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On the Eve: A Story

On the loveliest of winter mornings in New York City, un enfant de siècle, nearly fifty years old, is walking with a brisk, almost military, purposefulness down Broadway. The clean cold air and the pale blue sky are the best the city has to offer and all the millions who have never held a golf club, ridden a horse, or skied in the mountains have reason to be thankful.

He, Ackermann, moves along with a sort of athleticism of the brain, a refreshing jog of ideas, and a bit of concern for the future of his lungs and arteries. Health is not always easy to maintain because he is living in the gold of his middle age. Cream sauces at the banquet table, the velvet of sofas on Park Avenue, the roller-coaster elevators in the Waldorf Towers—and Washington, Washington itself. Nevertheless he is impressive as he goes down the blowsy street like a commandant of the regiment with a burning smile, posture erect, medals gleaming. And if his pace is interrupted by the arrogant fleetness of truant youth or the stumbles of shabby old people—no matter.

What is the purpose of your life, Ackermann?

Ah, the parts do not describe the whole, dear interviewer. This life at the desk, in the lecture hall and the magazines, the meetings, the opinions, groupings, alliances, friends and enemies—enemies, there’s always that.

Ackermann is a teacher, a writer, and a critic. Indeed a critic, one of the unfraternal nest of barn owls, men and women, similar, some of the wounded say, to a species known as “nightjars” for their confident, high-pitched cries.

There is more to Ackermann than that. He is a neoconservative, something of a hero of the counterrevolution; and handsome as a minor film star with his strong head and coarse curly hair.

He is nearing West 72nd Street. Every rock and rill is known to him. Here lie the cataracts, the grazing field, the mountainous landscape of his political passage. He has roamed these woods as a boy in the West 90s, lived until a few years ago on Riverside Drive amid the azaleas and forsythia and the speeding of drunken powerboats on the Hudson and the heraldic neon markings of the castles of the Palisades. Here are the shards of his youthful liberal clichés, the chopped-off carrot tops of his adversary assumptions, the shriveled balloons of his generation’s elated predictions of capitalist catastrophe.

Ackermann is writing a memoir, a political autobiography full of messages as blunt and demanding as those of the prophets to the house of Ahab. And yet he wishes it to be here and there nostalgic and poetical since he is first and last a student of literature and, like a Slavophile of the last century, mystical in his native fervors, his passionate, dream-tossed Americanism.

He nears the Hotel Ansonia, a declining Parisian beauty, sun-spangled on the upper windows. And this he knows also from his violin lessons, this bit of old New York, as we might call the building’s eighty years of solfeggios in the mornings, tenors assaulting the crystal chandeliers with their menacing exhalations, Steinways decorated with the framed, incomparable faces, saying, “To my young competitor with the good wishes of Josef Hofmann,” and “All the best, Elisabeth Rethberg.”

Outside the Fairway Market, plump oranges and pink-cheeked grapefruit in the bins, and as he stands in the line to buy an apple he feels the breath of opinion on his back.

The trouble is.

The death penalty’s too good for.

I’m telling you.

They ought to.

Luminous day. In the gutters a litter of appeals for fortune telling, massage, keep missiles out of Europe, hands off Nicaragua. Not a person on the street, not a vendor, not a West Side woman protesting gentrification in the midst of the resistant stasis of Broadway—not a one who didn’t want to run the country.

Little new, little new. This world was a dusty old pocket with the zipper stuck. A field of corn, a ranch in the hills, a flagpole on the lawn, a barbecue were as alien as a Wampanoag Indian. As who knew better than he who had walked the trail back home from his new co-op in the East 80s, a cool and courteous dwelling that had an effect upon Ackermann and his wife like that of having gone on a successful diet.

He is on the West Side to honor a family duty. In no way a martyrdom. Family feeling was alive in Ackermann’s soul and there was hardly a day that some stray motion or thought did not cause him to grieve for his mother and father. His father with his troubled heart died when he was sixty-two years old and three years later, without warning, his mother collapsed with a stroke that took her away in three days. For them Ackermann had gone to the University of Chicago when he was fifteen and, looking back, he believed it was for them that he once imagined himself a novelist who would honor their superb reasonableness, touched with melancholy, which illuminated the boredom of his adolescence.

Here he is in the apartment of his sister, Miriam, the last of his parents’ offering to fortune, Ackermann’s flesh and blood, if “nothing in common.” With a filial sympathy he approaches his sister’s presence, the predictable rush of her being. And certainly everything is predictable, in tune. Miriam is nicely recovering from pneumonia, wearily complaining of the country’s health care, the cost of things, the hot summer just past, the determination of the building’s owner to evict the old rent-controlled tenants.

Ackermann: Tenants are not rent-controlled. Apartments are rent-controlled.

Miriam is propped up in a very large lascivious bed, topped with bolsters, large pillows, and small pillows ready for the accommodation of her unruly dreams. Her thick, wavy “Ackermann” hair falls about her shoulders. Cigarettes fill the night tables on the left and the right, tables cluttered with wine glasses, a bottle here and there, a stray saucer, as if at the end of a meal. A week’s pile of The New York Times lies nearby on the floor. The room retains the sweetish scent of the fever and flush of pneumonia—or perhaps it is the fume of a large box of chocolates on the bureau.

Some forbearance is necessary on Ackermann’s part and little, if any, on Miriam’s since she does not take in much about her brother’s last years. His travels, consultations, his dominating position on two conservative foundations, his acquaintance with the president, his books and articles. In Miriam’s view everyone in New York is writing, being consulted, going places, meeting famous people. She herself has worked on television political documentaries and has spoken more than once with generals of the Vietnam War, officials of the NAACP, leaders of the women’s movement, brain surgeons, sociologists from Harvard. In her view, the city is the fast track for one and all.

The one vexing advantage of her brother’s life had taken place long ago. Their father, a professor of geography at Queens College, had taken the teenage son to all sorts of places: to Africa, Portugal, and South America. This Miriam saw as a deprivation to herself since the places appeared in her documentaries and it might have been useful for her to say: No, no, in Upper Volta French is spoken. We’ll need translators on that spot. Even now she will shake her head and say: The third world didn’t rub off on you.

Ackermann: Miriam, there is no such thing as the third world.

Miriam is haphazard indeed. Her brother, in kindly if sometimes fatigued reflection, sees her as a burrowing, frizzy-haired troglodyte of the 1940s. She is late for every appointment, wandering in attention, has lost out at the TV station, and as for ideas, those veins in the very rock of character, she is blithely fond of Castro, the Sandinistas, gays, blacks, welfare clients, and as routinely and naturally as applying lipstick and mascara in the morning. To all these matters she gives a distracted nod, as if voting in a large assembly.

For the rest, her main project, as she calls it, is her sluggish affair with a married man whom she doesn’t much like and who does not appear to be pressingly keen on her. She is, of course, long separated from her husband, a man of great sentimentality who maintains her in her scattered independence.

The phone rings and Miriam raises her hand like a traffic cop. Let it go. It is either Ethel or Harry or Duane or Jimmy or Joan.

Miriam’s life is a large canvas of nymphs and satyrs, matrons and courtiers, and her conversation about them is an innocent, diffused commentary like something coming through earphones.

A. is having her first child at forty-one, not married. Amniocentesis OK. A girl.

B. came home one night and she had packed all his underwear in a large army footlocker and put a three-pound padlock on it.

C., a Bolivian, has vanished from his post at the UN, is planning to take a new name and set himself up as a dress designer.

Now she begins to cry and at the same time to drink from a cold cup of coffee beside the bed. Her children, off on their own, great kids and a real mess. With an almost scriptural regularity she checks off the ordained rhythms of her life. Feckless children, uncertain income, boring husband, and recalcitrant lover. And yet large plants by the windows flourish in their dry soil, copper pans choose to gleam in the slanting sunlight of the kitchen, the framed Ben Shahn “Ban the Bomb” poster year by passing year comes to look quite valuable.

A blue bowl filled with lemons, sheaves of wheat on the wallpaper. Around the disorderly Miriam there is an eruption of fertility, the sensuality of a feathered slipper, a band of satin. She is in her nest—husband gone, children fled, and her domain is perfume, cosmetics, and mirrors, closets and drawers rich with stockings, bathing suits, a bit of fur.

Miriam rises in a spring-flowered robe from her amorous bed. She has the family beauty and her large eyes are now as clear as water. She is ready to be very busy. Busy is sometimes a sigh and then again a mystery, a secret, and the urban clocks tick away fatefully.

At the door she says: This building is not falling down. It’s worth a fortune. All he wants is profit.

Ackermann decides against rebuttal and for a moment the two of them brother and sister, are framed by the open oak door and brass knocker, beneath the Corinthian leaves of the handsome, not quite tidy, hallway. With their strong noses and arched brows they might be Venetians of the sixteenth century.

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