Friday, 15 November 2013

Triptych by L.S. Bassen

“…while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by.  Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.” Exodus 33:22  
Even when you grow up in Manhattan, everything you know is self-absorbed, unum; the pluribus comes much later. Phyllis grew up imagining that she could shapeshift like Alice in Wonderland. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, she could grow small and climb the ivory stairs inside carved medieval miniatures. Near giant sculptures in the City’s squares and parks and dinosaurs at the Museum of Natural History -- and in the midst of the balloons of the Thanksgiving Day Parade -- Phyllis imagined she loomed large.
     Born in 1968, she had been a privileged only child. At 40, she was employed at the Museum as a restorer. As an intern (through her father’s art world connections), she had known John Brealey before his stroke in 1989, head of the Paintings Conservation Department and one of the most important practitioners of the 20th century. Phyllis had been divorced for ten years. When she turned forty, both her parents had died, her mother from leukemia. Her father, a syndicated cartoonist, had been backed into by a car mistakenly thrown into reverse by a Missouri tourist overwhelmed by Manhattan traffic. Its bloodied license plate bleated: The Show Me State.
     A recent front page New York Times photo showed Phyllis at work on a triumph, the restoration of a late 19th century family portrait of a Belle Epoque President of the New York Stock Exchange. For its image of burgher status, it invoked comparison to Rembrandt’s Night Watch. When rediscovered in storage in the Met, the giant painting had been in pieces. It had been lost since the ’29 Stock Market crash destroyed the Matchby family’s fortune, causing the portrait’s sale. The Times photo showed Phyllis in a white coat with her auburn hair pulled back in a bun. Her raised right arm, poised with tool, cast a large shadow that narrowed on the canvas to the fine points of her first finger, opposable thumb, and wand. On a table in the foreground lay open blueprint-like pages. Referring to this grimoire, Phyllis looked like a necromancer conjuring forth the proud upper class family as her thin brush daubed clean their red velvet drapes. Phyllis and her team had solved methodical problems of relining, cleansing, inpainting and filling the huge canvas, bringing it back from the shadows of varnished time to the light of current day.
     Phyllis owned a one bedroom apartment in a 1960’s building near the UN. She had a grand piano instead of a table in her dining alcove and a plasma TV on the wall of the bedroom. Her divorce and parents’ deaths had numbed Phyllis. The painting assigned to her team was the quintessential piece for a major autumn exhibit. When Phyllis had seen its jigsaw pieces on a tarp spread on a basement floor, she felt something. Her team insisted that a daughter in the portrait uncannily resembled Phyllis as a girl.
     The Matchby family portrait presented fifteen people: grandparents, the Stock Exchange President & his wife, their eleven children, and a pet monkey on the lap of the sister who was Phyllis’s avatar. Restoration work on the monkey activated some hormone dormant in Phyllis until then and inversely proportional to its previous absence. She felt that she had to have a monkey. Or a baby.
     Jian Dolan had been trying to get Phyllis’s attention. He’d discovered that they lived two floors apart, and she was attractive and single. But it had been obvious to him that she couldn’t see him for dirt, or possibly for his unshaven beard. His Chinese grandmother (Waipo) in Shanghai (where he had lived for a dozen years) disdained this hirsute genetic inheritance from Jian’s Irish-American father. Both his parents had died, which for Jian always cued Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest: “To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” He was a Chinese translator who had other languages (a maternal genetic gift), but Chinese had become the most lucrative, and it had gotten him the job at the UN five years earlier. The pay wasn’t baronial, especially by New York standards, but … and here he warned people to take a breath… his wife had died in one of the Towers, so he’d inherited enough to buy the apartment in Phyllis’s building and live on a federal salary.
     Jian shaved his beard; Phyllis noticed him on the elevator. Coup de foudre! He had the face of the younger boy on the red loveseat in the Matchby portrait! Her thyroid triggered a tsunami of estrogen. What was left of her frontal lobe tried to remain afloat.
     Phyllis and Jian were sharing the elevator with a man a decade younger who was getting home from work and still working. The silk tie loosened at his throat was the only concession he’d made to his physical absence from whatever office. He was multi-tasking on his BlackBerry, texting and talking, likely buying and selling at the same time. He got off a floor before Phyllis. 
     In the interim she commented, “Oxymandias.”
     Jian took the cue, reciting, “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair,” and asked her out to a late dinner. In the restaurant, he tried trivia-masked erudition: “Ozymandias represents a transliteration into Greek of a pharaoh's throne name, User-maat-re Setep-en-re. The Justice of Re is Powerful, Chosen of Re.”
     “Ancient Egypt,” Phyllis beckoned, “has always called me.” She showed Jian the gold ring she had purchased at the Museum store to replace her wedding band. On it, the hieroglyph for the Queen of Heaven was stamped in black enamel. “Shelley’s poem describes Rameses II, 13th century b.c.e. In his 67 year reign he built more temples and sired more children than any other Egyptian king.”
     “There were a lot of kids in the painting they photographed you working on.”
     “Did you go to see it?”
     “Yes,” he admitted, “because it was yours.”
     Already burning, Phyllis melted. “Your resemblance to one of the sons in the painting is as weird as mine is: I look like the girl holding the monkey.”
     By the next morning, both late for work, they were a couple.
     Good fortune followed: an April wedding and honeymoon in Shanghai, and an elderly neighbor died. A year after the autumn Matchby exhibit, Phyllis and Jian moved into the newly-available condo on a higher floor with a better view of the UN and East River from one of its two bedrooms. When they learned they were expecting a baby in May, they celebrated like tourists and ascended to the 102nd floor Observatory Deck of the Empire State Building. As a native New Yorker, Phyllis had never been there before, and Jian sacrificed his horror of towers to the irresistible temptation of triumph. Cold October gusts hit the glass enclosure and the light was so glaring, they had to turn their backs away from it, like Moses shielded in the cleft of rock.
     Baby showers filled the nursery with merchandise that accompanied items sent from Jian’s relatives in China. In the delivery room, neither Phyllis nor Jian noticed the look between nurse and obstetrician. The infant required a feeding tube. Genetic testing began. Chromosomes that Jian lacked, Phyllis had not compensated. They asked if the baby should even be given a name. A familiar numbness enveloped Phyllis. Jian found himself thrown backward in time to the horror and guilt of 9/11.
     On her normal commute uptown, his wife Janice had seen she had his phone along with her own, so she reversed trains and rushed to the Trade Center to get it to him before he would begin translating for a CEO at a Windows on the World breakfast meeting. On that cloudless September day, Jian had dawdled walking to and from the subway. Then he heard and saw, exploding in columns high above him, pillars of black smoke and fire. As dumbstruck as all the others around him, and ignorant that Janice was in an elevator arriving at the intersection of history, Jian ran to escape the grey volcanic billows racing north on Vesey. He came to semi-consciousness, whitened like a George Segal statue, on the other side of the Brooklyn Bridge, when he realized his phone was missing and he couldn’t call Janice to reassure her. Ironies vied with tragedies like crossing riptides in the ensuing days.     


The history of mankind is the history of our misunderstandings with god, for he doesn’t understand us, and we don’t understand him. (trans. from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa of Jose Saramago’s CAIN)

For eight weeks until she could survive without a feeding tube, Lily Minfong was kept in the hospital NICU. Jian tried to explain to Waipo in Shanghai about ‘Lilmin’. His grandmother kept repeating canfei or canji, and Jian became speechless. He couldn’t translate how he and Phyllis were being trained with saline on gelled manikin forearms to begin at three months injecting the baby nightly with growth hormone. He could not tell Waipo that when they brought Lilmin home, they slept sexlessly with the infant beside them in her co-sleeper nor that life was a contest between entropy and conservation of matter & energy.
     Time put on a costume. Four days a week, a daynurse took care of the baby, and on the other three Jian and Phyllis rotated work schedules. There were weekly bouts of physical therapy. Alone with Lilmin in the apartment, Jian began to hear conversations through the walls. Then he heard similar secondhand voices at work. They spoke an utterly foreign language. Curious, he tried to hear cognates. He began to recognize rhythms, then meaning. As August ended, Jian felt anxious when he couldn’t hear the voices, and sometimes he felt pain in his joints that danced like St. Elmo’s Fire on historical ships’ railings and spires. Only the return of the voices, discussing genetic syndromes and giving Jian advice, eased his anxiety and pain, especially the fatherly voice that called itself The Director.
     The letter Jian left behind at The Director’s order explained, apologized, and legally documented his mental incompetence. Jian had gone looking for hailuoyin in Chinatown and found ma fei. After Phyllis left for the Museum on September 11th, Jian thought it stranger to hear Lilmin’s injection screams in the morning rather than at night, not that he had filled the syringe with morphine rather than growth hormone. The Director soothed Jian, “Lilmin will never scream again.” She already rested in peace in her stroller beside him in the park overlooking the East River when Jian administered his own fatal dose. The Director did not want Phyllis to lose “the haven of home” by finding their bodies, nor ever to be alone in her mourning, instead “to share the City’s anniversary condolences.” Jian closed the dictated letter with the translation by Jull Costa from CAIN, about the building of the Tower of Babel. The life insurance company lacked grounds for contest; Phyllis collected as well as inherited.


 ‘What are those of the known, but to ascend and enter the Unknown?/ And what are those of life, but for Death?’” Whitman, Portals.

A dozen years later, Phyllis dawdled getting to work on a warm September Friday morning, arriving at the Met’s fifth floor Sherman Fairchild Conservation Center with its dozen or more large easels and long high-ceilinged wall of windows extending into the ceiling as skylights. She had picked up two bouquets of small sunflowers from a corner Korean stand. Already at work, two interns were finishing each others’ sentence, imitating Phyllis: “‘The cooking of time is not all decay and disintegration…the hardness of glazes comes through increasing translucence.’”
    The painting was a previously unknown Toeput Tower of Babel, the second half of a 1587 diptych whose private owner the Met had outbid. Along with a Matisse recently retrieved from a Norwegian museum, the second Toeput Babel had surfaced out of the apparently inexhaustible Goering trove of loot on the Art Loss Register. The Toeput’s provenance had been verified by its (deceased) owner’s daughter, now in her 70’s, who lived on the West Side in the same apartment her father had purchased (along with his exit freedom from ’38 Germany) with the money from its sale.
     The Met’s ‘new’ Toeput joined the Museum’s two previously owned small drawings by the Renaissance artist. Most Babels depicted the construction of the Tower, but like the known Toeput, this new one showed a photographic next frame of impending destruction. This second image again depicted the dark macula-bird shadow overtaking the unfinished building’s conical apex, but the Tower was now far in the background. The painting focused instead on people in the foreground. Some were interrupted workers, or horrified onlookers, or people fleeing. And some were turned, as in Auden’s poem of Icarus’s signature fall, away/Quite leisurely from the disaster.
     Phyllis’s entrance quieted the wide room, except for the self-described ‘Afro-Aaron’, her first assistant, who took the bouquets out of her hand and waved a ticket he pulled like a magician out of his shirt pocket.
     “Here you are,” Aaron said, “I’ve had these two tickets to,” and he named the most sought-after Broadway show, “for months, but I received a better offer,” he paused and smiled at an intern who, Phyllis noted, blushed umatching metameric shades of crimson.
     “I’m leaving the other one at the box office for my college classmate…”
     To groans of familiarity, Aaron repeated the TV star’s bio: “After escaping Mo-les-Station, Texas, for good, from the start of his freshman year at Cooper Union in New York, Marshall Bekins appeared in soaps, and by graduation had appeared in three feature films. At 36, he co-stars in a TV series --”
     “-- that shoots in New York, now in its fourth season,” the interns recited.
     When Phyllis said, “Aaron, you assume I have no other plans for tonight,” he replied by glancing at the flowers she had bought for herself, exiting with flair, “Do you think I can find a decent vase in this entire Museum?”
     At 8 that evening, she found herself seated beside the actor who had tried to enter undetected as the theater darkened, but like iron filings the audience swayed magnetically around him. He took the aisle seat and nodded to her. Phyllis understood that Aaron had introduced her in absentia. Before the intermission, they laughed together at the same line of dialogue, “I’m a lapsed existentialist.”
     After, Marsh invited Phyllis for a drink. The maitre d’ obviously had a crush on the actor, and they were immediately well-seated in the crowded restaurant. Wait staff hovered around their booth, moths near flame. Phyllis translated the look in his uncanny blue eyes to mean that he shared her desire for closed doors.
     “Let’s get out of here,” Marsh said. “I live two blocks away.”
     His apartment was dark. The walls were white and bare. There were few lamps to turn on. He lighted two joints at once, then put one in her mouth.
     Now, Voyager…” Phyllis said.
     “…sail thou forth, to seek and find,’ the actor imitated Claude Rains. “Dr. Jaquith tells her to read the Whitman,” he said. “Usually you’ll hear a Bette Davis impression,” he said, “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars!
     “What perfect mimicry! Are you’re bi--?”
     “--lingual? --lateral? A straight line is a tangent to a curve.”
     “There’s no calculus to Life,” Phyllis said. She coughed. “I haven’t inhaled since college.”
     Marsh blew a backspin smoke ring and sat down. “Odd name, Toeput. Aaron talked about your restoration.”
     Phyllis sat facing him, dazed by the marijuana. “It gets odder. Otter,” she nearly giggled. “Lodewijk Toeput, il Pozzoserrato, was a 16th century Mannerist landscape painter from Antwerp who spent most of his life in Italy, where he died. Pozzoserrato means closed well.”
“Like Pozzo in GODOT?
     Phyllis kept rambling. “Master Brealey insisted that the skills associated with restorers were ‘not nearly enough to bring to the business, which is really the life and death of paintings. Colored muds held together by a sticky substance -- that’s painting.’ One of the rules of modern restoration is that everything done must be able to be undone.”
     Marsh exhaled spiced smoke, said, “I don’t follow you,” and stood, offering his hand.
     He seemed as tall as a tower above her. “Then I’ll follow you,” she said.
     Marsh’s night doorman had bet himself that he would get the woman a cab before dawn; he considered Phyllis’s generous tip his winnings. She had intended to leave earlier, but Marsh had awakened when she went to the bathroom to dress and called her back to bed. Astride by City light through the blinds, she had seen the actor’s beautiful face relax from orgasm into a deep sleep he would awaken from feeling rejected before noon.
     The next time Aaron and Marsh saw each other was in late November, at a Village restaurant for the annual Un-Family Thanksgiving they had created as undergrads. They had not had spoken to each other since September. Marsh’s persistence had pressed Phyllis at one point to beg for Aaron’s intercession, but he was caught up in his own unfortunate fall: like the original Adam, the blushing intern had left in disgrace after a questionable theft. Aaron knew Marsh would never ask about Phyllis, but the answer was visible in the foreground of the Babel restoration. There, Toeput had painted Aaron’s African face, and the two figures shouldering burdens were recognizably Phyllis running from Marsh, resisting the irresistible.

About the Author: L.S. Bassen: Finalist for 2011 Flannery O’Connor Award; Fiction Editor for http://www. prickof Reader for, won the 2009 APP Drama Prize & a Mary Roberts Rinehart Fellowship; book reviewer for,,,; poetry & fiction in print & online, some awards. Prizewinning, produced, published playwright (Samuel French, ATA in NYC, OH, NC).

Image: (c) Lodewyk Toeput