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from LINCOLN AT MERCY, a novel

 

Alice. November 24 1994.

“Alice, can you pick up Aunt Ella tomorrow?”

Alice had managed to get back to New York from San Francisco by five o’clock the day before Thanksgiving and get two pies into the oven by eight forty-five, just as her sister called.

“You should stop at home first and pick up the key,” Angela said. “If Aunt Ella’s on the second floor when you ring the bell she might not hear. I’ll go down early to help Mom in the kitchen. Henry and Laura will come later.” Angela lived in Princeton with her husband and daughter, a twenty-five minute drive from Ella. “Don’t worry about Uncle Charlie, he can drive himself. Bobby’s driving up from the shore with Benny and Ilene.”

“What? He’s back with Ilene?”

“Seems so. I know. Hard to believe. There’s more but I’m in a rush. You haven’t been to Aunt Ella’s in a long time, have you? Wait until you see.”

“You mean the trees?”

“Yes. Aunt Ella too. I’d like your take on her. She’s not so sharp anymore, I don’t think.”          

Alice hadn’t been to the house on Lincoln Avenue in years. She saw Ella and Benny and sometimes Bobby when she came down for Thanksgiving or Christmas (Alfie died in the late eighties, as did Jimmy), but those dinners weren’t held at Ella’s anymore, they took place at either Patricia’s or Mary’s. Her parents had moved to the suburbs years earlier, as had Mary and Charlie, and they talked a lot about what was happening in the old neighborhood. The gang wars and shootings. The burglaries and vandalism. Rocks thrown through windows—living room windows, kitchen windows, even Aunt Ella’s front porch window.

“We try to talk sense to her but it’s like talking to a wall,” Patricia told Alice on several occasions. “She has the For Sale sign put up and then she has it taken down. She wants too much money for that place. She has it in her head to get as much as she can for it, to divide up with the rest of us, but we don’t want it. That money should go to her. She doesn’t get much from Alfie’s Social Security, she needs the money from the house. But nothing makes a dent in that head of hers. And each year that house is worth less and less.”

Then a most bizarre incident: thugs high on crack and alcohol broke into the shed one morning before dawn, dragged out a chain saw Charlie had left there, and sliced away the lower branches of the fruit trees. By the time the noise reached Ella and woke her and she called the police the vandals had disappeared. The image presented to Ella’s eyes through the kitchen window in the early morning light were her father’s venerated fig, pear, and peach trees grotesquely disfigured, disfigured beyond repair.

Two days later Ella called the real estate agent.

“Well finally there’s a buyer,” Patricia said when Alice stopped in to say hello and pick up the key. “The city made an offer last week. They want to make it into a halfway house. Forty-thousand’s all they’ll pay. We said ‘Ella, take it! You’re not going to do any better.’”

“Finally she’s listening,” Vince said. “Thank God for that. By the way I don’t want you going there by yourself. I’ll come with you.”

“Well, Dad, actually, I’d like to have some time alone with Aunt Ella,” Alice said.

Her father looked at her as if he didn’t understand.

“I’ll be careful,” she said.

“Well take an umbrella. It’s supposed to rain again.”

 

With one hand on the gate to the Lincoln Avenue house and garden, Alice felt a surge of discomfort, a sense of displacement, something she always seemed to feel whenever she came home. She told herself it was a question of place. She’d never felt comfortable in her parents’ suburban home, having left for college only one year after the family moved there, and she felt out of place in the old neighborhood, no longer knowing the people who lived there, no longer recognizing the place itself, many of the old businesses having shut down. The old Lincoln Diner, for instance, directly across from the house—once a favorite of truckers en route from Pennsylvania to New York and not only that, it was also a meeting place for the entire north end of the city, for Sunday breakfast after church and sodas after school, and nightcaps after dances and movies—now it stood empty and abandoned in its vast parking lot, a dinosaur of aluminum siding and broken glass. However it wasn’t nostalgia she was feeling; not a sentimental attachment; it was a sense of loss that she felt, because there wasn’t a place for her to come home to; yes; that was it. And this sense of loss, loss of place, demanded that her sense of time be adjusted as well. Her surroundings had changed from those she’d held in memory, and she’d changed as well, along a different trajectory. New York and her life there were only sixty miles away but they existed in a nexus of time and space that was other than the one on Lincoln Avenue. The differences were vast. Not knowing how to reconcile them resulted in a deep disquietude.

It had rained all through the night and the city was drenched; Lincoln Avenue was chilly and wet, the house and garden a cold, sodden tableau. She opened the gate and walked towards the house, its red bricks brown with rain. Past the mangled fruit trees, their trunks dark and shiny, the stumps of their amputated branches strangely twisted in a stark simplicity, and the remaining branches, bereft of leaves, stretched taut and vertical against a steely sky. The overgrown flowerbeds with last season’s growth flattened against the ground. Stools and benches rotting in place, small pools of water in their worn cavities. The red glider by the pear tree, tipped over to one side. The lawn, or whatever was left of it, blanketed with wet leaves.

At the kitchen door the old vegetable garden became visible, the wire frames and climbing poles from whichever last season Charlie had used them still standing, though at odd angles; the rows that once held lettuces and peppers, tomatoes and eggplants no longer distinguishable. She willed into vision her grandfather, standing at the edge of the vast plot, waving an arm while he supervised the boys—Bobby, Michael and Paul—in their weeding; she saw her grandmother, hose in hand, other hand in an apron pocket. Angela, Bobby, Benny and herself bending and peering down the rows, searching for Abraham, the rabbit that escaped and was never found. She glanced to her left, to the old tool shed, that ark of craft and story-telling, now dilapidated, its white paint gray and peeling, more than a few of its roof tiles missing. She was drawn there, even as she fingered the house key in her pocket, drawn to the shed; to its windows and the dark blankness behind them; despite the recent vandalism they appeared intact. Why though? Why look inside? It’s just a shed, she thought. An old building that in just a few weeks will be emptied, torn down and carted away. She walked there, nevertheless, thinking But isn’t this why I wanted to come? Why I didn’t want Dad? Just to be here, to spend as much time here as I want with no one saying Let’s move on, let’s get Ella? She peered through a window. Despite the layers of grime and the leavings of birds and insects, she was able to see the piles of tools and junk Uncle Charlie had stashed there randomly, and Consolata’s seed-sorting table, still there, and Consolata’s chair, tilted because one of its legs was missing, making it somewhat like Grandma herself, she thought. The shelves where Consolata kept her seeds were now empty, as were the shelves where Gaetano had once stored the shoes: top shelves for those that were finished, bottom for those to be worked on. Gaetano’s grinding wheel and sharpening stones were still on the bench where they’d always been; and the Universal Shoe Machine was still there, in its corner, tall and bulky, no longer ominous.

“Charlie’s always trying to sell that machine along with everything else he carries around in that truck of his,” Aunt Ella said one day when she and Angela, home from college, went to visit Ella and they had tea and cookies, just like old times, at the kitchen table. They were familiar with Uncle Charlie’s truck and the sorts of the things he carried around, and the sign on the back:

 

UNIVERSAL SHOE MACHINE

WORKS LIKE NEW $400

CALL 609-547-1296

 

Aunt Ella said it was all because of Aunt Dorothy that he started collecting things.

”That woman was never happy—always wanting more than he could afford. No sooner did he bring the money in than she spent it. And she liked expensive things, only the best. Well don’t you remember the kinds of things she had in that house? Those expensive draperies? All those tinted mirrors? And she didn’t buy their furniture here in Trenton you know—oh no!—she bought it all in New York and had it shipped. And then to top it off she redid the kitchen! A brand new kitchen for someone who hardly ever cooked! They ate out almost every night, at the tavern or somewhere else. If you ask me, she had someone on the side. Because when was she at home?—Well I shouldn’t be talking this way. Not to you two. How could I expect you to know? It’s just that it makes me so mad. We’ll never know what the real story was. And to tell you the truth I don’t care anymore. All I can tell you is that one night he came home late from the tavern, it must have been at least one in the morning if not two, and he opens the door, the house is dark, he turns on the lights, and what do you think? The house is empty. Every piece of furniture, every curtain, all the carpets, every dish and cup—gone. As if burglars had come in and cleaned them out! Well of course that’s the first thing he thought. He starts calling her, scared now, because she’s not answering and he thinks she must be lying on the floor upstairs somewhere, maybe unconscious, maybe dead. But she’s nowhere to be found. And he looks everywhere. So he calls the police. They come, they file a report. Then, the next morning, he hears the real story. Some of the neighbors saw. According to them a truck pulled up at six o’clock that night right after he left for the tavern, and two men started unloading the house. Dorothy came out and said they were her brothers. She said she was expecting new furniture early Monday morning and was giving all her and Charlie’s stuff to her two brothers there. And that was that. Arizona license plates. They came to take her and all her stuff to Arizona. We knew she had brothers but we never met them so whether those men were her brothers or not we have no idea. She filed for divorce, he signed the papers. He never argued. Never wanted to fight her. Never had it in him.”

So Uncle Charlie took to collecting things, a way of filling himself and the house after Aunt Dorothy had emptied them both, she and Angela concluded. He collected all kinds of things, from odd tools and hardware and industrial equipment to amateur paintings and moth-eaten Oriental carpets; WWI and Civil War uniforms; Italian Bersagliere hats; daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, tintypes; glass doorknobs and curtain stays; toasters, percolators, refrigerators; fishing rods and fishing boots; electric drills and hand drills; shoe stretchers; cheap vases and glassware and scores of Mason jars; cast iron skillets; egg beaters; ostrich feathers; swords; cymbals and accordions, snare drums and toy pianos; suitcases and wardrobes and steamer trunks; quilts and afghans; even a manger and even, once, an oxen yoke. He traveled the flea markets that sprang up every Saturday morning at intervals along the Delaware River—near Stockton and Lambertville and Yardley—and collapsed just as quickly late Sunday afternoon when the tables folded, the tents came down, and the cars spun their wheels out of the parking lots, forcing billows of dust into the heavy, stagnant air, and descended onto the roads along either side of the river in snaky caravans of junk and jetsam. Every Saturday morning and Sunday evening he could be seen packing and then unpacking the truck—in the early years, in the alley by his house on Mercy Street; later, after he sold his house on Mercy Street and moved to a small house in Ewing and soon ran out of space there, at the back end of the Lincoln Avenue garden, since he then began storing his things in the old shed.

“Looks like your brother’s here with another load,” Uncle Alfie said as he came into the kitchen, just as Uncle Charlie’s truck appeared at the back end of the garden. “If you asked me I’d say there wasn’t room for another nail in that shed let alone all the stuff I can see from here in the back of that truck of his.”

“Well I’m not going to say anything,” Aunt Ella said. “He takes care of the yard and the shed, always has since Dad died. I figure let him do as he pleases. Isn’t that right, girls? You agree with me?”

Charlie and Dorothy. Ella and Alfie. Consolata. Gaetano. How much did she really know about any of them? Alice pictured her Uncle Charlie driving around town in his truck full of junk, a sign on the back for the shoe machine—the shoe machine!—how many hours had she spent in the shed fantasizing about that thing? Suddenly three sentences came to her from a well deep in her mind:  Found a shoe repair machine for Dad’s birthday. Having it delivered Saturday. Something for him to do on weekends when the weather’s too bad for yard work.

They weren’t sentences she’d ever written; they were from Uncle Milo’s journal. The book she’d hidden for her grandmother, in the tiny attic bedroom, in the dresser. Milo, the uncle she’d never known, the journal she was told to never touch. The magnanimous, the mysterious Milo. “He died before you were born. It’s because of him we have this big house. Because of him the family left Pennsylvania. If it hadn’t been for Milo we’d still be digging coal.” Aunt Ella speaking to her and Angela back at some point who knows when.  

She’d pored over that journal. And other things. Upstairs in the tiny attic room. In her camera obscura, her shadow room; where she contemplated the pictures of Saint Anne’s steeple projected upside down and in reverse against the wall, and the trembling leaves of the fruit trees, on branches that no longer existed, the steeple whose cross was now damaged, one of its arms half-broken; where she read and re-read her uncle’s journal in near darkness, nervous about the contents, nervous she’d be discovered.

Rain began to pelt the shed roof; perhaps it’d begun raining earlier and she hadn’t noticed; she didn’t move except to turn and lean against the shed and look back at the house. She forced herself to will into vision, again, the garden in summer, ripe with the reds, greens and yellows of vegetables and flowers in full bloom and the sun high overhead; herself, a girl of eleven? twelve? running between the shed and the house, repeating her grandmother’s stories to herself, committing the words and the pictures they conjured to memory. Climbing the stairs to the attic, to the tiny attic bedroom where she wrote The Magpie, The Faithful Son. The Adoption, The Golden Needle. There were others. Lying on the bed in the dark, watching the branches as they swayed in the breeze, the images projected on the wall from the hole in the board against the window, projected on to the dresser with all the photos of Uncle Milo. She saw herself, again, opening the bottom drawer of the dresser, retrieving a notebook. There were two. One belonged to her, the other didn’t. Her grandmother said she didn’t want anyone touching that notebook, she didn’t want anyone touching or reading it so together they put it in the bottom drawer, beneath all the other things, the other sheets and towels, and covered it with a heavy white sheet that was edged in blue embroidery. She was always careful to lay the folded sheet back in the very same position she’d found it, the blue embroidered edges just so, so that if her grandmother ever went up to check she wouldn’t suspect. Benny I read Uncle Milo’s book sometimes but don’t tell anyone. It’s our secret. Another one of our secrets. She told Benny their grandmother’s stories in that room. They changed the film in his camera there. When she was alone she read her uncle’s journal there. It had a brown leather cover. His hand was clear and beautiful and he wrote in a deep indigo ink. He’d signed his name on the first page. Miles Sisley, not Milo Cicero, and that confused her at first but then she’d read enough to understand that he went by two names, learning years later that he’d changed his given and family names and alternated between them. Inside the back cover she found photographs jammed against the gutter. She took them out, and for days and days she studied them, over and over.

There were maybe a half-dozen. Most of a woman, one of a man. Taken in a room she didn’t recognize. But it might have been an artist’s studio, because it was full of light and there were jars of paints and brushes, and an easel, and a divan. In one picture the woman is lying nude upon the divan. What seems to be a flowered kimono falls from the end of the divan to the floor. When years later she studied art history, each time she saw an Odalisque, whether by Titian, Ingres, Manet, Delacroix, her mind rushed back to the image of this woman: her lovely torso and breasts, her perfectly arranged hair, blonde with a hint of wave, a necklace of tiny pearls her only attire. One hand atop her pubis, she ran the other along the back of the divan and looked into the camera as if to say What’s your opinion? Though that last perception wasn’t one Alice formed as a child, it was years later, in the remembering of this woman and in the learning of art history, that she came to understand what transpired between a nude woman on a divan and the man who was either making the picture or studying it.

There were others in which the same woman was nude again, in various poses—sitting upright on a chair, leaning against a wall, and the most intriguing: leaning from the waist down, her bare buttocks facing the camera, wrists wrapped around her ankles.

There was the picture of a man. He was dark, handsome, even as a child she could see that, could sense a vitality about him. Then again, it could have been because he was nude and she’d never seen a man in the nude before. He was smoking a cigar and laughing, he was confident, leaning against a window, his penis erect. A heavy dose for a child. The pictures frightened the young Alice; at the same time the young Alice wanted to know who these people were though she suspected, even then, that they were the friends her uncle wrote about in the journal, the woman named Clara, the man named Daniele.

The little she knew about her uncle was whatever she’d been told by her mother and Aunt Ella, and everything they told her had to do with her uncle’s accomplishments and generosity and revolved around events in the house and family. What did they know of his life outside the family circle? Did they know anything? The rain had turned fierce. She hadn’t brought an umbrella or gloves and her hands and face were cold. But she felt herself on the brink of a state of high recall. She knew it, felt it. If she went back to the house it might be dispelled; the state of charged memory lost.

But then again she’d find Aunt Ella. Wrap her arms around her. It’d been months.

No. Not yet.

She had trespassed on someone’s private life; and as a child she had had intense, inchoate feelings of doing something wrong, first of invading someone’s privacy and second of awakening a secret life within herself. She’d felt stirrings that were new and strange.

She never told her sister.

And yet, in the end, what harm had come of it?

She had no memory of what was written in the journal, save for the three sentences about the Universal. As for the photographs—other than a flashback from time to time while looking at paintings or a provocative photograph—she never thought of them.

And yet something else also happened up there, up there in her shadow room. Another sort of trespass. It was a trespass against herself, wasn’t it? Against Alice herself, as a girl, though she’d never actually thought of it that way, as a trespass, until that precise moment in November, thirty years after the event, as she stood against the old shed in a beating rain.

She’d fallen asleep in that room one afternoon, on the old matrimonial bed. Benny came and woke her. They went down to the kitchen after that to drink lemonade. Only Angela was around, she was in the living room. She said the boys had some sort of argument and went off their separate ways.

Then there was another day, maybe a week later—

—when she and Angela were in high school they lined their bedroom walls with travel postcards; places they wanted to visit someday, and possibly live in; from where they could gain distance from the family, become the persons they were meant to be—as Alice looked at the kitchen door and the steps just beneath she recalled that other summer day, that confused afternoon. As if one postcard from her high school bedroom walls had just separated from the others and expanded to the size of a poster. She sees her father. He passes through the gate and comes down the walk. He’s coming to get her and Angela, and walk them home, and they’re waiting for him on the back steps with Benny. Their father isn’t happy, he isn’t whistling. He has an envelope in one hand, a Kodak black and yellow envelope from the drugstore. “Uncle Vince d - do you have my pictures?” Benny says, excited, rubbing his hands together. Their father doesn’t answer, doesn’t even look at them or Benny. So out of character. He leans into the kitchen door, he doesn’t go in, and says in a loud voice “Ella I’m bringing the girls home but I’ll be back later—you and I need to talk.” His voice is tense, bordering on unfriendly. His eyes are shaded by the brim of his summer cap nevertheless both girls can see he’s disturbed: his mouth has begun to twitch at one corner, as it often does when he’s upset.

At home he goes upstairs and takes a shower. The sisters sit in the living room, nervous, unable to concentrate on anything. He comes back downstairs just as their mother walks in from work. He says, “We need to sit down. I have something to show you.” They sit at the kitchen table. He opens the Kodak envelope. His hands are shaking. “Just look at these pictures. Do you know who took these? It was Benny wasn’t it? Upstairs in that attic room right?” At first we don’t know whose body, whose legs, whose underpants stretched high and taut around the buttocks, though the blue of the dress and the ribbons say it’s Alice. There are four, five—maybe six—shots taken from different angles, all of them provocative and both sisters understand this on some level.

“Yes Alice took a nap in the afternoon . . . Yes in the attic room . . . We made lemonade then Alice was tired and she went up there . . . Benny wasn’t there when I fell asleep no one was . . . I can’t believe it was Benny . . . Benny doesn’t do things like . . .”                      

How many times did she and Angela talk about it that summer? The pain of it. The mystery. The injustice. They had to leave Aunt Ella’s house after that—Aunt Ella was distraught and their mother didn’t know what to say or do or think—and they spent the rest of that summer with Aunt Pia, seeing Aunt Ella and Benny now and then on weekends, when the whole family was together and their father felt it was safe. Angela said Paul told her he thought Bobby did it but how could anyone know? How could anyone prove anything?