Wednesday, May 4, 2011

“Poor and content is rich, and rich enough.” William Shakespeare

“Summer of love, my ass.”
Brit tears at the silver paper, and jerking her body sideways to protect her spotless white bellbottoms, angles a softened Hershey bar into her mouth. She readjusts the strap on her shoulder bag. It is big yellow leather thing, a Salvation Army find, buttery soft and nothing like she has ever owned. It carries all she holds dear: lined notebook—black cover, red binding, spiral-bound sketchbook, favorite pens—her precious Mont Blanc, and a few felt tip markers. Slotted inside, at least two of the many books she has on the go at any time. Joan Didion’s, Slouching Towards Bethlehem and Revolution For the Hell of It, by the self-professed ‘nosy Jew-boy’, Abbie Hoffman. Some days she leans toward the cool, spare non-judgmental tone of Didion. On others she faces life raw-knuckled and ready for a fight. That’s when Abbie steps into the ring. Not so much a referee as promoter. At the bottom of her bag is a green and gold pack of menthols. In among the cigarettes she can hardly afford, a freshly rolled joint.
An image of her soon-to-be-ex slithering nearly naked in acres of mud at some hippie fest upstate, getting up to god-knows-what, makes her laugh out loud. An old woman looks up bewildered and Brit shrugs her shoulders in an I-can’t-help-it kind of way.
 Seth is more likely one of the hundreds stuck in traffic on a freeway going nowhere, arced like a jockey over the steering wheel of a platinum-colored El Dorado, that too-big car his father had leased for them. Seth, in his ratty navy blue Lacoste polo, collar cocked with purpose. His clip-on sunglasses flipped like cartoon eyebrows.
That car had been an embarrassment, conspicuously nosing through uptown streets on a hunt for dime bags. The magic gas-guzzler will look ridiculous alongside psychedelic VW busses and the anti-establishment parade of laboring pickup trucks heading for Woodstock.
Seth missed the whole summer of love thing. He told her the festival was a last fling before he settled into grown-up life. His old ethical buddies from Fieldston had gone along for the ride. They’ll be gorging on sliders from White Castle, littering the dashboard and floor with grease-stained paper sacks and the sticky aftermath of spilled sodas. The interior of the car will be well seasoned with the aroma of fried onions, greasy burgers and marijuana.
It is August, still early in the month with plenty of dog days ahead. Brit tolerates the heat and walking suits her. She screws her nose to the already exhausted early morning air. It reeks of rotting vegetables packed into metal trashcans awaiting pick up outside the markets on upper Broadway, where she has a small sublet near Columbia University. Her bare arms glisten with perspiration. Already New Yorkers are bitching about the demand for exact change on busses that will come at the end of the month. But whenever she can save a couple of dimes, she walks. She’s already spent half the fare on the chocolate.
Brit strides with purpose, avoiding the odorous proof that dogs have left in the street. She is on her way to the East Side to pick up Harry. He is a very wealthy man who requires a walker. She is the walker.
Brit looks good. Real good. High cheekbones support a sleepy gaze. She has long naturally blonde hair and a headlight smile when she bothers to turn it on. Her favorite tight-fitting bellbottoms cling to her slender hips. A bright yellow and red sleeveless tie-dyed t-shirt tucks loosely into a wide patent leather belt. As soon as Brit leaves Harry, the hem of her loose shirt will be gathered and knotted tightly, exposing her tanned midriff. Bangs that come to her fine eyebrows stick to her satiny forehead. But her ponytail defies humidity and swings jauntily in step with her determined pace.
“You look like Joni Mitchell,” Seth had said—wistfully—before asking for her keys to their apartment on the Upper East Side.
She is twenty-five and senses a symbolic re-awakening; the first steps out of the dark marital cave to stand upright and squinting into the anticipatory glare of starting over. She just needs to follow those hand stencils out of the cave and toward her future.
That Sunday she’d been rescued from a weekend of recrimination, mostly self-directed. Her friend Hugh, whom she’d met at the Art Students League, had not deserted her when she married Seth. It did not stop him from telling her what an idiot she was. Hugh never lets her forget that she is an artist. Brit knows his heart is in the right place, beating for her. When she moaned about missing out on Woodstock—this could be history in the making—he’d set her straight. “That’s rich white hippie shit,” he told her.
He’d packed her into the crowd in a ragged rectangle of a Harlem park ringed by Black Panthers, with thousands of others who ignored the heat and disproved the cops’ prediction of another Newark, another Detroit. Instead of rioting, the laid back crowd sucked on fat joints and grooved to Nina Simone. From the stage the singer demanded: “Are you ready Black people?” The crowd whooped their assent. Hugh’s unaffected grin beamed like a pearly crescent in a dark sky. He’d squeezed Brit’s eager white hand. She’d tightened her grip on his.
Hugh had been the unwitting matchmaker for Brit and Seth. ’63 was her introduction to soul food and jazz. He introduced her to a new restaurant in Harlem called Sylvia’s. They’d gorged on fried chicken, BBQ ribs, grits, collard greens and black-eyed peas.
After dinner he’d walked her to the Lenox Lounge to see a modern jazz quartet. Brit was new to the genre and fell quickly in love with the furious beat that both shocked and hypnotized her. The antics of a pack of over stimulated white college boys seated near them distracted her. She’d leaned over to one who bore the bespectacled look of a mad scientist atop a footballer’s physique and, ever so politely, told them to shut the fuck up. Seth was smitten. He’d abandoned his friends at the bar, followed Brit into the street after the gig and—ignoring Hugh—pleaded for her phone number.
They were a bad fit from the start, but the foreshocks only became apparent in hindsight, when their marriage crumbled from the earthquake it turned out to be. Enamored of their differences—his wealth, and for her the paucity of it—their brief, drug-fueled affair resulted in pregnancy. The live-in maid for the family of a friend of Seth’s, who enjoyed comfortable radicalism in ten rooms on Central Park West, came to Brit’s rescue. She arranged the abortion, much to Seth’s relief. Afterward, Brit’s demeanor was wrongly interpreted. She’d mourned something, but could not put her finger on what that something was.
Brit married Seth in Baltimore, Maryland. They had not waited for very long near the entrance to the Holland Tunnel before they’d hitched a ride south. The driver, in an undisguised effort to out them as a modern day Bonnie and Clyde, immediately revealed that he was armed. Brit had bolted from the car to the curb again. The man waved her back. Said the gun was in the glove compartment and was not loaded. Seth urged her back into the car, annoyed. The driver leaned across Seth. The glove compartment flipped open. “Take a look at that College Boy,” he said.
Perched in the back seat, like a watchful film extra, Brit held her breath as Seth extracted a handgun from the glove compartment. He palmed it under the driver’s watchful eye.
Brit was directed to a cardboard carton filled with sawdust. At the driver’s urging she’d picked out a delicate bisque figurine. It was a miniature nude the man called a ‘naughty’. Its skin was the color of peach ice cream. She’d brought the 6-inch figure closer for inspection. Its enigmatic expression defied cute.
The man bellowed above traffic as they’d sped southward: “Can you all believe that was shocking?”
“It’s beautiful,” Brit had murmured.
“She’s an innerestin’ collectible. Cheap in her time, but could be worth a lottuh money.”
Seth had gingerly replaced the handgun.
“She’s a real beaut that,” the man crowed, nodding to Seth.
Brit discovered soon afterward that she’d lost the marriage license on the bus ride home. Five years later the marriage lost her.
At 86th and Broadway, Brit veers east. She enters the park along the transverse, picking up speed. She loves Central Park and misses the closer proximity when she’d lived on the Upper East Side with Seth. Breakfasting on black coffee and cheap chocolate keeps her alert and she slows her pace, enjoying the summer day. She has more than enough time to get to Harry’s apartment on Park Avenue.
He is doing well. In the past couple of months they have walked more often at his request. Apart from a few mystifying tremors he was calm. Harry is rediscovering speech. They are able to hold conversations, many abstract conversations and a few closer to home. His gait is steadier than it had been on the first outing.
Brit thinks the man he must have been once is remerging. Tall, and though slightly stooped to ingratiate himself and put one off guard, she is sure he is a man who had been used to running the show, whatever that show was. Harry might have been a flirt—surely a kibitzer.
She doesn’t often get beyond the front hall, the foiyay, as his wife calls it. She’d answered an ad in the Village Voice. At her interview, in the well appointed, if dated, living room, she’d been offered a cup of tea, which she’d accepted from the platinum-haired, carefully dressed woman who’d kept her eye on her husband. Harry had stood near the grand piano, trembling slightly, staring straight ahead. Brit guessed from the black and white photos framed in gaudy silver frames and displayed like awards across the grand piano, that Harry had been in entertainment. Harry’s doctor, the psychiatrist, had asked Brit if she felt she could handle Harry.
Brit had smiled at the twitching man holding onto the piano. She’d stood up and taken Harry’s arm.
“I think we’ll do just fine,” she’d said.
The doctor and Harry’s wife had exchanged glances. “You’re hired,” the doctor said. Brit had shuddered a little at the mirthless grin buried in a dense walrus mustache.
After a few sessions with Harry, Brit ruminated on how detached Harry’s wife was from her husband. She’d talk about him, not to him. He was less of a husband and more like a ward. And then sometimes she stepped out of the character of a well-dressed manikin and displayed a fawning affection for Harry that made Brit uneasy.
Brit collected her pay at the psychiatrist’s office a few blocks further north from Harry’s building. The doctor had no receptionist, which struck Brit as strange. She rang and he buzzed her into a windowless outer room. A deep pile carpet, the color of sand, covered the floor of the nearly bare room. The walls matched the carpet. One large abstract print in desert pastels hung on the wall behind the lone chair in the room. If the doctor was unable to see her he left a check in an envelope on the seat of the leather wing chair.
She was always relieved when he was too busy to engage her. She felt shy and skittish around him, more so since the incident with Harry when she’d taken him to see Roman Polanski’s new film, Rosemary’s Baby.
It was a stupid thing to do. She had been walking Harry for only a few weeks. When asked how their day went Brit usually mustered a cheery reply. “Fine,” or “Great!” Truthfully, she’d very nearly quit Harry after the first week. He shouted convulsively when she had least expected it. Sometimes he’d stop dead in the street, fearful of crossing some invisible line and Brit had to learn to wait patiently for Harry’s motor to shift gears. She mostly gravitated to Central Park with him and spent as much of the time sitting on a park bench. Children were frightened of him. She’d watch Harry as he trembled a hot dog into his mouth, sauerkraut raining onto his lap. Once they had visited the Central Park Zoo. They were both sad after that.
But on a dreary day, just after a rainstorm in early spring, Brit had been at a loss. Park benches were pooled with rain. In just a few weeks they’d exhausted the museums closer to home. Everyone was talking about the new Polanski film. If they sat in the balcony for an early afternoon screening perhaps they would disturb no one. Harry might even fall asleep.
As it turned out the doctor in the film who terrorized Mia Farrow’s character shared Harry’s psychiatrist’s surname. Harry grew visibly more agitated whenever Ralph Bellamy appeared onscreen in the role of malevolent obstetrician. Brit had finally abandoned the film when she’d offered popcorn and he’d flailed his arms like a pinwheel in a storm and began shouting unintelligibly.
Outside of the theater she’d picked salty white buds from her hair. The rain had stopped and a glimmer of sunshine made her hustle him past the Plaza Hotel and into the park at 59th Street. Brit had prodded an agitated Harry to an empty bench near the pond and tried to calm him down.
“Sapisfucking…tryna…fuck…fucking…trynakill—,” Harry bawled.
At a loss, Brit had shouted at him: “Stop it Harry. Stop it now!”
Like a mechanical toy at the end of its wind, he’d collapsed into silence beside her. “Harry,” she soothed, “The doctor is trying to help you. Your wife loves you. I’m here, Harry. No one is going to hurt you.”
She’s kept quiet about their failed expedition and Harry’s outburst. Brit had been warned not to overtax him, to keep to the park, stay off public transportation. Take a taxi if they had to, but best to stay close to home. She’d held his hand in the cab. Harry was steadier by the time she’d dropped him off, almost tranquil. “Let sleeping dogs lie,” Brit reasoned.
After that, when she picked up her pay at his office, Brit noticed the doctor’s brass plaque was missing from the front of the building. She waited while he wrote out the check.
“Somebody steal your plaque?” she asked, making small talk.
He’d looked startled at first and then that expansive off-putting laughter, brimful of evil: “It’s a very interesting story actually. That film? Rosemary’s Baby?” He advised her not to see it. Brit blushed deeply and shook her head. “It’s rather gruesome, not for a young woman like yourself.”
“Have you seen it?” she asked.
No, it wasn’t his thing.
Brit had fidgeted nervously, anxious to leave and cash her check.
“I’m telling you this in confidence, okay?”
“Okay,” Brit replied. She’d listened restively as he told her about his odd connection to the Polanski film.
“The author of that book had a gripe against me. I’ve decided to drop my lawsuit. Better for my patients. Seems I was treating his girlfriend—at the time—I don’t know if he is still with her. She’s no longer a patient.”
He stopped to gauge Brit’s reaction. She remained politely poker-faced.
“Anyway, he called me, livid with accusation. I was trying to drive her insane. I would kill her. I was evil. I had to be stopped….”
The doctor, seated at his desk, drifted off. His eyelids lowered. His head was thrown back. A silent minute passed, compounding Brit’s unease. Just as Brit was about to speak, to tell him she had somewhere else to be, he jerked forward.
“This character, this doctor in the movie, is his revenge.” He reached across the desk, her check in his outstretched hand. “Pathetic.”
She did not have to work, at least not for a while. Not until she’d sorted herself out with a real job. Seth’s family was loaded.
Her father-in-law was a corporate attorney who had done well. A lucrative sideline in pork belly futures gave his wife free rein with her hobbies, most of which was spending money. A disenthralled line of underachievers and hapless dreamers in Brit’s family had come before her and her girlhood in the Jacob Riis Projects on the Lower East Side. Seth had never worked outside of his private schooling and had enjoyed an indulged youth growing up in a sprawling apartment on Fifth Avenue. Brit had always held some kind of job during and after high school. He went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. She skipped college and embraced the artist’s hardscrabble life. When they married Brit left her tenement flat on East 9th Street and moved in with Seth to a brightly lit one-bedroom in a doorman building on the Upper East Side, close to the hospital where Seth would begin his doctoral work. His father paid for the apartment. She worked part time selling art supplies at NY Central Art Supply and returned to the Art Students League at night. Her parents had long since divorced and fled New York—her mother to relatives in Lowell, Massachusetts and her father to Hartford, Connecticut to sell insurance and drown his sorrows in the bowels of the Shipwreck Lounge on Farmington Avenue.
Brit strove for independence. Her husband had let her have it for her lack of feeling, her callousness toward him. “You’re just emphasizing the differences,” he’d say when she complained that his family looked down on her. She’d quit her part time job at Seth’s urging. She stopped going to the Art Students League. Very soon after she was looking in the Village Voice classifieds for something, well, different. Seth was disconcerted. “You don’t have to do this. Who is this guy Harry? Paint or something, or I don’t know, those woodcuts.”
It was true. She had retreated from a creative life. She had allowed herself to be callously tossed, an object of curiosity, among Seth’s family, his disapproving mother and her social circle, the girl from the projects, the outsider.
Seth accused her of overreacting. Who balks at having money? You marry a rich guy—well, a guy from a rich family—and you are suddenly shot of who you are. Who are you? Well, to start with, not rich. When she’d been introduced to Harry, Brit immediately recognized a head-shakey attitude toward life.
Brit exits the park onto Fifth Avenue. The Metropolitan Museum stretches downtown. She isn’t sure what’s on special exhibit, but they can wander the period rooms, have a bite in the cafeteria. She loves eating off a tray at the little tables surrounding the reflecting pool. At the far end stand the smiling Etruscans. She and Harry guess at punch lines to the sculpture’s ancient jokes.
They have not been back since the spring. That an extensive exhibition like Harlem On My Mind was too much for Harry had been a possibility, though it merely tired him. Throughout he’d been alert and communicative, especially in the rooms devoted to the 30s. He paused at practically every photograph, scrutinizing as if for clues. They had stood silently and watched a video of a former slave who lived in Harlem. Harry had not taken his eyes off the woman.
When they’d returned, Harry’s wife was incredulous. “Why would you take him there?” she’d asked.
Harry had stuttered a retort for the first time since they’d begun their outings. “I-I-I wanted to go.”
“But it’s awful,” she’d said nonplussed. “What he’s done to the façade. It looks like a fire sale, that ridiculous sheet hanging there.” His wife nervously patted Harry’s arm and called for the maid. “Tom’s up to his old tricks, I fear.” She’d spoken of Thomas Hoving like he was a friend, which he probably was. “It’s too confrontational,” she’d sniffed. Brit had read the newspaper article calling the exhibition irrelevant. Calling Negroes irrelevant. She didn’t understand.
Harry responded as he’d been led away, catching her off guard. “It’s s-s-supposed to be.” Brit had registered something like shock creeping into his wife’s expression.
Brit crosses Fifth Avenue. Harry’s apartment building is just up ahead on 83rd at Park Avenue. She looks forward to seeing Harry in his now customary seersucker suit, always with a club tie and a pastel-colored shirt. He’s started wearing a yellowed straw hat with a broad brown grosgrain ribbon that he tips at a rakish angle.
His wife fussed when it had first appeared. “That old thing.”
The doorman at Harry’s building greets her, calling her ‘Miss’. She is early and knows not to show up before the appointed hour. “I’ll just sit for a few minutes,” she says and breezes into the elegant floral bedecked lobby that stretched like one of the great halls in the Metropolitan Museum. She settles onto an upholstered bench near the elevators. Her flushed appearance draws another smile from the white-gloved elevator operator who knows the routine.
Brit fans the pages of Abbie Hoffman’s book. She feels a wave of unease. Maybe it’s the gory details being played out in the tabloids about the Manson murders, the whole Polanski thing all over again. Maybe it’s too damned hot. Nowadays Harry is ready and waiting for her no matter the weather. They used to go to Soup Burg on Madison, which Harry likes but his wife disapproves of what she calls greasy spoons. “You’ve seen p-p-plenty,” Harry had said. His wife had checked her expression and responded blithely: “Well, as you can see Brit, he’s still got his imagination intact,” effectively making the cozy diner off-limits.
Maybe they’ll take a cab to Serendipity. Apple pie for Harry; she’ll order a Chef’s Salad and a frozen hot chocolate. Then they can still catch a movie. The Odd Couple was sure to be harmless fare. Her job is getting easier, the perks growing.
 Harry had asked if she liked walking with him. Of course she did. Then he told her that he pretended to be crazy at home just to keep up the walks with her. Brit had been terribly moved by that. She wonders how long before she can get Harry on the Staten Island Ferry. How long it will be before he tells her about himself, his past. How long before they can step out of the still constrictive present.
 The week before Brit had ventured to ask the doctor how she was doing. She had long-range dreams, how it will be when things got better.
“Good,” he’d said. And then, inexplicably, he’d added: “A little too good.” Only he was kidding her he’d said.
The first thing Brit notices in Harry’s apartment is the light. Until that morning the living room is nearly always shrouded in heavy dark green velvet drapery. Massive oak furniture disappeared in the darkened room. Now the room glows with sunlight from bare windows. The walls have been stripped of paint. The claret colored carpet has been removed from the foyer, exposing a veined white marble floor. There are paint samples in shades of ivory and beige taped to the walls. Brit sees the piano covered in plastic, the photographs removed. She waits in the foyer as the maid instructs until Harry’s doctor appears.
“We won’t be needing you any longer,” he says. He hands her a check. “Thank you for everything. You’ve been most helpful.”
“Harry…?” she manages. Brit’s confusion only exacerbates when he prods her to the front door.
“Unfortunate,” is all he says. “Most unfortunate.”
She stands for a moment in front of Harry’s building. “Well, that was weird,” she mutters. The doorman stares straight ahead.
What next, she wonders.
Hugh would say: “No excuses now girl.” She can finally lay siege to her life in cartons. Liberate her few possessions once and for all. Seth had let her take the stereo. He was getting a new one anyway. He’d said that in the offhand manner he’d affected since they had agreed to divorce. There is a new album Hugh had given her called Karma, by some way out sax player named Pharaoh Sanders. There is a joint in her bag. When she gets back to the sublet she’ll dig out her woodcutting tools. She’ll sharpen them slowly and carefully on a whetstone while ideas ruminate. With a brush loaded with India ink, she’ll commit those ideas to paper. When she is satisfied she will transfer the ink drawing. Then she will ravage a clean block of pine with chisels and Japanese knives until the image it bears resembles her pain.

Brit starts back across the park. Walking suits her. She is not a collectible.

WALKING HARRY is an original short story by Linda Danz.
STORIES ON THE AMERICAN FRIEND Writers Guild of America, East #R28299
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business organizations, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. The use of names of actual persons, places, and events is incidental to the plot, and is not intended to change the entirely fictional character of the work. © May 2011 Revised April 2015.

1 comment:

paul said...

Beautiful, another slice of New York that you wouldn't be aware of if it weren't for this story.