Breaking Eggs and Calling Them an Omelette
The girl was draped over the mailbox like Salvador Dali’s Limp Watches, dripping down the blue paint. She was wearing a matching blue dress and he appreciated her white buttocks that pushed out like two frozen supermarket chickens. Why was she on Hester Street imitating a pile of Hefty Bags at one minute after midnight?
“Hey!” He got no response. The funeral service had been a downer and the rain was getting worse, a depressing remembrance of other times, better times.
He poked her, on her hip above one of the chickens.
“Piss off,” the Hefty Bag muttered.
“C’mon.” He tugged at her without any good reason for doing so, except leaving her alone at the curb like castoff furniture was somewhat uncivilized. Two teenagers were standing in the shadows a few doors away, probably smelling fresh meat.
He hoisted the woman up, zombie-walking her over to Rivington. She was good looking, even smelled good as he dragged her up the stoop and into his first floor loft. Very good looking. That was motivation of sorts. Save the good lookers, he thought laying her on his bed. He went into the kitchen space to open a bottle of beer.
Then he forgot his scavenged woman and began drawing. Drawing opened doors to salvation, helping him forget the memorial, the church full of aliens, his brother who had come in from Minneapolis out of atavistic sentimentality. Forget death, the terrorist attacks, Russian invasions, and random acts of horror occurring every day now. He could subsume himself in the plight of Lucy Dingo. She’d make Saltzman sit up and say, “Damn, Mikey, I didn’t think you had it in you. A totally new slant on literature and art!”
Soon, his head fell to the drawing board and he dreamed of Lucy. There was trouble in Cambridge. Alexander, the fallen angel, was dead. The dwarves had freaked and run amok in Boston. This was a job for Lucy. She wasn’t dead. Just hiding out until the time ripened and the fullness found her.
“Who the hell are you and where am I?”
Mike raised his head and looked at the woman in the blue dress. Two questions at once. “Um,” he started, “Rivington Street. I’m Mike. I rescued you. From the rain, the street where you were decorating a mailbox. And some teenagers that were eyeing you.”
“And you want me to say thank you? My knight in shining armor?” Something distracted her and she pointed at the drawing board. “You’re a goddamn starving artist. You guys can’t even rescue yourselves.” She walked around the loft touching shelves and tables.
“You have a name?”
She turned. “Calliope Katsanakis. Most people call me Kelly.”
“I’m going to make coffee. Want some?”
“What I really want to know is where’s my pocketbook? You go through it and then dump it in a trash can?”
“Purse? By the bed, I think.” He admired the fact that she didn’t look hung over, that the dress emphasized her curves, which were in all the right places, that even her tousled bed hair didn’t look too bad. Her breasts under the tight fabric looked like ripe apples, perhaps Golden Delicious. Be interesting to sketch her portrait as a still life of fruit, as Lucy Dingo incarnate.
“Comic books!” She laughed. “You draw comics!”
“Hey, I’m not peddling my butt on the street. Look at you last night. Too drunk to stand up and looking like a ten-dollar hooker. You coulda gotten in trouble.”
“My ass is worth a lot more than ten bucks, buddy,” and she put her face a few inches from his nose. “My apartment costs two large a month, I got a bank account and a retirement account, vacationed in the Bahamas two weeks ago….”
“Excuse me for being a lowly artist, but I’ve published two — count ‘em — two graphic novels and even been reviewed in the Times.” He inhaled her womanly scent, surprised she didn’t smell like a wet cat.
“Well, la-de-dah. So where’s my coffee?”
“You insult me and then ask for breakfast?”
“You owe me. You saved my life, so according to custom — Chinese or something — you have to at least feed me.”
Twenty minutes later, he watched her wolf down bacon and an omelet, rip off pieces of toast, and wash breakfast down with orange juice and coffee.
“Thank you. Very good. So why’s a grown-up drawing kids’ comics?”
Mike drew a deep breath. “I said, they’re graphic novels. Comics were Roadrunner walking off the cliff. Suddenly realizing he’s in mid-air, he drops a hundred feet and gets up with stars circling his head. I weave together words and art to unravel the stuff of dreams. I can capture a gesture, a glance, a suggestive nuance. Make anything happen. Start an earthquake. Bring a new character back from the dead. Only the readers change, and they pay twenty-seven bucks for a hard cover edition of Lucy Dingo. It’s an allegory of our dystopian culture — a better piece of reality, metaphorically speaking, than you give selling your butt.”
“My ass is not an eleemosynary institution. It pays my bills”
Mike stared. “Where’d you learn that big word?”
“Bennington College. Thirty-six thousand bucks worth of college loans to prove it.”
He squinted. “What kind of name is Calliope?”
“More coffee,” she said holding out her mug. “The muse of poets, daughter of Zeus. Too much for your little brain? She taught Orpheus singing, was the inspiration for Homer’s Odyssey.”
“So why are you hooking men when you have an education and” — he waved his hand — “could work in some ivory tower of education or commerce?”
“I’m not a hooker. I’m a call girl. There’s a difference. But my daytime job is none of your business. Not going to have you stalk in with ink all over your shirt asking me for a date.”
“I don’t think I’d do that.” He considered the waves of paranoia that enveloped him each time he ventured north of 23rd Street. It was his agoraphobia, fear of the marketplace full of people, any place where claustrophobic anxiety overwhelmed him. “We’re too different. You see, you’re taking the path of least resistance. Doing your nighttime workout knocking off Johns from Minneapolis to pay the bills. I’m trying to find deeper meaning. Categorize philosophical theses.”
“The old existential meaning-of-life-crapola?” She cupped her chin in her hand and examined him like a slab of meat in a supermarket. “I used to think about that a lot – when I was fifteen years old. No, you’re ordering chicken nuggets at the banquet of life.”
“The ‘why me?’ questions never go away, Calliope.” He was snarling now. “My kid sister died of cancer last year. My Dad ran off when he lost his job in the recession. My Mom had a drinking problem and I was her go-to guy until the Social Security came in each month. Don’t give me shit about fantasizing. I just draw the story boards and write the lines, looking for an answer, hoping there’s someone out there who’ll say, ‘Yeah, I know what you’re saying. I feel that way myself.’”
“Sorry about all that, but it was that philosopher Bergson or someone who said ‘Shit happens.’”
“Thanks for your middle-class sarcasm, but I don’t need it.”
She got up, went to the sleeping area and came back with her purse, throwing a bill on the table. “Here’s a hundred. Should be enough to pay for breakfast. Sorry I don’t do dishes.”
He closed his eyes. “Just get out of here. I don’t need your shit and I have stuff to do.”
“What’d you mean, your Mom had a drinking problem?”
“Just leave. Please.”
She picked up her plate, glass and mug. “Know why I don’t do dishes?” She walked to the sink and threw them in. Mike jumped as he heard something break. “Cause there’s always more where those came from.”
A minute later she slammed the door.
“Calliope,” he said to the empty room. Who was that Helen of Troy? Coming into his life and hijacking his artistic equanimity? Goddamn women. And now he was out of eggs and juice.
Lunch on the Run with Eggroll
The rain leaked dismally from a leaden sky. The city was suffering a suppurating wound as he left his publisher’s office on Canal Street. God was really pissed off about something.
He should have known a legit publisher didn’t have offices — well, just one room — on Canal, but Saltzman was the only one who’d taken his manuscripts and boards. Only one who’d taken a chance on him. Walking out into the rain was less depressing than hearing Saltzman say, “Mikey, you did this Lucy Dingo theme before and it didn’t sell. I’m left with two-goddamn-thousand books being remaindered. Come back with something new.”
“I never got my royalty check for March.”
“Take it.” Saltzman scribbled a check. “Save me a stamp. Look, don’t get mad. Just come up with some new….”
Screw Saltzman. There had to be other publishers. At worst, he could work at his friend Ralph’s graphics firm, lay out corporate brochures, design coffee mugs. The royalty check was worth almost two hundred, so he’d survive awhile. Hong Fat’s on Mott Street was just around the corner. Maybe hot tea, crispy rice soup and something stir-fried would take the chill away.
A finger tap-tapped his shoulder.
“Lunch? You’re buying, of course, to show that you forgive me.”
He whirled to face Calliope withdrawing her finger. She smiled dramatically, as though she were selling toothpaste. Her black hair ought to have looked like seaweed in this rain, but there was a natural wave. Super Sta-Hold hair lacquer, he decided. Acrylic that could also keep your head connected to your shoulders. Apparently, she had also gone home to change the blue dress for black jeans and a black leather jacket. Tight jeans made her legs look exceptionally long and curvy.
“Forgive you? You broke a plate in the sink.” Good-looking women always thought they got a free ride, like praying mantises dancing over the bodies of genuine guys after biting off their heads.
“From my mother’s wedding set. It was irreplaceable.”
“Nothing’s irreplaceable, you nostalgic jerk.” Her hands akimbo on her hips brought up the image of a demented school crossing guard.
“People are irreplaceable!” he shouted. This was one scary woman.
“Well, that’s debatable. “ She took his arm, a Virgil guiding him down the steps to the restaurant. “My manager — my madam, if you will — can find me another date if one has a heart attack or when he’s fired from his company.”
“You are so cynical!”
She smiled broadly. “Cynics are simply idealists with experience. I’ll have a Sprite and some chop suey.”
“There’s no such thing as chop suey. That was invented by American gold miners in the 1850s. It was thrown together by cooks scraping together all the leftover crap in the kitchen. Like a salsa puttanesca whipped up by Italian chefs for the hookers who came in off the streets at 3 a.m. Maybe that’s more familiar to you.”
“Sounds great. I’m just a glutton at heart.”
When their order came, she tucked into it as he pointed out at the plates. “This is cold hacked chicken, these are steamed shrimp, beef lo mein, and this is stir-fried watercress. Start with the shu-mai dumplings. Slow down! There’s soup coming later.”
Was she starving? This woman was an enigma. A case history from Abnormal Psych 101. Maybe a runaway from some charity called Freaks Anonymous.
When she was finished, she wiped her mouth, removing the last of her lipstick. “That was marvelous. I have to learn this stuff.”
Mike nodded. Her face looked more realistic without makeup, as though she had taken off a mask after a Japanese Noh play. “Eating is the one vice you can do three times a day until you’re too old to swallow.”
Calliope leered in return. “If you’re a woman, there’s another vice….”
“Does everything have to be about sex?” He tossed his chopsticks onto the plate. “Don’t you have any deeper thoughts?”
“Well, yes, I’ve been thinking about you — existential thinking,” and she looked at him critically. “You wander down the mean streets of New York, but you’re not really mean. You saved me and would have confronted those hoodlum kids, so I know you’re not afraid, and your soul is unblemished. That’s nice. Rare. You’re a common man, but you’re unusual. Maybe a man of honor. Even more rare nowadays.”
“What a nice speech. Thanks.” He reached out and covered her hand — withdrawing it quickly as though he’d committed a flagrant breach of etiquette.
“So why are you so depressed? So,” she shrugged, “filled with despondency just under the surface?”
“That’s a personal question.”
“Yes, but since you saved my life I think it’s fair to ask.”
“I didn’t save your crappy life. I saved your ass from the creeps that troll the streets after midnight. So you wouldn’t get senselessly mugged and end up as roadkill on Hester Street.”
“Maybe you did save my life. Maybe you should ask me some of those personal questions. Maybe I was going to kill myself last night, so now you’re really and truly responsible for me.”
“You’re making me crazy! Can’t you just act normally without trying to take my life apart?”
“Actually, I was considering it. Killing myself. Some really bad guys are looking for me. I overheard a conversation when I was with a John. Remember the death of that mobster under the Brooklyn Bridge last week? Well, Johnny Four Fingers didn’t accidentally run his BMW off the pier to go fishing.”
“Jesus!” He exhaled loudly.
“Apparently, he was double crossing someone for the Philadelphia mob. I just got a teensy bit drunk, wondering what to do.”
Mike considered her high drama and wondered if she had cribbed it from a TV show. “I think you ought to find a better class of John, someone with a positive career outlook.” He pounded his words onto her the way a butcher would tenderize a tough piece of meat.
He was beginning to see Calliope as a Typhoid Mary of destructive energy, someone who’d shed her problems like cat hair on everyone she came in contact with. These people, not content with being unhappy, wanted to share their depression with everyone they met, basting them in their gooey unhappiness the way you’d slather a wine reduction over a piece of beef.
He threw down a bill, the same hundred she had tossed on his breakfast table. “This’ll take care of the tab. I’m outta here.”
A mélange of anger, regret and disappointment stirred in him like a bouillabaisse of rotten ingredients. The skies opened up with a clap of thunder, seeming to agree with his mood.
“Don’t you even want to take the leftovers home in a doggy bag?” she shouted. “Hey, you forgot your fortune cookies. They’re cheaper than therapy.”
Dinner and Call It a Night
New York was taking on the aura of an Edward Hopper painting, with the rain still sheeting down Sixth Avenue, mixing with a miasma of fog swirling up from the Con Edison steam tunnels under the street. Cabs swooshed wetly south toward the maw of the Lincoln Tunnel and escape to Jersey. Manhattan was an impressionist landscape, realistically and metaphorically, even during the best of weather conditions. Now, death seemed to say, C’mon, you mortals, you’ll love it where you’re going!
With a perfectly straight face, Mike had told the woman at the maître d’s lectern, “A table for one, unless Mayor DeBlasio stops by and asks for me.”
Now he was dry under the awning of the West Village sidewalk cafe. And his glass of Brooklyn Beer, the last of its artisanal winter ale, was dry. Dry was good. Not so good was the fact that his brain also was dry of ideas. He had the characters of his novel clear, down to their toenails, hooves and claws; but they were inanimate, lifeless as clockwork toys that had come unwound.
What would Lucy Dingo have ordered? An angelic potion that frothed over the lip of the glass? He sipped his ale and scanned his phone for messages in a reflexive gesture. Nothing there. No texts, no e-mails, no calls. Nada, nichts, rien. Then, looking up, he saw Calliope walking along Fourth Street with her head down. This was the Queen of Mean, but she was a living, breathing person to fill his loneliness.
“Calliope Katsanakis,” he called to her, “as I live and breathe. You’re still alive.”
“You,” she said tonelessly.
“Buy you dinner?” he asked with false brightness. “We’ll go Dutch treat because we forgive each other. I’ll select a tasty amuse bouche, you order the appetizers, I choose the entrée, and then you get dessert. A simple meal.”
She walked over to the railing and stood with her arms wrapped protectively around her waist. “You confuse me, Mike. Really, I’ve never known anyone like you. You turn my brain into some sort of smoothie coming out of my ears like my head was a blender.”
“C’mon in out of the rain. On your way, tell the lady at the lectern you’re Mayor Bill DeBlasio’s sister. He’s been delayed.”
Calliope was wearing a watch cap over her black hair. With the hip-length leather jacket, she looked like a Village biker chick. She shrugged off the coat, hat and memories of the rain as she plumped down in the chair he had pulled out for her.
“Love your outfit. Sort of Lauren Bacall channeling Marlon Brando.”
“Just get me a drink. Johnny Walker Black, one cube of ice, please. It’s been a bitch of a day.”
“Peace treaty, okay? Pax. Later we can smoke a peace pipe.” He reached out and touched her cold hand, letting it go as if the waitress taking their order was interrupting an intimate scene.
“What do you think the odds are, running into each other in New York three times in one day? This has really got to screw up the cosmic odds. I bet Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed are scratching their heads over this one.”
“You don’t believe in karma? Serendipity? Accidentality?”
“Here’s my drink, and I bet you need a refill,” she said. “I noticed that when your mouth is full you don’t talk as much.”
“Kelly,” he said, using her nickname for the first time, “earlier today, at lunch, you called me an honorable man,” He chose his words as carefully as if he’d bitten into a forkful of steamed trout, watchful that there were no bones that would choke him to death. “But you said it, like, wistfully. Like wishful thinking. Like you weren’t sure.” The words that slipped out of his mouth surprised him in their candor. Was his subconscious taking leave of its senses, hiking out of Mike’s brain without even a goodbye note?
There was a long pause, he watching her while she watched traffic. “Because I’m not an honorable woman.”
“I know. You’re a call girl. Whores don’t really have a heart of gold. That’s just a myth.”
“That wouldn’t make me dishonorable. Just stupid or money-hungry or venal. No, I lied. I’m just a girl who was let go from her job in the magazine business. I was an editorial assistant, but now I’m not. I’m broke. But it’s no lie that I owe 36 thousand in student loans.” She ran her finger around the top of her glass, but didn’t pick it up. “When you found me, I was a little bit drunk and a lot of depressed, just wondering what life was worth.”
“And the mob is going to find you because you know about….”
“No, I lied about that too. To get some sympathy. To make you want to feel sorry for me.”
“Kelly,” he said, “I don’t feel sorry. I thought about you today. How you face up to a hostile world. I feel respect because you show chutzpah, cojones, sang froid.”
“Jesus, you can talk meaninglessly in three languages!” She snorted as a little smile teased the corner of her mouth.
“I’m the one who needs the understanding. It was my Mom who died this week. Her loft I’m living in. She wasn’t a warm and loving mother, but she was the only family I had left except for a brother doing an imitation of a missing person. Taking care of her gave me some purpose because my books aren’t selling. And writing and drawing are the only talents I have.”
This time she lifted the glass, examined the golden whiskey, swirled it and sipped. “New York is a place for lonely people, like some eddy in a stream where all the floating stuff collects and goes around in a circle.”
“Well, maybe the floating objects can meet up and get to know each other.”
“What,” she asked, “what if your next story was about an entire young generation that’s been gulled by the promise of unachievable hopes, shattered by fabricated wars that turn soldiers into monsters of psychosis, suffered under political cynicism unknown since that Roman guy Caligula? And now every moment of their lives is monitored by the same engines of progress that promised improvements.”
“A story torn from the headlines!”
She hunched forward. “But there’s this sympathetic super-woman able to call up miracles and there’s a righteous heroic writer who’s lost his way in the dark underbelly of the country’s economic collapse, our dystopian future and the crushed spirits of the people. Together, they team up and save the forlorn and deserving people.”
A cartoonish light bulb went off over his head. “She’s looking for an opportunity to prove her hypernormal talents…“
“…And he’s seeking resolution from his grief and feeling betrayed by a great loss,” she finished.
“I think it might work. I can visualize the story line.”
“You think I’m ballsy, so I’m going to say something. Ready? Creative pairing.”
“Like those arty carved vegetables sushi chefs do, with their paring.…”
“No, jerk. Pairing, like Lennon and McCartney, Marie and Pierre Curie, Tiger Woods and his caddie.” She hunched over and grabbed Mike’s wrists. “I think and you draw. Being an editorial assistant was just getting my foot in the door to….”
“You know, I think my publisher, Saltzman, needs someone to get him organized. He said he’s looking for an assistant. Someone articulate, classy and organized, but with keyboard skills.”
“You think we could carry this off, this creative togetherness thing? I mean, unless it got too heavy and we had to go our separate ways or we kill each other.”
Mike couldn’t remember the last time a woman had looked at him intently, shooting rays of concentration at his brain. Sincerity was such a rare commodity in New York.
“I’ll choose the appetizers,” he said decisively. “You look at the menu and make up our mind what we’re going to have for the main course.”
She laughed. “Then a little something to tickle our palate, whatever it was you called it.”
“Amuse bouche. French for a little tidbit between courses.”
“You’re speaking of intercourse? That sounds very interesting.”