Apr/May 2000  •   Fiction

The Dawn of Civility

by John Palcewski

James ran over footstep-packed snow on the pathway along the Delaware below Penn's Landing. He glanced out at a rust-stained freighter moving slowly upriver, and made out the black letters on its stern: WIELKOPOLSKA. Conrad said you can't do anything. Not even marry an old maid, or get a wretched 600-ton cargo of coal to its destination. James kept running, squinting against the brisk wind.

After his shower, he again studied the divorce decree that had arrived in the morning's mail: crinkly paper, double-spaced typing, the pages stapled at the top, encased in heavy blue stock. Wherefore and whereas it is hereby ordered. Well, he ought to toss the thing into the trash can. It's done now, finally, and he should put it out of his mind.

But no. That wasn't his style. Correspondence and legal documents must be preserved, along with everything else of importance.

As he carried the cardboard box from the filing cabinet to his desk, the bottom suddenly unfolded and everything dropped and spread out across the hardwood floor.

He bit his lip. God DAMN it! Since he'd moved into his apartment he avoided looking at that stuff because he didn't want to be reminded. He just wasn't ready for an icy blast of recollection. He ought to gather everything up and throw it away.

But no. He needed to put the mess right. He found the packing tape, and repaired the box. He knelt down, and picked up each piece in turn. One at a time.

Item: a magazine halftone of a white, curved-necked bird with a long, sharp beak, an Ibis, pasted on one side of a piece of cardboard, and a New Yorker poem, "Black Coat," by Ted Hughes, on the other. Her scrawled sentence. "Sweetie: Thought you'd like this."

Of course he'd liked it. Enormously. Ibis was a rhyme for Hughes' reference in the poem to a brown-eyed iris. In the bird's eye was a double reflection: a connection to the poem's allusion to diplopia, and to the Plath/Hughes emotional arc as well. Which in turn corresponded to Eve's long emotional history with men. The bird's stiletto beak was the blade that slid into Hughes' side when he thought of his dead Sylvia. Eve deftly had made a connection between the Greek goddess of the rainbow and a white bird, as well as connections on myriad other levels, such as apprehending the world through a camera's viewfinder, the difficulty of focusing in dim light, the struggle to establish a harmonious composition.

And there was even more: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes were married at St George the Martyr Church in Bloomsbury on June 16, 1956. Eve had written the note on June 16. Bloomsday.

This card, and all the others she'd constructed, had astonished him. She laughed. "You astonish easily," she said. Yes, she was absolutely right. But then there was no getting around the truth of the matter, which was that deep down Eve had an acute artistic sensibility. Of that he had no doubt. More to the point, he said, he couldn't imagine why all the men in her life had never recognized this. Not even her father. None could see what James so clearly saw. With Eve, James felt an affinity. He knew they were alike in how they saw the world.

Item: a sheet of paper ripped out of a spiral notebook, probably from one of her journals. Block letters. "RAIN CHECK. Good for one apple pie!" And underneath, a drawing of teeth in a Cheshire Cat grin, her trademark. Her pies were fabulous. Made from scratch. Thick crust, apple chunks and walnuts steaming in a cinnamon and orange marmalade glaze.

Item: another page torn out of her journal. "June 25, Henry VIII's birthday!" she'd written at the top. And then: "Here's a list for you, sweetie: One. We need soda. Two. Could you take the leftover tiles to basement? Three. My sister and brother-in-law are NOT coming this wk-end (see me for details) Four. I love you and want you to be happy." And, again, her grinning teeth trademark.

He always got soda at WaWa, two twelve-packs at $2.99 each, cheaper even than at Acme or Giant. Also a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cherry Garcia. He wouldn't get her smokes because he would not enable a life-threatening addiction.

The tiles were for her kitchen remodeling project. She might have used spacers to keep the tiles aligned properly, but she didn't because she was in a big hurry to get the job done. So some were close together, others were far apart. Objectively speaking, it was a botched job, an embarrassment. But nevertheless he praised her work. They were large terra cotta tiles, like those he once saw glowing scarlet in the early morning sun in Florence. He praised her work, and in return she loved him, no doubt about it. She wanted him to be happy. So she said.

Item: one of several 8 x 10 glossy black and white prints of a photo he'd taken of Picasso's "The Old Guitarist" from an art book. It was her favorite painting. He'd taken the negative to a lab near the Reading Terminal Market, had them make a print with an overall blue tone. It came out pretty close to the original. He had it matted and framed for her birthday. She loved it. Loved it enough to put it on the wall above the couch next to the poster her ex-lover, William, had given her, the poster he found in a bookstore in Paris, while he was a delegate to an Anarchist convention.

In the early months James didn't know the poster had come from William, but then one day its origin and significance slipped out. He asked her to take it down. Seemed to him that keeping that sort of reminder of a former lover was inappropriate, inasmuch as they were engaged to be married. Besides, he'd spent a lot of time making that Picasso reproduction for her, whereas William spent how long selecting his gift? Two seconds, maybe three. A minute or two in a checkout line. He had presented it to her still rolled up in the mailing tube. She had to get it framed properly herself.

Item: a note from Eve's mother, dated July 5, 1993. "Just a few lines to say that your wedding service yesterday at Lake Eliot was the most touching thing I have ever seen. It was beautiful. I particularly enjoyed this part of the reading: 'Love makes us palaces of sweet sounds and sights. A transcendence occurs, making us reborn, with new perceptions, new and keener purposes.' As in Psalms, 'Sorrow endures for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.' We all were deeply touched and I am so happy with the very evident sincerity with which you both spoke. So here's to a long and happy life together with fair winds and following seas... Love, Mother."

The biblical thing was her mother's favorite. But James liked the other one better, a passage he had lifted from one of the Transcendentalists, about love being the dawn of civility and grace. He nodded. Yes, of course. In this divorce we'll be civil, that's what she said. Emerson said, "Love makes the face of nature radiant with purple light, the morning and the night varied enchantments." He nodded again. Right. "In love the single tone of a voice makes our heart beat." Uh-huh, exactly. "For the figures, the motions, the words of the beloved are not like other images written in water, but as Plutarch said, 'enameled in fire.'" Precisely.

Not water. But fire. Sure, absolutely.


James rose to ease the pain in his knees, the ache in his neck. He went to the kitchen and gulped from a carton of orange juice until it was empty. Then he punched buttons on the stereo, turned up the volume. Eve called them the "Diabolical Variations." But then Beethoven's Immortal Beloved, Antonine Brentano, had a different reaction to the music, didn't she? She was a skilled pianist, and she fully understood the value of the great composer's gift, his dedication on the sheet music.

Antonine spoke of "elective affinities." That some people can instantly make a spiritual and emotional connection. Ordinary people do not enter into such relationships.

James resumed his kneeling position. The piano music echoed. An ascending phrase and a mirroring descending phrase, played simultaneously. He blinked. Right hand melody soaring to heaven, the left to the depths. There is no end to that man's capacity for metaphor.


Item: for Easter Eve made for James a collage of abstract white and yellow lilies, cut out carefully so that a white petal gently touched the breast of a reclining young woman, and underneath Eve's scrawled caption: "Thanks for the Resurrection..."

Item: a succession of 8 x 10 black and white glossies. A study he'd made of her singing and playing her guitar. She was wearing a white T-shirt. She was singing, "You Are My Only One." Yet in none of the pictures was she looking at James.

Item: another 8 x 10 black and white glossy. This one of Buster, Eve's 10-year-old long-haired black cat, sitting wide-eyed and regal, in a cane-backed chair. The king of all he surveys. He's seen many men come and go, thus his supreme indifference.

Item: a poem of 26 lines, dark elite type on a sheet of 25 percent cotton fiber heavyweight bond paper with a cream finish, the lines not flush left but each line centered. "The Commuted Sentence. By Eve Stone, for James Stephens, January 12, 1993."

He saw her images of melting snow on brown and rotting leaves, a lacy cover for the landscape, mournful and lovely in a stigmatic fog, a damming of the rivulets of a January thaw... she spoke of the disgrace of need, and yet being unable to define her need.

And above all, a recurring theme, one she sounded over and over again throughout the three years of their marriage: "My autonomy unquestioned and fully blessed."

Item: another of Eve's hand-made postcards. A reproduction of an Alan Cober crayon drawing of Miles Davis. Trumpet to his lips, dark glasses. She'd penned in a street sign: 78th Street. She'd remembered James' connection to Miles: his being assigned to photograph the musician in New York and in Boston, his subsequent personal involvement.

On the other side of the card was her typewritten invitation for New Year's Eve. "I thought maybe dinner and a recitation (yours) of 'The Dead' and more get-acquainted conversation. What say you? Call me before Thurs. & let me know."

Three years ago it seemed obvious that in her eyes he was Gabriel Conroy. She was Gretta. In the story the singing of "The Lass of Aughrim" reminded Gretta of her first love, Michael Furey, a delicate young boy with big dark eyes she used to go walking with in Galway. Gretta weeps thinking of the boy shivering in the garden on a winter's night... the boy who died of love for her.

The triad: Gabriel, Gretta, Michael.

James, Eve, her lost love.

He'd gotten out his journalist's tape recorder and practiced reading the story. He wanted to make it perfect. It had to be perfect. And it was. When he finished, half an hour into the new year, they consummated their relationship.

His copy of Dubliners had a rich, textured dark blue cloth cover, and a blue silk ribbon page marker. Gilt print on its spine. On the flyleaf he'd written, "James & Eve Together. January 1, 1993."

James looked up. It was still there, on the shelf.

He looked down at the bulging, tape-covered cardboard box. It was time to decide: what to keep. What to throw away.