Bellissima — September 2010
They are living on top of each other even now. How funny after so long to still breathe each other’s air? Not quite the departure she’s been looking for after a lifetime on the eastern seaboard—in preparatory schools and universities, in small apartments and odd jobs—but he has dreamed of this for some time, on many long nights in tiny, broken beds; from steaming city streets and hot, crowded trains, the MBTA, the IRT: Ophelia, Virginia, a quarter mile of shoreline, and the deep, dense waters of the Chesapeake Bay.
First thing in the door, Peter takes the phone off the hook—an old rotary, black and heavy as an anvil, Bakelite, hung from the kitchen wall—and dials Time and Temperature. As long as he can remember, the sound of the recorded voice on the other end of the phone has been a touchstone for him. Round and symmetrical, the number fit well traced inside the palm of his hand, the day he had first learned to dial it. Committed to memory then and now impossible to forget. The sum of all integers is even; the odds of which are what? He swears he remembers when only five digits were needed and the sum of them was even as well. What are the chances? (There is a formula for all that somewhere if only he could put it down on paper—but where in the hell is the paper?)
A dial tone, four rings, and then the reply, “Hello?” It is a man’s voice, shrill and attenuated, as though coming from a long distance away, perhaps from the bottom of a deep well.
“Oh,” Peter says. “Hello?”
“Yes?” says the man. “Did you want something?”
“No,” Peter says. “I guess not. I guess I didn’t. I was expecting a tape recording.”
Peter hears the man breathing with some difficulty, bronchitis maybe, or maybe something much worse.
The man says, “This is the point where you state your business or you hang up.”
Spencie adjusts the blinds. The horizon beyond them, the water, is perfectly flat and steel gray, hovering like a mirage above the desert.
“No,” says Peter. “I know that.”
“You know what?” the man says.
“I mean: I know how to talk on the telephone.”
“You sure could have fooled me,” says the man. He coughs directly into the phone. Not into his sleeve or over his shoulder, but directly into the mouthpiece.
“I guess it’s a wrong number,” Peter says. “I’m sorry I bothered you.”
“Damn right it’s a wrong number. I’ve got your number, buddy. I see who’s calling me.”
“Come on,” Peter says, “I said I was sorry.”
“Fuck you,” says the man.
A loud metallic click and the line goes dead. There follows the empty silence of tens of miles. Spencie pulls the shades all the way up and ties the cord off on a wire nail hammered halfway in and bent towards the floor.
“Well, shit,” says Peter.
“And the winner is?” Spencie says.
“You tell me, Spence.”
Peter fingers the numbers on the rotary dial. Was it possible he had misdialed after all?
“So?” says Spencie, her hands now on her hips. “What’s the verdict?”
“Say what?” says Peter.
“Drumroll, Peter? We’re all dying to know. I haven’t seen my watch in days. Or our alarm clock. I couldn’t tell you if it was morning or midnight.”
“Oh,” Peter says. “Well, apparently we don’t need to tell the time anymore.”
Spencie takes off her blouse. Underneath she is wearing a tiny, form-fitting tank top. She fans herself several times with her blouse and then uses her sleeve to wipe her forehead and her neck.
“We don’t need a lot of things around here,” Spencie says. “Razors, deodorant, soap, toothpaste. Why would on earth we need to know the time?”
“Or the temperature either,” Peter says. “Apparently you either know, or you don’t need to know.”
“Of course! It makes perfect sense to me.” Spencie crinkles up her nose. She fans herself again with her blouse, and then ties it around her waist. “Well, it’s warm. I can tell you that much. It’s very warm and I stink!”
Bellissima, the house itself, unchanged—clapboard, white, two stories with a fireplace on the southern side, Honor Bilt (the original catalog is here, somewhere, nested deep in a box of house things, passed down along with the will, the maps, the deed) and now approaching seventy—still stands at the farthest end of the long dirt road that dead-ends on the small, slight cliff overlooking the water. Everything is smaller than Peter can remember and it is hard for him to imagine two grown adults sleeping here, living here. How much worse must it have been with a child in tow?
How did his grandparents, his father’s parents, Steven and Ella Elkins, ever manage? With Peter under foot, they must have been beside themselves. They must have ached for privacy, but they never said a word, the pair of them, never let on that he was a problem. Certainly there had to have been times when their patience was worn paper-thin. When Peter’s parents were in town, where did they all sleep? He doesn’t have the first clue, nor is he sure how he and Spencie, just the two of them, will make a go of this.
“Can you find the switch?” Spencie says. “For the fan?”
“I’m looking,” says Peter. “Bear with me. It’s here somewhere.”
The nearest house, the shotgun cabin named The Ark, is a shell of its former self. Once owned by Martha and Joseph Gibbs—the black couple that worked for Peter’s grandparents and eventually became part of the Elkins family—The Ark has fallen into deep disrepair. They saw it on the drive down—Peter had almost missed it, it was Spencie who had noticed it first—tucked away in a nest of brambles, wrapped in poison ivy and wisteria, its sagging roof covered with moss and fully caved in above the side door, its foundation crumbling, its chimney deconstructed by treasure hunters and do-it-yourselfers needing antique bricks for backyard barbecues and patios. It had nearly been destroyed once by fire, had been rebuilt and made better, continuously improved upon, mostly by hand, until how long ago?
Peter had tried to explain to Spencie then exactly who they were, Martha and Joseph, their grandchildren, and what they had meant to Peter and the rest of his family. He had tried to explain to Spencie what The Ark had meant to them, to all of them, but especially to him. But when he thought about it harder, when he tried to put a finer point on it, and then convert it all into words, everything outpaced him, ran away and turned the corner into darkness.
“They were friends of my grandparents,” Peter had said finally, watching The Ark recede in the rear view mirror. “They would be spinning in their graves if they could see what’s become of it all.”
Ten years in the city, ten years of mediocre and then bad luck—the building up and then the tearing down, brick by brick, the unwinding of everything, deal by deal. The writing was on the wall. Eight years bookended: the Twin Towers and their ashes, the fall of Lehman, the bankrupted Merrill. Peter’s research firm and Andy’s trading house? Not-quite-so-innocent bystanders caught up in the wake, taken out by the turbulence of loose regulations and greed. Small losses in the bigger picture, but still, losses nonetheless.
Peter thinks of other ways it could have gone down, but it all seems perfectly choreographed in retrospect, clearly written in the stars: Iraq, again. Afghanistan, again. Katrina. Deepwater Horizon.
When once everyone gathered around the television to watch men walk on the moon, Andy had said, now everyone gathered around the tube to watch the Helpless Machine. The incontestable urge to avert the gaze dominated everything. The papers, the Internet, the radio: everyone seemed content to ride the system all the way down to the bottom. All the speculating and all the gawking that came afterwards merely added to the sense that no one was in charge, that no one was running the show, and that no one had been for some time. No matter how hard you tried not to look, you couldn’t do anything but. For whatever it was worth Andy had nailed it.
Their desire to make sense of everything is as lost to Peter and Spencie now as is the skyline: The Chrysler and Empire State buildings, One Chase Plaza. Their most basic details committed to memory. They had tried to put the puzzle pieces back together but the effort required proved to be too much. Everything was saddled then with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. Some ran for the door. Some walked. Some crawled. Peter and Spencie both got there, eventually. In their own time, they both realized the jig was finally up. They each saw the exit sign at the exact same time, over a leisurely breakfast in a shoreline hotel in New Hampshire.
All that remains is a tidy little bank account—funded in part by Peter’s dividends, in part by Spencie’s income—and everything they have here with them now. They have a small window in which to rebuild, a small window in which to rework what they have become into what they could be, what they ultimately want to be, as soon as they can determine exactly what that comprises.
“God, it’s hot, Peter.” Spencie is fanning herself again. “We have to do something about this heat before I burst into flames.”
“I know. Believe me, Spence. The switch is here somewhere. You’ll be the first to know when I find it.”
The gleaming steel and glass are all gone. The dinners at Keens, Delmonico’s. Handpicked courses in Little Italy. Also Tao, always worth the effort to get there, it seemed. The Oak Bar, the bars at the Gramercy, at the Hudson. Spencie’s gallery, Peter’s firm, the one that always paid the bills. The apartments: Kips Bay, Berkley Park, and the last one, the one on Barrow Street.
They are all gone as is everything else from before, and everything afterwards is this: Peter’s and Spencie’s resurrected life together is framed now by the geometry of nature: they are bordered on three sides by rolling fields full of rye and alfalfa, and tall stalks of sweet corn—cotton even, fenced with wire descending into decay, rusted barbs falling buried into the heavy gray loam—and thick mixed forests of tupelo and ash and loblollies. The fourth side: they are braced up above the waterline, settled square into a little cliff with an uninterrupted view up and down the shore. A view of creamy, bright yellow sand bridged with fallen pines and, when it is clear, of Tangier Island in the distance. Above them: crows fly, and ducks, mergansers, geese and gulls, triangulating, sighting and then feeling for home.
Spencie had wanted more but not at great expense, nothing extravagant. She had wanted to take what was left, all the little puzzle pieces, overseas and put them back together in Bruges, in Nantes, or maybe in Lisbon. Peter recalls what she had wanted was something very much like this, only not here. Someplace not so remote, someplace not so desolate. But he had wanted to give home one more chance, one last chance—he had wanted to define the word home once and for all—and for some reason he had chosen not to question why she had finally conceded.
“Have you seen the step-ladder?” Peter asks.
“Why? So I can hang myself?” Spencie says. “Sure. It’s right here. Have you seen the rope?”
“No,” Peter says. “I’m looking for the Goddamn switch. I think it’s above the cupboard.”
Spencie looks at him and puts her two hands up in frustration.
Beyond the rotted hull of The Ark there is St. Aidan’s, a small, stone parish with a slate roof—set far back from Ferry Road, nearly hidden from view in a stand of hickory and sweet gum trees—whose blue and white signs streaked with rust, planted north and south on 644, proudly proclaim “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.”
This was for so many years his grandfather’s church and everything about it reflected the man Peter both loved and feared more than anyone else: the rock-hard, unforgiving pews; the stifling, blinding heat in summer; the bitter, persistent cold in winter that turned the sanctuary into a crypt. For Peter Sundays still comprise stained glass and sin, grace and judgment, even though he has not set foot in a church since his and Spencie’s wedding.
The current rector left on their front stoop, while Peter and Spencie were miles away this morning at the Home Depot in Irvington—see the columns of chicken wire, row upon row of infant boxwoods, of resin-covered railroad ties and whiskey barrels cut in two for planting—a gift basket containing cheese and crackers, some fruit, and a split of sparkling wine. Attached is a type-written note, encouraging them to attend services once they are “settled in.” Someone, the rector perhaps, or maybe his secretary, had squeezed into the margins of the bottom right-hand corner, “We’d love to see you!”
Spencie nearly trips over the basket now. In a huff, she places it on the kitchen table, stacks it on top of everything else and pushes it down hard so that it does not keel over onto the floor. “We’d love to see them,” she says, “give us a hand with this mess!”
Aside from the rector’s visit, which neither is upset over missing, Peter and Spencie have been undisturbed by other humans. Here—though they are awakened nightly by raccoons and opossums creeping through the small wood that doubles for a backyard, looking for leftovers, feeding off everything that is not sealed up or locked down, strewing garbage and recycling everywhere—the sight of another person is a rare thing.
Peter and Spencie are also confronted here with a pack of wild dogs that tears through the woods nightly, unabated. They can hear them coming and then going in the darkness, barking and howling like nobody’s business. Although they have not yet seen the animals in person, this afternoon Peter saw what he is certain is their handiwork: during a quick jog, he found in a shallow ditch beside their dirt driveway, the hollowed-out body of a doe, its front legs bent and broken, its nose and eyes missing.
While Spencie rested in the one empty chair, unable to face the momentous task before them, Peter circled back, like a spy behind enemy lines, with a shovel and a tarp. He wrapped the animal in the tarp and buried her remains as deeply as he could under a tall, red elderberry.
And now, going forward, they will settle into the dark silence, the loudest of all voices, telling them they are no longer who they thought they were: the lapping of the receding tide, a fisherman’s ancient Philco broadcasting gospel music and news from the war, the baying of the wild hounds on their hunt. Soon, the immense night above them will be filled with light: Algol and Marchab, Rigel and Gemma, and Regulus—the anchor of Spencie’s Leo—shining down.