Read Vigil for a Stranger Online

Authors: Kitty Burns Florey

Vigil for a Stranger

Vigil for a Stranger

A Novel

Kitty Burns Florey

For Turi MacCombie

Part One


Whenever I want you, all I have to do is dream.

The Everly Brothers

Chapter One

I had just been thinking about Pierce when I saw his name.

That I was thinking of him was not unusual. Twenty years had gone by, and still he was in my mind nearly every day—sometimes for a moment, other times like an extended meditation. For one thing, I still had so many objects associated with him. The wind-up penguin (though the mechanism was stuck, and the penguin would no longer waddle off the tabletop on its webbed orange feet). A paperback volume of Van Gogh's letters to his brother. The picnic basket (in which I kept needlepoint yarn). A snapshot of Pierce and me in front of his apartment house on Orange Street. Plus a lot of little, lesser stuff—a postcard of “The Night Café,” a book of matches from Tynan's (now defunct), a couple of playbills, an empty box that used to contain Marlboros (mine) and now contained dozens of those tiny seashells like thumbnails that we picked up at Plover Island.

But I would have thought of him even without these literal reminders. The world—life—myself: everything recalled Pierce to me, there was no help for it, no escaping now any more than twenty years ago. I didn't even want to escape: thinking of Pierce, remembering him, hadn't been painful for a long time.

I was on the 9:02 train to New York. At Bridgeport, the punk Yalie sitting next to me got off, and a woman in a business suit got on—briefcase in one hand, tidy overnight bag in the other. She paused briefly in the aisle, with that impersonally hostile look a certain kind of professional woman tends to cultivate—the look that says: don't you dare mess with me because I'm not only busy, I'm
. Calculating the seating possibilities, she settled for me, probably only because I had a book in front of me and looked harmless, but I was flattered—the way her suit might have felt when she chose it over a dozen others that were similar but not quite, quite right.

She swung her bag onto the rack over my head and sat down without a further glance at me, her briefcase in her lap and her hands folded on it. She leaned back in her seat with a private little sigh, and without actually turning to look at her, I imagined her closing her eyes, exhausted by the rigors of Bridgeport, of the presentation she'd had to give, or the fat new account she was trying to nab, the case she was prepared to win, the tension of the upcoming power lunch with a big shot. Whatever it is that wears that kind of person out no matter how much coffee they drink or how many hours they put in at the gym.

Pierce and I used to go on like that:
that kind of person
, we used to say, categorizing, analyzing, coming up with half-baked theories to explain the world, until Charlie would say, “Don't you know there's no truth in generalizing?” and Pierce would reply, “There are two kinds of people in this world, Charlie—the ones who believe in generalizations, and the ones who don't.”

The train lurched out of the Bridgeport station and south along the back ends of warehouses brightened with graffiti. Thinking idly of Pierce and those dear, dead days—not with sorrow, but with a simple pleasure in knowing that he, they, had once existed—I studied my seatmate out of the corner of my eye. Grey wool suit, slightly flared skirt discreetly below the knee but not so far below that it looked
à la Bohème
(as mine, nearly ankle-length, surely did). Silky cream-colored blouse, whose pearl-buttoned cuffs I could just glimpse below the grey sleeves. High-tech watch on the left wrist, thin gold bangle on the right, no rings, no nail polish except possibly one coat of clear (hard to tell). Sheer, shiny stockings, good black shoes with sensible heels. Wine-colored expanding briefcase with black saddle-stitching around a pair of shaped, flat handles. Age, deduced from backs of hands (wiry—the kind that with time would become simian—but, so far, relatively unlined), about thirty-four.

I was about to return to my book when she stirred in her seat and sighed a different kind of sigh—determined, dutiful, a touch grim (though still private, not the kind of ostentatious sigh designed to elicit conversation)—and opened the briefcase. I imagined her saying to herself as she boarded the train: three minutes to flop, baby, and then it's back to work for you, you don't get ahead by napping on trains. The first thing she did was to pull out a bulging black leather Filo-Fax. Of course. Even Charlie would have to see the Filo-Fax, with its neatly tabbed compartments for datebook, addresses, expense-account records, personal diary, you-name-it, as irrefutable proof that she was a type, a screaming generalization. “You know, Pierce—a yuppie,” Charlie would say in his patient, hesitating way. Except that yuppies hadn't been invented when Pierce died, and perhaps Filo-Faxes hadn't, either. In my mind, I saw Pierce's inquiring face, his head tipped sideways, his ironic, excessively helpless smile: “Yuppie, Charles?” Forget it, Pierce, I thought. It's too hard to explain—as if he were a character in one of those books or films where someone in history is flung into the twentieth century, or vice versa. Shakespeare turning up in a fast food place in California, or a little urban kid being transported back to pioneer times.
See, this is a Big Mac, Will. This is what we call a Conestoga wagon, Tiffany

The woman crossed her legs, swinging one foot out into the aisle and bouncing it up and down (irritably, as an extension of her hostile, off-putting look), and flipped open the Filo-Fax to her appointments for that week, bending her head over her little book so that her longish (but not too long), blondish (ditto) hair obscured the page. I spent an idle moment envying her hair, which was really quite beautiful—thick, straight, and artfully streaked—and then I lost interest and returned to
Swann's Way

I had read
Swann's Way
a million times—or a dozen, or six, I don't know. I'd read it a lot. I never progressed to the rest of Proust.
Swann's Way
was enough for me—the book that had everything, as far as I was concerned—my own personal Filo-Fax. My French ex-husband, Emile, gave it to me, the old Scott Moncrieff translation, for my birthday—my first birthday with him, when we were still pretty happy—and said he'd give me a volume every year. One volume a year of
Remembrance of Things Past
was enough, he said—ever in English. Enough for you, anyway, was what he implied. I think he expected me to spend the whole year reading it, if I read it at all. Emile never had much respect for my intelligence, still less for my diligence, but the day after that birthday (my twenty-sixth) I came down with a mild case of flu—just enough to send me to bed and get Emile to wait on me in a low-key sort of way (tea when I called for it, a little canned broth, he even went out for ginger ale)—and wolfed down
Swann's Way
in three feverish days. Then I read it again when I was well, and again when we went to Vermont for a week's vacation. I think Emile was torn between a sort of shocked pride in me and disappointment: he too liked his generalizations, and the fact that he'd read Proust and I hadn't gave him a superiority over me that he wasn't crazy about relinquishing.

He continued to give me a volume a year. Emile was like that: organized, methodical, French, and when he said he was going to do something he did it. The Proust piled up, even though I never did read another volume. Denis was born, and I didn't have much time or energy for reading. And soon after the seventh and last volume appeared, I had my breakdown and Emile went back to France, taking Denis, leaving me the Proust, complete—a sort of souvenir, I suppose. As a way of punishing him, I included those last six volumes in a bunch of stuff I gave to a tag sale that benefited Denis's old nursery school. Not much of a punishment—not a punishment that fit the crime—and certainly not an even trade: a five-year-old boy for six volumes of Proust donated to charity. Emile never knew what happened to the books, anyway (or to me, not that he cared) since we didn't communicate for nearly a year. But getting those books off my back (they were exquisite, small, tiny-printed hardcover things, I think he ordered them from someplace in England) gave me a certain kind of happiness at a time when very little happiness was available to me.

It wasn't Emile I thought about when I opened the book, though: it was Pierce. Or actually, of course, it was little Marcel. I was at the point where, after Marcel's mother has finally come into his room to read him to sleep (
François le Champi
without the love scenes), he gives us his thoughts on the difficulties of recapturing the past, and then on to the tea and the famous madeleine and the passage about the Celtic belief that the souls of the dead are imprisoned in trees or plants or objects, and then of course I thought of Pierce, as I always did when I read those words. How after he died—before I'd even read Proust or heard this particular Celtic belief—I used to find him again in trees, how it seemed he was with me if I stood with my back pressed to the trunk of a tree, or my cheek against the bark. Specifically, I sought this feeling—this Pierce-ness, this sense of being filled with a sort of essence of Pierce, of being “pierced”—from one particular grove of trees that grew behind my parents' place, between the house and the pond. All that summer, when I was back home trying to get a grip on things, trying to assimilate his being gone (I would come to terms with it some other time, that summer I was having trouble just believing it), all that summer, I sat out in the yard at the edge of that grove of young birches and a couple of more substantial maples—and I couldn't stop believing that Pierce (or a certain Pierceness) was there with me. Which was partly why I was having trouble accepting things, the sensation was so strong.

This is what I was remembering when I looked up from that passage and happened to glance over at the Filo-Fax, now visible on my seatmate's lap, spread out forgotten on her briefcase, still opened to the week of October 24, while she read a bluecovered folder held close to her eyes (maybe her glasses were in the overnight bag). I wondered what it would be like to have a life so complicated it needed a Filo-Fax to organize it. The concept didn't sound appealing to me. Every day was crammed with entries except for the day before (Monday, the 24th), which was at the top of the page and said simply, “Casco Industries, Bridgeport.” She'd gone up to Bridgeport, then, with her presentation or sales pitch or takeover bid, she'd stayed late impressing her fellow executives at dinner and after, spent the night in some hideous Hilton or Sheraton, and was on the way back to Manhattan. To the home office of the corporation that employed her? Or perhaps she traveled all over, presenting or pitching or gobbling up new accounts or whatever she did in a suit like that, in those shoes.

Idly, I speculated about her private life (she'd gone to Princeton, she played racquetball, she was involved with a banker named Jeff, and did she ever sleep with the various corporate managers etc that she met with on these trips?), eyeing her engagements for that week in October—gym date with someone, gym date with someone else (I imagined brutal racquetball games, then cold white wine in the sauna), lunch with someone, dinner w/R (three times—O.K., so his name wasn't Jeff but Randy), a meeting with J.D.N.—and it took me a moment to understand what I was seeing: on Thursday the 27th, I read, “Orin Pierce, 1:30, Chez D.”

No. It couldn't say that, of course. How funny, though: it looked like Orin Pierce. I tried to focus on it, leaning slightly too intimately close to her (blinkered by her blue folder, she didn't seem to notice). Owen Price? Olive Pounce? Her handwriting was messy (
I'm so busy
) but artistic (
I'm so special
). The 1:30 was clear. Chez D. could have been Chez O. or Chez C. But Orin Pierce. It did seem to say Orin Pierce. No. It couldn't possibly. Of course, the world could be full of Orin Pierces. But it was an unusual name, surely. I remembered how much Pierce hated Orin, and refused to answer to it. I rather liked Orin: an out of fashion, vaguely agricultural-sounding name (though Pierce grew up outside New Haven, the son of Yale professors), but distinctive, a name that could plausibly belong to someone famous—senator, novelist, historian. Pierce was an actor, so it was perfect. Orin Pierce. I bent over to do something to my shoe, and brought my face on a level with the yuppie's lap: Orin Pierce? The Pierce was clear enough, Orin could have been Owen—no, there was definitely a dot, there had to be an i. Olin? Wasn't there a corporation called Olin? Maybe it wasn't a person at all, maybe it was another presentation, another pitch. Olin, Orwell, Olwin, Orin, Orin, Orin Pierce.

She snapped the Filo-Fax shut and returned it to her briefcase with the blue folder. I leaned back in my seat, my face toward the window, and realized I was shaking, sweating, there were tears in my eyes. I clutched my book with both hands, brought it to my chest, hugged it. Reflected in the window I could see the pale blob of my face, and, outside, an abandoned factory, the back of a shopping center, a Syrian luncheonette, a coin shop, a gas station …

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