______ High above me glowed a skylight.
Late-night, snowlight, wet plum-orange.Shadows shifted across it,
the shadows of bare branches. I tried to locate myself and what was
left of me. Without moving my head or my eyes I took stock by a
mental process of gingerly accrual. The place was large and dank.
An icy draft cut my right wrist.Odors of manure, ammonia, brandy.
Also a whiff of scandal. I had a vague sense of destiny befouled...that
I’d been important once...that I’d held a position of
A senator? No. An extortionist? No. I lay calm and disoriented.
An artist of some kind.I’d been a blockbuster novelist. Three-hour
lunches, movie points. With no grasp of the immediate past and insufficient
clues to my present situation, I lay awash in memories oftimes lost:
of lofts and tenement apartments, radiator music, Avenue A where
all is sinister
but friendly, cloudlight on high, hot whiskey nights, piano-shine
of taxis down lower Broadway, the hum of an amp and its red eye
glowing on a vacant stage. Those were jazzy times. I was reticent
to look around me. By doing so I’d make it official and there
you wake at the wrong moment, within a dream, and that’s just
the way it is from now on? I turned my head and something crumpled.
Delicately I reached behind me. It was a paper party crown. A darkness
loomed beyond it. I focused past the paper crown. Sympathetic eyes
watched me behind a protuberant snout. They regarded me dubiously.
It was a tapir. So. There. It was late night at the pachyderm house,
the end of December.
I sat up, rustling
in the black plastic bag. Each night I slipped into a garbage bag
to break up my shift with a nap. Three of them were watching me,
a three-tapir family in doleful parade. They were pretty creatures
in their way, nimble and trim. I lifted my pint of brandy in a toast
"Life is no joke," they seemed to say.
I surveyed the
echoey 1920s building, brandishing my pint at the cages of slumbering
beasts: the hippos, the pygmy hippo, the rhinoceros. I drank toasts
to them all. Lines of Lovelace and Herrick, lines of Shakespeare,
great opening lines of novels recurred to me and repeated themselves
in silence on my lips, while high above the shadows of branches
clashed and strove. These times were not so jazzy.
The music of
these nights was new,
composed of varying degrees of silence. Stirrings and settlings.
Groans and scrapings and grunts and snoresIn the distance was the
elephant’s cage. Her name was Bathsheba. She looked like another
animal trapped inside a bag, poor girl. She’d been acquired
through the Asian
Elephant Art & Music Conservation Program. She’d been
trained to paint, and several of her works had been auctioned at
Christie’s to raise money for the endangered elephants of
Thailand. She’d been a painter of the Northern Thai School,
characterized by its bold use of color and emphatic gesture. So
distinctive was her work that she’d been chosen as an ambassador
or emissary and taken on a worldwide fundraising tour. Now here
she was in a
My mother had died and I’d come home to oversee her funeral.
Instead of selling off her possessions and closing out her apartment
I stayed on and lived among her things.It wasn’t a decision
but a lack of one which kept me there. Neighbors looked at me as
though asking what I’d done with her.
My mother, by
the way, loved elephants. A tiny, sprightly woman, she paradoxically
identified with elephants’ long, ungainly passage through
this world. She admired their patience, I suppose, and thought them
soulful. She collected elephant figurines and in her apartment they
surrounded me, in glass, wood, and stone, their trunks lowered or
upraised,standing foursquare or taking a cautious step. She’d
tried to be an opera singer, my mother,
but she didn’t have the bosom for it. Instead she married
my father, a listless, taciturn man who cared only for his model
trains, and produced me, her greatest hope. I lay down again.
My eyes drank at the blurred skylight and I imagined her above the
clouds, among the brittle litter of stars, looking down on me.
My life was a
wreckage behind me. Shadows intermingled and parted against the
glow. Lines of Shakespeare, lines of Marvell and Suckling returned.
I wanted to be here and now, unencumbered, with no identity and
no personal past.
Motion caught my eye from the far end of the hall. I ignored it
and lay dreaming upward, imagining I could hear the distant clash
of branches. The motion continued. I sat up. Bathsheba was waving.
She was waving at me. I leaned forward, peering down the gallery.
In a dim wash of secondhand light, she stood waving behind the bars.
A branch of leaves rested in the curl of her trunk.
She swung her trunk this way and that. Carefully she stepped
back and made a
slash, and then a wavering upward line as though tracing smoke.She
was "painting". She was describing.
myself from my manger and got up to dust my broom.