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Every Seventh Capillary
He sits in the park near Sheep Meadow, one of those only-in-New-York creations, a bench that goes on for a block. The day is clear and gorgeous, but he’s receiving some alarming signals. A distinctive snap in the air, flavor of cinnamon. A lone maple at the fringe of the lawn, its crown marked by a beret of red leaves. Has he run into autumn? He envisions the date circled on his calendar for Tahoe, adds the days and weeks for Bridgeport, Hawaii, Denver and Manhattan, and finds that he is well into September. Then he calls Peter.
“Hi Peter. Where the hell are you?”
“Covington, Kentucky! Across the river from Cincinnati. And where are you?”
Skye takes a breath. “I have had adventures that you would not believe.”
“What’s her name?”
“Delilah. Who unceremoniously dumped me this morning, but I think I will realize it’s for the best.”
“Did you get inside?”
“I’m in mixed company. So, did you get inside?”
“Yes. I did some spelunking.”
A rollerblader floats past, wearing the kind of black spandex leggings that take all the guesswork out of mental disrobing. She is a medium-thick girl, with the exact curve ratio that plugs into his sockets. A cascade of thick black curls streams from the back of her helmet.
“I am amazed,” says Skye.
“My own insatiability. This girl at the park.”
Peter laughs, a bluesy husk. “You are a randy puppy!”
“Okay. She’s gone. Those painted-on black leggings.”
“I know, right? How’s a guy supposed to concentrate?”
“Okay,” says Skye. “Let us begin zee interrogation.” He crosses his legs so he can balance a notebook on his knee. “So when did this music thing first attack you?”
“Excellent phrasing, because that is exactly how it felt. I was a kid, watching TV, and this group came on. Pearl Jam…”
“No! I am deadly serious. I think it forces the point-of-view out of this narrow, me-centric tunnel. You have to tap into the empathetic force.”
Skye catches up on his notes. He learned this early on: when you identify something unique or original, you need to get the entire quote on paper. Otherwise, you will end up with useless fragments. The trick is to realize that you are not obligated to hold up your end of the conversation. In fact, the silence often prods the subject into expanding his point.
“His name is Oskar. And… he’s a black labrador.”
Skye stops. “You are fucking kidding me.”
“Hey!” Peter complains. “Would you talk to Dave Matthews like that?”
“Let me know when you get as big as Dave Matthews.”
“Oh, you’ll know.”
Skye does a quick count of his pages. “I think I’ve got enough.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re just tired of me.”
“Hey, seriously, thanks for doing this.”
“This is what I do. I find great performers, I write about them. See you on Cape Cawd.”
“Awesome! See you then.”
Skye pockets his phone and works backward through his pages, rounding out quotes, clarifying his sloppy writing. Cutting the interview short is another trick – long interviews for short articles are a waste of time. One time, he had Stephen Schwartz on the phone – Godspell, Wicked, the third best-selling composer in Broadway history. Schwartz seemed to be enjoying himself, but Skye only had 400 words, so when the world-famous composer asked, “Do you have more questions?” he said, “No, that should do it.” It felt like turning down a date with Jennifer Aniston.
Or even better, the rollergirl, fresh-faced, her breasts pushing at a purple sweater. She flashes a smile, her eyes hidden by sunglasses, and speeds past.
Skye tries out his psychic abilities. You are experiencing an irresistible urge to turn around. She stops. All these years. If only I had known! She takes a look down the cross-street, then back at him, shading her eyes. She pushes off and heads in his direction.
Come to meee, babeee…
She kicks up her right skate, dragging the brake, then flops onto the bench and takes off her glasses.
Rachel takes a sip of her berry smoothie and smiles. “Mmm. I can’t tell you how good that is! ‘Specially after a workout.”
Skye takes a draught from his mocha and leaves a whipped-cream mustache.
He goes to his napkin. “Thank you. Now, I saw you twice. Does that mean…”
“An entire lap around Central Park, yes.”
“Don’t you worry about cars?”
“They close off the streets every other Sunday.”
“Is it Sunday?”
They’re sitting at Third Avenue and 66th, a patio next to the sidewalk. Rachel laughs, then chews on a fingernail, giving him a hard study.
“Did she wear you out?”
“No, no. I mean… she’s sort of a non-stop party. I couldn’t quite keep up.”
Rachel eyes him some more, dissecting his intentions. “Did you shtupp her?”
“Yes.” He immediately regrets answering so quickly.
She pats his hand. “Hey, relax. I saw that girl. I mighta shtupped her myself.”
“I am really sorry about… my timing. I had just gotten into town, and she was kind of a human tornado.”
“Don’t be sorry. I bet you got a great story out of it.”
Rachel takes a bite of her salad. A double-decker bus rumbles past, whipping up a breeze.
“Back there, in the park, I had a choice. I could have kept going. You’re just some guy I met in a bar. But, I don’t know. I thought you might be worth my while.”
“Well. Thank you.”
The dark eyes are driving him crazy. There’s no end to them. And eyebrows. Sharp, a little avian, notches at the outward edges that move with her thoughts.
“Spit it out,” she says.
“It’s New York. The world capitol of candor.”
For a Californian, this is a challenge. He rakes a hand through his hair.
“You have great eyebrows. They send off sparks of intelligence. People overlook eyebrows.”
“Most people underlook eyebrows.”
“Number two: your eyes are driving me crazy. They go on forever.”
He stares until the faintest bit of blood comes to her face. Every seventh capillary – a New York blush. The surprise is a single tear, dropping from her left eye. “I guess it was worth stopping for you.”
Skye feels like he’s involved in a three-way conversation. He sips at his mocha and tries to enjoy its dark edge. Nature Boy. Savor the present tense. He is still recovering his balance after too much time on Delilah’s gyroscope. Across the street, four floors up, a man stands at a window in a drab gray T-shirt, smoking a cigarette.
“So what are you doing today, Don Giovanni?”
“Want to go on a treasure hunt?”
He looks back down. Rachel has recovered herself, is messing with her bangs.
“Currently,” he says, “I do nothing else.”
They take the 6 line to St. Mark’s Place. Because he has no idea where they’re going, he is put in the position of following, and the black spandex is driving him insane. Her buttocks are two loaves of bread, beckoning him forward. Climbing the steps to the street, his face is inches away.
They traverse Cooper Square and enter an enormous used bookstore. Rachel marches in like she owns the place and greets a tall, bearded man with spectacles.
“Oh, hi Rachel!”
“You texted me?”
“Yes. I have treasure for you.” He raises a finger and follows it through a pair of swinging doors. Rachel follows, and Skye follows Rachel. They arrive at a back room, and a broad table covered with cardboard boxes.
“Estate sale,” says Jam. “Body isn’t even cold. They were extremely anxious to move into the apartment, and did not seem to notice that grandma had excellent taste in books. Wine box. Center.”
The box is from Krug. Napa Valley. Skye feels a pang of homesickness. Rachel slips her thumbnail into a slot and slides away a thin wooden panel. The cover is an elderly monarch on embossed leather, cradling the body of a young woman in a purple dress. He is most assuredly King Lear. Rachel lets out a gasp. “The Illustrated Shakespeare! Oh Jam, I love you I love you!” She flips through the pages, taking in the smell. Every other flip reveals a finely detailed scene: the Merchant holding a scale, Rosalind in hunting clothes, Falstaff raising a mug.
“Eighteen eighty two?”
Jam smiles. “It’s an oldie.”
Rachel slaps him on the shoulder. “No! That’s criminal.”
“I really shouldn’t sell them to you at all. Vandal. But that look on your face kinda makes my day.”
She stands en pointe to kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you, thank you. You are too nice to me.”
“Hey, don’t worry about me. I’ll make a fortune on the rest. Shit! Gotta go. We’re short a cashier.”
Jam flies through the doors, leaving them flapping. Rachel kisses the Shakespeare, tucks it into the wine box and then discovers Skye standing there.
“Sorry. Should have introduced you. Would you mind carrying my blades?”
“Sure. Where are we going?”
He would call a cab, but he’s enjoying the scenario, carrying Rachel’s skates home from school. They pass the Washington Square arch in late-afternoon sun, the trees showing patches of color, a bronze here, canary there. Old men walk past with newspapers tucked in their jackets. Skye is beginning to fatigue when they arrive at Sheridan Square. He discovers the street sign for Christopher, a block away from Delilah’s apartment. Not that she’s there. Delilah’s busy being dead.
They take the 1 all the way to 96th and Broadway, watching the tiled markers that roll up at the stops. Rachel takes a seat and strokes the wine box as if it’s a young labradoodle. He has dated bibliophiles before, but this one borders on fetish.
He follows her downhill through stone canyons. They turn on West End, a broad sidewalk, whispers of the Hudson River, and slip into an awninged entrance. An old black man gives them a bored wave and they enter an ancient elevator. A tag in the corner reads, Safety permit on file in office.
“Did you notice the address?” she asks.
“And yet,” she points to the buttons, “no thirteenth floor.”
They get off on the fifth floor and travel a dim hall to Rachel’s door. She turns her key in three different spots and opens the door to reveal a kitchen sink.
“Welcome to the apartment of bizarro feng shui. Sink, fridge, futon, operating table.”
The last is an angled white board, placed before two small windows. Rachel flips a switch and it lights up, revealing an intricate motley of black-and-white images on a taped-down square of white paper. The ensemble includes a magnifying bar, plastic rollers, X-Acto knives, and two cans of spray adhesive. Skye sets down the skates and walks toward it but Rachel cuts him off, leaving them in the beginning posture of a tango.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “That one’s not finished. I have a thing about that.”
“Do you have… finished ones?”
“You’re in luck.” She hits a wall switch, lighting up two works next to the futon. And then she leaves to the bathroom.
He drifts to the first work. The lightboard, the X-Actos, the Illustrated Shakespeare and Jam’s comments come together all at once. Collage. The images are line drawings, late 19th/early 20th century, pieced together in wild combinations. The left edge is a fusion of four waterscapes: a lily pond, Niagara Falls, a rocky coastline, a full bathtub. The right side presents a scatter of trees: sequoia, coconut, a witchy oak split by lightning.
At center foreground, a commedia dell’arte clown stands erect, smoking from a floating hookah. A woman stands next to him in the sharp regalia of an 18th century French uniform, holding over her shoulder a preposterously large calla lily. Closer to the water, an Indian chief reclines on the grass, next to an alligator.
Rachel re-enters in jeans and a plaid shirt. Skye is relieved – the struggle to disguise his ogling is wearing him out.
“Do you know how artists like to tell you there’s nothing to ‘get’ about their work?”
“There’s something to get about my work. They are puzzles. Intentionally obscure. The key is in the spatial relationships, which are taken from iconic paintings.”
Skye takes another look. “Like La Grande Jatte?”
Rachel turns into one of George Segal’s statues. Six seconds later, she blinks away the surprise.
“My favorite painting. I went to Chicago once and stared at it for half an hour. Water on the left, trees to the right, the central couple, the parasol as a giant flower, the fisherman as Sitting Bull, the labrador as alligator.” He folds his arms and regards it in full. “Fucking brilliant.”
“What about the other one?”
Skye puts a knee on the futon and gives the second work a study.
“I am absolutely shooting from the hip, but… Guernica?”
Rachel lets out a squeal and covers her mouth.
“Dominant central figure. The screaming horse. The Jabberwock.”
She comes beside him and runs a finger along the dragon’s tail. “When I was five, my grandmother gave me an illustrated copy of Alice in Wonderland. I was a goner.”
She wraps an arm around his back and they spend another minute on number two. She begins to speak twice, but only breathes. Her third breath comes out in words.
“Do you know how rare it is for an artist to be understood? Do you know how scary it is? I either want to kill you or have your children.”
She sits on the futon and wipes her hair clear of her brow. Skye sits on the floor at her feet.
“I love artists,” he says. “That’s why I write about them.”
“Sure. I’m a freelance journalist. I was interviewing a songwriter when you bladed past. His imaginary writing partner is a black labrador named Oskar.”
Rachel laughs. “I’ll give that a try, next time I’m blocked.”
Skye is overtaken by a yawn that stretches his arms to either side.
“I’ve worn you out!” says Rachel. “Do you want to take a nap?”
Skye manages a smile. “Maybe a short one. Then I was kinda hoping we could go to my place.”
Rachel’s irises shift from one side of her eyes to the other – another gesture designed to drive him insane. “You have a place?”
“I’m staying at the Plaza.”
Her smile grows. “Jesus, pal. You are a long series of surprises.”
“People call my stuff ‘derivative’ and they think they’re insulting me. Of course it’s derivative! That’s why I love it so much – the treasure hunt, the element of discovery. But I’m stuck in a squeeze between those who create from raw materials and those who interpret the works of others. I’m in my own little ghetto, and I am ruthlessly ignored. Give me another hotel on Park Place.”
Skye shakes his head. “I bring you to the Plaza, I lavish you with room service and champagne, and yet you seem determined to drive me to the poorhouse!”
Rachel gives him a close-mouthed smile. “Hotel, please.”
Skye places a red plastic building on Park Place’s growing subdivision and rolls the dice. He ends up on Marvin Gardens – which, naturally, belongs to Rachel. He hands her a hundred. “Refill?”
He goes to the kitchen to fill their empty flutes. It’s a modest suite, but it’s a suite, with a tenth-floor view of the park and a nice big coffee table for board games. He hands Rachel her champagne and receives a warm look.
“My little sister listens to toxic radio stations, and has developed the theory that celebrities who complain about America should not be entitled to stay here. Sean Penn, the Dixie Chicks, Green Day, George Clooney. And Clooney had just written and directed a film about the McCarthy hearings.
“The latest eruption came at a family vacation at Lake Tahoe. My dad was talking about the living conditions of different countries that he visited with the Navy. The next day, at a restaurant, my sister was getting stupid on wine and declared, ‘I can’t believe that people complain about living in the United States. If they don’t like it, they should just leave.’
“’If the Founding Fathers hadn’t complained about living here,’ I said, ‘we would be pledging allegiance to the Union Jack.’
“Naturally, drunk Angie thought I was joking. She giggled. She fucking giggled. So I stood up, said, ‘Try to use your fucking brain, Angie,’ and I walked out.”
Rachel laughs. “Yikes.”
“Here’s the thing, though. We had car-pooled to the restaurant. To get back to our rental, I had to walk four miles, uphill, on the shoulder of a busy highway in ninety-degree heat. Then I showered, packed my bags and drove off, and I didn’t stop until I ended up in the Plaza Hotel with a hot Jewish collage artist whose only fascist tendency is the way she plays Monopoly.”
Skye takes a breath, letting the long-held anger seep away. Rachel takes his champagne, sets it on the B & O Railroad, and slides onto his lap. She stares him down with endless eyes, traces a line from his earlobe to his mouth, and dots the i with a kiss. A while later, she pulls away and slowly smiles.
“Do you know my favorite part of your story?”
“‘Hot Jewish collage artist.’”
“So you pretty much ignored the rest.”
She gives the traditional Yiddish hand-flap. “Tahoe, sister, George Clooney, yada yada.”
He kisses her neck. “Roll the dice. Robber baron.”
Some time in the blue night, a siren calls him awake. He is seated on the couch. Rachel lies with her head in his lap, eyes hidden by a wandering tress. Her skin glows dully in the scattered light.
Skye worries that he is punch-drunk on women. But he suspects that this one is different.
Photo by MJV