MAGGIE and Muriel had more books than any of my mother’s other friends, and that was saying something. Their books were neatly shelved in pine bookcases that reached to the ceiling of every room in their apartment, including the long hallway. I liked them a lot because they always let me take home whatever book I picked out while they and my mother talked and talked. I would lie on my stomach, propped up on their prickly straw rug while the three women consumed cup after cup of Medaglia D’Oro coffee and discussed the French movies they had recently seen or which book had been most highly praised in that Sunday’s New York Times Book Review.
Then one day there was big news: Muriel was engaged. This was Really Big News, because Muriel was at least fifty, with thin brown hair, a receding chin and buck teeth. Her shoulders sloped sharply down from her neck, but what you noticed about her were the large, intelligent eyes and her soft, pleasant voice. She was also at least a head taller than her intended groom, a nervous red-haired actor who seemed to be not just shorter but significantly younger than Muriel. The bride and groom would be moving to San Francisco. Maggie would not.
I began to worry about my seemingly endless supply of Thomas Wolfe novels. As the day of departure grew near, the already demure and birdlike Maggie seemed to grow quieter and smaller. She had started out to be about five foot two inches, my height at age ten, but she was shrinking by the week. With domestic chaos erupting in every room, I loudly and nervously admired a framed Japanese print that Maggie and Muriel had once featured at the end of their book-lined hallway. Secretly, I hoped it would somehow find its way to me.
At her wedding, Muriel appeared in a voluminous lavender satin garment with lots of pleats. We drank champagne and then stuffed ourselves with homemade paella at their place. As my mother and I were leaving, Maggie presented me with a large, flat package wrapped in brown paper and string. I didn’t need to open it. The coveted prize was mine!
The Macdougal Street apartment was soon disassembled, espresso pot and all, and the happy newlyweds flew to San Francisco as planned.
Six months later, I heard my mother speaking in low tones on the telephone. It seemed that Muriel was back in the Village, solo, house-hunting. But no one asked me to return the splendid print of the Japanese stallion, rearing, mane fanned out and tail arched. He was now above my bed.* *
I never learned where Maggie moved to, or if she ever forgave Muriel. Our Sunday afternoon visits never resumed. We never saw either of them again.