The Administration Building of Mackenzie Academy is an impressive sight. Gray stone, two stories high with two faux bastions on the front corners, as you ascend the stone steps it would be easy to imagine a volley of musketry catching an unwelcome guest in a cross fire. A bronze plaque on the cornerstone proudly proclaims “HEADQUARTERS 1891”. The academy was originally a military school named in honor of Ranald Mackenzie, a lesser known hero of the Civil and Indian wars. In the nineteen twenties, the school had dropped the military theme, becoming an upscale prep school. The Admin Building is one of many reminders, however, of its past. On this day in the early dusk, the lights shining warmly through the windows were a stark contrast to the cold bleakness outside.
It was December twentieth, 1998, the end of the last day of classes at the Mackenzie Academy, the start of the Christmas break. John Drake had just finished dropping off some papers at the administration office and left the building. He was an American Literature professor at the small private prep school and was looking forward to two weeks of leisure over the holidays. He had nothing to do and was glad of it.
Once outside he inhaled deeply, he loved the feel of cold air in his lungs; it seemed to have a cleansing, invigorating effect on him. Walking down the steps of the Administration building, he crossed the narrow roadway, and began walking across the large open field known as the Common. Originally the Common was the Parade Ground, but soon after the school dropped the military theme and became a prep school the now superfluous Parade Ground was rechristened The Common. In better weather it served the students as a kind of park; a gathering place where touch football was played in the fall, snowballs were tossed around in the winter, baseballs in the spring, and pep rallies were held whenever they were warranted. All the older buildings on campus had been built surrounding it with castellated facades. It was all rather picturesque. Every brochure the school put out displayed at least one image of The Common.
On this night in the early darkness of December, the Common was bereft of both its military bearing and its park like atmosphere. Empty and quiet, with some light snow flurries falling, blown by the wind, melting as soon as they hit the grass, it had a lonely peaceful feel to it. John liked it this way. The same way the cold air seemed to refresh his lungs, this night time stroll home seemed to clear his mind.
He crossed the imaginary line between the campus and the town, two blocks away from his apartment. The houses along the street were decorated gaily for Christmas and the cheering secular lights were a stark contrast to the solemn spiritual darkness of the Common. He liked this too. Walking down the wet street he was already trying to decide what he was going to drink when he got there. Beer was good for a long haul drinking session, it was his usual choice, and wine seemed more holiday like, but tonight he was in the mood for a brandy or two. It seemed like that kind of a night.
Arriving at the house, he went up on the front porch, checked his mailbox and emptied it. Then he went inside, on the stairs leading up to his apartment he saw a package. His landlady must have placed it there earlier, it was too large for his box, the mailman must have left it on the porch floor and Mrs. Smiltrisky probably brought it in when she took in her mail. Picking it up, he saw the return address, it was from Rita. Suddenly he had a nervous feeling in his chest. He went up the stairs to his apartment and set it down on the kitchen table. He was actually reluctant to open it. He took a TV dinner out of the freezer and microwaved it. He ate his meal, ignoring the package. He wasn’t sure why, he just knew there was something about it that unsettled him; he wished it had never come.
Finishing his meal, he went to the closet where he kept his liquor on a top shelf. He paused for a moment before bringing down a bottle of applejack. He decided to drink an American innovation tonight. He sat sipping it in his living room watching the Christmas specials on TV. The alcohol had a steadying effect on him. When he finished the first he decided it was time to see what Rita had sent him. Even then, he thought to himself it’s a Christmas present; if it’s wrapped in Christmas paper, he shouldn’t open it until Christmas Eve at the earliest.
When he ripped off the brown paper outer wrapping he saw he was out of luck; No holiday paper, just a corrugated cardboard box. He opened the end and slid out its contents. Amid wadded up newspaper there was a framed picture. A homemade Christmas card was wedged into it; he removed it and read it. There was a frowning Santa Clause on the face of it and the heading, “Poor Santa, he only comes once a year”, then when he opened it, it stated “And that’s only down the chimney!” Below that in handwritten script, “I finished this about a month ago and I thought you should have it, Luv, Rita.”
He looked at the picture, it was Carol. Done with colored pencil, it was an almost perfect portrait of her. Rita had left nothing out. Though softened, the laugh lines and small crow’s feet on her face were clearly visible. Even the darker streaks in her blonde hair were included. Rita had captured her roommate’s beauty flawlessly, almost as if she understood that it was these very imperfections that had attracted him to Carol in the first place. He always felt it was easy for a young woman to be attractive, but the ones whose looks held into their forties, they were the honest beauties, character lines and all. Then, of course, there was the smile. It was the genuine one, not the one she presented to the world at large, but the one that said she was truly happy, the one he’d fallen in love with.
He poured himself another drink, took the portrait into the living room and set it on top of the television. As he sat there drinking he tried to watch the screen, but his eyes kept moving to the portrait. There was Carol, smiling at him, head slightly tipped, shoulder length hair down with the ever present bangs on her forehead, the way he’d seen her so many times in their brief time together. It was almost as if she were in the room with him. The picture was like a ghost haunting him.
After the third drink, he decided he had to do something about it. Rita had opened the door, welcoming him in; there could be no other reason for her to have sent him the portrait. He felt he had to walk through it. He thought about the possibility of driving to Manhattan that night, but rejected it. By the time he got there it would be late, he had nowhere to stay, plus he was tired, too tired to make the drive especially after drinking. It would have to wait until morning. He had one more drink, and finishing it, he picked up the picture and walked into his bedroom setting it on the dresser.
“Well, Carol honey, tomorrow’s going to be a big day and you don’t even know anything’s about to happen.” Then he added in a lower voice, “I hope I’m not going to be wasting both our time.”
He went to bed and slept fitfully that night, constantly waking up and thinking about what he had to do in the morning; what he should do. In the early pre-dawn he gave it up and got out of bed. Getting out his suitcase, he started to pack for a two day stay. He was pretty indecisive about what to take, placing clothes in, then replacing them.
He was equally uncertain about going at all. He and Carol had parted company on bad terms last August and he wasn’t sure what type of reception he would get. He hoped the months had softened her anger, hoped he could express himself properly, and, most importantly, hoped she would even listen to him. He also felt, however, that Rita had sent him the picture for a reason, that she knew or sensed something about her friend and the situation. He had to find out. If Carol slammed the door in his face, welcomed him with open arms, or was just indifferent to him didn’t matter, at least he would know.
Finally he finished packing. There was much to do, it had all seemed so simple last night. He made himself some breakfast, trying to figure out when would be a good time to call Curt. He hoped to impose on Curt and his family to let him sleep in the spare bedroom of their apartment for a couple of days. There was something fitting in that, it was Curt who had introduced him to Rita last summer; that was what had started this whole thing.
He called Curt, catching him before he left for his office. He quickly explained he was coming to town for a few days and needed a place to stay. Curt had unhesitatingly offered the spare room for as long as he needed it. Then he went downstairs to let Mrs. Smiltrisky know he would be gone to have her take in his mail and the morning newspaper. It was Christmas, he felt he couldn’t go empty handed. Curt was easy, he could grab a bottle of Drambuie from his closet and wrap it. He would have to stop at a mall to get something for Curt’s wife and daughter, and of course something for Rita and Carol. Hopefully, whatever mall he stopped at would have one of those kiosks where they did gift wrapping.
Later that morning, shopping done, he boarded the bus to the city. He’d decided against driving himself, he was simply too tired thanks to the restless night he’d had. Even driving to an Amtrak terminal might have been pressing him. The bus seemed like the best move. He could get some rest and be in the Port Authority building sometime that afternoon. Picking out a seat he settled in, hoping he wasn’t embarking on a fool’s errand. The bus pulled out, he relaxed, looking out the window as the town passed by and thought back to the previous summer, about Carol and what a strange time it had been.
It had all began when he’d decided to take a course at the New School, it hadn’t been all that important, but it was an excuse to spend a couple of months in Manhattan. He’d always been fond of the city, not fond enough to live there permanently but he wanted more than a weekend visit. So, the idea of picking up a few credits in literature and spending a couple of months there seemed to be a natural. It was Curt who arranged for him to sublet an apartment in his building for the summer. It was also Curt and his wife, Marion, who took him to the party.
It was actually more of a gathering than a party. Held in a small avant-garde gallery in the village, it was touted as a chance to meet undiscovered artists and fellow art fanciers.
“A chance to rub elbows with some of the real Bohemians,” Curt had kidded him, “the McCoys, the ones who live for their art; unlike the pseudo-nonconformists who hide out in upstate prep schools.”
“I’m still a free spirit, sometimes I wear a turtleneck to class instead of a shirt and tie. And, hey, I don’t even own a tweed coat with leather patches on the elbow. These thing get you talked about out at Mackenzie, I’ll have you know.”
“Real rugged individualist,” Curt laughed. “Twenty five years ago you’d have laughed at guys like us.”
“Still do,” he replied, “it’s just that now the laughter is directed inward.”
It was a nice affair. The gallery was filled with paintings by local artists, there was a small buffet table set up, filled with deli meats, cheese, and wine. There was a good crowd, patrons of the arts, so to speak, coming and going, constantly replenishing itself. Curt and Marion seemed to know a lot of them. At one point while they conversed with another couple, John wandered off on his own.
Looking at paintings, wine in hand, he paused in front of one of a small lighthouse. Steel girders rose behind the red structure. He smiled to himself; it was the “little red lighthouse” of children’s storybook fame. He stood trying to remember how the story went.
“Do you like it?”
He turned and looked. A woman was smiling back. Light brown eyes, chestnut hair below the shoulders, a short sleeved frilly blouse that accentuated her full bust, John couldn’t help being attracted to her.
“Yeah, it’s nice. It is THE little red lighthouse, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. You really know your kiddie stories.” She paused, “Want to buy it.”
“No, I don’t really want to decorate my walls with childhood memories. I was never that much into the story, even as a kid.”
“Fair enough, what sort of thing do you like?”
“Guess I would have to say landscapes. Pictures of real things, real places, not that the lighthouse isn’t real, but a view of it from across the river would have been more to my liking.”
“I see,” she pointed to a picture on the nearby partition, “maybe something like that?”
He looked over at it; it was a snowscape of what he assumed was Central Park at dusk. It really was impressive, so was the price tag, however.”
“That really is good. I couldn’t afford it, but it’s great.”
“Thanks, that’s one of mine too.”
“You mean you did it or you own it?”
“Both, I guess.” She held out her hand, “Rita Bowers, starving artist, and you’re?”
“John Drake,” he shook her hand, “aging English teacher. I hope I didn’t say anything insulting about the lighthouse picture, I didn’t realize ... I thought you were a sales person.”
“No, no insult. I only brought it because Andre said it might sell with the tourist crowd, because of the story.”
“So, you make your living as a painter, that’s interesting.”
“No, I make a few bucks as a painter; I make my living as a stripper.” She saw the look of surprise on his face. “Look, don’t be so shocked. I’m an artist; I made a few extra dollars posing for other artists, often in the nude. It’s not that big a stretch from sitting motionless totally naked to shaking thing up in a pair of abbreviated underpants in front of a crowd. Are you going to go prudish on me?”
“No, not at all; it’s just that you kind of took me by surprise.”
“Well, I’m sorry about that. But tell me John Drake, aging English teacher, what’s your story? You don’t seem like some tourist who wondered in because you’re trying to soak up some local atmosphere.”
“Not that much to tell, two years at a local junior college, then I came here for two years at NYU and got my BA in American Lit. I had dreams of being a writer.”
“Not really, after a lot of long, hard work, all I had to show for it was some nice rejection notices. I decided I was wasting my time, got my masters, then took a job at a private prep school upstate. Sort of like George Bernard Shaw said, ‘those who can, do; those who can’t teach’.”
“That quote always seemed kind of cynical to me, maybe because I had some good teachers.”
“No, it’s not really: it’s not the put down that most people think. Do you follow baseball at all?” She shook her head. “Well, most of the really great players, hall of famers, made second rate managers. On the other hand, most of the legendary managers were just ham and eggers as players. Failure is a great teacher, I can see talent in my students when I see it and do what I can to encourage it. Now, I’ve made my rant and tried to justify my decisions, let’s move on.”
“Sure, now you say you like landscapes, I like doing street scenes and views of the city, do you think they qualify?”
“Probably, but I have to be honest. This summer is costing me enough as it is, I don’t know if I can afford to spend money on artwork; even if I do like it.”
“How long are you in town for anyway?”
“Two months, I’m taking a course at the New School. I also want to attend a few writers’ seminars I know about.”
“So the dream isn’t totally dead, then?”
“No, hope springs eternal and all that jazz.”
Rita smiled at him, then looked around.
“Well, John Drake, it’s starting to get a little boring here. I don’t think I’m going to sell much, and if anybody wants to buy, Andre or one of his people will take care of it. So, if you’d really like to see some of my work, I live within walking distance, come on up and I’ll show you my etchings.”
“You talked me into it.” He wondered if she always invited men who she’d just met up to her apartment. It seemed like a questionable practice, however he chose to flatter himself by thinking she thought he was special. The logical part of his mind said if she was an exotic dancer, she’d probably developed a sixth sense about men and besides that she could probably handle herself if things got out of hand. He thought that perhaps he was the one taking the risk. Looking at her he decided that if that was true, it was worth it.
She disappeared into the back and came out with a large satchel type purse. Gesturing for him to follow she went over to the buffet table and started to make a large pastrami on rye with provolone cheese. John assumed she was hungry and wanted a bite before leaving. She turned and handed him the sandwich and proceeded to assemble another.
“Ah, Rita, I’m not really hungry. I already had...” he was cut short when she looked at him curiously, with a funny smirk. Then he saw her pull a plastic bag out of her purse. Then he understood.
“My roommate was supposed to come with me tonight, but she was tired and fell asleep. I have to take something home for her. Yeah, Andre knows we do it, but he doesn’t like to see it. We are starving artists after all. Now this he might not like.” With that she reached out took an unopened bottle of wine from the table and slipped it into her bag. “Now my fellow partner in crime, let us depart.”
It was a longer walk than he’d expected, but it was enjoyable. In addition to attractive, Rita was witty and intelligent. By the time they reached her building he had the feeling they were old friends, not two people who’d only met forty five minutes earlier. It was an older building, a remnant of old New York, in a neighborhood of the East Side that had survived the urban renewal projects of the mid-twentieth century unscathed and had as yet avoided the current trend of urban gentrification. Depending on how you looked at it, it was either a quaint relic of the old tenement days, or a slum.
Three flights up, they entered her apartment. It too was old style tenement; three rooms, kitchen area on one end, bathroom partitioned off of that, living area in the middle, and a closed door to the front room, he assumed the bedroom. The living room was furnished with a hodge-podge of battered second hand furniture; a couch that had seen better days, a coffee table that looked as if it had seen service as a work bench at one time, and two wooden rockers, heavily coated in green enamel paint. The walls were festooned with her canvases, some finished others not. An easel stood in the corner holding a work in progress.
“Kind of a mess, isn’t it?”
“No,” he replied diplomatically, “there’s a difference between clutter and mess. A small apartment fills up quickly, especially when you’re working out of it.”
“That’s true, we have a storage area down in the basement, but it’s pretty damp down there. I can’t store my work there safely.” She was in the kitchen area, stashing her booty in the refrigerator. Looking over the refrigerator door, she called out, “Sit down, make yourself comfortable.”
Sitting down, he looked at the pictures on the wall. He saw what she meant; there was a preponderance of city scenes. They were quite good, if he’d been looking to purchase art there were several he would have been glad to have. One in particular, a scene of Times Square back in the days when the Camels cigarette billboard was still there blowing smoke rings out over Broadway.
Rita came back in, two glasses of wine in her hands and a binder under her arm. Carefully she set down first on glass and then the other on the coffee table, then sat down next to him and opened the binder.
“I try to take a photo of most everything I finish and have it blown up. Kind of a record of everything I’ve ever done. I thought you might like to see them. It’s not quite the same as the real things, but it’ll give you an idea of what I do.”
“Sounds good, but I have to ask you about that,” he gestured to the Times Square picture. “I don’t think you’re old enough to remember the Camels billboard.”
“You’re right, but there are still a lot of old postcards of it around. I found a good one and basically copied it. Did you ever see it?”
Yes, when I was a kid. We’d come to the city for a visit, I thought it was like the eighth wonder of the word.”
“Cool, did I do it justice?”
“Oh yeah, at least as well as I remember.”
She got up and went to where some smaller canvasses were leaning against the wall. Tipping them forward one at a time until she found the one she was looking for. She pulled it out and came back to the couch.
“If you liked that one, you might find this interesting.” She held it up in front of him, a small painting of Jack Dempsey’s old restaurant on Broadway.
“Good God, yes. I actually ate there a couple of times when I was going to NYU. It was expensive, but I was a big fight fan in those days, the chance to see a legend like Dempsey was too much to pass up.”
“Did you ever see him?”
“Yeah, shook his hand once. He was in his seventies, but I swear, grabbing his hand was like grabbing a chunk of tempered steel. I couldn’t help but think what it must have been like to get hit with it in his youth. There was a mural on the wall of him hammering Jess Willard into the ropes to win the title with this same hand. I really got a kick out of it.”
“Interesting, I’ve got some pictures of other nostalgic Times Square paintings I’ve done. They sell well with the tourists. Pictures of the old stores, Bonds and places like that.”
She began flipping through the binder to find them. He heard the door to the bedroom open behind them then a voice.
“Hi guys.” He turned, looking over his shoulder. A woman wearing sweatpants and a sleeveless tee shirt walked across the room, not seeming to notice or care that there was a strange man in the apartment. She was medium height and thin. Her blond hair was pulled back in a ponytail. Appearing to be in her mid-forties, she was fairly attractive. This was the first time he saw Carol. Rita turned around on the couch.
“Hi hon, there’s a couple of pastrami sandwiches in the reefer, and I copped a bottle of bubbly for us.”
“You’re a lifesaver, I’m starving.”
“Oh by the by, this Johnny Drake, John, meet Carol, my roommate.”
“Hey Johnny,” she said pausing, then looked at Rita. “Fellow artist or a fan?”
“Neither, failed writer.”
“Oh,” she looked at him, tipping her head. For the first time he noticed her odd one sided half smile. “Have you written anything I might not have read?”
“Anything you haven’t read, I probably wrote.”
Her smile widened, looking less lopsided. She winked at him and started to walk towards the kitchen.
“Ya gotta give him credit for honesty,” Rite called after her.
Carol stopped in her tracks, pivoting 180 degrees on the balls of her feet.
“Better yet, he can laugh about it.” Then she reversed it 180 degrees and proceeded to the refrigerator.
While he continued to look through the binder with Rita, Carol came back with a sandwich in one hand and what appeared to be a glass of club soda in the other. She stopped behind them, bent down and nudged his shoulder with her elbow.
“Nice meeting you Hemingway, keep up the good work.”
John turned and watched as she walked into the bedroom and closed the door behind her. When he turned back to look at the binder he saw Rita, leaning forward, her elbows on her knees, looking up at him with an open mouthed smile.
“Your roommate seems like an interesting girl.”
“Yes, she is and I can see she’s made an impression on you.” She sat upright, leaning back, still looking at him, still smiling, “Do you want me to get her to come back out?”
“No,” he felt slightly awkward now, “no, let her enjoy her sandwich in peace.”
“You’re sure? She probably just didn’t want to intrude, you know in case anything was going to happen.”
“No, that’s all right.” He wasn’t exactly sure how to respond to that, so he added tentatively. “I, ah, didn’t know anything might happen.”
“Anything is possible,” she said good naturedly, “not now of course; not tonight. The night belongs to Carol, seized by her cameo appearance.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean anything, I ... I don’t know what I did, but I hope I didn’t insult you.”
“No, not at all, and you didn’t do anything really, I just saw the look in your eye when Carol walked through. I’m thinking you’re more than just a little interested in her. If you’d like to go out with her some night, I’ll talk to her and see how she feels about it.”
Now he was openly embarrassed. Rita’s bluntness had taken him completely by surprise, leaving him uncomfortable, slightly confused, and perhaps a little intimidated.
“Sounds like Junior High School, you’re going to ask her in Home Room if she likes me.”
“Yes,” she laughed, “it does, but these things have to be done somehow, and I don’t think you’re going to do it on your own.”
“Naw, it’s all right, thanks though. It all seems silly somehow.”
“OK, ‘Hemingway’, whatever you say. I’ll give you my number in case you change your mind. Now, back to my work. Since you liked the Dempsey’s painting, I’ve got some other things you might like.”
She got up and went over to a bookcase on the far wall and pulled out another binder. She came back over and set it down on the coffee table. Opening it up he saw it held more photographs of her paintings. These all seemed to be scenes of Manhattan landmarks; the flatiron building, the battery, Father Duffy’s statue, and others.
“More postcard type things, like I said, they are popular with the tourist set. The good thing is I have the photos copied, stick them in cardboard frames and Andre sells them at the gallery. It’s a lot cheaper than buying the actual painting. I could do that with the Dempsey’s one if you like.”
“There’s an idea. Do you mind if I think it over?”
“Up to you.”
She got up, went over to the phone stand and wrote something down on a slip of paper. Coming back over she held the paper out to him.
“My number, let me know when you decide; about either the picture or...” she nodded towards the bedroom door, “fair lady.”
The evening ended as simply as that. Rita let him use the phone to call a cab, then went downstairs with him to wait. She claimed she’d never seen a cab in her neighborhood and didn’t want to miss it. As they waited, making small talk, she suddenly looked at him.
“You should really think about Carol if you’re interested, she’s got a lot to offer. She comes with a lot of baggage though, she’s been hurt and doesn’t need any more pain.”
“You seem bound and determined to push us together. I have to wonder why.”
“You seem to be a nice guy. She’s a friend and I’d like to see her happy, even if it’s just for the summer, so it just feels like a natural. So why not go out sometime and see? It might be a good fit. All I ask is don’t play her; she may seem leather tough on the outside, but inside it’s like she’s silly putty. It’s like her heart and soul have been thrown into a blender. Think about it, unless I’ve just scared you off.”
“We’ll see,” he responded as his cab pulled up.
“Sounds fair,” she quickly kissed him on the cheek. “Now you take care, and if we don’t see each other again, it was nice meeting you; Chao.”
He turned to say good bye, but she was already walking through the doorway into the building. Slightly bewildered, he turned and went to the cab. He couldn’t help but wonder about what a peculiar evening it had been.