by Margaret Guilbert
My parents had wired $1,000 in cash to the A&P for me to find an apartment in New York, and I picked it up at the store on Third Avenue. There was a homeless woman standing outside in cold winter without a coat eating Campbell’s green pea soup from a can. That night, back at the Barbizon, I slept with the money under my mattress afraid some person in the hotel might rob me. I had seen a real estate agency over a deli behind the Barbizon on the corner of East 62nd Street and that afternoon I was shown a studio apartment between Madison and Park on East 64th Street. It was located in a townhouse with a red door and a small gold elevator like a cage. The apartment was two rooms on the third floor of the townhouse, and there were French windows in the tiny bedroom that opened out into the street. I wanted to live there. I would become a famous writer in New York, like Thomas Wolfe before he moved back to North Carolina and have parties. Back at the real estate agency, I gave the agent $1,000 as a cash down payment and left. When I went back to rent the apartment, it had already been rented to someone else, and the agent refused to give me my money back!
That afternoon I found an artist’s desk of cherry wood in the street that someone had put out during the night. Many of the drawers had already been snatched by passers-by, but even with the missing drawers, it was still handsome, an artist’s desk with a suede piece of olive green that covered the writing surface. It had a top, a carapace of carved wood that came down over the desk with a lock, but the key to the lock was missing. Only one side of the desk had a complete set of drawers. The desk was a caramel or cherry-red color with brass handles. I was able to get the Sunday doorman at The Lowell Hotel across the street to move it down the stairs into my basement apartment without tipping him, even though the desk was made of very heavy wood. Once inside, the desk seemed enchanted. On lifting the lid of the desk, a faint fragrance escaped —the fragrance of new cedar wood pencils or of a bottle of gum or an overripe apple, which might have been left there and forgotten. Now I had something to write on.
Josie Jones was seeing a psychiatrist. She said her doctor’s office was in Carnegie Hall, right next to The Russian Tea Room where I had eaten with Sir Rudolf. They would also have milkshakes and therapy sessions in the coffee shop of The Beresford on Central Park West. When I telephoned Josie the following day to tell her about being mugged in Harlem, and how Sir Rudolf had treated me, she suggested I might want to visit her doctor. “You ought to see a psychiatrist,” she said. “Why?” I asked. “Your sex life is lousy,” said Josie. “No, it isn’t!” I said. “He can help you,” Josie answered. I thought about this for a while, but I didn’t see how a psychiatrist could help me with Sir Rudolf. Then she said, “He’s Isaac Stern’s psychiatrist. You know, Isaac Stern, the violinist. Maybe he won’t see you.” “But he’s seeing you,” I said. “You could recommend me because we’re friends. We knew each other in New Orleans, and I stayed with you when I came to New York.” “Well, all right,” she agreed reluctantly. “Here’s his number.” She wrote it down on the back of an envelope. “I’m not telling you what to do,” Josie said. “But I think it’s a good idea. Call him up and make an appointment.” I wanted to be friends with Josie, who had long black hair and wore expensive clothes, and I invited her for tea, but she said she was busy, and I knew it was because she thought my apartment was shabby. So, the next day, I called the psychiatrist and made an appointment. His name was Dr. Stone. There had been one Jew in Sumter, Alabama. He had owned Rosenberg’s Cafe and had employed a white waitress named Florence who wore a red wig. I had never seen anyone eating in Rosenberg’s Cafe, although I had always wanted to go inside. Dr. Stone didn’t see me at The Beresford like he did Josie. He saw me instead in a tiny dark office on the East Side. I explained to him that I was from a small, predominantly black, Southern farming town in the Black Belt and that I had recently come to New York City with $10 and had been mugged in a park. “Anything else?” he said. I thought about my seizure at The Barbizon. My father had related to me that Hawthorne had a short story about a man who tried to hide something and how he ended up living his life as a lie. Instead, I told him about meeting Sir Rudolf Bing and how he had dropped his pants. “Ha Ha,” he laughed. “That’s very funny, old Sir Rudolf.” But I didn’t think it was funny. After fifteen minutes of conversation, he told me I reminded him of “The Little Match Girl” in the Danish fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, in which it is winter and snowing heavily in a big city, and a poor little girl is out on the street selling matches. “What happens to the Little Match Girl?” I asked. “She freezes to death in the snow,” he answered coldly. His story made me cry, and Dr. Stone then said that he could help me. “My fee is $500 to see you, but I’m only going to charge you $350 because you remind me of the Little Match Girl. That’s still a lot of money if you’ve come to New York with only $10.” My mother had recently sent me a check for $350. When I got up to leave, he demanded to be paid, and I gave him the check from my mother. He threw it on the floor in a fit of rage because it was a third-party check and, as he left the room, I saw that the little finger of his left hand was missing. It had begun to snow heavily, and I had forgotten my umbrella, but I did not go back, and I didn’t see Josie again for a long time.
A HEAVY SNOW
When I woke up, it was still snowing. There were three feet of snow in the garden outside my window. I was without heat in my apartment because the landlord hoped I would move, so I stayed in bed and drank tea and watched the snow fall. At five o’clock the telephone rang, but it was a wrong number, and I went back to bed. I had another dream about Sir Rudolf this time. I stepped out of an iron shower completely naked and made my way through a dark forest, like Little Red Riding Hood does in the fairy tale. In the forest I met Sir Rudolf, who smiled a lot, showing his teeth, like the wolf in the fairy tale, and then I woke up. It was dark and silent in the room. The tenant who lived above me had moved, and the building had become very quiet except for the clanging of the radiator pipes. They were like great boots walking around in the dark, and I could hear the great big pieces of fluffy white snow as they fell in the garden.
IT SNOWS, OH IT SNOWS!
The next day it continued to snow heavily with high arctic winds that blew the snow about the corners of the garden, making the building creak and moan. The snow was soft like white velvet that crunches and sighs when you walk on it. It dripped and dropped and made icicles on the wooden shed in the garden. In Alabama, I had never before seen snow or icicles. They were like big jewels in a tiara or pendant necklace of ice-colored diamonds, each jewel a sliver of ice hanging downward. There was no heat in my apartment because the landlord hoped that I would move. I wanted to call Sir Rudolf and tell him how the psychiatrist had treated me, but I had lost his number. I was no longer angry at him.
A few days later there was a great performance at The Metropolitan Opera, and that night I went to the opera in search of Sir Rudolf, to hear Luciano Pavarotti sing in Andrea Chenier, an opera about a poet from the country who makes it big in the city. It was a gala occasion, and I wore my diamond drop earrings and my newly acquired jewels, but I had no ticket. I waited in line for hours for a standing room only place and talked to the people in line about my passion for Sir Rudolf, and of how I had come to New York City with only $10 to meet Sir Rudolf. I felt that I had something to tell Sir Rudolf, that I was running out of money and that we ought to run away together and be married. At the last minute, I was lucky enough to find a ticket someone was selling. Then, I thought I saw Mr. Hubbard from the opera board in a long tuxedo coat, dark blue in color with satin lapels, a bowtie and cummerbund, and dark trousers with silk stripes. He was getting out of a shiny black Mercedes with his wife in front of Lincoln Center. Mrs. Hubbard wore a velvet robe of nacarat that matched the rubies in her hair. “The tenor’s too fat,” she complained as she glided past. “It’s not healthy.” “But he can really sing,” Mr. Hubbard sighed. They did not appear to recognize me, or to remember me or that I had been fired from the Opera, but it made me very nervous to see them. I showed the usher my ticket and followed him, making my way through the crowd in my coat and borrowed diamonds. Then, right before the opera began, I learned that Pavarotti had fallen into a dead faint, and that his understudy was to sing in his place.
My ticket turned out to be a front row balcony seat in the B Tier directly overlooking the stage. I had a bird’s-eye view of the stage and the audience. Beneath me, I saw the brightly lit tiers of boxes occupied by ladies with bare arms and shoulders. The curtain had not yet risen, and the orchestra was tuning up its instruments. I searched for Sir Rudolf in the crowd below, but could not find him. Instead, I saw Mrs. Gordon Bell, who had not invited me for Thanksgiving Dinner, seated far below me in the orchestra with a string of pearls around her fat white neck. Then, in the very center of the first row, leaning back against the orchestra rail, I saw a short man in elegant black tuxedo and tails. The music became louder. I readjusted my binoculars. It was Sir Rudolf! He stood in full view of the audience, well aware that he was attracting the attention of the whole theater, yet as much at ease as though he were in his own room. I imagined that Sir Rudolf had seen me too, but I couldn’t be sure. At that moment, I turned my binoculars towards him and smiled, waving for him to come up. He was with a tall, beautiful woman with a tremendous plait of long, blond hair in a deeply cut gown that displayed her entire bosom. It was the soprano whose picture I had seen in the paper with Sir Rudolf, the opera singer on his radio show! The paper said she had gone from a novice to a star in one night. Then Sir Rudolf looked up at me, raising his opera glass, and I thought he had seen me. He raised his hand, and through my binoculars, I believed I could follow the movements of their speaking.
Woman: Who is that?
Sir Rudolf: A friend of mine. I will go and say hello to her and be back in a moment.
Sir Rudolf: To go and see her.
Woman: Are you in love with her?
Sir Rudolf: No, but I want to speak to her.
Woman: Introduce me.
Sir Rudolf: Really there is no need to do that.
And then they turned their backs to me and continued talking, and I could no longer imagine what they said, as the overture began. I could not follow the opera and or even listen to the music because I was in a kind of turmoil inside. The curtain rose, and I only saw the painted cardboard and the bright lights. I looked around at the faces of the audience, hoping for another glimpse of Sir Rudolf, but he had vanished. A chorus of shepherds sang a sentimental melody about country life. Then, a fat opera singer in a blonde wig began to sing. Her lips were painted purple. She sang “La mamma morta” in Italian (they killed my mother) with a tragic vibrato, and waved her arms about, looking foolish. Next a short dark man with stout legs covered in silk tights appeared with a plume and dagger and began singing. They sang together. When they had finished, the curtain came down, and the whole theater broke into wild applause and shouting, while I sat in my seat in shock. After the performance, there was toasting and cheering until all the champagne had been drunk, and still, I could not find Sir Rudolf. As I left Lincoln Center, I was detained by two policemen. “She looks like the picture,” one of them said. “What’s your name?” I gave them my New Orleans’ drivers’ license. “Your mother reported you as a missing person,” they said, “and told us to look for you at the opera tonight. You haven’t written her in months, and she doesn’t know where you are.” “But I’m not missing,” I cried. “I know Sir Rudolf Bing.” They looked at me as though I were crazy. “He’s inside the Opera House if you want to speak to him.” “Write your mother!” they said, as they walked away. “She’s worried.” I hated my mother because she constantly interfered in my life at important moments. But all I could really think about was that Sir Rudolf had a new girlfriend.
It had been snowing since noon on Monday and the snow had developed into a beautiful blizzard with whirling white snowflakes. Through the windows, I could see the snow as it fell and hear the sound of it falling softly from the sky. The branches of the trees were hung with snow that dropped off the limbs with great force. I had taken a job selling stockings and jewelry at Saks Fifth Avenue. Mrs. Otto Preminger had actually bought a pair of nude-colored nylon stockings from me. I recognized the famous name on her credit card and struck up a conversation, hoping she would recommend me for a part in her husband’s next movie. For the past week as a sales girl, I had worked in Bloomingdale’s, Bergdorf Goodman’s, and Lord & Taylor. William Faulkner had been employed as a clerk at Lord & Taylor before he began to write his great novels, and that had made this store seem especially attractive to me. I would work in a store for a short time at the Jewelry Counter until I was suspected of stealing the jewelry. Then I would move on. Usually, I took only the expensive antique rings. But at Saks, I found an antique diamond ring that I had taken to replace my grandmother’s Victorian diamond engagement ring which I had lost in a taxi upon first coming to New York. It had felt like losing my birthright. I was thinking about the ring when I looked up and was caught off guard as Sir Rudolf appeared out of the crowds like a mirage in a desert. He was with a tall dark-haired woman on his arm. They were at the next counter and did not see me. He was picking out some jewelry for her, and she was trying it on. They were carrying a large Saks shopping bag. I stared in shock and pain when he looked up and saw me, and I remembered my last visit with him in my basement apartment, half clothed in my slip and seated on the edge of the cot Bert and June Waugh had given me, when I suddenly ran out of the store leaving my post. That night I sat in the dark with all the beautiful rings on my fingers from the different stores I had worked in as a sales girl until I was fired. The rings gave me a confidence about myself and made me feel elegant as though something lost had been replaced. They were the jewels I should have been born with. That night I dreamed that I walked out of Bloomingdale’s with a shopping cart full of stolen items. I sold the stolen goods on the street like some dime-store criminal. The editor of Time Magazine saw me and wanted to interview me, but I was too busy.
A WILD WINTER DAY
When I had first come to New York two months ago, I had bought a pair of custom-made window shades in a French wallpaper, with red roses and violets on a background of ivory to make my life beautiful. They had cost one hundred dollars apiece. I had used them until they grew dirty and put them out on the street. Just now, I saw a homeless man on the street going through the garbage. He was unrolling a pair of flowered hand-painted French shades with red roses and violets. They were mine! I had felt a sense of luxury each time I pulled my handmade shades down over my windows, and now a homeless person would be using the flowered shades that had been bought for my rendezvous with Sir Rudolf. It was depressing. He was swarthy, tall and big-boned, with wild uncombed hair matted down his back in a long pigtail. He wore a dirty frock coat, like Sir Rudolf had worn. As he grew closer, I saw that he had no teeth, just on the sides of his mouth. His shoes were coming apart, and his grey flannel pants were loose. When he saw me looking, he reached inside his pants and fondled himself. He loomed towards me in a menacing, phantasmagoric manner. Then he picked up the shades and walked away. Symbolically, it meant to me that my short-lived romance with Sir Rudolf was trashed, and I felt very low. I realized with a suddenness that I wouldn’t find love in New York. Everything in New York was for sale. Love was the one thing New York didn’t have.
In the mail the following day, I found a new letter from my mother:
In your shoes, I would have moved into a room four weeks ago. You have no money coming in. How can you justify living on borrowed money? It should be obvious to you that you need training in a marketable skill. Writing poetry is nice and fine, but no one can make a living at it. You need to go back to school and find the quickest way to become trained at some marketable job. Listen to these suggestions. Why can’t you get a room with a hot plate at the Barbizon or move to the YWCA? Whatever you do, don’t borrow from a friend, unless you want to run the risk of losing that friend. I will see you through January, but after that unless you take some decisive action in training yourself and lowering your expenses, it is madness on your part to persist in pretending everything will be all right. New York is a most expensive place to live, and the job market is highly competitive. No matter how much you want to stay there, unless you can afford it, it is not possible. I am sorry that things are not working out. That’s the reason your father and I always suggested to you a degree in library science. We thought you would make a good librarian, and such a job would suit your personality. ~ Love, Mother
P.S. At least you can come home. Sometimes that’s the only solution unless you can find a job that pays sufficiently to continue your present life style. Unless you are a potential Dostoyevsky, consideration for your family takes priority. Do not wound or humiliate someone in the family, but remember your family in a humorous, kind way.
The letter made me angry, and I tore it into a thousand pieces, and went to the bathroom on it. Then I flushed it down the toilet. I had rather be dead than return home to my mother! She treated me with no dignity or understanding of my personality or ability. She was presumptuous and judgmental. I decided to buy a dram of perfume from Bergdorf’s with the enclosed $20 bill. It would make me feel better, and I would smell good for a while.
My father had sent an olive-grey volume of English literature that he had used at Vanderbilt. There was no place in my life for the book, and I did not want it. My bed from the Paradise Mattress Factory was on its last leg, literally speaking, and I decided to use the book to prop up the bed. Every night I slept on top of the great poets, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Chaucer, Spenser, Shakespeare, and John Donne. One night, when the bed completely collapsed, I removed the book. Its cover had pockmarks from the prongs of the bed legs. It looked as though it had a disease. This was my attitude at the moment towards English literature, and I hid it in my closet. But enclosed with the book I found a letter from my father:
Think over the idea of coming home. There are more preferable things than being financially insecure in New York. From all the various jobs you have held, I would guess that you are not suitable for office employment, that you would do better at home or in your apartment—setting up a private typing agency, for example. It is not that I discount in any way your talent. But you live in a dream world to depend on art as a substitute for income that would support the necessities of life. To run to art as a pleasant substitute for facing reality is as bad as running to the bottle. You needn’t hesitate to come home. Ten or twelve girls have come back for various reasons—divorce, sickness, and money worries. To me, the worst of all possible lives would be living in New York City, in that mechanized world of yours. —Love, Daddy.
COTTAGE BY THE SEA
On Saturday I read on the front page of The New York Post that Sir Rudolf and the opera singer had been secretly married in Tobago. They had been photographed together under a palm tree. Sir Rudolf’s remaining hair was wild and long like a hippie’s hair. He looked nervous and upset, and wild-eyed like Toscanini. Angel looked pleased as punch. She had a big smile on her face, and was wearing a sun hat. She was suddenly famous and had plenty of money. I was jealous and shocked. I had earlier imagined that I might run away to Tobago with Sir Rudolf. The newspaper article said that the couple had met at Mayfair House, fallen in love at first sight, gotten married and gone off on their honeymoon. They were staying in a rented beachfront cottage and had been living off the kindness of strangers. Sir Rudolf had been dropped by The Metropolitan Opera abruptly when a young ballerina claimed that he had stuck his tongue in her vagina during contract negotiations in his office. Sir Rudolf declared he had simply kissed her. Unable to pay his rent now because of debts and charges Angel kept running up in stores, not to mention the legal bills, he had moved out of Mayfair House, and into a modest townhouse on Central Park West.
That night I had a frightening dream in which I was at a party at the opera talking to a record executive with false teeth at RCA who dyed his hair black, when the ceiling opened and fell on my head, knocking a hole in the middle of it, and leaving white scars across my forehead. Dr. Strange, the epilepsy doctor, was called in to fix me up, and I was suddenly in a hospital room by the river. Then a flaming car fell from the sky, and I awoke from the dream. The following day, I fell at the post office. While climbing the steps, my legs just collapsed. It felt for a moment as though I were being pulled into seizure, but then a mysterious hand had reached out from behind and pulled me back. The mind had snapped for just an instant and the body with it. I knew I was never going to have any more seizures.
THE OLD AUTOMOBILE
In the dream, I was longing to see Sir Rudolf and meet him for dinner. I went searching for him among the restaurants along Central Park South. Then, I was suddenly in a section of town where I had never been before. A big, beefy, tough-looking lady with frowsy brown hair and tattoos on her arms, who resembled the Scottish poet Carol Ann Duffy, escorted me in the dream among the rooms of the restaurant. First, we visited a room filled with individuals who looked like painted shades, ghosts of themselves, all dressed up in finery, sitting alone and sighing like the dead. Sir Rudolf was not among them. She led me to a crowded room on the lower level. “He is in here,” she said, and we went from table to table of ghost-like guests searching for Sir Rudolf. For a moment, I thought I saw him between two women, who were kissing him. His face was hidden, but I recognized the suit. Yet, when I saw him, it was not Sir Rudolf. “No, this is not Sir Rudolf,” I said. We visited many tables among these wraith-like people fully dressed for dinner, but we didn’t find Sir Rudolf. Finally, the woman said that he had been there earlier with his walking stick and had already left with a group of young women, that they had been seen all going off together and, in the dream, I went home still looking for him.
I waited for my train while it continued to snow heavily. Down in the subway, arctic-like winds blew the snow about the corners of the station. There was no heat in the station and I shivered in my coat. A homeless woman was singing a Puccini aria, “O mio babbino caro” from Gianni Schicchi. The aria was exquisite and poignant and made me feel very sad. She was dressed in a number of garments, several layers of old clothes, a yellow sundress, a few long sweaters over the dress, a bathrobe on top of the sweaters. Her feet were tied up in layered bundles of paper. She pushed a shopping cart full of trash and carried a paper valise. I began to cry for all the misfortune I had suffered since I had come to New York. It was startling to see the homeless woman in her poverty and filth singing such a beautiful song about a love that was lost to her forever. She sang it so beautifully I thought she must have been an opera singer or studied for the opera and had fallen on hard times. Her presence sent a chill through my heart making me even colder. What had happened to her that she had been brought so low? I recalled that I too had come to New York to be a writer and study opera with Sir Rudolf. Now it occurred to me that I might end up like the woman. It was possible, although I couldn’t sing, and I was glad that I was leaving New York. The woman was like the singer in the Wallace Stevens’ poem who sang beyond the genius of the sea, like a body fluttering its empty sleeves, as the snow fell.
Margaret Guilbert is an award-winning writer from Alabama who lives in New York City. Sugaring Off, her book-length prose poem, combines biography with fiction and is loosely based on a relationship with Sir Rudolf Bing of The Metropolitan Opera, who collected Grandma Moses paintings. All poem chapters are named for paintings by Grandma Moses, including the title of the work, Sugaring Off. Sequences from Sugaring Off have appeared in magazines, including Mudfish, Hotel Amerika, Goodfoot, A Poetry Magazine, Skidrow Penthouse, Home Planet News, Poets and Artists, Bateau, Fjords, Akashic Books Online, and Big City Lit. Sugaring Off was shortlisted for The New American Fiction Prize and won Third Place for a Mudfish Poetry Prize selected by C.K. Williams. She has published two chapbooks of poems with Finishing Line Press, Blue Electrode and My Grandmother’s Engagement Ring. Her third collection of poems, Swallow Barn, will be published by Dancing Girl Press in 2022.