Chapter 1 Mirror Mirror Off The Wall
Jessica’s Louboutins were killing her, but what could she do? Grit your teeth, Cinderella, you were waltzing with your prince tonight, amidst the champagne bubbles, as in the movies. Correction, it was vodka, not champagne, and grit your teeth once again – you hate vodka, except for tonight when you couldn’t get enough of it because that was what your “prince,” Felix Carkov was drinking. Chuck the vodka! Chuck even the champagne! Jessica wants a mug of warm milk… Right then and there. Correction. Jessica wants a mug of warm American milk, and a plate of American cookies. Right then and there. She evens wants Marge at the door saying dumb Marge things and holding a plate of American cookies and a mug of warm American milk. That’s how desperate Jessica feels! No more Russian billionaires, no more SoHo gallery openings and no more designer clothes, thanks but no thanks… just Mom and a mug of hot milk and two Fig Newtons for the rest of the night, or wee hours of the morning. Yes, Dear Privileged World, the the lady is a tramp…from Poughkeepsie, no less. Now, how is the tramp going to tramp up the cold cold front steps of her West Village shelter to get to her medicine cabinet which holds the potions that will cure too much vodka, too much Louboutin pain, and provide dreamless sleep?
In Big Appleland, only sleep can be dreamless. Eat Twinkies, but nourish your soul on dreams! Dreams can change, for example, a Twinkie into a haughty French éclair, all one has to do is close one’s eyes and imagine, that… that a Russian billionaire will plunk down 250k dollars for the biggest, most awful, most disgusting “Twinkie” ever conceived and fashioned by the hands of man- Tancredo Zaru’s Molten Larvae sculpture. Two hundred fifty thousand to be nauseated daily. On the other hand, what is 250 grand to a scrubby little man who has just bought a 73 million dollar apartment in cash?
Twelve steep stone steps and there is no Walter Raleigh to carry her through the front door and over to the overpriced two bedroom in the West Village she calls home. And, there is no Ali Baba to chant “Open Sesame” for her door to fling itself open. There’s just enough money to pay the overdue rent with the quote unquote generous donation from Marge and Harold. The Gnostic cross which she forgot to leave home tickles her daring décolleté. It tickles then it tries to nestle in her cleavage then it tickles again and it hustles up a memory of when Jessica played Cleopatra in a college play. The death scene unfolded with Jessica, reciting Shakespeare but thinking it was time to chisel an already very nice nose with a distressing little box at the end. Wasn’t it Cleo’s nose, that was too long for Mark Anthony’s taste, thereby ending a dynasty ? Life and death depend on shitty little things.
If only this damn weather would hurry up and snow and get it all over with! But it is too cold to snow. Her Louboutinized feet are instruments of torture. Kick them off! Fling a perfect pair of outrageously priced French pumps over a sexily exposed shoulder and head up the cold cold stone stairs. Also a pair of aching feet need that special Doctor Scholes’ foot rub in the medicine cabinet hanging by a prayer on her bathroom wall. The nasty thing is liable to crash to the floor and awaken the whole damn building. And she hasn’t paid the rent. Yet. Or maybe that has been mentioned. Of course, Jessica could call Arnaud, her ex, the dashing young Frenchman, and currently a “trait-er” (his pronunciation) with a Wall Street firm, but, they broke up 10 days ago, and now Jessica is medicine cabinet challenged and boy-friendless like most 20, 30,40 something females in Big Apple. Also, financially strapped, like most 20, 30 and 40 something females in Big Apple. The cross does a coy wiggle in Jessica’s cleavage. Why the hell was she wearing it to that fawncy pre-view of Tancredo Zaru’s works anyway? These questions don’t solve the basic problem of getting Jessica up that flight of cold cold stone steps, and over yards of entrance hall tiling, and into her apartment and bathroom without catching a cold, thereby worsening her position at the Art Fool.
Staying home to nurse a cold is out of the question. That little snake Ruthie Crumpit would love to scoop up the Baron de Morancy and Mrs. Wurston-Phelps, Jessica’s regular customers. How to explain nursing a cold to Signor Rossini, her boss? He gave her the eye a few hours ago at the buffet-bar when Jessica was trying to make Felix Carkov feel that he was the funniest and the sweetest Russian billionaire that ever organized the financial ruin of an entire Caucasian province and the slaughter of many of its inhabitants. Rossini’s eye was of course, the make-a-sale-kiddo even-if-you-have-to-bathe in vodka eye. Home nursing a cold indeed! Home, really? Is that where the heart is supposed to be? Or is that repetitively pumping organ presently pounding in her chest responding to mega Manhattan dreams about a lucrative transaction with Carkov, who might or might not have made a financially significant remark about acquiring Molten Larvae? Jessica smells a deal. No, definitely not, there is no staying home to cure a cold until Carkov takes out the checkbook.
Of course, Carkov never takes out the checkbook in all innocence. The Art Fool where Jessica works as an “outreach and development manager” (whatever that means) is part of a money laundering machine and God knows what else for its owner, Ukrainian billionaire Dimitri Garpov. And as Garpov hates Carkov and Carkov despises Garpov, the purchase of Zaru’s Molten Larvae sculpture if such a purchase should take place, would speak in codes about power struggles among the Titans of the Volga, or, the Vulgar. Yes, they would speak in codes that Jessica does not understand nor wants to. A little like that scene in the Godfather when a dead fish is dropped on someone’s porch and the young Corleone knows it is not an invitation to lunch, but she is not a Corleone, only Jessica Connors, hired by Rossini for her resemblance with Grace Kelly. That being said, if there is one alcohol Jessica absolutely detests, it’s vodka. Or has that been said before? It goes right to her delicate palate where it reveals the uncouth potato whence it sprang. Unhappily the Titans do not feel the same way, and one of them has her end of the year bonus dangling at the end of her exquisitely chiseled nose. However, what to do when approaching the medicine cabinet under the influence of vodka? Alas Jessica! You are not there yet. There are 6 more cold cold steps to the front door.
But who was that tall dark handsome stranger driving a Bentley who stared at Jessica at the door of the gallery? He came, he saw, but visibly he felt no need to conquer. The Art Fool was aglow in soft pastel lights. The finest of fashion, the perfumes of Paris, the world class artists, the buffet, the stars of finance, cinema and television, the chroniclers, the press, the dazzle of opulence in SoHo merely brought a sad and wistful smile to his fine lips, but did not bring him to the door. Ah! He had seen it all, and Jessica found his world weariness, well, very sexy. But who was he? A world class financier dogged by scandal, hugging the shadows? The son of a fabulously wealthy deposed king or the king himself? A discrete billionaire producer of some obscure mineral mined in the remotest mountains? A master spy? What Jessica would not give to see him again! To be in his lonely brooding presence far away from that hive of a thousand buzzes in SoHo.
The hive, that evening belonged to Felipe Di Mongo, Tancredo Zaru’s agent and one time lover. Di Mongo who always dressed in purple, was pontificating. Tancredo, as usual, was not on the scene. Where is Master Tancredo Zaru now? What fabulous object was being atomized in the Master’s incomparably creative mind to explode into Art which those with money could invest in? Art that like certain internet stocks, could only rise in value, and even more quickly after the Master’s death? Art that would please Felix Carkov presenting Jessica with a vodka as he uttered a gallantry “I no do this for all woman.” And Jessica accepted the loathsome potato juice with a sweet and humble smile. And stood beside Carkov drinking in the billionaire’s fractured English as his eagle eye roamed about the fantastic art works of the Art Fool as it once roamed about the far flung reaches of Russia for tungsten, the fields of Mongolia for petroleum, the wilds of Kazakhstan for uranium, the plains of China for bauxite , the hills of Persia for gypsum with enormous profits for its stirring from home. And now, the great roaming eye of Carkov had settled on Tancredo’s Molten Larvae, a disgustingly accurate portrait of a festering wormy wound in steel with knobs representing bugs painted in the colors of the American flag. It was about ten foot high and therefore could not be overlooked. But maggoty wound it was not to Carkov. No, Tancredo had unknowingly created a memory of Carkov’s youth which he spent as the son of a Soviet commissar employed to convince the unconvinced of the greatness of the empire before it all crashed against the Berlin Wall. But, the empire was not the only thing that crashed. For his 18th birthday, the elder Carkov gifted Felix with his first Jaguar that he drove about the dark streets of the Red capital and ran into a gang of Chechens at a Moscow nightclub . The bust-up was inevitable. One does not gamble with the Chechen underworld and walk out the door with a bag of chips as if it contained Tootsie Rolls. The Jaguar did what it could, but alas, the Chechens’ Porsche was unbeatable. The gorgeous chrome cat crashed its first life against an obscure lamppost in the city of many obscurities, but, decades and 250 grand later, the mechanical feline was reincarnated in Tancredo’s sculpture, Molten Larvae. Tancredo, Felix opined, was not just an “artiste” (Felix pretentiously insisted on the French pronunciation) but a restorer of youth. Was Felix seriously considering a buy, or was he “sharing” with Jessica, as he might have been “sharing” with anyone? Of course, there was always the fear, that with the break of day and a return to sobriety, the festering wormy wound statue would look only like a festering wormy wound. However, if there were an exchange of business cards, a request for an appointment, or even better, an appointment itself, and (Bingo) a buy Jessica would become the absolute reference at the Art Fool, second only to Signor Rossini, who had the more appropriate anatomical equipment to seduce Tancredo and, from time to time, Di Mongo. Swallow, swallow that vodka (three in 30 minutes for Carkov, two for you, Jessica) and the rest lies in the lap of Luck.
But, what have we here, Jessica? Your mercantile mind is wandering, your smile beams on Carkov, but you feel the heat of Tall Dark Handsome’s gaze as it slides down the low-cut back of the shimmering Donna Karan, and distractedly you toss a blond lock over your shoulder both as a gesture of despair, and a plea to Tall Dark Handsome to enter, for you long to respond to the hot look of the stranger with a call to your exposed neck and soft breasts, and you long to hop into his Bentley for a crazy ride over the Brooklyn Bridge, praying that Carkov has not bought it yet! As Carkov gurgles with laughter when recounting how he emptied his post accident bladder on Lenin’s tomb, you attempt to laugh with him (although half of what he says is in Russian, a language you don’t understand), but all your attempts are in vain and you are thankful for being saved by Carkov’s vodka induced blindness, or else he might see that you, Jessica are writhing with the serpents of scorn and the demons of disgust! You linger at Carkov’s side, but your eye, Jessica is on the Bentley and its occupant, who wants to enter, but, strangely, does not. But back to the West Village when the city that never sleeps somehow sleeps in the wee hours of the morning.
The cold stone steps lead to the first of the double entrance doors, there is a pleasantly scratchy straw mat in between. Careful now. Don’t swing open the first door violently. One hundred seventy-five thousand a year and all she can afford is a two bedroom ground floor in the overrated West Village…or can’t. Never wear expensive clothes unless you cannot afford them. Like this thrilling Donna Karan number of soft red taffeta with the texture and the lustrous tints of a candy wrapper. That was done on purpose. The candy is the girl inside the wrapper, and someone has to take care of the girl. Beside Doctor Scholes miracle foot rub, there is a wonderful little jar of night cream of the purest caviar man has ever harvested from the depths of the Black sea to which the wildest of wild berries have added their potency. The fountain of youth lies in a 3 ounce jar of night cream costing as much as the weekly grocery bill of a couple that must obey the dictates of Thrift in the far flung provinces of the Land of the Free. Now, if only the Louis Vuitton bag would have a shred of decency and not hide the key chain. Jessica’s feet do a gig. It is freeezzinnng, and why must she have particularly sensitive feet!
Suddenly a voice and a silhouette emerge from the shadows. “Pain comes in all sizes and shapes. Why endure it? I have often asked myself the same question. ”
It is Tall Dark Handsome of the Bentley. Jessica’s alcohol addled brain does a flip flop back to ultra blinding lucidity for a split second as the shadows of Rape and Murder suddenly hover around, and the hand carrying the Louboutins swings the French shoes over her shoulder with the dagger stiletto heels up. She has not seen Tall Dark Handsome enter, in fact, it was impossible for him to enter except as a shadow himself, or is she so drunk that all her senses are dulled and, horrors, she has let him in? However, Tall Dark Handsome inspires no fear, to the contrary, there is a kindly air about him that says he is there to help.
“Cortes Del Lago.” He holds out a hand. The voice is warm with brotherly accents. Also a bit foreign. Jessica lets down her guard and shakes it.
Who is this stranger? Is he from..
“I am not a spy or a …gangster. Only a sort of mind reader. I think the lady is hesitating. Tales of creatures of the night prowling Babylon on the Hudson, preying on fair maidens. I assure you that I only want to help. It seems to me that this fair maiden needs some foot medicine but despite the excruciating pain that fashion has imposed, she is also thinking that relief is compromised by a medicine cabinet hanging precariously from a hook on her bathroom wall. If it falls, it will crash down like Nineveh under God’s wrath. Invite me in and I will negotiate with that cabinet a temporary solution until more serious carpentry can intervene. Of course, the fair damsel will stand at the door until I finish. Do you want me to take off my sports jacket as proof that I am unarmed?”
“Ye…I mean, no. I guess you can come in. The bathroom is at the end of the hall to the right.”
“And how do you know?”
“Let us just say, prosaically, that when one has visited one West Village brownstones, one has visited them all. I do not mean to be snobbish and denigrating, only truthful. In fact, the truth no matter how brutal has always guided me.”
“ It has? And how do you know about the medicine cabinet?”
“I just know. I told you I was a mind reader.”
“Ok.” Jessica raised an eyebrow and opened the door to let Cortes in. She intended to remain at the front door, even stand on the cold threshold, but curiosity got the better of Jessica’s cautiousness. She tip-toed over to the bathroom as Cortes, with the noiseless dexterity of a cat burglar, was propping up the medicine cabinet on a pile of unopened soap boxes from l’Occitane.
“Just what I thought. And feared. Brick wall with stucco dressing. Have to get masonry nails – you know, the ones with the grooved shafts. Now, I know more or less where the joints lie, it won’t be too difficult. Then we start drilling, but not at 2 in the morning.”
“When…er, when can you fix it? I mean come back? Of course, I will…”
“…reimburse. Please! I am a gentleman, as well as an occasional carpenter. This might surprise you, but I began …life on a farm. Helping a fair maiden is worth all the grooved nails in the universe. I have to go now, but I suggest returning tomorrow night. I know where to reach you at the Art Fool. Perhaps, you will accept an invitation to a drink before the repair job. May I call you at the gallery, or will that create problems?”
“Oh, yes of course; Er…I mean, no problems at all.”
“Fine! At around closing time. I am a …late riser. Never start my day until others are finishing theirs. Well, shall we say until tomorrow, at around 6?”
Cortes bowed quickly, took Jessica’s hand and kissed it. “Please,” he added, “Don’t bother showing me to the door. I thank you for the invitation to enter. That was necessary.”
What was necessary? What did Cortes Del Lago mean by that? Oh well, who cares? Who cares about the cold steps, and the overheated hive buzzing that night with overpriced outrageousness one of which, if purchased, might float into solvency an overdrawn Gotham bank balance with a few pennies leftover? Who cares, in the delicious calm of 2 am about the bowing and the scraping before Tsar Felix when an ethereal being from a parallel universe stepped forth from a black Bentley to amuse himself securing a medicine cabinet for a Poughkeepsian princess. And he did it so expertly, while dropping hints of a humbler past (“I began life on a farm”). Humbler past on a farm? No, not Cortes Del Lago. A ranch the size of Acapulco, a rubber plantation in Brazil, a hacienda spanning the width and the length of the pampas in Argentina. Yes! Those were the spawning ground for Tall Dark Handsomes with Hispanic names and deep throated accents that travel in sublime British motor engineering! That was the stuff of dreams, new dreams, bigger and better dreams that chase away the jabs of loneliness and the silly memories one falls back on of Mother at the door with warm milk!
Sleep and its peach tinted dreams did not come, however, for there was an annoying little detail. Tall Dark Handsome didn’t appear in the mirror. And he did stand right in front of it. Eyes playing tricks? Of course, definitely, no question about it. Or maybe? Return, fair maiden (that is what Cortes called her) to pink tinted dreams or try to, before those dreams fade and go gray. Return to where everything is or seems possible. Are they not the same in a land whose command is “dare to dream” like a Disney film? It is a sweet command, like “love me!’ “Yes, Jessica,” Jessica whispers to herself turning in sheets of Egyptian cotton, “love me and perhaps, show me how to love you. Then, maybe I will promise not to look into mirrors at 2 in the morning, and maybe I will promise to leave off the vodka, and leave off the silly oligarchs, and all the rest but only if you command me to love you. That’s the best I can do.”
Chapter 2 Moe and Woe
Jessica arrives at the Art Fool late the next day, and like all four members of the staff, heads straight for the expresso machine. The usual black without sugar. Everyone in the gallery takes it black without sugar, except for the owner of the big black Audi negotiating a parking spot in the street, he will enter the gallery, swagger over to the machine and plop 3 lumps of refined sugar into his cup. The owner of the Audi, however, is in competition with a delivery van. Both vehicles are taking up all the space in the pleasant tree-lined side street in SoHo. The van and the Audi mean only one thing. The success of an art work and Moe. Now, to most people these two separate facts do not meet, but to the staff at the Art Fool, they are one and the same. The art emerges like a patient on a stretcher and Moe emerges from the sleek, black, all options included Audi. Just as predictably, Moe goes over to the expresso machine, dumps three lumps into his cappuccino and gives the girls his customary standing-on-a-street-corner-wink.
Moe is never going to change. He is ageless, ugly and despite the efforts of the best of New York tailoring, he looks like the human incarnation of indigestion. Small, squat balding Moe lives in “Noo Joizy,” has made a fortune as an accountant and gets called in by Signor Rossini whenever an important art piece arrives. Moe has an uncanny sixth sense about how a show will play out. As in the past Moe will lug his shapeless body around the blond oak parquet floor and praise or bad mouth the new arrivals and all 4 members of the staff including Rossini will wait with bated breath for the oracle’s “it sucks.” That insures success, unless Moe says, “this really sucks,” which insures brilliant success. There were times when Moe turned a critical eye on a work of art and said, “this I can go for.” That statement immediately exiles the piece to the back of the gallery and casts a doubt over the rest of the opening. After a time, Garpov and his minions got wise to what Moe liked and bought the opposite in taste and thus the Art Fool flourished on the pronouncements of a semi-literate, overpaid and dishonest accountant who knew what they were all up to and overcharged Garpov for just coming in and being made a fool of, even though it was Moe who was laughing up the sleeve of his designer suit all of the time. So, that morning, after her first encounter with Cortes, Jessica knew that something big was in the works.
“Of course, where was I? The Plop Christ, Tancredo’s masterpiece!” Jessica says to herself.
“Jessica, come here I need you.” Signor Rossini calls from the back room, and Jessica cup in hand runs across the exhibition area. Sitting beside Rossini at the desk where once an overly confident Moe tried to put his hand on her knee, she gets a glimpse of the Plop Christ wiggling its way to an alcove above the heads of the delivery men.
Tancredo Zaru outdid himself when he created the Plop Christ- Hundreds of Popsickle sticks glued together make up the cross. Jesus, a dummy, wears an Anonymous mask, a plastic torso modeled on Sly Stallone’s upper half, and a little boy’s blue bathing shorts with the Superman insignia over the crotch. The dummy ends with Sly’s legs and two feet in ballet pumps. One of the dummy’s white gloved hands is giving the world the finger, the other holds an S and M dominatrix whip. The bottom half of the cross sports a totally transparent supersize toilet about to receive the dummy’s Kardashian buttocks hovering at a 45 degree angle. The toilet without a lid has its own flush mechanism, a reservoir and a link to the dummy through a pipe blending into the cross at the middle and ending in two blood red twine cords extending out of each of the dummy’s nipples. Each twine controls the flush. When pulled, the toilet bowl gurgles up a ten inch brown styrofoam pellet from the reservoir that floats to the surface until another pull on a twine cord sends the pellet down. The Plop Christ costs 2 years of Jessica’s salary!
It also commands a church like silence. The whole Art Fool staff with stragglers from the street walk in a trance about the dummy. Tancredo’s rage against the Catholic Church knows no bounds. Outrage is art is outrage. Like so what. The crowd is wrist droopingly cool. Is there any innocent soul around to protest loud and clear? Here he is dropping a third sugar lump into his cappuccino.
“Like this more than sucks! You guys done some prettttty weird things befaw, but nevuh like this. An, ya know, I got the feeling that this is not only gonna be for a dumb gallery opening but…I can’t explain it. Like it’s gonna have some religious crap to it. You know, like…Boom, the wadders of the Red Sea separating and…”
“An epiphany?” Signor Rossini asks in melodiously accented English, looking at Moe, the accountant and sometime soothsayer.
Rossini sighs. “A sudden revelation. A miracle.”
“Yeah, like I said. A hippie funny. Ya know, this thing is gonna have some pretty awesome consequences on some people’s lives.”
Jessica’s Iphone beeps. She hits the button and you got a message flashes on the screen. Three in the morning.
Sly wench. You got me. Will be around the AF at 6. Look out for Bentley. And surprise of your life. C D L.
Copyright © Diana Pollin
SOON… PUBLICATION IN JANUARY 2016
BE PATIENT PLEASE …