“Twins ride a see-saw as storm clouds gather over them. Each catches a glimpse, in turn, above the other, of a star on the horizon. The grim one ponders hers and finds profound insights through it. The happy one peeks at her own, bewildered and bemused, until it finally shines on her too. It is the star of life, for one magic, for the other a wonder of science and physics. Each, identical in everyway except for the way their brains were arranged, balances and enables the other in their teeter-totter journey to nowhere. As they ride up and down under the clouding night sky, the grim one sees that soon her star will vanish in the storm. Her sibling will see that too but only when her is covered and is gone. The lonely cry of a train’s whistle wails by like a one note lullaby.”
Heather paused in her reading to push away another avalanche of chestnut hair that had tumbled across her glistening face, veiling her vision, puffing out strands with each word, as she gripped the wobbly podium, which Michael must have borrowed from some rescue gospel mission, and to swallow an ice cold mouthful of bottled water, which went down the pipe, just right, as her grandfather used to say of his whiskey, which she wished she were drinking instead. In the back of the room, resplendent in diamonds, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and every other pricey doodad she could attach to her voluptuous, platinum haired, tanning salon presence, her rival gazed at her haughtily, yawning periodically as she fanned herself with the night’s program. Now and then, the Gold Coast socialite would turn to smile flirtatiously at Michael who stood by the door looking, as usual, like the count of some mysterious somewhere or other, dressed like a pasha in a flamboyant silk woven evening jacket, camel hair slacks and cashmere turtleneck, set off by a hypnotist sized diamond ring and solid gold watch, all unclaimed remains from the clandestine hoardings of his father’s hock shop (the watch probably left by Midas) to greet any latecomers held up by the snow storm. Heather suspected that Pasha and Prima Divorcia (she must be hitting fifty by the record of her mega buck marriage hops, although she looked no older than Heather due to the miracle of cosmetic surgery) had slept together last night, one swept away by the moment (everyone had been a little drunk) the other using her well worn witch broom to fly another conquest to her magic midnight bedroom. It was apparent by the smug look (or was that the only expression that’s left after your umpteenth facelift?) she had directed at Heather when she made her grand entrance and handed Connie, Michael’s assistant, her sable for safe keeping.
“Years pass.” Heather continued. “Each sister is now far from her home in Kansas.”
The gathering of Chicago aristocrats, seated in rows of folding chairs before her in the brightly-lit, steaming-hissing cellar, looked like nothing so much as a comedy skit – some parody one might find on Saturday Night Live or Comedy Central. She couldn’t stop the imp that flashed a smile across her lips. “Is there something wrong with this picture” Should be the caption under the photographs the Tribune was taking for its “Society” feature. She wondered if the spread would also include the front entrance? Michael had never removed the three balls that hung above his father’s pawnshop when he converted the space into an art place – “So the little shop of sorrows became a bargain basement of miracles.” He said, with a shrug, when she asked about the incongruity. “It’s still a place of lost souls and dreams and it’s still all about money, sadly. Like the pawn guy says on TV. ‘Everything here has a story and a price.’ Instead of my desk I probably should transact sales behind a cage wearing my father’s visor, sleeves rolled up. Besides it lends a touch of Duchamp to the ambience.”
All dressed to the nines in Dior and Armani, the tycoons and Grande Dames sat uncomfortably, sweated profusely, and listened politely to (of all things) poetry recited by a banshee haired, pixy faced PhD. She still looked, she knew, at twenty-eight, more like the freckle faced daughter of the Keebler elf than Big Jim McMahn’s brat kid, runt of the litter that she was. “I wanted Heather to learn the construction business and someday take over.” Her father had told the revelers at her doctoral graduation celebration. “She’s got more brains than her brothers. They’ll be the first to admit it. But she kissed the blarney stone instead, disappointing her old dad. Well the world got a great poet and a pretty one at that. What she creates with words will last longer than what I put together with brick and mortar.” Not yawning yet, but fanning themselves with their programs as much to stay awake as combat the heat, her audience sat wondering what they had gotten themselves into as they listened to her rant. Now and then, they would turn their bewildered attention to blink at the mural sized paintings of barrio life that surrounded them. Depicting, in clashing colors and expressionistic figures, drug lords and drive-bys, hookers, beggars, gangsters, horror, squalor, and other urban nightmares, the pieces were created by the Hispanic inner-city high school student Michael had awarded, out of his own impecunious pockets (which were about as deep as a conversation with the platinum haired “Black Widow” would be if she got stuck talking with her later at the festivities) a full scholarship for art to whatever Chicago academy was his wish. There were two more such prizes, the total exhausting, she learned, his entire savings, one for poetry, in which she was the judge, the other for science.
“Diego Rivera” Michael had whispered to her, that day they strolled together through the settlement house exhibit where the young man’s works were on display, “with a touch of Hieronymus Bosch thrown in?”
“And maybe a few amphetamines?” She mused, looking around at the chaos of colors and figures which could easily get the kid arrested for assault and battery to the senses.
“And maybe a few more again.” Michael laughed. “This is bravura work, an artist taking on his own inner demons while he battles social injustice in the process. I’ll check out the rest of the students on my short list but I’m sure I’m done.” Michael frowned. “I know art isn’t supposed to make statements anymore and each of this kid’s works is a Holocaust, with no let up. Not one like my father’s. you couldn’t even make art out of that! That story was best told by newspaper photographers, documentary film makers or young girls who kept diaries while hiding in attics from Nazis. This is riveting stuff, packed with the pathos and all the tragedy being human can be. I could see these gut level recreations of ghetto life coming but I didn’t suspect so many would be so good. I knew, of course, I would be taken by whatever came in. But then Jews don’t have to bend their brains much to find beauty in such visual nightmares. They were born into a surrealist dream and they bear the legacy of their exotic genes, which lend themselves to Symbolist renderings. Besides, “a bit mashugina is what everyone I ever knew thought of me.” (Gee, I wonder why Michael? She refrained from commenting. Can it be because you do things like give away all your money?) “That’s what many of the real art experts think I am anyway. Art for me has to involve itself in humanity, express feelings, emotions, not word games or mind games. They don’t agree. But what do I know? I’m just a small time art dealer, the son of a Holocaust survivor turned pawn broker. I guess empathy is my eccentricity. Much of what they show looks like fun house stuff to me and maybe belongs more to an amusement park than a museum or art gallery. Contemplation doesn’t follow the confrontation no matter how jolting that may be. Maybe they’re mashugina? In any event, now that the mayor and the leading citizens have generously agreed to take over the scholarship competition, I guess because it drew some local and national attention, and make it an annual event, actually adding a few more categories to the grants, they can pick their own judges and do what they want. Traditional cityscapes, avant-garde experiments, whatever turns them on. It will be their call from now on. I just wanted to get this project off the ground. I’m not even sure why. After ten years of dealing art, a situation that came about by accident, I found that I had half a million dollars in the bank and, since my needs are small, nothing I could think of to spend it on. I suppose I could have expanded my business. Instead I did this. I’m not sure I know what art is anyway. Who does these days? A curator at the museum told me they call au courant endeavors ‘spaghetti.’ They throw it all at the wall and see what sticks. All I know is that what I like effects me deeply. But maybe it’s just a pawn in a game? And a big money one. In which case the three balls above my door are appropriate. I may know writing. I’m the classic caricatured Jewish bookworm. That art form only works if it says something. Your book ‘Leprechauns in the Attic,’ is a joy. That’s why I came to you. Your words, the people that inhabit the poetry of your Gallic-magical-realism world, with all its myths and folk lore, paradox, irony, joy, tragedy, mystery … the migration of the Irish Catholics from the potato famine to the present … the lace curtain years to the noveau riche … the ironies and satires of the American dream … are roses in a garden one doesn’t weed, because the wild growth is as much of a wonderment as the tended part is. This kid’s urban jungle has such flowers in it and those moments of magical truth.”
“Gee thanks, Michael.” Heather remembered thinking as she looked around at the blazing walls which threatened to explode. “An un-weeded garden.” Maybe she should use that quote for the back of her next book? Maybe she should use it for the title? My Un-weeded Garden by Heather McMahn. But there was a wild beauty in the Hispanic’s youth’s works. They were violent but poignant, filled with heart stabbing portraits of impoverished families in the backgrounds, trying to live their dreams, and sad-eyed children lost in bedlam. The poems were the same, touching and disturbing. If the aristocrats thought they were being tortured now, Heather mused as she watched them glance around furtively, wait until her winner, a seventeen year old African American girl seated in the first row with her invalid mother next to the mayor, dressed almost as a counterpoint to her gritty text in austere Sunday-go-to-meeting attire, a frail, timid creature, read her works.
“All bitter pills to swallow I’ll bet.” Michael had sympathized with her as she waded through the “short list” the panel had sent her – which wasn’t exactly short: fifty poets with five works each. It wasn’t that the works were difficult. They weren’t loaded with metaphors, symbolism or references that one had to ponder or decipher. They hit you like a sock in the jaw. They made you shiver and, if not cry, sometimes brought a tear to your eye.
I walk among the lost,
where chasms have no bridges,
over bottomless abysses.
I live alongside the longing.
I live among the yearning,
side by side with the struggling,
in the ghettos and the grottos
of misery and suffering.
I am that haunt you sense in the
mirror. I am you in despair.
Hustle or muscle – that’s the
only way for the boys to get
by in the ghetto: deal, steal,
pimp, kill – each day the same
ole crime of being alive.
Bars without spaces to look
through surround you. That’s
because no one outside wants
to see your misery, hear your
cries … that deaf ear, blind eye,
as you slowly die.
Not exactly “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” but effective nevertheless. They were sleeping together by then. It hadn’t taken long. Life comes at you quick. Ironic, since she had wanted no part of this obscure “art dealer’s” scholarship competition to begin with. Although the honorarium was generous. It seemed like a gimmick, some promotional stunt some “shylock” on the make cooked up. She turned Michael’s letter of request down with the warmest wishes for the competitions success, begging off due to prior commitments. Her excuse was valid. She was already swamped with similar requests, as well as those for readings, lectures, panel discussions from colleges and universities throughout the country. Since the university had published her book, which had received much praise and numerous awards, she was in big demand. Maybe for past women writers the field had neglected? Whatever, the dean, whom had gotten wind of the request for Michael’s contest, ultimately talked her into it. There was a lot of “Buzz around town” about the competition. He informed her. The presidents speech on his “agenda for academic excellence” had inspired the art dealer according to the papers. Obama had mentioned and thanked the generous small business benefactor from his home town Chi-town, the city of big shoulders and hearts and urged others, if they could, to follow this good citizen’s example, Involving herself in something that was garnering a fair amount of attention would be good for her book. The dean pointed out, as well as the university. The winners were going to appear on various television programs. “Maybe the judges too?” He mused. Hinting at a prospect no writer could refuse.
“One twin lives in New York and is a scientist.”
Michael was gone. Connie stood in his place by the door next to the security guard. He said he would slip out for a drink when the proceedings got going, brace himself for the ensuing commotion. “You know how I hate schmoozing.” He winced. “A couple of stiff ones in some quite place will get me through it.”
“The other resides in LA and is an artist.”
Heather couldn’t possibly guess what would show up at her office, when she finally caved into the dean. She still thought there was something fishy about the whole thing. No one shelled money out of their own pocket unless they expected a payback. She felt like she was being played – the students too. To start something that would get the attention of the president and local as well as national newscasts was pretty shrewd. Maybe some bonvivant wearing as ascot and a beret? Some flim flam man with a con artist grin? Some Hollywood wanna-be wearing shades, a toupee, and calling her and everyone else babe? What walked in was a magician, tall, dark, handsome. But, despite the high-style clothes and mesmerist’s ring, he didn’t seem like a guy who had something up his sleeve. Later, after she got to know him better (and Michael explained that he wore his glad rags and assorted accoutrements because he accidently discovered – Michael seemed to discover everything accidently – trying on garments and sundry ornaments from the pawnshop’s storage bin for fun, that the outlandish concoctions impressed his clients and helped sell paintings) that first impression of a mystical esthetic, slowly became altered. The dark devouring eyes, starving for truth, beauty, the meaning of life, not acquisitions, the biblical aquiline nose, sensuous lips, formed a semblance belonging more to someone lost and searching than a practitioner of the black arts and hocus pocus. At forty Michael’s face retained some kind of the wayward poster child persona of a wandering soul looking in a window, maybe, shadowy, haunting, searching for a doorway to get out of the cold. Which was understandable given his neglected childhood, which sounded like a tale Charles Dickens might have written. It would have made her want to adopt him even if she hadn’t already taken him for her lover. It was the main reason she hadn’t strangled him yet or turned him over to her construction worker brothers who would have given him a friendly warning of what would come if he ever gave their sister the runaround. Beware Black Widow, she mused, the fighting Irish was in her too.
“Where on earth did you get this bed Michael, a fire sale at the Cook County jail? You know with half a million dollars you could have gotten a pretty good mattress. At least one without lumps. I guess you never thought of that?”
“Not really. I suppose I’m used to it.”
“And your lovers?”
“They don’t seem to notice. Too preoccupied with other things. If you know what I mean?”
“Sure, get right on to the pleasure principle and avoid the pain. Well we better got at it. I’m on top.”
He proved to be a magician in bed, both his lumpy one and hers, as well as numerous others over the years, she came to learn. He seemed to run into old flames everywhere they went, bars, nightclubs, restaurants, amidst the glitter of their Gold Coast jaunts. “Michael! How good to see you! Robbing the cradle as usual? And you must be one of his artists. Fresh out of school are you? You’ll enjoy Michael. He’s a maestro. Don’t enjoy him too much, it will be over before you know it.”
So he was hocus pocus after all. Now you see him, now you don’t, according to the gossip that went around. A master of the vanishing act. Houdini with a hard-on? No his psychological problems, she came to observe, went deeper than that. He was an escape artist – from responsibility, commitment, from any domestic involvement, from realities of every kind, especially if they involved the ties that bind. Intimacy was not his forte. Empathy maybe, but not if it involved him other than existentially. He was afraid of it. She suspected that that was why he had suddenly gotten the urge to give away his money. It was a grand gesture, of course. He was kind hearted, nice in everyway. But the money was a trap. At forty he had to do something life changing with it – settle down, get married, raise a family. Become a real businessman. He had gotten into art as a lark. “I had this dead end, monotonous job as a supervisor in a medical records department, something my half brother – you met him, the surgeon – got for me. It was OK. At that age, I was an aspiring writer anyway. I still think I have one book in me. Then my father, unexpectedly, left me his little property when he died, which, since the neighborhood went so upscale, is worth a lot of money. A million dollars probably. All I had to do was maintain it and pay taxes. This being Chicago’s main art district, I went with the flow and to my amazement became fairly successful.”
What was amazing to Heather wasn’t his success as an art dealer but his total lack of introspection as a voracious reader and aspiring writer. He needed a shrink for a girlfriend not a PhD of poetry. Anyone could see that the art he was attracted to was exactly what he lacked in his personality – feeling, or a running commitment to it. He was caring, affectionate, loving, with someone, for a small amount of time, it seemed, then he drifted away, back to his lost soul state. A shadow on the loose with no one to claim it. Yet he was drawn by these compassionate renderings like a moth to a flame. He was a connoisseur of such haunting sentiments captured with paint. The artists he represented were magnificent. Their works were wonderments. They were moving, often disturbing. Each one captured profound truths in some way whether by fable, or the surreal, or the expressionistic, or representational, about being human. She loved hanging out there surrounded by them. The two of them together as if in some wondrous dream, which was why they usually ended up staying together there rather than her plush new condo with its view of the lake. Even the lumpy bed and his small, cozy living space in the back seemed an extension of the gallery’s nether world ambience. The walls were packed floor to ceiling with old, gilt framed black and white photographs of the building, the pawnshop, life along the surrounding streets, taken, judging by the clothes and cars, mostly in the late forties and fifties, and filled, she assumed, with family, friends, relations, many orthodox Jews, the men bearded, the women wearing extravagant hats. Rag or junk filled wagons rolled through many of the antique street scenes drawn by horses wearing funny hats.
“Back in the day,” Michael mused as they lay together and gazed at the photographs, “my mother owned the whole building. That is with her first husband. That’s their wedding portrait above the menorah. My mother, as you can see, was very beautiful. What you can’t see is that she was lame. She dragged her right foot after her until the end of her days. The groom was the same age as her father. He has a kind face and it was a good match, since he was a land lord and the owner of a pawnshop. It was the best one she could get with her foot. They lived right here behind the shop. They both worked at it. The rest of the brownstone comprised a small, seedy, backstreet hotel where street hookers would rent rooms by the hour to service their customers and down and out transients flopped for a couple of bucks. The whole neighborhood was seedy back then as you can tell from the pictures – the streets filled with honky tonk bars, strip joints, dives, greasy spoons, and pawnshops. Now, of course, it’s gentrified. You can find some of that old Chicago ambience near the YMCA along Chicago Avenue or by its intersection with Clark. At night it’s still something of a no man’s land, at least for a couple of blocks. My father entered the picture later. He’s that brute over there with the bushy eyebrows and thick curly hair. He was the son of a butcher in a village in Czechoslovakia. Most of the village, all of his family, was exterminated in the camps. He survived because at fourteen he was as big as a man, with a thick neck and huge hands and of course the stamina of youth which enabled him to get through a year and a half of that hell on earth. They put him to work on a labor crew and used his muscles for the Fuhrer. By the time the camps were liberated, he was dead inside. Their marriage was arranged by a broker as well. My mother was a new widow then with two children, my half brother and sister. She needed a man, and a big one at that, who could take care of business and with his fists if it came to that. The neighborhood was still bad. In some ways it was worse, or at least wilder. Glittering strips of gangster owned nightclubs were springing up everywhere, bringing swarms of revelers, along with pickpockets, muggers, drug dealers. Baby boomer teenagers, many from rough neighborhoods, roamed the streets in gangs. My father, a mallet man at the stockyards, that’s the guy who killed the cattle with a spiked sledge hammer as they were herded down the fenced off aisles, was out of work. The yards were rapidly closing down. Initially, he was brought to America by distant relatives. They tried to set him up as a kosher butcher. But that didn’t last long. He was a drunkard and a brawler. The camps, first Auschwitz then Buchenwald, had turned an amiable but somewhat slow witted boy into a monster. If looks could kill? You can see murder in his eyes in his wedding photograph and all the rest. It’s the only look he ever gave me, or my mother or anyone. It was frightful being around him, especially when he was drunk, which was often. Who can blame him after living surrounded by barbed wire and witnessing beatings, hangings, mass shootings and the human smoke billowing from the crematoriums. I hold nothing against him. They made the contract. He learned the business, collected the rents, scared off thugs and robbers probably simply with his presence. He helped raise, in his own way, the two kids. I came along next, unexpected and uninvited. They were middle aged by then. Bernie, the oldest, was Bar Mitzvah that year. Rhonda, as beautiful as my mother, was popular, a big hit at school with oodles of young boys after her even then. She married well. They both did well. No scars inflicted that I can tell. My parents seemed to have had little to do with each other. He had his whores, loose women, kept to himself. They lived together like work mates, survivors of a hard fate.
Maybe drunk one night he forced her? Who can sa? I never felt like a son to either of them. I was something unwanted. Maybe the product of a regretful rape?
My mother died of cancer when I was ten. My father converted all the flats into condominiums, including the one we all lived in and sold them to put Bernie and Rhonda through college. Bernie’s education, of course, went on and on and cost a small fortune. My father and I lived down here. I learned the business, worked my way through a useless BA at Circle campus, took the job my brother got for me. Sometime I’ll show you the root cellar. It’s a little storage space dug out under the basement. You get there through a trap door in the floor, covered over by that Persian rug. That was my room. The walls are cork-lined. That’s where I get all my glad rags from.”
As well as his “sad rags” – Heather lamented. That inability to keep a deep relationship. He told her later that he was often locked up down there by his father. Sometimes as a punishment or when his father wanted to party with his women or friends. He would come in late at night, glare at him and point at the trap door and then shove a heavy chest over it to make sure Michael wouldn’t go to the washroom and bother them. He peed in a can. Whatever else was his life she could only imagine. It was a lonely life, lived mostly through books, roaming the streets when he could. When he was older, he told her, he went to the museum a lot. What he liked about that experience, almost as much as the art, was being around the patrons, bright looking and well dressed. A relieving contrast to the sad souls who came into the pawnshop to hock their poor treasures. Heather flashed on the poem that made her pick her winner.
Dead of winter, shadowing down
streets as black as any nightmare,
although it wasn’t even time for supper.
“I got dizzy, Sweetie.”
“I knows Mama.”
She came home from school and found
Her mother on the floor. Her baby
brother and sister stood there by her,
scared. They had gotten home first,
tried to lift her. Impossible when the
dead weight of the curse was on her.
They couldn’t find her pills. They
brought her blankets and pillows.
“Where’s your purse Mama?”
“I ain’t got no money, Honey.”
Her mother looked ashen, like the
Embers of coal burned.
“I needs to get your medicine.”
“I ain’t got no more. I was going
to the drugstore.”
Her purse was on the floor, right
next to her, covered by the blanket.
There were no more pills in the vile
she kept tucked away at its bottom.
“I get you a refill.” She pocketed the
container. “You two sup on that lunch
meat wrapped up in the fridge.” She told
her siblings. “Get Mama some tea. I
bring you back some candy.”
By now every predator was out there,
prowling through the icy dark: rapists,
muggers, gangbangers, killers. She
pulled on her winter coat, cap, mittens.
The contest was an ordeal. Michael’s stories were an ordeal. They made her reflect on her own youthful years. One summer in her teen-hood made her shudder. How arrogant they were, all of them, she and her friends, so full of themselves in their privileged lives and pretenses. Her parents were affluent. She grew up in a big house on the North Shore. Nothing was denied her, or her siblings or any of their friends. There was travel, country clubs in which to swim and play the summers away, private schools, mentors, tutors, Barnard eventually, shopping sprees with her friends in the plush suburban malls or along Chicago’s beyond upscale “Magnificent Mile,” concerts, museums. When she was sixteen she and a few of her school-mates formed a fun trio and billed themselves “The Ghetto Girls>” They dressed funky, sang rap songs which she cooked up lampooning the north shore, the gold coast and making parallels to their “sisters” in the slums. They sang at weddings, parties, dances, the country club once, anywhere they could stand in front of a band. They were so cute, clever. They were a big hit that summer. They didn’t mean anything bad by it. What were they thinking? How embarrassing to have as a memory now. What was that Categorical Imperative by Kant? “…whatever we do or say or think should be a moral imperative for all humanity … our slightest whim or action … a transcendental law for all time …”
“Still identical in body and soul,” Heather gave her winner a smile signaling that she was finishing so take a deep breath because you are up next, “although what each does is often mistaken for an opposite pursuit,” she wanted to tie in the art and science aspect of the scholarships, “the twins still balance and in turn lift one another to get a glimpse of that star.”
Of course it behooved her to thank everyone, after the applause finished, for attending the first of an ongoing commitment to Chicago’s inner city high school students – their graciousness and generosity; while at the same time reflecting that they wouldn’t have to drag themselves out in the snow, sit sweating in an overheated cellar and shell out dough, if they simply paid their employees, in all those enterprises and factories they owned, a better wage so they could take care of themselves; or maybe just pay their fair share of the taxes so the government could handle it.
All around him in the night, like icicles dangling from the winter sky, towers rose, sleek with glass and reflections of the nebulous. Strolling below, amidst the parks, gardens, walks, fountains, the quaint Victorian mansions and smug old brownstones – most of which had been converted into pricey eateries, watering holes and Gold Coast Condos – began to assume an illusion of fairyland as a heavenly lake effect snow descended on Chicago and flakes as big as dove feathers transformed the spires and gables into enchanted castles.
Michael glanced at his Midas watch and slipped into the posh, park nightclub. Within, tourists, travelers, amiable neighborhood residents were sipping cocktails and watching the magic show from the ornate French windows as they listened to the piano echo the dream outside with its mellow notes.
“Now you know what it means to be alone.”
The North Shore Chanteuse was wailing her tales of sorrow like some god forsaken angel as he found a small table in a corner, ordered a drink, and waited for the jeweler who would meet him soon.
“A broken heart
A dream that fell apart”
The track lights above the golden voiced beauty glimmered like moon glow. Seated atop a black piano, her intonations, breathless, tragic, her sultry figure smothered under cascades of silvery hair that that fell like rain across her shoulders, as she whispered her dark melodies of love and rapture, while women wept and men sat mesmerized sand Michael wondered again, as he wondered when he was dating her, how such a cold, stone hearted, bitch could capture and deliver such soul shattering loveliness? Go figure artists!
A homeless family, bundled in rags and carting bags, shuffled through the park searching for somewhere to settle for the night, a small stone bridge over a stream maby which they could use as a shelter, or if they really got lucky a park maintenance shack for which they could easily jimmy the lock. They trudged through the drifts into the darkness and disappeared into the falling snow and frozen unknown.
Meshugina. Michael brooded. Reality was crazy, always had been, always would be. “The poor are always with us.” Some luminary noted. So are the oppressed. So are the luminaries come to think of it. He was broke, wiped out, kaput. He lifted his drink in a silent salute to his father, to all the persecuted Jews over all the ages and to all others who had been enslaved, cleansed, exterminated, tortured, abused, wherever they were, had been, would be, forever and amen. It was for them he had given up his money, all the oppressed of humanity. At least that was his notion. He had looked into a madman’s eyes since childhood – his father’s eyes, pondered that grim expression, those numbers scrawled on his arm. He felt ashamed of himself. Why? He couldn’t say. The survivor syndrome? Because he became wealthy easily? What did the world look like to the lumbering village boy after the hell he lived in those camps? He always wondered. Each face a phantom version of a human face? Each figure ghostly? Every street a shaft of smoke and mirrors? Every moment inimical? He had to make that grand gesture. He had to make it also for the poor souls who came to the pawnshop everyday to pawn what they held dearly. Thank god no one was after Jews anymore, he reflected, except investment bankers and luxury car dealers. They were safe here and most everywhere. Those persecution days were finally over. They were safe in Israel, too, on the whole. Despite their relentless enemies on all sides. They took care of each other. On his fortieth birthday he decided to give away his money, sell the gallery and move there. For forty years he had lived like a ghost in a dream, not a real person, certainly not his own. He wasn’t even sure what that could be. He had no friends as a kid. He had to hurry home and help his father, who became more wasted every year, take care of the shop. He had no family to speak of – his half brother and sister were all but out of the house when he was born and soon they were gone. College, marriage, their busy lives went on separate from his own. When they did get together, on holidays or other occasions, he never felt comfortable. He didn’t fit in. Religion had ended when his mother died. Hus father hated god. He wouldn’t set foot in a synagogue. Who could blame him? How else would one feel about the grand master of it all after what he’d been through, what he’d seen? Michael was an atheist. The mysteries of existence belonged to and were solved by science. The revelations they came up with were far more amazing than the visions of old time mystics. We are all orphans, lost or abandoned in a land at once dangerous and enchanted. All we have is one another to rely on. We are our own angels and demons. Prayer is a shelter made of wind, salvation earth bound, sermons words and images that are heart found not handed down. Not that he wasn’t moved by cantor’s voices, the ceremonies and services, the poetry in the prayers, the candles, rituals, the rabbis thoughtful proverbs. He was, of course, moved by all passionate expressions of the inner world and its longings. What he yearned for was that Sabbath sense of sacredness and spiritually, everyday in a secular way and that feeling of mutual identity in a community. He was a genetic Jew. No one would take him for anything else. It was written all over his face, embedded in his being. He thought if he moved to Israel he might find a home, inner peace. America was a giddy Disneyland with showbiz on the one end and make believe on the other, glued together by greed – most of his brethren no exception. He needed something real after his life in a shadow world, some shared community that was meaningful. Even the art world, which he had enjoyed being part of for many years, was going sour on him. The current big guns were shrouded in the mystique of investment manipulations. There was no literary world. No one read outside academics. Everyone was glued to the boob tube or arcade style computer games. There was little left, especially in politics, that wasn’t bogus. When he was young America was number one at everything – science, culture, education. Now they were at, or heading toward, the bottom. The students ranked lower than any westernized country on test scores, while they were firing teachers and cutting down on grants and programs! The outlook for the future was pretty gloomy. He wasn’t lonely. Maybe existentially. It had been a long time ago that he roamed the streets of Chicago with his hands in his pockets, head down, wishing he had a friend. There had been too many women to fill his time since then. But with them there was always something missing. Maybe something in him? If so, that was at an end.
“Sorry I’m late.” Zubrowsky, the jeweler, suddenly appeared at the table looking like a Jewish polar bear. He was covered, head to foot, with snow. His glasses were fogged. His red nose dripped. He stomped his boots on the carpet, slapped his fir hat against his leg. “I couldn’t get a cab. Buses passed me like sardine cans with engines. I had to walk the whole way. They announced on the radio a blizzard for Chicago. People are fleeing the city. I don’t know how I’ll get home if it doesn’t calm down. I almost couldn’t find this place. I walked in circles. The world got erased.”
“Good god Zub.” Michael stood and helped him out of his coat. It was really coming down now, just in the last few minutes. He hadn’t noticed. In the windows was a white out. Swirling flakes filled the air. “Have a drink, warm up. You should have called me. We could have put it off.”
“Put it off? Rush you said! A rush job! Life and death!”
“Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic.” Michael smiled. “Just seemed like tonight would be the perfect time. But have a seat. Relax. Let’s see it!”
Zubrowsky sat and took a velvet box out of his suit jacket, Grouche Marxed his busy eyebrows and laid it on the table.
“Well open it. Don’t just stare at it. It’s a big step, I know, but they won’t biter you.”
The diamond rings were dazzling. They made Michael’s hands tremble as he studied them under the light of the table candle. Legend had it that the stones belonged to a giant ring, owned by a very prominent woman who had to give them up during the Great Depression, which Michael had Zubrowsky reset into an engagement ring and wedding band. He had been astonished to have found them still in his father’s hoardings. Maybe he was saving them for his old age? Maybe with his heavy drinking, black outs, and foggy thinking, he had simply forgotten about them. They were worth a small fortune.
“God they’re beautiful!” Michael marveled.
“So tonight it is you pop the question?” Zubrowsky sipped his drink, pleased at the reaction to his handiwork. “There’s two ways to do it. There’s the Gentile way and the Jewish way. The Gentile get down on one knee, takes the woman’s hand and asks her for it. If she accepts he slips on her finger the ring with a kiss. If she says no he bows politely and goes. The Jewish was is exactly the same only the ring is shown before he asks anything. More impact, get it? Hedging your bet. I’m just kidding, Michael! I’m making a joke! But in your case maybe you should think about it. It would put a little oomph into the proposition. Why take chances? Ice like that you might convince her. I’m just kidding again! Well Mazel Tov.” He drained his drink. “I’m off. Keep in touch. I’ll mail you the bill. No charge for the delivery. A little extra maybe for the doctor when he treats me for frostbite and pneumonia. Send me an invite! Goodnight!’
It was a big step. Michael’s heart pounded as he turned the sparkling box this way and that, watching its multicolored diamonds catch fire under the flickering flame in all their facets. He kept picturing Heather wearing them and how they would sparkle on her hand in classrooms, at lectures, out to dinner, the theater, whatever. Of course she was always smiling in his imagination but actually Michael was afraid she wouldn’t even like them. They were sort of over the top – more than a bit ostentatious. She didn’t wear much jewelry, make up or showy clothes either. Her tastes were simpler, what you would call prim and proper. She got that from her mother and grandmother and beyond that probably from ancestral Irish how to act-like-a lady instructions. Prim and proper, that was Heather, except, of course, for her hair which, no matter what she did with it, made her look like she had just stuck her finger into an electric socket.
“Shocking, say it, shocking!” She’d scream getting dressed for a night out and glaring at her reflection in the mirror while she dragged a brush through its tangles, the bristles of which Michael wasn’t sure he’d use on a horse’s mane.
“Your hair is becoming.”
“Becoming? Oh really? For what, a clown’s fright wig, or the lead singer in an Irish rebel band? My hair is exploding!”
“Your hair is very sexy.”
“Then why don’t you ever run your fingers through it?”
He supposed he could try. He was afraid they might get stuck and it would be awkward trying to pull them out.
“I’m sure I do all the time. You don’t notice. How could I resist?”
“That’s it!” Heather slammed her brush on the dresser. “I’ve had it! I’m shaving my head and buying a wig! Don’t your orthodox kinswomen all wear them to cover their heads? Bet that would turn you on! You’d be a Chagall figure flying upside down!”
“You turn me on. Your hair turns me on. Everything about you sends me swooning. Look I’ll run my fingers through it.”
“Back off! Don’t touch it! I’ve just spent the last hour trying to comb it!”
He’d bet her family would like the rings. They would be impressed. They weren’t very impressed by him – a middle-aged Jewish art dealer who lived in a cellar. He was probably even more unsuitable than the other unsuitable suitors; tweedy English professors, dialectic materialists, organic language deconstructionists, Heather had brought home over the years.
“Look Michael,” Heather had briefed him before she sprang him on them, “my father and brothers are basically beer swilling, sports minded, dwarf-tossers. Never mind the country clubs they belong to and the flashy cars they drive. Do you play golf? It doesn’t matter. We’ll talk about the scholarship you’re sponsoring. After all, that’s how we got together. My mother will find it romantic, and noble. My father is an ardent democrat. You know he and Richie are buddies; as was my grandfather and Richard the elder. They’ve worked on big contracts for the city, and will do more. They’re friends now with Emanuel. We’ll steer the conversation toward politics – the Tea Party, Birthers, Republicans in general, Sarah, Fox news. He won’t even notice you’re not Irish. There’s nothing to be anxious about. Just don’t tell them you gave away your last penny. Or any money.”
So courting was ever easy? Her parents were nice. Her father was a stand up guy. So were her brothers. There would be no problem there. They all knew he loved Heather and that she loved him. They were made for each other. She had moxie. He had hutspa, sort of. They were both mashugina. “Why don’t you call your next book ‘Leprechauns In The Bed?’ Michael kidded. “Meaning?” “Meaning Ms. Prim and Proper acts pixilated when she gets under the covers. “Complaining?” “Hardly – exclaiming!” They read together, discussed books, liked the same movies, music, enjoyed the company of each other like some old married couple instead of one that had just gotten together. It had been like that from the first instant, as if their relationship was a reincarnation, each moment a reenactment of sometime ancient, their togetherness something intense. “Michael we scare me.” Heather would shudder after some heated love making. “I know what you mean.” Heart pounding, Michael stared at the spinning ceiling. “True love’s a man scary thing.”
Israel was over. He could have a life here with Heather. He couldn’t imagine any other. That crazy gesture of giving away his money had brought him everything he had missed in his life and longed for. It was all like some biblical proverb. Just last night he had gotten an offer from Muriel Strand to be the new director for the Strand Foundation’s charitable division. “Our current head is a crook,” she told him. “skimming money and cooking the books. I need someone honest.” The salary for that position, he imagined, must be staggering and made his head spin. She wanted to celebrate the occasion with a night of fun and games. Bouncing around in bed with the platinum-haired socialite bombshell was quite a temptation but Michael had resisted. He confided to her that he was proposing to Heather. She laughed and said: “Michael being honest to the core can be a bore. We only demand fidelity from our directors in money matters. But that’s a good sign. I’ll really know my money is in good hands when you sign all those dotted lines. A woman scorned is hell to deal with but you took that risk. I doubly impressed.”
He snapped the box shut and looked at his watch. He had better get back. Zub was right. Chicago was getting hit by a blizzard. He’d never get a cab. It was a good eight blocks to the gallery. By the time he got there he’d look like a snowman or a dybuk come back from the dead.
“Snow White in a glass casket was what I had been aiming at with my Surrealistic portrait of the Dead Zone’s crack racket, trying to symbolize the lost soul in the black hole of the ghetto, and the living-death-quest of hopelessness all around us. But the chaos of contours I created in the fairytale beauty’s features, after I started slashing paint on the canvas, and the undulating rhythms of brush strokes with which I concocted her coffin, had her come out of my backstreet fable as an angel wearing a death mask of sable, asleep on a billiard table. So maybe ‘Dust’ was the thrust of my journey into oblivion in a game you can’t win, because a drug is a drug and there’s plenty of ‘Dust’ in the hood. Besides, while Picasso said that what one paints is what counts and not what one intended to accomplish, he also said that if you know exactly what you’re going to do there’s no point in going through it. Life lives as it does, I guess, and you go with the flow. I’m no Picasso, let’s face it, but neither is anyone else working now. Kiefer, Richter, Viola, the late, great Munoz are my heroes, but still no Picassos. From the past Goya is the best.”
Heather wondered, anxiously, where Michael could be, as she stood amidst the handful of benefactors who had remained, despite the storm, to listen to Jose expound upon his paintings. He had sold three. Michael should have been there. Connie, of course, handled the sales expertly but she was getting nervous too. You could tell she was being overwhelmed. The guests had begun to slip out during her winner’s recital and were all but gone by the time the pale Russian came to his science demonstration. The cellar’s tiny windows looked like Whirlpool washing machines, the snow swirling, blowing, drifting in them.
“It was the dead of winter, like now, when I did this one.” Jose rambled on, the sales, like steroids, pumping through his veins. “I looked out at the falling snow from my ghetto studio at the ragged figures roaming the streets below, dragging themselves through the drifts – bag ladies, homeless families, dead-enders. There were more each day as the recession swept the country. Rolex watches, wedding rings, good luck charms were filling the pawnshop windows as the ghetto became a ‘Rainbow Coalition’ like Jessie Jackson always shoots for but not in that way. So I thought: ‘hey, fairy tales can come true and it can happen to you.’ And I put down a little sketch of Hansel and Gretel and then I went loco.”
Heather looked at her watch. Maybe Michael left a trail of breadcrumbs? She couldn’t get him on his cell phone. Lucky for him, if she did she’d blow out his eardrum. “I loved your reading!” The face-lifted, bust-expanded, lippo-suctioned, dyed haired, salon-tanned, Grande Dame squealed at her as she was leaving. “It was so compelling! Is that from your new book “Bats In My Belfry?” “No. And the book is entitled ‘Leprechauns In The Attic.’” How charming! I’ll have my maid pick it up! Tell Michael I’ll see him Monday. Tell him not to be tardy! I guess we can’t tell a book by its cover can we?” She studied Heather with a bemused scrutiny before she said goodnight to Connie.
What the hell did that mean?
The radiators were rattling, the steam hissing. The lights started blinking. But it wasn’t a power out, it was Connie trying to get everyone’s attention. The security guard stood next to her, arms folded, smiling.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, the weather service just announced that we are in for the biggest blizzard since nineteen sixty-seven. Remember that one? We thank you for attending, but I think we all have just a small window of opportunity, at this point, to get safely to our destinations. We bid you goodnight and safe passage. Leon will help you to your cars. Your drivers are here. Careful with the steps, they’re treacherous!”
Where the hell was Michael? Heather looked at her watch again as the tycoons finished their drinks and exchanged goodbye handshakes and the snow swirled through the open door where the smiling guard stood waiting to escort the guests to their cars.
“Where did you get these?”
“I gotta know. I got to know how to go.”
“I found them on a body in the alley. It’s out there in the snow. How much?”
“I don’t know.”
The watch was solid gold. The diamond eye-blinder was worth a small fortune. They had to change, be rearranged. The watch melted down maybe. They would lose their value. That was a shame.
“A lot. I’ll let you know. You got lucky. Cash too?”
“Some. Enough for a little fun.”
“Have fun. A week, maybe two. And then both of our dreams will come true.”
Heather woke up when she heard the door slam. She had fallen asleep on the couch with a drink in her hand. The last of many. Michael stood in the gallery, shivering. He looked like a snowman.
“I never thought I’d make it home.” He slapped his hat on his coat and tried to brush off the snow. “You should see it outside. My cell phone died. First it was wonderland. Then it was no-mans-land. I thought I’d break my neck getting the cat. How’d things go?”
“Are you drunk? Do you know what I’ve been through? I spent the last hour calling hospital emergency room! Where in the hell were you?”
“In an alley mostly. I heard this cat yowling. You couldn’t see your on hand if you held it in front of your face. The snow is falling that hard. But the cat was someplace high up. I climbed on top of this dumpster. I could hear it somewhere above the rain gutter. There’s this old, boarded up building down the block.. I think that’s where I was. I couldn’t reach over it so I found this window covered with grating and managed to pull myself on the ledge. I still wasn’t high enough. There was a fire escape ladder another window over so I edged my way on to that. I was soaked with sweat. I climbed the rungs but they led to a dead end. There was a chimney I had to get around. I knew the cat was on the other side of that, hunkered down out of the wind.
“Michael where’s the cat?”
“In my pocket.” He reached down into his topcoat and pulled out a yellow and white striped kitten. “It was one, two, three after that, more or less.” He handed it over to Heather. “I edged along the gutter holding onto the chimney, precariously. I snatched it up and put it in my coat but we couldn’t get back to the ladder. The wind was blowing too hard. I couldn’t even see the ladder. Eventually I found the dumpster and swung down onto that.”
“We better feed it.” The cat purred in her arms as she scratched it. “There’s a bottle of milk left over from the event.”
“OK. Let me get out of these things. Will you marry me?”
“OK. But look Michael I had this dream. You’re not wearing that goofy watch anymore or that crazy hypnotist’s ring.”
“OK. I have something else for you. It’s in my pocket. I hope the cat didn’t do anything on top of it.”