Secrets of the City

A SERIALIZED NOVEL

By Anne Roiphe

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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CHAPTER 64: CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND

In Chapter 63, Ruth and Augusta exchanged confidences over cocktails.

Brooke had an appointment with a divorce lawyer, an old law school classmate of Jacob’s, and she wanted a serious outfit, perhaps a gray suit with a white satin blouse, for their first meeting. She had not yet discussed her intentions with Jacob. She wanted to understand the bottom line before she began a process she might not wish to finish. Brooke decided to go to the outlet mall across the bridge, which would get her out of the city. In fact, as soon as she exited the off ramp, she would be in another state, one that actually had no sales tax. She decided to take Kim and Kelly with her. That way she would be certain to purchase her selections, which seemed a good idea on the whole because a record of arrests could be held against her in the divorce process.

On Saturday morning she packed her children into a bright blue Mini Cooper, which she had borrowed from her friend Norma the food stylist, who would have been using her car were she not in bed waiting for her Zoloft to kick in. When you really noticed your children, Brooke had discovered, their joys might be infinite and their laughter spontaneous at the worst jokes ever invented, but they spend a large portion of their time jockeying for advantage, feeling hurt by careless remarks or suffering physical pain from a jab in the ribs or a poke in the eye. Truly observing your offspring leaves you again and again stabbed in your pincushion heart.

The visit to the mall went well. She bought Kim and Kelly each a new Beanie Baby. They stopped and had hot chocolate and cookies and watched the skaters at the indoor rink. Brooke bought nothing for herself because she remembered that Jacob really liked her in dresses better than suits, which was irrelevant under the circumstances but nevertheless. She bought the girls the wool hats with rabbit ears that they had both found so enchanting.

As they left the mall the sky was turning gray blue, and the sun was already winter white on the horizon. Traffic was heavy pulling up to the bridge, and the line for the toll was long. The heat in the car was too high, and Brooke opened the window for a breath of fresh air. Her head felt heavy. She was fighting sleep. It had been a long day.

Halfway across the bridge, there was a sudden thump against the Mini Cooper’s hood. A moaning sound came from the front of the car. Years ago she had hit a deer on a back road while on her way home from college. She remembered that sound. But of course there were no deer on the bridge.

Brooke hit the brake. She was hardly moving; she couldn’t have harmed anything. There was no stopped car in front of her. She told the children to stay put and not to unbuckle their seat belts, and she walked to the front of her car. Other cars were moving around her as if she were a rock in a river whose waters were in a hurry to reach the sea. There on the ground in front of her car she saw him, an old man — or was he an old man? — a drunk or a beggar, perhaps but perhaps not. His hair was long, his yellow curls framing his white face, but he was wrinkled. He was old, older than any living person Brooke had ever seen. He was wearing sandals and a cane lay by his side. He had no coat. He did not smell of whiskey or urine. Brooke bent over him. “Don’t move,” she said. “We’ll get an ambulance.” She went back to her car to get her cell phone. She dialed, but there was no ring. Perhaps her cell phone didn’t work suspended over water.

She tried to flag down a car, but no one stopped. Kim had undone her seat belt and gotten out of the car. She came to Brooke’s side. “Oh,” the child said. “His fingers are so long.”

“It’s rude,” Brooke whispered to her daughter, “to make personal comments like that.” But it was true that the man she had hit had hands like a conductor, a musician, long fingers meant to reach across keys or strings. Kim leaned down and did the only thing she could think of doing to rectify her rudeness. She kissed his cheek, very gently. The man stirred. Brooke smelled his breath. He had not been drinking. What are you doing here, in the middle of a bridge, she almost yelled at him, but didn’t.

The man slowly got to his feet, pulled his garments around him and stood up. He was very tall, maybe 7 feet. His back was straight, and his skin seemed paper-thin; Brooke could see the blood pulsing in his veins beneath the surface. “Please,” said Brooke, “you shouldn’t stand. You might have broken something inside. You might be bleeding. I should take you to a hospital. Get in my car, and we’ll go.” “It’s all right,” said the man. “I was just stunned.” “Why were you walking here,” Brooke asked, “in traffic?” she added, a touch of exasperation in her voice. “I was waiting for you,” the man said. “Sure,” said Brooke.

“I’m not going to the hospital,” said the man, “it is not necessary, but kind of you to offer to take me.” He had an accent, a strange accent, Israeli but not exactly, one Brooke had never heard before. “I want you to know that you are not as alone as you think you are,” the man said. “What?” said Brooke, who now began to think the man had escaped from the Metro Psychiatric Institute, which was just on the city side of the bridge. “No,” said the man, as if he could read her thoughts. “I’m not out of my mind. Last year, at your in-laws’ Seder, I touched your shoulder. Do you remember me?”

Brooke shook her head. There were a few people at the Seder she had not known, but not this man, this enormously tall man with the yellow curls and the beard and the very white fingernails at the end of his long fingers. “No,” said Brooke “I don’t remember you.” “The door was open and a wind blew and I was there,” said the man, who was so tall that Brooke had to tip back her head to look in his face.

“If you were Jewish,” he said, “you would know who I am, and you would be glad that I am your friend.” Brooke felt dizzy. She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them he was gone. She looked at the side of the bridge then ahead of her and walked to the back of the car. He was gone.

Brooke got back in the driver’s seat. The traffic moved in its usual flow. The girls were quiet. “What a strange man,” said Brooke. “What man?” said Kim, “What man? Where?” asked Kelly. “Back there. The man I hit with the car.” “When?” asked Kim, her seatback buckled. “Are you sure?” asked Kelly. Brooke had a headache.






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