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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."

~

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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