We met at the supermarket. I was waiting in line to buy the usual nutrient-free snacks—crackers, cookies, Pop Tarts. She pulled up behind me with a cart full of staples—milk, eggs, canned tomatoes. As we neared the register, she unbuttoned her bright orange trench coat and searched its inside pocket. Whatever she expected to find there was missing. She frisked herself, patting her hips and torso with great urgency until, extreme measures deemed necessary, she removed her coat and shook it upside down. Nothing came out.
“Just my luck,” she muttered.
“Everything all right?” I felt obligated to ask.
Smiling apologetically, the woman said she had lost her wallet. Whether she had only herself to blame or a wily pickpocket in the crowded dairy aisle, she couldn’t say. Her voice quivered. Her eyes welled with tears. Would I loan her fifty dollars? She’d send me a check that very afternoon. Refusal would have made me seem hard-hearted in the minds of our fellow shoppers who had, I thought, overheard her little performance.
Each morning thereafter I opened my mailbox, anticipating her promised repayment. Each morning thereafter I closed it in a huff. No one wants to feel cheated. I suppose that’s why, on a cold winter day roughly two weeks after the incident at the supermarket, I followed my debtor home.
New Harbor felt like a ghost town. The museums were closed. So were the banks on Main Street. Even the Dunkin’ Donuts, which was always open, was shuttered. Only the Korean grocery had its lights on. The young woman who sold me a cup of coffee scowled at me when I requested cream and sugar.
I wandered down to the train station and past the large parking lot on Grand Army Avenue. Past the police headquarters, a monstrosity from the brutalist period with no windows at eye level, just yawning ribbed concrete. Past the Elm Street Connector, an abbreviated bit of highway that spat cars from the interstate directly into downtown and in the process bisected the city, a giant gash across its torso.
Rising beyond the connector was the New Harbor Coliseum, a 1970s arena that hosted second-rate hockey teams and outmoded musical acts until around the turn of the millennium, when City Hall announced that it was too expensive to maintain and shut it down. It was a beast and it was empty, a ruin that no tourist would ever visit.
Often caricatured as a pit stop between New York and Boston, New Harbor did have its charms. Like the New Harbor Green, the old town commons of the original Puritan settlement, precisely large enough to accommodate 144,000 souls—the number Revelation says will survive the Second Coming. Or Collegiate’s aspirational, neo-Gothic campus, designed to make ignorant Americans think the university dated to the Middle Ages, and visitors from Oxford or Cambridge think, Haven’t I seen this somewhere before? Here and there were expensive restaurants, swanky clothing stores with European names, and twelve-dollar-sandwich shops.
Yet there were more vacant lots and vacant storefronts than purveyors of overpriced sandwiches. Beyond the campus orbit, the pleasant spots were like oases in the desert and didn’t so much counteract the city’s general dinginess as make it more obvious. The fact that New Harbor was formerly considered a quaint New England town also intensified one’s awareness of its contemporary squalor. In the 1890s, a very well-known novelist called Hilldale Avenue—a wealthy strip crammed with mansions—“the most beautiful street in America.” Or possibly it was a very well-known painter who said that, or possibly the judgment was a local myth. The point being: It was once plausible that a celebrated artist would locate “the most beautiful street in America” in New Harbor. Not anymore. Not unless that artist had a passion for urban decay. The city’s gray-brown industrial hues were rarely alleviated by greenery.
In this barren landscape, my debtor stood out. Rather, her trench coat did. She was jogging in place to keep warm at a red light, an orange pogo stick bobbing up and down. The right, the most reasonable thing was to let the matter drop. Her infraction had been minor, after all, and I had work to do.
I should have gone home, shed my winter layers, and turned on my computer. In twenty minutes or less, a blinking cursor would have replaced the woman from the supermarket as the object of my attention. Instead, I gave pursuit.
She led me farther away from my apartment, farther from the desk where my Word documents waited patiently, and toward Worcester Square. I thought I’d find more activity in that historically Italian neighborhood, but there was no one out to admire the seasonal decorations: the archway draped with colored lights; the crèche in front of an old bakery; the tinsel on benches and bike racks. On St. John Street, the border between Worcester Square and the projects beyond, she paused in front of a gangly white bungalow with a chain-link fence and carpeting on the steps. She went inside and out of sight. I leaned against a cherry tree, wondering if I should ring her bell.
Her name, I learned, was Helen Langley.
For the first time since our initial encounter I observed her closely. In her black flared trousers and striped black-and-white sweater, she looked a bit like a Hollywood Parisian. She wore no makeup and no shoes. Her brown hair, parted down the middle, was white at the roots. Thin wrinkles bracketed her pink lips. Dark blue veins marred her pale skin.
“It’s an unusual day to call in a loan,” she said, standing at the door, “but whatever. Happy holidays.”
“Happy holidays,” I replied automatically.
Given the outdoor carpeting, I prepared myself to encounter a correspondingly ugly protective interior, with plastic on the couches and so forth. Instead I found a library-meets-bohemian style: gentle lighting and knockoff-Scandinavian chairs; books everywhere, on wooden shelving and stacked in every corner, on top of the old television set, on the rug under and around the dining-room table. Helen escorted me through the paper minefield to a den with a picture window facing the street.
“I’ll get my checkbook,” she said, and she left me alone.
While pursuing Helen I’d felt driven, almost instinctually.
Having gained entry to her house, I felt adrift. I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew I had a right to be there. In a bid to distract myself, I studied her messy book collection and found a wide aesthetic range: classic works of history, random novels, atlases, almanacs. Although I couldn’t discern any order, I saw that the books on the floor were in poor shape, with shabby bindings, whereas the ones piled up by the window seemed freshly restored. I also noticed a jar of glue and sheets of leather.
The radiator hummed. There was a digital clock by the door, the kind that displayed the day and date—4:01, 4:02.
Holy Mother of God, it was December 25.
That explained it, everything—the closed stores and the Korean girl’s frown and the abandoned streets and Helen’s greeting. I’d stupidly assumed that she was one of those people who said “happy holidays” generically throughout the season. I should have listened to my mother’s voice mail that morning. Amid the nagging and the warning not to procrastinate, she would, I felt certain, have recycled her favorite Jewish-Christmas joke, the one about installing a parking meter on the roof.
I was on the verge of slipping out when Helen came back with a signed check and, adding to my shame, a tray, two cups, two saucers, two spoons, honey, and a pot of hot tea. My perception of my actions had shifted considerably in the past several seconds. What I’d told myself was a perfectly sensible unannounced visit now seemed petty and cruel—I was a regular Scrooge come to darken the holiest day of the year. And whereas I’d thought of Helen as my debtor, my calendrical idiocy meant that I was now more in her debt than she in mine.
Helen settled into an ancient armchair and gestured for me to sit in the one across from her. It sagged under my weight.
“Thank you—for taking me in,” I said haltingly, “on Christmas.”
She shrugged. “I haven’t actively celebrated Christmas since I was a teenager. But I get it. I get the need for company.”
“I’m Jewish,” I blurted out.
“O. K.,” she said, pausing between syllables.
I wasn’t certain if she was seeking to reassure or to mollify. The latter seemed condescending. O.K. was such a versatile and, therefore, ambiguous word. I pictured it in my head: O.K. O, period, K, period. Someone sounding out the word for the first time would have pronounced it like Helen did: “O” (pause) “K” (pause). Modern writers sometimes put periods between words where they didn’t belong to communicate dramatic or affected pauses. Got. It. Shut. Up. Screw. You. Up. Yours. But if a writer wanted to convey that a character paused while saying “O.K.,” he’d have to do so explicitly because of that word’s peculiarities. It calmed me to think of orthography instead of the fact that Helen was looking at me intently, waiting for me to speak. Her irises were bright green. Her eyelids drooped close to the nose. Her spirit animal was the gecko. “Holiday decorations go up earlier and earlier every year!” I said.
“They don’t, though. Thanksgiving week. Always.” “I’m pretty sure—”
I stirred my tea, silently conceding the point.
“All the stuff in here, what is it?” I asked, trying a different tack. “The leather and the glue?”
“It’s my work. I’m an antiquarian and a bookbinder.”
“That sounds interesting.”
“Does it? I have to think about old books all day.”
“So do I. I study English.”
Helen scrunched her nose, either because she didn’t like English or because her tea was too bitter.
“At Collegiate, I guess.”
Usual reactions included feigned indifference (“Nice place, I hear”), eager networking (“Do you know…”), harsh one-upmanship (“Princeton said no?”), and classist disdain (“State school was good enough for my kids”).
“I’m not surprised. You have that look,” she said, indifferently disdainful. “Anyway, your relationship with old books is not like mine. Academics care about the ideas inside a book. Antiquarians care about dust-covers and bindings.”
“Don’t the contents matter at all?”
“Reputation matters. Famous books cost more than forgotten ones. Basically, though, we’re materialists, or fetishists.” Helen grinned as if she’d said something adorably naughty. “Our clients are fetishists too. They don’t buy books they want to read. They buy books they consider physically special because they’re rare or unusual: first printings, books signed by the author, books once owned by a notable politician. If they really cared about the contents, they’d just find a used two-dollar paperback.”
Helen’s delivery was fluid and monotone, almost as if she’d given her speech many times before. Perhaps she had. Perhaps she often had to explain how antiquarians were different from scholars. I was struck by her dismissive characterization of her chosen profession and by the pleasure she took in making it seem unintellectual. She was proud of her fetishistic materialism in the way a certain sort of American was proud of never having traveled to a foreign country.
“Maybe you know my uncle,” she said. “Is he in the English department?”
“In a manner of speaking. He was a writer. Freddy Langley. Frederick, in print.”
I would never have guessed. Langley was a common name and Helen seemed, to me, unartistic: the sloppy scene at the supermarket, the orange trench coat, her line of work. This woman? That man?
Once the initial shock passed, I felt titillated by the connection, even a little flushed, and then, immediately, ashamed by my reaction. I looked down on people who texted their friends if they happened to sit next to a celebrity at a restaurant. Yet I felt something like self-importance because I was sitting across from the niece of a well-known author. Physical proximity to genetic proximity to fame.
After sunset we were left with only the light from a standing lamp. In the dimness, the den felt cozily antique. And I felt fine. I’d moved from anxiety to acceptance and now something resembling enjoyment in the strangeness of the situation. One day it would make a good story: The evening I drank tea with Frederick Langley’s niece. On December 25.
“I should tell you something,” I said, blushing. “I didn’t realize, when I rang your doorbell, that it was Christmas.”
Helen laughed. She looked away from me and out the window. It was too dark to discern the street or the neighboring houses. Still, I aped her. If someone had walked by he might have noticed two women staring straight in his direction, into the night, one face past life’s midpoint, the other past youth, in a cluttered room protected from the winter cold. We would have made for a nice painting, a portrait of what I supposed, in my ignorance, was the last time we would ever see each other.
From Talent. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2019 by Juliet Lapidos.