Monday, April 7, 2008


On Abigail's Baited Breath

She saw herself as Tallulah Bankhead, stolen jewel of the world; driven from a distant heaven by certain jealousies and biding time until her return. She bit her lip in fits of impatience, as if she needed to be somewhere other than the places she chose. I remember sitting on my stoop, the night she called for the snow to stop in its tracks, not willing to walk from curb to cab in one flake more, in her stilettos and tights that stretched tightly against her inches. She took me on as a curiosity; a small stop on her walk from a deserted bar, wrapped in a shawl, cocktail still in hand, and couldn't understand what had brought me to this city. I sat on the steps in over sized army coat and shot her a light for her dangling cigarette, rubbing my eyes from the smoke she blew out that she liked country boy hospitality. I have never found any reason to visit the south except for its hospitality; she slipped on thin gloves and dipped down to my side. I gave her a name and she spelled out her own; that is the name of one of your founding mothers, isn't it? A first lady of some kind? I said it was but I wasn't so sure it was hers. I'd Imagined Abigail Adams a bit like my mother, not the tip of disaster, tripping over words with skin exclaiming the need to be touched laid out in front of me. She called me out for being an artist and swore she was one as well, as much as an actress could be, but swore it off until she saw her star role. You'll write it for me, won't you? I promised to try, with that she sent up her cigarette to wave down the shadowed cab and diligently stepped out on toes with her head in angled towards the snow, taking the doors handle with her smoke, lifting between calculating spread fingers, and swung back around to me. I saw her straightened legs tighten her behind and her knees as she swiveled back to face my stoop. When shall we meet again? I mumbled something about my weeks schedule as she laughed, cigarette back into pursed lips and shuffled back to me, bent over and digged through her glistened handbag. She took out paper and grabbed up my pen, swearing she never gave out her address to anyone, that she didn't have a phone but if I slid a note in front of the door, up the stairs, under... I smiled as she handed it to me, brushing brown bangs out of her eyes, and promised to get in touch. She stuck her cigarette out in front of my eyes, now; remember what your mother swore you to. I've been in need of a little kindness. She slipped into the cab and shuttered off, her head hanging to one side, the tires tracks and the marks from her heels as the only scars left on the fresh floor of snow.

I delivered some mail to my boss at his home in the city, fifth and the park, in an afternoon rocked in broken winds nudging up against my neck, even through the woolen scarf I had sent from home, knit in real time by a sweet blonde with soft cheeks. The sun highlighted clear sidewalk, each step clicked in the quiet of after lunch lull. I checked his address on the backs of bills addressed to the office, coming in as the song in my head wrapped and buzzed the door. He seemed to be out so I checked for the key, slipped into the back pocket of my bare wallet along side Abigail's scribbled note. Along with her address were the words, waiting with baited breath. The page smelled like the night, light snow and clean. It couldn't have been perfume, not detergent, just a natural scent, highlighted by all in her purse and the code of my ink. I dropped the mail on a lamp stand table and committed the rest of the day to walk through the park, then down to china-town, leaving a little note for her as courtesy. After my walk, I felt my nose red and running as I printed out my name and address, if she ever felt like contacting me. I buzzed her building, then tried the door whose latch gave way with any slight shove. Four flights of stairs and a shag bathmat welcomed me, too timid enough to try the door; I lifted a corner and dropped the folded sheet from my notebook under. On an outside table laid a grasp-full of mail and catalogs stacked in no particular order and slipping almost onto the floor. Into the brown paint of the door small letters were carved in the same font from her fingers; I leaned in to get a closer look. Residence of A.A. Shirt and tie required for admittance. I gathered up takeout boxes scattered outside of the door and tied them up in the bin out of the building and wondered if she was sober enough to remember the night's snow and my steps.

On my way home I forgot of the note and the eyes I thought would ever read it. I imagined a landlord collecting the rug as the last bit to pawn after skipped out rent and a quiet disappearance. The folded note, both brown and sogged would be swept up in the dust and dumped into the buckets outside. I buried my face in the scarf and smelled its school days with warmed copies covering my face. I’d lay them on the table along with my brow and stair over at the blond hair hanging over soft shoulders and eyes staring back at me. The eyes stared from those days on, accompanied by shy smiles and fingers tightening around my palms as we walked towards her door. She would say on dry afternoons that she wished there were no handle bars so our bikes could be connected by our fingertips. I planted my tent behind our garage for her to hide out in on Friday nights; neither of us realizing her mother would be calling by ten and by midnight we would be caught, and I would be powerless against the strong arms that dragged her through the streets and back home. She sat where they told her to. Up through the grades she said she though she could be a doctor. Always swayed by the sight of babies and wanting to take care of them. I watched from the field of the freshman football unit as she sat of the silver benches as fall settled in. Her hair wisped up from the sides as she covered her infant nephew in her lap with her whole body, ached back shielding him from the wind. His movements rivaled her happier moments, even those that we stole in empty parking lots in AM sessions of the night. A swiveled neck from the bench could see her teeth chatter a smile is the unrelenting wind.

I got a call, loud laughter on the other end, in the middle of some much needed sleep. My heart jumped with the sense of emergency, especially when I heard an unrecognized voice on the other end of the line. Yeah, Gail here wants you to come out with us. She says you are a boy who will keep us all in line. It took me a moment to realize who he was talking about. Meet us at Murray's on 54th street. She’s speaking mighty high of you, kid. After the click I rolled back over to the wall, what kind of kindness was she in need of? The nasal in the voice conjured up a picture of a snug suited man, a bit on the short side with plenty of cash for spending on a Tuesday and claiming to be in drowned love. But when I arrived, after twenty dollars out in cab fare, it was only her standing outside the caged bar, dangling earrings sparkling in the glow of neon signs. She knelt down to the window addressing the driver. Could you take us into Brooklyn? We'd like to catch the sunrise. She handed him folded up bills from her long fingers, painted nails, and stepped into the back seat. She turned her head and eyes on me direct, as I slid the left side corner. I am glad you came. I told her that I almost didn't, but was stuck with my mind awake. She said she was sure that I had been working on her play. Her long arms graced her arched back, never leaning against the leather of the seats. Her skin lit from passing streetlights, the low cut of her cocktail dress hanging low around her waist and swooping up to round her thin neck. We spoke of nothing except of where we were going. My questioning was answered with, I hate ruined surprises, and she kept her face forward, across the bridge and turning off and around to the river. I kept my eyes on her perfect posture and an ear out for bumps in the road, enough reason to steady her position, with my hands placed on her waist so slightly; just enough to keep the balance. She laughed to herself and instructed the driver to slow as we came to the end of an alley, nothing but a closed boat-restaurant, gated off and dark outside of the looming lights of the city behind it. As I tried to pay for the ride she wrapped her hand around my wrist and slowly returned it to my lap, resting it there until the fare was settled. She insisted the driver had been too generous to drag us out of the city and that his efforts were not performed in vein. As he drove off she skipped over the fence and signaled me to follow. We walked the path to the boat, locked up, shades drawn. She grabbed me by the hand and round her way around the right side, in between the boat and the bridge and grinned a perfect smile, checking my face for nerves. I mentioned all of this being a bit dangerous. She released a laugh, taking two large steps as if to say, that's why we are here. She found a white painted ladder leading to the top and grabbed hold without hesitation. I tried to do the same, not looking up into her skirt - though I had my eyes on her open thighs since the car rolled onto the corner. On top of the boat, she sat Indian style, her heels pointing out from her, the left pointing at me and the left towards the statue. I sat beside her and asked how many men she has brought up here, if the man I spoke to on the phone thought the city looked the same spattered across the water as it did from its center. She shrugged. You can see these lights from the South Seaport. I have always wanted to find my way up her, but I never had anyone to take me. I sat in silence, wondering how she saw me; did I take her here or did I walk, hands out in front of me, eyes at her hips, entranced by the fragility in her bones? She broke into the liquor closet for a bottle of champagne and poured it into unpolished glasses as we watched lights shutter on and then off in the dark hours of the morning.

The next day I found myself tucked in to my sheets tightly with a blanket strewn out along the couch. I checked the bathroom for her, the kitchen for instructions. A note of the fridge read; next time we will start a bit earlier. Check the fridge. Inside along side eggs and old avocado sat a dozen bottles of our champagne as proof of the night before. I feared trudging back to her apartment, afraid to scare her, so I waited. After a week of living in that dream I tried to forget. Taxi cabs returned to being dusted ghosts, winds broke hard against my neck and my sleep returned to regular patterns. The champagne sat as my only haunt and I'd slam the door violently when it stared back at me after checking to see it still there. Three weeks in, she showed up at my door. She let herself in without a knock. The door was open. I thought you would have found me by now. I told her I thought her to be busy and didn't want to be a bother. She laughed and asked where her play was. I had abandoned it days in, the words not matching the movement in her body, the visions aching in my gut and circling in on me. In fact, I couldn't write at all. When I pointed to a pile of papers on my desk stacked in the corner she kissed me on the cheek, as intimate of a kiss as I had felt and turn away into monologue:

Thou knowest the mask of night is on my face;
Else would a maiden blush bepaint my cheek
For that which though hast heard me speak tonight.
Fain would I have spoken; but farewell compliment
Dost thou love me? I know though wilt say, "ay,"
and I will take thy word.

She stared for a moment, taunting me to say the words. A crippled breath couldn't escape my hanging jaw and in a blink she laughed. I know the ones who will get us produced. Amari Chanclett said to bring me whatever I will perform. He will put it on in the Ziegfield Theater and make us all wildly in demand. In a months time Hollywood will be calling. But I swear to you, I'll only read the words you put on paper. Put exclamations in front of me and I'll spout them whole heartedly, I'll catch the rays from your fingers and distribute them around the world. I grabbed a broom and swept up the corners of the closet and said I still had work to do. Seconds of silence then I felt her breast leaning over me, her arms reaching for hangers. You mind if I try these on? She slipped out of her skirt behind me, my head still down on my brooms bristles, and buttoned jeans, letting them hang lose around her waist. She snapped up the pearls, buttons and pockets, tying the open flaps together, thumbing the cotton threaded patterns, and pulling her hair back loose behind her head. I turned only when she asked how she looked; again, I couldn’t place words. Do you think I’d fit in your next holiday?

My brother graduated in May with top marks and I was flying home in support. She showed in the terminal proving to have invested in new clothes. She stood in front of her bag in slim grey jeans leading to black flats, collared blouse with scarf tied and ribboned out of the open slit around her neck. Her hair shined with golden streaks inside of her pulled back brown strands, all but her bangs that hung loose along her brow. She said she'd been conditioned not to be afraid of flight but she was never able to shake it. Cocktails and prescription drugs worked the best but a supportive hand worked too. I brought three of five acts for us to go over in the air. Sleep fell to the side as the weeks rolled by, my hands jotting, fingers typing wildly, throwing pages in the bin 'til it filled and the sun broke through my blinds - the signal to shower and rush to work. The first act started with a girl from the stars walking aimlessly through southern streets, speaking to dogs behind metal gates, letting them lick her face. Her luck leads her to a boy with a stick rolling over the tops of fences, out for a midnight stroll. He hides her on his back porch, without getting from her as much as a name, from unsuspecting neighbors and the police trying to find her. I was drowning in the third where she sneaks out in wonder and even our hero is hunting. Now the bags were being bundled and shoved underneath our rushed transport and I breathed out restlessly to merge two separate earths. I couldn't find how my written words could fit in this mouth, the mouth that in hours my mother and brothers would meet and rush to with open arms. I described her only as a friend. We needed to get lost from the city and the ache of each drop from clouded sky. April showers had hit hard and a warm day would do us both good. I remembered the night on the boat's roof and begged her not to go. I'd stay too if she wanted, I just couldn't shatter the slow motion she put me in or step out of the rendered light that kept my focus from the stoop of my steps. She put her arms around me and nodded, told me she would be there when I came back to the city. She wished it to put me in a better mood.

From home I planned a party. I gathered up the names of the faces of strangers I had passed in the streets during my months in the city. I even retrieved the number of her own O.J. Berman, the nasally voice I heard from the other side of the bridge the night that landed me in a riverside rooftop night. He seemed sore but promised to invite all of the acquaintances of hers he knew, everyone they knew, as well. I've been drinking my way through bars looking for that little doll. I found her a roll in the West End. That's Europe, kid. I said he could corner her at the party, the night I flew back. I immediately regretted it all when I walked into my clean apartment, dropping my bags to the shining floor. Abigail stood in a brown apron and a scarf pulling back her hair. I let myself in. I told her of the party and she asked for the occasion. In the shine, I smelled myself, the dust dug into my jeans, grass stains blown in by restless winds. I said it was an hour away and headed to the bathroom where I climbed under the faucet. Through the crack in the door I saw her push pans back into cabinets and pull the scarf from her crown, shaking her hair loose in front of an unhung mirror at the floor. I stepped into the living room, still not toweled off, and watched it filling. Two dozen people or so moving tables and couches into corners circled the apartment. Abigail stood in the back with a champagne flute curled in her little paw up to her chest, as if nervously keeping it from the man she was speaking with. She sent me a nervous glance, but a smile, as I passed, greeting strangers and slipping into a suit still in dry cleaners wrapping, the only thing not zipped up in my luggage. The fridge door hung open, at times I feared the hinges would snap or the whole unit would tumble over on top of someone, burying their head in to look for food amidst the bottles of champagne, or another using it as a step tool to reach for another glass lining its top. I feared green broken bottles, bubbles and corks rolling out onto the floor. By the time I made my way to it after shaking hands, trading pleasantries, we were down to the last of the supply, dwindled down to a single bottle. I popped it, spilling all over the floor, not realizing it leaked as I waded through the growing crowd. Someone had taken my guitar from the closet. Another collected my pans, a third went out for his trumpet and the three played jazz standards through the night, making it impossible to hear what was going on. The feet that stomped my tile were artists and I imagined Abigail tucked into a corner, speaking excitedly to a producer or agent. The thought sent me to my bag. I dug out my script, tearing it on the zipper. I held it in my right, like the scriptures, or a hymnal, steady, unshaken. I hit all four corners, a game of dice, an argument, a joke, and a couple, minutes from making love on the tops of magazines that were stacked earlier in the day. I found her out on the fire escape, out of the traffic but still rushed by the laughter and sharp movements of those, arm-in-arm with the building trickling, like smoke, out of the windows.

I don't remember what she said or when she left, just my pages tossed from the ledge and scattered in the street. Someone loved somebody and someone didn't belong in the city. I can't remember who. I few days later, I tripped the door to her building and headed up the stairs. I was shocked to find her table clear of her mail and her note scratched; the initials turned to mountains, the rest formed into the sun and the sky. I tried to track down the man with the nasal tone. His phone always rang straight through to his standard voicemail that I filled up within my first week. After a month of calls a woman picked up who addressed herself as his wife. He disappeared off to England to build a big hall or something, says he’s going’ to be a show producer. He’s working with the Chinese. After a search for all of the Asian production companies in London, I found him. Oh, yes. What can you do, boy. What can you do? I explained that I was looking for her, could I fly out to meet with her? Would she see me? What do you mean, boy? She wouldn’t do it, said she wasn’t made to be a star. I asked what he could tell me. All he knew was that she packed her things and left the city. She wouldn’t say where she was going; just that the bus that took her was headed south and that she kept mumbling on about a ranch. She apologized profusely for wasting my time…hah, I said “kid, you’ll call me and I’ll still make you a star.” I’ve seen this game a hundred times. I wished him luck and hung up the phone.

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