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[Readings]

Le Nozze

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From Collected Stories, which will be published next month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

“What did we say? Forty-nine by twenty-two?” He held the measuring rod open in his hands.

She had brought the stepladder from his kitchen and was clearing the top shelf of a closet. She looked down at him. “And thirty-five inches high,” she said.

At a corner of the room where a bookcase now stood, he measured a space where her chest of drawers might be placed.

“It’s like the first act of Figaro,” she said. “All this measuring.”

“Only—that’s for a bed.”

“A chest of drawers might be even more symbolic—don’t you think?”

He was writing numbers on a piece of paper. “No,” he said.

She smiled into the closet. She began to sing, “Cinque, dieci . . . ” She stopped.

“Don’t stop.”

“I can’t really sing.”

“What’s that got to do with it?”

She dropped a pile of magazines onto the floor. “Heavens. I’m getting so dirty. This dust—I don’t know what your maid’s been doing.”

He had gone on his knees. “I suppose these books will have to go. There won’t be anywhere else for them, after your things have been moved in.”

She dropped another magazine onto the heap.

He added, “It’s a shame.”

“It wasn’t my idea,” she said faintly, “to . . . move my things in.”

“No.” His head was lowered into the corner. His voice smiled. “It was my idea. One of my better ones.”

Venti—trenta . . . ” She had found a shoebox of bills and was looking through it. “I was allowed to sing in Pinafore once, at school.”

“What were you?”

“Oh—just a sailor. At school I was always A Sailor. Or An Onlooker, A Bystander. When we did Julius Caesar they let me call out ‘The will! The will! We’ll hear the will!’ Things like that.”

“Doesn’t sound like you,” he remarked. “Especially that bit about the will.”

“I suppose all these are paid?” She showed him the box.

“Of course.”

She replaced it on the shelf. “Once, when I desperately wanted to play Pocahontas, they made me An Indian.”

He was examining the books on the shelves. “That was a pity.”

“Yes. I had just the right hair for it. And I so wanted to get rescued by Captain John Smith.”

“It was the other way. She rescued him.”

“Oh well. It comes to the same thing.”

He sat back on his heels. “But she married John Rolfe.”

“What a lot you know,” she said.

Finding that she meant this, he remained silent.

“The chest could go in front of the books,” she suggested.

“It would make the room too small. No—I’m afraid there’s nothing for it but to get rid of them.”

He doesn’t have to make such a point about it, she thought. “It does seem a waste,” she said. “What are they?”

“Nothing special. Books I had at college.” He pulled one or two halfway out. “The Decline of the West. Green Mansions.

“Oh, that’s so sad,” she said.

“Which?”

Green Mansions. Every time I read it I want to sit down and cry.”

As if she reads standing up, he thought.

“What’s this?” She held up a scroll enclosed in a cardboard tube.

“Let’s have a look.” He got up, dusted his knees, and came over to her. “Oh”—he handed it back—“it’s a certificate for crossing the Arctic Circle.”

“Good God.”

“I went to Alaska one summer, when I had nothing better to do.”

“That would be the reason, naturally.”

“It was extremely interesting,” he said aloofly. “Overpowering natural phenomena. Vast areas quite untouched by Man.”

“Poor darling,” she said. She waved the scroll over her head. “All hail Caesar . . . ” She put it back in the closet. She placed her hands on his shoulders. “You’ll never have to go to Alaska again,” she said.

“Unless,” he said solemnly, “we decide it’s all a bad idea.”

She smiled. “If that’s your attitude, you shouldn’t go round measuring people’s chests.”

“I never measured anyone’s chest but yours.” He reached up to take her in his arms. “Come down, O Maid, from yonder mountain height.”

“I’m too heavy for you.”

He lifted her down.

“I’ll put dust all over you.”

He kissed her.

“I’ll make some tea. In a minute.”

“I’ve made out a list of places we could go.” He put his cup and saucer on the coffee table and brought a folded paper out of his pocket.

“Let’s see.” She lay down on the sofa with her head in his lap and held the paper before her eyes.

He spread her hair over his knees. “In the Bahamas,” he said, “you have to be a resident for eighteen days.”

She studied the typed page. “Banns is spelled with two n’s.”

“Is it?” He plaited the ends of her hair. “What are you smiling at?”

“At how nice it is.”

“What is?”

“That I got to be Pocahontas after all.” The list wavered, then collapsed. “What are banns, anyway?”

“I think that’s when people get an opportunity to hold their peace.”

“Sounds a bit like asking for trouble.” She reached out to put the list on the table. “We might change our minds at the last minute.”

“Might we? Why?”

She squinted up at him. “Oh—you might discover you didn’t like the color of my eyes, or something.”

“I don’t think that could be the reason. We’ll have to think up something else.”

She rinsed the cups under the tap. “This china,” she said.

“What’s wrong with it?”

“It doesn’t look like you.”

“I think it’s rather pleasant—that pattern of bare branches.”

“It looks like a diagram of the central nervous system. You know—like those advertisements for headaches.”

“Advertisements for headaches?”

“For aspirin, then.” She held a saucer up to her forehead as an illustration.

He said seriously, “Nina helped me choose it.” He had been involved with Nina when they met.

She washed off another dish. “This plate has a crack in it.” She set it down on the sink. “Not that you’d notice, with that design.”

He lifted it up, with an air of taking it into safe custody, and dried it. “You never understood about Nina,” he said. “I needed time to work that out.”

“All I knew was”—she set the last dish on the draining board—“I wasn’t staying around for any blinking Judgment of Paris.” She began to wash out the sink.

“I didn’t feel like Paris.”

“Who knows what Paris felt like?”

He held a glass up to the light. “Whatever became of the apple, after it was awarded?”

“Don’t know. Unless that was the apple that What’s-his-name threw to Atalanta. Where do these spoons go?”

“In the middle drawer. What was his name?”

“Menander.”

“No—that’s a poet. Meleager.”

“Of course.”

“It’s like a game of catch—this apple getting chucked about in history. Paris—Meleager—Adam—William Tell . . . ”

“Newton,” she said, surprisingly. She took the dish towel from him. “I think that’s everything.”

“Not quite.”

She put her arms about his waist, the dish towel clasped in her hand. “Did you finish measuring the chest?” she asked.

“Yes—that’s the perfect place for it.”

“I’m so glad.” She leaned against him. “It all makes me nervous sometimes.”

He held her tightly. “I wouldn’t worry about that. It’s enough to make anyone nervous.”

After a moment she lifted her head. “Was that the same Paris who got Helen?”

“Why, yes,” he said. “Wasn’t she his reward—for choosing Love?”

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October 2020