Issue 168, Winter 2003
On the river, Bianca Marburg leaned toward the water and closed her hand around a yellow bowl that was floating, calmly upright, past her kayak. The bowl was dry inside, empty but for a beetle exploring the bottom. It might have fallen into the river, Bianca thought, or it might have been carefully set adrift; as the beetle might have chosen the soft golden hollow, or fallen in, or been placed there by a person. As she carefully set bowl and beetle back on their course, Jeffrey, the boy who lived next to her, plucked from some trash spilled on the sidewalk a stray page from a report that Bianca had been writing.
The tidy printing he recognized from the notes she sometimes stuffed through his door, but the content differed: something about an ecosystem, dirt and plants and some unpronounceable, nearly invisible creatures, which in the sketches along the margins looked like little green cigars. This, he thought, was entirely typical, evidence of the way his neighbor spent most evenings. Instead of dancing or drinking, watching a movie or for that matter enjoying his music, she huddled inside her apartment, demanding deadly silence while she worked. He pushed the page aside and ran upstairs. A wall of windows facing the street, guitars and amplifiers and recording equipment, the computer that translated what he heard in his head into notes: This was Jeffrey’s loft. From the coatracks lining the rear wall he chose a soft green shirt to put on later, after he’d practiced. Then he reached for his guitar while Bianca paddled on.
As the summer of 2000 had ticked away, one day after another spent studying this abandoned lot along the East River in Williamsburg, she’d seen the living and the manufactured worlds entwined in a hundred different ways. Moving through the litter of broken glass and burned-out cars were gulls, rats, mice, moles, snakes, worms, spiders of course—but also, beyond the plastic bags caught in the vines on the fence and the squirrel nests made from the stuffing of cushions, murres visiting from Baffin Island and butterflies heading south.
There were people, too, trespassers drawn by the gleaming sky who, as she slipped around the remains of the piers, paralleled her on the shore. A man napping on a concrete slab woke and then dove into the river, uncoiling below a rock where three old women chattered in Polish as they sunbathed unselfconsciously in underpants and enormous bras. Pale young people with pierced brows scuffled through the grit while their dogs, leaping at the water’s edge, miraculously were not swept away by the current, did not slice their paws on the broken glass, did not trap their heads between the rocks but instead barked cheerfully at the kayak. What did those dogs see, Bianca wondered, when they pushed their heads into the salty dark water? She ferried around a rotted piling, counting barnacles, seahorses, little blue crabs. The thing about that beetle, she thought, the question about that beetle was . . .
Of course this wasn’t science; what she did was something different. In her work as a consultant for a conservation group, she tried both to describe the natural history of a site as it existed now, and also to show the old life lying beneath the new. Some of the fieldwork she still did herself, relying for the rest upon information gathered from local experts and from old maps and photographs. All this she wove, along with her own drawings, into reports that helped the group’s directors decide whether to buy and preserve certain sites.
Recently their interest had turned to urban environments— small scraps of land, not too badly battered, complex but vigorous.
At forty-three—she often felt older—she still found it astonishing that she could make a living this way. In Albany, near the conservation group’s offices, she owned a tired red house. She had a bank account and furniture, if not the children she’d once yearned for or the taproot sunk into a single place and set of relationships. She had friends, and a lover of sorts, and she lived near enough to her sister, Rose, to visit occasionally. Surely, she thought, as she beached her kayak, this was enough, and more than she might have expected after her unpromising days in the other Williamsburg.
In that other Williamsburg, a village in western Massachusetts, she’d lived during most of 1980 in two rooms of an old house in bad repair. In front were large shabby flats, occupied by a young couple on the bottom floor and another, complete with an infant, on the top. Her little cave was around the back, a lean and mingy addition. A week after she found that place she also found a job: evening shift, three to eleven, at a box factory in Northampton. There a machine took sheets of corrugated board from her hand, much as a dog might rake a bone, and ejected them, slotted and scored, from the other end. Someone else determined where the folds and slots should go; someone else cut the printing dies and chose the ink. In another part of the factory the sheets turned into boxes. All she did was feed the sheets, she was like a machine herself.
At the end of her shift she was shrouded in dust, her brows and lashes powdered, her throat sore and her hands cracked and bleeding. She made a good wage, with a bonus for evening shift.
The friends who weren’t really friends, but simply the people with whom she took her breaks, mocked her dinners of tofu and sprouts and rightly suspected her of other peculiar traits. College she admitted to, but not her brief stay in graduate school. Nor would she mention the earlier years when she and Rose, ungainly girls, had investigated everything.
Mice and bugs, chemistry, the way planets moved in the sky and protons called out to electrons; Rose had continued along that path, delighting in her growing powers, but Bianca had lost her way. If the world came to look like a giant cadaver, her mind a scalpel slicing through it, did that mean there was something wrong with the nature of science itself? With her, people said, when she dropped out. Yet as soon as she left the laboratory the world sprouted greenly again.
For a while all she wanted was to see what lay around her, and in that new context, work was only what paid the bills.
In her remaining hours she did what pleased her, renting a plot at the community garden, joining the food co-op, haunting the library and checking out books that described without dissecting it some part of the natural world—ocean, flock of crows, field of corn—and which seemed to have no connection with her earlier life as an apprentice biochemist. She’d given that up, she had no regrets. But she was baffled by the reluctance of her next life, her new life, to announce itself.
In this Williamsburg, dusk began to fall as Bianca finished her day’s work and headed toward the road. Some of the squatters who’d built shacks from boxes and railroad ties were making supper, fetching water from a gushing pipe or lighting cooking fires. Near one arrangement of corrugated metal roofed with plywood and old tires, three men she often passed laid fish on a grill and nodded to her. She nodded back, as always. Then one, the shortest of the trio, unexpectedly stepped forward and asked in Spanish, “Why are you here?" Was he Mexican, Dominican, Ecuadorian? Earlier, pulling those fish from the river, he’d nodded at her but hadn’t spoken; they never spoke except in greeting.
“I’m studying the ground and the water,” she replied, in the awkward Spanish she’d learned years ago while living with a painter in Costa Rica. “Making a map of where the plants and animals live.” “You will get us thrown out,” he said, gesturing at her notebooks.
“I don’t mean to,” she answered. She held out a drawing of a piling honeycombed by shipworms and said, “This is what I look at. Things like this.” The man poked at the paper, as if trying to probe the creatures’ tunnels. Then he shrugged and gestured at the fence, from which road-maintenance crews had recently stripped mounds of wild grapevine. Each time the crews attacked the mesh, they’d exposed more of the lot to public view until now, as Bianca belatedly noticed, anyone coming down the road could see the squatters clearly.
One of his companions called, “Alejandro!” just as he asked, “Did you tell them to take the vines?” “Not me,” she said, but he’d already walked away.
Why, she wondered, would he blame her? She’d worked carefully around the squatters, never disturbing what they’d built, accepting them as one component of the lot’s natural history. As she pushed through the fence and moved down the littered street, she tried briefly to imagine Alejandro’s life.
Half-entranced, she didn’t notice the people on the sidewalk across from her building, gawking up at the second-floor windows next to her borrowed apartment, until the Albanian owner of the liquor store said something harsh and pointed at a figure framed by open curtains and backlit brilliantly as he played his guitar: Jeffrey, that annoying boy.
Short-sleeved bowling shirt, long baggy shorts hanging low on his hips, unlaced high-tops and black hair gelled into spikes; everything right for a budding rock star except the notes.
One of the other exasperated tenants claimed that Jeffrey had been an underwear model—the same brand that rose so aggressively above his shorts—and then had invested in a dotcom and gotten out before the crash, leaving him comfortably able to slip the crooked landlord a little extra. Insulated against the tenants’ complaints, he played incessantly, torturing the same lugubrious phrases for hours: arrhythmic, pitch deficient, improvisationally uninventive. At first she’d told him, gently, that she could hear him through their long shared wall. Later she’d told him more firmly that the noise made it hard for her to work; then had begged, implored, threatened, wept, and finally resorted to stuffing bitter notes beneath his door. Now they were no longer on speaking terms.
In the kitchen, where she heated leftovers, the sound was so loud that Jeffrey seemed to be playing directly across from her stove. Yet in the bathroom, when she went to wash her face, the sound was even clearer. Perhaps he was pacing as he played, shadowing her steps. She crouched on her bed; she tried to read; she tried to convince herself that what she felt was pleasure rather than pain. Finally she retreated to the shelter of her heavy headphones—Mahler, she’d found, was particularly good for drowning out Jeffrey—and settled down with some old maps she’d printed from the library’s microfilm. In her notebook, near a copy of a lot plan, she wrote about the piers and warehouses and rail lines that had flourished along the Williamsburg waterfront at the turn of the twentieth century.
This was her work, it was what she had; she could remember only vaguely wanting other things. Absorbed in her maps and correlations, she scribbled happily. Around eleven, though, the floor beneath her feet began to shake and a glass leapt out of the cupboard. Jeffrey’s new amplifier: He had to practice with it, he’d told her, this was essential to his art. She took her phone and ran down the vibrating staircase and into the quiet street. From a doorway she called Wade, her on-again, off-again, ever-amiable although not always available lover in western Massachusetts. Indeed he’d be home for the weekend, he said. And free, and delighted to see her. She might come tomorrow and stay through Sunday night, and would she bring some of the bagels he especially liked? Outside Amherst, Wade lived with his dog in a small house that was almost silent, wonderfully isolated, exactly what she’d dreamed of but couldn’t afford when she’d lived in this area years ago. Each time the dog, whose name was Drummond, rose from the foot of the bed and shifted into a new position, Bianca too woke for a minute and reveled in the sound of the creek that ran beyond the back of the house.