THE bookshelves were low to the ground, only two shelves high, built into a half-wall between the two large parlor rooms on the main level. Easy for a small eleven-year-old to reach. At one end was Bank Street, at the other, large windows with a glimpse of garden and brick walls. The book I picked that week was by a writer I had never heard of, but something about the sentences mesmerized me and as if in a dream I kept reading, only dimly understanding the story. It was puzzling—the words were all short and simple, but I couldn’t penetrate the meaning. A man and a woman were unhappy. The man was sick, wounded and maybe dying. They were waiting for help. Vultures were circling overhead.
In the afternoons, I rushed home to our narrow four-story townhouse in a smelly neighborhood near the wholesale meat warehouses that bordered the Hudson River. My mother and I finally had a real house! It had 4 narrow levels, including the one under the front stoop. The basement level had its own doorway, and was mostly the old kitchen. It had a hearth so big I could stand inside it. We hung an iron pot on an old swinging hook, just for looks. Each story had two rooms and a long hallway. There were four marble mantelpieces and floorboards as wide as my looseleaf notebook. After I finished my homework, I was allowed to read until supper. My mother’s current boyfriend, who had lived in France, would sometimes cook. He wore a beret at all times and smoked a big pipe that had a twist at the end like a toilet bowl. His corduroy pants were very baggy in the seat. When he cooked I always prayed it wouldn’t be kidney stew, but once a week it always was.
My room would darken as the sun set over the Hudson, just a pool of light remaining on the pillow of my bed where I lay reading my book, wishing the man would get well and the woman would love him and they would go back to America and be happy.
The rented house was not ours for long. The used upright piano, painted pale gray, never got stripped down to its birthright mahogany. The first night we slept there my mother had actually played Für Elise, but then she was too busy. The public relations firm she and her sort of French boyfriend had launched (with money borrowed from my father, I learned from eavesdropping) failed in less than a year. This turn of events didn’t surprise me too much. I never really understood what “public relations” were, or why anyone would pay you for doing it. Although I did kind of like it when my mother talked about being in “P.R.” when people asked her what she did. They always just nodded and looked impressed. Come to think of it, maybe they didn’t know what a “P.R.” person did, either. It certainly didn’t pay that well.
I packed up my white organdy curtains and my stuffed animals and The Snows of Kilimanjaro. My mother parked me temporarily with a classmate’s family and then we settled into the residential hotel where we had lived before she met Mr. Kidney Stew. A dump, indeed, but right off Fifth Avenue—close to lots of bookstores and the place in Washington Square Park where all the folksingers hung out and there was a swath of black asphalt perfect for roller skating.
The vultures were circling, but if we kept moving, they wouldn’t get us.
At the Hotel Marlton I no longer had a room overlooking trees and a garden, just an alcove off the kitchenette. Soon Tab Hunter and several dozen assorted collies and kittens were Scotch-taped on the wall over my daybed, and my encampment was fully furnished. All I needed now was mosquito netting and a kerosene lamp. In my story, the two men and the woman were alive, but everyone lived in separate buildings. They didn’t love each other any more. In his story, they were in the same room and everything, but they are always about to leave each other.
I liked my version better. At least you knew where you stood.