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Vol. 4, No. 3

Wakefield, 7E
by Gabriel Brownstein

Under the pretense that he was taking a short trip, Zauberman cut out from his family one day and rented an apartment on the other side of Eighty-ninth Street, directly across the hall from us. In disguise and under an assumed name, Wakefield, he lived in our building for more than twenty years, looking out his window, watching his wife and daughter age.
    He stared through a telescope while they cried, skipped meals, lost weight and friends. He examined little Shoshana as she read Nancy Drew or practiced her violin or undressed before a shower. While Ada sliced chicken, Wakefield focused binoculars on her knuckly hands. When she took lovers to bed, he gazed at the shade of the window to what had been his bedroom.
    What was he like before he disappeared?
    Clean-shaven and nervous, I imagine, a lawyer specializing in estate taxes. Neat, but not stylish. A le Carré novel on his jittery lap, he falls into dreaming, but vaguely--he isn't imaginative; his thoughts aren't energetic enough to seize on concrete ideas. If you had asked the guys in his office, "Who's the man in New York most likely to do nothing this weekend?", they'd point to him: a cautious family man, easily startled. The only person who might have guessed otherwise should have been Ada. She knew about her husband's quiet selfishness. She understood his rusted vanity, his obsessive tending to secrets. He refused to talk to her about his work, for instance, always acted as if she suspected him of carrying on an affair.
    So let's picture his leaving. A cold October evening, his daughter is ten, a pretty, even-tempered girl, but her father pays her very little attention; he's aloof, and sometimes she reacts to this with ferocity. Tonight she runs circles around him. "Daddy, Daddy, Daddy, Dads, Dads, Dads." She tugs on his coat, steps on his boots, pulls on his portmanteau. "Where are you going, Daddy? When will you be back, Dad? What's the hurry, man?" Careful Wakefield carries an umbrella, though it's not raining. He talks to his wife, lecturing in his fussy, hectoring way. He tells her not to expect him positively on Tuesday, not to be alarmed if he doesn't return Thursday, but to look for him certainly by suppertime Friday.
    "Tuesday! Thursday! Sunday!" Shoshana flings her arms around his leg.
    Wakefield extricates himself, almost stepping on her toes. He adjusts his cap. When the door closes, Shoshana goes still--she's got a mass of auburn curls. Ada, spying casually on her husband, sneaks a look out the peephole while he waits for the elevator. He surprises her, brings his face right up to the lens. He grins. It's an ironic smile, too big, too aggressive, and it's exaggerated by the glass. Ada jumps.
    Shoshana says, "Mommy?"
    "Nothing, nothing," Ada says.
    She dismisses her husband's little joke, but months later the grin recurs, becomes strange and awful. Ada sautés onions in her kitchen and mistakes the crescent moon for Wakefield's mouth. She opens her bedroom window in the morning, a glint of sunlight flashes on a windowpane across the way, and in the flash Ada sees her husband's spread lips and teeth.
    That day he leaves, little Shoshana is furious. Daddy didn't kiss her goodbye, didn't say a thing. She goes to her bedroom and puts her hands in fists and tells her mirror, "I hate him, I hate him. I wish he never, ever comes back." And her wish comes true. She sits up late at night on her radiator, surrounded by stuffed animals. Under her covers, she listens for the gears of the elevator. It's her fault, she knows.

 

~

The first evening on our side of the street, his fake mustache and sunglasses lie on the floor. Binoculars are in his hands. Across the way, he sees his wife fry meat--he's guessing it's pork; there was pork in the refrigerator when he left. He has his notebook open in front of him and he's scribbling in German, the language he studied in high school. He wants to keep everything in code.
    Ada has her hair pulled back. She wears a man-tailored shirt, open at the neck, no jewelry. Shoshana's in bib overalls. The girl sits at the kitchen table and talks, and her mother nods. Wakefield peers into the empty master bedroom--his dresser, his wife's mirror, the lower left-hand corner of a queen-sized bed. In Shoshana's room, he can see baby animal posters on the walls, stuffed giraffes and bears on the radiator cover. So this is what life is like without him!
    Ada cleans the dishes, then she and Shoshana disappear into the living room--out of sight. Ten o'clock, lights go out in the bedrooms. It's midnight when Wakefield stretches out on his army cot, wearing only underwear. He props himself up on one elbow, and thinks of his wife's warm body.
    "No." He adjusts himself. "I didn't know what to expect. But I'll go home soon. I'll just sleep here for one night."
    He could make an excuse for an early return: a canceled meeting, a canceled flight; maybe he would make no excuse at all, just--but then a light flashes on across the way. A shade opens.
    It's his daughter, wearing a giant T-shirt. She stares across the street, but doesn't see her father. His lights are out, hers are shining. He sees her face, her auburn hair, the strange birthmark on her cheek--she's got a pinkish brown spot there, shaped like a sea lion. Wakefield flattens himself on his bed, takes quick peeks through his binoculars.
    Clever nincompoop, he can't understand his own glee.
    Friday rolls around and he's too excited to quit. In the morning, he watches his daughter leave for school. Shoshana wears blue jeans and a denim jacket and a shirt with a daisy on it. On her army surplus book bag is a sewn patch: Tweety Bird. Wakefield wants to follow her, but he's too timid. Fifty-seven minutes later--he keeps count--he sees Ada drawing a shopping cart toward Broadway. Thirty-one minutes after that, she returns, cart stocked with groceries. Ada carries dry cleaning over her shoulder, two dresses wrapped in plastic, the hangers hooked through her fingers. Wakefield scribbles in his journal, consults his English-German dictionary: "shopping cart," "dry cleaning."
    Three thirty-six, Shoshana skips home. Soon after, Wakefield expects to see his old self returning, fingering his keys as he strides home with his umbrella and portmanteau. He imagines seeing himself vanish into the building's front entrance, then reappear in his old bedroom, tossing his suit jacket on the bed and peering into his wife's dressing mirror while loosening his blue and red tie.
    But he doesn't come home.
    Five o'clock, six o'clock. Out the window, he can see Ada put her hands on Shoshana's shoulders. Seven o'clock, she's fixing dinner. Eight--she's expected him an hour ago and makes phone calls. The cord curled around her fingers, Ada's not anxious, just wants to know if she should serve her daughter food now or wait another half hour. But the temporary secretary has no idea where her husband has gone. There's been no Chicago meeting; he's been calling in sick. Wakefield sees a strained, unconscious smile on Ada's face. She hangs up, but does not let her hand off the receiver.
    It's only eight-thirty, but the worst thoughts have crossed her mind. Wakefield consults his Cassel's dictionary: "adultery," "mistress." At nine o'clock, his wife and daughter eat. Then Ada goes to the bedroom, back to the telephone. Shoshana washes dishes.
    At ten-thirty, the girl is in bed. Ada inspects the plates drying in the rack and gives them a second scrubbing. Twelve twenty-seven, she lies in bed, waiting. Wakefield uses his telescope's highest magnification to read the title of her book: The Way We Live Now. Ada looks away from the Trollope, flips backward, reads the same passage twice. Her light goes out nervously, on again, then off, tense fingers flicking the switch.
    One-thirty in the morning: Wakefield steps out in a fisherman's cap, a pair of nonprescription glasses, and a gray overcoat. He tiptoes down the stairway, seven flights, doesn't want to be stuck in the elevator with any neighbors. He leaves our building at a trot, then saunters down West End Avenue, thrilling at the cloak-and-dagger fun.
    It's all morbid vanity, there's no going back; the thing evolves in a natural train.
    Shoshana, when she is twelve years old, sits in the front row of a memorial service for her father, organized by his old firm: Brown, Fane, Molineux, and Phips. She can't believe he's dead, and this belief is to her consciousness what the birthmark on her cheek is to her face: the blot around which the rest organizes itself, something that forces her not into despair or ugliness, but composure. Habitually, she imagines his spirit looking at her, examining her, and maybe it's this sense of super-self-consciousness that provokes her to acts of wild generosity. She takes off her sweater and gives it to a beggar on the street. She practices the violin constantly, more out of devotion than love. Wakefield, across the way, is astounded by the tenderness of his daughter's skin.
    He is sure she does not miss him.

 

~

And what did we think--my family--when he moved in across the hall?
    In our building apartments were marked East and West, two to a floor, with each pair caught in a complex, incestuous embrace. We had been friendly with the previous occupant of 7E, Mrs. Bullivant, a widowed beauty queen whose husband had had something to do with the making of the atomic bomb. I kept watch in the weeks after her death, wanting to see who would take her place. I hoped for another kid or at least a team of movers, but Wakefield came in like a cold front, invisibly and without warning. You'd be waiting for the elevator and you'd hear his peephole open and shut. You'd come downstairs from a neighbor's and find him in the hallway, sweating and nervous like a Peeping Tom.
    I looked out my window at night and watched him stealing down Eighty-ninth Street. I told my mother that he liked to put on disguises, and she ran fingers through my hair. I told Zev Grubin, and he said, "Come on, Davey, I'm serious here: Cheryl Tiegs or Farrah Fawcett Majors?"
    "He doesn't clip his fingernails," I said. "They're longer than my mom's."
    "Everyone says Farrah," Zev opined. "But I prefer Jaclyn Smith."
    Zev had drilled a hole in his floor so that he could stare down into Jessica Lenzner's bedroom; he'd seen interesting things there, he said. I decided to drill a hole in the back of my closet so I could spy on Wakefield.
    Zev said, "Davey, you're crazy. Davey, this is, like, a disgusting old man." But then he watched me do it, lounging in the dimness and the smell of dirty laundry.
    I lay on the floor with the first baseman's mitt and hiking boots and tennis balls. I worried about plaster flakes blinding me and also about hitting a water main. It was hard work--noisier than I guessed. Zev sat behind me, perusing a copy of Oui.
    Concrete spat. I was going to break my father's drill. But I shut my eyes and pressed until I heard a sound that made me think I had snapped the bit. The tool bucked forward into Wakefield's. I drew back, and with Zev crouching behind me, peeped through the hole I had made. There was a funny shape at the other end. A mouse? A piece of jewelry?
    Wakefield's eye.
    "Holy shit!" I dropped the drill, struggled through my winter clothes and bar mitzvah suit. "Shit! Holy shit!" We braced ourselves. We expected to hear a madman pounding on my parents' door. But he didn't. Instead, the next day, a letter came:

    Pleased if you would water my plants while I am traveling. No remuneration but you are free to look around.

    He lurks in the African halls of the Museum of Natural History. Concealed in an Arab woman's chador, he watches Shoshana on a first date. He lowers himself in the driver's seat of a rented Chevy; with binoculars, sees Ada jog through Riverside Park.
    The years pass. Helplessly, he scrawls notes.

 

~

The first time I went to his apartment, I was terrified. I made Zev come with me. We knew the layout of the place--the Grubins lived in the E apartment, three floors up--but neither of us had ever seen a home so barren.
    "Leave it alone, man." Zev objected when I opened Wakefield's closet.
    There were stained scraps of paper in the pockets of Wakefield's clothes, receipts from liquor stores and supermarkets, marked in a foreign language.
    "Dutch," I guessed, holding one slip up to the light, "or more likely German."
    "Davey, you're nuts. You know that?" Sometime in tenth grade, Zev had taken to wearing a bowler hat. "Water the plants, man, then let's tip."
    A case of wine blocked the door to the refrigerator. The only room in the apartment Wakefield seemed to use was the one that in the Grubins' served as the dining room. But he had no dining-room table, just a cot, a shelf heavy with notebooks, a pair of binoculars, a telescope, dozens of gorgeous plants, and an open garbage bag filled with empty beer cans and containers of Chinese food.
    "How long is he gone for?"
    I didn't know. "A week?" Wakefield had called from an Italian airport, blips and bubbles running the line.
    I sat on his cot.
    "Wouldn't sit there if I were you," Zev warned. "Don't want to imagine what he does there. Guy's a pervert, a wanker, a fag."
    I got up, dusting my ass, and took one of Wakefield's notebooks off his shelf.
    "Davey, leave that alone!"
    "This is also in Dutch," I said. "Either Dutch or in German or something."
    "Come on, you got to put those away, you--"
    The notebooks were coffee-stained and blotted sometimes with blood and sometimes a stiff yellow residue Zev was quick to name. The pages were off-green and rippled, the penmanship sloppy, but always blue ballpoint and without a single scratch-out. I noticed recurring figures, A-- and S-------, the straight lines repeating themselves page after page, dashes always preceded by the same two capital letters. "I think this is German," I said. Wakefield was tracking people, A-- and S-------, but I couldn't guess whom.
    "Maybe he's Stassi," I whispered.
    "I got an idea for you." Zev adjusted his hat. "Maybe he's German."

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