|The Books of Barbara and Hy Brett|
Between Two Eternities > Chapter 1Attending a stuffy faculty party was not the way Robert and Marcie Silver would have chosen to spend the tenth anniversary of the day they met, but, with Robert's tenure hearings scheduled for the following term, they had no alternative. Besides, they were young and strong and sure that they had many years ahead of them in which to commemorate the occasion properly. There was no way they could have known that this was their last year together.
So they left a baby-sitter in charge of five-year-old Rachel and three-year-old Benjie and set off for the home of Roscoe Bradcliff, who evidently believed that if he plied his colleagues with sufficient drink, he could float their votes for the chairmanship of the English department into his port.
The elevator in their apartment house was out of order once again, so they walked down the five double flights of stairs that led to the lobby, where they paused as Robert lit his pipe. It would have been difficult to single Robert out in a group of other men in their mid-thirties. Of average height and weight, he wore his sandy hair fashionably long and his beard fashionably short in the manner of men in the '70's; but, though his wire-framed glasses gave him a studious look, they did not mask the humor that lurked in his gray eyes. Marcie, too, might not have stood out in a crowd of beauties, though she was an attractive woman of thirty-two whose dark eyes shone with intelligence and laughter. Yet, when the two stood together, an aura of their love and oneness seemed to surround them, often making others pause and take notice.
Robert drew on his pipe, and a spark puffed out of it, alighting on his beard. Quickly, Marcie reached up to brush it off.
"Hey, watch it!" she teased. "You don't have to prove you're the light of my life by going up in flame. I need you."
"Don't worry," he said. "I plan to stick around for at least another hundred years."
"Swell-and after that, we can grow old together."
Robert laughed, but the thought crossed his mind, as it had more than once since they'd fallen in love, that he was glad wives usually outlived their husbands. For him, life without Marcie would be no life at all.
He took her hand, and they walked out into the April evening. Though earlier the air had glowed with the sunny promise of spring, the remembered chill of winter had sneaked back under cover of the evening shadows, and, instinctively, Robert and Marcie hugged their coats a little closer.
Having long since tired of keeping local car thieves supplied-two used Chevrolets had disappeared within months of their purchase-they had for some time remained voluntarily dependent upon public transportation. Now they headed for the subway along a street that, like the house they lived in, had gone to seed. When they had married nine years before, the neighborhood-formerly a prestigious one that surrounded the beautiful Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Museum, and the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library-had only just begun to show signs of crumbling, and they had felt lucky to have found a large, roomy, rent-controlled apartment there. Over the years, however, crime, along with its henchman, neighborhood blight, had begun to put more and more of a claim upon the area as its own private turf. Robert and Marcie would have liked to move, but, city people at heart, they found the thought of fleeing to the suburbs stultifying; and, with rent control no longer in existence, moving to an apartment, even halfway comparable to the one they occupied, in a safer, more elegant neighborhood would have meant financial disaster. So they tried to be cheerful about the fact that they were trapped where they were for the foreseeable future.
Marcie took a deep breath of the chilly air. "The weather was something like this the day we met," she said. "Remember?"
Robert gave her a sidelong look. "How can I remember that when I had eyes only for you?"
She shook her head in mock despair. "Oh, brother! The ten years haven't done much to improve your line, either!"
Smiling, but silent, they walked on toward the subway, each lost in memories of that day ten years before. Marcie, who was an undergraduate art student back then, had stationed herself across the street from New York's luxurious Plaza Hotel, intent upon capturing its elegance in her sketchbook, but she had captured instead Robert, the passer-by who had paused to kibitz.
Robert, who was then winding up his studies for his master's degree in English literature, had never been particularly interested in art, but he did like the shape and form of the artist before him. Hands in his dungaree pockets, he peered over her shoulder for a while, and when she pointedly ignored him, he finally ventured to say, "You don't mind if I watch, do you?"
She shrugged, saying, "It's a free country," her hand never missing a stroke. Then she continued to ignore him.
After a moment, he tried again: "I like your blues and greens."
That caught her attention. "I'm using charcoal." She looked at him as though she thought he was crazy, but, at least, she looked at him.
"I know," he said, his gaze flipping over her.
Realizing he was referring to her jeans and green sweatshirt, she rolled her eyes heavenward and, possibly addressing a pigeon that was heading for Central Park, said, "Spare me!"
The pigeon, evidently more interested in peanuts than in dungaree-clad damsels in distress, did not interrupt its flight to come to her aid, and Robert continued to hover at her elbow-an elbow that began to move up and down more vigorously as it followed the movement of her hand across the page.
"Your style reminds me a lot of Renoir's middle period-before he was influenced by Cézanne."
"I don't think Renoir was ever influenced by Cézanne." Her eyes never left her work.
"By Picasso then-or Andy Warhol."
"Come on, will you? I'm trying to concentrate. This sketch is a class assignment."
"What if you should flunk? Would your teacher make you copy the Mona Lisa ten times?"
Her eyes still didn't leave her work, but the corners of her mouth began to twitch upward. "Probably the Sistine Chapel. He's very tough."
"I think this picture is going to be too good for your teacher. How about selling it to me?"
"Just before you came along, the art director of the Metropolitan Museum offered me a quarter of a million for it. Can you top that?"
"Easy! Of course, I'll have to consult my banker first. In the meantime, can I make a down payment by taking you to lunch?"
"I'm sorry, but I don't lunch with strangers."
"Not even if they're millionaires?"
The smile she had been trying to suppress bubbled over into a laugh. "With millionaires, I usually make an exception."
"I think that's very wise. May I suggest the Automat?"
"The Automat?" Her eyes danced with mischief. "Why not the Plaza? It's right across the street, and I thought that was where all you millionaires hung out."
He sighed. "The Plaza holds no thrill for me anymore. I eat there morning, noon, and night. All that rich food is finally affecting my stomach. My Park Avenue physician has ordered me to switch to the simple fare that can be found only in places like the Automat."
"Well, we certainly can't go against your physician's orders," she said, closing her sketchbook and putting her charcoal into her pocket.
Taking her pad from her, he slipped it under his arm. "If I'm to be your patron, I think I should tell you my name."
"No-let me guess. You must be one of the Marx Brothers."
"You're close. I'm Robert Silver, though people often mistake me for Robert Redford. I guess you've noticed the resemblance too." He offered her a view of his profile.
"Sure. It's the first thing I noticed about you. I said to myself, 'Look, there's Robert Redford. I thought I'd read in Rona Barrett's column that he was making a movie in China. A lot she knows! He's right here in New York, and if I play my cards right, maybe he'll take me to lunch at the Automat.'"
"Actually, I've heard he's a food faddist. Probably the most he would have done for you would have been to buy you a cup of green tea. You're lucky it was me instead."
"Talk about narrow escapes!"
They strolled over to the Automat on Fifty-ninth Street, and there, over fish cakes and spaghetti, they began to fall in love.
Since they were both students with very little means, their romance had been a frugal-but delightful one. They had no need for expensive entertainment, though-not with all the joy they found in each other. They visited museums and galleries, where Marcie taught Robert to share her love for art. They went to free lectures and readings, where Robert shared his world of words. Arms around each other, they strolled the city streets. Hand in hand, they sat on park benches. And, always, they talked-sharing with each other their thoughts, their beliefs, their hopes, their fears, and their dreams as they had never been able to share them with anyone before. It had been more than a sharing; it had been a merging of mind and heart and soul-a living, growing process that they knew was vital to each of them and that they realized bound them together for life.
They married that December, and their first domestic activity upon moving into the dilapidated one-room apartment they had rented in the East Village had been to hang Marcie's sketch of the Plaza over the studio couch that served as their bed. The sketch had had the place of honor over their bed ever since.
Their first five years had been a struggle. At the start, Robert worked full time while Marcie finished her studies for her degree. That accomplished, they reversed their roles that June, and Marcie went to work as an illustrator for an advertising agency while Robert studied for his doctorate in English literature.
Now the hard times were over. For nearly five years, Robert had been teaching at Seward College, one of the branches of the City University, and Marcie, who had left the agency to raise their children, had turned the spare room of their apartment into a studio, and did occasional free-lance jobs. Money was far from overabundant, but life was good. As long as they had each other, life would always be good.
Pausing at the entrance to the subway, Robert knocked the ashes from his pipe. "I have a great idea: Let's ditch Bradcliff's bash and go someplace where we can be by ourselves."
"That has to be one of nicest-and one of the dumbest-ideas you've ever come up with. If you don't show at Bradcliff's party, you'll be on his enemies list forever."
"Not necessarily. He has to be nice to me. He wants my vote for department chair."
"But the election will be over before your tenure hearing comes up. That will give him plenty of time to brood over old wounds. Besides, I thought you were voting for Tilman."
"Probably. But neither he nor Tilman knows that."
"For a professor, you're turning into quite a politician."
"Unfortunately, to be a professor and stay one, one has to turn into a politician."
"Which is exactly why we have to turn up at all Bradcliff's bashes-and Tilman's."
Robert sighed and started down the subway stairs. "Screw them both."
"The thing is," Marcie said, "to keep them both from screwing you."
They sat on a bench on the subway platform to await their train. Marcie leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes.
Robert peered at her. "You okay? You looked a little pale."
She shrugged. "My lunch disagreed with me. My stomach's been a little queasy on and off all day."
"Why didn't you tell me? I'd have called Bradcliff and cancelled."
"Let's not go through that again. That's exactly why I didn't tell you. Besides, there's nothing like one of these faculty parties to test and strengthen one's intestinal fortitude."
"We can still get out of it."
"You're looking for excuses," she teased.
"You're damn right I am," he said, laughing.
"Well, forget it. I feel well enough to face the whole boring crew."
"Even Professor Graystone?"
"Well, almost the whole crew."
Their train pulled into the station, and they boarded it, laughing.
Roscoe Bradcliff and his shadow of a wife occupied the second floor of a renovated brownstone in the east Eighties, where they surrounded themselves with the anthologies of works of famous authors that Roscoe complied and edited. The buzzing of voices that drifted through his door as Robert and Marcie approached it indicated that the party was already in full swing.
Robert rang the doorbell.
A few seconds later, the door swung open, and Bradcliff, who attempted to espouse the fashions of youth physically as well as intellectually, stood before them in burgundy bell-bottoms and a pink, flower-print, wide-sleeved shirt.
"Welcome, shalom, bienvenue!" he said, giving Robert a hearty slap on the back. "So glad you could make it to our little get-together."
"It's good to be here," Robert said. He smiled warmly at the frail, graying woman who was hovering behind Bradcliff. "How are you, Mrs. Bradcliff?"
"I'm fine, thank you," Mrs. Bradcliff ventured.
"Yes, yes, they can see that. Why don't you take their coats?"
"We'll take care of them," Marcie said.
"Melba would hear of it, would you, Melba?"
Melba nodded that of course she wouldn't hear of it and ducked away with the coats.
Placing an arm around each of them, Bradcliff headed them away from his wife and into the heart of the party. "Go on over to the bar and get yourselves something to drink. Make yourselves comfortable. Everyone's here."
Everyone was the entire English department, with the exception of Tilman and the few professors who had sufficient tenure and reputation to swear their allegiance to him openly before the election.
The doorbell rang, and Bradcliff gave their shoulders a parting squeeze. "Go ahead. Get yourselves a drink. I'll get back to you."
"Not if I see him first!" Marcie whispered as he walked away.
"After a few drinks, he'll look better." Robert took her hand and headed toward the bar, which was knee-deep in scholarship.
"Oh, lord!" Marcie whispered. "There's Professor Graystone. He looks half-crocked already. Any minute now, he'll start reciting his poetry."
"Coraggio! I'll make us doubles."
They took their drinks and settled themselves on the sofa.
"Would you like an hors d'oeuvre?" Melba Bradcliff looked as if she half-expected them to slap away the tray she was tentatively extending toward them.
"Thank you, I'd love one," Marcie said, reaching for one with an olive-topped, yellowish-orange spread. She bit into it. "This is delicious! How do you make it?"
Melba shrank into herself with a nervous laugh. "Oh, I never make the hors d'oeuvres. Roscoe says I'd just botch them. We always get them from a caterer."
"Well, then you certainly know how to pick caterers," Marcie said.
"Oh, no! Roscoe does that. He's much better at planning parties than I am."
"Melba! There are more coats to be seen to!" Bradcliff's voice cut across the room.
For a moment, Melba's eyes darted from the tray in her hands to her husband and back again in confusion.
Quickly, she placed the tray on a nearby table. "Excuse me, please," she whispered and scurried away.
"That son of a bitch!" Robert said. "If he had a dog, he'd probably kick it."
Marcie's eyes grew sad. "A dog, at least, might turn on him and bite him one day. I think he's long since robbed his wife of the ability to do that." She handed Robert her hors d'oeuvre. "You want this? It's awful. Tastes like yellow plaster of paris."
He laughed and slipped it into an ashtray. "And you would have eaten the whole thing if she had stood there any longer, wouldn't you?"
"Well, it's time someone made the poor woman feel she's good for something, even if it is just handing out yellow plaster of paris."
"I see you've made yourselves comfortable. That's fine, fine." Bradcliff had made his way over to them again. "How do you like the old homestead?"
Robert looked around at the sharp angles of the starkly modern black and white furniture. The apartment was decorated with all the warmth of a hospital operating room. "It's certainly very now," he said.
"And that's where it's at, boy. That's where it's at." There was room for him on the sofa, but he settled on its arm, a perch from which he could look informal yet condescending. "And that's where we've got to be in our work as well as in our lives. Of course, this is a party, and no one wants to talk shop, but you know what I mean," he said with a wink. "There are those stick-in-the-muds who have never had a new idea in their heads and who would like to keep the whole English department in the Dark Ages. But we're not going to let them get away with that, are we?"
Robert managed to be sipping his drink so that he didn't have to answer.
"Exactly!" Bradcliff said, getting up. "Well, enjoy yourselves. I'll get back to you again."
He had no sooner walked away than Katherine Marish zeroed in on them. A short redhead with a voluptuous figure, she looked and dressed as if she belonged on a centerfold of Playboy rather than behind a lectern, but she was all scholar from her summa cum laude degree from Barnard to the thesis on "Henry James and the Evolution of the Parenthetical Clause" that would soon win her her Ph.D.
"Marcia! How good to see you again!" she said, extending a cool, well-manicured hand. "What have you been doing with yourself lately?"
"Oh, wiping noses, applying Band-Aids."
"Now, you can't fool me!" She tossed her head back and laughed. "Robert has told me how hard you work on your little drawings. I'll bet you're working on something right now."
"As a matter of fact, I'm illustrating a pamphlet for the Anti-Smoking League."
"Not really, unless you happen to get turned on drawing cross sections of diseased lungs."
"Oh, come now! I'm sure you find a way to get some self-expression into it!"
"I understand the way I render smoke curling from a cigarette is something to behold."
"You see!" Katherine said in the tone of an adult who has just scored a point with a child. She took Robert's hand in an effort to pull him to his feet. "I have to borrow your husband for a little while. I need him to settle an argument about Fitzgerald. Robert's the only person whose word I'll take on Fitzgerald."
With a sigh, Robert rose. "Be back in a minute, honey."
Katherine wound a possessive arm through Robert's. "I hope you'll send me one of those little pamphlets when they're ready," she called over her shoulder as she let him away.
"Oh, I will!" The smile on Marcie's lips matched Katherine's, but the mischief in her eyes indicated that if the pamphlet were to arrive at Katherine's house at all, it might be through a closed window, wrapped around a brick. She took a long swallow of her drink.
The sofa sagged under the weight of Arthur Dowley, who had been teaching at the college for thirty years and who for some obscure offense in the remote past, had been on the shit list of every chairman of the English department for the past twenty-five. His vote, however, could never be overlooked, and so he received grudging invitations to every pre-election get-together.
He took a swallow of what was obviously only one in a long line of drinks. "Look at that shithead," he said, nodding toward Bradcliff, "prancing around, talking about how exhausted he is from working on his latest anthology." He fixed a bleary eye on Marcie. "Do you know what parts of a man get most worn out working on an anthology?"
"His ass and his index finger. All he has to do is select an author, then sit himself down in front of a card catalogue in his local library and make a list of all the works by that author. He gets copies of the works, strings them all together, and, voilà!, an anthology."
Marcie laughed. "Sounds like instant scholarship."
"Exactly. Just add a few lines of bullshit for a foreword and mix." His thick, graying brows lowered over his eyes in a scowl. "What a bunch of phonies we all are, trying to build reputations in brilliance and cleverness on works created by minds far more brilliant and clever than our own. There are damn few who can see the situation in perspective-who are in this business for the love of teaching and the love of what they're teaching. You happen to be lucky enough to be married to one of them."
Marcie smiled. "And to be sitting next to one of them too."
"No." He gulped down the remainder of his drink. "I lost all my perspective long ago. I'm too bitter to offer accurate judgments, and if you're smart, you'll keep that in mind whenever you talk to me."
"The only people whose judgment I'd deem worth trusting are those who have the wisdom to mistrust what they say."
A grin traced its way across his face, then was lost in a scowl as someone began to clank a spoon against a glass at the bar.
It was Professor Graystone, his gray curls bobbing, his plump body rigid with the effort of pretending not to contain too much gin. "Your attention, everybody!" he was saying through his long, aquiline nose. "Your attention, please! I have a treat for you. I've written a poem in honor of our good host."
"Oh, Christ!" Dowley grunted. "I'll need another drink for this." He got to his feet. "Can I get you one?"
Marcie shook her head.
He bent down, peering through his bloodshot eyes. "Say, are you okay? You look a little green around the gills."
Marcie closed her eyes a second, her long slender fingers moving up to her neck. "I think my drink disagreed with me."
"Well, if it didn't, Graystone's poem certainly will. Why don't you pry Katherine's hooks out of your husband and get him to take you home?"
"I think I'll do that." She rose a little unsteadily. "But first I'd better find the bathroom. Do you know where it is?"
"Second door off the hall. Can you make it all right?"
"Yes, thanks." She began working her way out of the room.
"I call this poem 'To Reginald,'" Professor Graystone was saying, "because Roscoe is really not a terribly poetic name. But we all know I mean you, Roscoe dear. Now to begin: 'Behind ivory brow there teems a mind/Fraught with knowledge of humankind....'"
Unaware that he had long since lost his audience, Professor Graystone was on his third poem-a Petrarchan sonnet in praise of T. S. Eliot-when Marcie emerged from the bathroom, her face pale, her eyes searching the room for Robert. He was still standing in the small circle Katherine had shepherded him off to, his arm still held tightly in her grasp. His face lit up as he spotted Marcie approach, but the pleasure in his eyes turned to concern by the time she reached his side.
"Honey, what is it?"
"I'm not feeling too well. I think we'd better go."
He disentangled himself from Katherine's hold, collected their coats, and made his excuses to Bradcliff. Then he led Marcie out into the cool April evening.
"Does your stomach feel up to a taxi?" he asked, slipping his arm around her waist.
She leaned her head against his shoulder. "Not yet. The air feels good, though. Let's walk a while."
They walked over to Fifth Avenue, then headed south. A light rain had begun to fall, and Robert reached over with his free hand, slipping the hood of her rain-or-shine coat over her dark hair.
"You should have told me sooner that you weren't feeling well."
"I didn't know sooner. It crept up on me suddenly-while I was talking to Dowley."
Robert laughed. "That will do it every time."
"No, really! I rather like him. He's bitter as hell, but I get the impression that he has a right to be. Besides, it's hard to find fault with a misanthrope who's down on everyone except your husband."
"He likes me?"
She snuggled closer. "Said you were the only perceptive nonphony in the bunch."
"I don't know that I owe my nonphoniness as much to perception as I do to laziness. I've never been able to see any point in knocking my brains out to make some obscure point of scholarship in some erudite quarterly."
"Sure, you're lazy! That's why you're knocking yourself out on the Wharton biography."
"That's different. Anyway, I'm glad to hear the old bastard likes me. Though it's not the most popular sentiment back where we hail from, I have to admit that I rather like him too."
"Why is everybody so down on him?"
Robert shrugged. "No one in our department talks about it or seems to know, but an old-timer in the history department once told me that when Dowley was first starting out, he made the mistake of giving the rough of a paper he was writing on Chaucer to his department head for criticism. The guy found so little to criticize that he plagiarized it, published it under his own name, and greatly enhanced his own reputation. Dowley made a stink, but couldn't prove a thing, since he'd been naive enough to let his only copy of the paper out of his hands. The department head had a big reputation, prestige, and pull, so, naturally, everyone rallied around him-they needed him more. Dowley was left out in the cold, and his bitterness has kept him there. The fact that his wife ran off with one of his colleagues a year of so later didn't sweeten his disposition any either."
"The poor guy." Marcie shuddered a little. "He was really rather sweet to me. A lot of people wouldn't have noticed that I wasn't feeling well, but he did. You know, I think he would have walked me to the bathroom and held my head for me if I had let him."
Smiling, Robert tightened his arm around her. "Just as long as he doesn't want to hold any other part of you when you're feeling okay."
Marcie laughed. "Just because you're a dirty old man, don't go thinking everybody else is. Speaking of dirty old men and dirty young women-how come Katherine Marish can never keep her cotton-pickin' hands off you?"
"Because I'm so irresistible." Laughing, he dodged away from her quick nudge in the ribs. "Actually, she gives me a pain. She's falling hopelessly in love with the most dazzling member of the faculty-herself-and she's a bit of a bore about it. I'm sorry I always seem to get dragged off somewhere, leaving you stranded, when we come to these things."
"Don't be. The same thing happens to you when we go to a gallery opening or some other arty get-together."
"I know, but, at least, when it happens to me, a braless wonder usually comes to my rescue-not some bitter old man."
"Go soak your head," she laughed.
"I am soaking it-or hadn't you noticed that it's raining?"
"You want to head for the subway?"
"Not unless you do."
She shook her head.
They walked on in the easy silence of friends and lovers, watching the headlights of passing cars isolate the rain into tiny particles that sparkled like a shower of baguettes, listening to the soft slap of their wet shoes on the glistening sidewalk. They had no need to speak or even to think. All that was necessary for each of them was to feel the nearness of the other. That was their strength and their joy.
At Seventy-seventh Street, Robert guided their steps toward Lexington Avenue and the subway. He paused a moment before they descended, turning to look down at her.
"I wish I could paint you this way," he said, "with the rain on your face and the dampness curling your hair."
"Hey, painting's my territory. Don't try to muscle in on it." Gently, she caressed his chin. "I was planning to immortalize this wet beard on canvas myself."
"Well, I wouldn't want to compete on your own grounds. I'll get Professor Graystone to help me with an ode."
"Paint, please! I'll lend you my supplies."
Smiling, he reached in his pocket for tokens. "You ready to head home?"
She nodded, and he noticed for he first time how heavy her eyes looked.
"That sounds good," she said. "I'm very, very tired."
She slept on his shoulder all the way back to Brooklyn. Amazon | B&N ]
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