Rachel has been pursuing her sudden romance courtesy of piled-up sick days at a job she refuses to describe. Skye has decided not to press the issue. Given the ironclad contract with Sarge, he has his own secrets, and hasn’t even bothered to offer the rich-uncle cover story.
So every morning, he is kissed awake by a sexy Jewess in smart, preppy-looking clothes: plaid skirts, colored stockings, clean white blouses and delicate sweaters. She is the graphic designer for an off-Broadway theater group; sales rep for an art gallery; receptionist for a small publishing house. All he really knows is that she enters the downtown station for the 1, 2 and 3 lines, and that she gets back at six.
Skye’s occupation is walking. He has never experienced a city that inspires so much pedestrianism, and he notices how much leaner the natives are than in supposedly health-conscious California. He enters the park past a batting practice with 40 fielders, crosses the Great Lawn to the Met museum, descends Fifth Avenue, golden leaves dripping from the trees, and ends up at Rockefeller Center, where he finds a café overlooking the soon-to-be ice rink. He opens his laptop and discovers an email from his favorite source, the science writer/poet Diane Ackerman. The assignment is a story about the right brain-left brain connection for Writer’s Digest. One of Diane’s books is about brain science, but recently the subject has become more personal. Her husband, also an author, suffered a stroke that caused a complete loss of his language skills. But now he has regained so many of these powers that he is working on his next book. Diane attributes the recovery to the brain’s astounding plasticity. Other regions of his brain have apparently re-wired themselves to cover for the damaged area. He’s about to type in some follow-up questions when his phone goes off.
“Hello, sweet thang.”
“Wow. Seventies flashback.”
“You card. Hey, could you meet me at St. Mark’s Place in an hour?”
“Fantastic. Another treasure hunt. Call me a wuss, but I kinda need an escort.”
“No prob. See you there.”
Skye knows he’s close to the 6 line, but the overcast looks harmless and once again he’s walking. He takes Park Avenue and tries not to look too touristy as he scopes out the Chrysler Building.
He finds Rachel in a sunglass shop, trying out various levels of funkitude. She wears a checked black-and-white coat that makes her look so sharp he can’t stand it. The destination is Alphabet City, which, he has to admit, kinda gives him the creeps. He straightens his posture, thinking bodyguard, Secret Service.
The store is Alphabet Books, East Sixth and Avenue C. The interior carries the distinctive rotten-beer smell of an old saloon. Their contact is Squilly, a Jamaican beauty with the cheekbones of an Egyptian princess. She leads them to a corner piled high with moving boxes.
“How could I not tink of you, dawlin? Drama books – set designs, drawins o’ costumes. It’s a gold mine!”
Rachel digs in like a badger, flipping lids, fanning pages. She shows Skye a sketch of Lady Macbeth in a purple gown, standing before a dark stone castle.
“How much, Squilly?”
Squilly fixes her hands on her hips, long nails done up in a sparkled green.
“I hate to ask anytin, what wit dat look in your eyes. Five dollah book?”
“Okay.” She turns to study the pile and run her calculations: how much in the budget, how much they can drag onto the subway.
“How much for all of it?”
Skye takes some pride in the response: four dark eyes, all of them surprised.
Squilly extends her nails toward the boxes as if she’s casting a spell.
He has delighted his woman; he has also condemned them to hard labor. They lug five boxes to the curb. Squilly comes out with some masking tape to reinforce one of the lids. It takes twenty minutes to hail a cab. Then they have to carry the boxes into 666, into the elevator, out of the elevator, into the apartment. Skye sets down the final load and collapses onto the futon next to Rachel. She leans her head against his.
“The bad news is, I no longer have room for you.”
“If I were not so tired,” says Skye, “I would be laughing uproariously.”
It’s been raining all night, and Rachel’s wakeup kiss acted more like a snooze button. He wakes to silvered light and the scent of damp air, fairly certain that the day is already half-spent. The exit from bed takes a little more effort than usual, Rachel having lined the edge of the futon with book boxes.
He enters the bathroom to find a wrapped package. What it’s wrapped in is pretty intriguing: a ‘60s-vintage centerfold spread from a Playboy magazine. The subject is a perky, milk-fed blonde, back when white girls were white. Were it not for the lack of clothing, she could be a Lawrence Welk dancer. Along the curves of an over-the-shoulder shot, Rachel has inscribed a commentary in her sleek handwriting, like a tattoo along Debbie Ray’s backside: Behold! A little surprise from yesterday’s purchase. It’s all right if you visualize Debbie Ray while we’re screwing, but keep in mind that she’s probably 80 by now. Mwah! –R
She has managed to wrap his gift using strategic tabs of masking tape, so it’s easy to disassemble the photo spread without inflicting damage. The object inside is a biography of George Gershwin. A post-it note reads, For the lover of old songs, a hidden treasure from the Alphabet trove. Thank you for feeding my crazy muse. X X O O
A rainy day is not necessarily the best time for a trip to Ellis Island, but Skye is feeling the need to set his feet somewhere off of Manhattan. Most of the tour is inside, anyway – particularly the grand admissions hall – but the most striking moment comes outside in a full downpour. He stands under his umbrella, scanning the list of names on the waterside walls, and the names become voices, a cacophony of foreign dialects filling the great hall.
Across the gray-blue water, the buildings go on forever, their tops slipping in and out of the clouds. The new World Trade building knifes out of the downtown gap. Having stepped this little way off, he wonders what the hell he’s doing. Sarge’s money doesn’t change the fact that he’s a Californian, that at some point he will need to return to his apartment. But what is he supposed to do about Rachel? He can’t just pack her up and take her with him. But he’s not sure if he can leave her, either.
By the end of his long subway ride, he concludes that he is the victim of rainy-day morbidity, and vows to enjoy his adventure two more weeks before returning to a logical existence.
His timing falls into the cracks: late, but not so late that he needs to text. He reasons that Rachel probably doesn’t mind some alone time after work. He opens the door to the overwhelming sweetness of narcissus, and now understands the correlation of myth to plant – that flower is so into itself. He makes a mental note to throw it out before they both go crazy from the scent.
Rachel is a small series of hills under a green comforter, fast asleep. The rain must have dragged her down, too. Skye makes himself a sandwich and watches an old sitcom with the help of some headphones. He makes a covert study of Rachel’s latest work, a spatial parody of The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. The work makes use of every fairyland character imaginable: sprites, ogres, nymphs, the big bad wolf, even Tinkerbell, who is ringleading an orgy involving Hansel, Gretel, Jack, Jill and Icarus.
After another sitcom, Skye comes to the conclusion that Rachel has embarked on an all-night snooze. He picks up the Gershwin biography and sits in a small armchair to read. The city outside sends waves of traffic noise to accompany the steady drip of water against the window pane.
He wakes in the armchair and finds that the small green hills have not moved. Her half-melted Salvador Dali clock reads ten, which cannot be good. He slides next to her on the futon and nudges her shoulder till she rolls over, wearing a drowsy, blank expression.
“Rachel? Honey? You overslept.”
“Are you sick?”
After a long pause, she nods.
“Do I need to call in for you?”
A barely discernible shake. She rolls back over.
“Okay. Sorry you’re sick.”
Skye performs a lengthy toilette and puts on his rainwear. He watches Rachel’s breathing and concludes that she’s not asleep.
“Going for a bagel, honey. Bring you an Asiago?”
He’s found a lovely little place on Broadway, Hiram’s, that offers bagels fresh out of the oven, strong coffee, and a counter at the window, perfect for writing and the occasional pedestrian-watch. This is, in fact, an element of the article he’s writing. When a writer is stuck for a word or an idea, he will often look off in the distance. This is usually seen as an attempt to rest his eyes. But the right hemisphere of the brain, which generates new concepts, is also responsible for handling visual imagery. So, in looking for an idea, the writer massages that portion of his brain by seeking visual stimulation.
For the coffeehouse male, this can be a hazardous maneuver. The male brain latches onto what it likes, and sometimes the unfocused idea-gaze turns into an unintentionally rude stare. Skye is occasionally tempted to rush across the room and say, “I’m sorry, your ass was helping me to find a word.”
The other distraction is endemic to the denizens of uptown Broadway. Manhattan women are, on average, much better-looking than most, and even in a rainstorm they’re dressed to the nines. A Russian-looking brunette struts past in a black-and-white checked coat, bringing a thought to the surface. Rachel didn’t look sick at all. But her eyes were sealed off, like the locked door. Like the dark room.
He orders an Asiago bagel to go, and makes his way back.
He pops the Asiago into the toaster, hoping that the pungent aroma will bring her to life. When the toaster pops, Rachel rolls over, pulls up her legs and stumbles to the bathroom, barely giving Skye a look. He puts the bagel halves on a plate and spreads the cream cheese.
A half hour later, she’s still in there, but at least she’s running a bath. Skye finds Ordinary People on the TV and settles in. A few minutes later, she wanders out, naked. She sees the bagel next to her light table, takes a bite, and drops the rest into her wastebasket. Skye takes her by the elbows.
“Rachel? What’s wrong? Is there something wrong?”
Still the locked door, but she manages a word: “Cold.”
“Honey, you’re naked.”
She looks down at her body, then goes to the corner to pull on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt. She returns to the bed, and he’s lost her again.
After the movie, he goes to the corner for Thai food, and manages to feed her two bits of chicken curry before she pushes it away. He feels like he’s dealing with a sleepwalker, and he’s afraid to wake her up. After ingesting a crime show and another chapter of the Gershwin bio (his early career as a producer of rolls for player pianos), Skye gives up, turns off the lights and curls up next to Rachel to see if he can force himself to sleep.
Someone’s running a finger along his ear. He wakes to find Rachel kneeling over him.
She stops between the two words to take a breath, as if the effort of speaking is exhausting her. Then she lies back down, curled against the wall.
Skye rubs his eyes into focus and reaches for his phone, balanced on a bookbox. He pulls up Google and types it in.
Residents of this peaceful seaside town were shocked to learn of the shooting deaths of orthodontist Marcus Grossman and his wife, Shelly Graysen Grossman, late Monday night.
Police have only begun their investigation, but did report that the Grossman residence showed no signs of forced entry. Records show that Dr. Grossman has been the subject of several reports of domestic abuse, although no charges were ever filed.
He finds himself across the street from a dark, heavily gabled apartment building. He’s fairly certain that this means something. A man in a tweed fedora stops beside him.
“The Dakota Apartments. Where John Lennon was killed.”
“Just my luck.”
The man starts laughing, which serves Skye right. He starts laughing as well, then stops.
Mickey tips back his hat and smiles. “Delilah’s boy! I’m sorry…”
“Skye.” They shake hands.
“With Delilah, I tend to lose track.”
“Absolutely.” He looks back at the Dakota. “I don’t know if I’ve had a more disheartening night in my life.”
“Oh! But you can’t take Delilah’s rejections personally. She is the human incarnation of ‘La donna è mobile.’ I would guess that…” Mickey performs a theatrical self-hushing, clamping a hand over his mouth. “You’re talking about John Lennon, aren’t you?”
“Well how long were you going to let me ramble on, for God’s sake?”
Skye smiles. “As long as it took.”
Mickey pats him on the shoulder. “I think I need to buy you a drink.”
“I think you do.”
He expects another visit to Mickey’s apartment. What he gets is a rambling trek past Lincoln Center to a tiny bar on 58th and Ninth called Cavalleria Rusticana. The interior is dark, full of archways, the red walls dotted with framed photos of opera singers. Something old and Italian plays from the P.A. The man behind the bar is built like a teamster, with a neatly trimmed beard and a head of thick, dark hair. He sees them and smiles.
The man lets out a gravelly laugh. “It’s not fair – your Italian is so much better’n mine.”
“Mi dispiace, signore. But you got dat Bronx thing.”
“Been workin’ on it all my life.”
“Gimme some grappa. Due, per favore.”
“I’m gonna assume you mean two.”
Mickey hands Skye a tumbler and takes him to a corner booth with the requisite dark varnish and black upholstery.
“That man at the bar is Peter Mascagni, great-great grandson to Pietro Mascagni, who wrote the great verismo opera Cavalleria rusticana. Which translates as ‘rustic chivalry.’ Which is a great name for a bar.”
Skye takes a sip of the grappa, which offers the same fumey quality as brandy. “Y’know, most guys go to bars to get away from their wives.” He nods at a photo of Maddalena Hart in 18th century dress, braided blonde hair, a Spanish wrap.
Mickey looks at the picture and sighs. “Micaëla, from Carmen. I could tell you a story about my wife and Micaëla that would make your ears rotate.”
Mickey gives a devilish chuckle. “You are not far off. But enough. Basta! Continue this story of yours. The Jewish girlfriend, the bottomless funk.”
“Yes. Um… a few nights ago, she managed to produce two words: Stratford, Connecticut. So I looked up Stratford, Connecticut and found a murder-suicide involving a Mr. and Mrs. Grossman.”
Mickey looks sincerely shocked. “Her parents?”
“Her parents. Her father had a record of domestic violence; her mother had a record of not pressing charges. And there’s another thing. In the short time I’ve known her, Rachel has shown this tendency for brief disappearances into dark places. I call it the locked door.”
“So she expected this.”
“I think so. And now that it’s happened, she has checked out. She rarely leaves her bed, eats just enough to stay alive. Her longest sentences are two words. Frankly, I don’t know how long I’m obligated to play nursemaid – or whether she’d be better off in more qualified hands. Someday, I probably need to go home.”
Mickey takes a sip of grappa and rolls it around his mouth. “I wonder… if there is a place where your needs and Rachel’s needs might overlap. Is she dangerous?”
“Not at all. A kind of hibernation.”
“No calls from the police?”
“No. Sadly, it was a pretty open-and-shut case.”
Mickey’s eyes shift around the room, as if he’s working some kind of mathematical formula. “So you live in… what? San Jose?”
“Yes. But I need to go through Kansas City.”
“I have a pickup truck in a parking garage.”
“Naturally.” He rolls his fingers on the table. “I had a friend in California who grew up in Boston. She left Boston when her brother was murdered. She has come to realize that the recovery process has been easier on her than on the rest of the family, because she’s not faced with the physical reminders: the old school, the old house, the liquor store where he was shot. So perhaps, at least in the short term, you should do the same for Rachel.”
Skye gives it a thought. “I can’t see taking her on a plane, though. She’s halfway to a zombie.”
Mickey looks distracted, his eyes scanning the ceiling.
“Sorry. Peter always slips in something by Maddie. That’s ‘Casta diva’ from Norma.”
Maddalena’s voice rises by slow steps over a bed of strings, then blossoms in a crown of tones. Mickey closes his eyes and smiles.
“You absolutely worship that woman.”
He chuckles. “The amazing part is that she worships me.” He rubs his hands together and says, “So!” And stops.
“Hold on. One last run-through.” He touches his fingers to different points in the air, as if he’s conducting his thoughts. He literally gives a cutoff – a sweep of the hand, thumb and fingers coming together – and says “Yes!”
Skye laughs. “Share with the class?”
Mickey bolts his final swallow of grappa and sucks his teeth. “Yes. But you’re going to have to believe in the power of impulsive action.”
Skye laughs again. “You have no idea.”
Photo by MJV