My Picassos

(from: When Any Kind of Love Will Do)

 

I am living in a loft in Hell’s Kitchen.

I like this loft. I like its location. I like the big, square rooms and the high, barrel-vaulted ceilings. I like the fat, round columns and the way sun pours in from oversized windows. Best of all, I like the view. It’s a view to die for.

The owners did.

I found out about it while I was having a late lunch in a diner. I was sitting at the counter, having my usual—melon, egg over easy, and some Earl Grey tea. It was 3:00 in the afternoon, and the place was almost empty. Aside from me, the only customers were an elderly woman with swollen ankles and a Con Ed worker, who was ordering a burger and fries to-go.

“You know about the murders?” the waiter asked me. “Just around the corner.”

“What murders?” I asked, looking up at him. He was a burly man in need of a shave.

“You know, it was in all the papers. About a week ago.”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Marital thing,” the waiter explained. “Hubby wanted out, said they had to sell their apartment. He wanted his half of the money. She wanted to stay because of the view.”

“So they killed each other over an apartment?” I asked.

“Happens all the time,” the waiter said.

“You’re kidding me, aren’t you?”

“No, ma’am, I’m not.” He called over to the cashier. “Gloria, tell this woman about what happened.”

Gloria walked over. She was tall and slender, with thick, light-brown hair and penciled-in eyebrows. “Yeah,” she said. “It’s true. She shot him, but before he died, he grabbed the gun from her and shot her in the head.” Gloria leaned toward me as she continued talking. “I’ve been inside. My sister-in-law’s daughter’s boyfriend is the broker. Greg. He’ll have a tough time selling the place.”

“Why?” I asked. I took a forkful of egg. It was just the way I like it. Gloria was now sitting down on a neighboring swivel stool, her face uncomfortably close to mine.

“They tried to wash the blood off the walls,” she said. “But you can still tell. It sort of just got smeared around. Greg said that painters are coming in a few days. They’ll have to paint it black to cover it up.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “A couple of coats of white should do the trick.”

“No way,” Gloria said. “Whaddya think, Al?” she asked the waiter.

Al shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t think anything, doll,” he answered. “What I don’t get is how the families are already fighting over everything.”

“Families,” I said. “They’re useless.” But even before I finished talking, I realized I wanted to see the apartment.

Do you have his card?” I asked.

“Greg’s? Why? You looking to buy something?”

“Maybe,” I said.

Gloria smiled at me. I smiled back.

“You have beautiful teeth,” Gloria said to me. “Are they real?”

“Yes,” I said.

“Huh,” she said. “Lucky girl.”

Lucky, my ass, I wanted to say. “Thank you,” I said.

“What about your nose? That yours, too?”

“Can it, Gloria,” Al said. She looked at him, and then she turned back to me.

“I don’t mean any harm, hon,” she said. “It’s just that it’s a really nice nose. I notice these things.”

“She does,” Al confirmed.

I hadn’t had a compliment in a long time. It felt strange. “Thanks again,” I said. “If you really want to know, it’s not mine. I had it done awhile ago.” I didn’t mention that I’d had no choice.

“Satisfied?” Al was looking at Gloria. Then he looked at me and shrugged as if to apologize for her tactlessness.

“It’s okay, I’m breathing a lot better now.” I said. As opposed to not breathing at all.

I again asked Gloria for Greg’s card.

“Oh, right. Hey, Al, hand me my bag,” she said.

Al pulled a green leather satchel from behind the counter and placed it in front of Gloria. She rummaged through an overstuffed wallet, glancing through photographs and credit cards. I hoped she wasn’t planning to show me pictures of a family dog or a drooling baby and was relieved when she handed me a business card.

I looked at both sides. A picture of the broker was on the back. “Kinda tacky, huh?” Al asked. “You know, having a picture on a business card?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “But I never heard of this company.”

“They manage some buildings around here,” Gloria said. “They’re okay.”

“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks for the breakfast and the information.” I left some money on the counter, got up, and walked out onto Ninth Avenue. I felt a curious pull toward the loft, as if it were the third victim of the murders. Because of greed and a lousy marriage, the loft had been deserted. I knew only too well how that felt. It felt lousy.

I walked around the corner. The block had a forgotten quality to it that felt comforting to me. Aside from me, a bike messenger was the only person on the street. He was walking his bike around an army of pigeons in order to enter the mid-block auto-repair shop. The pigeons fluttered and flew about until he entered the garage.

I leaned against the building directly across the street, and I called the broker from my cell phone. He picked up on the second ring.

“Hi, Greg, my name is Cora. Gloria gave me your number.”

“Yeah, good. So, Cora, looking for an apartment?”

“I may be,” I answered. “I want to see the loft around the corner from the diner.”

There was silence on the phone for a few seconds. “Listen, Cora, I don’t want to sound rude or anything, but please don’t waste my time,” he said. “I don’t need gawkers, and I don’t need bottom-feeders.”

I smiled. I liked this guy. “I try not to waste anybody’s time, Greg,” I said. “But a good view is important to me, and I hear this place has one.”

“Yeah. Good enough to kill for,” he said. “Doesn’t bother you?”

“No,” I said. “Why would it?”

“The cleaning guy didn’t get the blood out,” Greg said. “If you wait until next week, the place will be painted.”

“It’s okay. Really, I would like to see it.”

“You talking today?”

“If you have the time,” I said. “I’m on the block right now.”

“I can be there in twenty,” he said. “I’ll grab a cab and meet you. It’s the building opposite the parking garage—tallest on the block.”

I was already there. I had found it on my own.

“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll be waiting.”

“Watch out for the pigeons,” Greg told me. “Yesterday, one of them shit on a lady’s head. She got hysterical, running around screaming.” He laughed. I didn’t. City pigeons carry all kinds of diseases. I hoped that the woman had gotten herself checked out.

While I waited, I walked over to Tenth Avenue. There was a heavy flow of traffic heading uptown. I noticed the few small neighborhood stores—a bodega, a pizza parlor, a shoe repair shop. I felt good here. It was a far cry from the picket-fence neighborhood across the river I had recently lived in—a place that had seemed so full of promise, but instead offered only pain and betrayal.

I headed back to the building to meet Greg. He was just getting out of a cab. He closed the door and walked toward me. He was young and attractive. “Hi, Cora. I’m Greg,” he said, holding out his hand. It was limp. It was the handshake of a person with no hope of a quick sale.

“Gorgeous day, isn’t it?” he said.

It really was. Hot and sunny in late October. “Yes,” I said, “a true Indian-summer day.”

Greg started his pitch. “This block is on its way up,” he said. “Two condos coming in soon.” He pointed out two six-story buildings that were adjacent to each other. “And the garage across the street just sold. Some fancy-pants architect has big plans for that. Won’t affect your view, though.”

He led the way up a few short steps leading to the building. He opened the front door of the building with a key that was one of many on a large, round ring. We entered a small lobby and walked past a deserted table and chair to reach the elevator, which was on its descent from the fifth floor.

“Part-time security guard,” Greg said, pointing toward the table and chair. “Nights. There used to be several small manufacturing businesses in this building,” he continued. The elevator had reached the lobby, and the doors opened. We stepped inside as a slender couple walked out with a large German shepherd. The dog was pulling on his studded leash.

“Buttons,” Greg said. “One of the businesses was buttons.”

“Buttons,” I repeated.

“Bimmelstein’s,” he said. “Bimmelstein’s Button Factory.”

“All right, then,” I said.

“The building dates all the way to 1903,” he said.

“Thank you,” I said. I wished he would button his mouth.

The elevator doors closed. There was a maroon leather bench along one side of the elevator, but we stood. I was uncomfortable enough being alone in the small, closed space with a stranger. If I sat down, I would feel more vulnerable.

I forced myself to relax.

“This is a keyed elevator,” Greg said as he placed a small key in a wall panel. He turned it slightly to the right and pressed the adjacent button for the eleventh floor. As the elevator began to ascend, he took the key out. He acted like it was a big deal.

“So, what do you do, Cora?” Greg asked.

“Do?”

“Yeah—what kind of job?”

“Oh. I guess you could say I’m between jobs right now, Greg.”

“Huh,” he said. He looked up at the floor numbers lighting up above the elevator doors. “Nine, ten, and eleven. We’re here!” Greg said.

What a job, I thought, having to make small talk to strangers all day.

The elevator stopped, and the door opened directly onto a large, square, corner room with high, vaulted ceilings. The southern exposure facing us gave an open, expansive view of downtown, toward Chelsea and Greenwich Village. I could see down to the American flag on the top of Chelsea Market on Ninth Avenue and West Sixteenth Street. From the easternmost window, I could see the Empire State Building and all of the countless buildings in-between. But it was the wall of windows facing west, to our right, that held my gaze. Those windows looked out onto expansive views of the Hudson River and across to New Jersey. Sun was flooding the living room, casting incredible light patterns on the blood-spattered walls and the polished concrete floors. Swirls of fading red and pink glowed in places to an orange, otherworldly light. It was mesmerizing.

To our left was a long wall, broken by an arch that led to a hallway and to the rest of the apartment. “Let me show you the kitchen,” Greg said, and began walking through the archway.

“I don’t really cook,” I said and continued to look out the windows.

“You’ve still got to see it,” he said. “Traulsen, Bosch, Viking, everything top-of-the-line.”

“Okay, in a minute,” I said, but I didn’t move.

“The master bath has a sauna,” Greg was saying.

“That’s great, Greg. I’ll take a look soon,” I said.

“There’s central air-conditioning,” he said. “And central sound,” he added.

“Hmmm,” I said.

Greg finally came over and stood at my side. “These views are something else,” he said. He paused for a moment. “I guess the rest doesn’t really matter, does it?”

“No,” I said. “Nothing else matters at all.”

But that wasn’t quite true. It was not only the view that was pulling at me. It was also what lie beyond the view, across the river. Living here would be a daily reminder that not everything is what it seems. I needed that reminder. I rubbed the finger where my wedding band used to be and knew that I would always remember; these walls and these views would make sure of that.

Greg looked at his watch. “I have another appointment, further downtown,” he said. “But I can meet you here again tomorrow, if you need more time.”

“No, I don’t think I have to come back,” I said. “Do we have just a few more minutes?”

“Sure,” he said. “Want a quick walk through the rest of the place?”

“Yes,” I said, and followed him down the corridor to the other rooms. There was a small powder room, a large, all-white kitchen, an enormous bedroom with the bath en suite, and a small interior den. I quickly took in the details and walked back to the living room. I asked Greg what the price was. He told me, and I made an offer. It was accepted the following day. Easiest real estate deal in New York City.

*****

I moved in a few weeks ago. I have not painted over the walls or the floors. I sit on my new couch and watch the boats gliding up and down the Hudson—tugboats and cruise ships, sailboats and yachts. I sit patiently and wait for the sunsets. They are more than I could dream of, creating ever-changing patterns of color in my home. And as the boats ply up and down the river, back-and-forth, back-and-forth, I ruminate on the capriciousness of life, of what can happen, just like that, out of the blue.

What does it mean, that ‘things happen, out of the blue?’ Do they fall from the sky, pop up out of the ocean, crawl out from behind the paintings of Picasso’s blue period? Periods are red, but they can make you feel blue. Days when you’re in a daze of exhaustion, horniness, chocolate fits. Fit to be tied, fit to fight, fit to kill. Join a dojo, lift some weights. Squat and lift. Squat and shit. Squat for the troops.

Yo, lady, your mind’s in the gutter. Clean it up, clean it out. Windex, Ajax, Bon Ami, lye. Burns. Pain. Scars. Life is tough. So get tough, get off your ass, get down and dirty. Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Clifton Chenier; sexy, swampy voices rich with life. Lust for life. Life for a price.

Put a price on this: the feel of satin, of a caress, the touch of a bass player’s long fingers, the deep resonance of sound reaching into every part of your being. The smell of apple pie with cinnamon and nutmeg in the oven, of lilacs, and freshly-mown grass. The sensation of oysters, of ripe melon, moist and explosive in your mouth.

Car alarms, sirens, mediocrity, stupidity, ignorance, lost innocence, despair, assault, broken bones, violence, rage, cruelty, crude people, rude people, bad people, evil people.

Sometimes, I want to fill this loft with beauty, but I won’t. I will keep it spare—just the essentials and the blood on the walls. My Picassos.

*** 

 

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