33. the house that catch built
IT FELT GOOD to be there in the morning, waking up. Sure, small. Efficient. Ascetic. Beautiful just like a monastery. In the morning it was so bright, like a shower before the shower, healthy white brilliance dripping off your skin in heavenly surfeit, onto every surface and into every nook. Just opening her eyes to it—arching her neck to look languidly back into the sky above the courtyard—made it a good thing, waking up. There was a solidarity among the windows that overlooked the courtyard; they’d silently agreed that with the heat it was better to let people see in. Nobody had anything to hide. The heat was going, finally, but so far the habit had stuck.
Danny was still asleep, his head nestled like a child’s against her. How could he sleep in all this light? She rolled forward again to see Audrey standing in the doorway, just standing there, hands clasped behind her back. At that, Catch had to smile, slowly at first, the warmth of it washing over her. Audrey did nothing, at first, but finally she smiled, too.
Didn’t say anything, but she twisted on her feet, back and forth. Stuck inside the doorframe, so small.
Catch didn’t want to wake Danny. When had he come in last night? Could have been two, could have been two hours ago. She slid out, gingerly, scratched by his stubble, slipping in a pillow in her stead. Without her he curled tighter against himself.
The terry of the bathrobe was heavy and coarse. The wood of the kitchen floor was cool. Audrey followed her in, silently. She didn’t react when Catch reached down and lifted her to the counter. She bounced her heels together. There was some sausage in the fridge. Frying pan, heat, sausage. The cheap heating element creaked toward orange.
“How did you sleep?”
Catch wanted juice, but there wasn’t any. Her mouth was dry. There were some lemons. She got the lemons and the lemon squeezer.
“What do you want to do today?”
The lemons were a little old; they collapsed feebly beneath her weight.
“Do you want some lemonade?”
It was fine, coming there. For a long time she wasn’t sure, but it was fine. It was new, it was pretty, there were things to do with Audrey on a Saturday, she could get her friends on the phone, Danny could walk to the studio. There was just so much light.
The sausages hissed and popped, and she felt a prick of oil on her arm. She rolled them over, then stirred the sugar and the lemons and the water. The muted underwater click of spoon against glass was rhythmic, steadying. A little lemon tornado formed inside the glass, then washed over the spoon as she stopped.
Ah-hah! There were biscuits left over from dinner, too. Buttermilk, big and knobbly. A feast! She gave one of the glasses to Audrey, carefully molding her small hands against the surface, slippery with condensation. Audrey held it two-fisted against her mouth, sucking at it like with a straw, her eyes always fixed on Catch.
“Do you want to go to the park?”
She thought she saw the edge of a smile. She divided the sausage three ways, put a biscuit on each of the two plates, buttered them, carried the plates to the table, then went back for Audrey and the lemonade.
“Watch, it’s hot.”
Audrey, low at the table and small to the fork in her hand, looked mistrustfully at the sausage. She ate the biscuit, drank the lemonade and then, warming to it, ate the sausage, which wasn’t bad. The window beside the table was open too; Audrey stared at the cars wrestling down in the street.
Danny was still asleep when they left. Catch covered the pan of the remaining sausages, set the bag of biscuits next to it, and put a note in front of him on the pillow: “Sausages!” She folded it like a placecard to make it stand on its own.
“Is Daniel coming?”
“He’ll get up while we’re gone.”
The day was bright and perfectly temperate, the air crisp with the potpourri of summer’s dying leaves. People were out, with beards and slept-in hair, trying to snatch at it before it disappeared, hold on to it. Through the crowds they took the subway to the park. The train rattled and the riders were lively, loaded down with books and bags and things, eager to get there. The stale, metallic subway air made the real air outside smell of Fall. Crunching over more leaves, Audrey stared up at the yellows and reds, step-stepping along with her warm hand raised to Catch’s own. The paths and forks of the park, the vistas and their vegetations, wound this way and that, forever novel, like Wonderland. There was no street grid; there was the possibility of getting lost.
The chess people played chess. Catch and Audrey stood behind them, on the hill, quietly watching. Catch never remembered to play but whenever she saw a game—saw human thought laid out for her across those even squares—missed it. She used to play with Danny. Where had the chessboard gone? A casualty of the move, she supposed. One of the men made a raucous deep dog’s bark each time he slapped down a piece, but he still lost.
Fall is the perfect season. This wasn’t quite the New England fall she was used to, where the air smelled like Lexington, witch trials, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, but close enough. She’d stayed close to home for school, and that was enough of that. And her friends all said they’d come down here soon, but who knew if they meant it. It felt good to be away from the silent respectability of New Canaan. Like this chess scene: all the men, who knew what they did or where they lived, but the colors and shapes varied. Overcoats, scarves, patched corduroys and spectacles, but the Saturday morning and the chess brought them all there together.
A few fast games later they left, walking on along the path, past the dogs and joggers and the tended flowerbeds. They found a place to sit and sat, in the sun that warmed them against the cool of the air to just the right degree, with a view of a frisbee game, and Catch read some to Audrey from Canterbury Tales. When the sun got lower in the sky she noticed Audrey shivering so they left—by way of the Turkish grocers for things for dinner—for home. There was one block that unnerved her, where men loitered, violence implicit in their manner and you had to wonder, each time you passed, whether you might be an object of that violence. You always had to be on your guard or something would make an object of you. But they passed safely, went into their building and up the stairs.
Audrey, sensitive to a need, fished the keys from Catch’s pocket and got the door for her. Hurrying from the ache in her arms, she walked to the table and set the things down on it, rocking it up and slightly off the floor. The sun had just set; the smell of food a floor below made her feel behind.
From the other room she heard Danny and Audrey. She’d expected him to be gone again, but there he was, pinned on the couch, Audrey sitting on his chest, quietly telling the days events. It was astonishing the things she’d noticed; Catch wondered where her own thoughts had been. She sorted the things from the grocery bags and laid out the dinner supplies on the counter.
They came in behind her, Audrey to her spot on the counter, lifted by Danny, who inspected the groceries and set to work chopping the big spanish onion.
“How did it go last night?”
“Well, let’s see.” Chop chop. “I didn’t get anything done, but it was slow and discouraging.” She smelled the garlic as it crushed beneath the flat of the knife. “I can’t do this one. I’ve been stuck for a week now.”
“You always say that.”
“I’m always right. I always end up with something, but it’s never what I wanted. I can’t do it.”
“Stop then. Teach Audrey to play chess. Have a drink. It will keep.” Audrey, Catch thought, was tacitly intrigued by the game in the park. Click click. Resign. She thought she saw a smile out of the corner of her eye.
“I’ve got the editing room booked every night this week. Can’t afford not to use it.” He rubbed the child’s head with an air of apology. “You know we can’t remotely afford that.”
The glass in the cabinet rang mute. There was a bottle of Scotch far too good for them to own that Danny’s father had bought on visit. The idea had been to save it for his next visit; certainly he’d remember having bought it. But in an emergency, it could spare a little. There was something very teenaged about the whole thing, a bit of a joke: how much could be gone before he’d know the difference? The first giveaway—the top of the label—had long since been left behind. They’d started calling it the Emergency Scotch.
“Is it an emergency, you think?”
“Are you kidding? This is serious. Make mine a double emergency.” Yogurt was alive and looked it. Bright white and fleetingly alive, spoiled in a heartbeat.
He made up two glasses, his with water, hers without. Audrey had to taste everything, and predictably wrinkled her nose afterwards. “You’ll get used to it, eventually.” It was hard to say meaningfully—of something so many leagues beyond the realm of possibility—whether it was worth the cost, but certainly it was very, very good. Catch took a sip and held it on her tongue, watching Audrey watch Danny.
She gave the cucumbers to Audrey to peel. Audrey sat with the big cucumber between her knees, whittling it, fragments of peel flying down into the trash on the floor below. Some of the strands missed, inevitably, and each time he happened to pass Danny would bend down and clean up a couple. Catch smiled silently at the inane repetition of it—the stupidity repeated, never noticed.
“How long till you finish, you think?”
“I told you, I can’t finish. But I’ll be done in another two weeks, I bet.”
There was a nice rhythm to it: when he finished he’d be ecstatic for a day or two and then moody for weeks for lack of anything in particular to do, with the strain of not having a next idea. At least he’d be available, though. Then, she was sure, he’d find some new gleam and be off again.
Still, two weeks? At least the film was out of the fridge. The annoyance of that—opening it to find something to eat or put groceries away and finding no room from at all around the canisters that spilled over even into the vegetable crisper—still left a bad taste in her mouth. Slowly it had been used and carted away to be developed and the irritation had faded.
Many hands, or six anyway—two big, two tiny, two thin—made light work, and soon they were sitting down at the table with the cucumber soup, the salad, and the garlic bread which, while clashing with the cuisine, still was good. She tore at it, pulling apart the crust, hot butter on her fingers and beneath her nails. Out on the street, two people were arguing at a distance of half a block. Every line was delivered while turning back—as if for just one last time—after moving to walk away. They didn’t seem to notice their monotony. But why was she looking out the window?
“Can I do the dishes to assuage my guilt?”
“Don’t worry about it. Sooner you go, sooner you might get back.”
Audrey went with him while he packed his things, untying each of his shoes after he tied it and laughing. He laughed too, the first time, then got angry and snapped at her. Catch winced. Then the two of them were alone. She felt the weight of any number of sins that she had to redress.
There was a short round little table out on the fire escape, lit by the alley flood. Pawns go forward one square, or two on the first move, if you want, and capture diagonally. Knights go two by one. If you play defensively you’ll lose. Control the center. The shadows of the pieces swam away from the flood lamp, each move a tiny click beneath the talking and music from other windows. Audrey learned quickly at first then began to tire. Catch put her to bed and then sat with a coffee mug, holding it against her cheek until it cooled.