EDITOR’S NOTE by Joshua Henkin
It is just one of the many notable things about “Glissando” that the writer, Katie Bellas, is in her mid-twenties. There’s none of that jitteriness and showiness so common among young writers. It’s as if Bellas has all the time in the world to peel back the layers of her characters, and this she does, with remarkable precision. “Glissando” is a story about a middle-aged financial titan on the precipice of professional and personal failure. It’s a story about a congenitally cautious man who behaves incredibly incautiously. It’s a story about a man whose life is falling apart, and Bellas dangles him from a noose, and us along with him.
The narrative voice is distinct (“the knowledge that a walk across the lobby at ten-thirty at night to a lady-tenant’s apartment is always more than a walk across the lobby at ten-thirty at night to a lady-tenant’s apartment”), and every page, every paragraph, is filled with lovely touches. Here’s Graham watching his wife depart, “vanishing in increments behind the elevator door,” and here’s a whole world conjured in the description of 1080 Fifth Avenue at Christmastime: “this towing of purchased goods and this ushering of pea-coated children into cabs for Nutcracker performances and this abundance of aproned women making trips to and from basement units with wrapping-paper tubes under their arms.” And here’s a writer with a pitch-perfect sense of the spoken word, as when the doorman, Ed, who is threatening to betray Graham, comes upstairs to help erect the family Christmas tree: “She’s sappy,” Ed says. “Undo me,” says Graham, who has gotten tied up in the tree, and in an extended scene that’s both brilliant and agonizing, Bellas ensares us in the tree as well, and we watch Graham’s marriage come slowly undone. And here’s Graham listening to his wife, Leigh, play the cello: “The music seems to cascade out, beyond the radius of our two bodies, seems to spill onto the backgammon table half-played to my right, onto the Cogswell chair, onto the bookshelves housing the novels and the leather-bound encyclopedias a partner gave us countless Christamases ago.”
You haven’t heard of Katie Bellas, but you will soon: trust me. It’s a great pleasure to introduce her work to you.
Author or The World Without You
Electric Lit relies on contributions from our readers to help make literature more exciting, relevant, and inclusive. Please support our work by becoming a member today, or making a one-time donation here.
I STAND AT MY LIVING ROOM WINDOW, squinting at the trees arranged like moored soldiers outside the Church of the Sacred Heart. Strands of Christmas lights scallop the air between them. It’s the 24thof December. Above them, the burnt orange glow seeps through the stained glass into the semidarkness. When I enter the kitchen, I find Leigh scrubbing a year’s worth of tarnish from the silver bells. “I’m off,” I say quietly, not wanting to disturb her.
She’s immersed in the task, using the slender muscle in her forearm to whip the cloth in quick, controlled circles. But, of course, quick and controlled is the way with Leigh, in even the lesser details of her life: the pragmatic donating of rarely worn coats to the shelter on Third; the quiet, forthright way she tells her sister to pull herself together. She played with the Philharmonic for twenty-six years until she developed tinnitus, ten months ago, from afternoons and evenings spent next to the English horns. Even with her small frame, she commanded the cello. From the first tier, I’d watch her balancing its great hourglass body between her knees, flexing that forearm muscle as she guided the bow across the strings.
“Make sure you get a Fraser, Graham,” she says. “A full one.”
“A Fraser it is.”
When I step toward her, she rings one of the bells, then hands it to me. “And champagne for tomorrow night.”
“Champagne,” I say. “Check.”
“Two bottles. You know Amelia.”
I do. Amelia Phillips is our neighbor from the west side of the building, whose customary friendliness is amplified by flutefuls of champagne. She was initiated into our family of two a dozen years ago when Leigh and I conducted her co-op board interview. They’ve developed a friendship, Leigh and Amelia, that orbits around Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, the shared love of which they discovered midway through the interview, compelling Amelia to take us both by the hand, our arms like the Christmas lights connecting the trees in front of Sacred Heart. Now, she drops by on random nights with a DVD tucked under the arm of her tied robe. And they take Tai Chi classes on Thursday mornings beneath the weeping willows of the Great Lawn. And she spends Christmas evenings with us: my wife, Amelia, and me, listening to Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Snowflakes” and the frenetic footsteps of the children who live on the floor above us.
“You know what?” I say to Leigh. “I’m going to find you the fullest Fraser in Carnegie Hill. A nine-footer.”
“A ceiling-grazer,” she says.
She knows the fundamentals — that our 401K was emptied, and that our investment capital is practically gone, too. She knows we’ve had to alter certain aspects of our life: fewer cabs, a canceled subscription to the ballet, smaller holiday bonuses for the garage attendants. I’ve mentioned we’ll likely have to store the sedan upstate to save on the five-thousand-a-year parking expense. “Conserve where you can,” I told Leigh months ago, touching her left hand, feeling for the calluses on the pads of her fingers. “I can conserve anywhere,” she said. “I can conserve everywhere, in fact. As long as we can keep the apartment.” We were on the loveseat in the living room. The log was burning, orange eddies rising against the cracked marble, and I felt my heart give way.
Had I listened to Curtis, our financial advisor, we would have transferred our retirement fund a year ago. But Curtis can be overly cautious. He can be distrustful, especially of the market that’s always been loyal to us. So I ignored his trained instinct and followed my own.
I stand now for a moment longer, watching the steam from the water fog up Leigh’s glasses, watching her swipe at them with the arm of her turtleneck, and wondering, at the hip of my self-possessed wife, where I learned such cowardice.
“Evening, Mr. Gallagher,” says Ed, the doorman. “Need a cab?”
“At ease,” I say.
Ed rubs his hands together. The lobby is empty except for us, and the brushing of his skin sounds like Leigh’s whisking eggs in the morning: loud and raw.
“Just headed out for the tree,” I tell him.
“A little late this year?”
“Yeah, Ed,” I say. “A little late.”
He crosses his arms over his wide chest. Making judgments and then articulating them to the judged has always come naturally to Ed, the most tale-telling among the vast species of tale-telling doormen. Twice he’s accused the Delaneys’ housekeeper of money-laundering, to which the co-op board, of which I was once the president, said, merely, Shush. Why was he not dismissed for so unfounded an accusation? Because he’s whistled down cabs on virtually cab-less nights for eighteen years; because he’s wide and bespectacled and generally jolly-looking and is therefore hard to convey unpleasant things to; because on Thanksgiving Days, when the 1080 Fifth Avenue families are watching the parade on their couches, it is Ed to whom the wives bring platefuls of turkey and stuffing and yams. I look at the man, the bronze buttons on his coat gleaming, winking at me, and for a moment I can’t recall why his presence makes the loop around my neck feel more like a noose than a scarf.
“She sent you out in the cold?” he says.
“Mrs. Gallagher,” I say. “Yes.”
“I was wondering,” says Ed. “Could we have a word, sir?”
“Of course.” I can feel the noose tightening, and I tug at the wool. “Can it wait, though? The place closes at six.”
Ed grins. I move past him, turning my body lengthwise though there’s sufficient room for us both, and he’s slow to open the door, pulling at his pocket flaps, saying, “Get a good one, Mr. Gallagher. Don’t want to skimp on the tree.”
There are a dozen or so remaining, none of them full, all of them tagged with yellow “on sale” labels that hang off branches. A pair of blond men angles a waist-high spruce through the netting machine for a couple that, like me, is late in purchasing. They’re young, though, and don’t seem concerned, only cold and giddy, the man singing a mis-worded version of “O Tannenbaum” into the woman’s ear. I wait my turn. Four trees rest their bony trunks against the side of Sacred Heart. And then I hear the chiming of the Westminster Quarters from the cylinder of sky above the church. I’ve heard it often, the signaling of the hour, always ringing vague and anonymous from behind my living room window. Now, as I stand half a block closer among the trees, the melody vibrates beneath my collar.
Two weeks ago, Ed put Leigh into a cab headed for LaGuardia to visit her mother. That same night, from his stool by the main door, he watched me get off the elevator at ten-thirty, asked if I needed a cab, to which I gave a thumbs-down. And then I crossed to the west elevator bank and rode to Amelia’s floor. Beyond those facts, I’m not sure what he’s surmised or, knowing Ed, disseminated to other scandal-loving tenants. I can be sure only that Ed, though girlish in his gossipy tendencies, is not ignorant of the basic knowledge all corrupt men share of one another: the knowledge that a walk across the lobby at ten-thirty at night to a lady-tenant’s apartment is always more than a walk across the lobby at ten-thirty at night to a lady-tenant’s apartment. Regardless of the fact that Amelia is one of Leigh’s closest friends. Regardless of the fact that I’ve never made a walk of that nature across any lobby, ten-thirty at night or otherwise, and feel confident that had I, no one, save Ed, would have suspected adulterous intentions. Regardless of these and any other facts that might render my actions that night innocent.
There was nothing innocent about the actions. I’d called Amelia to tell her Leigh wouldn’t be able to make it to their Tai Chi class because her mother was ill. “Poor thing,” she’d said. And I said, “She’s hanging in there.” And Amelia said, “No, Graham, you. You poor thing.”
“You’re not,” she said. “A neighbor can tell.”
Had I crafted a pretext for myself then, telling Amelia we were drained from learning Leigh’s mother would require full-time care, I might easily have hung up after another line or two. Instead, I was silent.
“Come on over,” she said. “We can talk it out.”
And the truth is, right then, leaning against the counter in the dark kitchen of the apartment I’d soon have to sell, I didn’t want to hang up. Amelia is a soft, effusive woman, complementary to Leigh in these characteristics, and in others as well. After all, she has no real stake in my successes and failures; she does not rely on my emotional and financial support, but on my neighborly kindnesses. And I felt a kindness handed from her, too. In her knowing words, in the idea of talking it out, perhaps on her sofa, perhaps drinking coffee or scotch, with her robe baring just the trim of her nightgown. A kindness on a different frequency from that of neighbors.
And, indeed, she did have a mug of scotch in her hand when I arrived, having skirted Ed in the lobby. As we walked by her open Steinway, she tapped its High C, saying, “The thing’s collecting dust,” then closed its fallboard.
We didn’t talk much out, however. Whatever it was, it would be all right, she told me. And I’d known, even in the tapping of the note, what would happen.
“Hungry?” she said when we were through.
I didn’t answer; it seemed a preposterous question.
“I have leftovers.” She turned on her side and stared at me. “Graham,” she said. “You have a classical Greek nose.”
I sat up and pulled on my socks.
“I’ll bet your father did, too. Generations of Gallagher men with wonderful noses.”
“A shame you didn’t have a son.”
“Amelia,” I said again.
“I think I ought to go.”
She stood up and sat back down, on her heels. Then, using the foot throw to cover her body, she walked into the bathroom.
After I’d sunk my bare feet into my loafers, I walked there, too, and watched her as she sat on the tub rim. She said, “Go where?”
I needed, in that moment, to tell her the truth: back to my apartment. Back to my wife, who was still in Southfield, who was nursing her mother to health — or to death — and at whose side I should have remained through that whole formidable process. But I wasn’t at Leigh’s side; I was at Amelia’s, and I knew I had to leave her here, in the state in which she always was: alone. Though Amelia’s being alone is a fact that perplexes both Leigh and me. We often remark on how she’s never married, on how we’ve seen her only a handful of times with a man. It can’t be for lack of suitors; she’s beautiful in her way, fair-skinned, the birthmark beneath her left eye crescent-shaped and lovely. Her half-moon, she calls it. Still, sometimes, when we’re watching television, I’ve caught her staring at Leigh with a soft, pining expression. Not for me, I know, but for the life she assumes is Leigh’s: her career, and her home, and her marriage, all achieved with a seeming lack of effort. “Luck,” Amelia has told Leigh on several occasions. “You were over-endowed with it.” And, each time, Leigh has glanced at me, attempting to conceal her irritation. Of course, luck contributed to Leigh’s success, but so did thousands of hours of rehearsal, and a fearlessness that didn’t come naturally, and the painful task of eliminating people from her life who, even if unintentionally, had held her back. Amelia needed only watch the recording of Leigh from her New England Conservatory days, when she was twenty-two and rehearsing before her instructor, playing the same wrong note again and again, then laying her bow on the ground and walking, silently, out of the music hall.
When I crossed the lobby again that night, at one in the morning, it was empty. There were no people, not even Ed, and my loafers made a hollow shuffling noise against the marble. As the elevator paused, cautious as always for oncoming passengers, I heard the doormen’s lounge open, and then I saw his face.
The blond men approach me, the taller one slapping a pair of shears in his gloved hand. I watch the other couple walk away with their pint-sized tree slanted over the man’s shoulder, and it occurs to me that forgetting that night two weeks ago might not be the worst oversight. It might, in fact, be the best oversight. I say it aloud, to no one: the best oversight. And then the shorter man blows fog into the air and says, “Bloody cold out.”
“Bloody freezing,” says the taller one. They have Nordic accents whose specific origin I’m unable to place. “What’ll it be?”
“A Fraser,” I say.
He circles twine around his forearm. “The cream of the crop. Take your pick,” he tells me, in the manner in which he’s no doubt been telling customers all day, as though there are still countless Frasers to choose among.
“That full one,” I say. It’s not full, but it’s well proportioned, and Leigh will appreciate that. I’m relying on the fact that she’ll appreciate her Christmas gift, too, which I bought a week ago, when I worked past six, and Leigh knew to keep the chicken marsala on low for me. I hailed a cab and then waved it away, boarding the M1, instead, riding with the myriad suited men and women and the one lady who had donned an evening gown, holding its hem high with her left hand, the bus strap with her right.
At the cello store, I told the bearded clerk I wanted to purchase my wife an instrument that was sleek but unbreakable. Something with character, I said. “What’s your cap?” he asked, dragging out the Luis & Clark, its black carbon fibre like wrapping paper. “Wonderful tone in all registers. A little over seven grand.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s my cap.”
My cap was, in fact, far lower than that. Even as I handed him my credit card, even as I clasped his hand, holding it firmly, confidently — the handshake of a man, Leigh once said, who knew the importance of a handshake — I understood I was making a mistake. I am capable of great caution, but I am also capable of great incaution. And great incaution, I’ve learned, acts of great boldness, can distinguish an ordinary man from an extraordinary one. I think of Nelson Rockefeller, of Thurgood Marshall, even of Secretariat (that body of speed and grace and power, always last to break through the starting gates; I can recall sitting in my studio on Barrow Street, listening to Chic Anderson’s voice say in awe, “Secretariat’s widening now!”). I think of the heart inside that thoroughbred. It was through incaution, ultimately, that I arrived in Manhattan after law school; returning to Sparta as my brother had would have been the easier choice. And it was through incaution, again — launching our own firm, walking away from Skadden when no person dared walk away from it — that Leigh and I were able to purchase at 1080 Fifth in the first place.
Buying the Luis & Clark was another case of incaution; if there was any possibility of keeping the apartment, I didn’t have seven thousand dollars to spend. But, without my knowing it, Leigh had put her James McKean cello up for auction at Christie’s. She claimed she felt negligent, seeing it in the living room corner each morning, unplayed. Once it was gone, though, she would read her Musical Quarterly in the evenings and sometimes weep, reusing the same tissue, looking at me over the pages one night and saying, “Whoever bid on it must have wanted it badly.” She is a cellist through and through, even in her precise, mournful words. And it felt clear, hearing her speak them, that no decent man would deny his wife — a wife who’d played on the Philharmonic’s stage for twenty-six years, a wife who’d performed beside the likes of Ma and Rostropovich — her instrument. And, so, I bought the Luis & Clark, laying it beside me in a cab, riding slowly up Madison, watching the storefronts empty but pulsing with hung lights, knowing it was an act of great incaution, but believing, too, it was an act of great love.
Now, as though the tree is made of whiskers, the men gingerly guide it trunk-to-tip through the netting machine and then hand me a tree stand. “Top-of-the-line stand,” the taller one says.
A woman walks by, her Cocker Spaniel dressed in a coat identical to hers, navy blue, and sleek, and designed for more than just warmth. For a few seconds, my tree men watch her. Then the taller one pulls up his sleeves and asks, “Would you like it to be delivered?” And realizing that, yes, I would very much like that, that I cannot possibly carry the weight of it home myself, I nod a few times, the shadow of my head bobbing in the hot, glowing breath of the church. After the holidays, I think. I’ll tell Leigh about the apartment after the holidays.
But I hold in my heart an iota of hope: that perhaps I won’t have to tell her after the holidays; that perhaps I won’t have to tell her at all. I remind myself of William’s promise — William, our managing partner, who listened as I told him of Leigh’s and my situation, as I asked him about a bonus, a bonus on top of the bonus I’d already received; who walked with me to his office window and circled his arm around my shoulders; who said, “I know, Graham. We’re all going through this,” and then, confidentially, “I’ll look into it.” It’s on this looking-into that I’ve pinned my hopes. Dedicated William — Billy the Kid, we call him — confirming the numbers, what the new year will bring, finding that when he looks hard enough there will be something extra for me and Leigh, and that, with that extra, we can have what we’ve always had — Christmas together, our two stockings hung from the mantle, Leigh’s cello in the corner, the tree aglow beside it.
“Find a good one?” Ed says, using his toe to kick in the metal doorstop.
“Look, Ed,” I say. “It’s being delivered. Make sure it gets up to us right away so we can start the trimming.”
“Sure,” he says. “And then we can have our chat.”
When I look at him, he’s smiling again, and I see the jolliness in his puffed cheeks, and then I see the opposite of jolliness in the way he’s moving his tongue around inside them, waiting for me to answer. He opens the door for the Dresdens, their small granddaughter running ahead and hopping up the steps.
“We’re busy tonight. We can have our chat next week,” I say. “After the holidays.”
“She’s a good girl,” Ed says to Mrs. Dresden, motioning to her granddaughter. He bows his head, and, out of respect for the little girl’s goodness, I bow mine, too. After a moment with both our heads lowered, he leans toward me and whispers, “There are many good girls in this building.”
I step away from him, pulling the sides of my coat closer around me. I back up the three steps, watching him, but he’s turned already and is thumping old Mr. Dresden on the shoulder. We wait, the Dresdens and I, as the numbers above the elevator are illuminated in reverse order, from right to left, six, then five, dropping toward us, then three, and Mr. Dresden is trying to speak to me, then two, but I can’t look the man in the face, then one.
Leigh’s arranged half the silver bells in the turkey pan and brought them into the living room. I find the clover-shaped burn on the rug — the spot I know to be the center of the room — and stand atop it with my eyes shut. I extend my right arm, feeling beside me for the log’s heat.
“Are you all right?” Leigh says. I blink a few times and turn around. “Were your eyes closed?”
“The tree will be here soon,” I say.
“Good, because the bells will be ready soon, too.”
“The things I’ve been polishing all afternoon?”
From a deep well, a memory rises: Leigh no older than thirty-five, sitting on the kitchen stool, cleaning the cello before her matinee. She used the cloth from the kitchen drawer first, then a penny-sized drop of polish, which she rubbed in the same circular motion as on the bells. “It’s to seal the wood,” she said, knowing I wanted, like a child, to understand.
“Come here,” she said. She put my fingers around the bow and positioned me behind her. She placed her left index finger along the first two strings and meticulously guided the bow in my hand across the belly. “A perfect fifth,” she said, her voice as gorgeous and restrained as the chord we’d just played. “Now you know how to do it.” She looked up at me, the earnestness in her long, slim face making me want to stay in that position, just behind her, with my arm around their two bodies.
Still, I left. I went to the bedroom to change my clothes or to shave; I can’t recall which. When I came back, she was still there, with the instrument leaning against her shoulder. There was nothing for me yet to begrudge: no tinnitus to block her flow of income; no mother-in-law to travel to, to diagnose, to care for. There was only her uncomplicated love for Johann Sebastian Bach, and her slightly more complicated love for me.
Before she left, she looked at herself in the foyer mirror. She pressed the elevator button and, because we were on the third floor, it took only seconds before the door jerked open. I watched her board. I envisioned her stowing her cello after the concert, starting up Broadway, another darkly clad person exiting Avery Fisher Hall, the wide avenue merging into Amsterdam and then West End, and then finally hitting the Hudson River. “I’ll see you after,” she said, yawning, vanishing in increments behind the elevator door.
Now, I ease toward her in the living room. “The strings of the cello are the lungs,” I say, repeating what she told me as she demonstrated how to control the length and quality of notes. “The bow is the breath.”
I can feel her trying to read me like sheet music, studying the way in which my mouth moves, the precise arrangement of my feet on the rug.
“There were phrases you used to tell me,” I say.
“About the cello?”
“Glissando means sliding in Italian; pizzicato means plucking.”
“I remember,” she says.
“I didn’t really understand what they meant. But you always explained them so we’d both be in on it.”
“Should I not have?”
“You should have,” I say. “And you did.”
I look toward the window curtain, which is thick and salmon-colored and has hidden the bulk of the Luis & Clark almost too completely. I wonder if I should present it to her now, before she thinks to return to the kitchen.
“What I really want to know is,” — she unfolds her hands and puts them on the resting points of her hips — “did you find a Fraser?”
I swallow. “I did.”
She begins to walk away, toward the kitchen, over the hardwood floors that have borne our years of stepping. At the doorway, she turns. “You’re sentimental, you know that?”
The fact is we’ve made a life from within the square feet of our apartment. A life I’ve managed — through noble and ignoble means, through defending companies that I knew, sometimes, were disreputable, but also through charitable donations and through a specific charity of character — to turn into a lifestyle. And now it is ingrained and natural and unstudied. I imagine both sets of parents, were they to watch our lives playing before them like a film reel, would have to search to identify us, so changed are Leigh and I from the children who attended Catholic school in Southfield and Sparta, respectively. It isn’t an obscene lifestyle; we take pride in our practicality as compared to certain others who reside at 1080 Fifth. But it’s ours nonetheless, and I fear, were it to alter, our hard-earned notion of ourselves would be broken.
I go into the study, pull the sliding door shut, and turn on the computer. I check the MarketWatch, as I’ve been doing more often of late. The Dow is down three percent, the Global Dow down five. I remove my glasses and dial William’s home number. Marin, his wife, answers. We talk for a few minutes before she says, “You called for Bill, and here I am, going on about the kids. You and Leigh have a good Christmas, all right?” There’s something in her voice that makes me have to sit down in the desk chair.
When William begins to speak, I can barely move. “Graham,” he says, “how’s the pre-holiday bedlam?”
“I was just checking in,” I tell him.
“Concerning what we spoke about.”
“I know,” he says again.
“It’s Christmas, Bill,” I tell him. “Everyone’s preoccupied with the in-laws. No one’s going to pay attention to the books.”
“Are you suggesting — ”
I don’t even know what I’m suggesting. I can hear Marin in the background and their children, too, Molly and Caleb, talking in high-pitched tones. And then I hear a door shut, and their voices disappear. “I just mean there must be some flexibility.”
“I’ll do my best, Graham. That’s all I can promise.”
“That’s what I want to hear.” Though it’s not exactly what I want to hear; what I want to hear are words far more reassuring. I’ve known William over twenty years, and if there’s something that can be done, he does it, and swiftly. He’s the best, brightest litigator I’ve ever worked with. “I appreciate it, Bill,” I say. I put the phone down but keep sitting there, my hands clasped in my lap, my knees pressed tight against each other.
“Meet me by your service elevator,” I tell Amelia over the phone.
“Why?” she says.
“It’ll only take five minutes.”
I can hear a teapot shrilling. “Fine,” she whispers, though I doubt there’s anyone in the apartment to hear her.
Half an hour later I call to Leigh that I’m taking out the garbage. I exit through the back door and descend the three flights to the lobby. Dennis is loading the Stevenses’ suitcases and their three daughters into a station wagon; Mrs. Pommeroy is carrying a Petak’s bag and a smaller William Greenberg one containing, I trust, the rugelach and biscotti Leigh will purchase in the morning. Every December is alike: this towing of purchased goods and this ushering of pea-coated children into cabs for Nutcracker performances and this abundance of aproned women making trips to and from their basement units with wrapping-paper tubes under their arms. I stand for a moment, watching it all. Ed is nowhere. I nod at Mrs. Pommeroy, and then I ride the west service elevator, counting the floors as we climb.
When I step out, Amelia’s already standing in the dim stairwell. “Never one for punctuality,” she says.
“Could we have a talk?”
“About what?” She’s wearing a cream-colored blouse, its shirttails untucked from her trousers, her hair hanging in semicircles around her face.
“About where we stand.”
She looks around. “Where we stand,” she says, “is outside the back door, next to some congealing Thai food.” There’s a Viang Ping delivery bag on the top step of the landing, oyster-sauced Tupperware and white-rice containers visible within. Beside the bag sit two pizza boxes.
I nudge one with my foot. “The Delaneys,” I say. “They must have been hungry.”
“Let’s just talk in the kitchen,” Amelia says.
I tell her, no, I’d prefer if we stayed here.
“Fine,” she says. “So, then, what?”
I touch the top of her arm and say, “We both know what happened was an error in judgment.” I keep my hand there, lightly pressing, because, after all, she’s Amelia, and Amelia’s been uniquely generous these twelve years, as not all New Yorkers or neighbors are.
She shudders. “Graham.”
“You’re an exceptional woman,” I say. “The whole building agrees.” My hand still rests there.
“Graham,” she says, again. She places her right palm across her chest, the gesture of a woman on the verge of collapse. Her face is horrified and, at the same time, flirtatious in its horror. “Graham,” she says, “are you coming on to me again?”
“Again?” I say. It was Amelia who came on to me. It was she who felt warm and took her robe off, draping it over the fireplace poker. It was she who reached across me for the matches and then stayed there, her neck almost touching my face, so I could smell the scotch, and the faint vanilla of her skin.
“Let’s not argue, Graham. We’re adults here, aren’t we?” She fixes her eyes on mine and then, slowly, humiliatingly, bats them.
We are, in fact, adults, and the adult thing — the prudent thing — would be to give Amelia her little indulgence. Because it occurs to me that this misinterpretation could work to my advantage. Were Amelia to think I wanted a reprise, were she to believe she was deflating me gently, knowing she emerged from the debacle on the respectable side, the debacle itself might vanish. She might never tell Leigh what transpired between us. She might never even hint at it.
But Amelia keeps looking at me sideways, and, suddenly, I can’t abide her thinking so crassly of me. Because the truth is I will never cross the lobby to her west-side apartment again, not for a talk, or even for a drink, though on some future occasion I may be forced to, Leigh scolding me and saying, “We owe her a visit.” I look straight at her. “I didn’t mean to confuse you, but that’s just not what this is.”
“You don’t have to be embarrassed.”
“Amelia, the only thing I’m embarrassed by is that I talked to you on the phone that night instead of talking to Leigh. That I walked to your apartment instead of remaining in ours.” I feel the words spew out of me, as though each has the strength to push her rearward, toward the pizza boxes and discarded Thai food.
She holds one of her shirttails. Then she pushes her back door open so I can see her kitchen sink and the cupboards above it, the green marble countertop and, on a plastic stand to the right, the miniature painting of the silhouetted Angkor Wat that Leigh and I purchased for her on our trip to Southeast Asia. There are no carols playing, no wreath, no tree.
“So why did you come, then?” Amelia says. “To request my silence?”
It is, in fact, why I came, why I made her meet me here, beside the service elevator.
“So that’s what you want? Everything? Your lovely, talented wife, your impressive job, your fling with the woman across the building?”
“Amelia,” I say. “It wasn’t like that.” I take a step toward her.
“What was it like, then?”
I reach for the bannister and hold its knob. Perhaps it was like that, but I didn’t — I don’t — want to think about it that way.
“I have something for you,” she says.
“Please,” I say. “Don’t give me anything.”
“It’s the ham Leigh wanted me to bring for tomorrow night.”
“Then why don’t you bring it?”
“Because” — she squints at me — “I don’t know if I’m coming.”
Briefly, I’m relieved. What could be more harrowing than Amelia’s sitting in our living room tomorrow night, intoxicated, knowing what she knows, knowing that I know it, too, staring at Leigh lighting the votive candles and serving her ham? And yet I know her absence would worry Leigh. I know Leigh would call to check up on her, to offer her soup if she were ill, or, if she weren’t, to inquire as to her whereabouts. “Of course you’re coming.”
But Amelia is quiet. I can hear the service elevator. It makes heavy clanking noises, loud and rising toward me like a tray of rattled silverware. And then there’s the sound of the cage door being opened a floor below us.
“Will you just come in here and take it?” Amelia says.
Inside her kitchen, she pulls a covered dish from the refrigerator and draws back the tin foil. The meat’s front half is sliced in uneven segments, as though she did the carving herself. She lifts the ham and reaches it toward me, and I relieve her of it. “Please,” I say, “just keep this between us.”
She swings open her back door for me to leave.
As I walk through, I keep it half-open with my elbow. “I can’t risk my marriage over this.”
She stands at the door, sphinxlike, looking for a moment like the real estate broker she is.
“Are you going to say anything?”
“I don’t know yet,” she says. “I’ll do what I decide to do.”
I want to say more — to beg for her silence, to plead — but she shuts the door, and I begin the eleven-flight walk to the lobby. I imagine the 1080 Fifth families inside their kitchens — the Travises on the tenth floor, the Solomons on the eighth, the Garfields on the third — hearing my loafers as I pass. I can feel my ribs tightening, their cage locking and relocking. By the time I reach the bottom, I’m unable to gather my breath.
At my own back door, I lower both the ham and its porcelain dish into our recycling bin, hoping to rid myself of it, of everything. I lean against the knob, and then, because I feel I must, I knock.
Soon Leigh appears, smiling perplexedly, saying “What on earth?” and pulling me back in by the wrist.
“Ed phoned up,” she calls. “The tree’s here.”
Twenty minutes have passed, and, again, I wait at the service elevator. When the cage door is pulled open, Ed is standing with one arm circling the bound tree.
“Shall we do this together?” I say.
“She’s sappy,” Ed says. He’s on one side, and I’m on the other. We hoist the Fraser and begin to walk it through the kitchen. Leigh shoves the stools under the table to make way for us. The plastic netting around the tree is cutting grooves in my fingers, and I tell him, “Keep it up, Ed,” as we squeeze our three bodies through the kitchen doorway. We’ve nearly made it into the living room — are, in fact, paused in the foyer — when the kitchen timer sounds above the music, and Leigh wanders away to remove the baked potatoes from the oven.
Ed and I rest the tree down, hugging the thing around its middle. I see him peer around the Fraser, his glasses shiny ovals between the needles. “I’m hoping we don’t have a problem here, Mr. G.”
“Please,” I say. “Let’s get this into the living room.” I dig my hands into the tree and feel the sap on the pads of my fingers.
“Hang on, now,” he says. “This won’t take more than a minute.”
“Buddy,” I say. “Ed.”
I lift my half of the tree, but Ed has dropped his hands to his sides. His feet are spread in a wide stance, and he opens his mouth slowly before speaking. “The holiday bonus, sir,” he says. “You know what I’m getting at.”
He’s come around to my side of the tree. Our mouths are close together, and I get a whiff of Ed: the scent of freshly laundered shirt over filthy torso. Even with my face inside a tree, I can smell him.
“It’s half what you gave me last year,” he says.
The holiday bonuses. Five hundred dollars for the majority of the men, the superintendent aside, and double that for the likes of Ed, who’s been employed by the building for nearly two decades. I’ve known the liability of the decision — a decision riskier, even, than the one to renege on our pledged ten-thousand-dollar donation to Memorial Sloan-Kettering. The oncologists, after all, don’t open a door for me twice a day. They don’t watch me from a stool in the lobby. I try to take a step back, but my top two shirt buttons have gotten caught in the tree’s netting.
“A little help here?” I say.
“You’d like a little help?”
“Undo me,” I tell him.
Ed lifts his palm to my face, opening and shutting his gluey thumb and index like a hand puppet. “No can do.”
“This is no time for jokes, Ed.”
“No,” he says. “It’s not.”
I look down at the buttons, which are only partially visible beneath my chin. My fingers are coated in sap, and as I attempt to unwind the second button, I realize I’m twisting the netting in the wrong direction.
“Looks like we’re not going anywhere,” he says.
“This is absurd.”
“Listen,” says Ed. “There must have been a mix-up. Simple as that.”
“Leigh,” I call.
“I don’t think you want to do that.” His voice rises and falls like a song, and it takes me an extra netting-tug to understand exactly what the man’s advising me against. I put my free hand on my hip and hold it there. “Would you prefer I call down for Dennis?”
“Of course,” says Ed, “we can always make a deal. We’re good deal-makers, you and I.”
The faucet is running in the kitchen, the deep-throated voice of Nat King Cole crooning amidst the water. I wonder what class of conspiracy a mind like Ed’s has the ability to invent, standing here in my foyer. He takes another step toward me, his head lowered still. “Like I said, the building is full of fine women.”
I think of the ham. I think of my lowering it into the recycling bin, of its honey scent evaporating into the garbage with it. I think of Amelia’s batted eyelids, of the fact that I needed only to have said, “You’re right, Amelia. I’m sorry. You’re a beautiful woman, but this just isn’t right,” of how she would have blushed and perhaps touched my face, how she might even have kissed me. And then she’d have said, without irony or bitterness, “Go home.”
Leigh walks in, a string of lights coiled around her wrist.
“Double what you got last year,” I say to Ed. “Double it, and we’re done.” I reach down and begin to pull at my shirt, but my hands are slick now, and as I pull, I lose grip of the button. My hand jabs at my chest.
“Are you all right?” says Leigh. She tries to step around us with the loop of lights, but we’re blocking the entrance to the living room.
“That ain’t gonna cut it, sir.”
“Graham,” says Leigh. “Are you stuck?”
“Look,” I whisper to him, “I can’t do any better.” Sweat has begun to move down the side of my face and collect at my jawbone. Leigh comes to us, sighing, saying, “Okay, okay. Show’s over.” She reaches toward my shirt, and again Ed says, “That’s not gonna cut it, sir. Not by a long shot.”
“What’s not going to cut it?” Leigh says.
“Triple it.” I arch my back away from the tree, trying to tug myself loose, and needles from the top branches fall like confetti around me. “Quadruple it.”
“Getting hotter,” says Ed.
Leigh steps away from us. “Quadruple what?”
“Yeah, Mr. G.,” Ed says. “Quadruple what?” His face is full of mock confusion. And I feel a blockage in my throat, something solid I’m not able to swallow. I rip myself away from the tree and take several steps backward, shutting my eyes, my ankles knocking against each other. They stand before me — Leigh and Ed — like a pair of carolers. I take the coil of Christmas lights from Leigh’s hand, and then I take the hand itself. Nat King Cole is still singing, and my voice, too, tumbles out between the lyrics, a rock-slide of words. “The tree’s fine,” I tell him. “Get out.”
Ed smiles. “No problem, Mr. G. I’ll stop by in the morning.” And I can see jolliness nowhere in his body — not in the gesture of his arm, still circling the tree, not in his ruddy, wind-burnt face.
“That was rude,” Leigh says once he’s left. “Who’s going to help us put up the tree now?”
“I’m going to help us.”
She rubs the center of her forehead. “It’s a little spare.”
The CD has clicked off, and the apartment is silent. “Come here,” I say. I wipe the sap on my pants legs and lead her into the living room, where she sits on the ottoman, looking at me, her head canted to the side. As I make my way to the window, I can feel her eyes trailing me. “Close them,” I say, and, because she knows what I’m referring to, she does. I push aside the curtain. I lift the cello, my gift to her, feeling my biceps contract, knowing this is the last object I’ll be able to raise today. I walk it to her. And then I spin the cello and balance its body between her knees.
“Graham!” she says. She’s blinking now. The fire is curling behind us, and I can see its reflection in the glass of the Calder on the opposite wall. “A Luis & Clark! Where did you get this?”
“I bought it for you.”
“For me?” she says.
“I know how much you miss your McKean.”
She places her hands on my shoulders and brings me toward her in an embrace. The cello is between us, its neck jutting up past our own necks, and she holds me that way, saying, “Oh, Graham,” her voice rising and breaking. She leans back, then hugs me again. “The thing is” — her words are muffled against my shoulder — “can we afford it?”
“For your happiness, I can afford anything.” And, in that moment, I allow myself to believe I can. And, I know, Leigh allows herself to believe it, too. In my pocket is my cell phone. On it are three missed calls from Amelia, received fifteen minutes apart, each without a voicemail. I’ve turned the silencer on. I won’t talk to Amelia, not here, not now, not with my wife by my side, having just embraced me, not the night before Christmas.
Leigh runs her hands along the cello’s fingerboard. “You bought this for me?” she says again, as if she can’t quite fathom it.
And me — I can’t quite fathom it, either.
Her cheeks are wet, and I bring her a tissue. She lays it in her lap, letting the tears remain there like glass on her face. She tucks her chin against her chest, and then, after a moment of tuning, she begins to play the Sarabande from Bach’s “Cello Suite No. 5 in C minor.” It contains no chords; it’s a single melodic line, which is something she taught me another long ago morning, running her finger through the air to illustrate it. Its bottom notes are so warm, so plummy, I wonder whether it’s the instrument that’s singing or Leigh’s voice. I watch her left-hand vibrato as she presses her index against the strings. I watch her right elbow move in unending breaths. The music seems to cascade out, beyond the radius of our two bodies, seems to spill onto the backgammon table half-played to my right, onto the Cogswell chair, onto the bookshelves housing the novels and leather-bound encyclopedias a partner gave us countless Christmases ago. I shut my eyes. I feel the cello’s sounds escaping into the foyer and the cardamom-scented kitchen, the laundry room, the burgundy den, the dining room with its Ming stone horses and Leigh’s mother’s china, and then the narrow hall that leads to the bedrooms, ours and our guests’, into the granite-tiled bathrooms beyond them, into the medicine cabinets containing my travel dopp kit and Leigh’s rose and lavande and fleurs d’oranges perfumes. The music leaves watermarks on the wallpaper. It seeps through the floorboards, down to the McKenzies’ children’s playroom. There is nothing within the apartment it doesn’t touch.
Leigh plays only half the Sarabande. Then she lifts her bow, lays the instrument on the rug, and comes to me. She places her hand on the backside of my neck. Together, we peer out the window. An evening mass is beginning, the churchgoers’ heads dotting the Sacred Heart steps beneath us. They are be-scarved and be-mufflered, these Carnegie Hillers, and they file in slowly. Overhead, the Westminster Quarters announces seven o’clock.
Leigh flicks off the table lamp so there’s no window glare to obstruct our views. She exhales, and I can feel the muscles in her upper back release and lengthen beneath my arm, which is tight around her shoulders. She looks over at the cello. “Graham,” she says. “I just love it.”
We remain that way, her hand on my neck, my own hand holding the knob of her shoulder, watching the steepled church until its doors close. Then she helps me walk the Fraser into the living room and position it beside the backgammon table. I screw the nails of the stand into the tree base and, with my Swiss Army Knife, slice at the netting. The branches swing out around me.
Leigh steps back to inspect the tree, which is leaning precariously to the right. “Our very own Tower of Pisa,” she says, tilting her head, too, taking a branch in her hand. She walks from limb to limb, gauging the strength of each and, after she’s found one sturdy enough, hangs a polished bell. Then she walks out of the living room, humming “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”
In the night, I jolt to the sound of metal against metal. It’s not intruders; it couldn’t be, what with Ed on duty at his stool. Leigh snores and turns on her side, her elbow pulling the sheets with her. I don’t want to wake her up, and so I walk through the apartment without turning on the lights, reaching my arms out before me, treading the rooms’ waters, knowing by memory the distance between the den sofa and the wall. I feel for the coffee table with my knees, and then the doorway with my hands, until I’ve reached the standing foyer lamp. When I turn it on, it casts a cone of light into the living room, where the Fraser lies on its side like a toppled soldier. It has hit the chess set on its way down. Several pawns and the white marble king roll around the carpet; the bell that Leigh hung sticks out from beneath the sofa skirt.
I feel something catch in my throat as I think about the voicemail I listened to last night, the one Amelia left on her fourth and final phone call, the one in which she said, “We need to talk, Graham. The three of us. You, me, and Leigh.” Her voice was low and resigned, the voice of a woman incurably disappointed. I erased the voicemail, hoping, as I did, that I might succeed in stopping her. I unlocked the bathroom door, got back into bed, and clicked off the television, to whose sound Leigh had fallen asleep. Amber lights — the headlights of a cab — entered through the blind slats. I watched them work their way across the far wall, across the mirrored closets, as I listened to Leigh’s breathing, to her gentle catches and releases. I could feel the muscles in my body — along my neck, down my shoulders, in my calves and shins, inside my chest — tighten beneath the covers. I closed my eyes, waiting, in vain, for sleep.
Now I leave the fallen tree in the living room and walk to the study. I switch on the computer, staring at the screen as it animates, the upward arrow in the MarketWatch’s W looking foolish beside the downward-trending stocks: the Dow and the Nasdaq and the S&P 500, their numbers red and plunging, the line of the graph beside it like a jagged mountain slope. I open a new browser window. The Gmail logo is adorned with garland, the dot above the i a red, glowing nose. There are several unopened emails — one from my brother Richard, one from Amazon.com, one from Memorial Sloan-Kettering, one from William, our managing partner.
Bill, I think. Billy the Kid. The frontier outlaw. The gunman. Merry Christmas, I think. Merry Christmas to you, too, Bill. I click open the emails. I read each word of them — Richard’s weekly golf score, two under par, with a double eagle on the third hole; Amazon’s eighty-seven percent discount on dental services; Memorial Sloan-Kettering thanking me for giving Michael and his sister a holiday to remember, offering me a tour of the new hospital wing. I read even the fine prints: the unsubscribing methods, the copyrights. And then, when there are no emails left to open, when the only unopened one is from Bill, I hover the mouse over the blank subject line. I move it over his small, middle-initialed name, the one I pass each morning on its nameplate outside his office, the one I’d never see appear in my inbox, at four in the morning, unless I’d done something terribly wrong.
I’m sorry, Graham, it says.
I can feel my pulse in my temples.
I tried, but it didn’t work.
I blink at the email, which is unsigned, and I wonder if it’s possible to call him, in the middle of the night, to wake Marin, to wake their children, too, wonder if it’s possible to tell him in a rational but unyielding way to recheck the numbers he’s already checked, to be, in addition to a good partner, a good friend.
But he’d want to know what I was thinking calling him at this hour, what I was thinking asking him to doctor the numbers in the first place. And I’d say, “I never asked for that, Bill. I asked for a favor, and friends do friends favors.” And he’d pause, and I’d hear him sigh and say, “Not that kind.”
I close the browser and then the lid of the laptop. I push myself as far from the desk as my arms will reach. Leigh and I will have to start to look for rentals. I know it, but I can’t think about that now. I stand and walk as speedily as I can to the laundry room, my feet slipping out of the backs of their loafers. I find a tool chest. Within it are hooks and a drill and some twine. I took a carpentry class in junior high, and I assembled the desk chair that sits, even now, in the study; I can anchor a tree.
I borrow Leigh’s rubber gloves to protect against the sap. From the chest, I retrieve a hook and screw it into a stud on the window-side wall. I loop twine around the trunk. My cell phone vibrates against the fireplace mantle. Good God, I think. It’s four in the morning. I watch it, my hands frozen inside the tree. I can feel sweat at my hairline and then dripping down my temple. I secure the Fraser at three points along the length of its trunk and, when I finish, tug at one of the low branches. It rocks.
Again, from across the room, the cell phone drones. It inches across the mantle. I can’t check to see who’s calling; I can’t even go near it. Because I know already, without even having to go near it: Amelia’s phone number is flashing on the screen.
I crack open the window, letting my pajamas billow around me. When I look toward the Luis & Clark, I see Leigh’s sheet music, too, held down by a small porcelain nutcracker, ruffling in the breeze. And then I see Leigh herself, standing in the entrance, watching me.
“It isn’t going to fall again tonight.”
She rubs her face. “Something fell?”
“No,” I say. “Yes. The tree.”
She peers at it, her hand shielding her eyes, as though it were lit and blinding her.
“It’s all right, though. I anchored it.”
“What time is it?” she says. “Almost four?”
“After four,” I say. “Go back to bed, honey.”
But she stays there. The cello looks grand, resting on its tailspike, waiting to be played. It’s black, and it’s shining. I carry it to the window. With it leaning against my shoulder, I sit on the ledge. I pluck the G, which vibrates steadily up my arm: a deep, bottomless tremor. I put my left index finger over the two top strings. The bow is on the needlepointed chair beside me, and I lift it, then lay it over the cello’s great belly. I guide it, skating the bow atop the strings, the dyad of notes blending into a single, throaty, dissonant sound. “It’s going to be all right,” I say softly, and I almost feel it speak back to me, almost feel its voice, full and knowing, almost feel its silent, bottled chords.
Leigh walks to me, her eyes only half open, and wipes a dusting of sweat from my forehead.
“Go to sleep, sweetheart.”
She hesitates, then turns, and I watch the back of her move to the living room entrance, round the corner, and disappear.