JACOB FELT TERRIBLE: he had slept through the whole thing. The ambulance, the EMTs. It had happened at seven in the morning, and his alarm had been set for eight.
Was it better or worse that no one else in the hall heard anything either? Mrs. Wilkinson had been taken away, and she had not come home. Perhaps it allowed him to feel better that he wasn’t the only one to have missed the crisis, but he knew it wasn’t better for Mrs. Wilkinson. He could just imagine her thinking, with a kind of calm understanding: “I have had a heart attack. I will call 911. I may be dying.” Dressing herself in her loaf-shaped hat, mole-colored coat, her coat that always made him think of the fur of some small woodland animal. But Mrs. Wilkinson had always reminded him not of a real animal, but an animal in a children’s book, some night creature not exactly furtive but certainly not bred for visibility. Tender, munching on something small: some grains, some blades of grass, a leaf or two, and then disappearing into its little hole: courageously wagging a tail, jauntily waving a paw. No bother to anyone. Cozy, somehow, in its enclosed dark.
He had known her all his life, because he had lived in this apartment virtually all his life, except for his time in college and his two years at the Sorbonne. By the time he decided that Paris was not for him, that New York was where his future lay, his parents spent time in the apartment only rarely. They divided their time between a house they had restored in the hills of Umbria and the Nantucket house his mother had been left by a paternal uncle. “We’ve lost the appetite for New York,” his father had said. “Perhaps we’ve lost the energy.” They had moved all their things out of the apartment; it was, they made quite clear, entirely his.
It was his in a way that the homes of his contemporaries were not, because alongside, or perhaps enclosing, the new furniture that he had bought so carefully (he was particularly fond of fifties Danish modern) were the memories of his childhood: the Pooh decals, the Batman sheets, the posters of Van Gogh sunflowers and Aerosmith. When he waited for the elevator in the vestibule, he often said to himself, I am the same person as the little boy who couldn’t quite reach the buttons, who had to be lifted by his parents to press the exciting number 7. I am the same as the little boy who played tag and Nerf ball in the hallway. I am the same, but how can I be the same? What happened to the body of the child: how have I become the body I now am?
And unlike the childhoods of his contemporaries, his early life had seemed to indicate with an unusual clarity and consistency his current situation. He had been musical, but not extravagantly gifted; he had always been orderly; people had trusted him. So it was not particularly surprising that he worked in the development office of the Metropolitan Opera; stalking the rich, he often said, convincing them it was their duty to support the arts. And of course he would make his home in New York; he only pretended to be interested in nature. He had never learned to drive.
It had always upset him that his friends in the building made fun of the Wilkinsons. He understood that some people might have bad feelings about Mr. Wilkinson; he was churlish, and a curmudgeon about noise. When the children ran up and down the halls, or their games contained too much loud laughter, he would appear at the door and shake his fist like a vaudeville tyrant. “What goes on here? What goes on? Is this an apartment building or a barn?” Always the same words, the exact same tempo and phraseology, as if his life as a musician had committed him to a consistency of tone and phrasing. But Mrs. Wilkinson was not musical; how, then, could it be explained that she, too, used the same phraseology, “Come in now, Roy. Come inside and let’s have something nice to eat.”
So of course the kids in the building amused themselves by repeating the phrases: “What goes on here? Is this an apartment building or a barn? Come on in now, Roy. Come inside and let’s have something nice to eat.”
Mr. Wilkinson taught music at a private school and his joy was playing the violin; in the years that Jacob studied the violin, Mr. Wilkinson would invite him in to play duets. It was the only time Jacob really liked playing. Then he had an idea of what the pleasure of the instrument might be; he understood what it could be to make music that sounded genuinely pleasing. He knew that Mr. Wilkinson was disappointed when he quit playing. He was appalled when his mother repeated his reason to Mr. Wilkinson: “Jacob says that no matter how hard he works, there’ll always be seven little Korean girls who work harder and are far more talented than he could ever dream of being.” Jacob never regained Mr. Wilkinson’s favor; his place was taken by Rachel Miller, who was still studying the violin when she left for SUNY Brockport and had majored in music therapy.
But Mrs. Wilkinson’s treatment of Jacob had never changed. She continued to bring him comics; she worked for the publisher of Archie Comics, and she understood that he was genuinely pleased when she would bestow on him her colorful armfuls. Did she ever wonder why Jacob would be so interested in so anachronistic a product, something so different from his background? His mother asked him what he could possibly find so amusing. He never told her that he was endlessly fascinated with the problem of who was more desirable: Betty or Veronica.
Archie’s dilemma intrigued him; he knew Betty was nicer, but he understood the appeal of Veronica’s cruelty, her glossy helmet of black hair. And he had played out the situation in his adult life, always veering between two kinds of women: the exciting, demanding brunette, the accommodating but uninteresting blonde. It was why he hadn’t even, at age thirty-seven, come close to marriage. He was always careening between two types of woman, neither of which, he knew, was right.
Jacob realized that he didn’t know Mrs. Wilkinson’s first name. He asked Connie Renshaw, who lived down the hall in 7H. Lois, she had said.
He remarked on this to his mother, when he called her in Umbria, mindful of the six-hour difference.
“How can it be that we didn’t even know her name?”
“She never troubled anyone. She never asked anything for herself. She was never anything but pleasant. In forty years, I don’t think I ever talked to her about anything but the weather. God, I would hate to think that would be my fate. That people would only know me by my husband’s name. That everyone would say I never asked anything of anyone, that I was always pleasant.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. That won’t happen,” he said.
“And a good thing, too,” she said. She hadn’t noticed the edge in his voice, his annoyance that she had turned Mrs. Wilkinson’s death into a commentary about her own life, a way of justifying the way she had placed herself in the world. He knew that if he were telling Mrs. Wilkinson about his mother’s death, she wouldn’t have talked about herself.
And it wasn’t true that the only thing to say about Mrs. Wilkinson was that she had been pleasant and had asked nothing for herself. She had, once, been heroic.
He had been in second grade, and he had been in school when it had happened. Everyone else on the floor had been at work or at school. Alison Becker, whose husband worked for Time magazine, had gone into premature labor. She knocked at Mrs. Wilkinson’s door. Her water had broken. The contractions were coming with terrifying rapidity. She was, she said, having the baby. Mrs. Wilkinson took Alison Becker back into her apartment, and the story was that she boiled water. And delivered the baby! Lydia Becker, less than four pounds, kept warm and alive in towels and sweaters until the ambulance came.
Joe Becker had a party for Mrs. Wilkinson when Alison and Lydia came home from the hospital. He invited everyone on the hall, and they toasted Mrs. Wilkinson with champagne. But a year later the Beckers moved to California, and somehow, no one thought of Mrs. Wilkinson’s triumph again. She receded into her niche; she was condescended to, made fun of, or rendered invisible. She cared for her husband who died after a long illness, the details of which no one seemed to know. And now, troubling no one, she had died.
Somehow Connie had found out about Mrs. Wilkinson’s funeral. “Did you know she was a Christian Scientist?” she asked Jacob. “The funeral’s in the Christian Science Reading Room. The one near Lincoln Center. What are Christian Scientists? Besides not going to the doctor.”
“But she did go to the doctor. She called 911.”
“Maybe too late. You will go with me, Jacob, to the funeral? It might just be too grim to go alone.”
“Of course, Connie. It’s right near where I work. And I wouldn’t dream of missing it.” He didn’t tell Connie Renshaw that every month or so he invited Mrs. Wilkinson for coffee, because he often ran into her in the neighborhood of Lincoln Center. He wondered now if it was because she was visiting the Christian Science Reading Room.
He supposed he liked Connie Renshaw, in the way that you liked the mothers of your friends when you didn’t see the friends anymore. He didn’t see any of the kids he used to play with in the building. Connie’s daughter Samantha was still in the city, having come back from LA. She was some kind of a performer, but he could never get straight exactly what kind. Benjamin Febelman was a plastic surgeon in Connecticut. Rachel, he had heard, was living somewhere in the Middle West. Wisconsin, it might have been. Or Minnesota.
When he arrived at the Christian Science Reading room, he was directed to a large formal room, carpeted in green with a pattern of vague ferns. Connie Renshaw was there, a man with a ginger-colored crew cut, a short woman with identically colored hair—Jacob wondered if she was the man’s sister or his wife—and a large black woman in what looked like an academic gown standing at the podium. And there was a woman with stiff silver-blonde hair, a black suit, black pumps, and black stockings. He was pleased to see that someone had dressed appropriately for the occasion; it had disturbed him that Connie was wearing a khaki wrap-around skirt and madras blouse.
The gowned woman at the podium—Jacob wondered if she should be called the minister—spoke about Lois’s devotion to Christian Science. The ginger-haired couple nodded. She gestured to the well-dressed woman, who took her place at the podium. “I am Iris Henderson, assistant librarian at the Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts. I coordinate the activities of all our volunteers. I am here to say that our work, our entire enterprise, would be impossible without these generous, indeed, selfless persons. And among the most generous and selfless of them was Lois Wilkinson. She never failed to give us four mornings a week. She took a special pride in seeing that the brochures were neatly stacked, and that we never ran short. We all regret her passing.”
Jacob experienced a rush of conflicting feelings. He had to admit that part of him wanted to laugh. Imagine being extolled at your funeral for keeping brochures neat and tidy. He could only think what his mother would have said to that. Then, he felt anger at the woman. She should have thought more carefully about what she was going to say; she should have realized how she was making Mrs. Wilkinson look. Pathetic. Ridiculous. Then he felt a terrible sadness for Mrs. Wilkinson, and a determination: he would not allow her to be remembered in this paltry way. She deserved better.
He rose out of his seat. He hadn’t intended to speak—he disliked public speaking—but he was surprised at the urgency of his impulse to say something. He stood at the podium and recounted the story of Mrs. Wilkinson’s delivering Lydia Becker. Connie Renshaw wept and offered from her seat, “She was a hero that day, and she never boasted.” The three other guests nodded, but Jacob could tell they only wanted the ceremony to be over. Had they known Mrs. Wilkinson at all? Had she meant anything to them? Did anyone know her? Had she meant anything to anyone? Her husband, probably. But he was difficult and mean spirited and demanding. And he had died before her. Whatever he would have had to say about her had been left unsaid.
He didn’t want to talk to Connie Renshaw about the funeral. He pointed to his watch and pantomimed having his throat cut. “Have to dash,” he said, and ran onto the Broadway sidewalk. He was glad to reach the clutter of his overcrowded office.
It was two weeks after the funeral that he opened the letter from Alfred Simonson, Attorney at Law. He felt vaguely alarmed: was he being sued? Was someone taking some legal action against him for something he couldn’t even imagine? He opened the envelope to discover that he was being asked to call Mr. Simonson in reference to the estate of Lois Wilkinson. He made an appointment for the following day.
Jacob walked through the doorway of 25 West Forty-Third Street and felt simultaneously reassured and worried. It didn’t seem a prosperous enough location that he need fear any consequences that the meeting might inspire. There were dust bunnies and cigarette ashes in the corners of the faux metal floor; the elevator was papered with a faded pattern of starfish, and the numbers were nearly illegible from years of use.
Jacob had been used to sleek law offices, monochromely cool hymns to glass and chrome where long-legged assistants offered cappuccino or bottled water and you waited on a leather couch for a few minutes before yet another assistant brought you to your final destination. But when he knocked on the ground-glass door with Alfred Simonson’s name on it, he was greeted not by an assistant but by a tiny man with a tuft of white hair and a toothbrush moustache in a tan suit and red polka-dotted tie. The suit was made of a material that was distressing to Jacob; he liked to tell himself he wasn’t a clothing snob; he didn’t care about fashion. But he cared about the cut and texture and color of fabric; he couldn’t give over his aesthetic tendencies, and he couldn’t imagine that Alfred Simonson’s suit material said anything happy about his life. The outer office, where a secretary might once have sat, was clearly now vestigial. Where a computer would have been there was an electric typewriter, a sight so foreign to Jacob’s eyes that for a moment he had trouble placing it.
Mr. Simonson didn’t offer Jacob coffee or water. He cleared some folders from the chair that was designated for clients and seated himself in his own, which groaned as it absorbed its owner’s slight weight, as if to beg a respite after years of faithful service.
“Well, young man,” he said, pushing his tortoiseshell glasses up on his tiny nose, “I’m here to tell you this is your lucky day. Lois Wilkinson,” he continued. “What a pleasant woman. A very pleasant woman. I am here to tell you every encounter I had with her, not that I had many, but every one of them was pleasant.”
Jacob was distressed on Mrs. Wilkinson’s behalf that the only word people seemed inclined to associate with her was “pleasant.” But then he told himself, maybe he needed to rethink the word. What was so wrong about pleasing? About being pleased?
As if he’d overheard the word in Jacob’s head, Mr. Samuelson intoned it: “You’ll be very pleased, I think, at the contents of her will. She’s left you her apartment, which she owns free and clear. The mortgage was paid off twenty years or more ago.”
Jacob felt a heat spring up in the area on either side of his spine. He began to sweat, and although the day was warm and Mr. Simonson had no air conditioning, he felt the sweat turning cold. This was wrong. This was horribly wrong. How could it be that Mrs. Wilkinson had left him her apartment? He hardly knew her. Only a few days ago, he hadn’t even known her first name.
“There must be some mistake,” he said.
“No, no mistake, young man. She was in here only a few months ago—did the poor dear lady have some kind of premonition?—and she was very certain about the contents of this will.”
A few months ago. Could it have been the time he took her for a Frappuccino at the Starbucks on Sixtieth Street? Had it meant so much to her that she rushed right down to this dreary office and left him an apartment that was worth, maybe, half a million dollars?
“I don’t understand.”
“She said you were very kind to her, that she believed in you, that you had a good heart.”
“Wasn’t there anyone else? Relatives. Old friends.”
“No, no relatives she had any contact with. She did leave a small legacy to two other people. A Constance Renshaw at your address, and a Rachel Miller, currently residing in Bloomington, Indiana. Each of them, accompanied by you, of course, is to go into the apartment and take one thing of their own choosing as a ‘remembrance of her regard.’”
Jacob felt sick. He got the apartment and Connie Renshaw would get…what? A vase? A cuckoo clock? She’d be, he was sure, resentful of him for the rest of her life. And Rachel Miller? The thought of her made him feel sick in an entirely new way.
Rachel Miller. Samantha Renshaw. Betty and Veronica. Or a poor man’s version of either, of both. Yes, Rachel was fair and kind hearted, but her hair was dirty blonde, her ponytail limp and wispy. Samantha had dark hair but it wasn’t a smooth helmet; it was a frizzy extravagance that she pinned up halfheartedly, and which was always falling down. Jacob, Samantha, Rachel. They and Ben Febelman had all been friends, all the same age, until puberty complicated things. Then Ben seemed to be only interested in his experiments with mealworms, and Samantha became, to Jacob, alternately fascinating and alarming. She dropped Rachel like a diseased thing and Jacob knew why. Rachel was pathetic. She was nice, very nice, and a better musician than Jacob. She’d kept up the violin, and kept up her duets with Mr. Wilkinson, though even he seemed bored by her. And her yearning was too visible; her hunger grew up between them like a wettish fungus. Samantha’s response was probably better: a cool quick amputation, instead of the slow rot of uneasy guilty pseudo-kindnesses that were Jacob’s line with Rachel.
Of the evenings of his life he least wished to relive, foremost was the one of Samantha’s party. They were sixteen, and Connie had left Samantha alone for a weekend while she went to California for a funeral. Of course Samantha had a party—of the four of them, only Samantha was by nature an outlaw. But of course she invited Ben (who didn’t come) and Jacob and Rachel, who stood at the sidelines, abashed by Samantha’s much cooler friends. When the kissing games began, Samantha rigged it so that the bottle Rachel spun stopped on Jacob. Everyone hooted and clapped.
Jacob had never kissed anyone and didn’t want the first kiss of his life to be from drippy Rachel. But the look in her eyes was so expectant, so, well, plain happy, that he knew he had to do it. And to do it with a pretend ardor he couldn’t help but dislike her for believing.
After that, the party got wild and Jacob left, rushing out the door before Rachel could follow him. So he wasn’t there when the window got broken, and it was only later that Samantha told him that she and her friends had called in a bomb threat so that Connie’s plane would be cancelled. It was long before 9/11, so they were never caught. They managed to pay the super to get a glazier and the window was fixed. Samantha’s friends seemed to have enough money that this wasn’t an issue.
Jacob was shocked, but he was impressed at Samantha’s daring and imagination, as he was impressed by her decision to drop out of Oberlin and try to make it as a performance artist downtown, then in Williamsburg, now in Astoria, he thought; he’d lost track.
He knew it would happen: Connie Renshaw would come to the door and he’d have to talk to her about their respective legacies. He was wrong, though; she didn’t seem resentful. But she had an idea. “I was thinking, Jake, that maybe we could work some kind of deal. If you sold it to me, I could get it at an insider price, and then I could give it to Samantha. I’d make her pay rent, of course…and get her out of that hellhole she’s in. But I can just imagine what she’d say: ‘Living in the East Seventies is like living in Cleveland, Mom.’”
He heard Connie’s words as if they were the sharpening of knives, the shush-shushing of the blades of a pair of scissors, cutting a thread he didn’t want cut: the thread that connected Mrs. Wilkinson to the rest of the world. If her only connections were to him and Connie and Rachel, they had all emanated from her apartment. For the first time, the realization came over him that she would not be living there; someone else would. And he wouldn’t want it to be Samantha. He could only imagine the music, or pseudo-music, that would come through the walls, her ringing his bell at four in the morning when she’d lost her keys, or waylaying him by the mailbox to talk about her tragic love affairs.
If Mrs. Wilkinson’s things were moved out, if someone else’s things were moved in, it would almost be as if Mrs. Wilkinson had never been there. He wanted Mrs. Wilkinson’s things left alone in the house. He felt they might need time to get over the shock of their abandonment, their eventual dispersal. This, he knew, was ridiculous. But it didn’t change that he felt Connie’s haste was crude. And of course her assertion that Samantha wouldn’t dream of living in the building was a reminder that he had not moved on and had not taken up the rightful mantle of youth: he was living in his parents’ apartment in arguably the most unhip part of town.
He hadn’t even opened the door to the Wilkinsons’ apartment in all the time that he’d been the owner, that the key had been in his possession, had belonged to him. Connie was eager, obviously, to take what was hers; there was no reason to put it off. He made a date for the following Saturday and Connie, carrying cinnamon rolls and a thermos of coffee, rang his bell.
“It’s strange, isn’t it?” he said, flicking the light on in the empty apartment.
“Her whole life was strange, wasn’t it? Their whole lives. In a way so little left to show for a whole life,” Connie said.
He felt furious at Connie. What kind of expression was that: “left to show”? Show to whom? For what? For living? Mrs. Wilkinson had lived a life. It had been hers. Then it was over. That she had left behind her no residue seemed, in a way, an admirable thing. Admirable in its lightness, as if she had not imposed on anyone alive the heavy burden of grief.
It had been years since Jacob had been in the apartment and he had forgotten that in the times he’d been here it had been a cluttered mess. Not a surface was uncovered by magazines or envelopes or bibelots.
“Wow, Jake, you’ve got your hands full getting rid of all this stuff,” Connie said. “If you need help, just give a holler.”
“I will, Connie, of course,” he said, but he wouldn’t dream of it. “Luckily, there’s no rush. I’m not going to sell in this market.”
“But you don’t want to keep paying maintenance.”
“Probably worth it till the market turns,” he said, glad that his reluctance to empty the apartment sounded practical rather than neurotic.
“I’ll leave you to it, then,” he said, unwilling to watch Connie going through Mrs. Wilkinson’s things. “I’ll just be next door.”
He found himself pacing back and forth in his apartment, unable to settle down to anything. After an hour, Connie rang the bell. She was carrying a silver tea service: teapot, sugar bowl, cream pitcher, and a set of small spoons.
“There was not one thing there that I wanted. But this, I figure, could fetch something nice on Ebay.”
“You’re going to sell it?”
“Jake, I’m not exactly the high tea type,” she said, and laughed, rinsing her coffee thermos out in his kitchen sink.
He wanted to say: “I’ll buy the tea service from you,” but he thought that would be silly. He hoped that Mrs. Wilkinson didn’t know what Connie had made of her gift, but of course she didn’t. She was dead.
It was late August when he got an email from Rachel Miller. “Hi Jake: long time no see. I’ll be able to get to New York just before Labor Day, and I was wondering if it would be convenient for you to let me into Mrs. Wilkinson’s apartment then. Looking forward to seeing you!”
Jacob wrote back saying she could come by any time, and that he was looking forward to seeing her. Although he dreaded the sight of her, and the memories she brought up, and what the sight of her and the memories said to him about his nature.
They fixed a time. As he knew she would be, she was ten minutes early.
He was unsurprised at how Rachel looked. She hadn’t aged much in fifteen years; her look had remained girlish. Thin curly dirty-blonde hair pulled back in a clip; granny glasses, a full skirt, dark blue flowers on a light blue background, and a navy T-shirt. Flat shoes with straps. Around her neck: a gold chain with a pendant scallop shell.
They embraced; he felt they had to. He offered coffee. She refused; her kids were with her parents-in-law and she’d sworn to be back in two hours.
“How many kids do you have?”
Two, she said. Twins. Boy and girl. Four years old. Her husband was in computers; she was a music therapist. They lived in Bloomington, Indiana. She didn’t ask if he was married; she was enthusiastic about his work.
“So we both have music in our lives,” she said. “I guess Mr. Wilkinson would be pleased.”
“If he was ever pleased about anything,” Jacob said.
“Oh, he was pleased about Mrs. Wilkinson. They were very much in love. A real romance,” she said.
“I never knew that,” he said.
“Well, when I would go there to play, I’d see notes that they’d leave for each other. Mostly lines from poetry, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.’ ‘My love is like a red, red rose.’ One was a drawing of a globe, and underneath it he had written, ‘You are the world to me.’ It was very sweet.”
He gave her the key to the apartment and said he’d leave her to it. “Anything you want is yours,” he said. “Anything at all.”
“The will says just one thing,” she said, lowering her eyes like a Victorian governess. “I’d have to respect that.”
“Yes, of course,” he said, hoping he didn’t show his annoyance.
She was back in less than ten minutes. At first he couldn’t understand what he was seeing; he thought she was carrying a largish animal in her arms.
“I know it’s crazy,” she said, “but this is what I’m going to take.”
She walked past him into his living room with a confident rush that he’d never seen in her. “Isn’t it funny, Jake? But I just think it’s so right. Or maybe not, maybe it’s not right, but I really want it.”
She unfolded the furry largish animal, which was not an animal at all, but a coat. “Mink,” she said. “Mrs. Wilkinson had a mink coat.”
She put it on and whirled around his living room. She took her hair out of her clip and shook it back and forth until it spread around the collar of the coat. She put her hands in the pockets and took them out. She put the collar up, then put it down. She strode up and down the living room, gliding, tossing her hair, making pouting faces, then laughing, then putting her hair back in the clip. He had never seen her so happy; he had never seen her so free. So free of worry; and so free of hunger. That was it: for the first time since he’d known her, Rachel Miller had seemed full. For the first time, she was lovely.
“How odd,” Jacob said, “that Mrs. Wilkinson had a mink coat. I never saw her wear it.”
“Maybe she just wore it for Mr. Wilkinson. Maybe she felt glamorous with him.”
Glamorous, he thought. Mrs. Wilkinson.
“I’ll probably never wear it either,” Rachel said. “You know, I live in a university town and people would probably throw eggs at it. But I’ll have it. It will always be there. I can put it on whenever I want. And it will make me feel—well, I guess what Mrs. Wilkinson felt. I’ll feel her with me, a kind of secret between us.”
Secrets, he thought. A secret life. Mrs. Wilkinson had a secret life. Perhaps everyone did. Perhaps it was never possible to know anyone.
The thought of it pleased him. He need not pity Mrs. Wilkinson: she had her secret life. And now Rachel, with her twins, and her computer husband and her music therapy, would have it too.
“Please stay for coffee,” he asked Rachel, hearing the supplication in his voice.
“Oh, Jake, thanks, no. I’ve got to run. But let’s keep in touch. Let’s not be strangers.”
“Yes,” he said.
But he wanted to say: perhaps we are all strangers to each other. He thought of Mrs. Wilkinson in her plain wool coat, her smile when she greeted him, which he now knew was a secret smile, pleased with the life that no one knew of. The life that she had lived next door, just feet away from his life, from all the lives he had been living.
He wondered if she had been happy. He thought it was just possible that she had been.
Tomorrow he’d begin to go through all her things. He would decide, then, what to keep and what would be discarded.
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.