My Lacunae

By J.E. Fishman

Memoir


Thirty-five years ago, when I was twelve years old, my mother died.

There was a service, of course, people crammed into funeral parlor rooms, embracing one another, sharing sorrow, then filing into the big cold chapel to hear the eulogy.  I think I feel those things in my memory more than see them.

Of the funeral I remember only two things specifically.  One: through tears exchanging embarrassed uncomfortable grins with a neighborhood friend, Gerry, who’d arrived with his family to pay respects.  Two: my oldest cousin, Alan, clutching the edge of the curtain that half-hid my mother’s polished walnut coffin and weeping quietly into his knuckles until someone pulled him away.

That’s all I can retrieve today, and nothing comes to mind from the burial, though I’m sure I accompanied my father to the cemetery.

At the house, afterwards, I recall but a few things: the visitors striding in and out; the torn black ribbons we were made to wear, representing the rending of clothing; and the sturdy cardboard boxes with their tacky faux wood grain that the more observant in the immediate family chose to sit on, another of those ancient Jewish rituals made slightly ridiculous by modernity.

My most specific recollection is of my mother’s mother, Grandma Bella, crying endlessly and beating her thigh so raw with grief that someone had to put a pillow there.  Esther, my mother, had been her youngest child.

The fragmentation of these memories seems explicable, there being no telling how a young mind will respond to immediate emotional trauma.  But what’s more puzzling is that I have always seemed to possess many fewer childhood memories in general than other people I know.  It didn’t help, I’m sure, that I fell out of touch with all of my boyhood friends — no one around to remind me regularly of that time we did this or that.  And the age difference with my sister (who was a toddler when my mother died) is so severe that we were practically born in separate generations, didn’t really travel through life together until much later.  So some memory aids were absent for me.  But, still: not to recall more than a few experiences with a mother who took me nearly to the teenage years?  To be unable to recollect more than a couple dozen events from my first decade of life?

Then, three years ago, I picked up Barron’s magazine and saw a profile of a man who had been my best friend growing up.  So many years had passed — more than two decades, by my reckoning — that I had to read deep to confirm that it was indeed the same Michael, despite a half-page picture accompanying the article.  I called him and we chatted for a long time.  The reminiscences were not equally evoked, however.  He did most of the talking about our shared past, reminding me of things we’d done and people we’d known, the majority of whom had faded to thin shadows in the recesses of my mind.

When I signed up for Facebook a couple of years later, I tapped Michael as my institutional memory.  Someone who sounded vaguely familiar would offer to “friend” me, and I’d email Michael: How did I know this person?  Were we ever close?

You don’t remember? — he’d write back sometimes.  You played touch football with that kid every week for five years!

I wish I could say that prompts of this nature brought it all forth, but most of my recollections remained barely perceptible ghosts.  Then, one day, I received a Facebook email from a guy named Bob who sounded familiar, though I couldn’t locate his story in my memory file.  He attached a one-word note to his “friend” request: “Scribbler?”

I thought: I’m not famous.  How the hell does he know I’m a writer? I called Michael.  He had no idea what “scribbler” referred to, but he reminded me that I’d known Bob in elementary school, before he transferred to a private high school in the next town.

So I accepted Bob’s friendship request, and he immediately sent a follow-up that startled me.  It said, “When I think back on my early years, you are foremost in my memories” — yet I could scarcely attach his image, now seen in a photo album or two online, to any of my recollections!  He went on to remind me that we’d played a pair of mice on stage in the fourth grade.  Bob was Nibbler and I was…Scribbler.

That’s when it flooded back: the little spiral-bound pad I’d held, pretending to jot notes as a mouse reporter; the big pink cardboard ears; the sweatshirt and sweatpants that made me gray; and the tail — the tail!  I sat in front of the computer with my eyes closed and saw my mother like it was yesterday, bending the wire hangers that gave the tail body, sitting in our den and meticulously, lovingly wrapping that wire with electrical tape.

Maybe she reached up and tugged on my hood and said, “Let me look at you.”  Or was that my brain playing tricks?  No matter.  I felt the tears welling.

Fourth grade — the two of us, I now conclude, alive in innocence.  Not both equally innocent, of course, she being then in her mid thirties, but equally oblivious of what was to come.  For scarcely two years later she would depart this world and leave her family behind.  And, in so doing, she would create inadvertently not only a sense of loss but a loss of memory in her son, my mind apparently having blocked out the pain with great inefficiency, blotting away whole swaths of my childhood, as if they never happened, though I know that of course they must have.

There is a word, now used mostly academically, for gaps that we know must once have been filled.  They call them lacunae, which shares the same Latin root as lake.  It’s an association that made little sense to me before, but now it does.  Having reeled in Scribbler, perhaps I’ll go fishing in the lake of lost recollections, see what else I can bring to the surface.

Hair Today

By J.E. Fishman

Essay


By happenstance or predilection, I am generally surrounded by people who embrace change with the enthusiasm of a koala hugging a porcupine.  For example, my parents stayed on the same floor of the same hotel every winter in Boca Raton for more than a decade before moving there from Great Neck.  And for the past ten years, they’ve stayed in the same hotel in Great Neck every summer when they’re not in Boca.

My father has done the New York Times crossword puzzle every morning of my entire life.  My father-in-law has used the same style date book for as long as I’ve known him, and probably much longer than that.

My stepmother — whom I’ve known longer than I had my deceased mother — didn’t learn to drive until she was nearly forty and then did so only under duress.  My mother-in-law takes one of three identical walks on her Eastern Shore farm every day she’s there, rarely venturing a new one.

My wife kept the same cell phone until an AT&T store salesman informed her that replacement batteries could no longer be found.  For twenty-five years, she has squirmed when I mention that I’m thinking of revising my hairstyle.  For family peace, I never do.

Hair is one of those things some people change as frequently as their shirt.  My people, not so much.

A few weeks ago, my parents, ensconced in their Great Neck hotel — not a place they own, mind you, though, at a month at a time, by this point they might have — invited us out to brunch (which they eat daily) at a place called Bruce’s where we always meet at least once when they’re in town.

They were already seated when we arrived, and after forty-seven years I am pretty familiar with my father’s face.  So what was this thing under his nose?

I did a double-take and a triple-take.

He arched his brow.  “You haven’t seen the mustache before?”

“Before when?” I wanted to say.  “Before the seventy-nine and a half years you’ve been clean shaven?”

But my mind was at sea.  All I could think of at first was the line from Jerry Seinfeld, who once said he’d thought about growing a mustache, but then he’d have to walk around in a bathrobe carrying a pipe to complete the look.

When I recovered a few senses, I tried to put the mustache in a more personal context.  This mustache on the man whose prior attitude toward facial hair took inspiration from the ancient Romans, who, after all, coined the word “barbarian”?  This fresh mustache on the man who drove the same model car (though a new one every time his lease expired) for three decades?  This new mustache on the man whose every suit and sport jacket bore the Paul Stuart label for literally half a human lifetime?

Maybe the shock wouldn’t have been so bad but for an announcement that my wife had made three months ago.  “I’ve decided to grow my hair out.”

It seemed like an innocuous statement at the time.  In the quarter century I’ve known her my wife’s hairstyle has evolved at a pace so glacial that distinctions between periods lay beyond recognition by heterosexual males.  So I wondered, how long would it have taken me to notice if she hadn’t mentioned it?

“I like it short,” I said, “but sure — whatever you want.”

Well, three months later and my wife’s hair had become an entity unto itself in our marriage.  A tote’s worth of equipment attended to it: bobby pins and hair blowers; a brush with a giant cylinder at its center and dangerous-looking spikes coming out; hair clips that could eat the world.

One day, when we were packing to go somewhere, she called up the stairs: “Could you put my flat iron in the bag before I forget!”  I thought: So that’s what that thing is with the cord and the prongs.

Worse than the equipment is the disruption of routine.  A good quarter hour has been added to her prep time, and when we’re both pressed I find myself showering to the roar of what sounds like a three-stroke engine on the other side of the bathroom.

Similarly, my father — who shaved for his whole life with a manual razor — now travels with a Norelco for trimming the weed under his nose.

Thus we all become slaves to our own ornamentation.

One evening this summer in Williamsburg, my immediate family signed up to attend the re-creation of a small ball, the kind they’d have put together for fun in 1774.  It felt like two hundred degrees, no air conditioning, and the Williamsburg women were wearing layered silk dresses and gloves up to the elbows.  They plucked me from the audience to join in a dance, and I ended up paired with the one who was playing the role of eligible widow.

“Mr. Fishman,” she said in character, “what a pleasure to make your acquaintance.  Are you married?”

I could hardly deny it with my wife and daughter sitting in the audience.

“Do you know of any eligible bachelors, then, a friend or a cousin perhaps?”

“No straight ones,” I said.  “Aren’t you hot under all those layers?”

She’d been asked that question a thousand times, I’m sure, and had some diversionary reply ready.  And then the dance was over and I was back in my seat.

But it occurred to me that the authentic clothing they wear in Williamsburg, so impractical for hot and humid Virginia summers, wasn’t born here.  It was the fashion brought over from England, where the weather is, well, English.

These people, our Founding Fathers and their peers, were slaves to fashion just like the rest of us.  Maybe clean-shaven George Washington spent half the morning primping his wig.  Maybe he let his beard grow at Valley Forge when no portraitists were around to make a record of it.  Maybe he returned to Mt. Vernon for a long weekend and Martha took one look at him and laughed her corset off until he got the razor out.

As I’ve documented, though, the members of my modern tribe don’t change so quickly.  My best guess is that I’ll be lugging around totes full of hair supplies for the foreseeable future.  And my father will wear that mustache until some salesman tells him he can no longer find replacement batteries for the Norelco.

Age of Innocence

By J.E. Fishman

Essay

My daughter will be eight years old in three weeks and she’s convinced she knows with great precision how the entire world works.

“Gay means a boy likes a boy or a girl likes a girl,” she announces with confidence one day.  “And what’s the word for the regular way again?”

“Straight,” I tell her.

“Oh, yeah.  Right.”

“How does a woman get pregnant?” I ask another time.

Her shrug says, duh.  “She gets married.”

One August afternoon, we took her for lunch to Peanut Butter and Company by NYU.  My wife and I shared an Elvis Presley — peanut butter, banana, honey, and bacon on grilled bread.  My daughter had peanut butter and marshmallow fluff.  We expected a big smile, but the bread slices were huge and the sandwich didn’t thrill her.

She’s peanut butter jaded, I thought.  Wait till she’s in college and missing the comforts of home.  With NYU students coming and going around us, I had another thought and raised the subject of profanity.  I requested a verbal rogue’s gallery, awaiting the forbidden list that I imagined she was already exchanging with friends.

My daughter scrunched her face and blushed.  “I don’t want to say, because, you know, they’re bad words.”

But even her sainted mother was urging her on.  I guess the summer before third grade seemed like a good time to assess her moral dissolution.

“You know,” my daughter said, “there’s the S-word…”

I nodded.  “What’s the S-word?”

She rolled her eyes and whispered: “You know, Daddy.”  Dramatic pause.  “Stupid.”

“Of course!  The S-word is Stupid.”  I breathed.  “What else?”

“It’s bad to hold up this finger.”  She couldn’t extend it all the way, though.  It was too bad.

“Why?  What does it mean?”

We were on the edge of our seats, waiting to hear THE WORD.

She said, “I don’t know what it means exactly, but it’s like sending a bad message to God.”

My wife changed the subject and we walked from Peanut Butter and Company with unexpected parental satisfaction, even, one might say, a certain giddiness.

We live in Delaware.  But in the West Village, where we keep an apartment, there are sights and sounds that don’t discriminate between world-weary old ears and innocent young ones.  There are still some explicit video stores around, for example, shops in the Village that sell sex toys and the kind of lingerie you don’t see in the Victoria’s Secret catalog — at least, not in the edition that comes to my house.  My daughter walks by them in sweet oblivion.

There are gay and lesbian bars, of course.  When we see the patrons spilling out onto the sidewalk, my daughter never asks why someone forgot to invite the opposite sex.

With some frequency we also pass a certain S&M shop on Christopher Street, and the window displays don’t resemble anything from Cartoon Network or recall any of London Tipton’s adventures on “The Suite Life of Zach and Cody.”  We quicken our steps whenever we pass that store, but one day, I know, the leather-clad mannequins will cry out to my daughter through the plate glass.

Then there are the real live people on the street.  We were in town the morning of Stonewall’s fortieth anniversary.  Crossing Hudson after brunch, we passed close to a pair of heavily made up, strapping, broad-shouldered drag queens in heels and boas.  My daughter didn’t even lift an eyebrow, and not because we’ve had that conversation.

Speaking of drag queens, a week after our curse-word review at Peanut Butter and Company, we went to see Billy Elliot on Broadway, in which a couple of boys cross dress and the lead character’s family accuses him of being “a poof.”

My daughter is rather sophisticated when it comes to stories, having seen and analyzed every Disney show and read most age-appropriate bestsellers.  She sat riveted and only asked one or two questions during the performance.  None of these questions featured the word “poof.”

At intermission, she declared that she already liked the show so much she wanted to return with a friend.  Her mother and I looked at one another.  The script is laced with the word “fuck” — pronounced “fock” by actors playing British miners — and there are some shits and a shite in there for good measure.

I said, “We’ll have to check with your friend’s parents first, because some parents might object to the bad words.”

Astonished, she wondered.  “What bad words are in this show?”

But the whole script didn’t go over her head.  She was conversant with the story when we discussed it afterwards.  And days later she recalled in great detail the opening of Act II and asked me to remind her what the closing scene of Act I had been.  Yet certain words just didn’t seem to register.

We took the subway home to the West Village late that afternoon.  Walking down Eighth Avenue, we came to a gas station on the corner of Thirteenth Street.  At that very moment, a yellow cab pulled out, the driver looking back at the station through his side view mirror and flipping someone the bird.  Before he departed, he half turned and shouted, “You don’t have one!”

My daughter was all ears.  Naturally, she had some questions about what just transpired.

“He’s angry at someone,” my wife said curtly.

That wasn’t good enough.  “Why did he say, ‘you don’t have one’?”

I clarified: “Probably the other guy said something unflattering about a member of his family.”

“About who?” my daughter wanted to know.

“His mother,” I said.

She took my hand.  “What about his mother?”

I gathered myself.  “Some people think the worst thing you can say to someone is to insult his mother.  Probably, someone at the gas station said something in anger about the cab driver’s mother and the cab driver wanted to say something worse back.  So he said the other guy didn’t have a mother.”

My wife acknowledged this verbal dexterity with an enthusiastic nod.  Wrapped it up, I thought, patting myself on the back.  Put a bow on it.

But my daughter frowned, unsatisfied.  She pressed:  “Like what would you say about someone’s mother?”

We were heading west, not far from the Meatpacking District and the Standard Hotel, which is currently famous for the free peep shows that some guests are providing to strollers along the new High Line Park.

To remind you, we had just come from a show that featured a boy whose best male friend sported women’s clothes, was accused of being gay because he wanted to dance ballet, and used more F-words than a trucker in heavy traffic.  And, I might add, we were maybe four blocks from where my daughter had failed to notice the drag queen.  Wouldn’t this kid have to learn sometime?

Like most adults, I cannot recall a time when my vocabulary didn’t include the word “motherfucker.”  In this context, though, it seemed like a foreign language.

We maintained our pace.  I said, “You know, when Grandpa was a kid, one of the worst things you could say to someone was, ‘Your mother wears army shoes.’”

Just then, we came to the children’s clothing store on the next corner.  The window display was trim and bright.  No S&M equipment.  No strapping bare-chested men ready to get dirty on video posters.  No need for the F-word.

Best of all, without any effort my wife could change the subject.  When we paused to look, the word “fuck” left the corner unspoken.

Not long after that, I told my father this story.

“I hate to mess up your essay,” he said over the phone, “but ‘your mother wears army shoes’ wasn’t the worst insult you could hurl on the streets of Brownsville, Brooklyn, even when I was a kid.”

Huh.  “No shit,” I said.

I hung up before he could tell me he wears a dress.


We left home for Bald Head Island under an invasion of gnats.  They started turning up in the master bathroom, and it got to the point where I was killing a dozen or more a day.  The slaughter was not traumatic for me in any way.  The gnats were slow, unthreatening.  You could close your hand around them or — my preferred method — wait for one to land and crush it neatly under a fingertip.  If one alit in the sink, you might end its existence with a splash.

I didn’t think of the gnats again until we were well ensconced on Bald Head, until we saw the baby sea turtles.

Like many of North Carolina’s barrier islands, Bald Head’s beaches are significant nesting ground for sea turtles.  They come ashore in the spring and dig an eighteen-inch-deep hole with their hind legs, then cover it, leaving one or two hundred eggs to fate.  When they hatch two months later, the baby turtles make a manic dash for the water, presuming predators haven’t dug up the eggs first.  And that the hatchlings didn’t follow houselights to distraction.  And that the birds didn’t get them.

This is where humans enter the equation.  During nesting season, volunteers managed by the Bald Head Conservancy patrol the beaches to monitor egg laying.  When they locate a nest, they put a wire cage around it with a do-not-disturb sign.

For the five years we’ve been going to Bald Head — always during the summer hatching season — we’ve seen many marked nests.  This year we noted two right by the beach path nearest our rental house.  As we always do, we paused to examine them the first day.  The sign, the broad-spaced wire, the sand — all were as nondescript and inauspicious as they always appeared.

Then, one early evening, I was drinking a cocktail and gazing past the rushes toward the ocean when some kind of fuss arose on the beach.  I stared dumbly, trying to make sense of it.  Was this a party — a wedding?  A few people had on the same color green.  What were they wearing?  What was that about?

The sliding door opened behind me and my wife stepped out.  “What’s going on?”

“I’m trying to figure it out myself.  Beach party?”

Someone pulled up in a golf cart — the main mode of island transportation — and rushed down the path without pause.  Another person arrived.  Then another.

“Oh,” my wife declared.  “The turtles!”

We notified our group and hit the beach with drinks in hand.

Sure enough, a crowd had formed by one of the nests.  The green T-shirts were the volunteers.  They had dug a trench from nest to water, to facilitate things.  A hundred people or more lined the trench, some sitting, others standing.  There was an air of celebration: kids performing cartwheels in the sand, playing frisbee.  Still, a cartful of teenage girls road right by, oblivious.

I sidled up to the group of people beside the nest.  A volunteer explained that they knew the eggs had hatched because the sand had collapsed, forming a crater about six inches deep.  But the only sign of life was a single lump of uneven sand in the crater.  It may have moved while I was looking.  Then again, maybe not.

A volunteer told everyone to keep the noise down.  Amazingly, people complied, though there were whispered conversations.

My nephew, with all the ingenuousness of a five year old, got into a chat with an older boy about camp.  The boy asked what camp.  In Georgia, my nephew reported, a Jewish camp.

“I know a Jewish boy at school,” the boy said without irony.  “He’s not bad when you get to know him.”

When we laughed, the boy became a tad belligerent.  With night falling, it felt a little spooky.

The volunteer said no one should touch the turtles when they start moving.  If one goes off track, tell a volunteer, who will guide it back into the trench.  A few of the volunteers had pulled latex gloves on, as if the hatch were imminent.  I asked how many babies there would be.  She said there were 161 eggs in the nest.

“How can you be so specific?”

She explained that the nest had been placed too close to the water by the mother turtle.  Volunteers dug it up within hours and moved the eggs to higher ground.  Being conscientious, they counted them.

We all peered into the hole.  Did the lump move?  Maybe.

It was getting dark.  Volunteers were shining lights into the hole — red lights, which they believed the turtles couldn’t see.

My wife overheard a man say: “Why aren’t people more interested in the sky.  The sky is beautiful tonight.”  It was true.  The stars were emerging.  Then again, there were miles of beach, yet this man was here with the rest of us, awaiting the turtles.

The scientist in charge arrived, Brett DeGregorio.  He seemed young and vigorous, on top of things.  I asked if he was a marine biologist and he shook his head.

“I’m a reptile guy.”

That made sense.  He told me he held an undergraduate degree from U. Mass.  For his Masters, he’d studied rattlesnakes at Purdue.  He seemed a little startled by the turnout.  I don’t suppose one gets a crowd for rattlesnake hatches.

Despite the excitement, I had the presence of mind to ask Brett how long this would take.  Our kids are young and the mosquitos were coming out.  I’ll take gnats over mosquitos any day.

Brett said most of the hatchlings would emerge all at once in what observers call a boil.  Once that begins it would all be over in a few minutes, he said.

But how long after the roof of the nest has fallen in does it begin?

“Anywhere from eight to thirty-six hours.”

Thirty-six hours!  It was after nine o’clock and the kids were already exhausted.  I passed the word and we made a group decision to leave.  Each of us gave a parting glance to the hole.  Status quo.  We trudged away disappointed.

Back at the house, my seven-year-old daughter said of the turtles: “They’ll probably come out at one in the morning when no one’s around except the super nature explorers and people who are really really desperate.”

But the super nature explorers and the casual observers, the desperate and the not so desperate were all equally disappointed that night.

In the morning, a lone volunteer stood monitoring the nest.  My wife made inquiries.  The volunteer explained that the boil hadn’t happened and, notwithstanding its name, was unlikely to occur in the heat of day.  Maybe tonight, she said.  She further explained that the one lone turtle that appeared as no more than a lump of sand had been removed by the scientist for safe keeping, carried away in a cooler.

Poor little guy!

An hour later that volunteer had gone and my wife, ever curious, picked the brains of another.  This one said the first volunteer was misinformed.  No turtle had been removed, just covered again with sand for protection from the sun.

Who to believe?  It was like a very earnest game of telephone.

Yet something was happening in that hole, something not contrived by man, something both ancient and in a sense eternal.

So of course we were back that evening with the crowd, staring into the sand crater.  The volunteers were ready and eager again, too.  The crowd was more insistently hushed, as if through reverence they could make nature happen.  Brett, the scientist, was there, too.

I asked some more questions and learned some more facts.  Several species of sea turtle lay their eggs on Bald Head, but this was the most common, a loggerhead nest.  And if it hatched — when it hatched — it would be the first of a light season.  Last year there were more than seventy nests laid.  This year, fewer than thirty.  Also, on the subject of numbers, Brett said there were 154 eggs in the nest, not 161, as the volunteer had insisted.  I wasn’t about to count the hatch, but if someone decided to do so, I’d put my money on Brett.

The evening progressed as before, though a discerning look into the hole revealed more lumps than the previous night.  And did one of those lumps just move?  Maybe.

Darkness fell and my entire party drifted away.  I decided to hang out for a few more minutes.

Then a minor commotion arose as one of the volunteers showed up with a small red cooler.  Brett opened the lid and I peered inside.  A sand-colored turtle the size of two quarters rested there on what looked like a bed of damp cotton.  Rescued.  So the first volunteer had reported correctly.

“Maybe this guy can inspire the others,” Brett said.  Gently, he dropped the baby turtle into the hole.  It stretched its neck and one of the lumps looked up.  Then a couple of other lumps moved.

This was more action than we’d seen in that crater in two days.  I took out my cell phone and whispered urgently when my sister answered: “It’s happening.  Get out here!”

My party — kids and all — arrived just in time to see the hole come to life.  A boil.  One moment we were looking mostly at sand.  Then, with the suddenness of a Star Trek transporter beam, it was mostly turtles.  Baby turtles, two or three inches long and straining against one another with the determination of toddlers on their first trundle.  They crested the lip of the hole, scampered straight through the wire mesh, and sprinted down the trench toward the ocean as fast as their flippers would carry them.

My nephew, never at a loss for words, said, “It’s like a race!”

If so, it was an endurance race.  They say that only one of ten thousand sea turtles survives the twenty-five years required for sexual maturity.  A lucky few may live eighty years.

Nature, if it has consciousness, must think us mad.

As is the case for so many species, man is the sea turtles’ No. 1 predator.  Though they’re protected in many places, they are also hunted for their meat, their shells and their skin.  We destroy their habitat with beachside development.  We snag them in long-line fishing rigs and shrimp nets, where they often drown.

And yet, others among us usher these creatures into the world with more attention than most newborns get.  (When was the last time you saw a hundred people at a human birth?)  If they could remember volunteers with latex gloves, guiding them toward the ocean, the turtles must later look up at industrial trawlers with incredulousness, wondering:  And these people are all one species?

In this admittedly roundabout way I thought, the next day, of the gnats in my bathroom and how casually I terminated their existence and would continue to do so.

A gnat, of course, is not a sea turtle.  And one can’t fret every death, right?  All life, as the poet Frank Bidart wrote, “exists at the expense of other life.”

The next morning, fire ants by the front door stung my sister’s leg.  My brother-in-law, always eager to act, sprayed poison on them, defending his family.  We’ve all done it.  And, as they always do, the ants curled into little twitching balls and expired.

And I thought: perhaps I should ask my daughter what she meant the other night, when she spoke of really desperate people.


My daughter, not yet eight, has grown suddenly careful with her money.  She’s not greedy.  (She often forgets to ask for her allowance.)  But, now that she’s figured out that money is finite, she spends what she has with great deliberation.

Prior to our recent beach vacation, she planned a lemonade venture for weeks in her mind, fantasizing about the preparation of the drinks, the inevitable line of customers, the transactions.  Our family has a running conversational riff about one day opening a store selling only her favorite foods: salmon sashimi, cucumber, chocolate, a few others equally eclectic.  She’s sophisticated enough to know it’s a joke.  So when she contemplated the lemonade stand she settled on two items she thought would have a better shot than sashimi: lemonade and chocolate brownies.

My wife donated the brownie mix.  My daughter and her cousins worked on the sign for two days, including graphic representations of their offerings.  They stirred the lemonade from a mix, planning to add lemon slices for authenticity, but in their excitement they forgot that last touch.

They set up their stand in the shade of a tree on a corner in Bald Head Island, North Carolina, where cars are banned and people run errands with golf carts.  My wife and I went off with the six-seater to pick up house guests, leaving my daughter and her two cousins in the hands of my sister and brother-in-law, who monitored from lawn chairs.

I feared that the first lesson of commerce would be how hard it is to pull in customers, but I suppose I overlooked the cuteness factor of two eager little girls and a well-tanned five-year-old boy with a mop of thick dark hair and a smile that could melt icebergs.  Less than an hour later they had sold out, if you don’t count the three brownies they’d set aside for themselves.  And who’s scrooge enough to count that?

They declared with pride that they had eighteen dollars — six for each of them with no arguing about the relative contributions of the youngest.  But I was determined that there be a business lesson in this.  I said they must deduct expenses.

“What are expensives?” my daughter asked with great seriousness.

Aw, heck.  I explained the concept of costs, but my heart had gone out of it already.  We deducted three bucks and they each ended up with five and we headed for the ocean.

Over the next two days, my daughter proudly left three shops in a row without spending her share of the bounty.  Then, on the way home, we stopped in Richmond.  A few blocks from the Jefferson Hotel, we passed a plain storefront with agates and geodes in the window.  It specialized in beads and rocks, playing down the access-restricted head shop in back.  Beads and rocks, as it happens, are the specialties also of every seven-year-old girl in the world.  We entered with my daughter in the lead.

The place had only the most basic merchandising, home-made strands of beads and minerals hanging from plain hooks, drawers filled with colorful beads, rocks and small fossils sorted by type on tables and shelves.  My daughter was — well, like a kid in a rock shop.  She had to have everything, but knew she couldn’t.  The clerk behind the counter — eager, friendly, New Agey — must have been disappointed with our admonitions about the budget, but she didn’t show it.

After about twenty minutes of touching everything, creasing the brow, doubling back, touching again, my daughter settled on a shelf of sparkling golden rocks.

“I think I want some gold,” she said.

It fell to me, over her shoulder, to point out like a heel that she was looking at pyrite, fool’s gold.  So what?  It sparkled, it fell within her budget, and the one she selected filled her palm perfectly.

Scarcely an hour earlier, we’d been dragging her through the hot, humid streets of Richmond, urging her forward, reprimanding when she dropped too far behind.  Now, leaving the store with her treasure, the kid had springs in her steps.  She knew for sure that she’d chosen wisely, that she’d taken possession of something that in turn had the prospect of possessing her.  She declared that she’d start a rock collection and that she’d look up on line, when we got home, about pyrite.

In that moment, she reminded me of an older nephew whom we’d taken to the Bronx Zoo years ago, before we had a child of our own.  All he wanted to do was go into every gift shop and buy trinkets, which he’d stuff into his pockets with an owner’s pride.  Real live lions and giraffes and elephants — couldn’t take those home.  A rubber rhino to control, to have forever, to place on the shelf as a trophy — that’s what a kid’s after.

My daughter, among other interests, pursues fireflies at night with the determination of a big game hunter.  She’s evolved from wanting to trap them in a jar, where they surely die, to wishing only to see them glow in her hand for a few seconds.  Then she sets them free and seeks another.

The morning after her purchase, I emerged from the shower to find her in a huff.  My wife explained the problem: she’d lost the pyrite — had it and then didn’t.

“How do you lose a rock in a hotel room?”  Maybe the same way you let a firefly go.

When my wife went into the bathroom I helped my daughter search the covers of each bed, look under and behind every piece of furniture.  Gone.

I was halfway through Round Two when she turned to me, reconciled to her loss.  “Well, thanks anyway for helping me, Dad.”  I paused and swallowed.  That unprompted thank-you was real gold.

We ran out of places to look, but she found the rock in her knapsack a few minutes later — had put it there for safe keeping and forgotten.

That afternoon, back home, she asked without prompting to use the computer.  Then she came back downstairs, requesting help.  She did a Google search and couldn’t find fool’s gold or pyrite.  Turns out the first six hits or so for fool’s gold reference a movie.  And she was spelling pyrite wrong.  I set her up on Wikipedia and she printed the results.

The article states: “Despite being nicknamed fool’s gold, small quantities of gold are sometimes found associated with pyrite.”

So true.


In northern Westchester County, New York, not long ago, a man I know tried to end his life in a most horrible way.  It happened in the town of Bedford, famous for its tree-lined roads, for the millionaires who live along them, and, incongruously, for its maximum security prison.

The Bedford Hills Correctional Facility — named for one of the town’s three hamlets — sits hard by the highway, just over a mile from the train station, surrounded by tall fences and barbed wire.  Woods encircle the compound.  From the ground, it reveals itself by a single approach.

Since it’s the only maximum security women’s prison in the state, all women convicted of murder in New York end up there eventually.  Once inside they don’t tend to bother anyone in the free world, and town residents are quick to note that most violent inmates came to this terminus as the result of domestic disputes, not premeditated crimes.

The penitentiary is in the town, but not of it.  Visitors and guards sometimes arrive via the local Metro North station, riding cabs the last mile and a quarter to their destination.  Occasionally one sees them trudging up the hill on foot, parallel the railroad tracks, past the post office and the stone supply and the small warehouses of Adams Road, one of a few areas zoned for light industry.

When Anthony Agostino (not his real name) looked out his office window, he might have seen these visitors passing.  Tony used a tiny building by the tracks as his office, a mile from the prison and no farther than that from the house in which he grew up.

Though as an adult he moved to a neighboring town, the prison offers a convenient geographic center for an examination of Tony’s life.  If you pinned it on a map, I suspect you’d discover that Tony conducted the majority of his business and personal affairs within a radius of less then ten miles.

He attended the local elementary school and the local high school, married a local girl and — after college at Syracuse — settled locally.  The business he founded was named after the street on which he and his partner grew up.

Tony rented that office near the prison for a long time, and when he descended into crisis he returned there, alone, to attempt suicide a few years ago.  He died of pneumonia this week at 49.  But the pneumonia isn’t what really killed him.

I came to know Tony by accident, a chance call off a Yellow Pages advertisement more than twenty years ago.  My wife and I had purchased a big old house on ten acres overgrown with vines and giant forsythia, with rhododendrons and lilacs that had bolted so high they covered the tops of the windows.

The prior owner asked one favor at the closing that I couldn’t abide.  Years ago, she said, when they’d lost a son, she and her husband planted an apple tree beside the house in his memory.  “I know it’s not in a great spot,” she said, “but please be gentle with it.”  My wife and I agreed too readily, eager to get on with things.

Besides the Nineteenth Century stucco house, the property had an old dairy barn warped to awkward angles by gravity and neglect.  There was an equally rundown cottage, a crumbling tennis court and an old pool.  Natural attributes included rock outcroppings, lawns, fields, woods and a pond so green that, on a still summer day, you might be tempted to ask where the groundskeeper had placed the flag pin.

We’d owned the keys two weekends when I went out back one Saturday with my new chain saw.  The apple tree we’d half promised to protect was diseased and bug-infested — and it blocked our view of the pond.  With my wife biting her lip in the dining room window, I made quick work of it.  When I carted away the last branches and we admired the view from inside, the place began to feel like ours for the first time.

With some help from a caretaker, who lived with his young family in the cottage, almost every weekend for three seasons I was serenaded by the whirr of the chainsaw and hedge trimmer and the sturdy clomp of a pair of loppers.  We cleared great stands of weed-choked wild raspberry, gnarled forsythia and maple saplings.  We hacked and dragged away bittersweet and wild grape.

Some multiflora rose vines were as big as tree trunks.  Their thorns pierced leather gloves, and their tendrils boomeranged ferociously when we tried to direct them, whipping us bloody.

But we persisted, opening up vistas that hadn’t been seen in a generation, saving some great old trees from strangulation by parasitic flora, and exposing stone walls that once marked cow pastures, before refrigeration and rising land prices conspired to put the local farmers out of business.

It was a satisfying year, offering more instant rewards than my job as a book editor.  When I brought a manuscript home and trimmed it with a pencil, the final product might still be a year off.  But in the yard, at the end of a day with the tools, you stood back and marveled at all the good you’d done.

Clearing had natural limits, however.  Soon we had to start adding.  We needed guidance, needed a plan.  That’s when I called Tony.

He had a woman who did his scheduling (later I’d learn this was his wife), and we made an appointment for that week.  He tried calling me Mr. Fishman, but I wouldn’t hear of it.  He was close to my age — late twenties, at the time — and that surprised me when I first saw him.  Most of our contemporaries then worked at big companies, as I did, not managing their own businesses.

But that was scarcely a note of dissonance.  I admired it, in fact, perhaps even envied it.  Tan and fit, dark-haired, handsome, Tony had an easy familiarity.  He dressed like a preppy in well-worn turtleneck and khakis, and while I hadn’t attended prep school, I could relate to the desire to look that way.  Anyone with certain ambitions could.

We walked around the property slowly, discussing immediate needs and grand plans.  I casually tested his knowledge, pointing to trees and bushes we’d saved and asking their names, some of which I already knew.  I never managed to stump him, and he responded with a degree of enthusiasm that suggested genuine love for his subject.

As he departed, I told him we’d be interviewing several firms, but I suspected he knew that we had hit it off right away.  Soon he was back with blueprints and plant lists.  My wife liked him.  Our relationship — dare I say — blossomed.

For more than a decade we used Tony’s services.  In that time, there were long periods when I worked from home, and when he pulled up with his crew I’d jump from my desk, greet him, chat over the job he was doing for us and over other things — neighbors, nature, town happenings, our lives.  His business was thriving, but he never seemed rushed.

We watched him grow, not quite our friend, but a warm acquaintance, someone to root for.  He bragged about his daughter and told me his wife was sad that a second child never came.  He revealed that his grandfather had maintained the grounds for many years at an old estate down the road, since divided by the construction of a highway.  He called me when he split with his business partner.  He spoke of peaceful moments fishing alone on the lake by his house.

A few times, when I was driving by and saw his car, I dropped into his office unannounced.  It was a glorified shack, really — maybe not so glorified.  Barely heated, two rooms, up and down — the downstairs where his crew knocked around and the upstairs where he sat drafting.  They had three or four trucks that they squeezed onto the dirt lot every night, parking them within inches of one another.  People walking to the prison might have brushed right by one of those bumpers on occasion.

When I joined the board of the local Nature Conservancy chapter, I talked Tony into donating his services on a project near a river two hours away.  We worked together beside his crew that day, landscaping around a preserve lodge.

He didn’t need the business I’d bring him.  Over the years, he acquired many clients who were millionaires, living on big estates, proffering big projects and big maintenance contracts.  It was largely Wall Street money, fresh and easy.

Somewhere along the line, it dawned on me that Tony had a foot in each of two worlds: the world of his grandfather, close by, where he’d dig a hole alongside his crew; and the world where he spent Saturday afternoons shooting the breeze with wealthy clients on their patios.  The world of the big shiny Land Cruiser that he drove, and the world of the soiled landscape trucks parked on his lot.  The world of the house on the quiet lake, and the world of the shack by the railroad tracks.

When I moved a few towns away, he continued to do some work for me, but that wasn’t the core of his territory.  We drifted apart as our business relationship faded.

Then, maybe five years ago, I was standing in line at a Dunkin’ Donuts when someone tapped me on the shoulder.  It was one of Tony’s subcontractors, a stone mason who, like Tony, had grown with the economy from managing tools to managing jobs and men.  He still had the big hands and forearms of  a mason, though.  His name was Carmello.  He asked if I remembered him, mentioning the connection to Tony, and I said of course.

“Did you hear what happened?”

“No.”

“A few months ago, Tony tried to kill himself.”

I craned forward, as if I hadn’t heard right.  We exchanged awkward half-smiles, the kind that cross people’s faces when they know they’re in the midst of a heavy moment.  Then Carmello told me the story as he knew it.

It involved a personal transgression that doesn’t require detailing here.  Suffice to say it was something secret but not illegal, revealed suddenly to his loved ones.  It was something millions of people have done and then worked through, gone on with their lives.  The revelation needn’t have led to other irrevocable actions.

When Tony learned his secret was out, though, he went to his office and drank a container of acid.

It nearly killed him on the spot.  It did kill him later.

I ran into him a couple of years after it happened.  His face was sunken but his eyes still had vigor.  We were in the vicinity of my office and I insisted he come up and tell me everything.

He didn’t, I now realize, and probably never had.  But he told me a lot.

He told me what it felt like when the revelation hit, when he knew the facade had been shattered — “shattered” is my word, not his, but it’s the right one.  The word he used to describe his state before the revelation was “invincible.”  That originated with his therapist, the one who tried to help put him back together.

Tony had constructed a world for himself, a world where the boy who grew up in a little house a mile from the prison could interact in one moment with a dirt-encrusted crew and in the next moment with Wall Street titans who lived behind automated gates.  And if he could do that, he convinced himself, he could do anything.  But, of course, he couldn’t.  Tony had entrapped himself.

When she heard the story the first time, my wife, a trained social worker, observed that a person who drinks acid doesn’t merely intend to kill himself.  He intends to punish himself.

Tony didn’t fully articulate to me what he felt at that moment when he went into his office and poured the poison down his throat.  It was a blur to him, I think, like they do it in movies sometimes with the music screeching urgently and the camera swinging from focus.  In addition, the subsequent therapy had clearly distanced him from it, as had, perhaps, the pure act of surviving.

Nevertheless, it happened like this.  He went to his office and he gulped the acid and then he thought of his wife and his daughter.  When he related it, I don’t think he recalled the physical pain of that moment.  He remembered dialing 911 and passing out.

And when I asked him what he’d been thinking, all he could say was, “I was invincible.  I had been invincible.”

“And then?”

“And then I wasn’t.”

As Tony lay comatose in a hospital afterward, one wealthy client rushed to the hospital with a check for $100,000 and tried to force it on Tony’s wife as a gift.  She wouldn’t accept it.

Acid down the gullet is a nasty business.  It took them months to give Tony the semblance of physical normalcy.  He looked like a shadow of himself when I last saw him, skin and bones, the face and body of a man who has crawled out of the desert.

But I asked him how he felt and he said, “I feel free.”


Does anyone worry about the Seven Deadly Sins anymore?

I don’t mean the machinations of the lunatic featured in Se7en, starring Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman…

…or the Seven Deadly Sins computer game (Partial description from the Kongregate website: “Enter the quiet English town of Gorpsdale and use your skill, guile and ingenuity to find suitable ways of breaking each sin” — suitable?)…

…or the rock group Seven Deadly Sins…

…or songs of the same name by the Traveling Wilburys, Flogging Molly, Lotte Lenya or a dozen groups you never heard of.

No.  I don’t mean a trivial expression dripping with convenient irony — intended or otherwise.  The Seven Deadly sins — ha ha.  They’ll send you You Know Where — wink wink.
No no.  I mean the real deal, the Cardinal Sins — those one-way tickets for the express train to that station with the warning over the door.  You know, the sign about all who enter abandoning hope?  That one.  And, while we’re on the subject, that creak you hear in the tunnel ain’t coming from the train.

I’m talking about THE Seven Deadly Sins, defined seven hundred years or so ago as:

  1. Luxuria (Extravagance)
  2. Gula (Gluttony)
  3. Avaritia (Avarice)
  4. Acedia (Discouragement)
  5. Ira (Anger)
  6. Invidia (Envy)
  7. Superbia (Pride)

Do any of these sound familiar?  Ah, so you’ve dabbled in them, have you?  Not to worry, just an oversight.  You’ll clear it up right away.

Perhaps you’re now recalling that time you came home two hours past curfew and were so stoned you left the car running out front all night — and mom gave you a chance to explain before dad came home from work.  No, friend.  That’s Judgment Day you’re thinking of, where righteous pagans and the like get to explain that it’s not their fault they didn’t pray to Jesus, since He hadn’t yet lived, and the angel says, “You’ve suffered enough.  Next!”

The Deadly Sins are not that.  Put yourself in the attitude of Deadly Sin and die before repenting and you already got your Judgment Day, honey.  That E ain’t for Effort, it’s for Eternity.

Is it getting hot in here?

From the Union of Concerned Scientists website:  “Earth’s surface has undergone unprecedented warming over the last century, particularly over the last two decades. Astonishingly, every single year since 1992 is in the current list of the 20 warmest years on record.”

Now that I have your attention, please notice something about these Deadly Sins.  Murder is not among them.  Why?  Because these aren’t an abbreviated version of the Ten Commandments, baby.  They’re not things you do so much as the way you do them.  They’re not mere acts.  They’re what you are — yourbeing.

For example, your very existence in modern America creates oceans of waste.  In an article in Mother Jonesmagazine, Bill McKibben notes that we dispose of 80 million water bottles every day.  Recycled, you say? At any given moment, “More than 46,000 pieces of plastic debris float on each square mile of ocean.”

McKibben also notes the 426,000 cell phones we toss every day, the 170,000 Energizer batteries born every fifteen minutes, and the 60,000 plastic bags we use every five seconds.  Most of this stuff doesn’t float on the oceans.  We send it out of sight, underground.

Which brings me to Dante Alighieri.

In The Divine Comedy, according to scholars, Dante depicted the eschatological views of Thirteenth Century clerics.  And, with literacy on the rise, he did so in the common tongue, so everyone could understand.  In other words, he was just a really talented reporter about the state-of-the-afterlife art.

But what if it turns out the scholars who claim this are whistling past the graveyard?  What if Dante is less a recorder of our past and more a man with a vision of our future?  Kinda like Nostradamus with a mean streak.  Well, then, we’re on the moving sidewalk to the wrong terminal, folks.

The Union of Concerned Scientists adds:  “In its 2001 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, ‘There is new and stronger evidence that most of the warming observed over the last 50 years is attributable to human activities.’”

Dare we revisit those Seven — you know:

  1. Extravagance: According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average American house grew from 1400 square feet in 1970 to 2330 square feet in 2004.
  2. Gluttony: Look in the mirror.  See that fat man?  To satiate him, there’s a building in Arkansas stuffed with ten thousand living chicken dinners.
  3. Avarice: The one who dies with the most toys wins, right?
  4. Discouragement: We know this drill.  Say it with your arms raised: What difference can little old me make in this vast world?  And, besides, isn’t global warming a myth perpetrated by people who just get off on caring about others?
  5. Anger: I have my rights, man, lay off me!
  6. Envy: I know, you needed to take the Suburban to pick up the flat-screen television that was three inches bigger than your neighbor’s, even though your old TV was new last year.  The world feels your pain.
  7. Pride: Mankind is Numero Uno, no?

So this gets me thinking: What if hell isn’t a place we’re sent to, but rather a condition that comes to find us?

Another infernal observation from the scientists: “Measurements show that global average temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 100 years, with most of that happening in the last three decades.”

Dante envisioned nine Circles of Hell:

  1. Those in Limbo wallow in the misery of their separation from God.  A thought: Mankind today has never been further from Nature.
  2. Those in the Second Circle of Hell are blown about by violent storms without rest.  Global warming means more energy in Earth’s atmosphere, causing more storms.
  3. In the Third Circle of Hell, expect to slosh endlessly through vile black sludge — as when the retention ponds at the pig farms let loose.
  4. Those in the Fourth Circle of Hell push around boulders — as we will have to do increasingly to hold back the tides.
  5. In the Fifth Circle of Hell, the souls gnash at each other endlessly — as in the unproductive partisanship that accompanies our era.
  6. For the Sixth Circle of Hell, the heat arrives in earnest.  From the scientists one more time: “By the end of the century, the average U.S. temperature is projected to increase by approximately 7 to 11ºF under the higher emissions scenarios and by approximately 4 to 6.5ºF under the lower emissions scenario.”
  7. The Seventh Circle of Hell contains flaming sand, boiling blood, men reduced to dried bushes, and ferocious dogs (that I see as Nature’s avengers).  But, hey, there’s no snow to plow.
  8. Eighth Circle: people immersed in excrement, more heat, nefarious disease, boiling pitch, that sort of thing.  Does it get tedious?  Only because it isn’t you suffering — yet.
  9. The final Ninth Circle: very unfriendly ice.  “So you see,” the skeptics will say, “in the long run it cools.”  But, of course, by then we’re all beyond dead.

Speaking of which…

At the height of the Roman Empire, people lived on average just 25 years.  By 1985, worldwide life expectancy was 62 years.  Today, a child born in the United States can expect to walk the planet nearly 78 years.

In fact, according to the National Institute on Aging, “The number of centenarians in the U.S. is growing rapidly…  During the 1990s, the ranks of centenarians nearly doubled…”  Analysts at the Census, they say, are projecting the population of American centenarians “possibly reaching 834,000 by the middle of the next century.”

But science works apace, and some believe that in a hundred years we may overcome senescence entirely.  Hmm.  It could be that we’re all going to Hell.

If you’re looking for a silver lining, remember the theory of a particular John Milton character in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in hell, than serve in heaven.”

Then again, those thoughts belonged to the biggest sinner of all, didn’t they?

She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.

Like the monkey, I wish to make a dramatic entrance.

But what constitutes a great dramatic entrance?  Is it some thing or some act that rises above ordinary by its very existence or action?  Or is it an invitation for one’s imagination to go someplace it hasn’t been lately — or someplace it has never been?

The great dramatic entrance — whether it’s an opening sentence, an architectural feature or a theatrical introduction — has a come-hither quality, I think.   It startles one pleasurably with certain unspoken possibilities.

Some people’s flair for the dramatic goes way back.  Take the du Pont family, for instance.  They fled the French Revolution, it is said, and landed on these shores on New Year’s Day 1800 — kissing the still-new world on the first day of a new century.

I call that a dramatic entrance, and I raise it here because we live in a big old house with a history.  It sits on a rise above the Brandywine River.  And, although you mostly can’t see the river because of intervening woods, the water below, slowly gouging the valley, lends a mystical quality to our environs.

The presence of the river is not incidental.  In 1802, Eleuthere Irenee du Pont settled on the side opposite our house, on the site of an old cotton mill.  While the original mill had burned, the millrace remained intact, enabling du Pont to get a jump on his project.  He soon constructed the first high-quality gunpowder mills in America and thereby founded one of the oldest and most successful American enterprises in the history of capitalism.  The mansion he built on a hill above his mills stands today.  If not for the trees, in fact, my family would look daily upon it.

And — here’s the crucial thing — were it not for the trees, du Pont’s house would also look upon us.

E.I. du Pont had an older brother named Victor, who built our house between 1807 and 1811.  On his side of the river, Victor constructed woolen mills to manufacture cotton cloth.  His company — known, after Victor’s partner, as Du Pont, Bauday & Co. — functioned for decades into the Nineteenth Century.  Nice little business, I suppose, but his brother bet on a better future.  Du Pont de Nemours & Company diversified and went public and made many members of an old family very rich.

But before that there were two well-connected brothers living at a time when shopkeepers resided over the store and manufacturers lived next to their mills.  The brothers had social stature.  There’s reason to believe, for example, that the boots of Thomas Jefferson and the Marquis de Lafayette trod the old floorboards that we often now walk in bare feet.

Over time, however, the house known as Louviers apparently passed into abandonment and disrepair, sitting vacant for some time and serving as a temporary hospital during World War I.  Then, in the 1930s, one du Pont descendent took up residence, renovating the house, raising his family, and eventually living out his days there.

The place hasn’t changed much since, and when we study the renovations we often wonder what the old man and his wife may have been thinking.  In the master bath, for instance, the sinks don’t match, one being six inches shorter than  the other.  It seems obvious that she was short in stature, but the lack of symmetry is startling in a house that is so well balanced in other ways.

Also, they added a kitchen far away from the living quarters.  This stood to reason, because — as the relics of a paging system attest — wealthy folks had servants in those days.  The kitchen needn’t be close to things when family members ventured there neither for dinner nor cleanup.

There were other changes, too numerous to mention here, the reasons for which we attempt to infer now and then — an old walk-in basement safe (for silver?), janitorial closets in the halls (to keep the bathrooms pristine?), built-in fire hoses by the bedrooms (because the du Ponts historically feared fire?).

Curious, but I promised an essay about entrances, didn’t I?

Here’s a funny thing about the house that matters to the subject.  There is a small paneled library with built-ins from the Thirties.  It’s barely ten by ten, yet in addition to bookshelves it features a fireplace, a large window, and three doors.  Three.  One of those doors comes in from the hall and another goes out to the back porch.  It’s the third door that presents the puzzle.

This door, much to my daughter’s delight, is a secret door.  Sandwiched between the fireplace and an outside wall and hidden behind rolling bookcases, it leads to the living room.

What’s odd about that is the following.  If you’re going to the dining room or the entry foyer on the way from the library, you pass right by the main door to the living room anyway.  You needn’t pass through servant’s quarters or walk out of your way.  It’s right there.  So the hidden door is not at all required.

Furthermore, it’s only hidden on the library side.  On the living room side it’s plainly a door, albeit one without a proper knob.  So this unnecessary secret door readily gives up its secret to the close observer.  What’s going on here?

I think I know.  I think the man who installed it understood something about old-fashioned dramatic entrances.

Picture Scarlett O’Hara descending the grand stairs of Tara.

Picture Mary Poppins floating down on her umbrella.

Picture an injured Willis Reed, not expected to play Game 7 against the Los Angeles Lakers, jogging onto the court at Madison Square Garden in 1970 to an electrified crowd.  The game is won before the first shot is taken.

Now think of the man who built that secret library door.  The maid ushers his guests into the living room and offers them cocktails.  Sipping their drinks, they peer expectantly through the open doorway into the front hall, awaiting their host.

Instead, a door opens behind, where they least expected, and there he is among them — suddenly, dramatically.

If he were a modern author, he might have written: “She had my thing in her hand when the monkey swung in.”  If he were a sports legend at game time, he may have been the last one out of the locker room and into the arena.

Beginning journalists learn that a lead paragraph must include the Who, What and When of the story.  Yet many seasoned journalists will tell you that the best newspaper lead paragraph ever is simply this:

Bang bang bang.

Why?  Because its draw is irresistible.  Plus: in the beginning is the end.  In other words, great story beginnings often also contain the ending.

Therefore, maybe my beginning — the thing and the monkey — is not so great.  It intrigues, perhaps, but doesn’t complete.

But picture those once grand stairs of Tara, falling into ruins.

Picture the magical nanny, for the last time lifted by umbrella over the rooftops of London.

Finally, once more, picture the man who built that hidden door.  The party is concluding.  He could walk down the hall and use the main door to his library.  But he doesn’t.  He waits until no one’s looking.  And then he disappears.