Editors’ note: This story was written for an UNY reading in collaboration with the American Folk Art Museum’s exhibition “COMPASS: Folk Art in Four Directions” at the South Street Seaport Museum. She was inspired by the history of the Museum’s building and, among others, the works of art “Cane with Female Leg Handle” and “Noah’s Ark.”
Of all us hotel souls, burdened and bound to the Parkers by birth or debt or a blindered need of work, you’re the one the world will fail. Like the headlines you hawked before you landed here – two cents a week, two weeks two weeks too many you said – chance and place will collude to kill you:
LABORER CRUSHED TO DEATH BENEATH BOULDER
CHILD DEAD FROM TEAKETTLE SCALDS
EXPLOSION OF A STEAM BOILER ON TWO-TON TUG
I hear the newsboys on Fulton each morning; the headlines are hungry, the teapots have teeth, the earth lifts its shoulders and kills with a shrug, and even the boats explode, fire eats its fill of the crew and leaves their ash to dirty the water that wouldn’t save them.
I would save you, my fool, from the sea.
I once broke my needle, split in the unforgiving sole of Mr. Parker’s boot, whose heel my knuckles know by heart. You stole a great bone from the hotel kitchen and shaved of it a fistful of needles thin as hair, strong as teeth. I suck the needles now, before I lick the thread to get it through.
Only you see my hands where the crushed bones heal and break, heal and break.
I don’t know what Mr. Parker does to loose his boot sole so. It’s there each week, slick with fish and stinking in my piles of mending, the tenants’ breeches and sheets torn or stained. Lemons for rust, butter for tar, boiled milk for wine, salt for coffee and for blood.
You sharpen your knife nightly with a piece of coral stolen from a sailor, a treasure from unreal words: Bora Bora, California. One day I’ll go, you say. Stay, I think. The coral pink as a tongue. A prick of blood the time I licked it.
A girl is staying here, her hair a weave of braids tighter than my stitches. She sits beside the window, taps it absently with her paintbrush, in the dirtied light grey as a corpse.
How can you stand it, she says, this endless day.
I move my broom, embarrassed by her insolence.
You, she says, are you dumb?
I’ve never been seen, am saved from speaking as her mother walks in. The girl becomes an angel, her face softened to an attitude of sadness, her hair like two hands folded.
I’m nearly done with the border, she says, see the boughs?
You have your father’s hands, the mother says, and runs a finger along some line I can’t see.The ship should be leaving, my dear, not coming.
It’s her, the angel cries, staring at me, I can’t think.
Crack and break and break and heal. A Captain’s widow, you stupid girl. I taste the fish of his boots on my knuckles.
And still I can’t stay away. I cup my ear to her door, to the silence of her painting, while her mother attends to the family affairs. Rosetta from the kitchen kicks me, shaking the tray of tea she’s brought, smacks me on her way out.
Later in the kitchen, we’ll sit by the stove and she’ll hold me in her lap and stroke my cheek with the cool hump of a spoon, she’ll tell me how the captain died, shipwrecked and starved until he ate his own flesh, finger by finger, down to the bone.
I find you, my fool, hunched over and fighting yourself where we all sleep. The pale daytime dark shifts with your short, hard breaths. Your teeth gleam and vanish, gleam and vanish. You look hungry, your face a rumpled sheet. I know your hungry face, the one you swallow to save the Parkers satisfaction from your pain.
How much hungrier you’ll be shipwrecked, my fool. I came to tell you. Get out girl, you shout, and tip onto your cot like the ship I know will fail you, sucking in the air the sea won’t share, calling Jesus Lord!
I know He’ll fail you, too. Fear closes my throat like a fist. Is this what it will feel like, sinking? On the cot, your back to me, your ribs lift and fall, lift and fall like the gills of fresh caught fish.
I know the world will fail you because it unfailingly holds you up, using up your store of luck on foolish foolishness. I want to shout it at you like a newsboy, Foolish Fool Wastes Luck on Foolishness!
There you are, walking down Fulton just out of reach of a workhorse straining at its bit, teeth the size of mallets that would crush you to the bone, and you laughing, skipping beside its blinders, flicking it with filched pepper until the fishmonger’s whip nearly snaps you.
There you are, standing just behind Mrs. Parker, fingertips in two pitted cherries, the red-black bulbs held up like a bust and my lips risking insolence, quivering back a laugh.
There you are, at The Bridge Cafe, an ear for some sailor, his back curved like a question over the dark shine of the bar, gripping his drink like an answer, yarning the night away, so far lost in the seas of his mind that he doesn’t see you’re the one tapping the street stones home with his scrimshaw cane.
You show it to me the next day – a backbent leg, smooth as a banister, dirty white as cream, the toes neat like nice teeth. You spin and slam it to the stone, you cock your elbow and feign fancy, give me your gentleman’s smile.
Needles from bone are nothing to what I’ll send you from the seas.
I pinch its thin ankle, want to snap it off. A whole lady, you say, running your thumb up and over the bend in the leg, slow so I blush and turn away. You laugh, and flaunt and vanish the cane the whole month of the sailor’s stay.
There you are atop the tumbler, one slip away from death. Come, you say, come see this.Shush, I plead, your unwhispered voice like a drape whipped open, like the sudden sun.
You sneak me from my corner, wrap me in your jacket and tuck up my braids under the hat I’m mending. The hat rank with unfamiliar sweat and the overripe fruit of an Argentine balm the sailors who live to tell say blocks the hungry sun. The balm and the danger, your calm, my sour milk coward’s stomach, the thrill rising in silence up my throat – is this what it would be like at sea, you and me? We sneak up the staggered servers’ staircase to the top floor, and then there you are in the dim heights where the Polacks crank the tumbler endlessly to shake each coffee bean from burlap sacks as big as beds.
For a moment we watch them from the dark of the stairwell, each bag smothering their chests and heads, entangling their thighs, as they sigh and lift each like a fainted woman, boneless and deadweight, up, up and over, into the giant wheel.
You step out and greet them and I cling to the shadows, watching as you reach and grab the wooden lattice and then, no, climbing as they start to crank, no, climbing, no, against the wheel, you and the Polacks laughing, the wheel spinning faster now and you at the distant ceiling, leaping from beam to beam as the wheel spins and the wood moans like the dying and the bags within shush shush like the sea, the hidden beans clatter to waiting trays in pops like Rosetta’s fry oil, and I’m laughing too, and crying at your grace, your long legs the legs of a horse, swift and unthinking or no, the grace of a sail that needs only speed to start and never stop, whose need is only and always to fill and fill, or no: finally, you’re a fool, and I’m not crying, I’m clawing with a bone needle at the soft brick. If I knew my letters I’d write it clear: Fool. Fool. Fool.
You steal from the Polacks, too, whole fistfuls of beans you roll over your tongue and crush with your teeth while you work. You smell like morning all day long.
There you are in the hotel parlor after the Parkers’ anniversary party, alone now in the room where all night we’d been locked in battle against the seaport elite, whose grip on the Parkers’ good glassware loosened as the night went on until the parlor looked bucked by the sea.
We were there to right things, to steady the china shivering in Colonel Hofsteader’s hand, palsied with brandy. To save from dripping the enormous candlestick Mr. Parker lifted and held with both hands beneath his belt, a roar like fire filling the room in one breath, and you there to smile along, to kneel before him and cup your hand beneath the candle, to catch the burning wax, to return it to its place among the ravaged platters of lamb.
We were there to offer our anonymous bodies to the midnight needs of their blinded hands, the round of Rosetta’s shoulder which my cheek knows by heart now home for someone else’s, the Irish girls brought in for the night locking eyes with one another while their milk white, freckled necks stiffen to the reaching fingers of the Parkers’ guests.
I sink into a corner and watch the Captain’s Widow want you, watch you know this and grow bold, watch you lift your fox face just so, so your trim nose and lean arms and neat black brows all seem to point to her, no matter where in the room you are.
I see her see only you, see her slide up beside you and lift from the table an empty oyster shell, see her point it at you like a tongue. You dip it in her brandy, feed her the little sip. Her lips open in a laugh I can’t hear over the riotous piano, the stomping feet of those still able to stand and dance.
And now all are gone but me unseen in my corner and you, unknowing fool. There you are, holding a dying candle beneath Mrs. Parker’s tin bonnet, an anniversary gift, a whole wardrobe of these intricate tin jokes lined up along the mantle, stiff as the dead.
You hold the bonnet head-high, the weak wick of candlelight bloomed to flame within the cave of polished tin. You sway to the music still ghosting the air, the same music I hear as real in my head as the face you must see in that empty bonnet.
You’re hearing the same music, I know because you dance in time to it, and it’s my face you see, I know this, too, it must be, and I nearly emerge from the corner but you spit on your finger, extinguish the flame with a hiss, replace the bonnet on the mantle.
You walk past me to the window, unknowing, and as you pull back the drape to let the dawn seep in, I see her broach pinned to your sleeve at the wrist. It bears her dead husband’s crest, the vessel that wrecked him, a small brass serpent wound up its mast. I’ve seen it in the girl’s painting, studied it while I dust. I know it means I’ve lost you.
It will vanish into the vault so hidden even I, your constant watcher, don’t know where you keep it. With your coral and your scrimshaw and your pennies, with your knife and your schemes, with your notion of leaving for the sea. Don’t you know you’ll need the one thing you fail to stow away – luck, wasted here on steady ground, you foolish unsuspected thief?
The girl and the Captain’s Widow stay on.
You’ve joined me in the listening, only you get through her door easy as a ghost, and then it’s you I’m hearing. In the morning you’ve brought her Turkish coffee, dirt thick in the Turks’ tulip glasses. Come noon it’s cucumbers, peeled how I like them and cut to glistening blooms. Later you ask me for a fistful of elderberries to take her. I’m in the kitchen washing up. I whip you with my wet rag and you catch my wrist and pull me to the stove, hold my hand above the rattling kettle until it starts to scream. Rosetta comes in and shrieks, you drop my hand and leave.
Rosetta pulls a spoon from the icebox and I hold it, thinking of the meadow you snuck me to last summer, as far north as I’ve gone, where the roads all think better of it and only Broadway goes on, up to the edge I’ve heard newsboys shout about, bears and falling boulders, some lunatic wants to make it a park.
It was thick August, the Parkers took to the sea, Rosetta was limp with fever and you took your time with our costumes, Mr. Parker’s hunting jacket, his spatterdashes hiding your bare shins. For me a lady’s shawl, left by some guest the winter past, too thick for the season but I won’t touch Mrs. Parker’s things, not for anything. A pair of gloves from the Irish girls, who give you anything you ask. The gloves to hide my bulging knuckles, hands no lady would ever have.
You sifted flour into your palm and with a feather from my duster brushed my face. Hold still,you said, your voice sterner than I’d heard you but I couldn’t help laughing, you looked so studied, your head tilted, a tip of tongue pulling back your lower lip, looking hard at my chin, my cheekbones, my point of pride, my thin lady nose.
I felt unseen, as when we’re at a window, when you’re looking at the river and seeing the sea.
You plucked a black berry from the boughs Rosetta keeps in a vase and crushed it, your fingertip bright with its blood. Like this, you said, kissing the air. It’s poison, I said, Rosetta says! Your finger shushed me, brushed my lips. Just don’t lick, you said. There. A lady. All day my lips dry as scones.
We walked west to where we wouldn’t be known, you hailed a coach and held my hand and I held my skirt and climbed in, just as I’ve seen them do a thousand times and more. To rattle and bounce aloft in the coach – is this what it feels like at sea? No grip on the ground, I held hard to the bench and tried to like it.
When we got there the air smelled nothing of the water, no whiff of fish or clam, no boat rope or balm and we couldn’t even see the river, I didn’t know up from down. The light spread thick as honey, soaked up by the brush and branches of the towering trees, not skittered and scattered, resisted by the river. You spread out a borrowed quilt, one I’d bent over mending. I found a seam of my stitches and sat on it so not to see. We passed the day, me sitting prim and you like a puppy, up and down and sniffing about, laughing and jabbering and still and quiet for long moments, laying on your back and dreaming aloud of where you’ll go.
The light grew long and I didn’t know how we’d get home. You wandered off and came back with a fistful of elderberries, knelt down beside me, dead serious. You lifted my wrist with two fingers, undid the tiny buttons of my glove and pulled it off finger by finger, pinched my sleeve and pushed it up, up to my elbow, twisted my wrist to bare my forearm. Wait, you said, and pulled from your pocket a tin case blazoned with initials that couldn’t be yours, and from within it a long, curved needle, one I thought I’d lost.
Crack and break and break and heal. I wanted to smack you, whack you with my ugly knuckles.
You pulped the berries in your palm, you soaked the needle tip, you told me I’m true north for you, wherever you go you’ll return to me. You wanted to write your name there, in the plain of my arm, so I’d always know. You pricked my skin and nothing showed, you tried and tried, you said the sailors, whose tattooed bodies look blue with disease, told you this would work, and this, your first failure, is when I began the road to losing you. The Captain’s Widow is just the last stop.
What you bring her elderberries for I don’t know, but later as I’m dusting I see – their dried pulp in an oyster shell, the girl’s fine tipped paintbrush nearby, and laced on the waves of the girl’s painted sea, so small someone less studied in this painting would never see – the string of letters I know must be your name.
Even the Parkers see you’ve changed. All fall while the Widow lingers and her daughter pouts, your plot grows so clear it becomes ordinary, and before Christmas you’ve grown a beard and shed your servant’s brogue, you scold the girl behind the door with knowing, fatherly tones, you eat with them in the Widow’s room because while the Parkers won’t abide you at the guests table, neither will they deny a Captain’s Widow what she will. Only a fool mourns the living, Rosetta says over supper. Foolish Fool Mourns the Living. I pick at the bones in my stew.
Next day the new footman’s doing what just a month ago you would: packing up valises, filling up a coach. Pennsylvania, you say. The family estate. I’m stirring the fireplace coals, and you walk to the window, pull back the drape. A bright line of winter light slices the reddened daytime dark of the parlor. Pennsylvania Dutch.
You tap at the window, squint and scratch with a thumbnail at a warp in the glass, then clasp your hands behind you. I stand and wipe the coal off my hands, for one last time I slide up beside you, lean past you to look out. The winter shipyard looks like a painting, a line of steam puffing from a lone tug, the dockhands crisp little pictures of busy men, frozen in a moment’s work. The white sky, a bleak sun, Brooklyn the pale horizon and the river bleeding blue.
What time do you sail? It’s the first we’ve spoken since the kettle.
You laugh in your booming new fatherly laugh. You really know nothing. Pennsylvania? It’s west.
You begin that false laugh again but stop yourself, turn and look at me. For a moment I see the boy I knew, and then you let the drape fall and straighten your gentleman’s jacket, give each cuff a yank. California’s not a real place, you say, and I know as you turn away you think I believe it.
I watch from the window as you and your Widow watch the footman work. I’m not mourning the living. You’re already dead.
Come spring the newsboys are screaming, and dumb souls by the thousands stream into the seaport, flood us with their greed and dreams.
There’s Gold in Them Thar Hills, they say.
One day I’m walking down Fulton, bustled and knocked, the fish I’ve got for Rosetta fresh dead and still rank with the sea. Some drunk pitches into me and I grip the hotel wall for purchase.
I see it then, a brick greened with brine and loose like a rotten tooth in its socket. I pry it out and there’s your store of treasures – the scrimshaw cane top, the Widow’s broach. A few pennies you stopped needing, the coral pink as a tongue. A thick kitchen bone I’ve never seen, half shaved into a flower. I take the lot and throw all but the pennies in the river. Those I cup and shake like dice. I’ve saved my luck. I’ll shave off my braids, flatten my chest, make my way aboard like the rest. You missed your chance. I think I’ll take it.
-Noah’s Ark Artist unidentified Probably England 1790–1814 Bone and wood with iron, pigment, paper, and nails 8 1/2 x 14 x 9 1/4″ Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Jane, Steven and Eric Lang and Jacqueline Loewe Fowler in memory of Robert Lang, 1999.14.1 Photo by John Parnell, New York
-Mourning Piece for Captain Matthew Prior and His Son Barker Prior Attributed to Jane Otis Prior (1803–?) Bath or Portland, Maine c. 1815–1822
Watercolor on silk 17 1/2 x 21 1/4 x 1 1/2″ Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Museum purchase, 1992.25.1 Photo by John Parnell, New York
-Cane with Female Leg Handle and Cane with Female Leg and Dark Boot Handle, Artists unidentified, Probably eastern United States c. 1860. Whale ivory and whale skeletal bone with horn, ink and nail (left); whale skeletal bone, mahogany, and ivory with paint (right). 29 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. (left); 34 x 3 3/4 in. (right) American Folk Art Museum, promised gift of Ralph Esmerian, P1.2001.320, 321.
-Anniversary Tin: Man’s Top Hat and Eyeglasses, Lady’s Bonnet with Curls, Slippers, and Hoop Skirt Artist unidentified Gobles, Michigan
1880–1900 Tin Hat: 9 1/2 x 11 1/2 x 5 1/4″ Eyeglasses: 1 1/8 x 5 1/8 x 5 1/8″ Bonnet: 14 x 9 x 16″ Slippers: 6 1/2 x 9 x 8″ Hoop Skirt: 28 x 24″ diam. Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Gift of Martin and Enid Packard, 1988.25.1, 2, 6, 9, 12, 19 Photo by John Parnell, New York
-Tattoo Pattern Book Artist unidentified New York City 1873–1910
Ink on oiled cloth, with buckram binding 4 1/2 x 3 1/4 x 3/4″ (closed) Collection American Folk Art Museum, New York Anonymous gift, 1995.29.1
Photo by Gavin Ashworth, New York
Nicki Pombier Berger is the Founding Editor of Underwater New York. She writes fiction, and works in nonfiction using oral history tools. She has worked at StoryCorps, and is Chair of the Board of Advisers for 3 Generations, a non-profit that curates stories from survivors and advocates working on human rights issues, connecting audiences to ways to action. Nicki has an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and a Bachelor of Science in the Foreign Service from Georgetown University, and will complete the Oral History Masters of Arts program at Columbia University in Fall 2013. Presumably she will stop going to school at some point. She lives in Brooklyn.