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Authors: Kate Walbert

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BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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One hundred years ago today, Sid Morris said.

Cézanne said, he said.

Nota bene,
he said.

He blew the last of his smoke toward the windows though the windows were still painted shut so the smoke lilted and sank like a day-old balloon.

“Painting is not copying . . . it is
realizing
one’s sensations.”

The boy who does not speak raised his hand but Sid Morris did not notice.
I

“Cézanne’s principle of certainty,” Sid Morris continued, “which is bullshit, no? So maybe it’s the translation. Sensations have nothing to do with certainty, more incertainty.”

“Uncertainty,” Helen corrected.

“You certain?” Sid Morris said, dropping his spent cigarette into the coffee can that holds down one of the corners of the cheap Chinese-factory-ed print of Cézanne’s knives and onion and apples scattered across Cézanne’s famously raked table; a half-empty Dunkin’ Donuts box, courtesy of Duane Reade, holding down the other.

Helen nods, blinking. “Yes,” she says.

“The point is,” Sid Morris says. “This. Now. Paint on your brush, wind at your back, my crappy studio. This is the only certainty. Here: your sensations; your body existing for its moment in time. Everything else is crap.”

In the corner, the tattooed model almost dozing on the pile of their soft winter coats lets out a small snort and shifts her position to fetal. Then silence. Snow, again. Tiny flakes like spewed ash swirl through the alley, the air shaft, ticking the filthy windows that later someone, unable to bear the dry heat any longer, chisels open. And from below a burst of laughter seems to set off a raucous scuffle, as if the waitstaff at the Chinese restaurant were chasing a greased pig.

At this Helen stands from her uncomfortable stool, her hand on the back of her canvas as if steadying a nervous companion. She wears a floral tunic, and beads she bought years ago at the old flea market on Sixth and Twenty-First, the amber ones that, if you hold them to the light, set the world in sepia, back a century or two.

“He looked for a new system of representation. Realism was bankrupt, he said—the still life as dead as the pheasants in the composition. He wanted to paint only the impressions of what he saw: light, space, color.”

“My point,” Sid Morris says.

The Thursday group, perhaps inspired by Helen, the art historian, the way she remains standing, blinking, fingering the thick beads around her neck, her floral tunic oddly perfect with the model’s Renaissance scarf and Sid Morris’s beret, as if the all of them, combined, are something out of a lost Vuillard, join her to form a circle around Cézanne’s table. They study the cheap reproduction, considering, and when they return to their collective canvases, they vow to do better.

“Thank you for leading us to our sensations,” Simone says, smiling at Sid Morris.

“And delivering us from evil,” Duane Reade adds, his thin, new mustache, later admired by the prostitute he regularly visits above the one-dollar-slice pizza on Thirty-Seventh and Tenth, dusted with powdery white sugar.

I
. What you would find in my house is Mom and Dad sleeping it off upstairs and the rest of us crowded around the television beneath the dog blanket.

X

M
arie sits in the lush garden, a place that still amazes her: lime trees and lemon trees and orange trees and even a grapefruit tree, though its grapefruits are the size of lemons. There is a small statue of Buddha on a lotus, water trickling over his round, greened belly; the sound is the sound of water. The smell is the smell of eucalyptus. The home is the home of Jules’s new partner, Larry.

“Oh,” she had said.

She sits in the lush garden watching Larry decorate the fruit trees for a party, stringing colored lights and tinsel. In her honor, Jules has told her. They have invited their set.

The wanderings of her vivid imagination stay on the mantel—Larry preferring not to tack the wall: he isn’t into nails and wires, he says, but he’s delighted to keep it there behind his collection of vintage glass.
I

The call is for her, Jules says. He stands with the telephone in his hand, a look on his face, then moves to where Larry hangs the lights, near the roses where a few weeks back Larry released a bag of ladybugs to eat the aphids, ladybugs she has picked from her clothing since she arrived, counting their spots just for fun, announcing their age. Jules is saying something to Larry, leaning into Larry, as she listens to Simone’s Katherine.

“I don’t know how to tell you,” Katherine’s begun, words Marie hears and quickly buries.

Simone!

A taxi at the dangerous crossing at Ninth and Twenty-Third—so close to her mother’s apartment and she’d always warned—a crowd, some Samaritan fashioning a blanket from a coat then something else; the ambulance arrived within minutes too late. Marie listens and then she does not. Then she watches as her son and his partner lean into one another in the sunlight, watches as the two of them—in an instant—disappear. Abe used to do that walking home: disappear. She waited for him on the stoop, waited for him to turn the corner and put his hand up. Remember how he put his hand up? Waving? A happy man, Mother had said—this to Sylvie or perhaps Rose, the two fingertip curls and an occasional lipstick—be sure to marry a happy man.

They had bought the house in Chelsea for a song; they were pilgrims, adventurers. Look, look! Abe had said: the Monticello banister hewn from a single tree, chiseled smooth pumpkin wood—extinct!—and shipped all the way from the Carolinas, the planks as wide as the beams for the king’s mast. Look! Look! Abe had said. Now soon he will turn the corner and she is waiting, waiting, watching for his wave, his smile. The light may very well swallow him whole. She grips the thick limb in anticipation, the cold bark on her palms, the tree alive with bees. Beneath her, blackened fruit litters the ground. Apricots. She could break her back but still she strains to see against the sunset glare reflected in the polished windows of St. Claire’s Rectory. Soon Abe will be home, she knows. Soon. She has been waiting here forever, she will tell him; she was feeling all alone.

I
. She will take it back, she’s decided—its suns and moons and forest thick with spruce and what you cannot see, what’s hidden there—when she returns. She will sneak it into her suitcase and carry it to New York and if Jules asks she’ll tell him there is more to do, that it is a work in progress.

XI

E
lizabeth recognizes the dark-haired woman from block patrol taping something up in the hallway outside Dr. Constantine’s office. “Oh,” Elizabeth says. “You did it.”

“What?” the woman says.

“Who We Are,” Elizabeth says, pointing.

“We’re all somebody,” the woman says, which reminds Elizabeth of that Dickinson poem. She thinks to make a joke and say,
I’m nobody, who are you?
but the dark-haired woman seems in a hurry, smoothing tape on the photograph of her family as if trying to make it stick: two young children, one of them much fairer than the other, stand in front of a Ferris wheel at dusk. Behind them stretches a long horizon, pink at the edge, beautiful. She would like to read it but that feels wrong, like sneaking a peek at a diary left out on a bedside table. She shouldn’t be too interested—she doesn’t know why she is so interested but she finds the stories fascinating: rappelling down cliff walls, sailing the Atlantic: women and women, men and men, single women, exotic places, colors, family pets—who knew?

Does everyone else have a composed life? Is everyone else sure of how things should be? The choices they’ve made?

Why do I always question? she asks Slotnik on one of her regular Wednesday sessions, to which Slotnik, predictably, says, I don’t know, why?

“Have you written yours?” the woman asks.

“Writer’s block,” Elizabeth says.

“I hear you,” the woman says, walking away.

*  *  *

“They met at the top of a Ferris wheel,” Elizabeth’s saying. She’s on a date with Pete, the Vietnamese place. “So naturally, that’s where he proposed. They were both doing fieldwork in Central America and decided to combine forces. Or that’s what she wrote. It’s amazing. They’ve opened some kind of school there for the indigenous. They’re only there, or here, half the year, hence her disappearance after block patrol.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” Pete says. He’s wearing one of his old frayed button-downs and the lights are dim, candle-lighted lights. She remembers how nice it is to be with him in a crowded place—she might lean against him later, they might walk arm in arm. Within the restaurant bamboo shadows are cast on the screens that line the walls in elaborate illumination; every once in a while a parrot, or some such bird, shrieks as if chased by a parrot-eating monkey.

“I know it doesn’t make sense,” she says. “It’s got to be totally exhausting, here to there, there to here. I mean one day we’re patrolling Bleecker for pedophiles and the next day, poof, she’s gone.”

“No, no, I mean meeting on top of a Ferris wheel. How would you meet on top of a Ferris wheel? You’re either in the same carriage or not, and if you’re not, then you wouldn’t be shouting across the void.”

“Well, maybe they did. Maybe they shouted across the void,” Elizabeth says. “What’s wrong with shouting across the void?” She wraps her vegetable roll in a lettuce leaf, or frond—it’s huge—and takes a bite, spilling most of it.

“I smell a rat,” Pete says. He crunches and chews.

“Central America, too?” she says.

“A pack of lies,” he says, pressing his folded napkin to his lips, smiling. “A Who We Are fantasy.”

*  *  *

Later, they walk the bike path home, the new Chelsea pulsing, the High Line a rising, parallel path, too crowded on a night as balmy as this one to maneuver. Elizabeth leans on Pete and links his arm, smelling the wool smell of his coat against the briny Hudson, the smell she’s always loved. He bought the coat years ago in a thrift shop in Paris, in an arrondissement of a higher number not known for anything in particular—they were lost, actually, had gotten out at the wrong Métro, the coat right there, a dusty gray hanging on a long sidewalk rack of old wool coats. For a while Pete said he felt sure his new coat had been worn by a member of the Résistance, not an important member, but a member nonetheless, a smallish guy, maybe, like him, a guy who mostly assisted the others, rolling cigarettes, running messages, humping pots and pans and supplies for the meager meals he and his comrades would eke out in the woods, his wool coat his one good thing until, maybe, he was caught and killed. Most of them were, Pete said. The Germans executed all the men of the closest town when their munitions trains were attacked—like the famous one, Les Vroon, near the Boulogne woods. Maybe he had been part of that operation, left his wool coat and his comrades in the woods, Pete said. This, in May, the war almost won. He might have been part of that, the coat presented to his mother by his comrades, the coat along with the change in its pockets, a few francs, a saint’s medal from his first communion; an empty coat for a boy.

“Wow,” Elizabeth had said hearing Pete’s made-up story. “I guess maybe,” she had said, and then, for the rest of the evening or at least until they returned to their hotel, a crappy walk-up in the Sixteenth, she had called him amour, Pierre.

Across the street the brownstone windows look dark. Inside Ben watches television or sits in front of a computer screen, newly thirteen and allowed to stay home alone. Still. There’s a sudden secrecy to her boy. She imagines scaling the brick around back or shimmying the mulberry next door to where she might peer in through their kitchen window and see.

What If he’s no longer there?

What If he’s disappeared?
I

A shallow light leaks from Marie’s garden-floor windows. She doesn’t sleep much, Marie. Sometimes Elizabeth hears her hobbling around downstairs, late at night. They are both awake, owner and renter, and why not? The neighborhood’s suddenly too loud, sirens and helicopters and the frenzied revelers packed on the sidewalks, in the bars, the restaurants. The electronic pulse everywhere: on the new screens on top of taxis and over subway entrances, on the bigger screens that dwarf the skyline, encircle the buildings, the skyscrapers; the one on Macy’s like Orion’s belt—a constellation of flashing explosions, crashing automobiles, detonating bridges. The male actors hold guns the size of Mack trucks and the women, their nipples taut in bikini tops or push-up bras, smile out into the chaos as if looking for a good fuck. Someone has tilted the globe and everything’s rushing in, or down, wrenched from the hand.

“I’m going to stay here for a while,” she calls to Pete, sitting on the stoop. “Just a minute,” she says.
II

“Elizabeth?” Pete says. He is inside, just beyond the front door, waiting; he must not have heard. “You coming up?” he says.

“Hamster trance,” Elizabeth says. “Sorry,” she says. She climbs the stoop to where Pete waits and holds out her arms.

“Carry me,” she says.

I
. Ben
has
disappeared. He is no longer Ben, his body turned inside out, wrong. The ugly part of him out though he doesn’t give a shit about that because what he mostly gives a shit about is his dick. It’s like an itchy sweater. That’s how it is now for Ben, Ben would say, if he ever had the nerve to answer Ms. Kim, the incredibly hot ethics teacher’s question of How is it for you? How is it for me? I don’t understand French for shit. The coach thinks I suck. How is it for you, Ms. Kim? Or his mother’s: the way she opens the door and stands in the doorway of his room, looking. “What’s up?” she’ll say but it’s
rhetorical
because she just stands there looking like she can’t quite figure out where she is even when he says bye-bye, or get out, or yells to next time knock, looking like there’s something she’s trying really hard to see and it isn’t him, or isn’t who he is, or was.

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
13.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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