______ 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 undeserved respect.
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 I’d be.
What if 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 to them.
"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.
I extricated myself from my manger and got up to dust my broom.
- Michael DeCapite