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Authors: Kate Walbert

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BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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“What?” Sid Morris says, but Simone does not stop talking and besides, he has no idea anyway. She is a woman dressed as a woman framed in black; and he is a man who has had too much to drink, a man who has had too many drinks to count.

“I go on,” Simone says, stopping.

“And I grow old,” Sid Morris says. He smiles and looks down at the remnants of his dinner, the shrimp tails and asparagus tips he’s never much liked the taste of, too squishy. That’s right: Henry. They were speaking of the late Henry: how Henry championed boys’ theatrics, led the crew team, coached debate. A closet queer? The guy spoke French. Besotted, Simone’s word, by the culture. He pictures Cézanne’s
L’Estaque
and hears the Ginsberg poem—“In the foreground we see time and life/swept in a race.” An interesting color blue, he could tell her. Much to learn from blue, he could say. One of the few colors not found in soil, did she know this? Blue not of the soil but of stone and water, the sea.

The waiter appears to deliver the check. Sid Morris reaches into his suit jacket pocket to Simone’s delighted insistence they go “Dutch.”

“Quaint,” he says, “but no.”

He holds Simone’s coat, a sleek fur that smells vaguely of mothballs. He imagines she has unfolded it from its usual box for this grand event—dinner with Sid Morris—believing him something better than he is, which is, what? Which would ever be, what?

“Madame,” he says, the coat aloft. It makes his arms tired: the evening, the coat, Simone’s sharp perfume. The whole thing makes his arms tired.

“Thank you, Mr. Morris,” Simone says, slipping in. She stares out from within the mink, or perhaps something smaller and more difficult to skin. “Sidney,” she corrects, and suddenly to hear his name, his full name, arrests him, and for a moment Sid Morris believes he might weep as men do, at times, when reminded of their mothers.

*  *  *

“My beauties,” Sid Morris says now. “You’ve ventured into the wilderness.”

“We wanted to keep our appointment,” Simone says.

“Splendid,” he says. The overheated studio is almost unbearable, the radiators knocking as if to explode. Sid’s propped the huge filthy studio windows open with crusted paintbrushes, the wind rattling the metal frames, blowing in occasional snowflakes from the alley that melt the instant they touch the bowed wooden floor. A dance barre runs from here to there; one wall a mirror reflecting the three: two women hunched in boiled wool, a man in suspenders and a dirty shirt, flakes of dry skin on the collar. If the women were to unbutton their blouses and unzip their skirts, unroll their stockings and step out of galoshes and pumps, unhook their brassieres and pull down their panties, they would be near to identical—pale and white, their thin arms and legs veined in blue, their hair sparse, coarse, their breasts flat. If the man were to do the same, they would see that a small sore on his left ankle has turned mean and raw; that his underpants are yellowed at the crotch, and that he, too, has grown hairless—pale, dark spots blossoming across his chest like mushrooms after a rainstorm. But as it is, buttoned up, the three look fine, even fit, for this weather, this terrible winter. Simone and Marie shaking out their heavy coats, handing them to the gallant Sid, who lays them over the barre as if they are sleeping children. Lighter, the women stand at their easels and begin, again. Somewhere the paint-splattered radio plays—batteries and a dial gone missing though the station never changes, the public one, with the sonorous announcer now droning on about Chopin, always Chopin. Sid asks if they’d like tea; he’s on his second pot.

“Late night?” Simone asks.

“Wonderful night,” Sid says. “Not late enough.” He may wink, or not. Marie doesn’t see. She looks at the paintings on the other easels, ignoring. She should have expected this from her friend; it’s what Abe always said, the flirt. He suspected her of indiscretions and even, once or twice, of directing her attentions at him although Marie had teased he was only imagining—she’s harmless, Marie would say, or she comes by it naturally. Anyway, no matter: this is all from before and here they are, now, standing in the School of Inspired Arts, two old friends and a man they have known for a short time, a renegade, as he himself liked to say, a ne’er-do-well from way back. She listens to the two of them—she can’t help it, boisterous Simone!—and then she does not, then she focuses on the other work, on the other easels, metal and wood, canvases stacked along the outer walls, some turned in and others out: the model’s hip in a flourish, a detail of her neck and face, the back of her head, her chignon or what had once been called a chignon, parts of the model stacked here and there, worked out in detail, nothing at all, bone and flesh and color, and on others indistinguishable forms, visions from imaginations.

Helen, the art historian, has finished another of the series. She calls it now Life Underwater: here St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a homeless man floating up, rising toward the surface, unfurled from his shabby blanket like a figure out of Magritte. This Sid Morris had said the last class or the class before, praising Helen from behind as she added shading to the silhouette beneath the wave’s white cap, the homeless man oblivious, laid out like a corpse—she said she saw these things, similar to the visions of the saints. For example, St. Catherine, she said. Religion, magic, she said, and then left it at that, Sid Morris preferring no one ever explained. Besides, words in that room drift like feathers to the filthy floor and are forgotten.
II

Duane Reade has painted the model’s face, her skull rolled on his canvas like a smooth egg, unbroken, symmetrical, scrubbed of makeup; her skin pinkish, fresh. She is not so old, after all. She is really just a child but it would take a fool not to notice Duane Reade’s infatuation. The young man who never speaks has painted a house with a pitched roof beneath a large, bright sun; her favorite. She would like to walk up its simple sidewalk and knock on the door. This is what Sid Morris said as well; he said, I would like to walk up and knock on the door. What would I find? he said, standing behind the young man as the young man, bent as if to break, continued to furiously paint. They had all been listening, pretending they were not.

But the young man who never speaks said nothing.

“How do I look?” Simone is asking. She has moved to the model’s couch, the shawl draped over her bare arms. “It’s too hot in here.”

“Gorgeous,” Sid Morris says. “Arch your back a bit,” he says.

“I’m going to take a little nap,” Simone says. “I’m a sleepy cat,” she says.

“You’re a beauty,” Sid Morris says. “Hold entirely still.”

On Monday, Marie will fly to California to visit Jules. She must first finish her universe—the suns and moons, the forest. A present! Marie’s menagerie, Sid Morris has called it.

Jules has not invited her, but she has said her old bones could use a little sunshine. She promised not to be in the way.

“I never said you’d be in the way,” he said.

“I know,” she said.

“You can stay as long as you like,” he said.

“I’ll stay five days. Five days seems a good number.”

“We’ll go to La Jolla,” he said. “I’ll take you to the ocean.”

“That would be wonderful,” she said.

She will wrap her menagerie in shiny wrapping paper with a big bow. He’ll be amazed and think he’s back on the stoop in Chelsea, sitting with his father and mother, a young couple with time to spare, their feet on the cool steps, the sun setting a bit too early so it catches them by surprise, the dusk, the long shadows slanting across the seminary, lighting the red brick to a glow. They might hear the bells then; the bells are always ringing.

*  *  *

Walking back from the School of Inspired Arts in the already early dark, Marie and Simone slide their boots along the icy sidewalks like little girls.

“It will ruin your new soles,” Simone says. “An outrage.”

“They’re old boots,” Marie says.

“Are they? They look new. Gorgeous,” Simone says, linking Marie’s arm. The two steady one another over the rubble of salt and sand on the blocks south to the Seventh Avenue crossing—waiting for the ding ding ding of the light that signals to the blind who congregate on the corner of Twenty-Third from the Center for the Blind that they can go. The days are shorter—it is not yet 6:00 and very dark. Stars or perhaps those are satellites shine, faintly, and a narrow moon rends the sky above Chelsea Piers. There, years ago, Marie held Jules’s hand as he climbed onto the pony’s back; the ring next to the garbage barges and the unused piers and the West Side Highway long gone, the ponies, who knows?

Someone has a fire going—that smell—Marie’s street quiet with fresh snow, snow on the two potted evergreens outside the Korean flower shop and crowning the brownstone lions Jules fed as a boy, stuffing their jaws with dried leaves, amazed to find the jaws empty the next day. Those lions have big appetites, she told him. They eat everything all up. Now she scoops the snow crowns off the lions to toss.

Simone does the same then laughs. “Do you think we are ever truly old?” she says. “I mean, inside ourselves, old? Ready to be old?”

I
. And it occurs to Sid Morris, once again, that perhaps women are just depictions of women, representations; women wear
masks,
is the point, slip them on slip them off. Photographs from times past: clunky beads, alabaster or jade, smocks with bold patterns, clip-on earrings—is there anything more delicious? Photographs of women at long tables looking bored or interested—probably always both. Dancers, writers, women who read books—Sappho, de Beauvoir, those kinds of girls—models slipping off Chinese robes before taking their provocative positions on the stool, or the phoenix-winged divans, lion-footed, claw-footed, the talons clutching those wooden balls so tightly they might pop. His thoughts move quickly, alighting in a church in Spain and then settling in a different place, an abandoned barn, upstate New York: a sharp spring cold, a too bright out of winter sun. They’d watched as the wrens built their nests beneath the eaves, the ones with the seed-colored beaks, straw gripped, tiny things, their nests cattywampus, Gretchen had said, a word she knew from where she had come from before, the place she no longer wished to remember. Her skin cold as the air; her hair long and dirty, smelling of the cold air and of more than her and he had felt the cold on her and in a sense the hurry of it all but leaving saw that he had been wrong, again: no one was coming. It was only the two of them; only ever the two of them.

II
. It would be impossible to articulate her visions anyway. They are the concoctions of a fervent mind, whipped of fondant, nightmares, Helen would say. Her puns, her bad jokes: her ancient history—this series inspired by Debussy’s “La Cathédrale Engloutie,” and did anyone even remember the tolling of those bells? That sound? Her Debussy now mostly forgotten, like poor Braque behind the giant Picasso. Of her paintings her youngest still says brilliant though she knows her other daughters think odd or, at best, therapeutic, that a word she has come to despise—her habits tallied for their restorative properties rather than for what they are: her life; her spirit; her soul.

This scene appeared to her already formed: the river rising, silhouettes black and one-dimensional as photographic plates, exposed on the glass panes of the new condo towers as the water roils below. The silhouettes were as stark as the shadows of Hiroshima victims burned into the sidewalks, she would say. She had witnessed that firsthand, she and Carl visiting the peace museum for an afternoon and here the first inkling of a loosened world.
The
work of history, she argued at the time, a loosened world (she always argued),
the
work of history, she argued: destruction. She argued this with Carl over rice wine in Kyoto, the girls still little, tucked in bed. It was the most beautiful city: the paint store the size of a shoe box she found the first day, the old man inside at his worn wooden desk. The desk and the old man carved from the same tree, she told Carl. The old man said he sewed the brushes by hand and in a black-clay pot ground the pigment from berries and bark and seeds and dirt: the colors she had never seen before or since. An indigo blue you could drink, she told Carl, pouring the last of their rice wine into her tiny cup—that, too; the beauty of that, too, she said to Carl. Look. Look at this, she said, holding up the tiny cup, its shape perfect, fitting like a quiet little bird in the palm of her hand. She remembered. Drunk, she remembered, or near enough, though at the time she had felt simply wise. How, she had said, can we destroy such beauty? How can any of us live with ourselves? But Sid Morris says, never explain.

VIII

M
argaret Constantine, Dr. Constantine, PhD, in early childhood education from Berkeley and interim head of Progressive K–8, sits by the dim fire watching the Duraflame dissolve to blue: Who We Are due by the end of next month and she should set an example.

She sips her scotch and tries to think, distracted by the photograph of Ariel beaming up from her lap, white-framed, squinting, taken from one of the several cardboard boxes she has yet to unpack, her tenure here short.

She could begin with Thackeray and Dickens, though she prefers Kiran Vicram, the forgotten philosopher, an Indian disciple of Jung rarely if ever read in the West and soon to disappear in the East as well, his books out of print, regrettably but understandably because, Who was he?

She had discovered him by accident, a footnote in the autobiography of H. G. Wells, and why H. G. Wells at all except for her passing undergraduate interest in free love, open marriage, and, admittedly, time travel, interests she grew out of and still, Kiran Vicram remained: a man who sought out Jung with a schizophrenic child,
his
schizophrenic child, Lily, a girl in her late teens who sadly would not survive Jung’s treatment, this then a tragedy,
the
tragedy, of the man’s long, long life. There is often a tragedy, Margaret has come to understand.

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
9.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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