The line goes quiet: He's stopped talking, and I realize I'd stopped listening. "How are the kids taking it?" I ask. I picture the three as last I saw them, the day after Christmas, bundled up like ornaments in red and green coats, and boarding the train north. I want to know how they will react when I die.
"They're upset. They're old enough to understand that this is it. That death is it. They're excited, though, that their aunt is going to fly in from California. We can't move Julia back there because she's too sick. She's going to be buried here anyway."
I imagine Gian's much younger half-sister, the second child Max wanted, then got, standing graveside with him there in Maine. I'll be buried in that same boneyard. On Max's other side. It galls me to share. But where else would they put me? By then I won't care.
"If you want to send the kids back down here while you're dealing with this, you should," I say, knowing he'll never take me up on it, wishing he would. I only got to see them for a week at Christmas; there's so much more I could show them in the city, and I like when this apartment feels crowded—when they stay here to save money and avoid the fleabag hotels.
"I think they kind of ought to stick around, Ma, since their grandmother is about to die. They're grown up enough to go to a funeral."
"Step-grandmother," I say. I am interested in politeness; I am not interested in propriety. "And I don't know how character building a funeral is for a young person, or how much that will help Julia, past help as she'll be."
"Thanks anyway, Ma," he says. "How are you doing?"
"You just saw me. Healthy and hardworking as a Central Park carriage horse."
"Is that lady who comes to check on you still checking through the holidays?"
"Vera moved to Texas with her husband when he got that oil-field job six months ago," I say. "I've told you three times."
"Who's taking care of you now?"
"Vera is my friend, not my caretaker. Rest assured that if I should drop dead I won't be reeking in the apartment for weeks, with the cat gnawing my carcass. There are a few people who would miss me. Not many."
"I wish you'd just come up to Brunswick for good, Ma. We've got the room. Murray Hill's not what it used to be. The city's not what it used to be. You're not safe."
I had hoped that the impending death of the false mother, of Julia, would have spared me another round of his entreaties to migrate permanently to Maine, if only because these efforts would be unseemly, would cast him in a bad light: my Gian, the Bluebeard of mothers. Once Julia's been in the ground for a few weeks, I'd reckoned, his Vacationland campaign would resume in earnest.
But no such luck. "I'm not leaving, Gian," I tell him. "The city has been unsafe for twenty years, and I've survived."
"Well, you're twenty years older now," he says. "And the city's getting worse. It's never been such a cesspool. The crime and disorder. The murders. The Subway Vigilante, Ma! It's out of control. What if you'd been on that train? What if you'd been on it with the kids?"
This, more and more, is Gian's attitude when I speak with him: a skittishness about the city's numberless perils. It strikes me as odd: He was never a nervous child. But as his own kids have grown older and more independent, his inventory of potential threats has steadily expanded—as, apparently, has his authority to give advice on such matters. Like many parents in middle age, he's quick to spot changes in the world, slow to note shifts in his own perspective.
That said, he is not incorrect. The city I inhabit now is not the city that I moved to in 1926; it has become a mean-spirited action movie complete with repulsive plot twists and preposterous dialogue.
Last week a man—neatly dressed, wearing wire-rimmed glasses—snapped on a downtown 2 express. Mid-afternoon, on a train full of people. Four teenagers surrounded him, asking for five dollars; people have been killed for refusing less. The paper says he says they threatened him with sharpened screwdrivers. The man pulled a gun from his waistband. I have five dollars for each of you, he is said to have said—as if he had practiced—before shooting them all. Two women collapsed at the end of the car in fright, and like a gallant gentleman, he helped them up before fleeing into the darkness of the tunnel at Chambers Street. Mayor Koch has said vigilantism won't be tolerated, and it seems he is right: Callers have been flooding the tips hotline the police set up, but their calls congratulate the shooter, thank him, offer to pay his bail if he turns himself in. The Subway Vigilante is not being tolerated; he is being idolized.