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Authors: Kate Walbert

The Sunken Cathedral

BOOK: The Sunken Cathedral
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For Rafael

Our identity is a dream. We are process, not reality, for reality is an illusion of the daylight—the light of our particular day.

Loren Eiseley

I

T
he water rushed the low bank, its first destruction the unbinding of the strange bound sticks that had for years appeared along the West Side Highway bike path, sticks crisscrossed atop stones stacked in ways that suggested they meant something to someone. In an instant the water broke it all down, the detritus swiftly clogging the already clogged drains as the river rose—fast, there was pressure there, volume and shifting tides, currents, swells—over the West Side Highway bike path, flooding the recently resodded Hudson River Park, the roots of its sycamores and maples, ornamental cherry and dogwood too shallow to grip. The trees toppled and bobbed, knocking in a surging logjam the limestone foundations of the once tenement art galleries, the red-brick churches and garages, and too numerous to count glassy condo towers—each a flimsy envelope leaking carbon, heat, cooled air in summer. Now, capable of resisting nothing, their glass panes pop and shatter like so many bottles lobbed to the sidewalk, the ones that remain reflecting the darkening sky and the tempest of the day and the rising swirl of water as the higher, richer tenants stand in black silhouette.

Helen puts her hands into the rush of water. She knows it is unstoppable; ridiculously unstoppable. Too soon the famous buildings will buckle and go under just as easily as she did a little girl at the great waterfall at Great Falls. She went under in her daisy two-piece, her hard, pale body tight and smooth as the water that knocked her breath out, Great Falls too rough, her mother had warned. She could still hear her mother’s warning somewhere far away, distant as church bells.

She had known all along, her mother was saying.

What the hell had they been thinking? her mother was saying.

What the hell had any of them been thinking?

II

S
imone had the idea: she might finish Henry’s last canvas if she knew a little something—think of the poetic justice, the symmetry! Wasn’t Roebling’s widow the one who actually
built
the Brooklyn Bridge? She had read it, Simone said. She was sure she had. Marie had no clue but then again, things like this never interested her—details and dates, the particularities of history. She had only agreed to accompany Simone to Twenty-Seventh and Sixth, to the decrepit-looking building that housed the School of Inspired Arts, out of their long friendship or, rather, out of a certain habit of loyalty. Standing at the battered door,
SCHOOL OF INSPIRED ARTS
written in blue ink and Scotch-taped above an arrow that reads
HERE
, Marie hopes Simone will change her mind, hopes Simone will forget this plan and suggest home, though Simone persists, pressing the buzzer once and then again until someone releases the lock and she pushes in.
I

“Come on,” Simone says, the elevator in the tiny vestibule predictably out of service, the handrail up the stairs worn and sticky—Simone commenting on the different smells—lasagna?—of the passing establishments until they reach the top, or sixth floor, the office of the School of Inspired Arts or, rather, its founding director, Sid Morris, his smock neatly folded on a metal chair, his small suitcase packed and ready at his feet. “In the unlikely event of an emergency,” he says, ushering them in, smiling as if he’d been waiting all along and here they were.

Simone introduces herself, explaining to Sid Morris why they have come and how they have no artistic training, per se, but believe they might, even at this more advanced age—and here Simone clears her throat—be advised on the principles of color and composition. Marie stands a bit behind, trying to gauge whether Sid Morris considers them ridiculous old women in boiled wool coats and solid pumps or potential students or, oddly, both. They might be both, or other: schoolgirls in pleated skirts and white blouses, Peter Pan collars pressed and starched by mothers only dimly remembered as seamed stockings washed and hung to dry on the line, hairpins clenched in pursed lips. Blue eyes, Marie thinks now. Mother had blue eyes.

“In short,” Simone says, Sid Morris standing and jingling what sounds like change in his pocket but what Marie will later learn is an enormous ring of keys, “we are happy to join a class, or participate in whatever way possible. You do, I should note, come
highly
recommended.”

This Marie knows to be a bald-faced lie. Simone has found Sid Morris on the community pinup board in Chelsea amid the flyers advertising housekeepers and the guy who for years has promised, a bit hysterically, to teach you to “Speak Spanish like a Native!” She has a way, Simone, of flattering; arriving for their weekly dinner at the Galaxy diner (Friday, rice pudding) or a theater date (only musicals, their hearing) to marvel at Marie’s dress or shoes—an old pair she dusted from her closet last minute. “But they’re new! They simply are!”

“Recommended,”
Sid Morris repeats.

“Highly,” Simone says.

“Lovely word,” Sid Morris says. “One of my favorites.”

Sid Morris looks as Marie expected: unshaven face, tangle of eyebrows, beret for effect, and color smudged on his forehead. He’s as old as they are, a bit stooped but otherwise compact, fit, even, so that calisthenics are likely involved—dumbbells, jumping jacks, perhaps even one of those lumbar belts.

“That and
reckoning, restorative,
” he says.

“The three
r
’s,” Simone says.

Are they flirting? Marie thinks. She wouldn’t be surprised.

“Tell you what, Miss Simone and—”

“Marie,” Marie says. She forgot to introduce herself and Simone had barged ahead, anyway. Now the three stand in Sid’s small office, the smell petrol and turpentine and cigarettes, the look nothing more than a metal desk shoved against a cinder-blocked wall and a chair of the kind more frequently found abandoned on side streets—
TAKE ME I’M YOURS
! Scotch-taped to its clawed leather seat. Above this a reproduction of a predictable Van Gogh—sunflowers—and an industry calendar, its days x-ed in the kind of monthly countdown found in certain workplaces. To what end? Marie thinks.
The
end? Sid Morris has already x-ed out his day and it is not yet noon.

“Pleasure,” Sid Morris says, shaking her hand, his smile a line of stained teeth. He turns back to Simone and continues. “I don’t often do this so late in the game. With beginners,” he says, referring to Henry’s canvas now offered for view: the Brooklyn Bridge, sketched in charcoal gray, the sky the background along with other unidentifiable forms: billows of smoke or possibly gathering thunderclouds. It would have been Henry’s right to paint gathering thunderclouds, sick as he was, sick as he knew himself to be. Perhaps he cavorts in them now, in relief. He is in relief, Simone has said, not
dead,
exactly, but unseen; or did she say, It is a relief?

Oils a recent transition, Simone is explaining. He began with white, as white is everything when seen—whatever that means, it’s something she read—and then introduced blues and reds, the shadow colors, he had called them, though one traditionally would think gray, she says.

“Uh-huh,” Sid Morris says.

He expressed interest in shadows, Simone says, specifically the work of Turner, those soft colors. Would you call them soft colors? Turner’s minimal palette. Could you call it a minimal palette?

Sid Morris stands back and crosses his arms, impatient. Where does he have to go? He has already x-ed off the day.

“Very well,” he says, interrupting. “I have a Thursday group. We recently lost a few of our regulars—”

“I’m sorry,” Simone says.

“They left town,” Sid Morris says.

“Oh,” Simone says.

“It’s advanced,” he says. “I mean in skill,” he adds. “It might take some time to catch up. There’s a model, that kind of thing.”

“We’re quick learners,” Simone says.

“I don’t doubt,” Sid Morris says. He looks at Simone in a too-familiar way, as if he understands her intention to suggest something more magnificent. A certain gesture all it takes with Simone, who still sleeps with lotioned hands in yellow dishwater gloves, her hair set, eyebrows pencil-drawn just so: a GI wife. Henry—4th Infantry—had found her huddled in a coal cellar. Coaxed her out with a chocolate bar. He liked to tell the story: A feral cat, he would say. Lice. Scabies. Do you know scabies? Rhetorical question. Marie had also survived the war, that black, foul soap that left your scalp raw. But Henry liked to tell the story: how Simone, still a teenager, wore a dress of her mother’s, silk, shreds, once her favorite green.

*  *  *

Thursday and Marie and Simone cast out again for the School of Inspired Arts, not so great a distance from Marie’s brownstone in Chelsea, a fashionable neighborhood filled with gay men and dogs in stylish coats and today, due to the drizzle, matching booties. A Tibetan nanny pushes a plastic-sheathed stroller over the slick sidewalks, its rider a wide-eyed Caucasian baby, his mouth clamped on a pacifier. Marie links her arm in Simone’s and the two, hunched with age, their hair tinted a prettier, pinker gray, make their slow way east and north.

Marie had been the most reluctant to leave Brooklyn, Abe insisting they could be pilgrims in Chelsea, where he had found the brownstone for cheap, an SRO with a Monticello banister—he a student of these things—intricate molding, tin ceilings, a deep backyard, and a stained-glass window where, if you craned a little, you had a view of the Empire State Building. On certain nights, looping his long arm around Marie’s shoulders, he would pull her in to see the famous landmark through the stained glass, swearing that the spire—he always called it a spire, as if it were a church or holy place—looked even more magnificent seen through blue, or yellow. Years later, when the persons in charge began to light the spire itself—to save the birds, she had heard—Abe claimed he had known all along its need for color.

Behind them lived a piano teacher—Mrs. Stein. In the early summer evenings Marie and Abe would hear the single notes of the beginners from the parlor floor of Mrs. Stein’s brownstone, windows open to the breeze, the beginners playing, then stopping, playing, then stopping, Mrs. Stein tapping their wrists with a ruler—that kind of woman, maybe Stern, in fact, maybe she was Mrs. Stern—instructing them to begin, again. Always to begin, again, the single notes, the same pattern, memorized by every child. She and Abe listened and watched as Jules dug in his sandbox beneath the cherry that finally grew, though at first it seemed it would never, stuck in the mud, a sapling she had bought from one of the wholesalers on Twenty-Eighth: the blossoms a promised pink. Abe built Jules a sandbox at its roots and in late spring would shake a spindly limb and make pink rain.
II

*  *  *

The model, a too-thin girl with a tattoo of a crucifix on her arm and a serpent up her backside, drops her pose to stare as the two finally take their places—late, again, and this their fifth week—at their easels in the half circle, the other students mostly middle-aged, raincoated, scarfed, a collection of wet smells, furtive cigarettes, coffee. Among them a pharmacist on his lunch hour, a red-stitched Duane Reade across the pocket of his lab coat; a black-haired woman, Helen, with four daughters, who, in a past life, she has told them during Friendly Break, labored as an art historian; a young man who never smiles.

They unlock their tackle boxes as the model settles back, arms over head, eyes closed, lying on the broken-down divan pushed so close to the radiator Marie worries it might burst into flames; she can only imagine the egress. To her left, Helen appears absorbed in her submerged skyscrapers—the Woolworth Building, Rockefeller Center, the once Twin Towers—fish circling their windows. Did this have to do with global warming? The rising sea level? A foot before the end of the next decade! Jules told her just last week. “And you’re in flood zone A!”

Marie has no idea. She thinks to ask Helen but she has learned that talking is strictly forbidden before Friendly Break, Sid Morris wandering among them like a trainer among poised seals, stopping to make a suggestion or tap a shoulder or once, even, to stand very close to Simone and whisper something Marie could not make out. In the background, classical music plays from a paint-splattered radio, the New York station with the ancient announcer more frequently heard in doctors’ waiting rooms and other places where signs prohibit the use of cell phones—the last bastions of Beethoven or Chopin or, on racier days, Shostakovich.

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