“The Queen Mum’s dead,” the old woman said in a voice tinged with disbelief.
She fumbled with the remote control and turned off the television. She always had to be the first to report tragedy, getting right to the point in a matter-of-fact tone, used so infrequently in all her other conversations that it was hard to believe the old woman could actually find it, dust it off, and make it work. This proclamation came from the same place all her other trumpet blasts had come – from the armchair which had been her front-row seat to the last ten years of the world.
Jeannie was too exhausted to be standing there, listening. Her arms were elongated from the weight of the two plastic bags hanging from her palms and now making deep cuts into them. Besides, she had already heard this news.
“Died in her sleep. Now, that’s the way to go.”
The old woman stared straight ahead, nodding convincingly, as if she had just begun to make sense of it all – the news, immortality.
Jeannie began unpacking the groceries in the kitchen, putting containers out on the table and others in the refrigerator for later that week. The kitchen, atypical for a subdivided apartment in New York, opened right out into the living room, so it didn’t make a difference that Jeannie had slipped behind her grandmother’s field of vision.
“Died in her sleep. What luck!” she announced again, this time to a distracted audience.
“Are you still talking about that, Mom?” he asked as he doddered into the living room.
Jeannie noticed her grandfather was less well-groomed each time she saw him. His face was unshaven, and his gray hair was still tousled by sleep. He had the look and smell of an old man. But it was hard for Jeannie to think of him as such.
She first watched age catch up to her grandfather on a trip to the butcher’s last winter. The old man had dropped his glove and lagged a few paces behind to pick it up. When she realized he wasn’t beside her and turned around, Jeannie glimpsed the gait of an old man: forehead parallel to the ground while he focused on his two feet shuffling across the pavement, careful that an errant piece of sidewalk would not catch his sneaker while the rest of his body moved forward. She couldn’t pull her eyes away. The guilt she had felt for gawking emblazoned this image of her grandfather on her mind’s eye, torturing her with its stark reminder of his fragility.
Their dinner was the usual weeknight menu, which is whatever pre-made food Jeannie picked up at the corner deli on her way home from the library. That night it was Israeli salad, corned beef sandwiches and roasted potatoes. It took her grandparents a long time to eat little, and the attention they paid to the mechanics of eating mesmerized her. A pained expression accompanied each deliberate swallow, as the lumps of food barely made their way down their esophageal tubes. They’d let out a gasp of air after each small success, a congratulatory sigh before confronting the next forkful. This display of cheating death was oddly peaceful, like a roomful of sleeping babies, and Jeannie always forgot her hurry.
“Do you think Charles will become King?”
Like most of the old woman’s questions, this one was addressed to no one in particular, so Jeannie jumped in, now hoping to speed the evening along.
“Well, I don’t know. What’s the situation with Camilla?”
Jeannie felt her right temple bulge to accommodate the sharp triangle of a headache.
“Oh, that’s right. Then maybe Harry will be next.”
“It’s William, Mom. He’s the oldest,” the old man said between bites.
A piece of potato fell from his mouth before he completed his sentence.
The old woman paused. Jeannie glanced around for her hearing aid.
“Then what was it I heard about Harry?”
Jeannie stood up and began clearing the food from the table. She wouldn’t be a sitting duck, making herself an easy target, as this is exactly the way they would find themselves on the topic. It was never a direct question: Are you seeing anyone, Jeannie? It always began as an innocuous conversation about something like mononucleosis, then turned with the intensity of a policeman’s flashlight to Jeannie and how she spent her time when she wasn’t there.
Jeannie wiped down the kitchen counter and pressed a soda can on a roach, which tried to escape through one of the growing number of holes between the wall and the block of Formica. She made a mental note to ask the Super about the next extermination. Her grandparents’ pre-war apartment needed a renovation. But their forgetfulness and inability to get around easily made its general level of cleanliness worse than ever. Last week, when Jeannie arrived, the entire apartment smelled like a nursing home. The pungent odor scorched her nostrils, and she tried desperately to find a pocket of fresh air while seeking out the culprit. It was as she suspected – the toilet was broken and hadn’t been flushed for two days. The odor was like a stagnant storm cloud they knew would take days to pass, so they dressed for winter and took dinner to the roof.
Jeannie could chase an abstract idea or theoretical problem around the room and would run to the end of the earth to find the missing link to a research puzzle. Her professors in college had encouraged her to pursue library science because she had a knack for organization and a craving to impose order which bordered on obsession. She was told she had the perfect temperament for such a career.
Now, Jeannie spent her days in blocks of two-hour shifts behind the counter in the anteroom of the New York Public Library’s Main Reading Room. Books had always kept her good company, which is why this career choice seemed like a good fit. But she hadn’t foreseen being surrounded by flocks of foreign tourists with digital cameras draped around their necks, their heads tilted back to admire the ceiling, as if it were an air show. She had put in a transfer to the prints and photographs division. But no one could tell her when there might be an opening. She hated being out on display and, more so, dealing with the public’s queries.
“No, you can’t check out that book. This is a reference library. The circulating branch is across the street.”
“Lord and Taylor? Two blocks south on 38th and 5th..”
“The Declaration of Independence exhibit? Downstairs, next to the gift shop.”
Only about one of every ten inquires was research-related, so Jeannie was never so absorbed in a research task to forget about checking her email or her cell phone to see how much time had passed since the last person had thought of her. For hours each day, she stared out into the space of the anteroom, lined with decaying books, where dust particles danced in every cylinder of light which shot down from the windows. In this building of generations and centuries, she often thought of death – her grandparents’ and her own.
Two days earlier, Jeannie had checked the library’s holdings of the American Art Journal for a bookish but attractive man in his early 30s. She had noticed him before. And, even staring into the glare of the afternoon sun, she could make out the softness of his face, which seemed to blend right into the fabric of his shirt.
“It seems we have the volume you’re looking for, but it’s off-site.”
She looked up from her computer screen and faced him squarely. His hair was chestnut; his skin translucent.
“Once you fill out this call slip, we should be able to get it here in a few days, Tuesday or Wednesday at the latest.”
Jeannie watched him write with the precision of an architect. His hands were unremarkable, but his nail beds were perfect, compared to her ragged cuticles. She always judged a man by his hands.
“Is this all you need?” he asked, handing the call slip back to Jeannie.
The line for his street address was blank. But Jeannie let it go, fearing it would betray a personal interest. Martin Williams: She could remember that.
“Once the microfilm comes in, we’ll keep it right here behind the desk for a week.”
She hated the way her nerves made her voice sound official.
“Thanks so much, I really appreciate this. It saves me a long trip up to Columbia.”
When Martin walked away from the desk, she was reassured to see that no partner lingered in the distance, waiting to take his hand.
A part of Jeannie wanted to send an email to someone, anyone, to tell them about Martin. But she could see in her peripheral vision that her colleague, Alan, was milling around behind her. Alan was the stereotypical male librarian: socially awkward and humorless with questionable personal hygiene. One could feel his presence before seeing him, because he always stood too close, sucking up the available oxygen.
Back in the apartment, Jeannie cut her grandfather’s meatloaf into small pieces, then mashed them with the back of her spoon.
“I see you’ve lost a few more teeth,” she said.
The old man stretched the corners of his mouth wide, so that Jeannie could get a closer look.
“Pulled them myself,” he said proudly.
It took more than a loose tooth to get him to the doctor’s.
“What a terrible shame,” her grandmother said. “He won’t be able to eat corn-on-the-cob this summer. He can’t chomp. His top teeth don’t have anything to come down on.”
The old woman demonstrated by making a few open and close movements with her mouth, which looked more like a goldfish.
“Maybe I could get replacements,” he said.
“Oh, it’s not worth the trouble,” her grandmother said. “He’s too old for that.”
She had a habit of addressing her husband in the third person, and he had a habit of calling her Mom.
“How was your day, Jeannie?” her grandfather asked.
But the old woman, sometimes a bulldozer, carried on.
“It’s terrible getting old,” she said. “I never imagined it like this. Look at him! You can’t even enjoy your favorite foods any more.”
She pulled at the tissue in her hand.
“It’s like we’re just sitting here, waiting to die,” she added.
Jeannie pushed the food around on her plate, waiting a few moments to see if it was still appropriate to answer her grandfather’s question.
“My day was fine. Thanks for asking, Grandpa.”
She thought of Martin and his clean fingernails.
“Just sitting around waiting to die,” the old woman said, as if no one had heard her the first time around.
“Stop talking like that, Mom,” said grandfather.
But lately, it seemed she had nothing else to say. With no tragedy to report, she turned her own life into one and began torturing her captive audience. Her friends, her daughter, she outlived them all – and the misery which had once been spread out over a number of people now fell squarely on the shoulders of her two living relatives.
Martin was back at the library the day Jeannie had expected. He turned up late in the afternoon, and she was worried she had missed him.
“I think I passed you on the street the other evening,” he said. “Do you live on the Upper East Side?”
Jeannie searched for her voice, swallowing hard.
“Oh, no. But my grandparents – ”
She cleared her throat and tried again.
“I was going to my grandparents’ apartment.”
Jeannie’s arm searched under the desk as she talked, patting around for the box of microfilm. She wished to be slightly disengaged, to have something else to focus on. It wasn’t the depth of Martin’s eyes which made her nervous, but the way she felt they watched her.
“I thought it was you on the street, but you looked so deep in thought, I didn’t want to startle you.”
Jeannie put the box on the desk, an obstacle between them, when she wanted to get closer.
“I just moved into an apartment there. The neighborhood seems nice. Do you like it?”
“Oh, I’m probably not the right person to ask. I still see the neighborhood through a child’s eyes.”
Martin looked curious.
“I mean, I grew up there,” she said.
Jeannie wished she hadn’t revealed so much of herself. It was unrealistic to think that someone like her – a librarian who floated along the periphery of life – could attract someone like him, a handsome, confident intellectual.
Martin smiled as if he understood her now.
“Well, I’ll see you around, I’m sure. This place seems to be my second home.”
In his wake, Martin left shards of energy and spontaneity, and Jeannie clung to them greedily, so that his absence wouldn’t hit her all at once.
On the steps of the library that evening, Jeannie waited for her date. This night it was someone new, a guy she had found on a dating website she had just heard about. Jeannie looked at the men around her on the stairs and, even though she hadn’t seen a picture of this guy, none fit his description. There was no way she could have mixed up the place: She was always the one to suggest it. Had she gotten the time wrong?
She felt the vibration of her phone on her right thigh. She had forgotten to turn on the ringer since she left the library, and wondered how many calls she had missed.
“Hello?” Jeannie picked up the phone without checking the number on its screen.
There was a commotion on the other end.
“Hello?” Jeannie said again.
She held out the phone to see if the number of the person calling was displayed. No luck. She put the phone back to her ear and heard a familiar sound.
“Jeannie, Dad hasn’t been sleeping well for the past few nights,” her grandmother said.
“I’m sleeping fine, Mom,” came a background protest.
“He’s lying to me, now that I’ve got you on the phone!”
“Besides, I can hear him getting up in the middle of the night. He thinks I need to wear this aid, but I don’t. I can hear just fine without it!”
“I’m sorry, Jeannie. I know you have to stay late at work tonight. But I was wondering if you could schedule a doctor’s appointment for your grandpa.”
Jeannie’s face flushed with guilt. She watched a group of buskers on the sidewalk set up their boom box.
“I’ll do it first thing tomorrow, Grandma. The doctor’s office is already closed.” She was talking faster, trying to move their conversation toward its end before the
music started, all without letting her hand show.
“Oh, thank you, Jeannie. I knew you’d take care of this.”
“Have Grandpa take one of his pills before he goes to sleep – ”
But her grandmother had already hung up.
Jeannie took another look around her. It was twenty minutes after they were supposed to meet, and still no sign of her date. She started down the stairs of the library and headed for the train. Thinking that she passed Martin again without noticing, she turned back one last time. The music blared, and a crowd gathered around the buskers. It was a warm night for early April. She watched the man she thought was Martin join the audience, and knew for sure at that moment it couldn’t have been him. He didn’t seem the type to join a crowd.
Jeannie’s apartment smelled oppressive. She opened the window, so that the room was cold with fresh air. It felt like a long time since she had been in her own apartment. She settled into bed, but found it impossible to unwind. She reached for her phone, which was always on the nightstand in case her grandparents needed to reach her. Still, no missed calls and no messages. Why hadn’t the interesting stranger shown up for their date?
Jeannie pulled her laptop from under her bed and connected all the wires. She signed onto the dating website and checked her inbox. One unread message.
I’m really looking forward to meeting you tomorrow night. See you then.
Tomorrow night? So he had gotten the date wrong! She started typing a response, until she was uncertain about whether she wanted to give him a second chance. She tapped the backspace key until her sentence disappeared.
The noise was a voice at the end of a tunnel when it entered her consciousness. She opened her eyes. 2:47. She tried to clear the sleep from her head to feel less disoriented. She reminded herself that she wasn’t living with her grandparents anymore, and that this noise was coming from some place outside the bounds of her responsibility. It was a Spanish voice, desperate and female, and Jeannie wondered how long the screaming had been going on before she realized it was not part of her dream. She rolled across her bed toward the window and against the outside wall of her room. Here the sound was louder. She pushed down on one of the slats of the blinds, then ran her finger over its length to clean off the dust. Across the narrow alleyway, through a window which lined up almost exactly to hers, Jeannie saw the source of the voice.
Two pairs of bare legs stood in the middle of the room, visible from just above the knees all the way down to the feet. The lopsided blinds which hung in the neighbors’ window obscured the rest of their bodies. The woman’s voice carried on without concern that someone might have been listening. Jeannie’s finger slipped off the slat and, on its rebound, clipped her nose. Undeterred, she looked again.
“But I want to spend the rest of my life with you!” the woman cried.
The familiar sound of English had jolted Jeannie out of her unconscious voyeurism. It seemed to be the woman’s last gasp before she collapsed into sobs. Jeannie watched as the man picked her up and carried her to their bed, which was just out of Jeannie’s sight. She heard their bodies hit the mattress, their four feet now parallel to the floor.
Jeannie moved away from the window. She felt so desperate to feel something that she slipped her hand between her thighs, then three fingers inside herself. She watched as the wind rustled a piece of paint hanging in the corner. She could hear the sound of the man’s breathing as it struggled to overpower the woman’s occasional sob.
This chorus was suffocating. Jeannie repositioned her body and tried to find a way out of her room to a place of surrender. But she knew it was useless.
On her way into the living room, Jeannie stopped in front of the mirror, pressing her nose to its cool surface. Her stringy brown hair was matted to her forehead, and her face was splotchy.
From the couch, she watched the building a few blocks east disappear into the night as the lights of the apartments were extinguished.
“Would you like to go up North today?” Jeannie asked her grandmother over the phone later that morning.
“Let me ask Dad.”
The old woman had a hard time entertaining the prospect of events planned less than 24 hours in advance and, when she came back to the phone too quickly, Jeannie knew that she hadn’t really asked her husband.
“But I thought you were working today,” her grandmother said.
“Mental health day,” said Jeannie.
“Good. You need a break from your job. You work too hard. Now wait one moment, let me ask Dad.”
Jeannie tried to get dressed with the phone still attached to her ear, as she was almost certain they would be going to Riverdale that afternoon.
Her grandmother came back to the phone.
“What time can you pick us up?”
The old woman chatted the whole way up to the Bronx. What’s this car called again? What year was it made? This is so much more comfortable than the last car you rented, Jeannie! I’m not being thrown around like I was in that blue thing we rode around in last time. Be careful not to drive too fast, but I guess you know how to handle the car, Jeannie. You’re a good driver. Jeannie looked in the rear-view mirror for relief from her grandmother’s monologue. But the old man was fast asleep. It was a routine she should have been used to by now.
Her mother’s grave was overgrown. Jeannie bent down and plucked at some of the more gangly weeds around it and made another note to her mental list to call the groundskeeper. It had been a hard winter. But the first thaw was a few weeks ago now, and the ground was ready to be worked. Her grandfather placed a bouquet of lilies at the foot of the grave. His lips moved without sound, and Jeannie knew he was having a conversation with his daughter. The wind in the cemetery carved the marrow from her bones; her legs and arms felt like stilts. She grabbed hold of her grandfather’s arm and began leading him back to the car.
“Just one moment, Jeannie,” he said.
He broke free and pulled a disposable camera from the pocket of his jacket. The old man walked a few steps to the left of where they had been standing. She hadn’t noticed the piece of gray marble before, but there it was, flush with the ground. Its ability to go unseen was innocuous yet sinister, like a trap set for a mouse. The old man snapped a few pictures of his and his wife’s grave stone from different angles, and Jeannie turned her head from what she thought was his grotesque display of pride in death. It’s like we’re just sitting around, waiting to die.
Her grandmother sat in the car, rubbing her arthritic hands in front of the heating vents. She saw Jeannie and waved.
“Okay, that’s enough, Grandpa. We don’t want to be stuck in traffic.”
He stopped once more at his daughter’s grave.
“See you soon, Anna, see you soon.”
Her grandparents slept on the way back to the city. Jeannie had forgotten that someone was waiting for her on the steps of the library until her cell phone rang a third consecutive time. Trapped in the car, there was nothing she could do. Her mind was made up; there’d be no second chance. She turned on the radio and listened to the news and thought about what they could eat for dinner.
The next time Jeannie saw Martin at the library, Alan was giving him a hard time. His gruffness was apparent from across the room. She knew that Alan was just being his normal self, refusing as he did to attempt to understand anyone. He was so literal that, if one didn’t hit upon the exact word he already had in his head, he’d let the person stand there for hours, grasping at straws.
“Is there something I can help with?” Jeannie asked, interrupting him.
Alan glared at Jeannie, then gathered his magazine and cleared the way. He had obviously tired of trying to comprehend Martin’s request.
Jeannie thought Martin looked relieved to see her. He started from the beginning, not at all thrown off track by Alan’s rude behavior. She marveled at his quick recovery and waited for him to finish.
“Would you like to get a drink sometime?” Jeannie blurted out.
It took everything she had to let the sentence be, resisting the urge to tack on an escape clause, a way for Martin to bow out gracefully.
Martin was obviously not immune to being surprised, but Jeannie was too preoccupied to notice. Martin was a kind, sympathetic man who, despite being incredibly focused on his research, knew how to read a situation and, more importantly, knew what to say. He straightened his upper body to meet Jeannie’s eyes. She thought he was trying to get as far away from her as possible.
She began a retraction.
“I, I only meant –
Martin interrupted her.
“That would be lovely, thanks. Really, it would, but I have an incredibly busy schedule for the next two weeks.”
Jeannie felt her face register disappointment.
“I’m scheduled to give a lecture at a conference, and spend all my evenings writing and rewriting, and then writing some more.”
Jeannie nodded, reassured.
“But really, once it’s over, it would be lovely to get together – honestly. Here, why don’t you write down your number?”
He pulled a piece of scrap paper from his pocket.
She believed Martin was sincere, and Martin, behaving like a gentleman, quickly excused himself, leaving Jeannie alone with the hope that for once in her life, she’d be able to choose what she wanted in it.
A private number had tried calling Jeannie several times that night, so she got into the habit of checking the number each time it rang after that.
“Jeannie, I think you should come up as soon as you can! I know you weren’t supposed to come by tonight, but your grandfather is having a lot of trouble breathing. He wouldn’t be happy if he knew I was calling you, but I thought you’d know what to do.”
“Should I call 9-1-1?”
Jeannie tried to assess what was happening.
“No, no, I’d rather have you come here and see for yourself.”
Jeannie’s phone rang again. She answered without thinking.
A click, then a dial tone.
She started dialing her grandparents’ number, but noticed that the phone wasn’t accepting her call. Someone was obviously already on the line.
“You didn’t show up last night, and I waited for over an hour. Did you stand me up?”
Jeannie recognized the voice – someone from the library.
“Alan? Alan, Is that you?”
Her phone went dead a second time.
Jeannie fiddled with her keys in the door for what seemed like an hour. She could hear the voices of her grandmother’s television through the door. It was the way the old woman kept time, marked the passing of each day. When Jeannie finally got into the apartment, she found her grandmother at the end of the hallway, sitting comfortably in her armchair, her chin resting on her chest. She pushed her ear right down into her grandmother’s face. The old woman was still breathing. She stayed put, synchronizing her breath to her grandmother’s. As she did this, she began to hear other sounds in the room. Her grandfather snored from the couch in her old bedroom, and Jeannie checked up on him too, shoving another pillow under his head.
I haven’t been left alone yet, she thought with a surprising sense of relief.
She went into the kitchen and rifled through the drawers, hoping she could press her luck and find a cigarette. One stray was all she needed. She lifted a notepad of personalized stationery and underneath found a thin, crumpled stick of nicotine.
She climbed the stairs to the roof, disabled the fire alarm, and kicked open the door. The buildings blazed as the Hudson cradled the last sliver of the sun. Jeannie lit the mangled cigarette and walked over to the ledge. She sat down on the gravel roof and looked down at the people below rushing home from work. The sound of their heels on the pavement carried up to her until a helicopter overhead cut its diagonal swath across the sky, the sound of its engines obliterating the lives it was dispatched to protect. Jeannie remembered a story of a couple who made love on the roof of their building the night of the day the twin towers came down, defying the destruction and the surveillance to prove to themselves that they were still alive.
She took a drag on the cigarette and leaned her head out over the ledge. She spotted a man who looked and walked exactly like Martin. His arm was around a blonde; they were talking to one another as they walked the sidewalk across the street from Jeannie. She strained to hear their conversation, to pick up even an intonation to confirm that it was him, the generous, sympathetic man headed home to write and rewrite. Another helicopter rumbled through the sky, shaking the building and making it impossible to hear. When the evening stilled, Martin was out of her sight. Jeannie twisted the end of her cigarette into the gravel, then lay down on her back. From the staircase, her grandmother called.
“Jeannie? Jeannie? Is that you up there?”