Today two young men coming, as you once did, to New York. Changelings in New York. While light is evaporating and gold cruel yellow, winter solstice light---not the beautiful blue twilight of summer---leaving home, entering New York, as you once did, is less awkward, less apparent.
You set out strawberries. You are not young. But better, in many ways: you are successful. You live in a pre-war in Manhattan, seventeenth floor. Your pre-war even pre-first world war, not the second.
Your job, successful musician now, is to be a gracious grantor. Of favors.
Not, as your parents once were, begging for favors, politely: as your mother’s Christmas presents to your childhood tutors were hopes----for favors. Jars of lingonberries, chocolates from Switzerland. Always, in a basket. For the good word that might someday be put in---for you.
Once you brought. Now, you are so successful, you need no favor in return.
Today, this almost winter solstice day, mid-December, you buzz the most recent two young men needing favors in. Someone has told you their names, what instruments they play. You’ve forgotten.
There seem to be increasing numbers of young men in the world. Young women remain singular and surprising to you----as orchid blooms.
You answer their buzz. Let them in. They laugh, love the strawberries. In winter! In New York! They look outside your windows at street below. You know how their Colorado blond brilliance will fade here, then, one day, reclaim---a brilliance beginning again, flame reclaiming a swamped almost-failed wick. All this you know---will take years.
Students live like rabbits in New York, you say, cheerfully. But you’ll have electricity, unlike the rabbits. Here’s a list of students’ names. You’ve got to have roommates to live in Manhattan---I’ve tutored all these. They might---have room for you. They nod, smile.
They head out into winter solstice light, the solstice light like a searchlight trying to find its quarry.
Hollow, or hollowless, winter solstice light. December seventeenth, a week before Christmas.
In an hour you’ll head to a theater on Broadway, to play, to chart mistakes.
You are an expert in----mistakes. Mistakes in the orchestra, mistakes on the stage. Seating, script; score, costumes. Failures in delivery: weary actors. Failures of imagination or scope. Latenesses, of which you are never accused. Missed notes, latenesses (latenesses, it cannot be stressed enough, are cardinal sin). What makes you concertmaster is you keep your secrets, confide only to power.
Ear and eye finely tuned, and your discretions.
All that your duty: the real treat, and your real work and your chore is your phantasms.
The ones who attend without tickets.
Paradis number one. Her. Dark-haired Paradis. So often, appearing like a gleam in the seats. Something to say to you. What? Once, when you were new here living like a rabbit---she was the one who slipped a single long-stemmed rose in your violin case. Singer, actress.
Your apartment had a fire escape that did not go all the way to the ground. You knew what to do if fire came: toss your violin to someone down below, and then follow, fighting off flames as best you could, down the stairs.
She’d been in bloom—like a white orchid. Young men, fools like you, had been swarming about her, the sensing of competition urging them to do---ridiculous things.
At the end you discover she had been dating four men at once. Those the days before travelling phones in pockets; you couldn’t hear the chimes; her answering machine you wouldn’t have been privy to---unless you shared a home. You were too young for that, too in love with your violin.
You should have married her. When you yourself lived, dark-haired you, like a rabbit in the city, when she was young and dancing and singing.
Rose in your violin case? So clandestine so scripted so desperate and trite a maneuver----it was---genius.
But---it perturbed you---she had symbolically succeeded---getting between you and your violin. Your parents, your tutor had warned you about this. You will never make it, they said. Unless your violin is first.
You---took the rose out, which her face told you was her rose, and set it down.
Louis! Your phantasm—number two. Rich man who’d easily bought the tallest and the oldest of the old dwelling spots in Greenwich village: his world was raw brick windowsills, halogen lighting. Summer houses. Islands. Receptions for the symphony. Top donor list, Louis. Died, something about latent lead poisoning, something no one knew---till months after he was buried. The autopsy, the investigation. Old unreplaced plumbing of his old unbelievably beautiful home in the heart of Greenwich village---his quiet, beautiful, purchased and owned---assassin.
You yourself married his widow: Louis’s, she of her lead lawsuit winnings, who had been married to him five years. Louis bought that house in the village on a fat rich boy whim, she said, began living in it when all his friends were poor, early in his twenties. Apparently poor Louis had liked to read books, possibly also did cocaine, that was the rumor, he loved cocaine, could afford that—spent many hours in the evenings in the very vintage lead-lined claw-foot tub in the Village. Apparently lead lingered in the durable beautiful old ceramic linings of the baths. Louise’s style was brisk shower and eating at the delicatessens downtown with musicians after practice. She’d never wanted to be married to either Louis or you, Louise told you, eventually. But a woman, she said, spent her life jumping---from one suddenly-there fire escape to another.
She’d liked, she said, how you held your violin, almost as if it was a baby, she said---nestled to your chin. The last thing she said to you---before the symphony’s trip to Sydney, when you let her divorce you while you were gone---was she was tired of all musicians. They’re always gone in the evenings. Or on another continent, she said.
Back to symphony patrons for her. Her new place now, you’d heard, a penthouse modern: much higher up than your seventeenth floor in your post-her.
She not one of your performance phantasms---divorce seemed to blot that out---but Louis was: dead Louis resting across two chairs in the back as if missing those books his cocaine and his soaking tub that wasn’t completely bathing him, was making him secretly foul with lead. You didn’t miss his wife. You wanted to ask Louis what your own end would be---Louis might know. He---Louis---might be able to see what cloud was forming around your own life you were not able to see.
Everyone had one. Or two. Or three. The dark clouds that---found their way to you, insulating you, but blinding you to truth.
Phantasm three: your dead great-uncle Gregory, who often slips in front row to the right to remind you it should have been Gregory the uncle always playing the violin. You know he could have played a violin—given training---five times more finely. But trapped—in the Wisconsin town you’d come from. Once he’d been more handsome than the Nutcracker King. You gave him a look that you hoped told him yes, you were in agreement, he should have been---in your Jack B. Nimble concertmaster’s chair.
And of course the child. That hard-glow phantasm. Child you never met—who lives, but you have never---met. So unbearably handsome. In your phantasm, he never grows taller, only thinner, more pale, eyes of greater sadness, eyes of a child marooned in a theatre full of grownups. Lightning pale—shiver of him in every youngish set of young men coming to your pre-war for young-musician-survival favors. Glow of their ears—the fine hair around their young ears—like his, the phantasm’s, the unclaimed boy’s. Glowing, in a velvet theater seat, he was, in the dark. Listening, as his mother’s rose had listened, waited. Sudden, or not so sudden, child of Paradis---young woman in bloom who laid perfect single rose of red in your case lined with velvet. Her desperate gambit to have you.
The Rose. After you’d played, well, you hoped---you’d returned, opened the unlatched case, and there it was, on velvet. You had to move that imperial thing of thorns—to nestle it back into its warm and protected place, your violin vase, velvet.
She’d told you the difficult number. Not number of months along; she hadn’t bothered you with that. The number of men.
As many as a chair, she said. You had looked at her without comprehension. That was one. Four, she said. The legs.
Were they handsome, you demanded, bitterly. Hating the word chair: she knew first chair was every player’s dream. Solo so great a dream you could not bear---to say it or to dream it.
Each in their way terribly handsome, she’d said, quietly, as if describing beautiful chairs at an antique shop. All four. You were very busy with your violin.
Had Paradis ever married? You tried hard to avoid that knowledge. You’d heard he was raised by Paradis and his grandparents, full of Kentucky pity for her New York plight. But that’s only what you heard. You were lost in the paradise world of Louis’ widow, you becoming the anomaly: the musician not desperate or poor. Louis and Louise could gayly deliberately mispronounce Beethoven, Hayden, deliberating on Bee or Hay. Rich, they were welcomed anywere, if they arrived late. On a donor list, they were always at the top. Her inherited lead-lined pockets; soon, your lead-lined marriage. That once-heralded plumbing idea---line them with lead!---had turned out to be---very bad. But lined your own pockets for five years. That oddity—a rich musician with lead-lined pockets---though was also doomed to fail.
You’d apologized to everyone, returned, resumed the violin practice you’d almost abandoned. Violinists now and then persuade themselves---practice is not necessary. Then, midway through your recovery, your embarrassment, your climbing back up toward your original determination and talent----your schoolteacher parents, with schoolteacher pensions and their house owned forty years in Wisconsin, had died within a year of each other. A post-war---post-war means to New Yorkers it’s dignified, historical---just off the Hudson was yours. No more George Washington bridge, no Jersey exit every year: upper west side Manhattan, at last.
Six thirty. The solstice gloom fully settling in now, a dingy blue, a failed twilight. You think of how Central Park is unattractive really from mid-November till March, winter solstice holding it in a snarl. A sound. The buzzer in your pre-war again.
The tall boys so blond, you think. A backpack or a phone or that---that list of names, stupidly left behind, or left behind on purposefully, to be able to ask him more questions.
Who is it, you say, into the rectangle of dots in the greenish-gold brass. You fear the super, his reminding you slightly of your now-dead uncle, uncle Gregory, trapped by his own relatives, his own town’s obligations. Similarly the young super, trapped possibly for life, guarding this building and its purchasable apartments. Its persisting prestige.
Elaine, a woman’s voice says. Surrounded by buzzer static. Elaine Paradis.
Of course you hesitate. Almost made up, you’d always thought, that unbearably beautiful last name Paradis. Paradis, you say.
I’m Paradis, she says. I’m Paradis. Or I was once, she says. Before turning into a ghost when I left New York. A pause. I’m here again.
Suddenly beautiful, buzzer’s static, surrounding her name. How much hope, you wonder, has been overtransmitted by buzzer system?
You imagine the two small feet rising, levitating, as if by sheer wish, instead of elevator. Elaine Paradis. Coming to see you. The----ascension.
You wish the two blond young men were still here with strawberries, she could see them, proof that now youth depend on you. You are---now, so magically busy. Important.
The percolator you have had thirty years----you turn back on—to reheat coffee the boys had barely touched. Also: for the beauty of its laboring, upsurging, finally crescendo of its long-worked burble, like a bird finally at the top of its tree.
She comes in the door you hold open for her before she has a chance to knock. Has she married? You see no ring. Her hands are absolutely plain.
You couldn’t marry, a voice in your head says, four men at once. Or a chair’s four legs.
She is beautiful still. A percolator, she says. Percolator is making its sturdy, furious noises like a steam locomotive. Now puffing its short puffs of steam from its imperial determined uprisen spout.
The percolator. I remember it, she says. I remember it.
Oh, you do, you say. Of course! You can feel your eyebrows go up. You know no one else who has kept their percolator. They’ve all gone to various drippy things. Enormous windows looking out at Manhattan now are your backdrop, and here and there woodland paintings great-uncle Gregory left for you, perfect for the million-dollar postwar bought with the amount your parents neatly left for you---in their estate.
You bring her a stoneware pitcher of cream, refilled after the visiting Colorado boys. Cream reminds you of trips upstate with Louis’ widow before she was a widow. Good thing her style had been brisk showers. Green green fields, cows, hours driving to the summer houses while Louis----king who did not know he was deposed, already, by toxic lead and a wild-haired dark-haired violinist in a symphony---you yourself, once young and hungry for success and status---sat in his fat rich man’s vintage claw-foot bathtub.
Elaine Paradis is still as beautiful as a bowling ball. All gloss, purpose, and purposelessness, a wandering marble made to roll on floors of varnished amber, to knock over tall pins like milk bottles standing high-shoulder like blocking soldiers.
You note her colors are post-911, pavement-and-trees grays, browns, umbers. Survivors’ colors.
Her lips, still full and generous. But every other second or so, she closes her mouth suddenly and somewhat tightly. Keeping herself, you think, from speaking.
Perhaps that she loves you, or hates you.
She eats all the strawberries on the plate, not leaving the one symbolic mystery one most people will leave on a plate. She has a bright look pouring her own coffee---she waves your hand away---but looks sad as she pours the cream. Watching her pouring the cream you realize she looks very like your mother. As your mother might have looked had she been able to become a New Yorker. Perhaps. But Elaine more beautiful, more glossy, the beauty of some greater sadness.
Where are you staying, you say.
I’ve been here a little bit, she says. I’m moving to Scotland tomorrow, she says.
You had begun to imagine her at your favorite hotel, Hotel Roosevelt, very near the musical theatres; a ten minute trip on the Broadway line. Hotel Roosevelt most gorgeous crescendo ever seen of chandeliers, fifty-foot lobby ceilings, repetitions of gold. Walking her back to that hotel afte---tonight’s performance at the Martin Beck. It---all the adventuring musicians agreed---was always better in a hotel. At the words Hotel Roosevelt the musicians smiled; they all knew beds there had silken bolsters of creamy white with largeish red cursive Rs embroidered with twisted floss at centers. Breakfasts were small but good.
You blink but keep your eyes steady: bringing your own cup, of delightfully always bitter and always also sweet coffee, to your lips. The percolator he had been so loyal to all these years made fine coffee.
Perhaps---sometimes---she hadn’t been a phantasm. She had been there, in one of the thousands and thousands of filled seats he’d performed for. But you know better than to ask. To ask would sound desperate, or wishful, wishful for something you hadn’t deserved.
Wonderful, wonderful apartment, she says. Blinking. It owns you now? she says.
She has always been startling. It does own you, you realize, all its great windows and its views and its pale powder-green historically correctly-painted walls. As servants own---a master. As a violin owns its owner. As a child, you would guess, owns its mother.
On a bay, that’s where I’ll be, she says. I’ve already gotten a house. Very little house. Brilliant white stucco on one side. All the farily massive stone. Window boxes. Red flowers in the spring. I’ve saved for it. I’ve gotten it. She leans back.
Through your mind run images of Scottish men. You once toured Glasgow, Edinburgh; Dundee. The men with steady gaze, handsome red-cheeked and large, you remember, former kings and battlemen who’d had to hand over the Stone of Scone and reins of power to England. But you remember best the mens’ voices: unashamedly musical. Even the postman’s more musical---than music. Difficult men to best.
(One tutor had said: your violin must surpass all and any beauty any human voice might have.)
She names, with grace, a bay. The bay across from which she will live. Concise, beautiful, yet merged syllables you would have to practice to know how to say---just her way, beautiful Scotland’s way.
You want to practice this way of saying the bay. But all you can think of is she is free and you are free and she will be seeing boats every day. You will not. Only the cars beneath you, and the secretive sides of buildings surrounded by secretive other sides of buildings, people you cannot talk to, no matter how you admire the light-glow, the mystery, of their apartments.
I’m moving to a real bay, she said. They call this The Port of New York, she said, but it’s not.
How right you are, you say. Port Authority. But no authority. Of port. It’s not one, anymore, unless it just means water, you say.
New York the death-of-port as much-vaunted ghostly San Francisco is summed up by the lonely falseness of Fisherman’s Wharf gone to tourists. Only the bastard slips, sluttage of slips, boats barely paid a working wage slithering back and forth. Repetitions of trips. Housekeepers dreaming of tips. Cruises. Bored human cargo who liked the television illusion of being at sea. Three buffets a day, you’ve heard. The musical cattle drive to the Caribbean, your musician friends call these cruises, the ones who’ve taken their turn playing on the cruise ships. It was where you’d have had to go if you neglected your practice and you didn’t had the safety net, those years, of Louis’s widow Louise. That end of the quay. Strawberries, you’ve heard, being sluiced with a bad quality of milk chocolate under a mechanized chocolate fountain, night and day.
Your parents’ deaths, their final sacrifice for your career made of nothing but vainglorious sacrifices, thank gods guaranteeing you will never have to sail on a cruise ship playing a violin.
I’m flying, she says. As if she has read your thoughts about the cruise ships, the boats.
You love her idea of---Scotland and the crashing water and the rocks and the sea. You’ve always loved her, you know now in a rush. Or was it because she was here, a bird in the hand? No wedding ring? Yet---her rose, without words, had said she, yes, had loved you.
Take me with you, you say now, like a gambler. I can sell this. My pre-war. Easily. Everyone wants it.
Proud of the word sell, instead of the horrible sublease. This beautiful condominium she’s correctly deduced has made you like a growling landlocked harbormaster---who cannot leave his port.
You remember Scotland. Fish from the port fried that day and served hot and fatty wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper.
Your mind has gone symphonic. At parties, you could play. For free. Dear God they’d love a fiddle there. Never shall she have to go bowling for men again. You can just live. Why, with your parents’ money—this pre-war’s sale----you’d bought it outright, with cash---you could live together---comfortably, even until---death. Her son, his family, if he had one, could even come summers to Scotland to visit. Fate must have sent her today to you, in the darkest week of the year, the winter solstice.
You and Paradis had talke---about going to Paris together. To live, to study; but you’d decided no, France would only have drawn more men to her. You, always practicing, playin!. She, alone, bored…she had had---too much beauty. Now, she was at the perfect and manageable level, her age, her beauty; your inherited small real wealth. You could even put all your first-chair and concertmaster’s life behind you.
Let’s go to Scotland, you say. Together, you say. You spread your right hand wide---your bow hand---and set it one hand all alone on the slightly sunlit table. Toward her. You feel all the winter solstice light and more inside your eyes, travelling ahead to spring. Your eyes feel, as they rarely feel---except at the end of an exceptional concert----fully round. As all are, of course, tucked inside our blinking heads.
If it was spring, yes, she says. Because it’s winter, I’m afraid, no.
You want to say it will be spring in a mere matter of months. But something tells you she does not mean simple seasons. She means your life’s seasons. She leans forward, over the plate where there had been strawberries.
Do you still play the same violin, she says.
Oh, no, you say. You lie. It’s your favorite one still, the one your parents bought you, that seemed then beautiful and important far beyond your years. It’s quiet in its case, in this very apartment. In your usually dark bedroom. Umber and grayish brown, on a flamelike caramelly lining of brandywine red velveteen, in its case; both violin and case beautifully worn. The very case she’d set the single rose in.
The winter solstice light, beneath this dark that surrounds your apartment after she is gone, is like the throb of headache and foolishness.
Your head aches as it never has before, and you wish for the magic blue, the magic twilight of the spring, when Central Park will be wonderful again. By then you will not be thinking of Scotland’s men, their old kings, signal fires on hillsides, and their kilts, or their braying sounds from bagpipes: their call of reluctant victory and insensate death, the sound of full things and depressed things, the sound of the ocean crashing and crashing, winning and taking and declaring again---it has, like a lucky man from Scotland, deserved to win. Resoundingly, declaring: I have won.
Copyright © May 2018 Map Literary and Rebecca Pyle
Rebecca Pyle has work appearing the past two years (both artwork and written) in New England Review, Bangalore Review, Wisconsin Review, Indian Review; in Raven Chronicles Journal, Stoneboat Journal, Requited Journal, The Remembered Arts Journal, Poor Yorick, Underwater New York, Cobalt Review, and a dozen more art/lit journals. She now lives between the Great Salt Lake and the high mountain mining town where the Sundance film festival takes place each winter. Once very long ago while twenty-two and working in London, she almost won the United Kingdom's National Poetry Competition; she shared the first prize purse with Irish poet (and overall winner) Medbh McGuckian.
Rebecca Pyle is an oil painter: see rebeccapyleartist.com.
Rebecca Pyle is an oil painter: see rebeccapyleartist.com.