Cantata 140

by Jane Meyerding

Mrs. Bernstein had been waiting for several minutes already when she saw little Mrs. Foote scurry around the far corner, heading for the bus stop. "Damn," she said under her breath, and stepped back closer to the wall of the Hair Apparent Beauty Salon. There was a chance, at least, that Mrs. Foote wouldn't see her there. With luck, she would catch like a burr on one of the people standing between them - on the blowzy young blonde, perhaps, with a grubby-faced infant in a stroller and puffy flesh escaping from every gap in her too-small clothing. Or the thin, dirty man of unguessable age carrying a scruffy bedroll, his mongrel dog staring up at him from the other end of a white string.

Where do they come from?, Mrs. Bernstein asked herself again. And where are they all going? It was Mrs. Bernstein's habit to collect bus passengers like objets d'art and display them proudly to her friends. Within her own circle, she was well known for her brilliant little stories. "You really should write that down," one or another of her friends would tell her at frequent intervals. "I'm sure you wouldn't have any trouble finding a publisher. Yes, I mean it, you really should be a writer - don't you think so?"- appealing to the others at the party or the luncheon table. And everybody would agree.

Mrs. Bernstein would laugh modestly, though, and say that all writers are philosophers at heart. She would quote Stravinsky: "To be deprived of art and left alone with philosophy is to be close to Hell."

"I love to watch people," she would continue, "and, well, I do seem to be a noticing sort. But music is my passion, my one true love." And then, tactfully, she would change the subject.

At lunch that day with Phyllis and Mary she would say, "I saw that man and his dog again this morning on the 43. No, they don't live in the neighborhood. I suppose they take the 6 from downtown and transfer to the 43 for some reason. You know, there's something positively transcendent about the quality of attention that dog gives its owner. It almost makes you think the dog must know something the rest of us don't. Some day that man is going to, I don't know, move or speak or, or erupt, or do something, anyway, of enormous significance. And everyone will miss it except that dog, because he's the only one paying attention."

"Hello there! Hello! Hello!" It was Mrs. Foote, chirping shyly up at Mrs. Bernstein's left ear. With an inward sigh, Mrs. Bernstein accepted the inevitable. "Good morning, Iris. Going shopping?"

Mrs. Foote clutched to her rumpled calico front a folding two-wheeled shopping cart.

"Mr. Foote wants some haddock from that fish market on 47th street," confided Mrs. Foote. "Between University and Brooklyn," peeping up at Mrs. Bernstein to make sure no further information about the market was required.

"Here comes the bus," said Mrs. Bernstein. Please God there aren't two seats together, she added silently to herself, turning her eyes resolutely away from the irritating spectacle of Mrs. Foote searching helplessly through her large handbag for the coins to pay her bus fare. Try as she might, however, she couldn't help but hear the muffled squeaks and urgent panting that accompanied the search.

"...a nickel, now...I'm sure there was....oh dear, oh dear... is that dear...."

Every time!, thought Mrs. Bernstein. She does this every single time she takes the bus! It's incredible. Who would believe the two of us are the same age. I ask you, who would believe it?

Mrs. Bernstein calmly settled the leather strap of her bag more securely on the heather tweed shoulder of her tailored pantsuit and stepped gracefully onto the bus. Ebullience, emotion, excitement, enthusiasm, fervor, these were the treasure of Mrs. Bernstein's life, the lodestar of her questing spirit. But she could not tolerate fuss.

The bus was a 30, not a 43, and therefore, at the beginning of its route, entirely empty. "My, isn't this nice," beamed Mrs. Foote settling herself onto the seat next to Mrs. Bernstein. With a series of jerks and pats she arranged herself and her cart, ending up with her pilled and bulky sweater rucked up to the middle of her back, the cart half blocking the aisle, and her open handbag spilling its contents into the lap of her billowy housedress. "I always get on the first bus that comes along," she meanwhile chattered on, "but I'm always happy when it's a number 30. The 43 is always so crowded, isn't it? All those students, I suppose, and of course - oh my. Oh dear me. Just look, my poor purse, everything topsy-turvy."

The polite responding murmur in Mrs. Bernstein's throat died away as she glanced down at Mrs. Foote's lap. Several creased envelopes, an aged compact, a plastic comb, five or six dusty pill bottles, advertising leaflets, coupons both loose and clipped together, pencil stubs, a tiny notebook, two half-empty packets of tissue, an embroidered hankie, a tarnished tube of lipstick with a chipped white enamel rose on top, a leaking ballpoint pen from Hermann's Auto Supply -- Why?, Mrs. Bernstein asked herself. They don't even have a car. -- a glassine envelope containing two 14 cent stamps, a fat plastic crochet hook -- "Is that a J?" murmured Mrs. Foote. "Why, only last week I was looking for a J." -- a torn plastic sandwich bag with one raisin left inside, a large number of current and out-dated bus schedules, assorted rubber bands, a handful of Bandaids, a flat tin of aspirin, a little tube -- Ointment?, wondered Mrs. Bernstein. Glue? -- a pair of cheap and linty sunglasses with one earpiece missing, and a garishly-colored paperback entitled "Prayers for Every Day."

Fascinated and appalled, Mrs. Bernstein watched as Mrs. Foote restored each item to her handbag. She chirped and clucked softly as she thrust the objects home and then, with only the prayer book left to go, turned to say, "And are you going shopping, too, Mrs. B?"

"No, I'm going to work. We're having a special program for the 60th anniversary of the cathedral, and I'm rehearsing the soloists this morning." As she spoke, the graceful counterpoint of the cantata's first duet welled up in her mind.

Wann kommst du, mein Heil?
The bride calls to her lover, the Soul to her Lord.
When are you coming?...I am waiting....

"Oh how nice!" Mrs. Foote exclaimed. "Sixty years! Isn't that wonderful!"

She paused to smile a cheery welcome to a classful of preschoolers boarding the bus, and then continued more softly, "I suppose it's just as well you and your..., well, aren't married anymore. I mean....or wouldn't he mind? It being Episcopalian and him being, well...."

Craning her neck slightly, Mrs. Bernstein confirmed her suspicion that the traffic ahead was backed up from the freeway overpass. It would be a long, slow ride today. Really, she thought, those children should be made to stay in their seats. It isn't safe for them to be running around like that, not to mention the lack of consideration for other passengers.

"It's my job, Iris," she said. "Being the organist and choir director there doesn't make me Episcopalian, you know."

"Oh no, no, of course not. I just thought maybe.... But it's lovely, really, isn't it? Such a big church. Of course, I've never been inside, but...."

As Mrs. Foote burbled on and the bus crawled toward the freeway overpass, Mrs. Bernstein stared unseeing out the window and tried to let the music in her mind overwhelm and calm her irritation.

When are you coming, Lord?
I await thee, await with lamps burning bright.

Lyrical, some part of her mind remarked. The voice there: lyrical. Tender. Yearning.

Mrs. Bernstein trie d not to think about it anymore, but she still regretted accidentally revealing to one of her neighbors that she grew up Presbyterian and that the only Jewish thing about her was her failed marriage to Professor Bernstein. She liked being taken for Jewish. Except when very discouraged and self-doubtful, she felt she was Jewish. Being Jewish was her fulltime occupation during her marriage: she studied Judaism, she immersed herself in Jewish culture, she nurtured her pale anglo-saxon spirit on Jewish emotion, on Jewish chutzpah, Jewish exuberance, Jewish humor and Jewish despair. Mrs. Bernstein dressed Jewish, and her house was decorated according to her ideal of a warm yet intellectual Jewish home. If she fell in love with Professor Bernstein at least partly because of his Jewishness, her love for him was in no way diminished by the fact that she soon became much more Jewish than he was.

The Professor had left her five years before, after ten years of marriage, for a younger woman who was not a Jew. And although he gave the first Mrs. Bernstein financial support to augment her musical income, she still felt twice betrayed. He betrayed her as a husband, and he betrayed her as a Jew, leaving her vulnerable to exposure as a mere gentile, deprived of legitimate access to her chosen culture. Alone, she was a run of the mill non-ethnic like her neighbors.

Not the least of the burdens she had to bear as a result of Professor Bernstein's betrayal was the insistent friendship of kind, stupid Iris Foote. The neighbor who discovered Mrs. Bernstein's childhood secret made a special point of passing on the news to Mrs. Foote, of course. Mrs. Foote's husband Russell was known to be "difficult," and somehow that gave Mrs. Foote and Mrs. Bernstein something in common in the eyes of the neighborhood. Somewhere beyond the bounds of rational analysis the equation was made: having a former husband who is Jewish equals -- in emotional terms -- having an all-too-present husband who is "difficult." It should have made a difference that Mrs. Foote had three children and Mrs. Bernstein had none, but the Foote children didn't come home anymore, so the equation remained in balance.

The bus, now fully loaded, finally achieved the overpass and took its place in the long line waiting to cross Roosevelt Way. Two lights, at least, calculated Mrs. Bernstein silently. She sighed a martyr's sigh (I am waiting, I am waiting, sang the lovely voice in her mind) as she turned away from the window, ready once again to do her duty by little Mrs. Foote.

"...sure I have it here somewhere," Mrs. Foote was saying. "Yes, here it is," and she pulled a newsprint photograph out of her prayer book.

"I cut this one out of a newspaper they sent me just last week," as she handed the photo to Mrs. Bernstein, "but I have ever so many more at home. Real photographs, I mean, not just from the papers."

Mrs. Bernstein accepted the proffered clipping reluctantly. If she couldn't claim exactly an allergy to newsprint ink, she certainly could claim distaste for the state in which it inevitably left one's hands. So messy. The caption underneath the blurry gray and black square told her she was looking at "The Reverend Tom Williams administering inoculations in the bush, Africa."

"You can't see his face, really, in this one," apologized Mrs. Foote, tilting her head to the right as if trying to see Reverend Williams through Mrs. Bernstein's eyes. "He's really very nice looking. And so young! Of course, he got the call very early. He was eight when he started doing good works, and he preached his first sermon when he was ten."

Feeling oddly engaged by the affection in Mrs. Foote's voice, Mrs. Bernstein held the photo closer, trying to make sense out of the thickly-inked square. There, that was his face, she supposed, seeming to float above a background of leafy blackness. "You've met him?" she asked.

"Oh, no, no, not in person, of course. But I've heard all about him on the 'Good News This Morning' program -- on the Christian channel? at eight o'clock? -- and one time they even interviewed him. Only by telephone, of course, and it wasn't a very good line. But they showed pictures of him, too. As a boy, with his family, and preaching, doing good works, you know, visiting the sick and whatnot. It really made you feel you knew him. And they had pictures from Africa, too, of course. That's where his mission is. And whenever you send a love offering, even if it's only a dollar, why, they send you a picture. Isn't that nice?"

For the first time, Mrs. Bernstein suddenly was feeling something other than irritation towards Mrs. Foote. It was very unexpected, and it confused her. Those TV preachers were phonies, after all, enriching themselves at the expense of credulous, ignorant people. Mission, indeed! This Reverend Williams was probably no more than a badly-educated evangelist, a freak remnant of white cultural and religious imperialism in Africa, a self-righteous bigot doing the people of Africa more harm with his ideology than good with his inoculations. And yet, here was Iris Foote gazing devotedly into his photograph with an expression on her shapeless face that suddenly, absurdly, reminded Mrs. Bernstein of the dog at the bus stop.

Transcendent. Her own commentary revived in her memory and wound itself into the twining melodies of Bach's lovers' duet. Wann kommst du? sings the bride; and the bridegroom answers: Ich komme...Ich komme. I'm coming...I'm coming. Open the hall for the heavenly banquet.

The voices calling and blending.

But how silly, Mrs. Bernstein reminded herself, quite sharply. How absurd. How typically Iris Foote.

For her tzedakah, Mrs. Bernstein made quarterly contributions to Oxfam International because their work, as she told her friends, was based on a commitment to empowering the powerless rather than reinforcing dependency through charity. Iris's infatuation with Reverend Williams, on the other hand, was simply another example of her unalloyed silliness, her inability to think beyond the surface of even the simplest idea. So why, Mrs. Bernstein asked herself with unaccustomed lack of clarity, why do I feel so.... But even to herself she could not put her feelings into words. The music in her mind, usually a sustaining, reassuring background for her life of reasoned self-control, seemed louder, more intrusive this morning. The duet had ended, and the only words she could think of at that moment were the ones welling up in her mind with the beginning of the cantata's fourth movement.

The watchmen sing to proclaim the arrival of the bridegroom.
Zion hort die Wachter singen....
Zion - the bride - hears the watchmen singing,
her heart leaps with joy.
From heaven comes her Friend, resplendent....

But it was just too ridiculous, really it was, Mrs. Bernstein thought in a kind of panic, to be so moved by a stupid woman's affection for a banal and illusory relationship with a man who symbolized so much that was corrupt in the world. It's not true, she protested dimly to herself. It's nothing but lies, ignorance and lies. The romance of the foreign, the exotic, the unknown....

I have to say something, Mrs. Bernstein decided suddenly. I have to say something, anyway. She reached blindly into the disturbing muddle of her brain, and found only a profusion of images. The Reverend Williams "in the bush, Africa." Schweitzer, in Africa, alone at his organ, playing Bach, playing the piping, joyful dance of the cantata's second duet.

Mein Freund ist mein!
My Friend is mine -- at last! --
my Friend is mine....I shall with you
you shall with me, feed among heaven's roses.

In the bush, Africa. And in the background somewhere, the thin figure of Stravinsky, smiling.

A bubble of laughter ran shimmering and tickling up Mrs. Bernstein's spine, li ke the laughter she woke with, sometimes, after a lovely dream she could never quite remember -- but touched now by just the slightest tremor of hysteria. Iris Foote has a Friend! The thought should have been hilarious, but somehow it wasn't quite.

"I make donations, too, to a sort of mission work in Africa," she said at last. She spoke softly, hesitantly, looking down, and Mrs. Foote leaned toward her in order to hear. All at once, instead of two women sitting side by side on a bus, they became two women huddled together, their curved backs and bowed heads seeming to form a shell, a bower, around the Reverend Tom Williams. In the bush. Africa.

The stop-request bell rang as the bus started forward again. "And do they send you pictures, too?" asked the delighted Mrs. Foote.

"Oh no," said Mrs. Bernstein. "What in the world would I do with pictures of people I don't even know? Why, where would I put them?" The pictures in Mrs. Bernstein's house were paintings, carefully selected for the statements they made, for their contributions to the statement the house made.

"I usually put mine on the refrigerator door for a few days after they come," said Mrs. Foote. "And then, if Mr. Foote starts to...well, then I put them in my sewing basket, or in my prayer book" -- she patted it fondly -- "so I can take them out and look at them whenever I want to."

Despite herself, Mrs. Bernstein could not resist the happiness in Mrs. Foote's voice. A new image flashed through her mind. Her house, her warm and intelligent home, her Jewish home, but now with a large framed photograph standing on the dark wood of her beloved baby grand; a man's face gazes affectionately from the frame. Music: the unity of art and philosophy, experience and intellect, love and understanding. She smiles into his familiar stranger's eyes as she begins to play, and their inner voices blend in the cantata's final triumphant anthem of lovers united. No eye has seen, no ear has heard, such wondrous things.

Therefore in joy our songs arise....
- Glorious! Oh, glorious! -
We are consorts of angels.

"Oh my goodness, here we are already! Oh dear." Mrs. Foote fumbled hurriedly with her purse, her prayer book, her shopping cart.

Shocked out of her reverie, Mrs. Bernstein blushed violently and thrust the photo of the Reverend Williams back at Mrs. Foote as if someone had suggested she planned to keep it, to steal it.

"Oh yes, Mrs. B, I wouldn't want to lose that, now would I," said Mrs. Foote as she carefully replaced the picture in the prayer book and then forced the book, all anyhow, back into her bulging handbag. "Are you getting off here, too?"

"What?" Mrs. Bernstein glanced quickly out the window of the motionless bus. They had reached University Avenue, she realized, and most of the people on the bus, including Mrs. Foote, would be getting off here. "Oh. No. No, I guess I'll stay on till Campus Parkway and catch the 7 there."

Only with an effort could Mrs. Bernstein produce the appropriately banal smile and tone of voice. Oh, to be in the cool solitude of the Cathedral already, alone with her organ, her wonderful organ, until the soloists appeared to begin the rehearsal. The day had been so well planned, with such a pleasing sequence of activities to anticipate. And now, she said grumpily to herself, I feel all...disoriented somehow. All...beside myself.

Mrs. Foote wrestled her stubbornly unfolding shopping cart out into the aisle and stood solidly next to Mrs. Bernstein's seat impeding, all unaware, the flow of people trying to leave the bus. Dowdy, thought Mrs. Bernstein. Hopelessly dowdy. She looks, she told herself with a flash of gloomy satisfaction, as if she hasn't bothered to think since she graduated from high school. And then, suddenly, But why on earth is she looking at me in that peculiar way?

"...sure it will be a lovely program, dear, you mustn't worry, now," Mrs. Foote was saying. "And why don't you just put in a little note with your next love offering to that mission you mentioned? I'm sure they'd be happy to send you a picture. Really, I'm sure they would. It can be such a comfort at times, a picture like that...."

"Look, lady, are you getting off here or not?" A large man with an angry voice was first in line behind Mrs. Foote's blockade of the aisle, and the bus driver was staring at her impatiently in his rearview mirror.

"Why, yes, yes I am. Is there some...oh, my goodness, look at me, blocking the aisle, aren't I? Sorry, very sorry, here I go, then, very sorry. Bye-bye!" And with a smile for Mrs. Bernstein, she trundled herself up the aisle. The angry-sounding man helped her get her shopping cart down the stairs of the bus after she'd refused, with profuse thanks, the driver's offer to let her ride down on the wheelchair lift. And then she was really, finally gone.

The welcome emptiness of the seat beside her helped ease the remnant irritability in Mrs. Bernstein's mind as the bus filled with new passengers and headed up the hill to 15th Avenue. When the bus continued straight across the intersection, however, instead of turning right as she'd expected, she felt briefly disconcerted again. Oh, of course, she muttered to herself, this is the 30, not the 43. Oh well, the walk will do me good. She pulled the cord and in a matter of seconds was stepping off the bus at 17th Avenue.

The number 7 bus to Capitol Hill pulled up to the stop at 43rd Avenue just a few minutes after Mrs. Bernstein arrived there. Back on track, she told herself, relieved; back on schedule again. She smiled gently as she nodded an older woman onto the bus ahead of her.

Iced tea, she decided as she sat down. I'll have iced mint tea with my lunch today. The cantata had given way to a different musical background in her mind, voiceless and self-sufficient, as cooling as the gentle current of air from the open window three seats ahead of her. When the bus reached the approach to University Bridge and picked up speed, the quickened breeze teased free a wisp of hair from her bun, and she was reaching up to tuck it back in place when she saw the ink, still a definite dirty gray, on the ball of each thumb. It's from that newsprint, she thought, suppressing a superstitious shiver of recognition; it's from that picture Iris showed me, that's all.

The bus reached the tree-shaded, leaf-roofed stretch of 10th Avenue, East. Mrs. Bernstein tilted her face into the dappled sunlight pouring through the window of the bus as through the stained glass glory of a cathedral. Curling each gray-marked thumb into the warm cave of her fingers, she closed her eyes and let the wisp of hair blow freely in the wind.

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