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A New Year for Hildy Mercer


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 may come after. I suspect it may be true, at least it is in my case .... Hildy was the first and only woman I shall ever love.

I am not a writer and it is beyond my power to express the loss I feel sitting here between 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 sit here, each of us with a personal and particular grief to bear. 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 mourn together.

She just barely reached her potential. Her startling success as a sculptress at the age of twenty-five was as outstanding as it was unexpected. She was undoubtedly the finest sculptor to come out of the 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  artists.

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. I went there to see them again this morning and it seemed I could see Hildy in her plaster spotted smock, her fierce blue eyes intent on the clay .... hear her voice talking to it as though it were alive .... her strong hands molding the clay into life. I felt as if I were a spectator privileged to bear witness to the birth of a living thing.

Her work began with rough charcoal sketches of the dancers in rehearsal, from there to the small plasticene models, and finally to the larger than life clay original built on a wooden armature. 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 slightly larger than it should have been. It gave the figures a living quality, as though they were in a process of development -- would change if you looked away and be different when you looked again.

There was no room in her life for personal attachments. I accepted that gladly just to be with her. I would break off whatever I was doing and help her whenever I could. I guess I clung to the hope that she would need me in time. Love was too much to hope for, she was too committed to her work. I could only stand aside and wait for her to call me. She was resolutely and tirelessly dedicated to the Ballet Project, it took all her time, and at the end of the day there was nothing left of her for me or 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, 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. This was a gentler time, a more romantic time. It was common for love to last forever. "Making love" is a phrase you rarely hear today, we back away from it and call it "having sex," and to people like me the act is cheapened in the translation. The verbs are important. The difference between 'making' and 'having' is as wide as the chasm that separates 'giving' and 'getting.' Perhaps 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 become involved with a woman like "Yeasty" McNamara. In the four years I knew Hildy, we had 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. 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 she 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 and showed no apparent talent for graphics. She was a thin, intense little person 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. Somewhere in her second year her teachers advised her to do something else with her life and because of the friends she had made at the League, she decided to work for a while 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 never have been as close as we were. All I know is that something very powerful, very special, passed between them at the diner the night we stopped there 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 the things I did -- for checking on her. But I didn't care. I had to know. I would stand in the shadows and wait for "Yeasty" to come down the street 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. As I got to my car 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.

There has never been an end to everything ....

I had no idea "Yeasty" McNamara was married. What had been a lover's rejection for me must have been an overwhelming blow 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 the door he shot and killed her. He left "Yeasty" untouched. Then he walked to the phone and called the police. They told me 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.

She 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. I ask myself how I feel. To me it is as though the earth has given way under my feet, and there is nothing to stand on .... nothing at all. The three of us will always share the loss of her -- but in different ways.

She will be buried tomorrow, Monday -- and Tuesday is 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 story 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 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 three hours -- I have driven the route 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 waiting 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.

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 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, his neck too small for the collar of his shirt. His tie is crudely knotted and pulled askew. He carries a woolen cap in his hand and he puts it on hastily to shield his eyes from the sun. But before he does so, 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 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 resting on the seat beside me, so I pull over and cut the engine. I pick up the gun and balance the dark deadly heft of it in my hand -- it seems to be the answer to everything. But I'm not sure if I remember what the question was. Almost reluctantly I unload it and put it back in the glove compartment.

What was I thinking of? Sixteen years has changed everything! Neither of us, neither Peter McNamara nor I are what we used to be. I lay my head back on the seat and close my eyes, and I think of Hildy one last time and I say to myself, "It's time Phil, it's time. The play is over. The cast has 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."

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