The Way of BeautyBy: Camille Di Maio
October 28, 1963
The stone birds stood at attention, as they had for more than fifty years. Their gray wings stretched in majestic neglect, aching to embrace whoever would venture to climb atop their perch over the entryway to the train station. Although a bustling Thirty-Third Street separated them from her third-story apartment window, Vera could see every detail. The scrolls of their chest feathers. The fierce grip of their claws.
Eagles, historic symbols of courage.
Did they know that their reign had come to an untimely end?
“Mama.” The word cut through the room’s silence. “Come away from the window. You shouldn’t watch this.”
Vera didn’t turn. There were only minutes left before the ordeal started, and she couldn’t tear herself away. Her hands clung to the peeling white paint of the sill, her bony fingers losing all color with every passing second. When she looked into the faces of the eagles, eye to eye, she saw her father, victim of the tunnels that ran underneath the station, and missed the way he used to make her laugh with one of his magic tricks. She remembered Angelo and how they’d met near those steps.
Now they were covered with construction workers in yellow hard hats.
Paid traitors to Manhattan, as far as she was concerned.
And her granddaughter was somewhere in that throng, cheering it all on.
Alice’s steps were light on the knotty oak floor. She dragged over one chair and then a second. She took her mother’s hand, patted the seat, and whispered, “Let’s do this together.”
Vera accepted the assistance. She sat down and rested her forehead against the single-paned glass of her prewar home. The heat of her breath created a small fog that grew and recessed with each movement. It was cold on the other side. Unseasonable. Like everything today.
Down on the street, protesters marched, workers waited, and police attempted to keep the peace.
The first of the jackhammers began, shooting sparks of fire that looked like tears. Then others followed, forming a raucous and discordant symphony. Black dust flew from their deadly iron drills, revealing the blush-colored granite that lay below the exterior of the regal birds, enshrouded with decades of grime. Their original beauty was uncovered in a final, futile attempt at salvation.
The two women gasped and held on to each other. Half a century of the city’s dreams resided within the station’s Doric columns.
Vera had jumped rope among the shadows that grew daily as the magnificent station was built. Her first real kiss had taken place underneath its cathedral-like glass ceiling. Her father had lost his life to it.
She knew Alice had her own memories. The ones she never spoke about.
Only Libby was missing from this requiem. Vera wished she didn’t think of her granddaughter with such disappointment. But it couldn’t be helped. The girl was infected with the same youthful fervor for New! New! New! that had plagued the city council.
Now they watched as the first of the twenty-two eagles descended on ropes and pulleys, slated to end their days wallowing in a swamp in New Jersey. The politicians stood next to it and grinned for the photographers like big-game hunters with a slaughtered prize.
Progress. All in the name of Progress, the newest god birthed in America.
The legislators were not alone in their guilt, though. There were other executioners. Airplanes and cars had replaced the profitability of train travel. The demand for a basketball court and concert venue for a vacuous public, ever hungry for showy entertainment, surpassed the regard for the hallowed spot where loved ones had once said their goodbyes to the men going off to war.
Nothing seemed sacred these days.
Vera couldn’t bear to watch any longer. It was like burying a piece of herself. She rose on shaky knees and asked Alice to help her to the bedroom, where she could close her eyes and be alone with her memories.
Alice adjusted the pillows as they both heard a knock at the door. Vera sat up to answer.
“I’ll get that,” her daughter whispered, giving her a kiss on the forehead before leaving the room.
Vera heard the unlatching of the chain and a young boy saying, “A message for someone named Alice.” Her daughter let out a gasp loud enough for Vera to hear from her bed.
“I’ll be right back!” Alice shouted.
The sound of the slammed door echoed down the hallway.
But she was gone for a very long time. When Vera woke up and sauntered into the hallway, she found a telegram on the floor.
My dreamer, it said. It’s been too many years. But I must see you. E.
So he was back.
Part One: Vera
The tangle of laundry lines reminded five-year-old Vera of the spiderweb that stretched across a corner above her mattress in the one-room apartment where she lived with Mutter and Vater.