The Gersons were a fairly unexceptional family. The maid had idly observed them upon their arrival at the Hotel Neversink as she vacuumed the length of the third-floor hallway. The father seemed like a type: late forties, slightly stooped by the punishing mundanity of his work life, clearly some sort of clerical job, as he was too reedy for manual labor and too timid for management or sales. The children were unremarkable, too: an older girl already drawing away from the family, buffered by an invisible wall of brooding solitude; a younger boy who yelled with excitement at nearly everything that happened in this new, fascinating place.
The mother, however, was not unexceptional. For one thing, she was enormous. Not just fat—though she was, with ankles and wrists the size of most people’s arms and legs—advancing distantly down the hallway, her chest brought to mind a World War II newsreel clip of a battleship’s prow cutting though the mist. But she was also the tallest woman the maid had ever seen, her low heels and blond bouffant putting her well over six feet. She wore a pale yellow and somewhat shapeless dress, to which she’d pinned a startling brooch. It was red, a sparkling cherry that caught the light of each antique sconce the woman passed. The flashing red light was like a signal, a code aimed at the maid’s weary brain, receptive from seven hours of cleaning. She found she’d stopped vacuuming, was simply standing there in a dull trance, watching Mrs. Gerson until she turned into their room, her family in tow like little vessels caught in a crashing wake.
Pushing her vacuum past the closed door, the maid knew she would steal the brooch, and two days later, when the Gersons were down at the pool, she did. She found it in a wooden jewelry box left carelessly by the TV—it was better to think it a careless act than one born of a naïve trust she was presently violating. She lifted it out and held it in both hands, feeling the weight. It winked in the light like a living thing, a thing that somehow knew her mind and her soul, that understood and forgave her weakness, this trespass. She dropped it in her pocket and looked at herself in the mirror, and she felt a tremendous relief, thinking perhaps this is the last time, the last thing. Perhaps now I can stop.
The door opened.
Mrs. Gerson entered, though it seemed to the maid as though the entire room shifted sideways and expanded to accommodate the woman’s presence. With the survival instinct of a small animal, the maid froze in place, though she couldn’t help glancing at the jewelry box with the foolish hope she’d closed it. She hadn’t.
After a long pause, Mrs. Gerson shut the door. She said, “Do you like that?”
“Don’t be stupid—the brooch you were stealing.”
“I wasn’t.” She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
The room slid closer to Mrs. Gerson. The woman pulled off her terry-cloth gown and dropped it on the bed. The one-piece swimsuit she wore was ruffled at the hips and crowned her chest with an outsized, girlish bow. “It’s not worth anything, that’s the sad part. Just cheap costume jewelry. I wouldn’t leave anything valuable out.”
“I’m sorry.” The maid tried to edge around her next to the TV, but a minute shift in the woman’s bulk to the left blocked this path of egress.
“Could you have thought I wouldn’t notice? What would happen if I reported this?”
“I would be fired.”
“If not worse.”
“Yes. Please don’t tell.”
“Why shouldn’t I?” The maid registered the woman’s towering anger now, and how the woman controlled it by assuming a contemplative air, a livid thoughtfulness that felt more dangerous than simple rage.
“My son, Isaac. I don’t know what I’d do.”
“How old is he?”
“Eight. And sick. He has polio.”
“So did our president, but Eleanor doesn’t go around stealing jewelry, at least not that I’m aware. Do you think this gives you the right to steal?”
“No, I don’t.” The maid began to cry.
Mrs. Gerson sighed. “I’m not going to tell. I don’t want your being fired on my conscience.” The maid stood very still, like a small child waiting for punishment to be dispensed. It seemed that if she made herself very still and very small, the enormous woman might forget her and go on with her enormous life.
“What’s your name?” said Mrs. Gerson.
“Hannah,” said the maid. It felt inappropriate saying it to a guest.
“Hannah Kohl. It’s a pretty name. My name’s Annette. Sounds like Hannah, though I like yours better. Annette Gerson.”
“I asked at the desk. I was curious. I am curious about guests sometimes.”
“Hmm. Do you steal things sometimes?”
“I imagine,” said Mrs. Gerson, sitting on the bed, “that that isn’t entirely true. I imagine items have a way of disappearing from the hotel, from rooms you clean.”
It would be a simple matter now, the maid thought, to walk quickly from the room, to finish her chores and return home for the day, and wait for a phone call that she hoped would not come. And might not—after all, Mrs. Gerson had already said she didn’t want to get her fired. But instead she remained rooted to the spot in curious terror. The woman was frightening, and fascinating, and what was truly fascinating was how the woman seemed fascinated by her. “You have the look,” continued Mrs. Gerson, “of a filcher. A guilty little kitten filching fish.”
The maid didn’t know what to say to this, so she said nothing. Mrs. Gerson patted the bed for the maid to sit beside her, and she did. “Where are you from, Hannah?”
“In the camps?”
“No. My father moved us before. He is the hotel owner’s second cousin, from Wroc?aw. The owner helps pay our way, a little. We come in 1938, first to the city but just for two years.”
“Then to Monticello, to farm. A few years ago, I come up here, and they give me this job.”
The maid sensed that the woman wanted her to speak, so she spoke. She told how they had moved to the country, and how, in high school, she’d met a local boy whom she thought was nice but who wasn’t. How he’d tricked and misused her, getting her drunk on pear cider and taking off her clothes. She couldn’t believe she was telling the woman these things, but they came pouring out of her in a rush, before she had time to think about what she was sharing. She described the pregnancy and her family’s shame, made so much worse when her father had died. Death had eased her father’s shame, but her mother and older sister blamed her for the series of strokes he’d suffered, said she’d killed him. Things had never been the same. She told Mrs. Gerson how things were now, that they helped here and there with Isaac and his illness, but that they considered him tainted. “I see how they look at him, how they talk to him. You know?”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Gerson. “I do know.”
Now that she was talking, the maid couldn’t stop. She told the woman everything: their tiny home, Isaac’s illness, and the constant worry she had for him—not just the polio but the local children who had disappeared in the past few years, the helpless feeling of something being out there, a fear that sometimes rendered her shamefully glad that her boy was in bed, at home. At night, lying in her cot in the drafty garage apartment, listening to Isaac snoring, she wondered what would happen to him if she wasn’t there. Her son, separated from her now by a thin pasteboard partition, might in some terrible future be separated from her by prison bars or foster care—her nightmares took the form of gray institutions, unclimbable walls enclosing endless queues with a faceless bureaucrat at the end.
All because of the stealing! She tried to describe it: the desire that overcame her, the damnable urge that seized her innocent hands—it was like a fever she could not shake, one every bit as persistent as Isaac’s polio. In a state of icy resolve, she managed to get through some days without touching or taking anything. But the next day, or the day after, she would thaw and the need would return and she would find herself dropping something or other, another small item of shame and relief, into her uniform’s pouch, as she had been doing a few minutes before when Mrs. Gerson had walked in on her.
“You poor thing,” said Mrs. Gerson. “You’re a kleptomaniac.”
“What is this word?”
“The urge to steal. It’s a condition, I have to imagine, related to your experiences, and to anxiety about your son. You must be so frightened.”
“Yes,” said the maid, suddenly crying again, now ashamed of how much she had told this stranger. Without warning, Mrs. Gerson reached over and thrust her hand deep into the pocket of the maid’s apron. The maid stiffened, but the woman pulled out the forgotten brooch.
“Now then,” said Mrs. Gerson, holding the pin in front of herself as though she were speaking to it. “We leave in two days, but I want to help you. I will set up an appointment for your son to be seen by our physician. It sounds as though—what was his name?”
“—Isaac has not been receiving adequate care.” She put the brooch back in its box and shut the lid. “You will both stay with us in the city. I’ll leave the details for you at the front desk.” She put her robe back on and laid a heavy hand on the maid’s shoulder. “I’ll see you soon, Hannah.”
The trip into Manhattan lasted nearly all day, though they left home in the violet cold. Simply walking to the bus stop in town took nearly an hour, with Isaac having to stop several times to rest. The maid wanted to carry him—it would have been easier—but even at eight, the child was willful and proud, and he would not allow himself to be carried like a baby. They edged along on the narrow shoulder of the road, shrinking into themselves as the occasional truck yawned by, heedless in the waking dark.
From downtown Liberty, it was a two-hour ride to Newburgh and across the Hudson, then another hour waiting for the next train to New York. Seated on the wooden bench in the small station, they passed a bag of stale peanuts back and forth. These she’d taken from the hotel kitchen pantry in anticipation of the trip—theft, too, though not in the same spirit as her theft from guests. Peering down the long canal of bent trees from which their train was due to emerge, Isaac said, “What are they going to do to me?”
“Nothing. Give you a good checkup.”
The truth was, the maid had no idea, and even suspected the trip was a bad idea. But staring at the note Mrs. Gerson had left her, in its swooping hand—a hand as outsized and lavish as its owner—she hadn’t felt she’d had a choice. The woman could still turn her in, if she wanted; a guest’s complaint, particularly a charge of theft, knew no statute of limitations and would be investigated by the hotel detective, a young, talkative, balding man named Mr. Javits who occupied a permanent room in the maid’s personal mansion of fears. Further, looking at her son’s frail chest, the thin arms she could easily encircle with her hand as Mrs. Gerson had encircled her own, she knew he did need help. The doctor her mother had dug up was some elder in their country synagogue, a morose, half-blind graybeard who’d presented neither credentials nor, indeed, any evidence he knew what he was talking about. Polio, he said, would usually clear up and go away on its own. Plenty of bed rest and fluids. Now, nearly a half year of bed rest and fluids later, and having fallen behind in school, her son was still shuffling around in stained pajamas, eerily similar to her father shortly before his death. Mrs. Gerson may have been frightening, but all the same, perhaps she could help. Mitzvahs came in all forms.
The train arrived as though summoned by the coughing spell that bent Isaac double. They just made it to their appointment at Beth Israel, and the maid sat in the waiting room for two hours picking through magazines while Isaac was being examined. She put one in her bag, a Life magazine with Mickey Mantle on the cover, the pages so greasy and worn it didn’t even seem like stealing. Finally, she was ushered into a consultation room where her son sat slumped in a metal chair, exhausted. The doctor was a large, hale man, with a coxcomb of thinning red hair. He shook her hand and said, “Annette sent you here, right?”
“Well, I’m glad she did. Your son needs some attention to repair the damage caused by the poliomyelitis. He’ll be all right, I think, but we need to do more tests, and he could use some physical therapy.”
“If you could come down twice a month, that would be ideal. Probably over the next year or so.”
“I don’t have the money.”
The doctor smiled. “It’s taken care of. The Gersons are friends.”
The Gersons’ apartment was in a large building several blocks west of Central Park. Neither the maid nor her son had ever ridden in an elevator, and they watched together in minor disbelief as the lighted numbers ticked upward. Mrs. Gerson greeted them after a single knock. The woman appeared smaller in her natural habitat than she had at the hotel, still huge, but somehow diminished. The cavernous apartment was filled with books—seemed, to the maid, to be overflowing with them. The husband was as benign in person as he’d been in the hotel hallway. He accepted the maid and her son’s shuffling presence with an amused tolerance that suggested his wife was forever doing mercurial things like inviting over hotel staff. He put their suitcase in the guest room, which contained a small bed and a cot, then ushered them back into the large living room, where he sat reading in an armchair, his tan cardigan blending into the wallpaper. The muted sounds of the Gerson children came through the walls so softly as to seem almost imagined; in the maid’s little apartment back in Liberty, such privacy was unthinkable, and even bathroom noises trumpeted with force and immediacy. Mrs. Gerson asked whether Isaac wanted to meet her children. When he said no, she smiled and took him by his thin shoulder, dispatching him reluctantly into the playroom, as she called it. The sounds became even more muted, then silent.
In the playroom there was very little playing. The Gerson children seemed to regard Isaac as an annoying nuisance foisted upon them. The girl, like her father, sat reading in a slightly oversized chair. The boy was engrossed in his collection of marbles, which he pulled from a small velvet sack one by one and lined up in a floorboard crack, appraising them with the practiced eye of a 47th Street jeweler. Isaac sat on the bed, looking at his hands, searching for something to say to them, some shared entry point.
“Your family came to the hotel.”
“Yes,” said the girl without looking up.
“My mother works there.”
“She’s a maid,” said the boy. Isaac detected no judgment in the boy’s flat, factual tone.
“We’re rich,” added the boy.
Isaac coughed, and his chest tingled like a thousand hot pins pushed in. He said, “A boy disappeared there.”
The girl looked up from her book. “What?”
“He did. From the hotel, a few years ago. And another one in town last year.” Pleasingly, he had their attention now. A disappeared child was interesting; children disappearing from a place where they went every year was fascinating. In extravagant and largely secondhand or otherwise outright imagined detail, Isaac went into a description of the search for the latest child—the distraught mother’s breakdown, the police combing the woods with bloodhounds pulling at leashes, random lie detector tests, and the warning at his school not to talk to strangers (which was real).
The boy said, “Who do you think it is?”
Isaac shrugged. An instinctive storyteller, he knew that, having grabbed their attention, it was now time to shut the flow of information down to a slow drip.
“Come on,” said the girl.
“Can you keep a secret?” The Gerson children nodded. Isaac looked toward the closed door and said, “It’s a ghost.”
“Bull,” said the girl. “Ghosts aren’t real.”
“I saw one walking home last year.”
“Bull,” she said with less conviction, leaning forward.
So he told them about it: the time a year ago, walking to the Neversink from school, when he was still going to school, the light he’d seen in the woods near the hotel. A strange, yellow-orange light, like glimpsing something deep underwater—he’d approached to see what it was, and there, in the shadows of the trees, was a pale, unearthly figure: the ghost. His body seemed to be glowing, and in that light Isaac had seen the look in his eyes, the wave saying join me, the smile that was not a smile. Isaac retreated and the ghost took a step forward. Isaac stopped and the ghost stopped, as if imitating him. When he walked farther along the path, the ghost followed in the woods, keeping pace. At last, Isaac had broken into a run on his aching legs, and reached the hotel in an exhausted hobble. Panting at the top of the hill, he scanned the dark woods below and saw nothing. Had he imagined it? But then, as if in answer, a dull glow throbbed somewhere deep in the darkness—once, twice, and then it was gone.
“Whoa,” said the Gerson girl. “Did you tell your mother?”
“No. I wasn’t scared.”
It was, of course, as the Gerson girl put it, bull. He’d been scared, but he hadn’t wanted to worry his mother even more than she already was. Anyway, it was a different, better kind of scared than usual, this ghost-story kind of scared. Most of the scary things in his life were sad and real. His polio, the feeling of walking through a swimming pool at all times. The sorrow in his mother’s face, the look that told him everything was certainly not all right, no matter how many times she said it was.
“Come on, tell us more,” said the boy. From the other room, Mrs. Gerson’s barking laughter erupted, and the children momentarily paused. This reminder of the adult world outside the walls amplified the playroom’s cozy secrecy.
“I’ll tell you more,” whispered Isaac. “For a marble. That one.” He pointed at a big blue galaxy with sparkles in it. The Gerson boy shrugged and rolled it across the uneven floor to a crack by Isaac’s knee, where it seemed to sit and listen to its new owner speak.
The Gerson woman poured them both another glass of whiskey, ignoring the maid’s demurral. It hurt the maid’s throat and tasted like burning dirt, but it dampened the strangeness of the evening, so she drank it down while doing her best to explain the doctor’s report. Mrs. Gerson nodded knowingly. “I was right,” she said, “he did need looking at.”
“Yes. The doctor says he can get back to normal with good care.”
“I’m so happy to hear that.” And she did seem happy. The husband had earlier excused himself to some get-together at a friend’s—he was vague on the subject. When he’d left, Mrs. Gerson had relaxed, become vociferous and mastering, and seemed to expand to her previous size. The maid was sitting by the woman on a large, hard settee, and a corner lamp lit the room soft and orange, like sunlight in autumn coming through the hotel’s windows as she cleaned. An opera record was playing, a little loudly—“Maria Callas,” read the album cover.
“Thank you,” she said as the thick, smoky tendrils of the whiskey reached down deep into her legs, still sore from the week’s work. This woman from whom she’d tried to steal had been so kind to her. No one had ever been so kind.
“Come here,” said Mrs. Gerson. She took the maid’s hand and drew her over next to her. She encircled the maid’s small waist and pulled her down onto her lap. The maid fit comfortably there. It reminded her of before she’d become large with Isaac, reading in her father’s overstuffed easy chair—a time when everything was easy, happy, and simple. Mrs. Gerson stroked her head. The maid became aware, after a time, that the woman was stroking other parts of her: her back, her leg, the side of her breast through the wool tunic. The combination of her feelings at this moment—shame, fear, comfort at the huge embrace, and alarm at the woman’s falconing hands—created such a potent mix as to be paralytic, and so she stiffened and sat, and waited for whatever was happening to finish happening, for Mrs. Gerson to release her and make clear what would happen next.
Mrs. Gerson ran her fingers over the maid’s reclined body as though she were some kind of musical instrument with an infinitude of taut and twanging strings. And she did seem to sing out in musical response along with the scratchy record, a quiet virtuoso aria with quick runs, basso grunts of protest ascending to shocked soprano squeals, all with her dark eyes shut tight. Mrs. Gerson put her hand on the maid’s crotch and began rubbing in a circular motion. The maid cried out in revulsed pleasure for the woman to stop, ah please stop, but Mrs. Gerson did not stop.
Finally, hearing his mother’s distressed moans, Isaac padded out half-asleep and stood swaying on the creaky hardwood floor. The maid twisted toward her son. Mrs. Gerson set the maid back on the couch like a piece of furniture that needed rearranging and then, with great dignity, rose and disappeared down the hallway.
Twice a month, they made the trip to New York, and twice a month, the episodes, as the maid thought of them, with Mrs. Gerson occurred. She loathed the woman’s touch and afterward felt physically ill, but Isaac was improving quickly. The fact that she was submitting to this treatment in order, in turn, to facilitate her son’s seemed to expiate the inherent sin, as well as (she hoped) the odd and uncontrollable shivers of pleasure she sometimes felt. Early on, she managed to avoid these episodes by excusing herself to bed early, but the next day Mrs. Gerson would be hostile and distant, and she feared the disappearance of the woman’s largesse.
Mrs. Gerson never mentioned the episodes, which helped to cordon them off in the maid’s mind. They seemed unconnected to anything else. And the fact was that she liked Mrs. Gerson. The woman was funny and bold, said what was on her mind, and seemed genuinely interested in her and Isaac’s welfare. If she was simply using the maid for deviant pleasure, holding her hostage by way of her son’s health, as the maid, lying in her own small bed after a trip to the city, sometimes felt was the case, then why all the extra kindnesses? Why take them shopping at Bloomingdale’s? Why send her home with a book entitled Mrs. Dalloway that Mrs. Gerson wanted to discuss the next time they came up? Was it simply guilt? It didn’t seem so—the woman confided in the maid, asking for her opinion about things like a new sweater she’d bought, wallpaper she was picking out to brighten the stuffy oak of the dining room.
Mrs. Gerson’s motives were irrelevant, though, considered next to Isaac’s miraculous improvement. The maid watched proudly from their window as he played ball in their yard with two of the neighborhood boys, flagging a little at times, limping a bit, but keeping up. Traveling down to his April checkup, patches of weeds and blooming wildflowers pushed through the gray snow, and post-examination, the doctor said maybe one more visit over the summer. The boy was almost normal, according to benchmarks.
“How wonderful,” said Mrs. Gerson when the maid reported these developments. They were sitting at the dining-room table, a bottle of wine between them. As usual, Mr. Gerson had politely excused himself after dinner. Mrs. Gerson wore a red dress with long sleeves, her blond hair held back by a polka-dot headband. She looked disconcertingly like a little girl, an impression magnified by her unusually bashful manner. “I suppose this means you won’t be visiting anymore.”
“Well,” said the maid, “the doctor wants to see him in June.”
“Yes, of course.”
Mrs. Gerson drank her wine, and the maid saw she was holding back tears. “We can visit.”
“No, that’s okay.” She put the glass down and looked around the apartment. “Have I ever told you,” she said, “that everything here is Bert’s?”
“Yes, everything you see. Including me, really. He’s quite a wealthy man. His family owns the supermarket chain. He’s rich now; when his father dies, he’ll be incredibly rich. The children will never need to work, probably to their detriment.”
“I always thought you had the money.”
“Yes, people think that, but I don’t have anything. My family is as poor as yours.”
They sat in thick silence broken only by the ticking of the grandfather clock in the hall and, outside, the distant sound of traffic, the intimation of other people’s lives. Mrs. Gerson said, “People wonder why me, and I used to wonder that myself, when we met. I was on scholarship at Radcliffe while he was at Harvard. He could have had anyone, and he always knew I liked girls better.”
“Oh yes,” she said dismissively, as though the question was stupid. “It’s an arrangement, like all marriages. I gave him the children. I raise them, I take care of his affairs, in all senses. Bert just wants things to be easy. He always wanted a mother more than a wife.”
The maid didn’t know what to say. She looked at her knee, covered in dark, worn hose, now covered by the woman’s broad hand. Mrs. Gerson said, “The thing with wives is they can leave. Mothers can’t.” She embraced the maid, and for the first time, kissed her full on the mouth, a deliberate and probing kiss, as though the woman were trying to extract information from some secret recess.
“I love you,” she said.
The maid rose from her seat, went to the guest room, and roused Isaac. He put on his clothes sleepily, but without too much resistance. The maid tossed all their clothes into their broken suitcase and fastened it shut with a piece of string tied to the handle. Mrs. Gerson remained where she’d been sitting, at the table, watching them as they left. The elevator expelled them into the lobby, the nodding doorman held the heavy oak and brass door open, and the city night gathered them both into its cool embrace. Walking briskly to the nearby train station, she smiled at her son’s strong gait, the simple pleasure she felt striding along beside him. For the first time in as long as she could remember, she felt free, truly free. They would not be back in June, or ever.
But a month later, the hotel’s owner, Mrs. Sikorsky, called the maid into her office, a small room on the second floor near the cleaning supply closet. It wasn’t where you would expect the owner of a thriving resort to work—a nook lit by one small window and dominated by a rusted-green filing cabinet that occupied half the space—but it was where she’d always worked, from the beginning, and her stubborn occupation of the room was taken by all the staff as a symbol of her humble diligence. The maid had been there only once, years earlier, when she was hired—Mrs. Sikorsky, she remembered vividly, had shared tea with her from a silver samovar, and a plate of sugar cookies, asking after their shared relatives in Wroc?aw. She was a friendly woman with ash-blond hair framing a face as habitually open as the fields that surrounded her hotel. This made her demeanor all the more frightening when she brusquely waved the maid in. It took the maid a moment to notice, beside the filing cabinet, Mr. Javits. He tapped a pen against his foot and looked at the maid mildly, and she knew what was about to happen.
“You are being let go, Hannah.”
“Why, she asks,” said Mrs. Sikorsky, casting a sideways look at Mr. Javits. “A guest said you took something from their room.”
“But what?” She was shaking. She hadn’t stolen anything since Mrs. Gerson’s brooch.
“Never mind that. It corresponds with a couple of other incidents.”
Mr. Javits said, “I made some calls, Hannah. A pattern has been established. We knew someone was taking things for a while, but we didn’t have corroborating proof until now.”
“But my son.” Mrs. Sikorsky looked at her, and Hannah tried one last, desperate ploy that made her ill as she spoke the words. “We are family.”
Mrs. Sikorsky said, “And I consider everyone here family.” She shook her head. “I’ve never fired anyone before. Even if you stole from me, I would not have fired you. But from the guests—” Here she trailed off, the thought too much to contemplate. “Come back in three days and pick up your severance check, which I hope you know you’re lucky to get.” And with a wave of her hand, the maid was dismissed.
On the walk home, down uneven gravel shoulders, the sun burned the top of her head like the heat of her own shame. She thought about striking out, somewhere far enough away that they wouldn’t hear about this. Then she thought about Isaac at school, doing well—his teacher said he might skip a grade, even after the school he’d missed—playing with the other kids until dark every day. Outside their apartment, she picked up Isaac’s baseball from the grass—the once unblemished white surface now tan and tattered. She thought about seeing whether her mother would take him in but balked at the idea. She heard Mrs. Gerson’s voice in her mind: A wife can leave; a mother can’t.
Later that night, after she’d tucked Isaac in and waited for the raspy snore to issue from his side of the divider, she crept across the kitchen’s complaining floorboards to the hall closet. Here lived her secret shame—opening the door and gazing upon the objects she’d stolen over the years was like standing before her own wretched soul. She picked up armful after armful of stolen possessions and brought them downstairs. Half an hour of this silent labor saw everything transferred to a pile in the yard. She doused it with kerosene and watched it burn: the shoes, the books, the socks and nylons and frillies, an Indian change purse marked with a branded symbol, a letter from someone’s daughter away at college, a Polaroid photo of a young woman smiling beneath a white tree in the hotel courtyard, a pack of breath mints, a miniature boomerang, several different fishing lures hand-painted in primary colors, a pair of broken glasses, a pair of unbroken glasses, an old Life magazine with Igor Stravinsky on the cover, three different yarmulkes, and even a Torah. Even the stolen Torah, she burned.
“Mama?” Isaac stood behind her, his face made briefly visible by a licking flame. “What are you doing?”
She looked at the flames and found she had no reply.
He stood by her. “What are you burning?”
“Things I have stolen.”
“Why did you steal them?”
“Because of you, because I was afraid. But you’re better now. No more stealing, ever.”
The boy went back inside the house. When he returned, he threw the marbles he’d taken from the Gerson boy on the flames. Comet, sunburst, Indian blanket, galaxy: they popped and fizzed and turned black in the heat.
She went back to the Hotel Neversink for her check, though she’d vowed not to return. It had been a hollow vow; they had to eat. She found a message waiting for her from a Manhattan exchange. The desk clerk politely absented himself into the coffee shop to give her privacy.
“How horrible,” the woman’s voice boomed in response to the news of her termination.
“Yes. I was reported.”
“How horrible,” she repeated. “Well, perhaps this is kismet. Mr. Gerson and I have just been discussing the need for a live-in nanny. I have so much to do, and only so much time—” she went on, but the maid was only half-listening, aware of herself as a guest watching might have been aware of her: a slight woman in a sweater and long skirt and cheap brown shoes, shoulders shaking, bent over the desk in a posture of utter submission.