When she went to the market with Joseph, he bought everything. Pounds of fruit, cheeses, vegetables, coffee, sausages, three loaves of bread. What are you doing? she would ask him. We cant eat all that in a month. You never know, he would reply, prodding a melon with his fingers, lifting it to his nose to smell its ripeness. Dont throw it out, he would say a week later as she stood above the garbage can with the soft spoiled fruit, the overripe cheeses, the two hardened loaves. I absolutely forbid you. But Joseph, she would plead, its gone bad. Never mind. We can eat it anyway. Once there was no food to be had, he reminded her. You know nothing of that. But that was fifty years ago, she would say wearily. And there was a war on. If there was one, there can be another, he told her, taking the rancid-smelling box of cheese from her hand. Later when he went out for cigarettes, she threw it all out and put it out back to be collected.
The trolley passes and a cadaverous man in a short black jacket with gold buttons asks if she would like something. She studies the display of nuts and candies, the basket of croissants, the sandwiches in paper. The man waits expressionless, his face waxy, his pale blue eyes staring beyond his cart. Monsieur? Slowly he turns to her and inclines his bony head. Les biscuits au chocolat. His pale fingers pluck out the package and he hands it to her in slow motion. She munches on the cookie, like those she used to eat as a child. Against the low-leaning white sky a village flashes by, and in the distance a water tower the size of a childs toy. Joseph would come back from the snack bar armed with boxes of cookies and candies, sandwiches, chips. My God, she would cry in alarm, we cant eat all that. What if there is an emergency? he wanted to know. We wont starve. What emergency? Anything can happen, he told her, holding out a box of chocolate cookies. Better to be prepared. She looked at the candy bars in her lap and shook her head. He kissed her then, pulling her chin around to him. I know better, he murmured
It was in a bookstore in New York that she first saw Joseph. A dim old-fashioned shop paneled in dark wood, silent in the heat of summer. She sat hunched on a three-legged stool in the corner of a small alcove, reading. "The woman was wearing a kimono and the long skirts trailed on the wooden floor." Kitty bent over the book. But soon she became aware of someone breathing, and putting her finger on the page to mark her place, she looked up. In the doorway stood an older man with broad shoulders, a belly, and unruly white hair, looking at her out of heavy-lidded eyes. I thought you looked Polish, she told him later. Or Israeli. The man seemed to be staring at her legs. And her breasts. Kitty pressed her legs together and held the book up in front of her blouse. He wore baggy corduroy pants. And a blue shirt. A button was unbuttoned over his belly and she caught a glimpse of white. He stared fixedly at her.
The air was heavy and the spines of the books muted with dust. Well, asked Kitty at last to break the silence, what is it? I want to know, he said slowly, although he could easily see the title, what it is youre reading. He had a guttural accent she could not identify. Why do you ask me when you can read it yourself? Im making conversation. Kitty smiled. All right, she conceded. What is it about? Its about a man who goes to visit a geisha. And? he asked. What happens with this man and his geisha?
His forehead was covered in perspiration from the heat of the small room. The man from Tokyo has not seen the geisha in a year, has forgotten to send the dance instructions he promised her. The woman tries to smile behind her white powder but suddenly her face collapses and her eyes fill with tears. She loves him more than he loves her, said Kitty out loud, the book resting on her lap. The man shrugged. That often happens. And then? Does she sing to him plucking a ukulele or do they go right to bed? Kitty looked at him, hesitant. Through the gap in his shirt, she saw the white sliver of undershirt. They go right to bed, she said at last.
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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