H. E. Francis

Crossing the Common

Alexandra always bought the Italian bread at Federico’s in the Italian section by the U. S. Rubber, “the shop” the workers called it. Harry (her mother would spoil Harry) always expected bread fresh from the oven. She herself was partial to her brother. Had he stayed in town, he might have propped her life by relieving her of mother. But none in the family—not Harry or Alice or Rob or Marian—had.

Old Federico, mostly paunch and so short only his head topped the glass bread case, was a lecher. Emerging to hand over the bread, as if carelessly, he would brush the phallic loaves against the breasts or thighs of the young and quivery girls sent for the daily bread.

Leaving, she could not get through the street. There was a procession. From St.  Elizabeth’s. Portuguese. The incense, a sudden sea, imprisoned, and the crowd. As she was bound, she watched. It was the Virgin on a dais, released from captivity in her niche and carried, of course, by sons of women initiated in the sensual rites. Embalmed in plaster painted a paradise blue. No pagan Botticelli naked on the half shell. The dubious mother of a son. What higher tribute to the imagination?

The faithful crossed themselves as the Virgin passed, indifferent, as Alexandra was not, to the ecstasy of bodies pressed so close. If she afterwards passed through the last clouds of incense swung by the altar boys, only she celebrated the exaltation of common flesh.

She had then to cross the Common, today a reluctant, if usually desired, pilgrimage. She would not avoid the shrine, that sycamore, the site of her own momentary, and permanent, crucifixion.

It consoled that after brunch the three would go back, each to his life—Harry to Providence, Alice to her architecture and her various men, and Rob to his perpetual universities. And only Marian, with Russ Jr already gone back to the university, would be left alone in this house, without.

Without Russ.


He was gone. Incinerated. Buried. And this the third day since. Out of whatever consideration—for Marian surely—the family had hardly spoken his name. And she, Alexandra, would not think the name for fear of uttering, yet could not not think it.

She quivered, and halted—till the wavering in her vision passed and the Common—the enormous trees, the bandstand, the courthouse, the school playground—took their places again. The clouds stilled.

Harry, Rob, and Alice had come at once—gathered was her mother’s word (for wheresoever the carcass is, Alexandra thought) to support Marian and Russ Jr, if not comfort them. For who could comfort in death? Not man or God. Only time, if it did. Alexandra knew—since Father.

Her father had claimed that she must have been conceived during the two days he and her mother had spent in Alexandria during their seven-week honeymoon tour of the Mediterranean. The boy (her father, if nothing else, was certain) we’ll name Alexander, he had told her mother.
And so Alex—for compromise or compensation or illusion.

For the first six years she had been his boy, Alex—till Harry. Even then theirs had still been common ground till Harry had turned five or so. Their life had been here on the Common, which meant the swings, the blackened faces in the minstrel shows, the carnival rides, the circus big tents of Barnum and Bailey and the Ringling Brothers and Clyde Beatty and the thinnest woman and the fattest man and the snake man and the werewolf and other freaks and trailers housing animals and clowns and trapeze artists, the weekly concerts by the Italo-American and Portuguese bands on the grandstand, and the baseball diamond, and her father the fanatic Babe Ruth-Lou Gehrig-Yankees fan.

She had not since Russ’s death crossed the Common. She had skirted it.

But this day, especially, was a journey. Weren’t all her fifty years a journey to this day, this end? Or to what beginning? For it was a beginning, but a beginning without: a turn to a now open space, a desert of perhaps years without his presence, invisible or in the flesh. For as long as Russ was, and somewhere, she was. Somehow, for whatever definition, he defined. There was always meaning no matter what the measure of it, which was ours to have and to hold no matter how many layers of living, or dying, veneered it.

Besides, you chose, or something within you chose, and sometimes forever. And she had chosen, and forever.

She was late now—because she had avoided hurry, because she did not want to breathe the emptiness in a house filled with the momentary strangers a family could become; and she did, yes, want to be alone here at this tree where she was never really alone, with what she did not so much remember as live with in that always immediate imagination, for imagination alone could make memory now.

But the cheese soufflé! She had set the oven, time enough to go for bread and to escape to her own emotion. She hurried now to recover time, and not to offend.

Good! They were ready to sit for their last meal together till when?


In Mother’s mouth a name could be destructive.

You took your sweet time.

There was a procession—at St. Elizabeth’s—with the Virgin.

Well, Harry said, so She’s still around! As an example? He glanced at Alice, who seemed to have been born liberated. Years divorced now.

Apparently, Alice said, the Virgin had no choice.

Alice—stunning, with increasing succe