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diciembre 1, 2008

Coldness falls from the air, she thought, as she carried the white roses up the stairs to the paneled library. That, or: How like sandpipers were the children on the beach, she thought, as she stood by the rusty screen door of their rented house on Nantucket. Zap. Blam. Pow. Here endeth my stab at yesterday’s fiction. No one’s been reading it for forty years. It went out with easel painting, and by easel painting one means the sort of painting that used to be displayed on easels. Two curates playing checkers by a cockatoo’s roost. Painting has cast off its frames, and yet one deeply misses these massive and golden celebrations -fruit and angels- for their element of ultimate risk. By framing a painting the artist, of course, declared it to be a distillate of his deepest feelings about love and death. By junking the frame he destroyed the risk of the declaration. He may, as he will claim, have opened doors, porticos, gates, and mountain passes onto an unframed infinity of comprehension: or he may merely have displayed his abysmal lack of vitality. The woman climbing the stairs with her white roses is in a sense a frame, a declaration, and my account of putting a hat on a statue is frameless and may indeed not deserve a frame at all.
The statue of Leif Erikson was wearing a necktie that day when I started to walk down Commonwealth Avenue from Kenmore Square to the Boston Public Garden. The statue’s tie was a foulard, frayed and stained. It was a cold afternoon but I carried my vicuña over my arm because my father had taught me never to wear a coat unless it was absolutely necessary. If I wore a coat I might be mistaken for an Irishman. I think my knowledge of Boston to be comprehensive and vast but framed entirely in the language of a farewell. I claim to know the cheapness of good-byes -that boyish shrug sent up as a lure for some lover whose face I have never seen although I have seen and tasted everything else. I am not a Bostonian but my provincial credentials will get me over the border. I have no true nostalgia for the city because I remember the aristocracy in my youth as being tragic and cranky. Old C.F. Adams was still challenging anyone -anyone at all- to a sailboat race and Hester Pickman was translating Rilke, but I can remember Jack Wheelwright tossing the sandwiches for tea onto the fire because they were unsuitable. The maid cried. She was a pretty Irish girl. The painting over the mantle was a Tintoretto and Jack had been talking about Henry Adams, his favorite uncle, but when I walked home the night was dark and cold and I, having already read Proust, could recall nothing in his accounts of the fall of Paris that seemed to me so horrible as the smoking sandwiches and the weeping maid. My credentials seem to pass; indeed they take some true knowledge of the situation in order to be assessed. “Oh, do sit down.” Mother exclaimed, “do sit down and let me tell you about the funeral of Phillips Brooks! On the day of his funeral there were trumpets in Copley Square. Oh so many trumpets! I don’t remember the time of year but it seems to me that it was cold and brilliant although of course that may have been the loud music of the trumpets. Phillips Brooks was a big man, you know. He was a very big man. He used to go right down to the South End and drink beer with strange Irishmen! He was not the sort of skinny clergyman who drank sherry. And speaking of sherry, did I tell you about your father and the sherry last Thursday?”

I knew the story although she counted so on innuendo that one would have had to know the facts in advance to understand what she was talking about. My father was a celebrated drinking companion. He had drunk Robert Ingersole and James O’Neill under the table at the old Adams House when Frank Locke ran the bar. The story mother was about to hint at had taken place on Thursday morning. This was in the old house on the South Shore. It was eleven. Father wanted a drink. It was Thursday and S.S. Pierce would deliver his potables that afternoon but the delivery wouldn’t be until after three. The sherry decanter on the sideboard was full. He unstopped the decanter and drank the sherry. Then as a precaution -merely a precaution- he pissed the decanter full. The color was exactly right. Everything in the room was as he had found it except that the fireplace was smoking. He gave the logs a poke and, with his spirits greatly renewed, he went upstairs to read the Shakespeare sonnets to his cat as he so often did. Enter the rector, then. Enter Mother, taking off her apron. “Oh, do sit down, Father Frisbee,” she said, “do sit down and join me in a glass of sherry and a biscuit.” So the poor man of God, sitting in a Windsor chair with half its spokes broken, coughing in the smoke of a fireplace that wouldn’t draw, ate moldy pilot crackers and sipped piss. No wonder none of us ever wanted to go to Harvard.
So I banged down Commonwealth Avenue in the cold. The statue of Wm. Lloyd Garrison was wearing a scarf. Statues in parks, I’ve always thought, have a therapeutic effect on one’s posture. Walking among gods and heroes one always keeps one’s head up. I saw two women walking dogs. One of the dogs was a Labrador, a line I’ve bred but when I whistled to the dog and he pulled on his leash, the woman -a good-looking woman- pulled him in the other direction and hurried on to Beacon Street. She seemed in flight and I was hurt. A black man in a sleeping bag lay on a bench saying: “I din’ do nothing wrong. I din’ do nothing wrong.” There were two couples hitchhiking on the avenue. They were ragged and looked dirty. I thought that I had never seen hitchhikers in the city before, not ever in a city that counted so for its strength upon deeply rooted concentric provincialism. Ahead of me I could see the statue of the President of the Argentine. The statue is vulgar and bulky and what in the world was he doing on Commonwealth Avenue? I decided to put my hat on his head. Why should I, a grown man, put a hat on a statue? Men have been putting hats on statues since the beginnings of time. My father read Shakespeare to the cat, my life is impetuous and unorthodox, and I cannot distinguish persiflage from profundity, which may be my undoing. There was a faded ribbon and a handful of wax flowers on the President’s pedestal. I decided to make my ascent by his cosmic and Rodinesque tailcoat.
My hat was a Locke hat. My coat is a very, very rare vicuña, left to me by my fourth father-in-law, a Des Moines haberdasher. My coat is thirty-five years old but I have discovered that there are only three clubs left in the world where the age of my coat is respected. Only that afternoon, when I threw it over an empty barstool in the Ritz, the man on the next stool fingered the material and I was pleased to think he admired the age, radiance and beauty of the vicuña, but what he was admiring, it seems, were the numerous darns. This put him, in my eyes, into the lower classes and presented me, in his esteem, as a straight thrift-shop type; secondhand rose. I put my folded vicuña on the pedestal and started my ascent. The President is difficult to climb. I would sooner write about my mountain-climbing experiences -coldness, indeed, thought, falls from the summit of the mountain- but that would be some other afternoon. I was struggling up the bronze surface when a man said, “Ciao, bello.”
He was a good-looking young man who wore a serge middy blouse with three crimson chevrons sewn to the sleeve. No navy in the world, I knew, had ever issued such a costume, and I guessed he had mostly seen the ocean from the summit of some roller coaster. “Desiderai tu un’amico?” he asked
“You’ve got a terrible accent,” I said. “Where did you learn Italian? Bergamo? Someplace like that?”
From a friend,” he said.
“Break it up,” shouted a policeman. “You boys break it up.” He came running down the walk from a cruise car that was parked on Exeter Street. “Break it up, break it up or I’ll throw you both in the lockup. You spoil everything.”

The man in the middy blouse headed north, and the policeman’s anger seemed so genuine and so despairing that I wanted to explain my purpose but I couldn’t do this without sacrificing any chance to be taken seriously. “I’m very old,” I said. “I’m really terribly old and I insist upon the prerogatives and eccentricities of my time of life. I can remember when there was an elevated train on Atlantic Avenue. I can remember the Boston Police strike! I can remember when every village, homestead, hill, and pasture in this great land was dominated by a tree called The Elm. There were the English Elms, the Portuguese Elms, the Wineglass and the Penumbra Elms. They were shaped like fountains, columns, and explosions of grace. They were both lachrymose and manly. They were everywhere and now there are none.”
Common’s full of elms,” he said.
“All right,” I said, ‘then Chestnuts. My father told me he could remember when every hill in New England was crowned with the noble, native Chestnut. In the autumn their leaves turned a deep, rich brown and the nuts they bore were delicious. I’ve never seen one of these beautiful trees. Not one! My generation was left with the Chestnut Hill Country Club, the Chestnut Grove Tearoom, and quite a few undistinguished streets called Chestnut.”
“Please go away,” he said. “You spoil everything. Everything.”
I went away. I went up to the Exeter Street Theatre and saw a few reels of a Bergman film in which a woman mutilated herself with broken glass. I do not choose to describe the scene but I couldn’t anyhow because I shut my eyes. Then I returned to Commonwealth Avenue, determined to put my hat on the President. During my absence the light had changed. The light in Boston, on a good day, I’ve always thought, has the incandescence of a sea light. Only the alchemy of sea air could have turned the statue of George Washington into the fairest verdigris. So in this fading sea light I returned to the President of the Argentine. A young girl was sitting on a bench near the statue and I sat down beside her. “May I?” I asked.
Certainly,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“Pixie,” she said. “That’s what they call me. My name is Alice-Mae.”
She had marvelous legs and breasts. I don’t mean at all that they conformed to any measured beauty but that there was some extraordinary congruence between their proportions and one’s desires. The legs were not showgirl legs, they had nothing thrilling, lengthy, or brilliant about them. Their gleam and their shape were modest and youthful.
“Do you live around here?” I asked.
“I live in a dormitory,” she said. “We’re not allowed to have men visitors.”
What’s your university?”
It’s not a university. It’s really a college. They call it an academy. It’s where my parents wanted me to go.”
What does your father do?”
“He’s a funeral director,” she said.
Then I knew that she was a student at the embalming school in Kenmore Square. This had happened to me once before. I picked up a very good-looking girl in a hamburger place called The Fatted Calf. At first she said she was studying anatomy but then she came clean, or clean enough to say that her task, her study and vocation, was to beautify death, to make death comprehensible to the cruelly bereaved.
What do you study?” I asked.
“Well, we don’t have regular courses,” she said. “I mean we don’t study history or arithmetic or things like that.”
You are learning,” I asked, “how to beautify death?”
“Oh yes, yes,” she exclaimed. “However did you know?”
And so we will end as the movies do when, having exhausted the kiss, the walk-off, the reconciliation, and the boundlessness of faith, hope, and charity, they resort to a downward or falling crawl title giving the facts in the case -usually to the fading music of police sirens. The girl’s real name is Alice-Mae Plumber and she has flunked out of embalming school and is afraid to tell her parents. The man in the middy blouse is named Lemuel Howe and he will be arrested three days later for possession of dangerous drugs and sentenced to five years in the Suffolk County Jail. The man who wanted to put his hat on the statue of the President is I.

johncheever John Cheever

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