After much jiggling, the key unlooses something, and the door cracks open.
“Thank goodness!” says Mickey.
“This won’t much surprise you.” Skye reveals the fridge opposite the door.
“That there is Manhattan feng shui.” Mickey follows him inside and migrates to the right-hand wall. “Love these! So whimsical.”
“That’s a spatial study on Seurat’s La Grand Jatte. Step back a little and you’ll see the similarity.”
Mickey rubs his beard. “I often see this kind of polarity in artists. Such a tragic life, and yet such a sly sense of humor. My wife is the same. Her Lady Macbeth scares the crap out of me, and then five minutes after curtain she’s telling fart jokes.”
Mickey laughs, but it dies quickly.
“Such sad business. I’m so sorry, Skye.”
Skye crosses his arms and studies Rachel’s work for the hundredth time. “I’ve begun to think of this as the heartbreak tour. I am the messenger everybody wants to shoot. Thanks for the storage space. I wanted to send everything to the Salvation Army, but I fear that would be a mistake.”
“I think you’re right. Actually, Madame Diva might get a little use out of this light board. She’s been messing around with visual art. She has no talent whatsoever, but I think she enjoys dabbling in creative pursuits where the stakes are not so high. The last thing was tapdancing. I love the way it makes her boobs shake.”
Skye slaps him on the shoulder. “Scoundrel! Horndog!”
“And? So here’s the deal. Let’s get the futon, the light board and the dresser into the truck – I have to have it back by five – and then we can come back in the Caddy for the small stuff.”
“You are a worker.”
“Don’t let the gigolo act fool you. When Maddie met me I was working for a contractor in the Santa Cruz Mountains.”
They’re fortunate – Rachel’s possessions are few. The hardest part is packing the clothes. Skye spots the dress from Cape Cod, the sweater from the Plaza Hotel. By ten at night, they’ve got everything downstairs in the Caddy. They come back up to sweep the floor and examine the interior for any small, important items. Mickey leans over a spot on the futon wall and fingers a tiny knob along the moulding.
“It looks vaguely functional.” He jiggles it one way, then another, and suddenly it slides. A three-foot section of the wall hinges open, revealing a shelf that holds what looks like a roll of carpeting. Mickey folds back a corner and sees the face of a geisha.
“What have you got?”
“I think it’s a scroll. A collage.”
“That’s good. Here, grab this end.”
They lift it out, set it next to a window and unroll it across the room. It’s a three-foot strip, covered with a black-and-white sea of women. Illustrations, no photos, and not a shred of space – a continuous field of the feminine. Skye sees Queen Elizabeth, Cleopatra, a can-can girl, a flapper, Venus, a faerie, Colette, a belly dancer, a medieval milkmaid.
“Yes,” says Mickey. “And we’ve only seen half of it.”
They walk up and down both sides, taking it in, a sea of faces, breasts, hands, legs, buttocks, hips.
“All women, all…” Mickey drops to his knees and studies it up-close. “All…”
“Something. There’s something in there.”
It’s 2 a.m. Maddie’s in Chicago for a Tales of Hoffman, so Mickey is indulging his night-owl tendencies. They sit at the dining room table, drinking vodka gimlets, listening to an LP of Sutherland, Caballe and Pavarotti in Turandot. Every few minutes, one of them strolls to the living room, where they have rolled out all 23 feet, four inches of Rachel’s scroll, and studies a bit more of it. The entirety of the work is hard to grasp. Skye is convinced the images contain a narrative thread, keeps waiting for a light bulb over his head. He returns, sits down, rolls a bit of gimlet around his mouth.
“Something going on in there. Something subterranean.”
“Yes,” says Mickey. “I’m seeing it as a spiderweb, linking all the pictures. And I know it’s something great. I think we are dealing with a masterpiece.”
“But why was she hiding it?”
“Fear. Daddy was the Mafia. You don’t rat out the Mafia.”
“Even after he was dead, he killed her.”
They sit in silence. Caballe is singing “Signore, ascolta,” pleading for her master’s life. Mickey clicks his glass to the tabletop and pulls out his cell.
“Who the hell are you calling?”
“Elephant jockey, cage dancer, Rockette.”
“What the hell for?”
“A female set of eyes. And, Ms. Coswell has recently added art dealer to her list of occupations.”
“I won’t even pretend to be surprised.”
“Hello! I’ve got a stunning work of art for you to peruse. How long? Splendid!”
Skye gives an inquiring look.
“She will play ‘Lush Life,’” says Mickey, “and then she will come here.”
Delilah enters an hour later, wearing a pantsuit of crushed purple velvet and a white blouse with buccaneer frills. Her hair is a platinum blonde that verges on white.
“Delilah!” Mickey gives her the continental double-cheek kiss.
She responds in a sandpaper whisper. “Please! Claudia.”
“Of course. Claudia, you remember Skye.”
“Boy do I.” She takes both his hands and kisses him on the lips. Skye keeps it short, feeling the presence of Rachel’s art.
“But who’s Claudia?”
“Just another me. Claudia Jesuit. Someday, if you get me very drunk, I will write down all my names and we’ll see if I can remember which one I was born with.”
“So how did this new occupation come about?”
She flashes a Broadway smile while accepting a whiskey-rocks from Mickey. “One of the men from the MOMA studio. Brilliant painter, but a caveman when it comes to marketing. So I told him to let me try it. Within two days, I placed seven paintings of my very own naked body in a SoHo gallery. So what is this treasure I’ve come to see?”
Mickey heads to the far wall. He tucks the end of the scroll under a cushion and rolls it across the room. Claudia’s eyes widen.
“Spectacular!” She starts at one end and tip-toes to the other, taking in chambermaids, farmgirls, Amazons, equestrians, Emily Dickinson. She stops and holds her hands together. “Tell me about the artist. In a paragraph.”
“Rachel Grossman, Connecticut Yankee, Manhattan artist. I met her at the Jungle while you were dangling from the ceiling, and met her again the day you booted me out. Her father shot her mother and then himself, Rachel went into shock, I took her to California for therapy and she drowned herself in the Pacific Ocean.”
A miracle: Claudia is speechless. She kneels to touch the face of Susan B. Anthony.
“Her father was abusive?”
“Violent alcoholic. She tried to get her mother to leave, but finally had to abandon them both.”
Claudia holds a hand to her mouth and scans the collage. A tear tracks her cheek. “My God, the pain in this thing. But there’s something I’m not seeing.”
Mickey and Skye look at each other. Mickey speaks. “Our thought exactly.”
Claudia wipes a hand across her cheek. Skye realizes she’s wearing white evening gloves.
“I have got the perfect spot for this.”
The perfect spot has to wait for the following evening. Mickey and Skye grab a taxi to the Chelsea district and find themselves at 26th Street and 11th Avenue, a bricky building called Galleria Amadeus. They step inside and are greeted by a trio of piano, violin and cello, very appropriately working their way through some Mozart. The room hosts a dozen tables whose glass tops are cut in the shapes of animals. The walls are adorned with paintings in brazen sweeps of color. At the back stands a bar of gleaming brass, shadowed by shelves of wine bottles.
Claudia enters in a pleated gray skirt, a white work shirt and purple hair. Mickey laughs and gives her the continental greeting.
“You know, honey, when you’re meeting someone somewhere, it helps if you look something like yourself.”
She gives him a crafty smile. “Really, Mickey, how many people do you know who would wear purple hair?”
“Well, it is Chelsea.”
“And make it look this good?”
“Hi Skye.” She gives him a peck on the cheek. “This is the very delightful wine bar. The gallery is further back in the building. What we are concerned with is what connects one to the other.”
She takes Skye’s hand and pulls him toward the left of the bar. They pass under an archway and into a long, straight hallway with brick walls.
“They’ve already got track lighting, so it won’t take much to add a few lamps and get the right look. My man Henrik is making a plexiglas frame that will protect the piece without taking away the texture. Every bit of gallery traffic goes through this hall, so you can’t beat the exposure, and of course it’s an obvious walk-across piece to begin with, with all those… Skye?”
“What do you think?”
“Oh. Yes, it’s great. But how do you… I don’t mean to sound like a rube but, how do you price it?”
Claudia looks about as serious as Claudia ever gets. “You don’t. Because you’re right. There’s something about this piece. We have to wait and see what that something is. Speaking of, the gallery owner is financing all of the prep work, based solely on the pictures I showed him.”
“You are good.”
“Why you would ever think otherwise is beyond me. Now come on, buy the dealer some wine.”
Skye walks to Sheep Meadow, layered with fresh snow. He follows the long, curving bench and tries to find the exact place he was sitting, the second time he saw Rachel Grossman. He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a bag containing the last handful of her ashes, and spreads it across the white. He doesn’t believe in talking to the dead, so he keeps it in his thoughts.
I hope I’m doing right by you. I feel like you may have wanted to keep this hidden away in that wall. But I am convinced that the world needs to see it. So please forgive me. Also, I wish very much that you wouldn’t have left me.
She rolls past in a long white coat, wearing skates that operate like miniature snowmobiles. He wipes his eyes and walks toward the Met.
Three days later, Maddie arrives home from Chicago, where she played Antonia, a young woman who literally sings herself to death. She’s pretty dead tired after the trip, but Mickey insists that she take a shower and come with them. He seems very excited about something, so she forces herself to try. He hands her a turkey sandwich for the cab ride. They arrive just before closing. Mickey drags her through the front room.
“Mickey! Why are you taking me past a perfectly good wine bar?”
They arrive in the hall. The lighting isn’t quite finished, but Henrik’s frame job has Rachel’s scroll frozen in mid-air, two inches off the wall, a dreamcloud of monochrome femininity. Maddie releases her best operatic gasp, covers her mouth, and inches her way along the images, mesmerized. Five minutes later, she reaches the end and turns to Skye.
“This is your girlfriend, the one who…”
“Killed herself, yes.”
She covers her mouth again and her eyes well up. Mickey hands her a handkerchief.
“This piece,” he says, “will launch more tears than Madama Butterfly.”
Maddie recovers quickly. “Skye? One thing I don’t understand. The fingers.”
“The women. They’re all missing a finger.”
Mickey and Skye hurry to different sections of the scroll. Where one hand is shown, they have four fingers. Where both are shown, they have nine.
“The pinky,” says Skye.
“That’s it,” says Mickey. “The something extra.”
“The something less.”
Skye is tired of passing on brutal information, but there’s no getting around it.
“To teach Rachel a lesson, her father cut off her mother’s pinky.”
Mickey looks stunned. His gaze follows the scroll down the hallway. “That is terrifyingly beautiful.”
He feels a tapping on his shoulder. It’s Maddie.
“May I inquire?”
He kisses her on the cheek. “You are the solver of Turandot’s riddle.”
“Wonderful! Any chance you could tell me what the hell you’re talking about?”
Mickey smiles. “Let’s get you that wine.”
Photo by MJV