These stories are dedicated to Pierre Lioni Ullman, with gratitude for his courage.
Henrietta Clark was the unexpected child born in late middle age to two parents who were patent lawyers with their own practice and who were both severely hearing impaired. They lived on the Upper West Side in New York City, near Columbia University. Theirs was, obviously, a very quiet household – no music, very little conversation. The Clarks sent their daughter to a French Immersion school and took her to the ballet on weekends. She excelled in French and went on to study French at the university, earning a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in French and a Master’s degree in Library Science. By the time she was thirty, she was working at the New York Public Library on 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue in the reference department.
Because her parents had her at a rather advanced age, they both were dead by the time she was thirty-five. She inherited their apartment and kept it as they did when they were alive. She enjoyed her work at the library, the combination of interesting conversations evolving from patrons’ inquiries and the quiet atmosphere. Though she dated a bit at the university, she discontinued the practice as it so often involved being in loud places. She rose early every morning to read a New York and London daily, walked the full length of Central Park and down to the library each day and then the full way home each evening. In the evening, she would heat up some dinner and read biographies or books on history, either in French or English. She attended the Cathedral of St. John the Divine on Sundays and St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue on Tuesdays and Thursdays for Evensong. Saturdays she visited farmers’ markets when they were in season and would cook her meals for the week. Every summer she traveled to France or French speaking parts of Switzerland to keep up her skills and then to England to visit various Anglican Cathedrals and Religious orders. Her one act of rebellion was to give up the ballet subscriptions and to attend, almost weekly, orchestra concerts.
She was medium height and slim, wore classic styles and maintained the same classic, blunt cut hairstyle for her blond hair year after year. When she turned fifty, her doctor asked her if she was going to do anything to mark the special birthday.
“What would I do that would be better than what I’m already doing?”
That year she traveled, as she always did, in late September. The sink was clogged when she arrived home. Usually she could fix these things on her own, but this clog was stubborn. She called the building’s “super”. There was a knock at her door, and she let him in.
“You’re new,” she said to the young man who strode into her apartment.
“Nic,” he said with a grin and extending his hand. He saw the French book on her kitchen table and began to ask her about her sink in French.
“Quebec?” she asked.
“How did you know?”
“Why are you in New York?”
“Broken heart – geographical cure.”
He fixed her sink in a few minutes and left.
The next day the phone rang almost as soon as she arrived home from work. The person on the other end was speaking in French, asking her about her day.
“Excuse me,” she interrupted, “Who is this?”
“Nic, the Super.”
“Oh.” Before she could say anything else, he was asking her about her trip and where in the French speaking world she had traveled.
“Excuse me, Nic, but I just got home from work. I’m quite hungry and have heard quite a bit of talking already today.”
“Okay. I’ll catch up with you another time,” and he hung up.
This pattern continued about every other day. She wasn’t sure what to think – was he “safe”? Was he just lonely? One Tuesday the phone was ringing when she returned from work after attending Evensong at St. Thomas.
“Yes, Nic. How can I help you?”
“You come home later on Tuesdays and Thursdays.”
“Yes, I attend Evensong at St. Thomas after work.”
“I was raised Catholic, but I don’t attend anymore.”
“What time does that service end?”
“How do you get back?”
“Can I meet you after the service and walk back with you on Thursday?”
She said yes, and when she hung up the phone, she wondered if it was a good idea and if it would even happen.
It happened. He was waiting on the steps when she walked out of the church. They walked the full length of Central Park and then up to their building. She had never walked so far with anyone or had a conversation that lasted that long. To her surprise, she enjoyed it. Nic was from Quebec, the son of an organ builder (“There are lots of them up there.”) and was trained in organ building (“Which is why I can fix things. If you can build an organ, you can figure out how anything works.”). He was thirty-five. He had been married, but things didn’t work out. There had been a lot of drinking, and when he went into treatment, the relationship ended. He had studied at a university but the drinking got in the way, and he dropped out. He was tremendously well read, though, and there were endless topics that they could converse about with equal knowledge and fluency, and they did so moving easily between French and English.
“I go to the Farmer’s Market on Columbus on Saturdays,” he said as they got to their building.
“I do, too.”
“Let’s go together. I don’t get up early, though.”
“I could go a little later.”
They went to the Farmer’s Market at 11:00 a.m., and the conversation was as energetic as ever.
“Let’s do this each week!” he said as they parted at their building’s entrance.
On Monday, her phone was ringing when she got into her apartment.
“I never asked you what you did the nights you don’t go to St. Thomas.”
“On Mondays and Wednesdays, I walk home, heat up my dinner, and read.”
“Right about this time?”
“How about I bring my sandwich over, and we eat together?”
“Oh. Well, okay. Then I will still want to have time to read.”
On Thursday after they reached their building’s entrance, he asked her about weekend nights.
“Maybe I shouldn’t ask, but I see you going out on the weekends.”
“I attend orchestra concerts.”
“Maybe some time you will take me. I usually attend recovery meetings, but I could take a night off some time.”
“I’ll think about it.”
This became their pattern without any interruption: Mondays and Wednesdays from November through the month of February he would have an evening meal with her. Tuesdays and Thursdays he would meet her at St. Thomas for a walk home after evensong. Saturdays they went to the market. Almost every weekend, she would attend a concert; he went to recovery meetings. “I go there on Sundays, too, instead of church.” And she attended church on Sunday morning.
In late February, she told him that her favorite orchestra from Europe would be at Carnegie Hall the first weekend in March, and, if he wanted, she would get tickets, so they could attend together. “This orchestra is so wonderful that it is worth hearing them each night they are in town.” With much enthusiasm, he agreed, and together they attended three concerts, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The concerts was glorious and the weather that weekend equally charming. Their conversation was, as always, spirited and wide-ranging. When they returned that Sunday evening, he asked if he could spend the night with her, and she said, “Yes.”
He woke up very early the next morning and told her he had to get to work. She kissed him goodbye and proceeded to get ready for her workweek.
When she got home that Monday evening, he was not waiting, so she called him. The phone number was no longer in service. She went down to the doorman to ask if he knew about a new phone number.
“He’s not here anymore, Ma’am.”
“He left this morning.”
“Packed his things and left.”
“Did he say when he would be back?”
“He packed his things and left, Ma’am. He doesn’t work here or live here anymore.”
”Did he say where he was going?”
“I asked. He said not to ask because he didn’t know.”
“Did he leave any messages for me?”
She went back upstairs, heated her meal, and read. When her meal was finished, she took a bath, put on her night gown, took a double dose of the sleeping pills she kept for long flights over the ocean, made a bed on the couch, and went to sleep.
On Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, she repeated this pattern, except that on Friday night, she buried her head in her pillow and screamed.
That night she dreamt that she was lying on her back, naked, with a cut down her middle, from her sternum to her pubic bone. From the incision came a succession of large, brightly colored, tropical fish and birds. They floated out of her middle and perched themselves on shelves and tables and chairs around her apartment. They made no sound and sat peacefully on whatever surface they chose.
The next morning she got up at her usual time with plans for errands and the farmers’ market, except on her list she added the art supply store. She went there first, asking the clerk questions, and then buying materials for paper mache and paints.
When she returned, she asked the doorman about some boards she had seen in the basement. He said that noone owned them and that she could have them. She brought them up to her apartment on the elevator. She placed them on top of her bed and then covered them with plastic sheeting and began. Her efforts at first were clumsy, but she improved, fashioning large fish shapes and birds out of paper mache.
Each day that she walked the length of Central Park, she looked for stray birds’ feathers or dried tuffs of grass or anything that begged for another life. When she walked the streets, she kept her eyes on garbage piles, looking for bits of brightly colored fabric or paper, and she scoured tag sales for old buttons and beads. All of these were added to the fish and birds that soon began to fill her apartment.
Each day, after her evening meal and before her bath, she worked on the birds and fish, and by June, she was done.
One day in the elevator, a resident asked her if she was an artist.
“I see you with bags from the art supply store.”
“Well, I have been working on a project.”
“May I see?”
She let the woman into her apartment.
“I have a gallery that I call Outsider Art. This is exactly the kind of thing I like to show. I could fetch a good price for you. Would you be willing to sell them?”
A show of her fish and birds was scheduled the second week of September. It opened on a Friday night. The gallery swarmed with the hip people who wore glasses with ugly frames, talked too loudly, and, she thought, generally wore ill-fitting clothes. There was lots of gesticulating by the patrons and overly sincere, she thought, head nodding. She watched the people and thought of the name of the gallery: Outsider Art. She thought about how “outsider” rhymed with “outside her”. She had asked the owner of the gallery not to make her do any formal speaking about the exhibit. She didn’t know what she would say. A journalist figured out who she was, though, and came to ask her questions that she tried to answer with as few syllables as possible. His final question was, “So, what prompted this, some sort of mid-life fulfillment?”
“You know, something you wanted to do as a kid, but your parents made you be a librarian instead.”
“I wanted to work in a library. Fulfillment?” She knew she shouldn’t tell him about the dream because that would lead to more questions. He quickly grew bored and, thankfully, left.
All the works sold, and, as the gallery owner predicted, it “fetched” her a good sum of money. She took the total and wrote two checks, one to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where she was a member, and one to St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue where she attended Evensong twice a week. The rector of St. Thomas invited her to tea after receiving the check.
“I read about your show in the paper. I see you did well. Will you be doing more?”
“No? Why not?”
“What I needed to get out got out. I don’t have any more of those in me.”
“What prompted this?” She studied his face.
“Something happened. Do you have a bit of time?” and she told him the story of her life and about Nic.
“Your heart broke, and the birds and fish came out.”
“Not easy to have a broken heart, especially in middle age.”
“Is it harder? I have never had one before.”
“What can I do to help?” She studied his face again.
“Pray that what is in me doesn’t stay locked up anymore.”
“That I can do.” He rose and took her hand.
“I am going to cry,” she said and left the building.
At the end of the month, she took her usual trip to France and England. When she returned home, she called a charitable organization that collected furniture for recent immigrants and had them come pick up her bed. Then she called an animal shelter and became trained in caring for “special needs” cats – learning to give injections and do hydration and all sorts of veterinary tasks – and how to foster kittens abandoned by their mothers. She took in these cats and kittens with her bedroom being their main living space. She took down the curtains and would put birdseed on the outside sill every morning. She built cat perches that went from the floor to ceiling and created fluffy beds in the darker corners.
She resumed the schedule she had before Nic had come into her life, except instead of reading the entire evening she spent the time after dinner with her quiet felines. She would come into their room after dinner. In their silence they would look at her, and she would look back at them, seeing her love and life reflected back in their glassy gaze.