I’ve probably read this brief story twenty, maybe thirty, times, and each time I am taken in by Leo Brady’s bottomless sorrow, his love for a woman who never, ever loved him back. And then, always, every time, I am surprised by his scornful attempt (in the kitchen of the old studio apartment on Columbus Street, above the Garibaldi Club, sitting there with Eddie) at claiming some kind of victory over Clara Ruchenski because, in the end, he’s alive and she isn’t. But this doesn’t work either. Even when she’s dead, Clara wins.
After a while, he spoke to the floor. “It’s over me like a ton of water, the things I don’t know.”
Like a ton of water. The things I don’t know. That about says it. As each year goes by, I know less. Clara’s been dead how long? Since the fifties? But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m talking about this Gina Berriault story as though you’ve read it. And I talk about this story like it was one of my own memories, like it happened to me. But isn’t this what happens with those stories that we hold close? They become ours. We may not have even been alive when they were even written, but they’ve become ours, and we lug them like all our other memories, good, bad and otherwise – because we simply have no choice.
So this story didn’t happen to me, and yet it did. I remember it. A shabby studio, Columbus Street, North Beach, San Francisco, a woman in a bed, nearly raving.
And Clara is still dead, and still on my mind.
Leo Brady comes home from many months at sea. He’s excited to see his new wife, Clara, whom he married shortly before shipping out…But don’t get any illusions of a joyous reunion. Berriault demolishes any expectation of Leo’s happiness in the first paragraph:
My sister married Leo Brady because he was a merchant seaman and made good wages, and because he was gone most of the time. She and her five year-old boy had been living on the sales of her cable car etchings that tourists to San Francisco picked over in the little art galleries and bookstores, and on the sporadic sales of her oil paintings. They were married a few days after he came from sea, and a week later his ship sailed again for the Orient. In the six weeks he was away, the steamship, the steamship company sent her, at his request, all his wages. But the day that he returned was unrewarding for Leo.
Unrewarding. Yes, very much so. The story is told by Clara’s brother Eddie, and on the day in question, Leo’s return to the scene – Clara is lying in bed. She’s 26 years old, and sick, very sick. Yet she refuses to allow either Leo or Eddie call a doctor. Clara has such a hold – love mixed with fear – over both her husband and her brother that neither of them would dare to defy her. She’s in an extraordinary amount of pain, and yet, to the last, she hangs on to her sense of humor. “Going?” she says to Eddie. “Okay, and always remember to contradict your teachers. It makes good biography.”
Clara is one of those people, you know them, whose magnetism is so intense it can hardly be contained. Everyone seems to want to be near Clara Ruchenski. Even on her death bed, she’s a force of nature. And what could be more fascinating than the great unknown artist’s unraveling? Eddie and Leo can’t take their eyes off her. They are gathered around their dear ruin and all they can do is watch, listen, as Clara, increasingly delirious, delivers screed after screed. In one amazingly merciless speech, she describes Leo. She’s talking to Eddie, but Leo’s right there in the room, beside the bed, his black fedora in hand, shoes off so as not to disturb the patient by clomping around in his boots. Leo’s a lug of a guy.
“How simple are his wants. All he desires is to identify himself with artists. He married Clara Ruchenski because she’d had an exhibit in some dank little gallery and sold a painting once a year. How happy he was on our wedding night. I thought people didn’t get that happy anymore, not since before the Flood when everybody was a brute with a big, smiling face. No, no, I’m wrong!” she wailed, tossing her head from side to side. “I take it all back. I never did think like that about Leo. I’m not a snob. Please, Eddie,” she begged, “you know I’m not. You know me, don’t you, Eddie?”
Leo and I stood up
“I don’t hate him, Eddie. I mean I wouldn’t if I weren’t married to him. He’d be a big, sweet guy with respect for artists. That’s the way I used to think, and I slept with him a few times, too.”
A page later, Clara is dead. Leo takes a bus across the Golden Gate Bridge and scatters her ashes in Muir Woods. Even so, Clara’s voice echoes across the remaining four pages, and in my memory. How can anyone forget someone like Clara? Eddie tells us that his sister was terrified by the idea of obscurity and anonymity. It’s easy to cast stones at her, but, lets be honest, what artist – anybody really – can’t relate to the fear of dying unrecognized, your life’s work hauled out to the curb on trash day? The best you’ll do maybe is a tiny obituary paid for by your family? Whether you’re an artist or an accountant, how much of what you do will last? Clara’s young, far too young, but not so young not to believe in her soul that her dreams are going nowhere.
And yet this story is, ultimately, not about the artist’s ego; it’s about how we mourn. A brutal story turns oddly tender. The most devastating moment has to be when her five year-old son Mark comes home from school holding his little red school bag and Clara, clinging to life at this point, doesn’t recognize him. She is yelling out the window at the Chinese boy who is sitting in front of the fish and poultry shop across the street killing pigeons. One after the other, the boy is pulling pigeons out of a box and slashing their throats and Clara can’t take it anymore. “…her voice thin, bewitched, like that of a pigeon granted a human voice in the last moment of its life.” The kid watches his mother and weeps.
It emerges after her death that Clara Ruchenski died of an apparently botched back alley abortion. She was bleeding to death internally in that bed as she ranted. Leo tells Eddie he can’t understand it. He can’t see why she would have wanted to get rid of his child so badly that she’d risk everything. We could have afforded nine kids, Leo says. “She didn’t need to worry.” Leo will never understand very much. He’s just like Clara says, a big, sweet limited guy with a good job who loved to love artists. And in the end, like I say, he’s alive and she’s not, and yet he still can’t stop thinking about her – loving her. But Leo doesn’t have to get it. We get it. Clara’s gone. Whoever she was or wasn’t, whatever truths or lies are told about her, she’ll always be gone from now on. But not gone too. That’s the amazing thing. Grief – Leo’s, Eddie’s, Mark’s, mine – keeps her power intact. Everything else – including the question why we’ll never shake her, she who lived only a few glorious pages in a book I put back on my shelf – is a ton of water.
“Around the Dear Ruin” from Women In Their Beds (Counterpoint Books, 1996)
photograph by Gabriele Basilico