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Chapter One: Graveyard of the Atlantic
I am distinguished by my penmanship. By the hang and hue of my suit coat. The sophistication of my haircut. The silken luster of my tie. Instead of cumin or clove, bright-leaf tobacco, essence of jasmine car freshener, I smell judiciously of Kiehl's cucumber talc, Italian shoe leather, pilfered motel soap.
My colleagues slouch against the railing that corrals us while I stand apart with my Lucite sign held level at sternum height. They grouse and carp in Pushtu and Slovak, Arabic, Mandarin, Hebrew, Yoruba. They've made their signs with pen and pencil on whatever has come to hand. With a grease marker, I've written "Shapiro" in, effectively, Baskerville.
She's due from Paris in the company of a Pomeranian, Mrs. Gloria Shapiro of York at Eighty-ninth. And though I've tried to imagine the woman as some manner of savory heiress, a handsome creature in her middle years with a haberdashery fortune and an appetite for slim discriminating gentlemen like me, there is a practical limit to my baseless optimism. Mrs. Gloria Shapiro is flying, after all, into Newark with her dog instead of into Kennedy with retainers. I spot her coming out of customs long before she has noticed me.
She is bone thin, knobby, a haute couture refugee who'd rather be dead than lack the upper-arm tone to go sleeveless. She has conscripted a hapless skycap into Pomeranian duty, a lanky black kid in an oversize hat with his trouser cuffs dragging the floor, who dangles the dog before him at arm's length. The creature is rheumy-eyed and grizzled, with nails like talons and amber teeth. He looks conspicuously unhappy and nearly old enough to vote.
Mrs. Gloria Shapiro spies her name on my square of milky Lucite. She snaps her fingers at me and says by way of greeting, "You."
As I take her dog, the skycap favors me with information. "He bites," he says and shows me a punctured finger. "Leaks some too."
I hold the dog beneath his forelegs, and every time he squirms and growls, he looses a freshet of urine onto the grimy terminal floor, onto the sidewalk, generously onto each of the three arrival lanes, onto the cement rental-bus island, onto the short-term parking lot, onto the leather upholstery of my Crown Victoria passenger seat. I've been told his name is Ashton and he'll reliably spew kibble if not permitted to be an irrigating menace in the front.
Even on the short trip back to the terminal to collect Mrs. Gloria Shapiro's luggage, Ashton snarls and snaps and urinates with such animosity as to prompt me to wonder what life might be like with arms that end at the elbows.
Mrs. Gloria Shapiro has been led, she informs me, to expect a limousine. I don't have a limousine. I don't even have a Town Car. I have the Crown Victoria I'm driving, and it's not even black but more the shade of grayish brown you might find in a septic system. I apologize to Mrs. Gloria Shapiro and tell her the limo is in the shop.
"Where are you from?" she asks me. It comes out in the form of an accusation.
"North Carolina," I say which, for Mrs. Gloria Shapiro's purposes, might as well be Alpha Centauri. I stand revealed as the cracker import she's condemned to depend upon to haul her clear from greater New Jersey to York at Eighty-ninth which, for all she knows, I might attempt by way of Philadelphia. And, worse still, not in a limousine but in a sludge-brown Ford.
She presses her lips together and grimaces. Mrs. Gloria Shapiro snorts with articulate force enough to insinuate the bitter anguish of disembarking from Premier Class into the care of the likes of me. I take occasion to picture Ashton winging westward in the cockpit, showing his grim teeth to the flight crew while moistening the controls.
We are hardly out of the airport proper before Mrs. Gloria Shapiro is abusing me over her cell phone to some Upper East Side friend. Her name is Enid, and she and Mrs. Gloria Shapiro forgo the splendors of Paris to indulge instead in galloping mutual abject mortification once I've elected to take the turnpike instead of 1&9.
In a stage whisper, Mrs. Gloria Shapiro floats the theory that it's my habit to pad my charges with unwarranted turnpike tolls. She's glaring at me from the backseat when I find her in the mirror. The toll plaza's vapor lights lend iridescence to her hair and cause her surgically tautened facial skin to look slick and extruded.
I hear her tell Enid, "I don't know. Georgia or somewhere."
I lay a careless hand on the console as we cross the Passaic River, and Ashton nips my wrist. He breaks the skin.
Mrs. Gloria Shapiro insists I take the tunnel until I take it and we find traffic backed up all the way to Kennedy Boulevard, occasion for Mrs. Gloria Shapiro to wonder pointedly of Enid if a capable driver wouldn't have known to take the bridge instead.
All down the ramp, Mrs. Gloria Shapiro points out gaps in adjacent lanes and has me shift and weave to gain a half a car length here and there. She comments uncharitably to Enid on the quality of my driving, and the two of them have a rollicking laugh together at my expense. I hear the sound of Enid cackling over the staticky phone connection with all the ladylike grace of a cowhand.
In the city Mrs. Gloria Shapiro has her sanctified routes and detours which, apparently, she expects me to divine. As I work north along the avenues and east on clotted cross streets, Mrs. Gloria Shapiro reveals to Enid the way she would have gone. She and Enid enjoy some galvanizing sisterly outrage over the roadwork I get mired in at Sixth and Fifty-seventh, the carting truck I fall behind on Seventy-eighth.
They conclude they should have expected as much from the pride of Alabama.
Not a block and a half from his building, Ashton sees fit to throw up which Mrs. Gloria Shapiro lays to my hectic brand of driving and claims to be a little turbulent herself. I see that Ashton has doused the front-seat beading with residual bile, has deposited the bulk of his discharge onto the carpet. He missed the floor mat altogether and hit instead the drive-shaft hump. I make out nova and milk chocolate, the odd macadamia nut. The stink of the stuff gives remarkable instantaneous offense.
Mrs. Gloria Shapiro's doorman wears siege-of-Stalingrad livery with epaulettes and showy stamped brass buttons on his skirted greatcoat, a modified busby on his head with both a chin strap and a plume. He is massive and Teutonic, has Eastern European bridgework and the good sense to hoist Ashton out of my Crown Vic by his scruff. Mrs. Gloria Shapiro calls him Lenny and says that Enid tells him "Hey" as he unloads the luggage from the trunk and motions for help from the lobby.
The concierge comes out with a bellman's cart and an air of imposition. He's a pudgy Cuban interrupted halfway through his Daily News who Mrs. Gloria Shapiro hardly greets and fails to call by name. He joins Lenny with his cart at the lip of the trunk and has Lenny to understand that, in his estimation, baggage hauling is beyond the scope of his duties. He takes the unenterprising layabout's view of conciergerie which I hear him elaborate on as Mrs. Gloria Shapiro signs her ticket and, by way of a tip, visits upon me advice.
"Ammonia," she says, and then leaves off to entertain input from Enid. "Nonsudsy," she tells me along with instructions for blotting Pomeranian effluvia. I have just ginger ale and a cast-off Wall Street Journal under my seat.
I've got the doors and windows open and am grinding vomit into the rug with a page of market indicators and selected small-cap stocks when Lenny leans against my fender well and offers me a cigarette. Mentholated, I notice. Generic. Lenny sets his hat with grave custodial care upon my hood before confessing he once attempted to drown Ashton in the gutter. A fire crew had come along to open the hydrant up the block while Lenny had charge of the creature out front on an airing. Drowning him, Lenny informs me, had seemed the merciful thing to do.
Lenny pauses and puffs. He shakes his head, flicks ash off of his greatcoat. Sounding for all the world like Henry Kissinger, Lenny says, "He floats."
I light up off Lenny's butt and come empirically by knowledge that mentholated generic cigarettes taste decisively both at once.
Lenny proves to hail from Schrankogel in the heart of the Tyrol, and he tells me he made a sort of a living for some years as a boxer. Not a champion or a contender or a respectable stooge opponent but instead a sparring partner for journeyman tomato cans. Gym suet, a sluggish ambulatory punching bag for hire. Lenny boasts that he's been sutured in most capitals of Europe and had his fractured jaw wired in Atlantic City. He balls his massive hands into fists and strikes his boxerly pose, carries his left so low I'm sure that even I could catch him flush.
In my turn I allow I'm driving as a favor for a friend and reveal to Lenny that, in fact, I am a working actor. "Stage," I tell him with a sniff, and describe for Lenny without prompting the role that promises to occupy me for the coming weeks which I choose to inflate and lard with fabrication. I will, in truth, be holding a pewter tankard, wearing a vest and pantaloons and trying to look for nearly a half an hour stupendously jolly about as far downstage as an employed opera chorister can get and still qualify for union wages.
I give myself out to Lenny as a man on the cusp of dramatic triumph and declaim for him a scrap of monologue I used in a showcase once.
Lenny instinctively knows better than to bother to believe me, has kept company with a vast wealth of pretenders in his day. Instead he opens his mouth and laughs, reveals his dental metalcraft in its gaudy range of alloys, ores and hues. Lenny says that in the coming weeks he hopes to wed a Hapsburg and live in regal splendor in Vienna. He flicks his smoldering filter out into the street, shoves his hat onto his head and punches me fondly on the shoulder to almost chiropractic effect.
Lenny returns to his post and mans the door of Mrs. Gloria Shapiro's building while I sit in creeping glacial traffic on the FDR from Fifty-ninth Street to the Brooklyn Bridge.
Copyright © 2005 by T. R. Pearson