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Vol. 4, No. 3

Wakefield, 7E
by Gabriel Brownstein

~

A train is running from Rome to Paris, Shoshana and Ada in a private sleeper, Wakefield two cars behind. For his European journey he has dyed his hair a happy shade of blond. He wears a jaunty cap and a pair of sunglasses that fade from dark on the top to clear at the bottom. He has cut and cleaned his nails and wears a baggy suit. Over the years, trying to emphasize his disguise, he's broken his own nose thrice. He reads the Berliner Zeitung, and might be mistaken for a survivor of a kidnaping or a man with a heart condition. The train sways and buckles toward southern France.
    Late in the day, Wakefield gets up to go to the bathroom. He's tired, he's barely slept, he doesn't really take in the girl--Italian maybe--walking the aisle toward him. Then he picks his head up and glimpses (among other things) the birthmark.
    The lights go dark. The train sways. Shoshana stumbles. Her hands brush Wakefield. Then the lights flash again and the train pitches and Shoshana's shoulder bounces against her father's chest.
    "Excuse me," she says.
    She's just walking to stretch her legs, that's all, an elegant girl who has cultivated her shyness almost into glamour. She turns back after a minute or two to get a peek at the man she bumped into--something about him makes her turn--but he's gone. She goes back to her mother, doesn't mention a thing, picks up her copy of Frankenstein.
    And Wakefield? He's on fire. He hurries back to his seat, throws his hands in his face, and his mind bursts. He cries out, "You are mad!" But what can he do?
    He doesn't see Paris, only his wife and daughter pointing at a Breughel in the Louvre.

 

~

I bought an English-German dictionary, examined the journals for hours, and determined that their three most common words were bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen.
    "What he's doing," I told Zev, "is he's following two people around an apartment." Dictionary, German grammar, and notebook cluttered my lap. "You see that, don't you? The notations are almost identical, same routine every morning of the week, and most nights."
    Zev shrugged. He sat cross-legged on the floor, drinking Wakefield's pinot grigio.
    "I think I should go in for charitable work," he said. "Volunteer work is an excellent way of meeting chicks, don't you think? I mean, if you could volunteer for, like, Greenpeace or No Nukes, you could make a really good impression. You'd be doing the right thing, and the chicks would dig it. The chicks would think you were automatically the good guy, the all right guy, the nice guy. And the liberal girls, the radical girls"-- his voice choked up a bit-- "they put out, right?"
    I paid no attention. "I have to learn better German. To really crack the case. But A. and S. They live across the street. All I have to do is find out who across the street has these initials. Given this view, it's what, twelve to sixteen apartments? In any of two or three buildings? Can't be too hard . . ."
    Kneeling on the radiator, craning my neck, and pressing my face to the panes of my window, I got almost the same view of Eighty-ninth Street that Wakefield had. So at night I sat on the heater that I had long ago decorated with decals of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd and I stared across the way, trying to see my neighbors with Wakefield's eyes. Involuntarily, my gaze stuck on Shoshana practicing her violin. I took notes on her in the margins of my American history textbook, drew her picture on the inside cover of a paperback of Hawthorne tales. I named her the Girl with the Shoulders, and it never occurred to me that she was the one Wakefield watched.
    We did meet once, sort of, in Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. I was sitting on a rolling ladder, flipping through the pages of The Dharma Bums. Shoshana picked up a volume by Kawabata, Thousand Cranes, and I tried to say hello to her but my voice caught in my throat.
    "Excuse me?" she said.
    I grew flustered. "Nothing, nothing," I told her, and red-faced, ducked out of the store.
    Was Wakefield watching surreptitiously from the calendar rack? Was he excited that I'd spoken to his daughter? Disappointed that I'd run away? As though carelessly, he left his old driver's license on his cot, let me see his old face, his real name. He was intimating it--the whole story--but I couldn't guess.
    The wind blows and his pants ripple. He's forty-eight but looks older. He dyes his hair and beard a shocking orange--the hair like a flag, daring people to notice. But on upper Broadway, Wakefield passes former neighbors, people with whom he has had dinner, men whose wills he has organized, and no one sees him. Something about the weight of his madness, the shocking extent of his change. He wants to jump in front of old acquaintances and shout "Boo!"
    He glances into restaurants, watches Ada alone. What would she do if he pulled up a chair? He would live a life in her debt. It's Shoshana who really scares him, her straight back, her gorgeous hair.
    "I'll go back tomorrow," he thinks, "maybe next week."

 

~

The summer after junior year, I got a job in a restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue, and with the money I made bought myself marijuana and used clothes. I spent a lot of time in the park with Zev, the two of us getting high. He'd been busy canvassing for Greenpeace.
    "Oh, it's a good strategy," he told me. "Volunteer work." We were sitting on a bench above the highway and the boat basin. "My problem is I fall for the wrong girls. Proof of self-hatred? What would my shrink say? Listen: there are plenty of chicks canvassing, most of them cute, but what do I do? I pick the snob."
    A tug pushed garbage toward the mouth of the river.
    "You have any luck?" Zev wondered. "Busgirls? Waitresses?"
    I didn't have any luck, just the Girl with the Shoulders. "I can't fucking wait," I said, "to get to college. I will move as far away from the city as I can."
    Zev passed the joint. The wind pushed his curls to one side.
    "So Greenpeace," he said. "So do I know how to pick them? Beautiful. This girl won't talk to anybody--least of all me. Oh yeah, she gets real enthusiastic in those houses in Westchester, making pitches about, like, narwhals and baby seals, but in the van, on the trip out? Just sits by herself, head up straight, and while we're sitting around bullshiting, reads, like, actual poetry in French. And I am just mooning over her, right? It's my fault if I didn't get my dick sucked this summer."
    I laughed and he pushed my shoulder with his forearm.
    "No," he said. "This is what happens when you fall for Joan of Arc."
    "What happens, Zev?" I had to shelter the burning roach with my palm.
    "The truth? I turn into some kind of stalker. I find out where she lives, who her mother is, and it turns out she lives right across the street. So, without my parents knowing--trying, I mean, to keep everything from my mom--I set up shop in the living room, with a pair of opera glasses. I'm like your weirdo neighbor, what's his name, I stare down at this girl, Shoshana Zauberman, this fucking tight-assed violinist--"
    "Violin?" I saw her playing Mozart, and three pairs of eyes staring from across the way. "Tell me, does the girl--Shoshana?--like, live with one Zauberman parent or two?"
    Zev looked away.
    "Come on, you've been spying on her." I was stoned, but my focus was narrow. "She lives with her mother, whose first initial is A.--A. Zauberman."
    "Yeah," Zev admitted. "Ada. I looked it up."
    And I felt it--Wakefield--as if he had stepped soundlessly from behind us and laid a long, dirty hand on my shoulder, congratulating me. There would be directions next time I came to his apartment, and a map.
    We stared at the big gray river. "Maybe," I said, "I should write her a letter." And I saw myself not as a run-of-the-mill nerd, but as her savior, her protector. "I could introduce--"
    "Well, you can't do that now."
    "What?"
    "Oh, right." He coughed. "Didn't I tell you? She left. No more Shoshana Zauberman. Went away." With his hands he made a flying bird. "I looked out the window this morning and saw her packing the car. Got in a year early. Some special program, like, biology and the violin. Ohio. Oh, God," he groaned. "I know too much."
    Wakefield's long, dirty hand lifts off my shoulder. His feet scurry away. He's beckoning me, and I follow. Seventeen years old, and with a picture of Shoshana Zauberman in my head, I travel to a Midwestern college. The bus I take is full of New York City private-school kids, all looking for a place to go. The driver is an old man; he wears sunglasses and a brilliant set of orange curls, a gray mustache under his thrice-broken nose.
    Once in Ohio, I don't go through the course catalogue or the weekend activities for prospective students. I don't say hello to my hosts. I study the student directory. I touch my fingers to the cinderblock walls of Shoshana's dorm.
    We do not introduce ourselves until a year later. Then I lie in her bed, running my fingers across her shoulders, kissing the birthmark on the side of her face. She is telling me that her father left when she was ten, confessing her misery. She cries and I leave the window shade open out of sympathy for Wakefield, who stares in as if from the land of the dead.

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