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August 2008

 
Contributors
 

Daniel Albright
Meena Alexander
David Dabydeen
Alice Fulton
Richard McKane
Jonathan Morley
Michael Schmidt
Tuğrul Tanyol
Alan Wall
Marina Warner
Edwin Williamson
Xu Xi
Gao Xingjian

Founding Editor: Peter Robertson
Art Editor: Calum Colvin
Consulting Editor: Marjorie Agosín
Consulting Editor: Jill Dawson
Consulting Editor: Beatriz Hausner
Consulting Editor: Mimi Khalvati
Consulting Editor: Suzanne Jill Levine
Associate Editor: Neil Langdon Inglis
Assistant Editor:
Jeff Barry
Assistant Editor: Ana de Biase
Assistant Editor: Sophie Lewis
Issue 4 Guest Artist: Arturo Di Stefano

 
Click to enlarge picture Click to enlarge picture. An excerpt from “The Nightingales of Troy” by Alice Fulton  


The visiting nurse had been waiting ten minutes for her last case of the day, a has-been priest. Her raccoon coat was folded inside out on a chair, and she’d placed a clean newspaper under her black bag. When she opened the venetian blinds, hygienic winter light glazed the oilcloth and dresser scarves of the Phoenix Hotel. How far could that Jesuit get with his halting gait and metabolic disease? She kept her eyes peeled. If he turned up, she’d ask him why God made the Depression. Annie Garrahan was vehement with things that had given her the slip.

I want to help you, but first I have to hurt you, she often warned her patients. When she’d said this to Bernard Jolley, he told her a good nurse was an alloy of compassion and brass. For once they agreed. A too-sympathetic nurse was a danger. She sniffed, taking a culture of the air, testing for evidence of liquor. Had he bothered with his insulin? No regular priest would live in the Phoenix. Jolley was a freelance, an outcast.

He had three illicit passions: the river, the theater, and strong drink. Years ago, he’d put on church pageants, Father Jolley’s Follies, and though the Jesuits sanctioned theater as a means of edification, they’d deemed him a vulgarian. And every spring, he’d go looking for the origin of the Hudson River in the heart of the Adirondacks. Still, these excesses might have been tolerated if drink had not dulled his spiritual vigilance. Drink was his great sin.

As she walked to the hotel office, young Nurse Garrahan repeated her class motto like a prayer: Esse quam videri. To be rather than to seem. Jolley was not what he seemed. He was an unpriestly priest. Worse, he was a dreamer. Give me reality or give me death, she thought, as she knocked on Sam Livingston’s solid oak door.



Like daylight and science, Sam Livingston’s purpose was to make the world so ordinary that people could bear to live in it. Nurse Garrahan told him she could fix the best menu for atonic constipation he ever tasted. “It hits the spot,” she said.

She was tired of chasing Bernard Jolley through the bitter streets of Troy, New York. She thought Jolley needed a dog — something adoring to follow him around and press its cold black nose into his knee as he held forth. He wasn’t satisfied unless he was tearing the heart out of the obvious. Just thinking of his longwindedness made her woozy.

“Cocamilk’s best for an upset stomach.” Sam opened a miniature Frigidaire and produced two bottles. “My housekeeper, Mrs. Fredrickson, won a contest with this. First prize for most nourishing soft drink. Say when,” and he poured milk into a half glass of cola. Annie took a sip. 

“Tastes swell!”

“I’m thinking of adding it to The Ship’s menu,” Sam said somberly. In addition to the Phoenix Hotel, he owned a floating dance pavilion. “Something special, to outclass the competition.”

“The weather and disease are my competition,” Annie said. “And now this hobo priest. ”

“What’s Jolley’s problem, anyhow?”

Annie appreciated Sam’s direct and simple speech, the way he referred to the Phoenix Hotel as The Place and the Ship of Joy as The Ship. He was sensible, yet his blue eyes always looked mildly surprised. There was a sweet yet manly scent about him, a blend of cigarettes and menthol, Barbasol and talcum. “Sugar.” She added reluctantly, “And the DTs.”

Sam shook his head. He was thirty-nine, a man of the world. “C’mon.” His heavy key ring jingled with industry. “I’ll show you The Place and give you the best shoeshine you ever had. You’re only as young as your feet, you know.”

As they walked the hallways, Annie was soothed by their no-skid rubber tiles. She took comfort in the stark usefulness of the restaurant’s napkin dispensers, the chrome toothpick holders and hefty china cups. When they entered Sam’s hotel flat, a transfusion of well-being surged through her, and she almost cried for cheerfulness. The carpet roiled with ferny ferns, the wallpaper was big with orchids, the drapes with jungle gardenias. These were heavyweight flowers, flowers with muscles. They bulged and flexed and leapt from the walls, larger than life.

She planted herself on the chintz sofa in glad anticipation while Sam fetched his shoeshine kit. Kneeling at her feet, he began to swab and brush her pumps. First he polished, using an old toothbrush on the tight spots; then he waterproofed with an emollient he’d crafted himself from pine sap, mink oil, and beeswax. He roughed the soles with sandpaper, buffed the leather with his bare hands, and sat back on his heels. You’re in business, he declared.

“Yes sir!” Annie crowed. She felt reborn.

As Sam was putting away his polishes, she glimpsed a collection of cure-alls in the cupboard. These remedies testified to a secret delicacy in him, and her nursely vocation flared like a flame. At first her family might not approve of a divorced former bootlegger, fourteen years her senior. They wouldn’t like the rumors of fifty-gallon copper kettles in a frame barn on 113th Street, the aliases he was said to assume, the bullet scar on his left arm, the fact that he was a Protestant. But they’d come around. Sam was her chance. As a registered nurse, she had what he needed. Here was someone she could save, an opportunity to use her training. She clicked her heels and clenched her hands, inspired, in fact, thrilled to the bone.

But her immediate problem was Bernard Jolley. She told Sam she feared the priest had gone off on a spree. Delirium tremens usually followed a hard debauch, and she wanted to start treatment before hallucinations or wet brain developed. He’ll be fit to be tied, Nurse Garrahan predicted.

“We might try a restraining sheet fastened to the headboard in a simple clove hitch,” Sam said, “though a mattress on the floor is safest. What’d they say in nursing school?”

Annie rolled her eyes and waved her hand to push the thought away. She couldn’t give a priest a prolonged warm tub bath, let alone perform high colonic irrigations of normal saline.

Sam lit a cigarette, and Annie noticed the signet ring, yellow gold with a diamond, on his little finger. Diamond was the hardest stone, and gold never tarnished. As she stared at the ring, she remembered an article in her nursing journal on radium treatment. Radium looked like salt, but it was rare and costly. It was kept inside a lead-lined safe, whose combination was guarded by the radium custodian, a graduated nurse, paid to keep track of every gram since all the radium in the world would fill only a pint bottle, and radium took nineteen thousand years to decompose to lead.

Nineteen thousand years! Why should radium last that long? Or diamonds, or gold? Why were they almost perpetual while people were fragile, gone in a flash? When Sam died, someone would twist the ring from his finger, and the ring would continue, but Sam would be gone forever. There was heaven, oh yes. But objects inherited the earth. It was so unfair, it made her mad. She glanced at her watch, seeking reassurance.

As she was resisting these abnormal thoughts, Annie became aware of a calming aroma, the fragrance of bakery blended with rose water. She sensed an approaching gentleness and was looking toward the open door when a motherly face peered in.

It was Sam’s housekeeper, Mrs. Gertrude Fredrickson. Call me Freddy, she said. On her left breast, over her heart, Annie noticed an unusual brooch: a tiny snapshot of a boy encased in glass and framed in gold. Freddy was carrying a tray. “I made a pineapple pie, and it’ll taste even better if I share it,” she said. While the housekeeper was in the kitchen, Sam confided that Mrs. Fredrickson must have been a Girl Scout troop leader at one time because she was always inviting him to do beadwork or tool leather with her after hours.

Freddy’s eyelashes fluttered helplessly as she handed Sam his plate. Why, she’s lovesick, Annie thought, with a twinge of sympathy. The housekeeper told them Bernard Jolley’s bed hadn’t been disturbed all week. “Are you the hotel nurse?” she asked, and Annie smiled and denied it.



But that’s exactly what she became. There was a great need for nursing at the Phoenix Hotel, and Annie was there every day on her lunch hour, looking for Father Jolley. She’d reported him missing, but she still thought he’d turn up. Meanwhile, the other ailing residents required Ovaltine for sleeplessness, Mazon soap for ringworm, Petrolagar for constipation. When Annie learned of Sam’s stomach ulcer, she arrived with bowls of junket and sparkling gelatins known to aid the healing of inflamed mucosa. Soon the tenants were lining up outside Sam’s office, waiting for Nurse Garrahan to appear in her navy dress with detachable white collar and cuffs.

One day, a short bristling woman cut through the line, rushed pell-mell past Annie, seized an open bottle of pills and hurled the contents at the assembled tenants. Annie’s protest faded when she recognized the hooligan as the supervisor of visiting nurses, Victorine Crawley.

She’d heard Nurse Crawley lived in a hotel, but she’d never dreamed it was the Phoenix. They’d been in training together, and after graduation, Victorine Crawley had advanced quickly in the profession. Annie glimpsed the silver whistle, used to summon staff, around her neck. She’s always there when she needs you. That caption, said to be a printer’s error, had appeared under her yearbook photo. Her ears were cunningly made and adorned with earrings shaped like Florence Nightingale lamps. These earrings were rumored to be lockets filled with an unidentified white substance. Annie admired them.

“Do you think you’re being a good nurse?” Victorine Crawley demanded. This” —she brandished the empty bottle — “is how you’re treating your employers. You’re throwing medicine at these people! Can I be more expressive?” With that, she hustled off to rap knuckles and reprimand inferiors elsewhere in her district. She won’t be happy till everyone’s as miserable as she is, a tenant quipped. But Annie was too disturbed by the charges to laugh. A good nurse was all she wanted to be.

To be rather than to seem. A good nurse defended the real and true against the half-baked or mysterious. She raised resistance against disorders that made the normal seem awful. Raising resistance was Annie’s vocation. She did it mostly by talking. When she was in training, the other probationers would gather outside her door, suppressing giggles as they listened to her solitary murmurs: Clara Barton. Glamour, coffee enemas. Though they’d teased, the others had to admit her monologues could rouse the dead. They’d witnessed as she leaned over the comatose, urging them to rise and shine, talking until their lips quivered and their pinpoint pupils dilated, until their color improved and they demanded steamed clams with butter sauce and crackers.

When Victorine Crawley got wind of this gift, she’d nabbed Annie in the hall. I am dismayed, she said, by your yen for self-glory. The same meaning lurked beneath today’s accusation: You think you’re special, don’t you, starting a clinic in the hotel where I live, on my stomping ground. Annie could imagine the report she’d file: Nurse Garrahan must curb her tendency to freelance and assume a doctor’s role….

The pills tossed by Victorine Crawley struck Mrs. Fredrickson’s seven-year-old son, Eugene, and his whippet, Moonshine. Annie recognized the boy from Freddy’s brooch and Sam’s descriptions. He’d been waiting to get cough medicine for his mother. Eugene’s father had died, but the housekeeper saw that her boy had nicer clothes than most: the toes of his shoes had not been cut out to make room for growth; the moth holes in his sweater were small. His wren-brown hair appeared gray as his mother’s, and his horn-rimmed glasses were so similar he might have inherited them, too. His whippet, a racing dog abandoned by a former tenant, was wind-broken and high-strung. Eugene had built a model of Sam’s floating dance pavilion, the Ship of Joy, and he often stopped there on his way home from school. The two of them would lean over the railing to dip their hands in the frigid Hudson, Sam’s superstitious ritual. He took the boy to prizefights to make him more rugged, and when they passed in the hall, he’d softly punch him and say how’s the boss.



For two weeks, Annie tried to imagine where Bernard Jolley might have gone. Thinking like a Jesuit was a terrible effort. At last, Sam suggested they set out in his Cadillac to look for Jolley at his usual haunts. Soon they were drifting past brick storefronts and two-families, heading for the smudge of trees along the Hudson River.

“Everything’s melting.” Sam let out the clutch.

“The river’s awful high.”

They squinted at the Hudson, a tidal estuary composed of power laundry and textile runoff, bleaching and dyeing agents, milk products, paper, and unclassified wastes. Annie frowned. Jolley had infected her with this knowledge. Thanks to him, she’d never spend a night on the river without thinking of American eels ruffling the moonlit surface, gulping oxygen through the nares in their snouts. She gave her nurse’s bag a little kick. Eels fed on carrion and breathed through their skins. Their sense of smell was good as a dog’s, and they could travel overland when conditions were wet. She pressed the lock on her door and peered through the mist. Silver lampreys covered with mucus lived in the toxic depths. Boneless, jawless parasites with rasp-like teeth that burrowed through a host’s skin to feed on blood and tissue. But lampreys were rare. That was the nice thing about them. That set your mind at rest. Now northern water snakes …

“I don’t know how a lame priest can dance,” Sam said. “Did you ever see Jolley dance?”

“I told him, if you want to be the Dancing Priest, you have to be more social.” She scanned the shirt workers and school-kids at the bus stop. “I hope he hasn’t gone on one of his pilgrimages in this miserable weather.”

Given a chance, Jolley said he would climb Mount Marcy, the highest peak in the Empire State. He would follow Calamity Brook, then trail the Opalescent River till it became Lake Tear of the Clouds, the splash of blue that was the Hudson’s rumored source. She checked her nurse’s bag for the small bottle of insulin. If acidosis had set in, she could revive him hypodermically.

As they turned onto 109th Street, the fog parted and they had a clear view of the Ship of Joy. On the hurricane deck, near the smokestack, a figure lorded it over the river. As they got closer, Annie saw its outstretched arms were formed from an oar, its backbone from a mop pole. Its swab of hair was haloed by a dented hubcap and fishing nets strung with bottle openers jangled from its extremities. It was swathed in a long black frock.

“To scare the gulls,” Sam said. “You lose business if people slip on bird do or a rat runs up somebody’s leg. The Ship is the only dance garden with a scarecrow. You have to consider the competition. The Blue Heaven gets big names — Sammy Kaye’s Orchestra, Cab Calloway. I get Horton Spur, the Boy Who Bounces, and Margie Barrett, the Fiddling Tap Dancer. ”

“You could put out some traps.”

“The scarecrow’s unique. It’s a mascot, a good-luck charm.”

“It’s dressed better than some of your clientele.”

“There’s no cover, that’s why. Like the ads say, Exclusive — not expensive.”

Annie smiled. If Sam wanted the Ship of Joy to be exclusive, he shouldn’t have started the soup kitchen on Mondays, when the dance pavilion was closed for business. He shouldn’t let the destitute lounge on the deck chairs in nice weather. He was chronically kindhearted, that was the problem. It posed a danger for her. How could she advance in her profession if she spent her spare time helping him buy storm windows for his old people at the Phoenix or new shoes for his sister with the expensive foot? How could she save him when he was busy saving other people?

“One thing,” Sam continued. “The Blue Heaven is too dark. What are they trying to hide with that candlelight? A dirty kitchen. Could be bugs. I like to see what I’m eating. That’s what I like about you, Annie. You put your cards on the table.”

“I thought you liked the way I smell like Ivory soap.”

“That’s right. And I like nurses. I like the way they kiss with their eyes open.” Sam’s smile was both debonair and shy. “Let’s try the Oakwood,” he suggested. “Jolley goes there to visit with God.”



Five minutes later, the Cadillac swooped through the iron gates, past the ornate crematorium of the Oakwood Cemetery. Once they were inside, Sam pulled over. He fished out his pocket compass and studied the red-tipped needle floating under glass. Annie, meanwhile, had come upon her new lipstick in her bag. She swabbed at her mouth and felt the oxygen promise of vermilion — the color of transfusions, high blood counts, nourishing hemoglobin — restore her smile. She approved of things in mint condition. Her taste ran to sanitary, progressive angles that did not gather dust.

That was the problem with the Oakwood; it wasn’t modernistic. It was a vast puzzle of unnamed gravel roads winding through evergreens and bony birches and hills that rose to hide whatever tipsy cross you’d chosen as a landmark. They drove past sooty slabs and headstones, ghost-weights that kept the passed-away from spinning in their graves till time had time to soothe their rest. Annie saw the lamb sweet as glucose at the good shepherd’s feet, and twin angels kneeling in the muck, their wings fibrillating through the mist. It was the mud she disliked most. That mud could ruin a new pair of pumps. She peered at marble houses with barred windows, padlocked doors, and tiny yards tucked into iron fences. The Oakwood was a good place to catch your death of dampness, when all was said and done. An ashen-skinned angel flew by in its granite nightgown, its eyes downcast, its arm pointing upwards through the fog.

Sam stopped the car alongside an ancient family vault, and they got out to have a smoke. “Don’t fall in any open graves,” he called. But Annie was already standing beside him in the headlights, puffing without inhaling from her Old Gold.

Sam Livingston bought graves the way other men bought neckties, and he liked to advise young Nurse Garrahan on the pros and cons of available lots. It seemed the sections with the best views had no breathing room. They were crowded, hard to mow, or close to traffic, while the spacious sites were located under messy shade trees or afflicted with poor drainage. In fact, no grave had won his perfect confidence. Yet Annie did not understand his wish to be buried above ground, in a mausoleum full of fungus and powdery mildew. Sam could imagine tree-of-heaven plants, unkillable weeds that hatched in crevices, uprooted stones, and grew eight feet overnight. He could imagine being buried alive, the satin suffocation of a casket. What he could not imagine was the end of all imagining. She dropped her cigarette and ground it underfoot.

“Friends, some things are best disposed of by burning.”

They spun around to see Bernard Jolley materialize from a cloud of exhaust. His black vestments were absorbed by darkness, but his face flared forth — a sallow, phosphorescent structure with too many bones. The sweaty smell of sanctity hung around him, and his eyes were gray as griddles.

“Holy smoke,” Annie said.

Father Jolley was middle-aged, but he seemed timeless. His glass eye made his sunken glance more steadfast — he looked as if he were always ready to cry “behold!” When he talked, his lips squirmed and seemed unconnected to the rest of his face, which stayed inexpressive as a fish. Really, the intensity of his calm irritated Annie. She felt if she stuck her tongue out at him, he’d place a communion wafer on it.

She searched her bag and handed him the baked sweet potato she’d packed that morning. The cheerful yam was well tolerated by diabetics, if properly masticated.

Jolley said, “Nurse Garrahan, you are a brick. I hope I may prevail upon you to star in my next production.”

Some vain and spangled part of Annie liked the sound of this. She was secretly amazed that she was not already in the limelight, making curtsies so deep her permanent wave brushed the crowns of the crowned heads who were her public.

The Nightingales of Troy. A water ballet, combining medical and aesthetic values, to be performed in the Hudson River.”

“I never saw a nightingale in Troy,” Annie said. “But then, I’m from Watervliet.”

“I never saw one in Lansingburgh,” Sam added.

Jolley limped into the white specter of a headlight and waved his sweet potato at the heavens. Blessed are they who do not see but believe, he said, and Annie was afraid he would start chattering in Latin or launch into a litany of dictionary words and foreign phrases, an utterance with every hair in place that wound on and on in longwinded loops of book-learned pronouncements until she lost her bearings and wanted to strike a hear-no-evil stance with her hands over her ears.

Not the songbird, Jolley said, clasping the sweet potato to his breast. Florence Nightingales. A show that dramatizes the importance of home nursing care to the housebound invalids of Troy. And he stroked and punched the dark to make them see the synchronized Rockette kicks of swimmers in Red Cross bathing caps and the flailing limbs of those going down for the third time while the bell tolled on Sam’s ship, the Ship of Joy. He was all gray matter and hot air, he was dirty but luminous, holding the tuber aloft like a torch. Why, he’s burning up, Nurse Garrahan thought. And when he finished, his silence was momentous, as if he expected them to say, Father, you have told us things we’ve wanted to know for a hundred years, and now our lives will never be the same.

“Bernard, I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Sam said. “How did you come by the nickname of the Dancing Priest?”

Jolley sniffed the sweet potato absentmindedly. Then he put it in his pocket. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”

“And another thing,” Sam said. “Can the river get sore and hold a grudge?”

“Ancient customs of propitiation arose from such convictions.”

Annie cleared her throat.

“Burning was the preferred method of sacrifice. The Druids placed their victims in willow cages, I believe.”

She started humming “Moonlight Bay.”

“Do you think the river minds the speedboat rides I sell in good weather?” Sam asked.

“It was not always thus. There was a time when a person who longed for absolute peace and quiet could find it by going on a river trip.”

Sam said, “I don’t mind the upkeep. Shoveling snow off the roof or flushing toilets all night to keep the pipes from freezing. It’s the ice floes, the floods.”

“The river has been injured. It was not always thus.”

 Those swimming ballerinas should be greased up with a good coat of lard, Annie thought, before they took the plunge.

“My housekeeper was born with the caul and has second sight. She told me there’s a jinx on The Ship. Do you know how to remove a jinx, Bernard? Can you tone it down some way?”

“There are rites. The Ritual Romanus. I could drop salt into water so as to form a cross…”

“Then I got a business proposition. I’d like to hire you to take the spell off The Ship.”

“I could,” Jolley raised his right hand, “utter the words ‘Get thee gone, vanquished and cowed, when thou art bidden in the name of the Lord —’”

“That’s the ticket,” said Sam.

“And when the malignant spirit has fled, I could pour the holy water in the river.”

“I need a specimen, Father,” Annie said. “Are you experiencing unusual thirst or intense itching? Any tingling of the toes and fingers?”

“Nurse Garrahan, you are an object lesson.”

“How’s the potato, Father?” she continued. “When’s the ballet?” The Nightingales of Troy would develop new and terrible diseases after their dip. There would be no toxoid available. It sounded educational.

“The potato is a first-class feast, which I will save for a time of need. I am on retreat. The saints will provide spiritual essence to drink and consecrated energy to eat. Then, if God allows, I may sanctify the river’s depths with reserves of spiritual power that can be invoked for the benefit of mankind.”

Sam nodded and Annie shook her head. She thought the depths should be left alone. The surface was as it should be, that’s why it had become the surface. She approved of dissections when the scalpel stuck to reality. But the hocus-pocus of hidden meanings earned her scorn — the purpose of science was to stamp out that mumbo jumbo. Instead of saying the rosary before she went to sleep, Annie would list the structures through which fat passed on its route from the intestine to the cardiac chamber, beginning with the tiniest villi, wending through the lacteal and larger lymphatic vessel, rising toward the thoracic duct and left innominate vein to permeate the superior vena cava and enter the red springs of the heart.