The West Village by then was changing; before long the rundown brownstones at its farthest edge would have slipped into trendier hands. She lived, impervious to trends, behind a potted hedge of rubber trees, with three cats, a canaryâ€”refuse from whose cage kept sifting down and then germinating, a yearning seedling choir, around the saucers on the windowsillâ€”and an inexorable cohort of roaches she was too nearsighted to deal with, though she knew they were there, and would speak of them, ruefully, as of an affliction that might once, long ago, have been prevented.
Unclassifiable castoffs, misfits, marginal cases: when you're one yourself, or close to it, there's a reassurance in proving you haven't quite gone under by taking up with somebody odder than you are. Or trying to. "They're my friends," she'd say of her catsâ€”Mollie, Mitzi and Caroline, their names were, and she was forever taking one or another in a cab to the vetâ€”as though she had no others. The roommate who'd become a nun, the one who was Jewish, the couple she'd met on a foliage tour, one fall, were all people she no longer saw. She worked for a law firm, said all the judges were alcoholic, had never voted.
But would sometimes have me to dinnerâ€”breaded veal, white wine, strawberry Bavarianâ€”and sometimes, from what she didn't know she was saying, I'd snatch a shred or two of her threadbare history. Baltic cold. Being sent home in a troika when her feet went numb. In summer, carriage rides. A swarm of gypsy children driven off with whips. An octogenarian father, bishop of a dying schismatic sect. A very young mother who didn't want her. A half-brother she met just once. Cousins in Wisconsin, one of whom phoned her from a candy store, out of the blue, while she was living in Chicago. What had brought her there, or when, remained unclear.
As did much else. We'd met in church. I noticed first a big, soaring soprano with a wobble in it, then the thickly wreathed and braided crimp in the mouse- gold coiffure. Old? Young? She was of no age. Through rimless lenses she looked out of a child's, or a doll's, globular blue. Wore Keds the year round, tended otherwise to overdress. Owned a mandolin. Once I got her to take it down from the mantel and plink out, through a warm fuddle of sauterne, a lot of giddy Italian airs from a songbook whose pages had started to crumble. The canary fluffed and quivered, and the cats, amazed, came out from under the couch and stared.
What could the offspring of the schismatic age and a reluctant child bride expect from life? Not much. Less and less. A dream she'd had kept coming back, years after. She'd taken a job in Washington with some right-wing lobby, and lived in one of those bow-windowed mansions that turn into roominghouses, and her room there had a full-length mirror: oval, with a molding, is the way I picture it. In her dream something woke her, she got up to look, and there in the glass she'd had was covered overâ€”she gave it a wondering emphasisâ€”with gray veils.
The West Village was changing. I was changing. The last time I asked her to dinner, she didn't show. Hoursâ€” or was it days?â€”later, she phoned to explain: she hadn't been able to find my block; a patrolman had steered her home. I spent my evenings canvassing for Gene McCarthy. Passing, I'd see her shades drawn, no light behind the rubber trees. She wasn't out, she didn't own a TV. She was in there, getting gently blotto. What came next, I wasn't brave enough to know. Only one day, passing, I saw new shades, quick-chic matchstick bamboo, going up where the waterstained old ones had been, and where the seedlingsâ€” O gray veils, gray veilsâ€”had risen and gone down.