--- C A R O L A N N A N D E R S O N
I tend to be distracted easily, but that day I was like Alice following the rabbit and free falling into my own grief. Really, though, at the time I thought it just an ordinary day, starting with a very ordinary errand.
I left my condo and started out of the garage toward the street. Upon reaching the corner of Willow and 15th streets, I swung the car into the right lane as I always do on my way to The Guthrie. The intersection appeared to be more congested than usual; traffic didn’t move in any direction, though the light was green on 15th. Those of us in the right lane on Willow could easily turn on red as spaces in the oncoming traffic occurred. But on this particular afternoon, even the pedestrian traffic stood like totems on their respective corners.
I spotted a young woman coming out of Loring Park who looked like that rock star, the one who tore up the photograph of the Pope some years back? This woman’s head was cropped nearly as bald as the rock star’s; she had large eyes, egg-shell skin, and, though the temperature was nearing a humid 90 degrees, she wore a black leather mini-skirt and heavy rubber-soled boots fetchingly laced up to her knees. She also wore a sheer black lace top over a black – bustier, I believe it’s called.
At any rate, fleetingly, I thought the traffic had become stuck so people could stare at this female marvel. But I reconsidered, realizing that such dress is hardly unique in urban centers anymore. Moreover, a new law recently passed in our city, which, of all things, prohibits ogling. Yes! It, the law, received quite a bit of national attention, even getting a sound bite on the evening news programs.
Apparently, ogling is staring luridly for more than ten seconds at a member of the opposite sex, as defined by the Minnesota State Legislature. I felt quite sure I’d already broken the new law, having been at the intersection for at least twenty seconds, when I ascertained the true source of the traffic stoppage. A young blond man, agitated, and wearing a full-length lavender bathrobe, scampered about the center of 15th Street. The robe flared out behind him as he whirled this way and that. He wore perfectly respectable gray slacks and what appeared to be a black silk shirt under the bathrobe, I should add.
He acted very, well, BUSY, as he darted back to the sidewalk in front of two red brick apartment buildings. A car going east on 15th Street took the opportunity to proceed through the intersection. The car, I couldn’t help but notice, was a red Plymouth Duster, not unlike one I junked several years ago after my mother ran it to its limit. Well, she wasn’t my mother exactly; actually, she was my aunt, but that’s quite another story. She could have afforded any car she wanted but held to the belief that driving a “jazzy” car just courted trouble. I must admit to being astonished there was one of these Dusters still in operating condition.
Anyway, I watched as the red Duster made its way into the intersection only a few feet before the young man reappeared pushing a grocery cart loaded down with brown paper sacks. I surmised the sacks were from Lund’s since they were of the type used by that store: sturdy brown paper ones with built in handles, very well designed for the urban shopper. However, I was not close enough to see any writing on the sacks or the color of the writing that would have made their identity clearer to me. (Lund’s has green writing on its sacks in several languages, attesting to the diversity of our city.) The red Duster screeched to a halt and a dark haired man driving it stuck his head out the window and shouted at the blond man in the lavender bathrobe.
‘Get the,’ well, you know, ‘out of the street,’ you so and so. The dark haired man was quite graphic here, chiding the bathrobe man for being grossly unparented. The bathrobe man stamped his foot at the red Duster like a bull at Pamplona, owning the road, and daring anyone to get in his way. The bald woman in the mini skirt got a big chuckle out of the sight of the bathrobe man’s feistiness.
This being a most civilized city, not one horn blared during this entire encounter, and only the driver of the red Duster drifted into incivility for that one short moment. So, basically, a good many of us, about eight or nine drivers, sat patiently in our cars, some (like me) tapping on the steering wheel or dashboard, some picking up or rearranging papers on the seats next to them, others unwrapping gum or talking to their children, all the while keeping one eye on the show in the intersection.
We Minneapolitans, as we like to call ourselves, have quite a bit of practice waiting like this. It’s the way we do it in the metered lanes our city uses to regulate the flow of cars, one by one, out onto the highway system. Really, if your city doesn’t use metered lanes on its highway entrances, you would be most astonished to see how well it works. People can be remarkably orderly given the right circumstances and structure.
I, for one, have found this to be accurate for myself following some health problems I’ve had over the years. Structure is indeed the key. Follow a schedule. Moderation in all things. Of course, I’ve some difficulty with the food thing, but that is also one of my structures: indulge in simple pleasures and only in ways that do not harm you or anyone else. It’s quite easy and fulfills so many promises I’ve made to those I love.
Well, the bathrobe man, given his leeway to do as he pleased, finally pushed his grocery cart toward Loring Park, ramped it onto the sidewalk and toddled down a pathway toward Loring Pond. His robe flared as his rather large feet, encased loosely in those wonderfully comfortable Birkenstock sandals, paddled up behind him. I can’t wear them anymore, sandals that is. I’ve gone into an actual orthopedic variety, extra-wide walking shoe, more’s the pity.
The young man’s gait, I saw, looked very like an unruly child or a rambunctious puppy that hadn’t grown into his paws. He moved rather like a naïve child playing dress-up and imitating the determination of a parent going off to a high-powered career. I had the eeriest feeling the robe had transformed his normal personality.
Such a transformation happened to me recently when I rented a costume from The Guthrie to wear to a Masked Ball Fund Raiser at Market Square. It was a very important fundraiser to support AIDS research and awareness, a cause quite close to my heart. Usually a quiet and rather shy man, I transformed into the authoritative, though distinguished and ever courteous, circus ringmaster my costume evoked. I had a remarkably active evening, demanding and being granted dances with all the elderly single women, and even a few of the younger married ones.
I’m a very elegant ballroom dancer, if I do say so myself, and so is my sister Mona who lives in New York. Auntie raised us, you see, after we lost our parents in a car crash when we were sweet little toddlers. Our mother, auntie’s sister, had wanted us to learn to dance. Auntie told us that and that we had to promise to honor our mother’s wishes. Auntie saw to it we took lessons as children.
Mona puts together a little soiree every year at the Rainbow Room and invites me so we can keep in practice. She loves to say that she is from the Big Apple while I, her little brother, am from the Mini-Apple. We enjoy our New Year’s annual reunion enormously, but I must confide that evening at Market Square was, for me, even more enjoyable than the Rainbow Room.
Thinking about the Masked Ball ignited in me the spark I felt that night in my costume. My curiosity about the young man’s destination pulsed in me like a fever over which I had absolutely no control. I sensed both danger and innocence in him that made it difficult for me to stop watching his descent down the path. As I finally made the turn onto 15th Street, the one errand I had to run, to exchange some theater tickets to a date later in the season, seemed utterly senseless.
I had to stop again as a large green Lexus sedan edged its way out into the slow moving traffic at the rim of the park near the Church of the Cathedral of St. Mark, which, I am proud to say, is my church. I frequently play my cello there; it’s part of my donation to the good work that church does in our city.
Anyway, I took the opening of such a convenient parking space to be a sign. I could tell that parallel parking my old square Volvo would be a cinch in the oversized space; so I slid into it, got out and locked the doors. I took a moment to adjust my beret in the reflection in the driver’s side window and hitched my khakis up over my yellow cotton turtleneck, which had edged out from the back of my belted waist. I wore an old belt and sadly noticed the progression of my expanding waistline etched into the leather. I was down to the second notch, but I do find food such a comfort that soon I’ll be shopping for a new belt I suppose.
I proceeded across the lawn in the same direction I’d observed the young blond man walk. I often walk in Loring Park for exercise and have noticed the consistent park visitors segment into little quasi-neighborhoods in various sections surrounding the pond. The public tennis courts attract the young (mostly thirty-ish, mostly white bread) sandy haired, trim professionals; then the basketball courts attract more thirty-ish but mostly black, very muscular, athletic types; the families with young children sit around the huge spouting, water fountain, which for all the world looks like a giant dandelion gone to seed; and the Native Americans, men mostly, many homeless, sit on a grassy slope up from the basketball courts where the ubiquitous geese also congregate.
It is on the grassy slope with the bare chested Native American men that I spotted the young blond man in the lavender bathrobe. One of the men stood next to the bathrobe man while the other three sat, holding their knees, looking at the pond and only occasionally staring over their shoulders to catch the conversation going on between their friend and the bathrobe man up the slope from them.
I spied the grocery cart sitting unattended further up the slope on the macadam walking-path and picked up my pace. As I neared the cart, I could hear the young bathrobe man speaking in a pleading manner, though I couldn’t make out his exact words. I watched as he swayed back and forth, hopping from one foot to the other as he waved his arms.
The Native American man stood downhill from the bathrobe man. Because of his vantage point, he stared up at the manic young man. The Native American man, however, was large and I would judge that he was taller, and certainly heavier, than the bathrobe man. In fact, as I got closer, I recognized him. I’m ashamed to say that I pass him quite regularly on my to rehearsals at Orchestra Hall. He and his friends can be found in the warm weather washing in the reflecting pools around Peavey Plaza, though of course the authorities discourage this practice, if they happen to be in the area. The men often panhandle as well, but some new laws soon to pass by City Council number their days of doing this.
What I’m ashamed to say is that I pulled a rather patronizing stunt once when this group approached me. I had never given this man or any of the others any money, but once when I was in quite a rush, I angrily pushed a bag with two Bruegger’s bagels and a cup of coffee into his hands. It was quite a sacrifice for me, actually; I do enjoy my second breakfast. Still, the man surprised me more than I surprised myself. He surprised me twofold: first by laughing good-naturedly at my rather aggressive action (for me anyway), and secondly, by thanking me most graciously, saying his name and giving me a name.
‘Leonard thanks you, Music Man,’ he had said smiling in a kindly manner. How he knew I was a musician startled me at the time, though, of course my coming and going regularly through Peavey Plaza to Orchestra Hall, and my beret, I guess, was a giveaway. I started wearing the beret when I became hairless as a lemon, head to toe. Alopecia, it’s called, is one of the ailments I’ve managed to structure into my life. Edo let me wear the beret even during performances, though I’m not sure what our new conductor will say.
You might think Leonard knew I was a “music man” because he’d seen me carrying my instrument case. However, I had long ago resorted to two instruments, one, which I keep at home, to practice and one at Orchestra Hall for performances. My dear partner, Sullivan, bought me the second cello to allow me to do this. Hence, I never carry any music case back and forth across Nicollet Mall from my building. At any rate, Leonard and his friends, I surmised, had built their knowledge of me like the hunters who were their ancestors: by watching my tracks.
“Hey, Music Man,” Leonard yelled over the shoulder of the lavender robe. The young man stood directly in Leonard’s view of me, but Leonard spotted me nonetheless. He had to lean to one side to gain eye contact. “This boy needs help. You know him?”
As I began to reply, the young man started flapping his arms up and down and loping around Leonard. He made a neat little circle the way a puppy unaccustomed to a leash might. Leonard was the owner, standing solidly in the center, his very presence a practice in calm.
“No, no, no, no, no,” the young man chanted.
“What does he want, Leonard?” I projected and enunciated as though I were the ringmaster at the circus.
“He wants us to buy all the food he’s brought in that cart.” Leonard nodded toward the cart and raised his eyebrows. “He wants us to buy it and give it to our people.” If this had been a television sitcom, Leonard’s raised eyebrows would have had a laugh track dubbed over them.
“Ah,” was all I could think to reply. I walked down the slope leaning back to keep my balance. My belt tugged at my waist. By the time I reached Leonard, the young man stood still again. His hands dug into his pants pockets; the robe hung like a morning suit down the back of his legs; his eyes stared blankly out across the pond. I noticed the youthful rosiness of his cheeks, the guileless bounce and shine of his short blond curls aloft his narrow forehead. His face was long and his features streamlined, the kind of face which startles at first like when you come across one of those strange slender dogs, a Russian wolf-hound I think they’re called.
Surprisingly, he stood a bit taller than both Leonard and me, which put him over six feet at least. But his slender physique made him seem smaller. And wonder of wonders, now that I was closer to him, I observed about an inch of reddish blonde stubble on his cheeks. The coarseness of the stubble made me aware that, though boyish in his demeanor, this lad was probably more into his late 20’s, or even early 30’s, than what I had originally registered him as: a slacker whose coffee supply had run low, or a youngish Gen-X twenty-something, or even younger than that.
“We don’t want his food,” Leonard said to me.
“Well, why not, Leonard?” I said. “I could give him a couple of dollars for it and you could take the cart over to the Cathedral.” I nodded toward the south and St. Mark’s. “Or to the Basilica.” I nodded to the north side of the park at St. Mary’s, a far bigger and more impressive structure than my church, dominating the north edge of the city. I knew Leonard and his friends often took advantage of the Sunday evening meals provided on a rotation basis by the city churches. “Someone would accept the food and put it to good use.”
“He can bring it over himself.” Leonard said.
The young man was listening, I could tell, but he stood very still as he continued staring out across the pond.
“Ah, yes indeed,” I said. “We hardly know where the food came from, do we?” I said this now because even though the sacks were from Lund’s, upon closer inspection, it was clear that the sacks and their contents were used goods. The paper was crumbled and the groceries looked as though they’d been tossed in lickety split. One sack showed moisture wasting away its sides. I drew myself together and stepped up to the young man.
“Young man, young man,” I said, “where did you get all this food from?” I thought a direct question best.
He turned his head toward me without shifting his body in the slightest. “From her,” he said. “She doesn’t need it anymore and I need the money.”
“Yes, I see,” I said, though of course I didn’t. “And why is that?”
“She’s gone. Deserted me.” He began hitting his forehead with the closed fists of both his hands.
“Who deserted you? What do you mean?”
He turned toward me and his countenance softened. “My mother. She’s been dead and buried for one week now. I’m all alone. So alone.” He whispered the last two words.
“Oh dear,” I said. I heard one of Leonard’s friends belch.
“The groceries are from her refrigerator. I have to clean out her apartment, and I just knew she wouldn’t want any of it to go to waste. There’s no one to help me. No one.” He started hitting his forehead again. I couldn’t bear to see such a lovely face bruised.
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, do stop that, son. Please.” And to my surprise, he did. “Look, I’ll take you back and give you a hand. We can call some people from St. Mark’s; I’m sure there are lots of people who would like to help you.”
He looked me directly in the eyes then for the first time. His blue eyes paled around two eerily small black dots. He smiled and I saw the glistening white of his rather small but perfectly formed teeth. “I’m Jonathan,” he said, extending the hand of a pianist if ever I saw one. Slender fingers. Long. A wide palm. He grasped my hand and shook it. His grip was weak and his skin damp.
“Vincent Gabriel, at your service,” I said.
“Like the angel,” he said.
“What? Oh, you mean the Gabriel part. Well, yes,” I said, “yes, I’ve heard that before.”
I convinced Jonathan to roll the cart over to a large waste bin. We tossed in all the sacks. One was soaked through with rotting lettuce and wet browned celery that had begun to stink in the hot sun.
He told me the cart belonged to his mother’s apartment building. We returned it to the lobby of one of the red brick apartment buildings where I originally saw him, and we took the elevator up to the top floor. The building went up only five stories.
I couldn’t see my building through the front window in the hallway, but imagined it rising from the pavement on the other side of Loring Park. My condo, which I shared with my aunt after Sullivan died, has central air and faces east, away from the hot afternoon sun. I longed to be there in my comfortable recliner eating some chocolate Hagen Daaz, but I felt I had indeed been called to help this stray young man.
The door to his apartment was unlocked. Jonathan pushed it open and then slammed it shut once we were inside. He waved his arm across a mostly empty living room. Parquet floors, high vaulted ceilings. The windows looked out into the next building so the room was quite dim. The open window framed a view of red bricks across an alley.
The room contained neither floor lamps nor any overhead fixture. The window provided the only source of light. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed a grand piano in one corner of the large room. “Well, well, Jonathan, I thought you might be a pianist!” I declared.
Jonathan had disappeared to the right of the piano through an archway that went into a kitchen. I was pleased to see he had discarded the bathrobe, throwing it across a red velvet Victorian settee that sat next to the piano at an angle. In front of the settee teetered an old wooden card table. The rest of the room was bare. My footsteps echoed as I took a few tentative steps toward the piano.
A door stood open to a bedroom on my left. Brightly lit by an overhead fixture, a wall of mirrors on the far side of the bedroom reflected a king size bed covered with a bright yellow duvet. One of the mirrored sliding doors was open revealing a pile of clothing tumbled into the room. I made out beaded evening dresses and even some fur pieces.
“I’m getting us some tea, Mr. Gabriel,” Jonathan called from the kitchen. I heard the clatter of a teakettle on a stove and knew he meant hot tea not iced.
“Oh, thank you, Jonathan.” I thought that sounded very civilized and was calmed by the thought of a cup of tea, for the society of it if nothing else. We could sit, one of us on the settee and the other on the piano bench and discuss a plan for him to get some help after I heard more of his story.
I scanned the room for a telephone, thinking I would call the Rector at St. Mark’s, but there was no telephone to be found in the living room. I sat at the piano and picked out a Chopin Etude with one hand. We all started on the piano, all of us musicians, at some time or another.
“Very nice,” said Jonathan, appearing with one cup of tea in a fussy china cup and saucer. “I haven’t any milk or sugar or lemon. We threw it all away. Here.”
“Oh, quite all right, Jonathan. Aren’t you having any? Please sit. We must talk.” I was very pleased he had taken off the robe. He looked quite handsome in his slacks and silk shirt.
“NO.” He rushed back into the kitchen.
I always want to believe the best, you see. So I thought his negative answer meant he wasn’t having any tea and that he had gone back into the kitchen to get a glass of water or, better, perhaps some cookies.
Goodness knows the apartment was stifling hot. An ancient window air-conditioner whirred in the far corner of the room, but it didn’t seem to be doing much good. Suddenly, the hot tea was revealed to be a ludicrous idea.
I stood up, the saucer still balanced with my left hand and my right thumb and forefinger hooked around the tiny elaborate handle of the cup. I walked to the archway to peek into the kitchen and see if there was a phone in there. As I reached the archway, I saw Jonathan pulling off his clothes. He had no underwear on at all. Not even briefs. He ripped the buttons off the shirt and walked toward me quite seductively, placing one foot in front of another like a panther moving toward prey, I would say. His motions were definitely now more evocative of a feline than his previous ability to look puppyish. I have to admit he was astonishingly beautiful. Yes. So very lithe and graceful. My heart surged like a wave, I tell you. It pulsed in a way it hadn’t since Sullivan died. I felt my eyes well with tears. I stared, mesmerized and heartsick.
Jonathan opened his arms. He stood only inches from me. I could smell hot flesh and sweat, his and mine. The room swam before me. I felt as delirious as when I hold the most glorious swell on the cello in concert with all the orchestra at its height.
He put his hand lightly on my shoulder and nodded downward. “Hey, angel,” he whispered. “Beautiful, ain’t it? You’d pay for this, wouldn’t-cha, honey?”
I shook my head and closed my eyes. He was beautiful; he really was, but I am on heart medication that has affected me in ways that prevent me from being a full man, you know. And I had promised Sullivan on his deathbed to be very careful. I couldn’t get the words out of my throat, but I backed away and let his hand flop from my shoulder to his hip. My eyes were opened now, and I saw contempt in his face. His shoulders slumped and he shuffled his foot lightly and then more heavily. I backed up further and moved out of the kitchen into the living room.
I still had the cup and saucer in my hand. Sweat dripped down my back and I could feel the headband of my beret soaking up the sweat of my brow. I heard a dish break, and then another. Jonathan had turned toward the cupboards, most of which were opened. He took one dish, or cup, or bowl out at a time and flicked it violently to the orange Mexican tile floor. He preceded each crash by chanting, “He loves me,” crash, then “He loves me not.” Crash again.
I decided to leave then, but I was so frightened I continued toward the door with the cup and saucer still in my hands. I walked back toward the piano so I could put it down there, but thought it might harm the finish. I turned toward the old card table. However, just as I turned in an open position to the entrance into the apartment, the door burst open and three or four blue-suited Minneapolis police crashed into the room, their guns drawn. And, horror of horrors, aimed at ME. I dropped the saucer with a clatter, amplified by Jonathan’s continued breaking of dishes in the kitchen, which the police took to be gunshots.
You know, it might be a dream but I tell you I saw the bullet coming at me; I really did. It wavered. Yes. And then it felt like a fist or a large rock hitting my shoulder and knocking me down. The police said I never let go of the teacup. They said they thought it was a pistol. Well, I suppose I can see it from their perspective.
Jonathan was truly his name, and the woman whose apartment we were in was truly dead. But she had never been Jonathan’s mother. Her widowed husband, a most handsome Mexican American lad, had stopped using it just recently and was currently living in Boston. It turns out his father in law happens to be one of my neighbors in the Loring Green condos. Small world.
It seemed Jonathan had somehow figured the apartment was unused and had simply appropriated it. He had convinced neighbors that the man, Sanchez was his name, had hired him to house-sit; but they became suspicious when they saw furnishings being taken down the freight elevator and stairways – furnishings he apparently had been selling off to support his drug habit.
The day he left the building in the lavender bathrobe put one neighbor into the final snit, though he didn’t call the police until he saw Jonathan come back with me. Imagine! It was I who tipped the balance for the neighbor. He said he thought I must have been a drug dealer!
The worst of it is that the papers have had a hay day with the story. Actually, the news stories gleaned from the police reports haven’t done me any harm. The police have been most understanding and circumspect, thank goodness.
When the police found auntie’s body at the condo, dead in her bed, but looking very peaceful I thought, they had me moved to the Psychiatric unit of the hospital. But, really, I just didn’t quite want to deal with it yet. I’ve always been like that. In good time, you see. No one was hurt by my procrastination. Auntie had drifted into her death so peacefully one night after we’d had such a good talk, the night I promised her I’d give up the cigarette habit for good. I’d brought her a lovely dinner on a tray. Creamed chicken, sprinkled with slivered almonds over toasted homemade bread, my specialty. It had been Sullivan’s favorite too, until he simply existed on hospice cocktails. Auntie loved it when I made that dish for her. But, mostly, she just couldn’t eat anymore. Renal failure was deemed the cause of her death.
Though the police reports have continued to be the official releases to the newspapers, the unfortunate occurrence of the gossip columnist at the Star Trib, C. J., getting hold of them has done me a disservice. ‘What was an esteemed member of the Orchestra doing hospitalized at Abbott-Northwestern for a gunshot wound to the shoulder? More later!’ was all it said, but quite enough to worry us as to how she’ll report the rest of the story unless we can keep it contained somehow.
Mona is here. She says everything will be fine. My dear sister! She has auntie’s lawyers on the case. I WILL dance again, she tells me laughingly at every visit, though it will be a while before I play the cello, she adds more solemnly. She’s also said she wants to take me back to New York with her, permanently. I will miss the Mini-apple so much that I cry every night thinking about it. Or maybe I cry because New York is where Sullivan and I fell in love and began our lovely life together and that can never be recaptured. Or do I cry because of gratitude for Mona, for a way out of the fear of loneliness?
What was it that Jonathan said about my name? Oh yes, Gabriel, the angel. Yes. I keep thinking about that. Gabriel, the one who said to Mary, ‘Be not afraid.’ Sullivan used to say I should be MORE afraid. He made me promise. If only he knew.
And auntie. Vincent Gabriel, my auntie used to call me. Dear, dear auntie, she had the sweetest most melodic voice. Auntie and Sullivan and so many others: I do miss them so.
© crossconnect, inc 1995-2004
published in association with the |
university of pennsylvania's kelly writers house |