporate second-rate stars. Artie, sidekick to good buddy, was best man when Boyce wed the agreeable corporate wife.
"You want to apologize ..."
Artie laughed, "To--our hostess? The little lady?"
All the while Big Band music and it seemed to him, the couples now turning from his tawdry heroics, shuffling into a samba, that they were all, indeed, from a forgotten day. In the high bright void of Lou's loft the century had ended, not quite the diverting re-enactment they had plotted. At midnight Lou ran the tape of Times Square that once was, pre-porn belt, pre-po-mo tourist trap, just the old dazzling crossroads of the world with thousands of clean-cut kids, clean-cut cops, assembled without fear, the countdown--minute hand jerking to the hour, the big ball descending, shimmering on the black and white screen. Flipping back in time, they drank to 1950, in accordance with Lou's plan--and Artie's; fed up with media blab--for years the city's promotional relations declaring New York PARTY CENTRAL; for months, for weeks the preview of satellite hookup--Alps to remote atoll, laser show from Mount Fuji, grizzled Beatles atop the Great Wall of China. The demoralizing history--info-techno, gender bender, Deco-Eco, Lenin to Lennon, Stravinsky to Sting, Moon Mullins to moon walk, Blimp to Bomb, cola to coke.
On a bright December day, Lou said, "Sure is the end of the world." She had been accosted by a bearded man in a toga who passed her a number--666, her number coming up in his cracked millenarian spiel.
Artie drew out his number, "Get in line." The soothsayer of lower Broadway had scratched yet another 666 on a scrap of spongy pink paper. Shuddering with cold in his soiled white drapery, he had appeared as yet another novelty in People magazine, as an item in the "Metro" section of the Times. There followed a week in which everyone must have their number, always the predictable 666, from this wreck of a loon, once, it was rumored, dean of arts and humanities at Cal Tech or MIT. When, before Christmas, Artie Freeman figured the frequency distribution of cliches over a sampling of three hundred newscasters nationwide would result, median estimate, in "It was the best of times; it was the worst of times," being mouthed, excluding Spanish, Korean and Chinese, at least ...
"Enough!" Lou cried, then went moony, quiet. As though she faced a huge prepared canvas, she had sketched her notion in lightly. "Why not celebrate the mid-century? Turn back," she said. "Suppose we turn back. To my parents, their childhood. Chores, Sunday School, 4 H, both of them safe on the family farm. They might have been chicks in the incubator."
"A little hard to stage in the city." He said no more for it struck him that her paintings were always of the farm, every silo and barn and tree distorted or diminished to force observation, destroy nostalgia, and that her view had prospered in Metropolis. Lou was--at the moment, for the moment--wildly successful.
"Shirley and Harold, they would have been eight or ten," she had no head for numbers, "my father at least ..."
"No, in his early adolescence. So we can just play at being ourselves." She laughed at that one. "With zits and braces," he said.
"Be serious," a phrase she tossed at him from their first days together, lately without much amusement. "I only meant their amazing innocence."
Which Lou and Artie agreed would not be much fun. So that he had come up with the idea of his grandparents' sedate coming of age, a scenario feeding off old movies, shadowy reruns, a cartoon of the Fifties, the postwar American dream. "At least they knew who they were," he said.
"So, who were they?" she asked.
Artie dodged the question with a generic rundown of urban upper-middle class, so that once again Louise knew little of them, these prosperous grandparents, except that the dream had vanished. Their only daughter was dead. Their grandson, A. Freeman, was orphaned, named after no one, father unknown. Determined to claim no personal history, he might have been spawned by a mating of swanky schools and summer camps, or, as he reminded her charmingly--his life began when they met. So Louise, who was indeed serious, was much taken with these people who at least knew who they were in the funky Fifties, and with the sensible irony of a decorous party which might unlock a door.
Artie kicks aside the mound of soggy clothes, his costume of last night. At each step his right knee buckles, tibia grinding back into its socket. Unable to lift his head, he can't see himself in the mirrored medicine cabinet, just as well, for with his hair close-cropped for the party, he looks ravaged, skinned yet foolishly young and proper as he pees an inaccurate stream. At about eleven-thirty in the last century, the fun had gone out of the Fifties. For Artie at least, who had mixed and sampled the Manhattans, the martinis, the rye-and-ginger, the loft had started its slow swirl in which he could distinguish his friends and Lou's--their friends, he would say--and the inevitable extras, artists from her world half known to him, all passing before him in a solemn processional, though slow-dancing or eating the last of the historically accurate buffet--tuna noodle casserole, Waldorf salad, the damp ruins of a Boston cream pie--all twirling to "This Can't Be Love" on the portable hi-fi, vamping toward the millennium. Boozy, as in the old days he supposed, for he is of the recuperative generation, beer and wine, the mild toke, modest indulgences, take or leave your light pleasures, as he has taken Lou, she him, until lately when her unspoken proposition seemed to be that they should be getting on with their lives.
Such morning-after misery when he finally sees the pale stain which the party hat dribbled on his forehead, not the splatter of real blood, an unearthly dripping as from the bodiless heart of sweet Jesus, a bleeding heart crowned with thorns, framed in his grandparents' bedroom. Artie's torture, sharp almost visible. Puffed eyelids, swollen nose not a pretty sight. Lou had been exactly that, pretty in her blue taffeta dress held aloft with petticoats. Perched on high heels, she had displayed her mid-century finery to him. Her enormous canvases were stowed away, propped against their bed in the cozy area behind a screen--reference to privacy, domestic comforts. There was not a trace of turp or fixative in the workaday loft. Homey smells of supper, TV cart with the ten-inch set, a stack of scratched 78s. After that Biblical storm, the power had switched on in lower Manhattan for New Year's Eve and a chandelier only his Lou could unearth in a junk shop shone upon them, a fixture of such artlessness--frosted lights fitted to a futuristic galaxy welcoming the Space Age to the Levittown dining ell.
When he first arrived at the loft, as though her dress made all the difference, she rose on tiptoe to kiss him demurely, to touch the soft brush cut of his hair. Artie had looked down into the pretty dress. White lace poked her breasts forward, not necessarily for him in this getup. Lou's small pliant breasts he had soaped routinely in her, in their--he felt free to say in their Jacuzzi--though Artie Freeman did not live with Louise Moffett in the loft but kept, out of respect for his/their cherished independence, a bachelor apartment uptown. Waiting for their guests to arrive, she had looked to him shy, uncertain, fretting over arrangements of plates and cutlery. He was oddly elated that the great storm which canceled the fireworks at the Battery and at the North boundary of Central Park where the City virtually ended, had not interfered with their party. He had the ring in his pocket, and to Artie, who had left the dark streets uptown, it seemed that Consolidated Edison had conspired to illuminate the loft so that the diamond would dazzle his Lou at midnight.
A miracle of sorts, for at noon on this last day of the year the sky was luminescent grey, a negative. Howling wind swept up the broad avenues, clamored into side streets and blind alleys. Lights dimmed, flickered. Messages, in this city of messages, were half written, half transmitted, cut off in the troubled air. The mad prophet in his toga working the subways from Union Square to Chambers Street was exultant, his doomsday sign whipped into tatters, the last of his ominous numbers tossed like confetti in Astor Place. As the city shut down, so did the holiday air. Office parties dwindled. Not toasting that they had lived to this improbable day, workers--uptight, wary--wished each other safe home by whatever tunnel or train. By late afternoon the city was eerily calm, a short-winded bluster after all, but the last wild card of the century had done its damage.
Bothersome to Artie who worked at home designing plausible graphics for Bud Boyce--stylish bar charts and pies, seductive pictograms out of mightily inferential statistics. He punched at dead keys on the computer, on the phone. He could not call Lou to see if their time trip to the Unfabulous Fifties was still in place. The air in his apartment was suspiciously still, the dark street beyond a massive blank screen. The twilight zone that he (artfree @) dreamt up with Boyce (budboy @) had finally come about: the city had gone wireless. Cyberscouts playing WHAT IF on their screens: what if cables rotted in their decayed wood channels under the crumbling pavements of New York, what if the charged strands drew energy down signaling to resurgent mica in Manhattan's bed of granite, what if info ricocheted off the subway's charge or hyper optics were optioned by nibbling rats, jarred by shiftless tectonic plates. Twenty years since these meager fantasies entertained Artie and CEO Bertram Boyce who, bouncing messages of Product to the ever widening-narrowing world, had no time for such easy plots. Soon after Bud deleted the article before product, invested it with the capital P, Artie's faith went offline, a loss of youth in his microsoft heart, and he withdrew from Bud's enterprise, began simple piecework at home.
So, he was well out of the game, but thought seriously of Y2K unReadiness, the two blank 00s that erased a century, computers calculating the date as 1900, so belatedly searching and destroying each and every encoded day in the old mainframes at the cost of billions. And what if, somewhere around 1965, a neat-minded nerd had thought of the strategic imperative of a full four-digit date, but no one given the joy in the abbreviated language of tech talk, no one listened, for all such trivia would surely solve itself like a simple algebraic formula--x=______. Somewhere, a little guy, programmer retired--the U.S. Census Bureau, the actuarial troops at Allstate?--was laughing up his short sleeve in Scottsdale or hacker heaven. What if, but Artie is cut off, alone in his fantasy, and suppose it was only Mother Nature awarded her last chance to show them up, the communicants, corporate and casuals. To show Artie Freeman up as selfish, uncaring, for in the catastrophic silence he could not call the old man who did not want to welcome last year or the next, his grandfather who on the best of days, did not trouble himself to answer the phone, would not rise from his worn leather chair, or look up from his book, but read, read on, slowly drawing a magnifying glass across the page. The old man was Artie's family, all that was left, and his duty. His only duty to traipse across the Park with groceries, newspapers, clean socks and underclothes. Keep the old man going against the odds. Often, when Artie let himself into his grandparents' apartment--calling it that long after his grandmother's swift death--he feared to find the old man gone, last volume in his lap, head bent to decipher the last word. But his grandfather, fumed out in a threadbare suit, stained tie, translucent finger marking the page in his endless pursuit of history, came toward him with a firm step. "Ah, dear boy!"
"Who else?" For Artie felt he was the only soul who knew that Cyril O'Connor was still alive and that he no longer honored the predictable seasons, forget the second millennium. As the power died in the city, Artie had looked at his dead telephone with some relief. His grandfather would reject his New Year cheer. Though courteous, Cyril O'Connor would dismiss the peculiar holiday, turn back in the fading daylight to recapture the lost line in his book, and once again the dear boy, boy now over thirty, wondered at the perfect tension the old man sustained between the will to die and the will to live.
January 1--Feast of the Circumcision:
At that time: After eight days were past, but already the text in the prayer book would seem to be an adjustment--the seventh day after the birth of Christ as Cyril counted it when he was a small boy, seven days since his electric trains were set up to run round the tree, to stop with the will of his finger at the crossing where the farmer herded his sheep through the village square. Monster sheep, sniffing at chimneys, at a tiny brass bell hung in the steeple. Stupid sheep, knocking the farmer's silo into the looking glass pond. At times he would let the locomotive run his flock down, let the clumsy ovine giants bleed plaster dust onto the green felt grass where the snowy cotton batting never melted, but switched tracks in the nick of time when his soldiers hid under the popsicle-stick bridge plotting to ambush the fort.
Seven days as Cyril figured it to the Circumcision, till his child's prayer book pictured a knife that was about to be plunged into the Babe, a knife large enough to scale a fish, to skin a rabbit, though he was a city boy who only dreamed of such outdoor adventures. Why did the knife hover over the Holy Child? At school the good sister murmured, "Is it not here His suffering begins?" A muffled question to his question. Nor was he told, as he counted down the days, why his father, come home from his beat smelling always of whiskey and still in his patrolman's uniform, began at once to disassemble trains, track, transformer, schoolmarm (rod in hand at the schoolhouse door), barnyard with farmer's wife throwing corn to the chicks out of her checkered apron. His mother had been given the whole expensive setup by a family she worked for, a couple whose boy had died of diphtheria. They could not bear the sight of these toys. Not to accept the charity of Protestants was a matter of his father's inebriate Irish pride, though the parents of the dead boy were Jews. In an apocalyptic siege of unplugging, wrapping, packing, shoving boxes to a topmost shelf, Cyril's kingdom was destroyed one day before custom declared the date on which the dead tree must come down. A punishing feast for a kid in a West Side tenement with few pleasures.
Luke 2:21 At that time: After eight days were past that the child should be circumcised ... When he was fourteen, fine chap though a late starter, for some time prey to nocturnal emissions and perpetrator of shameful practices that might render him a drooling idiot or strike him blind, Cyril looked up a mysteriously forbidden word in the public library. Smegma: an unguent or soap: a secretion of any of the secretious glands, specifically, the cheesy matter which collects between the glans penis and the foreskin, or around the clitoris or labia minora. Well, that was a good deal of information for the head altar boy at St. Gregory's, a good deal yet not enough. What sort of soap might that be that soiled? And when had the cleansing act of circumcision been denied to the Christians? He dare not ask for answers, but Cyril O'Connor was learning his Latin. Quod turget, urget--what swells, impels--and did not lose faith, by which he did not mean his religion, until, ill-clothed, ill-armed, in cold outdistancing bitter, half the men in his unit were slaughtered in Korea to further inflate the imperial designs of Douglas MacArthur. Captain O'Connor, his zipper unyielding, finally zipped it down. Icy blue fingers adhered painfully for a moment to the soft fold of his foreskin; then Cyril pissed on the frozen chamber of his rifle as he had seen his men do if they were to defend themselves in this indefensible position. Their young leader under orders, he instructed them to go on with the killing in this Police Action, Yo-Yo war, for what else, in the frigid hollows leading to the Yalu River, could they possibly do. For fifty years, Cyril has not celebrated any holy day as holiday, though always a gentleman to those (most particularly his late wife) who delight in the hearts, masks, palms, eggs, crosses, doves, candles and trees that adorn their calendar of belief.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth;
They are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them.
And when ye spread forth your hands,
I will hide mine eyes from you:
Yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear;
Your hands are full of blood.
Meet the Author
Maureen Howard is the author of seven novels, including Grace Abounding, Expensive Habits, and Natural History, all of which were nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award. She has taught at a number of American universities, including Columbia, Princeton, Amherst, and Yale, and was recently awarded the Academy Award in Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She lives in New York City.
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