Summer and Smoke
It was a trick of memory, she was convinced: A Sunday sermon in a Negro church, its dark interiors whorled with faint smoke. The other details seemed accurate enough: Not too much light, and not of the halcyon gold Hollywood kind, the uneven spacing of the windows, the wilting summer hats, the sheen of sweat mingling translucent white against dark skin, the knotty pine benches, the cataracts of the preacher. Why did she remember smoke? Surely no one was smoking in there, in that dank Baptist church on a Sunday morning.
As in a nervous submission to a manicurist—thinking of the sour-mouthed young woman who tended to her nails weeks ago at the New Yorker Hotel and who had sneered at her jacket, her accent, and her unadorned hands—those same hands now splayed and hovered above the keyboard of the Olivetti. For once, her body remained improbably obedient to the genteel panic of her mind as a cigarette in the ashtray gave off sinuous curves dissolving into daylight. Was that it, then? Was she that prone to the mere intrusion of environment? Would the blowsy honking of a delivery truck crop up in the story next, barreling through the church doors? Where did the smoke come from? There was smoke, there was a haze shrouded over her memory as if it were a smoldering morning in July where the heat gathered intensity with every step you took, and the cumulative effect of it all dimmed her recollection of the lamplighter.
The chair creaked as she pushed away and she thought of fireflies, because even with their lazy, tricky throbs of incandescence, they were easier to catch than the past was.
How Not to Write
Like a winding staircase in a plantation manse, the huge bathtub dominated the single room of the tenement apartment. Not an unusual feature, Truman informed her during their first walk-through of the apartment—as if he were the manager of the building and not the man with the oil-slick hair who stood in the doorway and watched them suspiciously—and he went on to list a frightening number of starving artists and writers and savants and other kinds of neglected and, presumably, well-bathed individuals who had similar apartments, including an exiled Russian noble fond of claiming a role as the infanta Anastasia’s favorite playmate and who took milk baths in her claw-footed old relic of a tub.
Seems like a good waste of milk, Harper had replied.
He ignored this, and she could tell by the glittering, distant look in his eyes that the bathtub was becoming an idée fixee: Perhaps he could pitch a piece to Vogue or Harper’s or one of the other magazines. Profiles of bathtubs and their owners. All done wonderfully tongue-in-cheek, of course. Just the right hint of a tease. He could ask Marlon. He knew Marlon took baths. He smirked at this.
She did not take the bait. “Well, maybe you could settle something for me, because I’ve always wondered—”
“If Babe Paley takes champagne baths.”
He cackled and abruptly turned with a frightening, imperious elegance to the landlord. “Heat and hot water included?” he barked.
The landlord’s mouth hung open and pulsed, like a wound, for what seemed too long before he finally said, “Hell, no.”
She really wanted to know to know about the champagne baths.
During the summer the bathtub became her own private lake—flat and tepid, perfect for evening dips, perfect for avoidance. With only the light of the desk lamp—curled away from her and colluding in an accusing intimacy with the typewriter—she sat in the tub and smoked while waiting for the cheap, yellow curtains (diaphanous and daisy-covered, left by the previous tenant) to stir with the faintest promise of a breeze. In fact, she became rather absorbed in the waiting game: What would the stale, stealthy New York air do next? It became as suspenseful as a good Hitchcock movie. Her own personal Rear Window, except the open window revealed nothing but the straight black bones of the fire escape and a solid wall of pockmarked brick the color of dried blood, and there was no Grace Kelly fussing over her with exquisite manners.
There had been a long pause on the phone when she had reported, with her usual meticulousness, this waiting game to Truman.
“You really ought to get out more,” he finally said.
“Someplace cooler, at least.”
“Please tell me you’re writing, at least,” he begged.
“I am writing something.”
“Oh. Not the book.”
She heard a click over the line. It could have been Jack eavesdropping or the operator or the G-Men or merely the sound of his cigarette lighter, the birthing of a butane light. “What’s it called?”
“How fortunate that you ask. I do have a title—”
“A title is as good a place as any to start.”
“It’s called, ‘How Not to Write A Novel.’”
She heard a soft puh over the line; he was indeed smoking. “You mad genius.”
“You’ll say you knew me when,” she retorted cheerfully.
“In all seriousness, you must get out a little. You’re in New York City now. There’s no lack of things to do. And—”
Anticipating the turn in conversation, she sighed. “What?”
“There are so many of our kind here.”
She wasn’t even sure what her kind was, but she held off on upbraiding him for his presumptiveness. There were women in bars, women who smoked, who looked at her and without a moment’s thought or hesitation swapped that look of recognition with her. That something she had spent most of her life hiding—from herself, from others—could be so utterly and completely sussed out by a stranger in a matter of seconds amazed her.
There wasn’t much left but to be quietly confounded by her sex.
The One Titled “Lamplighter”
And, well, to sleep with them.
The sunlight indicated it was later than she liked; the fire escape, arrayed as a dark tattoo against the yellow curtains, showed criss-crossing bars and steps that blackened with a burst of sunlight, then faded fickle and wan when the sun rolled behind a cloud. From the bed she watched them blaze, shimmer, disappear, then repeat its mockingly beautiful pattern all over again.
There was an arm, bent at the elbow and with a mannequin-like stiffness and oppressive dead weight, over her bare waist. Gently she moved the arm, attached to a blonde named Marian, slipped out of bed and into a bathrobe. Her mind went on a fishing expedition (as her father had called any such inquisitive digging when he was on a case), but when it came to sketchy, inadmissible evidence, cheap whiskey was, quite surprisingly, one hell of a by-the-book judge that called into question every blessed, single fact. All she could really say was, there was a bar, there was a blonde, there was a lot of drinking.
Hence this result.
Hide your sin behind closed doors, hide your sin in the darkened corners of your home, but the Lord is the lamplighter of the world and he shall illuminate you for all to see!
Bent over the desk, she scribbled it down in her notebook, the one titled “Lamplighter.” If only she would remember the rest, in its entirety; he had said so much more that day. But this was a start. A sudden gust of wind bloated the curtain, its dirty edge curled over her knuckles, and she wondered if years from now, when she would go back and look at the notebook (and she knew she would, she could not imagine a writer worth his salt who wouldn’t), she would clearly remember this beginning even if it trailed into a false start, or if a momentous if disturbing haze would settle over this detail as it had over so many significant moments of her life.
The long exhale of breath was not hers, but Marian’s. Was the girl’s name really Marian? She panicked. She begged for the sheet not to fall away from the gentle writhing of that waking body, nor for confirmation of curves, or the disavowal of a back’s serpentine dip.
“Morning,” she said, as if they were neighbors encountering one another in the brisk morning air on parallel paths toward office jobs, locking doors behind them.
Holding the sheet against her chest, maybe-Marian sat up. Blonde hair poured over her brow and left cheek. “Say,” she croaked. “You don’t happen to have any coffee, do you?”
Harper squinted. “I’ll make you some.” This was not conducive to getting the blonde out of her apartment, but what could she do? Good manners were the last bastion of Southern civilization; it was all they had left, the last defense against the barbarians. She would have offered tea to Khrushchev, had he spent the night. She could not be like Jack Dunphy who, when drunk, liked to tell a tough-guy story of how he once got rid of a pick-up—a sailor—by dribbling the man’s clothes out of the window of a fifth-story walkup. He always concluded the story with the same alliterative flourish: Fucked and feted, now get out, I said to him. It always made her wonder exactly how the poor sailor had been “feted,” but one never asked about the precision or accuracy of detail in Jack’s stories; like porridge in a poor house, it was doled out with stingy merit, if at all.
She risked another look at Marian: rumpled peroxide hair, shoulder and back shockingly pale. Somehow the nightglow of the bar and street had given her the rich flesh tones of a Titian. (Didn’t she say she was an art director somewhere?) Now she was drained by daylight, the mysteries of night and sex conveniently whitewashed away. Lamplighter of the world.
“Don’t suppose I could get breakfast out of the deal.”
Harper said nothing. No amount of musing over the etiquette in these situations could help.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
“Grits?” If that did not get rid of her, nothing would.
Marian barked out a laugh. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I never joke about food.”
She was good at the deadpan thing. Marian did not know whether to laugh or apologize.
Somehow in between the washing up and the dressing, a compromise was reached: Marian would get some rolls from the bakery on 7th & 59th, and some eggs, and Harper would cook up a pile of eggs. She called it that: a pile of eggs. Not that Harper was unfamiliar with the phrase, but this tough-girl posturing seemed faintly out of tune with the harmony of Marian’s slow, cautious grace: The careful way she draped her watch over her wrist before fastening it, the firm application of her palm to iron out the stubborn wrinkles of her skirt, and her calm deliberation of the very room itself, as every meager corner was scrutinized for possessions that, in reality, had not been missed.
While brushing her hair she revealed pale, slim underarms once more and in that moment Harper was struck, quick and sharp, by what she had first noticed about Marian: She liked the way the girl moved. Marian had navigated the crowded bar like a budding toreador—archly paused and poised at all the right junctures, avoiding the blind collisions, the penumbra of her skirt touched not a single soul. Then the way she said Campari—drawled with confidence and punctuated with a brisk command: on the rocks.
Harper started to laugh.
Marian’s mouth twitched before surrendering to giggles. “What on earth are you laughing about?”
“I can’t remember your name.” Harper confessed it with shocking ease. “It is Marian, isn’t it?”
“No, it’s Matilda.”
“Well, damn. I am sorry.”
“And I would be sorry too if my name were Matilda—I’m joking. You’re right. It’s really Marian.”
“Good. I like that. It suits you.”
“I guess this means you weren’t as drunk as I thought you were last night.”
“Not drunk now, are you? You’re still quite chatty.”
“It’s just that I can’t abide awkward silences.” Another confession. Two in one morning. God knows what she will admit to over breakfast.
“Comes with the territory. This territory.” Marian’s nod encompassed the entire night, and the morning thus far. “I know that sounds terribly jaded, but—“ She stopped, fussed with her purse, relegating a handful of bobby pins and a hair clasp to its depths, and snapped the bag shut. “I’ll be back.” Before leaving she paused, hand on doorknob. “Oh. Promise me one thing.”
“No promises before coffee.”
“Just a little one.”
Marian gave her one last wry look. “Don’t ruin my eggs.”
The door closed and the emotional precipice that she found herself dangling from meant only one thing: she faced a long hard fall. And over a goddamned Yankee at that.