Holly Go Fucking Lightly
A saloon girl pops out of the scrollage, fires a rubber band and hits Mary Magdalene in the nose. Mary looks around, cursing in Aramaic. Within seconds, every woman on the scroll is bickering and complaining, primarily about their missing fingers. A few resort to fisticuffs and hair-pulling. The hallway fills with a high-pitched cacophony.
Rachel storms from the wine bar in a harlequin outfit. She crosses her arms and stomps a foot.
“You are inert, two-dimensional objects! Please act like it.”
“But it hurts awfully so,” says Jane Austen.
Rachel turns to Skye and smiles. Her eyes are stars, Betelgeuse and Vega. “This is what happens when you don’t use a fixing spray. What size shoe do you wear, honey?”
“Ten and a half.”
She taps him on the nose. “See that it stays that way. What’s that?”
“The Foo Fighters.”
He’s about to explain that it’s a ringtone when he finds himself awake, scrambling for his cell.
“Charming. Are you asleep at eight p.m.?”
“No. I’m not.”
“You have got to get down here.”
“The Amadeus! And hurry. I don’t want you to miss it.”
He flashes through the shower, pulls on assorted items of clothing and hails a cab, one eye out for harlequins. He arrives at the gallery to find a line at the door, as if the place has become a nightclub. The man in charge is a skinny busboy in a parka.
“Are you here for the scroll?”
“It’s okay. He’s with me.”
“Oh,” says the busboy. “Sure, go on in. Two more, please.” He waves an older couple into the wine bar. They join another line coming out of the hallway.
“Vince?” asks Claudia. “How many?”
He checks his counter. “Three hundred twenty-one.”
“Thanks.” She takes Skye’s elbow and walks him to the bar. “That’s only since six.”
She’s dressed in a baby blue, 18th-century waistcoat with white embroidery, a powdered wig, blue jeans and silver pumps.
“I didn’t get the invitation,” says Skye. “Is this a costume party?”
She smiles. “Life is a costume party.”
Claudia orders a pair of dessert wines that taste like Easter in a glass. “Mmm,” says Skye. “So what the hell is going on?”
She runs a hand along his lapel. “You are the uncle of a sensation. Which makes me the stepmother. Do you know how this happened?”
“Full-page ad in the Times?”
“This is the genius part. Yesterday afternoon, I parked myself at the bar and waited until someone became engrossed in the scroll. I pretended to be a fellow customer and engaged them in conversation. Then I said, ‘You know what I heard? I heard the artist’s father was abusive, and one day he cut off his wife’s pinky finger, and that’s why every woman on this scroll is missing a finger.’ I would guess that I told that story to twelve people. Twelve, tops. It took off like wildfire. The hallway eventually got so crowded that we had to pull Vince from his dishwashing duties and make him a bouncer.”
They hear applause from outside.
“Well would you look at that. Manny got a lute player for the folks in line. But, but…” She slaps her forehead, trying to keep her focus. “We’ve got a phenomenon here, buddyboy. I mean, I thought we had something, but I thought I would have to work at it. I always considered ‘word of mouth’ to be a fairy tale told to marketing students.”
Claudia takes the last of her dessert wine like a shot.
“Anyways. Anyways. I need you to be ready because the fucking New Yorker is on to this, and they want to talk to you. Like, ten in the morning.”
Skye takes a shot just like Claudia’s. The sugar scatters over his mouth.
“What size shoe do you wear?”
He smiles. “See that it stays that way.”
The writer is Anna Cowling, a surprisingly young black woman with a clipped, no-nonsense way of talking. When he gets to the part about the homicide, her eyes focus intently, as if she’s attempting to think herself inside of Rachel’s pain. Skye tapdances around any mention of Sarge, using the standard uncle inheritance to explain his financial independence.
“Isn’t this an odd position for you?” Anna asks. “You’re handling the artistic legacy of a woman you barely had a chance to know.”
Skye stops to consider his answer. He forces himself to speak slowly.
“I didn’t have time to fall in love with Rachel, but I certainly admired her, and I saw firsthand all the pain she went through after the murder. Second is the work itself. It’s immensely powerful, and that power is magnified when you understand the story behind it. Third is my occupation. I have spent a large part of my life meeting and writing about artists, and I’ve gained a deep respect for the creative process. Given the chance to go a step further and actually take part in bringing a masterwork to the world, how could I possibly walk away?”
Anna takes a long time with her note-taking. Skye knows from his own habits what that means: this is the killer quote. She puts the cap on her pen and gives him a professional smile.
“I think that gives me plenty. I’ll call if I need to double-check anything. If you don’t mind, could I have a few minutes to look at the work by myself?”
“Sure. Well, a few minutes, anyway.” He looks to the door where a dozen cold New Yorkers are lined up for the opening bell.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen anything like it,” says Anna. “Broadway openings, Springsteen concerts, Apple products. But a single work by a little-known artist…”
Skye allows himself a smile. “It makes me very proud of her.”
Three nights later, Claudia comes to Mickey and Maddie’s for late-night cocktails. Their hosts head off to sleep, but the guests are too wired to stop. They adjourn to the balcony, where they sit beneath a tent, watching a light snowfall shift and spin under the streetlights. Claudia takes a puff from a joint and passes it his way.
“Tomorrow, your life changes.”
Skye takes a long drag and lets it go. “I always pictured myself writing for the New Yorker, not being a subject.”
Claudia pats his knee. “I’ve got the same feeling about you that I had about that scrollage. I really like saying that, by the way. Scrollage. Rachel’s story is incredibly deep and fascinating, but your part in the story is also fascinating, and I believe it’s our friend’s intention to use you as the sunshine.”
“I’m… not sure what you mean.”
“You can’t drill people with all that tragedy without offering an upside. That’s you. Noble boyfriend carries on legacy of suicidal artist. Not that you were unattractive before, but you are about to be as irresistible as George Clooney crying over a sick puppy. I would fuck you right now.”
Claudia clamps a hand over his mouth. “Don’t you dare finish that thought. I am not about to be trumped by a dead woman. I am merely saying, you’re going to get some strange responses from the female public. Just be ready for it.”
“Oh. Okay. Sorry.”
Claudia takes a drag, pushes the smoke out her nose and sucks it into her mouth. “The question is what the hell do we do with all this?”
“I suspect the fire marshal would want us to move the scroll out of that hallway.”
“Done. Two days ago. It’s in the main gallery.”
“You’re working with professionals, buddyboy.”
They listen to the rustle of landing snowflakes, the crunch of tires from the street. Skye closes his eyes and indulges the mental drift of cannabis. He pictures a sea of pinkies, marching on Washington, demanding reparations for their pain and exile.
“What do you want?” asks Claudia. “Do you want money?”
He folds his fingers over his stomach. “For once in my life, no. Also, it wouldn’t be right.”
“No, it’s just… I want more. A fundraiser! Let’s make something happen.”
“Okay. For what?”
“The obvious. A women’s shelter.”
“Brilliant. I’ve got a friend…”
“Of course you do.”
Claudia smiles. “I’m a popular girl.”
“You’re Holly Go Fucking Lightly.”
Claudia snorts. “Excellent porn name. Now. Let’s go further. A wine tasting. I’ll ask Manny to pull up some reserves. And I’m sure he can come up with some entertainment.”
A light comes on in the kitchen. Maddie in a red silk robe, pouring a glass of water, humming scales.
Skye smiles. “Let’s go further.”
Skye stands on 26th, in front of a dry cleaner, smoking a cigarette that he bummed from Claudia. He normally doesn’t smoke cigarettes, but the enormity of the evening has him on edge. A cop drives past and gives him a suspicious look. He finds this oddly reassuring.
He is wearing a candy red suit jacket. Claudia bought it for him. When he blanched, she insisted that he was now an artist-by-association, and had a responsibility to do weird, dramatic things. He catches his reflection in a window and enjoys the contrast with his black pants and shirt. He’s striking. A wave of crowdbuzz bounces from a bank across the street.
What he loves about the New Yorker is that they allow their writers to lace their reportage with poetry. Mr. Pelter gives the impression of someone who has found himself in a strange land but who seems determined to make the best of things. Romance and tragedy have conspired to make him a spokesman for art, and he is right to stick with it. Ms. Grossman’s work is almost as heartbreaking as her story.
Anna began the article with the very last thing Skye told her: “It makes me very proud of her.”
In this way has he been fashioned into an heroic figure; in this way have Claudia’s predictions been made real. As if they had been handed instructions at the door for seducing the widower boyfriend, each of six beautiful women has handed him her business card – graphic designer, lawyer, dogwalker, chef, physical therapist, stock analyst – and recited a variation of “in case you’d like someone to talk to.” He is aware that now, before the bronze has taken on a green patina, he could sleep with any one of them. He also knows that using Rachel’s art to get laid would torment him no end. Still, he keeps the cards.
The woman he most admires is already taken: Maddie, who has delivered her contribution to the evening in an extraordinary manner. In order to maintain the flow of the party and keep the focus on Rachel, she has forsaken an extended performance for something more casual. At random moments, she simply steps into the crook of the piano, nods to her accompanist and silences the gathering with that magnificent voice. The first was “Un bel di” from Madama Butterfly. The second was the poison aria from Romeo et Juliette, the third an excerpt from Ophelia’s mad scene in Thomas’s Hamlet. (Skye is not this much of an expert on opera; he’s getting his info from Mickey.) By the third piece, the theme becomes clear: she’s performing songs by suicides.
What drove him outside was social claustrophobia. As it turns out, celebrity is hard work. He’s never had so many meaningless conversations, and his mouth hurts from fake-smiling. Good cause, he reminds himself. Rachel. The scroll. The shelter. And proceeds to another person whose name will go right through his brain and into the Hudson. He reaches the end of his cigarette, drops it to the sidewalk and grinds it under his shoe. Why do smokers do that? Afraid of setting fire to the sidewalk?
He looks into a pair of green eyes, flashing in the streetlight, short black hair in a tousled cut, nose slightly upturned, lips set in a matter-of-fact line. They break into a smile.
“You’re the boyfriend, Skye? From the New Yorker?”
She moves so smoothly that he can’t react. Her lips press into his. She slips to the side and speaks into his ear.
“What you’re doing is wonderful. I wanted to show my appreciation.”
She turns and walks away.
He digs into his jacket and finds an oyster shell. Inscribed across the inside is the name Chelsea and a phone number.
The crowdbuzz disappears. In comes the piano, and then the extraordinary voice, liquid gold along the streets of the west side. This one he knows: “Vissi d’arte,” from Tosca. “I gave my life for art, I gave my life for love.” He returns the shell to his pocket and returns to the gallery, preparing himself for another few hours of smothering.
Mickey slithers through the crowd and hands him a glass of Pinot Grigio. Skye has a passing thought that Mickey must be accustomed to these situations. The gallery is a large, high room, completely white – even the exposed vents near the ceiling. He glances sideways to see that the scroll is enjoying a larger following than he is. This is reassuring.
A Long Island Italian with big blonde hair says, “So what’s the title of this thing?”
“You know, we haven’t figured out if Rachel actually had a name for it. I know the New Yorker called it the Grossman Scroll, which seems apt. The true discoverer of the piece, my pal Mickey, came up with the word ‘scrollage,’ which I rather like.”
“This story about the pinky,” says a tall British man. “That’s all true?”
The sound of a jazz band filters in from the wine bar, joined by a familiar voice.
“Apparently,” says Mickey, “my wife is singing Gershwin.”
“I think we’d better check this out,” says Skye. He’s not the only one to have this notion. The brick hallway resembles a chute at the Chicago stockyards. At the far end they find Claudia’s jazz combo, accompanying Maddie in “Summertime.” She holds the final note in a shimmering diminuendo that quiets the packed room.
Maddie smiles. “We thought that would get your attention. We had a few things to tell you. First, to thank you for coming, and then to thank a few other people. Let’s begin with Anna Cowling of the New Yorker, for writing such a beautiful piece on our friend Rachel.”
Anna, in jeans and a blazer, waves from a table near the front window.
“Manny Aldrude, owner of Galleria Amadeus, for giving Rachel’s work such a beautiful home.”
The magnificently bald Manny salutes the crowd from behind the bar.
“And of course, the orchestrator of this entire phenomenon, the magnificent Claudia Jesuit.”
Claudia, clothed in a tight-fitting white sheath dress, blows a kiss from behind the band, where she is prepping her trombone.
“It is also my happy duty to report that tonight’s little shindig has raised for the East Village Women’s Shelter, more than twenty three thousand dollars!”
Maddie waits out the applause.
“We have the director of the shelter here tonight. Please welcome Chelsea Kormit.”
A woman in a black skirt and jacket takes the stage and delivers a calm smile.
“Good evening. I…”
At this point, Skye’s audio switches off. It’s the woman who kissed him outside. After a minute, she returns the mic to Maddie. Maddie takes a moment to let the room settle.
“As an artist, you can only hope that, once you pass on, someone will come along to take care of your legacy. I did not know Rachel Grossman, but I do know the young man who has taken such great care in bringing her work to the world. She could not possibly be in better hands. Please welcome Skye Pelter.”
Skye should have seen this coming, but he didn’t. He shoulders through the applauding crowd, his head whirring with rough drafts. He passes Chelsea, who gives him a guilty smile. Skye stares at the microphone, a gray mesh planet engineered to extract all remnants of his composure. Then he thinks of Rachel.
“When I first saw Rachel’s work, I was dazzled. That someone so beautiful, so touched by joy and humor, could have such intense vision. The odd thing about collage, as opposed to other media, is that it absolutely demands empathy. You have to love, and respect, and understand something very deeply before you decide to make it a part of your own work. Our first date was a subway ride to a bookstore, where the manager had discovered an old volume of illustrated Shakespeare and saved it for Rachel. I will never forget the way that she looked at those illustrations, such enchantment and affection. I could only hope that someday she would look at me like that. I’m happy to report that, a couple of times, she did. I guess I wanted you to know that, amid all the violence and tragedy evoked by this amazing scroll, she did have some happiness.”
He pauses to scan the crowd, in the hopes that more words will come his way. He’s surprised at how intently they’re focused on him. Go with that.
“Frankly, I am bowled over, and honored, and a little intimidated to be in the position of representing Rachel’s art. I did not know Rachel Grossman one-hundredth, one-thousandth as much as I hoped to know her. That will be one of my greatest disappointments, for the rest of my life. As for the beneficiary of tonight’s event, I cannot think of a more perfect cause, because if Rachel’s mother had been brave enough to take that first step and go to a place like the East Village Shelter, I have no doubt that Rachel would be here today.”
It’s a profound thought, but he fears that he has left his audience in a black hole. He needs a bit of sunshine for the story.
“Excuse me a moment.”
The crowd whispers and buzzes as he confers with the pianist, Jordan. He returns to the mic as Jordan plays a series of brooding chords. Skye says a silent prayer, opens his mouth and sings “Nature Boy.”
Skye finds a white leather couch facing a large window. He sits down and looks across the street at the Chrysler Building. Chelsea sits beside him and hands him a martini glass. Three flakes of ice float on the surface. The taste is sharp and beautiful.
“It’s a lemon drop martini without the drop. That is, minus the suffocating sugar.”
“Nice.” He takes another sip. “I can’t help but notice you live across the street from the Chrysler Building.”
“Yeah. Ain’t it great?”
“How does one obtain an apartment like this?”
She hesitates. He may have asked too much.
“What’s my last name?”
“I heard it was Kormit. Like the vegetable company.”
“Oh! The vegetable company. Your family?”
“A hundred and nine years. I’m disgustingly rich.”
“And yet, you care about abused women.”
“Yes, I do. And no, I have not one personal reason for it. But everyone hears the stories, everyone has a co-worker who comes in with mysterious bruises. And being an heiress, I have the freedom to do what I want.”
“Noble as a man who dedicates himself to the art of his late girlfriend.”
“I’ve done very little. That scroll is a tsunami. In fact, I’m starting to feel like a graverobber.”
Chelsea lifts a leg en pointe and crosses it over the other.
“Often I have been at a wake, or a funeral, and I notice that the guests who, in fact, least knew the deceased are the ones trying to make him into a saint. Because the dead person, being newly dead, is a kind of celebrity, and these people are trying to intensify their connections with the corpse because we are all, at heart, starfuckers.”
“Yes! I have seen this in action.”
She kisses him on the cheek. “You are the opposite.”
He takes her hand and looks outside. The world is an endless field of illuminated squares.
“Being the director of the shelter, you eventually would have met me. So why the curbside attack?”
She smiles and glances down, revealing a small vee-shaped dimple at the corner of her mouth.
“I didn’t want you to meet me as the director of the East Village Women’s Shelter. I wanted you to meet me as the hot brunette on 26th Street.”
“Mission accomplished. But how did you know I’d be worth your time?”
“I never said I was completely averse to starfucking myself. But a specific kind of star. That story in the New Yorker. God. It was like porn for middle-aged women. But mostly, I was operating on instinct. And I was right. That speech about Rachel. Written beforehand?”
“See? That speech was so heartfelt. I was somewhere between crying and levitating. And then you sang that song. God. Like something from a movie. Are you for real?”
He stands from the couch, straightens his pants, and leans over to kiss her.
He moves closer to the window to take in the panorama. Yellow corpuscles of cab speckle the arteries below. Chelsea takes his arm and tucks her head against his shoulder.
“I once met a woman named Chelsea,” he says, “Outside a dry cleaner’s in Chelsea.”
“Not a coincidence. I was conceived there.”
“At the dry cleaner’s?”
“My mother was a waitress. My father walked in and wham! She hit him like a ton of bliss. He nearly proposed to her right there.”
“Nice.” He taps on the window and lets out a sigh. “At the heart of everything, Ms. Kormit, I am a lonely, lonely man.”
She squeezes his hand. “That’s how grief works. You’re having a relationship with someone who refuses to talk back.”
“What’ll I do?”
“You’ll come to my place in East Hampton. Spend a few days. Be lazy. You had a glorious week, but keep this in mind: this magnificent scrollage is also a twenty-three-foot reminder of your loss. You’ve done your job; you’ve launched it. Now, let it sail on its own for a while.”
He turns and kisses her, harder. When he releases her she says, “Shew!”
“So,” says Skye. “What’s your loss?”
“My dad. A year ago last week.”
“Give me a couple days to take care of some things. After that, I believe East Hampton will be lovely.”
A burst of soprano laughter flies in from the kitchen.
“We’d better rejoin the squad,” says Skye. “Before the rumors begin.”
“Don’t kid yourself. Every fourth person in New York has a rumor about you.”
He follows her across the room, holding both martinis.
“She kissed me quite well, and gave me a shell, that said, For a good time call Chelsea.”
“Ha!” she laughs. “That is goodly awful.”
“I love you too, darling.”
Photo by MJV