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19

Momma? Are we?

It was morning. The morning of Holy Saturday. Bright, and gusty with wind. Hazel Jones was brushing her hair in swift punishing strokes ignoring the fretting child pulling at her.

In the bureau mirror a face floated wan and indistinct as if underwater. Not her face but Hazel Joness young face smiling defiantly.

You! What right, to be here!

Shed gotten through the first night on Grindstone Island and she believed she would get through the second night on Grindstone Island and by that time it would be decided.

Momma? Momma!

The child had slept fitfully the night before. Shed heard him, in the room adjoining her own, whimpering in his sleep. Lately, hed begun grinding his teeth, too. The wind!-the damned wind had kept him awake, unnerved him. Not a single wind but many winds blowing off the St. Lawrence River and across Lake Ontario to the west confused with human voices, muffled shouts and laughter.

You! you! such laughter seems to accuse.

Hazel had wakened early in the unfamiliar bed not knowing where she was at first and which time in her life this was and her heart pounded hotly in her chest as the voices grew bolder, jeering You! Jew-girl you have no right to be here.

She had not heard such voices in years. She had not had such a thought in years. She rose from bed shaken, frightened.

But it was Gallagher whod brought her here. Gallagher, her friend.

Through the front windows of the room you could see another island floating in the glittery river. Beyond that the dense Canadian shore at Gananoque.

Gallaghers family lodge was even larger than it appeared from the foot of the driveway. It had been built into a hill, three floors and a more recently constructed wing connected to the main house by a flagstone terrace, now drifted in snow.

Hazel Jones, seeing the lodge, had laughed. A private residence, of such dimensions!

For the briefest of moments seeing the Gallagher property as Jacob Schwart might see it. The mans mocking laughter mingling with Hazel Joness laughter.

Embarrassed, Gallagher had said yes the place was large, but it was really very private. And most of the lodge was shut off for the winter, theyd be using only a few rooms.

Hazel understood that Gallagher was both ashamed of his familys wealth, and vain of it. He could not help himself. He had no clear knowledge of himself. His hatred of his father was a sacred hatred, Hazel knew not to interfere. Nor would she believe in this hatred utterly.

Gallagher had brought her to this room that was more a suite than a room, with a childs room adjoining, for Zack. His own room, he told her, was close by, down the hall. His manner was outwardly contained, exuberant. This was the first time the three of them had gone away together, he was their host and responsible for their well-being. Setting Hazels lightweight suitcase onto her bed-old, brass, four-poster, with a quilt coverlet in pale blues and lavenders-he stood staring at it for a long moment his breath quickened from the stairs and his face flushed and uncertain and Hazel could see him summoning the precise words he wished to speak, to impress upon her.

Hazel. I hope you will comfortable here.

It was a remark that carried with it a deeper meaning. At that moment Gallagher could not bring himself to look at Hazel.

If Zack had not been with them, investigating his room (a boys room, with bunk beds, Zack would sleep in the upper bunk), Hazel knew that Gallagher would have touched her. He would have kissed her. He would have framed her face in his large hands, and kissed her. And Hazel would have kissed him in return, not stiffening in his embrace as sometimes she did involuntarily but standing very still.

Pleading Dont love me! Please.

As Gallagher would relent with his hurt, hopeful smile All right Hazel! I can wait.

Zack nudged against Hazels thigh: Momma! Are we going to marry Mr. Gallagher?

Rudely she was wakened from her trance. Shed been brushing her hair in long swift strokes in front of the crook-backed mirror.

Overnight Zack had begun to call her Momma-no longer Mommy. Sometimes the word was a grudging syllable: Mom pronounced Mm.

By instinct the child knew that speech is music, to the ear. And speech can be a music to hurt the ear.

Hed been awake and out of bed for more than forty minutes, and was restless. Maybe he was feeling uncomfortable in this new place. Pushing against Hazels thigh, nudging her hard enough to bruise if she didnt prevent him. With the back of the hairbrush she swiped playfully at him but he persisted, I said are we, Momma? Are we going to marry Mr. Gallagher?

Zack, not so loud.

Momma I said-

No.

Hazel gripped his shoulders, not to shake him but to hold him still. His small body quivered in indignation. His eyes that were dark, moist and glittering, were fixed on hers in a defiant look that roused her to anger, except Hazel was never angry. She was not a mother who raised her hand to her child, nor even her voice. If Gallagher should overhear this exchange! She would be mortified, she could not bear it.

Her face wasnt yet Hazel Joness face, but darker-skinned, a rich oily-olive skin she would disguise with lighter makeup, liquid and then powder. This makeup she would take care to extend onto her throat, gradually tapering off, always subtly, meticulously. And she would take care to disguise the fine pale scars at her hairline, that Gallagher had never seen. But her hair had been brushed vigorously and bristled now with static electricity, it was a warm chestnut hue streaked with dark red, it was a hue that seemed altogether natural to her, as Hazel Jones. She wore neatly pressed gray woollen slacks and a rose-colored woollen sweater with a detachable lace collar. For this weekend visit to Grindstone Island Hazel had brought two pairs of neatly pressed woollen slacks and a beige cable-knit sweater and the sweater with the lace collar and two cotton blouses. Hazel Jones was a young woman of the utmost propriety in her dress as in her manner. Gallagher laughed at her Hazel Jones ways, she was so proper. Yet Hazel understood that Gallagher adored her for those Hazel Jones ways and would not wish her otherwise. (Gallagher continued to see other women. Meaning, Gallagher slept with other women. When he could, when it was convenient. Hazel knew, and was not jealous. Never would she have inquired after Gallaghers private, sexual life apart from her.) As, at Zimmerman Brothers Pianos & Music Supplies, the salesclerk Hazel Jones had established for herself a personality distinct as a comic strip character: Olive Oyl, Jiggs-and-Maggie, Dick Tracy, Brenda Starr Girl Reporter. The deepest truth of the American soul is that it is shallow as a comic strip is shallow and behind her shiny glass-topped counter in Zimmermans there was Hazel Jones prettily composed, smiling in expectation. Like Gallagher, Edgar Zimmerman adored Hazel Jones. Could not stop touching her with his fluttery little-mans hands that were dry and hot with yearning. Bastard. Nazi. Hazel Joness smile wavered only when Edgar too emphatically touched her arm as he spoke with her in a lull between customers, otherwise her hands rested slender and serene on the shiny glass-topped counter. And Zimmermans customers had grown to know Hazel, and stood by patiently, ignoring the other salesclerks until Hazel was free to wait on them.

Momma are we! Are we going to marry Mr. Gallagher!

Zack, Ive told you-

No no no no no. No Momma.

Hazel resented it, Zack pretending to be a child. Childish. She knew, in his heart he was an adult like Hazel Jones.

Zack, what is this we? There is no we. Only a man and a woman get married, nobody else. Dont be silly.

Im not silly. Youre silly.

Zack was becoming wild, uncontrollable. Back home he would never have dared ask such questions. He was forbidden to speak familiarly about Mr. Gallagher who had come into their lives to change their lives as he was forbidden to speak familiarly about Hazel Jones.

As, in Malin Head Bay, a very long time ago now it seemed, he had been forbidden to ask about the pebbles vanishing one by one from the windowsill.

This snowy-glaring island called Grindstone in the choppy St. Lawrence River seemed to have unleashed, in Zack, a mutinous spirit. Already this morning hed left their rooms and had been running on the stairs and skidding on carpets in the hallway and when Hazel had called him back hed come reluctant as a bad-behaving dog. Now, restless, he was prowling about her room: poking in a step-in cedar closet, bouncing on the brass four-poster bed which Hazel had neatly made up as soon as shed slipped from between the bedclothes. (No unmade or rumpled beds in any household in which Hazel Jones lived! It was the one thing that roused Hazel to something like moral indignation.) On the bureau was a carved antique clock with a glass face that opened: Zack was moving the black metallic hands around, and Hazel worried he might break them.

Youre hungry, honey. Ill make breakfast.

She snatched his hands in hers. For a moment it seemed he might fight her, then he relented.

Unfamiliar surroundings made Zack nervous, antic. Hed badly wanted to come to Grindstone Island for the weekend, yet he was anxious about changes in the routine of his life. Hans Zimmerman had told Hazel that for the young pianist as gifted as her son, his life must revolve around the piano. Always Zack woke at the same time each morning, early. Always he practiced a half-hour at the piano before leaving for school. After school, he practiced no less than two hours and sometimes more, depending upon the difficulty of the lesson. If he struck a wrong note he made himself start a piece from the beginning: there could be no deviating from this ritual. Hazel could not interfere. If she tried to make him stop, to go to bed, he might lapse into a temper tantrum; his nerves were strung tight. Hazel had seen him seated at the piano with his small shoulders raised as if he were about to plunge into battle. She was proud of him, and anxious for him. She took comfort in hearing him practice piano for at such times she understood that both Hazel Jones and her son Zacharias were in the right place, they had been spared death on the Poor Farm Road for this.

And you can play piano, honey. All you want.

As Gallagher had promised, there was a piano downstairs in the lodge. The previous evening, Gallagher had played before supper, boisterous American popular songs and show tunes, and Zack had sat beside him on the piano bench. At first Zack had been shy, but Gallagher had drawn him into playing with him, jazzy companionable four-hand renditions of popular songs. And theyd played one of Zacks Kabalevsky studies from the Pianoforte lesson book, boogie-woogie style that made Zack laugh wildly.

The piano was a matte-black baby grand, not in prime condition. It had not been tuned for years, and some of the keys stuck.

Gallagher said, Music can be fun, kid. Not always serious. In the end, a piano is only a piano.

Zack had looked mystified by the remark.

In the kitchen, Gallagher had helped Hazel prepare supper. Theyd bought groceries together in Watertown, for the weekend. Hazel had asked him, Is a piano only a piano? and Gallagher had said, snorting, Only a piano, darling! Sure as hell not a coffin. Hazel had not liked this remark which was typical of Gallagher when hed had a drink or two and was in his swaggering boisterous mood out of which his eyes, plaintive and accusing, adoring and resentful, swung onto her too emphatically. At such time Hazel stiffened and looked away, as if she had not seen.

I dont know what your words mean. I am shocked by you, I will not hear you. Dont touch me!

She could guess what it had been like, living with Gallagher as his former wife had done for eight years. He was the kindest of men and yet even his kindness could be engulfing, overbearing.

With some comical mishaps, and a good deal of eye-watering smoke, Gallagher started a birch-log fire in an immense cobblestone fireplace in the living room, and they ate on a small plank table in front of the fire; Zack had been very hungry, and had eaten too quickly, and nearly made himself sick. In the kitchen, hed been upset by the tile floor: a black-and-white diamond pattern that made him dizzy, it seemed to be moving, writhing. In the living room, hed been concerned that sparks from the fire would fly out onto the hook rug, and hed been fascinated and appalled by the several mounted animal heads-black bear, lynx, buck with twelve-point antlers-on the lodge walls. Gallagher had told Zack to ignore the trophies, they were disgusting, but Zack had stared, silent. Especially, the bucks head and antlers had drawn his attention for it was positioned over the fireplace and its marble eyes seemed unnaturally large, glassily ironic. The animals fur was a burnished brown, but appeared slightly matted, marred. A frail cobweb hung from the highest point of the antlers.

Hazel had taken the boy upstairs to bed shortly after nine oclock though she doubted he would sleep, he was over-stimulated and hot-skinned, and had never before slept in a bunk bed.

Still, hed insisted upon climbing the little ladder, to sleep in the top bunk. The thought of sleeping in the lower bunk seemed to frighten him.

Hazel had allowed him to keep a lamp burning beside the bed, and shed promised not to shut the door between their rooms. If he woke agitated in the night, he would need to know where he was.

Please be good, Zack! Its a beautiful morning, and this is a beautiful place. Weve never been in such a beautiful place, have we? Its an island. Its special. If you want to marry Mr. Gallagher you would have to live with him in a house, wouldnt you? This is like living with him, this weekend. This is his house, one of his familys houses. He will be hurt if you arent good.

She spoke as if to a very young child. There was the pretense between them, that Zack was a child.

Hazel rebuttoned his flannel shirt, hed buttoned crookedly. She pulled a sweater over his head, and combed his hair. She kissed his warm forehead. So excited! Feeling the childs pulses beat quick as her own.

Neither of them belonged here. But they had been invited, and they were here.

Hazel led Zack out of the room. The air in the hallway was rather drafty, with an acrid smoke-smell from the previous night.

Except for the wind, and a sound of ice melting, dripping from the eaves, and the harsh, intermittent cries of crows, the house was very still. The sky was scribbled in fine, faint clouds through which the sun shone powerfully. It would be one of those balmy-wintry days. Hazel gripped Zacks hand to keep him from running along the corridor and a wild thought came to her that she and the child might enter Gallaghers bedroom, which was close by: tease the sleep-dazed man awake, laugh at him. Gallagher was a man who loved to be teased and laughed at, to a degree. She and Zack could climb onto the bed in which Gallagher slept

Instead they paused outside the door of his bedroom, to hear him snoring inside: a wet, gurgling sound labored as if the man were struggling uphill with an awkwardly shaped weight. It was somehow very funny that the snoring-snorting noises were not at all rhythmic, but uneven; there were pauses of several seconds, pure silence. Zack began laughing, and Hazel pressed her fingers over his mouth to muffle the sound. Then Hazel too began laughing, they had to hurry away.

The flame of madness leapt between them. Hazel feared that the child would catch it from her, he would be uncontrollable for hours. Zack slipped from Hazels grasp, to prowl about the downstairs of the lodge. There was so much to see, with Gallagher not present. Hazel was most interested in a wall of framed photographs of which Gallagher had spoken slightingly, the day before. Clearly, the Gallagher family thought highly of themselves. Hazel supposed it was a sign of wealth: naturally you would think highly of yourself, and wish to display that thought to others.

Amid the faces of strangers she sought Gallaghers familiar face. Suddenly, she was eager to see him as a Gallagher, a younger son. There: a photograph of Chet Gallagher with his family, taken when Gallagher was in his mid-twenties, with a startlingly full head of dark hair, a squinting, somewhat abashed smile. There was Gallagher a skinny boy of about twelve, in white T-shirt and swim trunks, squatting awkwardly on the deck of a sailboat; there was Gallagher a few years older, muscled in shoulders and upper arms, gripping a tennis racquet. And Gallagher in his mid-twenties in a light-colored sport coat, surprised in the midst of laughter, both arms flung around the bare shoulders of two young women in summer dresses and high-heeled sandals. This photograph had been taken on the lawn outside the lodge, in summer.

Beautiful women! Far more beautiful than Hazel Jones could ever make herself.

Hazel wondered: was one of the women Gallaghers former wife? Veronica, her name was. Gallagher rarely spoke of his former wife except to remark it was damned good luck they hadnt had children.

Hazel knew, Gallagher had to believe this. He was a man who told himself things to believe, in the presence of witnesses.

In many of the Gallagher photographs there was a broad-chested man with a large, solid head, a blunt handsome face like something hacked out of stone. This man was stocky, self-confident. Always in the photographs he was seated at the center, hands on his knees. In photographs taken when he appeared older, he was gripping a cane in a rakish gesture. His face resembled Gallaghers only around the eyes, that were heavy-lidded, jovial and malicious. He was of moderate height with legs that appeared foreshortened. There was something stubby about him as if a part of his body were missing but you could not see what.

This had to be the father, Thaddeus.

In a cluster of photographs, Thaddeus was seated with a mannequin figure that looked familiar to Hazel: ex-Governor Dewey? A short man with sleekly black hair, prim little mustache like something pasted on his upper lip, shiny protuberant black eyes. In those photographs in which others appeared, Thaddeus Gallagher and Dewey were seated together at the very center, glancing toward the camera as if interrupted in conversation.

These were summer photos of years ago, judging from the mens attire. Thomas E. Dewey a dapper little mannequin in sports clothes, very stiff in his posture, purposeful.

Those others. Who surround us. Our enemies.

The flat of his hand striking the newspapers front page, on the oilcloth covering of the kitchen table. His rage spilled out suddenly, you could not predict.

Except shed come to know: all politicians, public figures were objects of his hatred. All figures of wealth. Enemies.

Its another time now, Pa. History has changed, now.

Strange, Hazel had spoken aloud. She was not one to speak aloud even when safely alone.

Seeing then another photo of Gallagher as a boy: looking about sixteen, long-faced, somber, with a mildly blemished skin, posed in a suit and tie in front of a small grand piano, on what appeared to be a stage. Beside him stood an older man in formal clothes, regarding the camera sternly: Hans Zimmerman.

Zack! Come look.

Hazel smiled, Gallagher was so young. Yet unmistakably himself as Zimmerman, though much younger, in his early forties perhaps, was unmistakably himself. You could see that the piano instructor took a certain pride in his pupil. Hazel felt a curious sensation, almost of pain, dismay.

I dont love him. Do I?

It came over her then, she would never fully know him. The previous night in bed in these unfamiliar surroundings she had thought of Gallagher close by, shed known he was thinking of her, hoping that she would come to him; she had felt a stab of panic, in her dread of knowing him. Since Tignor, she had not wanted to make love with any man. She did not trust any man, not to enter her body in that way.

Yet now it seemed obvious, she could not know Chet Gallagher even if she became his lover. Even if she lived with him. Even if he became a father to Zack, as he wished. So much of the mans soul had been squandered, lost.

Zack? Honey? Come see what I found.

But Zack was preoccupied, elsewhere. Hazel went to find him, hoping he wasnt being destructive.

There he was standing on one of the leather sofas, peering at the trophy mounted over the fireplace mantel. The air here smelled of woodsmoke. How like her son, drawn to morbid things!

Oh, honey. Come down from there.

In daylight the buck was more visible, exposed. A large, handsome head. And the antlers remarkable. You knew this was merely an object, lifeless, stuffed and mounted, eyes shining with ironic knowledge but in fact mere glass. The heraldic antlers were foolish, comical. The deers silvery brown hair was matted and marred and Hazel saw numerous wisps of cobwebs on them. Yet the trophy was strangely imposing, unnerving. Somehow, you believed it might still be alive. Hazel understood why her son was drawn to stare at it in fascination and revulsion.

Hazel came up quietly behind him, to nudge him in the ribs.

Saying, in her playful Hazel Jones voice, Somebody married him.

By the time Gallagher came downstairs, in the late morning, Hazel and Zack had had breakfast. Hazel had cleaned the kitchen: the stove top, and oven; the counters, that were mysteriously sticky; the cupboards that required fresh paper liners, and which Hazel neatly arranged, turning the labels of cans to face out. Shed opened windows to air out the woodsmoke and musty odors. Shed straightened stacks of back issues of Life, Colliers, Time, Fortune, Readers Digest. Dragging a chair to stand on, shed dusted each of the trophies, taking most care with the bucks antlers. When Gallagher saw her Hazel was sitting in a patch of sunshine leafing through My Thousand Islands: From the Time of Revolution to Now. Close by, Zack was practicing one of his Kabalevsky studies.

My little family! Good morning.

Gallagher meant to be jokey, jocular, waking so much later than his guests, but his quivering red-rimmed eyes swam with tears, Hazel glanced up involuntarily to see.


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