I'd been shut up in my hotel for more than a week, afraid to telephone anybody or go out; and my heart scrambled and floundered at even the most innocent noises: elevator bell, rattle of the minibar cart, even church clocks tolling the hour, de Westertoren, Krijtberg, a dark edge to the
clangor, an inwrought fairy-tale sense of doom.
It was my first time in Amsterdam; I'd seen almost nothing of the city and yet the room itself, in its bleak, drafty, sunscrubbed beauty, gave a keen sense of Northern Europe, a model of the Netherlands in miniature: whitewash and Protestant
probity, co-mingled with deep-dyed luxury brought in merchant ships from the East.
Outside, sleet tapped at the windowpanes and drizzled over the canal; and though the brocades were rich and the carpet was soft, still the winter light carried a chilly tone of 1943,
privation and austerities, weak tea without sugar and hungry to bed.
Outside, sleet tapped at the windowpanes and drizzled over the canal; and though the brocades were rich and the carpet was soft, still the winter light carried a chilly tone of 1943, privation and
austerities, weak tea without sugar and hungry to bed.
The hotel staff moved with hushed voices and quiet footsteps, eyes gliding across me coolly as if they didn't quite see me, the American man in 27 who never came down during the day; and I tried to reassure myself that the night manager (dark suit, crew cut, horn-rimmed glasses) would probably go to some lengths to
avert trouble or avoid a fuss.
As it was, she died when I was a kid; and though everything that's happened to me since then is thoroughly my own fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier, to some more populated or
That exotic character unfortunately comes out a little too
stark and unforgiving in photographs—her freckles covered with makeup, her hair pulled back in a ponytail at the nape of her neck like some nobleman in The Tale of Genji—and what doesn't come across at all is her warmth, her merry, unpredictable quality, which is what I loved about her most.
...Even my hand
balks at the date; I had to push to write it down, just to keep the pen moving on the paper.
Her parents—whom I loved hearing stories about, and who had unfairly died before I'd had the chance to know them—had been
affable horse trainers who travelled around the west and raised Morgan horses for a living: cocktail-drinking, canasta-playing livelies who went to the Kentucky Derby every year and kept cigarettes in silver boxes around the house.
Whenever we struck a bump, my teeth rattled, and so did the religious claptrap dangling from the rear view mirror: medallions, a curved sword in miniature dancing on a plastic chain, and a turbaned, bearded guru who gazed into the back seat with piercing eyes, palm raised in
Delivery boys from D'Agostino's and Gristede's pushed carts laden with groceries;
harried executive women in heels plunged down the sidewalk, dragging reluctant kindergartners behind them; a uniformed worker swept debris from the gutter into a dustpan on a stick; lawyers and stockbrokers held their palms out and knit their brows as they looked up at the sky.
As we jolted up the avenue (my mother looking miserable, clutching at the armrest to brace herself) I stared out the window at the
dyspeptic workaday faces (worried-looking people in raincoats, milling in grim throngs at the crosswalks, people drinking coffee from cardboard cups and talking on cell phones and glancing furtively side to side) and tried hard not to think of all the unpleasant fates that might be about to befall me: some of them involving juvenile court, or jail.
"Um, no, not really," I said, taking a step backwards and looking around in my
consternation; even though I was hungry, I felt in no position to insist on anything.
"All right then," she said, in what I thought of as her Mary Poppins voice, "but just till I catch my breath," and we started down toward the crosswalk at Seventy-Ninth Street: past topiaries in
baroque planters, ponderous doors laced with ironwork.
"All right then," she said, in what I thought of as her Mary Poppins voice, "but just till I catch my breath," and we started down toward the crosswalk at Seventy-Ninth Street: past topiaries in baroque planters,
ponderous doors laced with ironwork.
Tousling my hair, making me smile in a lopsided, half-embarrassed way: puppy was my baby name, I didn't like it any more nor the hair-
tousling either, but sheepish though I felt, I was glad to see her in a better mood.
I'm too old for this routine, she'd said a few days before as we'd scrambled together over the apartment,
rummaging under the sofa cushions and searching in the pockets of coats and jackets for enough change to pay the delivery boy from the deli.
"Yeah, but I was too dumb to know that. All I can say, is, it was pretty different from the Lower East, homeless guys starting fires in trash cans. Up here on the weekends it was magical—wandering the museum—
lolloping around Central Park on my own—"
So much of her talk was exotic to my ear, and lollop sounded like some horse term from her childhood: a lazy gallop maybe, some equine gait between a
canter and a trot.
People on the street and in the park were holding newspapers and briefcases over their heads, scurrying up the stairs to the
portico of the museum, which was the only place on the street to get out of the rain.
"I was only a mail-order model," she always took pains to explain to people—by which she meant she'd never done fashion magazines or
couture, only circulars for chain stores, inexpensive casuals for junior misses in Missouri and Montana.
A drenched crowd of Asian senior citizens surged past, after a crisp stewardessy guide;
bedraggled Girl Scouts huddled whispering near the coat check; beside the information desk stood a line of military-school cadets in gray dress uniforms, hats off, clasped hands behind their backs.
The show was complicated to find, and as we wandered the busy galleries (weaving in and out of crowds, turning right, turning left, backtracking through labyrinths of confusing signage and layout) large gloomy reproductions of The Anatomy Lesson appeared erratically and at unexpected junctures,
baleful signposts, the same old corpse with the flayed arm, red arrows beneath: operating theater, this way.
Though the exhibition was moderately crowded, still it had the sedate,
meandering feel of a backwater, a certain vacuum-sealed calm: long sighs and extravagant exhalations like a room full of students taking a test.
There had been a trio of
ghastly landscapes, by a painter named Egbert van der Poel, different views of the same smouldering wasteland: burnt ruined houses, a windmill with tattered sails, crows wheeling in smoky skies.