by Ruth Z Deming
ibby Korngold did all her research, as befitting the former head librarian of the Upper Moreland Public Library. Their track record of library directors was not very good. Mrs. Helen Jackson, a politically savvy tyrant who looked askance at the Asian and African-American influx into the community, had died of complications from kidney dialysis. The assistant librarian, Peg Forrestal, was quickly elevated to head, only to be diagnosed three years later with breast cancer, had them both lopped off, and gave up the post, though not the ghost, as she recovered at home.
The Board of Directors received ninety-seven resumes for the job.
Libby Korngold walked into the library two years ago, regal as the Queen of Sheba, wearing a stylish outfit – straw hat, lavender pantsuit with matching earrings – and charmed what she jokingly thought of as the nonagenarians on the board.
Two years later, she faced the very same board, though one member had died while crossing the street near her home, hit by a teenage driver.
And now Libby Korngold was going to disappoint them once again.
Folding her hands on the conference table in the glass room where she could see her beloved library and the patrons she knew so well, she smiled a weak smile.
“I have so loved working here,” she said, her voice breaking. “I hope you have been happy with me. For personal reasons, I must resign.”
She looked at their seven concerned faces. Faces she had come to love.
A chorus of indignation and puzzlement arose like an orchestra tuning up.
Betty’s voice soloed from the choir. “I know it’s personal, dear,” she said. “But might we have a reason, Libby?”
“Betty, you have been so helpful to me. You’re a wonderful voice at our Book Club, and you always attend our free Sunday movies. But I must ask for your understanding. It’s simply too difficult for me to speak about,” Libby said, tapping on the table.
“Just call it health issues,” she relented.
“Libby, we’ve come to love and respect you,” said retired engineer Aaron O’Neill. “In two years, you’ve remade our old-fashioned library into a modern one – free computer lessons…”
“And that Sunday movie program with Maurizio!” Betty chimed in.
“Your skill as a grant writer,” added white-haired Jeannie. “Who knew we could benefit from the Melinda and Bill Gates Foundation?”
Libby nodded and smiled. “Your skill in finding good directors is unparalleled,” she laughed.
“Yeah,” said Aaron. “Next time we’ll make them take a physical.”
Libby’s last day was that very Thursday, after presiding over the Book Club. The last book she would ever read was Open City by the Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole.
She had barely been able to follow the narrative of this highly-acclaimed first novel. Dutifully, she wrote down the various characters in her notebook and referred to it often during the discussion on a sunny day in late March. She would pose a question to the group, “Do you think the main character Julius will make a good psychiatrist?” She pulled off the discussion group well, aided by the ten women, all white, to her dismay, who regularly attended, each with a yellow name placard set before them. They spoke not as one voice, but as individuals, who often bickered and yelled at one another – nicely – throughout the discussion.
Diana Fogelman, a high-paid jewelry designer, took affront about real or imagined affronts to her Jewish people. W.G. Sebold got a good thrashing as did poor Teju Cole.
“I hate, absolutely hate, that the main character spoke about Jews as an ethnicity and not a religion,” said Diana in her high-pitched voice.
“Join the Anti-Defamation League,” her dear friend Sheila yelled at her across the table.
The five-minute yelling spree was finally quelled.
Libby didn’t tell The Book Club she was leaving, nor, of course, did she speak of the disease infiltrating her mind with every page she turned. “What if I have no mind left at all by the end of the book?” she thought. It seemed that reading fueled the disease and made it worse. Her neurologist – who diagnosed her with a long-winded progressive disorder she refused to learn to say or spell – scoffed at the idea that reading hastened the disease process, but who was he? He did not live in her head.
She wept while reading the lyrical prose of Open City and the wandering Jew aspect of the main character as he walked all across Manhattan. She wept for all the walks she would never take, the books she would never read, the concerts she would never attend. She imagined inviting Teju Cole to her library, the Gates Foundation would finance it, and introducing the community to this marvelous writer. Hers was the only library in the county to offer talks by first-rate authors.
Libby’s bed served as her reading space. While friends of hers looked forward to spooning before sleep with their husbands, Libby had preferred reading books or the New Yorker or information tucked inside the electric or water bill and pictured their tap water coming from underground pipes connected to a clean shimmering reservoir forty miles away.
Though she would never reveal to her husband what she and her friend Lynne had discussed, it was certainly possible that the man who slept beside her, Dane S. for Sheldon Korngold, a noted brain researcher from the University, had Asperger syndrome.
Relationships had always been difficult for this handsome well-dressed man. Libby never had to worry about his having affairs with secretaries or with his students. If he did have an affair or two, she would have been happy for him.
Dane refused to believe she was losing her mind, notwithstanding the evidence: the huge gaps in her speech – which he quickly filled in – and the yellow Post-it notes she stuck on the kitchen cabinets – flour, pasta, spices – and reminder signs placed throughout the kitchen: “Turn off burners.” Or the birthdays of Barry and Marty, their two grown children, pinned onto the kitchen bulletin board, next to her library schedule.
Did she love Dane? She supposed so. She did enjoy caressing him when he got into bed. She would massage his bald head, take his face in her hands, and stare into his searching black eyes. Rubbing her forehead against his, she said, “It doesn’t matter if you accept my diagnosis. You’ve accepted me and that’s enough.”
She told him she was so proud of him for being a gene researcher and finding genetic links to several mental disorders. She was certain that after she was gone, he’d tackle her own disease. “The Elizabeth Korngold Foundation.”
When Dane was about to leave for work, she walked with him, as she often did, to the circular brick drive where his steel-gray Infiniti was parked. They stood together a moment admiring their home on a quiet, out-of-the-way street.
“Look at your herb garden!” she said, with her musical voice, as she brushed her hand over the lush growth.
“It needs to be cut back,” said Dane as he walked toward his car. “Do it today, please?”
“I’ll do my best,” said Libby.
A school bus with “Lower Moreland” written on the side whooshed down the road. She watched it stop and pick up little Grace and her brother Max. How she loved little children, probably the happiest time of her life, when Marty and Barry were small and carried their own Superhero lunch boxes onto the very same bus.
Several years ago, as they lay in bed, Dane explained to her – which she so appreciated – a bit of incomprehensible physics – that Albert Einstein, his hero, had nearly given up a conundrum he thought himself unable to solve. This recognized genius had simply thrown up his hands in despair of ever finding the answer.
“We think of Einstein as perfect,” said Dane. “But like all of us, he struggled inside.”
Libby wondered if Dane was referring to himself.
“So what do you think happened?” she asked.
Dane reached onto to his bedside table and picked up his wristwatch with its huge black face. They had bought it years ago at a conference on genetics in Bern, an ancient-looking city with red-tiled roofs, an aquamarine lake and people scurrying about speaking German.
“Remember the clock tower?” he asked Libby, smoothing down the white eyelet cover. “Einstein imagined a car, an automobile, this was in 1905, so they had cars like the old Model T’s.”
He looked over at Libby.
“I’m following you, dear,” she said.
“Good. I expected you would. Now here’s Einstein’s eureka moment. He imagines a car driving away from a clock tower at the speed of light – that’s 186,000 miles per second, you know – so the clock on the tower” – Dane was speaking slower now so Libby could understand – “would appear fixed in time to someone in the Model T.
“There were streetcars in Bern. Loads of streetcars. We saw them, too, remember, dear? The clock’s light,” he said, tapping the face of his wristwatch, “could not possibly catch up to the streetcar, but the car’s clock would tick normally to the person inside.”
Libby nodded in understanding. She didn’t want to disappoint him and say she needed to go over it in her mind to truly understand it. She knew she would eventually get it. The trolley factor explained why Dane loved riding his 7:22 a.m. to work, a train, a trolley car, little difference, and feeling close to the ideas of Einstein, which he thoroughly mastered with his budding genius at the tender young age of seventeen.
Such conversations rarely passed from Dane’s lips for the past five years. His research swallowed him up and it was almost as if he had forgotten how to speak to anyone not connected with his work. It was futile for Libby to protest. She did not want to get in the way of his important work that one day may change the lives of people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder or drug addiction.
She imagined how thrilling it must be for Dane to take the train to Thirtieth Street Station and then walking with his swinging black leather brief case to his lab at the University of Pennsylvania. “D.S. Korngold, PhD, MD” was stitched onto his white lab coat, which he’d bring home for Libby to wash.
She was that busy woman who got everything done. She and Lynne played indoor tennis every Thursday night, and on Sunday afternoons, Libby and her children would talk on the phone, while Dane was in his study rustling his papers.
She and Dane rarely went out together anymore. He claimed fatigue from a day at the lab. She would try to revive the relationship by asking, “What’s new in the world of the genome?”
In the driveway, Libby watched Dane ease himself into the Infiniti and pull the gray harness across his light spring jacket. Click! “Such finality,” she thought, knowing she would never see her husband again.
She leaned over, picked up his hand and kissed it, something she hadn’t done since the early days of their courtship, and then stroked his clean-shaven cheek.
“Listen for my ring when I leave for the train tonight,” he said, as he drove off.
Blowing a kiss, she watched him drive out the driveway, knowing he was on speed-brain, locked in his inner world of numbers and abstracts and hypotheses.
She cut back the basil, marveling at the delicious aroma. Spring, her favorite season, was inching forward, slow as the yellow crocus peeping out from the still-brown grass. The pink red bud tree, its tall pink spikes clambering toward the sky, was newly in bloom. In the fair weather, she would have her morning coffee and croissant on the front porch overlooking the brick driveway.
How she would miss it all.
Her desk was in the study, which was once little Barry’s bedroom. Entering the quiet room, with its plush off-white carpeting, she listened to the twittering of birds, then cranked open the window and peeked into the window box. Only the day before, a mother robin deposited three perfectly shaped blue oval eggs in her newly built nest. Even Dane showed enthusiasm – well, make that “interest” – when she brought him into the study. She was sorry she wouldn’t get to see them hatch and become those naked unfeathered fetus-like creatures who would one day grow up to look like their mother, with her purposeful yellow beak.
Purpose. Libby’s only purpose now was to rid herself of the incessant ravishing of her brain.
She sat down at her antique desk, with its gold inlaid swirling designs, that she and Dane had bought in the resort town of New Hope. In the days when Dane spoke. And Libby had a mind.
The letter she was about to compose to Dane must be flawless. Not because he was a perfectionist who made it to full professor at an unusually young age. She must have a good feeling, a feeling of satisfaction and completion, when she left it for Dane to find.
“Dearest,” she began, knowing it sounded old-fashioned and romantic, but happy with the words nonetheless.
When you arrive home tonight, I shall be taking a trip. No need to find me or call anyone. I shall be in touch tomorrow, Thursday, April 30. Have faith in me, darlingl I love you and the children with all my heart. – Your Libby
The note was written on her initialed – EJK stationery – Elizabeth June Korngold. It was a soothing cream color and her initials were embossed in orange, an emphatic energetic triumphant orange, like the setting sun.
Everything she did now would be for the last time.
The very last time.
For Elizabeth Korngold was going to die.
She packed a few personal items in a paisley bag she bought in the gift shop of their synagogue, the Frank Lloyd Wright one in Elkins Park, where their two sons had been bar mitzvahed in the huge chapel the color of the sands of ancient Judea.
Into the bag went books she would read in the car: “Sonnets from the Portuguese” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and a book of poetry by Emily Dickinson. “I would not stop for death/So he kindly stopped for me.” She stroked the prickly brown leather cover, rubbed it against her lips and placed it in the bag. Into a smaller cosmetic case, she put her contact lens case and solution, her red lipstick, and a shiny blue pill box filled with Seconal. She quickly remembered her conversation with the head of the gift shop, Mrs. Ada Goldman, who said her newest granddaughter had begun crawling. Backward.
She chuckled out loud and then placed the call to the limousine service.
“Hello,” she said. “This is Libby Korngold. I’m ready for a pick-up in Huntingdon Valley, 1212 Greenleaf Way. We’re to go all the way to Cleveland, Ohio.”
She gave him her credit card number, as they had told her to do earlier that week.
Cleveland was her favorite city in the world. It was her childhood home, where as a teenager she never missed a radio broadcast of the Cleveland Indians with Jimmy Dudley’s excitable voice blasting from her transistor radio. “Looks like Colavito’s hit another home run!”
Looking in the mirror for a last goodbye, she patted her straight, shoulder-length black hair in place and reapplied bright red lipstick, blotting it with a piece of Charmin. She left it in the toilet bowl for Dane to find. As she headed for the stairs, she changed her mind and flushed it away.
* * *
In Brooklyn, jazz pianist Billy Morton kissed his wife goodbye and got in the taxi to go to LaGuardia. His wife was accustomed to his many goodbyes and though she missed him had a full life of her own as principal of an inner-city school where she was famous for hugging students and taking them aside for conversations, introducing them to the back and forth of dialogue they rarely heard in the poverty of their own homes.
“You are one helluva woman,” Billy would often tell her.
By 8 in the evening, Billy was in a beautiful hotel suite in Cleveland, which towered over a revitalized downtown of wonderful restaurants, boutique shops, book stores and outdoor cafes, which reminded him of when he played in Paris twice a year.
Whenever he played jazz clubs in Cleveland, he and Libby would meet once a year for a night at this same hotel, in the very same suite at the end of the hall: Suite 1003.
Like his wife, Billy also visited some of Cleveland’s inner-city schools and urged youngsters to study music. “Little brothers and sisters,” he’d tell his young friends, “if you don’t have a piano, go practice at church. They’re bound to let you. Pick up the drums or a trumpet. And if you can earn some money, by washing cars or doing chores, save up for an electric piano. Be your own Stevie Wonder.”
He planned to visit Eleanor Roosevelt Elementary School the next day, which would be a much-needed distraction from the difficult events of this evening. He had brought along some sheet music for his young friends.
Billy took off his sports jacket and hung it on the back of the dining room chair. Upon the glass table was a basket of fruit and a bottle of champagne from the hotel. A shiny metal corkscrew, the kind with two upended wings, was placed by the same invisible hands nearby. Billy walked slowly around the room, cracking his knuckles, smoothing down his mustache, and then reached into his suitcase to extract a bottle of coconut oil to rub into his chocolate-brown hands, the well-cared-for hands, with manicured nails, that earned him his living in one of the greatest modern jazz bands of the day, “The Billy Morton Quartet.”
Now in his fifties, he’d cut his teeth subbing for McCoy Tyner in the John Coltrane band. Billy and Tyner were still in touch. McCoy Tyner had embarked on a solo career and could bounce the keys better than ever in his seventies. He also pulled out a jade green smiling Buddha from his bag, about the size of a coffee mug, and placed it on the table with a clink. Billy laughed, then startled himself by hearing it turn into a sob.
“I must be strong,” he said out loud. “Be professional for my woman.”
Walking over to the door, he stuck his head out into the hall where he could hear someone push the bell for the elevator. A red Persian-carpet-like rug lined the hallway. He walked back into the room in his white shirt, without tie – jazz players didn’t need to wear ties, unless they were invited to the White House – which was the only time Billy put one on. He went into the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and whispered, “Hey Morton! It’s not going to be easy, but she loves you, and you’ll help her.” Splashing cold water on his face, he knew he would write another song about her. He’d written almost as many songs for Libby as he’d written for his wife Nora, who, of course, must never know about his lover.
Libby and Billy met when they were both single and living in San Francisco. He’d been playing a gig at the North Beach Jazz Cafe. They were immediately drawn to one another. Libby had her beautiful dark eyes on him throughout his performance, nodding and smiling and closing her eyes in ecstasy as he played. They went home to her small apartment on California Street, in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury district, where they became flower children, as they made love on the Murphy bed she pulled out from the wall.
After they made love, he watched her prepare a snack from her mini-refrigerator.
“Turkey with mayo and mustard, sweetheart?” she asked.
“Perfect,” he said, admiring her perfect body.
She boiled some water and they drank piping hot Folger’s Instant.
In the morning, they kissed goodbye and he returned the next three nights until the San Francisco gig was over.
Years passed. Each one thought of the other like a vanishing grace note as they easily settled into their lives without one another.
Libby found him again when he played at Zanzibar Blue in downtown Philly. She’d dragged a reluctant Dane to the performance, but after a gin and tonic, he was out for the night. Libby replayed her own performance from San Francisco and arranged to spend a few hours with him the following day in the Ritz Carlton where his quartet stayed for their four-day gig.
Would love be born again?
Directly after work, Libby drove downtown to the Ritz, and rode up the bronze-colored elevator to Billy’s room. She held out her red-manicured nails and watched them tremble in anticipation. As she knocked on his door, she heard classical music on the radio. Mahler’s Sixth.
She was too nervous to remember which movement, as she lay her forehead on the door.
Only one thing mattered. Would they become lovers again?
It was as if they had never been apart. Beautiful bodies – porcelain-white and café-au-lait entwined easily and knowingly. “I remember your smell,” said Libby, nuzzling her head on his chest, filled with tufts of African twisted hairs she hadn’t seen in over twenty years.
Lying side by side under a delicately colored lime ceiling, Libby posed the question of “guilt.”
“Guilt?” laughed Billy. “Guilt about what, for chrissakes?”
“About that horrible word. The ‘A’ word.”
“Oh, shit!” he said. “We aren’t about guilt. We’re above that. Besides, who made those rules, Lib? I sure didn’t. And I don’t approve. And never will. Never never,” he said, kissing her cheek.
After a pause, he said, “Listen, Babe. Jazz musicians are notorious for two things: drugs and women. Charlie Parker. Let me tell you a little about him.”
“I saw the movie, darling,” she said. “The same actor who played King of Scotland played Bird.”
“Incorrigible heroin addict. Once he got a taste of it, he kept coming back for more. Couldn’t stop though it was killing him. That and the liquor. He had a couple of wives though he never married the last one, who was Jewish, like you. Us black men adore you Jewish women.
“And we love you back,” said Libby, nuzzling closer to him.
She confessed feeling strange making love in the same city where she lived with husband.
“You Jewish women gotta stop getting yourselves in a tizzy. Hold your heads up high,” he said, kissing her hand.
Billy awaited her arrival in their other hotel. The Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland. The last hotel they would ever visit together.
He could always tell her knock on the door. A certain rhythm with her second and third fingers.
He rose from the couch and opened the door.
“My beautiful girl!” he said, opening the door and hugging her hard.
“Ah, the champagne’s already here,” she said, taking off her coat and putting it over the chair. “We must drink to our eternal night of love and freedom.”
He couldn’t put his finger on it, but she was different than the last time he’d been with her, a year ago. Yes, she was definitely different, as if a new person inhabited her body. An intruder.
They sat at the glass-top table facing one another and holding hands.
“And who is this darling creature?” she asked about the jade Buddha.
“He’ll keep us company,” Billy said. Libby stroked the Buddha’s cold face and body. “I shall take my deep sleep tonight, knowing he’s watching over us,” she said in her now halting voice.
“Whatever you wish, my beautiful girl,” he said.
“Let’s make a toast,” said Billy.
He popped the cork of the champagne bottle and poured the fiercely bubbling liquid into the long-stemmed glasses.
“Inhale it,” he said, as he stuck his nose inside the glass.
“Okay?” he asked.
“Mmmm,” she said.
“To our eternal love,” he said, his voice breaking, “to the woman I will never forget, and who I will take with me wherever I go. To my Libby.”
She touched his glass and took one deep sip.
“I …. like …. it,” she said.
They sat a few moments listening to Mahler’s soaring music, coming from a Bose in the adjoining living room.
“I’ve brought the note,” said Libby, with difficulty. “You know, the, uh, suicide note, so you won’t get in trouble. We’ll call Dane from the bedroom and leave him a message. Oh my God, so hard.”
Her speech, thought Billy, is like an unrehearsed orchestra trying to remember its notes. She was no longer his fluent brilliant Libby, his bubbly flirtatious woman who talked about her Sunday movie program, the lives of her sons, and who enjoyed reading him poetry after they made love. “I Sing the Body Electric” by Whitman. Seemingly overnight, she evolved into a hesitant, uncertain woman who time was defeating as every minute ticked by. He knew her to be a maverick, a pioneer. She was doing the right thing. He wasn’t sure he could take the same path but this was her choice, something she knew she’d do since she was a young woman. Suffering was not becoming. It was pointless. “Fuck, Job,” she had told him over the phone. Especially, as she said, if my brain is being eaten alive as if there’s a mouse inside having his way with me.
“I’d like to be as comfortable as possible when I go,” she said, stroking the Buddha’s head.
Billy noticed she avoided using the word “die.”
They arose from the table and went into the bedroom. Billy patted the white bedspread. Libby lay down in her taupe sweater and black pants, her high-heeled black boots keeping her company on her ride to the stars. She removed her contact lenses and put them in the case.
“Won’t be needing these anymore,” she said.
She gave Billy her home phone number. He dialed the 215 exchange and waited until it began to ring, then handed the phone to Libby.
She whispered that the answering machine was coming on.
“Dane, it’s Libby. I, I’m sorry to tell you that I can’t live like this, so I am putting an end to my suffering.” She sat up in bed. “I love you and the children, kiss them for me, please … well, goodbye, dear.”
Both she and Billy had looked up Seconal on the Internet and knew it worked very quickly, as long as you didn’t vomit. Billy, wearing his white sneakers, climbed in bed next to her. He handed her the glass of champagne, which still had bubbles on the bottom.
“You like the champagne?” he asked.
“In another life, you’ll be my bride.”
She nodded again and picked up the pill case. She shook it gently and they both listened to the soothing music of the pills rustling together.
“My deliverance,” she said.
Fully relaxed now, he kissed her on her forehead, her cheeks and her lips.
She was gone within four minutes.
After her body was removed, he checked out and went for a long walk in the dark night of downtown Cleveland. It was cool and breezy. April 30. A day to remember. He sat at a table in an outdoor café and ordered a turkey on rye and a cup of coffee.
Leaning back in the chair, he thought of nothing. Nothing at all. Sipping the hot coffee, he closed his eyes and saw Libby again walking into the jazz club in San Francisco. She met his eyes.
He listened to the sounds of the night. Couples walking by, talking softly or erupting into gales of laughter, a waiter setting down utensils on a nearby table. The music inside the cafe played Johnny Mathis singing “Chances Are.” A beautiful tune, he thought. He cast glances over the big black tent of a sky that seemed to swoop down beside him. He leaned back and saw the stars were out and a small silver plane arced toward the airport.
“I know you’ll understand this, Lib,” he whispered into his coffee, which warmed his face. “I feel fully alive. More alive than I’ve ever felt before.”
When the waiter came by, he asked if he could borrow his pen. He began scribbling music notes on his coffee-stained napkin.
Ruth Z. Deming, winner of a Leeway Grant for Creative Nonfiction, has had her short stories, essays and poetry published in Creative Nonfiction, Haggard and Halloo, Mad Swirl, Haunted Waters Press, and The River. A mental health advocate who writes articles to staunch the stigma of having a mental illness, she runs New Directions Support Group for people with bipolar disorder, depression and their loved ones. See NewDirectionsSupport.org. Her blog is RuthZDeming.blogspot.com. She lives in Willow Grove, PA., a suburb of Philadelphia.