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By Nightfall By Michael Cunningham: Excerpts #1

May 3, 2011
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She sighs, settles her hand lightly on his knee, looks out the window at Eighth Avenue, up which they are now not moving at all. Rebecca is a strong-featured woman—who is often referred to as beautiful but never as pretty. She may or may not notice these small gestures of hers, by which she consoles Peter for his own stinginess.

*

Peter sees, thinks he sees, that one of them, one of the four clamoring in the backseat, is actually an old man, wearing what must be a spiky black wig, shouting and shoving right along with the others but thin-lipped and hollow-cheeked. He noodles the head of the boy stuffed in next to him, shouts into the boy’s ear (flashing nuclear white veneers?), and then they’re gone, moving with traffic. A moment later, the nimbus of sound they make has been pulled along with them. Now it’s the brown bulk of a delivery truck that offers, in burnished gold, the wing-footed god of FTD.

*

But how can the divorce rate be, as they say, skyrocketing? How miserable would you have to get to be able to bear the actual separation, to go off and live your life so utterly unrecognized? “A mess,” the driver says. “Yeah.” And yet, of course, Peter is mesmerized by the ruined car and the horse’s body. Isn’t this the bitter pleasure of New York City? It’s a mess, like Courbet’s Paris was. It’s squalid and smelly; it’s harmful. It stinks of mortality.

*

When Peter reaches the table, she says, “I can’t believe I’ve dragged you up here.” Yes, she is in fact irritated with him, for . . . agreeing to come? For thriving (relatively speaking)? “It’s fine,” he says, because nothing cleverer comes to mind. “You’re a kind man. Not a nice man, people tend to get the two mixed up.” He sits opposite her. Bette Rice: a force. Silver crew cut, austere black-rimmed glasses, Nefertiti profile. She was born to it. Jewish daughter of Brooklyn leftists, may or may not have dated Brian Eno, has a good story about how Rauschenberg gave her her first Diet Coke. When he’s with Bette, Peter can feel like the not-quite-bright high school jock putting moves on the smart, tough girl. Can he help having been born in Milwaukee?

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