The notice was small, a half-sheet of paper tucked, unauthorized, into the frame of the subway map.
“Mrs. Taylor and she says DON’T GIVE UP.”
Elizabeth leaned closer, oblivious to the discomfort she was causing the woman slouched in the seat in front of her, rubbing her eyes and yawning through her morning commute.
“She tells you all before you utter a word. She can bring the spirit of release and control to your every affair and dealing. . . .” Illness could be cured, evil eyes and lurking dangers revealed. Satisfaction was doubly guaranteed. “See her in the morning, be happy at night. CALL FOR APPOINTMENT.”
Elizabeth reached up and tugged the slip free from the metal frame. It stuck, and one small corner tore off, but the paper was hers. Her hand shook as she held it up and read it again.
Jake had been gone for nearly three years, and she thought she was over him. She no longer woke up in the night with wet cheeks, and it had been months since she felt the grip of a panic attack squeezing out her breath when she saw any man in the street who resembled him. This was good; he was fairly ordinary looking, and it happened often.
But neither could she say she wasn’t still in love with him. Since he was gone, and since he was never coming back to her, she had tried to move on. Recently, she’d even begun to date again, feeling the rush of years pressing on her, weary of sleeping alone every night. She didn’t want to be alone, always.
She’d met a few men with whom she could sleep, and did, with some satisfaction, but they weren’t Jake, and she was strangely happy to give each a perfunctory kiss and close the door behind him the next morning.
Every time she though of Jake, who wore socks in bed, who left half-full cans of Dr. Pepper all over her apartment, with whom she was just beginning to really, really fall in love when he was killed so unexpectedly, her heart swelled and constricted at the same time and a lump filled her throat.
At work, she slid the paper into the top drawer of her desk. She looked at it surreptitiously throughout the day, pushing her chair back a few inches, crossing her too-thick legs in their tights, her feet in flats, and squinting into the drawer as though looking for her green highlighter or a binder clip which was somehow eluding her amid the litter of salt packets and chopsticks and large-size paperclips, bent into uselessness for some forgotten reason.
She chewed the inside of her lower lip as she entered columns of numbers into a spreadsheet, biting until her lip bled, and she sucked at the wound, savoring the metallic saltiness. She appeared to be typing, but her fingers hit few keys. She pondered, instead. Mrs. Taylor. Solver of riddles, finder of lost property, dowser of love. The flyer made many promises: Bringer of miracles. It could happen. If love can be stolen by an icy day and a cross-town bus, could it not be restored, or at least soothed, by a person like Mrs. Taylor?
When things have become so bad they defy belief, belief becomes a loose thing, malleable enough to permit dreams and wishes you know shouldn’t come true.
At three-thirty, she picked up the phone and dialed the number: 718. Boroughs, of course. The Bronx, maybe. Flatbush? Maybe there were such things as fortunetellers in the East Village once, but no more, surely. But before the other line began to ring, she tapped the button and hung up.
Five minutes later, she dialed again, and this time, a rich, smooth voice answered.
“Mrs. Taylor, please. I’d like to make an appointment.”
“You called! That’s brave, dear. You made it in two tries.”
Elizabeth paused, nervous, her hands now slick with sweat. She felt a drop slide down her stomach, over the soft rolls of flesh, down toward her waistband.
“I’d like to make an appointment.” she repeated, trying to sound business-like. The voice chuckled.
“Of course, dear. Nights? You’re working.” Elizabeth frowned at the phone, already guessing so much about her, and guessing right. “Tomorrow night.” The voice chuckled again.
Mrs. taylor’s home was not in a colorful, smoky, vibrantly ethnic neighborhood in the Bronx, nor in a forgotten, decrepit, rent-controlled ancient tenement in Hell’s Kitchen. Instead, she lived in Queens. Elizabeth rode the Q train all the way out to the end, to a block of thirty-year-old houses and eighty-year-old apartment buildings. BMWs and Mercedes nosed out of slanted driveways, but piles of garbage bags accumulated behind white-painted garden gates. TVs flashed blue behind front windows as the darkness drew in. There was nothing menacing, nor even mysterious, in this neighborhood.
Mrs. Taylor’s house was architecturally sacrilegious, a regrettable concoction of cinderblock inset with panels of rough stone, and a second story balcony of that white-painted, overly-curly wrought metal. 1-B was the garden apartment, sharing the ground floor with the owner’s precious single-car garage. Her rooms were small, but bright and clean. Red curtains obscured the front bay windows, and the door to the back kitchen was shut tight. The window was open, and Elizabeth felt the sweet, moist spring air, which smelled of humidity. This wasn’t home, didn’t feel anything like New York.
“When they go, you know, they sometimes wish they could say something to us if they didn’t get to say goodbye.” Elizabeth nodded, the tears streaming down her face. “Sometimes I can find them, if they’re nearby. I can try, if you want me to.”
Mrs. Taylor seated Elizabeth across from her at a small, square black table Elizabeth was pretty sure had come from Ikea. Mrs. Taylor herself was a surprise. Slim, very elegant, with the shoulders of a dancer, she wore a sleek red wrap dress and deep green polish on her gleaming brown toes. Her hair was a mass of tight braids, frosted with silver around her temples, majestic as a crown. Her skin was plushly creamy, her eyes huge, depthless black, set in a web of fine wrinkles.
Her voice was rich-tipped, lush, deeper, tilting higher and lower with each word, musical but jazzy, syncopated, but unaccented. She was too vivid, and Elizabeth remembered why she was here, and her heart did that shrink-grow-shrink that hurt so much and happened so often.
Mrs. Taylor seated herself across from Elizabeth on a matching black-slatted chair (it was from Ikea, she knew so) and smiled warmly.
“The fee, my dear. You pay now, and everyone pays the same. Ninety dollars.”
Elizabeth thought hard. She had that much, but it meant she’d have to go to the cash machine again to get through the week. She figured it might be forty-five. That didn’t matter. She dug into her tote and pulled out her wallet. She snapped it open and her checkbook slid out, bouncing off her round thigh and onto the floor. She leaned over too far to reach it, her fingertips barely brushing it, nudging it further away, the moment stretching out into agonies of embarrassment. Out of the corner of her eye, she caught Mrs. Taylor’s slight shake of the head, her downward-cast eyes. Elizabeth blushed even deeper. She hadn’t meant to write a check, she wasn’t asking. She didn’t even know why she carried the checkbook—she only used it once a month, to pay her rent.
At last she leaned down by that extra fraction, grabbed the checkbook, and jammed it back into her overstuffed bag. She snapped open the billfold and counted out four twenties and a ten. Mrs. Taylor palmed them and they disappeared.
She sighed deeply, smiled, and took Elizabeth’s hands. She shut her eyes, not squeezing them tight, but resting them, closed as if in sleep.
Elizabeth took a breath to speak, and Mrs. Taylor hushed her.
“You don’t need to speak. You wait for me.”
Long moments passed. Cars passed on the street outside. Mrs. Taylor sighed some more, and Elizabeth began to feel silly, began to feel she’d been had. She tried not to squirm, resisting the urge to pull her hands back.
“Sit still.” Mrs. Taylor spoke without opening her eyes. “You’re here about a man.” Her voice held assurance, but Elizabeth realized the conclusion was an obvious one. Why else would she be there? She did not reply.
“That’s okay. You don’t have to tell me what I know.” She paused. “He left. Left forever. He passed.”
The lump in Elizabeth’s throat swelled beyond bearability, and her eyes filled with tears. She breathed a gasp, a sob. Mrs. Taylor stroked her hand.
“When they go, you know, they sometimes wish they could say something to us if they didn’t get to say goodbye.” Elizabeth nodded, the tears streaming down her face. “Sometimes I can find them, if they’re nearby. I can try, if you want me to.” She nodded again, choked out words through a throat thick with tears.
“Yes, please.” Mrs. Taylor sat, very calm, while Elizabeth breathed herself back into control. Mrs. Taylor let go of Elizabeth’s hands, placed hers flat on the table. The room filled with silence, and a cool breeze rushed in through the window, blowing the red curtains out into the room. Mrs. Taylor frowned, lines creasing her smooth forehead.
“He says, ‘did you get the dock?’” Dock? No, Doc. Dr. Pepper. He asked her that, when he came over, to see if she’d remembered to buy it for him. She always did, and there was, even now, a six-pack at the back of her nearly-empty refrigerator. She shook, her whole body trembling, but she said nothing. Mrs. Taylor went on.
“He says, ‘How are you doing?’” Elizabeth opened her dry, dry mouth.
“Um. Okay. Not great. I miss him.” Fat tears spilled down her cheeks.
“He says, ‘It’s good here. So, thanks for saying hi. Be good.’” Elizabeth waited. After a long moment, Mrs. Taylor moved her hands and took a deep breath, her eyes open now. Elizabeth stared at her through her swollen eyes, breathing as quietly as she could through a stuffy nose.
“What else did he say?”
“That was all.”
“How can that be all?”
“That was all.” Elizabeth’s bafflement shifted to anger.
“No, that isn’t all. What else did he say?”
“Sometimes they don’t have much to say. They’re in another place now. They don’t seem to spend as much time thinking about us as we think they do. As we want them to. They’ve moved away.”
“But I’ve spent three years missing him, trying to get over him, and all he can say is, ‘Be good?’” Mrs. Taylor sat back in her chair, eyes turned sharply on Elizabeth.
“They move away. They are gone. You can think back on what he was like when he was here, and compare that with what he said to you now. How does it fit?”
“Fit? It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t fit at all. We were in love.” Her voice was thick and clogged with tears, growing louder in her anger. She knew she sounded like a child remonstrating with a punishment, trying to reason with an unreasonable force. “We were in love.” But as she sat, tears drying on her face, feeling salty and twisted and wretched, she remembered, clearly, the last few days and weeks of her time with him. He was noncommittal, even evasive. He came over, drank half his Dr. Pepper, put his feet up, and watched a game on her TV. He fell asleep right after he came, and then woke up and went home an hour later, blaming an early morning meeting. That last night she sat up, unable to sleep, worried then about what now was clear. She may have been in love, but he was not, and his death only forestalled what was now happening. She was being dumped, blown off, let down easily, even from beyond the grave.