S HE WAS A BEAUTIFUL child and then a beautiful girl who seemed protected by an aura of goodness so that lascivious men kept their thoughts to themselves and didn’t lay a hand on her. But one afternoon her luck ran out during a hurricane which brushed New England in September of 1948. Her mother’s friend Bruce invited her to walk with him down to the shore to see the drama of the waves, but instead diverted her off into the spruce woods where he molested her, shielding her from the rain with his slicker as though he were being kind rather than violating her.
Sally didn’t tell her mother. Often girls didn’t, at that time, for whatever reason.
Then she grew up to be a young woman of nearly impossible beauty, with soft intelligent features and golden hair that had a little wave through it, the way a field of grass looks when the wind passes over it. She was strong and sturdy—like a pony, someone said. A country girl. She could play ball with the boys, climb or chop down trees, drive a tractor, drive a stick shift, drive on ice. She held herself in a restrained way that for the most part people admired, although some people said she was stuck up, the boys especially. Her mother’s only child and her joy (remembering that her mother knew nothing about Bruce). The pride of a small town.
And then one day, to everyone’s surprise (although some said after the fact that you could see it coming, coming as it did right after she broke off her engagement to Donny Webster), Sally got out of bed, embraced her mother, and left town. Went to live in the city—though which city was not clear. Did she go to Portland? Or Boston, or was it New York? They didn’t like to ask her mother, who looked bereft. Her mother worked at the medical center where she knew everyone and attended to all manner of ills. Other people’s ills, so no one much wanted to remind her of her own.
It was New York. The year 1963. Sally knew no one in New York, but she found herself to be resourceful and within a short time had moved from the Y to a one-room rental on the West Side where she shared a bathroom and a tiny kitchen with two other women. One of them was a Playboy bunny, Irene, as new to New York as Sally. She seemed sad and frightened to Sally, who took her under her wing. The other woman, Moira, was, she told Sally in a hushed voice, a poet. Sally, quite unconsciously, began to model herself on Moira: to wear black turtlenecks and stockings, flat chunky shoes, and to tie her hair back in a ribbon. Thus disguised—looking less and less like a country girl—she began an adaptation to city life.
Sally found a job quickly, as a proofreader at a literary magazine. She hadn’t been to college, but she had worked on her high school newspaper and yearbook. She was hired now because of that experience and because the editor, Thelma, liked to think of herself as standing up for the unconventional. Sally’s country ways, her Maine voice, her unsophistication, were out of the ordinary in her, Thelma’s, world, and she gave herself a gold star for having been willing to extend a hand this far.
Or was she unsophisticated? In her black turtleneck and black stockings, with her hair tied severely back and her look of urban fatigue, her country ways might have been a ruse. That, too, Thelma considered.
And so—employed and living with Irene and Moira—Sally began to expand from the narrow center of her life.
The apartment building in which the three young women lived had a back garden—not much: a patio with benches and a glass-top table, a few flowerbeds overrun with ivy. It was early autumn. Sally asked her landlord if she could do a little work with those beds and was given a key to the back. She took to going there at the end of the day, working to clear the ivy and prepare the ground for planting bulbs and a few perennials, but also to eating her dinner there, or reading in the cool dusks. The garden abutted on another from the next street over, behind a convent. Occasionally from that other garden, through the iron mesh fence, a nun would smile and wave. Different ones: a young nun, a large nun, an old nun, a beautiful nun. Coming out like Sally to sit, or fill the bird feeder, or bend over to pull up a weed or prune back the phlox or loosestrife. Sally waved back.
And eventually spoke.
She was invited to come on Sunday evening to vespers, and so she went.
Around the block to their door.
When she rang the bell, Sally, in some anxiety and uncertainty, had a brief intimation. Brief, flaring up like an ember and then dying back down. Primarily she wondered why she was there, since as a child she had not been religious. Her mother took her at Christmas, sometimes even at Easter, to the Congregational church. That was all. Nothing stirred in Sally then—or now. She was lonely, perhaps, and liked the nuns’ neighborliness. More than anything else in the city it reminded her of home.
And thus without expectation she began to attend vespers on Sunday evenings with the nuns, sitting apart from them in the guest seats in the chapel with one or two or three other guests. Sometimes she followed in the prayer book; sometimes she just listened: their voices rendered in chant as a single voice. Sally felt moved, and settled, but not drawn to God. Drawn only to them.
In her life at home, Sally and Moira often ate together or went to a foreign film at the Thalia. And she helped Irene with her laundry and shopping, since Irene kept long hours and was exhausted and bewildered and couldn’t seem to take care of herself. She cried often, and Sally, not knowing what to do or say, couldn’t think of anything else except to feed and dress her and take extra pains for Irene’s sake to keep the kitchen and bathroom clean and pretty.
At work she became friends with an editorial assistant, Beth, a bright, dramatic woman only a few years older than Sally.
And also at work the managing editor Malcolm began to befriend her, sending out no warning signals to anyone, least of all to Sally. He was older and portly and married and lived in Tuckahoe and did not seem to be the wrong kind of person for her to spend time with. Sometimes they had lunch or took a walk after work. Once as autumn advanced he put his arm around her, as she was chilly. Once he commented on her beauty. When he drove her to his house while his wife was away, she went docilely. Why? she wondered. Malcolm lived in a large, silent house on a suburban street, a house full of glossy furniture, reprints of great paintings, shiny doorknobs and sliding glass doors. Intimidated by how alien he and his house and her being there felt, she acquiesced to him: his hands on her, his mouth, his sighs. Her acquiescence was so terrible to her that she wept, which he mistook for her having feelings for him and caused him to stroke her, saying, “Now, now.” Half dressed, on a large formal sofa upholstered in brocade, she let him subdue her cries and her resistance, which was the resistance of her coldness to him, her lack of response. Why, why? she wept to herself, her docility a kind of terror which immobilized her and froze the blood in her veins, paralyzed her limbs. He later drove her home, embracing her stiff shoulders before she got out of the car, her hair, unleashed from its ribbon, covering her cheeks.
When President Kennedy was shot and killed, the Sisters had a requiem for him the next evening. Sister Mary Felicity came round and rang Sally’s bell to invite her, since they did not have her phone number. Sally, who had gone from work to a neighborhood bar the day before in order to watch the events on TV (as she had no television) and also to be among people, even strangers, came with alacrity to sit in their chapel. There were eight or ten other guests. It was dark outside and the chapel windows seemed to be pressed in upon by the darkness which stood behind the glass and was then absorbed by the warm light inside, the darkness blotted up by the light: the candles at the altar, the light burning brightly where the Sacrament was tucked away in the tabernacle behind the tiny gilded doors. And the warmth of the nuns’ voices speaking in unison, as one voice, without drama or artifice or even shock regarding the terrible death and the sorrow which lay over the nation, pressing against it, in much the same way as the dark November night pressed against the tall chapel windows. In the solace of this bright place, Sally cried. All the guests cried, even the men sniffling. Sally noticed that the nuns did not cry. Perhaps they had, perhaps they would, but right now they lifted their high clear voices as one and told a story that Sally had never heard before. That though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God, whom I shall see for myself, and not as a stranger. That our souls will shine and will run like sparks through the stubble. That our hearts and souls will ring out in joy to the living God.
Irene came from a small Midwestern city, came to make a living in New York, the envy of her girlfriends back home, came to make it on her own. Came via the Playboy Club in Chicago, transferred to New York because she was willing and because she brought a soft naiveté in her Midwestern bearing that would be more appealing, perhaps, in New York than in Chicago where it was not so uncommon. She worked long hours in the club, sleeping until afternoon, emerging on weekends as Sally was fixing dinner or cleaning up after lunch or writing her mother. Often they wouldn’t see each other during the week; if Sally worked late or ate dinner out with Beth or Moira, Irene would have gone to work by the time Sally got home. And on her days off, Irene slept all day or, after one of her many, many phone calls from men, would dress up and go out, mysterious about her plans. “Oh, some guy,” she would say, shrugging but not, Sally noticed, happy. On a Saturday or a Sunday it was something of a shock to see Irene when she got up. Her soft face was puffy and lined from pressing into her pillow, her eyes swollen and reddened, her dark hair fuzzed out and bedraggled like strands of worn electrical cord. Later she would brush and tease and brush and tease it, and rub and polish and oil her face, and put on her eyelashes, and pat and push her body into her bunny outfit, sometimes parading through the kitchen waggling her behind in an imitation of herself, she and Sally laughing. Laughing as though Irene could do all this and not affect herself at all, like a child at Halloween. She would put on her overcoat over her bunny tail and more often than not give Sally a kiss before she left, going out into the dark and cold just when Sally was going to bed.
Moira was simply judgmental. “She’s going to get hurt. She’s prostituting herself.”
Sally argued that Irene had told her they weren’t allowed to date the customers. Forgetting about all the phone calls.
“Who’s talking about dating?”
“I feel badly for her,” Sally offered.
“God, you would. Badly for what? It’s her choice.”
Is it? Sally didn’t know. But she knew despair. She continued to take care of Irene as best she could—did her laundry, shopped for her, put flowers in her room, bought bubble bath. Sometimes the look in Irene’s eyes frightened her and made her mute.
Beth asked Sally about Malcolm.
“He likes you. Am I right?”
“Sure. I like him.”
“No, I mean he likes you. He’s crazy about you. Has he made a pass yet?”
“Hmmm—no, not really.”
“Drop it, Beth. He’s married.”
“He’s old and fat.”
Malcolm looked at Sally when she was nearby with sad eyes, hangdog, as though she had hurt him. She saw it that way also—she had hurt him. She refused walks after work or lunch anymore. She rejected him.
Why then, she wondered, did she feel hurt? Why did she have sudden images of herself pulling her hair and screaming?
It is night. Sally wakes with a start, her heart tramping in her. Mother! she cries out. Or she hears it in the air. A reflected streetlight makes a wedge of brightness in the corner and another on the ceiling. What room is this? This furnished room, with a few sparse belongings, a drawing of daisies on the wall, and a fat squat red chair? She hears the word mother for a long time after, lying in the dark. Then she sleeps again.
She is awakened by Moira pounding on her door and then slamming it open.
“Something’s wrong with Irene.”
Sally tries to jump up but her feet catch in the covers.
Irene is lying on the floor of her room with her head and shoulders propped up against her identical fat red chair. Her legs are extended straight out and her lacy nightgown is hitched up to her thighs as though she slid down out of the chair. Her palms are turned up, and on her feet are large fuzzy pink slippers her mother gave her.
“Oh,” says Sally, getting down on her knees. “Irene, darling,” she says, putting her face close to Irene’s. She feels the absence of Irene, and the cooling skin.
“I called the police,” Moira says. “I couldn’t wake her up.”
“No need to try, Moira.” She turns her head and looks at Moira standing in the doorway. Moira is small, a slight woman who doesn’t eat much, who bites her fingernails, who looks like Audrey Hepburn and often tries to. She stands now uncertainly, afraid. Sally doesn’t know why she isn’t afraid but she isn’t. She sits by Irene to wait for the police, looking around the room which, like her own, holds few possessions. Some magazines, face creams and make-up, a pair of moccasins under the desk, her bunny outfit flung over the desk chair, the round white tail hanging down. On the bureau the flowers which Sally put there just a few days ago but which are already dead. She sees that the stems of the flowers are high and dry above a little bit of water left in the bottom of the vase.
“She didn’t go to work tonight,” Sally realizes. “It was a work night.”
“Was she sick? What happened to her? Did she kill herself?”
“I don’t know.”
“I told you! I told you she was going to get hurt!”
“Yes, you did.”
They wait a few more minutes and then Moira goes to let in the police.
Sally is standing on the convent steps. The air is bright with winter. She has rung the bell and while she waits she imagines Irene. Are you all right now? she asks. Do you see God, and not as a stranger? Do your heart and soul ring out with joy?
A Sister lets her in and she walks up the three flights to Mother Mary Claire’s office, a room dense with books and dark rugs, a heavy mahogany desk, heavy curtains lining the window at the Reverend Mother’s back. Dusk will have fallen as they talk.
“Are you asking me where God is in all this?” Mother Mary Claire asks her. “Is there doubt, because she suffered?”
“I don’t know. Yes, yes, I do wonder.”
“Let me ask you if you believe in a God who would abandon your friend.”
“No. I guess not. I don’t think at all that God, well, that God wanted her to hurt herself.”
“And yet you find yourself puzzled. Perhaps you think your friend’s cross was too heavy to bear.”
“Yes. I do.”
As they continue to talk, the twilight deepens, until Mother Mary Claire, with the dusky light behind her, falls silent. And so Sally does as well. Then after a while she says, “What I wonder is, where is God in my life. Although I never thought about God before and I don’t know anything about God.”
“I hardly think that’s so, my dear,” says Mother Mary Claire, but with a stern eye.
On December 23 Sally takes a bus to Boston, then another to Portland, then a local bus which, as the early dark descends, passes through the small coastal towns on the way to Rockland, where her mother will meet her. She would have brought Irene home with her for Christmas, if Irene would have come, would have been able to take time from work and hadn’t wanted to fly home to her own mother. If Irene hadn’t taken her own life.
How empty the little towns! Only an occasional car or truck, the few streetlights and twinkly Christmas decorations, stores shut up for the night. Here and there a light in a house, a man walking up a side street. How quiet in Rockland, when the bus door groans open and the silence floods in—the sharp northern air, the salty night. Her mother in her thick tan coat with a zip-out lining she’s worn for years, belted, with a red scarf around her throat, her hands in gloves. For a strange second Sally doesn’t want to be here, is startled and rendered alone by the dark and the silence and the empty street.
“She felt all alone,” Sally keeps explaining in the car, about Irene.
She does not comprehend her mother’s incomprehension.
But not just about Irene. Didn’t she ever wonder about Bruce?
Her mother drives carefully along the dark roads, leaning forward into the tunnel of their headlights. Her face is stolid and beginning to become heavy with age. Sally cannot stop talking about Irene, but she keeps glancing at this face, with its furrow of concern, its steady focus on the dark road unfolding before them.
“I feel so sorry for her mother,” says Sally’s mother. “Should I write to her?”
Sally, who did write her a card but has not thought about her much since, is surprised. “That’s nice. Yes.”
“I can’t imagine what she’s been through. How painful a thing, to think your own child could suffer so.”
Oh, my mother, thinks Sally. She feels as though she has something more to say, but she can’t think what it is.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.