Gina Berriault (1926–1999) wrote some of the most finely crafted, precise, and beautifully observed American realist fiction of the 20th century. With a dexterous and surgical touch of just a couple of words, she could convey more about a character’s inner life than many writers can do with an entire paragraph of exposition. Berriault seems to have known so much about human nature and motivation that she might have been a little intimidating to know in life. It’s easy to get the sense that any foible or quirk one showed to her might end up as the telling flaw in a character in her stories.
Sadly, Gina Berriault was not just a writer’s writer. She was a writer’s writer’s writer’s writer. No less than Richard Yates, king of the WW’s, called her “one of the finest writers alive.” Andre Dubus, who was, let’s say, a crown prince of the WW’s, named Berriault “one of our best, most neglected writers.”
Berriault saw her work published in magazines from
and released a small number of novels, including
. The two stories that follow were collected in a 1982 compilation entitled
As we were making this issue, we learned that Counterpoint Press is planning a new collection of Berriault’s writing, to be released in the spring. Hopefully these coincidental bubbles of interest indicate a larger groundswell of rediscovery coming for Gina Berriault’s work.
he girl and the elderly man descended the steep stairs to the channel’s narrow beach and walked along by the water’s edge. Several small fishing boats were moving out to sea, passing a freighter entering the bay, booms raised, a foreign name at her bow. His sturdy hiking boots came down flatly on the firm sand, the same way they came down on the trails of the mountain that he climbed, staff in hand, every Sunday. Up in his elegant neighborhood, on the cliff above the channel, he stamped along the sidewalks in the same way, his long, stiff legs attempting ease and flair. He appeared to feel no differences in terrain. The day was cold, and every time the little transparent fans of water swept in and drew back, the wet sand mirrored a clear sky and the sun on its way down. He wore an overcoat, a cap, and a thick muffler, and, with his head high, his large, arched nose set into the currents of air from off the ocean, he described for her his fantasy of their honeymoon in Mexico. He was jovial, he laughed his English laugh that was like a bird’s hooting, like a very sincere imitation of a laugh. If she married him, he said, she, so many years younger, could take a young lover and he would not protest. The psychologist was 79, but he allowed himself great expectations of love and other pleasures, and advised her to do the same. She always mocked herself for dreams, because to dream was to delude herself. She was a waitress and lived in a neighborhood of littered streets, where rusting cars stood unmoved for months. She brought him ten dollars each visit, sometimes more, sometimes less; he asked of her only a fee she could afford. Since she always looked downward in her own surroundings, avoiding the scene that might be all there was to her future, she could not look upward in his surroundings, resisting its dazzling diminishment of her. But out on these walks with him she tried looking up. It was what she had come to see him for—that he might reveal to her how to look up and around. On their other walks and now, he told her about his life. She had only to ask, and he was off into memory, and memory took on a prophetic sound. His life seemed like a life expected and not yet lived, and it sounded that way because, within the overcoat, was a youth, someone always looking forward. The girl wondered if he was outstripping time, with his long stride and emphatic soles, and if his expectation of love and other pleasures served the same purpose. He was born in Pontefract, in England, a Roman name, meaning broken bridge. He had been a sick child, suffering from rheumatic fever. In his 20s he was a rector, and he and his first wife, emancipated from their time, each had a lover, and some very modern nights went on in the rectory. They traveled to Vienna to see what psychoanalysis was all about. Freud was ill and referred them to Rank, and as soon as introductions were over, his wife and Rank were lovers. “She divorced me,” he said, “and had a child by that fellow. But since he wasn’t the marrying kind, I gave his son my family name, and they came with me to America. She hallucinates her Otto,” he told her. “Otto guides her to wise decisions.” The wife of his youth lived in a small town across the bay, and he often went over to work in her garden. Once, the girl passed her on the path, and the woman, going hastily to her car, stepped shyly aside like a country schoolteacher afraid of a student; and the girl, too, stepped sideways shyly, knowing, without ever having seen her, who she was, even though the woman—tall, broad-hipped, freckled, a gray braid fuzzed with amber wound around her head—failed to answer the description in the girl’s imagination. Some days after, the girl encountered her again, in a dream, as she was years ago: a very slender young woman in a long white skirt, her amber hair to her waist, her eyes coal black with ardor. On the way home through his neighborhood, he took her hand and tucked it into the crook of his arm, and this gesture, by drawing her up against him, hindered her step and his and slowed them down. His house was Spanish style, common to that seaward section of San Francisco. Inside, everything was heavily antique—carven furniture and cloisonné vases and thin and dusty Oriental carpets. With him lived the family that was to inherit his estate—friends who had moved in with him when his second wife died; but the atmosphere the family provided seemed, to the girl, a turnabout one, as if he were an adventurous uncle, long away and now come home to them at last, cheerily grateful, bearing a fortune. He had no children, he had no brother, and his only sister, older than he and unmarried, lived in a village in England and was in no need of an inheritance. For several months after the family moved in, the husband, who was an organist at the Episcopal church, gave piano lessons at home, and the innocent banality of repeated notes sounded from a far room while the psychologist sat in the study with his clients. A month ago the husband left, and everything grew quiet. Occasionally, the son was seen about the house—a high school track star, small and blond like his mother, impassive like his father, his legs usually bare. The psychologist took off his overcoat and cap, left on his muffler, and went into his study. The girl was offered tea by the woman, and they sat down in a tête-à-tête position at a corner of the table. Now that the girl was a companion on his walks, the woman expected a womanly intimacy with her. They were going away for a week, she and her son, and would the girl please stay with the old man and take care of him? He couldn’t even boil an egg or make a pot of tea, and two months ago he’d had a spell, he had fainted as he was climbing the stairs to bed. They were going to visit her sister in Kansas. She had composed a song about the loss of her husband’s love, and she was taking the song to her sister. Her sister, she said, had a beautiful voice. The sun over the woman’s shoulder was like an accomplice’s face, striking down the girl’s resistance. And she heard herself confiding—“He asked me to marry him”—knowing that she would not and knowing why she had told the woman. Because to speculate about the possibility was to accept his esteem of her. At times it was necessary to grant the name of love to something less than love. On the day the woman and her son left, the girl came half an hour before their departure. The woman, already wearing a coat and hat, led the way upstairs and opened, first, the door to the psychologist’s bedroom. It seemed a trespass, entering that very small room, its space taken up by a mirrorless bureau and a bed of bird’s-eye maple that appeared higher than most and was covered by a faded red quilt. On the bureau was a doily, a tin box of watercolors, a nautilus shell, and a shallow drawer from a cabinet, in which lay, under glass, several tiny bird’s eggs of delicate tints. And pinned to the wallpaper were pages cut from magazines of another decade—the faces of young and wholesome beauties, girls with short, marcelled hair, cherry-red lips, plump cheeks, and little white collars. She had expected the faces of the mentors of his spirit, of Thoreau, of Gandhi, of the other great men whose words he quoted for her like passwords into the realm of wisdom. The woman led the way across the hall and into the master bedroom. It was the woman’s room and would be the girl’s. A large, almost empty room, with a double bed no longer shared by her husband, a spindly dresser, a fireplace never used. It was as if a servant, or someone awaiting a more prosperous time, had moved into a room whose call for elegance she could not yet answer. The woman stood with her back to the narrow glass doors that led onto a balcony, her eyes the same cold blue of the winter sky in the row of panes. “This house is ours,” the woman said. “What’s his is ours.” There was a cringe in the woman’s body, so slight a cringe it would have gone unnoticed by the girl, but the open coat seemed hung upon a sudden emptiness. The girl was being told that the old man’s fantasies were shaking the foundation of the house, of the son’s future, and of the woman’s own fantasies of an affluent old age. It was an accusation, and she chose not to answer it and not to ease the woman’s fears. If she were to assure the woman that her desires had no bearing on anyone living in that house, her denial would seem untrue and go unheard, because the woman saw her now as the man saw her, a figure fortified by her youth and by her appeal and by her future, a time when all that she would want of life might come about. Alone, she set her suitcase on a chair, refusing the drawer the woman had emptied and left open. The woman and her son were gone, after a flurry of banging doors and good-byes. Faintly, up through the floor, came the murmur of the two men in the study. A burst of emotion—the client’s voice raised in anger or anguish and the psychologist’s voice rising in order to calm. Silence again, the silence of the substantiality of the house and of the triumph of reason. “We’re both so thin,” he said when he embraced her and they were alone, by the table set for supper. The remark was a jocular hint of intimacy to come. He poured a sweet blackberry wine, and was sipping the last of his second glass when she began to sip her first glass. “She offered herself to me,” he said. “She came into my room not long after her husband left her. She had only her kimono on and it was open to her navel. She said she just wanted to say good night, but I knew what was on her mind. But she doesn’t attract me. No.” How lightly he told it. She felt shame, hearing about the woman’s secret dismissal. After supper he went into his study with a client, and she left a note on the table, telling him she had gone to pick up something she had forgotten to bring. Roaming out into the night to avoid as long as possible the confrontation with the unknown person within his familiar person, she rode a streetcar that went toward the ocean and, at the end of the line, remained in her seat while the motorman drank coffee from a thermos and read a newspaper. From over the sand dunes came the sound of heavy breakers. She gazed out into the dark, avoiding the reflection of her face in the glass, but after a time she turned toward it, because, half-dark and obscure, her face seemed to be enticing into itself a future of love and wisdom, like a future beauty. By the time she returned to his neighborhood the lights were out in most of the houses. The leaves of the birch in his yard shone like gold in the light from his living-room window; either he had left the lamps on for her and was upstairs, asleep, or he was in the living room, waiting for the turn of her key. He was lying on the sofa. He sat up, very erect, curving his long, bony, graceful hands one upon the other on his crossed knees. “Now I know you,” he said. “You are cold. You may never be able to love anyone and so you will never be loved.” In terror, trembling, she sat down in a chair distant from him. She believed that he had perceived a fatal flaw, at last. The present moment seemed a lifetime later, and all that she had wanted of herself, of life, had never come about, because of that fatal flaw. “You can change, however,” he said. “There’s time enough to change. That’s why I prefer to work with the young.” She went up the stairs and into her room, closing the door. She sat on the bed, unable to stop the trembling that became even more severe in the large, humble bedroom, unable to believe that he would resort to trickery, this man who had spent so many years revealing to others the trickery of their minds. She heard him in the hallway and in his room, fussing sounds, discordant with his familiar presence. He knocked, waited a moment, and opened the door. He had removed his shirt, and the lamp shone on the smooth flesh of his long chest, on flesh made slack by the downward pull of age. He stood in the doorway, silent, awkward, as if preoccupied with more important matters than this muddled seduction. “We ought at least to say good night,” he said, and when she complied he remained where he was, and she knew that he wanted her to glance up again at his naked chest to see how young it appeared and how yearning. “My door remains open,” he said, and left hers open. She closed the door, undressed, and lay down, and in the dark the call within herself to respond to him flared up. She imagined herself leaving her bed and lying down beside him. But, lying alone, observing through the narrow panes the clusters of lights atop the dark mountains across the channel, she knew that the longing was not for him but for a life of love and wisdom. There was another way to prove that she was a loving woman, that there was no fatal flaw, and the other way was to give herself over to expectation, as to a passion. Rising early, she found a note under her door. His handwriting was of many peaks, the aspiring style of a century ago. He likened her behavior to that of his first wife, way back before they were married, when she had tantalized him so frequently and always fled. It was a humorous, forgiving note, changing her into that other girl of 60 years ago. The weather was fair, he wrote, and he was off by early bus to his mountain across the bay, there to climb his trails, staff in hand and knapsack on his back. And I still love you. That evening he was jovial again. He drank his blackberry wine at supper; sat with her on the sofa and read aloud from his collected essays, Religion and Science in the Light of Psychoanalysis, often closing the small, red leather book to repudiate the theories of his youth; gave her, as gifts, Kierkegaard’s Purity of Heart and three novels of Conrad in leather bindings; and appeared again, briefly, at her door, his chest bare. She went out again, a few nights later, to visit a friend, and he escorted her graciously to the door. “Come back any time you need to see me,” he called after her. Puzzled, she turned on the path. The light from within the house shone around his dark figure in the rectangle of the open door. “But I live here for now,” she called back, flapping her coat out on both sides to make herself more evident to him. “Of course! Of course! I forgot!” he laughed, stamping his foot, dismayed with himself. And she knew that her presence was not so intense a presence as they thought. It would not matter to him as the days went by, as the years left to him went by, that she had not come into his bed. On the last night, before they went upstairs and after switching off the lamps, he stood at a distance from her, gazing down. “I am senile now, I think,” he said. “I see signs of it. Landslides go on in there.” The declaration in the dark, the shifting feet, the gazing down, all were disclosures of his fear that she might, on this last night, come to him at last. The girl left the house early, before the woman and her son appeared. She looked for him through the house and found him at a window downstairs, almost obscured at first sight by the swath of morning light in which he stood. With shaving brush in hand and a white linen hand towel around his neck, he was watching a flock of birds in branches close to the pane, birds so tiny she mistook them for fluttering leaves. He told her their name, speaking in a whisper toward the birds, his profile entranced as if by his whole life. The girl never entered the house again, and she did not see him for a year. In that year she got along by remembering his words of wisdom, lifting her head again and again above deep waters to hear his voice. When she could not hear him anymore, she phoned him and they arranged to meet on the beach below his house. The only difference she could see, watching him from below, was that he descended the long stairs with more care, as if time were now underfoot. Other than that, he seemed the same. But as they talked, seated side by side on a rock, she saw that he had drawn back unto himself his life’s expectations. They were way inside, and they required, now, no other person for their fulfillment. Reprinted by the permission of Russell & Volkening as agents for the author. Copyright © 1996 by Gina Berriault.
y sister married Leo Brady because he was a merchant seaman and made good wages, and because he was gone most of the time. She and her five-year-old boy had been living on the sales of her cable car etchings that tourists to San Francisco picked over in the little art galleries and bookstores, and on the sporadic sale of her oil paintings. They were married a few days after he came from sea, and a week later his ship sailed again for the Orient. In the six weeks he was away, the steamship company sent her, at his request, all his wages. But the day that he returned was unrewarding for Leo. Clara had her studio in an old building on Columbus Street. The first floor was occupied by the Garibaldi Club, whose members assembled every evening for cards; above her, on the top floor, lived two young men, a bank clerk and a window dresser. But she knew Leo’s step on the bottom stair, and, lifting her head from the pillow, she said, “Why couldn’t his ship have cracked in two? All the others did.” I was kneeling to help Mark, her boy, undress for bed, and I paused with my hands at his waist and lifted my head to hear her above his prattling. “Did you want anything?” She had been lying in a fever all day. “Listen, listen!” she admonished me. And I listened and heard the steps. Swinging the boy lightly up, I sat him down on his bed. That day I had crew-cut his hair because he wanted to imitate me, his Uncle Eddie, and his shorn skull sparked the tiny, blue confetti eyes that were like mine, like Clara’s, and gave a malapert air to my red-striped t-shirt that I’d been wearing under my sweater and had slipped over him to sleep in; but it wasn’t the moment to carry the boy out for her to admire. Wrapping him under a couple of army blankets and a Mexican serape, I stepped out from behind the screen just as Leo set down his suitcase outside the door. “Tell him I ate poisoned pigs’ feet!” she cried in a desperate whisper. “It’s called botulism. Tell him I died, Eddie,” she begged. “I’ll pull the sheet over my head and he’ll go away.” Leo knocked shyly at the door as he opened it. When he entered, his bigness and his suitcase lent him a proprietary authority that he did not want. Up went his hand to remove his old black fedora, revealing beamingly, deferentially, his young, bald head. “Clara’s sick,” I told him, when we had shaken hands. Leo’s brown eyes swelled sharply and his hands at once hung limply, unable to administer, in the artful way he felt necessary, the sympathy they held. With the contempt she had implanted in me, I thought: Why did he include himself in their marriage? If he really loved her then he would sacrificially send her his wages and never appear in person. “She catch something?” he asked, his voice low and longing. “The flu, I guess. She got me out of art school this morning.” “Did you call a doctor?” “She doesn’t want one.” As if walking in loose slippers, he tiptoed to her, and his throat and his eyes were full of love and of reluctant pleasure from the thought that she was helpless and he could help her. She was lying with her face toward the wall and she did not turn or move a muscle. Her long mane of coarse, unshining hair, the inert color of walnuts, lay out upon the pillow, and the very tip of this he bent twice to kiss. “She’s asleep,” I said, taking my coat from the chair. “Mark’s already in bed.” But he couldn’t speak, so full of her presence was he, and bending again he kissed her hair for the third time. “Eddie,” she called. The silence she ought to have kept overcame me. “Going?” she spoke to the wall. “Okay, and always remember to contradict your teachers. It makes good biography.” In spite of her dismay at his return and in spite of her weak condition, her voice took up again for Leo the thread of seduction, like a long-lost bad habit. Leo was listening above the bed, his large body, in a leather jacket and black frisco jeans, solemn with his yearning toward the impending moment when she would realize, now that she was awake, that he had come home. Imposed upon me as I ran down the two flights of stairs was the memory of all the delicacies Clara had been serving the past few weeks, the Sunday evenings I came to supper—things bought with Leo’s money, like Italian pastries, lobster and crab, crème de cacao. The uneasiness I’d felt when partaking of that food struck at me now on the dim stairs like an accomplice Leo had left there. But I found justification for her exploiting him by recalling that all our years had been lean ones. In the town of Monterey, our father (his patron a real-estate woman, gross and canny, in whose house we all lived) still sat in taverns, his duck pants colored by oil paint and spilled brandy, telling like an immortal Peeping Tom of intimacies of famous men from Biblical figures down through the centuries to Mussolini. At sixteen Clara had come up the coast to San Francisco and modeled at the art schools to pay for her tuition. A plain girl, short, long-waisted, heavy in the legs, she had seemed, contrarily, to be burning incense to herself; wrapped in a Japanese cotton kimono and wearing copper earrings like cymbals, she would ascend the dais, and the dropping of the kimono was always graceful and positive. Two years ago, I arrived just in time to make the acquaintance of Mark’s father, with whom she had been living for six years and who disappeared a few weeks after I met him. Small, dark-eyed, he had reminded me of a Shetland pony—any child could own him. All he left behind was a packing job in a ceramics shop and, like a guest departing, a copy of a highly literate quarterly containing two pages of his poetry. Leo Brady, a seaman with allegiance only to artists and a desire for talented women, came on the scene a year ago and had bided his time until another of her affairs had frayed and torn. The marriage, on her part, was an act of panic. The week he spent with her before his ship sailed she was drunk day and night, a half-nude, hanging-haired drunkenness that he mistook for celebration. My recall of these things and the sympathy for her evoked by them absolved me of the guilt of complicity, leaving me free to slip out unburdened into the cool evening and to forget even her and her fever. At noon when I knocked at the orange door there hung within the studio an atmosphere of drowsing tension. Leo called for me to enter. He was sitting by the window, and the glare of noon revealed strikingly the shabbiness that had accumulated since his return. Hope had ebbed from his eyes, in the way a mirage leaves the air empty; the pinstripe shirt was partly out from his jeans and open halfway down his chest; and the black socks he’d been walking around in had fallen at the ankles and their soles were dusty. He put his finger to his lips. “Who’s there?” Clara asked. “I thought you were asleep,” he said. “Not till I die,” she replied, her voice like green brass. She turned on her back, laying her arms above her head, but saying nothing more. Her face was opalescent, wedge-shaped by pain, and my heart turned over. “Did you call a doctor?” I asked, sitting by him. “She won’t let me.” “Did she sleep all right?” “With her eyes open.” I shrugged. “Maybe she knows what’s wrong and has her own remedy.” And to comfort him: “When she gets a little better, she’ll realize you’re home.” “She knows it,” he said loudly, snipingly, in spite of himself. “Oh God, I know it!” There was always an unpredictability about her, and when she rose onto her elbows, flinging her hair back, she gave me the same shock as would the sight of a mermaid rising from the waters of a public beach. “It wouldn’t be so bad if I could just forget him when he’s gone, but it didn’t work.” She dropped her chin toward her chest. “Eddie,” she wailed, “I feel terrible. Call Dr. Larson and tell him I’m dying. Tell him to save me.” But when I stood up she stared at me with a ponderous frown, her eyes deep inside her head, like pebbles. “Where you going?” she demanded. “You just got here. What the hell is the matter with you, you didn’t have to come at all.” Her strangeness poked a sharp finger into my chest, and I sat down again for a complying moment. “You asked me to call your doctor.” “You been directing all your questions at him,” she complained, “and he doesn’t know a damn thing.” She lay down again, staring up at the ceiling. “How simple are his wants. All he desires is to identify himself with artists. He married Clara Ruchenski because she’d had an exhibit in some dank little gallery and sold a painting once a year. How happy he was on our wedding night. I thought people didn’t get that happy anymore, not since before the Flood when everybody was a brute with a big, smiling face. No, no, I’m wrong,” she wailed, tossing her head from side to side. “I take it all back. I never did think like that about Leo. I’m not a snob. Please, Eddie,” she begged, “you know I’m not. You know me, don’t you, Eddie?” Leo and I stood up. “I don’t hate him, Eddie. I mean I wouldn’t if I weren’t married to him. He’d be a big, sweet guy with a respect for artists. That’s the way I used to think, and I slept with him a few times, too.” “Be quiet, be quiet,” I said. “You shut up!” she cried, rising again on her elbows. “You’re so good, aren’t you? I hate to take you along to a party, always hanging in a corner like a tintype of a great artist in his youth and obscurity. If there’s anything I hate it’s hang-cheek people.” She tossed her hair behind her and, thinking it was still falling forward, went groping for it with a blind hand over her breasts. Leo was putting on his shoes and coat, his movements the sibilant, busy ones of a hurt person departing. “Leo Brady! Don’t let me hear you walking on tiptoe anymore,” she cried. “I listen to your quiet and it’s a terrible din.” “Lie down, Clara,” I said when Leo had closed the door after him, and her hair was grimy damp to my palm. “Eddie, Eddie!” she wept dryly, lying back and clamping my wrist in both her hands, and her bared teeth were coated with the suffering that she had concealed from us. When I got down to the sidewalk he was standing with his hands in his pockets, squinting up at the sun, his small, flat, pocked face grayed by the slashing pain in his heart. “Is it time for the kid to come home?” he asked. “I could buy him a meal in a restaurant so he wouldn’t have to go up.” Together we walked the few doors to the bakery, and he stared bleakly at the Italian pastries while I called her doctor on the pay phone. Then for a few minutes I waited on the sidewalk with him for the woman who took Mark to kindergarten in her car, along with her own son, and brought him back. “Why in the hell didn’t she marry Picasso, then?” he said. Shrugs were becoming habitual with me. I was unable to tell him what I had discovered, that she had married him at the nadir of her life. She was twenty-six already and none of the dreams had come true. Leo beside me, a sailor home from the sea, a motherly young man, was unaware that he had been inflated into a grotesque figure, beyond anyone’s recognition, by her terrible fear of the anonymous and the unsung. Leo sat down on the stairs just inside the entrance, and I went up again. The door was open and inside the studio, Mark, who had returned while we were in the bakery, was leaning against the wall, crying. At first I thought that Clara was comforting him from a distance, urging him to come to her. But she was complaining about the Chinese boy who sometimes sits on a crate full of blue pigeons in front of a poultry and fish shop in Chinatown and, lifting out a fluttering bird at a time, cuts its throat while its wings stretch fanwise across his forearm. She was pleading with the boy to stop, her voice thin, bewitched, like that of a pigeon granted a human voice in the last moment of its life. Mark was crying because she did not recognize him. His back was to her and in his hands he held protectively from her his red oilcloth briefcase in which he always brought home his crayon drawings for her to see. Leo rode a bus across the Golden Gate Bridge to Muir Woods, carrying the urn in a paper sack. Under the big redwood trees he spilled her ashes, on that spot where he had first kissed her, the day they had picknicked there and she had painted a watercolor. On his return to the city later in the day, he gave the urn to a junk dealer on McAllister Street, and there was nothing more to attend to. Mark had been taken up to Santa Rosa by his paternal grandparents, owners of a chicken ranch, responsible people who, whenever they drove down to San Francisco, had always brought money for Clara, and fresh eggs and poultry. Leo trudged down to the hiring hall, sat for a day and a half, and signed aboard a Pacific Far East Line freighter sailing for Manila, Yokohama, and Hong Kong. The night before he left he came to my room, and I served him sherry and panettone. He sipped and chewed awkwardly, ashamed in my presence, unable to formulate a reason why she had so frantically wanted to rid herself of his child that she had undergone surgery performed by nobody knew who, some man or woman in a shaded kitchen whose window we could never identify in the city’s hundreds of vertical lines of windows. With a slice of panettone balanced on his fingers, he said at last, “We could of afforded a kid. We could of afforded nine of them. She didn’t need to worry.” His face was set forward as into a smarting wind. “I got three brothers and two sisters. We didn’t live on caviar, but we loved each other. My father was a skilled mason, laid the steps on a lot of those civic center buildings in Los Angeles.” A raisin from the slice he held fell to the floor, and he leaned over heavily, apologetically, picked it up and placed it delicately on the table’s edge. From Yokohama he wrote me a short letter, asking me to take good care of his record collection and the puppets he brought from Italy after the war, armored knights a foot high that hung on the studio walls. His letter was like a note of greeting and reminder that a connoisseur, traveling, might address to the caretaker of his apartment’s treasures. On that last evening he had persuaded me to move out of my one room and into Clara’s studio. “If you don’t mind,” Leo said, “I could leave my things there and when I come in between runs maybe you could put me up for a couple of nights.” But when his ship docked again in San Francisco he didn’t call on me. Once in a while when Clara was alive and I had an evening free from the janitor work that paid my tuition at the art school and from handpainting silk blouses for a wholesaler, the labor I lived by, then I used to go down to Vesuvio’s and have a glass of wine with Clara and her friends. But I never went anymore after Clara died, for mourning’s sake and because of the pity that overwhelmed me whenever I remembered her lying demented and dying, and I remembered it often. Since I kept away from her friends, I heard next to nothing about Leo. In January, eight months since the evening he said goodbye, I received a second letter, from Kobe, inquiring about Mark and about my studies. But he gave me no address where I could reach him, so I gathered he didn’t care for an answer. Then one midnight in March I met him on the street near Vesuvio’s, and a woman was with him. Leo saw me approach and waited, blinking resignedly. “Well, Leo,” I said, shaking his hand. “Why don’t you let anybody know when you get into town?” Glasses clarified his eyes now, and he wore a navy blue suit, doubly buttoned across his heaviness. Leo introduced the woman as Evelyn, and she smiled at me nimbly, her crowded teeth curving out from under her upper lip. She was a red-haired, attractive woman, her full bosom snugly wrapped by her green silk dress. Leo asked me to accompany them to Vesuvio’s, and the woman walked ahead of us, a precise, quick, ballet walk in low heels, her long coat swinging smartly. A day or so later I heard from someone at school that she was the estranged wife of the psychiatrist Irving Eidel, and that she was engaging in an affair, in imitation of her husband. Over the first pouring of wine, Leo clasped my shoulder. “Saw a painting of yours at the museum,” he said. “You’re doing all right, kid… And he’s only twenty-one,” he said to Evelyn. The fear of ridicule took a quick sidestep across his face. “You don’t paint like your sister did,” he said to me. “You got human beings in yours. Her pictures all looked like broken glass. I always felt like I was walking barefoot in broken glass.” “If you’d wear shoes you wouldn’t get hurt,” the woman said. “I’m not talking about art,” he replied, coloring. “I’m talking about Clara. I was married to her.” “That I’ve heard before,” she said, sharpening. “Is it your only claim to distinction? Haven’t you even got a battle ribbon to talk about?” Behind his glasses his eyes went small in humiliation. I put my hands against the table to move it away from him, for his anger was jamming him in between the table and the wall. But the woman slipped her arms around his neck, kissing him on his throat. “The trouble with you, Leo baby,” she said pawingly, “is you don’t love yourself.” “Don’t give me any of that crap,” he said, straining away from her. “You want me to kiss myself in the mirror every night?” She began to laugh, her teeth springing forward handsomely, her sloping shoulders shaking. After a moment her laughter lost its erudition and became simpler. With her quaking body against his chest, he drew one arm out from her encircling arms, turned his face up and lit a cigarette. Then he gave way and laughed himself, a contrapuntal laugh, high in his nose, deep in his chest. While this was going on, four of their friends filed through the swinging doors and drew up chairs around the table. None of them had I met before. “He’s Clara Ruchenski’s brother,” Leo said, introducing me to one couple. “They’re from New York,” he explained to me. “They never met her.” And of them he asked, “When did you come out to the Coast?” “Last August,” the woman replied. “She died a year ago May,” he said. Evelyn Eidel was chatting with the other couple and didn’t hear. After a few minutes I left, because I had to be at the school early to help open doors, I said. But my impatience with Leo was growing unbearable and it seemed to me that I pressed my elbows to my sides not to make room for other persons but to keep myself from jolting everyone away from me. One Sunday morning a month later, I was wakened at six o’clock by Leo knocking at my door. Defensively, he wore the preoccupied, hounded look of a fiction detective who can intrude upon anyone at any hour. Sitting before my drawing board, he remarked on the changes in the studio. My untidiness prevailed. The chartreuse velvet spread that Clara had laid over the broad couch was worn away in spots; and only one painting remained of Clara’s, a small red and blue abstract that I had chosen to keep. The others, big and small, had been sold at an exhibit of her work at the Contemporary Gallery. But the four Italian knights in armor hung on the wall still, and his record collection was neatly upright in its section of the record case. He didn’t comment on his belongings. “Did you hear that Evelyn and I broke up?” he asked when we sat down to breakfast. “No, you couldn’t of so soon. It happened last night. Nobody’s heard about it yet.” He picked up his fork. “I been walking around all night.” Oh, I see, you want the parting to break the Sabbath calm, I accused him silently. You can hardly wait until the word is spread around among your artist friends and you are the subject of animated conversation. “She took a liking to me at first,” he went on. “Practically hog-tied me. I figured she saw me for myself, saw me with angel eyes. You know how you always wait for somebody to come along and see your heart of gold, right smack they look into your eyes for the first time?” He gave one short, great cough to clear his chest. “But she only wanted some guy to sit at her feet. No intellectual. She was roughing it.” He removed his glasses and the flesh around his eyes was puffed to receive a blow. I said, “You should have learned something from Clara. I was only an eyewitness, but I learned that you kneel too much.” Expertly his eyes jabbed at me. “Be an eyewitness to this too, Eddie,” he said coldly. “You’ll be an eyewitness to a lot of things before you’re my age.” Again he slipped his glasses on, his careful, trembling hand foretelling how he would be in his old age, and, reaching into his coat pocket, he brought out a tiny, enameled box, the kind for carrying pills in. Blue roses were painted on it. “Never showed this to anybody but you,” he said. “Don’t get scared, but in this box is all that remains of Clara Ruchenski. The rest of the ashes are already part of the leaf mold and people have picknicked over her. But there’s a little bit of ashes in here, took it for myself when I scattered the rest. Want to see?” With false aplomb he bounced the box in his hand in an attempt to forestall his collapse, for his voice was breaking and falling in his chest. All at once I crossed my arms against my chest to keep down my own sorrow over Clara. “She’s in the palm of my hand,” he said. “That’s why I kept this. She’s harmless. She’s nothing. If I took the ashes between my fingers, it would powder off into air. But I’m alive, God damn it, and that means something. There’s a big difference between alive and dead. This is what they come to,” he said, shaking so much that he had to stand up, and precisely he set the box down by the salt and pepper shakers. “This is what they come to. They’re the stupid ones. They go crazy. They go crazy and eat dirt.” Jerking the chair far out with an elaborate gesture, he sat down again, pressing his forehead against the table’s edge. After a while he spoke to the floor. “It’s over me like a ton of water, the things I don’t know.” When he lifted his head to see my face, there was a red mark across his brow from the table. Reprinted by the permission of Russell & Volkening as agents for the author. Copyright © 1996 by Gina Berriault.