Three Black Sweaters

by Donald Dewey




When Keenan graduated from law school, his father rewarded him with a one-month tour of Europe. Strolling by the Rome train station one evening, guilty he was so bored by what should have been a free adventure, he was accosted for a few lira by the Gypsies Danka and George. Keenan guessed Danka to be about 25; she had short blonde hair and a small tight face, and wore a blue polo shirt, jeans, and tan sandals that seemed a size too big for her. George looked older, in his mid-30s, with shaggy black hair and a few days' growth on his face; he smoked heavily and, July or not, wore a checked flannel shirt that made Keenan hotter just looking at it. One word led to another, and Keenan, tired of his own company after three weeks of museum tours through four countries, invited the two of them to dinner at a nearby trattoria.

Keenan hadn't heard of Polish Gypsies before, had associated Gypsies strictly with Hungary and Romania. George and Danka enlightened him, telling him about tinker traditions in Ireland, circus traditions in Poland, and bear traditions in India. The palm reading came after dinner. Since they couldn't pay for their meal, George insisted, they felt obliged to give Keenan's hand a free look.

Danka did the reading, with George sitting back to supervise over his wine. Keenan felt squeamish, wishing he'd gone to the bathroom first to clean his nails. His palm showed four things, Danka said as George nodded gravely. The first thing was that Keenan would live a long life and have professional success. Keenan smiled, knowing that every so-called clairvoyant had to say something like that. The second thing, according to Danka, was that Keenan would meet the love of his life underground. George contributed another solemn nod, but Keenan couldn't resist a crack about having to spend more time on the subways when he returned to New York.

Two children, one boy and one girl, Danka then declared, and Keenan was disappointed by her lack of imagination. Why not 23 boys and 46 girls? Or one boy, one girl, and something from another gender?

"And I also see three black sweaters."

Keenan waited for more, but Danka just smiled and folded down his fingers, signaling the end of her reading. There had been nothing arch or ominous about her pronouncement: She had seen three black sweaters in his hand as naturally as she might have seen them in some shop window, then had turned to George with her empty glass and motioned for him to share out what wine he had left.

"Three black sweaters?" Keenan asked, wondering if Danka's English, fluid as it was, wasn't the problem.

"Sweaters. They exist in America, yes?"

George laughed, and Keenan felt compelled to do the same. "But why black?"

"Black, yellow, green," she shrugged. "Your palm says black. Don't you like black sweaters?"

Keenan never saw Danka or George again after that evening. The black sweaters didn't go away so easily. Even after returning home and shelving them in the same memory drawer as his visits to the Vatican Museum and the Tower of London, he was aware of their presence. The most infinitesimal provocation -- someone wearing a black sweater, a tambourine that reminded him of Gypsies, some movie where Poland was mentioned -- was enough to send his thoughts back to Danka and George in Rome. There were ceasefires with his memory, too, such as the birthday he received a black cardigan from his fiancée. Keenan decided this was the meaning of Danka's reading --- that the black sweaters (for surely there would be two more of them somewhere down the road) symbolized Donna Sardi's love for him.

Keenan went on with his life. At his father's law firm he quickly mastered the personal and professional nuances needed to insure that another generation of Keenans remained the neighborhood's most effective legal hand for resolving testacy and real estate problems. Beyond that he parlayed casual conversations at neighborhood association functions into profitable contacts with county and city politicians. By the age of 30 Keenan had amassed six-figure savings in two banks and had little reason to doubt Danka's forecast that he would be successful.

The Gypsies also proved right about his family. Although he had known Donna as the daughter of the local undertaker, Joe Sardi, most of his life, Keenan had never thought of her romantically until they were thrown together one night at a neighborhood association meeting. True to Danka's prediction of a meeting "underground," the encounter took place in the basement of the parish church. A month later Keenan and Donna went to bed together for the first time; seven months after that they were wed in the upstairs part of the church. Their children came smartly --- Jennifer within 10 months, James a year and two weeks later. Neither Keenan nor Donna wanted more, but even when he thought about the Gypsies, he reassured himself, as he had back at the trattoria, that there was nothing exceptional about having two children.

But then one evening, with Jennifer and James already in school, Keenan and Donna came home from the annual association dinner and, tipsy giggly from wine and brandy, left her diaphragm in the medicine cabinet while making love on the bedroom rug. Keenan felt an eery relief in the news a few weeks later that Donna was pregnant; he had refuted the Gypsies in a crucial way. But then he lost the relief -- and more -- with Donna's miscarriage. In the midst of comforting her at the emergency room he was struck by a new thought -- that if the prospect of another child had released him from Danka and George, didn't that conversely mean that Donna's miscarriage had left him even more subject to their predictions?

It took Keenan some time to ascribe this stark notion to the symmetries of his legalistic mind and to refocus on more concrete tasks. Between his 30th and 35th birthdays he enlarged his (now deceased) father's firm by bringing in Beth Wynton and a law school classmate, Teddy Barclay, as junior partners. In his 13th year of marriage he had an affair with Beth. It lasted more briefly than their mutual procrastination about starting it and ended after a night in a Manhattan hotel room when they had lain together for a half-hour just staring at one another, wondering if they'd ever again desire one another as ardently as they just had, both waiting for the other to be the first to propose they try. Finally, Beth kissed him on the chest, got up from the bed, and padded into the bathroom. Three weeks later she resigned from the firm and moved to San Francisco.

With Beth Wynton's departure Keenan again began thinking about the black sweaters, this time not so much as an unfulfilled prophecy as the symbol of some personal irresponsibility. Everything else the Gypsies had said had come true, so why not the sweaters? What had he done or not done? The fact was, he admitted to himself one morning at his desk, he not only needed the three black sweaters visibly in his life somehow, he wanted to need them. Their appearance would confirm the clairvoyance of Danka and George, clinch for him that, down to his smallest satisfactions and most humiliating failures, he was part of something that had to be accounted for on some level outside himself.

As though energy alone would force the sweaters to reveal themselves, Keenan threw himself into his work with a fervor broken only by heavily liquid lunches and frequent stopoffs at Gregory's bar before returning home in the evening. Rarely did he walk through his door at eight or nine P.M. without having oiled the day with scotch or wine. He had never drunk so much in his life, nor had alcohol argued its harmlessness to him so strenuously. Was he the same man who had once tsk-tsked at Teddy Barclay's boast about his ability to attract clients over three-martini lunches? Keenan decided there was no contradiction: Somewhere along the line, he told himself more than once, he had acquired a flexibility that allowed him to circle all the other Keenans there had ever been.

Then the accident happened, on the second evening of his mother's wake. After saying goodnight to some cousins at Sardi's, Keenan spent a final moment alone before the casket, then crossed the street to Gregory's to meet up with other neighborhood association members for a nightcap. They had already gone home, but he had his nightcap anyway -- two of them, in fact, before the depressing stale beer odor and muttered bar conversations pushed him out the door and back over to Sardi's parking lot to retrieve his car. He was two blocks from home when he was hit.

At least that was his immediate impression -- that some kind of heavy object had come flying off a rooftop and landed on his fender. Even in acknowledging the form of a man that had been in front of his car a minisecond before, it didn't occur to him that he had done the hitting. As he got out from behind the wheel, he still felt like a bystander, peering over the grillwork to take in the motionless body sprawled out in the street. He was only vaguely aware of the people on the sidewalk. His eyes locked on the rips and stains on the raincoat of the man under his wheels and on the tattered shopping bag sitting in the gutter a couple of yards away. Only when a voice said the word cop did it dawn that he had run over a vagrant.

Then the man moaned and turned over. In the reflected light from the supermarket behind him Keenan saw there was a second layer of clothing under the raincoat, that it was a black pullover, and that there
were at least two other layers under the pullover -- all of them grazing the frayed collar of the man's yellow shirt.

Keenan lifted his hand. Another voice warned him not to touch anything. He felt the base of the vagrant's throat anyway, asking himself what was wrong, then realizing it was the lack of breathing, that the man wasn't expelling any hot air. He swallowed deliberately before flicking back the top pullover to see what was underneath. The corpse -- and that was what it was, he realized -- didn't move.

There were questions to answer, sobriety tests to pass, statements to sign. Keenan didn't mind: He had spent years fending off bureaucracies. The plainclothesman who invited him around to the precinct for a second round of questions after his mother's funeral acted bored -- and was still bored the following afternoon. Keenan knew leaving the police station he wouldn't have to see the detective again. After a few weeks even Donna accepted that they wouldn't be bothered again.

Keenan expected to be tormented by the accident, but there were no nightmares, no sudden sweats. What did nag at him were questions. Had the two sweaters under the black pullover also been black? Had any of them been black, or had all three of them been blue and merely looked black in the supermarket light? Donna wanted no part of such conversations, preferring to act after awhile as if the accident had happened to other people in other places. But Keenan also saw something new in her eyes, something he hadn't detected even during her strongest suspicions about Beth Wynton -- a judgment that he had failed her in some inalterable way.

What he took for disapproval soon made it impossible for Keenan to look at Donna, or to continue living under the same roof with her. After months of tears in the bathroom and behind other closed doors, of a far too cheerful Jennifer coming home from Yale without warning, and of a morose James announcing he wanted to switch from NYU to an out-of-town university, Keenan moved from the house to a studio apartment a couple of blocks away. To Teddy Barclay and others who suggested he seek professional help, Keenan confessed he felt more relieved than distraught, that for all the immediate sorrows of breaking up his family, he had also gained the consolation of feeling out on his own for the first time in his life.

And then the sorrows and the consolation evaporated -- replaced by a giddy, dizzying feel of drift not even Danka and George had prepared him for. A year after moving out of the house Keenan sold the firm to Teddy Barclay, set up trusts for Donna, Jennifer, and James, and flew to Paris. He had no specific itinerary, and didn't even indulge too often the fantasy of coming across Danka and George after so many years; at bottom, the Gypsies had become irrelevant to him. As it turned out, he didn't run across anybody at all in Paris; if anything, his solitary wanderings from the Louvre to the Eiffel Tower to Harry's Bar were like a delayed replay of his first European trip after law school. On his fifth day he ambled into a train station to see if some destination on the big Arrivals and Departures board called to him. Nothing did, so he got a ticket for the next train to leave.

He went as far as Bagnols, toured the town, then registered at the Hotel Chevalier. He liked everything about the hotel -- the young couple operating it, the food in the six-table dining room, the bright red-and-blue squares of the bedclothes. He stayed a week, then a second and a third week, spending his days on long walks out to the countryside and his evenings in leisurely meals at the hotel or at one of several nearby restaurants. By the end of the third week he had become a familiar presence for the card players at the Paris Café and the petaque players behind it. The hotel owners, Yvette and Arnaud, agreed quickly when he broached the idea of renting his room on a monthly basis at a lower rate.

As soon as Keenan committed himself to the room for a second month, everybody in the district seemed to move over a little to squeeze him into the town's daily routines. He showed his gratitude by buying a small piece of land two kilometers west of Bagnols and by hosting an all-day party to celebrate his new rustic status. The day after the party, still on the hunt for glasses left in the darkest corners of his new home, Keenan was assailed by the worst toothache in his life -- except that it immediately radiated out from his mouth to what felt like every inch of membrane covering his skull. He was already on the floor when he realized he was going to die. Fifty-six didn't seem that old. Maybe he had wasted too much time worrying about those three black sweaters? He had to laugh at himself with the strength that was leaving him. Suppose the vagrant had been wearing blue rather than black, after all? So what?  When all was said and done, Danka and George hadn't even interpreted his lifeline accurately. After all, he hadn't lived the long life they had predicted, he had lived a longer one.
TAR
The Adirondack Review
DONALD DEWEY has published 17 books of fiction and non-fiction. His awards include those named after Nelson Algren, Tennessee Williams, and the Actors Studio.