Bobby tossed the bat to Rudy, who caught it in his left hand halfway up the handle. It was a Louisville Slugger, wooden of course ─ this was the summer of 1949, and decades before anybody saw an aluminum baseball bat. It belonged to Bobby.
Bobby was from Paducah, which, he explained, was in Kentucky, "jest dowan the rivuh from Lou-a-ville."
To him the horsehide sphere was a bawwwl and he described a car as an auto-moh-beel, and had us all half-believing that everyone in Paducah sounded like him. A tall, tow-headed string bean of eleven, Bobby was much the best athlete I knew, so brilliant at baseball that I forgave him for being a fervent Cincinnati fan contemptuous of my beloved White Sox.
Bobby slapped his right hand on the bat just above Rudy's. Rudy placed his other hand above Bobby's, leaving only an inch or so of handle below the knob. Bobby gripped the knob with the long, bony fingers of his left hand. He held the bat at arm's length, and Rudy kicked it hard. The bat's head flew toward the street, but Bobby, a southpaw, held on, assuring himself first pick.
I was eight, the smallest and the youngest present, and as certain as it was that Chicago summers were hot and humid and that the Northside's Cubs would never win a pennant, I knew that I would be picked last. I could hit neither Bobby's fastball nor Rudy's curve and unless hit by a pitch figured to strike out every time.
I was so short and uncoordinated that boys made faces and groaned aloud when I showed up. "Does he have to play?" they asked each other. But we were governed by anarchy, and no one told me to leave.
We had never heard of Little League; it would be decades before that show played my home town. Our stadium was a trash-strewn vacant lot, the diamond marked by bases ripped from scavenged cardboard from the market near the corner of 67th Street and Blackstone Avenue on Chicago's South Side. Rudy's ball was mud-stained and its stitches were frayed; Bobby's horsehide, with only a few dents, seemed almost new. When the ground was dry, Bobby let us use it.
My team started in the field and Rudy, chunky and freckle-faced, a ten-year-old whose father my own referred to, not unkindly, as "The Polak," put me at second base. While infielders and outfielders cleared trash, rocks and the largest shards of broken glass from our immediate areas, Rudy toed a wooden strip torn from a peach crate and hammered into the earth with scavenged roofing nails. He began to warm up.
Most boys had well-worn gloves handed down from fathers or older brothers. But my grandfather was from Rumania and died when Dad was only nine. As my father put it, he didn't know from baseball. There was no money in our household for such frivolities as baseball gloves, so for more than a year I combed neighborhood streets and alleys, gathering beer and soda bottles and returning them to the market for their penny deposit. A few times I stumbled on a great prize, a quart bottle, which brought a nickel. I saved my earnings in a coffee can, and when I had about five dollars, I bought a glove, my most treasured possession.
I had never seen a professional baseball game and we didn’t have a television set, but I often listened to Jack Brickhouse’s calling the Sox game on WGN radio. Each summer's day I carefully read the sports pages in Dad's newspaper. I memorized players and statistics. I imagined myself growing up to play in Comiskey Park. But first I had to learn the game.
The first step was proving myself on our sandlot field on Blackstone Avenue.
I pounded my glove with my fist, working on the pocket. As the first batter took his place at home plate and Rudy went into his windup, I was Nellie Fox, my White Sox idol, legs spread wide, balancing on my toes as I bent close to the ground and held my glove near the center of my body.
I wanted the ball to come to me even as my mother's litany of cautions echoed through my mind. Much as I wanted to succeed, I dreaded the possibility that I might kick the ball or throw it away. I feared that a ball might strike my face and I would lose a tooth or an eye.
The batter swung and the ball came bounding toward me. I set myself then stabbed clumsily at empty air as it bounded over my shoulder and into right field.
"Musta hit a rock," said Slappy, whose real name was Leonard. He was only a little shorter than Bobby, more than a head taller than me, a good player. The next hitter popped Rudy's curve into the air back of first, and Slappy, using two hands, carefully caught it.
Bobby came up and hit Rudy's first pitch over the right fielder's head. It skipped off the sidewalk to ricochet into a truck tire. Had it cleared the cars and trucks parked along the curb, it would have been a homer.
Bobby hit a homer almost every time he batted.
I batted last. When I came up with one out and one on in the third inning, I struck out on three pitches. I handed the bat to the leadoff hitter. "Choke up a little," he said.
"What does that mean?" I asked.
He shrugged as if to say that was something everyone knew.
In the fourth or fifth inning I caught a pop fly that came to my glove like I had a ball magnet in it. I looked around, proud, hoping someone would commend me. "Throw the ball back to Rudy," griped the shortstop.
Two pitches later I tripped on my shoelaces and an easy grounder rolled over my back as I wriggled among the weeds. Even Slappy glared at me.
It was twilight and mothers hollered from tenement steps for their kids to come home as I came up for my last at-bat. Bobby looked in at me and frowned. He lowered his arms and walked halfway to the plate, beckoning for me to join him.
"That bat's too heavy for a shrimp like you," he said.
I shrugged. "We don't got another bat."
"You gotta choke up some," he said. He dropped his glove and slid the bat down until six or eight inches of handle protruded beneath my hands. I went back to the plate. Outfielders crept in to the edge of the infield, confident that nothing I hit could get that far. The boy playing right field sat down.
The ball came zooming out of the dusk at a million billion miles an hour. Before I even thought about swinging I heard a pop! and it was in Pete's catcher’s mitt.
"Strike one!" said Pete, doubling as umpire.
The next pitch was a carbon copy, except that I started to swing as soon as Bobby's arm came down. The ball flew up and landed far behind Pete.
Bobby stood fidgeting on the mound until I raised the bat. He raised his leg and took a full windup and something white came whizzing toward me. I was tired and hungry and needed to find a toilet. Time to get this over, I thought. I swung the bat, not very hard, and a satisfying jolt went up my arms. The ball soared over the head of the left fielder, bounced on the sidewalk, caromed over a car and into the street.
Beyond the sidewalk glass shattered and car brakes screeched. In a moment a man in overalls stood at the edge of our field.
"Little sons-of-bitches," he raged.
Everyone scattered as he approached, melting into the alley behind the lot.
Everyone except me. I stood frozen at home plate, still clutching the bat.
"Who hit that ball?" growled the man. Behind him streetlights came on. The man appeared as a menacing silhouette.
"Who hit the damn ball?" he yelled.
"Me," I said, quaking. "I didn't mean to break your car, Mister."
The man approached and knelt down for a closer look.
"You hit that ball?"
"I didn't mean to break your window," I said, blinking away tears.
"Punks ran off and left you to take the rap," he said, shaking his head in disgust. "Kids today…" He turned and hurried away.
When he had driven off, I searched under parked cars until I found Bobby's ball.
I went down the street until I came to the building where I thought he lived. His sister answered the door. Barefoot and drainpipe skinny, she smiled through braces.
"Bobby, one of your friends is here," she called.
Bobby appeared. "He's not my friend," he said.
My heart sank. I don't know what I was expecting, but not that.
"He's my teammate," said Bobby, taking bat and ball.
We played again the next day. I struck out three more times. I dropped a fly ball. I threw wildly over Slappy's head. Boys yelled and cursed at me, but I was Bobby’s teammate, and nothing else mattered.
Copyright © 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
Father Kelly is a rumpled, elfin, Methuselah straight out of Central Casting for a supporting role in a Spencer Tracy or Bing Crosby movie. He cleared his throat with a large sigh, waited for silence, and recited Psalms in a lilting tenor from someplace betwixt Limerick and Cork. He made the obligatory references to faith in Jesus and to eternal life, to Gertrud and Tommy reunited in The Next World. With surpassing eloquence, Kelly reprised the hoariest of Irish jokes dealing with the Resurrection — the one about poor Paddy, who had had a wee too much at the pub, and on his way home took a wrong turn through the cemetery and stumbled into an open grave. He told it with such earnest grace that we all chuckled anyway.
At my age I am as often invited to funerals as to parties. Every few months, it seems, some friend or kinsman loses a parent or sibling, and I interrupt my schedule to honor another completed life, as my friends did when my own parents died. So when Marianne, a treasured friend and softball teammate, telephoned at midday —she knows that I don't like calls when I'm writing — and said my name, I heard the catch in her voice and I knew that her mother was gone, that the agony had ended.
I knew Gertrud O'Neil as a stout, graying grandmother with a German accent thick as a Munich bratwurst, and a zest for nickel-ante poker. Marianne brought her to team parties, where she ate sparingly and nursed a single beer for the entire evening —but eagerly pulled up a chair the moment we set up the card table. If Gertrud never quite grasped the nuance of betting a winning hand to build a pot, or even knew with certainty that a full house beats a straight, she nevertheless delighted in the wagering and table talk, winning or losing a few dollars with equal enthusiasm.
Over the years that we have played on teams together, Marianne told me a bit about her mother. In her teens, Gertrud had served as a spotter on the Luftwaffe base where Messerschmitt tested the world's first jet fighter, and had survived several Allied attacks on that airfield. She was one of the so-called war brides, escaping the poverty and devastation of postwar Europe by wedding a G.I. She must have been desperate, I thought, to find the courage to marry among her former enemies, to come to a foreign land where she knew no one and barely understood the language.
I learned also that Gertrud had endured epic tragedy: A husband who took his own life, leaving her to fend for two children. A son rescued from death's door after a horrific traffic smashup, but minus a huge chunk of his gray matter. Tommy O'Neil, more than a vegetable but far less than the vibrant, likeable young man who had delighted almost everyone whom he met, spent 22 years on a VA hospital ward in Westwood. One day an attendant left him alone in a bathtub, and Tommy was scalded by near-boiling water. He lingered three days before death brought its mercy.
I came to appreciate Marianne as the rarest of friends, entirely dependable, an unselfish soul who genuinely cares for others. Early in our friendship she volunteered to help me convince my own mother to sign herself, yet again, into a mental hospital, a heart-breaking, daylong task that for decades my ailing father had handled, and an effort that left me exhausted and forlorn. It came to me on that day that Marianne could only have learned such devotion from her own mother. And sure enough, I found that every single week over all those years that Tommy had languished in his private hell, mother and sister spent hours with him, trying to communicate, trying to ease his suffering and fear.
But not until her funeral did I have a real sense of the woman Gertrud O'Neil had been. Under the midday sun in Santa Monica's Woodlawn Cemetery, an open grave awaited her unadorned coffin. People drifted in to cluster near the casket, dozens of Marriane's teammates and opponents from decades of play, a handful of relatives—and three generations of Gottleibs, near a dozen strong, some from as far away as Texas and North Carolina. The Gottleibs had been Gertrud's employer.
After the priest spoke, Marianne described Gertrud's last months, when despite the agonies and indignities of diabetes, amputation, heart disease and finally, unspeakably, cancer, she never complained, never cried out, never felt sorry for herself.
Then, one after another, a succession of Gottleibs spoke about their cleaning lady. Through tears and sobs came anecdotes of the humble, hard-working immigrant who for some thirty years had scoured Gottleib floors and toilets, scrubbed Gottleib dishes, dusted Gottleib curtains, vacuumed Gottleib rugs, polished Gottleib furniture, changed Gottleib diapers, washed and ironed Gottleib clothes, cooked Gottleib meals, cared for sick Gottleibs, bandaged Gottleib toddlers' skinned knees, sang fretful Gottleib infants to sleep, comforted troubled adult Gottleibs, advised and counseled and chastised and encouraged adolescent Gottleibs.
Determined to support her children but with few marketable skills beyond the ability to scrub and sweep and polish and vacuum and wash, Gertrud had begun her association with the family as a once-a-week cleaning lady. In time she granted the Gottleibs a second day a week, then a third. As the years slipped by she gradually gave them all her working hours, laboring on weekends and holidays to help out with social events or to deal with minor catastrophes. The Gottleibs were a two-income family, comfortable but far from the wealthiest in their part of Beverly Hills, and they paid Gertrud a fair wage, probably more than she could have earned dividing her time among several families, but not enough, until the passage of decades, to afford her own car. And so a succession of teenaged Gottleibs took turns chauffeuring Gertrud to her South Bay home at week's end. Gertrud, I learned at graveside, often took these occasions to share her views of acceptable behavior. "One day you'll have children of your own," she told one rebellious teen. "Until then, think about how you would feel if your own daughter behaved the way that you have toward your mother."
An older Gottleib recalled sharing with Gertrud the despair that she felt after divorcing her husband of many years. "She took me in her arms and comforted me as though I was her own child," recalled the woman who paid Gertrud's wages.
Over decades of this enamored servitude, Gertrud became the central figure in this family, more than a servant, more even than a second mother, the matriarch in all but name. Standing next to her coffin, the children whom Gertrud had helped to raise, now parents and spouses, revealed that as babies they had been unable to pronounce "Mrs. O'Neil." Parents and children had called her "Neil." Not her own name, nor even that of her late husband, but good enough for Gertrude.
As Gertrud became family, the Gottleibs provided. They bought her a serviceable car, paid her medical insurance, gave her assurances and peace of mind. Even when she grew too ill to work, the family continued to pay her salary, invited her to weddings and family gatherings, treated her with respect and deference.
On my way home from the cemetery, I passed a small brown woman wheeling a fair-skinned baby in a carriage, one of the many who spend their days working in my upscale Westside neighborhood. They are from Mexico and Guatemala, from Korea and Thailand, from Lebanon and Armenia, economic refugees from around the world, and as Gertrud did long ago, each has struck a bargain. In exchange for cleaning house and tending children, for allowing their employers a higher standard of living and the other satisfactions and rewards of pursuing their careers, these housekeepers are able to support their own families and to live in relative safety. How many of these immigrant women, I wondered, give themselves to their employers as wholeheartedly as Gertrud had? How many will help shape the mores and values of a generation of upscale Angelenos with the wisdom and attitude of a Third World émigré?
And then I realized that maybe I was asking the wrong questions. What I really need to know is, How many Gottleibs are there out there?
The Cleaning Lady, Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
# # #
The light changed and Dad let out the clutch. The old Dodge lurched forward down Twelfth Street. "See can you spot Mister Black," he said. I scanned the sidewalks, on this warm summer morning full of black men standing idly or sitting in doorways.
"There he is," said Dad, and stopped at the curb. A tall, rangy man with ebony skin and a mop of white steel wool for hair shuffled forward. "Want to work today, Blackie?" Dad called.
"What you got?" he replied, sticking his head through the window on my side.
"Furnace," Dad said. "Out North, Evanston. Not too big."
He opened the door, and I scooted over to the middle, careful not to put my left leg under the gear shift lever. There was scarcely room for three on the seat; the heat of Mr. Black's body baked through my thin trousers where they touched his leg. He smelled of sweat, tobacco and whiskey; before heading for the suburbs, Dad stopped at a liquor store and bought a pint bottle of Four Roses in a paper bag. Mr. Black unscrewed the top, took a single gulp, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. He stashed the bottle among the tools under the seat. Then he broke out a little tin, and put a pinch of tobacco between cheek and gum.
Like most in Chicago, the Southside apartment building where we lived was heated by coal. Two or three times a year, an enormous dump truck tilted its load down a chute to the basement, where the janitor shoveled it into bins. Coal dust littered the alley and sidewalks for days afterward, and in fall and winter the city was washed by windblown soot. In winter I was often awakened on a Sunday morning by Mom pounding on the radiator pipe, hoping to awaken the janitor; sleeping off payday night, he had allowed the furnace to go out.
A few years after the war, when petroleum was plentiful and cheap, the affluent began switching from bulky, messy, coal furnaces that required constant stoking, to trim, neatly self-contained oil burners managed by electric thermostats. Getting rid of the old furnaces became my father's weekend business. I was his helper.
Our trips to the suburbs were expeditions to terra incognita, a land of quiet, shady streets with split-level homes flanked by grassy lawns and bedded flowers that was nothing like the tired brick tenement where we lived. Inside these homes were airy rooms with carpeted floors, picture-laden walls, strange and beautiful objects on shelves, tables, and display cases, and enormous kitchens gleaming with modern appliances. It was a world that I had glimpsed in year-old magazines that Dad brought home, a world that I never dared to hope that I might share.
The guts of a coal furnace are two cast-iron shells, one inside the other, with inner and outer ribs for strength. Between the shells is a gap, less than an inch, where circulating water is heated before being piped to radiators and faucets. The furnace was either swathed in asbestos or insulated with concrete or brick.
In the low-ceilinged basement of a spacious Evanston home, Dad knocked the furnace door off its hinges, then hoisted me inside. It was pitch black and stifling; the only ventilation was the small door where he stood with a flashlight. Sweat gushed from every pore, stinging my eyes. I stumbled on a bed of cinders and half-burned coal, shifting my feet until I could balance myself to swing the short-handled, five-pound hammer. Dad shined the beam on one of the ribs, and I banged away. Every blow dislodged soot. After a few minutes my arms grew weary and my ears rang. Eventually, metal fatigue occurred; the rib cracked. Then it was on to the next. When every rib was cracked, Dad hauled me out, panting with exhaustion, half deafened, drenched in sweat, covered with soot, utterly spent.
"Stand back," said Dad. Side by side, he and Mr. Black swung long-handled, nine-pound sledges over their heads, alternating strokes and rhythmically beating the concrete until it cracked. A few licks with a crow bar exposed the iron beneath. I sat against the wall, luxuriating in the coolness of the concrete against my back and legs. Furiously they hammered the metal; in half an hour, the furnace was a mound of broken concrete, asbestos, cinders, ash, and shards of iron. Mr. Black wiped his brow, took a long pull from his whiskey. Dad and I sipped water from his old Scout canteen.
Dad charged the homeowner $25 to haul away the old furnace; most of that went for dump fees, gasoline, lunch and Mr. Black's whiskey and wages. Profit was in iron, a ton or so that brought a cent a pound at the scrap yard. Culling it from the debris of insulation, then loading both on the truck, was the hardest part of the job.
As the men began hauling out the scrap, I wandered into the back yard, hoping for a breeze. The lady of the house smiled at me though the kitchen window. She brought cold lemonade and a sandwich on a paper plate. Afterward I asked for the toilet, and was led to a room off the garage.
When I returned, Dad and Blackie were eating beneath a backyard tree. Dad asked where the bathroom was; I showed him. After another hour's toil, the truck sagged under tons of rubble at the rear and bushels of iron up front. Weary but proud of myself, I climbed into the front seat, a ten-year-old man among men.
Half a mile up the road Dad stopped at a gas station, where Blackie borrowed the restroom key. "Why didn't you go at the house, Mr. Black?" I asked when he returned. He looked over my head, at my father.
"People in them fine houses and such, they don't want nobody my color using their toilets," he said.
I turned that over as we headed for the dump. Finally I put my arm next to his. "But my skin is as black as yours," I said. "And they let me use their toilet."
"Mine don't wash off," returned Blackie, and finished his whiskey. That's when I noticed the scar, a thick button of bright pink, inside his mouth near the center of his lower lip. Dad had a scar just like it, almost in the same place.
"How did you get your scar, Mister Black?" I asked. He shook his head. "Daddy got his when a man hit him with a gun and robbed his taxicab," I said.
"Something like that," Blackie said. "Only it was a bottle. And I got nothing worth stealing."
When we got home I was so sooty that Mom made Dad rinse me off outside. I stood in the alley behind our building while he hooked up a borrowed hose. Neighborhood urchins drifted in to watch.
"It's a little blackie!" called one. "Ain't you in the wrong neighborhood?"
"Mine washes off," I said, and Dad backhanded me across the face.
"Don't your ever think that because your skin is white that you're any better than Mr. Black," he bellowed, and the shame that I felt when next I met Mr. Black stained my conscience like the warm blood that had trickled from my nose.
Copyright © 2000 Marvin J. Wolf
I think it was Rebecca who first noticed the odor. It was faint, but once she had mentioned it, the smell was unmistakable: it was the same musky aroma that a woman exudes during sex. And yet it was clearly not her own scent. My wife's musk was somehow different, more emphatic perhaps. Less subtle.
At first we joked about it. We had dated for years but were newlyweds and our household was a collection of used furniture. It included a well-worn mattress that she'd inherited from her brother. We replaced the mattress, but from time to time the odd odor continued to make itself apparent.
There was a heating vent in the wall near our bed, so I hired an air conditioning technician to clean our system. It didn't stop the odor. I crawled underneath the house with a flashlight, but could find no trace of anything that might cause an odor. Supposing it might be some kind of insect or rodent, we fumigated the entire house.
As time went on we noticed that the odor seemed to appear only at bed time, and only in a very limited area around the bed. When we invited late evening visitors into our bedroom to sniff around, most confirmed our observation.
One night David smelled it. He was in his late fifties; since my wife, as a teen, had fled her own brutal and abusive parents, he had become her unofficial father. "This is interesting," said David. "In a strange way, it almost reminds me of Sophie."
His eyes filled and he looked away. Sophie had died the year before, cut down by cancer in her early forties. She had been a lovely woman, both inside and out, and David remained devoted to her memory. So did Rebecca, who though only 14 years her junior, had regarded Sophie as a second mother.
As time went on, the odor seemed to intensify. Then David said that he wasn't sure, but it seemed to him sometimes that the odor had mysteriously appeared in his own bedroom. We began calling back and forth, and as far as we could determine, the odd smell never appeared simultaneously in both our houses. After a while, David said that he suspected that the odor might be a type of paranormal phenomenon.
"You mean a ghost?" said Rebecca, who professed to believe in life after death.
"A spirit, perhaps," offered David, a wry smile on his lips. “A death shadow, as a poet might write.”
David's sense of humor sometimes borders on the outrageous, so at first I thought he was kidding. "I don't believe this," I said. "Ghosts? Spirits? Come on."
"At least open yourself to the possibility," said Rebecca.
David had a distant kinsman who taught parapsychology at a nearby university. He offered to invite the professor over for a consultation. I said it was silly.
After David left, Rebecca and I argued over my reaction. She had a notion that Sophie, or her spirit, might be the source of the smell. I said that bringing in some crackpot psychic investigator was a waste of time. "There are no such things as spirits of the dead," I insisted. Rebecca took my vehemence as an insult to her beliefs. As usual when we began at polar opposites on a subject, we quarrelled late into the night. We both awoke grumpy and unrested.
To make peace, I surrendered. I told her, "We'll just talk to this guy and see what happens." So David called his cousin, who turned out to be a skeptical man of considerable learning and great charm. He came to dinner, chatted with us for a couple of hours about the smell, about our relationships with Sophie, about all sorts of things that had no apparent linkage with ghosts or spirits.
"Is there any unfinished business between you and Sophie?" asked the professor.
"I don't think so," said Rebecca.
Sophie had known her cancer was incurable for nearly a year and had systematically gone about preparing for her death. She and Rebecca had spent many hours together talking; my wife had been in the room when Sophie expired, a peaceful exit eased by massive doses of morphine.
"There couldn't be," I said.
This was a lie. When Sophie had learned that she might have only months to live, she had re-examined her life and decided to make some changes. She took up skydiving and broke silk eight or ten times before she became too weak to handle the shrouds. She learned to snorkel and to ski. She read books that she'd put aside years earlier. She sampled new and wildly different cuisine, even taught herself a little French. And Sophie, who in all her life had been sexually intimate only with David, discreetly seduced a few carefully selected men and boys.
She had wanted to find out if there was more to sex than what her husband offered. And so one day she came on to me. I am ashamed to say that I let things go a bit too far. We never had sex, but we did nearly everything else. When I realized that what I was doing might hurt David or Rebecca, I backed off. Sophie nevertheless continued to pursue me, persisting in her advances until a few weeks before her death.
I was not about to share any of this with a stranger, much less with my wife. But now I began to wonder if there was indeed some possibility that the strange odor was Sophie's shade, intent in death on reminding me of what I had refused her in life.
So I allowed the academic to bring his apparatus into our home. I watched carefully as he set up strange instruments and took measurements from the gauges. I began to read all sorts of meanings into his mumbled musings. After two weeks of this, the professor came to the conclusion that it was possible that a ghost or spirit was responsible for our bedroom odor.
"We cannot be sure there's a spirit involved, of course," he said. "But if I had time and budget, I'd be inclined to investigate this phenomenon at greater length."
The odor persisted at bedtime and the more I thought about it, the more I thought about Sophie and what he had shared and how she had lived the last year of her life, the more I became convinced that there was a ghost, that it was the ghost of Sophie and that she was reminding me with her scent of that ultimate intimacy I had denied her.
Finally, I had to tell Rebecca.
She took it poorly, raging at me, cursing my name, questioning my sanity. Even though I repeatedly assured her that I had not had sex with Sophie, that what had happened between us grew out of my sense of wanting to comfort a doomed woman, my wife could not forgive me. For several nights she slept on the sofa in the den. Then she moved to a friend's apartment and finally into her own place.
We went to counseling. After a few sessions, we attempted a reconciliation. We spent an intimate and hopeful weekend in her flat, but the following week, when she returned to the little house that had been mine for years before our marriage, she was unable to sleep. She said that the spectral odor which still hovered about my bed kept her awake remembering my infidelity.
She filed for divorce. Not wanting to prolong the pain, I didn't contest it.
Nevertheless, I was devastated at the notion of never again being intimate with Rebecca. Eventually, of course, I came to accept the way things had turned out. I was still in my thirties, made a good living and was and in good shape; I was sure that I would find someone else. And Rebecca, so beautiful, poised and industrious, would have no difficulty attracting suitors. Unable to put Sophie aside and remain lovers, we resolved to become friends; on the evening of the day our interlocutory decree was finalized, we went to dinner to celebrate the dissolution of our marriage and the beginning of our new relationship.
It was a little after nine when I returned home. In the bedroom a shaded lamp hung as always from the ceiling directly over the bed, but as I walked in and flipped the wall switch, there was a flash of blue-green: The bulb had burned out.
I found a new one in a kitchen cabinet and returned with a stepladder and a flashlight. After removing the old bulb, I saw a narrow arc of darkened paint at the apex of the shade. There was also a little printed warning that I'd never noticed:
CAUTION: To reduce the risk of fire, use 60 watt type T or smaller lamp.
I turned the fragile glass over in my hand and shined the flashlight on it. It was rated at 100 watts. Suddenly seized by a thought, I climbed the last step on the ladder and put my nose on the shade next to the vacant socket. Inhaling deeply, I detected what until then I had taken as the scent of a woman's musk.
After screwing in a 60 watt bulb, I was never again troubled by the faint odor of scorching paint. Sometime later, when I told David, he confessed that he suspected that he had only imagined that the odor was present in his own bedroom.
Copyright © 2001 Marvin J. Wolf
FROM Marvin J. Wolf
On this page are true stories, magazine articles, excerpts from books and unpublished works, short fiction, and photographs, each offering a glimpse of my life, work and times. Your comments welcome. © Marvin J. Wolf. All rights reserved.