A New Year for Hildy Mercer
A New Year for Hildy Mercer
by Harry Buschman
I’m sure you've heard it said that the first time you fall in love you set a standard by which you measure all the loves that come after. I suspect there may be truth in it, at least it’s been true in my case. Hildy was the first and only woman I've ever loved.
I am not a writer and it is beyond my power to express the loss I feel sitting here with Hildy's mother and brother staring at her closed casket. I can't believe she is in there, a woman of such talent and promise. How can it be over ...
The three of us are together, but each of us has a private grief. We hardly know each other. We are not able to comfort each other or give each other support. I look at them ... her mother and her brother, they are strangers to me. We loved her in different ways, and each of us will mourn her differently. But Hildy, Hildy herself is the reason we are here.
She barely reached her potential. Her startling success as a sculptress at the age of twenty-five was unexpected. She was undoubtedly the finest sculptor to come out of the Art League in a generation, and her first commission for the American Ballet Theater would have kept her busy for years. It would have established her as one of America's outstanding sculptors.
She completed only two figures at the time of her death, one of Andre Eglevsky and another of Irina Baronova. They stand in the lobby of the State Theater in Lincoln Center. I went there to see them again this morning and in my mind’s eye I saw her in her plaster spotted smock, her fierce blue eyes intent on the clay–heard her talking to it as if it were alive as her strong hands molded it into life. I remembered feeling like a spectator, privileged to be a witness at the birth of a living thing.
She started with rough charcoal sketches of the dancers in rehearsal, from there to small plasticene models, and finally to the larger than life clay originals built on a wood frame. It was obvious she had studied her subjects well. Like Rodin, there were strange abnormalities of form, sometimes a shoulder twisted a bit too far, a hand turned more than it should be. It gave the figures a living quality–a tenseness, as if they were in a process of development and would change if you looked away.
There was no room in her life for personal attachments, and I accepted that gladly just to be near her. I broke off whatever I was doing and helped her whenever I could. I lived with the hope that she would need me in time. Love was too much to hope for, she had no time for that. I could only stand aside and wait for her to call me. She was resolutely and tirelessly dedicated to the Ballet Project and at the end of the day there was nothing left of her for anyone. She would collapse exhausted on the little stool that stood by the side of the clay bin and untie her jet black hair. Running her fingers through it she would say, "Take me home Phil, please, there's nothing left." I would drive her home and she would sleep beside me on the way.
It may be difficult for young people to understand, but this was a gentler time. A more romantic time. It was common for love to last forever in those days. "Making love" is a phrase you rarely hear today, we consider it quaint, and instead we call it "having sex." To people like me the act is cheapened by that expression. The verbs are important. The difference between 'making' and 'having' is as wide as the chasm that separates 'giving' and 'getting’. That's why her death is so painful to me. I have no one to give to any more.
Then "Yeasty" McNamara came along.
It wasn't like Hildy to involve herself with a woman like "Yeasty" McNamara. In the four years I knew Hildy, we kissed good night exactly three times. Once after a concert at Carnegie Hall; once when I arranged for the transfer of her bronzes from the foundry to the State Theater; and that final New Year's Eve when she told me about "Yeasty."
I thought I'd surprise her that New Year’s Eve. I arrived with a bottle of Piper Heidsick to celebrate the renewal of her commission with the American Ballet Theater. She took the bottle from me and came out in the hall for a moment. Then she told me she was spending the New Year with "Yeasty."
"Not just New Year's Eve," she smiled, "I mean the New Year." Then she brushed my cheek with hers and said, "I never wanted to hurt you, Phil," and smiled an almost mischievous smile, "But that's the way it is, Phil, that's the way it has to be."
Through the half opened door I could see "Yeasty" sitting on the sofa in a silk robe. One I'd seen Hildy wear before. When Hildy closed the door I stood looking at it a long time. Then I turned and walked unsteadily down the stairs to spend New Year's Eve alone. I expected the break might come eventually, but I didn't know it would hurt as much as it did.
I sensed trouble the first night we met "Yeasty" at Page's Diner. "Yeasty" got a job as a waitress there after she dropped out of the League. She studied magazine layout for a year but showed no talent for graphics. She was a thin, intense little woman with lizard-like eyes that never seemed to look straight ahead. She kept her pale blond hair tightly knotted in back like the tail of a trotting horse. In her second year her teachers advised her to do something else with her life, but because of the friends she had at the League, she decided to work at Page's diner across the campus from the art school.
Hildy graduated the year before "Yeasty" started, so they never met at school. If they had, I'm sure Hildy and I would have never been close. All I remember is that something very powerful–very special, passed between them at the diner the night we stopped for coffee. It was something that left me standing in the background like a spectator without a ticket. It wouldn't have surprised me if Hildy had asked me to leave. From then on the excuses began. "I can't see you tomorrow, Balanchine wants to see the sketches ... maybe Sunday. Oh, sorry Phil, Sunday's out too, I'm taking my mother to Armonk."
When you love someone blindly, you go to extremes, you do morbid things. I hated myself for checking on her. But I didn't care. I had to know. I would stand in the shadows and wait for "Yeasty" to appear when Hildy was supposed to be seeing Balanchine or taking her mother to Armonk. I grew to hate "Yeasty" with a jealous passion, hated the sight of her bouncing ponytail and her lizard eyes. For a time I seriously considered killing her.
I saw little of Hildy after that evening at the diner, and the reason I brought the champagne on New Year's Eve was for the past times and for her contract renewal, not for the times to come. I remember standing in the street and looking up at the yellow lamp in her living room window. While I looked the light went out. It was 11:30, not yet New Year's Eve. At the time it seemed to be the end of everything.
But there has never been an end to everything....
I had no idea "Yeasty" McNamara was married. What had seemed like a lover's rejection for me must have been overwhelming to her husband. That same New Year's evening, as I watched from the street below, he was there contemplating murder. As an infuriated husband might kill his wife's lover, Peter McNamara stood in the dark as I did and watched the light go out in the living room window.
After I left, he climbed the stairs to Hildy's apartment and rang her doorbell. When she answered it he shot and killed her. He left "Yeasty" untouched. Then he walked to the phone and called the police. I learned later they found him on the sofa, with his head in his hands and "Yeasty" trying to console him. A tragic way, indeed, to begin the new year.
So Hildy will be buried tomorrow, with the better part of her life unlived. Her brother is too young to realize what she might have achieved and what she meant to me. To him she was only an older sister. Her mother saw her as an unmarried daughter, an unfinished family business. To me it is as though the earth has given way under my feet, and there is nothing to stand on. The three of us will always share the loss of her...but in different ways.
She will be buried tomorrow, Monday, and Tuesday will be the first day of the trial. McNamara is offering no defense, he is instead pleading temporary insanity, for which the maximum sentence is twenty years. Who knows? In ten years he could be free again. I am not sure how I will feel in ten years, knowing he is free. But at the moment my mood is black, and if he were free today he would not live to see tomorrow.
I thought it best to write the preceding chapter as though it was happening in the present, in that way the reader might better judge me for what follows.
Peter McNamara was convicted and sentenced sixteen years ago.
Time has moved on. Hildy's mother died of a stroke three years after her death, and her brother, now grown and married, works for an investment firm in Chicago. I'm approaching middle age and by now I should have gotten on with my life. A reasonable man would have found closure and moved on to marry and raise a family of his own. The affair of Hildy Mercer, tragic as it was, should be a part of my past. But it isn't. The bronze figures of Eglevsky and Baranova still stand in the lobby of the State Theater. I visit them at the close of every day, and by looking at them I see her again. Every day I repeat the promise I made to myself at the sentencing of Peter McNamara sixteen years ago.
He will be released from Woodbourne Prison tomorrow. Woodbourne Prison is a minimum security facility 137 miles north of the city, a little less than a three hour drive. I have driven there many times in the past sixteen years. I know exactly where and what time of day the parolees are released. I've seen prisoners emerge, blinking in the sun, dressed in their second hand suits, taking their first steps with the parole officer and sometimes a member of their family. McNamara's wife will not be there, their marriage was annulled years ago. There will only be the three of us, Peter McNamara, the parole officer and me.
Some years ago I bought a .38 caliber revolver, a deadly looking thing in blued steel. I bought it for the occasion of Peter McNamara's release. It's not uncommon for an artist's agent to keep a revolver in his desk, I have a spotless police record and there was no problem getting a permit. I loaded it for the first time this morning, I wanted no mistakes at the last minute. It's lying ready, next to me on the passenger seat and I've rolled the passenger window down so nothing will be in the way. It should be any moment now...
I wait less than ten minutes, the small door opens and a beefy man steps out into the sun. He's a parole officer I've seen before. He stuffs a manila envelope in his brief case then holds the door open to let Peter McNamara through.
But my God! That can't be Peter McNamara. The man is old enough to be my father. He supports himself with an aluminum crutch under his left arm and he blinks in the sun as a man might do coming out of a dark room. A dark gray suit, a world too large for him and his neck too small for the collar of his shirt. His tie is crudely knotted and pulled askew. He carries a baseball cap in his right hand and he puts it on hastily to shield his eyes from the sun. But before he does, I can see he has no hair and his ears stick out from his head like those of an animal. What has happened to him? I thought he would look the same. I glance at the gun beside me and I realize it is useless. The man is already dead. Sixteen years of prison has killed him.
The two men make their way slowly to a car parked at the curb. The beefy man opens the door and helps Peter in. I know my chance has come and gone, but I couldn't bring myself to shoot a dead man. They drive off slowly in the direction of the city.
I follow for a while until, out of the corner of my eye, I notice the .38 caliber revolver still lying on the seat beside me. I pull over and cut the engine. I pick up the gun and balance the dark deadly heft of it in my hand. A moment ago it seemed to be the answer to everything, but I'm not sure if I remember the question. Almost reluctantly I remove the clip and put them both in the glove compartment.
What was I thinking of? Sixteen years has changed everything! Neither of us, neither Peter McNamara nor I are the men we were. I lay my head back on the seat and close my eyes. I think of Hildy one more time and I say to myself, "It's time, Phil, it's time. The story is over. The people have all gone home. It's time to close the book and live what's left of the rest of your life. Even love has a final page."