‘That’s pretty steep, isn’t it?’ he asked.
She shrugged, ‘I never have problems filling the rooms. You get clean sheets and towels. You’ve got hot water always and it’s quiet on this street,’ she said, looking at him. ‘I rent only to graduate students, older boys, so it’s quiet here, no rumpus, no women allowed in the rooms.’ She pulled up the blind and the window and bright fall sunshine flooded the room. ‘You want to take it?’
He looked around and sighed, ‘Yes, I suppose so. It’s more than I planned to pay, but, well, I’ll take it for a month, say. Is that alright with you?’
’Sure, I understand,‘ she replied. ‘You want to look around, that’s alright. You can look all you want but you won’t find anything better. I know.’
She closed the door and left him alone in his new room. He unpacked his one suitcase, putting his things into the big closet with the peeling mirror. He looked around. It was a student’s room, pleasant and adequate enough and typical of what was available in the many mansard-roofed former mansions of this once fashionable neighborhood which were now almost all boarding houses. Nondescript floral wall-paper, a kitchen table and two mismatched chairs, the closet and a bookshelf. A spartan single bed with a reading light fixed to the wall above. A small hooked rug on the floor next to the radiator and several pictures on the walls. There was the one window which looked out onto a street lined with, even now so late in the year, rows of still leafy horse-chestnut trees and up the street, towards the massed buildings of the University. He felt a bit chilly and pulled the window down.
He was new to this city but he had lived in rooms like this in other cities, other universities. He knew the routine. He hadn’t succeeded before and in fact his scholarly career was a shambles. Never able to finish his doctoral thesis, he had given up and turned several times into different directions of studies. Now he was a university bum; one of the many older perpetual students, working part-time as teaching assistants or private tutors. They were always to be found around on campus. But he had hopes this time although he knew that it would be difficult. His wages as a teaching assistant would barely cover his own tuition and expenses. He turned and checked around before going off for his first classes at the University. Everything was in place; bathrobe and towel on hooks near the sink, razor, toothbrush and stuff on the glass shelf above the yellowed sink. His few books were neatly arranged on the bookshelf, awaiting the others he would have to buy for his studies. He’d have to be careful about that; he hadn’t much money. His bedroom slippers were under the bed and on the small table next to the bed was his cheap clock-radio, a trashy novel he was reading and a small framed photograph of the woman he had loved and had treated so shabbily.
It rained heavily that evening. He had thought to check out one of the many student eateries in the area but instead, because of the rain, he made do with a tasteless, plastic-wrapped sandwich and muddy coffee from a pair of automatic machines he found just outside the entrance to the student’s lounge. He made a mental note not to repeat that mistake again. Now he was in his room lying on the bed and listening to the rain on the slate roof overhead. There wasn’t much on the radio and he was restless. He picked up the novel and glanced through a few lines. Shit. He put it down. It really was raining heavily, he thought. He looked around the room. There was nothing to see, nothing to do. He got up and looked at the few pictures on the walls, put there, he supposed, because it was expected. On one side of the mirror was a landscape, a fake Constable or Turner, of some impossible English vista in the kind of bright pastel sunshine that that island almost never sees. On the other side was a print of a Norman Rockwell painting, probably cut off the cover of a long ago “Saturday Evening Post.“ Now, under glass, it was just a meaningless blob. On the other side of the room, above his bed was a reproduction of a large Winslow Homer water-color of a black man on a wrecked small boat adrift, in a shark-infested choppy sea. It was the sort of picture one often sees in doctor’s offices, decorated by culture-conscious wives. It didn’t go with the others. In fact the whole tableau was depressing. There was one more picture on the wall near the door. It was quite small and at first he just barely glanced at it. Now he frowned. What’s it doing here, he wondered. He got his reading glasses and examined the picture carefully. He scratched his head and then he went downstairs.
’Mrs. Carstairs,’ he asked. ‘Do you know anything about that print in my room?’
’Which one? The pretty young girl?’ she smiled. ‘The boy who was here before you asked about that too. I don’t know anything about it at all; I just found it in the attic one day. It’s a pretty picture, don’t you think? That’s why I put it up. It’s probably belonged to one of the original owners.’
In his room he looked out the rain-streaked window. It really was coming down now. The wind was shrieking and it had begun to hail. The clatter on the slate roof was deafening. Under the street light in front of the house leaves torn from the horse-chestnuts were clogging the drains and big puddles were forming.
He blew the light patina of dust off the glass and looked at the picture again. It was indeed pretty, as Mrs. Carstairs had pointed out: A small professionally made, sepia-toned photograph of a young girl sitting on a studio prop built to resemble a bench and behind her was an obviously painted false backdrop of a pastoral landscape. The photograph, in a plain walnut frame, was signed and dated at the bottom of the cream colored pas-partout surrounding it. Bachrach, 1917, it said in a fading copperplate. He lifted the picture off the hook and looked at the back. No hints there. He hung the picture carefully back onto the wall and sat back on the bed looking at it.
The girl was maybe fifteen years old, perhaps older, perhaps younger, it was hard to say. She was dressed in the strange and to his eyes, slightly ludicrous clothes of the period; a white organdy dress consisting of rows and rows of meticulously pressed pleats and fringes, knee-high white stockings and white oxfords. Her clothes effectively hid her and he couldn’t tell if her figure had developed. Her dark blonde hair was long and arranged in a multitude of soft flowing sausage curls and she wore a dreamy expression. Her hands were gracefully folded in her lap but there was a certain tension in them, perhaps the posing made her uncomfortable. Her skin was clear and her eyes were light brown. Her gaze was directed off a bit to one side, not at the camera and the viewer. It could be that Bachrach had decided that that was proper for a young girl.
He went to the closet and got out the bottle of whisky under his socks. He poured himself a drink and went back to the picture.
There was something very innocent in the girl’s stance. Was to be expected, he thought, a young girl so long ago, in an innocent time, just after the Great War, they called it then. Her eyes, though modestly turned aside, perhaps by her own choice or maybe it was the photographer’s decision, held a clear certainty of her place and of herself. I wonder what kind of a life she had, he thought, or has. She could still be alive now, he suddenly realized in awe, almost ninety years old. She must have lived through some great years and maybe through the worst. He lifted the glass of whiskey in a mock salute to the young girl. He sipped the whiskey and sat back on the bed, trying to conjure up what her life had possibly been like. Obviously her family had money, or her mother had social pretensions. Her stance and her clothes and, above all the fact that the photograph was made by Bachrach showed all that. She attended a prestigious ivy-league college or a finishing school, he surmised, as would have been proper for a young lady then. Eventually she met an eligible young man and in due course was engaged and married to him. She bore two or possibly three, well-behaved children whom she, in the fullness of time, took to be photographed by the firm of Bachrach Studios. Beyond that was pure speculation, so many other things could have happened to her. He shrugged. Horsefeathers! he said to himself, grinning, she could have been run over by a car the day after the photograph was taken. He looked at her warm steady gaze and the firmness of her chin. I don’t think that anything bad ever happened to her, he thought, she wouldn’t have allowed it! He grinned, finished his drink and went to sleep.
The next morning was clear and sparkling. The rain had stopped sometime during the night and in the gutters were damp piles of leaves. He opened the window and breathed in the intoxicatingly fresh air. He dressed quickly and went off jauntily for breakfast and to the University. He hadn’t felt this kind of enthusiasm, for his studies and for teaching, in a long time. in fact ever since his own years as an undergraduate.
‘What do we know about the Holbeins?’ he asked, looking over the rows of sullen undergraduate faces and sighed inwardly. ‘Your name, sir?’ he asked, nodding at a spectacled and thin student, hoping that the facade of intellect he thought he saw was real.
’Uh, I’m uh, Rathers. Ed Rathers.’
’Well, Mr. Rathers. Tell us about Holbein. Hans Holbein. I believe that you were assigned work on Holbein during your last term.’
‘Yes sir. Uhhhm, Hans Holbein was an important German painter during the Sixteenth Century—’
’Which Holbein, Mr. Rathers?’ Here he was confronted by a blank expression, not only on Rathers’ face, but all over the room. ‘There were, as I‘m sure you learned last semester, two Holbeins, the elder and the younger, father and son. To whom are you referring?’ Silence. It was like talking in a void. He sighed again.
‘How was your class?’ she asked.
He shook his head slowly and decisively. ‘Incredible,’ he said, ‘they come here for some reason, I suppose. It surely can’t be to study.’
’You’ll get used to it,’ she smiled. ‘This isn’t your typical East Coast intellectual oasis,‘ she said mockingly. ‘This is a Land-Grant state university dedicated to producing agronomists and engineers and such-like.’ She nudged the coffee cake towards him, ‘Try some of my cake. I baked it yesterday.’ Martha was another teaching assistant in his department, a warm and smiling woman whom he had met when they both came up that Spring for a series of interviews with the head of department. Martha was divorced with two young sons and was quickly finishing her doctorate. She had apparently, enormous energy and little time or money to waste. She was very pleasant to be with. They had slept together once and they both looked forward to more. He found her to be enthusiastic and skillful about sex without being particularly erotic. They had a logistic problem; Her kids lived at her place with her and she was reluctant about exposing them to yet another man. His place? He sighed, Mrs. Carstairs was a tough and knowing college landlady. If she said no women, she meant no women. He looked at Martha and she at him, and he saw a slow flush rising up out of her lime-colored blouse. She reached out impulsively, covering his hand with her own on the cafeteria table. He decided to just try to sneak her in some time.
It rained that night and off and on again until the weekend. By Friday evening he was beginning to feel claustrophobic, cooped up in his room or in musty classrooms. Except for coffee breaks, Martha and he hadn’t seen each other and he was feeling that way too. The weekend began gloriously however, and he decided to get out and take a walk through the neighborhood. Outside the air was winy and brisk and a lot of neighborhood people were outside, it seemed, cleaning their bay windows and polishing the brasses of these, once upon a time, stately mansions. As he strolled up the street leading to the university he imagined the young girl in the picture playing here, on these streets, when she was a child. He could see her, a tom-boy all flushed from skipping rope with her friends and being shooed back into the family mansion by her nanny.
’Missie! That’s no way for a young lady to behave! All sweating!’
’Yes, ma’am,’ she answered, giggling, her eyes make-believe contrite while a thin sheen of perspiration made her glow in the sunshine. It was all so vivid, he felt. He caught a whiff of horses in the light breeze and he thought of long ago buggies or whatever on these streets. They had kept, her family that is, when she was a little girl, a fine matched pair which pulled a polished Phaeton or Surrey or Brougham, or whatever they were called then, for most of the year, and a buffalo-robed sleigh by winter. Later automobiles began to appear, and that was the end of the horses, and the silent and graceful sleighs.
There was a garage sale held in the backyard of a house down the street. They were selling a lot of stuff, mostly of flea-market quality. He pored over the merchandise, finally picking a goose-necked light for his table. In the back of the yard was a small shed and he idly glanced in once through the dusty window. The shed itself was a little too small to be a stable but just right for what it held and he smiled, for there stood in forlorn cob-webby glory, a beautifully curved horse-drawn sleigh. But where did they keep the horses?
’What’s the matter?’ Martha asked looking up at his eyes. ‘You seem, I don’t know, preoccupied. Is something the matter? Did I do anything wrong?’
’No, no. It’s nothing, it’s not your fault,’ he said and turned over in the bed. He felt suddenly depressed. ‘It’s OK. Don’t worry,’ he said and bent to kiss her nipple. He smiled, feeling her shiver. ‘Cold?’ he asked and then he raised his eyes to look at the picture near the door and his smile faded.
She looked at him, ‘Hey,’ she whispered, ‘I’m afraid.’
’Yes,’ he said, ‘I guess I was just worried about my landlady,’ he grinned. ‘I thought I was finished with that sort of problem when I graduated.’
She smiled too, ‘Who’s the girl in the picture?‘
’I don’t know,’ he sighed, ‘It was here in the room when I moved in. The landlady doesn’t know either.’
Martha looked at the photograph, ‘She was very pretty.’
’I must go, I have to be home soon,‘ she said and got out of bed. He watched her dress. She had a large and useful body, somehow diminished by her clothes, as if she felt that it needed a deliberate disguise. ’You’ll come later on to dinner?‘ she asked, looking at him while brushing her thick tightly ringed hair, ‘about sevenish?’
’Sure,’ he yawned and stretched and she closed the door very gently and he heard her quietly tip-toeing down the stairs and then it was very quiet in the late afternoon in the room. He closed his eyes.
’Why? Why here in my room?’
He distinctly heard the low expressive voice, a girl’s voice, and then he opened his eyes. It was almost dark now and grey shadows grew in the corners of the room. Of course there was no one in the room with him. He looked at the clock-radio near the bed. Almost six thirty, got to run, he thought and got up. He showered, dressed and walked to Martha’s house, all the while bemused and disturbed by the dream, so short and vivid, only a short sentence long, yet so real. What did it mean? What do dreams mean?
At the faculty meeting the next morning he sat opposite Martha and tried to concentrate on the program Doctor Lawrence, the acting head, was laying out. He had a bad head-ache and Martha’s almost unblinking stare wasn’t helping. Luckily the program hadn’t reached the point where an active discussion was needed. He didn’t think that in his present state he could add anything worthwhile. Martha kept looking at him with concern and he kept thinking about the dream. It wasn’t fading away the way dreams were supposed to. He had heard an angry girl’s voice and she, whoever she was in his dream, had been, I don’t know, he thought, like violated. As if I had touched her privacy. All in a few seconds. He sighed deeply, trying to dispel the feelings of guilt and apprehension. Across the room Martha looked at him.
That afternoon he got out his running shoes and a sweat suit and went for a run. He hadn’t run for a week or more. Maybe it would restore his equilibrium. He stretched and then trotted out huffing and puffing, along the street and then, when he reached the running path in the large urban park, he suddenly got his second wind and he began to sweat and loosen up. He ran along the path under the trees, passing students flipping Frisbees on the lawns, past tennis courts and across a manure strewn bridle path. That’s where that whiff of horses came from, he thought. He ran on and on, feeling better than he had in days.
’Why did you bring her?’
He almost stumbled. Where did that voice come from? Inside my head? He stopped running, he was in a shady grove and there was a jungle gym alongside the path. He stretched and pulled on the bars and then went on running.
’That’s my room,’ the voice said in his ears and the clear words rang between his grunts. He was slowing up; he was way out of shape and had run a bit too much. He went on, just walking now, breathing deeply.
’I know it is, or was,’ he thought, ‘But it’s mine now. Who are you?’
’I mean your name.’ But she didn’t answer.
That evening in his room he took down the picture, determined to try to get to the root of this mystery. He looked at it carefully. A simple enough portrait, nothing special about it. A girl sitting on a prop, looking demurely to one side, the name, Bachrach 1917, that’s all. He turned the picture over and looked at the back. Nothing, no marks, not even a stamp or identifying number. The backing was sealed around by old blotched masking tape. He looked at it carefully, it had been opened and resealed not long ago—The old masking tape was augmented by a strip of new Scotch Tape. He pulled gently at one corner and it came off easily, the old tape almost disintegrating into dry dust. He carefully pulled the backing away and pulled out the photograph. It had been most carefully developed and fixed and there were few signs of age. Now, without the glass muffling the light the picture was truly visible, vibrant in its rich tones of cream and sepia. He looked at the girl carefully, every pore was visible and there was a faint and charming blush on her cheeks. He sat down at the table and turned on his new goose-necked reading light and held the photograph under its direct beam. It was so alive! There she sat, on the edge of life. Her fingernails were polished but there were signs that she bit them sometimes. It made her real. A vein showed in the creamy alabaster of her neck and it seemed to throb. He wanted to bend and kiss her right there.
He sat up and stretched. He put down the photograph and poured himself a drink. Then he turned the photograph over. There was an old purple colored rubber stamp mark on the back; the logo of Bachrach Studies and underneath someone had written the name Selma Warburg in a fading crabbed handwriting. Well! He thought, now I’ll find out! He went out to the hall phone and looked up Bachrach in the Yellow Pages. Yes, there was a branch in this city.
’I’m sorry,’ the receptionist said, ‘Our active records don’t go back that far.’
’But what about your archives? You must have archives somewhere?’
She looked again at the photograph and again shook her head. ‘You see, there’s no identification beyond the name. I can’t even be sure in which city this was done.’ She handed back the photograph and said, ‘But if you like I can make enquiries in our head office.’
’Would you? Please.’
’Listen,’ Martha said in the corridor outside the faculty lounge. ‘Come stay at my place tonight. My kids are with their father for a week or so.’
He smiled and nodded, but he wasn’t sure. He was beginning to feel crowded.
’Don’t worry,’ she said, smiling ruefully. ‘I know you’ve got problems, we both do. I’m as leery as you. I’m certainly not asking you for any, well, commitments. I know that’s a dirty word. No, don’t interrupt. I like you, so just relax, enjoy. We’ll both enjoy. OK?’
He nodded; it sounded too good to be true.
’How could you? How could you do that then, there in my room?’
’Who are you?’ he asked, outside the dream.
’You know who I am,’ she said.
’Yes. I suppose I do, your name is Selma.’
’Hey, What’s the matter?’ Martha asked, stirring, warm in his arms, ‘Can’t sleep? I thought I heard you say something.’
’It’s alright,’ he said, holding her close, ‘Just a bad dream. Go back to sleep.’
’Umm, Sweetie,’ she murmured and curled back into sleep. He lay in the darkness staring into the blackness, rigid with apprehension. What was happening to him?
’I’m sorry, Sir. We haven’t yet found out anything. Is there really any urgency in trying to trace that photograph?’
’No, I suppose not,’ he felt silly, now in the bright sunshine, hysterically calling the Bachrach studios about a photograph more than seventy years old. ‘But when you do find out, could you please call me at the number I gave you?’
She must think I’m crazy, maybe I am. Maybe I should get some professional help, he thought as he walked through the halls on the way to his first class of the day. He really didn’t feel up to Ed Rathers this morning. As he stood his briefcase up next to his desk and faced the class of undergraduates he realized, with a sinking heart, that the lecture notes for this morning were still on his table at home. Shit, he thought, a quiz is the answer.
’But Sir! We weren’t told about this!’
’That’s quite alright, Miss, uhh-’
’Of course, Miss Linstrom,’ I can’t ever remember names, he thought, except Selma’s. The invasive image shook him. That’s all I need now. ‘Uh, Miss Linstrom. This quiz has no effect on your ratings in this class. It’ll simply be a way for me to judge how you are all doing and so I’ll be able to adjust the curriculum accordingly.‘ I hope they don’t realize what a crock that is but all he saw in the class was that sea of blank stares.
’But, Sir. We had no inkling—’ Miss Linstrom was a statuesque blonde with long shapely legs in invariably short skirts. He had noticed her the first day of course, vowing to himself to steer clear of such obvious dangers. Luckily she turned out to have a dull pedestrian mind and so he no longer had anything to fear along those lines.
’Please don’t worry about it. I want you all now to write a short essay, using examples from our studies of portrait artists in France and England, and perhaps Spain too, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that bear out the credo of the Bachrach Studios, today’s counterpart, if you will, of those painters: “People do not want a likeness, they want an idealization that will fill in their inadequacies.”’ My God, he thought as he looked at the despairing faces in front of him, what the hell is happening to me?
’I wouldn’t worry about it,’ the doctor said. ‘You’re obviously under a strain, carrying a big load, aren’t you?‘
He nodded. He had gone to an off-campus doctor. No need for the knowledge that he was losing his marbles to get around.
’I’m going to prescribe for you a mild relaxant, something that’ll–’
’I don’t want any tranquilizers. I’ve had bad experiences with them.’
’That’s alright. This is just a mild sedative, try it out. If it helps, then that’s that. If not, well, we’ll see. But if these hallucinations persist… Well, ah,‘ the doctor smiled, he was a rotund bald man with an unctuous and unpleasant manner, ‘I’m sure that it’s just caused by pressures of the beginning of the academic year.’
Outside, walking back to Martha’s place, the word echoed in his head. Hallucinations, hallucinations. Oh, Boy, he groaned.
’Oh, Man!’ Martha sighed. They lay entwined like puppies. Two days had passed and the fears seemed to be fading. He had begun to relax, maybe it was over. The pills helped. He could concentrate on his life and work and on Martha. He rolled her over towards him.
’What again?’ she murmured in mock annoyance and she smiled happily.
‘I wish you didn’t have to go,’ she said. ‘It’s so nice waking up again with a man’s behind against my belly!’ They both laughed. ‘But, you know. My kids are coming home tomorrow and, well, it’s too early. I don’t want to confuse them. Right?’
’Sure,’ he said, but his feelings were mixed about the whole thing.
His room was as he had left it the week before. The only changes were clean towels and sheets neatly folded on the bed-cover and a note from Mrs. Carstairs about the laundry. He opened the shades and the window to let in some fresh air. The room filled with a fresh smell of pseudo-Spring and the sense of apprehension he had felt was gone. The photograph of Selma was a bit awry and he straightened it. He had put it back onto the wall after his visit to the local Bachrach studio. He looked at it again, but it was just a picture. He shrugged and went about his business.
The next few days went swimmingly. Classes in the morning, his own work in the afternoon, then a run and evenings spent with Martha. One evening after her kids went to sleep they even went a bit crazy and made love half on her rumpled living-room couch and half in her bed. She had to stifle the noises he made. Obviously, he felt good.
The next night Martha had to go to an out of town conference and he stayed home to mark papers. He hated that chore but it was unavoidable. The sheer, tepidity, was a good word for, if that was a word, the boring unimaginative ideas his students came up with. And even worse than that was the sheer uniformity of thought. Paper after paper with the same ideas, expressions, images. But he gritted his teeth, his fingers smudged from the ball-point ink and his eyes teared trying to decipher the childish handwriting and bad spelling on so many of the sheets of paper before him. Finally he stretched and yawned loudly.
’Enough!’ he sighed.
’Yes,’ she said.
He froze, goose pimples formed all along his arms and he felt, he literally felt the hairs on his neck prickling to attention. He sat not moving and then, without turning, said, ‘Who’s there?’
’Yes, you know my voice.’
He turned around. There was no one in the room with him. Selma’s picture hung in its usual place, all the pictures did. The clock-radio softly played popular tunes from movies. The reflections of street lights came up onto his ceiling and flickering party sounds came in through his open window from the fraternity house down the block. A gurgling sound came from the showers down the hall. He shivered and tried to take his own pulse. It seemed normal, everything was perfectly normal, and yet a dead girl was having a conversation with him. I’m not asleep, he noted.
’I’m not asleep, am I?’ he asked.
’No, you aren’t,’ she seemed amused. Where was her voice coming from? He decided that it wasn‘t coming from any particular direction but was simply inside his head. I’m possessed, he thought, flabbergasted.
’Am I possessed? Are you a, what’s the word, a Dybbuk?’
’No. I’m real. My name is Selma Warburg and I’m sixteen and a half and I attend Miss Spence’s.’ The voice was young and prim yet pleasant. I can’t believe this is happening, he thought. But it was, he could see it was.
’Tell me about yourself,’ he said. He wasn’t completely relaxed yet, but he was beginning to accept this, and even enjoy it. ‘How come you’re talking with me?’
’Because you’re living in my room, Smartie. That’s why.’
’I guessed as much,’ he said, he didn’t know where to look. ‘Where are you now, exactly?’
’Oh, yes. I see,’ This is an absolutely crazy conversation, he thought. ‘But where do you, uh, stay? Here in this room?’
’Always in this room?’ he asked. He had a sudden misgiving, ‘ Where you here when Martha and I…’
At first there was silence and he began to think she had gone away but then he heard her voice, ‘Yes, I was,’ she said in a low and troubled voice.
He looked down, ‘I’m very sorry,’ he murmured. ‘That wasn’t very nice of us,‘ My God! He thought, the things we did! He recalled some of the ways they had made love; Martha had, oh Damn– ‘Forgive me, we didn’t know you were here,’ Jesus Christ, he thought, I’m apologizing to a ghost!
’Not your fault,’ she said, ‘How could you know? Besides, it’s your room now.’ She sounded unutterably sad.
’It’ll always be your room,’ he said, wanting to comfort her. I must be out of my mind. ‘Why,’ he coughed, ‘Excuse me,’ he said, inanely. ‘What makes you talk to me? Why me?’
’I told you, you live in my room. You looked at my picture. The boy who was here before you, I talked to him too.’
’I think he was frightened, of me!’ she unmistakably giggled. She really was a young girl, ‘He wouldn’t talk to me and soon one day he was gone, moved away,’ There was silence for a moment and he poured himself a drink. ‘You’re not frightened of me, are you?’
He thought for a moment and then, to his surprise, answered, ‘No.’
’Thank you,’ she said, quietly.
’You’re welcome,’ he said and laughed loudly. ‘Excuse me, I’m not laughing at you. Tell me about yourself.’
’What do you want to know?’
’Anything, everything. Boy friends, did you have a beau?’
’I liked my second cousin, Francis, we used to go to dancing school together. He kissed me once.’
’And nothing. We didn’t do anything! Not like you and her!’ she said angrily. It was almost a pout.
’I told you I was sorry. But you should realize that Martha–’
’I don’t want to hear her name!’
’Martha and I,’ he persisted, ‘are adults, and we live in a different time, with different ways.’
Again there was a silence, ‘I’m sorry too,’ she said in a faint whisper. ‘You’re right, please forgive me,’ she seemed close to tears.
’That’s alright,’ he hastened to reassure her. ‘I won’t bring her here anymore.’
’Thank you,’ she said. ‘After all, this is our room.’
She said no more that night and soon he went to sleep. He undressed in the bathroom, this time, and put on a pair of pyjamas which he normally never wore.
’Who’s Selma?’ Martha asked.
He froze, then pulled her close, ‘That’s the name of the girl in the picture,’ he said. ‘I found her name written on the back of the print.’
She ruffled his hair and kissed him, ‘Did you know that you whispered her name while you were coming?‘
’Wow!’ he said, shocked for a moment.
’Yeah, you had me worried for a minute. I thought you had someone else,’ she hugged him closely and whispered into his ear, ‘I don’t mind if my rival is an old picture!’ She touched him and soon they were both ready again.
’Yeah,‘ he said mock-sarcastically, ‘I like both of you.’
’Mrs. Carstairs,’ he said, standing at the foot of the banisters, ‘you mentioned that there was a tenant who was here before me who asked about the picture. Could you tell me anything about him?’
’Why?’ she asked, her eyes narrowed with suspicion, ‘Why do you want to know?’
’No particular reason,’ he lied, shrugging, ‘just curious.’
’Well,’ she sniffed, ‘He was very strange. He moved in, paid me for a month and moved right out without a by your leave before the week was over! Very very strange! I didn’t care, I told you I never have any problems renting my rooms!’
’I was engaged to be married when I died,’ The voice appeared just as he sank into the hot tub.
‘Hey!’ he protested, ‘Let me take my bath!’
’That’s alright,’ she giggled, ‘after all I’ve seen you before like this!’ Then there was silence again and he stretched out in the tub and turned on the hot water tap slightly by thumbing it with his prehensile big toe. ‘No one ever saw me, like that I mean.’
‘Not even your fiancé?’
’No!’ she said, angrily. ‘We wouldn’t do such a thing!’
’Tell me about him,’ he said.
’It was a secret engagement, no one knew about it. My parents and Miss Spence would never have allowed it.’
’Who was he?’
’He was in my father’s firm. We kept it a secret, otherwise my father might have fired him. He was nice, he had dark hair and was so very manly. He was a lot older than me, everybody would have said too old. But I didn’t think so.‘
’Where did you meet? I’m sure you were chaperoned.‘
’Wasn’t I though! No, we barely could meet. Once or twice outside Miss Spence’s, he took me once for ice-cream. Once he came to my house when the whole family were out.’
’It was lovely. We sat in the parlor, there was a big fire and we held hands. That’s when he asked me to marry him.‘
’Did you love him?’
‘Oh yes, I think so. He was so strong, but when he kissed me I could feel him shake. He–’
’Yes?’ he asked. Again that soft silence. There was no sign of her presence but he could feel her there.
’ He touched me,’ she said softly as a feather.
’Where?’ he asked, his throat dry.
’He touched me, here on my, my breast. I held his hands tightly, but he could feel my heart, Oh my, how it was beating, I’m sure.’
’What else happened?’
’Nothing, we were both scared. But,’ he could barely hear her voice, ‘I wanted…’ Now she was gone, and the water in the tub was tepid. He got up and shaved and went to bed.
’Are you here?’ he asked in the darkness.
‘Tell me,’ he persisted, ‘what happened.’
’I wanted so,’ her voice was low and very sad, ‘but it wasn’t to be.‘
’Didn’t you marry?’
’No, we kept it a secret and no one had an inkling. But the very next year, when soon I’d be old enough so that we could be open about it and announce our engagement, I caught the Spanish Influenza. There was a big epidemic, and, well, that’s when I died.’
’So you’ve never…?’
’No,’ she said, Her voice was on the threshold of sound and barely audible. He had to strain to hear her, ‘I wish–’
’What? What do you wish?’
’For us, for you and I—’ she seemed to say but the sound of her voice faded away completely and then she was gone too. He wasn’t sure that that was what he heard. He lay there for a while staring off into the darkness and then he fell asleep.
’There’s a phone call for you,’ Mrs. Carstairs shouted up the stairs. ‘Take it on the hall phone.’
’I’m calling from Bachrach, Portraits of Quality. Is this the party inquiring about a very old portrait done by one of our studios?’
’Yes, yes. Did you find anything?’
’No sir. I’m very sorry, there are no records of the name you supplied us anywhere. We think, however, that it most probably was done here at our local studio. There was a serious fire, it seems, at our studio sometime in the early twenties and a lot of the records were destroyed. We assume that the party you asked about, her records might have been destroyed then.’
’I see,’ he said, ‘Yes, that sounds reasonable. Hm, thank you very much.’
’Quite alright, sir. There was, it seems, another request for that same information some months ago.’
’Really? Who was that?’
’We don’t know. A party asked for the information. We told him that we’d try to find out what he wanted, but he never returned for the answer. Tell me, what is so special about the portrait? A relative of yours?’
’No,‘ he said, ‘Just a friend, I think.’
‘Oh, Come on now!’
’I’m telling you, she spoke to me!’
’Yeah, sure!’ She said sighing deeply. ‘Listen, that’s the most far-fetched thing I ever heard. So you couldn’t so what? Big deal! You know as well as I that there’s nothing so terrible about that. It happens, you’re human. That’s no reason to come up with such a cock and bull story,’ she smiled and kissed his cheek. ‘You’ll see, Sweetie, just a few minutes of Mamma’s Special Care and you’ll be the old tiger again!’
’But it’s true!’
’Don’t insult my intelligence!’ she shouted and sprang out of the bed. ‘You don’t want me anymore, Fine! Great! I’ll get along fine without you! Just stop the bullshit!’ He looked at her with a sinking heart. She stood there shouting at him and she was one angry beautiful woman.
’Could you possibly drop by my office after your last class, what time’ll that be?’
’I finish at three.’
’Three it is,’ Doctor Lawrence, the permanent head of the department, said cheerily.
’Yes, what’s it about?’
’I want to have a chat with you about your progress here.’
’We like to try to keep a tight ship here in the department. I have the feeling that you’ve been preoccupied with, ah, personal problems the last few weeks, and as a result, the quality of your work is not entirely up to par. Now I know that there is a lot of pressure on all you teaching assistants. And if you feel that you’d like to talk things over with me, or even if you need some help, we—’
’No, I’ll work things out myself,’ he said a bit brusquely.
’Alright, that’s fine with me. However, if you feel that you aren’t entirely happy here with us, you might—’
’No, no. It’s not that big a problem, I’ll work it out.’
Doctor Lawrence’s eyes, magnified by his thick shiny glasses settled on him. ‘OK,’ he said decisively, ‘I’m a firm believer in using one’s own bootstraps.’ He took out his pipe, signifying that the interview was over and they shook hands.
‘Let’s cool it a bit, shall we?’ Martha said. ‘I‘m having some serious thoughts about us. Don’t you agree it might be better for us to take a break from each other now?’
’Can’t we talk this over?’
’I’d rather not. Why don’t you maybe, take a bit of vacation for a while.’
’You know that that’s impossible.’
’I suppose,’ she said and her voice sounded remote even though this was a local call. ‘I have to hang up now, I’m sorry.’
He hung up too and wandered aimlessly over the campus and through the neighborhood streets. He had the feeling that he was slowly being cut off from everything apart from what awaited him in his room.
’I’m sorry that you’re unhappy,’ she said.
’I’m not unhappy exactly, just disappointed. Things aren’t working out for me here.’
’Is it my fault?’
He thought a bit, ‘No,’ he said, ‘ no, I don’t think so, it‘s not your fault. It’s just plain weird, falling in love with you–’
’You love me?’ she asked softly.
’Yes, I do,’ he said sadly. ‘I didn’t choose to. There’s nothing in this for me. Nor for you I suppose. How do you feel about me?’
’I don’t know. I don’t know much about love, I think, maybe.’
He nodded and then he told her that he was going to leave.
’I’ll be alone again,’ she said quietly.
’I can’t stay here, I’m afraid of what might happen. I might just go crazy,’ he shrugged. ‘Who know? I may already be nuts. I wish–’
’I wish we could really meet, I wish I could …touch you.’
There was no answer, not then, never again, but as he drifted off into sleep he thought that he felt the light touch of gentle lips on his.
He packed his clothes and books into the one suitcase, adding to it the goose-necked lamp. He looked around the room and now there was nothing in it to show that he had ever occupied it. He picked up the suitcase, glanced once at the photograph of the young girl on the wall and left the room, closing the door gently behind him for the last time. He tip-toed down the stairs and slipped an envelope containing the rent money and the house keys into Mrs. Carstairs’ mailbox and then he stepped out of the boarding house into the cool early morning air.
December 1991 – January 1992