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 that Russ Jr might be willing to be trained to take over after graduation.

Russ? Marian murmured. Come home to live?

There was half a hope in her voice.

Alice was quick to say, Why wouldn’t he with such an opportunity?

How, Alexandra thought, could Alice, so unfettered, condemn Russ Jr to such boundaries? Absolutely not! Alexandra fixed her eye on Harry.

But, Alex! Ron recoiled.

Don’t But, Alex me! The boy paints, he writes, he’s headed straight for his own world, in the arts. Isn’t he, Marian?

Alex is right, Marian said and added, as if at some Confession, Russ is like Alex’s own. She saved him. It was heroic.

No, no, it was spontaneous—and necessary, Alexandra said.

The scene surged at this moment: Rush Jr playing in the water and she and Marian sitting on the rocks at the foot of Union, watching the ferry leave Hog Island and head through the harbor toward Prudence, when a woman shouted and pointed—at the ferry, they thought, but it was at Russ face down afloat in the water and no gurgle or struggle. Marian screamed, but froze, and it was Alex who streaked and seized and flattened the little body on the sand and bent over and sucked and breathed till his chest stirred, till her breath was his.

So he was hers now.

Marian was grateful, but perhaps did not know she had not forgiven. Alex understood because Marian felt—and wrongly—at fault and because she felt, subconsciously perhaps, that she had lost some part of Russ Jr.

And the boy, as if defying the water, had become the school champ swimmer and in time had also became addicted to the regattas, like his father, who had made him responsible for maintaining the sloop.

Marian raised her eyes, whether in collusion with Alexandra or not, but before she could speak her mother did:

It is Alexandra who knows.

Mother could deprecate.

Yes, Alexandra said baldly.

And she did know, her brothers and sisters submissively admitted, but what she knew evaded them. That was her triumph, though her mother with invisible blinders hardly perceived.
As the oldest, with the birth of each new sibling—first Marian, then Harry, then Alice, then Rob—Alexandra had become aware of being relegated to increasing distance on the familial assembly line.

No, Harry, she said. Russ Jr won’t do, and he won’t do it. He’s not Russ.

Russ. His name was ash in her mouth.

Marian?

Harry waited.

I’m afraid Alex is right.

Alice?

As far as I’m concerned, you have a free hand, Harry. When have you failed us?

Rob?

We’re in your hands, Harry.

Alex? Mother?

You know you have our absolute confidence, always, Harry.

Then I’ll go ahead with it. I’ve been pondering two possibilities in the factory, but after my

interviews I’ll submit my choice to you all for formal approval.

I’m sure it’s what Russ would have wished, Rita said.

You haven’t touched your strawberries, Harry, Mother said. Alexandra picked them herself back of town.

It surprised that Mother did not slur back of town as “the portygee patch.”

There was a linger, with the sun, with the breeze, the strong scent of the peonies just outside the breakfast room windows, a long silent hesitancy before the anticipated farewells.

They were anxious, but not. Mother, she saw, let her gaze streak out over the lawn and linger too, her way of quelling her almost never displayed emotion: for when would she see Alice or Rob again? And though Harry was just sixteen miles off in Providence and drove to the lace factory every day, her mother, always insatiate with Harry, lived for his drop-ins.

Marian, Rita said, why not spend a few days with me and Harry?

Perhaps later when–

You could drive up with me anytime, Harry said.

But Marian won’t be alone, her mother said.

Alexandra knew alone.The silence was awkward. Alice and Rob halted as if at a mystery.
Alexandra will stay.

Mother with one of her creative eruptions.

But, Marian said, I don’t need anyone.

Of course you don’t need, but Alexandra does things so well.

Alexandra did. That was her specialty.

Ironically, did saved her.

And I can do without her for a spell. I’m sure I can persuade Josephine to stay with me in-between times. She’s always glad for extra work.

Which meant, Alexandra knew, crossing town from one house to the other each day, for her mother would have no hired help: nobody else did for her well enough.

The house—her father, the only son, had inherited it—stood on the south side of the Common,  enormous, but old oaks softened and kept it from being vulgarly imposing. Marian had yearned, always, for the historic Bradford house on Hope and had kept her eye out, and Russ had acquired it—for what could be more convenient for his work at the factory?—almost the day old Miss Bradford the teacher had died.

The purchase had stunned Alexandra, for Marian and Russ had unconsciously decided her fate. Russ. He would be close, and always. She was trapped between rage and ecstasy. It maddened. It excited. It tortured: as if his presence had been Marian’s, or Russ’s, unconscious gift or curse, the day by day reminder, the inescapable goad to her passion. But how could they know her passion? How know it was her salvation and her destruction. Which she could not stop. Which she would not. Which she deplored and desired.

She bore this displacement with a free mind because, between times, escaping, she lived trees, moths, eels, sea life, weeds, wild flowers. She could identify everything in town—town was hers—or in the woods—hers too—to the embarrassment of her Oxonian brother. Rob would study and study and seek permanent refuge in a university and remain sterile and bachelor. Though books were her companions, her truest was nature. Outdoors was her retreat, which she felt deeply, which she was part of, though not breeding. Even as a girl so at home with weeds and wild flowers, she’d bring in specimens: This is butter-and-egg, look—columbine, here’s monkshood, and this sneezeweed. Sometimes now in her imagination she went down into the hole with the earthworm, sometimes felt the hot steel of stars or sank into the soft pith of trees, though nothing transcended the moments when she lived again the chafe against the bark of that tree and exulted in tremor after tremor and a wet ecstasy. That moment Russ had made her more than Alexandra. Mother, sitting with her in absolute stillness, did not know she could escape into the flight of a sparrow, into the still wait of a praying mantis clinging days to the pane in a last October warmth, into the chafe of bark and that ecstasy . . .

Russ had felt her intense sympathy, which, with whatever intention it had been given, he had felt most on that most transporting of nights at that sycamore, a sympathy which, with modification, he had confessed to at certain family celebrations over the years. His words were hands over her. His words penetrated marrow.

But that night neither Russ nor she could ever fully confess to. Still she knew that whenever he stood beside her at her home or his, he crossed into a warm ease unlike his routine motions with Marian and Russ Jr; and she saw he responded as if she gave off a sudden aura or scent which attracted and which she attributed to unspoken memory–and that gave her a momentary security and comfort, though when alone it fed that silent passion which would not die.

She alternately blessed and cursed the turn of events. If Russ had not attended the same schools and gone off and become successful with DuPont . . .  If he had not loved town so and wanted to live here . . .  If he had not been invited to the house and impressed her father, who had seized on Russ’s desire to return to Bristol and stay . . .

The family had celebrated Russ’s acceptance of her father’s offer, a night of reminiscence: When in her life had they laughed so, she especially because Russ and she shared their memories of classes and teachers, and in fact both entertained the family, and since it was still early and the spring night perfect, it was she who, when he was ready to return to his room at the Belvedere Hotel, suggested a walk on the Common. She still had plenty of stories he’d remember about their families, school, the three churches, and the courthouse, and nights at the grandstand, and the circuses and car