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.
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 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.
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.
I’m afraid Alex is right.
As far as I’m concerned, you have a free hand, Harry. When have you failed us?
We’re in your hands, Harry.
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 carnivals . . .
She had had no idea then of the habit they would fall into of rounding the Common on the nights he was invited to dinner by her father.
Because who, Russ had said, could converse like you?
And whether it had been the sudden fall to silence at you, that instant’s spill of understanding, or the simple mystery of desire, they had halted and stood and stared in silence and suddenly, simultaneously, touched and were mouthing lips and pressing, and against the dark of that tree he was driving with a steady, relentless madness that he made hers.
She relived now the chest, thick hair, and the animal smell, the heat and hard arms and muscles that had moved and made their bodies sing the silent and unique music of the flesh.
Your body is so beautiful, he said.
The words came like lightning.
Yes. She trembled. And yours.
What you lived with after was what the mind, or will, converted to what, masked, the others could never know. At a ball no mask is grotesque because not real—you can unmask, and discard.
But she felt her mask. Because it was. And permanent.
But when Russ had assumed the management of the lace factory, Marian had been determined to have him and had confessed that determination to her, whom she had always confided in: Oh, Alex, I want Russ and I’ll have him.
In frozen stillness Alex had listened to Marian’s wiles and then her successes, Marian innocent of any knowledge of her own night, which had ignited what would not die.
In the interim after father had died, Harry had asked, What will you do with your income, Alex?
She had thought travel, but there was Mother. Had Mother’s stroke not come so soon after . . .
But it was the others who had traveled, bringing back to her and mother mementos of Europe and Egypt and Greece . . .
Now, with brunch over, Rob said, Don’t leave the table. I must take some photos.
Mother, glancing at Marian, seemed about to protest; but Marian herself said, Oh, yes. Who knows when we’ll come together again.
Quick to seek the camera, Rob darted about. No poses now. Just keep talking.
Photos. There were the albums of them, her hoard: Marian and Russ, Russ and Marian and Russ Jr, the family entire, Father and Russ and Harry at the factory, Alice and her ménage, Russ Jr at croquet with Rob and Rita and Russ . . .
But Russ was alive, and in her. Who could not let him go. Who would never let him go.
She would not let his ashes go into earth. Not without her.
They could not know that what had gone into the grave was earth she had dug. His ashes were hers.
Alice said, Well, if I’m going to get the train to Boston . . . Harry’s taking me to Providence with him.
We’re ready, Rita said. Harry just has to carry the suitcases down. It’s no time to the airport.
Oh, dear . . . Mother raised her left arm weakly to Alice.
I know, I know, Alice said with a tender laugh. You’re depending on me for the next grandchild. Alice leaned against mother’s dead right arm and kissed. Keep hoping.
Is it so unreasonable, Alice?
My time’s running out, but I’ll take a look into my crystal ball. Now don’t you go fretting, Mother. You know my attitude: things happen or they don’t. Try Rob with one of his students.
Well, Rob said, taking her in his arms, I hope Pamplona happens and you down all the men—your competitors, I mean! I’ll keep my limbs crossed, all of them.
You! And if you ever decide to worm your way out of a book, Rob, I’ll show you the real Boston, no Cambridge sterility.
The students, dear girl, would surprise you!
Alice winked. But not the professors!
Keep that up and you’ll have Marian worried about Russ Jr.
Marian rose. Oh, I know my Russ. I’ve every confidence.
They all kissed around and followed out.to the cars, Harry’s and Rob’s.
Outside, Alice cried, But look at the harbor! They halted, all, and gazed. The water glowed silver with morning, tiny Hog Island clean as a cutout, Prudence farther out like the back of a still whale sunning, and light brought the Poppasquash shore close. The site of our lives, Alexandra thought, years of swims and sailing and picnics on the islands and roaming and watching Harry in the regattas . . .
Whatever the others were thinking, there was an interval of silence till Rita said, Now, Marian, if for a minute–
I’ll be fine, Rita. Harry’ll be at the factory, Mother’s just the other side of the common, and Alexandra . . .
In a minute, in a flair of flagging arms and goodbyes, the four were off.
Mother stood surveying the street, those great houses with the dignity of history.
How the street’s changed since the foreigners.
Once we were all foreigners, Alexandra said.
Oh, Alex, you haven’t lived enough or you’d understand.
What Alexandra understood and lived was not portygee wop dago kike polack nigger jew yid kanuck polack but blood that could be turned fire or slowed to a pulse threatening death. She was condemned to what her mother could never know, unless she did know and remembered and for that reason might condemn.
If she, Alex, was not dead, it was because she was possessed by passion, which does not release till it fulfills or destroys. Passion is life, she knew, and love is consolation. If she had not the consolation of love . . .
Mother said, As soon as Alexandra tidies up the kitchen–
No, no, Marian said. I need to keep busy.
Let her, Marian. You and I will talk.
While clearing the table and scraping and loading dishes, Alexandra could hear their murmurs, for a moment herself Marian, or the wife, in this house, which she knew, every creaking board knew, every piece of china . . . , and his clothes, his smells, his very breath . . .
What remained was Russ, who filled the house with his absence.
Finished, she stood gazing out over their backyard as she had so many times over the years, imagining . . . a continuity . . . after a momentary fulfillment. There were the roses and bleeding heart and bachelor-buttons and coxcomb, the marigolds and dahlias and asters which she and Marian had put out and cared for; there was the vast lawn where . . . She could see them at croquet, hear the strike of balls, hear their voices and quick laughter. The lawn shimmered in a crystal cloud. She gripped the sink, braced, and closed her eyes to hold them all in.
What was it, this life they had all the years shared?
She went into the den and halted, but it was an instant before they saw her standing there.
Why, Alex . . . Marian rose. Alex?
She could say nothing.
Abruptly she held her arms out to Marian and took her close and felt her sudden breaths, her warmth, her quick heart . . . Marian’s body become hers.
That embrace must have seemed to Mother the obvious moment of leaving.
Mother was exhausted.
They were without the sometime wheelchair or their Buick since Harry had driven them over.
Take our car, Marian said.
But Mother would walk the several blocks.
My circulation demands it, and there’s Alexandra. As soon as I can get Josephine . . .
I’ll be back shortly, Marian.
Oh, Alex, it’s so much trouble . . .
Now, Marian, I insist, mother said, for a couple of days anyway.
So they ambled slowly on, her mother again admiring the houses along Hope, reciting the old names, Wardwell, Darling, on and on–and stopped under the elms before the Colt house to admire the statues on the lawn and make the invariable comment on Russell Colt: He’d married a Barrymore, Ethel, you know, and there was that daughter, Diana, an actress too.
They kept to the pavement and turned up Court Street to avoid her mother’s crossing the uneven ground of the Common.
Alexandra kept her eyes on the house. This moment her mother’s presence seemed a blasphemy. She avoided the sight of that far tree. But memory maddened. She could almost not contain.
And the door closed.
And her mother settled in comfortably.
I’ll call Josephine . . . It’s been exhausting for you, I know, Mother.
It seems all that remains is exhaustion.
But Alexandra knew: What remained was Russ.
He was hers. And forever.
She talked to Josephine: And you can come anytime? I’ll tell Mother. I won’t leave till you get here. Thanks, Josephine.
Josephine’s happy to come. She’ll be right over. I’ll go up and change.
But in her room she sank on the window seat. Ojesusgodholy. She felt that her breath was leaving her—it choked, it scraped in her throat, it went dry.
She set her hands on that little coffer. What she held in her hands was that day of the tree that would go on in her till she was nothing. She would take him in, a dust of him, day after day, in whatever nourishment she swallowed till he was inside her.
She touched him, his ashes. Mine. And forever.
Russ. Who would live in her. Who would not die till she did.
She went in to her bathroom to prepare her face to meet Mother’s.
And then she went down.
But you haven’t changed, Mother said.
No. There’s no real need to. I’ll be going back and forth.
And hearing steps on the porch, she said That’s Josephine, and met her at the door.
Mother’s in the living room, Josephine, she said, summoning all her fortitude to make the crossing.
H.E. Francis is the author of two novels and six collections of stories, many reprinted in anthologies, notably the O’ Henry, Best American, and Pushcart Prize volumes. His collections have won the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction, the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, and a University of Missouri Award. He lives in Huntsville and Madrid. He translates distinguished Argentine literature.