It was the humblest of hometowns, but in a secret place inside himself he liked to think of it as The City By The Sea. He had been born in The City by the Sea more than sixty years ago, only child of a Jewish father and a Catholic mom. As a boy he’d loved the close-set houses and salty air, the seagulls and smooth beach stones, the amusement rides and kosher butcher shops and street games and sirens; loved the way conversations were speckled with spicy pepper grains from other tongues; the way people used words—spucky, skutch, chidrool, mook, moosha-moosh– that were not in any dictionary he’d ever seen.
He had loved it and, after a time, wanted nothing more than to leave it and see how the rest of the world compared. He went away for the army and the war, returned for college, then left again, for good, to make his money and his mark, and to marry a woman who had never once thought of this place as The City by the Sea. His wife was gone now, passed on to a better world he hoped, and their son and daughter had ended up thousands of miles away—Los Angeles, Seattle, other worlds.
He was sixty-two, smart, successful, surrounded by friends, and still, on overcast winter afternoons he would sometimes leave the immaculate suburb he called home and drive an hour just to walk the beach, to feel that sting and sweetness in his mouth. Hands in his pockets, he’d wrap the raincoat around his hips and stride along the sand in the wind, letting the cold air slap his cheeks red, burying himself in memories: the amusement rides, the food stands, a high-school love affair, baseball games, street fights, holiday dinners, a tight pod of neighborhood friends that had broken open and scattered on the wind.
During the second half of December these memories always came to him in shouts. Some weeks he’d go back to the beach every afternoon just to feel his shoes on the hard gray sand, to buy a slice of oily pizza and sit on the hurricane wall with the gulls screaming at him for having what they did not. His family had celebrated both holidays–his father letting him hold the shammas and bring the menorah to life; his mother setting up a crèche beneath the tree. What a couple they had been! Shouting at each other in three languages over latkes and lasagna, making a Howard Johnson’s milkshake-and-hamburger outing into an exotic adventure decorated with Milton Berle routines and Tony Bennett music. Burying him in gifts from the first of the eight nights until New Year’s. He had not deserved parents like that, had not been able to live up to their example except in brief stretches of grace, flickers of light in a life ruled by business, eaten up by business, consumed by the making and spending of money.
His parents had not been one-tenth as well off as he was, but, even so, generosity had been the first commandment in their third-floor flat on the humble street everyone referred to as “The Avenue.” Generosity, warmth, ungoverned emotions that ricocheted off the wallpaper in bursts of anger and fun. What a house it had been! A cranky grandmother with numbers tattooed on her arm and such flashes of pain on the skin of her face that he sometimes could not bear to look at her. Fat-legged aunts in kitchen chairs, telling ribald jokes; uncles puffing cigars, talking football and money and politics. Friends leaning stickball bats in the corner and sitting down to lunches of chicken cacciatore and pizza dolce. And always, always, this rule: if you had good fortune, any good fortune at all, you spread it around.
That commandment stayed with him, even as others faded and disappeared and a mad ambition flowered. After the war, after college, on the recommendation of an uncle, he’d gone to work for a company in Boston that made industrial cutting tools–drills and planers and saws with diamond blades. From the first month he’d made a good paycheck, and every December gave away more money than he probably should have. The United Way. The Salvation Army. One health charity or another–he hated to think of children suffering, of people being tortured and killed.
He married a generous, warm-hearted woman, fathered a boy and a girl, worked hard, moved up the corporate ladder. He was thirty-eight when the owner died, and he took his wife’s small inheritance, mortgaged their home to the last dollar, and bought the company. Three years later they were selling diamond-tipped drills and saw blades to the General Electric plant in Lynn. Then to all the GE plants on the east coast. Then to Ford, Chrysler, Boeing. He had a knack for it, that’s all. A knack, and the discipline to work seventy-hour weeks.
By the age of forty-four he’d reached the million-dollar mark, at a time when that number meant something. By fifty he owned a waterfront building in the North End, then two buildings. His children didn’t see very much of him, but they grew up with things he could not have dreamed about: their own cars in high school, junior year in France, a horse for the girl, a golf club membership for the boy. They’d had a good family life, it seemed to him now, but no amount of luxury had kept the kids near home. The money hadn’t kept his wife alive.
Now, his rich widower friends found young blondes for second wives, but he could not do that. His children–not a menorah between them, not one baptized grandchild–invited him for the holidays every year, and usually he went, a fat Jewish-Catholic Santa stepping out of the airport with suitcases full of toys.
This year he had decided to stay home–he didn’t know why–mailed the toys off in cardboard boxes so heavy he couldn’t lift them onto the counter at the post office without help. December was mild and rainy. He worked and worked, and when he wasn’t working he drove to the beach, or The Avenue, or Broadway, and shuffled along the sand and sidewalks there, a ghost with a Rolex on his wrist. Once Hanukkah began, he had an urge–this sometimes happened–to make an outrageous gift. In his late wife’s name he’d already made five-figure contributions to the library addition, the mayor’s after-school program, the cancer center. But that wasn’t the kind of gift he was thinking of now. This would be personal, anonymous, eccentric, meshugana, the act of a pazzo, a nut. He took some cash out of one of his accounts. One Saturday he walked the length of Beach Street in a cold rain, dreaming about going into the bars there and handing out hundred-dollar bills; or climbing up to the door of the third-floor apartment where he’d been raised–a Cambodian family lived there now, he’d spied on them, seen the woman leaning her dark head out the kitchen window to look for her children in the street–and buying bikes for the kids, or a chinchilla coat for the mother.
On another of these solitary walkabouts–it was the Monday before Christmas, cold and clear, with mounds of new snow on the sidewalks– he happened to pass the elementary school where he’d gone as a boy. Not the school exactly, that building had long ago been replaced with brick condominiums. A girl of ten or twelve sat on the cold top step of one of the buildings, sobbing. The symphony of her grief wafted up into the winter air and wrapped itself around him. He was on the verge of walking over and comforting her when he remembered where he was–America, twenty-first century. You did not talk to young people you didn’t know, never mind touch them. A few morons, a few perverts, a few murderers had ruined things for everyone. He paused, pretending to admire the building’s architecture, trying to send kind thoughts to the girl. She went on and on, wailing, soaking her hands with tears.
At last he walked away, drawn to the solace of the beach as always, but when he saw the water this time a memory spilled over him like an avalanche. A thousand tons of cold. In fourth, fifth, and sixth grades there had been a girl who looked something like the girl on the condominium steps: on the pudgy side, muddy brown hair, some little spark of prettiness around the eyes and mouth. Denise, her name had been. For some reason he and the other boys and girls had been unbelievably cruel to Denise. It wasn’t anything she had done. What personality she showed in school was mild and inoffensive; she bathed regularly, hurt no one; she was neither very smart nor very stupid; she dressed like everyone else.
But they had tormented her. On the playground they walked in circles around her, chanting: Can’t touch you! Can’t touch you! In the hallways they swerved in exaggerated detours when she approached. Once, Denise’s mother had made the mistake of sending out birthday invitations to her classmates, and no one, not one of them, had accepted. A friend of his had even sent the invitation back with CTD on the envelope. Can’t Touch Denise. When the friend told him about that, he’d laughed.
He sat on one of the wooden benches tossing French fries to the seagulls and listening to the faint cold surf. Easy enough to say it was long ago, and that they were too young to realize what they were doing. Easy enough to hope Denise had gotten over it and made herself a decent life. For all these winters–what was it, fifty?–he’d buried the memory, but now it pressed against him like a scalpel blade. He’d grown up in a good family. Most of them had. How had they been capable of that? Why hadn’t someone, a teacher, a principal, a courageous sixth-grader, stepped forward and said something? They were little Nazis, is what they were. Miniature Roman soldiers pounding spikes through flesh. Klansmen with a torch. Half-sized Khmer Rouge going into hospital rooms with sharpened bayonets.
That night Denise shuffled and sulked through his dreams. In the morning—because he was lonely, perhaps a bit touched, probably guilty at his good fortune (How many multi -millionaires came from a third-floor flat on The Avenue?)–he went back to the city and paid a social call on his friend the mayor, and the mayor let him examine the voting rolls. A hundred Denises, but none with that last name. Nothing in the phone book. She’d moved away, of course. Moved away and married, had children of her own, carried the smoldering humiliation of it through all her life in a secret place inside herself.
He went to his Boston office and before the lunch hour passed he’d gotten a recommendation and hired a private investigator. He remembered Denise’s last name, her mother’s name; he could take a good guess at her place and date of birth. That ought to be enough. “Find her in two days and I’ll double the fee,” he told the investigator.
On Wednesday there was no news. On Thursday the investigator called. He’d found one Denise of that name, and that place and time of birth, and her mother had the right name, too. Only one. That Denise, it turned out, was buried in a cemetery in southern New Hampshire. Cause of death unknown, but the investigator could try to track it down if it mattered.
At the company party that afternoon everyone was jolly. Not the best year they’d ever had, but a good year all the same. Healthy bonuses, a lot of smiling all around. He shook hands and slapped backs and received kisses and drank much more than he was accustomed to, so that he rode home in the back seat of the company limo with the western suburbs spinning and tilting, a crazy festival of lights.
In the dark living room he sat in the chair where his wife had liked to sit, glass of water in one hand and a bottle of aspirin beside him on the upholstered arm. At the party, for a blessed hour, he’d forgotten Denise. Now she came swirling back, a spinning, magnetized spirit around which fifty years of sin seemed to have coagulated. He opened the aspirin bottle, swallowed three, and left the cap off.
Hours later it must have been, a ringing sound woke him out of a drunken doze. His head swirled in oily circles. He managed to reach the phone before the machine clicked on. Holding it to his ear he heard the high, reedy innocence of his granddaughter, a one-quarter Jewish girl named Mary, after his mother. But how could she be awake at this hour? “Gampa, Gampa,” Mary was saying. She’d received the packages and her mother had let her open one ahead of time, and the doll was her “favit” now, her best. She had a name for it, but she wanted to ask him first if the name was alright.
“What name, honey?”
“Da-neese,” she said.
He wasn’t sure he was hearing correctly. He wasn’t sure he was awake, or sane. He looked around his unlit house, the elegant sofa, the dark framed pictures on the wall. A shadowy library of memories.
The next day he woke up later than usual, feeling like he’d been dragged all the way home tied to the axle of a leaking garbage truck. Alcohol. Across the space of a few hours the drug went from nectar of the gods to poison. He showered, shaved, took his coffee and juice and three more aspirin with two pieces of pumpernickel toast.
He drove to the City by the Sea. He parked his Mercedes at the very end of The Avenue, two hundred steps from the house they’d lived in. It was December twenty-fourth. Some of the people walking past him in the swirling snow did not celebrate Christmas and did not celebrate Hanukkah, he understood that. Did not know a confirmation from a bas mitzvah, a scapular from a tallis.
He left his keys dangling in the door of the Mercedes, on purpose, walked down onto the platform of the subway station and stood there with the toes of his two-hundred-dollar loafers pushing out over the edge of the concrete. After a short wait–he thought only of his wife. How could you replace a spirit like that with a bejeweled young blond?– he could hear the blue-sided train rumbling toward him like the past, the cold rails gleaming, every species of litter there on the gravel between the ties. “Forgive me!” he called out, so loudly that the person next to him moved away. “Forgive me! Forgive us!”
As the first car drew close he leaned forward so far that the conductor blew the shrill horn. The car passed a couple of inches in front of his nose, the wall of air lifted the lapels on his raincoat. The doors opened. He backed away one step. When the train rattled out of the station he stood there for two or three minutes, running his mind back across the smell of the jungle at night, the stink of fear and the immensity of the feeling of death. Then he climbed back up to the street where cold flakes tapped his forehead and cheeks. Some woman, a passing face, wished him Happy Holidays. The Mercedes sat where he had left it, dusted with a thin coat of white, and he took the keys, put them in his pocket, and walked the length of The Avenue to a donut shop that hadn’t been there when he was a boy. Jaunty holiday muzak warbled in the speakers, and the girls behind the counter wore plastic sprigs of holly on their chest. He looked at the nameplates there, half-expecting one of them to be Denise, but, no, these were exotic names, young women from other orbits, new to this country as his grandparents had been in their day. Cambodia, Guatemala, Bosnia, Somalia, Russia–who knew what sort of viciousness had chased these girls away from home, what mad ambition had pulled their families halfway across the world to the promise and hope and frenzy of America? Who knew where the seed of evil came from?
He waited in line, a stranger there now, forgivable he supposed, blood-stained and forgivable like all the rest. He ordered coffee and a cruller, put eight one hundred-dollar bills in the tip cup when the girl turned her back, then went out to The Avenue and, carrying his small burden, walked at an old man’s pace past the boarded-up synagogue, and the Cambodian restaurant, and the Bosnian grocery, and on and on, down to a green-slatted bench where he knew he would have an unobstructed view of the sea.