Sophie Costello sat alone at the lunch counter in Albany’s Union Station, waiting for a cup of coffee. She heard a clock somewhere strike five. Around her people rushed—a train to Buffalo was departing and she saw a large man in a coat, weighed down by a heavy suitcase in his right hand, running lopsidedly toward the platform. Behind the counter, the waiter stood leaning on his elbows, talking to another customer while he waited for Sophie’s coffee to perk. She glanced out the window and saw Joe Brownschidle.
Before she could think about it, she found herself out on the street, threading her
way through the evening crush towards Joe. She could see him ahead of her, tall but slight as he’d always been, but she couldn’t catch up to him through the crowd outside the station.
It was amazing, really, that she had recognized Joe so easily. She had neither seen nor spoken to him in nine years—not since 1919, the year that the dam on the Herne River had been completed and the town of Willards Mill flooded. The year that she and Joe had been seventeen. Yet for all those intervening years, she had known Joe instantly and without doubt. Perhaps, she thought, nothing in the world changed as much or as quickly as you thought it did.
It gave her a queer feeling, seeing Joe Brownschidle in Albany, a town that still
existed. She understood—of course she understood!—that everyone she had known in Willards Mill lived in other places now, and led other lives. She could imagine those lives for her siblings and the friends with whom she kept in touch, but not for the others, those connections that had been broken when the town was evacuated. She knew there was a lake now where the town had been, and in her mind her old friends walked the watery streets and resided in their familiar flooded homes, as if they had never left Willards Mill and now conducted mysterious, subaqueous lives among the buildings that still stood under Herne Lake. As if she were the strange one, the one who had moved away and turned her back on the town.
She looked around her at the men with briefcases and the office girls stepping along in their high-heeled shoes. Wearing her sensible travelling suit, she felt dull and dowdy among these nicely dressed girls. There was Joe, waiting at the corner. She called his name, but the light changed and he walked on across the street, Sophie’s voice lost in the noises around them: automobile traffic and people chatting as they walked and the ringing of a telephone from the open door of a bakery.
The Willards Mill school had been in a whitewashed building on Clinton Street, near
the river. Yes, she could see it now, with its steeply pitched roof and the fenced schoolyard of packed dirt beside it. The boys had played baseball there. And Joe? He had sat at the front of the classroom, tall and quiet. She remembered that much for sure, but she couldn’t recall what exactly had made her decide to become friends with him. For that was how it had happened—she had decided one day that they would be friends, and then worked to make it true.
How had Joe seemed before she knew him? Impossible to know—she couldn’t work
backward in that way. Once she got to know him, she found that he was utterly unlike herself; he was deferential, careful, obedient, whereas her mother always told her she was too wild a girl by half. Would she have sought his friendship if she had known those things about him? Perhaps not. But by the time she learned them it was too late. Affection had come in uninvited and would not be budged.
The fall of 1917. In the time before the courts had ruled, when people were still
fighting against the dam, fighting for more money, fighting the state of New York. She would have been…. She calculated: fifteen. Yes, fifteen was right. And Joe the same age. That was when she had started working on him. There had been an exam and she had done poorly. As the students filed out of that little whitewashed building and into the hard schoolyard, she had turned to Joe and said, “That Mr. Dubois—Goddamn him!” She didn’t care so much about the exam; it was Joe’s look of open-mouthed shock she had been after. She had gotten it too—so precisely the look she had imagined that she couldn’t help but laugh. And what had she said to him then? Ribbed him, most likely; she had always ribbed him. “Oh come on, Joe! You ought to get out of that hotel every once in a while!” Something like that. That was how she had talked to him, in those early days when they were both fifteen.
Sophie’s breath grew short as she hurried after Joe up the State Street Hill. She didn’t want to call out again. The crowd on the sidewalk was thinning somewhat but there were still many people around them, people who had turned and looked at her the last time she called Joe’s name. She felt she was making a fool of herself. She thought of the cup of coffee that would by now have been delivered to her empty spot at the lunch counter, and then poured out or consumed by the waiter or served to the next customer who had sat down and asked for a cup. For a moment she regretted leaping up to follow Joe. It would have been lovely to have that quiet coffee alone, after the train and before the bus ride through the city to her sister Barbara’s place. Now she would still have to find a bus that would take
her to Barbara’s, she would have to be fussed over by Barbara, she would have to fuss in turn over her nieces and infant nephew, and on top of it all she would have to invent a story about how the train had been late.
It was unlike her to be running about like this, following a man through the streets of an unfamiliar city. As soon as that thought entered her mind, she realized it was not quite right. It was unlike her now, but it was very like the girl she had been when she was friends with Joe Brownschidle. Now she was an adult, an unmarried woman who lived alone and had to be careful with her money. She cared for someone else’s children; she mended her dresses; she made herself cups of tea on the gas ring in her room. When she had time off, she took trains to the places where her siblings lived, wearing the tweed suit she had on right now. She enjoyed those visits. She was, she thought, reasonably content.
But she had once been a girl in Willards Mill. Strange—shocking, almost—to try to
recognize herself in what she remembered of that girl. She was like an entirely different person. Perhaps that girl too was still in Willards Mill, drowned with the town, living under the lake with the rest of Sophie’s lost connections. She ran through the flood, said what she pleased to anyone, went out alone in the underwater night. She got herself and underwater Joe into trouble and then talked the both of them right back out, just as she had done when the town was above water. Of course she was still there. Where else could the lost girl have gone? How else explain how she had disappeared so completely? All that she had done she
was doing still, while Sophie in the world above had grown up, changed, learned to worry about what others might think of her. Sophie had not thought of that girl, perhaps, for even longer than she had not thought of Joe Brownschidle.
There was so much and it was all so jumbled. Her memory was blurred and seamed,
full of things that could never be confirmed, places that could never be gone back to. Had it been in the early weeks of 1918 that Joe had come bounding out of the hotel, had flung himself down the steps just as she passed? That had been the first time they really talked—not just her bantering and needling him, but talking, really talking, the way they would come to talk so much. She couldn’t remember exactly when it had happened or precisely what they had talked about, but she remembered gangly young Joe flying down those stairs, and how startled she had been—as though a great bird had flown at her.
Themes had emerged as they talked to each other, refrains that came back again and again. She would not have imagined, before knowing Joe, that it could be harder to live as part of a little family—four quiet people in a big hotel, with a father prosperous enough to own a big hotel—than it was to live as she did, eight Costellos crammed into a two-room house next to the shell of the old lumber mill, older sisters always pushing her to the edge of the mattress at night, older brothers coming home tired and irritable after the work they did in dairy barns and cider presses. Yet Joe struggled with his family in a way that she did not with hers—his parents had expectations; he chafed under them; he talked to her about all the things he couldn’t talk about to them. Somehow, it seemed that the differences in their lives were the thing that made it possible for them to confide in each other. He didn’t know what it was like to be able to hear every word spoken in the house by every member of a family, so she told him. She didn’t know that it was possible to feel trapped in a building with 37 rooms; he tried to explain it to her. They talked about everything, and when the news of the dam arrived in town they talked endlessly about that, and the changes that would come, their uncertainty about the shapes their lives would take and their desire to determine those shapes for themselves.
They had walked as they talked, through all the streets of Willards Mill, along the
Herne in summer and fall, through the fields and hills outside of town in the spring. They were seen walking together—of course they were. “He’s my friend! Just my friend!” Sophie recalled saying to her mother. It had been hot in the kitchen on the day she said it. She remembered heat pouring from the stove, her damp hair falling across her forehead. Baking bread in midsummer, maybe. And her mother had not answered her, had just smiled a little knowing smile while her sister Mary Alice had giggled. Sophie’s friends were the same, joking with her about having landed such a catch, their voices softly teasing, their eyes hard with envy.
Sophie did not know—had not known even then—whether Joe was also teased
about her. His parents would not have been delighted to see their promising young man ensnared by a girl who lived in a shack with five siblings and his friends would have teased him much differently than hers did, but if they did he shielded her from it. For all that they talked to each other, they had never talked to each other about the way the rest of the town saw them.
Sophie watched as Joe, ahead of her, turned right off of State Street onto a block of
tall brownstones. She followed. Windows were lit in some of the houses, and as she passed by she caught glimpses of the lives inside: the corner of a bookshelf; a mantel with a mirror hung above it; a woman in a brown shirt, carrying a baby wrapped in white. She wondered if Joe was going home to a house like one of these, where the door would open onto warmth and the smell of supper in the oven. She imagined him being greeted by a wife as tall as he was, and children that clustered and cried, “Papa!” when he arrived. If she caught up to him, would he invite her into the warmth, the familial scene?
Perhaps he was not married, and was walking now to a bachelor’s apartment,
something dim and small, not quite clean because the woman only came once a week and that had been on Tuesday. Perhaps he would be too embarrassed to show it to her and would offer to buy her a coffee instead so they could catch up. That would be fine too; that would be fine.
A man came down the sidewalk the opposite way, wheeling a handcart loaded with a chest of drawers. First Joe then Sophie had to step sideways out of his way. As they did she waved, just a little, thinking she might catch Joe’s eye. She should have called—he would have heard, there wasn’t too much distance between them now—but her voice stayed in her throat. The man with the handcart passed on, taking his chest of drawers who knew where. Joe was already at the next corner; Sophie had fallen behind.
But no, she could still see him—it was all right. As she watched Joe half a block
ahead of her, Sophie tried to remember when she had last heard from him. She couldn’t recall a date, or even the year. There was no event to pin the memory to. There had been letters after they left Willards Mill, she knew that. She could see them, lying and waiting for her on the little table in the hallway of the rooming house in Philadelphia where she had moved with Mary Alice. The Lewis County postmarks had jumped out at her, and then she had run upstairs to open the letters alone in her room. She had written to him too, but it hadn’t been the same. The things she would have described to him died when she tried to put them on the page. They had written to each other regularly right up until they stopped writing to each other. They hadn’t argued, or lost one another’s addresses, or decided it was better to stop writing; they had simply stopped and never started again.
Sophie was surprised to find, as she made her way down the unfamiliar street, that
she couldn’t remember whether it had hurt to lose Joe. Had she felt grief when it became clear there would be no more letters? Had she felt guilt or betrayal? Perhaps, she thought, she hadn’t felt anything like that at all. Perhaps she had just stopped thinking about him. There had been so much else to think about in those years when she was young and building her life.
There was an afternoon that she remembered with perfect clarity. A day in early
spring, near the end. Seventeen years old, she and Joe had been talking about the flood, the future, about leaving. It was all they talked about—it was all anyone in Willards Mill talked about at that time. Joe had interrupted her suddenly and asked if she had ever seen the dam. Neither of them had. “I think we should,” he said. “We can take the trap.”
He had harnessed the horse and driven them briskly westward through the
narrowing valley, the river rushing along to their right. Sophie remembered being cold as the wind picked up, wishing she had thought to bring a blanket from the hotel to put over her knees. And then they could see it. They got down from the trap and climbed a little rise above the river. Sophie had thought so much about the dam, but for some reason had never thought to imagine what it looked like. She was shocked by its size and by the blankness of its wall. It towered over the valley, a brute and curving expanse of concrete. Workers swarmed about the base of the dam and along its top, but the wind carried away their voices and the sounds of their work; to Sophie and Joe the scene was silent, the dam faceless and voiceless and powerful.
They stood silently side by side, and Sophie felt a chill as the wind reached out like a hand and lifted her hair from the back of her neck. The wind, the raw spring day, the terrible mass of the dam—she felt a tautness, a charge in the atmosphere. And then without warning she felt things change. The tautness concentrated itself in the inch and a half of cold air between the skin of her forearm and the skin of Joe’s.
The hairs on her arm bristled; she felt that she was breathing electrified air.
They stood beside each other, not touching and not speaking, until Joe turned to her and said, with tenderness, “I’ll have to go with them, you know. We’ll be leaving each other.” He meant his family, and yes, she did know, had always known that he would go with them. But now, now that he had said it out loud, unprompted, on this hill by the dam—now she also knew that whatever she had felt in that inch and half of air, he had felt it too.
The light faded around Sophie and she wondered what exactly she was doing. She
had been trying to catch up to an old friend and say hello, but that was no longer it. She and Joe were alone now—the only walkers left on this leafy residential block. She could have called his name, but she stayed quietly behind, following him. It came to her that this walk was a distorted reflection of all the walks they had taken together in Willards Mill—no longer walking together, but silently following each other as the shadows grew long.
A door opened across the street and Sophie watched as a woman came out and
hurried away, her shoes tapping against the sidewalk. She had been friends with Joe
Brownschidle for only two years. Such a tiny fraction of her life! There was no one she talked to now the way she had once talked to him: daily, minutely, charting every fluctuation of each other’s thoughts. She had her friends, of course—the girls in the rooming house she ate supper and gossiped with in the evenings, the neighbor she greeted every day when they left for work at the same time. She had her sisters and brothers, with whom she exchanged letters and visits and the occasional chat on the telephone. But there were things she once would have told to Joe that she now kept to herself. She had not noticed that difference until
The fading light, the coming of darkness—they worked on Sophie. There had been
another time, one last time, after that visit to the dam that had changed things between her and Joe. In fading light, she and Joe had stood on a bridge over the Herne. He had told her he needed to get home, and she had said no. The hotel was all packed up; he and his family were leaving in two days. So she had told him that he wasn’t going home yet, and, with darkness coming on, they had walked across the river to the empty stretch of land that had once been the Cranfield apple orchard. The trees had been dug up for their rootstock, but the sheds and cider press still clustered by the riverbank. They walked along the Herne and looked across the water at Willards Mill, until night closed down around them.
They sat down in the long grass by the entrance to the former cool room, and soon
after that Sophie lay down on her back and looked up at the sky. Joe surprised her by lying down too and together they watched the grey ghost-outlines of clouds as they passed in front of the stars and went on. In the darkness, the old orchard felt private, hidden, as though they had passed through a door and into a secret room.
“What are you thinking about?” Joe asked after a while.
“Oh, I don’t know. Nothing important.”
“Hmm,” he said. “I’m thinking about going away.”
“Oh Joe! Don’t think about that!” And, as naturally as her next in-drawn breath, she
turned her body against his so that her head and her hand lay on his chest. His arm came up and curled around her shoulder.
After a moment, Joe began to speak. It was all what they had talked about so many
times before: his family, their expectations, his own doubts and uncertainties. Sophie could feel his voice, a steady rumble in his body. She listened to the rumble, not to his words. She felt as though her body might melt into his, right there on the ground. Eventually he fell silent.
Sophie waited. The clouds moved overhead. The moment fell open before them.
“I know you want me to kiss you,” Joe said. “I can’t. I can’t. Don’t you see why I
And she had said nothing, had stayed still just where she was, clinging to him
without moving, until the two of them got up and walked quietly back across the bridge to town.
Under a streetlight on a quiet corner, half an hour after leaving the train station,
Sophie decided she was being ridiculous. She ran the few steps it took to catch up to Joe and took hold of his elbow. “Joe,” she said as he turned around.
It wasn’t him. She knew it the moment she saw the man’s face. She had seen that
face through the window of the train station and it had been Joe’s face. But here, in the dark on this strange street, it was the face of a stranger. She looked at him, and the lights began to blink out—the varied lights of possibility that had been kindled in her by the sight of Joe Brownschidle.
The man said, “I’m sorry, I think you have the wrong person.” His voice was polite,
higher and lighter in timbre than Joe’s.
She dropped his arm and took a step back. “I’m sorry. I didn’t— I thought—” She
stopped to collect herself. “I didn’t mean to bother you.” Her voice sounded loud in the quiet.
“No bother.” The man tipped his hat and turned away again, continuing towards
Sophie Costello stood in the street. She felt near tears. All this, she thought. All this,
all this. All this to have to find her own way back, all this to take a bus to Barbara’s house and play with Barbara’s children. All this to go upstairs and lie alone in the narrow guest bed. All this to be left alone in the dark.