Robert McKean

Invisible Weaving: Ganaego, Pennsylvania

Halloween, the day as dry as a biscuit, Nettie Bachelor stood on her front porch scanning the street anxiously. She picked at the hem of her coat. This idea of going to Barrington was hers, and making the phone call and setting the trip in motion, doing something so momentous without her younger son’s knowledge, bothered her. It was not like her to go behind his back. But she had come to understand that Teddy had his own problems—losing his job, then hitting a rough patch in his marriage—and so, for better or worse, she had decided she couldn’t sit around on her hands waiting for everybody else to solve their problems before starting in on her own.
Time was short and she had another son to worry about.

Shortly after noon, a large car pulled up before the row houses on Roosevelt Avenue. The sedan was a deep sapphire blue with darkened windows. As the attorney stepped around the front of it, Nettie recognized him from their brief meeting last year, the night at the police station. She did not place her trust fully in him, because of that night, yet she had overridden her suspicion and called his office in the union hall anyway. Her instincts told her Harvey Silverstein was the fellow she needed. But here already, she was put on alert: The plan had been for him to remain in his car and toot his horn.

Clutching her pocketbook, she hollered as she started down the walk. “Coming!”

“Certainly.” Stopped in his tracks, Harvey reversed himself and swung open the door of the car for her. That wasn’t necessary, but she appreciated the gesture. He was short, hardly taller than she, not much thatch left on his top, big, black, square-framed glasses. “Mrs. Bachelor,” he said with a small flourish, “you look like you’re dressed for a drive in the country!”

He smelled like cigars and so did his swanky car. That helped. Went a good ways to confirming her hunch: Men who smell like cigars know how to arrange things, can tell you who in city hall you need to speak to, can write a contract and see that it gets signed. They also tip better, her husband Gunther declared, a man himself who went into the earth smelling like a panatela. It was her German Club Ladies Auxiliary dress. She’d had to nip in the waist.

“Just so we understand the ground we’re standing on,” she said, sitting upright, pocketbook in her lap, “I don’t need a Cadillac to drive to the Goose Family Spa, if you know what I mean? Nothing fancy.”

“We shall dispense with any and all trappings.” Harvey, smiling widely, rolled the big car into traffic. “No lawyerly jargon, no fancy gold seals. If you don’t mind, I suggest we take the back roads, the old way to Barrington? I actually think it’s faster than the freeway.”

“That’s how Hugo came when he visited. Of course he couldn’t take that tiny scooter he drove on the big roads anyway. Trucks would have blown him away like a bit of dandelion fluff.”

“He drove a scooter?”

“Oh, I don’t know what it was—some kind of toy motorcycle. Sounded like a hornet in a tizzy. He’d buzz it all the way up to Ganaego. You’d hear the pennywhistle of its itty-bitty motor coming long before you saw it. Set your teeth on edge. He’d consent to sit and have a glass of iced tea, then he’d buzz it back home. When he put his helmet on, all you’d see was his big French nose poking out. Are you, by chance, a wine drinker, Mr. Silverstein?”

“My lady friend and I have been known to enjoy a glass of wine at dinner, yes.”

She took that in and thought about it, then glanced at a rundown house quite close to the road they were passing as they crossed out of Ganaego’s city limits and plunged into the autumnal countryside. A woman was hanging her wash on a rope draped the length of the front porch. The woman seemed tired, rundown herself. How many times had she laundered her husband’s drawers, her children’s frocks and britches, her own slips gone sheer and transparent with age? “Remind me before we leave,” Nettie said, “to fix you up with some of Hugo’s wine. If your friend doesn’t take a hankering to it, you can use it to strip your furniture.”

“I remember your brother’s shop, Mrs. Bachelor. It was directly across from the courthouse, is that not correct? I have the distinct memory of an indomitable sort of man, despite his short stature, standing in a white jacket beside a barber pole, arms folded across his chest. I take it you were close? You must miss him?”

Sticking up from the breast pocket of the attorney’s suit were three glass tubes that perplexed her. The tubes were filled with a brown liquid that silently sloshed as the car took the hairpin bends of Western Pennsylvania’s knobby hills and deep hollows.

She had taken a shine to Harvey Silverstein’s wide raffish smile even back in the police station where it was clear that Teddy had enlisted him in a plot that threatened her older boy. Shoot, the only crime that Rags had committed was show up at a market he had worked at for twenty-five cents an hour for forty years and tried to help move the turnips and oranges. But so be it, the Tambellinis had withdrawn their complaint, and, when this fall she decided she required the services of a lawyer, she recalled Harvey Silverstein’s reckless smile and his vest. Gunther wore vests, at least in the years he tended the big bar at the Briggs Hotel. After that, well, after that they didn’t talk about.

“The day Hugo retired,” she said, “he bought that fool scooter. He was seventy-two. He had more—you’ll see—camping gear than Savage’s Hardware. He bragged he had slept under the stars in every state of the union. A lot of tramps could make that same claim, I told him. He was my big brother, even though he wasn’t very big like you say, he nursed our father and then our mother when I couldn’t and kept their graves neat, and so, yes, I miss him terribly.”

“No other brothers or sisters?”

“Just the two of us.” She thought of the mortician who, for reasons known only to him, elected to dress Hugo with a white scarf instead of a necktie at the throat. “Mr. Silverstein, I have a question for you: Do you think the steelworks are going to reopen?”

“I don’t have any inside dope, if that’s what you’re asking? But I’ll give you my opinion—I doubt it.”

“I don’t think so, either.”

“Very hard on the men and their families. Ganaego’s in for a tumble, I’m afraid.”
Nettie folded her hands in her pocketbook. “Hugo’s old house has been shut up so long I imagine even the ghosts must be stir crazy by now. I should’ve done this a long time ago.”

“Hard to let go sometimes.” The attorney turned to concentrate on his driving. “I held on to my wife’s things for years and years.”

She took that in, too. Life, she had long ago decided, could be sliced like a pie into three generous pieces: Then, Now, and Coming. She tried to keep them separate: her memories, a day’s passing tribulations, tomorrow’s worries. Life worked better if you kept them separate. But like it or not, Coming had, once and for all, sailed into Now, and Nettie Bachelor settled herself in the deep cushions of the attorney’s luxurious automobile in the full knowledge that she had no choice but to go through with this double-dealing.

~ ~ ~

If Pennsylvania were a pool table, then Barrington, fifty miles southwest of Ganaego, would have been a corner pocket. Hugo’s house perched on the high side of one of the town’s tree-lined streets, just beyond the business district. Nettie directed Harvey Silverstein to turn up into the alley behind Hugo’s and park there, above the house. They walked down the cement staircases that stepped down the backyard’s three steep terraces. Nettie gave Harvey the key and he jiggled it in the old lock on the backdoor until the lock yielded. Inside, the wood floors, long asleep beneath a nap of dust, creaked under their advancing tread. Wisps of spider gossamer dangled from the light fixtures. A moth started up from a dusty curtain and flapped woozily off. Nettie stood in the center of the living room without taking off her coat.

“We are survived by our things.” She appealed to the lawyer. “What do you do with people’s belongings? Gunther used to say, just throw me and my stuff out with the trash when I die. And there were times, lemmie tell you, when I didn’t want to wait until he expired. As much as I loved my brother, I can’t honestly say there’s a single thing of his I desire.”

“I have an associate who specializes in liquidations.” Harvey was examining the books stacked about, by the Morris chair, on the tables, in the window seat. Beside the fireplace a glass-front bookcase was crammed with more books. “Liquidations of the deceased and the divorced—I don’t know which is sadder. With your permission, I will give him a call. Mrs. Bachelor, may I point out that the books in this bookcase, all travel books if I don’t miss my guess, are organized by geography and within those geographical groupings, alphabetically by author? Did you have any difficulty probating the will?”

“A fellow down here took care of all that for me. And everything, as you say, was very well organized. Hugo’s will was dated May 1, 1939.”

“I’m not surprised.”

Nettie, brushing the dust from a lamp shade, sneezed, then fell to coughing hoarsely. She tugged her hanky from inside her sleeve to cover her mouth. “I’m going to get a glass of water,” she managed to eke out once her coughing fit had subsided. “The dust in here would choke a coal miner. Would you like some water?”

“Why don’t you sit? I’ll get it.”

She waved him off. “I know where everything is.”

“I’d advise you to run the water in the tap for a bit first, though.”

Nettie watched the attorney sliding open a small drawer in an end table and sorting through the papers in it. Before your doctor and your lawyer you are naked: She prayed her instincts had not betrayed her. “Barrington always had sweeter water than Ganaego,” she said. “Couldn’t tell you why.”

“Springs, probably. Ganaego pumps from the river.”

“Well, that would explain a lot.”

Her sides ached from her coughing. You could crack a rib coughing. Collecting herself, Nettie stood quietly for a moment in the kitchen, reintroducing herself to a diagonal of sunlight falling across the table in a fuzzy slant she recalled as if it were a dear friend. She grew up washing and drying dishes in this room, plucking pinfeathers from chickens. When she looked around, she saw and didn’t see the deep double sink propped up by slender porcelain legs, the icebox, which was short with rounded shoulders, the red and white checked linoleum across the counters swollen from seepage and burned in circles from scalding pots put down half a century ago. As the water ran from the gangly spigot rust-red as a fox’s tail, she idly opened the icebox, pulled a long face, and brought down two glasses from the cupboard where they stood, mouths down, on their oilcloth. Even shut up, the kitchen smelled like a kitchen. She could tell you where to find the platter bordered in roses in which to carry the Easter lamb into the dining room; could with her eyes closed reach down the proper spices for her mother’s sweet and savory pies; could in a jiffy polish the tiny etched goblets with the gold rims you would find in the china closet and pour out drams of her father’s Armagnac for him, crème de cassis for her mother. The two windows over the sink looked out on the terraced backyard: She thought of summer picnic tables beneath snowy white cloths, of music rising from the horn of a Victrola and warbling through a grape arbor. The day before she knew she was pregnant—knew it with the violence only a sixteen-year-old girl raised in a strict Roman Catholic family could know such a fact—she helped her mother in this room squeeze brilliant violet grape juice from a tall cone of butter muslin suspended from the ceiling. A few plants in small pots lined the windowsill.

Those she noticed: They had, one and all, perished ages ago.

“My mother was a gardener,” she said, returning with the water. “Out of respect for her, Hugo kept her flowers flourishing, but it was the vegetables he raised on a little plot of land he owned in the country that he loved. Beans, squash, tomatoes, onions, eggplant, corn—you name it. A man serious about his eating, my brother. He treasured his Sunday supper, his wine, his pipe. He was a wonderful cook, even better than my mother, which is going something to say.”

Harvey had collected the mail that lay scattered on the mat under the slot in the front door. “I take it,” he said, separating the advertising circulars from the letters and ruffling quickly through the letters, “you’ll want to sell that, too, the country plot?”

“Everything, Mr. Silverstein.”

Upstairs, the attorney marveled at the black wool suits they found hanging in Hugo’s closet. “These are actually quite handsome.” He ran his fingers approvingly along a crease. “And they all appear to be identical. Isn’t that interesting?”

“Gunther used to slander Hugo that he was the only person in North America who went camping in a three-piece suit. Would you . . .”—she agonized—“like them? But they’re kind of old fogeyish?”

“Rest assured,” Harvey said, smiling, “we will locate a good home for these sturdy suits.”

“Let me show you something.”

Nettie led the attorney down the hall, passing without comment the small bedroom with sloping ceilings that once had been hers, and into a room that had been converted into a workroom. She pointed at a very large, very old sewing machine.

“My father’s. He worked in Vacherweill’s, the men’s store here in town. He was their bespoke tailor. Papa could take a torn pocket or frayed crease and do invisible weaving that really was invisible. Politicians, judges, big-time businessmen from Pittsburgh would order their suits from him. When he retired, he bought this old machine from the Vacherweills and went on working. People brought their sons to the house to have Papa hand sew them their first real suits, for their confirmations, graduations, marriages. I always had this dream of him someday making a suit for Gunther. Anyway”—Nettie waved a hand at the old Singer sewing machine, its pulleys stitched over with cobwebs—“you’ll need two strong men to haul that beast away.”

Against the wall stood a tall desk. The top was amber-colored, while the cabinet below with its many small drawers was stained dark. “That’s a watchmaker’s bench,” Harvey said. “Were any of your people jewelers?”

Nettie shook her head. “His camping buddy was a watchmaker—maybe that’s where he got it, beats me?”

“Would you mind greatly if I had a look through it?”

Harvey rifled lightly through the drawers. Each held something unique: screws in one, bolts in another, washers, nails, tacks. Some held stationery supplies, also organized in categories, others held papers, receipts. Nettie thought of her jumbled china closet drawer—how it would scandalize her brother! The attorney surfaced with a checkbook and ledger and a tiny key. He rocked back on his heels, his hand cupping his chin. Behind the square rims of his glasses his eyes swam hugely. He led them back into Hugo’s bedroom, peered under the bed, then opened the closet and bent down to search under the black suits into the far corners. Beside was dresser was a wooden chair. He dragged it over and stood on it to see deep into the top shelf. He struggled for a moment, then stepped down, a small strongbox in his arms.

“Pay dirt.”

He set the box on the carpet and opened it with the key. Inside were papers, envelopes, manila folders. He flipped through the papers, nodding. “The moment I walked into this house, Mrs. Bachelor, I said to myself, ‘Here is a lifelong bachelor, a man of civilization and rigor. We shall find everything we need, in perfect order, or I’ll eat my hat.’ And so we have.” He held up the papers, browsing them. “Copy of the deed, I assume the original is in your possession, copy of the will you probated, social security card, birth certificate, death certificates of your parents, these look like securities, his barbering license, warranties for his camping equipment, even the title of his motorcycle, which, if I don’t miss my bet, we will find in the garage in spotless condition. To be sure, there’s nothing we absolutely need here. The counsel you previously retained has done most of the heavy lifting, but, if you have any worries at all, Mrs. Bachelor, please permit me to allay them: We will have no trouble in converting your brother’s holdings into cash, precisely as you wish.”

They climbed to the attic, where Hugo stored his camping equipment, in categories, on shelf after shelf, then Nettie, downstairs again, led the attorney through the back hall to the cellar door. She pointed out the rectangle on the wall where the family’s original telephone had been. “I was the first person Hugo called when he had it installed. Then he scolded me for keeping him on the line and running up his bill. I do believe Hugo was more French than my parents.”

She stepped sideways down the rickety steps, clutching the rail with both hands. The mildew in the dank cellar set her to coughing, and she covered her mouth with her handkerchief. She pointed at a door, rounded on top and made of slats. The attorney, with some difficulty, pried it open. Inside stood racks of bottles sheathed in gray dust and ribboned in cobwebs. “You can’t imagine the conniption Hugo’d have if he caught anyone tampering with his wine,” Nettie said, pulling her hanky away from her mouth.

“He claimed the spiders were his friends. Go on, take a few—more if you want?”
Gingerly, Harvey withdrew three bottles at random, making a point not to let them touch his suit. The bottles were unlabeled except for strips of tape around the necks on which the year had been printed. Upstairs, Nettie insisted on washing the bottles in the sink, then wrapped them in tea towels she found in a drawer her hand reached into instinctively. She slipped the gloved bottles into a grocery bag, presented them once again to him.

“Here’s mud in your eye.”

“We called it Pisano Red.” The glass tubes in the attorney’s pocket chimed merrily with his laughter. “On our street, it was the Spinazolas. Thank you! I shall decant a bottle tonight.”

“Just don’t sue me if it gives you beriberi.”

The attorney set the bag on the table. “Mrs. Bachelor, we need to talk.”

Nettie sniffed at the scent of mothballs that seemed permeate the closed-up house, worse today, she supposed, because of the afternoon’s unseasonal warmth. She remembered she needed to buy candy for the trick-or-treaters this evening, a holiday Rags never quite fathomed: Why ever would you want to give away all the candy in the basket in the hall?

“Yes,” she agreed. “We need to talk.”

~ ~ ~

“My mother called me Antoinette. She was the only person who ever called me that. She didn’t bear me the grudge my father did, but she remained disappointed in me all her life, and, even though Papa died soon after I left—he was fourteen years older than Mama—our visits, Gunther and me and the baby, were few and far between. Hugo liked to have us down for Sunday picnics occasionally. And when those came they were dilly days.”

They had decided to talk where they were, in the kitchen. They sat across from each other as the afternoon sunlight crept away from the windows. “There’s a picnic table,” Harvey said, “on the top terrace—we came past it? Is that where you had your picnics?”

She appreciated men who noticed things. “First thing, when we showed up—I’m thinking of when Gunther was driving a Studebaker he bought for thirty-five dollars, only one door worked, the other was roped shut—Hugo would take Gunther down to his shop and clip his hair, slicking down the thistle of his cowlick with pomade and dusting his shoulders with talcum. While they were gone, I’d spread one of Mama’s tablecloths across that picnic table under the arbor and set the table with her plate and crystal, and when they came back all spiffed up and smelling like a couple of New Jersey swells we’d ferry up platters of Hugo’s beef Bourguignon, his bouillabaisse, his coq au vin. And yes, oh, yes, we knew those dishes, Mr. Silverstein, we knew them.”

Harvey met her eyes. She wondered if he was thinking of some special afternoon of his own. No earthly reason existed to tell him these things, but it was important to her that he see it as she recollected it: The snowy expanse of the table, the grapes hanging fat and perfumed from the trellises, Hugo’s stories of the mobsters and their molls and the politicians who confided in their little barber a tad more than was prudent. As the skies over Barrington colored, deepening from rose to caramel to plum, Hugo and Gunther would smuggle the Victrola out of the living room without waking her mother, and they’d have a little candle-lit party swinging the baby around. Possessed even then of no more than a fringe of hair, the Jimmy Durante schnoz he had inherited, Hugo, jabbering like a Marseilles street vendor, would rush into the darkening garden and come back with his arms burdened with the double peonies their mother raised, the tall gladioluses like unfurling scarves, the dahlias, the irises, and she—dizzy with wine, dizzy with love, dizzy with her new maternity that made her breasts warm and heavy with milk, this just before she knew her baby was destined not to be like other babies, would plunge her head into those fragile blooms and drink the scent of life. You die into this world, Gunther had taught her, and, lying in the arms of that lovely, mixed-up man, she knew, despite the cabbagey odor he was known to bring along with him to bed, about that Gunther was right.

But no, time was short. “What do you need from me, Mr. Silverstein?”

The attorney removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes, then continued the gesture, rubbing the loose skin of his scalp. He returned his big glasses to his nose. “Let me ask you some questions, if I may? It will help me in formulating a suitable strategy. On the surface, it looks like all this will amalgamate into a respectable nest egg. I have little firm notion of housing values in Barrington, other than they have held up much better than Ganaego’s, but that is easily ascertained. The bank account appears depleted, and I will need to chat with the other lawyer to see if there are any loose ends, medical bills, utilities, taxes, and so on, we need to satisfy. Are there any other assets I should know about?”

“Just my house. I don’t suppose that’s worth very much.”

“I’m assuming Ganaego housing is going to decline sharply. With the mill’s closure, I don’t see how it can help but fall hard.”

“I have a Christmas Club, I forgot about that.”

The attorney studied the grocery bag holding Hugo’s wine, then moved it a few inches. “Please help me now while I do some thinking out loud? Just converting everything to cash is not going to be enough, do you agree with that? In fact, carrying the project through to that point but no further might actually prove unwise, do you agree with that?”

Nettie knew where he was headed. “I know what you mean.”

“And am I also correct in assuming,” Harvey continued, “that while we’re at it we’re going to need to draw up a will?” Nettie nodded at that, too. “What I suggest,” he said, “is a trust—and it needn’t be fancy. A will for your assets, a trust for Hugo’s—separate documents, separate purposes. Does that sound like a good start?”

“A good start,” she agreed.

Harvey moved the bag another inch. “There are many kinds of trusts, we needn’t go into that at the moment. But please help me out now: Am I also correct in thinking that, as far as any trust we design goes, its sole purpose is to provide for your older son and”—he stopped to frown severely at the bag and move it back to where it had been—“it needs to be irrevocable? Do you know what I mean by that?”

Nettie looked at the ancient sink. She saw Hugo in a long, old-fashioned waiter’s apron, cuffs of his starched white shirt folded back, wrists disappearing in suds. “My brother,” she said, “was known to shop the grocery store for things that come in interesting bottles. He closed up his shop once to fly off to Louisiana to talk with a man about a woodpecker. You understand, Mr. Silverstein, he wasn’t like other men? I was never sure whether he liked camping in the wilderness so much as he and his camping friend liked the privacy they found in the wilderness. I’ve not done fairly with my boys, I know I haven’t. Teddy’s borne more than he should have. I don’t approve of what we’re talking about here, I want you to know that. But if what you mean by irrevocable is that it can’t be changed by anyone for any reason, then that’s what I want.”

“Until the death of your elder son?”

“Until he joins his mother and father, yes.”

The attorney tapped the cork tops of his glass tubes with his fingertips. “I have more questions. You’re not weary of my questions yet, are you?”

Until this minute she hadn’t been sure she would go through with this. It wasn’t right, wasn’t fair. What had been right were her instincts: Whatever mysterious potation was sloshing around in those tubes in his pocket, Harvey Silverstein was the man for the job. He was someone you could trust to get things done. “Fire away,” she said. “I’m all ears.”

Harvey smiled widely. “I don’t believe that. But I do need to ask two more questions. Will you need help finding a suitable situation for Rags—so it’s in place when the time comes?”

“You don’t know how much I’ve agonized over that.”

“I’m sure that’s true. I’ll start making some calls.”

“You said two questions?”

Harvey shifted his grocery bag one last time. “And we need do all this quickly: Is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“Very quickly?”

“Very.”

~ ~ ~

Making an excuse that he would go off to get gas for the car and smoke a cigar, the attorney left Nettie alone in her brother’s house for half an hour. She probably didn’t need that much time, goodbyes were best when they short, but she did wander through the dusty rooms, seeing Hugo and her parents, their friends, holidays and birthdays long past. She knew exactly where in the attic the boxes of Christmas ornaments were stored, in the first cupboard under the eaves. She could tell you where the warm comforters could be found when snow filled the heavens over tiny Barrington and lay across the terraces transforming them into tiers of a wedding cake. She thought about going upstairs and spending a few minutes in her old bedroom and decided against that. Instead, she picked up a glass paperweight on a table and studied the kaleidoscopic swirl of colors beneath the shimmering hemisphere of glass. Her mother’s, a gift from her father on some anniversary also long lost to memory. About to slip the paperweight into her coat pocket, Nettie changed her mind about that too and set it back down where it had been.
Candy, she thought, can’t forget to buy candy.

Robert McKean’s novel, The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts, was the first-prize winner of the Methodist University Longleaf Press Novel Contest and was published January 2017. He has been nominated twice for Pushcart Prizes and once for Best of the Net. He has published in The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review, Dublin Quarterly, Armchair/Shotgun, The MacGuffin, Front Range Review, 34th Parallel, Crack the Spine, Border Crossing, and elsewhere. His collection of stories was a Finalist in the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. He has awarded a Massachusetts Artist’s Grant for his fiction. McKean’s website is: www.robmckean.com