CYNTHIA VANN last wrote for The Magazine about a romance that came apart in the heat of a Washington summer.
THE WIND WHIPPED across the park that flanks one side of my house and rattled the window frames. There was no one there but me, and I walked around that large old Victorian horror of a house, going from one outsized room to another, aimless, wanting to connect with the assorted people who are my family. I carried a cup of coffee that grew cold and went untasted and it seems that every few minutes I went to stand at the window and look into the park. The trees moved in a lunatic way and I could feel the air come in around the edges of the rotting window frames. I live many hundreds of miles from my family -- my own choice, of course, but that night it seemed a pointless one.
My mother's sister had died at age 62. The woman was the dearest friend my mother ever had, the aunt whose hand, real or not, was always on my shoulder. My mother had called to tell me. Her voice was frozen. She might have said, "I'm next and then it's your turn." There were tremors being felt.
I cannot make the trip, I told myself. It is too far, in travel and in time. I sat in the old Morris chair and stared out at the lot that borders the side of my house opposite the park, thick with trees and shrubs, and I couldn't see the nearest house. The greenery shook in the dark, and although it was summer I pulled a shawl close and thought that this was an odd way for a city girl to be living. I suddenly wanted the streets of my home town: Tall stone apartment buildings with balconies that overlook the pavement. A skyline so shot with varied lights that it dazzles. Rides on the expressways on hot summer nights to cool off. So very many other things from that city. And I wantedmy aunt. I called and spoke with her son, my cousin, my oldest cousin, the one of my age, and told him that I loved his mother. The branches of the smaller trees hit the windows, and I told my cousin that I would not be there. He understood; he said he did. I went to look for something.
WHEN I WAS A CHILD my aunt gave me a brooch. It was old, to me, and was missing a couple of the tiny stones that patterned it. She placed it in my palm and folded my fingers over it and told me that my uncle had given it to her. "Don't lose this," she said.
In an old oak dresser I keep things that I call clues: drawings done by a college friend, poetry written by a cousin, letters from my daughter when she was young and wrote without hesitation and decorated her letters with small bits of artwork: strawberries, robins, ghosts . . . things I will not part with but don't need to see and touch every day. I wanted the brooch. There had been rides in the back seat of my aunt's car and days at the beach and stops at the ice cream shop just because we'd been so good and because she loved us very much. It was important to find the brooch. I would mention it to my mother on the phone.
I rummaged through the dresser and found a dress wrapped in yellowed tissue paper. It was not a dress connected with my aunt but still I sat on the floor and looked at it. The dress is long and is of the finest and blackest of linen. It is a dress of daring simplicity and one knows intuitively that it embodies that elusive quality called "style." But there is more. From the neck, sweeping down over the breasts and reaching to the hips, is a painting of sorts. A painting done entirely in tiny glass beads, all brown but varying ever so slightly in shade and depth of color. The painting is a copy of a work of Picasso. The dress was made in Mexico City more than 40 years ago. It is the handiwork of a woman known in very particular circles for her patience and skill with beads and for her ultimate feel for the subtle activities of color. She made the dress for a woman, now in her 86th year, who was willing to pay the rather extraordinary fee expected and who provided the design.
The woman wanted to own such a dress because she felt she needed it for a special occasion. She was to wear it on the night of her husband's return to her. He was an artist and he loved her, but he'd been taken by the wiles of another woman and had been gone for almost 20 years. She still loved him. He wanted to return. He had phoned and told her so. It was all arranged. The dress was ready. She brushed her hair. Her earrings were in place. She was to be the perfect complement to the dress. She stood waiting, by the window, wearing a loose robe, ready to slip into the beaded dress the moment he entered the yard. She would meet him at the door, forgiving. He never came. The dress has yet to be worn.
I had nearly forgotten that sad old woman. She gave me the dress because, I think, she wanted me to know the depth of her suffering. There was a studied nonchalance to the giving, between the extended hand and the breathless, rolling start of the story she was so eager to tell. But it failed, this theater, to conceal the pride she felt in her anguish. Is it the exquisite reward so many of us find in a heart pitiable and broken? I saw her as she'd been that day in Mexico: proud and defiant and truly beautiful, the triumph hers at last. Perhaps she hated him, poor meager fellow, so swaddled in the fictions of a 60-year grief. Such a vocation, few can lie writhing in the night with the likes of Abelard and Romeo. So pathetic, not to know literature from life.
I PULLED the dresser drawer out onto the floor and found a ring. It's an old sterling ring with a fake amethyst perched atop the band. It is an ugly ring. It was given to me by a woman, my friend and neighbor for a few years, who was, for a while, a prostitute. She received the ring from a client, a regular, whom she knew for 20-some years and whom she almost married -- except that she was already in love with James.
This woman, we'll call her Mayella, worked the streets because she needed money and had no other way to earn it. She had a husband, but he drank and had what we call problems. James was the best friend of Mayella's husband and was in love with her even then, since high school, he said. When the husband died, James waited a brief time and then began the courtship dance that hadn't ended when I knew them, both quite old and settled. It was the husband's death that freed Mayella from the streets. There was a pension and Social Security, not a lot but enough since she wasn't accustomed to much. She said goodbye to the favorite client and went, finally an independent woman, to be with James.
I had moved into the apartment next to Mayella's, in a building close to the university that had grandly spacious apartments and rents that were low. The neighborhood was called "Hooker's Row." At night Mayella and I would sit on the balcony that ran the length of the building. We'd drink iced coffee and watch the action on the street. Late, after everyone had gone indoors, we'd sometimes talk. She told me about being a prostitute, what it was like. She was always afraid, except for the times with the man who gave her the ring. You had to pretend that you liked it, she said, or you'd never make any money. There was a low cunning t it that robbed the decent parts of life.
James keeled over on the back steps one day. It was snowing and the neighbors began to yell and one of the children ran to tell Mayella. She came out into the thick snow and saw him with his face contorted and beginning to turn purple. She tried to cover him with the edge of her housedress. She rubbed his face and clutched his shoulders and screamed, "Dammit James, don't die! Please don't die." But he did. She closed his eyes and sat there looking at him till the sound of the firetruck came close and we could see it pull into the alley. Then she stood up and walked through the crowd that had gathered and went back into her apartment and sat at the table and finished her cup of tea. She once told me that she loved James so much she didn't even want the wind to touch his face.
I left the neighborhood. The truck was packed and I was ready to leave. I went into Mayella's apartment and stood, waiting to say goodbye, while she dug around in a box in the back of the china cupboard. She was skinny and old and she looked small. Her housedress kept slipping off her scrawny shoulder and she kept pulling it up. I thought I knew what she was looking for, and even though I didn't want to take it, I knew that I would. The room was decorated with bouquets of plastic roses and paintings done by number given to her by her children, and it was spotlessly clean. I could smell the pinto beans simmering on the stove top and the cornbread baking in the oven. She turned and handed the ring to me and she was going to cry, and she said, "Here, take this. It's the nicest thing I ever had -- besides James, of course."
WHEN MY SISTER was 6 and I was 8, we would often spend our Saturday afternoons with a woman we came to nickname Mrs. Flash, after the jewelry adornments she always wore. She had no children and was lonely. Visiting her was not something we did by choice. We were instructed to behave like ladies.
The old woman would sip her gin and talk about the years when she was young. My sister and I would sit on the brocade love seat across from her and stare at her and try to pretend that we were interested. We could not even imagine that she had ever been young. Her hair was the color of faded straw and she was a crosshatch of wrinkles. She would always serve us lunch, things we did not like: hot water with milk and three teaspoons of sugar (silver tea, she called it), sandwiches of watercress and cucumbers, short cookies. We hated her.
Mrs. Flash drank her gin from a cut crystal glass, too much gin, but never enough to appear to be drunk. Until recently my sister thought that she had merely consumed a lot of water.
The woman liked us and took it upon herself to instruct us in the ways of a woman's life. She used her own as illustration. She told us of jazz clubs in the Harlem of the '20s, of cocktail parties in Hollywood where she rubbed elbows with literary figures and movie stars. She often spoke of handsome men who took her to dinner and danced with her until the sun came up. There was hardly a thing she hadn't done. She credited her success to her uncanny knack with clothing. She said that she carefully considered what she would wear on each and every occasion. When possible, she would reconnoiter the place where she was to spend the evening and assess the glow of the light bulbs, the color of the walls and upholstery, the many variables that would tamper with or assist her appearance. She also studied jewelry, not as an art or a science of metal and gems, but as a way to accent whatever it wss that she wore. She confided that a movie mogul had asked her to head his vast wardrobe department.
Mrs. Flash once felt that we were not properly attentive and gave us concrete examples. She showed us her jewelry collection. It was kept in a chest the size of a small dresser. She touched this or that piece with the tip of her finger, and said that the items were gifts from this husband or that lover. There was a lesson, she declared, to be learned from the history of her jewelry. She gave us each a bag of treasures. Sterling, diamonds, sapphires, even an emerald. A silver cigarette case engraved, "To Molly McGee from the Boys at the Theatre." That night my sister showed her loot to our father and described for him how the old woman's lovers and husbands had given her the things because they liked the clothing that she wore. I was called into the room and asked to tell of our visits. We never went to see her again.
Pieces of the jewelry were left in the dirt behind the garage, lost at the summer cottage, stolen by playmates. But my sister still has a sterling pendant set with saphires and diamonds and I have my jewelry box. The box is silver and was made in France in 1908. It was in the drawer too, and inside it were some faded three-cent stamps and a coin purse.
THE COIN PURSE is unusual. It has a lid of thin silver over heavy brass. The silver is worn thin on the edges where countless times fingers have grasped it; in these places the brass shows through giving it the appearance of being made from opposing metals, one hot, the other of ice. The lid is accented with a relief design that looks like part of the muddled crest of some royal family; this, though somewhat odd, is in keeping with its Queen Victoria air of excess. The lid has been repaired and there are a few thick spots of silver solder, worn smooth with use. I, at first, imagined its original owner to have been a frugal woman who felt that a thing so useful and so lovely should not be cast aside.
The body of the purse is a black, tightly crocheted bag. The work is impeccable, done with small hooks (ones designed for making fine lace), and the circle of the bag as it descends is flawless in its symmetry. There are minuscule steel beads sewn to the bag. They form a large star and minor geometric attendants. Each bead is faceted and the star and shapes glimmer in the light. The purse rests easily in the palm of a small hand.
The purse belonged to the grandmother of a woman I knew. It was given to me as a gift. I remarked to my generous friend that the purse was so small it could hold very little money. "Oh," she said, "my grandmother never had 20 or 30 cents of her own in her entire life."
Hers was a wealthy family. But the grandmother, matriarch of all she saw, had to ask her husband to approve each and every purchase. Things were charged at the local stores, sparing her the sight and bother of money. She stood fretting behind the grandfather as he looked at her request slips -- she wrote on individual pieces of paper each item she wished to buy. It was easier for him that way.
"Yes, dear, I will have this repaired," she would say. "But do you think that soon I might get a new one?" She wrung her dainty hands and waited patiently.
In that dresser were other things too: wooden buttons carved to look like brogan boots (hobnails and laces and all) from another of my aunts, my Aunt Dolphiene, whom I admired when I was young because I thought she lived a life of daring and elegance. A wooden cat, the gift of a small boy who told me that someday he'd have a house on the moon but, behind the garage where he'd keep his rocket, there would be a trailer for me to live in. A drawing done by another boy, a drawing of me. I have long eyelashes and wear lots of jewelry. I hold a champagne glass. The boy wanted to marry me. He was 8. A coffee cup, blue Chinese pattern with obligatory weeping willow, left behind by a fellow who wanted to be my beau. A white bedspread from a man who hoped that I would learn a thing or two from the sweet-edged regret brought constantly to mind by the presence of the thing. He thought me so enamored of the beautiful that I would always keep that symbol in the light of day.
And the brooch was there. It was as though I'd never seen it before. It caught me unaware and I was swept with the memory of my aunt. There were the scents and sounds of holiday meals. I thought of her wedding. She and the handsome man had wed and proved that love is a possibility. Love that lasts and brings with it a house that has a grape arbor and lots of children. My mother tells tales of my aunt from when the two of them were young, and looking at the brooch I remembered the photos of my aunt when she looked like all the glamorous women of the '40s movies. My sister said, "The other woman if ever there was." We all laughed madly at the thought of that.
I remembered and was unable to stop thinking of the day my cousin was buried. The cousin I loved -- that everyone loved -- and the look on my aunt's face mesmerized me and will stay on the borders of my mind forever. He lived in the colors of paintings and the lines of poetry and when he died, well, it was astonishing, a thing the rest of us cannot recover from.
When I was 11 I went to tell my aunt that I had changed my plans: I would not, after all, play guard for the Harlem Globetrotters when I grew up. She smiled and said that other things would come my way. I thank her to this day for not laughing; but then she never laughed at me, or at any of us. The odd boyfriends who showed up on the doorstep at indecent hours, the political jargon, the bizarre and alarming exhibitions of youth -- she took them all in stride and in doing so made the passage to adulthood somehow sweet and almost safe.
I put the brooch in the pocket of my skirt and went to make a cup of coffee. The sun was coming up and a light shone through the trees and cast a pale buttermilk glow into my kitchen, and I took a spoon of coffee from a blue-lidded bowl that my aunt had given me years ago. I went and sat in the old Morris chair and looked out at the wooded yard. The steam from the coffee misted my face and all but hid my tears. After a little while I called my cousin and told him that I would be there.