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Thursday, April 10, 2008The Great Man
"It's amazing how well you can live on very little money," said Teddy St. Cloud to Henry Burke over her shoulder as she strode into the kitchen of her Brooklyn row house. She hoped he was noticing that her hips and waist were still girlishly slender, her step youthful, and that he'd describe her accurately instead of saying she was "gaunt but chipper," like that sour-faced squaw with the crooked teeth from The New Yorker who'd written the profile of Oscar a few years ago. "I hope you're a Reform Jew," she added. "I got prosciutto."
"I'm not Jewish," he said after a second of displacement. They stood somewhat awkwardly together in the kitchen, not sure suddenly where to go now that their short walk down the hall had disgorged them into their destination. "But people often think-"
"Burke," she said. "That's not the Ellis Islandization of Berkowitz?"
"No," said Henry. "It's English."
She leaned against the counter, her eyes fixed on some middle distance in her mind. She suspected that she looked much older in person than Henry had expected, but then, of course, she was seventy-four, and the person he'd no doubt been expecting, unconsciously, to meet was the young woman Oscar had fallen in love with. But she was proud of the fact that as old as she was, she still resembled her younger self. Her oval, narrow face had aged markedly, with shallow grooves running along both sides of her nose, slight hoods over her eyes, a subtle lengthening of the earlobes, a thinning of the lips, a network of extremely fine wrinkles around her eyes. But she held her small, well-shaped head very high, with the self-aware edge of mischief and manipulation Oscar had loved, eyes glittering foxily, as if she were about to snap out of her feigned concentration and laugh at her observer for being fooled into thinking she hadn't been watching him all along. This air of expressive, confident intelligence, Oscar had told her, was one of the sexiest qualities about her, the electric flame that ran almost visibly soft and licking over her skin, hinting at interesting flare-ups. Then he had added that having incredible boobs didn't hurt.
"Please sit down," said Teddy; she intended it as a command. She wasn't impressed by Henry. She guessed that he was forty or thereabouts. He looked like a lightweight, the kind of young man you saw everywhere these days, gutless and bland. He wore soft cotton clothing, a little rumpled from the heat and long drive in the car-she would have bet it was a Volvo. She could smell domesticity on him, the technologically up-to-date apartment on the Upper West Side, the ambitious, hard-edged wife-women were the hard ones at that age. Men turned sheepish and eager to please after about forty. Oscar had been the same way; he'd turned into a bit of a hangdog at around forty and hadn't fully regained his chutzpah until he'd hit fifty or so, but even then, she had never lost interest in him, and she was still interested in him now, even though he was gone.
Henry chose a chair facing her and sat at the table.
"Look at this melon," she said. "I asked my grocer to give it to me half price by letting him think it was a little soft. Well, it is, but just in one small spot."
She began slicing the cantaloupe in half on a cutting board, holding the knife in her small square hand. Her kitchen was a long, narrow galley-shaped room with glass-fronted cupboards and an old-fashioned stove and refrigerator, a deep cast-iron sink. The room, like the rest of the house, felt as if she were only temporarily inhabiting it. It had no particular odor. Most old houses were clogged with the olfactory remnants of years of living, the memories of long-ago meals, hidden mold, the strong scent of people. This wasn't the house she had lived in when she and Oscar were together, but the one she'd bought after his death five years ago, after selling the other one. This one had lost its history when the family who'd owned it for decades had moved out with all their stuff and Teddy had moved in with hers. Somehow, during the transfer, everything had discharged its freight of sediment, the walls of the house, her furniture and belongings, and now it all just smelled clean and impersonal. None of Oscar's paintings hung on these walls: Oscar had never given her one.
"So," she said abruptly from the sideboard. "What can I tell you about the great man?"
"Well," said Henry, caught slightly off guard. "I was thinking we would start at the beginning. For now, just talk about him. We'll get down to the nitty-gritty of dates and times later. Maybe start with how you met him, how the two of you fell in love-"
"Wine?" she said with a glint of aggression. She reached into the refrigerator, the corkscrew already in her other hand. "It's a Sancerre, but not as expensive as it tastes, by far." She wrested the cork from its hole with a faintly savage twist of her wrist. She had been expecting someone Jewish like Oscar, someone ballsy, someone fun to banter and flirt with, not this twerp in rumpled khakis.
"Sure," he said with a puzzled sidelong look up at her.
"Henry," she said as she set his glass down with a snap in front of him, "let's establish one thing right now. This discussion is nonnegotiable. If you won't listen to what I have to say, you can drink your wine and eat a little melon and then you get up and leave. You've clearly arrived with some preconceived notions, and if you can't shake them loose out of your head like a lot of ... moths, then I have nothing to say to you."
Henry blinked. "I have no preconceived notions," he said. "I'm here to listen."
"I want to see a flock of moths rising from your head," she said. "I'm going to roll the melon with prosciutto now, and when I next turn around, I want to see white fluttery little things rising from your hair and flying out the window."
She flung open the casement window over the sink and the room was immediately crowded with the sounds of tree leaves, birdsong, and the shouts of kids in a nearby backyard. Her back was turned to him. She could feel her body quivering like an arrow aimed at someone's heart as she worked.
"You're right about this wine," he said. "It's delicious."
"No man should ever use the word delicious," she said.
"Teddy," he said clearly.
She turned slowly to stare at him. Had he actually just called her by her nickname? They looked at each other blank-faced for an instant, and she imagined that he was also wondering this same thing.
"Claire," they both corrected at once.
"Yes?" she said.
"Talk to me about Oscar," he said. He took another taste of wine.
"The great man," said Teddy with a private inner smile, "was the biggest human baby in all of history. That's no secret: We all know how his women propped him up, me and his wife, Abigail, and sister, Maxine, and our daughters, not to mention every woman he met at an opening or on a train. He couldn't live without a woman around to look at and probe, by which I mean fuck but also investigate thoroughly."
Henry picked up his pen and glanced at his notebook but didn't write anything down.
"He couldn't live without a woman around," she repeated. She knew he wanted dates, knew his monomaniacal, orderly biographer's mind was lying in wait, biding its time, until it could spring forth like an anteater's tongue and cleanly extract the facts of her history with Oscar like a swath of ants from an anthill. She felt herself resist this with everything she had. No fact, no date-"Oscar Feldman first met Claire St. Cloud on October 7, 1958," for example-could convey anything of what had really gone on between them. "He saw women as the most powerful beings on earth. You can see it in his portrait of our daughter Ruby as a baby, the girl child with the knowing eyes of a brutal queen. He could catch that complex expression in a baby girl without undercutting her cuteness, without forgetting she was just a baby. But he wasn't Picasso."
She looked at him for a reaction. He smiled a little.