Root and Branch

Maggie said later that she had know right away there was something not quite right about Mr York. “Anyone with an office in the Chrysler Building should have been heard of before now,” she had told her friends at the lunch counter. But she hadn’t said anything when the agency sent her to him, so everyone assumed, in light of subsequent events, that hindsight was 20/20.

She didn’t say anything upon her arrival at the fancy office, the furniture still in crates and dust covers, a telephone man kneeling to hook up the line. Mr York was as flash as one might expect for a youngish man no one had heard of who signs a lease in the Chrysler Building. That he looked patently like the photograph of her father that her mother had kept hidden under handkerchiefs and collars in the top bureau drawer was neither here nor there. The scoundrel had probably kept on fathering bastards for years after leaving her mother flat. It would make sense - this one certainly had something to prove, judging by the office he had selected. Especially since he had sent away the girl from the day before. Too young, too pretty, he had told the agency. He needed someone with experience, obvious experience. Someone like Maggie.

“Are you the new secretary? John York.”

“Margaret Kooning.”

He seemed taken aback, and though he attempted jocularity, his recovery was more thoughtful than was really appropriate in meeting a stranger. “You’ve got experience in this sort of thing?”

“I was twenty years with Simon Dodge. He retired from the bar last year. The agency said you wanted a legal secretary.”

“Yes. Margaret Kooning. Ever married?”

“No, sir,” she answered firmly.

“Native of New York?”

Cautiously, she replied, “Yes. Are you?”

His smile was even like her father in the photograph. “Not exactly. As you can see, we’re trying to get the phone installed. I remember when there wasn’t so much to do to set up shop.” He checked his watch - a pocket watch, rather fine, she noted. “I’ve got to meet a client. Get the bill when he is done. The movers should be back at 11 to finish all this up. You can take your lunch at one. Is all that satisfactory?”

It was not satisfactory. It seemed rushed, unplanned, completely unlike all her previous experience. Bringing in the secretary before there was even a place for her to sit or a phone for her to answer. What would there have been yesterday for anyone to do? “Yes, sir.” The promised pay was handsome, and at her age, she could not count on attracting it much longer.

The pay was handsome indeed, quite what Mr Dodge had been paying in the end but now in a far less busy office. It had to be, for her to keep arriving at nine every morning, uncertain if her boss would come in at all, and if he did, much of the time he was hungover and too friendly by half. Not in that sense, she would emphasize. She was old enough to be his mother, nearly. But too forward all the same. A new personal question each day he came in hung over, or so it felt.

“Kooning, Kooning. When were you born, Miss Kooning?”

“That question is highly inappropriate, and I won’t answer.”

“Come on. I’ll tell you when I was born.” She deliberately ignored him. “1607.” And then he laughed. “I can always ask the agency.”

“Then do.”

That line of questioning was followed some time later by “What did your father do?”

“It is really not your concern, Mr York.”

“Please? I just want to know you, since we’ll be working together.” He seemed sober this time, or at least in less bad shape, for he did not wince at the noise of the typewriter.

She was touched by his acknowledgment of her role in the office, that she was more than just a typist and receptionist. “He was a chemist.” Maggie turned back to her work, thinking that the end of questioning.

“Really.” Mr York grinned broadly. “And he met your mother in the tea room at Macy’s, in the middle of a rainstorm.”

“Bloomingdale’s,” she corrected absently.

“That’s right, it had opened just a week before.”

He abandoned the topic and only after several minutes did she realize he had known what he was saying. But that assumed the fairy tale courtship and wedding were true. Maggie had long ago abandoned her belief in any of the good parts of her parents’ marriage. Her father had left her and her mother one day in 1891, when Maggie was barely three years old. Which was bad enough, but it had gone all around the family that two years later he had been seen with an opera singer on his arm, denying he was, or had ever known, Martin Kooning. Maybe Kooning - if that had even been her father’s real name - liked to tell tales, and his son remembered them. Perhaps in his old age. An age her mother had never seen, thanks to heartbreak. And tuberculosis.

Nothing was said for quite some time after that. He kept his distance, perhaps aware he had pried a bit too much. Until he came in one morning, still drunk, and asked her to cancel all his appointments for the day.

“I loved you,” he said when she brought him aspirin and a wet handkerchief for his head. “Laura was a piece of work. I hated my life in the end. If I’d been thinking straight, I’d have taken you with me.” Yes, he had just invoked her mother’s name, but he was obviously in his own world. “I wondered about you for a long time. I should have done something. If I’d thought it through, I’d have done something for you.”

“You should go home, sir. What if someone were to see you in this state?”

“You wouldn’t let that happen, would you, Maggie? Not my Maggie.”

She called a cab and sent him home. He did not return to the office for two days. But when he did return, he was sober. Neither of them referred to previous events.

Maggie discovered as the months went by that when he was sober, Mr York was a joy to work for. Despite his relative youth, he had a way of reading people - clients, opposing counsel, juries - that spoke of far longer experience than she had expected. His decision to hire a secretary before his office was complete was impulsive, but his legal work was knowledgeable, conscientious, and at times profoundly clever. He respected her professional experience, assigned her substantive work on cases in the manner of a big-firm paralegal, and raised her salary accordingly. For the first time in her life, she knew she was being allowed to work to her full potential, and she enjoyed the work immensely. Until another drinking binge brought them both back down to earth.

He wandered in late, red-eyed and unsteady. “Maggie, I’m sorry about Laura. I went to the library, looked it up.”

“It was a long time ago,” she answered, tight-lipped.

“I didn’t mean to leave you an orphan. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. You had nothing to do with it. Is there anything you need, sir?”

“Maggie -”

“The phone, sir.” She canceled yet another of his appointments for the day. If he kept on drinking, what practice he had built would go by the way, and how could he afford his lease and her salary without clients?


“Go home, Brother John. He left you and me both in a fix, it appears. Let’s not make it worse.”

“Who?” He seemed genuinely confused.

“Our father. Martin Kooning. York. Whatever he called himself.”

“My father was van der Zee.”

“There, you see? You got past his nonsense once. Went to college. Law school. Passed the bar. Now you’re a lawyer with a fine office. No need to throw everything away like he did.”

“You think I’m your brother?”

“What else am I to believe with what you know? I suppose in his old age, he started telling stories. And you look like him, or at least you look like a fifty year old wedding photograph of him and my mother. And why should he have given up his ways after leaving her? There must be several of us.”

“There is another explanation.”

“Try me.”

“I was Martin Kooning.”

“You are drunk. Sir. And I respectfully suggest you sleep it off. I can’t keep working for a man who comes in drunk at ten in the morning.”

“Nearly ran into Julianne last night. I’m sorry. I am Martin Kooning. And John York. And Dutch Amsterdam. And John Plaice.”

“And who are you really?”

“Johannes van der Zee.”

“Very nice.” She picked up the morning paper in an effort to dismiss him.

“I have a curse on me.”

“That’s evident. Are we now getting to some useful truth? I don’t care about your life history. I care that I will have a job next week. This is not an easy time for most of us, Mr York, and if you haven’t noticed, it is worse for those of us past middle age.”

“You’ll have money. I promise. I left money for Laura.”

She ignored him. Whatever game he was trying to play, he had just hit upon a patent falsehood. Money? She had grown up with her aunt and uncle, she and her mother stashed in a back room. She had gone out to work, first at the telephone exchange, then as a secretary, while her cousins got married. There was never money, just aged possessions, just as there was never a father or husband, just an old photograph.

“What would make you believe me? Maggie?”

“I don’t listen to drunken tales.” She folded her paper. “May I take my lunch now, sir?”

She didn’t tell the girls at the lunch counter more than that her boss was a little odd. Profoundly odd in that he seemed to care for Maggie’s opinion of him, for over the next several months, he nearly succeeded in adhering to her sober designs.

He brought her a small cake on her birthday. “I made it myself. I trained as a pastry chef, a few years back. Didn’t take.” She assumed he had learned the date of her birth from the agency, but after a wary bite, she was not so certain the pastry chef was a lie.

Mr York had also brought her a gift. A sketch in white chalk on blue paper. A woman, dressed in the style of the late 1880s, with a child in her arms. A woman remarkably like Mrs Martin Kooning. “I thought you might appreciate it more than she did.”

Maggie looked at the back. It was not labeled. “How did you know?”

“I drew it.”

“You found it in a junk shop.”

“She didn’t understand. A waste of time, she said. I couldn’t help it. At that time, I just itched to make something. Something that would last. It came on me after you were born. I wanted a legacy for you. Laura just -”

“Was too practical.” She decided to play along. The drawing was kind, really, and no one had given her a gift in years. “Did you love her?”

“I thought so. I also thought I loved being a chemist for Caswell, Massey. I did. I thought perhaps that’s what I had been missing. The normal life. The changes, the hiding, the names - and I thought that’s what the shaman meant, really, after all the searching, that it isn’t a search after all but an occurrence of life. If I slowed down, lived a normal life, I might find her. When your souls are wed, she said. How could that be if I were still adventuring around? And I found your mother. And it worked for four years. But then it faltered in the fifth, as I started to see I had been wrong. And it was miserable for us both in the sixth.”

“So you left. And took up with an opera singer.”

“Opera singer? Samantha wasn’t - oh. Oh. Carl told everyone? That was business. A client. She had a commission for me. I was an architect by then.”

“Architect. Pastry chef. Chemist. Lawyer. What haven’t you done?”

“Let’s see.” He smiled that damnably charming smile. “Won’t be a builder ever again - don’t like heights. Plumber. Telephone repair man. Actor. Glue maker. Rag and bone man.”


“Did that for a bit. Which war was that? Second war against the British, got caught up in that, end of my packing days.”

“So you think you’re my father, and you were in the War of 1812.”

“I am your father, and yes, but not until 1814.”

She did not believe him. Indian curse, born 300 years before he should have been - but he was sober this time, and the story held together. He was delusional, but he was a kind man, he treated her well, and in the end, it became a joke to her. Not a terribly funny joke, but a pleasantry. She let him tell her his wild stories, and they settled in to a reasonably pleasant way of life.

Until the Lionel Brown case. The moment he met Miss Lily Rae Brown, he changed completely. Maggie realized she had never seen him happy until then. And it was oddly wounding. If even half of what he said was true, he had thrown over her mother, a woman of decent family, and was now swanning around town with a colored girl. And even if he were in no way connected to her family, it was still wrong.

When he started having Maggie make reservations at the Davenshire and at swank dinner clubs, she began to worry. In public, John York and Lily Rae Brown would be obvious, noted, his career - and by extension, her own - affected by his slumming. With so many meetings in private, there might come about a bastard child.

He asked her opinion of Lily once. “Very well-spoken, sir. But people should keep to their own kind.”

“I think I would have found a 350 year old Dutch woman by now if she existed,” he laughed.

That laugh caught at her heart. Had he felt this way when he met her mother? If he really was 350 years old, was he beyond caring that the girl was colored or would he leave her even faster when he came to his senses? If there was a “one”, it could not be a colored girl. He wouldn’t really dare marry her. But when he showed her the engagement ring, she said only that it was very nice.

He had left her and her mother, he had taken up with an artistic crowd, abandoned who knew how many others - good, upstanding, middle-class white women. And now he dared propose marriage to a colored girl. Unthinkable. His time had made him careless of society, of other people’s feeling. If he even had that time.

Mr York came to work late one day, looking like death, but his drinking had apparently stopped early enough the night before that he was merely hungover. Maggie knew immediately that Lily had come to her senses and either refused him or bolted. There was relief in that. “The one” wouldn’t leave when confronted with the difficulty of this marriage. So she was not “the one”.

“Aspirin, Maggie,”. He sounded like death. “She’s gone,” he announced mournfully when she brought him his familiar double dose.

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Sorry? That’s all you can say? I loved her.”

“You also loved my mother, or so you said. Go home. I’ll cancel your appointments.”

“No. Things to do. It isn’t worth it, Maggie. Real life. Spending life doing ordinary things with ordinary people without end.”

“No, it isn’t.” The words began to spill out. “It isn’t worth getting up in the morning to work at a job no one respects. It isn’t worth paying a nickel for a greasy blue plate special that tastes of nothing. It isn’t worth going home at night to make dinner for one in a single room with never a visitor only to do it all again the next day. It isn’t worth watching your mother slowly die of a broken heart, the two of you stuck in the back bedroom next to the maid, staying only because her sister can’t bear for you to be on the streets but not caring enough to do more than feed and house you. It isn’t worth listening to the ravings of a lunatic who is convinced he is my father when he must have been born a good fifteen years after I was. It isn’t worth letting a man say he loves you because he’ll just leave you. It isn’t worth having wants or wishes or dreams because you’re lucky if you get what you need. And daily you inch closer to death, and so does everyone around you, and in the end, no one leaves anything worthwhile behind unless he is a genius like Edison or Mozart, so what has been the point of the vast majority of lives lived on this earth?”

“Exactly.” Mr York seemed in awe of her outburst. “Unless you leave something behind, there is no point in life. That’s what Laura refused to understand.”

“This is hardly the time for that.”

“Cancel all the appointments, Maggie. Forever.”

“Time to abandon this life, too?”

“I joined the Army this morning.”

“In anyone else, that would seem a death wish. I thought you couldn’t die.”

“It doesn’t matter. I need out. There’s a war on. It’s always easier when there’s a war. Everyone else in the Army is starting over, too. The lease can be allowed to lapse. I’ll leave you some money.”

“Mr York -” she started to complain.

“You’re getting on - you deserve to have some time to rest. The furniture is hired and can be returned. Except the desk. You can have the desk. I built it myself. It might be worth something. I did a lot of this forty years ago. Expensive stuff.”

“We can talk about this later.”

“I love her, Maggie. How could she just leave, if she loved me?”

“Because you’re not the sort to stick around.”

He left for basic training soon after. He gave her the key to a building he owned, a long room above a lunch counter. She started spending her days there, not really knowing why. With the money he had left, she did not have to go directly back to the agency. He had left what remained of his life in her hands, and it seemed as good a time as any to learn just what he had done in service to that delusion. He was certainly a collector of New York history: photographs of Times Square going back to the invention of the camera. Photographs with models who were intended to be his wives, of various ages and in various forms of historical dress. Several old miniatures and sketches that might have been bought in junk shops. An old camera of the type that must have taken the Times Square photographs. In a filing cabinet, the paper negatives to all of them, along with negatives of women and other landscapes. A very old copy of Leaves of Grass, inscribed to an Arthur Grant. An 1868 edition of Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, much marked and read. Three different locks of hair. A child’s bonnet. A life of memory, not one of obvious abandonment. When she found a letter from her mother, she wept. Even if Mr York was not what he claimed, there was truth somewhere in his delusion.

Maggie began to wonder what he had told Lily. Was it general sense that chased her away, or was it this impossible delusion of a life? She had had suitors of her own, in her youth. She’d liked Sam quite a lot, but she hadn’t dared trust even him. But she was not a normal girl. What would make a normal girl run?

She wrote to John. “More than once,” he answered. “She didn’t believe me. Can you blame her? 29 like it when you scratch behind his ears.”

If she never believed, no reason to run so late. She asked one of her friends why a girl might take off like that.

“Girls today - who knows? When we were young, we wouldn’t have dreamed of it. She probably hopped a train out of here.”

But something didn’t sit right. She went to see Mr Brown, but he knew nothing of where his daughter had gone and was not happy to see the white lawyer’s secretary coming to his house.

It was Mrs Brown who had the clue. “Woman to woman, she wasn’t feeling well for a while. I think my baby’s having his baby. Lionel won’t let her back if that’s the case. I don’t really dare go looking. But if you find her, tell her I love her.”

Maggie went back to the office after that. The lease had six months still to go, after all, so it was as good a place as any as an operational base. Representing herself as Mr York’s secretary, she began to question the hospitals, the Negro doctors, the Negro midwives. One had seen Lily.

But what to do? Mixing like this was profoundly wrong. John was in the Army now, committed, could not step away from this decision until the war ended. What point in telling him when he could do nothing? The girl had left on her own - good for her. Why set her up to be abandoned as Laura had been? What was John to Maggie, anyway? An employer. Family come too late to mean anything. A delusional drunk who, if honest, had a record of leaving women with small children.

But at some point, in all the letters and photographs and keepsakes, Mr York had become John. She hated herself for it. He had abandoned her and her mother and countless others. But the letter from Samantha, leaving him, had touched her, as did the inscription from Whitman himself in Leaves of Grass. For all his faults, he had been more than kind to her, he had inspired real friendship and love in others, and while she was glad Samantha had left, she found herself oddly pained on John’s behalf. Did Lily’s letter remind him of Samantha’s? Did Samantha make him as happy as Lily did? Twenty years they were married. Samantha had been right for him in a way that her mother never had, it seemed. Was Lily right for him, too? But a colored girl. A marriage to her would ruin them both. Yet he had been so happy.

The doctor confirmed the pregnancy. Maggie had two choices - stay silent or tell John.

She sent the telegram. He invited her to the hasty wedding, but she stayed away, sitting in Central Park with 29, avoiding all potential for contact. She was his secretary. Or a relic of a former life he had never really wanted. He had left her mother for something far better - she could see that. She could do the math - he had left her mother for Samantha. And with Samantha, he had produced real, lasting, important art. She had encouraged his burst of genius. For a time, she had allowed him to matter in the world. Lily would have to be her equal for this marriage to be worth the social costs. Perhaps it would be. Maggie understood it. She accepted it. But she didn’t want to see it.


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