Hot and Dead
Skye likes to think he can pick out ethnicities, but Carolyn Kendrick presents a particular challenge. With a moon-shaped face, defined cheekbones and long, dark hair, she might be Filipino, or Guatemalan, or Mexican. Her speech is no help: wholly unaccented English – in New Jersey, a rare quality.
“Okay,” he says. “I give up.”
“Native American,” she says. “Muscogee.”
“Thank you. I think.”
“Definitely a compliment. So. What’s the story?”
“Well, as I told the folks at the gallery, I was about to give up. No payment for three months, phone disconnected, no response to our letters. We were about to go in there and throw everything out when I picked up a copy of The New Yorker.”
“Thank goodness. Any idea what’s in there?”
“Nope. She was a regular visitor, nothing unusual, boxes and bags.”
She detaches a key from Rachel’s file and takes him down a long white hallway lined with doors. A middle-aged Puerto Rican woman sits on a milk crate, sorting through a box of magazines. Carolyn stops at door 63 and jiggles the key into a padlock. She slides it free and offers Skye the honor of first entry.
The unit is the size of a walk-in closet. He pulls a light chain, revealing five wooden dressers lining the walls. Skye goes to a top drawer and slides it out. Inside are rolled-up sheets of paper, the size and thickness of posters, each of them tied with a piece of string.
“Holy shit, Carolyn.”
Another dresser, another top drawer. This one holds two stacks of card-stock rectangles, separated by sheets of wax paper.
“Holy shit, Carolyn.”
He tries a third dresser but the drawer won’t open. After a little tinkering, he discovers that the top opens up, like the lid of a toybox. Looking inside, he finds a scroll, nearly as big as the scroll of the missing fingers.
Carolyn grins. “Fantastic!”
Claudia wears blue jeans and a black T-shirt, leading Skye to worry about her state of mind. They are using the white rug in Mickey and Maddie’s living room as a kind of sorting area. The smaller pieces appear to be beginner studies, although they certainly show signs of the whimsical interpolation that would show up later. One piece presents Louis XIV dining with Samuel Johnson, a gorilla, and three gherkin pickles. The rolled-up works are precursors to the spatial studies. Skye detects The School of Athens in an arrangement of flowering bushes.
“I don’t see it,” says Claudia.
“Take the two rose bushes in the center. Here, the most prominent blossom is pointed upward. That would be Plato. Here, pointing downward: Aristotle.”
She shoots him a sideways grin. “You are decidedly wacked. How did the heiress react to your sudden departure?”
“Hard to read. I’m sure she’s a woman who’s used to getting her way. But she also has a certain devotion to Rachel.”
“Just watch out, tiger. She’s a woman. The heart beats the brain every time. And, she’s got a thing for you. And, your little weekend was in the Post.”
“I hope you’re kidding.”
“Artist widower boyfriend seen canoodling in East Hampton with the vegetable princess.”
She shoots him with a finger. “Celebrities are like bowling pins. They are only set up to be knocked down. Personally, I would gladly accept it, if only to have my name in the Post. You bastard.”
“But you are in the Post, Claudia, for I am your creation.”
He scans their black-and-white ocean. “So what do we do with all of this?”
“We sell them. Frame them, pretty them up and sell them.”
“Yikes. The very idea breaks my heart.”
She taps his knee. “Artists create works so that they may butterfly their way into the world. Let them go, let them propagate – now, while Rachel is hot.”
“Hot and dead.”
He runs a finger along his lips. “If we did sell them, what would we do with the money?”
“We would do math. I get a cut, the gallery gets a cut, and you get what’s left.”
“No, I couldn’t. I’ll give mine to the shelter.”
She shoots him a look, which is intensified by her reading glasses.
“Give some to the shelter. Keep some for yourself.”
“I don’t deserve it.”
Claudia puts a hand to her forehead. “You have rescued your girlfriend from the eternal damnation of obscurity, and you have given her a legacy. That is a tremendous thing. Besides, it is the nature of dead people that they are incapable of using money. She would want you to have it.”
“But what does that look like? Am I using my girlfriend’s suicide to make money?”
“If you really were a whore – which is what you seem to be saying – wouldn’t you be off nailing the broccoli princess? And isn’t it time we open that big scroll?”
Skye looks at the log-like shape next to the piano. “I am experiencing some trepidation.”
Claudia stands. “In that case, your agent will do it for you.” She tries and fails to pick it up. Skye comes over to grab an end. They place it at the far wall and Claudia rolls it across the room. What appears is the same dense mashup of imagery as the first scroll, only this time occupied by figures who are male and drunk. Red-nosed drunks, smelly drunks, driving drunks, creepy drunks, enraged, murderous, rapists, mutilators, abusers, shouters. The carnival is cheered along by a team of Pans, Dionysuses, Bacchuses and Satans.
“Wow,” says Skye.
“The first scroll was the mother,” says Claudia. “This one’s Daddy.”
Skye stacks the art in a corner. Mickey and Maddie will return this evening from a symphony gig in Philadelphia (Mozart’s Requiem), and he’ll want to have it ready for display.
His phone has been going off all morning. Chelsea is a mad texter, and has clearly latched onto Skye as her latest repository.
Making great headway on the living room, sans your burly assistance. How does she do it all by herself?
Will be in the Apple tomorrow for a meeting. Join me for a drink?
Had to cover a sharp edge on the mirror wall. Don’t know how that got past me!
Your surfboard misses you. So do I. XXOO
He answers as cleverly as he can, but fears he’s feeding a fire he doesn’t intend to stoke. These are the kind of unbalanced correspondences that make completely worthwhile women (and men) look clingy and desperate. What he really feels like texting back is Me: wrong tree. You: barking.
He has just settled down to a roast beef sandwich when his phone vibrates yet again.
“Jesus! Get a life.” But it’s not Chelsea. It’s an unidentified sender, from the area code 303.
Dude! It’s Sigh. Hey, not to be a starfucker, but I C U R now famous and I want in. Send me your email and I will forward details. Thx!
If anything, it gives him a respite from the Chelsea campaign, so he sends off his email and heads upstairs for a nap. An hour later, he comes back down and boots up Mickey’s computer. He finds Sigh at the top of his inbox.
Okay! Here’s the deal: I am in love with Rachel’s scroll (and I am so sorry about her!). In addition to the power of its story, I think it carries a great deal of social significance. Which is why I think it could benefit from what I can offer: a thorough academic treatment.
My position as program director extends to the university gallery. If you brought the scroll to CU, I could hook you up with my art department director, Candace Stalignan. Candace would conduct a deep analysis of the work and arrange a symposium to go along with the exhibit, including a panel discussion featuring a psychology prof (the cathartic/therapeutic aspect), a feminism studies scholar addressing the imagery, and a sociologist to speak on the issues of abuse and alcoholism.
That’s my pitch. I think we could really help to confirm Rachel’s place in the art world. But mostly, I just want to see this gorgeous work at my gallery.
PS I bet you had no idea I was this deep;-)
Indeed. Skye reads the email a second time and concludes that he needs to give it at least two days of thought. He switches off his cell, grabs a remote and surfs the TV for a brainless sitcom.
For some reason, Mickey and Maddie have brought home a lemon meringue pie. After a thorough perusal of the new pieces, they sit around the kitchen counter and dig in.
“That settles it for me,” says Mickey.
“Settles what?” asks Maddie.
“I thought perhaps our girl was a one-hit wonder. That drunken scroll is almost as powerful as the pinkie scroll – and much scarier. Which makes me even sadder about our loss.”
Skye’s phone buzzes. “Oh god. The heiress is getting desperate.”
“Oh Skye,” Maddie sing-songs. “The man’s a ladykiller.”
“I have run out of clever responses, and now she thinks she has done something to upset me. Bad enough she’s got me in the scandal sheets.”
“Ooh!” says Mickey. “Details?”
“A mention in the Post. Art widower plays footsie with cauliflower queen. I paraphrase. Do you ever get this treatment?”
“A little bit,” says Maddie. “When I brought Studmuffin back from California. They really got into the golddigger angle.”
“Which is absolutely true,” says Mickey.
“It’s as if I were marrying beneath my class! They obviously had me confused with the royal characters in my operas. Is this not America? Was this not the reason for the Revolution?”
“Whatever you do,” says Mickey, “don’t respond. They can only hope to keep the drama going if you agree to participate.”
“This pie is tremendous,” says Skye.
“Case in point,” says Maddie. “I mentioned in an interview how much I love lemon meringue. A marvelous old lady from Scranton baked this up and brought it backstage.”
“So what you’re saying,” says Skye, wiping his mouth, “is that the press, which spends so much of its time spreading lies and innuendo, may also be used for obtaining baked goods.”
Three days later, he and Mickey pick up Maddie at a rehearsal and cruise down to Chelsea. They enter the main gallery at the Amadeus and find a frazzled-looking man with spiked blond hair, nursing a glass of red wine as he studies a wall filled with collages. He sets the glass on a small table, walks over to nudge a piece to the right, returns to the table, takes a sip, then goes back and nudges the piece to the left.
“Are you Henrik?”
“Yezz. You are Skye?”
“Yes. You do amazing work, Henrik.”
“I can’t believe you got all of these done so quickly.”
Henrik gives a lopsided grin. “I haff a treeful of elves who do my work for me. Claudia drops by every day to motivate them.”
“Oh, she can be very motivational.”
“Like a dah-mee-nay-trix.”
“Henrik, this is Mickey Siskel and Maddalena Hart.”
“Oh! A pleasure to…” Henrik lowers his spectacles. “You are the opera singer?”
Maddie smiles. “Some people think so.”
He raises a hand as if he’s taking an oath. “Your Manon… the most beautiful thing that has ever crossed my eardrums.” He extends a hand. “May I?”
She places her hand in his and he kisses it.
“I have kissed the hand of the goddess. I may now die in peace.”
Even Maddalena, receiver of compliments by the hour, can’t help but be charmed. She giggles like a schoolgirl.
“I hate entering a room when no one’s talking about me.”
It’s Claudia, once again wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt, although this time she has added a bomber jacket.
“I swear,” says Skye. “Sixty seconds ago.”
“Not good enough. And as much as I appreciate the extra pub, I feel that you are impinging on my turf.”
Claudia studies his face. “You mean to say that you don’t know? Oh, this is too good. I’m just going to savor this.”
The room goes strangely quiet, until the timer in Claudia’s head finally goes off. She reaches into her bag and pulls out a folded newspaper. “Here ya go.”
At the sight of the surfboard, he knows exactly what’s up.
“Skye!” Maddie meows. “Nice butt.”
“How do they even know that’s me?”
“Well,” says Claudia. “I certainly knew. Check the caption.”
Butt Out: Manhattan’s rising professional art widower, Skye Pelter, turns out to be a model as well, in a photo reportedly taken by vegetable heiress Chelsea Kormit. Pretty cheeky, Mr. Pelter!
“Nothing like the Post for sophisticated commentary,” says Mickey.
“A nice shot,” says Henrik. “Ziss Chelsea, she has a good eye.”
Skye would like to be James-Bond cool, but he can feel the heat rising to his face. “I think I need some wine,” he says, and leaves the room.
The day after Christmas, he calls Anna at the New Yorker. She agrees to meet him at Caffe Liberté, across the street from Lincoln Center. She shows up fifteen minutes late and equipped with an edgy aura.
“Okay, Skye. Do not think that you are going to use me as your personal P.R. firm. Before I even consider writing about you again, I am going to grill you until you are melted cheese. Understood?”
“Yes. I’m a journalist, Anna. I understand the rules.”
Anna purses her lips and pulls a small device from her writing case. “I am going to record this. Is that all right?”
She places it on the table and hits a red button.
“Are you having sex with Chelsea Kormit?”
“Then why were you at her place in East Hampton?”
“She seems to like me. And she loves Rachel’s work. She thought I could use some time off. We spent most of the weekend working on her house.”
“The nude photo? Is that you?”
“And how does one end up naked on a surfboard?”
“Ms. Kormit is very persuasive. She also has a rather whimsical artistic vision. You must admit, it’s a rather well-done photo.”
Anna fights a smile and loses. “And cold. How did you stand it?”
She folds her hands and regains her edge. “You have feelings of affection for Ms. Kormit?”
“So why didn’t you have sex with her?”
Skye takes a moment to search for what he really wants to say.
“If it wasn’t for Rachel’s work, I might have. I knew Rachel only a brief time. Under normal circumstances, one might expect the mourning period to be brief, as well. The problem is, Rachel’s work is so powerful that my feelings for her to continue to grow, even after her death. It’s an odd situation, and it’s magnified by this astonishing public reaction to the scroll. I am damaged goods, and I couldn’t imagine being intimate with someone else. Chelsea knows this. Perhaps the nude modeling was a substitute of sorts. A flirtation.”
Anna seems to soften. “If this is so hard on you, why are you doing it?”
Skye takes longer than before. It’s a good question, and he wants to do it justice. He gazes out the window.
“I’ve spent twenty years interviewing performers and artists. I am absolutely fascinated by the creative process. I also know that great talent does not necessarily lead to public success. It’s an extremely fickle process, and when you get a window like this one, it doesn’t stay open for long. I’ve had a psychologist tell me that I could not have prevented Rachel’s suicide, that she was determined to take her own life, but I will always feel like I could have done more. Now I have the rare chance to win for her an artistic legacy. If I have to suffer a little invasion of privacy along the way, then so be it.”
“Will you make money from her work?”
“Is that right?”
“I debated that myself. I do sometimes feel odd about this. But Rachel has no family – you know about that – and perhaps the money I make from her work will enable me to promote her work that much more. Also, I’ll continue to give a percentage to the East Village Women’s Shelter.”
“Aren’t you a bit angry at the woman who runs that shelter?”
“Doesn’t matter. That shelter stands for everything that Rachel’s scroll is about. Also, the facts aren’t in on Ms. Kormit. I don’t know how that photo got out.”
Anna takes this in, then shifts in her seat and chews on a pen.
“Okay. I get it. I believe you. Mostly. But you realize, this isn’t a story. I’m not going to write a rebuttal to the Post.”
“Good. Then we can get off this bullshit and on to something relevant. Rachel had a storage unit in Jersey. They were about to empty it out when they saw your story and gave me a call. What we discovered was an enormous cache of artworks, including another scroll, arguably as powerful as the first.
Anna’s eyes light up. “Okay,” she says. “Now we’re talking. Are you planning an exhibit?”
“Opening January Second.”
“May I see them?”
“Do you have time?”
“I do now.”
“Okay! Let’s grab a taxi.”
Mickey takes another look at the article and clucks his tongue.
“I don’t get it. How do you do this?”
Skye laughs. “Nothing disarms a journalist like someone who tells them the truth. Besides, Anna loves Rachel’s work. So I knew I could trust her.”
“You take your clothes off on a public beach and you’re a freakin’ folk hero. If I did that, the cops would be there in five minutes.”
“Honey!” Maddie waltzes in with a glass of wine. “I often reward your for taking off your clothes.”
“Don’t change the subject, woman! I’m not through pouting.”
“Just keep those lips pouted till midnight and I will kiss them.”
“Another martini, nudy boy?”
“Why yes, maestro.”
“How’s the conductor doing, diva?”
“A little shit-faced, frankly.”
“Any entertainment for zero hour?”
“I’m sure the cast will think of something.”
Claudia bursts into the room in a silver jumpsuit, see-through panels down either side.
“Claudia!” says Skye. “It’s good to see you in something ostentatious. I was worried.”
“Y’got more’n that to be worried about. Chelsea Kormit just showed up.”
“Oh shit. Why didn’t you just tell her to go away?”
“Because she’s Chelsea Kormit.”
“Oh hell. I’ll be in the garden.”
“But it’s snowing!”
Skye grabs somebody’s coat from a kitchen chair, wraps it around his shoulders and heads for the table with the parasol. He stands there feeling the buzz of New Year’s, an entire city waiting to go off. The door slides open. He turns to see her, in a long black dress and a snow-white overcoat.
“It’s my publicist,” says Skye.
She crosses the patio and stops three feet away. Her eyes are swollen with crying.
“I can’t let this year pass without apologizing. I was using some photo software at the offices for the shelter, on a computer that’s used by several different people. It was very stupid of me. And believe me, we’re on the lookout for whoever leaked the photo. Welcome to my life, Skye! I’m working in a fucking women’s shelter, and still I can’t trust anyone, still it’s a big game of gotcha with the vegetable queen. I’m sorry I dragged you into it. But you’ve been famous for three weeks. I’ve been fighting this shit all my life. Meanwhile, why were you ignoring my texts?”
“I wasn’t ignoring you. I was paying attention to Rachel. And frankly, honey, you were laying it on a little thick.”
She flaps her arms downward. “I will not be treated like this! I am never treated like this. You could have told me.”
“You know why you’re not treated like this? People are afraid of you, that’s why. You can buy and sell every one of them, so their only option is to kiss your ass. I am a fucking goldmine for you. I’m making money for your shelter, and I happen to know you love my girlfriend’s artwork, so I know you won’t do shit to me, and therefore I can tell you exactly what I think of you. Look, I had a good time, I’m grateful. But when the subject is Rachel Grossman, everybody else in the world, including the vegetable queen, can just take a fucking number. Also, it would be nice if you could keep my naked ass out of the papers!”
He stops. He’s breathing hard. Chelsea is frozen in place, hugging herself against the cold. Down the block, a driver pounds on his horn. Another ten seconds bleeds away from the year. He turns away.
“What do you want from me?”
Five seconds. “I want you to forgive me. Also, at midnight…”
She starts to cry. Skye tries his best not to turn around. She hiccups and finishes her thought. “I want… someone to kiss me.”
He takes a breath. “You are forgiven. That stupid photo actually got us some…”
“Don’t call it a stupid photo. It’s beautiful.”
“Fine. As for the kiss, you have got to be fucking kidding me.”
This is what he hears: a gasp, a sob, a series of footsteps. A sliding door. Happy New Year’s Fuckin’ Eve.
Eventually, the cold is too much. He heads inside, returns the coat to its chair, then grabs a bottle of gin from the counter and gives it a long pull. The liquor scorches its way down and the room begins to fuzz out.
A minute later, he’s jolted by a burst of sound from the living room. He stumbles over to find a dozen big-time opera singers around the piano, throttling the drinking song from La Traviata. Someone takes his hand and pulls him across the room. It’s Maddie. She takes him to a door, kisses him on the cheek and smiles.
“Happy New Year, darling.”
She nudges him into a room with computers, bookshelves, a globe. It’s Mickey’s den, and Chelsea’s asleep on an armchair, buried in her white coat. Skye leans over to study her face, then touches her cheek. Her eyes flutter open. He holds out his hands. She takes them, and he pulls her to her feet. Having no better idea, he leads her into a dance that has no relationship to the drinking song. After a few unsteady turns around the room, he stops, places a hand on the side of her face and brings his lips to hers.
“Happy New Year, vegetable queen”
Chelsea sniffles. “Can we dance some more?”
He wakes in the guest room – his room – and finds that she is next to him, wide awake and fully clothed.
“Happy New Year.”
“Good morning,” he replies. “I have news.”
“I’m going to Colorado.”
She swallows. “You go wherever you have to.”
Photo by MJV