Walker Evans Is A Spy
Agnes O’Leary feels a peculiar thrill riding the subway, now that the question is not if the Germans will bomb New York but when. The Huns know no bounds, as her father says, as all the men at Farrell’s say. This month it’s Greece and Yugoslavia. If they can send panzers across the breadth of Europe, why not fighter planes across the Atlantic? And what if you’re riding the train when it happens? Agnes pictures the dim car blackening: she fumbles for her glasses, stumbles through the smoky tunnel, calls out for Joe and Bernie. She knows it is wrong, deeply selfishly wrong, to be more excited by this possibility than scared, but the truth is: she’s excited. They’ve been waiting forever.
And the man across the aisle, halfway down the car, has been staring at her forever, or so she guesses—she cannot say for sure because she’s not wearing those glasses she would have to fumble for in the event of an air strike. Glasses are always unseemly, but they are unthinkable under a hat or a new hairdo, and Agnes has both: pin curls courtesy of her sister Loretta (who is not capable of much else, poor girl) and a green tam meant to bring out the blue in her eyes that people sometimes mistake for grey. She senses the mystery man sneering at her vanity.
“I’ve seen that fellow before. I think he’s taking pictures of people.”
Joe-and-Bernie, a pair of boys she’s so desperately in love with she thinks of them as one, snap to attention on either side of her. Bernie spots him right away: a pale middle-aged man, jumpy as a schoolboy, fiddling in the pocket of his spring coat. “What’s he got up his sleeve, a line to the shutter? By jove.”
By jove. Bernie slays her: he’s always putting on an accent, playing the fool for her amusement. In the contest over Agnes (she doesn’t mean to be vain about that too) Bernie believes he’s already lost. Because he’s short, because unlike her he does wear his glasses; because Joe is a tall graceful track star with a flap of ash-blond hair over his forehead that Agnes can’t take her near-sighted eyes off of. So she stares at Joe more than she stares at Bernie. She is flabbergasted all over again by how dim boys—men—are. Bernie is brilliant, for God’s sake, he speaks German and Latin and French and this spring he’s been admitted to Harvard and Columbia, not to mention Fordham and Notre Dame, but he has decided already that it will be City College for him: a sacrifice he’ll make for his widowed ma, who cannot afford to clothe him suitably for the Ivy League, much less cough up the tuition. Not that any of their families could. No wonder Joe-and-Bernie spotted her at the Dominican-Xavier dance: she might just as well have worn a sign, SCHOLARSHIP GIRL.
Today, as they do every week, Joe-and-Bernie waited for her at the side-door exit for employees of B. Altman, where she sells stockings afternoons and Saturdays. Every Saturday she slips her hands into their crooked arms, one on either side, and allows them to escort her downtown. Every Saturday the three of them pretend they are the kind of swells who might actually enroll at Princeton, who might actually wear the shoes they wear at Sarah Lawrence (and what shoes might those be? Crocodile high heels with the toes showing cleavage?). They bound out of the train at Bleecker Street and march off to one ornate coffee house or another, where they sit at little marble tabletops to ogle dark paintings, to suck soup, to suck coffee, to suck talk, talk, talk for their Saturday night supper. Sometimes at the end Joe orders a monte bianco they all share: she has never tasted chestnuts before, and when she licks the cream off her spoon she thinks indecent thoughts involving nipples.
Joe-and-Bernie go into a reverent trance, watching her eat her dessert, and then they are running late. They must trot to deliver her on time to her Saturday night job at De Robertis, where she boxes cannolis for the hoi polloi of First Avenue (good old cannolis, stuffed with perfectly decent solidified cream). Agnes O’Leary is the only O’Anything who’s ever worked the counter: Joe, who lives around the corner and knows the family, got her the job. Sometimes she wishes he hadn’t. By nine o’clock her feet are so swollen that she slips out of her pumps (they are not made of crocodile) and, leaning on the glass counter she has just polished, strokes one stockinged ankle with the other. Joe and Bernie come in at 10 P.M. acting like customers, and at eleven they walk her out to the car waiting at the opposite curb: her father’s friend Matt McClary, who miraculously and coincidentally gets off his Consolidated Edison shift at ten forty-five and who can deliver her straight to her doorway in Brooklyn. Agnes suspects that Mr. McClary gets off at 9 P.M., or 8 P.M., or maybe doesn’t even work a Saturday shift at all, but drives the streets of Manhattan until it is time for her to go home so that he can say, as they pull away from Bernie and Joe, waving curbside:
“Now that’s devotion, those two lugs. What name did you say—Damn Romeo?”
Agnes will giggle as she is expected to. “D’Ambrosio. Joe D’Ambrosio.”
“What’s this, DiMaggio fever? Falling for the boys with the vowels at the ends of their names!”
She has recently noticed how attentively Mr. McClary watches her when he tells a joke, how suddenly the whole world wants to tell her the punchline. She is, she realizes, one of the world’s designated listeners. And a good thing, too. Her lack of glasses—her view of the world as pleasantly out of focus—has led to some merry money mistakes behind her sales counters, but meanwhile she has been listening so closely, smiling so appreciatively, as Bernie says in a British accent, that she has never once been called on the carpet for her blind change-counting.
Joe inclines his head, trying to be ever so suave. “Who’s taking pictures? That one, with the dented fedora? Who’s he think he is, a private eye?”
“Don’t look now. He’s got his private eye on us.”
Agnes breathes: “Once he had a lady friend with him. A decoy, I guess.”
“Are you saying he’s a spy?”
It has never occurred to her that the man who spies on his fellow subway passengers actually is a spy, but now that Joe’s spoken the word it is too delicious. A Nazi spy. “Who would he be spying on, on the Lex?”
“Jews.” Bernie says it sharply, without a funny accent, and Joe leans over Agnes to study the look on his face. They do this all the time—lean over her, around her, stare at each other’s face to read the intention there—and Agnes is sharp enough to know that, as much as she is in love with the pair of them, they are in love with each other too. Oh, not that way. Not like the skinny mustachioed fellows you see prancing with each other on Waverly Place. But in love nonetheless. This entire year they have been carrying on a debate—sometimes heated, sometimes so cool it is wordless—about the war. Bernie will be first in the enlistment line: it’s a wonder Bernie’s not in uniform already.
Joe won’t enlist, he says, he’ll resist. But he’ll find a way over there nonetheless, to fight the fascists by smuggling people out, and if it’s too late to get to Europe—which of course it is, by years—why then after graduation he’ll go down to the Mexican border and he’ll escort refugees (the lucky few who have talked their way into some Latin American port) back to New York with him. He talks about saving for a bus ticket, about bribing border guards, and Bernie rolls his eyes at the foolishness. Look, if you’re too pure to fight you’re not going anywhere but a jail cell, once this starts.
Joe sneaks another look at the spy. “Oh . . . my . . . God.” He leans forward, inventing a radio script. Worse than she is, with his imagination. “Look at him. Aryan perfection. Of course he’s a kraut.”
“I beg your pardon,” says Bernhard Kelly, in a German accent. His mother is German and she has fed him the language with her mother’s milk.
“Really, Joe. What do you think he’s doing, sending snapshots of Jews back to Germany?”
“Did you know in Berlin women in evening gowns stood around on the sidewalk, pointing out Jews for the brownshirts to pummel?”
No, of course she didn’t know and neither do the other girls at the Dominican Academy or anybody else who pays a nickel for the subway. Everything she knows about Germany, about Austria, about Poland or France or the Sudetenland, she knows from Bernie-and-Joe, who apparently read seventeen newspapers a day. When they have a second to spare on their Saturday night pilgrimage, Bernie even dashes over to Christopher Street to pick up a couple of foreign newspapers for good measure. He’s showing off, of course, but she’s impressed just the same. The nuns do not discuss international politics—though they were the first to moan about the priestly blood running in the streets of Barcelona—and the O’Leary apartment is generally innocent of newsprint, unless her grandmother Babe is reading Jimmy Cannon in the Post. Since Joe-and-Bernie, Agnes has been hungry, ravenous to hear the news, but Babe commandeers the Philco for baseball and her father wants it for the opera.
Bernie says: “Maybe he’s working for America First or the Christian Front, right here in the subway.”
“Did I ever tell you about my Grandmother and the Christian Front?”
It has taken Agnes years—and Joe-and-Bernie—to sort out her grandmother Babe’s contradictions. The Christian Front, according to Babe, is a pack of cretins, but anybody who follows Father Coughlin needs something to hang onto. She does not herself attend Mass but the girls must, under pain of the back of Babe’s spoon. And speaking of silver spoons: FDR is an arrogant bastard leading us into war so his pals can get richer than they already are; but anybody who votes Republican is a traitor to working people. Those other Republicans, the Spanish ones, were fools and Communists and priest killers, not that there aren’t a few priests she’d like to murder herself. Babe has raised her four granddaughters to mistrust priests—even as they’re kneeling at the altar rail and thrusting out their plump pink tongues for Communion—to mistrust all men while they’re at it. Men are weak: they die too soon, the way Babe’s husband did, or turn to mush on a barstool the way Agnes’s father has done. The only men worthy of respect are ballplayers, but that does not mean you can trust them either. Agnes’s grandmother follows DiMaggio’s numbers the way brokers used to follow the market—adoringly—but she complains too that Joe’s a big Italian goofball, with those teeth.
“Bernie, Joe, Joe, Bernie”—Agnes is in the habit of mixing up the order, so they won’t guess which one she’s soft on—“he’s not a spy. He thinks he’s another Weegee.” She’s pleased to move the conversation from politics to pictures, though Weegee is the only photographer she’s ever heard of, so she won’t be able to keep this up for long. She doesn’t have to.
“Couple of months ago they rounded up—”
“You told me.”
“Ten thousand in Vienna. Times didn’t even put it on the front page—why do you think they buried it?”
“I don’t know. Too much war news?”
“Took all their jewelry and shipped them east. What do you suppose they’ll do with them there?”
She hates these quizzes, which she never answers correctly. “Make them work for the Nazi cause? I know it’s terrible, but Bernie, I don’t know what we can do about it, riding the local.”
“Don’t be naive, Agnes.” Lately, this is why she’s leaning toward Bernie, because he is so firm with her, because if he’s guilty about his German mother, he’s slithered out of guilt’s clutches too, by knowing exactly what he has to do. And he may be short but he has a dark beard, a beard that begins to emerge, bristle by black bristle, late on a Saturday afternoon, emphasizing his authority.
“Let’s none of us be naive, shall we?” Joe understands that Bernie’s won a momentary advantage and retaliates in his best imitation of a Jesuit. “If he’s just some innocent photographer, he’ll say so.”
“Oh, Joe. You’re not going to ask him.”
“Think of it, Agnes. He could be spying, and you’d let him get away because you’re embarrassed?”
One thing to have a firm hand in the small of your back, guiding you in the right direction, and quite another to have two boys bossing you around. She’s a little tired of all the sanctimony. They’re eighteen years old, for heaven’s sake, and she’s seventeen, and while their classmates are out dancing at the Roosevelt and throwing back manhattans they’re working two jobs apiece so they can be the first on their blocks to get to college. All right, so Joe won’t make it next year, war or peace—college is so frivolous a concept to the D’Ambrosios that he will have to save up not just for his tuition but for his lost wages too. Anyway, sooner than they know the two of them will be shipping out for France or Belgium, even Joe, who thinks he knows what he believes but is so impetuous—Mexico, spies—he’ll change his mind in a crunch. Agnes can’t imagine a boy she knows, a boy who goes to Xavier or Regis, not doing his duty. Meanwhile, can’t they ever just have a laugh? There’s nothing they can do about the poor Jews shipped out of Vienna, not a thing in the world, and before every boy she knows gets drafted they might as well . . . She hears her father’s sweet tenor voice gathering in her own throat—break your heart, poor bastards—and remembers why she lets these two toy soldiers trail her around. At least they do not lie flat in the steamroller’s path, the way her father does.
She giggles and then, confused by the false sound of her own laughter, finds herself gazing past Joe to study the out-of-focus photographer. He has finally settled down, engrossed in the women opposite him. She knows, more or less, how he works: he’s hidden the camera in his coat, the lens between two buttons but buried well enough that she only glimpsed it once, that time he came with his lady friend and let his guard down. Sometimes he stands and pretends he’s studying the map or ogling the lush girl in the Chesterfield ad, which means he’s about to shoot the length of the car; but mostly he sits and fools with his pocket. It just kills her how many women stare right back at him: well, he is attractive in a skittish nightclubby sort of way, a rich layabout amusing himself by spying on the subway class. His clothes are expensive but wrinkled, because he throws them on a chair at night. She can’t say for sure, but from here his profile suggests a ski-slope nose. She herself has a Roman nose—a little large, maybe not Roman exactly—and with her dark hair she could be taken for Jewish by a spy snapping pictures.
Their spy grins suddenly, as if he knows he’s just snapped a good mug shot, and her windpipe tightens. How can they move ten thousand people overnight? She calculates how many people could squeeze onto this subway car at rush hour: a hundred and fifty? One seventy-five? How could you feed thousands of people, along the way?
“Joe,” she says, “on the way to Mexico, what will you eat?”
“When you go down to Mexico on the Greyhound. Have you figured out how many meals that will be?”
“Agnes, don’t. Just when he’s given up on it.”
“I haven’t given up on it.” It’s hard to know anymore if Joe is just being stubborn in the face of Bernie’s disdain. “You’ll wrap me enough cannolis for my journey.” Joe laughs that manly low-register laugh he and Bernie have been trying out: Bernie’s is a little bitter (Gary Cooper) but Joe’s is delighted with itself (Clark Gable). “You’ll keep me nourished, Agnes. For the refugees’ sake.” She lets his knee press up against hers. Other lovers whisper sweet nothings, but this pair of Romeos is trying to drag her to the altar by her conscience.
Their spy leans back, looking for new prey. Photographers are always spying, even when you know they’re taking the picture: a photographer’s always trying to steal something you want to hide. When she was a kid, she could recognize everyone in the family pictures but herself. She is the happiest of the four O’Leary sisters, merry and blithe, and yet the line of family portraits in their dim entryway shows a very unmerry Agnes, a grim, lips-set, murderous Agnes, an Agnes who threw a tantrum every year when it was time for the O’Leary girls to queue for a new photo down at the parish hall. How she resisted: her uniform blouse tugged on over her arched back, her lank hair brushed and watered and brushed some more (Loretta hadn’t perfected pin curls yet), the long walk from the South Slope to SFX to stand in line with other families who all knew perfectly well that Babe didn’t go to confession and said rude things about the Dodgers. Agnes hissed at Loretta not to smile for the camera. Where was her grandmother getting the money for this—or was it another humiliating handout from smug Sister Sebastian? She was beside herself with dark fury, and there is the evidence on the grimy apartment wall: year after year, the merry child revealed! She was really a miserable child after all, her jaw set so tight that her face looked plain as a turnip, her nose looming, her far-set eyes watery and . . . grey.
Well who wouldn’t be a little gloomy, without a mother? Still, Agnes has always thought Babe an excellent substitute, fat and capacious, able to hold two or three of them on her lap at once. Why should she miss a mother who, as Babe never fails to remind them, would put you through such a thing? Not that Agnes can remember such-a-thing. She was four, Babe tells her: Mame was eight, Rose Marie six, Loretta two. It was only last year that it came to her whole that if she and her sisters were two-four-six-eight then it was time for another baby. Her mother must have been pregnant. Agnes has been well enough trained by the Josephites (Brooklyn) and the Dominicans (Manhattan) to understand the dread that might be attached to that. Their mother sent them down to the corner for a loaf of semolina: Babe says they all went everywhere together, the two younger tied to the two older at the wrist, with a length of clothesline. And when they returned, the note was on the door again: GET YOUR FATHER, DON’T COME IN. I LOVE YOU ALWAYS.
Well. It was the fourth time she’d taped the note to the door, and three times before Mame had dutifully dragged the chain gang of them all over the Slope to locate their father, who was unemployed but not unoccupied in those Prohibition years (Agnes’s father has never been much of a drinker, but he has always found his company in the confraternity of drunks). Of course Mame could have simply led them all downstairs to rouse their grandfather Vito from his corpses and his marble slabs: they lived, then, above the Cozzi Funeral Parlor. But the little girls couldn’t say what scared them more—their grandfather or the stiffs—and Mame evidently thought it would save some trouble this time to rescue their mother herself. Maybe she didn’t fully understand that their mother had tried the oven twice before and once a bottle of phenobarbital: those are the details Babe bandies about, but Mame and Rose Marie never, ever talk about it. They are surly, demanding girls who will probably never marry because they are so ill-tempered, and Agnes knows she is supposed to put up with them because of what they saw. But, after all, she saw it too—and maybe she can’t remember it, but Babe has told the story so many times that she can feel herself pushing in the front door behind Mame and Ro, tugging Loretta along. She can feel the clothesline cutting into her wrist. If she could fill in the picture, if she could say for sure what she witnessed . . . Babe’s story always stops at the front door, but sometimes Agnes takes a few more steps.
Their spy turns, suddenly, and she is pretty sure that he is staring directly at her: or no, that he is reaching in his pocket and pressing the line to the shutter. Criminy, she has not even told Bernie and Joe that her mother was a suicide. The first one she tells will be the one she marries. Beside her, Joe draws in his breath.
“C’mon Agnes, he knows we’re onto him.”
“I don’t know, Joe . . . I’m a little scared of him.” She raises a gloved hand to Joe’s sleeve to restrain him, or maybe just to touch him. Photographers think nothing of intruding on strangers, of entering their darkest, most private thoughts. Her father said as much when he showed her a picture of refugees on the SS St. Louis, a picture that shocked him enough to actually bring the paper home: Look at this; it would break your heart. The photographer caught just how hopeless those little Jewish girls feel.Two little girls leaning on their elbows at the open window, two little girls dressed in raincoats, as if they expected to be walking the wet streets of New York by breakfast. But by the time Agnes stared at their picture, their faces said they would not be leaving the boat in the port of New York, not for breakfast or lunch or dinner, and they would not be leaving in Havana or Buenos Aires either. One of them—the blond child, a prisoner on an oceanliner—looked like Loretta, and Agnes imagined a kinship. Her father said: Poor bastards.
“Whatever happened to those refugees from the St. Louis?” Though she knows exactly what happened. The boat sailed back to Germany.
“Some of them got to France.” Bernie doesn’t hide his frustration. “But if they’re rounding them up in Vienna . . .”
She hangs her head, ashamed as she often is when she actually says something, instead of just giggling, and ends up garbling the words and forgetting the thought. They are pulling into Astor Place. The photographer rises langorously and dances with the pole on his way out the doors. Joe is on his feet, and now so is Bernie, and Agnes has no choice but to follow them, though this is a stop too early and will throw off the entire Saturday ritual. This will send her rushing to work even hungrier than usual.
The photographer-spy has paused on the platform, as if to let them catch up. He pats his pockets, but what he retrieves is not his secret shutter-closing device but a box of Chesterfields. He lights one with a wry Fred Astaire face, amused at himself, amused at them. The three of them tumble toward him.
“Look here,” Joe says, and the spy nods as if he’s been expecting this interrogation.
“You blew my cover.”
Though Agnes should not be surprised by how easily he laughs at them—this is a man at home in the world—her windpipe tightens further still. She longs for the boys to move closer, so she can get a good look, and wonder of wonders, the three of them do crowd in. She was right: the man’s coat is crumpled and expensive, his hat pushed back at the angle men adopt when they’ve had a martini or two, the fringe of hair that shows strangely tousled, boyish. He takes a careful drag on his cigarette and tilts his head slightly to blow the smoke out of their range. He must be the same age as her father and she sees now—finally—that he wears glasses: they are rimless, and that is why she could not make them out from half a car-length away. She takes his glasses as permission to remove her own from her pocket, but her ears burn scarlet as she hooks on the humiliating horn rims.
“We just need to know,” Joe begins anew, smooth as a radio announcer, smooth as Father Coughlin, “whether you were taking pictures of Jewish passengers.”
The spy jerks his head with a sense of wonder that strikes Agnes as fake and real all at once, as if the only way he knows how to show his shock is to repeat a gesture he’s rehearsed a thousand times before. “Jewish passengers!”
Now Joe’s confused. “Because at a time like this—”
“That’s what you thought I was doing!” He smiles, the spy, but does not laugh at them. He takes his time unbuttoning his coat, motions them in, co-conspirators, and reveals a dull black camera: “My Contax,” he says. With her glasses in place Agnes can see that the shiny parts have been painted dark for camouflage. He pulls from his pocket a slender cord to which is attached . . .
“. . . a shutter release,” Bernie says.
“We thought maybe you were spying,” Joe says, not embarrassed in the least, though he’s the one who’s really garbled things.
“Well I suppose I am spying, in a way, but good grief, not on Jews.”
“That’s a relief,” Joe says. “We were just checking.”
The spy shakes his head in wonder—Agnes decides this time that the gesture is completely authentic—and leans in to consider his words. “I’m collecting . . .” He reads the mistrust on Bernie’s face and changes tracks. “Look, let me send you a copy of my new book. So you’ll know I’m legit. To restore your faith in humanity.” He pats his pocket, this time for a pen, and withdraws a scrap of paper so that they can write an address.
Bernie shakes his head no and retreats a step. “No need.”
“No need,” Joe repeats. “Sorry to trouble you. Can’t be too careful.”
“. . . In this day and age?” The spy looks directly at Agnes for the first time: he’s as old as her father, and she falls in love with him too while she’s at it, with the glint off his glasses and the way he smiles without his teeth. “It was you, wasn’t it? You were onto me.”
She thinks to say: “I’d like a copy of the book. If it’s not too much trouble.”
She’s never done such a thing and knows that behind her Bernie-and-Joe are shocked at her forwardness. Probably they’re shocked at the glasses too: and underneath a tam, of all the comical hats. She is tempted to turn the spy’s paper over: it’s a bank deposit slip. Meanwhile it’s hard to get her address down—the pen keeps slipping between the fingers of her glove, especially when she gets to “Brooklyn,” and naturally it’s a good pen, sleek and silver. When she hands the slip back she meets the photographer’s eyes through two layers of glasses and sees that his are as smudged as her own. And as she moves down the platform after Bernie to wait for the next train, she hears, from a distance: “Good somebody’s paying attention.” She turns to acknowledge him, but he’s disappeared, vaporized.
“He’s never going to mail you a book,” Bernie mutters. “He thought we were little kids playing spy games.” But Agnes, in love with three men now, knows that Bernie’s just jealous and that the photographer will keep his word.
And she looks for the package, for a week or two, when she comes home at night, shaky with hunger after the school day and the stockings and the long train ride home. After a while she begins to forget about the book, the way worldly men forget schoolgirls in glasses. She has been distracted, anyway, by the news. She splurges on the Times almost every day now, so she can keep up with Joe-and-Bernie on Saturday nights. She pretends that the paper’s a gift for Babe, who has started a photo collection of DiMaggio, of the Dago twisting his long body into one graceful, audacious swing. Babe doesn’t think much of the so-called sports reporting in the Times, but a picture’s a picture.
Dinner’s on when Agnes walks in the door: the sweet smell of carrots and turnips night after night, Babe’s fidelity to root vegetables meant to balance her father’s infidelity to his jobs. At least he’s working at the moment, as an insurance investigator (Babe found him the job, the way she finds the girls scholarships and hand-me-downs). Just now he sits at the kitchen table stunned by the effort of his day. They all look a little stunned, the six of them squeezed around a wobbly card table. In the corner Loretta wears a face suggesting, as it often does, that she might burst into tears any minute.
“So, Aggie, let’s have the news,” Babe says. Mame and Rose Marie promptly examine their fingernails for chips. They are file clerks downtown and they are not interested in Agnes’s news, a recent feature of the dinner hour, one she suspects is designed to keep providing Babe with newspaper photos.
“Ma, I thought you were going up to the Stadium today.”
“Ladies Day.” They all know what Babe thinks of Ladies who need a Day to lure them to the ballpark. “I thought better of it.”
Agnes says: “They rounded up five thousand Jews in Paris, and it wasn’t even on the front page. I didn’t notice till tonight.”
“Can’t you get in free on Ladies Day?”
“I could get all the way up there and McCarthy pulls Rizzuto? I like the little mutt. Give him time.”
“Five thousand,” her father says, and shakes his head. “Poor bastards.”
“Agnes! I forgot. Package for you today. Something from the college, I suppose.”
“May I be excused?”
“Leave it for later,” Babe says. Agnes’s hoity-toity Manhattan academy has already caused enough bitterness.
Agnes rises. “No, for the bathroom.” They all know she will grab the package from the hallway and take it with her to the bathroom, the only room in the apartment where the door fits properly into its frame, the only room where four sisters who live in one jail cell can retreat when they want to hoard a secret.
She sits precariously on the curved side of the clawfoot tub and unwraps the brown paper as quietly as she can. It’s the book, finally. Looking for a note, an inscription, she shakes out the packaging, but there’s only the book itself, with a little portfolio of pictures at the beginning: Photographs by Walker Evans. He’s famous. She knew it. She’s shaking with anticipation but already feels cheated: if he went to all the trouble of having the book sent, he could have signed it for her. TO THE CHARMING BLUE-EYED GIRL WHO SPIED ME FIRST. YOUR ACCOMPLICE IN CRIME, WALKER EVANS. Men like that always have last names for first.
She flips through the picture pages in front and sees that the spy Walker Evans has not sent her pictures of subway riders at all. What’s this? Okies? Page after page of poor country people: she feels again the weight that Joe-and-Bernie have been suggesting she should carry. Is she supposed to do something about these people too? She is poor but she cannot imagine this kind of poverty, posing for a rich man with your own face grubby and your clothes streaked and torn. The Depression is over but this Mr. Walker Evans is still groveling in it the way the wealthy sometimes do. Only the rich don’t stay awake at night: she’s the one who will lie sleepless, in bed with Loretta, who twitches with all her sorrows.
This bathroom, she feels certain, is very like the one they fled when her mother killed herself. That was a limestone and this is a tenement, but the shape of the rooms is surely the same and there is the high window, the promise of light if not the delivery. Probably she will always have a long narrow bathroom in her life: a coffin. At her college scholarship interview, she said she might study psychology and was surprised to hear the word come out of her mouth. The committee thought that was grand: women have a gift for counseling, and there’d be plenty of need during wartime. Or was she perhaps interested in the moral development of children?
The apartment is very quiet, as if they are waiting in the kitchen for her to betray herself by turning the pages of her book. In the silence she sees Joe D’Ambrosio entering a jail cell, Bernie Kelly shipping out. In the paper tomorrow (but not on the front page) she will read how the Vichys arranged the food when they rounded up the Jews: they held the men and sent the women home for provisions, as if they were being sent to pack for a picnic.
She flips to the front of the book again, but now she feels a dark fury rising. It’s not just that the photographer wants her to imagine what he’s witnessed—he wants her to imagine what it’s like to live that life, when she cannot even imagine what it was like to be her own childhood self. Isn’t it enough that tonight she will lie listening to Loretta’s weeping?
She shifts and the brown paper makes a racket, only now she doesn’t hear it. Now she is riding a train in the dead of night. She sits in the terrible silence as if she might imagine moving past this helplessness, as if one day she will decide the way Bernie and Joe have decided what it is she is supposed to do. She is riding a train. When Joe gets released from federal prison, when Bernie comes home from the war beyond the reach of language, she will sit with them in a silence darker and deeper than this one, and she will wonder if she will ever be able to shed her sense of shame.
She is riding a train in the dead of night but she does not know what she can do about it. Poor bastards. She slaps the book shut—she’s not ready for any of this yet—and lifts herself up from the side of the tub just as the doorknob rattles. Mame’s fuming: “Aggie, it’s your night for the dishes and you know it.”
In a few minutes, Babe will commandeer the radio again, and then Marty Glickman’s voice will rumble through the apartment with the replays of Ladies Day on “Today in Baseball.” Maybe DiMaggio has roused himself from his slump, and then the mood in the O’Learys’ will lift. Meanwhile, she’ll plunge her hands in the dishwater and dream about climbing on a Greyhound bus with Joe, to go rescue refugees in Mexico. She’ll dream about marrying Bernie and buying him spare pairs of glasses for the war.
In the hallway, she stops in front of the portraits of the poor motherless O’Leary girls, row after row in the dim bare-bulb light. She looks her eight-year-old self in the eye, her glasses in her pocket even then: a mysterious scowling girl who wants to raise holy hell but grows up giggling instead.
“Da,” she hears herself bellow, though no one but Babe is allowed to bellow in this household. “Dad,” and even before she hears the scrape of his chair the sentence has formed: I’m going to lose my mind if you say “poor bastards” one more time. Even before she sees his confused face appear in the hallway she understands that it is not just her father she is admonishing, that it is not just Joe-and-Bernie she is choosing between.
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