Three days after a storm that could have easily been called Gidget or Bob in keeping with the unintended frivolity of its real name – Sandy, two people are sitting on a bench in a dark chaotic lobby of an artists’ residence on the west side of Manhattan.
One, a sculptor, is waiting for her son to pick her up. The other, Ken, a printmaker is resting after lugging his laundry down 6 flights only to discover the laundry room is no more.
I don ‘t understand, he says, do they expect me to keep track of everything ?
The woman looks down at Ken’s bushel of laundry. She hopes she will not find herself volunteering to carry it back up. These past few days she has been cursed with good will. Most of it, unaccountably directed towards neighbors she has barely spoken to in 40 years of residence. Not that she is that unhappy to tote their buckets of water or lift that bale of groceries and lug it up 10 goddamn flights of stairs. No, this is how you get to heaven, she reminds herself – the weight of the buckets cutting off the circulation in her hands. This is how you win the lottery.
Ken had greeted her as Baltimore when she sat down. It was because, he said, he had seen her everywhere like that omnipresent being in the Baltimore catechism. So, raised a Catholic, she surmises. She has learned a lot of bizarre things about her neighbors. Sure they talk about the storm of course, but sometimes it is as if Sandy had so unsettled the natural order of things that it was destroying day by day, the notion of keeping mum about your private life. People began talking deeply seriously about themselves, about their lives, how they became who they are. Perhaps it was the sight of things laid to waste and the flickering light of candles that invited confession. Some kept speaking, desperate to delay returning to what had become their strange and dangerous apartments.
Or maybe in a building full of artists with nothing on the agenda but cursing the darkness and harvesting batteries, something had to be expressed. The puddles of light from their flashlights as people stood talking lingered like constellations in the hallways of night.
Ken looked around the lobby and said, I am reminded of a story I’ve never told anyone before.
Uh oh, she thought. Nothing she saw reminded her of anything, except that everything was old and new at the same time. Boxes and buckets jostling in and out of the building. Tenants milling around the candle-lit security desk trying to persuade the guards to become prophets of the future.
The light from the lanterns carved their faces into those of Spanish saints – angular and possessed. Jovial, energetic strangers came bearing messages and gifts. But the aroma of good intentions mingling with the scented candles which populated the lobby’s oceanic blackness like tiny lighthouses, could not disguise what was being emitted through the doors and up the staircase – the stench of artwork rotting on the flooded basement floors.
There was a dressmaker’s shop, Ken began. In its dusty windows, stood three mannequins, their faces identically painted, their plaster hair sculpted like brown whipped cream. Winter or summer, the mannequins never pretended to hold a tennis racquet or throw a snowball. In their faded outfits, in their quiet little shop on their quiet little side street, they were unchanging and boring, except for one thing. At random times, day or evening, a curtain would suddenly be pulled across the entire window. Freed from scrutiny, Ken imagined the mannequins talking and cooking, perhaps even sitting down and doing their nails like his mother did every Thursday. But then just as randomly, the curtains would be suddenly drawn back, the mannequins would re-appear, unchanged as ever. What was it with the curtain? What did it mean, Ken wondered and wondered until one day he finally….
Before he can finish, genderless shapes pad up from the basement staircase into the lobby. They bring with them an aura of mold and despair. Ken is silent. The crowd in the lobby parts for them like a school of fish. In their haz-mat suits they might have been mistaken for giant earless bunnies, but those complicated face masks remind the woman on the bench of that movie “The Fly” with Vincent Price. Help me, she says out loud without thinking.
What did you say, Ken asks. Help me, she says, god help me, but your story reminded me of something . Wait, Ken protests, you haven’t heard the end of my story. I have an idea, the woman says, why don’t we tell the beginnings of our stories first, then our endings last?
One day when she was seven, she came home from school to find out that her parents had sent Tigerlily, her cat, and the 6 new born kittens to live on a farm. Every day she wished so hard for Tigerlily to return even if it was only for a visit, and bring her kittens. But the days passed and continued to pass. One day, she is playing in the street with her friends when a truck pulls up to the corner bar and grill. Her friends become all giggly. She doesn’t understand why they are giggling and pointing at the truck. It’s the same truck that always parks there on weekends- a broken down box of a truck with a dingy curtain hanging from the back and a man on a chair outside. Her friends look at her and laugh.
It’s the pussy truck, stupid, her friends yell. Don’t you know anything?
The pussy truck, she thinks. Tigerlily! She’s come home.
She waits for Ken to say something. But he just nods, and begins to talk about himself again.
The woman realizes were it not for the storm she would never have told that story. Such a stupid story, why did she do it? She’s never told it to anyone before. It’s the storm. Stupid Sandy. Its made everything personal, and ominous and vulnerable. For she knows now, Ken and her were not just sharing any story – but a particular one. The one that described the exact moment in each of their childhoods when all the things they had ever known about the world darkened.
She thought of her artwork destroyed by the flooding; of the things that had brokenly survived, which she could not bear to look at. The basement, where many of the artists worked, where they stored their finished pieces, where they brought others to view. She had walked through its now humid, festering corridors, strewn with broken creations, paintings, sculptures, everything twisted, smashed. It looked like what a broken heart would look like. Even on the higher floors of the building, one had only to knock on the doors of the infirm and the lonely to know that it was a world transformed. The storm had brought with it the oldest story in the world – the story of the loss of innocence.
It was such a shock when I found out. Ken said as he reached the end of his story.
Before she could reply, she felt a tap on her shoulder. It was her son. His adult face caught in the half light of the entrance had smoothed for a moment into the child’s face she remembered. She wondered about the things he had never told her. The things that had filled his life, the stories that had made him who he was. When was the moment when everything that he had known about his world darkened. And if on some future dark and stormy night, would he sit with her and tell her that story?
And if he did, would she be able to comfort him?
Christina Maile, a landscape architect, is a painter and sculptor. She received a Pollock-Krasner grant in 2013. A co-founder of the Westbeth Playwrights Feminist Collective, she recently wrote, produced and directed a short film about Anita Steckel, a well-regarded feminist painter.