At three months of age, Maria Lopez Ruiz’s eyes turned blue. Not just any ordinary blue, but turquoise, the color of the sea near Porto San Sebastian, where Sophia Lopez Vargas, Maria’s maternal grandmother, lived. She, too, had turquoise eyes.
August was relentless, night provided little relief. Peter tossed off his sheets and stared at the ceiling, a blank canvas for memories. When the morning light finally filtered through the blinds and the insects announced the fourth day of a heat wave, he turned away from the window and thought of the people who had lived in his house. They came and went in such a haphazard pattern that Peter had forgotten most of their names. Only one seemed to endure.
Mr. Hayakawa, the painter who rented the parlor floor was Peter’s original tenant. He wanted the high ceilings and a certain kind of light from the back windows. The message on the bulletin board of the ‘High and Dry’ Laundry read: Artist seeking parlor floor rental. North light wanted. Very clean, very quiet will pay rent in advance.
Paying in advance was all Peter needed to know; money was short in those days—his job at the post office didn’t cover the heating bill and taxes on the house. His sister had gotten married and moved out of the second floor flat with her husband to some place in Ohio. Peter had lost track of her there. A young couple took that apartment and now they had grown to a family of four, squeezing into the small two-bedroom space.
The third floor had cycled through a cast of singles. When the sound of roof top parties shifted to baby showers, Peter knew it was only a matter a time before a new fresh-faced tenant would appear.
He gave his thin frame a push up by holding onto the night table. In the bathroom he looked in the medicine cabinet mirror and shook his head at where the muscles use to be. Peter had been in the infantry during the Battle of the Bulge; he was seventeen then. “Don’t start down that path.” A cold shower focused him on what he needed to do first.
“You’ve reached the Department of Veterans Affairs,” the automated recording began. “Please type your VA number and press the pound button when complete.” Peter put on his glasses and held the phone in front of him. “For information regarding health insurance, press one. For information regarding benefits press two…”
“Damn it,” Peter said into phone as he waited for the recording to reach the final choice, which was to speak to a live representative.
“That check, Mr. Daniels, will be processed in the next two weeks and automatically deposited into the account that you’ve designated.”
“That’s good, because I‘ve been waiting a month for it,” he said. Peter tried not to be offended by the chirpy girl on the end of the line. “Where are you?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” she said.
“Well, I was just curious if it was as hot where you are as it’s here. Maybe that’s why it’s taking so long to process that check. You’re not in Bombay, are you?”
“No, Mr. Daniels. Americans working in the United States staff the VA. I’m in Oklahoma City. Can I be of any further assistance, sir?”
“No, dear, that’s all for today.”
“Well, we are always here for you and we do appreciate your service to the country.”
There was a pause on the other end of the phone.
“Thank you.” Peter pressed the end button. “Bet she doesn’t even know where Belgium is. That was one cold winter.”
Peter looked up when he heard the front door close. “Is that you,John?”
His son came every morning on his way to work. He sometimes had breakfast, but most of the time he was in a rush to get to his job in downtown Brooklyn where he did other people’s taxes. The two men had a pattern: first John would check if his father had taken all of his medicines the day before, next he would look over the apartment to see if everything was in order, and finally he would review the list that was on the refrigerator door.
John was a list maker, and while Peter was annoyed by having to check things off every day, it did save conversation about what he ate and the number of glasses of water he drank.
“I see you didn’t take a walk yesterday.” John stood facing the refrigerator door.
“I went up and down the stairs four times. I think that counts. Here, let me check it off.” He turned to face his balding sixty-year-old son. “Did you take a walk?”
“It’s not about me, Dad,” John said.
“Mrs. Allen called me yesterday about her toilet. I went upstairs and she didn’t even have a plunger, so I came down here to get mine. I’ll be damned if I’m going to call a plumber because her kids keep trying to flush toys,” Peter said.
“Maybe it’s time for you to consider retiring as the super of this building. You could fit everything you have here into a small apartment. Remember the pictures I showed you last week of that apartment in Flatbush? It’s in a better neighborhood, too.”
“This is where I was born, and this is where I’m going to be carried out the front door. I’ve lived on every floor of this house. I know every board and every crack.”
Peter looked across his apartment. Beyond the living area were French doors that opened onto a small garden with a flagstone terrace. “Where could I get an apartment with such a beautiful garden? Rose bushes that my grandmother planted.”
“Well, there’s a park in Flatbush and…”
“Thanks, John, but no thanks. This was your playroom, and we had a swing on that tree in the corner of the yard. Remember?”
There was a loud crash and both men looked up at the ceiling.
“Just Mr. H, he’s working on another masterpiece. I was in his apartment yesterday; we had a long chat about art. His new paintings are very dark: black, brown and blue.”
“Is that what you talk about?”
“No, sometimes we talk about the weather and sometimes we talk about the war. He makes a real good cup of tea.”
“The war?” Peter opened his thermos and took a sip of coffee.
“It took me a while to bring up the subject. It’s uncomfortable for both of us. We have our prejudices.” Peter laughed.
“What’s so funny?” John asked.
“You know he’s been my tenant for almost thirty years, and I wasted ten of them barely speaking to him.”
John shook his head. “So, what’s your plan for today?”
“Well, first I’m going to hose down the front sidewalk, then I’ll water the plants out back. They need special food and some conversation. I thought I’d take my walk today over to the clinic and get my vitals taken. I know how much you like to keep track of my blood pressure. Gotta stop by Sweet Hearts though; you can’t win if you don’t play—right?”
“That’s true. I heard the lottery is now—what, twenty million?” John looked at his watch and picked up his briefcase. “I’ve got to run, I’m glad you’re going to have a busy day.”
Peter followed his son outside. “I really should take the pay-out as one lump sum…don’t you think?” He pulled the hose around the iron-gate next to the stoop.
“Sounds sensible to me. See you tomorrow.” John waved as he walked away.
Peter’s wife, Bea, had always kept red geraniums in pots around the entryway. Now that she was gone, the small, gated area held some ivy and four large black plastic garbage cans that were chained to the fence six days a week. As he bent over to connect the hose to the faucet, Peter felt a dizzy spell coming on, so he sat on the wooden bench next to the garbage cans. The small space outside the garden apartment’s door was still in the morning shade and he could hear but not see the traffic on the street.
Hart Street had changed. Brooklyn had changed, some for the good, and some for the bad. “I sound like an old man. My father was sure to have said that when the Greek family moved into number forty-five, and I bet his father said the same thing when they plowed over the last cornfield on DeKalb Avenue.” He pushed himself up, connected the hose, and started to water down the sidewalk. The fragrance of the wet cement increased as the water splayed across the uneven squares.
“You’re up early.” Peter watched as his neighbor’s granddaughter locked the front door and pause midway down the steps. He tried to continue the conversation, but she ignored him and looked at her phone.
“Everyone has someplace to go. If you’re not a celebrity, well, you might as well be invisible.” Bea had told him he looked like Dick Powell.
Mrs. Kadam was in the store when Peter walked in. She was sitting behind the counter reading a fashion magazine. Peter watched her fold the corner of one of the pages and lick her thumb so that the next page would turn more easily.
“Good morning, Mrs. Kadam, how are you today?”
“Oh, Mr. Daniels, you surprised me. I’m well. And yourself?” She examined his shirt and avoided his eyes.
“Well enough.” Peter smiled and looked around the store for a few things to buy. He would never come in just for the lottery ticket. The purchase of a ticket was intended to look like a causal after thought. Walking to the back of the store, he raised his voice. “Do you have any plant food?”
“It’s in the last aisle, next to the dog biscuits,” she said.
“It’s a wonder how well you’re stocked for any and every possible need.” Peter returned to the counter and had the plant food in one hand and a can of soup in the other. “Here, this will do it for today.” He frowned as he looked above her head at the rows of cigarette cartons. “It’s amazing that people still smoke.” Peter stood staring at the boxes, thinking of Bea rolling her oxygen tank from room to room.
“Can I interest you in anything else, Mr. Daniels? Perhaps a Pick Ten, or a Mega Million, today.”
“How much is it today, Mrs. Kadam? The Mega Millions, that is, the big one.”
He had heard a radio announcement confirm what John had said: it was going to be twenty million by the end of the day.
“Over twenty-million,” she smiled pointing to the sign in the window.
“I’ll take one. Maybe you’ll give me luck.”
“Are you still going to give all the money away?”
“I may buy myself something. And you, Mrs. Kadam, after you buy all the shoes you want, what then?”
“Oh, I never play, Mr. Daniels. Mr. Kadam doesn’t believe in it.”
“Oh, yes, the Lottery. He said it’s a conspiracy of the government, sir, yes. The government is keeping poor people down by selling them lottery tickets and cigarettes.”
“Look at the time. I must excuse myself. I have an appointment.” Peter cleared his throat and took his package.
He had started to walk down DeKalb Avenue when he heard Mrs. Kadam calling his name.
“You left your ticket on the counter, Mr. Daniels.” She was waving it above her head as her orange sari billowed behind her.
“A gift, Mrs. Kadam.”
She protested and tried to push the small rectangular ticket toward him.
“Surely your husband will allow a present from an old customer?”
She looked over her shoulder in the direction of the store. “We will worry about this tomorrow then—when we win.”
“Of course, tomorrow,” Peter said.
When Peter returned home, he glanced up at the bay window of the first floor and saw Mr. Hayakawa staring back at him. He could see that his tenant’s hands were covered in blue paint, and there were streaks of black across the front of his painter’s smock. Mr. Hayakawa tapped on the glass, smiled, and motioned for Peter to come upstairs.
The massive set of front doors still had the original etched glass panels. A second set, across the worn tiled foyer, had several locks. On the floor of the small entry was a musty old umbrella and unwanted restaurant flyers. Peter folded the junk mail into his back pocket and unlocked the door to the hall.
“I saw you leave earlier and thought I would give you a look at how the painting is progressing.” Mr. Hayakawa was standing in his open doorway in the dark hallway.
“Did you come up with a title for it yet?” Peter asked as he walked into the front parlor.
Even though Peter visited with his tenant often, he was always surprised: the twelve- foot ceilings and walls were painted white, the room was pristine and uncluttered. The floors were covered with sisal carpets, and a beige sofa with cushions around a low table completed the furnishing. Peter removed his shoes.
“My grandmother had this room painted red, deep red and my mother tried to paint over it. Yellow, as I recall. You could barely move around all the furniture then. The room over the years turned from orange to yellow. And now…” Peter paused. “Finally, white.”
“So, you’ve told me, Mr. Daniels.”
“How many coats of paint did it take you to get to white?” Peter asked.
“Four coats, the first year. Of course, I’ve repainted several times.” He pointed toward the sliding pocket doors that were shut. “I’d like to tell you about my painting before I show it to you. If that’s all right?”
“The world is filled with obvious things. I applaud your mystery,” Peter said
“I’ll make us some tea first.” He gestured to the seating area in the bay window that overlooked the street. “Please sit down. I’ll be right back.”
A few moments later Mr. Hayakawa returned with a black lacquer tray holding a kettle, and two small gray tea bowls. “I’ll pour,” Mr. Hayakawa said. He stirred the liquid with a small bamboo whisk, surveying the leaves, as they melted in the hot liquid. The scent bloomed from the small containers.
Peter observed his tea bubble in the ceramic cup. He could almost taste the hot bitter liquid.
“First, my title: The Night Watch.”
“Is it permissible to use a title that’s already been taken?” Peter asked.
Mr. Hayakawa smiled and nodded. “It’s a tribute to a painting that was severely criticized in its own time. A painting that had flouted the classical rules of art.
“I’m afraid I need a Rembrandt refresher,” Peter said.
“Well, if this was indeed an image of a night watch, then, as you know, Mr. Daniels, the rules of muster or as we might say mobilization, wouldn’t be so chaotic. Those men almost look like street performers, not soldiers. Here’s a print of the painting.” Mr. Hayakawa handed Peter a photograph.
“It’s so dark,” Peter held the photo closer.
“Yes, that’s also one of its attributes or failings…or perhaps the aging of a canvas with layers of varnish. Rembrandt’s critics wanted more light in the painting.”
“The little girl in the yellow dress seems out of place.” Peter stared at the print in his hand.
“Symbolism. Possibly victory or resurrection. What do you think?”
“I’m not sure, but I’m ready to see your Night Watch.”
Mr. Hayakawa went to the pocket doors, pushing one open with his left hand and the other with his right. In the corner of the studio was a very large canvas; it reached halfway to the ceiling and almost completely across one of the walls. Peter walked up to it and looked at its surface. He carefully stepped backwards.
The canvas was black with three large rectangular shapes. Each of the shapes was dark blue, so close to the black that the edges of the color fields almost disappeared. Within each of the blue forms Peter could see an under-painting, almost erased by the blue, a fleck of a yellow line in one and speck of red in another.
“Well?” said Mr. Hayakawa.
“I’m lost in it. A memory of the sea at night: black, but with a depth of blue, possibly moonlight flickering through waves, possibly a stain of blood from battle.”
“I knew you would see more than just the surface,” said Mr. Hayakawa.
“But you weren’t in the war. Why this subject?”
“There are many kinds of battles. I’ve felt the anguish of war in my own way.”
Peter had learned years ago about the internment camp that Mr. Hayakawa’s family entered in 1942. He first heard of the camps when he returned home from the war, and even then, it was something Peter wasn’t willing to come to terms with—not until Mr. Hayakawa showed him his book of Dorothea Lange photographs.
“You see, Mr. Daniels, Rembrandt’s Night Watch is an enormous painting, much larger than this.” He gestured toward the black and blue canvas in front of them. One needs to stand back from his painting, and it see it from a distance.”
“A distance of time, too, perhaps,” Peter said.
“Yes, wars from a distance melt into one another—don’t you think? We see history as a never-ending cycle. My Night Watch is meant to be seen up close.” The painter smiled. “Our night sky is the same.”
Peter must have look confused.
“It envelops us,” Mr. Hayakawa continued. “It closes in. We sense the enormity of the universe. It pushes on us from a great distance and makes us feel its presence and our smallness.”
“Your night sky from the desert of California was the same as my night sky over Saint Vith in Belgium,” Peter said.
Mr. Hayakawa nodded. “Time and space bring us closer together.” He moved near the canvas, pointing to the red stain and then the yellow line. “We have left our marks on this world.”
This story was a finalist for the Adelaide Literary Award Anthology 2020, Short Stories. ADELAIDE BOOKS
The story is dedicated to the memory of Alfred Moskowitz who served during the Battle of the Bulge.
Johnny Harris was no truth teller. He wasn’t a compulsive liar, it was just that he stretched the facts and embellished the details. He was a storyteller. Maybe a few generations earlier he’d be right at home, sitting on the front porch of a dry-goods store, shooting the breeze with his friends. In those days there was no harm in exaggeration. But now, inflating his importance to the whole world had consequences.
“How would you describe me, Kelley?” He stepped back and let his best friend since sixth grade take a better look at him.
“You’re a guy, whatta you mean, J? You look just like everybody else we know.”
“Yeah, but what makes me different, different than everyone else?”
“Don’t go all metro on me, J. What do you want me to say? What’s this for?”
“I need an edge for my profile. Just to say that I’m five feet ten and weigh one hundred seventy-five, or that I have black hair—that’s boring. I don’t want average.”
“You can’t change the facts, J.”
Johnny’s phone played his ringtone All Day. “It’s my mom.”
“What? She can’t yell down the stairs?”
“Gotta go to work, Kelley. Walk me to the subway.”
“Didn’t you tell me you quit your job two weeks ago?”
“Yeah, I quit, but I didn’t tell her: she’ll go nuts.”
“I’ll say. Mrs. Harris wants her baby boy out of the basement,” Kelley laughed.
“It’s a family room, I don’t live in a cellar.”
“Well, thanks for letting me crash last night in whatever this is.” Kelley glanced across the remnants of cold pizza that Johnny’s golden lab was finishing off. “I have a class at ten, so I’ll walk you to the station. Is your mom still making your breakfast, or is she on strike this week?”
Johnny looked at his phone. “She’s pissed. Let’s stop at Starbucks.”
“Yeah, metro for sure. Sign number two: when Dunkin is no longer good enough. So let me get this straight: you have been pretending to go to work for two weeks?”
“Outside.” Johnny whispered.
“How’s my favorite guy doing at Brooklyn Law School?” Johnny’s Mom looked past her son and walked over to Kelley to give him a hug hello.
“Not bad, Mrs. Harris, and you?”
Mrs. Harris took a deep breath and launched into a list of ‘if onlys’: If only Johnny had studied more in high school. If only Johnny didn’t get caught shoplifting. There were at least twenty ‘if onlys’. Without them Johnny would be at Harvard Law, where his father had graduated.
“Going to be late, Mom,” he pushed Kelley toward the front door.
“At least you have a job,” Mrs. Harris called after him as the two young men left the room.
When they got onto Remsen Street, they joined a dog walker, three nannies with carriages, and a stream of people who looked intent on getting someplace.
“She also has a list of at leasts,” Johnny laughed. He reached into his back pocket and pulled out a well-worn paperback. “You see this, Kelley,” he tapped the cover with his left hand, “what do you think it is?”
Kelley kept walking. He was trying to check out the girl who had just passed them. She was wearing a blue sleeveless mini dress.
“Aphrodisiac,” Johnny said as he continued to tap the book.
The girl turned right and they were going left on Hicks.
“What?” Kelley said.
“What do you mean?” Kelley looked at the title. “What’s it about?”
“I didn’t read it, but the cover says…” Johnny read the cover review and then flipped inside and read the rest of the quotes while they waited for the light to turn green. “You know, you don’t really need to read anymore.”
Johnny pulled the door to Starbucks open and got in line to place his order. “Yeah, do you think anyone wants to listen to a regurgitation of every twist and turn in a plot?”
“Well, don’t you want to get something out of the book for yourself, J?”
“Grande ice.” Johnny laughed. “I get something out of it all right. How’d you think I met that girl from the DR on the subway last month?”
“Small black.” Kelley turned toward his friend. “You’ve got to be kidding, man.”
“No, they think I’m a real intellectual. And in this case,” he pointed to the cover, “sensitive and understanding.”
“Well there you are: your profile.” Kelley started to laugh and the coffee almost came out of his nose.
“I’m thinking of trading this one in at the library today, that’s where I’m headed.”
“Got any bigger plans, like a job interview?”
“Thanks for reminding me, Mom. Hey, I’m not worried. I’ve got some great references from that job. Really. “ He could see that Kelley wasn’t buying it. “It was a political shoot out. I lost. I quit. No hard feelings, that’s what they told me at my exit interview. Reilly told me he would definitely write something good,” Johnny smirked. “He doesn’t want to mess with my Dad.”
“Yeah, but your Dad, when he finds out…?” Kelley took a sip of coffee.
“I’ll have something else down by then for sure. I have connections. Going to the Harvard Club later.”
Johnny kept walking, but Kelley stopped. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?”
“How else you think I’m going to find a job.” Johnny raised his hand for a high-five. “Later.” He turned toward the Borough Hall subway entrance, tossed his empty cup in the trash and picked up speed to match the rest of the pedestrians.
The crowd heading for downtown Brooklyn exited and Johnny stepped into the subway car. At 4th Street he pulled out his paperback and followed a young woman off the train and into the Number One going uptown. He couldn’t catch her eye; she was staring at a pregnant woman sitting in front of her. The girl maneuvered around him and got off the train ahead of him at Forty-second Street.
The main branch of the public library was an enormous limestone building filling an entire square block of Fifth Avenue. Two stone lions stood guarding the steps leading to the main door. Johnny pulled one of the doors open and headed for the information desk.
“Got any recommendations this week, Emily? Anything new on the bestseller list? I’m looking for something for my sister.” Johnny grinned at the young woman behind the desk. Emily the librarian, Johnny thought, could she be anymore of a cliché? Her brown shirt matched her hair and helped to make her disappear into the woodwork: invisible until spoken to.
“How did she like the one I suggested to you last week?”
Johnny did have an older sister, but not one he gave books to. His sister had pretty much ignored him for most of his life. She was still useful to him though.
“Very moving,” Johnny quoted the inside flap to Emily. “The writer really understands the female psyche.”
“So true,” Emily sighed. “You read it too?”
“I’m meeting my sister at the Harvard Club for lunch, promised her I would bring her something new to read,” Johnny ignored Emily’s question.
She adjusted her glasses and sat up straight. “You went to Harvard?”
“Loved Cambridge and Boston. Fantastic experience.”
“Well,” Emily cleared her throat, “I know of something she might like.” Emily wrote on the small pad in front of her and gave the top sheet to Johnny. “Take this to the circulation desk. I’ll be curious to see what your sister thinks of this one.”
“Here’s the book.” The man behind the desk pushed a thick hard cover volume across the desk. “This number here, the one you put on your request,” he pointed to the slip Johnny had filled in for the book Emily suggested, “ this is a telephone number.”
Johnny started to laugh as he picked up the book. “Sorry, I think I made a mistake. Is this available in paperback?”
“I guess it’s not the one I want.” He pushed the book away, turned around and went back to the table he had staked out for the morning.
Johnny had bounced around a few private schools before he graduated from high school; he managed to get through Hunter College. His father had gotten him the job as a para-legal with the hopes he would some day “snap out of it”.
Johnny had his laptop open and was staring at his resume. They don’t make it easy for anyone these days. There are too many ways of checking this information, he thought. Searching Google for “what do employers look for in background checks?” he found a list of items on “good-hire.com”.
He went into the lobby and used his cell phone to call the records office of his alma mater.
“We will send you a copy of your candidates dates of attendance and degrees once you send us the required form.”
“I’m interested in the clubs and extra curricular activity during his time at school,” said Johnny.
“Oh, we don’t provide that information, sir. You would have to contact those organizations individually. Is there anything else?”
“No, I’ll fill out the request. Thanks for your help.” Johnny hung up the phone. “Bingo!” he said and went back to the table.
Johnny typed into the search engine: Core skills for being research assistant in publishing.
When he finished adding those skills to his resume, along with various clubs and activities that would indicate his personality and interest in publishing, he closed the laptop.
The Harvard Club had changed their rules a few years ago. There were too many non-Crimson types wandering in off the street. They now required people to have an ID and to sign in at the front desk. Johnny had taken his father’s card, made a copy and erased Class of ’65. He inserted ‘12 and added his own photo. It was a good enough facsimile of the ID to flash to the attendant at the front desk.
“Nice day.” Johnny ran up the steps with his gym bag slung over his shoulder. He had been coming to the Harvard Club for over a year; everyone recognized him.
“Too hot for me, the summer uniform is still not cool enough. Have a good work-out,” the doorman said.
The locker-room was empty. Johnny changed into his shorts and a tee shirt and went into the gym. Bending over to change the weights on the press, he straddled the pole, squatted and took a deep breath before pushing eighty pounds to his shoulder and then over his head. He did twelve reps and took a break to work on his legs.
“I’ve been watching you lift.” An older man approached him.
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“You have a great routine. Yeah, I use to be able to do a drill myself. Then I tore my shoulder and, well, you know how that goes: first one thing and then the other.” He made a deep laugh and stared at Johnny.
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“I’ve seen you here before, a few times. Great facilities, no?”
Now he was waiting for an answer.
“Crimson’s the best,” Johnny said.
The man looked as old as his father, thick grey hair that was matted with sweat. For someone who wasn’t lifting he was trim and chiseled, Johnny thought. He looked away hoping the man would leave him alone.
“How long is your work-out?” the man continued.
“Got another hour at least, just started.”
“I noticed,” he smiled. “What house were you in?”
Johnny didn’t register that he was asking where he lived at Harvard. “…South House,” he said after a pause.
“You mean Cabot, don’t you? It hasn’t been South House since ’85.”
Johnny started to laugh nervously. “Gee, I am turning into my dad. He called Cabot, South House the entire time I was an undergraduate.”
“Got ya.” the man laughed. I won’t interrupt your routine. I’m off to the treadmill. My name is Wallace Merritt, Class of ’65, South House,” he smiled and put out his hand.
Johnny shook his hand. He starting coughing and raised his hand to his mouth as he said John Harris. Then clearly: “Class of ‘2012”.
“Hmmm. My son would have been 2012, but he never made it.” The man turned and walked away.
Johnny went over to the leg press machine and set it for 200 pounds. As he pressed, he knew he would have to avoid Wallace Merritt.
“I thought you might end up in here,” a voice said from the bench on the other side of the steam room.
Johnny couldn’t see who it was, but he got a cold chill as he entered the one hundred degree room. He started to turn around.
“Don’t leave, I want to talk to you,” Wallace Merritt said.
“I…” Johnny started.
“I could get you thrown out of here.” The man snapped his fingers. “But I won’t, I know your dad.” Wallace patted the bench and motioned through the steam for Johnny to sit next to him. “I should say, I knew your dad. How is he? Still alive? Still senior partner at White and Case?” He didn’t let Johnny answer. “Sure he is, and I bet he is still a liar too?”
“What do you mean, liar?”
“Your father got away with a lot when he was in school. That’s what I’m saying. I bet you get away with a lot too. Chip off the old block, right?”
Johnny didn’t answer. His eyes had adjusted to the room. They were alone and he could see Wallace looking at him.
“I won’t bite you, not yet anyway,” he patted the bench next to him.
“Why didn’t your son graduate Harvard?”
“Save it, kid. He died in a car accident on his nineteenth birthday. We could go for a drink and I could tell you all about it, if you really are interested in anything but yourself.”
Johnny turned and faced the door.
“What, I hurt your feelings? Well that’s different. You could never hurt Jack Harris’ feelings, if your Dad had any that is. Don’t go.”
“Why should I stay, your just going to get me kicked out. What’s the point?”
Johnny thought the worst that could happen would be being thrown out of the club. Wallace would never call his father, not with the way he talked about him.
“Maybe we could be useful to each other.”
Johnny sat on the facing bench. “I am looking for a job,” he blurted out nervously.
Wallace got up and stood in front of Johnny. His towel slipped off and fell to the floor; he picked it up and put it around his waste.
“It’s me that is going to get the favor first, kid.” The drink offer still stands. I’ll see you at Twenty-One Club in thirty minutes if you’re curious.”
Johnny didn’t say anything.
“Think about it kid, take a shower and cool off before you go out in the heat…think about it.”
Of course Johnny was curious. Maybe the towel dropping to the floor was just an accident. Maybe he could get me a job. Just going to listen. What’s the harm? I can always leave, he thought.
The Twenty-One Club was eight blocks away, just far enough for Johnny to change his mind a few times. He stopped and checked his phone messages and saw that Kelley had left a text about their plans for later. So he told Kelley what he was doing.
“What do you mean your going for drinks?” Kelley texted.
“He wants to see my resume and talk about my future.”
“Sounds weird, man, gotta go into class.” Kelley ended.
Johnny stopped walking and turned toward Broadway. Maybe I can catch a movie. He looked at the time on his phone. What could I possibly do for this guy? He thought. But he could do something for me, yeah, maybe he’s lonely, maybe I remind him of his son.
He turned around and continued up Sixth Avenue. When he reached the corner of 53th street he saw statues of little white jockeys holding rings, one on each step going up to and across the wrought iron railing that surrounded the second floor terrace of the Twenty-One Club.
He went down three steps to the entrance and opened the door to the restaurant. It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the darkness and then he saw the maître-d in front of him.
“Wallace Merritt,” Johnny informed the small man.
Wallace was sitting at the bar with a drink. “Didn’t think you would show, kid.” He turned as Johnny said down next to him.
“Here,” he went into his jacket and pulled out his wallet. “My card, just so you know who I am.”
The card read: Wallace Merritt, CEO, Star Communications, 1200 Avenue of Americas, New York, NY 10019.
Johnny was impressed, but just nodded, and slipped the card into his back pocket.
The bartender approached them and smiled. “Sorry, got to check your ID,” he said to Johnny.
“Yeah, you can’t be too careful these days.” Johnny shot a look at Wallace as he took his driver’s license out and ordered a gin and tonic.
Wallace didn’t say anything for a while. He stirred the ice in his drink with a small plastic straw. Finally he looked at Johnny and said: “I’ve been thinking while I was sitting here nursing this drink. If only my son were alive, well, I wouldn’t have bothered you today.”
Johnny didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath and took another sip of his gin and tonic.
“Life is funny, you expect certain things to happen…” he paused, “you don’t expect your kid to die before you do. That’s not the way it supposed to happen.”
“How did it happen?” Johnny asked.
“You really want to know?” he continued, “late at night, fog, too much liquor, winding road, and a tree. In that order.”
“I am sorry, Mr. Merritt. You must miss him. What is it you want me to do for you?”
“Call me Wallace, son.”
Johnny flinched and waited for him to continue.
“My mother is dying.” He raised his hand to stop Johnny from talking. “Oh, it’s okay, she had a great life, she’s ninety-five. Patrician princess that’s what she is. Now she can’t remember anything,” Wallace took another sip and signaled the bartender for another round.
“Not for me Mr., I mean, Wallace, still working on this one.” Johnny looked at the drink in front of him.
“I want you to come for a ride with me.” He shook his head and made sure the bartender gave Johnny a second drink.
“I don’t know. I have plans tonight.”
“Well, we all have plans, don’t we,” he laughed. “Then life happens,” he kept laughing. “Break them, son. I need you to be by my side today. I want to visit my mother and I don’t want to go alone.”
“I guess I could change my plans. I need to tell my friend what I’m doing.”
“Make it up.”
“Why would you say that?” Johnny asked.
“Why does it matter where you are going, you’ll be with me…and my mother,” Wallace added. “She is in a nursing home near Tarrytown in Westchester, really nice place, about an hour north of here in the country. It has a view of the Hudson.” Wallace continued to talk about his mother and describe the bucolic location of where she lived.
“I don’t know, seems like a long way from here. I live in Brooklyn Heights.”
“The sun sets at eight, you’ll be home before it gets dark if we leave soon.”
“What’s the name of the place, Wallace?”
“Sleepy-Hollow Meadows. Sounds nice and cool on such a hot day, doesn’t it?”
“Well, I guess.” Not such a big favor after all, Johnny thought. I can talk about what kind of job I want on the drive. “Are we leaving now?”
“Sure thing, let me call my driver. Meet me in a few minuets the lobby.”
Johnny went to the men’s room and texted Kelley that he was close to getting a job. “Yeah, the guy I met at the Harvard Club. Right. And guess where I am now? THE—Twenty–One Club. We are talking about my career.”
“Get real, Johnny. Where the hell are you? We’re meeting up with the guys tonight,” Kelley texted back.
“Really. It’s true, I’m not making this up,” Johnny wrote. The second drink kicked in harder than usual and all of a sudden he was dizzy. “LTR” was all he could type back.
When Johnny walked into the bar to get his gym bag, the bartender motioned to him closer.
“I didn’t want to say anything in front of Mr. Merritt, since your one of his boys, right?
Well, your license it’s no good, not real, but you know that. “
“Wha? Johnny asked holding on tight to the back a bar chair so he wouldn’t fall.
“Yeah, the guy who has been buying your drinks, sonny. Your friend.” He winked.
“The car is here, kid. Let’s get going if you want get home tonight.” Wallace had come back into the bar to look for him.”
“I’m not feeling well. I haven’t eaten today. I shouldn’t have had that second drink; it’s really hitting me hard. Don’t think I can make it.”
Wallace took Johnny’s elbow and led him out of the bar. “The fresh air will do you good. You can take a nap on our way there.”
“The bartender was telling me your….” Johnny couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. His legs felt so heavy he had a hard time lifting them.
When Johnny woke up in the back seat of a limo, Wallace was gone. The sun was setting across the river and they were speeding south on the Westside Highway.
“What time is it?” he yelled to the driver. “Where’s the man I was with?”
“It’s seven-thirty, beats me where he is now. Got out of the car a half an hour ago and told me to take you home. Don’t you remember?”
“What’s his name? “
“You don’t know and you expect me to? I pick up people all day and night, never ask questions, just take them where they want to go?”
“Aren’t you his driver?”
“Nah. This is a limo service kid, we pick people up and deliver them.”
“Didn’t you drive us to Westcester earlier today?” Johnny’s head felt as if it were going to explode.
“Nah, just got a call to pick someone up in Tarrytown and drive them to Brooklyn Heights.”
“I think I’m going to be sick.”
“I don’t pass any judgment either.” The diver let the windows down in the rear of the car. “Don’t mess up the car.”
Johnny was looking at him in driver’s rear view mirror. All he could see were his eyes staring ahead at the traffic.
“Did the man say anything aside from to take me home?”
The driver looked up at him in the mirror. “Yeah, he said you were smart kid, you went to Harvard and…”
“And?” Johnny asked.
“And if only you could have seen your grandmother before she died.”
If Only is part of a linked short story collection: Getting There – The Claudia Stories five of the stories have been published in various journals.
The above photo is from a post “Writers You Should Absolutely Never Read On The Subway on Thrillist” by James Chrisman @james_chrisman2
Each generation has a heaviness and this one, as so many others before, is no different.
Those of privilege, the ones who have feasted on the world as it is, seem surprised for what has become of us. How could this be happening, they ask with greater and greater incredulity.
Some who know silence as well as their native tongue claim it is not their story, not their neighborhood, and not their people. The idioms of silence allow for excuses.
These sentiments remind me of the novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. I read this book twenty-seven years ago, and while the reviews speak to a love story, I felt it was more. For me, it was about the weight of the world and those who feel too deeply. The conceit is that the heaviness, for some, who are lucky enough to feel, is a freedom. Feeling nothing is unbearable.
Photo: Elsa Mora
In an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 2015 (reviewed here), the images of women marching for the right to vote remind me of all the women who came before us, our grandmothers and great-grandmothers. Those women had a voice to raise, just as our voices were heard last month and all the days to follow. The difference is our ability to vote.
I hope that this month, where we celebrate Women’s History (in the U.S.), we will encounter voices both present and past, those we know and especially those that are waiting to be discovered.
Deeds Not Words was the rallying cry of the suffragettes. Women’s Rights is a recurring back-story in my novel, The Last Daughter of Elizabeth Light.
In Chapter Three, Sydney, Australia, Maude Anderson reads to her mother, Caroline, from the London Times.
It is the story of Emily Davidson throwing herself under the King George V’s horse at the Epsom Derby.
In Chapter Five, Christchurch, New Zealand, Mary Müller speaks to Martha Light about whether she ever thought for herself without first consulting her husband.
The ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft in Vindication the Rights of Women, written in 1792, are pressed forward through multiple generations.
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. –George Santayana
Primary image credit: ALEX BROOK LYNN/THE DAILY BEAST
Last February, just about now, I found this image.
Creative disruptors change the way we look at the world. Here, an icon is turned around, and our perception of what we thought we saw is something entirely different.
One of my favorite artist disruptors is Louise Bourgeoise.
“One must accept the fact that others don’t see what you do.” – Louise Bourgeoise
Born in Paris in 1911, Louise Bourgeoise was an inspiration, an outlier, and a disruptor throughout her life. Bourgeois died in New York in 2010 at the age of 98. Her images and sculptures may not be everyone’s cup of tea-but that’s what art is about.
I discovered her at the Tate Modern in London, 2002, where art is always disruptive and resistant to the status quo. A massive thirty foot spider standing in the atrium of an old power station startled me and made me want to know more about this woman artist who was then only 92.
As she put it, “Art is a guarantee of sanity.” And so it is for me, too.
“The Spider is an ode to my mother. She was my best friend. Like a spider, my mother was a weaver. .”- Louise Bourgeoise
Bourgeois transformed her experiences into a highly personal visual language through the use of mythological and archetypal imagery, adopting objects such as spirals, spiders, cages, medical tools, and sewn appendages to symbolize the feminine psyche, beauty, and psychological pain.(1)
Through the use of abstract form and a wide variety of media, Bourgeois dealt with notions of universal balance, playfully juxtaposing materials conventionally considered male or female. She would, for example, use rough or hard materials most strongly associated with masculinity to sculpt soft biomorphic forms suggestive of femininity. – (1) The Art Story
I never tire of finding life in her face and in her work.
“#ItWasNeverADress is an invitation to shift perceptions and assumptions about women and the audacious, sensitive, and powerful gestures they make every single day. In science, technology, arts, mathematics, politics, houses of worship, on the streets, and in our homes, insightful women are often uninvited, overlooked, or just plain dismissed… When we see women differently… we see the world differently!” – Axosoft
Read more about Louise here: MOMA’s archive has a wealth of information.
In 1869, almost twenty-five years before the first woman cast her vote in New Zealand, Mary Müller wrote an appeal to the men of New Zealand. Müller’s argument, as so many arguments that followed hers, was that “without political rights women could not make their full contribution to the progress of the nation”. She signed the article in the Nelson Examiner –“Fémmina” because her husband, a local politician, objected to her views. Today we stand together and tomorrow we continue to write our letters, proudly signing our names for all to see. Keep Writing.
Here are the dates by country of universal suffrage:
1893 New Zealand
1902 Australia (1)
1917 Canada (2)
1918 Austria, Germany, Poland, Russia
1920 United States
1928 Britain, Ireland
1947 Argentina, Japan, Mexico, Pakistan
1957 Malaysia, Zimbabwe
1963 Iran, Morocco
1990 Western Samoa
1993 Kazakhstan, Moldova
1994 South Africa
2006 United Arab Emirates
2011 Saudi Arabia (3)
NOTE: One country does not allow their people, male or female, to vote: Brunei.
1. Australian women, with the exception of aboriginal women, won the vote in 1902. Aborigines, male and female, did not have the right to vote until 1962.
2. Canadian women, with the exception of Canadian Indian women, won the vote in 1917. Canadian Indians, male and female, did not win the vote until 1960. Source: The New York Times, May 22, 2005.
3. King Abdullah issued a decree in 2011 ordering that women be allowed to stand as candidates and vote in municipal elections, but their first opportunity did not come until Dec. 2015, almost a year after the king’s death in January.
A character is born in Christchurch, NZ. I know her, but where does she live? What is the address? What is the view from the front window?
The house, imagined from a combination of old photos found in the archives of the National Library of New Zealand (collections), comes to life. The newspapers of the day report the daily sports events, petty crimes, and news from London; this becomes the morning breakfast chatter between mother and daughter. And then, of course, there is a need to walk out the front door, turn onto a street. Her mission is to buy a dress, but where? Ballantyne’s. And then a photo falls from google-space and you find a place rich in detail to build a believable encounter.
Chapter 4, Caroline Light, Christchurch, New Zealand – 1895.
For another journey through the streets of a London, this interactive link, on Charles Dickens Oliver Twist written in the New York Times last week is exactly the trip I like to take.
“The end is where we start from.” T.S. Eliot Little Gidding
As a writer of fiction I am invested in the belief that time travel is possible.
Going backward or forward—or any combination of actions—in story telling is critical to engage the reader. But time can also be an abstraction, even if it is an anchor to the most important moments of our lives.
I first became aware of the effervescence of time while dozing in the front row of a London theatre. My late mother, at my side, also doing a head-nod—after a too heavy English dinner—was equally unimpressed by the play being performed two feet in front of us.
Copenhagen by Michael Frayn had won a Tony and was the hot ticket that year. Unfortunately a discourse on quantum mechanics was too much after a long day of visiting with Mom’s old friends.
Embarrassed? Yes. So I bought the script and continued my examination of time. Reading In Search of Schrödinger’s Cat was also sleep inducing, but the thought of something (a cat in this example) existing in two different states of existence at the same time was more than an interesting time bending story, and, I was already down the rabbit hole. (Illustration above by Lisbeth Zwerger for a special edition of Alice in Wonderland )
Of course, time travel and the notion of other levels of existence have been around for a long time. More reading for me here: brain pickings.
And it continues…. the movie Arrival is another tour de force on the subject.
Looking at her from a distance of two centuries, you might wonder how Mary Wollstonecraft, so ahead of her time, arrived at her inspiring thesis: Vindication-The Rights of Women. In her day, the late 1700’s, she was an outlier, an independent thinker, who wrote for us, and for that matter, every generation who followed her.
Yes, there have been others: Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and Gloria Steinem. Yes, hundreds, if not thousands of others, who knew the same truths, experienced the same issues and fights. They all wrote for us. Some of these books might seem dated, not relevant, or out of touch with today, yet, the news of the latest insult repeats unsolved issues. Mary’s ideas, published in 1792, had a bite. They left a mark on me.
Reading Mary’s biography by Lyndall Gordon, I knew I had the link to the past I was looking for. I had been researching my family history, using stories my mother told me, census reports from Australia and New Zealand, journals, and newspaper clippings . I was elaborating, embellishing, and I was creating a fictional history of women, of mothers and daughters. How far could I, in any good conscience, retreat from the truth and create a fiction that was universal? And then Mary stepped in.
More about Mary later.
Jen stubbed her cigarette out on the window ledge. The room behind her was quiet, her stepsisters still sleeping, lay twisted in the cotton sheet that barely covered them: Lucy faced north and Mary south, positions they had negotiated when they were six.
Hart Street was dark; there was only a hint of the morning sky. Jen looked over at her pack of Marlboro Lights. People should have warning labels: Dangerous to your health, Not fit for family gatherings, Unable to keep promises. She held the pack and counted the number of cigarettes left. If she didn’t have one now, the five would get her through the afternoon. The argument last night with her mother had kept her awake; if only her mother knew what she had to do today.
“You need to get away from him, you’re better than he is, don’t you know that?”
Jen’s mother, Maureen, was washing dishes while Jen slowly dried them. Mary and Lucy did their homework at the small table. The kitchen became too crowded when Jen’s brother walked in and opened the refrigerator door.
“You just ate, Billy,” Maureen said. She turned away from her daughter who was drying a glass and faced her son. “Look at you, you’ve grown two inches in the last month. I can’t keep enough food on the table.”
“Sorry, Mom, just wanted something sweet. Do we have any ice cream? It’s so hot tonight.”
“Not in the budget this week.” She looked over at Jen and shook her head.
“Don’t worry Mom, I won’t get fired. I told them I was sick, had the flu, and needed to be out for two days so I wouldn’t infect anyone.” She touched the bruise around her eye.
“Well, I hope they believed you, because you know….”
“I know, Mom. I know you need to cover the bills.”
When Jen’s stepfather walked into the kitchen, she turned so he wouldn’t see her face. If he had seen the black eye, he would have gone looking for Lewis, and he would have taken Billy with him. That’s what Maureen had told her.
“Having a family meeting without me?” He leaned over the table and looked at what the twins were working on. “You girls must be really smart to be able to answer all those questions with this noise.” He smiled at his wife. “I guess you two have learned to block it out?”
“I don’t think so, they keep one ear on our conversation,” Maureen said.
Lucy looked up at her father. “They call it multi-tasking, Daddy.”
“See, honey, I never heard of that, and yet, Lucy and Mary are doing it in front of me,” he laughed. “I’m going back to the game, come on, Billy. Let’s leave the ladies alone in the kitchen.” He motioned to the boy, who moved around the two girls at the table.
Maureen looked at the closed kitchen door. “He had a good day today, Jen. I’m glad he didn’t see your eye.”