A City Past, A City Present

(from the collection: “Back Then”)

By Yale Udoff

He wasn’t from a small town, certainly not the small towns one reads about in the popular magazines. Then again, he wasn’t from one of the big cities, which draw much of their best from the small towns with promises of riches and love. Richard Sylvester was from a medium size American city somewhere in the northeastern corner of the country. It was a city in which, if you didn’t know everyone, you at least thought you did. A city composed of long rows of comfortable homes separated by spacious lawns, a city in which tall green trees drop their shadows on airy, curving porches.

Like many people from the small towns, Richard Sylvester had left after a short, required Army service that immediately followed college. His parents had argued with him, pleaded with him to remain and eventually take over the modest family business but their pleas, although not unheard, were disregarded. There seemed to be so much doing in New York - so many interesting people, so much activity, so much life.

It had been almost two and a half years, two hot steaming summers in the un-air conditioned offices of Hart & Company, Management Consultants, Richard thought as he pushed through the revolving glass door into the merciless heat of a mid-summer day in New York. Actually it hadn’t been that bad; the pay was good, as good as most firms -two raises in a little over two years. This thought served to blot out the sun for less than a second.

His tall lean body hedged at the corner of the block, waiting for the circle in the traffic light across the street to wash green. Flushed faces on sweltering bodies brushed past him as he crossed the avenue. He walked through the short block, heading west towards Fifth Avenue. A gracefully sloping nose, bridged by a pair of black-framed prescription sunglasses, rested in the center of his long, thin, high-cheek boned face. A blue cord suit fit snugly on his perspiring body. At Fifth Avenue he turned uptown, upset for not having worn an undershirt that would have absorbed the sweat that glued his shirt to the moist valley between his shoulder blades.

He walked slowly, gazing at the houses and apartment buildings he passed. Suddenly, the growl of a bus pulling away from the curb rattled through his bones. The sweet, sickening fumes that puffed out of the busses’ exhaust engulfed him; a small trickle of poison drained through his body. His glasses hanging from his left hand, he wiped his face with a once white handkerchief now soiled with sweat and small black particles of dirt. Thoughts of college summers filled his mind – long, carefree summer days with pebbled beach and cool water whenever he pleased. Even during the summers he worked for his father, the beach was always easily accessible, if not every day – more often than only on crowded weekends. At least I’ll be able to get some swimming and sun tomorrow, he thought. But the thought of the long hot railroad trip, followed by the crowded, too quick return diminished the initial pleasure of the thought. This summer, with some friends, he had planned to rent a house at the shore, but after two of the proposed shareholders failed to contribute the required deposit, the long weekends faded into the glare of an unheeding sun.

The angry drone of electric drills ripping up the sidewalk grew violently louder, but as he drew closer the drilling stopped. The men were breaking for lunch. Richard stopped, his attention fixed on the building directly to the side of the broken sidewalk: the gutted remains of what once had been a handsome townhouse stared forlornly back at him. The front façade still intact, he gazed through the large glassless window casement behind which a long hollow cavity stretched back for a quarter of a city block. Inside, breaking up the emptiness, naked steel beams stood erect as though longing for the floors, walls and furniture that had once covered them. The sun shot through the empty window shell, warming and lighting the debris with a soft touch of melancholy. Jagged ends of hacked timber lay like spears, jutting out of the window casements as if to fend off from strange eyes the sorrow and disgrace of a once proud building. His eyes moved slowly over the outer façade with its sculpted cornices and smooth, proportioned relationships. He stood there, the sun burning down, a sullen anger gripping his stomach. He lit a cigarette and checked his watch – almost half past twelve.

Across the avenue, the rich green of Central Park offered broken shadows of protection. He stopped, waited for the light and crossed. Except for sudden streams of sun that punched through small openings in the trees above, he enjoyed the reprieve of shaded walk. As he loosened his tie and unbuttoned his collar, a current of cool air parted the linen of his shirt from the beady moisture of his body. He bought a fudge stick, sat on an unoccupied stone bench, fanning himself with a newspaper that had been left balanced on the rim of an empty trash basket. Convinced he looked a little silly, holding the melting fudge stick in one hand, waving a torn, dirty newspaper in the other – he dropped the paper into the wire basket. It had not been much of help anyway. The air was too heavy, the heat too oppressive, and fanning had done little, after the initial reprieve, except hurl it against his face in hot, chunky loaves.

He thought of the house at the shore. Lost. He would have felt so much better if he knew that at five that afternoon, he would leave the office, rush through the streets to Penn Station and the train that would speed him toward two unhurried days of sun, sand and water, the reassuring sound of the surf calming and settling him. He finished his the fudge, and breaking the slim wooden stick, tossed it over his shoulder.

Cars rolled past, horns echoing the hot disgust of their drivers. But the noises slowly faded as he remembered a ride he had taken summers ago, his mother at the wheel and the sea to his side. “Mother, do we have to? Please, let’s not.”

“Richard, I don’t understand. It’s only a house.”

“I don’t want to look at it.”

“Why?” she responded, confused.

“I want to remember it, with grandpa.”

“Seeing it won’t change that.”

“Please mom, let’s go home.”

“Richard, you’re being foolish. We’re almost there. It won’t make any difference.”

The small convertible rolled along, the ocean breeze washing through the open car. As the automobile slowed down, his other guided it across the thick white line and onto the gravel shoulder that ran parallel to the landward side of the highway. He turned his head away, looking toward the ocean as he heard the emergency brake pulled tight. “Richard, his mother called, slightly confused – look.” The pressure of his mother’s hand on the round of his shoulder became excessive. He turned reluctantly, his mother still talking but all he heard were muffled nasal sounds; the words flew into the salt air, dispossessed as his eyes burned a tunnel of vision directly at a shingled summer house that rested on a low plateau. He sat motionless, the wind whipping and knotting his hair until a grin of relief creased his face. The creaky old porch with the two wicker rocking chairs was gone. On the ground it once occupied, a patio guarded by a small white wooden fence circled around factory made, jaggedly cut, brightly painted slabs of concrete.

A full smile had grown from the grin that initially coated Richard’s face. What most quickened his sense of relief was the enormous picture window covering almost the entire front of the house. Gone were the difficult to open, double paned windows that had cause his grandfather and himself many sore fingertips. He hugged his mother. “That’s certainly a funny reaction. Especially after what you said. It’s horrible. The whole place has changed.”

“Yes, right. Yes…” The noise of Fifth Avenue traffic replaced his mother’s voice and the sound of the sea. Shaking the drowsiness from his head he pulled himself up, reached into his back pocket, pulled out the soiled handkerchief and patted the back of his neck, then his forehead and chin. He started slowly walking up Fifth, then stopped and checked his watch: ten minutes to one. The muscles throughout his body locked, waiting for his brain to send out the necessary directional signals. His eyes riveted to the jerking movement of the watch’s second hand, he remained poised for a second longer – a German pointer waiting for the command. Somewhere deep in the recesses of his brain a pinpoint of acquired fear had, for a moment, halted the movement of his body. Then he relaxed. It was Friday.

A fine but momentary breeze flowed from the park, cooling him as he crossed Sixty-fifth Street. Relieved by the knowledge that he would not have to return to the office for at least another hour and a half – Friday lunch was always a long liquored affair for the firm’s executives. With that knowledge, he started toward the Frick Museum. As he crossed to the next block, he turned and looked across the avenue. The sun was still baking the eastern side of Fifth Avenue where, like the front row of a full dress infantry company, a row of brightly painted wooden doors were nailed to stiff attention. Behind the row of brilliant colors, the cold skeletal structure of a new apartment house lumbered toward the sky, its steel squares fitting together - the end product of some mischievous child’s few hours with a big erector set. Welded to the steel girders of what the future held in store: “Shangri-La House. A most distinguished 20story apartment residence. Fall Occupancy. Magnificently luxurious suites, carefully designed for comfort, elegance and charm. Agent on premises.” He walked away, picturing the yawningly blank face that would soon cover the steel limbs.

Standing diagonally across from the solidity of the Frick, he wiped his neck and forehead with the now soggy handkerchief, buttoned the collar of his shirt, readjusted the position of his tie and crossed the avenue.

He idled in front of the grateful harmony of one of the two columned portico wings, separated by a block long and almost cloistered garden, closed on the deep side by the carved stone of the main body of the house and directly to his front, only a few short steps away, the pointed centurion steel guards of a long black gate. Even the sun, he mused, which still bore down with merciless persistency, seemed to lose some of its darting hatred as it seeped slowly and pleasantly into the lush green of the manicured garden.

Passing through a small, cool entrance hall he walked into a large inner court, which bathed in the mellow embrace of tempered light falling from a coated skylight. In the middle of the court, surrounded on all sides by groups of twin Doric columns, rested a solid Florentine fountain. A spout of water danced merrily, then trickled into a shallow cloverleaf pool that sculpted its way around the fountain’s base.

Richard soaked himself in the quiet of the room. He was the only one in the inner court. He moved down two broad marble steps and walked slowly around the pool; the green foliage that surrounded the pool was dotted with bunches of bright yellow roses. After circling the fountain he sat on the comfortable red cushion of a narrow marble bench. Aside from the footsteps echoing through other rooms and into the court, the only sound was the trickling water falling into the pool. He leaned back, intently studying the setting before him as if there were something in the court beyond the physical facts of fountain, pool, marble, plants and Doric columns. Something that he could only explain to himself as the peculiar felt sensation of the past – a smell almost – which had filtered with the sun into the quiet garden court.

A tall blue uniformed guard stood languidly at the entrance to a small room whose walls were made of richly oiled oak panels. On entering he observed, at either end of the room, twin French windows, each climbing from the floor to finally crest in soft arcs a few feet below the rooms tall ceiling. Covering the window to his right was a heavily embroidered green velvet drape; the window to the left stood naked, the drape removed. The sun passed through the naked window, carving a bright yellow square on the green carpet to his left. He turned, meandered to a glass case and inspected its contents: a large porcelain plate, divided into three sections, attracted his attention. He stared at it for a long moment, and then moved to the far end of the room from whose wall hung a small, precisely painted canvas. The figures in the forefront of the canvas had an unusual otherworldly radiance that attracted his eye, and he closely studied the minutely painted background. The city - from the river on which it bordered and the bridges that arched across the river – he knew to be Florence. The painted city brought him a sense of wistful longing, of a wish for a time past, a wish that never could be fulfilled. The personality of the solidly rooted buildings seemed totally at ease with the small brushstroke people moving among them. The scale of that old, yet new city thoroughly delighted him.

Standing in front of a heavy green velvet drape, he gazed through the white lace curtain to the far side of Fifth Avenue, the side on which he had only recently sought refuge from the burning sun. As his hand touched the soft velvet, a ray of sun broke through the windowpane, passing through the lace and blinding him for a moment. In that moment, he slipped back to a time past, his mother wiping the three sectioned plate from which, every Sunday, he ate lunch, when the radio newscaster made the announcement, “We interrupt this program with the following announcement: Early this morning the Japanese in a sneak attack bombed Pearl Harbor.” The plate smashed against the floor. Not understanding the consequence of the announcement, he followed his mother into the living room, confused and a bit frightened that she was so visibly upset. His father sat listening to the radio. Their eyes met, then his father looked away as his mother sat heavily on the sunroom couch. While they continued to listen to the radio, he slipped back into the dining room, clutching the heavy maroon drapes as he stared out at the fresh snow that covered his street, wondering what his parent’s obvious concern meant. “Hey mister – mister, what’ya doing? You trying to pull down the drape or something?”

“Sorry,” Richard replied, back from the past. “Fell asleep on my feet. Sorry.” The Guard shook his head, held him with his eyes for a moment, then moved away. Once again he wiped his face with the damp, soiled handkerchief, turned towards the heavy green drape. He was happy and relieved with the thought that in his parent’s living room the same drape he clutched on the day of that announcement still hung. He liked that.

- END -