Authors: Mary Anne Kelly
To my beautiful mother, Helen Kelly,
who remembers Sea Cliff when â¦
Rain blew sideways across the lid of the sea. There'd be no boats out there today. Noola tweaked the spiny parts from her geraniums. Still alive from last year, they had that tomato red you could see in Tyrolean window boxes. A wistfulness, the flowers were. All beauty spoke of yearning, she remembered, rocking in her chair.
A gloved hand sliced the kitchen door apart in a blade of dark. Alight with pinpricks of intent, cold eyes attended her.
Noola pulled the plaid rug nice and warm across her lap and sipped the fancy tea someone had brought. That abandoned lullaby from the beach blew up the cliff and through the grate. It had gone on every morning for so long that it was almost routine now. But this time there was an unfamiliar rasp of mournfulnessâsignificant somehowâand Noola rose halfway, the hope that it was Weedy always in the back of her mind, weighing. It wasn't Weedy, though. It was only the wind rattling the gate. Weedy wasn't coming back.
Distracted, the old woman tasted the unfamiliar, peppery cardamom of the chai, the almost nasty smack of cloves. There was something she must do. She nibbled a chunk from Patsy Mooney's Pascal cake. Ah, that chewy moisture was a delight. Then, still gazing off into the grizzle of foul weather, she remembered and opened her phone. She must tell what she'd discovered about the moon dial beforeâbut Noola felt her heart stop once. And then again. She clenched the cup and there it went a third, overpowering time. Turning with the whelp of pain, she caught sight of the enraptured, leering face. Her hand opened and the cup slipped down, cracking on the tray, the browny liquid falling, falling onto and into the Donovan plaid.
Behind the door a quiver of satisfaction released, then stirred and slipped, unclean, away.
The young girl was thrown against the seat as he navigated the turn.
“From where are you coming?” he asked her as they settled into a straight line.
“From Ireland, sir.”
“Is that right?” He wobbled his turban. “Is this your first visit to America?”
“Yes, it is, sir.”
“How lucky for you to arrive in the rain,” he said.
She found nothing to say to this.
“And,” he continued, “to arrive on the day of the new moon.”
“Is it?” Jenny Rose peered out into the lumbering traffic. It occurred to her that he could be taking her anywhere. “That would be fortunate,” she agreed. “We Irish do know a bit about fortune.”
Both good and bad
she reminded herself wryly. But she'd heard the prim tone in her voice and was instantly sorry. Music fluttered from the radio and she relaxed, just a bit, in her good raincoat, for fortune she was seeking. Many a sullen child's nose had she wiped to afford it. It would last her a lifetime if she looked after it properly, though.
You get what you pay for
, Aunt Brigid would have saidâ
and hide what a naughty girl you are
, she would have thought. Jenny Rose opened the well-crumpled paper. Twillyweed. Sea Cliff. Long Island, New York. With the heel of her hand, she wiped at the fog on the window. There she was with her pale little face, the spiky, cropped black hair in every direction, the fighting lips. She felt more than saw the driver glance over his shoulder. He was frightening looking, with his unibrow extending one ear to the other.
“Who's that?” she asked now about the music on the radio, curious because it sounded trickly and drumming, like the rain itself.
“Debussy.” His smile was sweet. Then, “
Claire de Lune
,” he informed her, his reflective eyes glazing over. He went away in his own mind and she was reassured, reminded that art touched all souls and belonged to no one. Finally they came to the exit and headed north over ugly terrain. There was a disappointing train station set in a section of derelict houses. At first she was taken aback, the roads and buildings were so broken down.
signs peppered the walls. Fatigue and disappointment overwhelmed her. But then the road split and the sign indicated Sea Cliff off to the right. One good thing, there were soft pink trees wherever you looked. A locust grove, she thought. She hadn't imagined the place to be so tipsy with hills. She liked hills. They bumped up and then down a quaint road overgrown with elm and reaching willow. Willow. So they must be nearing water. Antique shops, a library, and a museum indicated they'd come to a town. Ghostly, once-lavish Victorian homes with rickety porches and arts and crafts bungalows clung to slanting properties, their tulips drowsing in the rain. A grim real-estate office and a couple of old Irish bars, upholsterers, and cabinetmakers. A curiosity shop, pottery, paintings hung, fishing nets on candles, a used-books store. They made a wrong turn and found themselves down at the foggy beach where a long-haired, disheveled old man appeared like a vision at a grimy window. Fretful, the taxi turned and chugged painstakingly up a steep hill. Jenny Rose had the wary, slow-climbing sensation of a roller-coaster drop yet to come and clung to the maroon plastic of the front seat. A low-hanging willow scraped the whole of the cab and they were blinded by a sweep of minnowlike leaves. The sun broke through the trees, a brace of gold illuminating the whiskers on the driver's neck and the grime of the windows. You could see out across the sound then, and a little sailboat, like a toy, glided through the broken mist. A thrill of sudden perspective made Jenny Rose shiver. She was here in the States. On her own in America at last, in this villageâSea Cliff!
I remember I was standing in the drizzle trying to read the paper at the stop on Park Lane South in Queens. There was violence on every page: overseas, at the airportâsomeone had even bludgeoned a priest for a statue down in sleepy Broad Channel. The rain began to come down hard. I'd just missed the bus to the subway so I was in for a wait. I huddled deeper under my umbrella, reflecting as I did that I'd waited in this very spot facing the woods years ago back in high school, dreaming my young girl's dreams. And then I remembered something else, long forgotten and tucked away: There was a man who used to stand over there up the hill. He'd stand half hidden by the trees and something purple wobbled up and down. In my innocence I'd had no idea what it could have been. It was with a thrill of horror it came to me. And then, with my surprise, it came to him. He'd never approached or even crossed the road. But many an icy morning I'd stand there in my Catholic-school uniform, the skirt rolled up, and accommodate him with the look of shock and surprise he'd required.
Yes, now that I came to think of it, that must have been when arbitrary behavior began for me. It was a sort of a job. I'd felt I couldn't let him down by yawning or laughing. That it was
hurt that mattered shows you what kind a life I've led. I certainly never thought to tell my parents. It never occurred to me because in a way, I'd been a participant and so I was to be blamed. As an older woman, I can look back at that spot, at that girl, and have sympathy for who she was. But there are victims everywhere in this world, and the lurking monsters they protect. They sway like the fickle breezes of the past, the wicked onesâand sometimes they wait, squeezing their thighs in lewd expectation, just around the corner.
When I lived overseas, I was a damn good photographer; no doubt you'll recognize the voyeuristic influence. I'm a divorced woman now, two kids away at college. I had a business, a bed-and-breakfast in a gracious old Queens mansion that had just been starting to take off when it burned to the ground. I lost a romantic home, but the insurance money wound up funding college for the kidsâa divorce complication that let my ex-husband so utterly off the financial hook it made me see, if not red, then a simmering menopausal orange. My children still had health insurance from their father's police department coverage, so at least they were taken care of. And I was back where I'd started. Except, luckily, now I had Enoch, the fireman who'd saved my lifeâmy compensation for all of it the way I looked at it. But what was I doing with this life? Going to apply for a job in Manhattan where, after taxes, I'd make enough money to save nothing. How had Enoch described it? “Get me out of the house â¦ Make a little pocket change.” Surely if Enoch thought this enough for me, then I should, too. I ought to be grateful. â¦ And it wasn't that anything was wrong. It was just when we made love I was simply always
. I don't know. I never lost myself. I'd never want him to see any signs of regret, though. He to whom I owed so much.
I stood there at the bus stop with the flimsy rÃ©sumÃ© he'd dictated. It told so little of me really. None of the good stuff, or at least none of the things of which I was most proud. Amateur sleuthing. Living in India. Thirty-eight successful hours in labor. Reconnaissance. This job to which I was applying was to be a temporary thing until I could get back on my feet, but already I could sense a dead end. To be working as a receptionist for a photographer who would have, in my old life, barely qualified as my assistant? Pocket change, indeed. The rain petered out and the sun shone through like in that catechism picture where they put God. I stood watching the reflection of the clouds race by in the puddles. If I'd had my camera with me, I would have shot the striking image. But I never had my camera with me anymore. Come to think of it, I hardly did anything I loved anymore. I stood very still, knowing this. I snapped my umbrella shut. I should have been marching around with my own book of photos. Why
I always trying to be less than I was? Because of guilt for failing at a risky businessâfor which I'd been warned? But that hadn't been my fault. For my mother's idea of how a woman should spend her time? Of course not. My mother didn't care about things like that anymore. As a matter of fact, lately she was more of the “let's take the day off and go to a yard sale” ilk. My ex-husband? He'd lost that right when he'd waltzed off with his actress friend, hadn't he? Enoch? Kind as he was to have arranged this interview, the truth was he'd probably be more pleased to have me at home. He was, after all, crazy about me.
I ought to remember that
, I chided myself,
when I start feeling discontent.
Another thing; every morning at 10:45 the dog was used to being let out. I couldn't bear the thought of Jake standing, uncomprehending, legs crossed in distress at the back door. Just then the bus groaned across the 112th Street Bridge. The driver pulled over and cranked open the door. “No,” I told him cheerfully, “I've changed my mind.” I turned and walked determinedly down the hill that goes from Kew Gardens all the way to Myrtle Avenue. I reached the ugly house we'd been renting since Christmasâa hideous little narrow aluminum-sided rental, I'm afraidâin no time at all and was surprised to see the dog out in the yard. My heart lightened at the sight of Enoch's truck on the driveway. There would be coffee and sympathy. I opened the back door and moved automatically to the pantry to get Jake a biscuit. Hearing Enoch in the dining room, I went in. He was standing with his back to me. There was someone there with him. I remember this struck me as off because whenever we had company we sat in the kitchen. For a moment I thought they were adjusting the radiator that spewed heat no matter how you wound it down. The other man bolted upright, adjusting his suspenders. We saw each other's face at the same moment. I wouldn't have known what was up but for his rattled expression.
I don't think I stopped to make sure the dog was in the gate. Fortunately, Jake was so used to being locked in that he stayed where he was out of habit. All I can remember is running down the block through the puddles, all those shining, purplish abalone oil puddles sucking life from the dirty one-way road. Then suddenly Enoch behind me. I must have shrieked at his approach because the lady across the street dropped her shopping bags. His hand on my arm and me wrenching loose. The picture in my mind of him with that â¦ I thought I might be sick. I pulled away and kept running toward the trestle where I imagined I'd be safe. Safe from whatâfrom knowing? Enoch's voice and what he said. And here was the best part â¦ or in this case, excuse me, the worst part. “Claire,” he called after me frantically, “Claire, I was just,” and it was the way he said this rather than what he saidâhis voice, though tight with pleading, sounded, if you can believe this, justified, almost dismissive. “It meant nothing. â¦ Nothing more,” he insisted and then, gasping, out of breath, “than emptying a hose!”
In Sea Cliff, young Jenny Rose stood with her back to the sea.
Like a house in a story
, she thought, looking up. It was one of those resort monstrosities for the rich that someone had plugged heaps of money into at the turn of the last century. A contrite form stooped beneath an umbrella at the front entrance. A butler, she thrilled, restraining from smoothing her hair.
He was a startling-looking fellow, short legged, with great flaring nostrils, massive shoulders, and bulging muscles. His skin bore the gray-brown shrivel of an olive branch. He looked like an aging trapeze artist. Suddenly he was jostled aside by a hefty woman tiptoeing down the steps, holding a dishcloth over her head. Blustery and at the height of her blood pressure judging from the rosy hue of her skin, the woman then squeezed her cream cakeâstuffed frame into the taxi, inspected Jenny Rose's bags, wriggled her body back out, and gave orders. The fellow who'd been flung aside had recovered and emerged now at a stately pace. He was bent forward with self-imposed subservience. He minced his way over, crouching through the rain to assist the driver with Jenny Rose's trunk. The stout woman kept giving orders in that unmistakable New York accent.
Then the butlerâin a reserved Patois lilting Englishâindicated the porch, wanting the trunk out of the rain. He paid the driver and the driver climbed into his cab, but not before folding his palms and bowing to Jenny Rose. She blushed. The sharp-eyed, stout woman saw that and yelled disapprovingly, “Hey! None of that paganism stuff.” She bent her cabbage knee to kick off a smatter of sopping tulip leaves from her wet shoe, then ushered them up the front steps. The driver and his lingering music drove off. Jenny Rose watched the taxi turn the curve in the batting rain, then saw it again around the second curve. She hadn't said thank you or good-bye. A senseless feeling of loss overwhelmed her as she was led into the house.
Inside, holding a pail like a purse, was a lanky, honey-colored girl with unkempt hair. She was pretending to polish an alabaster table lamp with a limp chamois rag.
“Take the new girl to her room, Radiance,” the stout lady said, then, under her breath, muttered, “Dear diary, I forgot. I'll need the key. Hold her here with you.” She blustered away. The butler had come in with the trolley and wheeled Jenny Rose's rain-running trunk off to the kitchen for the time being.
Jenny Rose, left alone with the girl, took in the smell of polish and flowers, tall wooden beams and sloping eaves. It was as grand as a Dublin hotel, but there was something quiet, looming even, like a rectory.
Radiance made a face but put down her rag, pushed her soft crimped hair in a useless gesture with her wrist, and circled Jenny Rose, looking her over. Jenny Rose had never seen a girl quite like this. She had all the features of a tall black girl, but her long hair was almost blond and her eyes were light and gray and grainy as fried cat's-eye marbles.
“Like to kick the tires?” Jenny Rose said.
“Quite a house,” Jenny Rose revised her approach.