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by Harry Buschman
I sat up in bed and held my head in my hands. That’s when I noticed I was dressed in my best suit - a little wrinkled from having been slept in, but my best Citibank job suit nonetheless. For the life of me I couldn’t remember what I did last night. It started out at the Cafe Figaro early in the evening I think, somewhere around ten. Whatever came later was jumbled together in a sort of kaleidoscopic image in my mind, one incident tumbling over another in glorious tinsel colors.
I remember the comedian Buddy Beaver was there. I think he was at the Figaro – but he might have been doing stand-up at the Dragon-fly on 6th Avenue. He wasn’t very good and some of us were laughing at him rather than with him, and when he started to sweat, we got up and moved on.
One thing I was sure of this morning, I knew I’d be late for work, and I knew I was in no shape to go uptown – I mean, a man can look the way I do down here in the Village, but show up in the teller’s cage of Citibank on Madison Avenue – I don’t think so. So why not take today off? I called in sick and I’m sure old Mr. Gilbain didn’t believe a word of my story. “You got a bad cold, Carl? You sound all stuffed up.” He didn’t know the half of it, my nose was so sore I couldn’t touch it.
It was nearly noon before I pulled myself together enough to walk unsteadily to the front window. The weather was a lot better than I thought it would be and 8th Street looked freshly scrubbed. The sunlight, now almost overhead, brought out the color in the fruitless fruit tree that stood in a tub at the edge of the curb, and I thought it might be good for me if I got dressed and walked over to Washington Square Park. It was only two blocks south – maybe I could sit in the fresh air and pull my wits together and put something in my stomach, and hope it stayed there.
I started out timidly but picked up courage along the way. I kept fingering the keys in my pants pocket to make sure I hadn’t locked myself out, it’s a nervous habit I have when I’m hung over and it gets worse as I get older. I checked my wallet too, and my reading glasses – my change. It was like a pre-flight routine and it didn’t stop until I found an empty bench in a corner of the park. I sat on it and closed my eyes. I took long deep breaths and stretched my legs out as far as they would go. I was almost to the point of peace with myself when someone passed in front of me and blocked out the sun, then kicked me lightly in the foot. It was Andy Broadside.
Andy is a non-representationalist painter. I’ve known him ten years or more. He’s got one painting on permanent loan at MoMA, two more in a gallery on 57th St. and he’s just sold one at the Nabi Gallery down here, (six figures I’m told). He should be the happiest man in Greenwich Village but he looked like the unhappiest. He’s not a dribbler or a dauber – he says he paints the reflections he sees in rainy streets – they don’t look like that to me; but then I’m a writer so what do I know?
“What’s up Carl?’ he said to me. “Bitch of a morning, huh?”
“It’ll pass.” I wanted to look on the bright side – also, I thought Andy might buy me a brunch.
He heaved a sigh that seemed to come from the soles of his shoes. “Will it? Maybe,” he said. “Don’t mind if I sit here, do you?”
I shifted a bit even though it wasn’t necessary and he let himself down gently and painfully as though he was a bag of priceless pottery shards.
“I didn’t go to the party last night,” he said. “Didn’t have the heart... you did though, I hear. How was it?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“I’ve been trying to. I remember Figaro but I’m having trouble with the rest of it.”
“I seem to remember that.” Andy lives with Tobago, the West Indian singer. It would be more accurate the other way around I guess. Anyone who knows Tobago knows she lives with no one... they live with her. She used to sing at the Bitter End, Now she’s in the Dragon Fly and as Rock Magazine has so elegantly put it, “She touches people in very emotional places with her music.” It didn’t take her long to sink her shaft into Andy’s emotional place. He has a nice apartment, a studio and a steadier income than any of the crowd that hung around the Dragon Fly.
Even though they lived together Andy was sure every stud in the Village was getting a piece of Tobago. It made him profoundly sad. He looked whipped this morning and as he sat next to me I could tell he hadn’t slept a wink last night.
He gave me a sidelong glance. “Don’t you remember?”
“I don’t have a very clear idea, Andy. There was an awful lot of smokin’, snortin’ and drinkin’ – if you get my drift.”
“Thing is, she isn’t home yet.”
I could tell from his tone of voice he wasn’t going to stand me to breakfast. The man was looking for his lady and you could bet your bottom dollar he would get more desperate as the day wore on. If he hadn’t found her by tonight, God knows what he might do.
I like Andy as a person. He’s soft-spoken. Rarely will you hear a spiteful word out of him. Maybe that’s because he has no reason to envy anyone. I like his devotion to his painting even though I don’t understand much of it, but given some of the odd balls that make their home here in the Village, Andy’s nice to have around. I knew he wanted some information out of me about Tobago but I didn’t have any.
“I wish I could help you, Andy – but, I tell you – last night...”
“It’s okay. I thought you might remember something, that’s all.” He still sat there, his chin on his chest. He sighed deeply and stretched his legs out as far as they would go. “She told me yesterday afternoon that I had the smallest penis of any man she’s ever known.”
“C’mon Andy, she was pulling your leg.”
“No, she meant it.”
What a bitch she must be, I thought. “That’s bull shit Andy, there’s no truth to something like that. She just knows how to hurt a guy that’s all.”
“The thing is, it’s probably true.”
I tried to laugh it off, but there’s no way you can ease a man’s mind about something like that. It’s personal and no man seriously discusses these things with another man. Besides I was still hung over and my mind kept telling me I should eat before I imploded, then take a long walk and make some serious decisions about my own future. Would I ever have enough faith in myself as a writer to quit my job at the bank. Every time I thought of it I got cold chills down my spine – I think that’s why I drank more than I should. It was a way of dodging the question.
Lost in our private thoughts, we both stared across the narrow expanse of the park for what seemed an eternity. Eventually I decided my own problems were more important to me than his, so I stood up and stretched.
“Where you goin,” he asked?
“I thought I’d get myself some lunch and get back to work.” I started to walk away and he followed me, staying behind a pace or two. It was evident he wanted my company. Why? Who knows, maybe he thought I might produce Tobago somehow.
I stopped at Bickford’s and got a coffee and a Danish. All the while Andy stood behind me and when I sat down at a table by the window, he sat across from me.
He looked at me with his Airedale eyes and said, “She’s going to be the death of me.”
“C’mon Andy, will you... roll with it? Let me eat in peace. This’ll pass, she just needs to settle down.”
He sat there, round shouldered. I was getting sick of him and his penis problem – anyway there was nothing I could do about the damn thing. I went back for another coffee and when I came back to the table he was still there. “Y’know Andy,” I said, loud enough for the next table to hear, “You’re one of the lucky people down here. You get paid for what you love best to do. D’you know how rare that is in the Village?” He looked up at me as though I was going to hit him. “I gotta work all day in a bank. I can only write at night. Sometimes I write right through the night, all night, because that’s the only time I got. Look at you! You got nothing to do except what you want to do. You’re a fucking artist, Andy! You earn your fucking living painting pictures, for Christ sake. Fat broads from uptown come down here with the family jewels!”
The coffee cup trembled in my fingers. I didn’t want to lose Andy as a friend, we’ve known each other for ten years or more. But, I mean – enough’s enough. “Andy, go on up to the Metropolitan. Take a look at David - I’ll bet yours is every bit as big as his.”
“I’m going to put her clothes out in the street.”
“No you’re not, Andy. You’re going to do nothing of the kind.” I finished my coffee quickly and stood up. “I’m going home, Andy. Please don’t come with me... women are like that, Andy. Go on up to the Metropolitan, you’ll feel better about yourself, believe me.”
It was mid-afternoon when I got home. I felt better with something in my stomach and I made myself promise that there would be no booze tonight, no ferret eyed friends. No one in fact, just me and my novel. I looked at it on my desk – ran my fingers over it. It felt foreign to me -- like it wasn’t mine. Maybe it was just an excuse to live in the Village, a prop, like a ski rack on the roof of a car in Miami, like a shirt pocketful of pencils.
I thought back to a time, not too long ago, when anything was possible. I remembered looking out of somebody’s apartment window high up over the river with the sun going down like thunder and a palisade of darkened buildings sprinkled with the dust of a billion lights over midtown Manhattan. It seemed so easy then – I could have it all.
What happened to it all? Why didn’t it happen to me? Why was I writing in the dead of night and working in a bank all day? Because it was the easier way, that’s why. The booze. The dust – the white dust of Heaven. And the women! Bless them all – the white ones – the black ones – the... my God! Last night came back to me in a rush. Tobago! How could I forget that? No wonder Andy came looking for me.
I thought I better go see him and try to explain.
He opened his door on the first knock, then seeing it was me, he turned around and climbed back up on his scaffold; a wide board suspended between two step ladders. He held a gallon paint can between his knees and put a handful of paint brushes between his teeth. He stared at the gigantic canvas, big as a billboard in front of him. It appeared to be half finished, although Andy looked at it dumbly, as though he had never seen it before.
I told him as best I could what happened last night. I didn’t think either of us were fully responsible, or conscious, for that matter. It was the drinking and the God knows what all else that led up to it. “I don’t think it meant much to either of us, Andy. It could have been any two people.” He still stared at his painting and I wondered if he heard me... “She’s not your life’s work, Andy. If you’re going to love something that much – love your work.”
“I can’t even see my work when she’s not here,” he mumbled around the brushes in his mouth.
I was out of kind words; and besides I had my own problems. When would I reach a point in my life when I could chuck my job like Andy did and write full time? He infuriated me ... being able to afford a place like this on his creativity alone! Having a small penis is a cheap price to pay, and I was about to tell him to count his blessings when I heard a key in the front door behind me. It could only be one person, and it was ...
Tobago burst in laughing, and in that sexy, mezzo-soprano voice said, “You devil, you...” to a man behind her. It was obviously said in response to something he did to her out in the foyer. She was not alone – a black cowboy was with her.
“Say hello to Buck, Andy.” Then, she saw me. She wasn’t expecting me, and for a moment she looked unsure of herself. In the meantime I checked out Buck. He was black, blacker than Tobago. He wore a black cowboy outfit, his pants were so tight they could have been mistaken for leotards, and he carried a flat black hat with a gold ribbon around the crown. He was hairless as a bowling ball and his eyes darted from Tobago to Andy to me. Andy took the brushes out of his mouth and looked them both up and down. He stood up and walked to one of the ladders, then came down the ladder frontwards like a man walking down stairs.
He pointed to Buck and said to Tobago, “Is this the best you could do?”
Tobago took a few steps in Andy’s direction and folded her arms, “Now, don’t you make Mama have to punish you, boy.”
It didn’t have the effect she expected. Andy brushed by her and opened the door again. “Put your hat back on again, cowboy. Get back on your horse and get the hell out of here.”
Buck gave him a dazzling smile and put his hat on. He tilted it and ran his fingers around the brim. Keeping the smile in place, he turned to Tobago and said, “You know where you can find me Mama.” It was a typical stud reaction, trying to save face – I’ve seen it a thousand times. Andy on the other hand, had the cold electrically charged look that precedes a summer storm. He was ready to go, and it looked as though the lightning was about to strike.
I could feel their eyes on me and I had the feeling they would rather watch me than look at each other. But I had no doubt they were planning their next moves. I opened the door to let myself out, “See you later, Andy,” I said. “I hope everything... “ whatever I was going to say tailed off for want of anything more intelligent to say. I opened the door quickly and as I started to leave, Buck squeezed out ahead of me.
“Well! That’s enough of that, man. That’s one hell of a mixed up broad. You know her?”
We walked down the stairs to the first floor foyer. Buck stared at the huge paintings lining the wall, “Guy’s an artist, huh?”
“One of the best they say, he’s... “ One shot. A single shot, quite loud rang out from the studio on the second floor. Buck looked at me with wide staring eyes and his lower lip trembled...
“Jesus Christ!” He mumbled, dropping his hat, “I’m outta here.” He snatched up his hat and pushed the front door open. I watched him as hurried up the street – a queer gait, half running, half walking, turning to look back. The night quickly swallowed him and left me alone in the foyer. I wanted to run too but I couldn’t bring myself to leave – I had to go back.
It was quiet now. All I could hear was my own timid step on the stair. My senses sharpened and I was aware of sights, sounds and smells like a hunted animal. When I reached the door I raised my hand as if to knock. It seemed ludicrous to me! To knock on a door after you hear a gun shot? No, you don’t do it that way ... you push your way in in. But the door was locked, just as it was before, so I had to knock after all. I heard the lock snap and the door opened.
It was Tobago...
She was mumbling to herself, hugging herself as though she was freezing. She backed into the room and with one hand, pointed to Andy lying at the foot of the ladder. “I din’t know he had no gun, I never see no gun here. But all of a sudden there it is in his hand. He says to hisself, he says, ‘Don’t’cha know I love y’Tobago?’ Then he does it... that’s what he does. There he is, right there. Don’t make me go over there – I don’t wanna see him there.”
The gun was still in his hand. It was an enormous pistol, a family heirloom perhaps. The side of his head was gone – well, not really gone, there were pieces of it everywhere. Some of it was on his painting and I was aware of the irony of that even then – the success and the failure of the artist and the man.
“Where’s the phone?”
“There’s one in the bedroom,” she said... “but here, use this.” She reached in her purse and held out her cell phone. I ignored it and walked into the bedroom.
The phone was on a small end table between twin beds, one of them unmade and tumbled as though the sleeper had a bad night – it was the one by the wall, the one furthest from the door. The twin beds surprised me... but if there had to be twin beds, Andy Broadside would have slept in the one with his back to the wall.
©Harry Buschman 2004
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.