But Now, Winter
A discarded newspaper is lying on the bench of the bus shelter, and Caroline Muir picks it up. January 14. It’s yesterday’s. President Wallace won’t run again; Vice President Pressman has officially announced his candidacy; Senator McCarthy is being investigated by HUAC; some limited extensions of wartime rationing will still continue; the forecast shows a probability of snow. She turns to the next page, but it isn’t there. Beside a disconnected block of text is an ad for Nucoa margarine.
“You waited for me.” Caroline looks up. Here’s August, bareheaded, his auburn hair hastily combed back.
“We have the time.” She notices the window of his apartment, five up, four across, still gleaming. “You’ve left a light on.”
“I know,” he says, after a pause. “I couldn’t possibly use a candle. That’s for my father. It’s been two years now since — since the riot.”
They stop at a red traffic signal. She says nothing, remembering the oblong that he tore out of the Post-Standard. Louis Weil, 52. Died Friday, January 6, 1950, survived by a wife and son. The headlines mentioned the discontentment of nearly forty jobless men and the consequent row of broken glass, but no more. August came back from Syracuse looking crumpled, refusing to talk about the funeral. The signal turns green.
They gradually transition from the streets to the eastern end of campus, where the Rowland Library looms up, pseudo-gothic, ornamented by aspen trees. August gives a pale smile. “Enjoy yourself in cataloguing.”
Caroline avoids his eyes and smiles back. “Enjoy yourself in reference.”
The kitchenette is glazed with yellow light as August sets a plate in front of her. A few square inches of scrambled egg, two slices of toast, half an orange. “I’m sorry this isn’t much,” he says. “You’d be better off without my trying to feed you. Water or overextended tea?”
“Water’s fine.” Caroline reaches for the salt. “Oranges?” He leans against the counter in mock exhaustion.
“Fifteen minutes,” he replies. “Fifteen minutes I had to stand in line to get those. But it was worth it to have something fresh. I’m sick of canned fruit.”
For a few moments, silence. “You know about all the books they’re withdrawing?”
“Withdrawing?” he says, breaking off a fragment of toast. “No.”
“I saw the boxes first thing when I went in. It had to be at least two dozen, maybe three. From what I could tell, they were all in perfectly good condition. Look, I slipped one out in my handbag.” She lays a small book on the table; clothbound, with gilt lettering on the spine.
August turns it over in his hands. “Maimonides?” He glances at the first pages. “1946. Still practically new.”
“I asked Waters what was going on, but she didn’t give me a real answer. Not that I can’t guess.” She sighs. “If you want that, you can have it.”
“You keep it,” he says wryly. “Broaden your horizons.”
A movement rustles, and Caroline turns. Waters. “Muir,” she says. “Mind if I interrupt?”
“Everything all right for you?”
She fingers a sheaf of index cards. “You’re pleased with your job here?”
“Oh, yes,” Caroline says guardedly.
She nods. “There are some complaints going around. Of course our budget isn’t what it used to be. We can’t keep maintaining the place the way we did in the forties. Have to set priorities.” Her face shifts into a flat smile. “Not that the situation will improve if I keep you from working. I’m sure the withdrawals are giving you more to keep track of.”
Caroline gazes after Waters as she glides away into the hall. When she looks back to the desk, her pencil lead is broken.
The radiator bangs in protest. “I wish someone would see about that,” Caroline says, sitting down across from August. “Hope you don’t mind tuna fish again.” She pauses. “What’s wrong?”
He rubs his hand across his forehead. “I had a telephone call from my mother last night. She’s losing the shop.”
“Losing?” she exclaims. “I hadn’t thought business was that bad.”
“It wasn’t. The city’s making her close.”
“But how can they do that?”
“How?” he echoes bitterly. “She was charging below the regulated prices. They’d warned her once before, but she wouldn’t change anything. So now she’s folding. It was that or prison.” He stares downward. “I don’t know how she thinks she’ll manage.”
In her mind, Caroline begins to piece together a picture of Mrs. Weil, the Adele of the obituary. A small woman, with her son’s same hazel eyes. She takes the too-bright OPEN sign off the door, stands in the window, looking out at the decaying street without seeing it.
“Anyway,” August falters, when she fails to speak. “Worrying you isn’t exactly a fair return for dinner.”
“No, I asked,” she says. “Worry me all you want.”
“I told her she could come here to stay, but all she said was that she’d think about it.” The radiator subsides. “Things weren’t going well in the city last time I was there. They can’t be any better now.”
The snow is finally falling. Caroline and August hurry through the dusk, passing from one ellipse of light to another. Somewhere in the distance, a siren wails but suddenly is cut off.
“I’m sorry,” he says.
“I know,” she replies, shivering. “I know.”
“Did they give you a reason? Any at all?”
“They said they had to start reducing the number of staff. But — I haven’t seen that happening.”
“So you’ve been singled out, then.” His breath clouds like smoke, and his face is white in the fluorescent glow. There are some complaints. Two years since the riot. How can they do that? She turns away for a moment, and her throat aches with cold. The book is strangely heavy in her hands, the lettering bright.
Caroline sees herself reading through the advertisements week after week and sitting idle in the employment agency. Don’t worry, her father says, matters are bad enough without that. Her mother’s photograph is like a mirror. August stands with his head bowed, blurred by the sun’s dim haze; I had to tell you first. Their footsteps are slowly effaced. She stumbles over a break in the sidewalk, but he clasps her wrist.
They round a corner and begin to approach the apartment house, its twenty-nine cracked window shades and stale smell of last week’s meals. “Let’s keep walking,” she murmurs. “Let’s not go back yet.”
A curl of hair falls onto August Weil’s thigh. “A little to the right,” his mother says. Obediently, he turns, feeling the cold snick of the scissors against his temple. “It’s a good thing I came. You barely looked respectable.”
“I would have made myself pay for a haircut, eventually.”
“Of course you would. Look down.”
He remembers what it was to be seven years old, as he carefully sat motionless and stared at the scarred linoleum. Pretty soon I’ll have to get you to cut mine too, Addy, his father had remarked. It doesn’t look like business is ever going to pick up. When he raised his head, he saw his mother shaking hers, as if to say, Not in front of August. The next morning, he asked her, in confusion, Are we poor now? She paused for a moment, then replied, You know we aren’t. We have as much as we need.
“That’s that.” She lays the scissors on the table. “You’re fit to be seen.” He gets up, brushing at his shoulders.
“If anyone asks,” he says, “I’ll be sure to recommend you.”
August walks up the third flight of stairs, leaving a trail of damp shoeprints. At the sound of creaking wood, he glances back to see Caroline, and stops on the landing. “How are you?” he asks, too anxiously, as she mounts the last few steps. Her blue eyes look dull and tired, and she fidgets with her gloves.
“I don’t know. Fine. What about you?”
“We’re as well as we can be.” He hesitates, then — “You’ve just been at the agency? Any openings?”
“One. Cocktail waitress downtown. If someone needed a secretary, even if they needed a help… but there’s next to nothing. I can’t wait much longer.”
“You should come to dinner tonight,” he says, unable to find anything more relevant. “We’ve obtained a chicken.”
She smiles a little, but her eyes don’t brighten. “Maybe later in the week. I need to think.”
They make their way to the fifth floor, stopping at Caroline’s door. “You’re sure I can’t think along with you?” he ventures.
“Not this time.”
It’s been half an hour since anyone has come to reference when Patterson sidles up behind him. “No one asking for your services, Weil?” He doesn’t wait for a reply. “Say, how’s the girl?”
His lip curls slightly. “You know. Muir. Aren’t the two of you — ”
“No,” he says coldly.
“Too bad. Guess it wouldn’t work out, anyway.” Patterson drums his fingertips on the desk. “Someone said Waters thought you might try to make trouble when they let her go, seeing as you’re pretty thick with her. But I knew better. You’re not the kind.”
August clenches his jaw, focusing on his scribbles near the edge of the blotter, but a fair-haired young woman approaches them. “What can I do for you, miss?” he says in his blandest professional voice, while Patterson’s footsteps recede. She frowns.
“I’m not sure,” she answers, tilting her head to one side. “I need some books about economics.”
Across the table, his mother’s face is disapproving. “You should eat something more,” she says. He turns over a sodden cornflake with his spoon.
“I’m not that hungry.”
“You will be, when that’s all you’ve had in five hours.”
“I spend most of it sitting at a desk.” He doesn’t tell her that, before she came, he would go out to the fire escape on mornings when the weather was fine, a piece of bread in one hand. He leaned against the iron railing and gazed toward the sun, saw the trees and rooftops at the horizon. No one noticed him.
“You’ve been worrying,” she observes, and he starts a little.
“There’s plenty to think about. It’s Caroline, maybe. She’s been trying to find work for six weeks now.”
“The poor thing,” his mother says, decisively. “It’s a shame what they can get by with, as if we didn’t know. They’ve kept you on, at least, thank God.”
August says nothing, but holds back a grimace as he thinks of Patterson and five years’ worth of remarks. Caroline was always stiffly polite to him, ignoring the sneer at the corner of his mouth; He knows you’re three times the man he is, she declared.
His mother gets up, amid a rattle of dishes. “Be sure you’re careful walking. There’s ice all over.”
“You’ve really finished thinking, then?” he asks, half in disbelief. Caroline nods.
“I’ve settled everything with my father. I’m going back to Steenwyck the day after tomorrow. He said he’d be waiting for me.”
August looks past her to the window, trying to find some words. “I hope that goes well for you,” he finally says.
“Thanks.” She turns and retrieves something from the cramped bookshelf. “Here. For you to remember me by.”
She holds it out, and he almost laughs as he sees that it’s the Maimonides she saved from the library. “Did you learn anything?”
“I think I’m just as perplexed as I was before. Not a bad effort, though.”
“I — I’ll miss you.” He shifts his weight from foot to foot. “No one’s been better to me than you have.”
“I could say the same thing to you.”
August doesn’t have an answer. She’s a nice girl, his mother said, after he’d introduced her. It’s good that you met. He should have made trouble. The first time he saw her was at their lunch hour; Is it all right if I sit down here? she asked. Tentatively, they started to talk, as she ate a sandwich and he sliced an apple with his pocketknife. That evening, they found themselves going home by the same route.
“I’m sorry to be leaving,” she murmurs.
Neither of them will ever mention that, without making any decision, he lifts her hands in his own and kisses them. After he’s gone, she stands for a long time, while a drift of snowflakes gathers on the sill.