The conductor comes through and asks for her ticket. His dark mustache fills the space between mouth and nose and spreads out toward his cheeks as though he had been barbered in another century. Because she wants to keep him in front of her for another minute Kitty asks him when they will arrive in Amsterdam. Never, I hope, he says surprisingly. Why is that? Kitty wants to know. The mother-in-laws expected. Shes blowing in with the snowstorm. Its already coming down in Amsterdam. Weve had it over the radio. Theyre expecting a blizzard. Kitty has read that when the ground is frozen and cannot be dug up, the body must wait above ground. A gravedigger can break his shovel on frozen ground. . . . And burials? asks Kitty sharply. Whats that, miss? replies the conductor. He punches her ticket and tips his hat.
With his wild crown of wavy hair, his heavy dark lidded eyes, obstinate chin and large chest, he attracted attention wherever he went. He had a magnetism that drew not only women, but men as well. He lorded it over waiters, he rapped impatiently at the windows at railroad stations, he treated cabdrivers imperiously. Though he had no money he always traveled first class and would not set foot in a bus or subway. His white hair stood out from his head, he radiated confidence. This was a man, one would have said, who knew his place in the world.
Nothing could have been further from the truth.
There was no place for us, he told her, not a place on earth that wanted us. And so he called out in restaurants and barged ahead in lines, and when he sneezed, as though he were playing in a Viennese operetta, everyone turned to look. Not so loud, Kitty would plead as he called out impatiently, the waiter will come in a moment. Poor darling, he would say looking at her with disdain. Are you suddenly a small mouse? Afraid to stir the dust? Its not that, she would protest. What then? You hypocrite, he would whisper, pressing his forehead against hers. Havent you dreamed your whole life of escaping from tiresome rules?
Dont forget me, she used to say to him. Forget you, my darling? he would reply. How could I forget you? You are tattooed on my heart. But then his attention would wander, he would move into the past, absent himself. The electricity disappeared and he was no longer there.
The white winter sky is endless above the fields. The wonderful Dutch, he used to say, who reclaimed their land from the sea. The brave hardworking Dutch. Kitty likes the old Dutch paintings of this sky, this flat placid landscape. He wasnt interested. Shall I float in an old sentimental tale? he asked. My Holland is a different Holland. Im not a sentimental dreamer like you. Dont frown my darling, he would say seeing her expression, taking her chin in his hand and kissing her. He would shake his head. So sensitive. How would you have survived the war? You better learn a little toughness.
Kitty winds her cashmere scarf around her neck. By the side of the window the aqua pleated curtain fans out like a skirt. Why are you going? Henri asked this morning, helping her on with her coat. She has lived with him for nine years. You dont still love him? She laid her head against his clean white shirt and closed her eyes and felt him lay her collar down flat. His fingers lifted up her hair. Theres a casserole for you in the refrigerator, she told him, and a chocolate dessert. But what was it about him, he insisted, that was so fascinating? She stood up straight and began to button her coat. Nothing at all, she replied. Ill call you when I get to Amsterdam. He ran his hands quickly through bristly gray hair. I never could read his plays, he said irritably. Could you? So depressing. She went to turn out the chrome lamp over his desk. Ill be home tomorrow. He stood helplessly. Ill come down with you. No darling, its light as a feather. He lifted the small leather bag and grimaced. Its heavy. What have you got in here? She took the bag from his hand. Dont be so curious. A book for the train. She kissed him quickly, a hand on his hip. He is always there, a fixed planet. Call me, he said with worried eyes. Kitty nodded. While Joseph was never in the same place twice.
Reprinted from War Story by Gwen Edelman by permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 by Gwen Edelman. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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