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The Last Night at the Belmont
by Richard Stanford
2011-05-12 10:27:45
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A suitcase flies out from the third floor balcony, hovers for an instant in the darkness then plummets to the street, bursts open and spews its contents on the freshly fallen snow.  Rachel comes down the curved staircase, the echo of “Kick her in the belly!” falling away behind her.  She walks slowly out to the suitcase and collects up her life: two cotton dresses, the red chiffon blouse she wore that night, socks, a couple of pairs of shoes, make-up purse, sketch pad, pencils and a small metal box of charcoal sticks.  In their rage they never even thought to throw in a pair of underwear.  Whatever they did in their blindness, it had given Rachel a diversion; time enough to get to the jewelry box in their bedroom.  She collects everything into the suitcase, snaps it shut, and looks up to the third floor balcony where she sees the silhouette of her mother looking down at her.  She can hear the sound of her mother’s heavy breathing – her rampage has taken its toll.  Rachel shifts her head into the yellow light of the street lamp, making sure her mother can see her dry brown eyes unflinching back at her.  Her thick black hair is getting wetter, the melting snow trickling down her pale forehead, a forehead with too many wrinkles for a girl of seventeen.  Damn, she thinks, never thought to grab her hat. 

She walks off down the middle of the street through the snow in her long black coat and her scarf thrown over her narrow shoulders, passing along the canyon of triplexes.  There’s Tania up there in her second floor bedroom dreaming through every note of her violin solo for her brother’s Bar Mitzvah.

Further along she passes Sophia’s window flickering with candlelight because she, too, is more than likely wide awake, visualizing every moment of her taxi ride down to Pier 18 and the ocean voyage to Brindisi. 

At the corner of Mount Royal Avenue, Rachel turns towards the mountain.  She stops at the large hole in the ground filled with broken concrete and twisted steel - the disgorged remains of the Belmont Movie Theatre blanketed in snow.  Only the west wall remains, the lodge seats draped in the torn panel of Winged Victory, tossed like a wet towel.  She stands exactly where the marquee once hung over Louis and her, sheltering them from the rain as they waited in line for the première of To Catch A Thief, the last film the Belmont would ever show.   In the back row, Louis held her close with his spindly arms, bending awkwardly over the armrest to pull her sweaty red blouse closer to him, desperate for a wisp of a kiss.  Out of the corner of her eye Rachel caught a glimpse of a black-gloved hand taking a diamond necklace from a jewellery box and of a black cat jumping over a rooftop.  Then Grace Kelly, forever in her memory, cooing, diamonds glittering, luring Cary Grant into her passionate embrace.  Louis shattered the moment, crashing in with a kiss on her cheek.  Rachel laughed and it was only then that Louis finally relented, puzzled.  “It’s the diamonds,” she whispered.  “They’re fake.” 

Rachel continues along the street, heading straight for the mountain and the sparkling lights of the steel crucifix set high on the rocks.  How ironic, she thinks: the scene of the crime.  He comes into view as a pacing shadow under the trees.  It was the only way he would agree to see her, here in Jeanne Mance Park -with the rage spreading from her bedroom, she didn’t have a lot of time to negotiate.  At that moment Rachel knew that regardless of the street lamps, he would guard his invisibility with devotion.

“So, it’s happened,” says Louis with a deep sigh.

“Yes.  Surprised that a shiksa would be so fertile?”

“I never realized…,” he says, his eyes drifting off.

“And you’re going into pre-med?”

“I thought it was love.”

“Ah.  That’s what this is.”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to own up.”

“I can’t. You know that.  My family would…”

“This is your family you sonofabitch!”

“Rachel, don’t. Please.  Look’it, there are doctors I know who’ll do this kind of thing.”

“You afraid to say it, Louis? You’d better get used to ugly words if you want to be a doctor.  Abortion, that’s the word.  No. I’m not going to have some quack poke a rusty clothes hanger into my guts.”

“It’s not like that anymore.”

“I’m sure you’d know.”  Louis throws his hands up in exasperation.  “No, Louis, it’s not going to be like that.  This baby is going to live.  I don’t know who’s going to be its mother but it’s going to live.  And I want it to live so that one day 20 years from now when you’re walking down the street and you see a young man with eyes looking right at you, you’ll wonder, just for an instant, you’ll wonder.  You won’t be so invisible then.”
Louis comes in so close to her she can feel the ice in his breath, “You lied to me.  You said it was safe. “ 

“Nothing is safe, Louis.  Nothing,” and she turns to walk down the slope towards Park Avenue, joining up with the snow valleys of the streetcar, her light body swimming.  Up ahead the last streetcar of the night sends up a  white spray of electric sparks from the power wires above, lighting the way to Aunt Acey’s front door.

“Come in, lassie,” says Aunt Acey, pulling Rachel in from the cold. “Your mother called.  ‘Tis a miracle they no’ thrown you out years ago.”
Rachel follows Acey down the long hallway, accompanied by the aroma of beef stew.

“That nut is not my mother.  Did she tell you what she said to me? They have insane asylums for people like her.”

“No, they have churches.  ‘Tis no’ time to dwell on it.  It’s over now.”
Acey ambles to the woodstove with her arthritic limp, her back straight and determined.  From a large pot Acey ladles out a steaming bowl of beef and potato stew, sets it in front of Rachel, settles into her chair at the head of the table and pours herself a cup of tea.  She takes a deck of cards, shuffles them silently, then with blurring speed deals out the array for Solitaire.  “What card high?”


Acey nods.  She plays with different combinations of high and low cards, anything but the aces, anything to change the pace and her thinking.   Whatever is called, be it jacks or fives, she works down from there and then back up to the ace.  This is what 10 years as a dealer in the casinos of Atlantic City did to her. “What are you going to do, Rachel?”

“I’m going to New York.  Except for you, I have no family or friends left here,” she says slipping her hand into her right pocket. “I’ll be all right.”

“You’ll stay with me until you’re ready. Then, you’ll go to New York and after that to Paris,” she says while snapping down a run from the Jack of Spades to the five. “There’s many a home wants a child.  He’s Jewish? Aye.  That would have been like sticking your mother’s finger into a light socket.  Could you no’ have picked a boy more strategically?”

“You think I should’ve asked for his passport before I slept with him?” Sleep?  There wasn’t time for that.  They’d rushed up the mountain from the Belmont and lay down under the thousand lights of the crucifix.  It was like being in a stadium only without the cheerleaders.
The piercing ring of the phone draws Acey to the bedroom.   She picks up the receiver and after a mournful pause she barks back into the mouthpiece,
“Oh, is that what you call yourself?” and closes the bedroom door.  The angry words are muffled but Rachel knows exactly what is being said.

In the bookcase next to the kitchen doorway Rachel sees the book with the worn spine that she knows well – The Impressionists.  She sits with it on her lap while continuing to eat the stew.  The book opens automatically to the full-page colour print of Bar at the Folies-Bergère.  She remembers the night when she was six and the shiver that came over her as she travelled back to 1881: a barmaid dressed in a black velvet jacket trimmed tightly around her narrow waist, her large, melancholy eyes looking forward; the marble-top bar stocked with champagne, beer, a glass tray of oranges and two roses in a glass; and the mirror spanning the entire background of the painting reflecting the gaily dressed patrons spread out before the barmaid and the back of the barmaid herself.   An exquisite trick for the reflection reveals that the barmaid is not looking at the patrons, but into the eyes of a moustached man, likely Manet himself staring back at her, as if studying her face.  Louis had looked at her with the same expression only without the moustache to hide his quivering mouth.

Rachel studies the painting every day over the next several months and tries to sketch her own material, but nothing comes.   During that time, she expects her mother will burst through the door at any moment.  But that never happens either, leaving Rachel to wonder if a necklace is stolen and no one notices, then is it truly theft?  And motherhood? She wonders about that, too, but not with fear.  She tells Acey how utterly unfit she is for such an endeavour.

“You may change when you see it,” says Acey.  “It often happens.”  What happens?  A sudden rush of maternal hormones flooding through her body?  A ferocious desire to protect?  Regardless of how many times the biological pendulum may swing, Rachel feels none of these things.  What she does feel is thirty hours of steel wool pain as the baby fights every abdominal push that Rachel can muster.  In the few brief moments that Rachel moves out of delirium, she thinks this child does not want to be born, does not want to be a part of anything and would prefer, if she does not do it first, to simply die inside of her.

Regaining consciousness several hours later, Rachel holds the baby in her arms.  She looks into his face and sees absolutely nothing remotely resembling herself or Louis.  “You can’t come with me, sweetie.  I’m not able to do it.  I’m sorry.”  She runs her finger gently down his moist chest, tapping him ever so lightly and singing: “The itsy, bitsy spider climbed up the water spout/Down came the rain/And washed the spider out/Out came the sun and dried up all the rain/The itsy, bitsy spider climbed up the spout again.”

Within moments of the nurse taking him away, Aunt Acey arrives with the social worker.  With bureaucratic precision, the social worker snaps open her briefcase and spreads the documents out on the bed.  Acey signs as the witness. Rachel holds the pen over the dotted line.  “You’re sure he’ll have a good home?”

“Yes, I promise you that,” says the social worker. “But once you sign, that’s it.  There are no tomorrows.”

Rachel signs.  Aunt Acey kisses Rachel ever so lightly on the cheek, dabbing a teardrop with her nose.  She will kiss Rachel one last time at Windsor Station with the hot sunlight burning down on them through the clear glass roof.  “Do no’ forget to call McLuke in Atlantic City.  He’ll get you something in the casino or I’ll cut his throat. And Canal Street, that’s where you go for the pawnshops.  And do no’ let any of them bastards offer less than a thousand.  If not, hold out ‘til Christmas.  People are more desperate then.”

Rachel wraps her arms around Aunt Acey and holds on tight, wondering if this is what her son felt for one brief moment.  The whistle screams, she lets go of Aunt Acey and walks off down the platform through the clouds of locomotive steam.  A red-cap steps forward, tips his hat and offers his hand for Rachel’s heavy suitcase.  “It would be a pleasure, young lady,” he says and takes it without effort.  Rachel waves one last time to Aunt Acey and climbs aboard.  The red-cap escorts her to a seat, lifts her suitcase into rack, and tips his hat, “Have a fine trip,” he says.  Rachel rustles through her purse but before she can find the two-bits she’d set aside, the red-cap gently raises his hand.  “That’s okay, young lady.  This one’s on the house,” he says with a gleam in his eye and heads off down the aisle.

Rachel presses her head against the window and is able to see Aunt Acey giving what appears to be an over-wrought wave.  She then realizes that’s not what she is doing.  Rather Aunt Acey is really gesturing madly towards the train on the opposite track, to Louis who is running along the platform pausing at the railcar windows to peer into the dark reflections.  Rachel sees his feet scampering, stopping under the train, reaching up on tip-toes then running to the next car.  She leans back to rest in the soft leather seat, wanting Louis to feel the same chasm she is feeling now, knowing that sometime in the future a young man may walk by on the street and be the very one to whom she sang Itsy-bitsy spider, and none of them will ever know. 

The train lurches, metal squealing, stops, lurches, and slowly begins to move out of the station, out from under the train soot and into the blazing June sun.   It grinds along the rails, the window vibrating against Rachel’s forehead.  It soon reaches the bridge and picks up speed over the St.Lawrence River leaving Mount Royal as little more than a slight rise on the horizon.  Rachel watches her home disappear, takes out the three-strand pearl necklace, lays it out on the window ledge where it shimmers in the sunlight, and prays with more intensity than she has ever done before that when that day in the future comes, her son will be a thief just like her.

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