from "Whatís Your Hurry" condensed from This Week Magazine
by Constance J. Foster:
"We are new farm owners, and at first we were inclined to
apply all the high-pressure hurry of city living to our 60 acres.
But Ben, our tenant farmer, took us down a peg. Asked if he
had finished plowing the cornfield, he squinted at the setting
sun and said serenely, "No, but the landíll be there tomorrow."
When a phone rings in the next room, and youíre laughing hard at something that you, yourself, have just said, itís never a good sign. Itís all right to laugh that way at something said by another person. Thatís fine. But to laugh so heartily, so without humility, is apparently not fine. When itís someone elseís joke or bon mot and a phone rings, then its just a phone. However, to enjoy your own humorous jibe too much and have that damned phone go off is a comeuppance in progress.
I know this because itís happened that way twice recently. The first time hurt. I wasnít too surprised about it, but it hurt me nonetheless. Freddy had only been with us for a week at that time and she and I were busy reminiscing about something weíd done as kids, something that Iíd long forgotten, but which came back to me, back to both of us really, through an odd set of circumstances.
Drew had ordered us dinner. He wanted us to meet, not knowing that we knew one another. She had come over to supervise the work on his building, to make over the restaurant and the suites above. Even that was a rare and peculiar story, her employers in New York had chosen her for this job and she had objected, left them, gone to another company and been sent over anyway to do the same work she had turned down the first time. She had no idea that being here, taking on this job, would throw us together once again. The nature of coincidence had intruded itself into her life and brought her into mine. When Drew told me about this woman who was doing such a good job for him he neglected to tell me her name.
"Youíve simply got to meet her, Max," heíd said, gushing outrageously. "Sheís like no one else. No one, darling."
"Do I have to?" I asked.
"Sheís a lonely young American, like you, so yes, you must. Iíll arrange it."
And so he had. I came into London and we met over dinner. Imagine, if you can, the shockingly expressive face of old Drew when, on introducing us, we fell into each otherís arms and kissed. It was a priceless look on that odd, silly face of his.
"Well, my dears," he said, fanning himself with his flattened, open hand, "I never imagined that two Americans could be so... so informal."
"Drew, this is..." I started to say, but Freddy put her hand over my mouth to stop me.
"Actually, weíve met before," she said. I laughed at that.
"Well, I say," said Drew.
"Weíve met many, many times before," she said.
"Drew, weíve known each other since childhood," I said quickly, hoping to stop that fertile mind of his in its tracks. I didnít need him imagining anything between us, not if we were to see each other again while she was working for him.
"Oh!" he said. "Oh, I see." He laughed a bit. "How extraordinary then. Such an odd thing to have happen."
"It is," I agreed.
"It is," she echoed.
We had a nice evening until the phone ringing incident. We had been sharing some old times with Drew, telling him about Central Park and about the times when she and I and Mikhael used to play tricks on other people, just because we could. We hadnít been too clear about Mikhael, about who he was or who he became to either of us. We talked about him as though he was just another friend.
I was telling this particular story about how we once stole a live chicken from the marketplace owner down the street from my parentsí apartment and let it loose in the lobby of the ritzy hotel/residence where Mikhael lived and chuckling away mightily as I told it. Freddy kept slapping me on the shoulder, urging me on, keeping me at my silliest when that phone rang in the next room. I ignored it, of course. We were in the restaurant and the slabs of Dover Sole on our plates were growing cold as we chatted and the parsleyed potatoes were getting that oily look they can take on when their warmth dwindles. I was laughing so hard at my own story, I was losing my place in it, getting as cold as the food in front of me.
Arlene, the waitress, came over to the table, a French telephone clutched in her right hand and the receiver held against her bosom. She glanced at Drew, then at me. I was chortling at something Iíd just said when I realized that she was staring at me. Her look chilled me and stopped me mid-word.
"Itís for you," she said, and she held out the receiver in my direction.
"For me? But how...?"
"The house sent the call on." She attempted a grin, but only a grimace crossed her face. She was still holding both the phone and the receiver.
"Take it Max," Drew said. "It must be important."
"Yeah, sure," I said reaching out tentatively for the instrument.
"Max, I hope...." Freddy added, but she went no further.
I put the receiver to my ear and reached for the cradle which I took from Arleneís hand. I said "hello," and heard my fatherís voice on the other end of the line, mutter my name. There was something in the sound of that word, my name, in his voice, spoken that way, that told me instantly that there was very bad news on the way. I put down the telephone, not realizing that Iíd put it on top of my cold dinner, right smack into the oily fish.
"Max," he said again. "Iím so sorry."
"What is it? Dad, whatís going on?"
"Then you havenít heard?"
"No. I havenít heard anything bad. Whatís going on?"
"Max. Paul Donner is dead. He died last night, on stage, in Hamburg."
"What?" I know that I squeaked on the word. Freddy told me that later. "How?"
"I donít have all the details, Max. I thought you would have known about it, being there in Europe."
"I didnít see anything, Dad. I didnít know."
Freddy squeezed my arm sympathetically, although she hadnít heard the news and neither had Drew.
"Iím here with Freddy, Dad, remember Freddy?"
"Oh, sure. Of course I do."
"Hold on, Dad. Let me tell them whatís..." I put the receiver against my own chest, the way Arlene had. I looked at Freddy and I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes. Her look of anxious curiosity was replaced by Drewís own peculiar expression as I turned to look at him. I told them the news, looking at Drew and not Freddy.
"Apparently he died on stage last night. I didnít even know he was still in Europe."
"Talk to your father, Max. Talk to him. Weíll be here," Drew said with such a sweetness that I almost wept right then. I picked up the receiver again.
"What do you know?" I asked him.
"Well, all Iíve heard for sure, Max, is that he was singing an encore, so heíd finished his concert by then, and he had a heart attack or a seizure and he collapsed."
"My God. What was he singing?"
"I donít know, Max. I donít know."
"What do you think I should do?"
"What can you do? You have no responsibility in this, Max."
"I should do something. I came to Europe with him. I was supposed to be there with him."
"No. He changed all that. He dropped you, Max. You have no more duties to perform for him."
"But I should, Dad. I should. That would only be right."
"Whatever you say, Max. But you have no honest part in this. It had nothing to do with you."
"Iíll let you know what happens, Dad. I will."
There was a sob in my ear, a sob that shook me. I didnít quite grasp what was going on at that moment, but a second later I realized what Iíd heard and why.
"Dad, Iím so sorry for you. I know how much you loved him, too."
"I miss him already, Max."
"Iím sure." They had been such close friends when I was still just a kid, and Iíd forgotten that. Iíd forgotten that he was telling me about a mutual friendís death, and not just about my friendís death. My own world crashed and at the same time exploded outward. I think I felt worse about my selfishness than I did about my loss. I hung up the phone and whispered hoarsely to Drew and Freddy that I had to leave.
Without another word, I got up and went outside and leaned against the old brick wall of the theatre building across the alleyway from our building and I cried. That was the first time a phone ringing in another room while I was laughing at my own story had such an impact. I should have remember it when the second incident happened.
But for that moment, that first time, with Freddy suddenly back in my life, the coincidence had little resonance. Freddy was back in my life again and that was almost enough to keep me sane as I went about the business of extracting Paul Donnerís body from the German authorities, having him prepared and boxed and shipped home for a funeral and burial. I had all the numbers in my head, and my notebooks, for friends and acquaintances. From London I arranged his funeral in New York. I arranged his burial in California and a memorial service in Chicago. I did it all with Freddy at my side, a faithful friend and assistant taking over the chores that were too painful, assisting in the ones that needed two heads or four hands. I donít know how I could have done more than I did, not without her help. It was the work of the living to honor the dead that brought us so much closer than weíd been in years. And I was so grateful to have her with me. All the old feelings re-emerged and I was falling in love with her all over again. This time, though, it seemed those feelings were mutual. Maybe thatís why the oddness of the phone and my laughter never had the impact, never made the impression they should have. Love was stronger than fate.
So the second time, so many months later, came as a real shock.
It was the three of us, again, Freddy, Drew and me. And it was cocktails this time, no fish on the table, when the second incident occurred. By this time Freddy and I were deep into our affair. Drew knew nothing about it. She had just told him about our argument at my high school graduation party and I was feeling particularly rotten about my brattiness and my lack of a sense of humor.
"I was only seventeen," I said, making the only excuse I could think of.
"And I was rotten to you," Freddy added, "and you were such a child that day."
"I was feeling old, though."
"In that yellow gown of yours?" And she laughed again at that outfit Iíd chosen.
"I wish I had a photo of that," Drew said.
"No, you donít. You really donít, Drew. He looked ridiculous."
"I did not. I looked... I donít know...lovely."
That set Freddy into gales of laughter. I was feeling just a bit non-plussed at that, so I thought Iíd tell a story of my own, one that turned the tables on my old friend this time.
I began regaling them with the stupid story of Freddy and her mother and the old chair that Mikhaelís father had stolen from his country when I became aware of a cold, hard look on Freddyís face. I didnít let that stop me, though I did pause to take a long sip of the wine Iíd been drinking.
"So she let her mother bring a photographer into their apartment and the two of them posed with the damn thing, like the Gish sisters or something. Picture it, Drew. Picture the two of them. One sits and one kneels. Then they reverse. Then they both get photographed kneeling and bowing. And the photographer is snapping away, happy as a clam, and these two women are just about getting into the silliest poses you can imagine." I was laughing so hard as I said this that I could barely get the words out. One image after another was flooding away as I told the story of how they forgot the agreement and let the man snap one too many awful picture. That was when the phone began to ring in the other room.
I didnít have more than a passing flicker of memory of the last time this had happened, a phone somewhere counterpointing my laughter at my own words. I kept on until I realized that the phone was being handed to me by a very sober-looking Drew. I stopped laughing, looked at him, but didnít reach for the phone.
"Take it, Max. Itís for you."
"I donít want to," I said. "I donít want to."
"Itís important." Drew was so sober suddenly, so quiet and firm. I took the phone from him and spoke quietly into it.
"Yes," I said, "this is Max."
"Iím so sorry to have to tell you this, this way," said the voice I didnít recognize. It spoke nonstop until it said these words. During that brief monologue I guess my face fell a mile and Drew came and sat close to me, his hand around my shoulder and Freddy knelt down on the floor in front of me and placed her arm around my waist. "There was nothing anyone could have done," the voice concluded. "They were sitting there, so close, and it happened so suddenly," the voice told me.
"It was quick, then?"
"It was. I was on the other side of the room, Max. I wasnít close. And even if I had been, there was no way I could have reached them in time."
"Tell me your name, again," I asked. This was near the end of our conversation and the details were only a part of the horror story sheíd been relating to me.
"Susanne Compton. Vinnieís wife."
"Yes, Susanne. I remember now."
"Max, Iím so sorry."
"But you and Vin are all right?"
"Yes, weíre fine, but your parents, Max. I donít know how you must feel."
"No. No. You couldnít."
"But it was quick, Max. It was so quick. There wasnít any pain. It was a tragic moment, but no pain."
"Thank you for telling me that," I said.
"And they were together. Think of that. No grief for either of them. That love lasted forever and ended together. Thatís like a miracle, Max."
"A miracle. Right." I wasnít taking it all in as yet. It wasnít making any sense.
"Is there anything I can do, Max? Until you come, that is?"
"No. Of course not. How could there be?" I asked her. "Like you said, thereís no one to grieve."
"Oh, Max, I didnít mean..."
"No. I know. I know what you meant." I went silent as the enormity of this awful news finally hit me in that deep place where you go to protect yourself from tragedy. "Iíll call you back. In the morning, Susanne. In the morning. Tell Vin I... in the morning." I hung up the phone.
Freddy was still sitting to my right, on the floor. Drew was still beside me on the divan. They had heard my side of the conversation and they knew the news was awful. Still, they didnít know the fullest measure of the horrors. So I told them. I was dispassionate and calm about it, holding in the worst of the nightmare I was suddenly inside of in spite of myself.
"My parents were killed in a freak accident last night. They were visiting friends, old friends, you remember Vinnie Compton, Freddy, donít you?" She nodded. "They were visiting him and his wife, I donít know her, at their apartment in Harlem and there was a parade or something outside on 125th Street and they were leaning out the window to see it better and the building was an old one and something I donít get happened and the brownstone work on the top of the building loosened or got pushed or something and it hit them, hit them both at the same time and it...." I was getting emotional as I told it. I could hear the tears in my voice, hear the rising pitch in my words. "It was quick, she said. Very quick and they didnít suffer. They fell from the window, Freddy, fell six stories and hit the grillwork fence - do you remember it - with the sharp, pointy fleur-de-lis top. They hit it, they fell on it." I was crying fully, sobbing at the image that I couldnít pull from my mind.
"Max, what can I do?" Drew asked me, holding me close, protecting me with his arm.
"Nothing. Nothi.ng." I choked back a sob. "I have to do it. I have to be the one."
"The one?" Freddy asked.
"I have to call Brianna," I said. "We have to go home."
"Oh, my God," Freddy muttered. "Brianna." She stood up. "Let me, Max. You donít have to do this."
"I do, Freddy. Iím the man, today. I have to do it."