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.

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?

Alexandra?

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 success in her architectural world, a name now—could afford choices, and chose.

Strange you came home empty-handed, Alice.

Harry would nurture his perennial charm.

It’s Vann, and he’s English, and it’s hardly the occasion to introduce him to family, don’t you think, Harry?

Alice sat in the shaft of sun, which her complexion could bear beautifully; sat straight, firm in her devastatingly simply dress, silk, long and just loose enough to reveal the slink of her body. Her hair, long too, chestnut, she invariably tossed over her left shoulder as if wind-blown. You could not say she was not natural—as she intended.

Just in the nick, Alexandra said, bracing the soufflé between potholders. Quick, everybody, before it collapses. Mother–

Her mother served it, yellow and spongy.

Perfect, Alice said, and what an aroma.

The smell alone makes my mouth water. You’ve outdone yourself, Alexandra, Marian said with a voice and a glance of gratitude.

Oh, Marian, Alexandra thought but did not say, not so much flattered as compassionate with Marian in her long silence, but relieved that she had broken it. For the first time in three days Marian seemed here.

Mother poured.

Alex, pass the coffee cups along.

Alex. As if father.

What’re you designing now, Alice? Rob, in his smother of aftershave, masticated words with toast. He had forged the Oxonian art of speaking with virtually no motion of the lips and a minimum of breath, like a ventriloquist.

I’m competing with nine men—she flicked a glance at Harry—for a cultural center in Spain, in, of all places, Pamplona.

Ah, Harry said, where they run the bulls. You’ll enjoy the run, if you don’t get gored.
Harry would lighten things.

I don’t have much chance to play, Rita. Alice is used to it. Growing up with me was torture, wasn’t it, Alice?

A torture I actually missed when I left home. You can’t realize how I depended, Harry. How could you know you were preparing me to deal with men, a great service.

I wouldn’t call it torture, her mother said. Harry was so protective.

Exactly! Alice said. Which made me furious to escape.

It didn’t take too much effort, I judge, Rob said, unless I have Alzheimer’s.

What you have, Rob, is an exaggerated sense of morality. Your poor students! You’ll be turning Macbeth into a Sunday school lesson.

Pity Russ Jr had to go right back, Harry said. He’d set you right. If anybody ever immersed himself in the study of tragedy . . .

Well, I opt for comedy, Alice said.

You live it, Harry said.

Well, Harry, Mother said, tragedy always lurks under the comic surface.

In the instant’s silence, her mother seemed to locate tragedy in the pattern of green and blue fronds in the Ushak.

What Mother knew so seldom surfaced.

I’ll book you for a lecture, Mother. Rob was back in his verbal glide. You’re so right, you know.
That’s something you’d never have admitted as a boy, Rob.

They laughed, all, no doubt remembering her dicta: I’m your mother. Do as I say. Even when I’m wrong, I’m right. To create order. But the order quenched.

If I had admitted it, I’d have changed my tactics.

Harry’s hand slid over Alice’s and rested there.

It was not Alice, but Rita who looked surprised at the gesture.

Alexandra could not envy. She remembered touch. Hers was sacred. And Marian’s. And that touch, Russ’s, taken away from both. Alexandra knew taken away. But would not blame. A mistake led to its own revelation, as Russ had learned with Marian, if he had known.  If there were miseries of all kinds, Alexandra imagined that marital disjunction not remedied must be the worst because constant. As compensation for hers, Marian had become obsessed with Russ Jr’s future and the unconceived grandchildren and had made Alexandra her confessor. Unfortunately that confiding left Alexandra in an undesired Limbo.

Praise Rita, Alice said. None of us ever had her kid gloves with Harry.

Oh, even kid gloves wear out, Rita said, glancing at Harry, if benevolently.

The only saint in those days, it seems, was Rob.

Oh, Rob had his moments. The saint came later, Alice said. The little devil made snowballs—remember, Rob?—which he brought inside and from the upstairs hall window threw at any umbrella that passed and one day tore a hole through Edna Ransom’s. Edna knew Mother. After a family discussion—you certainly remember, Mother, you played bridge with Edna—Rob was condemned to pay for the umbrella by delivering his allowance to Edna in person every week.

Well, it did teach him, Mother said.

Only how to aim right next time. Rob chuckled with the restraint of the cultured club member.

Actually, he added, it did shame and embarrass me.

But didn’t teach humility, Alice said.

I don’t believe in humility, and you damned well know it, Alice.

Alexandra laughed at the sudden clarity of Rob’s speech.

Humility helps us bear, her mother said.

Mother would know humility.

Marian was staring into the blank yellow eye on her plate.

Since her own right eye was distinctly askew, Alexandra knew that she gave the impression of looking at two different objects simultaneously. It gave others, she perceived, the uncomfortable feeling that she was seeing what they could not see—or, simply, that she saw too much.

And she did, if not because of a cocked eye.

To spare them, she would lower her gaze, except when pointedly blatant or defiant, especially at their little injustices.

I don’t mean to be indelicate, Harry said, but before I leave I have to know if you’ll all give me a free hand in the selection of a manager for the factory. . . .

Father had left the lace factory to be administered by Harry conditionally, owned in common by Mother and all the children, with responsibilities and benefits and strict clauses concerning conditions of any intended sale.

His death and those conditions might long ago have freed Alexandra.

But her mother had imprisoned: The stroke in the wake of her father’s death—caused by it?—had incapacitated her.

In response to Harry there were nods and murmurs. Who, in legal matters, could doubt Harry the lawyer?

I’d thought, Harry said, to appoint an interim manager with the hope tha