A Friend: Third Tourmaline (conclusion)
Herward’s impulse to friendship could not be blunted by the dull sequestering of Anton’s mind. He called again, and when all the silver was polished, and the furniture sat adorned with it, winking at envy, the corporal made a suggestion.
“Some of the new officials…you know, the city is crowded now, everyone living in rooms… They will have the occasion in their positions, to entertain. There are only one or two shops that sell old things. And you’d get less than you paid for these.”
It was his third visit.
He’d shared their lunch the second time, a thing she begrudged him less, feeding off her rations. Herward was bringing Anton out. Playing the gadfly, but getting answers to his questions. Her son had stopped calling her Mrs. Leonhardt. He now called her by no name at all. And Herward’s speech was always this way…coming at what he wanted, two or three close passes hemming it round, waiting for her to guess.
“I ought to advertise?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. I wondered if the idea of bartering would offend you. I can introduce you to a woman.”
“Tell me,” she said, “what to pick.”
And so, on a later day of that week, she was donning her black cardigan. This, rather than the berry-colored with the bead buttons, not to use her best to impress a stranger. She always held back possessions, always had…from the stub of a pencil, to her good lace tablecloth…against the day. And the day had come. Mrs. Leonhardt was right. This meant, of course, that her husband had been right, too.
Superstition, what it was, like Manfred said, saving. And here she was selling things she’d never got the use of…for the citizen-collaborator, there could be no occasion. You sold, and others profited.
Those people got in the door, the G.R.A.
They asked for your help, after you’d let them help you. She would probably even lend it all away, for nothing, as Palma had forecast.
“We can’t have things, Mrs. Leonhardt.”
She buttoned, and called out, “Anton, are you ready?”
He had likes and dislikes, impassioned…and, his mother thought, tied to a strange notion he’d brought home, that the properties of objects, of faceted gemstones and colored glass, square and round shapes, wool and metal, silverwork hammered in grape leaves and peacock tails, strangers’ inscribed initials, communicated messages. He would find in these a directive, to an act he wouldn’t confide to her.
He had some garments of his father’s he wore sleeping, others he’d told her, “No! I don’t want to see this again!”
And thrust hands back at her, a terrible tension in the set of his jaw.
The weather that morning was fine, the trees in flower, as not yet on the day she’d done her shopping, only Monday. Today was Wednesday. She had an address in her pocket. No. 17—BNE, by its G.R.A. designation—that Herward told her was well within walking distance. He’d nodded at Anton. “Yes, it isn’t winter any longer.”
He was telling her…she’d learned to read him…that he agreed with her own idea, that Anton wanted sun and fresh air, exercise to stir his appetite. He had, as she discovered, repacked Herward’s box, unwilling to have the Ochiltree woman (Unit Head, Reconciliation Bureau, an office where database records were retyped onto paper, a vast make-work project), separate him from his favorites. To hide himself, he wore protective things, a thick cabled pullover and dark glasses, making his appearance conspicuous.
“I’m always lost, going places, since they made all the changes. Why can’t streets have names?”
She was apologizing, not saying she was sorry, for having got them mixed up. This grievance was one she felt a kind of passion over, herself, that stirred her at odd times.
“They don’t want names on things. They don’t want statues in the parks that commemorate things. They don’t want the coast people on the coast and the capital people in the capital. Because, you know, we get attached and sentimental. Attachment and sentiment are divisive. They want us to think obedience has no cost.”
“Am I allowed to say I don’t care what the G.R.A. wants?”
He let this linger, his way of calling her, dry emphasis and offensive pause. It was the first time. Mrs. Leonhardt had thought she’d waited for this day.
“I suppose a dandelion doesn’t care what the sun wants. But it can’t choose.”
All the houses were numbered, figures without serifs, black on white, the sign a size measured for visibility from a particular distance. It wasn’t that, that had lost Mrs. Leonhardt. There could be only one seventeen in any lettered section of any quarter. Houses not conformable to a grid, those built at the ends of odd lanes, were by now mostly razed, all condemned, the lanes themselves closed to traffic. But whole rows of houses would be torn down in time.
Her own house had gabling, a pretty sort of rose window at the peak, shingles painted yellow. These must be covered in uniform white, but the G.R.A. would decide after all, Mrs. Leonhardt was sure of it…decide she was proud, she and her neighbor who shared all this. Someone looking for a home would find one splash of architecture more appealing than another, and these attachments, as Anton called them, might induce the taking of a stand.
“You look lost.”
The woman wore a non-resident’s badge, austere in type, again the irritating black on white, BNE17, WAINWRIGHT, M. Her clothes were black, her face weak-chinned, exposed in its whiteness by brown hair pulled severely, an uncaught strand hanging by her eye.
The words, though, had been given a bright inflection. Mrs. Leonhardt gave the woman silence, and study, and thought if she returned the compliment, the eye of this Wainwright, M., would shed a tear.
Anton answered her. “We’ve come to the place expected.” He nodded at her chest. “Your house. They make you live there.”
“Ma’am,” Mrs. Leonhardt said, to clarify. “Are you Mrs. Ochiltree’s boarder?”
It was possible they were not expected. She reviewed Herward’s actual words, concluding these tendered no guarantee. She wanted, for being made to stand on a nameless street holding an awkward box (she did not count it much she’d taken this from Anton, believing its contents, out of his control, would keep him at her side), to rattle the punchbowl, the cups and the ladle, to make a startling noise, stop the woman’s staring at Anton, as though behind his glasses he did not stare back.
Certain M. Wainwright knew her name, she gave it. “I am Mrs. Leonhardt. This is Anton.”
Matters became worse.
The woman put her two hands around Anton’s arm, let go, spun and rushed ahead, stopped, turned towards them again. “I’m Mary…David’s wife.” Her voice dropping to a whisper. “Oh, come in!”
And of course, they could not just…where were they?
“Palma.” Leading them around one of the barriers, weaving through piles of broken stone and brick, empty window frames, doors unhinged, past the next barrier, directly around the corner, suddenly into the foyer of number seventeen. “She might have told you, if you’ve come back, Anton…that.”
A latch clicked in response to Mary’s badge. Now indoors, she did, as Mrs. Leonhardt had anticipated, spill tears, her eyes all at once gone red. She fell onto her sofa and snatched at a tissue box.
“Yes, I’m alone.”
“She let me have your letters.”
He whirled a fixed gaze on Mrs. Leonhardt, eyes unreadable…but dark lenses always conveyed, did they not, a sort of hollow anger? He stood in rigid compression, his chin dimpled, his jaw quivering as it had before. Why, she thought, is my son angry with me…what have I done? The thought came also, incongruous, that when Anton had been younger, she would in fondness…doting, as a mother did, even on his rages…have noticed these things about his face.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)