We first knew something was wrong when magazines with Ms. L. Jacobs’ name on the label began to collect in the vestibule of our apartment building. It got to the point where we had to kick them aside when we retrieved our own mail. City Gardener, Feast and Fowl, Secrets of Silk, Bug and Prey, Frills and Thrills, Urban Habitat, Cobbler and Couturier, and Milliner’s Delight fell in among others, as well as various fliers advertising both gourmet and quick foods at local restaurants, all heaped on top of the February issue of Dyeing for Beginners.
It was an ordinary day in April when someone finally complained to the Superintendent to clean up the mess. Outside, the freshly melted snow revealed the grayed layers of the winter’s litter; brightly colored plastic bags snagged on budding tree branches. The willows in the municipal park adjacent to our building had begun to thread their branches with thin curling leaves to prepare for the gorgeously melancholy summer.
There had already been a rash of manhole cover eruptions in which heavy metal lids spontaneously flew up above passersby to fall down conk on their heads. Only one person had been killed in this manner but since none of us knew that person the whole situation relegated itself to myth, as do so many items that we read out to new lovers from the newspaper in the morning over blueberry pancakes, freshly squeezed grapefruit juice, and strong black tea. These news items are piquant, but don’t seem real enough to occupy us for more than a few moments of our very important lives. We read them aloud to revive the flagging interest of another new lover, hoping current events and scandal will meld with or become part of our own allure when the light of day–honest and indifferent–saunters through the professionally cleaned windows to illumine new varieties of disappointment. We read aloud to distract from that horrifying recurrent feeling that, even when it is true love (so rare), something is always missing.
Until her disappearance, Ms. Jacobs excited neither pity nor intrigue more than any other tenant.
In our building not much happens. The elevator creaks as it carries its load of women brushed and coifed wearing work shoes (spiked or sensible), and men who carry overstuffed shopping bags and smell of soap. Little surprises us anymore. Even our children (for those of us who have them) no longer shock us, although they try with their gestures toward tribal ornamentation and savage habits, the dears.
Our building differs from other tall brick and mortar buildings in the city in one readily apparent particular: the gargoyles perched atop the penthouse roof. On our southeast corner sits a griffin, its eagle wings akimbo, beak buried in the muscular neck of a horse securely pinned under the griffin’s lion claws. Just next to this figure is a giant magpie with an enormously long feather tail. On the northeast corner, far from the magpie and the horse trapped in the griffin’s deadly grip, is a very very tall basilisk, the king of flying serpents. The plaque in our Gathering Room tells us that the magpie convincingly imitates the human voice. The basilisk is said to be able to kill with its scorching smell. The plaque tells us their legends, but none of us know why these particular creatures are erected on our building, or why they are spaced so unevenly.
Just underneath the gargoyles, our building’s name, The Cooperative Society for the Benefit of Men, is carved deeply into the stone, although we residents call it simply the Coop. In an era when municipal architecture married aesthetic beauty with the goodwill of its citizens, our building was erected as a co-operative society for the indigent, the wayward, the lost. Over the years ivy, or weather, or some other common urban assault eroded the stone on part of the name, so that now in place of the last letter of the word Men sits a cataract of disintegration. Along with the “N” in Men, the benevolent era during which the building was erected also effectively disintegrated, and our building was converted into a posh hotel, and only much later sectioned off into the small, high-priced apartments in which we now live.
The Gathering Room, on the ninth floor, used to be one of the hotel’s reception rooms. The brass railings there, the gilt-trimmed mirrors, the red velvet curtains and short pile indigo carpeting woven through with gold threads speak of the opulence which we in the Coop rightly appropriate. We gather there throughout the year for community meetings or small celebrations, but mostly for the larger events at solstice and equinox holidays. Oatmeal hobnob cookies and licorice tea are the usual fare for the teetotalers. Bland crackers with pungent cheeses are available at the bar.
In the corner of the Gathering Room a pewter replica of the building sits in its own dull aura sucking in light from the room. The gargoyles glare at us from their perch; it gives us something to talk about. And, of course, since not everybody attends every Gathering, we talk too about those who are absent. I try never to miss.
We can only see the figures from the ground. None of us has access to the roof except for the owners of the penthouse, who we call Nister and Nistress, though their real names are Saul and Beatrice Haugh, and who, at the time of Ms. Jacobs’ disappearance, had yet to invite any of us up. Grave quantities of jewelry hang about the necks and wrists of Nister and Nistress over the leathery skin they have darkened by professionals devoted to propagating the fear of ugliness in our citizenry. Sometimes, looking up at the gargoyles from down on the sidewalk, one gets a sense of the earth moving in its round under the sky, when really it’s just the clouds moving–tons of condensation defying gravity with their flight. On fine days if you stand too long, head tilted up toward the gargoyles you might wonder: are those dark spots that dart across the bricks the shadows of birds, or are they scraps of newspapers flying dark across the sunny surface of our building; or could it be the gargoyles are moving, or the building is moving; is it possible the earth is moving, that I can feel it spin beneath my feet, or is this posture with my head pressed back against my spine and my throat open to the sky just making me dizzy?
This is what we knew of Ms. Jacobs: She lived alone. The pronounced luster of her thick black hair was made more lustrous by the shocks of gray. Her pixie cut was such that the silvery white highlights stood out most in front and above the ears. Her hair parted naturally on the left of her widow’s peak, where it pushed up and back, to a charming effect. In the right light, it took on the burnish of a new alloy of brushed metal.
Her fashion sense was impeccable. She wore different versions of the same jacket over every outfit. The jackets fit her thin torso closely, fell open liberally at the chest to reveal, always, a crisp white blouse. Each jacket had a collar raised high against the back of her neck, almost reaching the bottoms of her plump little earlobes. The collars were sometimes of fur, crinoline, or stiff cotton embroidered with complicated and beautiful stitching, or sometimes of simple starched felt. Her rigid posture, when she stood still, gave the impression that it was informed by the shape and stiffness of her collar. But when she walked she tilted, and it wasn’t until your eyes arrived at her shoes that you saw how one leg was at least three quarters of an inch shorter than the other. On all of her shoes—pump, boot, loafer—the right always had a thick rubber platform addition, which helped when she was standing, but could not quite ameliorate the quirky jig of her gait. To be polite we always looked away from the awkward hobble and instead looked at her collar, or waited for her small eyes with the sharp glance to fall on our expectant smiles, but she never looked at any of us, and never said Hello.
Years ago, at the first Gathering I attended, tenants approached me as if we had long since been introduced. I had lived in the Coop already two months. No one called me by, or asked, my name. Rumors abounded that the tall, striking beauty with the pet hawk was either an actress or a librarian, but we felt it gauche to ask directly. I learned her name was Naomi only because the man standing next to me said when she walked past, “I told Naomi where to buy the leather sleeve she wears to protect her lovely forearms from that damned hawk’s sharp claws.” He paused a moment, and this was when I first noticed the faint scent of burnt toast that emanates from him at all times. He said, “It’s tame, you know.” We both paused, he to sip his martini, I to sip my wine. “I’m a writer,” he said.
“A waiter?” I asked. He had muttered, and I hadn’t heard him distinctly.
“Well, yes, that too,” he said. “But I said I’m a writer,” and before I could respond with a query, or offer information of my own, he excused himself and walked away to talk to someone else.
Ms. Jacobs sat by herself in a chair upholstered in dark brown corduroy, which was situated between the gargoyle replica and a window that overlooked the park. When she looked at something her whole head moved with her eyes. She leisurely swiveled back and forth from the park to the gargoyles, and back again.
She had been seated the whole evening, so I had no idea yet that she had a limp. Her impeccable posture and poise signified her character: sophisticated and austere. I felt I must approach this kindred being.
I brushed the cracker crumbs off my lapels and softened, with three sips of merlot, the peculiar pungency that the Stilton had left on my breath before I positioned myself next to the gargoyle replica. I too gazed back and forth between the figures and the window, waiting to catch Ms. Jacobs’ eye, waiting for her to sense our likeness. A small piece of rind from the brie had lodged itself in a crevice between her left front incisor and another tooth, and it may have been my look of mild surprise that finally caught her eye.
I gestured with my wine glass toward the basilisk and said, “Remarkable.”
She turned to look out the window again. I wondered if possibly she sat alone because of a hearing problem that made conversation awkward or impossible, so I tried again. Moving two steps closer so that she’d know I was addressing her, I said loudly, “Remarkable.”
With a little start, she turned to look at me with her brows lifted in question.
“Why,” I said, “do you think they chose these particular figures to grace our building?”
“I don’t know,” she said. Her brows were still lifted in that curious way. She blinked twice before she turned away again. I felt she must be deep in thought about some private, powerful yearning. To prove to her that I fully understood, I offered to buy her a drink, certain she’d know it was an offer sans concupiscence, that I merely extended myself as a fellow yearner.
“Riesling,” she said.
Thankfully, the brie rind between her teeth was gone when I returned. I took this gesture from her as a sign that she recognized our common ground. She thanked me. I felt confident I’d piqued her interest, and I gallantly moved off to the other side of the room so that she could observe me brood; so she’d know there could be no question about the depth and rigor of my character.
I quickly became accustomed to the way we socialize in the Coop: we talk convivially in the Gathering Room, and on next meeting often turn our backsides to one other as if we never met, or do not care. We surmise about each other what we can from mere observation, and make up the rest.
Impossible though it seems from such slight encounters, sometimes we learn much too much, such as when it came out, for instance, that I, an upright man, had a propensity for stealing underwear from the laundry dryers in the basement (NOT indiscriminately as some have suggested–I, in fact, confessed in my Statement of Regret to the Superintendent that I took only men’s briefs, my size or smaller, only those that were immaculately white save a particular stain on the inside front panel) to wear when….
Well… In the city most kinds of degeneracy are rarely more than slightly interesting, and depravity is common enough to evoke sadness more than indignation, whereas real danger (as long as it endangers only those we hold at an arm’s length in our affections) emits a whiff of intrigue, even a status of sorts. We never talk of what’s really important: the faint lines between habit, compulsion, and addiction; that frizzled moment between desire and fulfillment that compels us to make all the wrong choices; the act in which we seek to satisfy our desire that leads inevitably to profound disappointment. For instance, what were the options considered and discarded for the man on the second floor (who always wears those sharp businesslike hats) before he rolled up his sleeve, teased the vein into protruding blue-green and plump under the white skin on the soft inner part of his forearm, before he broke skin with the beveled edge of the needle and pushed the syringe plunger the first time, the second time, the third? What choices does the pretty, slim young wife pass over during the week her mother-in-law visits, before she crams into her mouth fistfuls of potato chips, hunks of cheese clawed from a block, when she buys a quart of chocolate milk at the convenience store around the corner and guzzles it in the stairway of the Coop between the seventh and eighth floors, gorging her gullet with sugar and fat just before she walks into her apartment to say Hello Mother, I’ve brought yellow and purple tulips to brighten the room because I know how you like tulips; you like tulips, don’t you?
I bear my shame with dignity, if that’s possible, certain that others see my weakness as a sign of my humanity, a self-contained frailty, and not as a noxious contagion of depravity that could harm or infect the community. Surely even Ms. Jacobs’ yearnings and mistakes would blanch the most ruddy of complexions were those yearnings known rather than held back and perfumed with Riesling while she stared out the window at the brisk, efficient gaits of other people passing by in the park.
Our elevator (the hub of life in our building, our omphalos) is magnificent. A waist-high railing runs around the perimeter, and a large mirror covers the back wall above the railing and below so that when we enter we can adjust ourselves as modesty, fashion or daring require. Mirrors also cover the side walls above the railing. We observe each other fully. Intricate olive and maroon designs in the parquet tiles offset nicely the soothing amber paint on the side walls below the mirrors. The beauty of the elevator is diminished only by the unholy squeals, which are unpredictable and vary enough in location, pitch, and intensity to evade diagnosis and repair. The tortoise pace of the ride is a comfort for some, a bane to others. The Unsuccessful Writer (nobody has ever seen anything he’s written or heard of any of the “journals” where he says his stories appear) curls his thick fingers lazily around the railing and leans his head back against the mirror, often leaving a faint smudge. The Opera Singer holds fast, letting go of the railing only to pull at his ear; he turns away from the mirror and positions himself as close as possible to the door so he can be the first to exit or to breathe the air from the hallways at the stops we make before his. In the mirrors we see the Handsome Man (he’s too handsome to look at directly) stand completely still and stare straight ahead, unbothered by the pace of the elevator, patient as a book waiting to be read.
In the Gathering Room, where candlelight bounces off the brass to illumine our finery, we are polite. The underbelly of our thoughts come to the fore in the elevator. The elevator is where the well-built man on the eighth floor who is coarse-featured but handsome comes to be called the Viper because of the wide gap between his two front teeth. We see him talking on the sidewalk in front of the Coop to other coarse-featured men. Intermittently he gathers large volumes of saliva in his mouth to eject it from the space between his teeth in a stream of force and distance we all find remarkable.
On one occasion Ms. Jacobs entered the elevator at the sixth floor with swollen eyes and nostrils rubbed nearly scarlet. The Viper, the Handsome Man, and I had already entered from the higher floors on which we live. Her right arm was a picture of geometrical perfection: the elbow crooked in a right angle, the wooden arc of her purse handle centered on the upturned forearm, the thumb thrust out while the four manicured fingernails (painted a pearlescent silver) pointed at regularly varied angles toward the beige cork tiles of the elevator ceiling. She gripped a tattered wad of toilet paper in her left hand, with which she occasionally daubed beneath her eyes. We had all seen Ms. Jacobs with a cold before, during which her nose turned a piggish pink just before the skin on her nostrils began to chap. This was different. My reserve in not acknowledging her distress was my gift to her that morning.
The Opera Singer entered on five. He’s a tall man with a kind face, and long wisps of blond hair which he brushes back from his face and behind his ears. He always greets every person when he enters by catching one’s eye and nodding. He seldom speaks. He attempted to greet Ms. Jacobs, but on seeing her distress, assumed his position close to the elevator door. When the door creaked closed and the hydraulic whoop of our slowly dropping floor began, the Opera Singer uncharacteristically turned toward us and said, “For days now I have not sneezed.”
The Handsome Man continued to stare straight ahead. Ms. Jacobs sniffed (appreciatively, I thought). The Viper lifted his lovely hand as if to clasp the Opera Singer’s shoulder, but then, midair, refrained and let his hand fall back to his side, then into his own pocket.
Later, in a conversation in the Gathering Room, the Slim Young Wife suggested that it might have been a case of the sugar blues, since she was sure she remembered one evening around that same time “trapped in that elevator,” as she put it, when Ms. Jacobs gave off the strong, very distinct odors of chocolate candy and of sugar mints. “That’s what happens after you eat a whole box of chocolate,” the Slim Young Wife said. She smiled faintly, and quietly gazed down on the park.
We never ruled out foul play in Ms. Jacobs’ disappearance. Had we been more vigilant, maybe we could have sharpened our senses to perceive something amiss. But there’s only so much one can politely perceive on an elevator, although it’s true that even when the elevator doors are closed sounds drift through the shafts. I’ve listened at the closed doors, I confess, hoping to hear an estimation of myself, for references to, say, The Distinguished Foreigner. For, while I come from the middle regions of this country, I’ve perfected my locution such that certain vowels and diphthongs curl and bend with a peculiar resonance that has never been imagined, much less heard, in the gray-brown flat lands of my childhood. Or it’s possible I will one day hear someone simply refer to The Gentleman. (I STRONGLY resist the moniker Pee-Pant, which in a more sensitive moment I was convinced I heard coming down the shaft uttered in jocose whispers after the doors had closed behind me at my floor and the elevator creaked its ascent to deposit another in our Coop to her or his own floor. Silly, I know. I’m sure now it was only a ball bearing ping, or another pulley popping.)
We’re each of us safe in our own lives, in our apartments, and yet we know enough about each other to glow when the word “community” puckers our lips when we pronounce it. Hello, I say to the Woman with Egg Yolk Colored Hair when I see her jogging in the park. Hello, the Thin Man whose pants fit too tightly says to me when we look through the rack of shiraz/cabernet blends in the wine store. Hello, Hello, Hello we say to all those familiars we can’t avoid. We say Hello and, much of the time, smile before we turn or look away.
Ms. Jacobs had given the management no indication of an extended absence. The only thing unusual discovered during the search of her apartment was the discolored bathtub in which sat a bucket filled with yarn left to dye in indigo carmine. Otherwise her apartment revealed only fastidiously neat rooms with the exception of her unmade bed, and the kitchen sink with its one unwashed cereal bowl, spoon and a mug painted the blue and yellow of irises, stained on its bottom with a semicircle of brown.
And people were falling away all over the city.
The mayor began to investigate shortly after a woman who made her living being a woman disappeared. One morning a delivery man made his rounds to drop off the juice, coffee, and fresh milk to one of the many cafés tucked into the corners of our city. As he was hefting his last load, the dolly on which he’d stacked boxes tipped when he jerked it over the curb. One box landed near an open grate, which seemed to have broken and caved in. There he saw a very fashionable woman’s shoe–the left, and next to the shoe lay a hair ribbon stained with a powdery substance. Once the mayor found out that the woman named Chenille was missing–which was soon enough to lend the situation the twinge of suspicion we all find so satisfying–an investigation ensued.
It took a while to understand that if manhole covers could spontaneously rise and fly away from the built-up subterranean pressures of the city, then anything–litter, animals, people–could fall into the gaping spaces left behind. And in addition to the manholes, there were so many other mysterious grates dotting the sidewalks of our city. We’d all seen the steam spouting up from the metal even on summer days, felt the slight buckle of a metal hinge that caused us to quicken our pace to solid ground, and heard the odd creak and rumble beneath our feet as we stepped gingerly on the grates on our way to the opera or to the bank, or to another secret interlude. The vigorous searches uncovered nothing for a long while. The truth is, none of us know what happened to Ms. Jacobs, but it gave us something more to talk about than just how annoying was the creaking sound of the elevator, the laziness of the maintenance staff, kids these days.
When someone goes missing there’s very little of which you can be sure until something is found–a note, say, or a body. And since we create each other, since our relations with others define us–jerk, snot, klutz, creep, joy to be around, gentleman–when someone turns up missing, the person we became in the missing person’s presence is gone too, waiting to be resurrected. The primary danger of being too much alone, I’ve found, is the danger of remaining uncreated.
We re-created ourselves in telling our stories about Ms. Jacobs.
The Viper claimed to have found an earring, which he swore he’d seen on Ms. Jacobs’ lobe, next to a re-covered grate.
“A woman I used to, uh, date,” he said, “was a jeweler. I notice earrings.”
He carried it with him for weeks after she’d gone missing. His story varied in the particulars (where he was walking, the sort of errand he’d been running, the quality of the day, the light, the weather, the sky) each time he told it, maybe to keep himself from becoming bored, or possibly the story’s mutability depended more on where he was when he told it. When outside, the Viper punctuated certain sentences with a forceful trajectory of his water-thin saliva. Indoors–and here some of us felt the frisson more acutely–he’d bare the gap between his front teeth so that the listener saw his fat red tongue press against the back of his bite. A quick insuck of breath produced the thinnest, barely audible whistle such that were there dogs about you’d expect a chorus of howls. But no matter where the Viper told his story, it ended the same way. He’d reach deeply down to the bottom of the tan suede satchel he carried everywhere as if he’d lost something and just couldn’t find it. Then–and here we caught a glimpse of the graceful, heroic athlete he’d be simply by the muscularity of his arm curling out from the satchel’s depths to the open air–his fist unfurled to reveal the earring.
Almost more thrilling than the sight of the earring (a simple ruby centered in an onyx cluster) was the unexpected fineness of the Viper’s palm. Some of us were bold enough to prod the earring with an outstretched finger simply to feel the skin of his palm, which had the unreal softness of the underbelly of some wild animal caught and held for a moment before being released again to the wild. We all agreed.
Naomi with the hawk claimed she wasn’t sure she’d ever seen Ms. Jacobs the Limping Lady. Possibly the flutter of the hawk’s wings distracted too much from neighborly observation. “I’d remember a limp,” Naomi said. Only when the Thin Man who wore his pants too tight described Ms. Jacobs’ collared jackets did Naomi’s expression change into recognition.
“Collared Jacket,” Naomi said sadly to herself before the elevator door opened to her floor.
And then there is the Handsome Man, who pretends he doesn’t hear, doesn’t see, anything. We know he must have a story of his own about Ms. Jacobs, but he never offers his tale of loss. I see him in the mirrors of the elevators, but mostly I’ve observed his image reflected off the large round glass windows on the dryers in the laundry room, Sunday evenings between five and seven o’clock. Most people load the machines and leave. The Handsome Man always stays for the wash, and often but not always, stays for the dry. It would be a perfect opportunity to share his observations, but he works so very hard not to interact.
I sit in one of the large plastic green lawn chairs next to a folding table. Both the Handsome Man and I face the dryers. He always sits on the second folding table from the far wall, feet swinging lazily, the tip of a black leather shoe occasionally grazing the tile floor. I watch him, my book cracked open and held at the level of my sternum, while he too pretends to read something, or to stare straight ahead at his load. Is it possible, does he not sometimes feel a void that some thing, some body might fill? Does he need no one? There have been times when the angle of reflection makes it seem he is looking back at me, but when I turn my head to look, he really is watching Naomi’s sheets twirl yellow, blue, avocado green around and around and around, or the Thin Man’s pants shrinking tighter, or the flamenco flip of his own white towels, white socks, white tee shirts, et cetera. Occasionally he will leave to let his clothes lift and spin, float and drift in the warm circulating air of the dryer, and I am alone again.
Some said there was a man. The Opera Singer, in researching his new role as the lead part of Robin in The Saturniidae (that opera/ballet of tragic beauty), saw Ms. Jacobs with a gentleman friend at the Botanical Gardens. In The Saturniidae, Robin and his lover are cursed by an enchantress, and turned into luna moths, who by their very nature must die at the end of the day. The performance ends at dawn in an operatic ballet, dancers float on the narrowing gap of pheromone plume signified by colorful scarves, mount one another, then crumble elegantly to the floor; singers wail their last songs as the world shifts and shimmers between night and day, love and loss, life and death.
There is a room at the Botanical Gardens that simulates a clear spring night with a full moon. Most of the exhibit involves moths that have been caught and mounted on hothouse flowers. Living caterpillars in all stages of the life cycle, both frightening and beautiful, crawl over leaves and stems of the small willow trees. On lucky days some cocoons burst, and new moths fly freely through the dim tropical night of the room.
According to the Opera Singer, Ms. Jacobs’ suitor was taller than she by more than a head. The man’s hair was shiny black, and he spoke with an accent which seemed to the Opera Singer could only have been acquired in a place where the sun is hot all year round, a place where people generally wear fewer clothes. The Opera Singer was most impressed with the man. Though thin, the man was in no way frail, and in fact his hands (large and thickly veined) seemed more representative of his whole person than did his thin, waspish waist.
At one point a living luna moth landed on Ms. Jacobs’ shoulder. It was stunning: pale green against the maroon velvet of her jacket. The Suitor lifted his hand, put it gently on her shoulder near the moth, as Ms. Jacobs did not know yet that the moth was there. The Opera Singer moved close enough to see that the nails of the Suitor’s hands were well manicured though not professionally done, and at the sight of the two uncanny creatures–the Suitors’ hand and the luna moth–resting atop Ms. Jacob’s velvet shoulder, the Opera Singer was filled with . . . he paused and lowered his voice before he continued. He was filled with . . . Love! Yes, there was no other word for it, and the Opera Singer summoned the courage to say it. Love. It was the effect of this simple gesture–the delicate beauty of the moth, the strength of the man’s hand on Ms. Jacobs’ receptive shoulder– that he would attempt to give the audience in his performance as Robin and the voice of the doomed Cecropia, King of the Moths. If only he could accomplish that!
He left the Botanical Gardens that day exhilarated, with a sense of purpose. “What a gift,” the Opera Singer told us. “What a gift!”
We imagine, then, that Ms. Jacobs was happy.
It had been two months since we’d first noticed Ms. Jacobs was gone. The management was now legally justified in evicting for nonpayment of rent; her belongings were collected and sold, and her apartment was cleaned to show prospective tenants.
“Friends of ours in City Hall tell me the city’s planning to organize a census of the missing,” Nistress told the Handsome Man, the Opera Singer, Miss Egg Yolk Hair, and me one morning on the elevator. Each aspirated syllable sent a perfumed ripple among the long, fine hairs of the cashmere scarf in which she had swaddled her neck, even though it was almost summer.
“Mmn,” said Miss Egg Yolk Hair. The Handsome Man stood with his back against the side wall, hands folded in front of his perfectly fashionable silver belt buckle. His eyes glistened with stillness. Silence.
The elevator was particularly slow that day. Nistress, looking around, leisurely reached into her purse and pulled out a stack of envelopes–black–and handed one to each of us. We accepted gratefully, and tucked the envelopes into a purse, the inside of a jacket, or a trouser pocket. We discovered later that each envelope contained a single leaf of shiny silver paper embossed with red letters that said:
Remembrance for the Lost
11pm, Next New Moon
RSVP: Saul and Beatrice Haugh
But before we knew what the envelopes contained, we adjusted the uncomfortable bulges some of the invitations caused and gathered among us a dignified quiet, since none of us had ever been given anything before by Nistress.
And then, suddenly disrupting the awed silence, the Handsome Man began to sing. We all pretended not to notice. I took this opportunity to search his face for an emotion. His lips moved and his eyes were lifted–supposedly to give the impression that he was nearing rapture and taking us along with him, but a closer look showed he was simply staring at a spot on the ceiling in the corner. Looking at him one might almost believe he was not aware he was singing, as if his song were a natural force welling up from his core, pushed out unwillingly, unbeknownst to him, which of course was ridiculous. He sang some archaic ditty apropos of nothing; as far as we could tell it had something to do with a bird up a tree. It was clear he learned this strained technique and vacuous expression from a school for voices. The Opera Singer’s grip on the railing tightened as the Handsome Man’s song continued. For whom was he singing?
His voice was neither horrible nor superb, but we found in that moment that the Handsome Man is one of those sad creatures who has not yet found his genius, but who thinks he has, as a singer. It’s a common enough mistake. After all, who among us upon hearing a familiar song excellently rendered doesn’t join in, even if only under the breath? Who has never attempted to reproduce the glorious feeling a song has imparted? And, since most of our voices are not pure as diamond, we don’t sing along to augment the song, surely, but rather to become part of the song’s strange beauty. That morning we all understood with heartbreaking clarity that the Handsome Man’s primary talent was in being handsome. I could have wept. The Handsome Man had taken the leap, he risked communion with us, and we were embarrassed for him.
The song stopped shortly before the ground floor. The doors opened, nobody said a word. We began our separate days free to compare how much more a part of the community we were than he; free to consider if we might be fundamentally, irreconcilably alone; free to wonder who, if one or another of us dropped out of sight, would be missed.
We were slightly discomposed, but elegant, the evening we gathered in the penthouse. The Handsome Man arrived alone, skin shimmering like an isotope. The Viper walked in with his hand on the small of the back of an unadorned woman whose clear voice exemplified her simple beauty and keen intelligence. The Unsuccessful Writer threaded his arm through the arm of a thin, scrappy woman wearing pointed, black-framed glasses who we learned was a young painter on the verge of great fame. Naomi, in a sleeveless, sparkling green gown (the perfect complement to her olive skin) did not bring her hawk. She moved her head quickly in small movements as she glanced about the room this way, that way, here, there. She kept the arm on which the hawk normally sat behind her back. In the odd moments in which she brought that arm forward–to take a drink, or to caress with the tips of her fingers someone’s elbow in greeting–we saw the effects of the sun on the tan skin of her hand and upper arm, while the broad swath of her forearm remained smooth and pale as varnished pine. “I’m an architect,” I heard her tell the Handsome Man when I passed. The Opera Singer arrived accompanied by a slim slip of a man who we later discovered was the choreographer of the lepidoptera ensemble.
The penthouse was a monument to mahogany and brushed steel. Spare. All the art depicted either gored matadors, conquered bulls, or hand printed scrolls in a language none of us recognized. The scrolls could as easily have been ancient sacred texts as advertisements for chewing tobacco. No formal program guided us that night. A string quartet was in place in the corner but, oddly, only one musician played at a time, and very softly at that. The final effect was a melancholy marriage of plaintive dissonance and silence. The whispering music stopped and started at odd moments, and in the silences we found ourselves face to face with a neighbor all dressed up with little to say.
A vigorous summer rain lashed the windows on the west side of the penthouse, and on the east side curtains of water spilled over the windows. Nistress pointed out to us that the places where water poured most heavily came from drain gutters located in the basilisk’s tail, the horse’s mouth, and off the magpie’s back. The city lights blurred through the water. Looking out the east windows one had the impression we were melting, but it wasn’t clear if it was our building alone, or the whole city around us. I looked around at this room, at these people sipping champagne, celebrating–celebrating–the loss of someone we never really knew. I felt the too-familiar spasm felt by those who find themselves forsaken, and I had to ask: Who are all these people, and what do they care about? Why won’t they show it? Is it so shameful to want to connect to another person? I stamped my foot once, which helps me confirm the fact that I still exist, and I found the material evidence of my existence in the champagne that had spilled over the lip of the fluted glass, down onto my fingers, and which was now turning sticky on my skin.
At the stroke of midnight Nister dimmed the lights further. The last player’s strings had stilled minutes earlier. Nister stepped into the circle of light that fell on the quartet, stood with his feet placed shoulder width apart and his hands clasped behind his back, and told a tale about a man and a magpie, another tale of love, loss, and death.
Nister brought his hands out from behind his back and folded them in front of his belt. “I won’t pretend that art mitigates loss.” A tiny tremor ran through his body. He shifted his stance, shook his head and thrust his arms down by his sides. He seemed to be looking for Nistress, who was leaning against a wall in a corner caressing one small pearl on her necklace between thumb and forefinger, watching him. When he found her he smiled, and continued. “As I said, I’m not very good with words. What you’ll hear next is all I have to offer you.” He stepped out of the circle of light and we heard his voice announce, “I am honored to present my esteemed colleagues, gathered here tonight to play for you Song of the Magpie.”
The full quartet began to play. At once we recognized the separate strains of the strings that had been playing all evening, repeating without our knowing, establishing a pattern in our brains, calling out and finding no answer. The uncomfortable silences within the music became more uncomfortable, but at the same time were deeply satisfying, as if the silences themselves were the echo of something which before that moment had been left overlooked and unidentified. Earlier, in solo, the quartet members had played plaintively to odd silences all through the evening, and now sought their answer in the trembling of one another’s strings.
We are fine now. The newspaper printed an official final census of thirteen missing people, six women and seven men. Not one citizen had gone missing in more than a month. Two of the missing, a donut maker and a banker, were found in the sewer system caught on wires near where they had fallen in. A café worker was found further out floating on a path toward the sewer treatment plant. In the subway tunnels a technical worker from the desalination plant had fallen though a grate and dropped more than thirty feet to her death. A student befell similar circumstances on another line of the subway, and they found another student under a pile of rubble in a deep crevice of the city that nobody knew existed until the investigation of the broken grate above it. A real estate agent was found bobbing in one of the rivers proximal to our city, as was the body of a man nobody had reported missing, and has yet to be identified. In the report, The Department of Sanitation assured us that those citizens found in public waterways must have fallen into post-treatment drainage sewers that carried the freshly cleaned water back out to the ocean. Three people, among them the woman Chenille, were carried so far through the drainage sewers they washed ashore in the lapping ocean waves that beat against the shores of a local beach. Of the two remaining citizens –Ms. Jacobs and a young journalist–there is no trace, and no explanation. Which is just as well. None of us wants to brood with morose delectation over her demise. Who would wish to imagine the vile stench of decay to which we’ll all inevitably succumb, the putrid bacterial and enzymatic pool churning through the once solid body, the fleshly harbor of those abstract emotions that alternately direct and distract us, and to which we all so desperately cling?
We are still troubled, but we progress.
All grates, lids, metal doors situated in sidewalks have been checked, repaired, secured. In the Coop, our solstice celebration has been canceled to complete an extensive remodeling of the Gathering Room. There are security cameras now in the lobby, and in the laundry room. Shortly after the Remembrance in the penthouse the management had the elevator repaired. Not only does it no longer creak, but it speeds us to our floors at a sickening pace; our stomachs lurch to our mouths between each floor. We scarcely have a chance to say Hello, or Goodbye.
Photo by Jose Ramon Borras