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A Claire Breslinsky Mystery
By Mary Anne Kelly
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Mary Anne Kelly
All rights reserved.
It was Mary who'd found the ad in the Tablet. "Unusual house for sale by owner," it read. "Holy Child Parish north."
"Hmm," said Claire.
"Take a quick drive up," Mary told her over the phone. "What have you got to lose?"
"By the time I get Anthony away from the TV and dressed and into the car—"
"From the phone number it's up around here. Anything four-four-one is north of Myrtle."
"Ma. Anything that far north would cost too much. You know Johnny. He won't even look at anything—"
"I know time waits for no man. You're the one always spoutin' about how you've got to take a chance. Claire. Do yourself a favor. Call the nice lady up and inquire."
Claire lifted the white kitchen curtain and looked at the brick of the wall just an alley away. She could hear her small three-year-old Anthony rewind the videotape once again to the excellent fight scene. There were no little boys on the block here for him to go outside and play with; there were only the ones big enough to ignore his alluring new toys on display on the driveway. Away they would ride on their dazzling two-wheelers while Anthony, ears very red, watched them go every time with renewed, puzzled sadness.
"And what makes you think it's a nice lady who's doing the selling?"
"Oh, 'tis. It always is. And you could take his cousin, Michaelaen, along with you. Anthony's always good when he's along."
"Not that good. I do like the bit about 'unusual' house, though. Only a nut would write that."
"And a nut's just what you need."
"You can say that again."
"Yes. It's just foolish of me to get you all worked up about it when Johnny will turn around and hate the whole idea."
"I never said that he'd hate it. Johnny would like that it's in Holy Child. He'd love Anthony to go to the grammar school. It isn't his fault he can't live in the same precinct where he works."
"I know, I know. It's just a shame, is all. He would have to work in the same precinct where you grew up."
"I wouldn't have met him if he hadn't."
"Of course you're right," Mary said.
"Give me that number there, Ma. If I can't get away for a while, let me anyway dream a new life."
And call up she had. Only it hadn't been a nice lady as Mary had so picturesquely predicted, but a man. Quite an old man in fact, from what Claire could make out over the phone. Measured and deliberate. Reserved. Not pushy at all. Take your time, he'd told her about coming to look at the house. If not today, some other time.
She tried to forget about it right away, while they spoke. The house was, after all, smack in the middle of Johnny's precinct and even if she did like the place, she'd never get the chance to have it. She hung up the phone with the dim sense that nothing would ever come of it. Nothing seemed to come of anything these days. No, no, she mustn't feel that way, she was a lucky woman, a happy woman. One didn't leave one's husband because he refused to move to the neighborhood of one's childhood. Although, she supposed, one could. In circles she had lived in up till recently, one certainly did. Splendid people. Divorcing for reasons as simple as sexual boredom.
Unfortunately, Claire had discovered the most amazing thing about herself the moment she'd become a mother. Ethics. Bourgeois ethics, true, but ethics nonetheless. She could never leave the father of her child. Nor separate the father from the child. Not for something as complicated as the wrong neighborhood. Only something far more simple could separate them: the end of love. No, Claire felt the very way Mary Kate had done in that John Wayne film, The Quiet Man. Not able to settle in until she had her own things about her.
Or, in this case, her own place about her. Not some gaudy, treeless racetrack trap she'd had no hand in choosing. This was his place, not theirs. Out back the trucks and Caterpillars from Aqueduct converged upon her rusty yard in an ongoing, fruitless attempt to beautify the garish periphery of Rockaway Boulevard.
Out the front door of this house, Johnny's house, Claire could just see long brash lines of dressed-up women ramble up the path of Johnny's past. They strode in determined succession past mummified fig trees and clairvoyant grapevines. To be fair, the women in Johnny's past didn't bother her so much; the line was not that long (and if it was, there was safety in numbers), but she thought of these neighborly women as one excellent point for her argument to move. Not that her parents' neighborhood, where she wanted to move, was a whole hell of a lot better in the eyes of, say, the world. There wasn't much of Queens that was desirable anymore. But that didn't matter to Claire. She loved the lost grandeur of the Queen Annes and Victorians in Richmond Hill. If she had to be lower middle class (and she did), she thought she might as well do it on the more genteel lawns of the past and Richmond Hill, not on pied-and-quartered perfections of swept and displayed concrete of South Ozone Park, where they lived now.
Claire had always thought that love would be enough. But it wasn't. It wasn't the point. Honor. And place. Hadn't Johnny seduced her with the lure of a house in Richmond Hill up on Eighty-fourth Avenue? A house with a kitchen from the forties and a fireplace and a lot of work to be done, but by golly for her he would do it? He had. And then balked at the mortgage. Claire, four months pregnant, bleeding, and persuaded by the obstetrician to put her feet up, was in no position to argue.
She did not want to be sullen. She was thankful, after all, for what he had given her; stability, order, a healthy son. Although—a niggling inner voice pursued the issue—she'd given him these very things as well. Oh, it was useless thinking about it. Johnny simply wasn't allowed to live in his precinct and he refused point blank to transfer. Why should he, he argued, and of course he was right. When they'd met it had been almost sure that he was to be transferred. Then out of the blue and the obscure world of politics, he hadn't been.
"So just change precincts on your own," Claire had said.
"I worked too hard for this," he'd say. "Too many years to just dump it."
"Not dump it," Claire replied, and she'd tried not to look as if she was gnashing her teeth.
"Just move it over. Like I've done these last five years."
Still and all, he would say, look at all the long years he'd spent building up contacts, his position, not to mention the respect of his peers and so on and so forth, and only a fool would expect him to give all that up so a wife could move back to a silly old neighborhood where she hadn't lived for years anyway; a place, by her own admission, she'd been relieved to get away from in the first place, where the streets were superior, she now said, because they were shady and on a slant.
"On a slant." Johnny would look at her beneath hooded, Italian eyes. He would think about her thoughts. At first he'd done this indulgently, deriving enormous pleasure from her unfamiliar motivations. He'd never known anyone like Claire. So pretty and good. And still she'd made him hot. Before her he had always gone for sluts. Now here he was in bed with some Buddhist nun or something. And on top, she was a Catholic. At least educated as a Catholic. Claire had spent so many years in the Far East researching Buddhism and Hinduism that her knowledge and tolerance of heathen ideas were impressive. Fortunately, her moronic superstitions kept him from taking her too seriously.
Claire drifted off for a moment. It was true that she had spent all that time in those places, but it hadn't been for research, really. She'd only stopped at the ashram to have her tire fixed. Dear Swamiji had offered her a place to stay for far less than she would have had to pay in town. He'd needed the money—all the poor swami had was one follower and that fellow didn't look like much: young, lanky, good-looking, mad for rock music. One day, as Swamiji said, he'd turn into something, but right now—well, right now it was all you could do to get him to go clean the loo. Swamiji would shrug and they would both watch young Narayan snap his fingers from the room.
There had been so much to do at the ashram: clean up after the parrot, the monkey, and the lizards (well, not really the lizards; they cleaned up after themselves). The creatures' presence was just to ensure the perception that Swamiji's little ashram was filled with life, despite the fact that he had no followers. Swamiji grew healing herbs and dried them. He rolled many of the sediments into pills and sold them to the nearby Tibetan Buddhist seminary, where they were packaged and sent off to Delhi. They would eventually wind up, Swamiji informed Claire proudly, in the far-off land of Berkeley.
After a very short while, Claire made herself useful; living in Germany had honed her cleaning skills, and before you knew it Swamiji couldn't do without her. As he couldn't pay, he'd made her president and secretary of the ashram all at once. He'd called her Maharani Claire because she'd take no guff from Narayan, even had him eating from her palm with stories of photo jobs in Paris and Milano. There she would be, bending over her camera in the clean morning light, just set to photograph the dried haws of hawthorn (Latin name Crataegus oxyacantha L.) placed above the herb's calligraphed label describing "History, Habitat, Medicinal Action and Uses." (The purists from the far-off land of Berkeley seemed to like the calligraphed labels. They should only know they were penned by an unholy Irish Polack girl from Queens.) And there would be Narayan, pungent with orris root and anise, asking, Please, was he tall enough to model? Would an agency, a good agency, ever accept him? These were the starry truths young Narayan pondered day and night as he penciled long, sincere requests for funds from concerned private parties in Switzerland on behalf of Swamiji.
Sometimes Johnny did wonder if Claire didn't really have the odd screw or two loose. It didn't bother him so much that she talked to plants, or even dishes ("No, you're not the one I want, you daggle cup, get back up there on that old shelf and let me have the blue one, your cousin."). Cousin? He would sit there still and pretend to continue reading the sports page, but he would be wondering what would come next. And this was the woman raising his son? He sighed. What was really odd was that he felt completely safe and at ease with her doing it. There was no one wiser or kinder than Claire. She might be crazy but she wasn't nuts. Not diabolically. He'd seen enough half-tanks out there on the job to know she wasn't one of them. She wasn't cruel. On the contrary. Her light blue eyes would fill up twice a day at breakfast, listening to the news. She would brush her long brown hair angrily from her crumpled face, and he would express his obligatory, disgusted "Tch" at her oversensitivity, but their eyes would meet above the empty glasses of orange juice and they would both think, Dear, dear Lord, never please let anything like that ever touch our Anthony.
If anyone ever tried to hurt Claire, Johnny would happily shoot said party's eyes right out. And if she ever tried to leave him, he'd shoot her, too, no questions asked.
Now, at breakfast, Claire tilted her hand-held head and looked up at her husband. Johnny poked around at a cavity with a bright red party toothpick. He had to get to a dentist, he thought, then promptly forgot as she stirred her bowl of hot, light coffee round and round. He eyed her tits in that goddam yellow slippery robe.
In Claire's experience (and Lord knew she'd had plenty of that) there were two kinds of men. The first found himself a little plot of life and worked it, farmed it. The other never figured out what it was he was looking for but on and on he looked, unbroken, untamed, and internally ill by forty-seven. Johnny encompassed both these types of males. At least in her eyes he did. She found herself hating Johnny Benedetto and most things about him often. Nevertheless, all he had to do was graze her with his breath and she would consciously go warmer. He kept her erect. On her toes. She didn't know how he did this, but she was aware that it was done. Even though Johnny was irrefutably the least intellectual man Claire had ever been with, he was also the smartest. And he had a sixth sense about things, things and people, that Claire had forgotten could exist in men. He'd told her, "You know, even though I believe you've got to go by the book, it's still the days I just follow my instinct that I'm the best cop. You lose touch with your instincts and only go by the book, and you lose something, you're out of touch. You're walking on theories."
Claire understood this man. She liked what he meant. She felt him looking and her breathing quickened. Now if only their Anthony would put the Peter Pan tape back in, they'd manage five minutes alone while Hook plotted Tinkerbell's dark, very deadly demise. Intimacy was a reprieve from their dread of each other. An island they both knew how to meet on.
The telephone rang and put the pain back in Johnny's bad tooth. He got up to go without saying a word.
It was Carmela, Claire's slightly older and, yes, much more beautiful sister. Carmela called every time at the wrong time. She had, in fact, a consistently unerring sense of bad timing, did Carmela, and she would not be hurried. "Hello, darling," she said. "You sound out of breath."
"I just ran up the st—"
"The reason I called, dear heart, is to ask you to come over next Friday. I'm having a couple of the old crowd—"
"Johnny's working Friday night." Carmela knew very well Johnny was working. That was, no doubt, why she'd make the engagement for then. Those two could do without each other. For her part, Carmela considered Johnny a major galoop. Dangerous, yes. But unable, in the end, to read a simple menu out loud without making some third-grade mistake. Worse than that (and this was, Claire supposed, the really indigestible part), he could obviously care less about her superb and slender thighs. Johnny was one of the few men not bowled over by Carmela's tart movie-star charms. "Too many years workin' Vice," Johnny explained away his indifference with a shrug.
"Oh," Carmela said. "Pity. Well, we'll have to carry on without him. I'm sure I can recruit one of the men to drop you off home if it runs late."
"Ah. And where shall I dump my son now that we've got rid of my husband?"
Any sarcasm was lost on Carmela. "Hmm," she said. "Mommy would be best. She's never busy on Fridays. Unless there's a novena. Have you got a religious calendar? We must know before we ask her or she'll lie and pretend it's some obscure saint we've never heard of, just to get out of it."
"So why don't you tell me what's so important about having me at your party."
"Can't I ask my sister to come to my home without being suspected of treachery?"
"Well, if you must know, it's Jupiter Dodd, that old queen from She She magazine. He rather fancies you, or your work, if we're allowed to separate one from the other at this point in your career. Are we? Anyway," she continued without waiting for a reply, "he'll be here and this is a command performance."
"That old queen," as Carmela so flightily dismissed him, was a highly respected critic and probably the main reason Claire had found good work at all in New York. And, if Claire remembered correctly, it had been she who'd introduced him to Carmela, not the other way around. But it didn't matter. Claire was so deep in this supermarket slash playground slash shopping-mall world that she was no longer sure she'd ever been out of it. The glossier, gossamer plane of photography-as-life was more like a dream. Her interactions with Jupiter Dodd had, after all, taken place a good four years ago. He'd put one of the more prestigious galleries on to her work and then the most remarkable thing had happened: out of the blue she'd gotten outstanding reviews. When she'd meant to follow her purist inclinations, to please herself, she'd wound up pleasing just the right people. It was almost embarrassing, the critics were so kind. Unfortunately, their coverage of her portrayals was so condescending to the very subjects she had meant to present in a standing position—plain, honest, working-class people shot in the garish light of their gaudy excesses—that she suffered for them every time she reread those reviews. The good thing was that the people themselves didn't mind you looking at them with warped vision—as long, it seemed, as you looked at them.
Excerpted from Foxglove by Mary Anne Kelly. Copyright © 1992 Mary Anne Kelly. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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